Antsy Does Time

Shusterman, Neal

 

Dutton Children’s Books, New York. 2008. 247 p.

 

antsy

 

I had the pleasure of meeting Neal Shusterman in real life. He’s obviously very passionate about what he does and really bonds with some of his characters. Antsy is one of those lucky characters.

 

Antsy first popped up as a side character in Shusterman’s book The Schwa Was Here, but because Shusterman loved Antsy so much he decided to write him his own book. I can’t blame him because Antsy is quite a character. Anthony “Antsy” Bonano is kind of loud, kind of funny, and always scheming. He has a good heart but of course has to act like a typical teenager and keep some level of bravado up at all times.

 

In this tale, Antsy gets wrapped up in one of his classmate’s lives more than he could have anticipated. Gunnar Umlaut, a brooding 14-year-old who is originally from Sweden and has an icy coolness about him, begins complaining that he only has months to live because he has been diagnosed with a terminal disease. After witnessing a freak accident, Antsy looks at life in a different light and decides to do something to help Gunnar. He decides to give Gunnar six months of his life. Well, this plan snowballs way out of control. People start giving months from their own lives to help the cause, and because Antsy starts falling for Gunnar’s older sister, he finds himself unable to break free from the out-of-control situation. People are giving time freely and begin using time like stocks to trade and barter with for other things, like doing each other’s homework and getting free food. But one evening something happens that scares everyone who has given time, and people begin trying to get their time back, including a panicked Antsy.

 

I found myself enjoying Antsy in spite of myself. I don’t know if it’s a compliment or not, but to me, Antsy really feels like it was written by the main character. I believe 14-year-old Antsy is telling us this story. Is it bad that Shusterman writes like a 14-year-old? Hard to say. I can’t say the plot or writing were top level, but in the end, does that even matter since I enjoyed the book and wanted to keep reading it to the end as fast as possible to see what happened? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on who you ask I suppose, but for me, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. The book was fun and even funny in spite of any shortcomings I found.

 

Shusterman said he has another Antsy book on the way called Antsy Floats. All I know is, Antsy will be on a boat somehow, and I’ll probably end up reading that one, too.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Haddon, Mark

 

Doubleday, New York. 2003. 226 p.

curious1 

This is another one of those books that came highly recommended and didn’t disappoint. As cliché as it may sound, this book is truly different than anything I’ve read in a long time. It’s completely unique. And that is really refreshing in a time when every idea seems recycled and hackneyed right out of the box.

 

The book follows Christopher, a fifteen-year-old boy growing up outside of London who has autism. Christopher, like many children with autism, is socially awkward but very gifted in other areas, and in Christopher’s case his strength is math and numbers. He can calculate any problem he takes on and nearly waxes philosophical on many old math problems as he narrates his story.

 

When the book opens, Christopher is living with his father after his mother’s recent death. His father is a good man who tries his best with Christopher even when he freaks out over tiny things that bother him or has accidents in his clothes. Life is relatively normal and peaceful for the two until Christopher discovers his neighbor’s dog murdered in the garden. Things get pretty complicated from there.

 

Christopher is one of the most compelling characters of my recent literary memory. He is one minute sweet and nurturing, like time with his pet mouse, and the next a terror who is not afraid to hit a policeman who touches him without his consent. The characters around Christopher are just as interesting and complex and really flesh out the life and experiences Christopher has. I don’t know if any explanation or criticism I could come up with would do this book enough justice. You simply must read it.

Squirrelly Gray

Kochalka, James

 

Random House Children’s Books, New York. 2007. 40 p.

gray 

So apparently I’m not only on a graphic novel/picture book kick, I’m on a James Kochalka one as well. But what can I say? He writes and illustrates amazing books that are meant for kids but appeal just as much to adults.

 

Little Squirrelly Gray’s story is no different. He lives in his tree and is bored out of his mind because he only has a TV to keep him occupied. His life is dull, drab, and simply put, gray. One day he decides to try and humor himself by wiggling his teeth. He wiggles them so much they pop out, so he does the logical thing and waits for the tooth fairy to come and pick the teeth up. To him, this will surely be the event that makes his life a little more exciting.

