Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in Spring, 2010. These are new(ish) books, but might also include some older books we just found out about and liked more than others. Recommendations and submissions are welcome: please feel free to contact us about other books, new and old.
Many more books are reviewed in the site's permanent archives... These are organized alphabetically, either by Author Name or by Book Title.
"The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story Of Bob And Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas And Brand New Colors"
Written by Chris Barton
Illustrated by Tony Persiani
The design-oriented among us will delight in this beautifully formatted nonfiction book profiling Bob and Joe Switzer, two brothers from California who discovered the vibrant color range we now call "Day-Glo." The Switzers originally experimented with fluorescent paints -- created to enhance a magic show they developed that involved glow-in-the-dark dyes and blacklight illumination -- but in 1935 they accidentally made a fluorescent ink that showed up in daylight. The rest is history. The brothers developed and licensed out a wide variety of "Day-Glo" products; initially many applications were related to the military effort in World War Two -- fluorescent life preservers and aircraft carrier landing strips, and the like. Then came the myriad highlighters and post-its of the modern era, and all those kooky bright clothes in the '80s. This is a nice book about creative thought, scientific experimentation, good old American know-how and perseverance... It's also stylishly designed and clever; a nice read perhaps best for slightly older kids who are of a science-y bent. (A)
"The Buddy Files, Book One: The Case Of The Lost Boy"
Written by Dori Hillstad Butler
Illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau
(Albert Whitman & Company, 2010)
The first of three children's chapterbooks featuring a dog detective named Buddy who sets out to solve the mystery of why his humans have disappeared (and left him in the pound) but soon gets sidetracked solving a separate mystery concerning the new human family that adopts him and saves him from getting euthanized at the animal shelter. (Buddy apparently didn't wind up in a no-kill shelter; try explaining that one to your six-year old...) Anyway, from this quick synopsis you may see right away some of the strengths and shortcomings of this series... Buddy is a likable anthropomorphized animal hero - the author has a good sense of canine psychology and writes the story from the dog's point of view, so that readers feel sympathy for the times when those dumb humans just don't understand what Buddy's trying to say. Particularly good are passages where Buddy explains how dogs only use sound as a fraction of their communication, and that body language and smell are actually much more important than barking or speech, and a later passage where Buddy explains how a person who is scared of a dog can sometimes smell the same as a person who is scary: a scared human can sometimes get violent, and it's hard for dogs to read their emotions. What some readers might want to be wary of though, are the book's darker themes: divorce, kidnapping, abandonment, animal euthanasia and the general unpredictability of life are all explicit themes here, and parents with younger or more innocent children will probably want to read this ahead of time to make sure it won't be too upsetting for their children. One of these threads -- how Buddy's first family abandoned him at the beginning of the book -- is not resolved in this first volume, and won't be until the end of the last book. Because the story is told from the dog's point of view, a lot of human motivations remain mysterious, and this may make reading this first book by itself a little frustrating, or even anxiety-provoking, for younger readers. The series has its strengths and charms, but it also has a harsh side that readers may wish to be aware of. (B-)
"Hiccup The Seasick Viking"
Written by Cressida Cowell
Illustrated by Cressida Cowell
(Orchard Books, 2000)
The original story of Hiccup, the misfit Viking, now the star of a big hit movie, How To Train Your Dragon. You'da thunk they would have reissued this picturebook to coincide with the other Train Your Dragon merchandising, but alas, it remains an obscurity, although it is a wonderful little story about finding one's way in a culture awash in machismo. Here, Hiccup is a timid lad, afraid of a lot of little things, but terrified about going to sea. His father, Stoick, is largely the same as in the film, although there are other secondary characters who are different. Anyway, young Hiccup does go to sea with the menfolk and when the sea gets really rough, it turns out that the big, tough, macho men get seasick, too, and little Hiccup has to take over and steer their ship for them. If you liked the movie or the revamped chapterbook series that inspired it, this early version, although slightly different, still has a lot to offer. It's cute, and better suited for younger readers. Worth looking around for. (A)
"The Miraculous Journey Of Edward Tulane"
Written by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
