Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick Press, 2009)

Recommended for ages 9-12

I normally try to stay away from reading multiple books by the same author in a row, but after coming off of The Tale of Desperaux, I really wanted more, so I picked up The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

Edward Tulane is a stunning china rabbit with real fur ears and wires enabling movement in his arms and legs, and a fashionable silk wardrobe. He is the apple of his owner, a 10-year old girl named Abilene. She changes his outfits annd dotes on him. He lives a comfortable life and knows it, but he's cold and holds Abilene at a distance. Her purpose in his life is to take care of him and coddle him.

When Abilene and her family go on a cruise, Edward finds himself tossed overboard as a prank by two cruel boys on the ship; this starts him on a journey where he finds himself in the company of an old woman, a homeless man, and a dying little girl and her older brother. Each of these people teaches Edward a little more about love, loss and longing.

The reader experiences his growth and aches along with him with each subsequent companion's story. Despite the affection - even love - he feels with each new owner, his thoughts always stray back to Abilene, and he understands what she felt for him and regrets not returning her love. I also enjoyed the theme of second chances that runs through the book; I was left with the message that there's always a chance for redemption - it just make take some time.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book Review: The Tale of Desperaux, by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, 2008)

Recommended for ages 9-12

I picked this book up post-hype and after not really watching more than about 10 minutes of the movie (there really is something to be said for the movie-going experience over the at-home one). My expectations were tempered with the worry that comes when a book has been so talked about and featured in the media as Desperaux, but I needn't have worried.

Desperaux is a book with a lot of layers. It's a cute animal fable with an adorable hero. It's a love story between our hero and a princess. It's a story that addresses hate and it addresses the darker side of nature, and how even the darkest creatures can crave the light. I wasn't expecting the depth of character that DiCamillo invested in her characters, and I wanted to keep reading.

Desperaux is the only surviving mouse in his mother's final litter. Born small and with his eyes open, his mother and father both write him off, but he survives. He's tinier than his siblings and is different from the start, preferring to read books rather than eat them. He falls in love with the Princess Pea. She is enchanted with the tiny mouse, but her father, who hates rats - and equates all rodents with them - chases him away. For allowing himself to be seen by and talk to humans, the mouse council - members of whom include Desperaux's own father and brother - decide to punish him with a death sentence, and they send him to the dungeon, ruled in darkness by the rats.

In the basement, we meet Chiaroscuro, a rat who loves the light but is forced to live in the darkness after a brief trip up to the castle living area ended with a terrible accident. He seethes and plans his revenge in the darkness, using a slow-witted servant girl with her own tragic past as a pawn in his game.

The characters' backgrounds are incredible in their detail, especially in a children's book. I was amazed at DiCamillo's ability to create characters with such depth and yet still make them accessible to children. The story moved along at a pace that kept me turning pages; I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Timothy Basil Ering's illustrations were stark and beautiful, adding more depth to the story by adding to the vision the author's words painted in my imagination.

There are some very good teaching guides for Desperaux available. Candlewick Press offers a discussion guide where children and teachers can talk about what makes a hero or a heroine, if characters remind children of people they know, and rules and laws. Scholastic's guide takes the movie into consideration and features illustrations from the animated feature. Multnomah County Library in Oregon also has a book group discussion guide available.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Book Review: Ivy and Bean, by Annie Barrows (Chronicle Books, 2007)

Recommended for ages 6-9

This first book in the very popular Ivy and Bean series kicks off with two little girls who don't like one another at first. Bean is a tomboy who doesn't really like to read, wants to be a bike racer, and doesn't get along with her older sister. Ivy is a bookish only child who wears dresses. Although Bean's mother tries to get her to play with Ivy, Bean refuses.

One day, circumstances throw them together. Bean needs to escape punishment for trying to play a trick on her sister, Nancy, and Ivy offers her a place to hide. Ivy reveals that she's studying to be a witch and was trying to practice a spell that would cause the affected person to dance, nonstop - and that she was going to cast on Bean. Rather than be offended, Bean is impressed - Ivy clearly isn't the goody-goody Bean thought she was. The new friends then decide to cast the spell on Nancy.

The girls' adventures that day seal their friendship; as Ivy's mom brings her home for the night, they agree to meet tomorrow... and the day after that.

I was surprised that many moms made issue of the use of witchcraft in the book when I read reviews on Goodreads. Has no one ever dressed up and pretended to be a witch at some point in their lives? She wasn't conjuring a demon, she was going to make someone wriggle like a worm. Maybe I'm too laid back, but I didn't see the reason for the concern.

