Children and Books

Children’s Book Reviews

— Publishers Weekly, 11/17/2008

Picture Books How to Build an A

Sara Midda. Workman/Artisan, $17.95 ISBN 978-1-57965-378-1

Offering a hands-on approach to learning the alphabet, this small-format book comes with 11 off-white foam shapes (as well as a mesh storage bag). In the book, miniature, stylized people (and the occasional dog) work together to construct each letter of the alphabet, using rectangular blocks and arcs shaped just like the foam pieces. Playful, irreverent illustrations accompany each letter being constructed: for “N is for Nose,” two of the tiny people play in and around an elongated, drippy proboscis; with Z, the zebra participates in having his stripes painted on his back. But those interested in “building” three-dimensional letters, as the title promises, may be disappointed: the pieces don’t fit together seamlessly. For example, if kids try to make the letter “B” following the illustration in the book, the vertical piece isn’t long enough to accommodate both of the “loops”; these have to be overlapped, in which case the loop placed on top tilts sadly toward one end. (Using a set of pieces different from what is shown will solve this problem but not similar ones.) A good idea just shy of realization. Ages 2–up. (Nov.)

The Great Paper Caper

Oliver Jeffers. Philomel, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-399-25097-2
Jeffers’s (The Incredible Book-Eating Boy) forest creatures have dots for eyes and sticks for legs; they live in tidy holes in the ground, equipped with home offices and washing machines. Responsible citizens, they notice that trees in their forest are missing big branches, and organize themselves to find the perpetrator—readers know from the outset it’s the bear, in need of paper for a paper airplane contest. The drama unfolds in neatly paced vignettes and comic book–style panels with the rounded corners of old television sets. Jeffers joins the speech balloons to his characters’ mouths with ruled pencil lines; his spidery writing is a sweetly incongruous vehicle for fast-moving patter (“I’ll be the detective and you can be the judge,” the beaver tells the deer. “Why do I have to be the judge?’” the deer protests, and waves a hoof toward the pig. “Why not him?” “I’m the prosecutor, that’s why,” says the pig). The conclusion nods toward forgiveness and restorative justice, but it’s the anti-crime tape that gets the laughs. Jeffers lobs a joke or two over the heads of young listeners, a gesture that will be welcomed by presiding adults. Ages 3–5. (Jan.)

Dot in Larryland: The Big Little Book of an Odd-Sized Friendship

Patricia Marx, illus. by Roz Chast. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-59990-181-7

Somewhere in these oversize pages there is a story of friendship between two nice but lonely people: an infinitesimal woman (“Note: picture of Dot has been magnified a flajillion times”) and a ginormous man (“His toes are so far from his head that if Larry steps in a puddle, he doesn’t know it till tomorrow”). But the story is not the point with New Yorker wits Marx (Now I Will Never Leave the Dinner Table) and Chast (The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z!), who pack the book with so many asides, meta-jokes, knowing nudges and weak couplets (“And one last thing. I don’t mean to be rude/ My name is Dot. You’re a nice-looking dude”) that the plot and characters become incidental: cartoon narrators barge in midway, “We interrupt this story to bring you the intermission…. Hey, how’d you like to take a look in another part of the book?” It’s as if the author and the illustrator started from the supposition that children are hardened storytelling cynics, and delivered accordingly. Redirect this one to Marx and Chast’s adult fans. Ages 4–8. (Jan.)

Poetry Amiri and Odette: A Love Story Walter Dean Myers, illus. by Javaka Steptoe. Scholastic, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-590-68041-7

Myers’s (Sunrise over Fallujah) and Steptoe’s (In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall) concept, recasting Swan Lake as hip-hop, may sound unlikely, but in their hands it largely succeeds: the ultra-cool, emotionally hot setting gives the story new power. Swan Lake is a housing project, Rothbart represented as Big Red, a drug lord, and Odette an addict; Amiri tries to save her, but fails. Myers’s words carry the force of blows; Steptoe’s collages teem with bodies colliding and overlapping. The language swings from pop lyric to Shakespearean, sometimes in the same breath: “Amiri, be my man!/ Save me if you can!/ If not, let my last pure breath/ Pledge my love to you in wretched death.” Steptoe gets gritty, working directly on slabs of asphalt, a street effect intensified by the graffiti-like use of multicolored and multisize fonts in the text. His figures are shadowed with ghostly blue; they leap, ward off blows, embrace, argue. It’s easy to imagine them as dancers. The momentum yields at the end, where, in contrast to the stark immediacy of the rest of the work, abstract language softens the tragic conclusion. Ages 12–up. (Jan.)

