28 November 2007

Anne Frank's Tree

According to the Guardian (UK) the tree outside the house where Anne Frank and her family were hidden--a tree she mentions often in her famous diary--is in danger of being cut down. It is dying and in a position to damage the historic house should it, or any of its closest limbs, come down in a storm. Needless to say, cutting down the tree has proven to be a controversial issue, and if it comes down, it won't be without a fight.

Perhaps if I visited the tree and saw it with my own eyes, and imagined myself looking at it through the only available glass in the house that wasn't blocked up, I might feel differently about this. I remember how I felt when I visited the World War I battlegrounds in Belgium, and by seeing just how close the trenches had been to each other, better grasping the enormity of what happened there. But thinking about the matter from a distance, I can't help but feel that Anne's legacy is her book; that her book has become a greater symbol of hope than the tree will ever be. The tree can go, because the story lives on.

Bedtime Stories

I love my Pirate Papa (Leuck, Laura)
The Copycat (Hersom, Kathleen and Donald)
George and Martha, Back in Town (Marshall, James)
Out of the Egg (Matthews, Tina)
The Wizard of Oz (Baum, Frank L.)

A bit of everything tonight--old favorites, new twists. I've been looking forward to sharing "Oz" for some time now. Since my daughter has not even seen the film yet in its entirety, this seems like a good time to introduce the original. And it's nice to take a break from the American Girls!

I particularly liked Out of the Egg. More than simply a fractured fairy tale (Little Red Hen gets the works in this one,) it was a truly wise adaptation of a story that sometimes reads vindictive. The title is more than a simple reference to the birth of a chick; it is an expression of how children can break away from the patterns of their parents and teach lessons of their own.

While looking for images of "Pirate Papa" and "Copycat" I came across the websites of the illustrators. Check them out! I had not previously seen the work of Kyle M. Stone, but I am well-familiar with Catherine Stock. She has illustrated dozens of children's books. I've even reviewed one of the them, The Bora Bora Dress (Schaffer, Carole, Alexis.) I didn't think much of the book (as my review indicated,) but I loved Stock's illustrations. And indeed, I am blurbed on her site! No attribution, of course, but as a representative of School Library Journal, I recognize my words (just like a parent ^_^.)

27 November 2007

On My Radar--The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets

I was ordering books this afternoon, and I saw this one. I love the Enola Holmes mysteries. I'm not always a fan of literary sequels/prequels/tie-ins, because often times I feel like the author is simply trying to piggyback their book onto a more famous title (or, as in the case of Wide Sargasso Sea, they have some sort of agenda against the original text.) But the Enola Holmes books work because author Nancy Springer manages to balance her own character with the more famous and revered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle creation. And they are darn good stories!


Okay--this has nothing to do with Children's Literature. But I'm so happy, I have to share. Rose is coming back!

26 November 2007

Book of the Week--The Little Skyscraper

This is a favorite, and whenever we see it on the library's shelf, it eventually ends up on ours. And in light of recent buzz about the Kindle leading to a new and improved literary experience, this is a timely selection.

At one time, the Little Skyscraper is the tallest building in the city. His grace and beauty fills everyone with pride and inspiration. But as time moves on, taller, more modern buildings spring up around the Little Skyscraper, and our friend is overshadowed and redundant. Fortunately for the Little Skyscraper, this is a picture book with a message, and he is saved from a dreadful fate because one person remembers the building's glory and treasures it. Sweetly illustrated and concisely told, this is a lovely book, and it will enjoy repeat readings in this house until the day it is due back at the library.

Kiddie Kindle?

This morning I finally read the Newsweek article, The Future of Reading, about Amazon's Jeff Bezos and the impact of the Kindle on reading, the book in general, and all that makes sense in the known universe. Frankly, I found the article terrifying! I wasn't as upset about the device's effect on reading, as I was about it's effect on writing. The idea of a novel as a collaborative process, wikified and edited by it's readership, gave me the shivers. Not every one's cup of tea, to say the least.

But as I was reading, I couldn't help but think about what a very adult device the Kindle is. I'm sure kiddie kindles are in the works, just like the digital cameras Fisher Price makes for toddlers, and the child friendly keyboards for computers. One of the appealing features of the kindle, according to the article, is that it's "bookish". It feels like a book--has a book's jes ne se quai. But how can one appreciate the bookish appeal of a device if one is still learning what a book is? Could I use a Kindle effectively in story time? How would picture book illustrations fare on a device no larger than a paperback? We see how artwork for LP's was diminished when reduced to the size of a CD jewel case (and it's hardly worth mentioning the tiny little image in an ipod's screen.)