The book is perfect for its audience - the main characters are seven year-old girls, the book is about being best friends, and Sophie's Blackall's adorable illustrations adorn much of the book. The prose is easy to read and the girls are each interesting enough to keep young readers wanting to read more. The book was an ALA Notable Book in 2007 and has spawned a popular series of books about the two friends and their adventures.

Author Annie Barrows' Ivy and Bean section of her website is just as adorable as her books and just as user-friendly. The site features links to information about the author and illustrator, information about the publisher and designer and the series; Ivy and Bean themselves offer craft ideas and a babysitter test for kids to run past potential babysitters.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Book Review: Amelia Rules! The Whole World's Crazy, by Jimmy Gownley (Renaissance Press, 2006)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Jimmy Gownley's graphic novels about Amelia McBride and her group of friends remind me of Bugs Bunny cartoons - when you're a child, they entertain you; when you're a little older, you get the jokes.

In this first volume, we meet Amelia, age nine. Her parents have just divorced and she and her mom have moved from Manhattan to "the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania". They're living with her Aunt Tanner, a retired pop rock star who also acts as Amelia's ear and shoulder when she needs to vent.

Amelia's a wise-cracking tomboy, but she isn't skin deep. We see how her parents' divorce has affected her, whether it's the frustration and anger at her father canceling plans with her because of last-minute work travel or her discomfort in overhearing her mother berating her dad on the phone. She shakes it off, adapts her hard-as-nails persona, and moves on. We all know kids like Amelia, and that's what makes her so accessible to kids and grownups alike.

Speaking of grown-ups, there are plenty of in-jokes for mom and dad to catch. Amelia and her friends go to Joseph McCarthy Middle School (motto: "Weeding out the wrong element since 1952"). Ann Coulter garners a mention on one of Santa's lists (hint: it ain't the "nice" list). There are pop culture references aplenty. The dialogue is funny and smart; Gownley doesn't talk down to his audience, nor does he shy away from sensitive topics.

Amelia's friends are a mixed bag of personalities. Amelia's friend Reggie is obsessed with being a superhero, to the point of starting his own league of heroes called GASP (Gathering of Awesome Super Pals). Pajamaman is the most popular kid in school, but never speaks, wears footie pajamas, and comes from a poor family. Rhonda, Amelia's nemesis (and grudgingly, good friend), has a crush on Reggie and puts herself in competition with Amelia for his attention. The group deals with bullies and crazy teachers, unrequited love and poverty. It's a group of kids that readers will see themselves reflected in.

The Amelia Rules! website offers even more to Amelia fans. There are book trailers, podcasts, a blog, and links to fan art and fan fiction. Visitors can listen to music in Tanner's Garage and play games in the Ninja Lair.

Book Review: Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space, by Philip Reeve (Bloomsbury, 2007)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Larklight is the first in a 'tween steampunk trilogy by Philip Reeve, and I was really looking forward to sinking my teeth into this book. Steampunk? Pirates? Pass that book over!

I was not disappointed. A great read for both boys and girls interested in science fiction and fantasy, Larklight offers a little something for everyone. The main character, Art Mumby, is a boy of about 11 or 12 who lives with his 14-year old sister, Myrtle (who is a very big part of the storyline - no wallflower female characters in this book!) and their widowed father upon Larklight, a floating home in space. The story takes place during the Victorian era, and the British Empire has colonized space. Aetherships cruise the skies much as Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge hunted ships in the waters on earth.

Mr. Mumby, a xenobiologist, agrees to a meeting with a correspondent who refers to himself as "Mr. Webster" - when he arrives, the family learns too late that Mr. Webster is an evil space spider bent on taking the family hostage. He and his spider army trap Larklight and Mr. Mumby in their webs, but Art and Myrtle escape, ultimately ending up with a band of space pirates led by a Jack Havoc, a teenager with his own troubled past, and a band of aliens that have thrown their lot in with Jack. Running from the Empire, Jack ultimately joins Art and Myrtle on their quest to save their father and find out what made them the target for Mr. Webster in the first place.

Aside from the constant action and wonderfully Victorian narrative, there is mech and steam aplenty for steampunk fans. Giant, mechanized spiders, steam-driven aetherships with alchemic reactions to propel them into space (called "the chemical wedding"), and an assault on Queen Victoria - what more could a kid possibly ask for?

