Monday, May 14, 2012

Three by the Sea

Booklist (February 1, 2011 (Vol. 107, No. 11))

Grades K-2. Grey, one of the more inventive picture-book creators working these days (Traction Man Is Here! 2005; Egg Drop, 2009), offers a beguiling little parable in her latest offering. Dog, who handles the gardening chores, Cat, who cleans house, and Mouse, who oversees the kitchen, live a blissfully quiet existence in a little shack by the sea. But then a shady fox shows up, representing the Winds of Change Trading Company and questions whether their friendship is really living up to expectations. Dog is only burying bones in the garden, Cat’s napping instead of dusting, and Mouse’s menu is incessantly fondue-based. The roommates squabble, then make up after a little crisis and move on with their lives, more aware of each other and how their roles can blend together. The artwork is standard-issue outstanding for Grey, with creative dollops of collage, endearing animal characters, and detail-strewn settings. With a complex resolution that refreshingly eschews any simple message, this book offers a nice opening to discuss how change may be both unwanted and stressful, yet ultimately welcome.

Crouching Tiger

Horn Book (January/February, 2012)

Vinson is his American name, but his grandfather, visiting from China, calls him by his Chinese name, Ming Da. As Grandpa practices tai chi each morning, Ming Da secretly wishes to see him perform more exciting kung fu moves. Calm and unflappable, Grandpa teaches his impatient grandson the slow, careful exercises, and eventually he and Ming Da play a pivotal role in the annual Chinese New Year parade. Realistic, luminous watercolor illustrations, punctuated by straight suburban streets and houses, show the family's balance of the Chinese and the American, the traditional and the modern. For instance, they eat an American breakfast while Grandpa is visible through the window practicing tai chi outdoors. As Ming Da feels the tension between his desire for flashy martial arts and the reality of tai chi, Nascimbene leaves strategic distance between grandfather and grandson. When Ming Da commits himself to the difficult and sometimes tedious job of practicing the standing meditation, that distance lessens: after the New Year's celebration, as Grandpa and Ming Da hold hands in the sparkling night, their shadows join as one. A fascinating view into the world of martial arts and what the older generation can offer the skeptical younger one. Spot drawings of the tai chi poses will be appreciated by practitioners of all ages. robin l. smith

The Honeybee Man

Booklist (March 15, 2011 (Vol. 107, No. 14))

Grades K-3. Inspired by two beekeepers in her New York neighborhood, adult-writer Nargi makes her debut children’s book with this fictional story of Fred, a Brooklyn beekeeper who can see the tall city buildings from his rooftop, where he keeps thousands of bees in three tiny city hives. There may be as many as 60,000 worker bees in a hive in summer, and as Fred releases them, they zip out and blaze through the city into neighborhood gardens. Then the keeper welcomes the bees back, heavy with nectar to store in their wax rooms. True to Fred’s viewpoint, the bright illustrations in collage and oil paint make the connections between the buildings on the skyline and the close-up views of the boxed hives on the roof, as he imagines the bees diving into the flowers in the backyard urban gardens and bringing the nectar home. The story is engaging, and even with extensive notes and diagrams at the back, readers will want more about the astonishing science.

A Nation's Hope The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis

Booklist starred (February 1, 2011 (Vol. 107, No. 11))

Grades 1-3. Sometimes a boxing match is just that, a sport played out on the fists and jaws of two determined contenders. But sometimes it is so much more, as in the 1938 bout between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. This spectacularly illustrated, smoothly cadenced picture book sets up the historic fight—“Son of a black sharecropper / against Hitler’s ‘master race’ / Black and white Americans / together against the rule of Nazi hate”—and then quickly traces Louis’ rise from a quiet boy in Jim Crow America to a magnificent fighter and national hero. Nelson, who’s incapable of even a mediocre painting, flexes his artistic muscle here, varying his always effective blue-sky-backed, leveled-gaze portraits with dizzying and dramatic angles, both in and out of the ring. The full weight of the fight’s import may need some additional historical context for young readers, but the message rings through in any case: that this was a unifying and triumphant moment of national pride, for all Americans, and that sports can capture people’s hearts for more reasons than just winning.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dog In Charge

Kirkus Reviews (April 15, 2012)

Printz Honor--winner Going turns from teens and preteens to preschoolers in her picture-book debut. When his family goes shopping, a much-loved bulldog is told, "'Watch the cats, and make sure they don't get in any mischief.'" Uh-oh: Five cats rapidly wreak havoc, spilling milk, breaking flowerpots and toppling books. Dog, exhausted from chasing the elusive, wily felines, gets into some mischief himself: The bag of cat treats he'd intended to use to induce good kitty behavior proves just too tempting. After he devours it and falls asleep on the messy kitchen floor, the cats team up to tidy the joint, room by room, and the family arrives home none the wiser. Going's text is deadpan: Her Dog means well in attempting to apply to the willful cats the same sort of reward-oriented discipline that guides his life. Santat's kid-pleasing pictures, with frequent inset panels, thought bubbles and plenty of visual play-by-play, evoke children's animated cartoons. (He created Disney's TV cartoon The Replacements.) Some 50 depictions of Dog (excluding funny endpapers that showcase a dozen of his most evocative facial expressions), convey the temporary chaos broadly yet thoroughly. Dog's bewilderment at his returning owner's praise morphs into a look of rapt delight as five treats come his way: doggily spot-on. A rollicking romp. (Picture book. 3-6)

