Monday, March 29, 2010

The Emergent Reader's Laughapalooza: I Am Going! by Mo Willems

Ewan's sense of humour is very theatrical these days.  And he is proudly learning to read all by himself.  These two attributes converge to make Mo Willem's Elephant and Piggie Beginning Reader series the go-to books in our house right now.  I've become such a fan of this series over the past few years that I'm really starting to wonder if perhaps Mo, although widely known and wildly loved for his many  picture books (among them Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and  Knuffle Bunny) may in fact be at his very best when writing for this audience.  Because let's face it, learning to read is hard and can feel like a big struggle for many kids.  But  Elephant and Piggie books are all so full of life and drama and just pure spot-on hilarity, they turn the drudgery of deciphering text into a laughapalooza (I just made that word up). 

Willem's latest Elephant and Piggie offering, I Am Going!  begins when Piggie, who is hanging out with her friend Elephant,  tells him that she is going.  Elephant panics.  (See the book cover.)  Piggie is his best friend!  She cannot go!  He won't let her!  As he becomes increasingly hysterical ("Go tomorrow!  Go next week!  Go next month!  GO NEXT YEAR!!!" he wails), and then sulky (fine, he decides, he'll go too!  Watch him go!  Look at him--he's going! Piggie's not the only one who can go!)  he forgets to ask the big question--where the heck is Piggie going, anyway?

Hmmm.  It turns out she's going to lunch. 


Now Ewan's swanning around the house shouting "I WON'T LET YOU GO!"  and "GO TOMORROW!  GO NEXT WEEK!..."et cetera, et cetera.  And then laughing like crazy.  I'm sure people who don't know Elephant and Piggie think he's being very strange.  But Ewan, Mo and I, we're in on the joke.  And we love  it.

Here's Mo, admitting that Elephant and Piggie are his favourite characters:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne

This is the first book I've read by Erin Dionne, and it reminded me a lot of books by Lisa Yee, especially the Millicent Min series.  (That's a compliment, by the way.)  I definitely think this book would appeal to Yee fans, although it could be read by kids who are slightly older as well. 

Hamlet Kennedy's parents are a) Shakespeare fanatics and b) oblivious to the possibility that if you name your daughter "Hamlet" she will likely get a lot of grief from her fellow eighth graders.  That's around the level of angst Hamlet has to deal with--social anxiety triggered by things like her genius seven year old sister being placed in eighth grade with her, and being afraid that her best friend has a crush on her,  and not wanting to play the role of Puck in the "Shakespeare Celebration" at school because she's kind of saturated by the Bard at home.  When her parents come to her school in full Elizabethan costume, and get her classmates to march around the room to a tambourine and chanting in iambic pentameter, well, you can just imagine.  It's all frustrating and embarrassing, and to Hamlet it seems like a Very Big Deal.  But like Yee, Dionne puts in lots of positive counterpoints;  Hamlet and her sister Desdemona really do care about each other, her friends are goofy but nice, the crush thing turns out to be a misunderstanding, and her parents become more aware of their "embarrassment potential" by the end and adjust their behavior accordingly.  Although, personally, I never worry too much about embarrassing my daughter.  I figure that's my perogative as a Mom.

By the way, thanks to my daughter, I can tell that the sneakers Hamlet is wearing are Converse.  I know because we just shelled out for exactly the same pair for Katrina  (in lemon yellow rather than turquoise).   So really, her parents can't really be that out of it.  

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Value of Children's Books

"I'd argue that great children's books and a rich experience of visual storytelling prepare kids for every future, digital or otherwise."

As more and more of our culture's visionaries predict The Demise of the Book, Pixie Stix Kids Pix explains the obvious;  what we stand to lose if reading great books falls out of cultural favour.  I loved this article--read it here. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Me, Myself and Ike by K.L. Denman

I think what makes Me, Myself and Ike special is how, despite treating a very dark, even tragic subject, adolescent schizophrenia, seriously and well,  it manages to read so easily.  I read this book effortlessly in under three hours, but I thought about it for the rest of the day.  This book is very accessible to younger teens and tweens, but isn't at all dumbed down. I believed it utterly. 

