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

{picture book} Max the…adorably funny

 

Max the Brave by Ed Vere

Puffin Books, 2014 (UK). Sourcebooks, 2015 (US)

This is Max.

Max the Brave, Max the Fearless, Max the Mouse-catcher…But, in order to be a Mouse-catcher, Max needs to know what a mouse is, so off he goes to find out.

With that cover and jacket copy, Mo Willem and Oliver Jeffers fans are already intrigued: go with your gut: find yourself a copy of this picture book.

I was charmed almost immediately, but Max the Brave still caught me by surprise. Vere is the master of the long joke and finessed an unexpected twist along the way. The close is a satisfying one that had me laughing, even later, just thinking about it.

I dig the color palette. The appeal of Vere’s decisions with Max at so many levels cannot go without saying. He makes this book an easy recommendation beyond sheer entertainment. For instance, I’m geeked about the vocabulary. The verbs used are glorious. And they make sense in that these are things mice do. Unsurprisingly, Max is focused on the nature of mice…and cats, of course…and monsters.

While I wouldn’t limit Max the Brave to the present Autumnal/Halloween season, it is a good read to indulge in with your self and maybe another younger reader/listener.

Recommendations: For fans of the aforementioned Mo Willems and Oliver Jeffers; also Jon Klassen, Mac Barnett, Alex Latimer, Molly Idle. Emerging readers. Word lovers. Those who appreciate beautiful comedic timing.

{images belong to Ed Vere}

rip10500A Reader’s Imbibing Peril (RIP) X read….

 

"review" · Children's · concenter · Picture book · recommend

{picture book} wonder-full

Just in time for a baby shower gift, one of my favorites (I have a print on my wall) came out with a new book: not that I wouldn’t have gifted the recently released board book version of Dream Animals (my review).

The Wonderful Things You Will Be by Emily Winfield Martin 

Random House, 2015.

Emily Windfield Martin’s latest opens with:

When I look at you

And you look at me,

I wonder what wonderful

Things you will be.

before the narrator begins to speculate what this new child will be. Later in the book, the reader will wonder aloud as to what the child will do:

This is the first time

There has ever been a you,*

So I wonder what wonderful things

You will do.

There are some things that will go without wondering. There are some things the narrator knows about the child, can anticipate.

I know you’ll be kind…

and clever…

The sentiments are more than wonderful and I had a customer (an aunt buying for a niece) admit to becoming verklempt before hugging it to her chest and walking toward the registers with it. Natalya is still in a stage of deep-sighing when I hand her sentimental things like this to read. Fortunately, there is humor; also, she has a fondness for Martin’s art as well.

I love love love the words and pictures on the spread where a boy sitting at a sewing machine holds up tiny pants for a squirrel. Natalya recommends the one below, the one with the band (which Martin admits is a favorite).

The Wonderful Things You Will Be has a page that reads:

When nights are black and

When days are gray—

You’ll be brave and be bright

So no shadows can stay.

The image is a girl in a red coat, hood back, contemplating the red balloon stuck in the branches of a tree at the edge of a wood.

I think the endpapers are pretty sweet, too.

I mentioned the male tailor, but Martin always features a diverse population unusual to most picture books. I adore the details and I love the charmingly peculiar she includes in her books, though it makes sense if you consider successfully writing for an audience with such charming peculiarities within their own imaginations. Martin is well-suited to picture book creating.

The Wonderful Things You Will Be is a lovely, serious yet playful addition to the family library. You can’t start too young with this one, nor can you out-grow it.

——

of note: Martin fans will recognize and smile at the appearance of the Kitten Bandit among others. also, fans, check out RandomHouse’s cool little option to send e-cards!

If I’d done some real planning, I would have hunted down a red/white striped footie-pjs to pair with the book.

*a line reminiscent of Nancy Tillman books of the same genre. I’m pleased to have word-choice and image aesthetic options in these books.

{All images are Emily Winfield Martin’s; do check out her work at ‘the black apple’. You can see great spreads of the book here.}

 

"review" · juvenile lit · recommend · wondermous

{book} Jellyfish & Grief & Marvelous Writing

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Little, Brown & Co., 2015

Advanced Reader’s Copy thanks to Publisher & NetGalley in exchange for a fair/honest review.