 

Well, he’s right. The poor Tooth Fairy gets herself in a predicament on her way to Squirrelly Gray’s, and he has to save her. Because of his bravery, the Tooth Fairy rewards Squirrely Gray with a very special acorn. The story goes on from there with Squirrelly changing his life and the world around him. Pretty big stuff for a little squirrel and an acorn!

 

Unlike Kochalka’s other books, this one is a true picture book and is written in short rhyme. But like his other books, this one has vivid and simple illustrations that convey the message without getting too cluttered or complicated. Kochalka proves you can tell a wonderfully rich story with very little fluff. Except for Squirrely Gray, of course… he’s a little fluffly.

Owly: Tiny Tales

Runton, Andy

 

Top Shelf Productions, Marietta, Georgia. 2008. 172 p.

 

owly 

Imagine my excitement when I saw the new Owly book on our shelves! I can’t keep going on about how much I’m loving juvenile graphic novels right now because I know it has got to get old, but how about one more time for OWLY! (and then once more when the next Jellaby comes out).

 

So, I should say this isn’t a full, brand new Owly book. It’s a collection of shorter tales. Maybe Runton is just trying to keep his fans sated while he works on his next full length book. Doesn’t matter, because this book is just as adorable as a regular Owly book. Most of the stories are very short, only a few pages, and just tell brief stories about Owly’s daily life. He hangs out with Wormy and visits Raccoon at the Nursery and makes new friends through his activities around the woods. Now, I have been known to say to some people that I think Owly is a little on the weepy side, and there is some crying in this book, too, but I have to give Owly some credit, he doesn’t cry as much in this one. (Sorry Owly).

 

However, the best part of this collection to me is the back section that shows us how Owly began and how he progressed. It’s really cool to see how Runton started and how different Owly and Wormy look now. It’s also heartening to see how something so simple and ordinary can become a major success.

 

Tiny Tales, thumbs up!

If You Come Softly

Woodson, Jacqueline

 

GP Putnam’s Sons, New York. 1998. 181 p.

 

softly

 

Ah yes, you guessed it already. Another heart-smashing (“breaking” doesn’t cut it this time) book about young people in tragic circumstances. This book is the saddest one I’ve read from Woodson yet, and I just don’t know if my heart can take any more.

 

The book centers on two young people in love, Jeremiah and Ellie. They live in New York City with fairly good parents and in good homes and neighborhoods. But of course, there’s a catch. Jeremiah is black and Ellie is white. Neither has ever dated someone of a different color, so they have to deal with their own mixed emotions as well as their parents’ and the people around them. As if that’s not enough strife and upset, the book ends quite abruptly with unforeseen violence and tragedy of Greek proportions. Why, Jacqueline, why???

 

Jeremiah and Ellie are both bright and likable characters who really represent their generation and situation well. I don’t know how Woodson gets into people’s heads the way she does, but she does it amazingly well, and this book really resonates truth and purity. The kids are really still just kids in high school coping with hormones and parental misunderstandings and peer pressure and everything we all dealt with during our teenage years. But add to all that the pressure on Jeremiah as the only son of a genius filmmaker and genius author, and the pressure Ellie has as the youngest daughter of protective parents, one of which has already nearly abandoned the family once. The way the two meet is very sweet and romantic, and the way it all ends just makes every moment they shared even more tender and special. When you’re a teenager in love everything seems so important and so tragic, but in Jeremiah and Ellie’s case, it all really is that big.

 

The setting of New York City in the winter is beautiful and a perfect backdrop for these two young people in love. The city is big and vibrant, but people are still set in old ways and there is evil just underneath the surface. It always sounds so perfect to be young and in love in the big city, but Woodson gives us quite the opposite with this book. Read this book, but be prepared for heartache.