Me, Myself and Ike follows the mental deterioration of a good kid.  Christopher, or Kit, our first person narrator, has had a happy life, with a warm family, a talent for basketball, a few good friends and a girlfriend he cares about.  But when we meet him, these good relationships are mostly memories.  The only friend in Kit's life now is Ike, a nasty person who pops around when no one else is there and whom Kit often seems afraid of.  When Kit sees a documentary on Otzi the prehistoric Iceman,  Ike somehow convinces him that the only way he can make his life worthwhile is to become a modern day iceman, allowing himself to freeze in the mountains for the benefit of future generations of scientists.  Kit quickly becomes increasingly paranoid and delusional as he prepares himself for his death. We soon realize that Ike is a product of Kit's mental illness, and fortunately Kit's plan to become the Iceman of the Future is thwarted by his brother, who manages to find and save him at the last minute.  Kit ends up hospitalized and talking to a psychiatrist.  We don't know for sure that Kit's mind can become healthy again, but we are left hoping for the best.

Denman approaches the character of Kit with immense empathy and respect.  Kit isn't at all alien or scary, although there are times when we are afraid for him.  I love how Denman has humanized the face of such an isolating disease, and made us relate to Kit so fully even as we see that he is not well.  For many of us, schizophrenics are those dirty people on the street, asking for change, muttering to themselves and occasionally striking out violently.  Denham shows us a person who has schizophrenia, rather than a schizophrenic who used to be a person.  Me, Myself and Ike is a great read for thoughtful people, tweens on up.

Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Reading Jennifer Brown's striking debut novel Hate List made me understand something about the way I read teen fiction.  I read it like a parent.  Even while part of me is getting in to the teen protagonist's mind and experience, another part is keeping a close eye on the parent/child dynamic and how it affects the storyline, even when that's not the primary thrust of the plot. After all, when the adults, with all of their supposed maturity and life experience, can't cope with their teen's life, what's going to save that kid from sinking?  We parents are always being told that we will only be influential with and important to our children up to a certain age, and then their peers will take over as primary influences.  But what I'm inferring from the teen fiction that I've read lately is that parents are still  foundational in teen lives. Good news for the real-life me.  Sometimes scary for the reader me. 

I must admit that the parents in Hate List have a doozy of a parenting situation on their hands.  Part of what Jennifer Brown does so spectacularly in this book is to set up an almost impossible situation, one that leaves both teens and adults reeling. She then makes the teens instrumental in hauling themselves out of the wreckage and taking the first step forward, while the older generation is still flailing.   It's slow and painful, and not all the teens can do it.   But it's compelling to watch, and Brown makes both the success and failure of it feel convincing. 

Hate List is told from the point of view of Valerie Leftman, a high school senior returning to school after being wounded by a bullet in the leg.  The bullet was fired by her boyfriend Nick in the school cafeteria, during a rampage which left a number of students and one teacher dead or critically injured.  Valerie's boyfriend shot her, perhaps by accident, as she thrust herself between him and one of his intended victims. 

Valerie and Nick were a target for school bullies.  Nick chose his shooting victims from their "Hate List", a notebook Valerie kept recording the names of everyone who had been abusive or annoying to them.  Valerie and Nick often talked about wishing these people were dead, although Valerie had no idea that Nick was serious about putting those thoughts into action.  And despite what he has done, Valerie can't think of Nick, who killed himself that day as well,  as a villain.  She mourns him and misses him desperately.  How can she do that after he killed all those people and devastated so many families?  To what extent does she share responsibility for the carnage that occured?  Is she a victim, a villain or a hero?  You can bet that everyone in this book has an opinion on the subject--and it's not always what Valerie expects.

