Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen, retold by Stephen Mitchell, Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

This is a lovely book.

Mitchell's retelling retains Andersen's style and flavor while making the tale accessible to modern readers. And the illustrations, oh the illustrations! They're not only gorgeous paintings, with lush colors and exquisite detail, but there are fascinating patterns in all the surfaces, most strongly shown in the lace-like patterns of the ugly duckling, which gradually change into the elegant loops and swirls of a swan. I'm going to sit down and read it again right now.

Verdict: You've probably got several editions and versions of The Ugly Duckling, but this one is so lovely, it's worth adding no matter how many you already have!

ISBN: 978-0763621599; Published December 2007 by Candlewick; Borrowed from the library; Added to my personal wishlist

Friday, July 25, 2008

Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek by Evelyn Sibley Lampman, illustrated by Herbert Buel

I had high hopes of putting this into my growing "small town adventures" collection. Cheerful, often humorous stories of life in small towns, especially in the mid-twentieth century and often involving mysteries. My collection includes such gems as the works of Elizabeth Enright, Donald Sobol, Keith Robertson, and many more.

Sadly, Ms. Lampman will not be joining the ranks. On the surface, this is a good candidate - even sounds a bit like the classic Enormous Egg. Two children, living on their mother's newly inherited ranch, are worried about money problems, which may force them to move back to town. When a professor shows up to hunt for dinosaur bones, they have high hopes of getting enough money to enable them to stay. Then they discover a real, live stegosaurus. Who talks. English. Things move on from there, including a rough diamond pilot, seemingly inoffensive bank robber, and the bones of Eohippus, the prehistoric horse.

There are several serious flaws in this story. First, the children, especially Joey, are money-grubbing, selfish opportunists, who continually persist in trying to use George, the stegosaurus, throughout the story. Although their concern about money is understandable, it's not justification for their icky behavior. Plus, having lived in the southwest myself, I find it difficult to understand why they would want to live on an isolated, drought-ridden ranch merely because "It was fun living in the country by themselves....There was the tumbling old barn to live in, and it was a contest against the weather to coax the garden to grow. There were strange insects, and every once in a while they caught a glimpse of a jack rabbit..."

The most serious flaw is....George. Why on earth should a stegosaurus be able to talk English? If he's isolated enough to think a car is a dinosaur and a plane is a Pterodactyl, how does he know that A. the children are harmless, B. they talk English? Any little inconsistencies are explained away by his lugubrious voice, "that was instinct" or "I know I'm stupid."

Presumably, after inadvertently wrecking his home and leaving the children in possession of the reward for catching the bank robbers, payment for various boarders, reward for finding Eohippus, and eventually money for the ranch which will be near the new dam (a glut which should satisfy even their greedy little hearts) George at some point returns in the sequel.

However, I think he should have died a natural death. Long, long, ago.

Verdict: Collectors may be interested in this title, but those who read older fiction for pleasure should give it a miss.

ISBN: N/A; Published 1955 by Doubleday (there is a reprint edition currently in print from Purple House Press); Borrowed from the library

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Last Gold Diggers by Harry Horse

This should have been a very cute, funny, and possibly interesting book. Plus, it's epistolary, which is a favorite genre of mine.

Unfortunately, it is not any of those things, except for epistolary.

I am deeply relieved that I changed my mind at the last minute and didn't purchase it for the library. Phew!

Surface plot: intrepid grandfather sets out with his quirky dog, Roo, on various adventures. He chronicles these adventures by writing letters to his grandchild. Sounds good, no?


The plot would better have been summarized thus: Slightly batty old man sets out with complaining/boastful small dog on insane adventures. Problems immediately arise. Problems increase. Things get worse. Grandfather does not think he will make it, and writes grim letters home to grandchild, hoping someone will find and mail the letters after his death. (he addresses his grandchild as "Child" btw). Miraculously, fantastic events save the day, usually involving talking animals.

