31 May 2010

Rave Review: The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye by Nancy Springer

With the popularity of series fiction at an all-time high for elementary and middle grade readers, I often will read the first title of any series that is popular or promising. Dipping my toe in this manner allows me the chance to booktalk the series with a reasonable amount of competency and enthusiasm. But  with some series, I'm in it for the long haul. The Enola Holmes Mysteries is one such series. Starting with The Case of the Missing Marquess, where we meet Enola for the first time, to this final volume (yes--final!) I have followed her attempts to stay two steps ahead of her older brothers (one of whom happens to be a guy named Sherlock) as well as discover any information about her mother, a free spirited Suffragette who vanished on Enola's fourteenth birthday and sporadically communicates through the personals of the London dailies.

Let's just start by saying that these mysteries are wildly unrealistic. However, I don't think they stretch belief any more than the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, so it's a level playing field. The premise is fairly straightforward: Enola is the much younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. When her mother disappears, the brothers decide that their sister--who has far too much of her mother's personality--needs to attend a proper finishing school to become a proper young lady. Unbeknownst to the brothers, their mother has left Enola a sizable amount of money, with which she scarpers off to London and sets herself up as the secretary of one Doctor Ragostin, a fictional Scientific Perditorain, who specializes in locating the lost. Working within these Remington Steele parameters, with a myriad of disguises, street-smarts, and wisdom beyind her years, Enola solves crimes and finds missing people, all the while waiting until she reaches the age of her majority and is legally free from the guardianship of her brothers.

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of these books has been their use of codes. Enola's name is itself a code--it is 'alone' spelled backwards, and it is a moniker which sometimes weighs heavy upon the girl. Flowers and fans were tools that Victorian women used to communicate, often beneath the radars of men. When Enola and her mother communicate through the papers they reference specific flowers to represent people and feelings. It is Sherlock's inability to grasp the nuance of this code which prevents him on at least one occasion of catching Enola, who easily spots his mistake.

The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye neatly pulls together all of the plot-lines which have been developed over the course of the books: Sherlock and Mycroft's attempts to locate Enola and send her to school, Enola's search for her mother and affirmation of whether her mother cared for her, Enola's quest for independence, and one final code to crack--the scytale which Lady Holmes has sent to her daughter. There is also a missing person to find: the unearthly beauty, Lady Blanchefleur del Campo has disappeared without a trace, and both Sherlock Holmes and "Doctor Ragostin" are trying to locate her. It is a mystery that requires a feminine touch, as Enola ably proves to her revered brother.

I am sorry to see the last of Enola Holmes. As Sherlock himself says, "I have become quite addicted to [her]." I have had great fun visiting her Victorian London, watching her outwit her brothers, and trying my hand at cracking the codes myself (always falling short, I might add.) This is a spin-off series that really worked.

27 May 2010

On My Reading Radar: Mr. Putney's Quacking Dog

It's that time of the fiscal year when my book budget is spent, and I'm looking wistfully at the summer catalogs for what's coming over the horizon. So imagine my joy when I saw that Jon Agee, the Prince of the Palindrome, the Sultan of Spoonerisms, the Titan of Tongue Twisters, the Officer of Oxymorons--and who also happens to write a damn good picture book--has a new title coming out! August will see the release of Mr. Putney's Quacking Dog. Is it a picture book? Is it word play? Which ever category it falls into (and we can't discount both!) it's bound to be brilliant.

(For some unashamed Agee love, here is my review of Orangutan Tongs. Bring me wetter water waiter!)

26 May 2010

Rave Review: Funny Lunch by David Catrow

Max Spaniel, the star of Dinosaur Hunt, is back for a second installment in this chaotically funny series from Scholastic. Kids might think that they are reading a book about a dog, but, as Max will tell you himself, he is not a dog. He is a chef. A great chef! Observant readers who paid attention to the title page might question Max's culinary credentials, but hey--a chef is nothing without his ego. And judging from this story, if it is representative of every day at Max's Diner, then who's to say that he is not great? He placates demanding customers, provides entertainment between courses, and even handles a tricky order when his own resources fail him. Max is indeed, some sort of special chef.

Plot details aside, Funny Lunch achieves what all early reader titles aim for--a defined story with minimal text that is fun to read while also challenging developing readers. Books that do this well are heavily reliant on the illustrations, which often set the tone for the story as well as fill in the narrative blanks for the reader. David Catrow's frenetic watercolors convey Max's energy in a way that can only be described as, well, doggish (sorry Max!) He rolls, pats, and tosses; he sings, dances, and performs tricks (of the magic variety;) he mixes and bakes. In fact, Max is non-stop from the moment he bounces out of bed in the morning, till the final page, when he and his tabby cat side-kick have a well-deserved pizza party. (I would like to say this about the tabby-cat sidekick--more please! Slightly imposed upon, more roly-poly than sleekly feline, and 100% devoted to Max, he is just as much of a visual treat as our hero.)

