Fuse #8

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The 10 Commandments of Middle Grade Fiction...

... according to author Kristine Franklin. You've all read Franklin, right? Her book The Grape Thief got a bit of attention a year or two ago and earned her a bit more cache. Well now she's come up with what she calls the 10 Commandments of Middle Grade Fiction. Here they are:

One: Keep it Simple
Two: Crisis Right Away
Three: Strong Point of View
Four: Not too many characters
Five: Do not rewrite while you are working on the first draft
Six: Character, Character, Character!
Seven: Action, Action, Action!
Eight: Everything Must Propel the Story to Its Climax
Nine: The Hero Must Solve the Problem
Ten: Wrap it Up One Chapter After the Climax

As you can imagine, the good folk of Child_Lit are livid and enthralled in turn. It really does make for an odd sense of what constitutes good Middle Grade Fiction. I quote it here in response to a request I received the other day to review more of this kind of writing. If these are the requirements for making such fiction good, however, I'm not sure I'll want to!

Review of the Day: The Case of the Missing Marquess

Though a Rex Stout fan at heart, I've always enjoyed a good Holmesian drama. Now author Nancy Springer has given us one for the kiddies, and the book definitely has flair. It has received starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal and makes for one helluva read. A lovely start to the 2006 year.

There's a real sense of relief that comes with reading a book that knows what it wants to do and then goes out and accomplishes it. Take Ms. Nancy Springer. Having given us some insight into Robin Hood's daughter ("Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest"), as well as that notorious King Arthur villainess ("I Am Morgan le Fay"), Springer turns her attention to a friend of her youth. According to this book, the author grew up with the "Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle". It was as a kid that she would be, "reading and rereading them over a period of years until she could find no more Sherlock Holmes stories to memorize". But rather than do as so many have done and continue Holmes' adventures (or, in some cases, that of his lady love Irene Adler) Springer had a better idea. Anyone who has read Doyle at any length knows that Holmes had a brother Mycroft (on whom Rex Stout's character of Nero Wolfe was partly based). But what about a sister? Holmes undoubtedly wouldn't have mentioned her to Watson and if she had any of the great detective's smarts her story would be a truly interesting tale to tell. With that thought in mind we come to "The Case of the Missing Marquess". A good old-fashioned mystery alongside an understanding of the role women were meant to play back in the 1800s, the book is fast-paced, truly enjoyable, and a great read for one and all.

When Enola Holmes's mother disappears without a trace on the day of her birthday, her daughter doesn't fret too much. Her mother often wanders off on her own. She's a singularly single-minded woman, after all, and has raised Enola to be the same. But when it becomes clear, however, that Lady Eudoria Vernet Holmes is not coming back, Enola has no choice but to contact her two elder brothers: Mycroft and Sherlock. The men had not been home in years, owing partly to a fight they had had with the now missing Lady. On their return they are shocked at the state of things and Mycroft in particular becomes intent upon bending his stubborn little sister to his will. Enola has other plans in mind, however, and in no time she concocts a plan on escaping the rigid role both her brothers and society have assigned her. Along her journey she also gets wrapped up in the case of a missing heir to a Duke and finds herself thoroughly ensconced in the slimy backwaters of London's foulest dens. But if anyone's up to the task of battling villains and saving young heirs, it's a girl with the last name of Holmes.

As a children's librarian I hear no end of demands from stubborn young `uns for an unceasing and steady supply of mystery fiction. Kids love a good mystery, be it the fabulous "Westing Game" by Ellen Raskin or the tepid "Chasing Vermeer" by Blue Balliett. In spite of the demand, very few quality works of fiction fulfill this need. You could close your eyes, spin around in the children's room of a library or bookstore, and end up pointing at one of the five million mystery series out there, but GOOD ones are as rare as rubies. All the more reason why this book (hopefully only the first of more to come) will be greatly appreciated by kids of many persuasions.

Because you see, the writing is key. Though the book spends half its time getting Enola on the road, you don't feel that it ever goes any faster or slower than it should. Enola is not only engaging (she points out to Mycroft that the chances of marrying her off are probably fairly slim since, "I look just like Sherlock"), but also on top of things. She is very touched by her mother's disappearance but when it becomes clear that she is truly on her own, she rallies admirably. She even eschews the usual girl-dressing-up-like-a-boy conceit (OVERDONE conceit, I add) because she knows that if she is to hide from Sherlock she must do what he doesn't expect. That makes for especially good disguises on her part. Ones that make sense too. And there are plenty of ciphers, codes, clues, and neat twists to keep the book interesting for both kids and adults alike. I was delighted to find on more than one occasion that the book would surprise me with a twist that, had I been looking for it, I should have discovered on my own. I cannot quite figure out if the hidden numbers and letters on the cover of "The Case of the Missing Marquess" are a code, but I'm certain that enterprising youth everywhere will try to figure it out on their own.

There is a small problem with the essential conceit behind this book, of course. I mean, it starts off with a woman abandoning her daughter so that she herself can lead her own carefree life without worrying about a young `un. Say what you will about the difficulties faced back in the day, it's very hard to justify a mother leaving her child and without so much as a card or hug. Enola tries to come up with several justifications for her mom's actions, but when you get right down to it it's a nasty thing to do. She definitely could have taken Enola along with her. It just would have made for an entirely different story, and not one that Ms. Springer particularly wanted to tell.

All in all, Enola Holmes and her book make for a difficult-to-resist pairing. I've little doubt that kids will be clamoring for the next installment in the series and that this is only the beginning. A great combination of humor, history, and contemporary good sense. An excellent addition to any collection.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Catherine Keener to Star in Wild Things

Source: Better Than Fudge February 25, 2006

Better Than Fudge reports that Catherine Keener revealed on Thursday's The Charlie Rose Show that she will star in Warner Bros. Pictures' bigscreen Where the Wild Things adaptation:

"I'm getting ready to work with [Spike Jonze] again. He's doing 'Where the Wild Things Are'. He's doing it in New Zealand. I'm playing the mom looking for Max. Then there will be six actors or so performing the roles of the monsters, the wild things. And then Henson's company is making puppets."

The film is an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, in which Max is sent to bed without supper and imagines sailing away to the land of Wild Things, where he is made king.

Keener previously starred in director Jonze's Being John Malkovich. She has starred recently in Friends with Money, Capote, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Interpreter and The Ballad of Jack and Rose.

Canada's greedy for a J.K. Rowling of their own

As one poster on Child_Lit put it,
"The NATIONAL POST of Canada does its best to create the nation's own rags-to-riches writer of fantasy for young people".Note how Penguin's press release doesn't say anything about the book's content, even while proclaiming that the "style and content" are what make it stand out. Canada's QUILL & QUIRE blog notes the familiarity of the storyline that Penguin was really selling: Call us cynics, but we can’t help but notice how certain parts of Skelton’s story – the enormous advance he received for a fantasy novel that’s just waiting to be YA’s next big thing and, more importantly, his underplayed middle-class background and overemphasized recent poverty – seem strangely reminiscent of the biography of a university-educated, former short-term welfare-mom cum multimillionaire named J.K. Rowling.

Decoding Bert's purple hand

A person can get introspective when they're making 50 caterpillars out of pipe cleaners. Is there a God? What is the ratio of people who buy pipe cleaners to clean pipes to people who use them in library craft projects? And what was the deal with Bert's purple hand?

I should explain. I'm at a party on Saturday in Brooklyn and I'm talking to a lawyer friend who is wearing black sequined pants and a shirt with a rainbow zipper. Of course, the subject naturally turns to Sesame Street. People of a certain age raised in a certain way tend to find PBS to be a cultural touchstone on which they can all comment. Normally such conversations spend more time parsing the finer aspects of Oscar the Grouch's relationship with Maria or why the group Mummenschanz seemingly appeared on every single children's television program (except possibly Reading Rainbow). Anyway, this conversation gets a little wonky because my lawyer friend brings up Bert's purple hand.

Those of you born between the years of 1974 to 1980, cast your minds back. Do you remember this particularly odd Sesame Street sketch? I have half a mind to rename my blog http://bert'spurplehand.blogspot.com just to ellicit some kind of explanation from someone. For those amongst us who remember it, it was a very odd and strange segment. Ernie wanted to go play outside but Bert wouldn't go because his hand, through some twist of fate or oddity of the universe, was purple.

Perhaps you don't care. Perhaps the colors of Bert's extremities leave you nonplussed. But if you remember this segment, please let me know. I think of it as a kind of litmus test for my generation. Remembering it says something about a person.

Review of the Day: Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus

Time for an oldie but goodie.
Since the Pigeon book has been adapted into its own theatrical production (see my earlier posting) I think I should dust off this old review from January of 2004. Soon enough Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late will be published, but until then there's always the original to enjoy.

Because this book won a 2003 Caldecott Honor, you're probably going to hear a lot of people complaining about it. "Oh the art isn't beautiful". "Oh my four-year-old child could've drawn it". "Oh it isn't Caldecott-worthy" (whatever that may mean). The fact of the matter is, I was a little shocked too. This book won a Caldecott honor? The one where an amusing pigeon tries every bit of persuasion he can think of to wheedle himself into the driving seat of a bus? Now I've loved this book since it was first published. When I first read it I laughed out loud. Quick! Recite the children's books you love that make you laugh out loud! Not so easy to think of, are they? So I've returned to this little treasure in the hopes of discovering why that Caldecott nominating committee loved this book as much as my pretty self. Could it have been the artwork? Deceptively simple is the best way to describe its style. The pigeon isn't exactly a Michaelangelo. He's drawn with thick black lines, shaded in with blue and yellow. But has a Michaelangelo ever really amused you? Look a little closer at this pigeon and you realize the book's genius. His oversized eyeballs exquisitely display every emotion possible. From sweet and innocent to consumed with an all-encompassing rage. The pages wherein the pigeon completely freaks out and screams at the top of his lungs, "LET ME DRIVE THE BUS!!!" is the temper tantrum of a two-year-old rendered into an aviary form.
But do kids like this book? Well, ladies and gentlemen, the answer is yes. In fact, clever readers let the kids hearing this tale say, "NO!" every time the pigeon tries a new tactic. When the pigeon says, "Please", the kids say no. When the pigeon says, "I tell you what: I'll just steer", the kids say no. When the pigeon says, "Hey, I've got an idea. Let's play `Drive the Bus'. I'll go first", the kids say no. And when Mr. Pigeon collapses in a fury, the kids do not relent. Finally, they have been placed in the position of their parents. They get to tell someone exactly what he cannot do. And they love it.

