You are currently browsing the monthly archive for August 2008.

Not a Box

Portis, Antoinette

 

HarperCollins, New York. 2006. 32 p.

 

Let me begin by saying this is one of my favorite books ever. It’s a strong statement, to be sure, but I mean it. This book is so simple that it’s genius. The design complements the story and vice versa, in a nicely done story for kids.

 

This book has two “characters”: the narrator or questioner and the bunny with the active imagination. The bunny has found himself a box which he imagines to be all sorts of things like a race car, space ship, a mountain, and more. Every time the questioner sees the bunny the questions begin. “Why are you sitting in a box?” “Now you’re wearing a box?” And every time the bunny replies, “It’s not a box.”

 

I’m sure there isn’t a child who hasn’t imagined an empty box to be all sorts of play things, and this book reminds us all of those simpler days. I love the dialogue between the questioner and the bunny, and I can see it being really fun to read aloud with a child. The illustrations are clean and simple and so is the premise. It’s simply perfect.

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Manneken Pis: a simple story of a boy who peed on a war

Radunsky, Vladimir

 

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2002. 32 p.

 

This is one wacky, and of course then naturally true, story of a little Belgian boy who is caught up in a war in his home town. And he ends the war, by peeing all over it. Yep. True story!

 

The little boy is nameless, but his nickname, Manneken Pis, means “peeing boy.” So let’s just call him Pis. So the book begins with Pis and his happy little life with his mother and father who love him very much. But then war comes to their scenic little town and Pis is separated from his parents. One day while he is looking for them, he has to go and can’t wait, so he pees all over the place. Both sides of the war can’t help but laugh, and soon the battle is over all thanks to Pis’ bladder.

 

The story is definitely unique, and the illustrations are abstract and colorful. It might not be fully appropriate for really young children, but slightly older kids (maybe 5 and up) will get a kick out of it for sure.

Mr. Pusskins: A Love Story and Mr. Pusskins and Little Whiskers: Another Love Story

Lloyd, Sam

 

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York. 2006 & 2007. 32 p.

 

I will say this knowing full well the repercussions this statement could possibly have (and knowing this is why I write this blog fairly anonymously): I am not a cat person. Sigh. There you go. I said it.

 

It’s not that I don’t like cats or anything. The main reason we don’t mix is that I’m allergic to them. Beyond that, I guess I’m just a dog person. Odd for a library employee, I know, since it seems being a librarian and cat lover are synonymous. But that’s that. Let’s move on.

 

Mr. Pusskins and the sequel are pretty darn cute. Mr. Pusskins is (you guessed it) a cat. When we first meet him, he’s a rather grumpy cat who doesn’t appreciate the love his owner Emily bestows upon him. She strokes his fur and tries to play games with him, but he is just not having it. So he decides to run off and be a bad cat, hanging with the wrong crowd and leaving Emily worried sick. Of course there’s a happy ending, but it’s a fun journey getting there and teaching kids there’s no place like home.

 

Mr. Pusskins and Little Whiskers is along the lines of pretty much all classic children’s tales of the old curmudgeon and the sweet little newbie. There’s nothing particularly new here, but Little Whiskers is adorable and I never get tired of seeing little creatures pulling and tugging on bigger, grumpier creatures. But there is a small twist. Little Whisker isn’t quite as sweet as Emily thought she was. She begins tearing up the whole house, and Mr. Pusskins is the one who gets blamed. Both cats end up learning a lesson about truth and friendship, and it’s done in a gentle and fun way for kids to really get in to.

 

Cat-lover or not, Mr. Pusskins and Little Whiskers are two cute kitties.

Eggs

Spinelli, Jerry

 

Little, Brown and Company, New York. 2007. 220 p.

 

“Friendship isn’t always sunny-side up.” That’s the tag line for Eggs, one of Spinelli’s more recent novels for grade schoolers. I remember reading some of his books back when I was in grade school, but to be honest they didn’t real do it for me then. Have I changed my mind now? Well… kind of. I had heard mixed reviews from some of my coworkers, but I decided to give it a chance. Admittedly, it was slow going at first. I couldn’t really get into the story of a young boy who has lost his mother in a tragic accident and now lives with his grandmother, only seeing his dad maybe a couple of times a month. It sounds good, I know, but still. It didn’t grab me. I guess about a quarter into the book I was finally interested. I won’t say I was riveted or gripped or anything that dramatic, but I did start to care about David and his new friend, or as we may say nowadays, ‘frenemy,’ Primrose. Where David is cautious and rule-abiding (except any rule or even suggestion from his grandmother), Primrose is reckless and rebellious. Primrose has a single mother who calls herself a psychic, but not a very good one. They live in a little house that is much too small for their oversized personalities, so Primrose makes an old van in their driveway her room. Primrose, annoying as she is, does add a bit of zing to David and his story. Without her, David himself is not a terribly compelling character. But Primrose is wild and loves to push buttons, and straight-laced David needs someone like that. His grandmother is sweet and tries to get him to talk, but because he is only 9 and is going through a traumatic event most children are lucky enough to never experience, David doesn’t care and doesn’t try to act nice in the least. This doesn’t make David the most sympathetic character ever written, but Primrose forces him to show his vulnerable side to us in the end.