Trekkies will be aware that when Captain Jean Luc Picard needs to relax after a hard day on the Enterprise, he reached for his Earl Grey (hot) and a massive tome of Shakespeare, not the tiny palm-sized tablet he uses for work (or, admittedly, that budding author Jake Sisko on Deep Space Nine uses. A generational preference, perhaps?) The point is, the death of the book has been predicted many times before. And although the Kindle doesn't so much represent the death of the book as its evolution, I reckon that the experiences of our youngest readers will dictate the success and viability of the Kindle, and not the Tech Heads (and I count myself as a Tech Head!) who love new gadgets.

21 November 2007

Beowulf for Children?

Evidently former British Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo thought it was a good idea. He adapted a version of the epic poem just for kids. I guess you would file that under "not just for grown-ups". You can read what he thinks about the new film adaptation (in 3-D, no less. I did not know it was released in 3-D.)

20 November 2007

What I am Reading Today--The Last Polar Bears

I'm not real sure what to make of this one. It tells the story of a grandfather (no name, only "Grandfather") who decides to travel to the North Pole so that he can see a real polar bear in the wild, rather than in captivity. He takes his dog, Roo, (who I'm sure is supposed to be charming, but who I found to be selfish and annoying,) and they set off. This is an epistolary novel, and the letters are all addressed to "Child". Grandfather and Roo set sail on the Unsinkable and head for the North Pole and the Great Bear Ridge (which Grandfather has told Roo is made of ice cream. Whether she believes him or not is unclear.)

To be honest, there is a lot about this book that is unclear. Why does Roo act more like a human than a dog? She talks, cleans, and has an allowance. Even though Grandfather finds the polar bears, is he really at the North Pole? The town of Walrus, where they initially set up camp, is a tiny outpost inhabited by drunken wolves with a taste for rum, and an unusual calendar (the final letter is dated 40 October.) At some point this book takes a turn into the absurd. Grandfather and Roo deal with genuine obstacles on their journey, such as freak snowstorms and food shortages. But they also spend a good part of their time playing golf, which does not seem like a necessary activity when you are a Septuagenarian fulfilling a life-long dream.

But perhaps most puzzling about the book is why it just stops. They reach the polar bears--the end. Admittedly, this is part of a series, and Grandfather and Roo will visit other places around the world, but a tidier ending would have been more satisfying after the whimsy of the text.

Author/illustrator Harry Horse is best known in the States for his Little Rabbit books. But he had a long career as a political cartoonist. He also had a rather tragic death (although some might disagree with me about that.) It is difficult to read The Last Polar Bears without relating it to his death. And for a gentle story--because this is at heart a gentle story--that's a shame.

18 November 2007

Read it Again, Mummy!--The Witch's Child

Were it not for the fact that I wanted a holiday book for Book of the Week (and that I adore The Ugly Pumpkin,) Arthur Yorinks' The Witch's Child would have been chosen. And if my daughter made the decisions on this blog, you can guarantee that this book would have gotten the nod. She liked it so much that she asked me to read it twice tonight, at the expense of a chapter of Meet Samantha.

So here's the story: for reasons known only to herself, the rather nasty witch Rosina decides that she would like to have a child. So she makes herself one and names her Rosalie. She gives the child a room full of toys and anything her heart could desire (but being heartless herself, how would Rosina know anything about 'heart's desire'?) When Rosina cannot find a way to bring Rosalie to life, she discards her; no "Gepetto Parent of the Year" awards here! Then, to accentuate her nastiness, Rosina turns local children into thorn bushes. All seams dire until Lina, "an inquisitive girl," wanders into the witch's house and finds the abandoned Rosalie. She cleans her up and plays with her. A little love goes a long way, as the witch discovers too late.

The message of the book is fairly clear; love makes us real. It is a theme we have seen in The Velveteen Rabbit, and even fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Snow white, where a kiss literally restores life. No wonder my daughter wanted to hear it twice. But as the parent reading this book, I came away with a completely different message. The final line of the story, in describing the return of the children who were turned into thorn bushes, is, "With Rosina gone, her clouds departed, and finally, in the sun's embrace, the bushes that were children were children again, and their parents loved them and were thankful for them and properly cared for them, as well they should." Bad parenting is rampant in this book, from the dodgy rationale behind Rosina's parental urge, to Lina who "strayed too far from her parents". Well, it would seem that she strayed too far, just as the thorn bush children were "lured away," because the parents were not paying attention. So for me, the message is "Love 'em or lose 'em." Be thankful for your children, because they are gifts, not rights.

Gee, maybe this is a holiday book after all.

