Friday, October 31, 2008

Space Boy by Leo Landry

Space Boy is...a little spacey

Nicholas is off to bed...but it's just too noisy! So he climbs into his spaceship and takes a little pre-bedtime trip to the moon. After he's explored a little and had his picnic, he remembers the things he likes about home....and returns to a quiet house.

The illustrations are minimal and complement the simple text and matter-of-fact story style. This is a nice, peaceful story to read before bed - or to anyone who's ever dreamed of having a rocket.

There's just two little problems....The first sentence is "The moon shined brightly as Nicholas readied for bed." Huh? Are we talking the same language here? Seems to me it should be "shone". And who readies for bed?

Second little problem...the moon is a sort of sandy orange. Maybe to reinforce Nicholas' comparison to the beach but's always been my understanding that the moon is gray.

It's still an ok story, but those two little things really threw me....

Verdict: An additional purchase, too meh to recommend or say definitely cross out.

ISBN: 978-0618605682; Published September 2007 by Houghton Mifflin; Borrowed from the library

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Twelve Dancing Princesses and Other Fairy Tales by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, illustrated by Kay Nielsen

The original title (In Powder and Crinoline) describes this collection very well – the stories are written in an elegant and very formal style and the illustrations show the characters in extravagant ball gowns and elaborate hairstyles. This is not a scholarly collection; aside from the introduction by the editor which is mostly biographical information about Quiller-Couch and Nielsen, there is no background or source notes given for the tales in the collection.

This collection is designed to be read aloud to someone who can appreciate the elegant language and sly humor. The illustrations are integral to the Romantic nature of the text and heighten the touches of absurdity in the tales. There are twenty-four exquisite plates, but they are set in groups throughout the collection, so unless you want to flip back and forth this is not a good selection for a large group.

 I would recommend this for private enjoyment or to share with a small group of children – no more than five. Since much of the stories’ charm depends on the language, to tell them aloud you will need to spend extensive time practicing to be sure you can duplicate the feel of the text. This would be a good choice for a small storytelling/read-aloud with 8-12s who will enjoy the extravagant language or for high school students who have been studying the Romantic period in literature and enjoy Wilde and Nielsen. Caution if you are not familiar with Nielsen – there are several naked people in the illustrations, so consider your audience.

A brief excerpt: “The first thing she did on entering her room was to pick up the cabbage and throw it out of the window. But she was very much astonished, as she threw it, to hear a voice cry out—and seemingly from the heart of the cabbage—‘Oh dear, dear, dear! This will be the death of me!’—because in a general way cabbages do not speak.”

A few of the exquisite illustrations:

Verdict: A title for collectors, as there will be little call for it in the library, but if you are a fairy tale fan, this is a must-have.

ISBN: 0-517-67584-6; Published in 1988 by Portland House (originally titled In Powder and Crinoline and published in 1913) (currently out of print); Reviewed from and purchased for my personal collection

Friday, October 24, 2008

Mama and Little Joe by Angela McAllister, illustrated by Terry Milne

The velveteen kangaroo.

This charming picture book could easily be a Velveteen Rabbit for the younger crowd. Mama Ruby and Little Joe, two stuffed kangaroos, arrive at their new home, ready to fit in. But the new toys are stuck-up and unkind. "You mean you're secondhand?"...."We're tenth-hand!"

Mama and Little Joe are kind and helpful anyways....and when Little Joe is in trouble, the other animals discover what it means to have heart - something more important than fine stuffing.

The art is warm and cozy, just right for a feel-good story of love and happy endings.

Verdict: Not a required purchase, but a fresh alternative to the glut of overly sentimental gush that shows up in picture books. A nice theme without being overly didactic, and a nice story for a stuffed animal storytime.

ISBN: 978-0689872433; Published September 2006 by Simon & Schuster (out of print); Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Bearskinner: A Tale of the Brothers Grimm retold by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Max Grafe

According to the jacket blurb, this is "an eerie and haunting tale about the subtle but persistent struggle between the two sides of ourselves, and the heroic strength it takes to claim a victory." The reteller, Laura Amy Schlitz, says "I went in search of a story that would tell students that no matter how bad things get, you hold on."

