27 October 2009

Cybils Nominee: River of Dreams: The Story of the Hudson River

From the very first line of the book, "When I was growing up in Kentucky, I used to dream about New York, the great city on the Hudson that bore my name," author-illustrator Hudson Talbott establishes two facts: this book is personally special, and this book is about--and for--dreamers. This is also established on the front cover, where the book's title and author are easily seen and compared, but the opening page, with it's illustration of a young boy looking out a window and envisioning a New York City skyline made of stars, prepares readers for something magical.

The entire history of the Hudson River is condensed to 42 pages, which is no mean feat, considering the influence this single river has had on the economic, industrial and creative development of the United States, and New York City in particular. As Talbot tells it, explorers, colonists, merchants, entrepreneurs, writers, artists and environmentalists all drew inspiration--and sometimes wealth--from the river. In fact, sometimes this book reads as a non-fiction version of The Giving Tree, in which the Hudson River is a source which cannot help but provide for the needs of Americans near and far; in the winter, when the river freezes and prohibits boat traffic and its corresponding business, locals harvest the ice, providing seasonal work for farmers who then ship it to the iceboxes of the booming New York City. "It was great business, for the ice was free--a gift of the river." The dark side to this relationship is that when New York City needs a sewer, the Hudson River fulfills that need, too.

Fortunately, as beneficial dreams feed one into another--the creation of the Erie Canal is a direct link between George Washington, who envisioned it, and Governor Dewitt Clinton, who finished it--so do the bad dreams feed into the good. The abuse of the river by big business (in particular, a proposed hydroelectric pumping station by Con Edison in 1963) leads directly to the creation of the modern environmental movement and legislation which protects natural resources across the United States.

Talbot has written and illustrated a book which, quite appropriately, flows from one historical period to the next. The connections he makes link from the Ice Age to modern times. He uses the river as a visual motif as well; it weaves across the pages, dividing text into readable chunks. Dates are printed on the river so that the timeline is visible and fluid. Techniques such as a train breaking through a tranquil landscape dramatically illustrates the impact that modern industrialization would have on the future of the river. He incorporates stories of personal tragedy (Henry Hudson, for which the river is named, is the victim of a mutiny and set adrift in the icy Canadian waters never to be seen again) with the grand panorama of history. And at the end, there is the reminder of the boy who dreamed of a river linked to him by his name. Picturesque, lively, and ever flowing, River of Dreams is a book born of a child's dream, leading to inspiration and fulfillment, just as the Hudson River has done throughout history.

22 October 2009

Cybils Nominee: Nugget on the Flight Deck

Considering the fact that my father served on the USS Forrestal (CV59), I could not pass up the chance to review this book. My dad was not a pilot (he was a trumpeter in the ship's band,) and he didn't work on the flight deck, but he did sleep beneath it, a fact he was mighty proud of. So this book held immediate appeal for me.

And, sentiment aside, it will hold appeal for young readers, too. "Nugget" is service vernacular for a new aviator on his first tour of duty. In this case the nugget is a boy, standing in for every child who has ever wanted to pilot a fighter plane. He's dressed in his zoombag (flight suit) and ready for his hop (mission). Readers, along with the nugget, are walked through the preparation involved in getting ready for flight, and then the actual flight itself. The book is written in a conversational tone which introduces numerous air and nautical terms and slang, so no glossary is needed; terms are highlighted within the text and then explained in sidebars on each page, sometimes with illustrations.

One thing you realize if you have ever stood near an air craft carrier, is that it is massive (as tall as 24-story building, to be exact.) The picture book format is well suited to emphasize this fact, allowing for double page profiles of the ship (never identified, which is too bad.) In fact, the layout consists of double page spreads throughout. The reader gets a close-up look at on-deck preparation--it takes more than just the pilot and co-pilot to get a bird (in this case a F/A-18F) in the air--a panoramic in-flight refueling operation, a mock dogfight, a return to the carrier, complete with tilting horizon, and the precision involved in landing on the flight deck.