In the end, it's hilarious. Who can resist this foul when he pulls every trick out of his feathery bag? From, "How `bout I give you five bucks", to a mock-innocent wide-eyed, "I have dreams you know!". In the end, the pigeon goes on to bigger and better dreams (complete with CB radio) and the children reading the story know they've participated in the happy ending. Joy all around. Is this book deserving of a Caldecott Honor? No ladies and gentlemen. It is deserving of a Caldecott MEDAL. But like the pigeon's, this is just a dream.

You Are Not Cool Enough to Read Their Books

When children's authors start looking like this....

.... I start worrying whether or not my black framed glasses really are black enough. I mean seriously, people!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Illustrator blog: Guy Francis

Entirely aside from the fact that his name conjures up all sorts of enjoyable images (perhaps he's a British spy, perhaps an 18th century rake), Mr. Francis happens to run a rather enjoyable blog as well. Please be so kind as to check it out. Unlike some illustrators, he's willing to put up some of his rough sketches for fun.

Review of the Day: Santa's Kwanzaa

I know, I know. I'm inconsistent. After reviewing Three French Hens I apologized profusely for doing a Christmas book out of season. Then not a week later I turn around and review, Santa's Kwanzaa. Sorry sorry. But I have my reasons! You see, not too long ago I heard that someone was going to challenge a library for carrying this book. And since I like to keep on top of censorship challenges, I knew I had to read it. And, in reading it, review it. And, in reviewing it, post it immediately before the hot flame of my anger cooled. So to speak. In any case, it's a rather nice book. I would encourage you to give it a glance (and I've posted something about the illustrator's blog too, so check THAT out as well).

I am a children’s librarian who reviews children’s books hither and thither. Thither and yon. Naturally, this job is awfully enjoyable, but it’s also fraught with peril. Some of the peril is connected to the fact that as a WASP I view the books I review from a certain perspective. I sometimes have difficulty seeing things from other points of view. I’m mentioning this, you see, because not so long ago I heard of a challenge to Garein Eileen Thomas’s charming, “Santa’s Kwanzaa”. It seems that someone in the world felt that this book was offensive. When I heard this, I was puzzled. “Santa’s Kwanzaa”? Really? Really really? So I checked it out of my library branch, paged through it, showed it to countless librarians like myself, and we all came to the same conclusion. Say what you want about this book. Say it’s a teensy bit cheesy or maybe it’s rhymes don’t always work out perfectly. But do not say that the book is offensive. It’s a lovely little combination of two distinct holidays into a single amusing text that all sorts of kids can enjoy. But then, that's just my angle on it.

Christmas Eve is almost over and Santa’s reaching the end of the night. He’s just left the last house, chomped on the last cookie, and is returning back home to the North Pole at long last. On entering his house, however, something is up. He walks into his living room and SURPRISE!! It’s his wife and his elves holding out his kente with a big banner reading, “Welcome Home, Santa Kwaz!”. Santa relaxes after all his work and the elves give him some presents for Kwanzaa. After celebrating their roots (Santa, wife, and elves are all black, I should probably note) the jolly old elf is so pleased that he takes everyone up for a big old sleigh ride , lighting up the sky with colors (ala the Northern Lights) that wish everyone in the world peace and goodwill.

Neither the author nor the illustrator had done much that was well-known before the publication of “Santa’s Kwanzaa”. This was Garen Eileen Thomas's first book for children. Guy Francis, who should win an award solely based on how cool his name really is, had done some work but nothing too notable. With this title, however, he has given the illustrations a great deal of time and attention. According to his blog he did quite a lot of research on Kwanzaa before illustrating it fully. I was intrigued by Francis’s decision to make Santa’s ethnicity evident in a kind of slow reveal. It works, but it isn't something you necessarily expect. It is amazing how obvious it seems that Santa should have dreads though. After a couple readings of this book you begin to think to yourself, “Wait... doesn’t Santa always have dreads? Or is that new?" Where Francis really excels, however, is in the clothing. You can see on the cover the elaborate patterns on Santa’s mittens. As the book progresses, Santa’s clothes grow more and more complex. His kente cloth is well-patterned, his robes lined with white fur are intricately detailed with green variations, and his shoes are faaa-bulous.

There are some slight inconsistencies here and there. If Santa just arrived home from giving out presents, how is it that it’s now the 26th of December? Some other reviewers (of the more professional breed) have pointed out that if you are not familiar with the customs of Kwanzaa itself, this is not going to be the book that teaches you what the holiday is all about. I myself know relatively little about Kwanzaa, so the section in the back in which each elf is named and given a definition, (example: “Ujima is responsible for solving problems”) passed way way over my head. I don’t actually know what these words mean. So consider, “Santa’s Kwanzaa” a complement to the holiday rather than a primary source.

I can see how if the author had combined Hanukkah and Christmas that might be offensive to someone. In fact, it’s been done numerous times in children’s books with varying degrees of success. But as one co-worker of mine pointed out, many of the people who celebrate Kwanzaa ALSO celebrate Christmas. The two are not opposed to one another. And every person I’ve shown this to has loved it. It’s big and bright and cheery. But of course, since I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa myself, how can I truly determine whether or not its offensive to someone? Well, author Garen Eileen Thomas DOES celebrate Kwanzaa, and she knows her stuff. Obviously, this book is bound to please some and not please others. Still, I seriously think it leans towards the “pleasing” end of the scale for the most part. Definitely check it out before you purchase it, but know that it’s a gorgeous booklet and a lovely lovely tale.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

This is what I get for looking at the websites of authors

You know "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus". You adore "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus". But have you seen the show "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus"? Go to this website. It's looks adorable.

Not convinced?

Check this out:

Hot Men In Children's Literature, Part 3

Yup. This here is the third posting in our regular feature, "Hot Men In Children's Literature".

This week: The adorable Mo Willems. Take a gander at this puppy.

Cute, eh?
Cute and married and with a daughter now famous the world over. This charming fellow is the man responsible for screaming hoardes of toddlers demanding yet another copy of, "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus" when I TOLD them that all the copies were out. But did they care? Noooooo. No they just keep demanding and demanding and no amount of alternate pigeon related materials will do. Thankfully, "Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late" is due on shelves any day now. I am more than a little relieved.

Anywho, enjoy the man's webpage and get to know him better. I assure you that your very young ones already do. And he's a helluva lot less creepy than "The Wiggles", I can tell you that much.

ESPECIALLY CUTE FACT:His website urges readers to pre-order his newest book through independent bookstores. My man!

I've been an infomancer for years and didn't even know it!

You can always tell when it's a slow Saturday at the library when I start posting silly things like mad. In this particular case, I just discovered a cool new work for my profession. "Infomancer". Cool, huh? The accompanying link will give you a tasty definition of the term and the accompanying blog ain't too shabby either.

Why I Like the Child_Lit Listserv (and why you should too)

Nowhere else can a person watch the intelligent debates of countless authors, editors, librarians, parents, and loons than on this site. They're just as likely to debate the inanity of a particular censorship or the legitimacy of Kirkus reviews as they are the correct pronounciation of the word "squirrel". At last count there were four posts trying to figure THAT one out. I love it. I also get it in digest form, however, so the news I receive tends to be a day or so late. If you'd like to join, click below.

Interview with the author of Millions

Oh, I'm terribly sorry. You haven't read Millions? That's easy to rectify. Simply drop whatever it is you are doing right now (which, considering that you are reading my blog cannot be much) and go out and READ READ READ this book. I've managed to shoehorn it on the NYPL's summer reading list for 2006, but the more people who know about it (and see the damned good movie of it) the better. Now go!

Censorship Watch: Harry Potter and the Idiotic Removal

Harry Potter's not in line with the "character goals" of an elementary school in Lake Los Angeles. Apparently battling evil isn't appropriate for young 'uns.

I was particularly amused by the person who said that Harry Potter was rejected because it was fantasy. "We want books to be things that children would be able to relate to in real life". Guess that knocks out all historical fiction as well. Oh! And sci-fi. And magical realism. And... And.... And....

As one member of the Child_Lit listserv said:
"Presumably the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Mahabharata, The Aeneid, Metamorphoses, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, The Morte D'Arthur, The Faerie Queene, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth, Paradise Lost, The Pilgrim's Progess, et al will be amongst the other fantasy works being withdrawn from that library? It's
frightening that people can still come out with that kind of Gradgrindian
nonsense. (Oops! I forgot, Dickens wrote fantasy too...)"

Review of the Day: Cesar - Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!

A winner of the Pura Belpre Honor for illustration, here is yet another Cesar Chavez kiddie bio. I hardly minded, though.

