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

{book} kenny and the dragon

Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings wrote an excellent review on Kenny and the Dragon so I had to see it for myself. That I, too, am a fan of DiTerlizzi’s illustrations is another contributing factor. To confess all: I have come to like DiTerrlizzi’s textual storytelling as well—The Search for Wondla clinched that for me. I began to read Kenny and the Dragon expecting great things, and I was right to do so.

Kenny and the Dragon was a pleasure to read. It was a small hard back, 152 pages w/ illustrations, so no excuses. You don’t even have to have read Kenneth Grahame’s Reluctant Dragon, but you may want to: it is one of those books where the author is affectionate in the treatment of his inspiration and you want to share the same affection for it as well.

What do you do when your new best buddy has been designated a scourge by the community and marked for imminent extermination? Just ask Kenny Rabbit. When the simple folks in the sleepy little village of Roundbrook catch wind that there’s a dragon running loose in the countryside, they get the wrong idea and the stage is set for a fight to the death. So it’s up to Kenny to give his neighbors front-row seats to one of the best-known battles in history—the legendary showdown between St. George and the dragon—without losing a friend in the fray. ~jacket copy.

Kenny and the Dragon sounds like a fairly typical bullying story. Kenny’s a bit of a strange young rabbit, shy, bookish, has one real friend who is an adult. But he isn’t the one to be bullied in the story—or to be imminently exterminated. His new friend Grahame is, and he really does want to keep his friend safe. –spoilers—The stellar complication in the story is how his other and longtime best friend is the one ordered by the king to slay the new friend. And it isn’t as if the dragon and the old friend wouldn’t get along rather wonderfully.—end–

So you know those stories where the bully is obvious and the choice is made easy as to who the villain is and what should be done? Not so here. Although a villain does come in late, allowing the conclusion that cathartic experience of overcoming a tangible evil—you know, like ignorance/bigotry.

[Kenny] looked down at his bookshelf and gazed at the books […] In some of them, there were wizards and witches who could give you enchanted weapons or supernatural powers that allowed you to overcome your foes and save the day. Kenny’s life didn’t have these villains intent on doing nothing but bad things—it was more complicated than that. (98)

Carl mentions both the literary references and the occasional big words. He also suggests that a pairing of DiTerlizzi and Kate DiCamillo could mean something stellar. I agree. DiCamillo does come to mind when reading Kenny because the two do not flinch away from big and richer words with young audiences and they both can create a timeless feel in their tales that can still feel wholly original.

Bibliophiles will love reading this one with their young-readers or non- even beyond the literary references, because Kenny is encouraged to read. His family lives on a farm and it is apparent his parents are hard-working. He is an only son (at home anyway) and instead of being harangued for being a reader and oft distracted, it appears understood that it is okay that he is. The story (and family) make time for work and pleasure, responsibilities and exceptions.

sketch from DiTerlizzi, found in a “7 Imp…” interview (see below)

The parents are a favorite part of the read. Mom is very much a mom, she is protective and stable and warm. The dad is an awesome character for other reasons; although there is little doubt ever that he is a good dad. It is just that Kenny seems very different from his dad who’s language is rougher and interests are tied to the land rather than the clouds. You can see why Kenny gravitates toward the bookshop owner in town for conversation, chess, and reading material. But Mr. Rabbit is not to be replaced. I love the moment when Kenny really sees his father—really notices him and his value.

Kenny looked up at his dad as they walked back home. In the warm lantern light, he seemed wise now, like Arthur’s Merlin. And Kenny realized that his father’s wisdom was gained from real experiences and not something he had read about in a book. (114)

[…”read about in a book.”—there is a great discussion about: reading about adventures and having one; about what can be learned from books, and what is better learned from “real experiences;” what can be played out (like theater) and what inspires play (theater); what if the information in the books is ignorant or wrong? Those sorts of conversations. A lovely tension, and a lovely complication for bibliophiles.]

The parents are wonderful in the course of the story because Kenny isn’t an anomaly. His parents are loving and compassionate people. They are hospitable, and they are fierce. And so is he. The parents stand behind or in front of Kenny in encouragement and support of his efforts without coming across as inept or without parent/adult-status.

A hero who is championed by their still-living parents in a juvenile (or any) adventure where a goal is in becoming one’s own heroic self is rare. Kenny and the Dragon was like basking in the sun after a long dark winter.

So, Kenny is a good story in which to talk about friendship and bullies and bigotry, and definitely ageism—if that is a problem for you or yours.  Of course, Kenny isn’t a message-y book. It offers good values and interesting complications which can only encourage creative solutions and a collaborative atmosphere. It offers what most kids and adults really want: a good story. It has good strong characters whose interactions can be heart-warming, tense, or comedic—and there is even a hint of romance for Kenny—a hint. There is action and talk of food (pie, anyone?). DiTerlizzi builds suspense and takes a few turns. Really, you wonder why you put up with the tomes that we do, considering what can be accomplished in shorter.

The length coupled with the pacing and the images make this an accessible read for the younger readers. The recommendation reads 8-12 and I would lower this for avid readers and story-time.