The book's palette is, not surprisingly, sky blue and steel grey. But there is a lot of color , too. As is explained at the end, there is a color-coded system to the uniforms worn by the various crew members on the deck. As in so much of military life, the ability to communicate through code is important on an aircraft carrier, and if a pilot sees purple, green and brown coats on the flight deck, he knows he is in good hands. A selection of Carrier Facts, the Aviator's Alphabet, and rather official looking sources round off this salute to the well-oiled machine that is an aircraft carrier flight crew.

Bravo zulu!

17 October 2009

I have it on good authority--give 'em more Rickman!

It sounds as if the folks down at Kidlitosphere 2009 are having a grand time. I've been following events on Twitter, via the #kidlitcon hashtag. And aside from some very useful discussion about the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) transparency rules, and how they will affect bloggers, I saw this nugget go by:

@gregpincus #kidlitcon to have a popular blog, put up pictures of dogs, cats, or Alan Rickman!

Now that's information that is unambiguous, and that I can use RIGHT NOW! So, weighing my options, and taking into account his recurring role in the Harry Potter film series, allow me to present you with this:
I will be manically checking my google analytics stats to see just how this gratuitous use of Alan Rickman has increased my blog readership!

13 October 2009

Horrid Henry Blog Tour

Following the success of this spring's initial Horrid Henry invasion (4 books, 16 stories of unrivaled mischief and bad behavior,) the elementary aged yobbo is back in Horrid Henry and the Scary Sitter and Horrid Henry's Underpants. Having already established that Horrid Henry is fairly irredeemable, author Francesca Simon and illustrator Tony Ross continue to play up Henry for all his comedic value. His parents continue to despair in the face of his behavior (although they get some sweet, if unintended, revenge in Horrid Henry Eats a Vegetable.) And little brother Perfect Peter is starting to develop as less perfect and more prim; he is not so perfect that he isn't above bickering with Horrid Henry and conniving to get his own way, as he does in Horrid Henry's Car Journey. But what readers want is Horrid Henry getting in and out of scrapes and providing a good laugh, and that is exactly what they get.

The stories fall into two categories: stories where Henry gets away with being just about the worst blighter imaginable, and stories where he gets his come-uppance. Kids will enjoy either variety. For me, the stand-out story from these two books is Horrid Henry's Thank You Letter. Nagged by his mother to write thank you letters for gifts he doesn't even like (as has already been witnessed in the underpants story,) Horrid Henry comes up with the brainstorm of starting a thank-you letter writing business. As has recently been seen in the "Wimpy Kid" books (remember the haunted house?), money making schemes in which the work ethic is less than ethical are doomed to failure. Not only are they doomed, but they are so spectacularly ill-advised that the reader has a hard time deciding what's funnier: watching the machinations as the plan is put into place, or awaiting the outcome. After a brisk uptake in customers, Henry's attempt to devise a suitable template for his "personal" thank you cards leads to:

"Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you/No Thank you for the

a) wonderful
b) horrible
c) disgusting

present. I really loved it/hated it. In fact, it is the best present/worst present I have ever received. I/ played with it/broke it/ate it/spent it/threw it in the garbage/ right away. Next time just send lots of money.

Best wishes/Worst wishes

You can imagine Henry's surprise and indignation when his unhappy customers are just about ready to tar and feather him after he's mailed out a bunch of those. And unfortunately for Henry, he sent the form letter as thanks for his own gifts, too.

Naughty children in literature, while perhaps a source of dismay for parents, have such obvious appeal for young readers. Like Rotten Ralph before him, who is endured--even adored--by the ever-patient Sara, there is never any threat that Horrid Henry's antics will lead to anything other than more opportunities to act out. And even when he comes up against someone as formidable as he is, such as Moody Margaret or Rabid Rebbecca, the scary sitter, the reader knows that Henry's vanquishing will be short lived and that he will soon be back in top, horrid form.