(Albert Whitman & Company, 2006)
A real page-turner and a great read-aloud book. This is the amazingly moving story of a vain little toy rabbit who loves no one but himself, not even the little girl who owns him and how, after getting lost in the big, wide world, he discovers a capacity for empathy and love and, arguably, grows a soul. A real doll-like toy, Edward cannot move and is buffeted by fate from one situation to another, and you will be amazed by how much you'll be drawn in and begin to worry about poor Edward. The message, of redemption through love of others, has an obvious spiritual core, but is not explicitly tied to any one philosophy or religion... but Edward is an Everybunny, a lost soul who learns humility and compassion, and along the way, readers will find themselves with a lump in their throat and a tear in their eye... I have to confess, I haven't been a big Kate DiCamillo fan before now -- hated Mercy Watson and didn't like the tone of Despereaux -- but this book is a masterpiece, reminiscent of the best Edwardian-era children's classics. Likewise, the artwork is delightful -- full-color plates and woodcut-like panels that recall the same books of yore. Some of the dramatic points may be too upsetting for very young readers, but for the right age group, this is an immersing and profound book, one that you'll have difficulty putting down until Edward comes to rest. Highly recommended. (A+)
"The Birthday Ball"
Written by Lois Lowry
Illustrated by Jules Fieffer
(Houghton Mifflin, 2010)
A deconstructionist fairy-tale in which a bored, privileged princess sneaks out of the castle and lives among the common folk, learning how to get her hands dirty, have fun, and fall in love. Meanwhile, life in the castle becomes increasingly claustrophobic as her parents pressure her to accept one of the many loathsome suitors who have come for her hand in marriage. I thought the humor in the book was a little too obvious, but really started to tune out when the suitors were introduced and each one was erected as a vile stick figure, each more unpleasant than the last, waiting to be knocked down so that the princess could more easily be justified in rejecting her parents' stifling point of view. I was also troubled by how often the physical appearance of the suitors was used as a point against them -- one is just plain ugly, another was a pair of conjoined (Siamese) twins, etc. For a story that claims to champion the virtues of being true to oneself and not letting society push you around and make your choices for you, the narrator certainly seemed all-too-ready to use the shallowest of criteria -- outward appearance -- to mock these characters. True, they also have unpleasant personalities, but these seem explicitly tied to their being (in the narrator's opinion) physically grotesque. I did not like that message, and was surprised to see it figure so prominently in such a modern book, as well as in the work of such a well-respected author. Oh, well. Considering how many fairy-tale parodies have come out recently, I wouldn't say that this book would need to be at the top of your list. (A+)
"Classics Illustrated Deluxe, v.1: The Wind In The Willows"
Written by Kenneth Grahame
Adapted and Illustrated by Michel Plessix
This is an excellent, highly recommended adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind And The Willows," a classic children's novel that was first published in 1908. Grahame's novel has long attracted devoted fans, with its literate, lyrical writing and evocation of the natural world. This comicbook-format graphic novel version transforms the the delicious but sometimes densely thicketed prose into vivid, detailed images, allowing readers to more easily visualize the story... There have been several film and animation adaptations of the book, but this version comes perhaps closest to the quirky charm of the original. The Papercutz edition is an American reissue of a comic that first came out in Europe, originally printed in a larger format (with art the size of the Tintin books). Cut down to about half its size, the artwork does seem a bit squinched down, but still retains most of its power and charm. This is one of the best volumes in the newly-revitalized "Classics Illustrated" imprint... Highly recommended as a rich, thoughtful retelling of a timeless classic. (A)
"Classics Illustrated, v.3: Through The Looking Glass"
Written by Lewis Carroll
Adapted and Illustrated by Kyle Baker
Comicbook auteur Kyle Baker would seem like an ideal match for the madcap spirit of Lewis Carroll's absurdist classic, "Through The Looking Glass," the chess-themed sequel to "Alice In Wonderland." Indeed, Baker's mania-fueled visual style and penchant for warping perspectives (both visual and mental) seem in synch with Carroll's own idiosyncratic sense of humor. This graphic novel adaptation functions best, however, as a supplement to Carroll's work, rather than a free-standing book in its own right... Baker makes a key choice that effects the entire project, and this is to include only the spoken dialogue (and poems) from the original text, and none of Carroll's loopy, delirious prose. This would be okay, if Baker had been able to stretch out and be more expansive in the artwork that replaces the narrative, but in the digest-size of the current "Classics Illustrated" series, his artwork is compressed and functional, rather than chaotic and rule-bending -- there are many close-ups of character's faces, but the settings and scenarios are not always made plain. If you already know the "Looking Glass" story (and know it well), this version may be fascinating in termes of what it has to offer and the artistic choices Baker makes in his presentation. But if you were to use this to try and introduce this Alice story to a younger reader, it might quickly become too confusing. Worth checking out, particularly is you are a Kyle Baker fan (like me), but not a substitute for the richly-written kookiness of the original. (A)