Some men seem born to become the subject of countless children's picture book biographies. Take, for example, Cesar Chavez. Aside from Martin Luther King Jr. (Gandhi, for reasons unclear, hasn't had the same oomph) there is no other civil rights hero who has inspired such a wide range of artistic and well-penned children's bios. I had read "Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez" by Kathleen Krull some years ago and was impressed with the information presented in that book. Meaning no disrespect to Ms. Krull, however, "Cesar: Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!", trumps all previous Chavez titles when it comes to its scope, tone, and sheer amount of factual information tucked away in Bibliography, Notes, Glossary and more. Want a bio of Cesar Chavez but want something poetic and beautiful to look at as well? Then just take a quick gander at Carmen T. Bernier-Grand's amazing Pura Belpre Honor Book.

The first spread of this book says simply, "Who Could Tell?". "Who could tell that Cesario Estrada Chavez, the shy American wearing a checkered shirt walking with a cane to ease his back from the burden of the fields, could organize so many people to march for La Causa, The Cause?". Who indeed? A turn of the page and suddenly we're witnessing the birth of a legend. Cesario was born March 31, 1927 but everyone eventually knew him as Cesar. As a child he grew up in a ranch as his father managed a gas station. Then the Depression hit and the family lost the ranch on which Cesar had always lived. From then on in, times were tough. The family had to pick fruit and vegetables for their keep. People inhaled pesticides and made a scant amount of money. Cesar went into the navy but when he returned the only jobs for a Mexican-American were in the fields tending to crops. Cesar married, had kids, and with the help of a member of the Community Service Organization he began to understand the point of unions. He decided to fight for better pay, housing, and health, "To satisfy the farm workers' hunger for decency and dignity and self-respect". By the end of his life Chavez fought for the rights of the common farmworkers and he may well have saved countless lives due to his struggle. He died in his sleep on April 23, 1993.

I suppose the greatest difference between this book and "Harvesting Hope" is how the information of Cesar's life is presented. In "Harvesting Hope" author Kathleen Krull saw an obvious amount of dramatic tension in Cesar's 1968 nationwide boycott. Bernier-Grand, on the other hand, chooses to give each event in Chavez's life equal weight. Actual battles are passed over as the obvious outgrowth of Cesar's journey. By the end, when Cesar dies in his bed in 1993, we've seen more injustice than we have slow justice. This is as it should be. Nobody is saying that the road Chavez hoed was easy. Least of all the biographers that praise him. In this book, each step of Cesar's life is presented with a kind of free verse poem. Such a format could easily be mistaken as annoying after a while. In this case, it may be a little stylized from time to time but it still rings true. In the back of the book Bernier-Grand has even included a section of Notes, a Glossary of terms, a short encapsulation of Cesar's life (for those you for whom prose is not enough), a brief Chronology, and Bernier-Grand's Sources. There is even a collection of direct quotes from the man himself wrapping the book up for once and for all. What's not to like?

And then there are the illustrations of one Mr. David Diaz. What I love about Diaz is that his style seemingly never changes, but his pictures vary immensely. Compare this book, for example, to, "Wilma Unlimited". Sure, both books show people with their eyes firmly attached to the sides of their heads, Egyptian wall-painting style. But while "Wilma" relies heavily on textures and thick weighty lines, "Cesar" is all about making pictures glow. The figures in this book exemplify a kind of inner light. Not just Cesar, but everyone. Diaz has turned at long last to Photoshop and the result is that his illustrations, rather than becoming mechanical or hackneyed, have taken on a kind of luminosity never achieved before. You may not associate "Cesar" with Diaz's Caldecott winner, "Smoky Night", but it is in his variety that the illustrator proves himself to be king.

The world would be a much more pleasant space if heroes like Cesar Chavez were presented to the world as beautifully as in "Cesar: Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can". Beautiful to look and a beautiful to read, this is a perfect complement to "Harvesting Hope" and a wonderful book in its own right as well.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Review of the Day: The Best Book of 2006

And I mean this sincerely. As my review will attest, I've fallen in love. Deeply, passionately, whole-heartedly in love. "Fly By Night" has stolen my heart away. If you are looking for a read so enjoyable it may well be criminal, this book will be your best bet.

As I write this review, it is February 2006. The year, such as it is, is about a sixth over. There is plenty of time for original stories to be published, new works of fiction to pop-up overnight, and fabulous samples of writing to catch the eye. On some level, I know this. I accept it. But then I look down on my review copy of "Fly By Night" and my eyes practically fill with tears. I am looking, you see, at my favorite book of 2006. I already know this. Oh sure, back in January I was sure that my favorite book of 2006 was going to be Karen Cushman's, "The Loud Silence of Francine Green". But while my love for "Francine" is just as clear and concise as ever, Frances Hardinge's whopper of a first novel has truly stolen my heart away. Not since Philip Pullman has a book created such a finely wrought and delicately planned out alternative world. But unlike Pullman (who has his charms BUT) Hardinge's book has a distinct advantage over its competitors. It's brilliant, yes. Well-plotted, well-paced, and well-characterized, yes. But it is also drop dead funny. We're talking about a book in which a girl named after a housefly with a pipe in her teeth goes prancing across the country with her homicidal goose in tow. I haven't a clue if children will actually like this book. Quite frankly, I do not care. I love it as deeply as I have ever loved any title and you can put THAT in your own pipe and smoke it.

Mosca Mye didn't quite intend to burn up her aunt and uncle's mill while escaping from the overly sodden town of Chough. This much we know. She did, however, have every intention of freeing a rapscallion caught in the stocks that very night. The man's name is Eponymous Clent and he's a con man of the most florid degree. Mosca grew up learning how to read from her bookworm father and now, orphaned and trapped in a life she does not like, she sees Clent and his beautiful way with words as a means of getting out of town. They won't be skipping out alone, of course. Clasped firmly under her arm is Mosca's faithful and deadly goose Saracen. On their travels the two run afoul of a ship's captain, rescue a lady from a highwayman, and then dig themselves deeper and deeper into the political intrigue and schemes of the town of Mandelion's rulers, guildsmen, and potential oppressors. Who could know that the very fate of a nation rests on a single eyebrowless girl's slim shoulders and the wingtips of a particularly snarky bird.

What my little description here doesn't do is give you an idea of where this book takes place. Hardinge has created what she calls a Fractured Realm. This world bears some similarities to England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but with definite differences. In this land, Parliament has dispossessed all royalty and has been trying to figure out which potential ruler should have the crown for several decades now. In their stead, Guilds of skilled working men have grown strong and powerful. The top three, for the purposes of this book, are The Company of Locksmiths (who can enter any domicile with their keys), The Company of Stationers (who have every right to burn and ban the books they deem heresy), and The Company of Watermen (who guard and police the rivers). Got all that? Cause I haven't even gotten into the religious aspects. In this world every day and hour has a different saint or Beloved. People worship different ones. Mosca, in this case, was born under Palpitattle, better known as He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns. Hence her name. At one point during the height of the political problems a sect known as The Birdcatchers caused unparalleled destruction and chaos all in the name of destroying the religion of The Beloved. They were put down eventually but the country is still reeling from their ascent.

Does this sound like a children's book to you? No? Well bear with me then. There are children out there who read voraciously. For whom a little Tolkein and a little Pullman are nothing but a walk in the park. To these children, I offer up, "Fly By Night". It hasn't any literary equivalent, of course. There's the obvious ode to Dickens here and there (Clent is just a modified dandified Fagan with a pretty tongue) but an even stronger connection to Leon Garfield's old books. If you happen to know anyone who enjoyed "Smith" or "Black Jack" or "The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris", then this book is an obvious follow-up. If you have never read these books yourself, go and do so immediately and don't come back to me until you've safely devoured them. They are brilliant, but Hardinge is more intelligent and well-written by far. Partly this is due to her language. She writes descriptions that are lovely in their simplicity. Sentences like, "How strange it was to look down the barrel of a pistol! It was not exactly fear, more a soft shock, like being hit in the stomach with a snowball". And best of all you like the characters. You like the villains who become heroes and the heroes who become villains. You revel in never knowing whom to trust, just as Mosca never does. You do know one thing though. Whatever storm happens to blow, you can always trust Mosca and Saracen. There's a wonderful certainty in that.

I will end with a small passage from the book in which Clent starts using his tongue to its truest advantage. It is a description of a man. In it Clent says, "Mabwick Toke is the head of the Stationers' chapter in Mandelion. He can quote the whole of Pessimese's `Endeavors,' from Amblebirth to Aftermath, in the original Acrylic. He can speak twenty languages, half of them living, including two from the Aragash Heights, and one that can only be spoken with a coin under the tongue. When he travels, his carriage is lined with shelves so snug with books that the very breeze must squeeze for entry. He once uncovered a league of subversives by identifying a single silken thread in the paper weave of an opera ticket. If wits were pins, the man would be a veritable hedgehog". If you are a person hoping to write a children's book someday, I strongly urge you NOT to read "Fly By Night". Such passages like the one quoted above can only bring you to tears. This was written as Hardinge's FIRST novel for children. It's enough to make you weep and crow with joy all at once. Let us hope that many many more will be in the works soon.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

New York Time Kate DiCamillo article

A Kate DiCamillo posting for your pretty eyes.
No no, don't thank me. All in a day's work.

Review of the Day: Bee-Bim Bop

You may wonder why I've been doing so many picture book reviews as of late. The answer is obvious. I am a lazy cuss. Picture books take 5-6 minutes to read. Marvelous books like Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night (more on THAT later) take me several days. And if we're gonna keep up this one review a day thingy, picture books are the obvious answer.