After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy was a rare jellyfish sting. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory–even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy’s achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe…and the potential for love and hope right next door. –Publisher’s Comments

I need you to know that I do not get excited about reading what I call issue-driven books. One, they tend to be Contemporary Fic of the 1st person variety, where I preference Fantasy in the 3rd. Two, so many feels! Three, you really risk the message-y-ness. When artfully done, it compels empathy, rather than outright demands it. If you can relate to any of the three anxieties, you will do more than fine with The Thing About Jellyfish. Make it one of your bi-annual issue-driven reads.

My skepticism for the early praise that would rank The Thing About Jellyfish with the absolute must-read issue-driven novels: Wonder (RJ Palacio) and Out of My Mind (Sharon Draper) faded with the first ‘chapter’ of the book “Ghost Heart.” As I read, my thoughts moved to Kate DiCamillo’s work; which is just as challenging for a debut children’s writer to confront. Because of Winn Dixie was on my mind even before Benjamin’s protagonist referenced it. These are names whose company sells a book, but I want to impart some sense of the experience of the reading. The thing is: I’m not sure I can relay just what kind of elegance or lovely progression you can expect of Ali Benjamin in The Thing About Jellyfish.

You’ve read the Jacket Copy I provided at the start. The thing is is that Suzy and Franny are no longer best friends during the fatal occurrence. And one of the most compelling arcs in the novel is the revelation as to how the best of friendships disintegrated into such wrenching, guilt-ridden grief.

Where Suzy has decided to no longer speak within the world around her, she speaks to Franny in alternating sections of the novel. Suzy recounts their history, expresses a lack of understanding, and tries to explain why and how they came to be where they would ultimately conclude. The italicized sections inform every part of the novel and, most importantly, the main character. It is so well done, so increasingly painful. And damn if it isn’t familiar: the attempts to reconcile the changes between the one you fell in love with and the person they now want to be. The risks and results to the relationship feels like betrayal; and just who is the traitor? what if no one is? what if things just happen.  As Suzy’s elder brother and his boyfriend often say: Middle School does suck; it is hard; friendship is hard.

It’s the prose writing that reminds me of DiCamillo, and the subjects of grief, brokenness and of separation, which DiCamillo is so adept at conveying. It is also in the way DiCamillo describes children who are different without being medically conditioned. Suzy is a Science Nerd; she is a constant-talker; she has frizzy out-of-control hair; she is curious; and because the story hangs on it: she requires explanations. [yeah, she doesn’t sound that “different” does she?]

Suzy’s mother’s explanation for Franny’s death, despite Franny being an excellent swimmer, is left wanting and Suzy’s imagination focuses upon the Jellyfish.

The things we learn about Jellyfish and the way Benjamin incorporates it into the story is the most marvelous thing. How Suzy’s relationship to Jellyfish shifts situation (e.g. enemy, simile, etc.) is subtle and terribly important. Relationships are dynamic; they require love, and seek understanding. Suzy and that scientific and poetic mind is seeking and learning. She is stubborn, but she is also hurting. She is real enough and accessible enough to be flawed and forgiven for it.

Benjamin draws such a fully realized character that we are reminded, beyond the 1st person narrative, that the novel is from Suzy’s perspective. She requires patience and curiosity in order come to understand where she is coming from, in order to try (as reader’s do) to anticipate where she is going, where she will end up. You become invested in her own project, to learn what happened not only to the relationship with Franny, but to Franny (and Suzy) herself.

There are other relationships being built, being tested within the novel. Their beauty is not that they merely add charm, but they contribute to the overall coherence. For instance, there are echoes of Franny/Dylan in Suzy/Justin; which isn’t to suggest romance, but how relationships can change. In time, Suzy may be able to sympathize with Franny. Another question to confront is the one Sarah poses: that of mistaking the depths of relationship based on appearances, of which cues to read. Confrontation and communication is important.

