"review" · Children's · concenter · Picture book · poet-related · recommend

{book} brotherhood

30 days of pbDay Twenty-TwoOh, Brother!

By Nikki Grimes 

Illustration by Mike Benny

Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins 2008

oh-brotherIt’s bad enough that Xavier’s new stepbrother, Chris, has moved into Xavier’s room, but now it looks like he’s also trying to steal Mami by being the perfect kid. […] In twenty powerful poems, two strangers learn to become brothers. Nikki Grimes captures the struggles—and eventual sweetness—of bringing together a family.—publisher’s comments

While the story is told in poems and illustrations from Xavier’s point of view, there is still space made available for the other characters to develop personalities and motivations of their own. And even with the relatively few pages and brevity of most of the poems, Grimes and Benny are able to accomplish the transition from suspicion and resentment to brotherly support and oath-making.

The spatial relationships are remarked upon, territory and occasions, but Grimes also focuses a great deal on names: as identity; as forms of ownership and relationship. She completes a narrative in the twenty poems not only through linearity, but through thematic threads.

oh brother pages

The illustrations contribute significantly to narrative coherence while also imagining that which a poem would evoke. The style is real and the composition features the boys, primarily, large on the page. Their close-ups place them in an intimate range of the reader, and allude to the subjectivity of the narrator.

I really dig the presence of Mami, and her mad-skills at baseball. The portrayal of a family coming together is not without its struggles, but is also unapologetically exciting and wonderful. Grimes is not gushy, nor is Benny cute. Oh, Brother! is neither sappy nor coy, but a frank and clever way to handle its subject matter.


Nikki Grimes does not consider herself a bona fide storyteller, but, as she told an audience at the Library of Congress, she is happy to own the title Poet. Born and raised in New York City, Nikki began composing verse at the age of six and has been writing ever since that time.” A “New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark SonsThe Road to Paris, and Words with Wings. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California. (biography)

Mike Benny lives in Austin, Texas and has been illustrating for over 15 years. Clients include RollingStone, Time, New Yorker, GQ, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Major League Baseball, NFL, Arena Stage, Random House, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, Greenwillow and Scholastic.” Mike has also illustrated picture books: America’s White Table by Margot Theis Raven (Sleeping Bear Press 2005) and The Listeners by Gloria Whelan (Sleeping Bear Press 2009)

 {image belongs to Mike Benny, its words are Nikki Grimes’}


"review" · Children's · fiction · juvenile lit · Picture book · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · Tales

{book} bound-picture-page-funny-tale-carrier

fortunately the milk coverFortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman

illustrated by Skottie Young (as this is the U.S. edition)

Harper (HarperCollins) 2013. hardcover.


While mum is off at a conference presenting her paper on lizards, dad is tasked with minding the kids’ schedules, heating pre-made casseroles, and groceries–like the milk supply. Mum isn’t gone long and the milk supply is depleted. So dad, wanting to provide a breakfast of cereal for his son and daughter, as well as some milk for his tea, heads to the shop and takes a very long time returning. Once home, he has quite the story to tell.


“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: thummthumm. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.”

Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.” (jacket copy)

The eldest sibling is skeptical, the younger only cares if there are ponies–which there are, suddenly. The tale is marvelously outlandish with a time-travelling stegosaurus, pirates, a primitive tribe who worships a volcanic god Splod, and, of course, aliens (who bring Douglas Adams to mind…). There is a musical interlude put on by space dinosaurs (yes, Whovians, dinosaurs in space), and it is hilarious–and it is a reminder that this book should be enjoyed by the older crowd who will appreciate some of the humor.


Fortunately, the milk (always emboldened in the text) happens to save the dad from all sorts of scrapes. Too, is his and Professor Steg’s wit. It is all pretty silly. And It is left up to the children and the reader whether the tale is true or not. It all depends on how you read the evidence, or how possible you think the world can be…


Skottie Young illustrates the US version and Chris Riddell the UK*. They are fun, the rough sketch and energy reflect the tale the dad and book (as narrated by the son) tells. And there are a lot of illustrations, so the slim volume is chock full of visual and textual wit you won’t mind revisiting time and again, w/ or w/out the young-read-to-person in your life.