Kenny and the Dragon by Tony DiTerlizzi

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2008

Hardcover, 152 pages.

check out DiTerlizzi’s site, here.

there is an audio-file of Alan Cummings reading Chapter 1, also a teacher’s guide, or you can gaze at the lovely images.

Another  fun “7 Impossible Things…” interview: w/ Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi

{all images are Tony DiTerlizzi/Simon & Schuster}

–part of the Once Upon a Time Challenge

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

{illustrator} david small


It has been a while since I highlighted an illustrator and that is just what I am going to do.

Do you follow “7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast?” I do. They deal primarily with illustrated books and their illustrators and David Small was being talked about the other week, February 7th. Jules was looking at the recently released Dial picture book One Cool Friend written by Toni Buzzeo and illustrated by Small. You may remember that David Small wrote and illustrated the graphic memoir Stitches (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009). I reviewed it. I decided to check out more of his picture book work.


A bit about David Small, in snips from his site’s biography page:

“David Small was born and raised in Detroit. In school he became known as “the kid who could draw good,” but David never considered a career in art because it was so easy for him.” [Eventually, and fortunately, a friend convinced him to pursue an art career anyway.] “After getting his MFA at the Yale Graduate School of Art, David taught art for many years on the college level, ran a film series and made satirical sketches for campus newspapers. Approaching tenure, he wrote and illustrated a picture book, “Eulalie and the Hopping Head”, which he took to New York, pounding the pavements and collecting rejections for a month in the dead of winter. “Eulalie” was published in 1981. Although tenure at the college did not follow, many more picture books did, as well as extensive work for national magazines and newspapers. His drawings appeared regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times. A learn-as-you-go illustrator, David’s books have been translated into several languages, made into animated films and musicals, and have won many of the top awards accorded to illustration, including the 1997 Caldecott Honor and The Christopher Medal for “The Gardener” written by his wife, Sarah Stewart, and the 2001 Caldecott Medal for “So, You Want To Be President?” by Judith St. George. To date he has illustrated over 40 picture books.” The “date” being concurrent with his working on Stitches.

image from The Library by Sarah Stewart.

I picked up three picture books of which David Small is the illustrator from the Library; too small a sampling compared to his proliferation, I know; but I would share them with you just the same.

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety––your preferred one?

David: I use a sheet of good imported rag paper. My line work is done with brush & ink, sometimes a nib pen. I add watercolor washes with touches of pastel chalk.

That Book Woman by Heather Henson (Atheneum, 2008)

 That Book Woman is inspired by The Pack Horse Library Project, a 1930s WPA carried out in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. It is a precursor of the Book Mobile, where (primarily) women rode horses packed with books and kept routes throughout the mountains distributing books to the rural homesteads to encourage and improve literacy.

Cal is not the readin’ type. Living way high up in the Appalachian Mountains, he’d rather help Pap plow or go out after wandering sheep than try some book learning. Nope. Cal does not want to sit stoney-still reading some chicken scratch. But that Book Woman keeps coming just the same. She comes in the rain. She comes in the snow. She comes right up the side of the mountain, and Cal knows that’s not easy riding. And all just to lend his sister some books. Why, that woman must be plain foolish — or is she braver than he ever thought?-publisher’s comments

Cal moves from resentment to an understanding of why his sister spends so much time in a book and why his (multi-generational) family outright encourages it. The story values both work and education, indeed, what shows a greater determination and passion in their work than the Pack Horse Librarians. “I year to know what makes that Book woman risk catching cold, or worse,” Cal says. Both the Librarian’s and Cal’s risk-taking find reward.


Princess Says Goodnight by Naomi Howland (HarperCollins, 2010)

When a little girl pretends she’s a real princess, her imagination soars and her bedtime routine is transformed into a majestic affair. While practicing curtsies on her way to bed, she gets the royal treatment: chocolate cream Éclairs, glass slippers, ladies-in-waiting, a tiara—even a bubble bath with a special fluffy towel to dry her toes. Being a princess is so much fun! But at bedtime, there’s one thing a little girl—or a princess—always gets: a kiss before saying goodnight.-publisher’s comments

Princess Says Goodnight imagines how it must look for a princess would say goodnight aka go to bed, even while teh reader must imagine what actions correlate to the little girl’s saying goodnight.

Princess Says Goodnight is playful, but quiet, not eye-popping candy-colored or sparkly energy. The girl is vibrant sure, but the wash of colors and movement is softened.  The text is rhythmic, the words are lulling. It is a good bedtime book. And one that is good for a sibling who likes to have their special time in play and intimacy with their parents. This is a really nice tuck-in-bed book that shouldn’t exhaust with re-reading even while it should prove useful for those who desire a cooperative and calming bedtime.

Naomi Howland:Your style is so fluid; nothing looks labored at all. Do you do a lot of preliminary drawings first?