With Suzy no longer speaking, she is keenly aware of how much language is physical, how much sound is still created. How perfect to situate this conversation in a time where we become so acutely aware of our and others’ physical presences. Add makeup and costuming (as Benjamin does).

Relationships are dynamic creatures, but then, so are we. We change. We diversify and then clump back together, maybe in different configurations. Each iteration of ourself is an impression, leaves an impression. And you can see where Suzy is especially pained in her preoccupation with Franny never becoming any older than 12. The problem for Suzy is that Franny will never inhabit another impression than the last one she’d left her with. Of course, not unlike the immortality jellyfish, Suzy gives us stories of her and Franny from before that last scene. And indeed, her recollections give us more, it reinterprets things. Most importantly, there is room to redeem it, via time and experience. The problem is the impulse that is the preservation of self, and other, and the learning to let go.

The difficult thing about the novel is that it is a journey through a time of grieving. It is hard to anticipate the conclusion. The only reassurance is that there is one. And it will be a beginning. For all the lovely cleanliness of the structure and pacing and writing, grieving is a messy, fraught, business. There will be ugly-crying and screaming and hatred, but even that is quite beautiful in Ali Benjamin’s hands. While the poetic language lends rationality to the scientific, it allows the emotional content absolute reason. Benjamin successfully ratchets up the intensity, explaining Suzy even as Suzy, in turn, has no explanation for Franny. Things just happen. The coming down from that is tenuous. The scientific lends the poet a way to frame the world, to fit words to an observation, a conclusion.

The Thing About Jellyfish is structured in 7 Parts with numberless, but titled Sections within each. Each Part begins with a quote from Mrs. Turton the 7th Grade Life Science Teacher and all around bad-ass. Each quote is an explanation for different aspects of conducting a Research Project (the final part being the “Conclusion”). Each Section essentially reads like a short story. These pieces are primarily reliant upon juxtaposition (as a Literary work might) rather than the old dependable segue. All the transitions are effortless. Even the switching between two linear time-lines is done with ease.

I ramble into thoughts, but the thing about The Thing About Jellyfish is how accessible it is. The structure buoys its subjects. The brevity of the Sections and Parts ease the weight of the content. Any educational component is rendered relevant, not just geek-worthy. Where the drama (and trauma) of Middle School is a bit daunting—especially when the author exaggerates the fracturing of childhood with puberty by adding death and divorce—the science is exciting (zombie ants?!). The writing is enchanting, if not completely effortless. And the kind of courage witnessed in so many characters in the novel is inspiring. What Middle Schooler (what human) couldn’t use some sympathy and inspiration to keep moving.

“Whatever was about to happen next in that dream […] it was better than staying still. The staying still was the worst part. The waiting and not-knowing and being afraid: That was worse than anything else that might happen” (220).

Another terrible thing that might happen is missing out on The Thing About Jellyfish.

——

Of note: I do love the effortless realism of Aaron and Rocco. Aaron is Suzy’s brother; Rocco is his beloved. I adore the discovery of the photograph on the mantel. I love that the parents are present, however clumsy, but earnest. I love the contemplations on the universe and the stars. I am grateful for the blip that was blood that read menstruation and how perfect its timing.

The “Author’s Note” includes more information on events, videos, figures, etc. referenced in the novel. This book would be so great to teach. Or Book Club.

"review" · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend · series · Uncategorized · wondermous

{book} never a nothing girl

Icebreaker by Lian Tanner

Feiwel and Friends, 2015 (orig. 2013).

Hardcover 304 pages

“Twelve-year-old Petrel is an outcast, the lowest of the low on the Oyster, an ancient icebreaker that has been following the same course for three hundred years. In that time, the ship’s crew has forgotten its original purpose and broken into three warring tribes. Everyone has a tribe except Petrel, whose parents committed such a terrible crime that they were thrown overboard, and their daughter ostracised.

But Petrel is a survivor. She lives in the dark corners of the ship, speaking to no one except two large grey rats, Mister Smoke and Missus Slink. Then a boy is discovered, frozen on an iceberg, and Petrel saves him, hoping he’ll be her friend. What she doesn’t know is that for the last three hundred years, the Oyster has been guarding a secret. A secret that could change the world.