*Child-Led Chaos (provider of above image) compares the US/UK versions–it is excellent, so check it out–for instance the dad in Riddell’s version is inspired by Gaiman himself. and spoilers–it comes down to preference, the reviewer is happy to own both.

{all images belong to Skottie Young (whose linked deviantart page is fab), except the final pairing where the upper is evidently Chris Riddell’s doing, and as such,  belongs to him.}



the time travel (“transtemporal metascience” (88)), the aliens, and the outer space makes this a Sci-Fi Experience!

"review" · Children's · fiction · Illustrator · Picture book · recommend

beware: today is chu’s day

30 DAYS OF PB 2013 aDay 15: Chu’s Day

by Neil Gaiman, illus by Adam Rex

Harper (HarperCollins), 2013.

chu cover and page“When Chu sneezed, bad things happened.” This is the first line of the story, and I’m hooked. What sort of bad things happened? As the story progresses I add: and how bad could it possibly be? Why are this cute little panda and his parents so concerned?–and they are seriously concerned. You notice, on the book’s cover, the blush and expression of apology and horror on Chu’s face and posture. That is what comes after he sneezes. From the start you get the sense that the results of Chu’s sneeze is going to be embarrassing, horrifying (if you distinguish the two), and going to require an explanation.

chus day2

When Chu is winding up to sneeze, “aah-aaah- aaaah-,” he is relegated to white space, removed from his detailed setting, a potential little explosive on the page. The detail in the settings are not only a pleasure to explore, but juxtaposed with the white we get a building of tension. These are highly populated spaces and what will happen if Chu sneezes? We can imagine varying degrees of the sort bad things that could result from Chu’s sneeze. Will he make a loud, disruptive noise in a library; blow snot all over a book; blow a book across the room; or knock an elephant of his perch? 


The timing for this kind of story is crucial and Neil Gaiman and Adam Rex, unsurprisingly, nail it. The serious tone supported by the worried pandas and the relative realism employed in the illustrations play into the ridiculous fun of a book about a boy’s potential, I mean, sneeze. Chu’s Day has a pleasurable wind-up and its suitably thrilling end.

With two veteran storytellers who are known for their humor, imagination, and originality at its helm, you can bet Chu’s Day will carry just the right note beginning to end.

{images belong to Adam Rex}

"review" · Children's · horror/scary · Illustrator · Picture book · recommend · Tales

the dangerous alphabet

30 DAYS OF PB 2013 aDay Four: The Dangerous Alphabet

written by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Gris Grimly

HarperCollins, 2008.

TheDangerousAlphabet_Hardcover_1210447336I’m not sure how the rule works, but surely there must be so many alphabet books per so many Picture Books. I am going to share at least two. You’re welcome. Every child should become expert on the alphabet and expanding their lexicon is just as important (e.g. “E is for evil,” “V is for vile,” “H is for ‘Help me!’) . Of course, The Dangerous Alphabet includes a warning that reads: “The alphabet, as given in this publication, is not to be relied upon and has a dangerous flaw that an eagle-eyed reader may be able to discern.” Even so, they make the 26 lines of rhyme exciting to the most reluctant early reader–educationally speaking, because that is what these alphabet books are for, right? …


page one: an introduction: and the reason you either will or will not get this book:

“A piratical ghost story in thirteen ingenious but potentially disturbing rhyming couplets, originally conceived as a confection both to amuse and to entertain by Mr. Neil Gaiman, scrivener, and then doodled, elaborated upon, illustrated, and beaten soundly by Mr. Gris Grimly, etcher and illuminator, featuring two brave children, their diminutive but no less courageous gazelle, and a large number of extremely dangerous trolls, monsters, bugbears, creatures, and other such nastinesses, many of which have perfectly disgusting eating habits and ought not, under any circumstances, to be encouraged.”


recommendations:  After your child has graduated from this one. Be sure to have a handy copy of Edward Gorey’s The Gashly Crumb Tinies (my review) on hand for their middle-school review of the alphabet…

{images belong to Gris Grimly..whose Edgar Allen Poe books are not to be missed}

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · series · Tales

{book} jinx

jinx sage blackwood coverJinx by Sage Blackwood

Harper (HarperCollins), 2013

Hardcover, 360 pages.