As far as I can ascertain, Linda Sue Park does not sleep. I have good strong evidence for this. Since 2004 this woman has single-handed churned out more picture books, pieces of historical fiction, and fantasy novellas than any person dare count. She wins Newbery awards, brings Korean-American families to the foreground of kiddie lit and with "Bee-bim Bop!" the woman even has a storytime picture book to her name. This is no mean feat. Coming up with a storytime picture book is one thing. Coming up with a storytime picture book that is actually enjoyable to read aloud is another entirely. I was wholly within my rights when I looked on "Bee-bim Bop" with a skeptical eye. A person can only be good at so many things, and while I was a big ole fan of her, "The Firekeeper's Son", it may be a picture book but it's an entirely different breed altogether. "Bim-bim Bop!" is just your average getting dinner on the table type affair, but by the end of the story I wouldn't be entirely surprised if you find your small children begging for that tasty meal themselves. It does look delish.

The story, such as it is, follows a young girl and her mother on a shopping expedition. In rhyme the girl continually prods her mother along with lines like, "Hurry, Mama, hurry / Gotta shop shop shop! / Hungry hungry hungry / for some BEE-BIM BOP!". Back at home the two stir and fry, flip the egg pancakes, set the rice ah-steaming, and chop some garlic and green onions. This goes on with more and more ingredients cooked and added. The table is set with spoons and chopsticks, the family gathers, and it is finally suppertime. Everyone mixes all the ingredients together (the "bee-bim") and chow down on some yummy food. Park includes a recipe for Bee-bim Bop at the end. The cooking instructions are clever separated into the parts that "You" can do (like mixing together ingredients and pouring in the water) and the parts a "Grownup" will have to do as well. There's a rather nice if low-quality photograph of Linda Sue Park and her niece and nephew making this very dish at the end.

The book scans nicely and you won't find yourself tripping over syllables that are a bit too long or phrases that tie up the tongue. The illustrations are by one Ho Baek Lee. Mr. Lee lives in Seoul with his wife and started a children's book publishing company of his own there. His pictures are fine, but not particularly mind-blowing. They show what's going on with a kind of straightforwardness you would expect. There isn't an overabundance of Korean-American picture books out there, but as more and more get published you certainly get a sense that there's a need. Definitely read this book alongside other Korean-American food-centric picture books like, "The Have a Good Day Café" by Frances and Ginger Park. A nice book and a good storytime pick if you're looking for a food themed choice.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Money, please

No, not for me. Yet.
No, I'm referring to God-amongst-bloggers Bookslut and her recent posting on the importance of giving money to your local library. Specifically your children's room in the library. And since I work in a children's room that has been repeatedly denied funding to refurbish it time and time again (the L.A. Public Library's Central Children's Room makes us look just awful!) I back Ms. Slut's comments wholeheartedly.

Movie Watch: That book everyone had to read in fourth grade

Oh you know the one I mean.


Walden Media (the good folks who brought us "Holes", "Because of Winn-Dixie", and "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe") are bringing us the book that no one can agree on. Is it too depressing? The greatest story ever told? Well it looks as if Disney's going to pull a "Heavenly Creatures" on us with this one. I'm just happy that Zoe Deschanel's getting work.

Nancy Drew and the Case of the Long Tardy Screenplay

Oh cats.
Oh kitties.
Here we go again. Looks like after that ill-famed Nancy Drew television show (and subsequent Playboy spread) the powers-that-be are giving the ultimate teen sleuth another go. This time it's on the silver screen with a bunch of Nickelodeon stars and Tate Donovan. Read the article if you like. The biggest shock I got out of it was that Tate Donovan was in Good Night, And Good Luck. Really? Really really?

Review of the Day: Three French Hens

I know, I know. It's very weird writing a review of a holiday book in February. I should probably put it off until the right time of year. But I'm slowly working my way through the books that made it on the New York Public Library's 100 Books For Reading and Sharing List and this one is right up there. I can't agree with the decision to put it on the list (as the review attests) but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it. Decide amongst yourselves...

When I was a child, no children’s illustrator ever freaked me out quite as effectively as Richard Egielski. I will explain. Does the title, “Louis the Fish” ring any bells? How about “Hey, Al”? Egielski is one of those illustrators who’s style seemingly does not change until you compare the authors he’s worked with. When Egielski worked with Arthur Yorinks the result was freaky/creepy/wonderful picture books that somehow tapped into their child readers’ subconscious minds. These days, however, Egielski is far more likely to be seen pairing with authors like Margie Palatini. Palatini and Egielski both worked on “The Web Files”, a perfectly nice but peculiar “Dragnet” ala the preschool set book. “Three French Hens” is yet another interesting title though this one is running far more along the lines of a kinder-aged “Trading Spaces” with some holiday cheer for spice.

It’s the third day of Christmas and a lovely mademoiselle from Paris has sent her true love three French hens. Though the fellow receiving this gift lives on 3 Rue de Margie in Paris, the birds end up lost en route and stuck in the unclaimed mail department of New York City. Intrepid fowl they be, so they reason that since they were bound for a Philippe Renard, in English they must locate a Phil Fox. Enter Phil. Phil lives in the Bronx in a dumpy apartment with only a cockroach for companionship. He’s also starving and the appearance of three plump French hens at his doorstep whets his whistle considerably. Before he can pop any one of the three into his mouth, however, he is whisked into a bath by Colette, has his place redesigned by Poulette, and has a magnificent French dinner prepared by Fifi. Guiltily, Phil confesses that he is not Philippe Renard at all. Of course the hens do not care. They are his friends and the four go off to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah (the hens are kosher) in a cart in the park.

You can’t knock Egielski’s work on this one. When we first see Phil his pants are held up by a rope, his fur is clumped and natty, and his ears askew. A little pampering later and you can see that even his tail has become full and silky under the hens’ care. Egielski excels at details. For example, the hens ride the subway perched on the bar attached to the ceiling. I was also rather attached to Fifi’s leather and sunglasses riding outfit. The artist also avoids making a mistake many children’s book illustrators make. He doesn’t put the chickens on a wrongly lettered or numbered subway train. You laugh but there are hundreds of children’s books out there that make this very mistake day in and day out.

On a first read-through I was enchanted by the tale. Fun is the word for it. There are plenty of picture books out there where the hungry predator comes to care for its potential prey. The best known right off the top of my head would have to be “The Wolf’s Chicken Stew” by Keiko Kasza. That kind of story can be a lot of fun. Then I read “Three French Hens” through a second time and I noticed something. Now, many children you’ll meet (at least when they are young) are literalists. They want a book to make sense, even if that means making the fantastical logical. If something magical happens, that’s fine, but they’re going to want to be told that it IS magic. In the case of “Three French Hens” we have a very poverty stricken fox. According to the text, “the poor fellow hadn’t had a square meal in months”. The three chickens waltz in with only their bags and suddenly the house has scented candles, an entirely new wardrobe for Phil, a snazzy redecorated crib, and more food (of the French persuasion) than you could shake a drumstick at. So where do all these riches come from? Could it be magic? Did the chickens go out and buy stuff on their own while the fox was in the bath? Palatini is reluctant to say. Reluctant heck, she’s outright refusing to explain. So when the five-year-old perched on your lap turns to you and asks, “Where did they get all that food?”, you’re going to be pretty hard pressed to give an answer. It’s especially odd when Phil takes one of the presents under the tree and tries to give it to the chickens. Didn’t they just give that box to him by coming up with Christmas presents in the first place? I can hear your little brains ah-grinding and they’re telling me to lighten up. This is just a picture book for kids (and a fun one at that). Why am I nit-picking little details like these? I’m nit-picking, dear ones, because Palatini could’ve solved these questions with a single sentence of explanation. The chickens are heiresses or they plundered the nearby Goodwill and spruced up the place. Anything would have done, but nothing was. So we have a nice but flawed book. A very big pity, that.

There were some unsaid assumptions to this story as well, by the way. If the chickens are being sent to someone named Philippe Renard, should we assume that had they not met up with Phil Fox they would have been eaten anyway? They are being sent by a cat, after all. Logic would dictate ... but no matter. It’s still a fun book and if your toddler can get over the obvious inconsistencies in the plot then this is bound to be a holiday favorite for years to come. In spite of my own qualms, I loved it. It’s got a lot of heart and such a good natured spirit that you’ll have a hard time disliking it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Lemony Snicket Release Date

Hoo and also ray.
A date has been set. Here's what Harper Collins has to say on the matter.

Less than two weeks after 2006 arrived amidst great excitement and optimism, something terrible happened at 12:01 a.m. this morning: Friday the 13th arrived.

Under normal circumstances, today’s date would be unfortunate. This year, it is even more ominous, a word which here means “extremely worrisome.” That is because this terribly unlucky day occurs TWICE in 2006.

Associates at LemonySnicket.com predict that the second time, Friday, October 13, will bring The End. Of what, however--the Baudelaire orphans? Lemony Snicket himself? Thursday, October 12th?--remains unclear.

There is much to fear in the coming months--alarming puzzles, distressing notations, a series of communications from someone named Beatrice. All of us at AuthorTracker will continue to try to locate the elusive Mr. Snicket, gather information, understand the truth, and share our findings with you.

Still, we are sorry to ruin your year after only 12 days. Perhaps 2007 will be cheerier.

With all due respect,
HarperCollins Publishers

Review of the Day: First Day of Winter

A fellow librarian in my place of work raved to me about this title. Her ravings tend to be wholly and utterly convincing, so I am not in the thrall of this book. Hence the following review:

If there were a librarian lobby out there, I would seriously suspect that Denise Fleming was held under their sway. How else to explain the fact that every book she creates fits your average children's librarian's needs to a tee? Whether she's using her one-of-a-kind humor and artistic technique to teach kids about colors as in "Lunch", providing a particularly original animal readaloud as found in "Barnyard Banter", or writing the number one BEST toddler storytime picture book, "In A Small Small Pond", the woman practically caters to your average librarian's every desire. "The First Day of Winter" is no exception to the rule. Utilizing a technique that incorporates everything from colored cotton fiber and hand-cut stencils to squeeze bottles, "Winter" provides the perfect wintertime readaloud book, especially for those with a hearty singing voice.