A secret that the boy has been sent to destroy, along with the ship and everyone on it…” –Publisher’s comments

I hugged the book before I read it, and you can be sure I hugged it afterward. Why? Because Lian Tanner has written one of my favorite Juvenile Fiction Series (The Keeper Trilogy) and she did not let me down in Icebreaker.

Tanner creates rather than contrives her characters and their conflicts. It takes reading the novel to realize what I mean by that difference between the creating and the contrivance. The characters experience real, important change, within the boundaries of their personality. You labor alongside them in those pivotal moments.

Icebreaker is not for those who like to anticipate the story and control every outcome. Tanner doesn’t make her adventures easy on the characters, why would she make it easy on the reader? Tanner’s characters earn their stunning heroism and heart. That Petrel would arrive to a transformative state is perhaps expected, but what of the others, and what of the winding series of events that traverse the massive and entangle innards of the Oyster? There are clues to mysteries (Crab) for the reader to guess successfully, but the overall the sensation of honestly not knowing what is coming next is marvelous.

Tanner complicates her otherworldly stories in painfully realistic ways. Both Petrel (aka Nothing Girl) and the strange boy she rescues have internalized the beliefs of their respective adult worlds—and they have to push back for the sake of everyone. Theirs is a violent and devastated world. The different factions are rational outcomes and hauntingly familiar, yet there is a fine and cutting edge of ridiculousness in the situation. So much of the violence is situated in willful ignorance and incredible egoism. Squid is a still, quiet breath of fresh air.

The presence of tribal leaders’ children in the story is notable; especially the handling of daughters (like Squid) as game-changers. The offspring represent the attitudes of their tribes as well as the opportunity for change. The Braids’ leader, Orca’s daughter, is a horrible fascination and was no doubt one of the most tenuous to write. How to convincingly affect change in relatively few pages, and can we trust it going forward? Nothing Girl and the “rescued boy” (who represent two sets of “others” or factions) are convincing actors, posing in alternate versions of themselves, playing the role survival requires of them. The reader is helped to understand that there is a lot at stake when it comes to who and when to trust—and how to prioritize needs and wants. From the get-go, the question of whether a Nothing Girl should have rescued the boy on the ice haunts the story: Is he worth it? Is she?

The harsh setting is fraught with the kind of danger that inspires courage and resourcefulness, though the survivalist Petrel would downplay such aggrandizement of her reality. Yet while she may not find herself exceptional or worthy of manning the story, the reader will see what her few friends do, worth the risk-taking. She is so earnest, so damned determined and requiring of love. She is so damned familiar.

How Tanner manages to make such a horrible moment near the end, the realization of Nothing Girl as Petrel, to be also humorous… She has great storytelling instincts. Tanner is thought-provoking in unexpected ways, reminding the reader always of perspective (that there is always more than one at play).

Icebreaker combines the most appealing traits of juvenile fiction: an exhilarating imagination and an increasingly necessary imperative: empathy.

I wrote this of Museum of Thieves way back when: “Tanner created a cast and setting of delectable proportions for which I found I was ravenous in Museum of Thieves and will sure to be again in City of Lies.” Go ahead and transpose Icebreaker and Sunker’s Deep; Tanner is a satiating must-read.

——-

Of note: Perfect for tracing the pathways of character development over the course of a plot, no “convenient” gaps to leap over here.

My reviews of Museum of Thieves and City of Lies

 

 

"review" · chapter/series · Children's · comics/graphic novels · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · short story

{comic} BFFs

little robot cover

Little Robot by Ben Hatke

First Second, 2015.

Advanced Reader Copy (thank you First Second/Net Galley) in exchange for a fair review.

