27 February 2011

My favorite kiddielit cats

I recently read the latest picture book by British author and illustrator Ruth Brown, Gracie the Lighthouse Cat. Ruth Brown is not the household name that she should be in the United States, taking a back seat to more famous picture book Browns; Margaret Wise and Marc being the ones which spring to mind. Ruth Brown draws the natural world with a balance of delicacy and vigor, and her illustrations of animals in particular manage to bring out all their natural personality without overtly anthropomorphizing them (her professional collaborations with James Herriot, for instance, seemed like a match made in Heaven.) Her latest book, which tells two concurrent stories of rescues at sea--one based on actual fact and the other, perhaps not--continues in the style which works so well for her. Reading it, and admiring the cats she drew so beautifully, set me to thinking about some of my favorite cats in children's literature (I'll limit myself to picture books.) I know as soon as I post this I will think of many other favorites, and I'm hoping to get lots of other recommended favorites as well from my readers.

Sticking with Ruth Brown for the moment, I will start with Copycat. And anyone who knows me personally, and has met my cat Richie, will recognize the appeal this book holds for me! The copycat in question is a friendly tom named Buddy who loves to mimic the action of the other animals in the household. Buddy's playful parroting is revealed with peekaboo alternating half and full pages. It's a cute concept, and a cute story. Check out your local library for this one, as it is sadly out of print.

You've heard of library cats, right? This story is based on a real cat who lived in a church in Louisville, Kentucky. One day he turned up and made the church his home, where he eventually lived for 12 years as a well-loved member of the congregation. Ann M. Martin, best known for the Baby-Sitter's Club franchise, tells a touching story about how something as inconsequential yet monumental as a cat can bond a community. Illustrations by the incomparable Emily Arnold McCully complete this loving tribute.

What would a list of my favorites be without a mention of the Church Mice series by Graham Oakley? Incomplete--that's what! Samson is the long-suffering church cat who, after years of sermons about brotherly love, is unable to eat a mouse. He often finds himself at the center of their scrapes and schemes, whether he wants to be there or not. But his loyalty to Arthur and the rest of the mice is beyond question, and his place on this list well-deserved

Rotten Ralph will most definitely never be confused for a church cat. Or a well-behaved one, for that matter. The eponymous anti-hero of this long running series by Jack Gantos and Nicole Rubel (although new entries are not as frequent as I would certainly wish) lives with his ever-patient, ever-forgiving owner, Sarah--who looks to be no older than 8 or 9, by the way. Her parents disappeared after the first book, but Sarah is unwavering in her devotion to her vile kitty. In fact, when she sends him to obedience school in Not So Rotten Ralph, and nothing less than brainwashing will make him change his ways, she realises that she wouldn't change him for the world. More power to her. These subversively disobedient stories are great fun to read and must be a huge relief to really naughty children.

Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty is a relatively recent addition to the world of kiddielit kitty's. She's not as rotten as Ralph, but she is certainly just as funny. And making the jump from picture books to highly illustrated chapter books has meant more bang for your bad kitty. Reminiscent of Bill the Cat, with her bug-eyed manic expression and Tasmanian Devil-ish freak-outs, her aversion to baths, dogs, and Uncle Murray provide plenty of material for roping in reluctant readers.

Pickles the fire cat started out as a side character in Esther Averill's adventures of the Cat Club (most of which focused on shy Jenny Linsky.) He was a stray, hanging out in barrals and mooching off of kindly Mrs. Goodkind. Left to his own devices he would chase cats smaller then himself, which quickly gained him the reputation as a bad cat. He needed a purpose to keep him out of trouble. His mighty paws made him a perfect fit for the local fire department, where he proved himself a natural at coaxing timed cats out of trees. Hands down my favorite book from my childhood.

And while we are talking about cats with a purpose, let's not forget Henry, who at times has been a cross-country cat, a hot-air balloon cat, a sailor cat, and a high-wire cat. He is the beloved pet of Kid and the sometimes antagonist of Man, who shows a preference for the dog but can't seem to do without Henry. The success of this series is that Henry's escapades are grounded in the natural ability of cats, with--when required--a dash of the fantastic. Resourceful, brave, thoughtful, and charismatic, Henry proves time and again that--"Yow-me-yowl!"--he is "some smart cat."

You can't be a cat lover and not appreciate a book which celebrates "the mystical divinity of unashamed felinity" (to quote a certain well-known musical.) This book of poems by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Wendell Minor is not so much about a specific cat as it is about the cat experience. To prove that cats are a source of constant inspiration, the kitties on the cover of this book were none other than the cats of illustrator Minor himself (a third Minor cat also appears in the book.)

And last but not least, since we are on the subject of well-drawn cats, I must mention my all-time favorite cat illustrator, Anne Mortimer. This picture from Cats Sleep Anywhere by Eleanor Farjeon, while not my favorite Mortimer cat (that would be Tosca, from the series by Matthew Sturgis and annoyingly unavailable in a decent scan) is indicative of the quality of cat she produces. Her cats have appeared in books by Margaret Wise Brown, Edward Leer, and Sue Stainton and are always beautifully rendered and uncannily realistic.

Well, there you go! Let me hear about your favorite literary moggies.

14 February 2011

The Cybils winners have arrived!

It's Valentine's Day--also known as Cybils announcement day. Months of hard work by an army of dedicated committee members has resulted in a list of high quality, highly entertaining books for children and young adult readers in an array of genres. Run, don't walk, to the Cybils site to check out the list of winners for 2010.

But before you go! As a member of the Nonfiction Picture Book Panel, Round 2  I had great pleasure in selecting this year's winning title. And so, without further ado, I present The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley, with illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham.