David Small: It’s sleight of hand! All illustrators aim for the Effortless Look, but even someone whose work is as loose as Quentin Blake has admitted publicly to laboring over and throwing away a lot of pictures. (When I read that I felt a very brotherly feeling for Mr. Blake, and grateful to him as well, for admitting that he doesn’t just toss things off.)

interview between author/illustration from Naomi Howland’s site

Elsie’s Bird by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 2010).

 Elsie is a city girl. She loves the noise of the cobbled streets of Boston. But when her mother dies and her father moves them to the faraway prairies of Nebraska, Elsie hears only the silence, and she feels alone in the wide sea of grass. Her only comfort is her canary, Timmy Tune. But when Timmy flies out the window, Elsie is forced to run after him, into the tall grass of the prairie, where she’s finally able to hear the voice of the prairie-beautiful and noisy- and she begins to feel at home. Jane Yolen and David Small create a remarkable, poetic, vividly rendered book about finding one’s place in the world.–publisher’s comments.

 [Editor Patricia Gauch] also got one of her award-winning illustrators, David Small—an artist who I admired greatly and enjoyed personally—to do the illlustration. He also lies in that area and his wife has made a spectacular “prairie garden.”–Jane Yolen on writing/publishing Elsie’s Bird.

Elsie’s Bird focuses on the power of sound and song, as well as its value to many. It is very much about “finding one’s place in the world.” Like a caged bird may sing, Elsie could, too, but she was limited and she needed to see that. I adore the movements captured behind or around Elsie, sound making people and objects and actions. With Small’s fluid use of color and sketched-line–very animated, perfectly applied.

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

ivy+bean: no news is good news

Ivy + Bean : No News is Good News (book8)

by Annie Barrows w/ Illus. by Sophie Blackall

Chronicle Books, 2011

Hardcover,127. Juvenile Fiction, Ages 6-10.

Ivy and Bean need some money. Ten dollars, to be exact. Never mind what for. Okay, it s for low-fat Belldeloon cheese in a special just-for you serving size. Don t ask why. How are Ivy and Bean going to make ten dollars? Hey, maybe they should write a newspaper about Pancake Court and sell it Great idea And easy, too. All they have to do is snoop around the neighborhood. Wow…It s very interesting what they can find out. It s even more interesting when the neighbors read about it in the newspaper.~Publisher’s Comments

Natalya was 6 or 7 when we picked up the first Ivy+Bean book by Annie Barrows. N has since moved onto Teen shelves, but I still try to keep up on “the two friends who never meant to like each other” and their adventures. First, the books are just that delightful. Second, Sophie Blackall is one of my favorite Illustrators (as many of you know). There are a lot of fun chapter books for the 6-10 age group. If you need to narrow it down: Ivy + Bean has and continues-to-be brilliant. Check them out.

No News is Good News was an especially fun read for me. I remember my mom packing “cheese in a special just-for-you serving size” wrapped in a red wax to play with; though I doubt mine were lowfat. The trip down memory lane was fun. Ivy and Bean are also out to create a local newspaper as a fundraiser, and we are in the early stages of zine project 2.0. May it reassure neighbors and family and friends, we will not be looking in windows and record the odd observation. With FaceBook, Google-+, or Twitter, do I need to?

There are some things people do not want to share or have revealed. They certainly wouldn’t care for the exaggerations made to spice up the story. Ivy and Bean narrowly escape all-out disaster. It helps that despite their (innocent) mischief they are still little girls and that their observations were fairly mild. But when the girls remark upon their finished newspaper, The Flipping Pancake, with: “It looks so real.” (109) how can the adult reader disagree? Points are made and lessons are learned—but not in a message-y way. A marvelous aspect to the Ivy + Bean books are the deft handling of learning opportunities via the girls’ interactions and adventures. These are fun reads with creative stories and solutions.


Since you are going to get your dear 6-10 year old girl (and dear 33 year old L) the boxed sets for a gift, throw in that brand new Paper Doll Set! Shameless, I know, but I adore these books. Barrows has a fantastic sense of humor and story, and her characters are wonderful. It is yummy icing that Blackall illustrates their adventures (and their dolls!).

Annie Barrows’ Ivy + Bean site.

Chronicle Books’ Ivy + Bean site (has a page for Readers and one for Teachers because the books do inspire creativity and great conversation.)

Sophie Blackall’s site.

my review of Ivy + Bean: Book 7: What’s The Big Idea? (at the bottom of linked post)

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

Tales of Mystery & Madness

Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Madness

Illustrated by Gris Grimly

Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon&Schuster), 2004

Hardcover, 135 pages. Juvenile Fiction (ages 11 & up)

A sweet little cat drives a man to insanity and murder…

The grim death known as the plague roams a masquerade ball dressed in red…

A dwarf seeks his final revenge on his captors…

A sister calls to her beloved twin from beyond the grave…

Prepare yourself. You are about to enter a world where you will be shocked, terrified, and, though you’ll be too scared to admit it at first, secretly thrilled. Here are four tales — “The Black Cat,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “Hop-Frog,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” — by the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. The original tales have been ever so slightly dismembered — but, of course, Poe understood dismemberment very well. And he would shriek in ghoulish delight at Gris Grimly’s gruesomely delectable illustrations that adorn every page. So prepare yourself. And keep the lights on. ~Publisher’s Comments

I read the final story (The Fall of the House of Usher) in this illustrated collection of 4 Edgar Allan Poe stories just before falling asleep last night. Yeah, my dreams were even more demented than usual. I also woke to the dismembering of several trees, where the snowfall was too much for the still leafy behemoths. Tree carnage everywhere. Needless to say, Gris Grimly’s Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Madness is a perfect seasonal read.

