Category Archives: Reviews

Substitute Creacher

Have you seen Chris Gall’s books?  They are so striking.  The first time I saw Dear Fish (2006) at the library it practically reached out and yanked me over to it.  It’s a wacky book that has been compared to Tuesday by David Wiesner (you know, the floating frogs on a random Tuesday night).  Looking on his website I see he gets lots of commissions for posters, magazine covers etc.  Another title I admire is There’s Nothing To Do on Mars (2008).

           Substitute Creacher (2011) tells the story behind a green cyclops with lots of snake-like feet.  The story starts off a bit like the classic Miss Nelson is Missing.  It’s almost Halloween and the regular teacher has had it with an out-of-control class.  She leaves a note that she has a “rather special” sub coming in.  Turns out the substitute “creacher” was once a boy himself who stole candy from other kids.  He sets the class straight with his cautionary tales.  The book has all sorts of split pages like a comic.  You’re probably wondering about Gall’s art medium and so I investigated on the title page.  “The artwork was created using bat wings, toad juice, and the bundled whiskers of a black cat.”

Substitute Creacher even squeezes a happy ending out at the last page.

1 Comment

Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Preschool, Holidays: Halloween, Picture Books, Reviews

Anastasia Krupnik

I just finished Anastasia Krupnik, Lois Lowry’s first book in the Anastasia series (1979).  I had nifty incentive to read it because Anastasia was my wife’s childhood favorite for a time.  She and our daughter just read this first one out loud together.  I had to catch up on my own.

It’s brilliant!  I’ve read some slice-of-life DOGS in my time about kids.  But this one is good from the start.  Her 4th grade teacher has the kids write poems.  Anastasia is ecstatic- her dad is a poet and lit professor.  How can she miss?  But it turns out the teacher only likes rhyming, sing-song poetry.  Anastasia non-rhyming free verse will be poorly received.  So it’s no wonder when, “Anastasia had begun to feel a little funny, as if she had ginger ale inside her knees”.

Poor Anastasia gets an F and Mrs. Westvessel goes on the bad side of Anastasia’s list of things she loves and hates.  We see the list at the end of each chapter, and it’s undergoing constant change.

It’s a short book filled with birth, life, death, and lots of laughs and empathy.  At the ripe old age of ten she gets a sibling, her little brother who her parents have rashly promised her she can name.

Can’t wait to read the next Anastasia in the series,even if it is my wife’s turf for story-reading with our daughter.

Lois Lowry is one of our most honored living children’s author, and maybe the most versatile.  She’s won two Newbery Medals.  Gotta admit I couldn’t make much sense out of The Giver, but everyone tells me it’s brilliant and profound.  I believe them.

But I did have a ball reading The Willoughbys (2008) with the kids while Jen was gone to Peru.  It’s a super-fun, wacky parody of the apparently-orphaned kids facing one trial after another.  Sounds like A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, but somehow those didn’t tickle me.  After Willoughbys, my daughter and I read the delicious Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken which must have inspired Lowry.

Lowry performs an amazing feat by having it be very tongue-in-cheek, with lots of references to the kids being old-fashioned, deserving kids and comparing their plight to  situations in Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and James and the Giant Peach while at the same time having it feel real and vivid.  We care about Tim, Barnaby A and B, and Jane. An appendix at the back capsulizes thirteen classics the book touches on.

I loved that Lowry did her own pictures for The Willoughbys.  Its author bio, which she must have written herself, says “Today she is a wizened, reclusive old woman who sits hushed over her desk thinking obsessively about the placement of commas.”  It’s great that Lois Lowry covers so much ground, and that her early heroine still reads so well thirty years later.

So Anastasia, nice to meet you this weekend and hear about your brother Sam, born when you’re already 10.  And Sam Krupnik, maybe I’ll read the series about you sometime.  In fact:  Jen, I hereby reserve that series for reading to our son when the time comes!

6 Comments

Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Fiction, Reviews

All Star: Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever

Batter up!  Baseball is in full swing.  Isn’t it high time for big, beautiful picture book with a giant helping of Americana?  All Star:  Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever (2010) is written by Jane Yolen and illustrated with Jim Burke’s intensively-researched paintings.  The inside flaps are decorated with memorabilia including the Honus Wagner card that sold in 2007 for almost three million dollars.