What I liked best about Hate List was watching Valerie lurch back into that school where it seems like everyone now hates her and blames her.  I liked the wary and unexpected collaboration she forms with Jessica, the girl she took the bullet for.  I liked how brave Valerie was, and how scared, all at the same time.  And I liked how head-on Hate List tackles a big question--is it possible to eradicate hate from our lives?

Here's the moody and kinda haunting book trailer:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Creature ABC by Andrew Zuckerman

Librarian, blogger and book reviewer Adrienne Furness once titled a blog post "A is for Alphabet, B is for Boring..." and I knew exactly what she meant.  They're out there by the zillions and jillions and squillions, those alphabet books, and  either they're all the same ("x is for xylophone, z is for zipper") or they become so complicated trying to be different that young kids can't understand them--and older kids know their letters already, thank you very much, and can get mighty insulted when offered an ABC book.  It's hard to kick some life into this exhausted genre, and many ABC books end up seeming blatantly pedagogical.  Creature ABC is a magnificent exception to this glut of dull, copycat ABCs.  This book  is GENIUS!  Simple, crisp, focused, fascinatingly detailed.  Andrew Zuckerman approaches his ABCs with freshness and sophistication and pure artistry.   It's a book I'd look at even if I didn't have kids, and yet it's clear on every page that he's got his audience firmly in mind.  You could read this book to a two-year-old, no problem.  And they'd want to read it again. 

I could spend hours staring at Zuckerman's photo of an elephant's foot. I've truly never seen any image like it, anywhere.  It makes me feel like I'm seeing an elephant for the first time ever.  You can see the cracks and scratches in it's toenails, the remarkable contrasting of  mottled skin colours, the weird surface texture.  Parts of the skin look reptilian, with  dense bumpy scales.  Other clumps stick out like the papillae on a tongue.  Zuckerman lets you see each short, coarse hair sticking out of the leg and foot, each wrinkle and bump in the skin.  He even lets you see the effect of weight and gravity on this huge creature, with the clean white background emphasizing the foot's sturdy shape.  It's almost sculptural.  There is a definite sense of drama throughout this book, with many shots highlighting motion or expression.  Shape and texture are everywhere.  The cumulative effect is brilliantly arresting.

Zuckerman has kept the text to a minimum, with each letter presented in large black type (in both capital and lowercase) on one page and the name of the animal in the same large clear type on the next.  This layout allows him two photographs per letter, and it also allows the child the pleasure of guessing at the name of the animal in the picture before the page is turned and the word is finally presented. 

Coincidentally, this week I read an article in Horn Book Magazine by Leonard Marcus entitled "Click!  Photography as Picture Book Art".  Marcus opens with the provocative statement, "It's not by chance that the Caldecott Medal has never gone to a photographically illustrated book."  He posits that, despite some brilliant photography-based children's books by the likes of, say, Tana Hoban or Walter Wick, the children's book community still sees photography more as craft than art.  I'm wondering if Creature ABC will be the book to finally break through that glass ceiling.

Andrew Zuckerman's website is well worth a visit, and really expresses his artistic vision.  Enjoy. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Love is Hell by: Melissa Marr, Scott Westerfield, Justine Larbalestier, Gabrielle Zevin, and Laurie Faria Stolarz

Doesn't that cover just scream R*O*M*A*N*C*E?

This collection of short stories by some of the most uber-cool names in teen fiction today has a bit of a misleading title.  None of the stories actually take place in H-E-double-toothpicks, as my mother used to call it.  They all, however, have a strong supernatural component (with one exception, Westerfield's story "Stupid Perfect World", which is science fiction all the way).   Short story anthologies can be a bit dodgy, but this is a really solid collection with consistently smart and entertaining writing.

I came away with two special favourites.  The first was the aforementioned "Stupid Perfect World", which takes place in a high school class the distant future.  The class is called "Scarcity Class", and it is a sort of modified history class-what life was like before modern technology.

"It wasn't a real course with grades and everything, so only the most pathetic meekers worked hard at it.  The rest of us just showed up and tried not to fall asleep.  Nobody wanted to fail, of course, because that meant repeating:  another long semester of watching all those olden-day people starving and being diseased.  At least regular History has battles;  Scarcity was just depressing."