If you have want a chance to read a bit of Horrid Henry yourself, I have a copy of Horrid Henry and the Mummy's Curse (just in time for Halloween) to give away. This copy has been provided by Sourcebooks, the publishers of Horrid Henry in the United States. Just leave a comment and send an email to my profile, and you will be entered in the giveaway. The drawing will be held on 21 October 2009. Good luck!

08 October 2009

Book of the Week: Minifred Goes to School

It's always tough for me to resist a picture book with a cute kitten on the cover. And when said kitten is wearing a pink frilly dress and doing handstands and is written by Caldecott winning author-illustrator Mordicai Gerstein ...well of course I'm going to read it! There is a proud tradition of mischievous cats in picture books, with Rotten Ralph as the standard bearer, and Minifred slots in nicely. But is it really fair to call her mischievous? The evidence:

Minifred is found hidden in the seat cushion of the Portley's settee, a circumstance which is established on the credits page. The Portleys, who would like a baby, are more than happy to accept the kitten as a substitute, and they name her 'Minifred' after Mr. Portley's aunt (whom she evidently resembles.) They raise Minifred as their daughter. And where her naughty behavior might not be an issue while she is a "toddler," as she gets older it becomes less acceptable. She is told she must follow rules, which she proudly refuses to do. When she decides to go to school, she quite likes it, except for the rules. However, an odd loophole in the rule book allows Minifred to continue doing as she pleases and still follow the rules.

The key to enjoying this book, which comes across as rather odd after an initial reading, is to remember that Minifred is not little girl but a cat. Although she can dance and walk on her hind legs and wear dresses, for the purposes of the story she is not anthropomorphized. While the Portleys, who are always referred to as her parents, treat her like a little girl, she is a cat. And what do cats do? Whatever they please! Which brings me back to my original question: is she really naughty if she is simply being herself?

What I liked about this book is that there is no moral, no lesson (except perhaps the message that children need to be allowed to be children.) Minifred does not bend to the will of the human authority that dressed her in frilly clothes. Talk about trying to domesticate! Minifred's classmates think it's unfair that she does not follow the same rules they do, but young listeners and readers may very well cheer Minifred's success at bucking the system. She is what she is (a cat,) and while she will wear the clothes, and do her schoolwork, and be a child for a lonely couple, she will also chase bugs up walls, jump wherever she pleases and leap out of windows. As soon as everyone accepts that Minifred does what she likes, all will be well. That is an "inmate-ruling-the asylum" argument that might not sit well with adults of a.....shall we say....controlling nature. But I'm with Minifred on this one.

So you've already read Wimpy Kid......

.....and it's still not October 12th, when Dog Days is due for release. While you're waiting for every one's favorite junior high diarist, let me introduce you to Julian Rodriguez. Julian is one seriously put-upon eight year old. In his first book, Trash Crisis on Earth, he not only has to take a test on an empty stomach, but then he is asked to take out the trash. Invasion of the Relatives involves enduring a Thanksgiving meal with the extended family: two nanas, two cousins, all revolting. Julian's trials and tribulations are dutifully reported to the Mother Ship (yes--did I mention that Julian survives his families demands by imagining he is an intergalactic First Officer?) from whence comes advice and encouragement and a semblance of reason, much like a digital Jimminy Cricket. The motif of Julian parading as an alien sleeper on Earth is played to the comic hilt with plenty of techno-babble tossed in to emphasize how the fantasy plays out in Julian's mind. For instance, his description of a ball, for the benefit of the Mother Ship, with which he must play catch with his cousins:

"...this ORB, how it tortures me! It is nothing but a cheap synthetic polymer formed in the shape of a sphere or a pointed egg, but the mini-brains worship it as though it had magical powers."

Or Julian's description of a Thanksgiving dinner:

"During this particular festival, the living quarters are festooned with natural debris. Groups of genetically linked mini-brains from different localities are invited to come and feast on hideous local specialties."

When you're eight, you can get away with that!

The book combines graphic elements with blocks of text and the impression that the reader is interacting directly with the Mother Ship through black pages representing a computer screen. There is a note at the back of the book describing the different types of fonts used; a lot of effort went into the visual effect of the book, and it shows. Stadler's angular style gives Julian an edgy appearance, while on his family it looks almost grotesque. Julian would not have it any other way!

It is easy to imagine that Julian Rodriguez might grow up to be Greg Heffley; his eye is as observant, his wit as razor-sharp, and his sense of taking-on-the-world just as finely honed. May they one day cross paths, if only on your To Be Read list.

04 October 2009

Rave Review: Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware

I've been waiting for this book to be published for what seems an awfully long time. As an enthusiastic fan of both Whales on Stilts and The Clue of the Linoleum Leiderhosen, knowing this book was in the works was sweet torture. Now that it's here, and I've read it, I sort of don't know what to make of it. For starters, what started as "M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales" has become "Pals in Perils," which to my way of reading consciously shifts the focus of the series away from Lily (the only one of the gang who is "ordinary",) to Jasper himself, the one old-fashioned enough to actually use the word "pal" in his day to day conversation.

But let me backtrack, for those who have not been following this series. Lily Gefelty, Katie Mulligan, and Jasper Dash are three friends who have shared an inordinate amount of crazy adventures. While Katie and Jasper are both stars of their own series of pulp adventure books (which allows author Anderson untold opportunity to lovingly poke fun at the genre,) Lily is just an ordinary girl distinguished mainly by floppy bangs and undying faith in her two friends. After fighting off an aquatic invasion in "Whales," and solving a mystery at a resort visited by other action series characters in "Leiderhosen," Lily, Katie, and Jasper investigate an art theft and the possible endangerment of a group of monks in "Flame Pits".

That's the straightforward plot summary. What it fails to relate is the sheer Sternsian ambition of this book. By focusing the story on Jasper Dash, star of a series that one suspects not many people are reading anymore, and the one character who even within this strange set-up has always seemed out of place, with his arcane expletives ("Saturn's rings!",) endorsement of a vile energy drink (Gargletine,) and technology worthy of Tom Swift, the absurdities to which Anderson can take this story are infinite. For starters, there is his description of Delaware as a mysterious land, which sounds more like Nepal than a Mid-Atlantic American state, although he manages to combine the two profiles with throw-away lines like:

"For one hundred years, Delaware has been cut off from the other states, isolated completely as a result of its overpriced and prohibitive interstate highway tolls. For one hundred years, almost no one has gone in or come out. Only the bravest of explorers have penetrated this exotic land."

Aside from playing with reality within the story--a reality which the characters themselves try to maintain (Katie is indignant at the suggestion of mountain ranges or dinosaurs in Delaware)--Anderson takes liberty with the format of the text, writing downwards to describe a great fall, or inserting pages from the seminal tourist book about Delaware: The There and Back Again Guide to Greater Delaware, which assures you, among other things, that any intrepid visitor will "catch very few of Delaware's disfiguring diseases." And always there is the narrator, who is not so much omniscient as chatty, sometimes diverting attention away from the action of the story with a self-conscious air of mischief and tongue so firmly lodged in cheek that it may never come out again. These playful stylistic touches made me think of experimental literature like Tristram Shandy or If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, where the act of reading the story is part of the story itself.

Allusions, of course, which will go flying straight over the heads of the 8 to 12 audience which this book is targeting. So where is the appeal? The appeal is in a mysterious original colony which is strangely lacking in vowels; or a vendor who chases our heroes for three days over a 15 cents debt; or a Stare-Eyes competition team with a coach who sounds like a sadistic hockey dad (or just the thought of a Stare-Eyes competition at all!) The appeal is in every crazy detail that Anderson crams into this smart, oh-so-clever book. While at times I thought the descriptions of the impossibly strange indigenous creatures of Delaware went on a bit too long, and the bickering between Jasper and Katie was sometimes more dull than droll, there is plenty of goofy fun and laugh-out loud moments (the face-off between the pacifist monks and the cliche-spouting Jersey gangsters is not to be missed) to carry the story. And the ending, where the ultra-square Jasper is heralded by Lily and Katie, is surprisingly touching. The moment doesn't last long, but it is a reminder that smart humor is never gratuitous. And M.T. Anderson has shown himself to be at his smartest when he is at his strangest.

