"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · juvenile lit · poet-related · recommend · short story · Uncategorized

{book} open mic

Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices

edited by Mitali Perkins

Candlewick, 2013. (ages 12 & up)

hardcover, 127pages w/ “About the Contributors.” Library loan.

As Mitali Perkins observes in her “Introduction,” “humor has the power to break down barriers and cross borders. Once you’ve shared a laugh with someone, it’s almost impossible to see them as ‘other'” (x). Open Mic wants to tap into this power, employing ten gifted humorists to talk about growing up between cultures. There are prose and poems (x2) and a comic by Gene Luen Yang (ABC Chinese, Boxers & Saints), and even the comedic stylings vary so Perkins does a great job preparing for a broad readership–in other words, you can hand this to any middle-grader and they should find at least one out of the ten that will entertain.

Perkins does set down some rules, understanding that race can be a “tension-filled arena” (xi). It is a really good guide and includes a paragraph each in explication (which I obviously chose not to include below):

1. Good humor pokes fun at the powerful–not the weak.

2. Good humor builds affection for the “other.”

3. Good humor is usually self-deprecatory (note: not self-defecatory, although it can feel like that). (xi-xii)

A last bit from the “Introduction” on a hot topic in literature:

While I usually don’t like edicts about who can write about whom, in a post-9/11 North America, where segregation, slavery and even genocide aren’t too far back in history, funny multicultural stories work best when the author shares the protagonist’s race or culture. Funny is powerful, and that’s why in this case it does matter who tells a story. Writing that explores issues of race and ethnicity with a touch of humor must stay closer to memoir than other kinds of fiction on the spectrum of storytelling. (xii)

That said, none of the authors are White. Of the ten stories (a temperate number that hopefully hints at a series) Perkins includes herself and a brilliant variation of cultures w/ authors coming directly  (born in) or indirectly (generational) from roots in Mexico, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Palestine, India; Hispanic, African-American, or as G.Neri describes himself: “I’m Creole, Filipino, and Mexican–or as I like to call it, Crefilican. On top of that, my daughter is also German” (124). Many of the authors are well-traveled since childhood, and Debbie Rigaud is currently living in Bermuda.

What follows are brief remarks on the contents w/ links to author sites. One of reasons I love anthologies (on young and older shelves) is the opportunity to meet new voices and discover new reads. Many of these authors write Young Adult and, er, Not-Just-Young-Adult literature, like David Yoo who begins the collection with a good humor-setting tone, accessibility (read familiarity for anyone, including those of my western European ancestry), and insight the anthology is going for. The collection ends with some especially strong story-telling. (*=favorites)

“Becoming Henry Lee” by David Yoo (Choke ArtistThe Detention Club prose (1-13). 

This Korean-American protagonist is neither White nor Asian enough to abide by those (un)comfortable and ill-fitted cultural stereotypes. Besides dealing with public personas and private crises of identity (think school & parental aspirations), Yoo touches on festishization of culture, a step beyond mere appropriation. Big kid words, I know, but Yoo balances what even a young reader will understand as serious beneath that palatable guise of good humor.

“Why I Won’t Be Watching the Last Airbender Movie” by Gene Luen Yang. comic (16-9). *

first: Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference, The Eternal Smile, Good as Lily) makes an appearance. Of course, the two are friends and frequent collaborators, but they also share a similar stake in what the comic is about. White-washing happens in multiple forms, as does cultural ventriloquism. Speaking up against this is of import for multiple reasons, and Yang offers a unexpected point to the story’s ending. A point of contention offers an invitation to engage (if not instigate) a conversation; what if it offered an invitation in return?

“Talent Show” by Cherry Cheva (author; writer & exec. producer on Family Guy) prose (20-30). *

Two students, a Jewish male and Asian female, await their turn to audition for the school talent show. It is sweet and funny and I can’t say too much because it would just recalibrate expectations: which is some of what the piece is about.

“Voilà!” by Debbie Rigaud (Perfect Shot) prose (31-42).

“Yup–I’m fourteen now.” I nod, squeezing the last bit of polite from my reserves. “And yes–both my parents are from Haiti.” […] I shrug. People have assumed this before–that I’m only half Haitian. Or at least, those who can’t understand how a person with longer hair or lighter skin could come from Haiti” (32-33)

Above illustrates just one form of misidentification that Rigaud explores; language and other popular assumptions make appearances. Rigaud has fun with miscommunication up until the very end both lamenting and finding humor in people’s ignorance.