The claim that “The original tales have been ever so slightly dismembered” is true. Gris Grimly handles these stories masterfully. Poe’s work is as delicious dark as ever, atmospheric, gruesome, and wickedly worded.

The daughter picked up a collection of Poe’s work from the school library not long ago. And the delight in her reading Poe was his overall effect, and his incredible vocabulary. Lists were made by page where she would stop and look them all up. Then at the end re-read the story in a definite state of awe. In Gris Grimly’s lovely book, the words remain as flavorful and difficult as ever. The oft long and unwieldy sentences that sing so perfectly are still enacted, sinking the chills so deeply inward as they wind about and descend.

Poe has a way of externalizing the internal machinations using everything at his disposal, and I think Gris Grimly via his figure sketches and his composed frames/pages would echo a similar effect. The accompaniment of illustration is really well done in a contemporary styling of Edward Gorey, with some water color, and with an edge of mania. Admittedly, at first I shrugged at their darkling charm, but the images really grew on me. They’ve an energy; and they infuse the sinister in the same subtle ways Poe does with words. Given time and a better vocabulary I could disassemble the effects, like one might do with Poe (sentence structure, diction, etc) but in the end there is sure to be an organic quality that unsettles appropriately.

from The Fall of the House of Usher. this image is pre-text. I liked Gris Grimly’s use of water color.

The presentation of the stories are of interest. There is a lot of framing, with actual—er—frames, but it is more picture book than comic*; although the debate there is sure to continue. The images move as the story warrants, and they clarify the mood of each piece. Mind the compositions, as well as the delicacy in which Gris Grimly handles the more gory aspects to a story. I adored the font for the dialog and how it paired so nicely with the regular text in Locarno. The details really come together. But for the color, it is old cinema at points, a bit of Hitchcock; perhaps with the color, Tim Burton, both with film and with pen. I can liken, but Gris Grimly, even as he glowingly cites influences, concocts an imagery all his own.

You read enough Edgar Allan Poe and you note repetitive images and themes and his brilliant observations of mental illnesses. In the 4 stories Gris Grimly chose to collect and illustrate find commonality, and not just Mystery and Madness. For those adults who worry over characters drinking or smoking, Poe and Grimly provide good morality tales as to how alcohol and opium (among other things) poorly affect the spirit and drive a body into horrible states. In the first story, Black Cat, the protagonist, driven by alcoholism and its subsequent inhibition of rage, gouges his beloved cat’s eyeball out. And then later tries to take an axe to it, but well, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, many a story here is an advertisement for how the drink and anger harms; and how horrifying the unrepentant truly are.

And yet, of course, Poe can be complicated. With Black Cat: Was it the Alcohol? Was it an adult onset of some other illness complicated by drink? Was he really just a bad man (and since he was writing the letter misled us at the beginning)? We really want to work out some of Poe’s mysteries, review his words, his establishment of the story, because his villains (who are oft our narrator) are scary and it feels safer to explain them away—which is a mistake, because Poe’s villains become all too familiar a figure.

For instance, The Mask of the Red Death feels timely, does it not? Prince Prospero hiding away behind impressive and impassable walls in opulence with the select courtiers while the 99% writhe in anguish beneath the onslaught of the Red Death (assign the red state where you will). –okay, sorry, I usually avoid anything political, but you get the example. Poe (and Grimly) use both the upper and the lower classmen as figures of terror. Notably however is the gleefulness you feel at the ending of the villainous Prince (The Mask) and King (Hop-Frog). Then, with both The Mask of the Red Death and Hop-Frog the endings are a conflict of terror and jubilance; not unlike the masquerade balls in which the concluding events occur. As for The Fall of the House of Usher just felt inevitable. I felt an enormous relief of having escaped that story. Unfortunately Black Cat is a scenario that isn’t always so inevitable. Poe’s stories and Grimly’s artwork are inspired.

Poe’s stories (and Gris Grimly’s illustrations) can be enjoyed at a most basic level: you can get a fairly simple chill of horror and enjoy its lingering effects for hours after. Or you can linger and worry over how you yourself have been thus revealed by the reading and manipulative response of Poe’s tales. You can marvel over a sentence, a scene, or creatively subtle devisement. In Gris Grimly’s book, you can enjoy the illustrations several passes more. Edgar Allan Poes’ Tales of Mystery and Madness is a treat that keeps on giving, “ever so slightly dismembered” into bite-sized stories for enjoyable autumnal afternoon sittings. And I would echo the recommended daylight hours, for Poe in the hands of Gris Grimly is delightfully disturbing.