Now, in case you're not familiar with it, the original Grimm story is a bit different than this retelling. In the original, a soldier comes home from the wars with no skills of use. His brothers kick him out, and he wanders off, finally sitting down on a hill and resigning himself to starvation. The devil appears and offers him a bargain - if he wears the skin of a bear he's just shot, doesn't bathe or cut his hair for seven years, and won't say the Lord's Prayer, he'll be rich the rest of his life. If he breaks the deal, he belongs to the devil. The soldier agrees, and off he goes. Of course, after a few years he's a filthy monster, but people tolerate him because of his wealth. One night, he meets an old man in an inn. The man's fortune has declined and he's impoverished. Bearskin pays his debts and the man offers him one of his daughters in marriage in exchange. The two older girls are horrified, but the youngest agrees to honor her father's promise. For three more years, Bearskin roams the world, doing good and asking people to pray for him. He wins his bargain and returns wealthy (and clean). The two older girls don't recognize him and are all over him now - but he spurns them and takes the faithful youngest daughter. The two older girls commit suicide, and the devil takes their souls.

In this retelling, the soldier returns from war to devastation. His family is gone and he has no hope. After he agrees to the devil's bargain (which cuts him off from all prayer), he cycles deeper and deeper into despair, until one day he helps a beggar and she prays for him. He realizes there is hope yet, and he begins to use his wealth to help others, asking them to pray for him. Eventually, he pays the debts of a gambler, who promises one of his daughters. The middle daughter says she believes Bearskin has a "good heart" and promises to be his wife. After Bearskin wins his bargain, he returns and claims his faithful bride.

The artwork is dark and filled with half-seen patterns and the pages around the text have a look of parchment. Each illustration is done in shades of black, gray, and brown, with the devil's green coat and the yellow and white butterflies, representing the prayers of the poor, the only lighter colors. The spread showing the cleansed Bearskin greeting his bride is in warm golden-browns and the final page shows the raging devil in black and greens.

I differ a bit in my view of this little-known Grimm story from both the blurb and the author. The original tale isn't especially strong on morals, except for not judging by appearances. However, in this retelling, I see a story of redemption. The soldier is without hope or family and has no reason to live when he accepts a deal with the devil. However, as he sinks deeper and deeper into a morass of despair, he discovers hope. Eventually, he is reborn through the removal of his filthy coat, showing the kind and generous person he has become underneath. I guess it still has a "don't judge by appearances" moral too.

Verdict: This isn't a casual read for younger children, but a story for discussion and re-reading with an older group.

ISBN: 978-0763627300; Published October 2007 by Candlewick; Borrowed from the library; Added to my personal wishlist

Friday, October 17, 2008

Baba Yaga and the Wise Doll retold by Oram Hiawyn, illustrated by Ruth Brown

I think this may well become one of my favorite Baba Yaga retellings. Baba Yaga, a magnificently ugly and frightening witch lives with her jeweled toads. And one day, Horrid and Very Horrid push Too Nice out into the woods to bring them back one of Baba Yaga's toads. With the help of her magic doll, a gift from her dead mother, Too Nice escapes Baba Yaga and wins a toad...who promptly swallows Horrid and Very Horrid. And from then on, Too Nice becomes..."Just About Right."

The images of Horrid and Very Horrid are very similar to Too Nice - a little psychology here? Ruth Brown's illustrations are, as always, gorgeous. Lush earth colors and textures, set with sparkling jewels of color. Plus, this is the best reason for Baba Yaga's existence in any of the Baba Yaga tales....'"You are truly terrifying," her trusty toads told her. "I hope so," said Baba Yaga. "That's what I'm here for!"

Verdict: Sadly, this lovely edition is out of print. Hopefully you already have it on your library shelves; if not, it's worth adding to your personal collection.

ISBN: 978-0525459477; Published February 1998 by Dutton; Borrowed from the library; Added to my private wishlist

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

For Me? by Harmen van Straaten

For Me? Isn't for me.

Harmen van Straaten's Duck's Tale was a lovely book - engaging illustrations, a charming story, and a perfect ending. But For Me? just doesn't come up to the standard.

One day, Duck hears a knock at the door. Opening it, he finds a rose and an envelope with a heart. When he goes to visit his friends, he discovers they've all received the same thing. They argue about who "she" loves, then decide to pull the petals off a rose, "whoever picks the last petal is the one she loves." There are only a few petals left when....a little mole appears. Turns out, he's just shy and trying to make friends, and they all go off in the boat.

There are a few moments of goofy silliness, such as when they argue about who's in love, and the illustrations are the same lovely ones as in Duck's Tale, but this story just...falls flat. The different animals aren't separate personalities, as they are in Duck's Tale, and Duck himself has lost the charm of the earlier story.

Verdict: This is still a lovely book, although it pales in comparison with the first. A sweet and gentle read for Valentine's Day or "new friends" storytimes, but an additional purchase.

ISBN: 978-0735821637; Published December 2007 by North-South; Borrowed from the library

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Little Wood Duck by Brian Wildsmith

The Little Wood Duck is one of my favorite of Brian Wildsmith's many lovely picturebooks. The animals are perfect, the striped chipmunks, squirrels, speckled mother duck, and and her fuzzy ducklings swirl through a world of greens and browns with flowers like pompoms popping up beside them and cut-paper butterflies shimmering through the air.

But the writing....agh. Summary: Mother duck is very proud when all six of her eggs hatch. But one duckling only swims in circles. Everyone teases him. An owl flies by and points out that he has one foot larger than the other, causing him swim in circles. "About a week later" a hungry fox appears to attack the ducklings. They all hide in the reeds, except the youngest wood duck (Did I mention he was the youngest?). As he continues to swim in circles, the fox grows dizzy and "falls flat on his back." The ducklings are saved and they never tease their youngest brother again.

Um. Why doesn't his mother defend him when not only his siblings but every other animal is teasing him? A week goes by after the owl defends him (and why didn't the owl eat him?) and before the fox comes...did the owl's defense make the others stop teasing him? If not, then why do we need the whole owl portion of the plot (other than to see Wildsmith's cool owl - like an elaborately painted fence post). And the language is just....blah. "Young fellow?"

I would add this book to my pile of picturebooks from which I cut the text and retain the illustrations for artwork to adorn my walls.

Ooh, and the best picture is the spread with the lonely little duck, water swirling in circles around him, next to a stand of reeds bespangled with butterflies and tiny birds.

Verdict: Lovely illustrations, blah text. If you have fans of Wildsmith, it's worth getting this one, otherwise it's a good book for a private collection.

ISBN: 978-1595720429; Published January 2007 by Star Bright Books (reprint edition); Borrowed from the library; Added to my personal wishlist

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Melting Stones by Tamora Pierce

In which Evvy has her own adventures and everyone yells at her...

I tried last year to listen to the audiobook, but it just didn't work for me. Although I did really like the audio of Terrier, the voices on this one just felt wrong. However, I am not in general a big fan of audiobooks, so don't take my word as law.

This is the story of Evvy on her own (well, with Rosethorn), a very active volcano, and the choices Evvy makes about her life. I don't think it's quite as good as the other Circle books - the characters are a little flatter, and it felt like an inordinate amount of the book was focused on Evvy's interaction with the rocks, volcano spirits, etc. I think first person narration worked better in Terrier but in this story it leaves out a lot of information. However, as the book was written to be an audiobook, it probably worked much better in that format.

My only quibble is that I think Evvy got a raw deal. She's had a generally traumatic life, finishing up with a very nasty war in which she was tortured and her cats - the only thing remaining from her life before Rosethorn and Briar found her - are killed. Half of her "family" has left and she is stuck with Rosethorn, who is not anybody's idea of maternal or comforting. She is extremely miserable most of the ocean journey, because she is cut off from stones. She is forced to put up with Rosethorn's nasty companion, who not only fusses over her, discounts her experiences, and is stuck-up, he also says some extremely nasty things about her as a street orphan, she'll get kicked out eventually, etc.

Then, when she yells at a six-year old who is bothering her while she is trying to do some complex magic, this is obviously evidence that she is on the path to being a "destroyer", never mind the fact that another girl, Nory, yells at everyone and this is just evidence that she's hot-tempered.

Evvy stops the Volcano, nearly dies, and everyone, herself included, still feel she has to "atone." For yelling at the six-year old who then runs away.

Poor Evvy. Now, I don't say that Rosethorn's advice to her, based on her general attitude and behavior toward people, is uncalled for. But everyone's reaction to her yelling at a six-year old, who then does something stupid and disobedient is waaay over the line, imho.

Verdict: If you have fans of the Circle of Magic, you'll want to add this title. It's not a strong stand-alone, in my opinion, so if your Pierce fans prefer Tortall, I would skip this one

ISBN: 978-0545052641; Published October 2008 by Scholastic; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Monday, October 6, 2008

Tommysaurus Rex by Doug TenNapel

I can't make up my mind about this graphic novel. Oh, not about the quality - it's good - but where one would put it in the library.

It's about a boy whose dog is tragically killed. He's going through a rough time just with growing pains anyways, and his parents send him off to his grandpa's farm for the summer. There he meets a nasty bully and makes a marvelous discovery; a tyrannosaurus rex. A live one. At first, the townspeople are terrified, but Ely manages to tame the t. rex, until the bully does something horrible and tragedy ensues. However, there's hope and forgiveness at the end.

There's a lot of layers throughout this story, from the title to the various connections of the characters. There's a couple iffy moments for a younger audience - the grandfather tells the parents to "Go have some sex! Call me when summer's over!" and gives Ely a bottle of beer - which turns out to have been refilled with root beer (yeah, it sounds trivial, but believe me, people will squawk).

Verdict: What's most doubtful to me is where exactly to put this. There's a lot of painful emotions throughout this story and underneath the adventure, gore, and wacky jokes, it's all about growing up and learning to be a man. But it's got all that wackiness on top. So juvenile or ya? Who is the audience for this comic? What do you think?
ISBN: 978-1582403953; Published August 2004 by Image Comics; Borrowed from the library

Saturday, October 4, 2008

First School Visits!

My first school visits/library tours have come and gone! I had 3 groups of about 20 2nd graders. We toured the library, I explained the Dewey Decimal system, and we finished up with storytime. Best moments...the last group was a little wiggly (they had just come from the bank) but also very enthusiastic! I had to peel several small boys off the Star Wars books, head off groups desperate to see exactly which series we had (did we have their favorite?) and they were rolling around on the floor with laughter when I read Chester's Back! by Melanie Watt. The first of many to come!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Mondays at Monster School by Ruth Louise Symes, illustrated by Rosie Reeve

Fred, a small monster who looks rather like a fuzzy fox with spikes, is looking forward to going to school for the first time. Until it's actually time to go....when he changes his mind. His parents try to convince him with lists of all the fun things they do at school - mud splashing, howling and growling, etc. Nothing works. Until Ted's mom shows up - Ted doesn't want to go to school either, but Fred convinces him and they set off together. School turns out to be just as fun as their parents said - mud splashing, howling and growling, slime painting and so on. At the end of the day, they love school and can't wait to go back. The picture are cheerful colors and show very un-scary monsters.

I detest books like this. They sentimentalize school - especially a child's first days at school. There's no getting lost, no mean kids, basically no worries after they get over their initial nerves. And school is fun! All their favorite things! Unless, of course, you are a wiggly little kid who doesn't like sitting still for long periods of time, marching in line, constantly being told to be quiet, and being moved from activity to activity when the teacher decrees, rather than when you're finished or have actually learned what you're suppposed to. For some kids, of course, their school experience is good. For others its mediocre. For some kids it's sheer misery.

Which is why I hate sickly sweet picture books like this. Urrgh.

Verdict: Parents, in general, will love this book. I detest sentimentalized stories. If you can stomach yet another sweety-sweety book, go ahead and add it. We give them what we want, not what we think they should want.

ISBN: 978-1842551264; Published August 2007 by Orion (out of print, to my great pleasure); Borrowed from the library

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The tickle monster is coming by James Otis Thach, illustrated by David Barneda

This should be a very cute book. It's all about the tickle monster, who comes at bedtime. Here he comes! You can't get away! It has cute little orange creatures with green dots. It has wiggling and giggling!

I thought it was extremely creepy.

The whole trend of the narrative is toward "you can't get away" and "he's coming, he's coming". But, we NEVER SEE HIM. Yes, it does show the little boy/orange creature leaping in delight and giggling, but that same spread says "squealing and laughter - that's just what he's after, and that's only where it begins!"

What happens afterward?

Plus, although the shadow matches the little boy's head, so it presumably is his same species, it doesn't seem to be a parent, because it comes from "the great Giggle Mountain, in a cave that's as dark as a tomb". This spread shows a volcano and a flight of nasty-looking bats.

In short, this is a misguided attempt to combine bedtime tickling with the "monsters aren't scary" motif. I'd give it to small children who like scary books, but I won't be including it in any bedtime storytimes.

Verdict: Too scary for sensitive kids, too childish for kids who like scary books. Give it a miss.

ISBN: 978-1599900117; Published September 2008 by Bloomsbury; Borrowed from the library