“Three Pointer” by Mitali Perkins (Bamboo People, Secret Keeper) prose (43-54).

Three Indian sisters, of whom the narrator is the youngest, play the “Guy Game,” yes, it has to do with dating–and no, their parents who were arranging marriages and degree programs were left unaware of their antics (44). The premise facilitates also sorts of topics on cultural and generational differences and similarities in ways that educate and certainly entertain.

“Like Me” by Varian Johnson (Saving Maddie, My Life as a Rhombus) prose (55-68). *

“With about thirty students per grade, Hobbs is the smallest boarding school in Vermont. Our demographics are just like the state’s. White, white, and white.

“I guess that’s not fair. Technically Rebecca is “one-eight German, three-eighths Sephardic-Jewish, and one-half Irish.” And Evan has enough Muskogee blood running through him to be a member of the Creek Nation. Still, I didn’t see anyone looking at them when we talked about the Holocaust or the Trail of Tears last year in World History. But let anyone mention Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Will Smith or even the slightly black-looking dude who trims Principal Greer’s prized rosebushes, and suddenly I’m the center of the attention.” (57)

Now twin girls have joined Hobbs and the questions of relationships begin to surface. Seeing and not seeing difference is handled deftly while calling out those awkward conversations on stereotype, in-group criticisms, the jokes people tell that aren’t all that funny.

“Confessions of a Black Geek” by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (8th Grade Super Zero) prose (69-78).

I found the pop culture references amusing and was interested in where black geek and white geek might diverge or intersect. The seriousness, how personal, had a diminishing effect on earlier comedic tones at the close. Do not expect the stories to end on punch-lines, many have a heartening declaration like this one.

“Under Berlin” G. Neri (YummyGhetto Cowboy) long poem (79-99) **

My dad is black,/in a real southern way./But Mom is a light-skinned Hispanic/from Puerto Rico,/so I’m as black as Obama, I guess,/which is only half./My bro rolls his eyes. “Sorry./I meant ‘mixed American;” (83).

I am not awarding this one extra points for mention of currywurst, but the story of a family on the subway (in the literal underbelly) of Berlin is one of my favorites. It is rich with personality, like many of the others, but easy and playful, tender and smart, despite that “tension-filled arena.”

“Brotherly Love” by Francisco X. Stork (Marcelo and the Real World, Irises) prose (100-13). **

Touching on machismo and religion, sweetly and deftly, Stork is unsurprisingly pitch-perfect with this story about Luis talking to his sister. Sometimes that life between cultures is experience within a community and between generations and gender. This one is so well-done.

“Lexicon” by Naomi Shihab Nye (Habibi) long poem (114-21) **

“Half-baked, mix of East and West,/balancing flavors” the narrator speaks lovingly about her Arab father, about the power of words and perspective. There are some truly lovely images and lines: “words like parks to sit in.” “My father’s tongue had no bitch/hiding under it.” “But dying, this lover of life said sadly,/My dilemma is large. 

"review" · cinema · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · Uncategorized

{film} an imagination realized

walter mittyNatalya was admittedly anxious about seeing the Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013). She adores James Thurber’s 1939 short story as much as the rest of us, and we were all wondering, in our household anyway, what is the story Walter Mitty without his wife in the picture? Yet, a basis is found in the spirit of Thurber’s piece and how Stiller, with screen writer Steve Conrad, beautifully captures it in this contemporary interpretation.

Like Thurber’s Walter Mitty, the film’s hero played by Ben Stiller is prone to imagining an alternate reality in which his monochromatic existence is transformed into an action film or romantic drama sequence. There is a hilariously awesome sequence in the film in which Walter borrows from another highly imaginative short-story-turned-film: The Curious Case of  Benjamin Button, the 2008 film loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story. The shift into the magically real is sudden, seamless enough to catch the audience off-guard, and aids in a reality that grows more magical as the film progresses.


{N loved this repetition in particular. Here, Walter is fantasizing, later he will be sporting ice/snow in beard as himself.}

walter mitty zoneWalter’s “zoning out” is socially awkward and becomes the focus of ridicule for the bullies in the film, but more than that, it is a symptom of a life not fully lived. Walter Mitty is 42 (which Douglas Adams fans will note) and negative assets is his job description for Life magazine whose motto is one the film adopts:

To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed.

