Friday, August 27, 2010

Luka & the Fire of Life & Haroun & the Sea of Stories

Haroun & the Sea of Stories
Luka & the Fire of Life

[Random House, September 16th, 2010]
by Salman Rushdie

Have you ever had a child ask you why? The ubiquitous why, followed by your fumbling to come up with an answer that, if it is buried in your mind, is too complicated to explain? Rushdie gives you an answer: the P2C2E (problem, or process, too difficult to explain) perfect to use in the rush of life, when most of the objects around you are too complicated for you to understand, let alone explain.

If you’re an adult and have browsed the Rushdie selection at your local bookseller or library you may have seen Haroun and the Sea of Stories, though my experience tells me the odds are not that good. What you most definitely have not seen is a Rushdie in the children’s section and I think we ought to change that.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is loved by both children and adults. It is very much a nonsense adventure, reminiscent of The Phantom Tollbooth and full of Carroll-esque wordplay. P2C2Es, iffing and butting, glumfish, these words beg to be read aloud, told over nights to intent yet gigging children, and yet no audio version is available, meaning the story must be personally experienced in the act of reading aloud. Containing such marvels as the Ocean of the Streams of Story, Wishwater presented by a genie, and a city in Perpetual Night, Haroun is a marvelous story full of beautiful embroideries. But Haroun is also an allegory, and adults familiar with Rushdie’s personal story will see aspects of his life played out by the Shah of Blah.

Luka and the Fire of Life, written for Rushdie’s second child, is an adventure for the Shah of Blah’s second child. Again, we follow a classic journey into lands of the unknown and through a series of trials our protagonist comes of age. Like Haroun, Luka is aided throughout the book by an afflicted version of his father, in this case his father’s death, Nobodaddy. But unlike Haroun, this book resonates more strongly for children than adults, having references to current culture and following the form of a video game.

The World of Magic is a world of Luka’s father, Rashid Khalifa’s, creation. It is the stories he has told that populate this world, from characters of Egyptian mythology to Doctor Who. As such, Luka recognizes aspects of it and is able to navigate it based on his interactions with his father. But no child knows all the secrets of his parents and Luka faces the unknown as well (otherwise it wouldn’t be an adventure).

At the same time, this is very much Luka’s adventure. A child of the twenty-first century, video games are a part of Luka’s life. His adventure takes the form of a video game with literal levels for each stage of the hero’s journey. Lives can be accumulated and are tracked in a counter at the edge of Luka’s vision. Additionally, there are saving points at the ends of levels, and, like a video game, saving allows one to return to the same point upon obliteration. While this format may be awkward for some adults, I think it will resonate with middle grade readers, for whom such a structure is commonplace.

Yet the old myths and stories are utilized by Rushdie as well. The one strong female character in the World of Magic is a young woman named Soraya, the same name as Rashid’s wife and Luka’s mother. Being the most important woman in the lives of both Rashid and Luka, she naturally is the woman in Rashid’s world. In a classic nod to Oedipus, Luka is not only in awe of this woman, but slightly attracted to her as well. This nod to Greek tragedy may well pass over the heads of middle readers while jumping out at adults. It is this duality, this melding of both old and new tales, that allows Rushdie’s work to resonate with both adults and children. However, I wonder at the choice to publish this novel as an adult book.

Unlike Haroun, which can be read on many levels, Luka and the Fire of Life doesn’t push as far. There is less word play, less struggle between good versus bad and the eventual discovery of grey, things that are associated with classic crossover stories. Luka’s initial curse, and the resulting counter-curse, are a classic way to begin a story and his companions, Dog the bear and Bear the dog, are the sort of things you know you’ve read before. But when Luka enters the World of Magic, his experiences, and the video-game format of them, feel more easily accessible to middle-grade readers than adults. This may also be attributed to the number of references thrown together in the World of Magic and the segmentation the levels bring to them; giving the book a slightly episodic feel that doesn’t follow as smooth an arc as Haroun.

Like many books primarily classified as middle-grade, Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events coming immediately to mind, Luka and the Fire of Life is also an enjoyable read for adults. But now that adults are getting more used to venturing into the children’s department for their novels, Luka and the Fire of Life may find a more comfortable home in the middle-grade section. After all, who can resist “the World of Magic” with “Elephant Birds, and Respecto-Rats, and a real, honest-to-goodness Flying Carpet, and then there was the little matter of becoming a Fire Thief” (ARC, pg 216).