The Lump of Coal

Snicket, Lemony

 

HarperCollins Children’s Books, New York. 2008. 40 p.

 

If you know me, you know that I am a HUMUNGOUS fan of Lemony Snicket. I won’t say Daniel Handler because his adult books just never grabbed me, but when he’s Lemony Snicket, I go bananas.

 

I’ve seen that some people aren’t as impressed with The Lump of Coal as they were with The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story, but I don’t know if I entirely agree. I liked this book, though I will admit it seems a little watered-down for a Snicket creation. There is the usual dark humor and use of lofty vocabulary that we all know and love, but as weird as it sounds, I really don’t feel Snicket’s normal passion in this book. It’s funny and clever and has dashes of typical Snicket themes, but (it pains me so much to write this) it falls a little flat. Just a little! But it is cute and the end is probably as warm and fuzzy as Snicket could ever get, so overall it’s a great book. As good as Latke or the amazing Series of Unfortunate Events? Hmm.. maybe not.

Monkey Vs. Robot

Kochalka, James

 

Top Shelf Productions, Marietta, Georgia. 2000. 144 p.

 

Well who knew James Kochalka had a literary life before Pinky & Stinky? He did. And he had this amazing graphic novel, Monkey Vs. Robot, which is every bit as good as Pinky & Stinky but in a completely different way. Whereas Pinky and Stinky were adorable pigs in space just trying to make friends, the titular Monkey and Robot in this book are at odds with each other after a fatal misunderstanding.

 

The book opens with a monkey slinking across the page looking forlorn and maybe a little suspicious with the sentence: “Why can’t we all love each other, Monkey and our Robot brother?” With that sentence, you can probably guess where this book is headed.

 

One night a monkey is in the jungle minding his own monkey-business while a robot is farther away being built in a factory. The robot wanders out into the jungle to get a rock, and the monkeys watch in shock and awe from afar. The robot takes the rock back to the factory where it is turned into a thick sludge that pours out of a tube into the jungle. Sadly, one of the monkeys is in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets doused in the black sludge and dies. The other monkeys see this and spread the word that it’s the fault of the robot and his sludge. Things get out of hand from there.

 

Angry feelings and language barriers lead to more death and suffering for the rest of the book. Robots attack monkeys, monkeys attack robots. Neither side is willing to back down because each sees his own cause as the just one. The book concludes with one of the monkeys in the remains of the destroyed former robot factory. Is there hope after all that has happened? Possibly. Chances are good because I’ve seen there is a sequel to this book.

 

It’s not warm and fuzzy like Pinky & Stinky, but it’s well drawn and thoughtful and every bit as enjoyable.

Not a Stick

Portis, Antoinette

 

HarperCollins Children’s Books, New York. 2008. 32 p.

 

This is the long-awaited (at least in my world) sequel to Not a Box, and it is just as endearing and clever as the first one. Portis has found an incredibly fun niche and I hope she is able to find more ideas for this concept of animals, really representing human children here, finding their imaginations through inanimate and everyday objects.

 

In this book, a little pig comes across a stick which becomes a vehicle for all sorts of imaginary items. The pig imagines it as a fishing rod, a marching band baton, a paint brush, and a sword, to name a few. This book is in the same format as Box, with a parental voice on one side of the page warning the pig to “be careful” with the stick and wondering why on earth someone would play with a stick, and the animal on the opposite page and following pages showing us what sorts of wonderful things a plain object can become.

 

These books show children, and adults, that our imaginations are so endless and amazing that we’re really selling our minds short when we don’t use them and let our ideas flow. My childhood was filled with sticks and leaves that became galloping deer and little birds or ducks to me. It’s not that I didn’t have every toy I wanted; it’s that I found joy out of using my imagination and was never told I was being silly or odd. Children who use their imaginations early become some of our most beloved artists later and find great inner happiness, and that’s something that we can’t put a price on.

 

Not a Stick is not just a book. It’s a key to unlocking inner potential.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Greg Heffley’s Journal

Kinney, Jeff

 

Amulet Books, New York. 2007. 217 p.