There are several possible solutions:
A. He ended up in a mental hospital after the first adventure and is now imagining things.
B. He was in a mental hospital to start with.
C. In this particular book, he drank some bad water and that's why all the animals can talk and he's suddenly got a sheep fixing his golf cart.

In any case, the melancholic air that pervades these books is not, to put it mildly, what I would recommend for any but the most cheerful reader. And if you're a cheerful reader, why would you want to read this?

Verdict: Many people seem to like these books, but I simply cannot get past the gentle spiral into despair that I travel when I read these. The vocabulary and sentence structure seems a little too advanced for the audience as well. Not recommended.

ISBN: 978-1561454358; Published April 2008 by Peachtree; Borrowed from the library

Saturday, July 19, 2008

My wonderful library patrons

A brief moment to adore my library patrons. It seems to be the fashion nowadays to spend a large portion of listservs, gatherings, what have you either A. bewailing your weird/rude/criminal/selfish/unpleasant patrons or B. loudly proclaiming your dedication to all patrons and intellectual freedom in such a way that we know you're really thinking how weird/rude/criminal/selfish/unpleasant your patrons are but, by golly, you have principles and you're going to grit your teeth and SERVE THEM! Well, I've had my share of weird/rude/criminal/selfish/unpleasant patrons.....BUT

The parents and kids at my library are lovely. Really. And do you know why? Almost every day, there's a parent encouraging their child to ask me a question, so they learn about the library. People apologize when their cell phones go off in storytime and hastily turn them off. They come in quietly when they're late. They watch their children while they're at the computer. And, the biggie, THEY CLEAN UP AFTER THEMSELVES. After all the horror stories of trashed children's areas, and having been in some libraries like that, I am still fascinated to see what happens every day in our children's corner, where just a few weeks ago I put out lots of new puzzles and games. I see parents playing go fish with their kids, and helping them put the cards away. Kids carefully restacking the puzzles. Parents reminding kids to pick up the books they're done with. Kids picking up the huge dinosaur floor puzzle. The only thing I've done in the children's area to tidy is move our bead toy to the side of the room. Everything else is already done!

I have the best children's area patrons EVER!!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Trouble with wishes by Diane Stanley

This is a sort of retelling of Pygmalion. But I think it's really a re-hash of the worst movie/book plot of all time - the plain girl and the oblivious jerk.

We have: A plain girl (named Jane no less and a brunette of course) who really likes a guy. We have the oblivious guy who is really talented and cool and desirable (not sure why, as his statues don't look as good in the illustrations as they're described in the text). In one slight variation from the cliched plot, Jane serves his every whim to learn how to sculpt, not because she's in luuurrrve.

He makes a "perfect" sculpture of a goddess and falls in love (this is the Pygmalion part) and it comes to life. It is, of course, a blonde. She only cares about her appearance and is totally selfish. All Pygmalion's devotion is wasted and he returns to his faithful Jane, who has sculpted a faithful friend, namely a dog. Now if she'd just stuck with the dog and kicked out the aptly named "Pyg"....

Verdict: Kids are unlikely to know the Pygmalion myth and this fractured retelling isn't particularly interesting. I would pass it if Jane had served Pygmalion to learn how to sculpt and then went on her way, but having her fall in love with a self-obsessed jerk adds nothing to the story, other than irritating the adult reader.

ISBN: 0060554525; Published January 2007 by HarperCollins; Borrowed from the library

Monday, July 14, 2008

King George : What was his problem? by Steve Sheinkin

Although the book's title is somewhat misleading, this is an intriguing look at the American Revolution. While there is very little information about King George, and few of the quirky anecdotes one is led to expect from the publisher's upbeat flap copy, the story of the American war for independence is told in a fresh, entertaining style.

Sheinkin covers the war from beginning to end, then finishes the story with a list of what happened to various key characters. The story is divided up into short chapters and sections, great for holding short attention spans or just browsing through. The language is simple, but not dumbed-down. The story is peppered with first-hand accounts and short quotations, and is heavy on the battles and light on the politics. An excellent overview for reluctant readers or those looking for a more interesting American Revolution history than they find in their textbooks.