In the Urwald, you don’t step off the path. Trolls, werewolves, and butter-churn riding witches lurk amid the clawing branches, eager to swoop up the unwary. Jinx has always feared leaving the path—then he meets the wizard Simon Magnus. […] But in the Urwald, a little healthy fear is never out of place, for magic—and magicians—can be as dangerous as the forest, and soon Jinx must decide which is the greater threat. –publisher’s copy.

Jinx seems aptly named, those who would be his caretaker do not appear to survive it. But as with most occasions in the novel, lies are spun and perceptions skewed. Situations and people are difficult to read–even for a peculiarly gifted Jinx.

In a world of magic such as the kind we find in tales/lore, we learn that the greatest power is actually knowledge. Jinx’s access to learning–whether by apprentice, books, or first-hand experience–creates a dramatic shift in the boy over the course of the novel. That knowledge is power is evidenced in other ways, and the means in which it is acquired is of explored as well.

So Jinx has good take-aways, but it is also an absorbing adventure. When we first meet Jinx he is a child, quite vulnerable and left up to ‘fate’, but he becomes more and more self-determining, aware and curious. One of the things I enjoy with middle-grade/juvenile fiction is they are not burdened with the bildungsroman of teen fiction. Their heroes are still on the journey of becoming, they needn’t become sufficient in every way necessary to be viewed as an adult (autonomous). I do not have to expect Jinx to be more than a boy still figuring out his magic—if he has any; or how he is meant to deal with the adults in his life. The world can still harbor glorious mystery, and danger. In the Urwald, Jinx experiences close escapes and troubling captivities, to say nothing of that witch Dame Glammer.

The lore in the novel is fantastic, negotiating fibs and encountering horribly true creatures. The curses are particularly enjoyable, and while some tale/lore aspects will feel more original to the tale than others, Jinx is undeniably Blackwood’s. It is the sort of story I love, enjoying the influences of old tales/lore and crafting your own. Jinx is also a bit dark, of the sort of uncomfortable realities we find in tales/lore.

Blackwood moves the story in a pace that never lingers too long and covers quite a bit of time and yet it’s hardly racing. The world is there and references to how things are for this person or that place are made, some more quietly relevant than others. There were paragraphs that threw me a bit there at the first (awkward sequences, strange paragraphing). Maybe it was myself and the author becoming acquainted. Nevertheless, I was easy swept back up and along. The first parts to the first chapters were especially inviting, however, it really is the imagination that is the strength in Jinx–in world and story (not a bit of the plot felt contrived). The characters are singularly lovely, down to the most minor and repulsive. Jinx’s nausea is delightful, as is Reven’s curse and Elfwyn’s red hood and pink clouds. Simon and Sophie were particular favorites in concept and interaction.

They do not seem to care to write “book one” on these things, but Jinx leaves some lines unresolved for a sequel. It is has the cliffhanger, and yet not. It could stand alone, though you wouldn’t care for it to. Basically Blackwood tantalizes the reader with promises of more adventures, and mysteries, and even some really good humor—Jinx has a wry wit to accompany the comedy in his bouts squeamishness and incredulity. I am very much excited to see the return of Blackwood’s characters and imagination in the sequel—which I believe we can anticipate in January 2014.

recommendations: boys & girls, 8-12, who love the fairy tales, magical adventures involving wizards/witches and orphaned children. these are books others have associated with the read: Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage, Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull, and The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley. I found it to be something close to what Gail Carson Levine or Cornelia Funke would’ve concocted.

of note: I was sold on Jinx by Melissa’s review at The Book Nut (do check it out).