 

Sometimes I wonder if I have the taste of a 12 year old boy, or can I just really relate to them? This book doesn’t help matters at all.

 

Millions of people have read Diary of a Wimpy Kid by now, so I won’t be the first to say it I’m sure, but I love this book!!! Jeff Kinney is a genius!!!

 

It all started as an online comic strip, and once Kinney got a book deal, things took off for him and Greg Heffley.

 

Greg Heffley is pretty much like any guy you went to middle school with, except he’s probably a lot wittier for his age than any of those guys. He’s the middle child in a pretty average family and seems to be an average student, but it’s the way he tells you about his life and the way he handles situations that make him better than your average pre-teen.

 

His older brother, Rodrick, is in a garage band that plays (tries to play…?) heavy metal and he loves to torment Greg every way imaginable. Greg’s baby brother, Manny, is hilariously adorable, though part of me feels like he’s a little slow for his age. Then again, we have to remember this is all coming from Greg’s journal, so you never know the totally unbiased truth here.

 

Greg is by no means the most popular guy in sixth grade, (he says he’s probably the 52nd or 53rd most popular this year) but he does have one good friend, Rowley. Rowley is a little clueless at best, but for the most part he’s a dedicated friend to Greg and provides a good foil for him. Their friendship does have a bumpy patch when someone abuses his safety patrol position, but it all works out in the end.

 

Greg gives us a pretty accurate depiction of life as a sixth grade boy, from avoiding the dreaded “cheese touch,” to difficult girls, crazy teachers, video games, and wacky parental behavior. Greg experiences stuff that we all did in middle school, but couldn’t so cleverly put into words. The diary format with drawings really helps make this book accessible to kids who may otherwise avoid reading or see it as too dull or daunting. Hey, I enjoyed the drawings and I’m a college graduate.

 

This book quickly flew to the top of my favorites list, and I can’t wait to read the sequel Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules and the third book due out in January, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw. I implore you—read these books!

Pinky & Stinky

Kochalka, James

 

Top Shelf Productions, Marietta, GA. 2008. 204 p.

 

I can’t say how proud I am of juvenile graphic novels right now! Jellaby and Owly were stand-outs for me, and really opened my eyes to how great this form of book can be for any age group, but especially elementary and middle school readers who may prefer comic books to novels. It’s a happy medium that is truly happy (and perfect.) Now, I have read some duds, but I’m glad to say Pinky & Stinky stands out. It’s not as good as Jellaby, but it’s definitely a close relative of Owly and is pretty near to being on par with that series.

 

This adorable and witty book focuses on Pinky and Stinky, two astronaut pigs who are traveling through space. They make a good team, though sometimes it is hard to tell them apart because A) they’re two adorable pigs and B) their personalities are only slightly different. Pinky is slightly sweeter and more sensitive than Stinky is… or maybe that’s vice versa… anyway, I honestly don’t think it even matters who’s who. They’re both brave and moral pigs trying to do their country justice by traveling the solar system. They run into trouble when some human astronauts take offense to pigs bothering their important business. One of the astronauts kicks one of the pigs in delight and says, “Ha ha! Your fat jiggles!” Obviously not a nice guy! So the pigs and the astronauts cross paths later on in a world of moon creatures where they are all seen as enemies and sent away to an ice dungeon. The pigs, being adorable and sweet, are rescued by the alien princess and taken in as her “Cuties” to live on her bed with her stuffed animals (I assume those are stuffed…) The astronauts end up ruffling more feathers and battle ensues. The Cuties are saved and go on to make peace with everyone and continue on their space journey.

 

It’s a cute and clever book appropriate for kids 8 and up, though I think older people like me can appreciate more of the subtle humor. I don’t know if there will be a sequel or series of Pinky & Stinky books, but I guess one can only hope. They are cute pigs on a mission to warm your cockles, and it’s 100% mission accomplished with me.