30 January 2011

Rave Review: Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

Now--here's something you don't see everyday. A graphic novel (or any book for that matter,) with the by-line, "Yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish Girl." Whaaaat?! You can't judge a book by its cover, but you sure can be pulled in by a hook like that. And since Hereville is one of the contenders for the School Library Journal Battle of the Kid's Books, and I need to make some serious hay with that list.......no brainer.

The story is this: Mirka Hirschberg wants more from life than knowing how to knit and snare a good husband. She wants to slay dragons. But to slay dragons, she needs a sword. When the opportunity arrives for her to gain such a sword, she takes her chance. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, as Hamlet said, "There's the rub." Because beyond the graphic novel format, it is difficult to pigeon hole this book as a type.

First, there is the cultural angle. Everything I knew previously about Orthodox Judaism I learned from Chaim Potok, so I felt reasonably well-armed to absorb any cultural differences which I might encounter in the reading. But truthfully, no previous knowledge is necessary to enjoy the book, and not just because Mirka is a feisty, headstrong girl, and feisty, headstrong girls are a staple of childrens' literature whatever the culture. Let us not underestimate the importance of Mirka's heritage--this story works so well because she is an Orthodox Jewish girl. But while this book provides a window on Orthodox Jewish life, that's not what it is about. Nor, despite some angsty moments, is it about a tween trying to break free from a life that everyone but an Orthodox Jew would find unusual. You could call it an adventure book because there is lots of adventure--fast-paced, hair-raising, breath-taking adventure--contained in these pages. Then again, it is also a family drama, as readers meet Mirka and her rather large blended family. Witches, trolls, and dragons are discussed with a completely straight face, so in some ways the book is a fantasy. And last, but not least, it is FUNNY! Perhaps it is just me, but does anyone else find the words "funny" and "orthodox-anything" a strange mash-up? Well it works here. I'm not giving anything away when I say there is a scene towards the end where Mirka is fighting for her life, and it had me.....well.....in stitches.

So who should read Hereville? Everyone! Wise and daring, spiritual and exciting, poignant and hilarious--this book has it all. Fans of graphic novels will appreciate such a quality addition to their favorite genre. Readers new to the format will be impressed by the mediums efficiency and unique ability to propel this most original story. I am probably being greedy to hope for a sequel, but there is one unresolved revelation that I would like to know more about. So here's hoping.

FYI--like Wimpy Kid before it, Hereville started life as a web-comic. (The similarities pretty much stop there.) Anyone who has read the web-comic will want to get their hands on the graphic novel, because there is loads of new art and the story has been expanded. If you read the book first, check out the original to see how the story grew and developed.

26 January 2011

Feel free to weep tears of joy--the SLJ Battle of the Kids' Books is back!

At the risk of effusing, it is with great delight that I announce the return of the School Library Journal Battle of the Kids' Books. Not that I have anything to actually do with it, per se, except act as cheerleader and generally gush about it to my readers (who are hopefully following it themselves.) This is the tournament's third year, and it is still early days over at the Command Center. But Team BoB has presented its list of 16 finalists which will go head to head until there is but one remaining title. The one thing that really strikes me about this year's list is this: I have only read a single title from it! The shame........

Still, it's early days, with the website still under construction, so there's plenty of time for me to catch up. And I am curious to see if they raise the ante even further. Last year they introduced the Undead Round. What surprises do they have in store this year? Go to the aforementioned web site for links to last year's tournament, if you missed out on the fun and want to see what it's all about. You can also follow the BoB on twitter.

Hold on to your hats, folks! This should be fun.

21 January 2011

Subversive Favorites: The Worst Person in the World at Crab Beach by James Stevenson

While it is generally understood that bad behavior in children is not tolerable, bad behavior in the elderly seems to be more acceptable. I am generalizing, of course, but allowances are made for age, and the older you are, the more people let you get away with being a curmudgeon. This is certainly the case with The Worst, the eponymous anti-hero of the "Worst Person in the World" series. He is a cantankerous codger who is surrounded by kindly, patient neighbors who humor his foul moods while they wait for him to come round to their way of thinking.

The Worst is not only bad tempered and unreasonable, but he is at his happiest when a situation is at its worst. If he's not making life miserable for someone else, he's more then willing to make life unpleasant for himself. When he goes on vacation in The Worst Person in the World at Crab Beach, he chooses a hotel based on how many mosquitoes they have (in this case, many,) how awful the food is, and, when given the choice of room, he chooses a room in the cellar with a hard bed and "no view whatsoever."  However, The Worst meets his match in caustic Miriam and her odious son, Cranston. And that's what makes this, for me, the best of The Worst.

Miriam is considerably younger than The Worst, so there is no justifying her surliness. Described as "shrill and screechy," she is liberal with her use of insults and would be a nightmare to meet in person. And yet, she has her softer side. In an unparalleled display of maternal love, she flings The Worst's lunch into the ocean when he kicks over her son's sand castle. '"Lunch is over," she said. "Why don't you shove off?"' When The Worst declares that he is leaving, Cranston, not to be out done by his mother, quips, '"Not fast enough."' You just can't get dialog like that in a children's book anymore! At least, not without a moral.