For their term projects, everyone in the class has to pick an obsolete physical condition and live with it for two weeks.  Things like hunger, cancer, river blindness, the common cold.  Going for the unusual, our protagonist, Kieran, chooses sleep.  Real REM sleep, every single night for two whole weeks.

"When I got home, I asked Dad if I could synthesize a bed for my room.  He immediately put on his serious face and sat me down.
'Sixteen is too young to have a bed in your room, Kieran.  Remember when we talked about this, how a little bioframe tweak can make those feelings less...persistent?'
I groaned.  'This isn't about that, Dad...It's for a school project.'
He laughed too hard in a really embarassing way, actually slapping his thigh.  'Nice try, buddy.'"

So, how does sleeping four hours a night on a pile of coats in his bedroom lead Kieran to true love?  Read the book to find out!

My other favourite story was Melissa Marr's "Love Struck".  A modern selkie story where the selkie is male and his human companion, Alana, is a city-dwelling, college-bound teenager, it has an intriguing premise and an unusually unexpected and satisfying ending.  Like "Love Struck", for the most part, the stories in Love is Hell should warm reader's hearts.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga

"Handle you?  God, Kyra--no one can handle you!  I certainly can't.  I'm surprised anyone could!"

In The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, Barry Lyga first introduced us to the prickly Goth Girl, a heroine who managed to be both kick-ass and damaged at the same time--sort of like Xena, Warrior Princess would be if she had childhood traumas and a stormy family life.  (Actually, maybe she did--I never watched her show.)  Goth Girl Rising continues Kyra's story, beginning from her release from the psychiatric hospital that her father committed her to because she was suicidal.  I'm so glad Lyga wrote this sequel because, well, unresolved endings are sophisticated and all, but sometimes you just love the characters so much you don't want to let them go until you know they've got what it takes to get through life.  For me, Goth Girl is like that.  I want to know that she's going to be okay, because Lyga wrote her so well I'm half-convinced she's real. 

I'm fascinated by Goth Girl's anger.  She is a young woman truly full of rage--rage at her mother for dying, at her father for living, at Fanboy for going incommunicado while she was hospitalized, and at her friend Jecca for making out with her in private but never in public.  She loves her rage.  She feeds it and strokes it and credits it for keeping her strong in the face of her mother's death and the subsequent unravelling of her life and family.  Goth Girl is so gutsy and outspoken that she'll say just about anything to just about anyone, and when she's revved up on rage, it's like fights on the old Batman TV show. KAPOW!  BAM!  ZOWIE!  She's not one to repress, that's for sure. She's not one to forgive, either. It's a strange kind of thrill to see grown adults--particularly her teachers and principal-crumple up as she rolls all over them.  And to wonder, incredulously, just how far she will go to get the revenge she thinks Fanboy deserves.  Her father, I just felt sorry for.

Goth Girl Rising is so satisfying, of course, because Lyga finally takes her beyond that rage and into understanding.  He needs to, really, because the truth is that Kyra is still suicidal sometimes, that with all of her anger she's alienated and in deep pain.  Her anger is a double-edged sword, bolstering her sense of purpose and direction but blocking her ability to heal.   When Kyra drops her constant anger, in a funny way she seems more emotionally honest.  Not that the anger was dishonest--it was real enough--but it wasn't letting anything else through.  It's a sign of Lyga's excellence as a writer that we care so much about such an angry kid.  Lyga never treats Goth Girl with anything less than complete respect.   

Here's a link to a Goth Girl interview with Barry Lyga.  I like his answer to the question of how he manages, as a man, to write the character of a teen girl so convincingly.  Does he have an inner Goth Girl?  No, apparently, he just has a lot of women friends, "and when they talk to me, I listen to them." Right on, Barry!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Meet Ed, Ned, Ted and Bob, Those Rhyming Dust Bunnies!