We are first introduced to Walter in his home where one cannot ignore his music collection; signalling culture, deep feeling, and should be more colorful than he otherwise appears. Engaged in the domestic chore of balancing a checkbook (not on-line) we see that Walter has more than a modest bank account (at least by my somewhat impoverished standards), so money is not holding him back. He is neat, quiet and shy when it comes to risks. He signs up to an on-line dating service and achingly deliberates sending a wink to a woman who has caught his interest, new co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristin Wiig). We are immediately moved by this character who wants more—and is frustrated by system errors. The loveliness in this film is how much it captures the messy, off-interrupted potential and longing of human characters.

The film and the narrative itself is fairly straightforward and predictable. The recently acquired Life is going on-line, and the company announces that the next issue will be its last in print. The cover will belong to legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and film print #25—a negative lost from the roll sent to Negative Assets. Walter needs to find it or he’ll lose his already tenuous job position as Life is also laying-off. Partially awkward in social execution and narratively neat, Walter incorporates the fan of mysteries Cheryl to help him solve a photographic puzzle in order to hunt down the nomadic photographer.

walter mitty him and herRecent divorcee and mother of a tween-age (?) son, Cheryl seems to genuinely like Walter. And really, most do—the good people of the film anyway. [What is with arch-nemesis Ted Hendricks’ (Adam Scott’s) beard?! is it made to look fake, especially compared to Walter’s later (more manly?) whiskers?] Kristen Wiig, given relatively little screen time of her own to self-define, is a wonderful casting choice. We know she is funny, but like Ben Stiller who is also prone to the goofy and outlandish comedic turns, she tones down into the quietly identifiable troubles of the every-day existence. And bless it, the film allows her her age-lines and a son with whom Walter is awesome (and comfortable).

At one point Sean O’Connell says, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” Wiig’s character is quietly beautiful, quirkily so, maybe. As is Walter who is modest in his proposals. O’Connell realizes that his renown exists in no small part to Walter who handles his negatives and presents the best of the work a celebrated O’Connell sends. He is able to reach his potential because of Walter, and O’Connell would do the same for Walter—if he can. But at some point, Walter has to want more for himself for his own sake.


True to itself, the film interrupts easy resolutions at two points. Cheryl’s messy relationship with Phil, so Walter is left believing her lost to him. He does not find the print in time and is fired. So the end journey belongs to his character alone. The self-discovery is for him alone, the others provide the catalyst in what is otherwise a progression of daring feats. Those interruptions are of primary success to the film.

I also liked how Walter’s fatherlessness contributes more to a staid life than a daring, risk-taking one filled with mohawks and skateboard culture—thus critiquing popular notions via inversion.


walter mitty stillerWalter is the real puzzle of the film, the real mystery to be uncovered. His mother Edna (the inimitable Shirley MacLaine) has musical talent and his sister Odessa is trying out for Rizzo (a “tough and tender” “real” character) in an off-Broadway production of Grease, so what happened to the staid figure of Walter? There is a marvelous consistency to the character Walter that allows a fuller realization without mistaking a resolution that comes out of no where. His was a life interrupted. So while I may question his cell coverage, his capabilities aren’t. His imagination that longs to be a part of his reality finds a way to do so and in ways he couldn’t have anticipated near the beginning of the film.

The conversation on beauty. and the one about the obfuscation of those who facilitate and create beauty. And about enjoying beauty as we find it in a quiet and intimate way, unmediated and undocumented by nothing more than the moment—read the criticism of technology here and our inability to live in a moment which leaves us with half-lived lives. I thought immediately of going to concerts where few are enjoying it whilst recording it via a less superior medium.

There is a love for old(er) things; a touch of nostalgia that isn’t so much about the sentimental, but about knowing what things meant (a bit of anti-hipster jab there, which may explain the beard weirdness, too?). There is something to a knowing that differs from current technological dependence; something less ephemeral that feeds into an understanding of identity and humanity within the film. Not that the film is anti-tech—by whatever means connections can be made, but there is certainly a requirement to not leave them to such distances (e.g. the meetings and means of communication between Walter and others). In a world increasingly overtaken by on-line media and meeting (as with Life), the message of the film, of not getting lost in an unlived life, is relevant to a broad audience.

walter mitty pennOther things to look forward to in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:

Ben Stiller fan or no, he is marvelous in the role. Penn is enigmatic and warm. I mentioned Wiig’s performance, and MacLaine just makes me happy. The quality of color (which is crucial to the film). The editing: The transitions are gorgeous. The incorporation of text, to say nothing of Walter himself, reminds us of Stranger than Fiction (2006) in a very good way. The humor is well-timed. And the sweetness is never cloying. The modest soundtrack is seriously wonderful—and so are the locations. [I really want to go to Iceland, and possibly live there.] The film was satisfying on so many levels. It is deceptively simple. I could say it is just a feel-good film, but there is more to it. I was pleasantly surprised by how unanticipatedly more it actually was (much like Walter himself?).