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Enola Holmes

Have I seriously neglected to mention Enola Holmes? Dear me, how utterly dreadful to have kept such wonders from you.

Last summer I went through a phase in which I listened to Sherlock Holmes as I worked. BBC radio dramas, the stories read aloud with and without supporting casts....if the library had it I grabbed it. When I exhausted my library's selection, I ventured into the middle grade section, hoping to catch up on middle grade novels published during my college years. I ran across an Enola Holmes mystery and was back the next day to grab all the audios they had. Katherine Kellgren reads for the audio versions and her voice is perfect- and that's not a word I generally like to use. The novels are written in the first person- we see the world through Enola's eyes. Kellgren's talents are wonderful and her voice as Enola's is captivating.

Enola Holmes (series)
by Nancy Springer
Enola Holmes is the younger sister of that most famous of detectives. Her name backwards is alone, which is important if you're the sort of person who believes in fate or destiny. When her mother mysteriously disappears, Mycroft and Sherlock descend upon the country house. Refusing to be sent to finishing school by Mycroft, Enola disguises herself and runs away to London where she solves her own cases while also managing to evade her brothers. Enola is a strong, intelligent character with sly sleuthing skills to rival Sherlock’s. A fast-paced period-perfect series of adventures. 12 & up.

Patricia Polacco

The Junkyard Wonders
by Patricia Polacco

Polacco books tend to make me cry. And once I've gotten over the story itself, I'm hit with a wave of amazement at the number and breath of books Polacco has created. Her ability to handle issues, cultural differences, and difficult events in the format of a picture book is frankly astonishing- and something few people can accomplish so beautifully.

Polacco's newest book is no exception. The story follows children in the "junkyard" classroom, those who are different in various ways. But as their teacher, Mrs. Peterson, tells them, they are junkyard wonders, for it is from these different children that the true geniuses will come. It is through the eyes of young Trisha that we experience the trials and miraculous inventions of Mrs. Peterson's class. Polacco's illustrations combine the detail of photographs with the color and movement of life, bringing vitality to every page.

This personal account was made even more wonderful by the delightful note on the last page of the book, in which Polacco relates the futures of her fellow junk yard wonders. It is a story so perfect and wonderful it could only be found in real life. And I'll leave it as a delightful surprise for you as well.

Mo Willems

The final book in Mo Willems' Caldecott Honor-Winning Knuffle Bunny series is coming out in September. I'm currently in the process of planning an event for the book release and am very excited about the third book; I think it is a fitting ending to the series.

For those of you who don’t know who Mo Willems is, you may wish to inquire of a four-year-old “Why can’t the pigeon drive the bus?” Or perhaps ask him, “What exactly is a Knuffle Bunny?” It will be rather surprising if you are not answered with elaborate explanations or lots of giggling. But for those of you without a four-year-old in the vicinity, the answer will be a little longer.

Mo Willems is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist currently living in Northampton, Massachusetts. He began his career as a writer and animator for Sesame Street, where he was awarded 6 Emmy Awards for his writing. He went on to work on shows for both Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and it was during this time that he began creating children’s books.

In 2004 Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus won a Caldecott Honor. In this silly book, a bus driver asks the reader to watch his bus for a little while, with one important instruction, not to let the pigeon drive the bus. The rest of the book is taken up by pigeon, who wheedles and begs and cries and rages- like any human three-year-old- to be allowed to drive the bus.

Willems’ first Caldecott Honor was followed by two others, one for Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale in 2005, and the other for Knuffle Bunny, Too in 2008. This delightful series stars Trixie and her stuffed Knuffle Bunny, who she can’t live without. The highly-anticipated last book in this Caldecott Honor-winning trilogy, Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion will be released September 28th.