Writer and illustrator David Catrow pays homage to a couple of well-known easy reader classics in Funny Lunch, which simply adds to the fun of this title.  As Max gets ready to go to the diner, he has to choose just the right hat. His modeling and subsequent rejection of various headgear--until finally settling on just the right one--is straight out of Old Hat, New Hat by Stan and Jan Berenstain (Catrow has even left a visual reference for sharp eyed readers to discover.) And Max's literal interpretation of some of his customers' orders (a dog who orders chili is bundled up in hat, glove, and scarf; a request for a hot dog results in an overheated pooch in front of a fan,) is reminiscent of none other than the queen of literalism herself, Amelia Bedelia. If readers meet Max having already encountered these other titles, it will increase their delight in this book, as well as provide a canonical context within which to enjoy it.

With it's lovable protagonist, humorous plot, and delightful messiness, Funny Lunch is set to build upon the appeal of Dinosaur Hunt. You can read more about Max and his adventures in cooking here. And be sure to check out the official book trailer, which incorporates much of the original artwork.

(Thank you to Scholastic for providing me with a copy of the book to preview.)


23 May 2010

Finding a place for birds and frogs: non-fiction by Melissa Stewart

The close-quarters relationship between humans and indigenous wildlife has not always been neighborly. Whether intentionally or not, humans have impacted their environment in ways that adversely affect the lives and habitats of the animals living there. Birds and frogs, which are among our most common and plentiful wild neighbors, are the subjects of two books by author Melissa Stewart in an on-going series for Peachtree Publishers. A Place for Birds (2009) and A Place for Frogs (2010) introduces readers to birds and frogs in an easy to read format, spread across the tops of double-page nature spreads. Side bars and fact boxes provide more detailed information in support of the simpler text.

Birds undoubtedly benefit from the vigilance of bird watchers. Stewart uses the example of the Eastern Bluebird, which nests in old trees and rotten fence posts. But when farmers began replacing wooden fence posts with metal ones, bird watchers noticed that these little birds were losing their nesting ground. It was a problem easily remedied with nesting boxes, and a fabulous example to young readers of how sometimes it is remarkably easy to right environmental wrongs. Scientific study plays a large part in redressing the balance between human needs and environmental concerns, but advocacy really can begin at home. A few pages later we read about the Exxon Valdez and the devestating effect it had on the Common Murre, which lives off the coast of Alaska. Clearly there is no easy solution to this sort of environmental disaster, although the timeliness of the mention, due to the current Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, is compelling.

As for the frogs, the fact that there are thousands of species worldwide, with more being discovered on a regular basis, is a testament to how intricately they are knitted into the fabric of life on Earth. Frogs are everywhere, and it doesn't take much to infringe on their places. Often the victims of unconsidered consequences (pesticides, the introduction of domestic animals, Global Warming,) frogs need advocates, too. Examples of concerned citizens monitoring busy roads during mating season (Wood Frogs) or realizing that caves don't make good dumps (Puerto Rico Rock Frogs,) have helped to protect frogs in the face of man-made hazards.

One fact which both books makes clear, is that birds and frogs are just as important as links in the food chain as they are alive. It is vital that predators have these animals--and their eggs--on which to feed. It is an unexpected conclusion after so much emphasis is placed on protecting them. It seems that sometimes, the place for birds and frogs, is on the menu!

Special note should be made of the illustrations by Higgins Bond. The realistic acrylics are full of activity and detail which help to place the subjects in their natural environment. And, depending on the location of the reader, these environments might look familiar. I particularly liked the cover illustration of A Place for Birds; showing a Hermit Thrush flying past a dusky Chicago skyline, it highlights the delicate juxtaposition of humans and wildlife. And the corresponding story of turning off skyscraper lights during the birds' migration season reiterates the message that there is plenty we, non-scientists, can do to assist our wild neighbors and protect their places.

These are solid non-fiction books written and illustrated to appeal to the widest range of readers. They gently remind us that our wild neighbors need us, that there is plenty we can do to help them, and that the entire planet benefits when there are safe places for birds and frogs to live.

(Thank you to Peachtree Publishers for providing me with copies of the books for review.)

21 May 2010

Mockingjay: the countdown is on!

Scholastic, in their ever successful attempts to tease fans of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, have added to their Hunger Games site a widget that is simply too cool for school: it's a countdown clock to the release (and I'm guessing that word can be used in regard to more than just the publication date) of Mockingbird. The final volume in Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy must be the most highly anticipated book of the summer--even if the summer's nearly over by the time the book comes out. Count me among the faithful, salivating.

The widget doesn't fit properly in my side bar. It barely fits here (booo!) Still, I'm trying to do my bit to promote what I expect to be the publishing event of the year.

20 May 2010

Library Advocacy and Ghostbusting

Who says that libraries can't think outside the box when it comes to advocacy? American Libraries reports how the New York Public Library approached Improv Everywhere ("We Cause Scenes",) to develop a viral campaign to spread the word that even venerable institutions like the New York Public Library face devastating budget cuts and need public support. Boston Public Library, take note.