Written to the tune of "Twelve Days of Christmas", "The First Day of Winter" is a joyful tale of the building of a snowman. So the book begins with, "On the first day of winter my best friend gave to me ... a red cap with a gold snap". With each consecutive day the snowman is slowly built up and up. It gets two bright blue mittens, 3 striped scarfs, 4 prickly pinecones, etc. Some of these additions are alliterative and some just fun to say like, "5 birdseed pockets". With each addition of food or sustenance, winter animals cluster closer and closer to the snowman. When the last verse (it doesn't go as far as twelve) results in 10 salty peanuts it is clear that the snow"man" is actually a rather nice snow"woman". Our last images in the book are of her walking off to have a chat with another snowfellow at the top of a nearby hill.

There's such a sense of satisfaction when you read this book aloud. Even if you don't sing the words you still get a smack of enjoyment from pronouncing the words, "red cap with a gold snap". Adults can decide whether or not they want to sing "5 birdseed pockets" as you would "5 gold rings" or just keep the verse the same as the others. As always, Fleming is far more inclined to be colorful rather than dull. From the ribald blue of a blue jay to the cheery conglomeration of a bunch of different scarfs, this is as visually arresting a book as any Fleming has come up with yet. Now I cannot tell you how many times I've been approached by a library patron who wants a good snowy winter book for their kids, but without any specific holidays mixed in. Until now I've relied heavily on Ezra Jack Keats's, "The Snowy Day", and Lois Ehlert's, "Snowballs". With the publication of this book, I can now also heartily thrust "The First Day of Winter" into these parents' waiting arms with a kind of haphazard glee. A fabulous addition to any cold weather collection and a fun readaloud to boot.

Harry Potter: From Page to Screen

Just received word about this interesting little panel discussion. If any of you New Yorkers out there feel a yen to quench your professional Harry Potter needs, check this puppy out.

Harry Potter: From Page to Screen

Michael Goldenberg, Stephanie Zacharek and Monica Edinger / Melissa Anelli, moderator

Hollywood has been adapting novels for ages, but adapting Harry Potter—the most popular series of books in modern history—poses a special challenge. How does one tackle such an epic and popular series under worldwide scrutiny? Which characters and plotlines can you eliminate and still capture the essence of the story? Can the movie be better than the book?

Hear a discussion with Michael Goldenberg, screenwriter for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Peter Pan and Contact; Stephanie Zacharek, film critic for Salon.com (her review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban can be found here); and Monica Edinger, a fourth-grade teacher at the Dalton School and the author of a number of books and articles on children's literature in education (her review of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was recently published in CBC Magazine). Melissa Anelli, webmistress of the website The Leaky Cauldron, moderates.

For more details, follow the link.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Are You There, God?

Me madre passed along this interesting link from a fellow blogger.
What she says, I agree with wholeheartedly.
Now I'm off to read the book.....

The Hot Men of Children's Literature: Part 2 in a series

Part one was the Philip Nel post.

This week we take a look at Mr. Patrick Arrasmith. This picture doesn't really do him justice. Probably because I've just learned that it ISN'T Mr. Arrasmith at all. Whoops! For the actual Mr. Arrasmith you should check out this YouTube video of him discussing his work.

Mr. Arrasmith is featured today because he was kind enough to do the fabulous illustrations for Joseph Delaney's American publication of The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch. Take a quick gander at his work and note how nice it is.

Review of the Day: Revenge of the Witch

This book got a fair amount of attention not that long ago. It's creepy and actually had me sucked in like no other scary children's book I've experienced before. Consider this a must have addition to your collection.

When a kid comes up to me in the library (I’m a children’s librarian) and asks for something scary I usually hem and haw and eventually hand them “Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark”, as a starter. If they ask for scarier fare (which, honestly, shouldn’t be hard) I’m usually hard pressed to come up with something truly frightening. I suppose there’s good old “Wait Till Helen Comes” but all too often children’s books rely far more on atmosphere rather than out and out teeth chattering suspense. Enter Joseph Delaney. Delaney has been writing fantasy and sorcery tales for adults since 1985. With “Revenge of the Witch” he makes his first foray into the world of children’s literature and a significant step it is too. Chilling, nail-biting, and downright enjoyable the book is bound to be loved by reluctant readers, die-hard fantasy fans, and lovers of good children’s literature alike.

Being the seventh son in a family means that when it comes to a lifetime occupation, there isn’t much to chose from. Fortunately for Thomas Ward, he isn’t just a seventh son. He’s the seventh son of a seventh son and that means something special. Unlike normal people, Thomas can hear the ghasts of hanged men up on a hill near his home. He can sense and see things that would frighten even the stoutest of hearts. It seems logical then that he should be apprenticed to a spook. Spooks roam the county keeping people safe from everything from boggarts to witches. Thomas is doing well enough and goes to life in the spook’s home. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when a local girl persuades Thomas to feed some sticky cakes to a witch trapped underground by the spook. Now Thomas must go head to head with a particularly nasty witch and her kin before innocent lives (including his own) are lost.

The whole seventh son of a seventh son idea has been used to great advantage by a wide variety of authors. The best known, I suppose, would have to be “Seventh Son” by Orson Scott Card. For his part, Delaney has taken great care to work British myths, legends, and local superstitions into the framework of “Revenge of the Witch”. If you see him discussing a hairy boggart or a cattle ripper you can bet that he’s incorporated the idea from a regional belief or story. He’s also worked his own experiences into the text. At one point in the book Thomas has to spend a night in a haunted house and at the stroke of midnight go into the basement to face whatever might be lurking below. The whole kid-spends-a-night-in-a-haunted-house idea is ancient and, had I heard about it without reading this book, a bit trite. “Revenge of the Witch”, however, makes the concept completely mind-blowingly frightening. The sequence, as it happens, was drawn from Delaney’s own experiences as a child. In an interview with “The Independent”, Delaney had this to say: “the haunted house in Watery Lane is a house that I lived in as a child. It was a terraced house next to a canal. When we lived there I used to have a recurring dream. I’d be in the room with my mother knitting and it would be warm and cosy. Then it would start getting darker and colder. I’d know that something was going to happen and I couldn’t move. Then this thing would come up from the cellar and move into the room, like a shadow. It would pick me up and carry me towards the coal cellar. All of the children in our family had the same dream. Years later we talked about it and discovered that we’d all had the same dream. We all believed that if we’d been taken down into the cellar we would have died”. So there you have it. The terrors of real life are neatly synthesized into a children’s book that’ll have you eyeing your own basement reluctantly for weeks on end.

The book was originally published in Great Britain and what with the British covers of children’s books so often trumping America’s, I was amazed when I discovered that Greenwillow Publishers had tapped an especially unique resource right here at home. You see, for all the charms of “The Spook’s Apprentice” (as it was called in England), there weren’t any illustrations in the original tome. Enter our very own homegrown artist Patrick Arrasmith. Using a style that looks like woodcuts but may well be scratchboard art (it’s difficult to tell and his homepage ain’t saying) Arrasmith’s art eloquently ups the creepy tone of “Revenge of the Witch” significantly. From its haunting cover art to illustrations of everything from a hand dripping blood to a single hand holding a candle flame, Arrasmith is the perfect complement to Delaney’s dark tale. A more perfect pairing I could not imagine. At first glance Arrasmith’s work looks similar to that of “Wicked” illustrator Bill Sanderson, but of the two I think Arrasmith allows for a greater sense of atmosphere and tone.

There are plenty of nasty ends, bitten off fingers, and baby eating witches here to frighten off the weak. For those amongst you that don’t mind a little gore with your scares and some fine fine writing as well, “Revenge of the Witch” is the perfect gift for the kids who want to be scared but find everything in the library a bit too tame.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Review of the Day: A Room With a Zoo

It appeared on the New York Public Library's 100 Books For Reading and Sharing, but that's not why I read it. I read it because my homeschooler bookgroup wants to discuss it as soon as possible. As it happens, I was much taken with it, in spite of the somewhat bratty narrator. But see for yourself....

A couple months ago a child walked into a library where I was the children's librarian. Softly she asked if we had anything else by the author of "A Room With a Zoo". My library is notorious for getting new books in late, but in this particular case I had seen the title already in a bookstore. I showed her Jules Feiffer's other books, like "The Man In the Ceiling" and "A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears". She looked them over vaguely but they were obviously not what she wanted. What she wanted was another book exactly like, "A Room With a Zoo" and I (not having read it) was hard put to find her something similar. Time has passed, I have read the book, and I STILL cannot for the life of me figure out what I should have told her. Feiffer has deftly tapped into a single child's love for the animals she keeps in such a one-of-a-kind way that animal loving kids out there are sure to find a kindred spirit in the character of Julie. Using everything from slapstick to sweet moments to the reality that comes with owning a variety of different animals, Feiffer is always real, always interesting, and never dull.

Based on Jules Feiffer's real family and real family members (though to what extent I am not certain) the book is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Julie Feiffer. Julie wants one thing in the entire world. A Chihuahua. A cute little doggie that she would tend to and take care of. Her parents insist that she is too young for such a responsibility. So instead she gets a cat named Timmy. But Timmy isn't a sweet cat, he's a frightened one and to make up for him they buy her a hamster named Hammy. Problem is, Hammy tortures Timmy with his edibleness. So to distract Timmy from Hammy they get an Oscar fish named (oh so appropriately) Oscar. That's all well and good until it becomes clear that Oscar likes to eat the other fish purchased with the sole purpose of keeping him company. So she gets a turtle for comfort. Then Julie wants to bring home the class rabbit, she gets a new kitten who is as friendly as Timmy is distant, and all this reaches a screeching climax when fish, hamster, and cats combine to bring the story to a slam bang finish.