Natalya says the film is very much a Darnell film (our household name). And she’s right. She was so proud to know the “Major Tom” reference immediately, to know that the first allusion was inappropriate and that the second (Cheryl’s) was true. And she was floating along to David Bowie during the sequence of “A Space Oddity” at play (and when we got home in order to blast her stereo). Anxieties over whether the film was going to be an awkward display of the short story were gone in a raving review of scenes and lines, characterization and thematic developments.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was fantastic on the big screen, to get the scope of the settings, the color and sound. Nevertheless, we look forward to owning this one and enjoying this one on our modest screens at home.



The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013). Directed by Ben Stiller; screenplay by Steve Conrad; inspired by James Thurber’s short story; music by Theodore Shapiro; Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh; editing by Greg Hayden; produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., John Goldwyn, Stuart Cornfeld & Ben Stiller. Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films, Red Hour Films, New Line Cinema; Distributed by 20th Century Fox {to which images used belong}. Starring: Ben Stiller (Walter Mitty), Kristen Wiig (Cheryl Melhoff), Shirley MacLaine (Edna Mitty), Adam Scott (Ted Hendricks), Kathryn Hahn (Odessa Mitty), Adrian Martinez (Hernando), and Sean Penn (Sean O’Connell).

Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence. Running time 114 minutes.

"review" · comics/graphic novels · recommend · young adult lit

{comic} jack and jane

The Cute Girl Network

by Greg Means, MK Reed, & Joe Flood (illus)

First Second, 2013. tradepaper, 180 pages.

cute girl network coverJane thinks Jack is the bee’s knees…but the cute girl network disagrees. (back copy)

Jane is brand new to Brookport (think author hometowns Brooklyn and Portland), living with an old friend and documentary filmmaker Wendy, and working in a skate shop where she defends her uterus and dreams a future when other girls get more involved in her first love: skateboarding. Open with cute-meet.


Jane meets Jack who works a food cart that sells soup.*

Enter the Cute Girl Network.

“The Network is a loose alliance of smart, beautiful young women who’ve come together to share information about all the spazzes, dorks, tools, freaks, perverts, losers, and dumbass boys in the city and to prevent yet another awesome girl from falling for yet another lame guy.” –Wendy (63)

Jane’s girl friends make a plausible case for the desire to not waste time on relationships that will not only go nowhere, but will likely include heart-break. What if there were a preventative measure? I mean, if you’d only known he was an asshole (62), or, at the very least, a really bad fit. We’ll admit to sometimes ignoring those early signs later. The Network is formed to allow the “smart, confident young woman” to make “an informed decision and mov[e] forward with […] eyes wide open” (150).

You can see how this would suck for those young men who, like Jack, are excited to find an attractive woman who is new to Brookport and has yet to discover he’s an idiot (113). On one hand, he has reason to fear the Cute Girl Network because has “major memory and tact issues” (108)–he is the source of some really eww inducing moments! Even when the book would recover some of the testimonials via Jack’s perspective, it doesn’t recover everything. On the other hand, Jane is the rare female figure in the novel who is willing to explore the idea that maybe she wouldn’t garner winning testimonials from past relationships either; nor does she have a lot in common with Jack’s past girlfriends. “I’ve taken worse falls than this” (2) she says early on , and she is willing to risk heart ache for a good lay or relationship. And as Jack’s roommate Rose tells him, he needs someone “dumb-ass tolerant and willing to work around it” (113). And Jane just might qualify.

