Thursday, February 25, 2010

Clarence Cochran, A Human Boy

Kirkus Review (March 15, 2009)
Clever reimaginings of classics generally rely on awareness of the originals for at least part of their appeal (and most of their humor). That would seem to spell trouble for this reversal of The Metamorphosis. Still, even kids unfamiliar with Kafka's work are likely to enjoy this tale of a young cockroach whose inexplicable transformation into a tiny human boy enables him to save his family from a dreadful death at the hands of an exterminator. Loizeaux paints an entertaining picture of the slovenly Gilmartin family and the bounty that their kitchen provides to the local cockroach community--until the unthinkable happens, and the family catches sight of them. How Clarence copes with his change, the suspicious distaste of his former friends and the threat that faces them all will capture kids' interest. Clarence's ultimate victory, gained by writing a heartfelt plea to Mrs. Gilmartin, isn't entirely convincing, but readers will be pleased at his success. Wilsdorf's black-and-white drawings amplify the humor of the text while highlighting specific action and amusing details. (Fantasy. 9-12)

The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis

Booklist (September 1, 2009 (Vol. 106, No. 1))
Grades 4-6. Bored with life in Fayette, South Carolina, where the only change is a new daily vocabulary word, Popeye is excited to find a motor home stuck in the roadbed mud. He and Elvis, one of its nomadic inhabitants, set off to find adventure, even if it’s a small one. Discovering a boat with a secret message, they follow the creek into the forbidden woods, not once but several times, until they find the boat's maker, Princess Starletta. While Popeye’s grandmother struggles to get his feckless uncle to help extricate the trailer, the once-fearful boy experiments with being devious and enlarges his world. O’Connor again sets her story in a world of rural poverty and barely functional families, matter-of-factly described. Popeye loves the clutter of the motor home and the chaos of Starletta’s backyard—they provide a lively contrast to his own dreary surroundings—and learns that life can be better with imagination and a friend. With interestingly offbeat characters, a clear narrative arc, and intriguing vocabulary smoothly integrated into the story line, this is a satisfying read.

Yummy Eight Favorite Fairy Tales

Booklist starred (October 15, 2009 (Vol. 106, No. 4))
Preschool-Grade 3. Lucy Cousins, best known for her Maisy picture books, presents eight familiar tales: “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” “The Enormous Turnip,” “Henny Penny,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Little Red Hen,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “The Musicians of Bremen.” A glance at wolf on the book’s jacket, sharp claws and teeth at the ready, will reassure readers that this is no pastel, bowdlerized version of folklore. Yes, a hunter chops off the head of Red Riding Hood’s wolf, but the deed is so matter-of-fact in the telling and so bloodless and cartoon-like in the illustration that children are unlikely to flinch when justice is done. The writing is simple and direct, as befits these traditional tales. Illustrated in Cousins’ signature style, the bold, childlike pictures feature broad strokes of black paint defining the forms of characters and elements of the setting. The scale of the illustrations is so large that their effect might overwhelm a bit when seen at close range. At a little distance, though, their clarity, drama, and energy are evident. Absolutely perfect for the youngest.

Are You a Horse?

Booklist (January 1, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 9))
Preschool-Grade 2. When cowboy Roy is given a saddle for his birthday, he can’t wait to try it out. Right after he figures out what it’s for. Luckily, it comes with instructions (“1. Find a horse. 2. Enjoy the ride”), but unluckily, Roy doesn’t know what a horse is. So he saunters about asking each creature he meets if it’s a horse. They all tell him why they’re not: horses have legs, explains the snake; a horse is friendly, explains the many-legged crab; a horse can’t change colors, says the friendly chameleon. Roy is just about out of questions when he finally finds something that fits all the requirements, and a horse it turns out to be. The western-styled gouache art is packed with colors and peppered with lighthearted jokes. Much of the visual fun comes from the way each animal has the characteristic Roy has just learned about from the previous encounter, while the text effectively uses negation to keep him looking. Kids will enjoy knowing more than the hapless Roy with the final page showing an extremely unexpected horsy ride.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Thirteenth Princess

Publishers Weekly (January 18, 2010)
Reworking the familiar ground of The Twelve Dancing Princesses into a story of resourcefulness and a loving heart, Zahler's debut deftly and thoughtfully embellishes the tale's classic elements. Banished to the life of a serving girl in the royal palace after her mother died in childbirth, Zita, at age seven, is shocked to learn she is the 13th daughter of harsh King Aricin. The sisters cherish Zita's stealthy visits to their bedroom via a hidden dumbwaiter, and despite the princesses' inability to secure husbands (they are rendered mute in the presence of suitors), all seems well until Zita turns 12 and her sisters sicken and take to their beds. As the princesses grow paler and more feeble, Zita's only clues are her sisters' mysteriously worn-out shoes. Suspecting evil magic, Zita enlists her friends-Breckin the stable boy, his soldier brother Milek, and Babette the forest witch-to help her. Zahler takes a light story and gives it gratifying depth, rounding out the characters and their motivations without betraying the source material and wrapping it all together in a graceful and cohesive romantic drama. Ages 8-12. (Feb.) Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.