I'm intrigued by the reviewer of this book who responded with horror to the fact that Julie makes poor judgments with her animals. They seem to be under the impression that the protagonist in a children's story should always do the right thing and never make mistakes. Julie is nine and some of her addle-headed theories result with a sticky end, but this isn't one of those books where the kid makes a mistake and gets away with it. Each time Julie does something stupid she (and the animals) pay for it. And, by paying for it, learns. To the animals' detriment, of course, but in this story only two critters get eaten and nobody (aside from the eaten) dies. There's a strong sense of reality to this tale, leading me to believe that much of this story must've actually happened to Feiffer & Co. When one of Julie's goldfish is eaten by the Oscar, Feiffer's accompanying illustration of Julie screaming is dead on. I well remember the horror of waking up in the morning, walking over to the fishtank, and seeing half a skeleton of a fish floating at the top of the bowl. "A Room With a Zoo" is hardly so graphic, but it acknowledges right from the get-go that pet ownership is not for the weak. The individual personalities of the pets ring true each and every time. Plus I think that no children's book describes quite so well the agony some adults feel when their backs go out.

There are wonderful little touches spotted throughout the text that make for a great read. When Julie discovers the Oscar fish her parents have bought for her the fish is describes as follows: "His eyes were black like a gangster's, and on top of his eyes there was a bright red line the color of his speckles. `He reminds me of Tony Soprano,' my father said, so he called my fish Tony". The book isn't afraid to do a little shout out once in a while as well. Though it's never mentioned by name, proud parent Jules mentions his daughter Kate Feiffer's new picture book, "Double Pink" at great length. I was amused that he would be so gutsy as to unrepentantly draw attention to his daughter's work in this fashion. Not every daddy would do so much.

It's the truth in this tale that is its strength and its weakness. Some parents will bemoan the fact that Julie is a real little girl and not a perfect-pet-takin'-care-of-machine. She does pretty darn well, all things considered, and some elements of this tale are so real (such as a classmate's family trying to drop a sick rabbit off onto Julie's family) that they could only have been inspired by true life situations. Most importantly, kids really identify with Julie. She's one of them. They understand what she's going through, even when they don't agree with her decisions at all times. It makes for a great story, an amusing tale, and an altogether hepped-up storyline. Bound be beloved for quite some time.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Oldie But Goodie Review of the Day: Curious George

What with the movie of Curious George out and about, I figured that I'd reawaken my old review of the book. Enjoy or disregard, however you see fit.

The world's most famous literary monkey. I hadn't read "Curious George" in years, and I was admittedly a little hesitant to do so when I saw the copyright date. 1941. Now due to the fact that George is originally from Africa, I had a sneaking fear and suspicion that there would be some terrible racist images to contend with. Imagine my surprise when I found that, as it happens, not a single horrid stereotype appears! Just the same, I have to point out that at the same time not a single positive stereotype appears either. This is a book bereft of people with skin that isn't white as newly driven snow. Bear this in mind.

Curious George does his darndest to live up to his name. A naughty little monkey, he is swiftly captured in Africa by the Man in the Yellow Hat (one prays he's no relation to "Tuck Everlasting"'s Man in the Yellow Suit). George is taken from his jungle paradise en route to the zoo. Along the way, George has a series of wild adventures. He takes a dip in the ocean (throwing up an amazing amount of saltwater and fish while he's rescued). He calls the fire department and is jailed. He escapes and flies around, balloons in hand. In the end, George is reunited with the Man in the Yellow Hat (who, despite the damage George has inflicted on the world and its civil servants, compensates only the balloon man). In the final parting shot of George, the monkey is happily ensconced in his new zoo life with the caption, "What a nice place for George to live!" This is definitely a pro-zoo book.

Personally, I've always been kind of taken with The Man in the Yellow Hat. Who the heck is this guy? Apparently he's a jaunty world adventurer with a penchant for monkeys. Most interesting is his striking resemblance to the pop on "Father Knows Best", pipe stuck squarely between his teeth, wise countenance advising his monkey ward. He isn't the best monkey watcher. Some might even argue that he's a bit lax in his attention, but he gets the job done. And you just gotta love the hat. Faaaabulous hat, yellow guy. All in all, it's a fine story. For kids who're interested in either monkeys or fiascos, this is a good monkey/fiasco tale. I'm a fiasco fan myself, so this book suits me fine. It's not, admittedly, my favorite but it has its charms.

Friday, February 17, 2006

We are experiencing some technical difficulties

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why my profile and links have slunk to the bottom of the page. I'll try to sort this out ASAP. I apologize for the lameness of it all.

Censorship Watch

I just found a new fun blog called bookshelves of doom.
In trying to find a link to the recent decision to ban Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen I discovered it. Anywho, here's the page. Just go down to the February 10, 2006 posting at this website.

(Sorry but I haven't figure out how to make my links active. They just disappear when I try).

Childwise Cinema

Being married to a filmmaker, I've a very tenuous reason for keeping a close eye on the children's filmworld. Curious George is currently making the rounds and sounds like one of those rare kid-friendly but not crap movies that drop out of the sky once every 100 years. Here's a review if you don't believe me:

Review of the Day: Scary

Remove the letters "R", "V", "I", and one "E" from the word "REVIEW" and what do you have? "EW". Which describes today's book to a tee. This is a gross one, no question, but I stand by my decision to enjoy it. Many will not be so bold (and I can hardly blame them).

When I was a kid the only publication I ever had a subscription to was "Owl Magazine". Throughout the years the details of the title have blurred in my mind, but one particular issue stands out clear-as-crystal down to the minutest of details. The issue was about gross and true facts. Things like dust mites and the tiny wriggling worms that live in the dirt underneath your fingernails. Needless to say, I loved that title and did everything in my power to compile a list of gross facts for my own use (though I've long since forgotten what that use was going to be exactly). Since this was in an era long before the Internet (gather round me children and let granny put her teeth in to tell you of that wild and ancient time) my list was never completed and there has been a hole in my life ever since. A hole that has only now, at the grand old age of twenty-seven, been filled with the publication of, "Scary: A Book of Horrible Things For Kids". Allow me to point out that this is not a book for everyone. It is a collection of the dark, the gross, the really gross, and the I-can't-believe-they-are-telling-kids-about-this type stuff. Looking at it in my old age, I am appalled. Looking at it with the knowledge that as a kid I would have adored it, I am elated.

Six sordid section divide the book into different areas of awfulness. The first section, "Things That Creep and Crawl" looks at spiders, komodo dragons, and other hungry denizens of the world. "Things That Feed On You" gets into the parasites that feed off of human beings as a whole. "Things That Go Crunch In the Night" is a haphazard thrown-together section of historical figures, most of whom are mythical. "Places Where Shadows Grow" gets into those stories the Sci-Fi Channel likes to mention in ghostly documentaries around the Halloween holiday season. "The Things We've Done", is another pseudo-historical heading, but it inclines slightly more towards facts and less towards fancy. Finally, "Imagine This...If You Dare" is a series of suppositions including, amongst other things, spontaneous human combustion. It's hard to tell exactly why Herrera has decided to place some info in one section rather than another, but this isn't exactly the kind of text your kids will turn to for science papers anyway. It's just dark and silly reading.

I got the wrong idea about this book when the first page I turned to while idly flipping through was the section on the candiru. Not only is this the number one MOST horrific section in the book but when you read it you're convinced that it's fiction that even the gaudiest of horror movies might eschew. It doesn't help that Herrera smudges his facts a bit. Now parents, if you want to know whether or not this book is appropriate for you little darlings, the candiru section is a pretty good litmus test of disgust. The book says that the creature is attracted to urine and enters the human body from the most disgusting orifices available. Yeah, I know. It gets worse, but I'll let you figure that out for yourself. Without going into the gruesome details (and for this book, that's saying something) I will say that the illustration accompanying the story gives an incredibly unrealistic idea of how exactly the candiru enters the body. It's actually much more disgusting than Herrera would have you believe. Whether you think that's a good or a bad thing is entirely up to you.

Note that the title is, "Scary: A Book of Horrible Things For Kids" and not "Scary: A Book of Horrible and True Things For Kids". There's an important distinction there. Much of what this book has to proffer is indeed true. Some is not. The aforementioned candiru section is misleading. There are also long sections about various myths (not urban legends, interestingly enough) that never actually occurred. One of these is the Sawney Beane tale, which anyone will tell you ain't true in the least. Why not stick to the Donner Party or something with a historical backing to it? Also, Herrera sometimes fails to mention disgusting factoids that might be of particular interest. His komodo dragon section, for example, never brings up the fact that if a dragon bites you, you'll die just from the bacteria in their mouths. They don't have to eat you right there and then! You'll already be dead meat.

And by the way, can I offer up a pitiable complaint here? There has been a gross omission. Or, to be more precise, an omission of the gross. On page 29 we see various creepy crawlies under a huge human eye. One even goes so far as to cling to an eyelash. But is the text about my favorite critter of them all, the eyelash mite? No. Instead we get treated to a brief bit of text that talks about too amoeba, dust mites, and ticks. Where the heck is my eyelash mite section?!?!? Grrrr.