When a little girl finds an adorable robot in the woods, she presses a button and accidentally activates him for the first time. Now, she finally has a friend. But the big, bad robots are coming to collect the little guy for nefarious purposes, and it’s all up to a five-year-old armed only with a wrench and a fierce loyalty to her mechanical friend to save the day!–Publisher’s comments

LittleRobot-combined-100-25

As observed of his Zita Spacegirl series “Hatke does really good robots—seriously, spaceships, gear, and really great robots.”* So when I heard First Second was publishing his Little Robot, I was super geeked.

little robot 43

Little Robot is deceptively simple in presentation. Unlined panels, a lot of white space, silence for pages, uncluttered or uncomplicated compositions. The first text is “tap,” a sound effect on page 25. The first spoken text is on 27. The story is quiet yet brimming with expression. The reader is like the cat licking the robot, there is an initial zing, as well as a residual. We cannot remain unaffected.

little robot 45

Like other Hatke heroines we’ve met, this little girl is beautifully determined and resourceful. She is alone and capable, lonely and courageous, and likes it that way. What is awesome about the story: its point is not whether the little girl will prove acceptable or not when human children arrive at the end of the book. When the human children do arrive, she runs off with her already true friend, the little robot she fought so hard to befriend/rescue. True, she needed a friend–and she’d found one.

Little Robot is very much a story of daring, of tenacity, of not letting a monster robot get in the way of a friendship you’ve invested in, one you’ve been waiting for.

The subject of life and death is hardly subtle, and in that way, it is accessible. The Little Robot is as animated and unnamed as the Little Human protagonist. They also seem to be subject to a greater machine at work, one that leaves her to her own devices, sneaking into the yards of others’ to play—an older white male watching her from the window. What is equally left unsaid is whether the man is malevolent. “ROM!” takes on a different affect at the end of the story after the mechanism is re-adjusted, can we infer the same of its human counterpart (if said man is, in fact, its counterpart?); Industry is.

I love the juxtaposition of Machine and Nature. I love the delightful experiences of those a forming friendship. I love that the last image brings to mind Castle in the Sky (Miyazaki, 1986)… Hatke is artful in his use of of panel, in the reaches across. He is judicious in breaking the reverie of the image with text. He’s playful. And he writes the best female characters and their adventures in such a way that it makes it difficult to understand just how rare their portrayals and their settings actually are.

14240601._SY540_

Ben Hatke’s work is worth the anticipation it builds, not just the robots, but the girls, their adventures, their courage, their heart. I can’t wait to meet his next adventure, but in the meantime, I’ll indulge a few re-reads.

——-

recommendations: emerging readers through grade-school, and adults. STEM kids, and artists. Those needing greater diversity in their library/repertoire. lovers of robot art.

*Legends of Zita Spacegirl review. Here is one for Zita Spacegirl.

{images belong to Ben Hatke}

"review" · cinema · recommend · Uncategorized

{film} John Wick?

The tagline: Don’t Set Him Off!

When I tell you how fantastic I found director Chad Stahelski’s John Wick (2014), you’ll likely question my sanity because it really shouldn’t be all that good.

I seriously questioned my decision to not disappear up the stairs while Sean watched a film that, upon first press, reads like a Steven Seagal film of old(er times). I’d grown up on those revenge-action-thrillers. More recently, Keanu Reeves’ role as John Wick would’ve been cast with Liam Neeson or Jason Statham and I rarely sit through a one of them. The dialog, typical plot, blood-letting and tire-squealing action of these genre films rarely find me amused. I was at the edge of my seat, giddy in amusement with John Wick. Its a film that is self-aware, its tongue planted firmly in cheek, unrepentant and playful within its genre.

I was intrigued by the premise: instead of some relative (usually the wife) of a retired uber mensch being brutally murdered, Sean told me that the revenge plot stems from the brutal murder of John Wick’s dog. That was all we knew. The unfolding of just who John Wick is was worth the ignorance. It earns you that immense pleasure in the exchange between Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). John Wick won me over at Tarasov’s “…Oh.”

The non-linear movement through time, the shifts, begin to stabilize chronologically as the film progresses. Disintegration takes on a new form as the violence ups its ante (think South Korean action films). There is a righteous meting out of justice for that sweet little puppy (whose death is handled as delicately as possible). There are beautiful cars, choreography, gun-reloading and martial arts. And there are quality actors.