*Since this book is for 11 & up you will likely find this in a Teen Graphic Novel/Comics section. And I really would take the age 11 & up seriously here.

to view more of Gris Grimly’s work click here.

A Reader’s Imbibing Peril (RIP) read if I ever met one.

"review" · Children's · Illustrator · juvenile lit · Lit · poet-related · recommend · wondermous

Every Thing On It


A spider lives inside my head

Who weaves a strange and wondrous web

Of silken threads and silver strings

To catch all sorts of flying things,

Like crumbs of thoughts and bits of smiles

And specks of dried-up tears,

And dust of dreams that catch and cling

For years and years and years….

~Shel Silverstein (Every Thing On It, 190)

Every Thing On It

Poems and Drawings by Shel Silverstein

Harper (HarperCollins), 2011.

Hardcover, 195 pages.

Dedication reads: “For you”

“This posthumous collection of Silverstein’s poems and illustrations is not only familiar in design, but chockfull of the whimsical humor, eccentric characters, childhood fantasies, and iconoclastic glee that his many fans adore. Like the boy who orders a hot dog ‘with everything on it’ (‘…it came with a parrot,/ A bee in a bonnet,/ A wristwatch, a wrench, and a rake’), there are plenty of surprises in store for readers. Although a few poems feel a tad fragmentary, overall the volume includes some of Silverstein’s strongest work, brilliantly capturing his versatility and topsy-turvy viewpoint. The poems take expectedly unexpected twists (Walenda the witch rides a vacuum cleaner); a few are gross (‘Let’s just say/ I took a dare,’ reads ‘Mistake,’ as Silverstein shows a snake trailing out of a boy’s pair of shorts, its tail still entering through his mouth), but many more display Silverstein’s clever wordplay, appreciation of everyday events, and understated wisdom. ‘There are no happy endings./ Endings are the saddest part,/ So just give me a happy middle/ And a very happy start.’ The silly-for-the-sake-of-silly verses are nicely balanced with sweetly contemplative offerings, including a poignant final poem that offers an invitation to readers: ‘When I am gone what will you do?/ Who will write and draw for you?/ Someone smarter — someone new?/ Someone better — maybe YOU!’ All ages. (Sept.)” Publishers Weekly

Everything On It was a timely read for Banned Books Week 2011 last week. This posthumous publication contains all we have come to know and love in Shel Silverstein’s Poems and Drawings for children–it’s bound to be challenged/banned very soon. I haven’t much more to say, Publishers Weekly says it so nicely, but I did notice that there are some great poems in Everything On It for adults as well as children, more than usual. (That isn’t to imply that Silverstein’s work is only ever meant for children, it’s just really meant for children.) “Growing Down” (76-9) is about “old Mr. Brown, the crabbiest man in our whole darn town,” whom the children come to call “Grow-Up Brown.” He thinks the children should grow up, the children think he should grow down. Grow-Up Brown comes to agree, “It’s much more fun, this growin’ down.” “The Dollhouse” (151) is another one.


You can’t crawl back in the dollhouse–

You’ve gotten too big to get in.

You’ve got to live here

Like the rest of us do.

You’ve got to walk roads

That are winding and new.

But oh, I wish I could

Crawl back with you,

Into the dollhouse again.

Some parents will especially appreciate “MER-MAID” (171).

There are many mindless and/or mindful ways to think about Silverstein poems and drawings. I love how complicated and uncomplicated a poem of his finds itself.


A lizard in a blizzard

Got a snowflake in his gizzard

And nothing else much happened, I’m afraid,

but lizard rhymed with blizzard

And blizzard rhymed with gizzard

And that, my dear, is why most poems are made.


Every Thing On It is another collection to own, and to share, and to read–with the young and the old. It would be wonderful to see some of our young and old take up the missive in “WRITESINGTELLDRAW” and “When I am Gone.” We need more Shel Silverstein Poems and Drawings in the world.


After the snowmelt and after the rain,

Out of the ground a hand came

And drew me a picture

And wrote me a poem

And touched my face gently

And pointed me home.