Look, kids like the gross and off-color. You know what book series still gets requests in the library all the time? That old chestnut, "Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark" by Alvin Schwartz. "Scary" probably took a tip or two from that classic collection of macabre. It's illustrations are far more stylized than Stephen Gammell's cadre of horrors, but since we're dealing with real-life ickyness, it fits. Some children (as the reviews for this book attest) will not enjoy it. Don't buy it for a kid if you know that they'd much rather read an "American Girl" book. But for those kids enamored of the "ugh", this is definitely the way to go.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Nailing a bad book

In a recent discussion of what makes a good or bad negative review of a book, Mr. Michael Scott Joseph had this to say. I've read it in the hopes of discovering if my recent negative review of Inkspell falls into the "good" or "bad" category. It finally posted, by the way. Let the neggies begin!

"Often bad negative reviews will shout over the strengths of a book, either ignoring them in order to complain about the lack of something the reviewer would have preferred to find, or misrepresenting a book's strength as a weak version of something else. I think one attribute of a good negative review might be the reviewer's effective description of what the author has valued or where s/he's put the work in. I may be revealing my own flawed perceptions, but I do not believe that authors write according to an index of standards. Rather, standards emerge from powerful texts. Notions of subtext, parallel structure, voice, diction, phrasing, metaphor, vivid characters, etc., etc. emerge from texts whose distinctiveness are so
great because they do something original really well. Texts that do a good job of touching the bases, which, essentially, hack a particular style or a contemporary style, don't really qualify as good texts, even though one can blurb them really easily. But a memorable text might succeed even if it does only one or two things really well, even though, conversely, one can dismiss it really easily, even memorably. It's important for a reviewer writing a negative review to allow the
reader to know what the author has tried to make succeed, I think, even if it's only to say, X does a great job of hacking Russell Hoban's wry, farcical, wit, or something along those lines."

James Howe Interview

Part of the joy of blogging is that I get to steal links from other blogs that I find particularly interesting. For example, the lovely blog Kids Lit (you can find it in my list of links) brought this fabulous James Howe interview with Teaching Tolerance to my attention. Definitely check it out:

Censorship Watch

Here's an interesting NPR subject for anyone interested at all:

In California, Hindu parents are taking aim at textbooks from the state's public schools. Two groups are demanding revisions, claiming that some history texts shortchange the Hindu culture. The case raises questions of how far the state should go to accommodate these groups and others with complaints.

Review of the Day: Brothers In Hope

This is what comes of feeling required to review every major award winner out there. This is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. Just the same, I wouldn't have gone seeking it out for a larf or anything. Here tis:

A very difficult book to review. Not because the book was difficult to read, mind you. "Brothers In Hope" may be many things, but its story is certainly a thoughtfully paced tale. I liked the book fine. The illustrations were not of a style that I've ever really taken to, but that doesn't mean they weren't good. The problem with reviewing children's books is that you have to constantly separate your own personal preferences from the titles you look at. I'm not a fan of Chris Raschka's style either, but there was no denying that his book "The Hello Goodbye Window" was lovely. No, the reason I found this book so hard to review was its subject matter. Picture books that talk about difficult times, whether historical or current, have a tough road to travel. With this tale at her fingertips, Mary Williams has done the best she could with a mighty difficult bit of subject matter.

Garang is only eight when his family's Sudanese village is destroyed while he tends the cattle in the field. Not knowing where to turn or even where to go, he meets boys just like himself traveling down the road. All of them have lost their villages, much in the same way that Garang did, while tending their family's animals. We watch as the boy adopts little five-year-old Chuti Bol as his special companion and the two travel with the group from refugee camp to refugee camp. They met Tom, a relief worker who fights for the boys' education and rights. Even after reaching the first refugee camp the boys still have to run back and forth across the Sudan border to stay alive. As Garang and the boys finally make a home for themselves in Kenya the years pass. Tom finally comes back and informs everyone that the United States will start taking the boys in as refugees. The story is done but it is far from over. In her Afterword, Williams does not sugarcoat the challenges the boys still face in America. I appreciated that she mentioned that "Several communities of Lost Boys do not benefit from the resources and emotional support of committed volunteers". Still, the story she draws from their trials is a hopeful one and one that needs to be told.

In the back of the book is a map of Africa that shows the path the boys took in the story. Mary Williams herself, we learn via bookflap, has worked for such organizations as the International Rescue Committee and UNESCO. For a first book, she has a good grasp of narrative. Williams draws gentle comparisons between moments in Garang's life, tying them together without difficulty. The fact that he knew how to herd cattle accounts for his ability to herd young boys a little later. Williams is a little vague on some of the details, of course. We must assume that Garang is not actually real and that he is just a representative she created to stand in for other boys. If this is not the case, it is not mentioned in the book. It's a little difficult to believe that the 35 boys in his group never succumb to illness, drowning, or starvation in any way, but I figure Williams knew that the story was so harsh that a little lightening here and there couldn't hurt.

As I mentioned before, the illustrations of R. Gregory Christie are not a style that I particularly take to. But that's just me. Though I found his picture of Tom when old downright scary, I appreciate that he's found a form of illustration that works for him and illustrates his books accordingly. I have to say that I much preferred his work on books like "Richard Wright and the Library Card". I kind of wish he'd used that kind of drawing for this book rather than his current form. Ah well.

There are few books I can think to compare "Brothers In Hope" to. If you should read this book to a kid and you find that they would like to know what life was like for the brothers when they got to America, the closest equivalent I can think of is "The Color of Home" by Mary Hoffman. Of course, the people in that book are Somalian, not Sudanese. But the Somalians, like many Lost Boys, have often moved to cold climate regions in America like the Dakotas or Minnesota. The comparison is not entirely without merit. Still, "Brothers In Hope" is a rare fish. You won't find many books like it out there. Deserving of its praise.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Kiddie lit glamor

You know what I enjoy? Hobnobbing. Nobbing with the hobbs. I like going to fancy dancy Greenwillow Publishing wine and cheese affairs where they proudly display their upcoming books and then hand humble children's librarians like myself pretty gift bags full of goodies. I like that. I like finding myself shaking the hands of editors and publishers and other denizens of the upper eschelons of higher children's literature. I like it so doggone much that I wish I could do it all the time. Maybe become some kind of Children's Librarian Gossip Columnist ala Louella Parsons or someone equally skanky. I could flit from publishing Powerpoint presentation to author signings and then dish up the dirt here.

There is a flaw with this plan, of course. It makes the assumption that there are people in the world who would actually find such information appealing. But if I walk out the door of my library onto 5th Avenue and ask the person on the street (who 9 times out of 10 will be a tourist) whether or not they'd want to hear some snarky hot topic info on Richard Peck, I suspect the answer would run along the lines of "not so much".


So instead I am a children's librarian. Still, I'm keeping my Louella Parsons Project (ho ho) in the back of my mind as a possible alterative career. There it will sit next to my We-Need-To-Revolutionize-Children's-Television Plan. But that's a rant for another day.

Review of the Day: Inkspell

Amazon hasn't gotten around to publishing this one yet. I posted it yesterday but they're dragging their feetsies. Methinks I may have gone over their supposed 1,000 word limit. They don't usually enforce that one very carefully (I think my rant over Dave Barry's Peter Pan spin-off was at least 1,100) but maybe they've finally caught up with me. If so, here at least is my Inkspell review in full firey off-color glory. I figure Cornelia Funke has so much money at this point that even if she sees my review and is deeply offended to her core, at least she'll be able to console herself by rolling around in crisp Euros for a couple hours to take her mind off of the experience:

Cornelia Funke is overrated. There, I’ve said it. The world has not ground to a halt. The sky has not fallen on my head. And large mobs of people haven’t appeared in the streets demanding my very blood (yet). Coming to power at the cusp of the Harry Potter era, Funke has always been billed as a kind of second-rate J.K. Rowling. She obviously hasn’t the writing chops (not to mention the sense of humor) but when I read, “Inkheart” all those years ago I couldn’t care less. Sure, it went on a little too long. There were chapters that could’ve used an editor and ideas that were more than a little familiar, but it was a truly enjoyable story and I loved it. Funke’s “The Thief Lord” breaks down once the merry-go-round makes an appearance and “Dragonrider” was just a hackneyed “Eragon” (which, in turn, was a hackneyed “Dragonriders of Pern” knock-off, but who’s counting?). But through it all I was convinced that Funke had something going for her since “Inkheart” was so very very splendid. Imagine my horror then when I tried to get through its sequel, “Inkspell”. As a reviewer of children’s books I very rarely have to fight the urge to keep reading. I mean, they’re books for kids after all! How hard could it be? Yet by page 75 of this book I bogged down and began to seriously consider never writing a review for it if it meant slogging through 550 more pages of over-emphasized dribble. Cornelia Funke is so popular and powerful at this moment in time that my little review of her book will merely be a single drop in the ocean of opinion (and not a popular one, by the looks of it). Still, after careful consideration and the painful experience of wasting my Sunday afternoon physically forcing myself to continue reading her book (punctuated by the occasional scream of, “Dribble!”), I can say with complete confidence that Funke has squandered whatever talent she once had. She can still create perfectly believable characters, sure.

When we last met our heroes… they had all escaped from the clutches of the insidious Capricorn and Meggie and Mo still retained their remarkable ability to read characters and objects out of books. As remarkable an ability as that might be, it is not a unique one. Dustfinger, the fire-eater brought to our world out of the pages of “Inkheart” and his faithful sidekick Farid have found a man to read them back into the pages of the book itself. When Dustfinger alone is sent back home, Farid follows him by convincing Meggie to read him there as well. Meggie not only does that, she reads herself in alongside him. Meggie’s parents follow soon thereafter and result is that the family has precisely what so many readers have tried to do over the years. They have become a part of The Inkworld and their very presence will change the story that exists.