Yolen is known for her hundreds of books.  In this title, Yolen performs a marvelous feat, condensing his life from being born into a poor German immigrant family in Pennsylvania, working in the coal mines, and then making his way into pro baseball, all in just a few hundred words.  Yolen’s prose is super-efficient, dense with meaning, like a poem.

Even though he had a big nose and large head, his parents thought their fourth son was gorgeous.  His hometown had dark skies from the steel and iron mills. At age 12 Honus was loading two tons of coal a day for seventy-nine cents a day.  He worked six days a week, but fortunately he was off on Sunday and could play baseball.  We read about his  eventual rise into the greatest of shortstops, “with legs like hunting bows”.

Honus Wagner loved kids and didn’t want them using tobacco, so his cards were taken off the market.  Ironically the card’s rarity makes it valuable and helps Wagner be remembered.

All Star is a compelling look at this athlete who was at his peak a century ago.  But Yolen and Burke make Wagner much more than a face on an ancient baseball card.  So dust off your mitt and give old Honus a look.

Leave a comment

Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Non-Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews, Uncategorized

The Wall

One of the most delectable, memorable pictures books I’ve ever seen is The Wall:  Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis.  This 2007 picture book/ memoir/ history lesson joins a remarkable set of childhood memoirs by some of our most distinguished picture book illustrators, all of them American immigrants. (See also my reviews of Ed Young’s The House Baba Built describing a wartime childhood in China, Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory set in Japan,  and Yuri Shulevitz’s How I Learned Geography giving a snapshot of his time as a Holocaust era refugee in what is now Kazakhstan.)

          Sis’s cover is a small boy banging a drum enclosed by a wall on all sides. Inside the book’s text is as simple or detailed as you want it to be.  For the basic story of a boy who loved to draw, Sis ingeniously has a simple one line narrative going at the bottom of most pages.  For the complex world of Communism in Czechoslovakia little captions on the margins describe events.

His wonderful black ink drawings feature color very sparingly, notably red, emphasizing the hold of repression in Czech life.  His babyhood coincided with the Soviets taking control of the country and closing the borders in 1948.  Even as he scrawls a zigzag on his paper in a crib, a red flag hangs in the background.

I doubt this book would much interest elementary students, but what a concise and compelling trip for middle schoolers all the way to adults!  Margin notes define Cold War, Iron Curtain, and Communism.  In one tiny frame happy little Peter brings his parents a red flier and they quietly recoil, afraid to criticize the propaganda.

Like the other amazing memoirs I’ve been pushing, this one is multimedia too.  One spread has notes from childhood journals with a background of his drawings,  childhood photos, and Soviet era propaganda signs and posters.  As a teenager, he begins to question things.  The Beatles, Elvis and the Rolling Stones sounds slip into his world.  He joins a rock band.  The Prague Spring in 1968 brings incredible hope and a taste of freedom.  The center spread is a crazy full-color painting.  He’s banging his guitar in a landscape of wonder, with a yellow submarine flying by.  In two more pages Soviet tanks crush it all.  Back to black and white with red flags on the pages.

And yet there are tiny glimmers of hope.  One page says “The Beach Boys arrived.  America to the rescue!”  The end notes describe him being a disc jockey, interviewing the Beatles and others, and traveling to Czechoslovakia with the Beach Boys. (This reminds me of  the late Czech playwright, dissident, and eventual president Vaclav Havel being inspired in the ‘60s by rock culture like Frank Zappa and Velvet Underground.)

His last spread is the enormous wall falling in 1989 with tiny people chopping it up or standing atop in triumph.  “Sometimes dreams come true.”  Way up in the blue sky is a map of Europe with the political boundaries and all the countries that gained freedom 1989-1991.

So read The Wall, a book for anyone who cares for dreams, art or freedom.  The graphic design is pretty incredible too.

Leave a comment

Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Library Dragon

“Sunrise Elementary School had a BIG problem.  The new librarian, Miss Lotta Scales, was a real dragon.”

So begins Carmen Agra Deedy’s phenomenal 1994 picture book The Library Dragon.

The opening page of the book has a circled want ad for a children’s librarian, and you can see how they inadvertently hired a dragon.  “Our new librarian must be on fire with enthusiasm; no half-baked applicants need apply.”