Verdict: I buy very little history for the nonfiction section, but this is a must have for kids studying the American Revolution, homeschoolers, or kids interested in history (I've met TWO so there are probably a couple more out there, right?) Recommended.

ISBN: 978-1596435186; Published May 2008 by Flashpoint; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Friday, July 11, 2008

Duck's Tale by Harmen van Straaten

This is a lovely story with engaging illustrations. First, it is a North-South book, and I have always found their picturebooks intriguing. This particular gem is the story within a story of Duck. He finds a pen and then wanders over to Toad's house to see if he wants to go boating. But Toad has found a pair of glasses and is busy "reading." Duck can't find Hedgehog and Otter, so he thinks "If Toad can read because he has glasses, then I must be able to write because I have a pen!" Duck writes everything he knows about himself - and who better to read it than Toad? Toad creates Duck's Tale - a poignant story of friendship - and promises to "read" any more adventures Duck writes.

I am guessing the medium is watercolor and ink (yeah, yeah, I don't know much about art). The pictures are warm and soft, but the animals have cheerful colors and quirky notes; each has a piece of clothing (except Hedgehog, who apparently only wears his scarf in winter) Duck has a hat, Toad a vest and Otter a scarf.
This is a story of friendship and summer, of imagination and art.

Verdict: A warm story of friendship and an imaginative tale of writing. Recommended - it's worth finding a lightly used copy for your personal or library collection.

ISBN: 978-0735821330; Published March 2007 by North-South (out of print); Borrowed from the library; Added to my personal wishlist

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Rubber-Legged Ducky by John G. Keller, illustrated by Henry Cole

Yet another story where good intentions outweigh the plot. The illustrations are colorful and humorous, and the different ducklings are especially well-drawn, with slight differences to tell them apart and give them personality. It would have been a great wordless book. Unfortunately, it's not.

Summary: When a mother duck hatches her ducklings after eating a rubber band, one duckling has a rubber-band-like leg. She tells him he is her "special ducky" and can do "special, wonderful things". The other little ducklings are perfectly okay with this and enjoy all the special things Five can do. But the other barnyard animals make fun of Five. Until a fox comes and Five saves the day. Sort of.

Actually, all he does is wack the fox in the nose, it's the farmer who saves the day. And the fox could just as easily have eaten the entire duckling - after all, Five's mother ate a rubber band, why should foxes be pickier? And it's unrealistic that the animals all of a sudden realize how special he is! And they all love him! And why do we care what the other animals think anyways!

In other words, the moral of the story is, if you're different you won't be happy until everyone likes you, and everyone will like you when you do something special.

Too bad it wasn't wordless.

Verdict: This was a briefly talked about title that, thankfully, quickly fell out of vogue. Give it a miss.

ISBN: 0152052895; Published April 2008 by Harcourt; Borrowed from the library

Monday, July 7, 2008

What to do about Alice by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

The sub-title reads: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World and Drove her Father Teddy Crazy.

Unfortunately, it doesn't really describe the book. Her chief rule-breaking seems to be riding bicycles and then driving cars too fast. Although a few "scandalous" things are briefly mentioned, like betting or dancing, Alice just isn't very....charming. She comes across as a spoiled, greedy, and wild girl who turns into a....big surprise, greedy and wild woman. The author's note is more informative about her life than the entire book.

That being said, the pictures are exuberant and lovely. Interestingly, Alice's eyes are always looking away, backwards, or slyly tilted, possibly an interesting view of her life, where much of her political work was carried on behind the scenes, despite her wild social life.

Verdict: The illustrations make this worth purchasing IF you have an audience for picture book biographies at your library. I don't - can't get anyone to check the things out even if I beg on bended knee.

ISBN: 978-0439922319; Published March 2008 by Scholastic; Borrowed from the library

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald & Anne MacDonald Canham, Illustrated by Anne Boiger

Sad but true, sequels to beloved stories, written or finished by someone else, are rarely good. Of course, there are exceptions. Ruth Plumly Thompson, a truly Ozzy writer, Brad Strickland, finishing and continuing John Bellairs work....