Fiction Bones of Faerie

Janni Lee Simner. Random, $16.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-375-84563-5

It has been 20 years since the war between faeries and humans destroyed everything. Liza, a teenager living in what was once the Midwest, has always been taught that magic kills. When Liza’s mother gives birth to a faerie baby with “hair clear as glass,” her father abandons the infant on a hillside to die; Liza’s mother then runs away, and Liza begins to have magical visions of her own. Petrified that her powers might cause death, Liza flees into the woods with her friend Matthew, only to be attacked by deadly trees and rescued by a woman with magic. The plot quickens as Liza realizes that the woman is connected to her mother’s past, knowledge that propels Liza into a dangerous journey into the land of Faerie, in search of her mother. Debut novelist Simner’s style is poetic (“A land of steel and glass, of towers and sharp angles. A sky the color of dried blood”), but she only vaguely describes Liza’s world. It’s hard to understand how, for example, a faerie differs from humans with magical powers, or what triggered the cataclysmic faerie war. Despite the murkiness, the plotting is strong, and readers will want to stay with Liza until her questions are resolved. Ages 12–16. (Jan.) Secret Keeper Mitali Perkins. Delacorte, $16.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-385-73340-3
In an intimate and absorbing drama about a displaced Indian family in the 1970s, Perkins (Monsoon Summer) vividly highlights the conflict between traditional Indian values and feminist ideals. After Asha’s father goes to America in search of a new job, the rest of the family moves from Delhi to Calcutta to live in the more restrictive household headed by her grandmother. As often as she can, Asha escapes to the rooftop to confide her woes to her “secret keeper,” a diary; breaking the rules of the house, she also befriends the son of the family next door, who gazes at her through a window. But their relationship changes irrevocably when tragedy prompts Asha to make a painful sacrifice for the sake of her mother and sister. Readers may not always agree with Asha’s bold decisions, but they will admire her courage and selflessness as she puts her family’s needs before her own. Besides offering insight into Indian culture, Perkins offers a moving portrait of a rebellious teen who relies on ingenuity rather than charm to prove her worth. Ages 12–up. (Jan.) The Way He Lived Emily Wing Smith. Flux, $9.95 paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-7387-1404-2
Besides living in the same Mormon community in Utah, Tabbatha, Adlen, Miles, Claire, Norah and Lissa have something else in common: each had a special connection to Joel Espen, who died of dehydration after giving away his water during a badly planned Boy Scout expedition. In vignettes showing the six teens’ differing points of view, first-time author Smith probes into the psychologies of the survivors to demonstrate Joel’s effect on their lives and their attempts to make sense of his death. Tabbatha, Joel’s overachieving older sister, accelerates her recovery from the “nervous breakdown” she suffered before Joel died, telling herself that each new effort is something her brother would have wanted from her; his best friend, a self-proclaimed “bad kid,” slashes the tires of the Scout leader’s truck, using the knife Joel left him. The author preserves each narrator’s complexity, investigating their defenses and revealing their core selves while dropping clues about the enigmatic Joel. It’s a testament to Smith’s skills that although her central character speaks only through other people’s recollections, his identity emerges distinctly by the end of the novel, giving the audience enough information to judge his actions for themselves. Ages 13–up. (Nov.) Love Is Hell Melissa Marr, Scott Westerfeld et al. HarperTeen, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-144305-3; $9.99 paper ISBN 978-0-06-144304-6
Supernatural romance is the well-chosen theme of five original stories by as many authors. After her family moves into a house where a boy was murdered, Laurie Faria Stolarz’s protagonist finds herself falling in love with his ghost; Gabrielle Zevin introduces a high school student who may (or may not) be overidentifying with the book she is reading; and Scott Westerfeld looks into a future where hormonal balancers tamp down teen romances and “bioframes” obviate sleep and dreams. Melissa Marr and Justine Larbalestier reinterpret folklore conventions, Marr writing about selkies and Larbalestier about faeries. There’s enough variety to round out the central theme, and consistently supple storytelling will lure readers through all five entries. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the national nonprofit organization College Summit. Ages 14–up. (Dec.) The Spectacular Now Tim Tharp. Knopf, $16.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-375-85179-7
Unlike most high school seniors, Sutter Keely—the narrator of this smart, superbly written novel—is not concerned with the future. He’s the life of the party, and he’s interested in the “Spectacular Now.” In stream of consciousness–style prose, Sutter describes his lurching from one good time to the next: he carries whiskey in a flask, and once it’s mixed into his 7Up, anything is possible. He will jump into the pool fully clothed, climb up a tree and onto his ex-girlfriend’s roof or cruise around all hours of the night. Without ever deviating from the voice of the egocentric Sutter, Tharp (Knights of the Hill Country) fully develops all of the ancillary characters, such as socially awkward Aimee, the new girlfriend who tries to plan a future with this quintessential live-for-the-moment guy. Readers will be simultaneously charmed and infuriated by Sutter as his voice holds them in thrall to his all-powerful Now. Ages 14–up. (Nov.)
Nonfiction

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Hi I'm Vernon Goddard, retired and currently living in Lincoln having spent time abroad in France. My wife Carol and I are enjoying life away from having to make a living; instead we're making plenty of new friends in Lincoln. We have new plans for our time together and new adventures to achieve. Hell Lloyds TSB are still paying for it all and you taxpayers in the UK. So thanks ~ we really appreciate your regular contributions to our spending money. And why not stop and contribute on this site. If you have a view about anything I write you're welcome to post a comment or get in touch with me. When I'm not blogging, I write a little, garden a little less, drink and eat some, exercise when pushed, talk for Wales and think about the grandchildren. Well that's me. Gorseinonboy.
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