More recently, Willems wrote City Dog, Country Frog, which was illustrated by Zen Shorts creator Jon Muth, and which has spent two months on the New York Times Children’s Bestseller list. Willems continues to create cartoons with Weston Woods Studios and his animated version of Knuffle Bunny won Best Film in 2008 at the New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion
Trixie and her parents (and Knuffle Bunny, of course) get on an airplane to visit Trixie’s Oma and Opa in Holland. But upon arriving at her grandparent’s house, Trixie realizes that Knuffle Bunny hasn’t arrived with them! A frantic phone call to the airline reveals that Knuffle Bunny was left on the airplane, now bound for China (which is very far away indeed). Trixie feels terrible, but when a dream about Knuffle Bunny meeting other children makes her feel better, she begins to realize that perhaps she’s growing-up. And then, on the plane back to the United States, a crying baby and a startling surprise in her seat pocket cause her to make an important decision.

Willems’ Knuffle Bunny trilogy celebrates the bond between child and stuffed animal with humor and respect. It’s a bond many so many children have shared, one that goes beyond toy to playmate, companion, and confidante. While the end of a series is always difficult, this one ends with the possibility of future adventures for Knuffle Bunny and delightful possibilities for Trixie’s own future, ones that will have adults tearing-up as they read aloud.

A crime-fighting Lunch Lady

Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown
By Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Everyone has wondered what lunch ladies do in their spare time. The answer? Fight crime! Lunch Lady has already brought down cyborg substitutes and the League of (evil) Librarians (with the help of the Breakfast Bunch Kids).

It’s summer time and Lunch Lady is looking forward to a relaxing vacation job at summer camp. But when the legendary Swamp Monster starts terrorizing the camp, she’ll have to break out her super-hero skills. Armed with fish-stick nunchucks, lunch tray laptops, and s’more throwing stars, Lunch Lady is out to save the day in her fourth graphic adventure.
Grade 1 & up.

Monday, August 9, 2010

David Wiesner

Art and Max
by David Wiesner
Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I love Wiesner's work. Tuesday is one of my top three pictures books of all time (I say top three because actually ordering such a thing is impossible). The incredible detail of his illustrations creates such miraculous magical realism. The preview I've seen of Art and Max (coming this fall) is no exception. The atmosphere, breathtaking detail, and bizarre story is all you could possibly want. This is not a book I can review or blurb- it must be seen.

Good and bad

Not a Scary Story About Big Scary Things
by C.K. Williams & Gabi Swiatkowska
In the woods there lives a big scary monster that likes nothing better than to scare little children. But what happens when a boy walking through the forest doesn't believe in the terrifying monster?

I love this story. The dialogue between the boy and the monster, the scary descriptions of how the monster may's all wonderfully fun. I am not, however, a fan of the illustrations. There's a stiffness, a trying-too-hard-to-be-messy quality to them. While I can understand the desire to leave the actual monster up to the imagination of the reader, I find the varried depictions of both monster and setting inconsistent. Rather than giving the book a more universal feel, these inconsistencies break up the story and make me apt to forget them altogether and focus on my own imaginings. Additionally, the boy character, the only unchanging character in the book, is an old-fashioned depiction, a sort of old European children's book illustration with styling like that of a doll. I feel this depiction will only alienate viewers from the character, especially children today. So, fabulous text for a classic story, read it and forget the rest of the package.

Perfectly Sinister

Dillweed's Revenge: A Deadly Does of Magic
written by Florence Parry Heide with Roxanne Heide Pierce, David Fisher Parry, and Jeanne McReynolds Parry
illustrated by Carson Ellis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I was immediately drawn to this book, being a fan of Carson Ellis' illustrations-think Decemberists' posters and the covers of The Mysterious Benedict Society series. The story is dark and strange, complete with nasty adults and a series of coffins that immediately gets one thinking about Edward Gorey. Which, it turns out, is exactly where one's mind should go, as Edward Gorey illustrated Heide's Treehorn series in the 1970s.

Dillweed and his strange pet, Skorped, are forced to do the servant's work when Dillweed's parents are away having fun, which is often. It's a miserable existence, but at least they have each other. That is until Perfidia, the maid, decides to get rid of Skorped.