"The Incredibles: Family Matters"
Written by Mark Waid
Illustrated by Marcio Takara
(Boom! Studios, 2009)
This is the only comicbook series which I currently buy off the stands for my kid, and it's pretty good. Adapted from the Pixar film, this series picks up where the movie left off, with the Parr family out in the open as a crime-stopping supergroup, albeit with a few endearing quirks. The stories move along smoothly, there isn't any particularly troubling content, and the artwork is nice and cartoony, matching the look and feel of the animated original. This is a digest-form collection of a story that originally came out in single-issue format (which is how we read it); the digest size sacrifices some of the impact of the artwork, but it comes all under one cover, and you don't have to trek down to a specialty shop to purchase a copy. Personally, I'm psyched that I'm able to take my kid to a real, live comic shop to buy a real, live monthly title -- I just wish there were a few more series out there that were age-appropriate for younger readers! (B+)
"Little Lulu: The Alamo And Other Stories"
Written by John Stanley
Illustrated by John Stanley & Irving Tripp
(Dark Horse, 2009)
Great stuff. This strip is one of the creative watersheds in the comicbook medium, starring a bratty little girl who makes Dennis The Menace seem like a choir boy. The stories are funny -- and sometimes really weird -- but it's the artwork that's so fabulous. Clean, stylized, amazingly economical and expressive, John Stanley's illustrations elevate the Little Lulu stories into the upper reaches of the funnybook hall of fame... Best of all, Dark Horse recently relaunched the reprint series with every issue in full color, which makes them even more delicious. This volume reprints Little Lulu #88-93: Lulu helps Tubby with his paper route, Tubby help Lulu fix her doll, Lulu babysits Tubby, and on "Mumday," the boys won't talk with the girls. And of course, there are several stories about the Poor Little Girl and her eternal search for beebleberries. Scoop these books up while you can! (A+)
"Little Lulu: The Bawlplayers And Other Stories "
Written by John Stanley
Illustrated by John Stanley & Irving Tripp
(Dark Horse, 2009)
Reprints Little Lulu #94-99... In this volume, Lulu's Pop gets in a fight with Iggy and Annie's dad, the boys lose all their marbles, and Tubby stages a coup. Also, Lulu tells the tale of a vain prince with an unbouncy golden ball, and Alvin gets lost at the beach. More classic material, in yummy, dotty, primary color. (A+)
"Little Lulu: Miss Feeny's Folly And Other Stories"
Written by John Stanley
Illustrated by John Stanley & Irving Tripp
(Dark Horse, 2009)
Reprints Little Lulu #100-105... New landlord Lulu serves notice on the boy's clubhouse, Lulu get hired for a clean-up job, Tubby gets some nitrous oxide at the dentist's office and takes a little trip, and the boys search for buried treasure... All in color, once again! (A+)
"Mr. Badger And Mrs. Fox, v.1: The Meeting"
Written by Brigitte Luciani
Illustrated by Eve Tharlet
(Lerner Books/Graphic Universe, 2010)
A handsomely illustrated, emotionally resonant story of two different families -- one fox, one badger -- that come together as one. A gentle parable about loss and remarriage, this was originally published in France a few years ago, and is nicely translated, with the handsome, richly detailed artwork kept at its original, magazine-sized scale. The story features four children, the three badger children, Bristle Grub, and baby Berry, who live with their dad in a cozy burrow, and newcomer Ginger, the daughter of Mrs. Fox, a refugee of a recent foxhunt. The Badgers welcome the Foxes as guests -- temporary at first, and then more permanently as the adults get better acquainted. With the kids, though, it's not so simple. The badger children, who already bicker with each other (as siblings will) find it hard to share their space -- as well as their stuff and their dad -- with a new kid, and Ginger feels weird about it too... Like something out of a "Leave It To Beaver" episode, the children cook up a kooky scheme to pry their parents apart -- it backfires, and in the process the children realize they all actually get along pretty well. What's great about this simple story is how it strikes such a perfect tone: the children are, on the whole, really nice kids, but they are also flawed and say and think and do mildly inappropriate things -- their negative reaction to the new situation isn't hysterical or exaggerated, it builds slowly and unfolds subtly, as does the relationship between the two parents. It's also nice how low-key their union is portrayed -- it's not overtly romantic, but by the end of this first volume, it's clear that they are talking about marrying each other. This is a lovely book -- a well-made comic with a good story and a nice message. (A)