 

Taking two annoying characters and thrusting them into the lead roles in book, especially one for kids, can be tricky. Maybe as an adult I was initially just bothered by David and Primrose’s bad behavior, or maybe not even a 10-year-old would love this book at the beginning. But, it’s one of those books that if you stick with it, you may just end up liking it, just like David and Primrose’s feelings for each other evolve by the end.

Sleepwalk

Tomine, Adrian

 

Drawn & Quarterly Publications, Montreal. 1998. 102 p.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve read an adult book from start to finish, and this was a completely different book than I usually read anyway. I start with that because maybe it can help explain why I felt the way I did reading this graphic novel.

 

The book is a collection of short stories all involving people with issues, simply put. There are twin teenage sisters who have nothing in common any more, a loser guy exploiting his summer job, couples who can’t connect or just plain make it, and a variety of loners, nobodies, and socially awkward people.

 

I can’t say for sure if I liked this book or not, if that’s not ambiguous enough for you. I like the idea of a collection of vignettes about different people in really average situations, because it’s quiet and thoughtful. However, some stories border on pointless or even painful to me. I’m the first to say I’m not a big fan of “dark” stories, and a lot of these stories are on the darker side, but there were just parts that rubbed me the wrong way, dark or not. I will say one of the best stories was the one called “Lunch Break” about love lost. It’s gentle and sweet and because it’s so understated, it is all the more touching.

 

Overall, it’s a noteworthy graphic novel worth reading if even as a short read between your major novel reading. I like graphic novels that focus on real life rather than super heroes, and this is an excellent example of that.

Miracle’s Boys

Woodson, Jacqueline

 

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. 2000. 133 p.

 

Sorry to do two books in a row by the same author, but Woodson has cast her spell on me and I can’t get enough of her style and characters. Locomotion hooked me, what can I say.

 

Miracle’s Boys is similar in many ways to Locomotion, but the major difference is the age this book is targeted at. This is a Young Adult book, and it deals with more complex themes than Locomotion, although there is death for young people to cope with in this book, too. Our narrator is Lafayette, a twelve year old boy who lives with his older brothers Ty’ree and Charlie after tragedy has struck their family twice. Ty’ree works hard to support his brothers and has given up many of his own dreams to make sure his younger brothers have a decent life. Lafayette understands how much Ty’ree cares and tries to be a good younger brother, but Charlie has changed in the last few years. After getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, Charlie was sent away to a home for at-risk boys and comes home changed, as is reflected by Lafayette’s name for him upon his return: Newcharlie. Charlie loved animals and though he had some hot-headed tendencies, was a decent boy. But Newcharlie doesn’t care about anything or anyone, including his brothers. Newcharlie is not the older brother Lafayette loved.

 

The story goes through the changes all three brothers experience in the time after Newcharlie returns home. Their roles as St. Ty’ree, Newcharlie, and the little angel Lafayette all change by the end of the book. Woodson never sugarcoats the experience of three young boys trying to make it on their own in New York City without parents to guide them. She shows readers in this book that bad and good aren’t always as clear as we’d like them to be, and sometimes you have to fall down completely to rise back up.

Locomotion

Woodson, Jacqueline

 

Putnam Juvenile, New York. 2003. 112 p.

 

This book came to me very highly recommended, so I had some pretty big expectations. Fortunately, this book delivers in every way imaginable. The story is powerful and moving, the form of the novel is completely conducive to its overall feeling and mood, and the characters are relatable and most importantly, realistic.

 

A lot of novels, especially for children, water down “tough” issues like poverty, race, inequality, education, and death, but Woodson doesn’t go easy on her readers. The main character and narrator (or maybe poet in this case) is Lonnie Collins Motion (nicknamed Locomotion after his mom’s favorite song, “Do the Locomotion”) is a fifth grader who has already experienced more loss and pain in his short life than some of us are lucky to never experience in a lifetime. I don’t want to give away too much, but his parents have died in a tragic accident and he and his little sister Lili are left behind with no one to care for them. Lonnie ends up with one foster mother, Lili another because her foster mother doesn’t like boys. Lonnie is very intelligent and perceptive for his age, and he understands that single women know young black boys in New York City are prone to getting themselves in major trouble. Lonnie’s foster mother, Miss Edna, is not worried by Lonnie because she has already raised sons of her own and knows how to handle young boys.