As the film progresses, the surprising cast was one revelation after another–even as Reeves proves all the more perfect for his role. His age really works for him as John Wick, and I think he actually emotes (which was admittedly awkward for me). I am going to pause for a moment to also admire the bad-assery that is Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins). But is she punished for being a bit too greedy and a full-measure too bold in her breaking of the (male dominated) rules? Little is fair in the film, but what does one expect from a revenge-action film. One certainly doesn’t expect that ending, though we should’ve anticipated it (shouldn’t we’ave?).

Familiarity with John Wick’s predecessors add to the entertainment factor; it certainly reads like redemption for years/hours spent in the genre. However, I don’t think you need a history. What you will need is a sense of humor–and a fairly strong stomach.

——————

Director: Chad Stahelski, Screenplay:Derek Kolstad, Starring: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), John Leguizamo (Aurelio), Alfie Allen (Iosef Trasov), Willem Defoe (Marcus), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), Bridget Moynahan (Bridget), and Ian McShane (Winston).

Rated R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use. Running Time: 101 Minutes

"review" · comics/graphic novels · juvenile lit · recommend · Uncategorized

{comics} el deafo

El Deafo by Cece Bell.

Amulet Books 2014.

Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school–in the hallway…in the teacher’s lounge…in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it’s just another way of feeling different… and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend? —Publisher’s comments.

Besides making many of last year’s Best-Of lists, Cece Bell’s El Deafo has also been picking up significant Honors and Awards. You’ll hear it described as important, and the insight Bell is able to share from her childhood is, indeed, valuable. I love just how familiar the character Cece is, despite her bunny-like appearance. Cece is flawed and more than occasionally frustrated and frustrating.

Many will find Cece humorous; and likely charming when she begins to identify with Batman and creates a super-heroic identity all her own in El Deafo. I think I either under- or over-identified with her earnestness to be normal and befriended. The angst felt stretched and I desired a few chapters fewer. When we tell our children that it may take time, trial and error to find a good friend, we usually hope for and suggest the BFF will show up within two errors. However, it really does take a while to learn how to communicate, to read others’ lips (words/actions) and to articulate for ourselves.

 

El Deafo is really well thought-out. It wasn’t an easy read for me, entertainment-wise, but I could immediately appreciate just how well-crafted it is, how coherent it continues to be into second and third readings. I loathe to fall into the fallacy of guessing authorial intent, but the immovable yellow box of text manning the upper edges of panels had to make sense of itself. It otherwise needed to move. (And if you find it difficult to deal with in the first half, you’ll learn to adjust to it in the end.) I questioned the choice of a bunny and the adorable-ness of the artwork in a book I wanted to pitch to the upper-grade-schoolers reading Raina Teglemeier’s Smile and Sisters. I understand the genius behind choosing an animal that is all about their ears in a book about hearing. I can get how seeing yourself as different could manifest in a decision to use an ‘other.’ For readers who are moving away from perceived childishness, it reminds us that one thing that transcends childhood is fear of isolation and loneliness. Okay, that was depressing—and the book is not depressing. El Deafo is just quite realistic and in need of the anthropomorphic.

El Deafo is going to be educational. El Deafo is going to remind people that graphic novels make for great literature for young people—especially the young grade-schoolers who won’t mind this becoming a part of their summer reading lists. It is going to make us all more thoughtful about what and how we communicate with one another. We can get creative and imagine the ways and means to cope with difficult situations.

Spoilers: Cece does find a healthy friendship by novel’s end. She learns a great deal about herself and others along the way. She’s pretty special as characters go, because she is so incredibly (painfully, at times) normal.

——

Of note: “A Note from the Author” is excellent reading as well, so do not forgo it.

recommended: for readers of Teglemeier Smile and Sisters, Hatke’s Zita Spacegirl, and Gownley’s Amelia Rules!  It will likely appeal more to readers of issue-driven books like Wonder (Palacio), Out of My Mind (Draper), and Mango-Shaped Space (Mass), but I wouldn’t eliminate those leaning toward Fantasy.

{images are Cece Bell’s}