If you haven't yet seen this pretty funny video to advertise the NYPL's "Don't Close the Book Campaign", then watch it now!

12 May 2010

Picture Books on a Sick Day

Nothing like being wiped out by a bad head cold. I took advantage of the unexpected extra time today to plow through my to-be-read pile of picture books. Lucky me--I came across a trio of winners.

Testing the Ice by Sharon Robinson, illus. by Kadir Nelson
Sharon Robinson, whose famous dad Jackie should need no introduction, tells a story from her childhood that focuses on her father's courage--but doesn't involve baseball. Jackie Robinson has moved his young family to the Connecticut countryside. The children pass the summer playing with their neighbors and swimming in the lake on their property. When winter comes, and the children want to ice skate on the frozen lake, Jackie Robinson, now gray-haired and retired, tests the ice. The significance of the anecdote, which astute readers will have realized, is that Jackie Robinson cannot swim. He has methodically stayed out of the water throughout the summer, but now ventures onto the frozen surface ahead of the children. The bravery and self-sacrifice of this act is equated by Sharon Robinson with his initial breaking of the color barrier--tesing the social ice and leading the way for those who would follow behind him. And for the most part, the analogy works. The point is unnecessarily hammered home by a coda at the end of the story, even though the words, "All I could think was: My dad is the bravest man alive," which wraps up the narrative part of the book, would have sufficed. Illustrations by the inimitable Kadir Nelson, whose work is so richly rendered that he really could grace any project (as is evidenced by his contributions to the Spike Lee books) compliment this touching, personal story.

Big Rabbit's Bad Moon by Ramona Badescu, illus by Delphne Durand
Big Rabbit's bad mood is, quite literally, following him everywhere. Personified by a rather friendly looking gray fuzzy monster,  the bad mood is unshakable. No matter what Big Rabbit does--call a friend, listen to some music, turn on the tv--he cannot shake the bad mood. He speaks for all of us who have been plagued by unnameable, lingering moods when he shouts, "Make it stop!" Nearly stymied by obsession with his bad mood, Big Rabbit is finally relieved of it by a surprise birthday party. Which is actually a cop out ending for what was developing into a wise, child-appropriate examination of being in a funk. At no point does the author imply that Rabbit's bad mood is because he fears his birthday has been forgotten; it is the unexplainable nature of the bad mood which makes the story ring true. But be that as it may, there is much to recommend this French import, if only to tell kids that its okay to have a bad mood, because eventually something will come along to chase it away.

Here Comes the Garbage Barge! by Jonah Winter, illus. by Red Nose Studio
Like the Sharon Robinson book, this is a story based on an actual event. Jonah Winter, who has penned many non-fiction gems, tells this factual tale with fictional flair. The sorry saga of the barge Mobro 4000, which set sail from Islip, NY on March 22, 1987, hauling nearly 32,000 tons of garbage, would be comical if it wasn't so disgusting. And Winter does, indeed, use a good deal of humor in the telling of the story. Curt dismissals by outraged residents at each port, regional accents, and an increasingly frazzled barge captain keep the mood of the story light and not at all heavy handed. That humor is also reflected in the hand-built 3D sets used to illustrate the book. Sets, incidentally, which were made out of recycled materials. And they made them, like this:

All in all,  a rewarding way to spend a sick day.

06 May 2010

Singing my TOON--Benny and Penny in The Toy Breaker

Benny and Penny in the Toy Breaker Benny and Penny in the Toy Breaker by Geoffrey Hayes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Much as I loved Danny the Dinosaur, I sure wish the Toon Books had been around when I was learning to read. Engaging and concerned about the things kids care about (toys, stinky monsters, favorite colors,)they are as fun as they are attractive. The books incorporate proper comic formatting with the controlled vocabulary associated with easy reader, to create a reading experience that is kid friendly, level appropriate--everything one could want from a book designed to snag fans.

In this installment, mice siblings Benny and Penny want to search for buried treasure. But first they have to deal with Cousin Bo, who has the annoying habit of breaking all their toys. Bo reminds me of the rather excitable Wendell from Kevin Henke's Weekend with Wendell, who is oblivious to the havoc he wreaks. He just wants to play! A satisfying resolution is guaranteed, along with a healthy dose of physical comedy.

With two titles in their cataloghttp://www.toon-books.com/awards.php recognized as Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor Books--and one Geisel winner--the Toon books are in a fabulous position to amuse and educate young readers for some time to come.

View all my reviews >>

On My Reading Radar--Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Parties, and Other Man-Made Catastrophies

I know it's not even summer yet, but I'm already looking forward to the fall and the latest installment in the Alvin Ho series. Alvin in September is the best thing since back-to-school shopping. And not nearly as scary. (You can read more about this upcoming release here)

04 May 2010

Picture Books with Promise--The Wicked Big Toddlah Goes to New York

He's not in Maine anymore! The wicked big toddlah takes on the Big Apple. I sure hope he brought his wicked big Red Sox cap. (Due out in June, 2010.)

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