I appreciated Reeve's creating strong female characters to balance out the strong male characters. At first, Myrtle appears to be written solely as an antagonist for Art, but she emerges as a strong, clever character on her own - it's interesting to see her character evolve within the course of the story. Ssil, one of Jack Havoc's alien crew, is a female who has no idea where her origins lie, giving mystery to the character, but at the same time, communicating a sense of loss to the reader. She has only the family she creates around her, but longs to know who she is. While scientific men are assumed to be the only ones capable of performing the "chemical wedding" that propels aetherships into space, Ssil performs it with ease - indeed, she is the only member of Jack's crew who can do it.

There are two sequels to Larklight, also by Reeve: Starcross and Mothstorm, that I expect I shall be picking up shortly. The film rights for Larklight have been bought and a film is due out in 2013.

Philip Reeve's website is pretty straightforward - the usual links to an author blog, the author's books, and more information on his newer series, Mortal Engines.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Book Review: The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow, by Andy Griffiths (Square Fish, 2010)

Recommended for ages 4-8

Andy Griffiths knows what little boys like to read. His tween series that kicks off with The Day My Butt Went Psycho was a staple in my home when my older son was in third grade, so when I saw that he had a book for younger readers, I knew my little one, Cutie, would love it. Sure enough, the kid can't even say the title of this book without dissolving into giggles.

Griffiths is featured on the Guys Read website, author Jon Scieszka's initiative to get more boys reading. "Boys read what interests them", according to the Guys Read site - and The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow is hilarious enough to get the most reluctant reader chuckling. Written for beginning readers, there are ten stories. Exploding cows, edible cities, a mole named Noel, and a lumpy-headed guy named Fred are only some of the characters kids meet, and their stories are told in the kind of goofy rhyme that would make Dr. Seuss doff his striped hat to Griffiths. Black and white drawings illustrate every page, with simple, funny drawings that will get a laugh out of readers.

Andy Griffiths's website has articles by and about him, links to social networking sites and videos, and more information on his books, workshops and blog.

Book Review: Kenny and the Dragon, by Tony DiTerlizzi (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2008)

Recommended for ages 9-12

This adorable book teaches children the power of not judging someone (or something) on gossip, and illustrates the potentially destructive power that gossip can have.

Kenny is a young, bookish rabbit. His parents are farmers, but he's always got his nose in a book. His only real friend at the book's beginning is the old badger, George, who runs the bookshop in the nearby village. Kenny visits George to play chess and read in the bookshop, and George often lets Kenny borrow books to take home and read.

One day, Kenny's father comes home and tells him that there is a dragon in his meadow. Kenny runs to his bookshelf and grabs his bestiary, on loan from George, and learns that dragons are vicious, fire-breathing, maiden-devouring beasts. Arming him with with armor, made up of pots and pans from his mother's kitchen, he sets out to take a look at the dragon - who introduces himself as Grahame ("like the cracker, but with an e on the end") and quickly dispels all myths set forth in the bestiary - in fact, he asks Kenny if he can borrow it, because he loves reading good fiction. Grahame enjoys poetry, music, and good food. He spent years trapped in the earth after falling through a fault line, but he never saw the point in chasing maidens and killing knights - his fellow dragons died out because of their taste for terror, and he just wants to enjoy life.

Kenny introduces Grahame to his mother and father, who quickly befriend the dragon as well, having picnic dinners and cooking delicious meals for him. Kenny and Grahame become fast friends, but it's all put at risk when other villagers hear that there's a dragon in the land and panic. Word gets to the king, who calls his retired dragonslayer into service - Kenny's friend, George Badger. Kenny's two best friends may have to do combat because no one bothers to learn the truth about dragons - what can Kenny do to save the day?

Tony DiTerlizzi is one half of the duo behind The Spiderwick Chronicles, so the man knows how to write for children. Kenny and the Dragon, based on the 1898 story The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, introduces readers to a new group of memorable characters as he peppers tributes to the original story throughout the book. Aside from the obvious tribute to Kenneth Grahame, he names George the bookstore owner/dragonslayer after St. George, who features in the Grahame story; other characters mentioned in the original find their place in DiTerlizzi's world as well.

Placing the story in a fantastic, anthropomorphic world is a wonderful way of not only bringing this story to a new audience, he expands on the original tale as a way of getting big ideas across to little people - the town mob, pitchforks and all, is riled up by the mere presence of a dragon, but no one bothers to try and get to know him - all they have is rumor to go on, and that's good enough for them.

DiTerlizzi also illustrates Kenny and the Dragon in the same line sketch format as Spiderwick, bringing Grahame, Kenny, and the rest of their world to life. The sketches brought to mind my old fairy tale books, with line drawn and watercolored princesses and princes.

DiTerlizzi's website, Never Abandon Imagination, provides more information about his books and includes links to his artwork, blog and social media connections (YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook).