31 December 2007

Book of the Year--The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Harry Potter got all the attention, but The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick is the title that, in my opinion, has revolutionized not just books, but the process of reading itself. Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book, is of a similar opinion, and his word counts for a lot more than mine. I grabbed "Invention" to investigate the hype (for it came with plenty) and was simply blown away by its scope, ambition, and achievement. It tells the story of Hugo Cabret, an orphan, who has been secretly keeping the clocks of a French railway station running on time since the disappearance of his uncle, the current clock-keeper. His most prized possession is a diary of drawings which he found among his dad's possessions when he died. Hugo's interest in the drawings, which feature unbelievable automatons, leads him to a toymaker with a background shrouded in mystery. The book, as well as the story, is steeped in the history of the early days of motion pictures. I know quite a bit about the early history of film (thanks to all those Klaus classes,) so reading a story which deals with the subject was fun in and of itself. But what truly amazed me as I read, was how my brain adjusted to the switch between text and images, to the extent that I was learning a new way of reading while I read. As the book progressed I could predict whether each turn of the page would reveal text or image, because I was so completely a part of the flow of the story. When I closed the cover, I was almost stunned by the experience, in the same way that I was stunned as a first grader when I realized that the print on a page finally made sense. Truly, an outstanding book.

30 December 2007

Polar Bear Knut on CNN and Prosieben - Eisbär Knut

Bedtime Stories

Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World (Hatkoff, Juliana, Isabella and Craig and Dr. Gerald R. Uhlich)
The Adventures of Max and Pinky: Superheroes (Eaton, Maxwell III)

It takes a village to raise a child....and write a book, too, by the looks of it. But Knut is so gosh darn cute it seems churlish to complain. While Knut does not have the emotional cache of Owen and Mzee, the authors try to draw attention to the melting polar caps and the threat of polar bear extinction to give their photo tale some emotional umph. I guess it worked, because as soon as I read the line "Some scientists even believe polar bears could become extinct in our lifetime," my daughter screamed "NO!" I asked her if she knew what "extinct" meant. Well, 'no' to that, too. But clearly, it didn't sound nice. It probably made her think of "exterminate!" which is a familiar word to her, being part of the Dalek vernacular.

Max and Pinky are back in their second book (after The Adventures of Max and Pinky: Best Buds.) They have no problem deciding to be superheroes, but the designation of 'sidekick' causes all sorts of trouble. Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush never had that problem. I was also impressed to discover that Max and Pinky are on Facebook. How very tech savvy of them!

28 December 2007

Royal honors for Wilson and Hill

The Guardian reports that Brit children's authors Jacqueline Wilson and Eric Hill have been honored in this year's Queen's Honours List. Jacqueline Wilson has now earned the right to be called Dame. Eric Hill has been given an OBE (Order of the British Empire.) I'm not a big fan of Spot, but I think it's fantastic that a picture book creator has been recognized in such a way.

Honors to me, too; this is my 100th blog entry. Yay me!

25 December 2007

Merry Christmas!

Have a safe and peaceful Christmas. Read lots of good books!

24 December 2007

Book of the Week--We Were There

Christmas is here, and I present to you one of my favorite Christmas picture books. It's fairly recent, and I think it has probably flown under many radars. But that's okay, because that fits the message of the book. It's Eve Bunting's We Were There, and it tells the Nativity story from the point of view of the lowliest, ugliest, creatures of the dark--the scorpion, the snake, the bat, the toad, the spider, and (my personal favorite) the rat. While the beautiful sheep and cow and donkey stood by the glow of the Christ child, the forgotten creatures watch from the shadows. But they, too, followed the star, and they too worship. And of course, they are as precious to Him as the beautiful animals. The story is told in prose and is illustrated with outstanding paintings by Wendell Minor. This is a handsome, thoughtful reminder of why we celebrate Christmas in the first place.

20 December 2007

What I am Reading--Diary of a Wimpy Kid

I've heard so many great things about this book, that when I finally managed to get my hands on a copy, I grabbed it. (It's so popular at work that one copy was not enough. I bought a second copy, and I rarely see that one, either.) Books told in diary format (is there a word for that? Like 'epistolary' for stories told with letters?) are as old as the novel itself. But unlike those early books, Diary of a Wimpy Kid has its own website, where readers can follow the adventures of Greg Heffley (not all of which have appeared in the book.)

Anyway, "Diary" was not really what I expected. Perhaps I fell into the "it's got cartoons, it must be for younger kids" trap. I was certainly expecting a book for, say, grades 3-5. But this is a solid 6-9 book; the protagonist is in the 7th grade, and you can tell. Sometimes he's a jerk (like, say, a 7th grade boy,) and while there aren't too many puberty episodes, you can tell they are just over the horizon (probably in the follow up volume, Diary of a Wimpy Kid--Roderick Rules, due out in early 2008.) So while I was initially caught off guard when the book didn't meet my preconceived expectations, I fell into it's rhythm and quickly got my literary feet under me.

And now I know why the book has been such a big hit: it's wet-your-pants funny! I took great delight in recommending it to a colleague first thing this morning for her middle school son. She said he likes books that are "sophomoric". Well this is right up his alley then! "Diary" is at times sophomoric. But episodes like the description of the Cheese Touch--spot on! Middle School is so cruel. And, with hindsight, hilarious. How nice to be able to look at it from the other side.

18 December 2007

What I am Reading--The Daring Adventures of Penhaligon Brush

This attractive animal fantasy should appeal to readers who like swashbuckling and hedgehogs in waistcoats. Penhaligan Brush is a fox, bored by his life as an apothecary in a sleepy Cornish village, who goes to visit his adoptive badger brother in the coastal town of Porthlaven. There he stumbles upon a dastardly plot by the loathsome wrecker Sir Derek (not a nice cat) to lure a ship full of treasure to its demise on the craggy shores of the port. Ouch!

The book, by S. Jones Rogan, is beautifully illustrated by Christian Slade (he of the Korgi fame.) Having visited Cornwall on many occasions, there is much about this book that appeals to me and makes me wish that I was still living in England. I anticipate recommending this title to boys and girls alike.

12 December 2007

Bedtime Stories

Little Red Riding Hood (Pinkney, Jerry)
At Night (Bean, Jonathan)
Chilly Charlie (Rau, Dana Meredith)
Millie Waits for the Mail (Steffensmeier, Alexander)
Alligator Boy (Rylant, Cynthia and Diane Goode)

A fabulous bunch this evening! I've had my eye on Pinkney's Red Riding Hood since it made its way through Tech Services. It has a very Christmasy feel, with snow covered woods and cardinals to match the tell-tale hood. Pinkney has had a particularly stellar year, IMHO, with Little Red Hen and The All-I'll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll (which he illustrated) also seeing release in 2007.

But the stand out title for me tonight was Millie Waits for the Mail, about a cow who takes great delight in frightening the mail carrier each day. The unexpected canine behavior reminded me of My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World by Gilles Bachelet. And why is the cat so silly? Because he's an elephant! I love it when reality is thoroughly turned on its head, yet it still makes sense. And following up on yesterday's post about the success of translated books for children, I'd like to point out that both titles are imports: "Millie" from Germany and "Cat" from France.

I've been asked by a loyal reader (so nice to know you are there!) to keep a running list of all the picture books mentioned in this blog. Look for it in the new year.

11 December 2007

On my Radar--Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware

Who knew that The First State was so deadly?

Delaware has been lampooned before by M.T. Anderson ("The New York cheese cake tasted more like Delaware.") The third installment of M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales is set for an August 2008 release. Summer never seemed so far away....

Until then, why not revisit the first two volumes in the series: Whales on Stilts and The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen. You can read excerpts from "Whales" and "Lederhosen" here. Series fiction never had it so good.

Translated treasures

Recently, both the Guardian and Publisher's Weekly have run articles about the dearth of translated literature in the English speaking market. Sara Nelson, in her Op Ed piece for PW went so far as to say..."like moviegoers turned off by subtitles, most Americans would rather read about Americans in the American idiom. A function of fear or arrogance? You decide?"

I think that perhaps the deciding factor is neither fear nor arrogance, but perhaps it is more an issue of age. Children's Literature has a rich tradition of bona fide translated hits, from Pippi Longstocking to Tintin to Rainbow Fish to The Thief Lord. 2006 saw the release of the excellent Beyond Babar: The European Tradition in Children's Literature by Sandra L. Becket and Maria Nikolajeva (I particularly liked the chapter on Tove Jansen's Moomintrolls.) And over the past four to five years I have noticed some fantastic picture books coming out of the Far East (yes, it's not just Manga over there!) Writers from Japan and South Korea have created some gems that have no problem crossing the language divide. I've even had the dubious pleasure of reviewing some translated works that were, in my opinion, not worth the effort. But at least their presence shows that there is room for translated books in the Children's market. Children know a good story when they hear one, and it is nice to know that the prejudices which may affect adult literature are overcome for the younger readers.