A Hen for Izzy Pippik

Kirkus Reviews (February 15, 2012)

When Shaina discovers an unusual hen sporting "emerald green feathers with golden speckles," she strives to find its rightful owner. Although her hungry family wants to make chicken soup, Shaina insists they restore the newfound hen to Izzy Pippik, who has left town. By the time he returns, the hen has given birth to a multiplying flock of chickens. The chickens have overrun the town, and people are mad, but then the merchants realize that the freely ranging chickens have brought prosperity back because everyone wants to visit. Shaina is overjoyed when Pippik shows up. She tries to return Yevka, the original hen, and the whole flock, but Izzy matches her honesty with his generosity by allowing all to stay. Shocked, Shaina tells him he can't. "If they're mine to have," he says, "they're mine to give," and the poverty-stricken townspeople have been saved by an upright girl and an altruistic gentleman. Retro, droll pencil illustrations colored in Photoshop show a European town in the 1930s. Shaina and Yevka echo each other as they walk along, with red bow and comb, black braid and tail feather bouncing in the breeze, green-and-white pinafore dress and feathers. Although no specific sources are stated, the author/storyteller has drawn upon Talmudic and Islamic folklore. Steadfast and quietly amusing, Shaina is a girl to admire. (Picture book. 5-8)

The Year of the Book

Horn Book (May/June, 2012)

Before the first chapter begins, we already know something about narrator Anna Wang: she always has her head stuck in a book. Nine-year-old Anna reads for all the right reasons ("Soon I am with Sam [in My Side of the Mountain], hollowing out a stump to make my own little house"), but she also uses reading as a shield against social exclusion (of the specialized fourth-grade-girl kind) and her own lack of confidence ("her face looks friendly, but I don’t know her so I’m afraid to go over to the group. Instead I open my book and read standing up"). At school, Anna’s friend from last year, Laura, now hangs out with the popular girls; at home, Anna is ashamed of her mother’s English and fights with her about attending Chinese language school. But she keeps reading -- specific children’s books, from Leo Lionni’s picture book Little Blue and Little Yellow to Jacqueline Woodson’s Hush, which are integrated into the narrative. Sometimes a book helps illuminate Anna’s own life (as when thinking about My Louisiana Sky helps her feel less critical of her mother’s imperfections); sometimes a book is part of the external plot (as when Laura and Anna, beginning to be friends again, dress up as Little Blue and Little Yellow for Halloween). As the year progresses, once in a while Anna even puts a book down. Cheng’s telling is as straightforward yet sympathetic as her self-contained main character; and Halpin’s often lighthearted pencil-and-wash sketches both decorate and enrich this perceptive novel. martha v. parravano

No Bears

Horn Book (May/June, 2012)

Ella proclaims that she is in charge of this book, and this book will have no bears, not a one: "Every time you read a book, it’s just BEARS BEARS BEARS." She decrees that her book will have a monster and a princess and a fairy godmother instead, makes herself a crown, and begins her bear-free tale. Readers, however, can see perfectly well in the delicate and droll illustrations that there is a bear in the book they’re reading, one wearing a green print dress with a nice bee pattern. Ella’s fairy godmother endeavors to keep the bear out of the story, but when she puts down her magic wand for a moment, the bear picks it up and eventually uses it to rescue the princess from the monster. This is a picture book that will send the reader delightedly back again and again to sort out the layers of reality. In one illustration, for instance, Ella is reaching into the book to add a castle while her fairy godmother is painting a no-bears-allowed sign on the page and the bear stands forlornly across the book, holding a picture of itself holding a jar of honey. Both the story and the inventive digital pictures draw readers in deeper and deeper, along with the many fairy-tale details to discover (clever viewers will spot all the usual suspects, from Little Red Riding Hood to Rapunzel to the Three Little Pigs). susan dove lempke

The Shark King

Booklist starred (March 15, 2012 (Vol. 108, No. 14))

Grades 2-4. This new entry in the TOON line of emerging-reader comics may be the most sophisticated yet, spinning a variation on Hawaiian folktales about the shape-shifter shark god, Kamohoalii, and his son, Nanaue. After a young woman is rescued from drowning by a handsome stranger, they fall in love and have a son. Before the boy is born, though, the man reveals his true self by flaring gills, sprouting fins, and diving back into the sea—but not before leaving a cape and a cryptic utterance to be remembered by. The boy grows up, eating everything in sight and pranking the local fisherfolk to no end. His mischievousness goes a bit too far one day, though, and the villagers chase him off a cliff, right into the fate his father prepared for him. Johnson’s beautiful graphic style recalls, of all things, Gilbert Hernandez’ early Palomar comics, with zippy figures set against equatorial backgrounds distinguished by a few key features—a waterfall and fruit tree here, a tidal pool and coral reef there. The crafty panel layouts plunge into a couple of full-bleed splash pages with all the exhilaration of a high dive. Although simple enough to keep brand-new and below-level readers in tow—and strengthen their vocabulary with contextual clues—this charming and playful Hawaiian fable will reveal deeper layers to more intuitive readers.