"Mr. Badger And Mrs. Fox, v.2: A Hubbub"
Written by Brigitte Luciani
Illustrated by Eve Tharlet
(Lerner Books/Graphic Universe, 2010)
(Due out in November, 2010.) (-)
"Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures In The 8th Grade"
Written by Landry Q. Walker
Illustrated by Eric Jones
(DC Comics, 2009)
Wow, what a great comic for anyone (like me) searching for an intelligent, relatively nonviolent superhero comic with a positive female role model as the protagonist. Although this book is pitched at a slightly older age group ('tweens and teens) than my grade-school daughter, she absolutely loves this book. It's a funny, fast-paced, stylishly illustrated lampoon of the Superman/Supergirl mythos, starring a young extra-dimensional heroine (Kara) who gets marooned on Earth and has to learn how to "fit in" until her cousin Superman can figure out how to get her back home. Instead of a busty, anorexic bimbette (standard-issue superhero chick) this Supergirl is a gangly, socially challenged, self-conscious middle-schooler, a perfect stand-in for just about any young reader who's struggling with the social scene at school. This series (sadly, canceled) sits alongside a small number of titles that are ideal for younger readers who are new to comicbooks -- "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane," "The Legion Of Superheros In The 31st Century," "Sentinel," "Franklin Richards Lab Rat," and a handful of others. These are all great books, and we desperately need good titles for new readers (especially for young girls) that aren't as gory, graphic, or as fetishistic as most mainstream comics have become. But why oh why do they all get canceled? Because the world sucks. Regardless, a few great books do come through, and this is definitely one of them. Trust me: snap it up while it's still in print. (By the way, writer Landry Walker has moved on to script Boom! Comics' "Incredibles" series (also pretty good) and has become one of the writers that I definitely have my eye on. Note to comics industry: I want more good stuff that my daughter can safely read.) (A+)
"Yakari, v.1: Yakari And Great Eagle"
Written by Job
Illustrated by Derib
The beginning of a delightful European graphic novel series that stars a kind-hearted, earnest young Sioux boy named Yakari, who receives a visit and a vision from his protector totem, the Great Eagle of the book's title. Great Eagle reveals to Yakari that he has the gift of being able to speak with animals, and while the adults in his tribe don't know about this gift, soon one of his friends, a girl named Rainbow, realizes that Yakari has a special relationship to nature. One might imagine that a French series about Native Americans would be rife with the sort of blithe ethnic stereotypes than made Asterix & Obelix a delight, but thankfully this is not the case -- Swiss-born cartoonist Claude de Ribaupierre (aka Derib) is also the author of the more realistic action series Buddy Longaway, which also explores the American West, and seems to have an empathy for the material. In the "Yakari" books, we never see white men (although there are horses, so this must take place after or during the Spanish conquest...) and tribal life is presented simply and matter-of-factly, without any pernicious stereotypes. (There is one character named Slow Motion, but any presumed idleness or stupidity on his part is never elaborated on, at least not in the English translations...) All in all, this is a wonderful series for younger readers, full of magical scenarios and earnest moral values. Yakari is always a hard worker and a true friend; he endeavors to improve the world around him, and his honesty and loyalty are repaid by the various animals as well as by the spirit world. Plus, Derib's artwork is a delight: his panoramic landscapes, in particular, evoke a sense of true wonder. (Note: the other books in the Yakari series are reviewed in my new "Comics For Kids" section...) (A)
The Rubinoos "Biff! Boff! Boing!" (Pynotic Records, 2010)
As founding members of the 1970s power-pop sound, the SF Bay Area's Rubinoos have been making perky, bubblegummy pop for a loooooooong, long time. Thus it's not surprising that they'd make a kids' record at last, nor that they've taken their show on the road and are doing live gigs for the young'uns and their gray-haired keepers. This disc has a mix of oldies and originals, with hand-clappy versions of "Sugar Sugar" (by the Archies), Boris The Spider" (The Who), Roger Miller's "You Can't Roller Skate In A Buffalo Herd", as well as some snazzy, self-penned gems from Tommy Dunbar, including "Dumb It Down," "Have A Cow" and "Earth Number One," which should appeal to all budding astronomers. It's a fun set -- I'm looking forward to catching it live sometime! (For more info, check out their website at: www.rubinoos.com)
"Charlie And Lola, v.10: I Can't Stop Hiccuping" (DVD)