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend

{book} a one and only

one and only ivanThe One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

cover and illustrations by Patricia Castelao

Harper (HarperCollins), 2012.

hardcover, 304 pages. ages 8-12.

The One and Only Ivan is highly recommended by more than a few respectable book bloggers. I knew I would have to read it despite a few personal concerns. (yes, I know, I’m such a difficult person!) One, was the cover and how reminiscent it is of Kate DiCamillo’s gorgeous The Magician’s Elephant: coincidence or trying to draw parallels? DiCamillo is a dangerous author to have in mind going into another’s book. Two, is more of a thing. I do love animals, but I’m not big on animal narrators outside of Picture Books and my own pre-adolescent years (with a few exceptions). But who doesn’t love a book that you know will make you cry? and it did make me cry—more than once.

Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all. Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line. Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better. Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan’s unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope.—publisher’s comments

Those short sentences with long adjectives took some adjustment, but I was quickly charmed by Ivan. Based on a true-story and no doubt a healthy amount of research, Applegate’s imagination is enviable. There is no trite/gimmicky realization of this silverback gorilla named Ivan. He becomes quite precious (a descriptor I am always careful to use) and this makes all the difference in the success of the novel. He truly is a one and only, the indisputable soul of this piece.

one and only ivan pageIvan has figured out how best to cope with his situation. He struggles with maintaining more than just dignity, but the essence of who he is. He is an Artist and this does much more than strengthen the credibility of our narrator, this truth saturates every aspect of the story. Having good friends help. As friendship stories go, The One and Only Ivan is breathtaking. Friendship is life-giving and love makes one daring in all the right ways. Ruby and Stella wakes Ivan into unforeseeable action and not unlike Charlotte’s Web, we hold our breath and hope that desperate plan finds a happy ending—for all the characters. The kind of Hope that is not easily won is the most beautiful, and this is the kind one finds in The One and Only Ivan.

one and only ivan w ruby

The pages are light, some only bearing a few sentences, and Applegate is powerful with it. A lot of the humor is in the oddities, in wry observations, the “chimps” remarks, and the presence of Bob. However, the humor is a quiet counterpoint to that “poignancy” Applegate wields. There are some truly hard subjects and moments that linger. There are some complicated characters alongside the more easily identifiable “good” and “bad.” I adore the inclusion. The Readers (especially the young) will find an easy verisimilitude with the characters—which only makes the story (stories) that much more affecting. The One and Only Ivan is gorgeous juvenile Literature, an unforgettable work by Katherine Applegate.

one and only ivan julia

recommendations: This is one for boys and girls alike, avid reader or no, animal-lover or no. It is an excellent sample of good creative writing. However educational and insightful the read is, it is not message-y; and those crucial realizations that help create a lot of the heart in the novel require some of those comprehension skills of the 8 & up crowd. Also, some of the subject matters require some maturity. Sensitive readers will love this book, but a parent should take the time to read and converse. This is one of those stories that an adult should not be embarrassed to cry during in front of their children.

One-and-Only-Ivan-imageExpect the young reader to become interested or deepen interest in topics of humane animal treatment. I was driven to consider my friendships—with gratitude—and with the desire to become a better friend. And it must not go without saying that the Hope many of the figures in the story bring has incredible value. There are people who care, people who will fight with and for you. There are people who love and are striving to create positive change in both small and grand ways for those most vulnerable. Ivan who used what was within his power to use is a stirring example.

One of my favorite parts (there are many): “Anger is precious. A silverback uses anger to maintain order and warn his troop of danger. When my father beat his chest, it was to say, Beware, listen, I am in charge. I am angry to protect you, because that is what I was born to do.” (10) “I am angry to protect you”–gorgeous.

of note: the parent child depictions, especially in Ivan’s earliest memories, w/ Stella, w/ Ruby, and with the remarkable human girl character Julia and her father are worth the cost of admission.