02 October 2009

Cybils: Non-Fiction Picture Books

Last year was my first with the Cybils, and I had the pleasure of serving on the Easy Reader Panel. This year it is my privilege to work with another great group of bloggers on the 2009 Non-Fiction Picture Book panel. I've started paying more attention to non-fiction picture books because of the fact that my daughter enjoys reading them so much. And as authors make more use of the picture book to get informational books into the hands of kids, there's a fantastic array of subjects covered by this kid-friendly format. After only one day of nominations there is already a stellar group of books to read and from which to pick the finalists. You can see that ever growing list here (and if you have a favorite title that isn't already on the list be sure to nominate it!) And be sure to check out the blogs of the other members of the Non-Fiction Picture Book Panel:

Panel Organizer: Jone MacCulloch, Check It Out

Panelists (Round I Judges):
Bill and Karen, Literate Lives
Amanda Goldfuss, ACPL Mock Sibert
Jone Rush MacCulloch (see panel organizer)
Debbie Nance, Readerbuzz
Franki Sibberson, A Year of Reading
Carol Wilcox, Carol's Corner

Round II Judges:
J.L. Bell, Oz and Ends
Shirley Smith Duke, SimplyScience
Roberta Gibson, Wrapped in Foil
Emily Mitchell, Emily Reads
Carol Hampton Rasco, Rasco from RIF

01 October 2009

Winnie the Pooh gets an update

Okay, I'll admit it: I'm not a huge fan of Pooh. I kind of like Piglet, and Eeyore is sort of amusing, but when I tried to read the original Pooh books on my own as a child, there was no connection. Perhaps I've been stunted as a person, but there you have it.

All the same, I found myself peeved and protective when I read on the BBC website that a new character, Lottie the Otter, has been created for the first "original" Pooh story since Milne stopped writing them himself. I'm pretty sure I understand why the creation of a new character was deemed necessary, why these "timeless and beloved characters" couldn't be trusted to pull in new audiences on their own. Like the sudden increase in girly trains in the Sodor Roundhouse, marketers (may I blame marketers here?) and creative controllers of these established franchises need those new audiences, otherwise why bother? They probably want to be seen as updaters, too, and updating means inserting female characters were there weren't any. As I try and think back to the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood, the only girl character I can remember is Kanga, and she was pretty much resigned to wearing an apron and hopping after Roo. Admittedly not much of a modern character for today's little princesses.

So how does Lottie stack up? Well, according to the article she is described as "feisty," which makes sense; why go through the bother of creating a new character and then have her be sedate? She likes cricket. What ho! and all that. She is a stickler for etiquette. Okay......no mommy issues there, right? But, so we absolutely, positively know she's the new girl character, she's wearing pearls. Now, perhaps my perspective is a bit colored at the moment because I am reading Packaging Girlhood, in which the authors berate the trend of accessorizing young girls at every turn--usually with a handbag, although that just would not be practical at all when trying to hit a googly. Or perhaps it's because I attended a Southern women's college, at which the running joke--certainly among us hip artistic types--was that it was the place where pearls went with everything: jeans, sweats, shorts--everything. Whatever--the pearls really annoy me.

What it comes down to, at least for me, is this: if the original product wasn't good enough on its own, leave it to the original fans to love as it was. Pooh's devotees will have the requisite passion and enthusiasm to introduce the books to new audiences without the aid of faux modern girl characters. Lottie the Otter, even in the eyes of this non-Pooh fan, you've got some big shoes to fill if you want to claim your place in the Hundred Acre Wood.

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