This is a biography about Mark Twain which isn't so much about Twain himself but about one of his biographers. Of her own volition, and initially in secret, Twain's thirteen year old daughter, Susy, started to write a biography of her famous father, a man she described as "an extraordinarily fine-looking man. All of his features are perfect, except that he hasn't extraordinary teeth." When Twain realized that he was the subject of such an intimate portrait, he was touched and gratified and flattered. He valued his daughter's perspective while he was amused by her "frequently desperate" spelling. By writing about Susy writing about Twain, Kerley paints a portrait of artists at work--one under the glare of celebrity and one in obscurity. It is a portrait of a relationship, despite the focus on an individual. The book cleverly includes excerpts from Susy's biography as attachments which can be read within the narrative of the book or enjoyed separately on a second perusal.

Note should also be made of Fotheringham's illustrations, which are bold and playful and completely without gravitas, not unlike Twain himself at times. Susy and her father are often presented in counter-point to each other as the biographer surveys her subject before subjecting him to her pen.

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) tops a list of over 100 nominations which were put forward at the beginning of the Cybils process way back in October. This book distinguished itself in terms of literary quality, brilliant illustrations, and immense child appeal. Congratulations to all of the winners of the 2010 Cybils Awards.

13 February 2011

On My Reading Radar: The Unforgettable Season

Just in time for Spring Training! Last year, the release of the excellent No Easy Way by Fred Bowen finally introduced Ted Williams as a subject for picture book biographies, a move which was long overdue in my opinion. This spring he is making an appearance again in The Unforgettable Season, written by Phil Bildner with illustrations by S.D. Schindler. The book is about the summer of 1941, when Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox and Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees were pursuing two of the most enduring records in baseball history. Author Phil Bildner has written a number of outstanding baseball picture books (Shoeless Joe and Black Betsy is probably my favorite) so this book has the potential to be something really special (blatant plug to Penguin USA--I'd love a review copy!)

This book gives me another opportunity to post my open letter to Dan Gutman. I'm still hoping for that Stosh and Teddy meeting!

Note: since I posted this I have been informed that there will in fact be a "Ted and Me" entry in the Baseball Card Adventures series. Huzzah! And about time.

04 February 2011

From Page to Stage: Pet Shop Boys and The Most Incredible Thing

Once upon a time--in February 2009 to be exact--I blogged about reports that the Pet Shop Boys were working on a ballet based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. That ballet is now finished and will start its run at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London from 17-27 March. I envy all you lucky Londoners who can go see it! I will have to content myself with the two-disc soundtrack which will be released, also in March. The play is based on The Most Incredible Thing, which is not an Andersen story that I am familiar with, though clearly that is about to change.

You can see Neil and Chris talking about the ballet in this video. It must be incredible, as it completely dominates my blog! (Ok--it could just be a formatting issue--but still! I sure wish I could go see it.)

02 February 2011

The Best of January

Here is a wrap up of my 4 and 5 star picture book reads for January, 2011. I haven't differentiated between 4 or 5 (although you can see them all at Goodreads.) I like most books I read--I give out a lot of 3 out of 5's. I am struck by very few, so if I give out 4 stars, then I think the book is great and worthy of note. As for how a book gets 5 stars: if it's not because the book is hands-down-genius, sometimes the difference between 4 or 5 can be as fleeting as a personal preference for the topic or an appreciation of the author's or illustrator's body of work which inclines me to adore everything they do. Not very scientific, but it works for me.

So, without further ado:

Snook Alone (Nelson, Marilyn; ills. Timothy Basil Ering)

The Buffalo are Back (George, Jean Craighead; ills. Wendell Minor)
Tells the story of the near extinction of buffalo from the American west, as well as the devastating effect it had on the plains. Part fable, part non-fiction, this is an impressive book, well-served by the picture book format.

The Worst Person in the World (Stevenson, James)
The Worst Person in the World at Crab Beach

Bear in the Air (Meyers, Susan; ills. Amy Bates)
Sweeter than Edward Tulane--and not nearly as traumatic--this story of one teddy bear's (mis)adventures is full of charm and cheer.

Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse (McCully, Emily Arnold)
Before there was Mr. Ed, there was Jim Key, a horse who learned to spell, recognize colors, and generally amaze and amuse an initially skeptical 19th century world. Trained by ex-slave Bill "Doc" Key, who used nothing but patience and kindness to train the animal, Jim Key's story is as much a referendum on his master as his own talents. Doc Key faced prejudice by those who thought he couldn't possibly be smart enough to read himself, never mind train a horse. Doc's work with Jim eventually earned the recognition of Harvard University and the Humane Society and made them both very famous.

A Beach Tail (Williams, Karen Lynn; ills. Cooper, Floyd)
 Beachcombing and a summer's day spent with a beloved parent--the perfect recipe for a read-aloud.

Jack's Path of Courage (Rappaport, Doreen; ills. Matt Tavares)

Saving the Baghdad Zoo: a True Story of Hope and Heroes (Halls, Kelly Milner and Maj. William Sumner)

An uplifting account of the successful cooperation between the United States Army and concerned citizens of Baghdad as they rescue and revive animals abandoned after the invasion of Iraq.

All Pigs are Beautiful (King-Smith, Dick; ills. Anita Jeram)
Unabashed appreciation for pigs is sprinkled among procine facts in this picture book offering by the late Dick King-Smith.

The Blue House Dog (Blumenthal, Deborah; ills. Adam Gustavson)

A boy whose dog has died befriends a stray whose owner has died. Sensitive and quiet, this book highlights the special relationship that can develop between animals and humans.

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