Lola gets the hiccups, has an eye exam and is sad she can't get glasses, plays storekeeper, conquers her fear of thunder, and she and Charlie have a fabulous adventure inside their feltboard storybook toy... Still one of the best-produced, funniest, most intelligent kids' shows out there... AND their sonic-crack theme song still totally rocks: I dare you not to hum along! (A)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
(Disney/Ghibli Studios, 2008)
I had the good fortune to see this film in a large, modern movie theatre, with a lot of little kids in the audience for a mid-afternoon matinee showing. It was a great movie, totally "age appropriate" for the enchanted five- and six-year olds, as well as their appreciative adult attendants. Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's films can sometimes be a little too weird or sinister for this age group, but this time he managed to temper his dark side a bit and make a film that still celebrates nature and respects its dangerous side, while not also creeping the bejeezus out of little viewers. The film is sort of a sideways retelling of the "little mermaid" tale, taking place by the Japanese oceanside, and this wave-washed setting affords Miyazaki many opportunities to evoke the power of the natural world, as well as to frequently overwhelm the viewer's senses. (It was gorgeous and evocative on the big screen; I wonder how much of this will translate to video...) Although some of Miyazaki's older fans may grumble about him babying-down his material, "Ponyo" is clearly a great film, probably better than naysayers might think, and certainly one of the best films made for small children in the last twenty or thirty years. The character animation is a bit rough, but the backgrounds and overall design of the film are rich, sensual and majestic, and Miyazaki's key themes come through loud and clear. Highly recommended! (A+)
"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" (DVD)
(20th Century Fox, 2010)
By default -- since there are practically no good movies, appropriate for little kids six or under, in theatres anymore -- Wes Anderson's animated film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, has become one of the iconic kids' films of this decade, a movie that a generation children are bound to remember as an important part of their younger years. Just to clarify, I am not a big Wes Anderson fan: I absolutely loathed Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tennanbaums, which I think are candyfloss hipster BS, built on top of shallow, tedious stereotypes of what "weird," "wacky" people are like. That being said, Mr. Fox may be Anderson's best movie to date - I don't love it but it's undeniably innovative, and the jokes generally work, unlike in his live-action films. More importantly, my kid (and many of her friends) love the movie and are really into the genuinely kooky world it portrays. There is dark, macabre subject matter, but it's tempered by a fairly sophisticated sense of humor, and the stop-motion animation is really cool. Nice soundtrack, too. Reluctantly, this Anderson-o-phobe gives this one the thumbs-up. (B+)
"The Princess And The Frog" (DVD)
Another great Disney movie. When we saw this in the theaters -- Mom, Dad and Disney-addicted little girl -- and we all thought it was pretty good. The messages of hard work and honesty (and a de-emphasis on magical thinking) were all welcome. The music was good: ragtime and trad jazz are a breath of fresh air after the cascade of bad pop-soul that have dominated the kiddie movies of the last few decades, and the gal who plays Princess Tiana is a very good singer, Broadway trained and not another dreadful Whitney/Celine/Beyonce soul-melissima showboater leaping from note to note without bringing meaning to the words... Thank goodness! This was actually good music! Wow. Go figure.
I thought it was kind of weird, though, that after Disney made such a big deal about Tiana being their first African-American princess, they only gave her about twenty minutes of on-screen time as an African-American woman, before transorming her into a green-skinned frog. The big twist of the story -- having the frog-kiss turn the heroine into an amphibian -- is clever and funny, but still, having her dark-skinned face disappear from the screen so quickly and so thoroughly was a little weird, especially with all the creepy, stereotyped voodoo stuff on top of that. Couldn't they have had their first black princess turn up in, say, Atlanta, or New York? Or Kenya? Without the bone-shaking hoodoo? Disney is to be applauded for breaking their own racial barrier, but it still seems a little uneven, in relation to the well-marketed white faces in all the other movies. Nonetheless, now that it's come out on video, and we can watch it over and over, I can appreciate even more what a well-made film this is. The writing and music, in particular, a very strong, and the artwork and color palette are equally innovative and complex. It's a winner! (B+)
PS - Feel free to send us feedback, corrections or recommendations for other books, websites, children's films and other cool stuff.
The e-mail address is: joesixpack AT slipcue DOT com.
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