Some titles of note---

Emily's Balloon (Sakai, Komako)
Chester (Imai, Ayano)

South Korea
While We Were Out (Lee, Ho Baek)
My Cat Copies Me (Kwon, Yoon D--a former Book of the Week)

On My Way to Buy Eggs (Chen, Chih-Yuan)

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Ayano Imai was born in England and moved to Japan, where she resides still. However, there are a number of high profile children's writers who have moved from Japan to the West: Satomi Ichikawa, Satoshi Kitamura, and Alan Say. Say's books often depict life in Japan, or reference Japanese life and culture. Clearly, this is not a road block for his young readers. Chalk it up to the flexibility of kids!

05 December 2007

Bedtime Stories

Museum Trip (Lehman, Barbara)
Rabbit's Morning (Tafuri, Nancy)

In order to facilitate the fact that I can't talk because I have no voice tonight (nasty head cold,) we read some wordless picture books. "Rabbit" isn't strictly wordless; there is a single sentence which is split between the first and last page of the book. But I didn't even need to read that much, because my daughter could handle it ably on her own. "Museum" reminded me a lot of Rainstorm, because in both books the opening of a door leads to unexpected adventure. This is hinted at on the cover itself, as the protagonist of the story peals back a plain white corner to reveal a maze beneath. Very clever.

I might be a new convert to the charms of Lehman's picture puzzles, but I am a long time fan of Nancy Tafuri. I love the clean, uncluttered lines of her drawings. She manages to make her characters (almost always animals in their natural habitat) look realistic and anthromorphized at the same time. I use her books a lot in my baby story times. Her books are generally over sized, which makes them easy to show to a group. And there is always just enough to look at, without having to take in too much.

Fairies-they're not all sugar plums

When I saw this article by novelist A.S. Byatt in the Guardian, the title made me think there could be a connection to The Spiderwick Chronicles (and it's 2008 film) in which fairies are not sweet little pixies, but mischievous--if not malicious--creatures. (Fans of the TV show Torchwood will remember the Small Worlds episode from the first series which also deals with the topic--probably the most disturbing episode of the lot, IMHO!) The article rambles a bit, including as it does a description of an exhibit currently on display in London, which I do not have any hope of seeing, and moving beyond its original premise of exploring the dark underworld of fairies and other fantastic beings. (In brief, the crux of the article is: fairies--not just for kids!) But there are many references to Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, and other classics of Children's Literature which grew out of an Edwardian reverence for childhood and more than a little distrust of a woman's civilizing hand. The article also flirted with ideas I've previously come across in the excellent Inventing Wonderland, by Jackie Wullschlager, all about the birth of fantasy in Children's Literature.

(BTW, the image above is called The Entomologist's Dream, by Edmund Dulac, one of the artists on display in the xhibit mentioned in the Byatt piece. Looks more like a nightmare than a dream, and succinctly represents the chaos associated with fairies.)

04 December 2007

Book of the Week--Ivan the Terrier

I love a story that's fun just for the fun of it. And that is a great way to describe Peter Catalanotto's Ivan the Terrier. Bringing new meaning to the term "fractured" fairytale, the energetic Ivan manages to break up every attempt by the author to tell a simple, straightforward tale. Muted but lively watercolor and gouache illustrations aid in the mayhem created by Ivan (the demise of the gingerbread boy is worth the price of admission alone.) This one is for dog lover everywhere!

03 December 2007

Why we read

I'm catching up on my newspapers this morning (delayed school opening due to inclement weather--a mixed blessing.) This article in the New York Times about why we read caught my eye. It also quotes this years' winner of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Sherman Alexie, talking about the impact of The Snowy Day, the classic picture book by Ezra Jack Keats, had on his development as a reader.

New York Times Notable

Considering they came up with 100 books for grown-ups, this puny list of 6 Notable Children's Books by the venerable New York Times seems a bit of a jip. And only one of the titles, How to be a Baby...by me, the Big Sister (Lloyd-Jones, Sally), is legitimately a children's book. The rest are YA or have strong YA leanings (that means you, Mr. Potter.) A little more effort please!

02 December 2007

Horn Book Fanfare

Here is the Horn Book's "Best of" list for 2007. There are now a couple of titles which are starting to appear consistently on this year's lists: Shaun Tan's The Arrival, Peter Sis's The Wall, And Sherman Alexi's The True Story of a Part Time Indian, just to name a few.

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