This is a dark adventure that will be enjoyed by strange children, followed by terrible teens, and laughed at by absurd adults.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Some Fall Picture Books

Piggy Pie Po
by Don & Audrey Wood
Harcourt Children's Books, September
This Fall, from the creators of The Napping House, Piggies, King Bidgood's in the Bathtub, and my personal favorite, Heckedy Peg, comes a silly new story of an adorable pig named Piggy Pie Po. Piggy Pie Po likes many things and he is a very accomplished little pig- the only thing he can't do is tie his shoes. Piggy Pie Po loves to eat. He eats his way through a table-full of food, until he makes a terrible mistake, eating a red-hot chili pepper!
The colorful pictures, are, as always, delightful. Very young children will enjoy the rhyming text and speedy pace of the story. Though Piggy Pie Po will be released in Hardcover in September, it would make a delightful board book. Great for the 2-4 crowd, Piggy Pie Po would also make a wonderful baby shower gift.*

*I know there are a lot of people intent on purchasing only classics for baby showers. But the fact is, many people already have the classics, especially if this isn't a first child. So why not pick a new book by award-winning author/illustrators of classics?
Diary of a Baby Wombat
written by Jackie French
illustrated by Bruce Whatley
It's not often I love books for being cute, but baby wombat, is, well, cute. And who has he discovered to be his new friend? A human baby. Meanwhile, mum wombat is trying to find a bigger hole for her and baby to sleep in, and baby wombat, while trying to be helpful, is only causing trouble as usual. Will mum find them a bigger hole? And will baby wombat help her?

The interactions between the human baby and baby wombat are sweet while the mum and baby wombat interactions are classically fun (especially for parents). Just looking at a sequence of mum and baby sleeping will win you over.
The Boy in the Garden
by Allen Say
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October
Allen Say is an undisputed master of both story and illustration. His books are quiet and strong, using few words to tell deep and complex stories that always leave me feeling a bit melancholic. It is important when approaching The Boy in the Garden, to make sure you read "The Story That Mom Read to Jiro: the Grateful Crane," on the first page for this legend is the basis for the story and not one common in the United States.
Pocket Full of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
illustrated by Salley Mavor
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September
I tend to be ambivalent when it comes to nursery rhymes; there have been so many collections and so many illustrators, and, for me, they were never as good as a story. But Salley Mavor's illustrations are incredible. Using beads, felt, thread, wood, and other natural found objects Mavor has crafted a soft, warm, and infinitely charming world. Every tiny piece of clothing (to give you a sense of scale, acorn tops are hats) is embroidered with textures or patterns. The most difficult part of executing a three-dimensional illustration is the lighting and photography, and the reproductions here are beautiful. The texture is soft and visible, but not overly emphasized or overwhelming. Objects have a soft shadow to give depth, and the colors retain their earth to jewel tones. While I wouldn't ordinarily think of purchasing a book of nursery rhymes for myself, Mavor's illustrations are something I want to revisit often.

Monday, August 2, 2010

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

by Charles Yu
Pantheon, September
A novel about a man coming to terms with his father and his place in the world while travelling in (or avoiding, as the case may be) time. Part Neal Stephenson, part Dave Eggers, with a dash of Douglas Adams.

Charles Yu's father invented time travel before disappearing, his mother lives in a loop of time in which she makes dinner over and over again, and Charles, a time machine repair guy, spends his life existing out of time, searching for the time/space to which his father disappeared. From explanations of tenses as a basis for time travel to job opportunities in the Death Star's accounts receivable, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe covers the spectrum of science fiction today.

Back to school

It has officially started. That time of year when parents and grandparents come searching for the going-to-school books. Surprisingly enough, I've found a wonderful picture book which works for this occasion and as fun read aloud.

A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade
Written by James Preller
Illustrated by Greg Ruth
There are many books with the theme of going to school, but only one has a pirate’s approval. Using only terms and language fit for true pirates, this book will have even the most reluctant children excited for school, even if they insist on speaking like pirates for the rest of the day. This book is great to read aloud and would be a perfect way to win over an elementary teacher’s incoming students….

Not a Child's Picture Book

It’s a Book
By Lane Smith
Macmillan, August 31, 2010
So accustomed to our electronic devices: lap tops, phones, e-readers, not to mention all of Apple’s goodies….
And a book, well, what is it good for? Because you can’t blog or tweet or email with it...
An explanation of a book for the chronically plugged-in and a scathing way to remind people of their worth, It’s a Book has had multiple Odyssey employees roaring with laughter.

The book trailer is quite fun.