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

colin meloy’s Wildwood

Wildwood by Colin Meloy w/ illustrations by Carson Ellis
Balzer+Bray, 2011
Hardcover, 541 pages (w/ full-color plates).
Prue McKeel’s life is ordinary. At least until her baby brother is abducted by a murder of crows. And then things get really weird.
You see, on every map of Portland, Oregon, there is a big splotch of green on the edge of the city labeled “I.W.” This stands for “Impassable Wilderness.” No one’s ever gone in — or at least returned to tell of it.
And this is where the crows take her brother.
So begins an adventure that will take Prue and her friend Curtis deep into the Impassable Wilderness. There they uncover a secret world in the midst of violent upheaval, a world full of warring creatures, peaceable mystics, and powerful figures with the darkest intentions. And what begins as a rescue mission becomes something much bigger as the two friends find themselves entwined in a struggle for the very freedom of this wilderness.
A wilderness the locals call Wildwood.
Wildwood is a spellbinding tale full of wonder, danger, and magic that juxtaposes the thrill of a secret world and modern city life. Original and fresh yet steeped in classic fantasy, this is a novel that could have only come from the imagination of Colin Meloy, celebrated for his inventive and fantastic storytelling as the lead singer of the Decemberists. With dozens of intricate and beautiful illustrations by award-winning artist Carson Ellis, Wildwood is truly a new classic for the twenty-first century. ~Publisher’s Comments
It was unfair of me to suppose that a songwriter’s novel would be lyrical or prone to poetic fancies. Colin Meloy proves that he needn’t be contained to singular voices or talents. His Wildwood is rather staid. It is very cleanly written. No waxing, a little waning, and not an awkward sentence anywhere. He transports the reader and translates Portland culture without melodrama, without romanticism (well, maybe some). Yet, it isn’t technical writing either. Comparisons with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia have more to do with the way the story is told, than even in the passing into another fantastical world with an evil witch, a struggle for power, ecological threats, and children who need to find they are courageous and resourceful. Wildwood feels like a classic story, and one which, coincidentally, should become a classic, especially for those in the North West, and the Hipster crowd.
<possible spoilers hereafter>
There is a lot of praise for Wildwood, and not without merit, but Publisher’s Weekly eloquently touches on something with which I, too, had some difficulty:
“Meloy, the lead singer of the band the Decemberists, delves into middle-grade fiction with a story that pairs classic adventure novel tropes with cool, disaffected prose. The book opens as 12-year-old Prue McKeel loses her baby brother to a murder of crows, and sets off to rescue him from the Impassable Wilderness, a strange country alongside Portland, Ore., (where the actual Forest Park lies). Her classmate Curtis tags along, and the two are soon separated. Prue takes refuge with the postmaster in his delivery van, while Curtis is captured, then suddenly made an officer in an army of talking coyotes led by the beautiful and intimidating Dowager Governess. It becomes apparent that Prue and Curtis have landed on opposite sides in a war — and neither side may be right. Without a good side to cheer for (disappointments and betrayals abound), the story lacks a strong emotional center, and its preoccupations with bureaucracy, protocol, and gray-shaded moral dilemmas, coupled with the book’s length, make this slow going. Ellis’s spot art, not all seen by PW, is characteristically crisp and formal, further lending the story a detached quality. Ages 8 — 12. (Sept.)” Publishers Weekly
I was drawn into the story rather quickly, easily charmed having lived/schooled in and around Portland, Oregon. And Meloy is a whiz with the setting. I could practically taste the damp, hear the bicycle wheels on the pavement. It was when Prue and Curtis become separated and the story is drawn into the political struggles of the Wildwood that I found myself prone to distractions.
“The [Pittock] Mansion has, for years now, been looking for ways to curtail the freedoms of the Avians. It worries me that this may give them even more reason.”
“Why?” asked Prue.
The owl shrugged. “Distrust. Intolerance. Fear. They dislike our ways.”
This was baffling to Prue. The birds she’d met so far in this strange place seemed very kind and accommodating.
“Gone are the days when the Mansion could be seen as a place of wise counsel and just governance. It is now a den of political opportunists and would-be despots, each grabbing desperately for every possible shard of power.” (180)
The current state of political affairs in the the four regions of the Impassable Wilderness drives most if not all of the plot and Meloy takes his time with it. C.S. Lewis (for me) drags in the same ways–the traveling, the setting, the actions that seems to occur in real time. Meloy doesn’t choose sides until the story forces his hand–many many pages in. In a way, this is brilliant: who doesn’t like the guessing game of whether the Dowager Governess really is scary or whether she is just misunderstood. But the awe inspired in the Reader is in the idea of this other society living and breathing in this impenetrable wilderness right next door. The “cool, disaffected prose” do not produce this sense. So when the idea has settled in, the awe dissipates and you are drawn into a long fable, a typical adventure. We’ve dealt with the White Witch, Edmond, Prince Caspian, and talking animals before. Granted, this isn’t England and there have yet to be an inclusion of mythical creature.