Over My Dead Body

Kirkus Review (September 1, 2009)
The laughter continues in this second installment of the Klises' series about a ghost and her friends. As in the first book, Dying to Meet You (2009), the entire story is told through letters, newspaper articles and the like and is adorned with M. Sarah Klise's amusing line drawings. Dramatic tension builds when elderly writer I.B. Grumply and his charge, the abandoned boy Seymour, are carted off to an insane asylum and an orphanage, respectively. Ghost-in-Residence Olive breaks them out and does her best to see that all villains get what they deserve. A dreaded government agent tries not only to break up the happy partnership but to outlaw Halloween. Worse, he turns the town against the trio, endangering their livelihood--publishing a serialized illustrated mystery. Much of the town of Ghastly, Ill., gets involved in the excitement, with characters sporting names appropriate to their callings, such as the locksmith, Ike N. Openitt. Even the addresses on the letters add to the comedy of this light, diverting romp. (Fantasy. 8-12)

I Am Going!

Kirkus Review starred (December 15, 2009)
The two-time (so far) Geisel Medalist continues to set the bar high for beginning-reader achievement in this latest installment of the Elephant & Piggie series. Cover art depicts Piggie poised to walk away and anxious elephant Gerald's horrified reaction to her imminent departure. Although the title page repeats this cause-and-effect relationship, the book proper opens with the contented pair reveling in each other's company. "This is a good day," Gerald announces, and it is--until a few pages later when Piggie says, "Well, I am going," and her elephant pal pitches a fit of separation-anxiety-induced pleading and temper worthy of a certain pigeon (who, since he shows up in every Willems book, appropriately makes an appearance during this tantrum scene). Piggie holds her ground, eventually explaining that she's only lunch. Relieved Gerald, along with a contingent of ants, joins her for a picnic, replete with colors that satisfyingly deviate from the series's limited palette. To paraphrase Gerald: This is a good book. (Early reader. 4-8)

Duck! Rabbit!

Booklist starred (April 1, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 15))
Preschool-Grade 1. How cute is this? Really, really cute. Some readers may know the visual puzzle that makes the same line drawing look like a rabbit or a duck, depending on how you squint; this book is even funnier (and a little disorienting) if you’re meeting Duck/Rabbit for the first time. But even those familiar with how ears can turn into a beak will get a kick out of the way Rosenthal and Lichtenheld move the concept forward. The offstage narrators see something interesting: “Hey, look! A duck!” “That’s not a duck. That’s a rabbit!” Then the back and forth begins, with the duck quacking while the rabbit is sniffing, the duck eating bread, the rabbit munching a carrot. In the most clever spread, readers turn the book vertically to see the duck getting a drink of water, while the rabbit cools its ears. The simple art is reminiscent of Eric Rohmann’s work and will appeal to the same audience. Despite the story basically being one joke, the clever tone and the amusing pictures (rendered in ink, watercolor, “and a wee bit of colored pencil”) never let it feel that way. The clever ending might inspire kids (and parents) to create their own artistic twofers.


Booklist starred (November 15, 2009 (Vol. 106, No. 6))
Grades 4-7. Liam is a big lad. So big that strangers mistake the 12-year-old for an adult. Even his teachers seem to conflate tall with old. So heaven forbid he should ever make a mistake. Then it’s all, “You should know better, big lad like you.” Life sure is hard for poor, burdened Liam (did I mention the Premature Facial Hair?)—until, that is, he decides to enter the Greatest Dad Ever Contest and in short order finds himself on a rocket ship that is off course and 200,000 miles above the earth. Yes, quite a few things—some of them cosmic and all of them extremely funny—do happen in between. Boyce is a Carnegie Medal–winning author, after all (for Millions, 2004), and he knows how to tell a compellingly good story. But in his latest extravagantly imaginative and marvelously good-natured novel he has also written one that is bound to win readers’ hearts, if not a clutch of big prizes—though Cosmic was shortlisted for both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize when it was published in England. There are lots of surprises in Liam’s story, and without spoiling any of them by saying more, just know that this is not only a story about big lads, but also about dads and dadliness!

Babymouse Burns Rubber

Booklist (January 1, 2010 (Vol. 106, No. 9))
Grades 4-6. In the twelfth title in the popular Babymouse series, the little rodent dreams of entering and winning the biggest soapbox race of the year. She has to make her own vehicle, but all she makes is a mess until her friend Wilson helps her. More than just a situation, the story takes a surprising turn when, at the last moment, Wilson needs her help, and it’s Babymouse who comes to the rescue. As usual, the pink-accented, black-and-white drawings are full of action, humor, and feeling, and kids will enjoy the wry classroom and schoolyard backdrops as much as Babymouse’s big fantasies.