"Bob, no..."LOOK OUT!  HERE COMES A BIG SCARY MONSTER WITH A BROOM!"does not rhyme with anything, really. "

Man, those rhyming dust bunnies, they get me every time! 

Jan Thomas is a writer I will always read with anticipation.  Her books are so perfect for storytimes, for one thing.  No one ever stops paying attention half way through.  The illustrations are always strongly coloured and a bit goofy and wild, but contained within strong black lines that make everything clear and easy to see.  They're so eye-catching.  She's also got a great sense of comic timing for young children.  I love how she introduces a joke and lets it build and build, and then, whammo!  Everyone's rolling in the aisles. 

Actually, both Rhyming Dust Bunnies and it's brand new sequel, Here Comes the Big, Mean Dust Bunny!  play off of the same joke.  Ed, Ned, and Ted like to "rhyme...all the time!" Bob's the odd guy out.  When Ted asks his friends what rhymes with "car", Ed and Ned suggest "jar" and "tar".  Bob suggests "LOOK!" and is gently corrected. ("No, Bob..."LOOK!" does not rhyme with car!")  Of course, at the end of the story it turns out that Bob has not been playing the game at all, but is anxiously on the lookout for danger.  The multi-hued dust bunnies flee the broom just in the nick of time.

In Here Comes the Big, Mean Dust Bunny a new dust bunny, the traditional dustlike grey (but with rather untraditional, monster-like sharp teeth)  joins in the game.  But the Big Mean Dust Bunny turns out to be not so nice (surprise, surprise),  chasing and sitting on Ed, Ned and company.  Finally the cat sits on HIM!  (Look at that.  He is flat.  Like a matDrat that cat!)  The others save him and he is reformed.  ("My face feels weird."  "It's called a SMILE!") 

Thomas emphasizes the rhyming words by presenting them in brightly coloured font.  Bob's non-rhyming words are coloured differently, to emphasize, as Sesame Street would say, that One of These Things Is Not Like the Others.  These books could be considered especially educational for preschoolers, since rhyming is one of the ways that young children learn about language.  With Thomas and her dust bunnies, learning is FUN! 

My Mommy is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill by Jean Regnaud and Emile Bravo

It's kind of interesting to see how libraries catalogue certain books.  My Mommy is in America...was originally published in France as a juvenile book.  In France  it has won several children's book awards.  It's now been translated into several different languages, including English, and is travelling the world. My library system in Canada has placed it in the adult graphic book section, where kids are never going to find it.  What's going on with that?  Are Canadian kids really so much less sophisticated than their French counterparts?  And if that's so, shouldn't we be bringing them more of this great stuff, not hiding it from them?

My Mommy is in you a child's viewpoint that feels just so authentic.  It's artful in the subtle way it conveys deep and unnamed emotions. It's moving, but never indulgent.  Small moments of pleasure and even humour counterpoint the understated sadness.

The story follows the life of young Jean during his kindergarten year.  Its emotional arc deals with the confusion Jean feels around his absent mother.  He hasn't seen her in a long time.  His businesslike father has told him that Mommy has gone on a long trip.  But why doesn't she write or call, and when will she be back? When he and his brother visit their grandparents, their grandparent's friends all  look at them sadly and moan "poor things!" and "how sad!".  Jean is embarrassed by being different than the other kids who all have Mommies living with them, and afraid that he is starting to forget what his Mommy was really like. 

Jean becomes even more confused when his neighbour, Michele, first swears him to secrecy and then starts reading him postcards from around the world that she claims come from Jean's Mommy! In the end it is Michele who vengefully tells Jean the truth about his Mommy's disappearance during a quarrel in which she also tells Jean that there is no Father Christmas.  Jean runs back to his house sobbing, but can't tell anyone about his loss of innocence.  The code of silence in his household is too strong.

In the end, I tell myself that Mommy is like Father Christmas... I'm too old now to believe in her.  

Here's a sample of Bravo's beautiful artwork, which complements the story perfectly.