Which brings us to another issue that Wendy is willing to raise where some of the other young women less specific about: “Major memory and tact issues” versus “two-timer [or] baby-daddy” (108) type offenses. Degrees of offensiveness are tested within the book and by the reader, just compare Jack and his other roommate Gil. Another concern raised by not only Jane’s boss: Jack’s idleness, lack of ambition, a lifestyle of financial uncertainty he isn’t looking to change… The boss is framing it in a not unrealistic portrait of: even if she is financially self-supporting, her female income is up against gender bias’ that Jack’s won’t, especially with future prospects (142).

cute girl tumblr_mvsujy10ng1sq4r04o1_1280

(excerpt from p 35); “Layabout,” a song inspired by Jack.

Jane is much more ‘live in the moment’ but does eventually conceive of a future where it has been evident that the financial concerns have not been as easily dismissed by her as they’ve seemed. And really, The Cute Girl Network artfully addresses many of the concerns of the dating world. e.g. How does one balance work/play, seriousness/grace, and gain perspective? The novel employs a lot of awkward humor, frank discussions, well-placed allusions, and accessible illustrations. The Cute Girl Network is looking for more honest portrayals of single life, striving for a verisimilitude that will have its younger (and youngish) readers identifying: this means having female characters who enjoy sex and engage in frank conversations about it. I love the playground scenes of the little girls reflecting not only societal expectations in their play-pretend, but also defying it; poop insults and all. One of Jack’s most winning traits is that he does not demean Jane, not even in his awe of her**; in fact, he depends on her self-possession. The Cute Girl Network avoids the didactic which makes this accessible for girls and boys.

An easy recommend, The Cute Girl Network would be an ideal book club read at the brew-pub for the variety of discussions it hosts. The read, text/image, are highly accessible to non-comic folk without insulting the fans. The use of flashbacks, the pacing, the buoyancy of difficult subjects, make for a fluid and entertaining read.  It’s smart and funny and leans toward skater-urban-indie over hipster, which is too appreciable to go unremarked–surely, I am not the only one to worry over this point.

recommended… for any sex/gender; reader of comics or no; for those who love indie-romance flicks, the adorable but sharp kind, the type that would cast Joseph Gordon Levitt; especially for the 23-37 set. *yes, they visit an indie record shop to peruse vinyl & know people in bands (Jane even stars in a homespun youtube music video); there is a visit to a coffee shop & tavern & bookshop; references to vegans; and an ironic, awesome allusion to Twilight via a book club read: “Vampyr Moon” (bless them for the inclusion, and thanks for the excerpt at the close).

**strikes a chord for those of us who’ve discussed “gallantry” and Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall recently.

NOT to miss Cute Girl Network extras via Flood’s blog, that if yet read will give you a sense of Jack and Jane…and Harriet, a founder of the network.

{images belong to Joe Flood, & Means and Reed}

"review" · chapter/series · Children's · juvenile lit · recommend · series · Tales

{book} taking the case

Ivy_and_Bean_Take_the_Case_FC_HiResIvy + Bean: Take the Case (Book 10)

by Annie Barrows + Sophie Blackall (illus)

Chronicle Books, 2013. Hardcover, 126 pages.

Modeling herself after a classic film noir detective from her mother’s favorite film, Private Investigator Bean “laughs at danger! […] And she and her assistant, Ivy, are ready, willing, and able to solve any mystery you can throw at them.” If there were any mysteries deemed mysterious enough in Pancake Court, that is…

Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall deliver yet another delightfully creative and intelligent Ivy + Bean adventure. I was surprised to find, however, that plenty of the usual fans on goodreads did not care for this 10th installment. Most of the explanations focused on their “boredom during the first portion of the book” and its “untidy ending.” And I can see that, especially if one misses what is going on in the story.

A mystery was a question you couldn’t find the answer to. In Al Seven’s world, the mysteries were things like Who took Hester’s jewels? or Where was Sammy La Barba on the night of May twelfth? Bean didn’t have any jewels and she sure as heck didn’t know anyone named Sammy La Barba, but there were plenty of questions that she didn’t have answers to. […] What’s inside the cement thing in the front yard? What’s behind the Tengs’ fence and why do they lock it up? and What’s the matter with the mailman? when she asked these questions, her parents usually said something like It’s none of your business. That meant that there was an answer, but they didn’t want her to know it. (13-4)

Investigator Bean and her assistant Ivy are having problems solving mysteries that are impressive enough to satisfy the crowd (e.g. the other kids of Pancake Court), and apparently the reader (e.g. goodreads reviews). Or, rather, it is the answers that their investigations reveal that lack audience interest, because Ivy and Bean are not the only one’s who’ve always wondered about the cement thing, Teng’s backyard or the mailman. When they solve the mystery, the answer turns out to be a lackluster one. The girls are increasingly mocked and the pressure intensifies to find a mystery “strange” enough to satisfy their difficult crowd (which, granted, includes themselves).