Miss Lotta Scales is very imposing as drawn by Michael P. White.  Her bright green scaly skin and blood red eyes are complemented by her blue horn-rimmed glasses with the little chains on the sides, and by her lovely yellow dress with a dragonfly pattern on it.

She’s been hired to guard the library and she takes her job seriously.  In fact, the thought of kids “touching her precious books just makes her hot under the collar.”

So unfortunately kids are dreading going to library time and coming back singed.  The author has lots of good groaners for adults reading the book aloud:  The staff gets all worked up about the dysfunctional library and so “the principal fumed,” and the  “teachers were incensed”.

It takes little Molly Brickmeyer wandering in to help Lotta Scales see how a library works.  While the dragon is napping Molly starts reading a book to the other kids.  Miss Scales wakes up and is amazed.  “She’d never seen anything like it:  the children looked like they belonged here.”

Of course Lotta learns how to run a library the right way.  Her scales drop off and little Molly sits in her lap.  She turns nice but still has a list of five rules to help the  books stay  nice including “Treat a book like you treat a friend- you don’t wipe your nose on your friend.”

I still love this book 15 years since first look.  Back at Prescott Elementary School, Patty the Librarian used to use this book at class groups first visit to the library in September.  That got kids fired up about books for the whole year!

4 Comments

Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool, Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

Andrew Henry’s Meadow

            OK, we’re traveling back in time one more time.  First we went back to 2002 for Penny Lee and Her TV to please my wife.  Then we hit 1996 for Jip set in about 1855 to please my daughter.  And now let’s go back to that great year of 1965 to please my son.

As far as I can tell Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn is an obscure Northwest picture book.  Nevertheless, 48 years later it’s still in print and the Pattersons love it.  I first ran into it at Powell’s just a few years ago.

   Poor Andrew Henry is a middle child who isn’t left alone to make his ingenious inventions around the house like a huge, elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like watering device for one flower or an eagle’s cage in the living room.  Someone in his family is always demanding he stop.  They don’t understand.

One day he gathers his tools and sets off over the hill, through the swamp and the deep woods.  When at last he arrives in a meadow he builds himself a cabin with a roof made of turf.  One by one his friends escape to the meadow too.  First he builds Alice a tree house.  Soon he builds a fishing hut, a castle, a dugout and other structures to suit his friends.  They live in this meadow paradise for a few days until all the parents track them down.  The parents are overjoyed to have their children back.  The reader knows the families will finally give these kids more leeway in building their dreams.DSCF6254

For my son, who is always building forts in the living room with his buddy Jack, this is truly a glorious world Andrew Henry goes and creates.

Hey readers, do you know this book?  It has gotten a special place on our shelf!

3 Comments

Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool, Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

Jip

     I said this blog post would take us back to 1996, but actually it’s a 1996 book that takes us back to 1855.  Jip is a novel by two-time Newbery winner Katherine Paterson set on a poor farm in small town Vermont.  It was a great read-aloud for my daughter and I, and she insists I review for all you good folk.  In the past we read Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, an amazing short novel that can make a tough hombre like me cry.

The story is about a boy who’s come to be known as Jip who fell out of a speeding wagon when he was a little tyke and has lived on the poor farm for the eight years since.  He wonders how his family could not have noticed that they had a boy they lost.  In the meantime Jip has become the most valuable worker on the farm.  He has a way with animals that calms and comforts them.  In fact he even milks the cow because the cow likes him so much more than the mistress.

           Paterson is a marvel.  She has the knack to take us right there to the muddy roads and bland gruel of the poor farm.  Jip is unassuming but amazing, helping Sheldon, who’s simple, be happy and do his work.  And when the lunatic is brought to them, tied up, screaming and filthy,  it is Jip who calms him.  Jip discovers old Put is a great person who, except for his spells, is very sane.

But  a man Jip instinctively dislikes comes to visit and  tells Jip he may know where he came from.  The mystery of Jip’s past haunts us all along.  When the story is still leisurely, we see Jip fall in love with school and his first shot at book learning.

But soon enough we get to the climax of a breathless, life and death adventure.  I won’t say too much and spoil it.  It’s fantastic.

5 Comments

Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Fiction, Reviews