Unfortunately, this is not one of those exceptions. Anne Canham says she found an unpublished Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle story plus notes for more among her mother's possessions after she died. Some of the stories have authentic elements, but for the most part I was disappointed. "The Just-One-More-TV-Show Cure" is probably the unpublished story. The description of the shows indicates an older generation of television shows and the cure is vintage Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle - give them what they want until they're sick of it (not a cure I ever thought practical - Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle never met MY siblings). "The Won't-Brush-Teeth Cure" has good details - I love the description of Betsy's mossy teeth, but the story ends rather abruptly. The abrupt ending is characteristic of most of the stories here, possibly Ms. Canham ran out of ideas to fully complete the stories?

But the most problematic is the child's reaction at the end of several of the stories. They're positively didactic "I'm sorry I've been such a picky eater. From now on, I'll eat whatever you and Mom want." "I can't find a thing and I'm tired of living in this big mess and sleeping on the floor." These sound like what parents would like their children to say - or what an adult would say. In the original Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories, the children gradually change and often either don't realize their behavior has been modified or think back on their unsocial behavior as something they did when they were much younger.

The final story is a party extravaganza, and tries vainly to imitate the treasure hunt in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic. Unfortunately, the parents' lavish gifts are unbelievable and the treasure - seeds and a tree house - is just boring. I prefer to think of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle out on her farm in some nearby but unreachable town, still passing out cures to unsuspecting children.

Verdict: Replace your worn out Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books as needed and pass by this title. It's really unnecessary.

ISBN: 978-0060728120; Published September 2007 by HarperCollins; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library (but not by me!)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Playing with Fire by Derek Landy

Skulduggery Pleasant, living skeleton, elemental mage, and private detective, is back!  With the help of his new apprentice, Stephanie Edgley aka Valkyrie Cain, the good guys will save the world, and the bad guys will be destroyed, making highly inferior jokes on the way down. This story is so perfect, I'm not sure where to start. It's non-stop action from beginning to end, peppered with Skulduggery's signature wit and Valkyrie's exuberant spirit. Once again, the world is saved....for the moment. There are delicious little hints for the next sequel. Who is Billy-Ray Sanguine? Will the Faceless Ones return? What is Valkyrie's reflection self hiding from her? Valkyrie is developing her own style as she discovers fascinating new aspects of the magical world she has discovered. Tanith, China Sorrows, Mr. Bliss, all our old friends are back.....
  • How to train an apprentice:
“Was it a test?” she asked. “I mean, I know I’m still new at this, I’m still the rookie. Did you hang back to test me, to see if I’d be able to handle it alone?”
“Well, kind of,” he said. “Actually, no, nothing like that. My shoelace was untied. That’s why I was late. That’s why you were alone.”
“I could have been killed because you were tying your shoelace?”
“An untied shoelace can be dangerous,” he said. “I could have tripped.”
She stared at him. A moment dragged by.
“I’m joking,” he said at last.
She relaxed. “Really?”
“Absolutely. I would never have tripped. I’m far too graceful.”
  • Checking out the villain's lair:
“Anything suspicious?” Skulduggery asked.
“That depends. Are we treating ordinary walls as suspicious?”
“Not particularly.”
“Then I got nothing.”
  • Battle strategy:
“So that plan worked out well,” he said.
“Skulduggery, your entire plan consisted of, and I quote, ‘Let’s get up close and then see what happens.’”
“All the same,” he said, “I think the whole thing worked out rather beautifully.”

Verdict: A must have for every library. Skulduggery Pleasant is my go-to book for 6th graders, reluctant or voracious readers, doesn't matter. I recommend paying a little extra and purchasing the later volumes from Book Depository as it's confusing and difficult to get the US editions.

ISBN: 978-0061240881; Published May 2008 by HarperCollins; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library and for my personal collection