Suddenly a rope appears and know one knows who hung it from Dino’s chimney. Every night knots add length as it begins to wind about Pancake Court. This is where the “big mystery” kicks in–but obviously not the story. In Film Noir, this is where the story would start, too. But this is Pancake Court and Bean is not a hardened, tormented detective. And this is Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall breaking from the formulaic. In many ways, their willingness to dare something unexpected and different reclaims the word and idea of mystery; and in doing so, they do what they do exceptionally well: argue on the side of creativity and its prerequisite imagination and different points-of-view.

ivy and bean $(KGrHqNHJF!FFwcJd6+(BRkZVQp7cg~~60_57

Some mysteries are going to remain mysteries, like the one presented in the first chapter: Why would a mother who restricts Bean’s screen-watching-time to ten movies with a strict personal-parental rating allow her daughter to watch a film that breaks all but one of those rules? Barrows could have launched Bean’s new obsession from another source (as many other picture and early chapter books have done).

Clues to who-dunnit appear throughout the early mysteries before we’ve arrived to the Big Case. There is a lot to suggest the who and why by the time the crowd is threatening a revolt. Did the investigative reader consider all the angles? In Mysteries, does the reader really leave it up to the Investigator to do all the work?

<<spoilers alert!!! spoilers!!!!>>

Noting his presence/timing in text/illustration: Jake the Teenager. Why? to help a nutty neighbor out, or to amuse himself, or both? But why leave “The Mystery of the Yellow Rope” unsolved? because the magic of having a mystery is really what Ivy and Bean have discovered to be the most enticing part of a mystery. Think about how quickly the attitude shifted when questions were answered. Boring ol’Pancake Court became even more so.

“Al Seven is always wanting to solve mysteries,” Bean said. “That’s what I don’t get about him,” said Ivy. “Why does he always want to solve them? You solve problems, but a mystery isn’t a problem, so why does it have to be solved?” “Sometimes it’s a problem,” said Bean. “This one isn’t. Nobody’s getting hurt or anything. It’s a nice mystery.” [Ivy said.] (105-6)

Yet again they “solve” the mystery and it isn’t satisfying; the answer’s lack of logic doesn’t help. I am fascinated by the inclusion of the children’s impulse to inform their parents of the rope and inquire of the answer of them. It couples well with this (oft frustrated) need for immediacy and for any work they put in to be rewarded in a way that feels rewarding. The neighborhood kids aren’t getting the “niceness” of the Yellow Rope Mystery, nor are some of its readers, apparently; which is okay. I just find it a smart, creative shift of perspective.

<<spoilers!!!! over……>>

ivy and bean illu-IB_WalkAwayNot all mysteries can be solved, some you do not want to solve, and many have really lackluster answers. That the audience longs for creativity, not only in the mystery but its answers is a central conflict that Take the Case handles beautifully, because it remains a mystery as to why the demand for creativity often ends up in a loathing of the creative revelation or response; or is it? Is this all too much for a grade school chapter book? Hardly…which is why I really love knowing Ivy+Bean exists. In Literature, we expect the form to contribute to the coherence of the work. You needn’t a degree to discover it; if it does, I suppose it fails. I do not believe Take the Case fails. I am continually impressed with how thoughtful the crafting of this series has proven itself to be while yet possessing utter charm and entertainment.

For all the talk of mysteries, Barrows/Blackall keep the friendship center stage as the two explore a childhood and all its strange mysteries together. Like the mutually supportive fictional duo, Blackall’s illustrations are without fail a flawless partner in the rendering of personality the text would infuse into the characters and story. There is no second-guessing or mystery as to whether these to two will stick together come what may.

recommendations…girl or boy, gradeschool, who like humor, contemporary fiction, and friendship stories. A series for those who desire to nurture their young (or to-be) creative writer and reader of Literature. Not for readers who expect (and desire) a transparent tale and its simplistic ribbon-tied ending for their young reader.

{images belong to Sophie Blackall}

"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" · fiction · horror/scary · Illustrator · juvenile lit · recommend · Tales · Uncategorized

{book} 9 Reasons to read The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield

9 lives The-Nine-Lives-of-Alexander-BaddenfieldThe 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield

by John Bemelmans Marciano

illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Viking (Penguin) 2013.