So why do I recommend this book about grown-ups behaving badly? Well, it's funny. And other than enjoying The Worst and Miriam fling Three Stooges-style zingers at each other, I am always in favor of books that show that grumpiness is an option. I don't believe that a book has to be an edifying experience every time a child picks one up; it's okay for them to laugh at foibles for the sake of them. But since an entire book can not be sustained by one joke, author/illustrator Stevenson slips in an almost unrecognizable dose of warm-fuzzy into his Worst books. In this case The Worst, Miriam, and Cranston clearly recognize kindred spirits and become friends. For them, friendship means sitting around drinking prune juice, watching poison-ivy grow, and chasing away would be visitors. It works for them (and Klingons, but that's a tangent we don't need to visit right now.)

An argument could be made that The Worst is simply lonely, and his behavior is a way to shield that. Like someone who practices false modesty to fish for a compliment, The Worst always manages to surround himself with people, despite the "Go Away" signs in his yard. I'm not totally convinced; I simply think The Worst is crusty, difficult and unrepentant. By crossing paths with Miriam and Cranston, The Worst is actually challenged by behavior as bad as his own. Fortunately, for all of us, it only makes him.....worse.

19 January 2011

Rave Review: Jack's Path of Courage

Thursday 20 January 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the 35th president of the United States. Growing up in Boston, I have lived a lifetime within the sphere of the Kennedy family's local influence. And as the daughter of an immigrant who grew up in post-war Italy with her eye on JFK and all that was promising about the USA, I am steeped in Kennedy lore. So, frankly, I am inclined to like this book. The fact that it is well-written and exquisitely illustrated just makes the admiring easy.

I love the decision to have the cover completely free of text. The man on the front is without a doubt the man who inspired a generation of people around the world; he is handsome, charismatic, and looking onwards and upwards. The profile which is presented within the pages of the book is of an individual who grew up loved but challenged by the expectations of his father and constantly in physical pain due to a back injury exacerbated by war-time damage. Kennedy's is a life defined by courage: the courage to compete with an admired older brother, the courage to fill his shoes when necessary, the courage to make mistakes and own up to them. And while his assassination always leads to discussion of a life cut short and potential snuffed, this book highlights how much he did manage to do in a short period of time. His was a life of privilage, but also a life of service.

The images and text combine to introduce to readers a man who was nothing less than remarkable. Illustrator Matt Tavares mentions in a note that he used actual photographs as reference for his illustrations. The photographic influence is evident; many of the illustrations have the intimacy of captured moments, as if someone peeked in and snapped a quick picture. The text by Doreen Rappaport, which incorporates quotes adapted from original sources, is straightforward, reverent, yet honest.

This book is a beautiful tribute to a man who, whatever his detractors might think, will always be looked to as an individual who inspired not just a single nation, but the whole world in a way that no leader has been able to do since. His legacy is far-reaching--the death this week of Sargent Shriver was a link to that legacy.  Legacies are not created by men and women who turn away from life's challenges, but by those who face them head on, and this book shows how John Kennedy spent a lifetime doing just that.

To see more of the artwork, check out this book trailer

15 January 2011

30 Second Review: Do You Have a Cat? by Eileen Spinelli

Do You Have a Cat?Do You Have a Cat? by Eileen Spinelli

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My favorite Eileen Spinelli books are the ones where she tells a story, Such as "Sophie's Masterpiece" or "Something to tell the Grandcows", but she does generic quite well, too. I particularly liked the nod to famous cat-owners throughout history. Helps to set this one apart from other cat-lover books.

View all my reviews

07 January 2011

Goodbye to Dick King-Smith

Well, here's a kick in the teeth. I just read in School Library Journal that British author Dick King-Smith died on Tuesday, 4 January. He was 88. It's not right to feel cheated by the death of an 88 year old man--that's a long life (and if you read his autobiography, Chewing the Cud, you will know that it was a varied life which he enjoyed to the fullest.) But Dick King-Smith is an author that I discovered as an adult, right about the time that my interest in children's literature was reignited. So for me, his loss feels personal.

Dick King-Smith will be most widely known as the author of  The Sheep-Pig, which became the film Babe. But he wrote many, many books, and they all deserve a look. You can read a run-down of some of my favorites, here.

And for another look at the film Babe--which can still make me weep tears of joy at the end!--check out the trailer.

04 January 2011

Anticipated ARCs--My Forever Friends by Julie Bowe

There are books at work which I consider to be my "go-to" titles; the ones I always make a bee-line for when a reader comes up to me looking for a recommendation. My Last Best Friend, the first book in what has become the "Friends for Keeps" series by Julie Bowe, is one of those books. Written for the 8-12 age bracket, it has a near perfect balance of content and read-ability; it can be enjoyed by either end of the demographic without dumbing-down for the youngest reader or feeling outgrown to the oldest.