Book of the Week--The Ugly Pumpkin

With Thanksgiving on Thursday, this week's book of the week is a Turkey Day book with no turkey. The Ugly Pumpkin by Dave Horowitz starts as a Halloween trick and finishes as a Thanksgiving treat. It's a sweet and funny ugly duckling story--told in clever rhyme, no less!

17 November 2007

Quote of the day

In a review of--among others--Jon Agee's Nothing for the New York Times (and a former NJFK Book of the Week,) author Emily Jenkins writes:

"The buried lessons in highly entertaining classics like "Where the Wild Things are" and "Millions of Cats"--or in popular new titles like "Fancy Nancy" and "Library Lion"--are more engaging than those in books that explicitly exhort children to like themselves, eschew prejudice, value love over material objects and other such morals, important though they are."

Amen! It seems that in recent months I have been sent to review more than one picture book hitting me over the head with the "it's-good-to-be-different" hammer. Adults don't like a heavy handed approach, and neither do children. Perhaps the number one reason why I prefer to read children's literature over adult literature (unless it predates the 20th century) is that the story is still alive in children's books. So much modern, "grown-up" literature seems to be more about making a point rather than telling a tale. The best books manage to do both. But it should always be the story, not the moral, that sticks.

As for Ms. Jenkins, a prolific author, start with Toys go Out and Love You When You Whine.

15 November 2007

Coming to a Theatre Near You

The following books will be released as films by Walden Media in 2008:

Nim's Island (based on the book by Wendy Orr)
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspin (the incomparable C.S. Lewis)
Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (I'm sure author Jules Verne would appreciate the extra effort of filming in 3D)
The City of Ember (IMHO, one of the most overrated books in recent memory.)

Let's hope that the good folks at Walden Media have learned their lesson after the "Seeker" debacle and focus on more faithful adaptations. Also, are their any non-fantasy books in the works? Interesting, film-worty stuff happens in the real world, too.

National Book Award Winners

The National Book Award Winners were announced last night. This year's winner for Young People's Literature was Alexie Sherman's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Well Done! I'm sorry that Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret did not win because, 1) I loved it and 2) it really challenged the boundaries of the novel as a format. And that is a noble tradition that goes all the way back to the 18th Century (Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.) But all in all, an excellent book has been recognized, and we can all take pleasure in that!

14 November 2007

What I am Reading Today--Starcross

I have been so looking forward to this book; pretty much since I closed the cover of its predecessor, Larklight. As soon as this made its way through Tech Services I grabbed it. And, I'm pleased to say, I have not been disappointed! The Victorian intergalactic adventures of Art, his ever so proper sister Myrtle, their 2,000,000 year old mother, and the space pilot-cum-British-spy Jack Havistock continue as they do their duty for Queen and Country. 'Science Fiction' is one of those terms that has fallen out of favor, particularly among the biggest fans of the genre. The replacement term, 'speculative fiction' is a fantastic substitute in this case, because both Larklight and Starcross are speculating on an epic scale. With one simple premise--alchemists never could turn base materials into gold, but they did develop warp technology--and one far-reaching backdrop (Queen Victoria's British Empire,) author Philip Reeve has created a series of adventure stories with the sensibility of M.T. Anderson and the bustles of Anthony Trollope. Give us more, kind sir!

Publishers Weekly Best of 2007

Warm off the presses, here are the top choices for 2007 by the folks at Publishers Weekly. You'll notice that a couple of these titles made an appearance here at various points during the year.

13 November 2007

More Dahl Please--Fantastic Mr. Fox

Found this on the Times (that's, of London) website. American director Wes Anderson is directing a feature length adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, with George Cloony. What I want to know is, does The Fantastic Mr. Cloony speak West Country?

12 November 2007

You know the end of the year is near.....

....when all those "Best of" lists start coming out. The New York Times has got things rolling with its list of Best Illustrated Children's Books. I notice that of the ten mentioned, one of them is Jabberwocky, a rather startling and innovative retelling
of the famous Lewis Carrol poem, using inner city basketball as the motif. Hey, if Shakespeare can be adapted and interpreted, why not Carrol? I mention this particular book, because I bought a copy for work, and it has gone down like the proverbial lead balloon. But now I am vindicated! O Frabjous Day!

Notable absences (IMHO): Robot Dreams by Sara Veron and Dogs and Cats by Steve Jenkins.

Freedom isn't free--Veterans Day 2007

With heartfelt thanks to those who have served this country and who are serving still on my behalf.

11 November 2007

Book of the Week--Rainstorm

Not since William Steig's Pete's a Pizza has a rainy day been so much fun. Barbara Lehman's Rainstorm tells the story of a little boy, alone in his tidy nursery in his big old house, and the adventure he discovers when he finds a key under a chair. This is yet another wordless picture book, a genre which is rapidly becoming my favorite in children's literature (and the third featured as a Book of the Week.) And cliche though this might sound, words here are unnecessary. The images work so well on their own, that even the title is one word too many. The combination of full page pictures and comic style blocks advance the story perfectly. 1000 words? These pictures speak volumes.