The “preoccupations” lose the chase with which you are drawn into the adventure, where is the baby and what do the crows want with him? What does he to do with everything else going on? I must’ve put the book down too often, but I couldn’t puzzle it out. Then there were the points I didn’t care, my mind caught in the intrigue of something else, like the mystery of why Prue could come through the impenetrable barrier. Nothing was going to unfold fast enough, I realized early on. And it doesn’t.
What Meloy does for the Reader to repent for the slow unfolding is to hold pace and interest by quickly and continually alternating between Prue’s adventures and Curtis’. Neat little segues are provided, little cliff-hangers to keep the Reader eager to return to a story line. This is a very very smart move. The Reader doesn’t have to wait for the next chapter, just a small run of paragraphs. And when Curtis is fairly stationary, Prue is constantly moving, going, seeing.
Prue is the capable heroine. She is independent and has a good moral center. There is less tension expended on her than Curtis who undergoes the greatest amount of change, and who is subject to the most self-deprecating kind of humor. Meloy makes use of Curtis’ abilities and then makes him something more–someone more daring and potential is surely in the offing. Meloy plays with the Reader a bit. It is lovely. Curtis is a wonderful surprise, always.
Other characters find dimension quite well. The most impassioned parts of the read, the most persuased toward a political position, is in meeting and becoming acquainted with the Wildwood bandits, most especially the heroic figure of the Bandit King. The bandits provide the trademark Decemberist Shanty. Meloy captures the dialog; personalities are fitted with a dialect, the most rhythmic infusion into the novel.
I mentioned Narnia, but there are other wonderful stories that come to mind; though nothing so much as to rob Wildwood of being its own on the whole. The clockwork boy (Frankenstein, necromancy) was very sad–too bad that complicated urge for compassion doesn’t hold; I suppose it really coudn’t.  I especially like Meloy’s take on the Rapunzel-story and the moral dilemma there (330+, 380-1). It is very creative and works into the plot beautifully.
Wildwood inspires the Reader, especially the young, to consider the real possibility of real magical places still thriving just beyond the pavement. Wildwood suggests that the magic that fuels fantastical adventure can be still found, in the wild places, in nature. There is a call to preserve the possibility, and to participate in a bit of wildness of your own.
“I saw in Wildwood, this forsaken country, a model for a new world. An opportunity to return to those long-forgotten values that are programmed deep within us, the draw of the wild. I thought if I were able to corral and focus this powerful law of nature, I could bring to the Wood a sort of order out of disorder and govern the land as it was always intended to be governed.” (133)
“You Outsiders,” said another bandit, on who had remained silent during all the invective. ‘You’re always looking for a way to conquer and despoil things that ain’t by rights yours, huh? I heard about what you do. […] I heard you about ruined your own country, nearly ran it into the ground poisoning your rivers and paving over your wild lands and such.” (238)
There is a lot of commentary on protecting the earth and her inhabitants. With regards to the Robin Hood-like bandits, Edward Abbey comes to mind: in that part of protecting our wilderness is to protect our wildness. Wilderness provides a space of refuge for the anarchists or other unpopular political/religious beliefs. With regards to Prue over her younger sibling and the resignation of the parents, I think about how much of our earth and resource we sacrifice for our immediate kin, our immediate needs, to the sacrifice and detriment of our future generations–our near-future generations.
“A satisfying blend of fantasy, adventure story, eco-fable and political satire with broad appeal; especially recommended for preteen boys.” Kirkus Reviews
I agree that the greatest pleasure in the read will likely be found with the male audience. The battle scenes, Curtis’ interests and angsts. Curtis moves from the fantasy of being the strong and brave and capable hero in the face of a beautiful woman, heady drink, bloody battle, and the rescue and protection of the vulnerable, to the becoming of these things. He will no longer be seen as the coddled boy with comic book themed bed-sheets, the sibling of only sisters, awkward and gawky, and will disappear into the wild and into the wildness therein.
Colin Meloy evidences ambition in this thoroughly written fantasy adventure. For lover’s of Portland, Wildwood is marvelously steeped in the region’s cultural concerns and responses. It is exciting when the rare North Western piece of literature is taken up by those outside. When the Easterners, or even Midwesterners, enter Wildwood they begin to see and taste Portland (and her greater environs), but when they enter the “Impassable Wood,” they become privy to so much more. Perhaps the absence of lyricism and waxing heat is so as to not mistake Wildwood and its environs and concerns as an impenetrable Fantasy, but as a probable and possible place.
a note : on Carson Ellis’ contributions to Wildwood. She has a recognizable style and voice of her own, fans of her work will be glad to see so many illustrations, especially the number of color plates in the novel. Both the b/w illustrations and the color plates (inserted full pages) illustrate moments in the story, images Meloy competently breathes life into with text, so the enhancement via their presence is other.
"review" · comics/graphic novels · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy

the true meaning of smekday

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (author, illustrator)
Hyperion Books for Children, 2007.
hardcover, 425 pages.
It all starts with a school essay. When twelve-year-old Gratuity (“Tip”) Tucci is assigned to write five pages on “The True Meaning of Smekday” for the National Time Capsule contest, she’s not sure where to begin. When her mom started telling everyone about the messages aliens were sending through a mole on the back of her neck? Maybe on Christmas Eve, when huge, bizarre spaceships descended on the Earth and the aliens–called Boov–abducted her mother? Or when the Boov declared Earth a colony, renamed it “Smekland” (in honor of glorious Captain Smek), and forced all Americans to relocate to Florida via rocketpod?
In any case, Gratuity’s story is much, much bigger than the assignment. It involves her unlikely friendship with a renegade Boov mechanic named J.Lo.; a futile journey south to find Gratuity’s mother at the Happy Mouse Kingdom; a cross-country road trip in a hovercar called Slushious; and an outrageous plan to save the Earth from yet another alien invasion.
Fully illustrated with “photos,” drawings, newspaper clippings, and comics sequences, this is a hilarious, perceptive, genre-bending novel by a remarkable new talent. ~Publisher’s Comments.

Glad my anxiety for arriving late for parties is not one that carries over to raving about books. Adam Rex’s 2007 novel The True Meaning of Smekday is a fantastic read. Expect to see this on any future list titled “Must Reads for Middle-Graders (regardless of Gender, Ethnicity, & Limb-count).” With a strong and sassy female protagonist, girls will feel vindicated, while boys will hardly be alienated.
“BOOB is an…acronym.” […] “Brotherhood Organized against Oppressive Boov. It stands for that.”
“Shouldn’t it be B-O-A-O-B, then?”
“We really wanted it to be BOOB,” said Marcos, and at the younger boys giggled again. (126)
“Waitaminute,” I said. “BOOB?”
“It’s the name of our club,” said boy number two.
“Are you guys from Florida or something?”
“No,” said Beardo. “Why?”
Both boys shouted over each other.
“It stands for–”
“Shut up!”
“Backyard telescope Ob…Observation of–”
“Of Occupations by Boov!”
“I don’t know why I ask,” I said, “but shouldn’t your acronym be like, BTOOB or something?”
“BOOB sounds better,” they said.
Boys. Honestly. (225)

The True Meaning of Smekday has been an amusing personal companion to our evening family read-aloud of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adam Rex is not as ridiculously funny as Mr. Adams but they’ve a similar gift for timing with their absurdities and outright silliness–nor are their criticism apologetically perpetrated on the sly; although Rex a bit more transparent with his.

I had a terrible thought. I thought about the people in concentration camps in World War II, told by Nazi soldiers to take showers, and the showerheads that didn’t work, and the poison gas that tumbled slowly through vents until every last one was dead. And then I thought about everyone two days ago, rushing to line up for those rocketpods. (92)

The True Meaning of Smekday would be a fun read while studying American History. Anything the aliens (whether Boov or Nimrog) are capable of, humankind has already done. Their actions are not unfamiliar, nor are their histories. The evolution of the Boov as drawn by J.Lo (the Boov deuteragonist) however funny is quite familiar (irreverently so for some–another likeness to Douglas Adams*). The behavioral trajectories are haunting, as we’ve seen most, if not all, of them played out over and over. Indeed, knowledge of historical events and their fall-outs create an incredible tension in the story.

“Captain Smek himself appeared on television for an official speech to humankind. (He didn’t call us humankind, of course. He called us the Noble Savages of Earth.)
“And so now I generously grant you Human Preserves–gifts of land that will be for humans forever, never to be taken away again, now.” (63)
“It’s mostly white folks living on the reservation now.”
I frowned. “And the Indians are okay with this?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well…it was a reservation,” I said. “It was land we promised to the Native Americans. Forever.”
Mitch looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. But…we needed it,” he said. (338)
“Before we came, Captain Smek and the HighBoovs telled us that the humans needed us. That the humans were just like the animals, and that we could to make them better. Teach to them. We were told the humans were nasty and backwards. It…it is what we thought.” (149-150)

Gratuity and the Boov companion calling himself J.Lo do not come into an easy relationship. Rex takes his time and considers real emotion here. Why would Gratuity be nice, let alone trust, any of the Boov, the very aliens who abducted her mother and essentially orphaned her? But tough situations create a necessity and realizations that follow with apologies do seem to work. The relationship between these two characters, with the help of a cat named Pig, is wonderfully developed and a magnificent part of the read–despite, or because of, how difficult their ability to communicate could at times be.
“Gorg,” I repeated. “There was only one Nimrog named Grog.”
“By this time, yes. Beforethen there were many Nimrogs named Gorg. Gorg was a popular boy name, like Ethel.”
I was aching to mention that Ethel was neither popular nor a boy’s name, but I felt we were really getting somewhere.” (196)
The book is told in essay form, at least the first two parts are before Gratuity is essentially encouraged to finish the story in a longer third section of the novel. “Photographs” are included, as well as comic-form illustrations, sketches, and news-clippings. Adam Rex is a talented illustrator and his use of this talent is a marvelous part of the story. His inclusions seamless and charming. But his writing is equally good–which is disgusting really. He tells a good story, he weaves in elements for reuse, has great comedic timing, and his actions sequences are exhilarating. He talks about silly things and important things, his characters change and develop, each lifting off the page, vivid whether in text or image.Readers of Science Fiction or no should find more than a few things to love in The True Meaning of Smekday. Avid and reluctant readers alike should know Adam Rex’s name. He is funny, relevant, and frighteningly intelligent–and sickeningly talented. Is there anyone who wasn’t charmed by this read in some way?
If I haven’t given you a reason to hand this to a middle-grade reader. Gratuity and J.Lo have provided 10 Reasons of their own.

*Being positively compared to Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker Guide stories can only be one of the best things ever, by the way. If you haven’t read the stories, please remedy immediately.
check out: “7 Impossible Things before Breakfast” has a great interview w/ Adam Rex here.