The rest of the series has proven to be just as popular, so when I had the opportunity to preview the fourth book in the series...I had to ask! I have many fans of Ida May, Stacy, and even Jenna to report back to, as they wait for their chance to read the book themselves. I'm pleased to say that they will not be disappointed.

The action of the story has shifted away from the still developing relationship between Ida and Stacy and is centered on the feud between Jenna and Brooke. These two girls, who at times seem like they could only be likable to each other, have fallen out, and the repercussions are felt throughout the class as their fight becomes a power grab for the support of their classmates. Ida--kind, perceptive Ida--feels stuck in the middle; she is spending more time with Jenna and her younger sister Rachel, due to the fact that their mother is on bed-rest with a difficult pregnancy and the girls are sent to Ida's house after school. Her increased exposure to the habitually controlling Jenna has helped Ida learn how to deal with her. (Jenna's transformation from class bully to complex individual which the reader can care about is one of the most impressive accomplishments of this series.) At the same time, Stacy is becoming chummy with Brooke. Ida soon finds herself losing one friend because of her loyalty to another. In the end, she doesn't care who is right or wrong in terms of Jenna and Brooke; she simply wants the feud to end before the all-round damage is beyond repair.

Throughout the series, Ida May has shown herself to be a sensitive girl juggling the ups and downs of friendship with thoughtfulness and wisdom--and the occasional aid of Choco Chunks. In My Forever Friends she exhibits a level of maturity which is simultaneously admirable and bittersweet (I say "bittersweet" as a parent, because if she was my little girl I would be proud of her but sorry that I had not been able to spare her the experience.) As an adult reader I sometimes found my heart filling up at the responsibility Ida felt to be the peacemaker in a feud which was not even her own. Young readers, possibly dealing with similar friendship trials, will see a girl they would like to emulate and love to be friends with themselves.

Julie Bowe reports on her blog that she has been contracted for two more "Friends for Keeps" books. This is news that will delight many girls. Not to mention this librarian, who repeatedly falls back on this excellent series when it comes time to place a quality book in eager hands.

My Forever Friends is due for release in July 2011. Thank you to Julie Bowe for providing me with an ARC to review.

03 January 2011

Picture Books for Older Readers: Snook Alone

In my continued attempt to keep this blog organized, I thought I would introduce a new segment to feature picture books written for an older audience; let's say for readers from 9 to 99. These are books written for the reader who can appreciate sophisticated vocabulary, a well-turned phrase, and a story complex enough for a chapter book. I'll try to make this a weekly feature, but no promises! I do, however, promise fabulous books.

First up is Snook Alone, written by poet Marilyn Nelson (author of A Wreath for Emmet Till,) and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering (who also illustrated The Tale of Desperaux.) The story is deceptively simple: Snook is the dog of Abba Jacob, a contemplative monk. When Snook is separated from Abba Jacob during a storm, he has lots of time to investigate the island on which he has been abandoned until his master comes back to fetch him. But that summary is merely the scratch on the surface.

When I first read this book, I was reminded of Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, mainly because of the survival element. Snook learns how to find water and fish safely (out of the reach of sharks,) tries to defend his bed against a rather fearsome crab, and spends a good deal of time exploring the island and marking trees "which no dog on earth but he had ever marked."  But when I reread Snook, aloud to my daughter, I was reminded of Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (who was actually Agatha Christie trying her hand at psychologically driven character pieces.) Absent in the Spring tells the story of a fairly shallow woman who finds herself isolated for a few days with no company but her own, and nothing to do but think. Which is kind of what happens to Snook. It's interesting that it took reading the book aloud for me to hear the different silences in the story. For that is where the action of the book takes place, in the silent moments, first at the hermitage where Snook and Abba Jacob live, and then on the island, where Snook is left to wait. Nelson describes life at the hermitage as "a striped flag/of silence, work, food, silence, work, food." On the island the silence is initially described as black, empty, and lonely. But eventually, the isolation of the island is a way of communing with Abba Jacob: "Snook sat still enough/to find the shared silence/of Abba Jacob's chapel/under the rhythmic surge of surf."

In an interview with School Library Journal, Nelson talks about Snook Alone and compares longing to prayer. Snook's longing to be reunited with Abba Jacob is evidence of his spiritual growth but written in proportion to the fact that Snook is, in fact, a dog. Nelson masterfully avoids anthropomorphizing the story with such eloquent phrases as, "In the morning /there were only faint sips of his friend's scent/left for Snook to drink in here and there." The realistic illustrations by Ering also go a long way towards keeping the story honest and empathetic without distilling the impact of the text with cutesy pictures. Domineering landscape portraits drive home the point of a tiny dog against the cathedral of sea and sky. But smaller spot illustrations on those same beaches present a more intimate look at Snook and the way his experience is changing him.

When the "good ending" comes (and it does!) it is a well deserved ending for Snook, Abba Jacob, and the reader. For while there is never any evidence of despair on Snook's part, and the separation was not as long as it probably felt to Snook (and no doubt Abba Jacob,) the lessons of silence--compassion, patience, serenity, joy--are best utilized when the period of silence ends.

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