 

Lonnie’s gifted mind truly gets to shine in Ms. Marcus’ English class through her assigned poetry exercises. Lonnie starts off a little slowly and has some trouble grasping the idea of poetry, but it soon becomes apparent that not only is he good at poetry, he has natural talent for the medium. Through assigned and unassigned poems, we get to see Lonnie’s thoughts and spirit and see how they change over time as he matures. We learn more about his past, his parents, and the love he still has for his sweet little sister. Lonnie is mature beyond his years, probably because he has to be mature in his situation, but he is still a young boy looking for a place to belong, which becomes clear through his interactions with Miss Edna’s son, Rodney.

 

Woodson is one of the most celebrated authors of recent memory, and I can see why just through this relatively short book. I love the free verse style and I love Lonnie’s story. He is so real that you just want to meet him and maybe even hang out with the young guy. I had to fight back tears while reading, but I think that even further proves just how powerful this book is. Another book that I cannot more strongly recommend to anyone.

Artichoke’s Heart

Supplee, Suzanne

 

Dutton Books, New York. 2008.276 p.

 

I knew nothing about this book when I picked it up besides the fact that I liked the cover. Its brown background covered in chocolates wrapped in pink grabbed my attention. I was probably just hungry, but after reading a few pages, I decided to stick with it. And I’m glad (I think) that I did.

 

This is the story of Rosemary Goode (whose nickname is Artichoke, something you come to understand through reading the book) and her struggle to lose weight and accept herself. She’s 15 at the beginning of the book and lives in a small town outside of Nashville called Spring Hill. She is highly intelligent and excels in English. Her time after school is mostly spent working in her mother’s beauty parlor. Sounds pretty normal. But Rosemary has an obsession with food, and over the winter holidays her weight balloons up to 203 pounds. She has candy bars stashed under her bed and can barely walk past the fridge or pantry without being mercilessly tempted by something inside. She knows she has to do something or her weight will just continue rising and she’ll be unhappy for the rest of her life.

 

I’m sure this book sounds cliché, and at points I will admit it can be. Southernisms are used a little too obviously and frequently, but I can’t compare Supplee, a first-time author, to a great Southern female writer like Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor makes you know you’re in the South in subtle ways, Supplee is a little more obvious. And of course Rosemary’s weight is referred to in all sorts of ways, some gentle and others a little more painful. But regardless, I enjoyed this story in spite of myself. Rosemary does just what you would expect her to do—she starts losing weight, makes friends with one of the most popular girls in school, and even lands the school basketball star. But it’s not the ending; it’s the story that makes Rosemary interesting and likable. I wish I could say I can’t relate to Rosemary, but sometimes I can, and I think it’s important for young girls to have someone like her to guide them when the people around them can’t. Rosemary goes through the typical teenage girl struggles and more in this book, and she is really someone a reader can relate to and look up to.

Peg Leg Peke

Spangler, Brie

 

Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2008. 40 p.

 

I feel like a girly-girly with nothing important to bring to the table for this review of Peg Leg Peke. This book is so adorable, sweet, cute, darling, and perfectly simple that it reduces me to cooing and other noises more appropriate in regards to a human baby than a picture book about an imaginative Pekingese. Regardless, I am enamored with this debut from Spangler. Peke has broken his leg and is now stuck in a cast, which has needless to say dampened his spirits. However, the narrator points out that Peke’s cast makes him look like a pirate, and that alone is enough to send him off into a world of swashbuckling and sailing. I love how Spangler has broken the book into a conversation between the narrator and Peke because it makes for easy reading for little ones and humorous dialogue for the adults. And I’ll admit, every time Peke says he has a “boo-boo” or yelps “ow!” I make some goofy little “Awwwww” because he’s just so darn cute.

 

It’s sweet and simple. The way all of life’s pleasures should be.

Woolvs in the Sitee

Wild, Margaret.

Spudvilas, Anne (illus.)

 

Front Street, Asheville, North Carolina. 2006. 40 p.

 

Well, this book is quite a different one, let’s start with that. It’s a picture book, but not like your average No, David or Bark, George. No no no. This is one for a mature audience, around 12 or older, and it is dark. Very dark.

 

The book centers on Ben, a young boy all alone in a bleak and terrifying world. He spends his days and nights hiding in a basement only looking out at what’s left of his former city. His only companion is his neighbor, Mrs. Radinski, who takes as good of care of him as she can. Ben warns Mrs. Radinski about the “woolvs” that haunt the city, but she doesn’t believe him. Until it is (possibly) too late for her.

 

The entire book is written in misspelled English which is apparently Ben’s own writing (it looks like he may be writing this account on his walls or some scrap paper). In some parts I really had to sit and look and sound out the word to figure out what he meant, like “fernicha.” But I do think Wild did an excellent job phonetically spelling words the way a barely educated young boy would.

 

To be honest, this wasn’t my favorite book of recent memory. But to be more honest, I don’t gravitate toward dark books in general. I will say the artwork captures the fear and darkness of Ben’s world and really gives the book a “mood.” I appreciated the idea of the book, and I think it can give young readers something to think about with our own world and the politics and dangers around us.