Because I’ve always loved “Harry Potter” books I try not to blame them for very much. Just the same, there is one crime to which J.K. Rowling must be held accountable. The longer her books grew the more she encouraged second-rate competitors to write 500 to 600 page tomes of fantasy for children as well. The result is that a book like “Eragon” (a book in which the protagonist is recorded as waking up at the beginning of literally 20+ chapters) or “Inkspell”. What I have to assume here is that Funke has reached the point where she no longer takes advice from editors. So what happens as a result? We get chapter after chapter of Elinor pacing around her home and basement in impotence.

Let’s talk about the women in these books as well. For a writer who came up with the rather charming picture book, “The Princess Knight”, Funke is deathly afraid of strong female characters. I see I’ve raised some ire with that statement. I will explain. Please consider the three stereotypical kids of women in books. You have your maidens, your crones, and your motherly figures. It seems that “Inkspell” is enchanted with such stereotyping and does nothing to upset the balance. So our heroine is a maiden who never comes up with an original idea on her own to outsmart the villain. She leaves such thinking to men like Fenoglio or her own father (or even Dustfinger, to some extent). When she is allowed to think on her own she wreaks havoc by either crossing over into The Inkworld without letting anyone who loves her know or throws herself into the midst of danger because the parents she so callously abandoned are hurt. Motherly figures include her own mother Resa (who’s sole purpose is to tend to her husband and daughter and never express any original opinions of her own) or Dustfinger’s wife Roxane who (like most of the women in this book) dotes on her man and no one else. Crones include Mortola, who is as two-dimensional as that useless villain Basta. You might make an argument that Elinor does not fit this model. You might but she’s perhaps the most useless character of them all. Doing exactly what she did in “Inkheart” and never convincing her captors of anything new

Now let’s talk editing. We have three or four chapters where Orpheus does nothing but lounge about Elinor’s house waiting for the convenient moment in the plot where he will be sucked into the story. He has no plan and his lingering in Elinor’s home is not only lazy writing but confusing to boot. And it just lengthens an already intolerable piece. Now by the end of the book (spoiler alert for those who pay attention to such things) Meggie and her family decide to stay in the Inkworld. There’s a death warrant out on Mo’s head, the world has become more and more dangerous, most of the good guys are dead, and they decide to stay. Why? Because they find it enchanting. From what I can tell of Mo’s experiences he’s been shot, kept in a cave, taken to a dungeon, seen his wife and daughter put into mortal peril… but gosh darn look at all the pretty fairies! What a lovely place! Sorry but I’m not buying it and neither would anyone who knew how intent Mo is on protecting his family. Funke excels at creating believable characters. The new ones introduced here speak volumes while the old are consistent with their previously established personalities. All the more reason the ending is as implausible as it is.

Here’s what I found saddest about “Inkspell”: I think it could have been easily salvageable. It wouldn’t have been hard at all! Just editing, baby. Lots and lots of editing. Up the pace, make it exciting, and stop telling us for the fortieth time that it’s hard to read Dustfingers face or Resa is worried or Farid is jealous of Roxane. Farid and Dustfinger sneak into The Castle of Night, poke about a bit, accomplish nothing, and leave. Such chapters and experiences take up pages and pages of text and leave the story bobbing along a the sea of self-indulgence. Funke is just so overly pleased with herself that it was all I could do not to take the book and edit it myself out of spite. Perhaps if I had less of a life I would. That’d larn ‘em, eh?

If “Inkheart” and “Inkspell” were published in tandem today and Cornelia Funke, until this moment in time, was an unknown name, the first book would receive nothing but praise and the second nothing but boos. I’ll grant that the second section of any trilogy is always the hardest to write. “The Two Tower”, “The City of Gold and Lead”, etc. are always a bit slow and a bit plodding. Just the same, they usually aren’t unreadable. Now I was bored at page 75, yes. But I found that around page 385 the tale picked up a bit again. So here is my advice. If you really enjoyed “Inkheart” and would like nothing better than to continue to the adventure with “Inkspell”, don’t feel as if you are alone when you find yourself nodding off during the birthday celebration for the grandson of the prince. Just keep slogging through and eventually it will get a little better. Not good, of course. But definitely better. A disappointing sequel in a previously enchanting little series.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Review of the Day: Magic Beach

And you thought my Philip Nel post was just an act of idle speculation. Not so much, sweeties. Turns out I've been mighty interested in the man's work on "Magic Beach". It fell into my lap... but I'll hand you over to the review to explain that much...:

I've made a terrible mistake. Can there be such a thing as doing too much research on a children's book? It seems ridiculous, really. Especially since I write reviews for Amazon.com and not some high-falutin' literary journal like "Children's Literature In Education" or "The Lion and the Unicorn". When it came to the recent publication of Crockett Johnson's ridiculous and fascinating, "Magic Beach", however, I felt ill-prepared to review the puppy without a little background information on my side. Fortunately, this is one book with a pedigree that is easy to follow. From its famous (and long-dead) author to its Forward by Maurice Sendak to finally an Afterword by Crockett scholar Philip Nel, the story of how the book came to its present form is just as interesting as the tale it tells. The only problem now is that I almost feel I know too much about the title. With some difficulty I will try to parse what I know from what I think and hope it all comes out relatively coherant. This is by no means a book meant for children and one might wonder whether its existence as a purely historical document justifies such vast publication at all, but it certainly is an interesting little thing and a fairly nice read to boot.

Ann and Ben, two children, walk along a seashore from their cottage. Ann complains of boredom but Ben points out that stories are far more interesting when you go out and make them rather than stay inside and read them. In the course of their somewhat philosophical squabbling Ben happens to write the word "JAM" in the sand. A breaking wave floods the word and suddenly a silver dish full of jam appears by magic. Further experiments with "BREAD", "MILK", and "TREE" yield similar results. The children are now interested in the turn their day has taken and Ben reasons that if there is magic then this must be a magic kingdom. Ipso facto, a magic kingdom must be ruled by a king. Once Ben has written the word "KING" in the sand, however, the tale takes a turn towards the peculiar. The king, morose and unhelpful, speculates that the spell cast comes from the children themselves. Once they've created a kingdom in full and a horse with which to ride to his castle, the king insists that the children leave the kingdom proper. All too soon, however, the sea comes and swallows up the world the children created with just words in the sand. At the end, they stand on a sandbank and view the calm clear sea. Ann suggests that the story may be continuing sight unseen, "But Ben had his ear to the shell, and he was listening to the sea".

You know you're in trouble when you've read a book of 53 pages, pictures included, and you suddenly decide that you need to polish up on your Arthurian legends ("Fisher King" anyone?) as well as your T.S. Eliot. I'm a rather big fan of Ursula Nordstrom (original editor of Crockett Johnson) so I scanned the book, "Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom" for any reference to "Magic Beach" available. Unfortunately, such letters were not deemed particularly interesting by Leonard S. Marcus and I had to be content to rely on scholar Philip Nel for information regarding this book's history. According to his Afterword, Nordstrom did not feel that the book was written with children as its intended audience. As the Kirkus review of "Magic Beach" puts it so succinctly, "Johnson's editor Ursula Nordstrom didn't think this was a story for children. As in so much else, she was right -- but it does make a handsomely packaged artifact for adult readers of children's literature". This is why I hate to read professional reviews before writing my own on Amazon. Too often they say exactly what I would like to, only far far better.

Published by the truly eclectic publisher Front Street the book has been reproduced with Johnson's original illustrations. Of course, they weren't exactly polished when he set them down in the first place, never to return to them again. They're just the faintest of outlines on a brown paper background. Maurice Sendak prefers them in their "diamond-in-the-rough" form, though. "The sketches were intended only to show his editor the direction he meant to go in, but, for me, they are as finished as any illustrations he ever did. Only better". Which is why, ladies and gentlemen, we do not allow artists full license over the works of their contemporaries. The pictures are certainly nice in a this-is-how-an-artist-works process. Just don't go thinking that had Johnson included (oh, I dunno) color they wouldn't have been preferable. And to present them in this original outline is to basically tell your readers: For adults only. Children were not the focus of the original tale and they are certainly not the focus of it now. Still, in the Oct. 13, 2005 edition of Publisher's Weekly, editor Stephen Roxburgh had this to say of the galleys: "It was not broken, so we did not fix it". All well and good though I didn't know if I could completely agree with his statement that, "children even more than adults appreciate 'the richness, fullness, gradations and subtleties' of book illustration". Hence doing away with that richness altogether? Confoosing to say the least.

Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence in the midst of all this information is the fact that "Magic Beach" WAS published in 1965 as "Castles In the Sand". The illustrations were drawn not by the great man himself but rather by one Ms. Betty Fraser. I have not seen "Castles In the Sand" myself (though I was sorely tempted to buy a copy from EBay for the sole purpose of this particular review) but if Fraser's work in other areas is any indication, the book must've been a violent departure from Crockett's original vision. The fact that tracking down a copy of "Castles In the Sand" is as difficult as it is speaks volumes about how unremarkable it was. And call "Magic Beach" what you will, it is not unremarkable. I know that I've complained and caterwauled over authorial/editorial/Sendakian intent till I was blue in the face but when it comes down to it, I liked this book. I liked the story. I liked Johnson's method and what he was saying with a title that, in many ways, was a kind of anti-"Harold and the Purple Crayon". Instead of creating a world (which they do initially) our boy and girl heroes create AND destroy it in one fell swoop. And who is to say that any of it was real after all? Harold has the comfort of crawling into a bed he has drawn himself. Ann and Ben are left only with seashell and a potentially drowned monarch.

I would not hand "Magic Beach" to the child that is far more attuned to the equally misleadingly simple, "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus", but there is no denying that some kids would get a lot out of this tale. In any case, it's certainly a picture book for grown-ups, and I recommend it to them without hesitation. Lovely, curious, and cruel. A wonderful experience for those who chance upon it.