{images belong to Patricia Castelao}

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series

{book} the faceless ones

skulduggery faceless ones coverSkulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones (bk3) by Derek Landy

Harper (HarperCollins), 2009.

Hardcover, 422 pages.

If you’ve read the other Skulduggery books by Derek Landy (and you really should have read them by now), you’ve seen it all before: Some bad guy wants to bring about the end of the world, and Skulduggery and Valkyrie fight valiantly to stop it from happening. A few people get hurt, sure, but everything’s all right in the end.

Well, not this time. –jacket copy.

You really should read Skulduggery Pleasant and Playing with Fire before this The Faceless Ones. Sure Landy does a little catch-up, but most of the references are to remind readers of books one and two as to where everyone is in by this third installment. Primary reason for reading the first two is because they are really good. Landy has a marvelous sense of humor, timing, and plot-twisting. The tagline on the cover: Do panic. They’re coming. and the warning in the jacket: “Well, not this time” are more than clever lures. It is killing us that the only copy of Book Four at the Library is in Spanish and my bilingual daughter refuses to translate it for us. I mean seriously, why else did we make her go to Bilingual Immersion schools for so long?! Do have Dark Days on hand because it does not turn out all right in the end. Derek Landy is capable of just about anything. He prepares our young people to be able to anticipate George R.R. Martin or Joss Whedon.

“Detective, have you ever considered the fact that violence is the recourse of the uncivilized man?”

Skulduggery looked back. “I’m sophisticated, charming, suave, and debonair, Professor. But I have never claimed to be civilized.” (95)

Kenspeckle is not the only one to worry after now-14-year-old Valkyrie Cain (aka Stephanie Edgley). Valkyrie continues to take some serious beatings while out with Skulduggery. And it doesn’t really get all that easier as the story continues. There are some dread-filled moments for the Reader as we are left to rely on the confidence only Valkyrie and Skulduggery seem to share. True, she has made it through some amazing scrapes before, but between the increasingly sinister presence of the reflection and the dangerous tasks at hand…  Then there is the worry about Skulduggery, whose influence (and past) are something we should probably question; especially seeing how others are.

The witty exchanges between Valkyrie and Skulduggery are fewer in this volume, but the beloved characterizations of our protagonists are still there; as are support cast members, and some wonderful new additions—yes, even at their most annoying they are appreciated for their roles in providing proper conflict. I would love to have spent more time with Valkyrie’s life as “Stephanie” in the balance, but Landy is going to draw out his greater arc a bit more. He is littering his stories with enough kindling to create a proper cataclysmic event. Yet, even while important characters like Valkyrie/Stephanie’s family members are kept in passing, Landy keeps them also in memory in reference and amusing interactions.

“Desmond, I found your passport. Time to go.” […] Her dad came down the stairs, picked up the passport, and opened it. “This isn’t mine,” he said. “This belongs to an ugly man wearing a stupid expression.”

Valkyrie’s mother sighed. “Get in the car.”

“This is my anniversary gift to you,” he protested. “And that means I’m in charge.”

“Get in the car.”

“Yes, dear,” he mumbled, picking up his bag and shuffling out the door. He stopped to give Valkyrie a hug and winked at her. “You behave, okay? And be nice to your cousins. God knows someone has to be.” (289-90)

skulduggery pleasant FacelessonesGreat characters, wit, action, sheer imagination, surprises, and a willingness to take a turn improbable to most of juvenile fiction make Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant a must read series. I am terrified of what is going to happen in Dark Days…deliciously so.

—Derek Landy is brilliant and I am embarrassed that I am only just out of the 3rd book in this series. I will remedy it, and if you are behind as well, I hope you will make the time as well. The age recommendation on these books are 8 & up, but as to the younger end, know the sensitivity of your child, these are actually quite violent and certainly perilous (gorgeously so). For girls and boys, those who like well-imagined villains, magic/fantasy, action, and sarcasm.

my review of Skulduggery Pleasant (bk1) (HarperCollins, 2008);

and of Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire (bk2) (HarperCollins, 2008).