9 Reasons to Read The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield

#1  The Premise:

Alexander Baddenfield is a horrible boy—a really horrible boy—who is the last in a long line of lying, thieving scoundrels.  One day, Alexander has an astonishing idea.  Why not transplant the nine lives from his cat into himself?  Suddenly, Alexander has lives to spare, and goes about using them up, attempting the most outrageous feats he can imagine.  Only when his lives start running out, and he is left with only one just like everyone else, does he realize how reckless he has been. (publisher’s comments)

I felt sure that between the jacket copy and the illustrator, I was going to like this one. It was going to be deliciously dark and, thus, right up my alley. [#2 It is deliciously dark, by the way.] While there was some concern that the clever narrator would be a bit too much, I knew I would love this read after page 2. The reason why:

“But now you say to yourself, “Aha! I know: The twist is that the boy is not really dead. It says it right there in the title–Alexander has nine lives. he will be reborn, again and again, so that by his ninth life this awful child will have learned his lesson. His heart will fill with love for his fellow man, and he will become a Not-So-Baddenfield, or even a Goodenfield, and he will turn all his money over to the poor and dedicate his final life to charitable good works.

“If this were a  Hollywood movie, or a fairy tale, or a run-of-the-mill chapter book, this would undoubtedly be the case. But in the real world such things rarely happen. The truth of the matter is that Alexander Baddenfield used up all nine of his lives without the least bit of remorse or redemption, because Alexander Baddenfield only ever cared about one thing: himself.” (2-3)

John Bemelmans Marciano earns major points with me for consistency of character.

#3  Like his Baddenfield men before him, will die “in particularly grisly and poetically justified ways” (8). The tricky thing about the book, of course, is: how to kill of a child character and still maintain the resulting exclamation: what an entertaining book! I’m still laughing about _____! [I could be heard saying these things as I was encouraging Natalya to take a break from Virgin Suicides to give it a go.] It doesn’t hurt that Alexander is really and truly horrible. Two, there are quite a few fantastical elements. Three, if Edward Gorey can do it…

9 lives tumblr_mtdo49ZDT91r0yglfo1_250

Marciano was evidently up to the challenge. And in case, you aren’t a reader of Grimm or Gorey, the author offers a disclaimer, a dare and a tantalizer:

“Warning to All Readers : You are about to embark on a tale that recounts the sometimes gruesome deaths of a young boy, and his not always pleasant rebirths. If you are squeamish, sentimental, or faint of heart, I suggest that you turn back now. You have hopefully enjoyed the story so far. Why not quiet while you are ahead?”

It is nicely done, a black page and a skull and cross bones. #4 His sense of humor is spot-on for this sort of storytelling.

#5 The 9 Lives is as much about Winterbottom as it is about Alexander. A Winterbottom has served a Baddenfield “since time immemorial” (2), and how does one suffer such horrible human beings; further, how does one stick around to watch him self-destruct x9? Here is the heart that functions as the foil to Alexander’s heartlessness. Here is the helicopter parent to Alexander’s extreme risk-taking. What I can’t say is: Here is the perfection to Alexander’s imperfection–and I am glad to be unable to say it.

9 lives stroller.final

#6 Sophie Blackall’s illustrations. You know by now that I am a fan of Blackall’s work, but I wasn’t sure about the sweetened edge to her illustrations would do in a book full of horribleness. The rounded over sharp, skritched carvings of characters lend a deceptive sweetness that makes a glaring Alexander all the more awful…and humorous. Blackall’s charming illustrations make the macabre turns surprisingly all the more disturbing.

#7 Mention of Thomas Pynchon on page 36. another reason why juvenile fiction can be enjoyed by the well-read grown-ups in the family.

#8 The book itself is having fun. Besides the great illustrations and entertaining narrator, the text is manipulated and lives are counted down via eyeballs. Chapters are as long as they need to be, and the re-write of history in chapter two is perfectly paced and hilariously re-imagined (my favorite may be the Boston Tea Party); and such is what you can expect in following chapters–unexpected takes that are highly comedic.

#9 “The End” wherein the narrative shifts, and we get two amusing pages of text before that closing full-page illustration. It is a truly delightful ending to a marvelously entertaining book!

{images belong to Sophie Blackall}