08 November 2007

Sick Day

The little one was home sick today (which means I was home today, too, but reasonably healthy.) In between cat naps, we enjoyed a few books together.

More Spaghetti, I Say! (Gelman, Rita Golden)
A Witch got on at Paddington Station (Sheldon, Dyan)
Mercy Watson Fights Crime (DiCamillo, Kate)
Big Bad Wolves at School (Krensky, Stephen)

I'm already well familiar with "Spaghetti" and "Mercy Watson"; they are established favorites in our house, and now the fun is that, where as I used to read them to my daughter, she is now able to read them to me. But both "Wolves" and "Witch" were surprises. They weren't at all what I was expecting. I thought "Wolves" would be about, well, big bad wolves going to school and causing trouble. But the twist in this fractured fairy tale is that the wolves go to school in order to become big and bad. They attend the Bad Wolf Academy where they learn such useful skills as huffing and puffing and speaking a second language (that would be, "Baaaaaa".)

As for "Witch", it caught my eye, because after my time in England, working in the transport industry, no less, I couldn't resist the picture of the routemaster on the cover. And although I think it was supposed to be a comic story about non-conformity and magic, my lasting impression of the book is the portrayal of the uptight, jobsworth conductor who does his best to evict the unassuming witch from his bus. Perhaps I'm just sensitive, having worked as a railway conductor, and knowing what sort of wise guys take advantage--in every sense of the word--of public transportation. But he really did encompass all the negative stereotypes we worked so hard to discourage and dispel after privatization.

But I digress. And speaking of digressions, I'd love to know how much "Witch" illustrator was influenced by the style of fellow English illustrator, the late, great Janet Ahlberg.

Oo la la! Make room for extra Nancy

The world is about to get a whole lot more fancy. February 2008 will see the release of at least three more Fancy Nancy books, including some 'I Can Read" titles for the youngest connoisseurs (that's a fancy word for 'fans.') And if that's still too long a wait, Fancy Nancy Loves! Loves! Loves! is due out at the end of this month.

05 November 2007

Book of the Week--The End

David LaRochelle's picture book The End joins such cultural mind benders as the film Memento and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (where we know the answer, just not the question.) Okay, well, maybe I'm stretching the comparison a bit, but the fact is that The End is a clever little oddity that starts at the end of the story and works its way backwards to the start. And, having read the book both forwards (that is, backwards) and back (you know what I mean!) it made more sense starting at....the end. With joyful illustrations by Richard Egielski (of Hey Al! fame) this book shows how the wisdom of hindsight can illuminate just about any situation. Even one that starts, "They all lived happily ever after."

03 November 2007

Bedtime Stories

Gargoyles: Monsters in Stone (Dussling, Jennifer)
Un-Brella (Franson, Scott E.)
Gimme Cracked Corn and I Will Share (O'Malley, Kevin)
Someday (Spinelli, Eileen)

Rather an eclectic selection tonight. We had a wordless picture book (Un-Brella,) a pun-fest ('Cracked Corn",) a prose picture book (Someday,) and a highly informative early reader. Did you know that "gargoyle" comes from a French word meaning "throat"? and have you noticed that it sounds very much like "gargle", which is technically what a Gargoyles do, since they are decorative water spouts? Bedtime reading that is not just for kids indeed!

Check out this trailer for Un-Brella. It doesn't really give an idea of what the book is about (a little girl and her magic umbrella that turns a snowy day to a sunny one, and vice-versa.) But it's sweet and gentle, and the book is certainly all that.

01 November 2007

What I Am Reading Today--Edwards Eyes

I actually got about half-way through this slim little volume and then abandoned it for the World Series (which the Red Sox won, BTW, have you heard?!) So I have started all over from the beginning, but to be honest, my impression has not changed the second time through. An air of gentle doom (if you can imagine that) hangs over the story, which is told in an episodic manner. Rather than a narrative, it reads like a string of scenes. I'm finding it frustrating, because I don't feel as if I am getting to know the characters; I'm just being told what the author, the Newbery Award winning Patricia MacLachlan, wants me to know. That's too bad, because I consider character development to be one of her strengths as a writer. And other than Edward's desire to learn how to through a knuckle ball, I don't get a feel for the developing story (which doesn't seem to be developing at all.) This book has been lauded and praised in all the review journals, so what do I know? Well, I know that so far I am not particularly enthused about Edwards Eyes, despite the many baseball and Sox references.

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