Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in Spring, 2011. 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.
"Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed The World)"
Written by Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Dan Santat
A really funny book, with bold graphic design. The action begins as a giant robot lays waste to a city; the trouble is that the runaway robot was a science fair project of the narrator, a bright young girl who maybe went a little overboard when she chose not to make a baking soda volcano... ("I probably shouldn't have given it a superclaw, or a laser eye, or the power to control dogs' minds..." she thinks, while following the path of destruction...) Lots to like here: the book zips along at a fast clip, with a kids' eye view of the Godzilla-like mayhem, and I'm always in favor of action stories that feature brave, smart, decisive female characters. This oversized, comic-y picturebook will appeal to a wide variety of kids, and with minimal dialogue it's pretty easy to plow through time after time. Highly recommended! (A+)
"Martha Doesn't Say Sorry"
Written by Samantha Berger
Illustrated by Bruce Whaley
(Little Brown, 2009)
A big lesson in manners, in which a sometimes-nasty little girl who never says "sorry" finds out this can make life hard when other people don't respond the way you want them to. Character growth. Redemption. Lesson learned. But for a relatively mellow manners book which waggles fingers but forgives in the end, this is a pretty good option. (B+)
"Martha Doesn't Share"
Written by Samantha Berger
Illustrated by Bruce Whaley
(Little Brown, 2010)
Martha seems to have regressed a little since the last book, because back in '09 it said she did share... Bu-u-u-u-t I guess we all have our little ups and downs... So, another lesson in manners for Martha (and us as well!) This will all pay off later, when we start having play-dates galore! (B+)
"Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein"
Written by Don Brown
Illustrated by Don Brown
(Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
An excellent picturebook biography of physicist Albert Einstein, emphasizing his early years and his difficulties fitting in with his peers and following the dictates of his teachers, who he found dull and distasteful. A nice parable for many young readers who might feel like outsiders, particularly since Einstein turned out to be such a cool dude. By the way, this is nicely supplemented by Elizabeth MacLeod's denser, but equally lucid (and pleasantly chatty!) Albert Einstein: A Life of Genius... There are a bazillion Einstein books out there, but these two are good picks for younger readers. (A+)
"The Eensy Weensy Spider FREAKS OUT! (Big Time)"
Written by Troy Cummings
Illustrated by Troy Cummings
(Random House, 2010)
A fable about perseverance and resilience, starring everybody's favorite nursery rhyme character. Now, good old Eensy is already a poster child for picking oneself up and starting all over again, but what if one day she just freaked out and said to heck with that stupid old water spout? Well, this time she does, even though she feels sad about being a quitter. Her friend, a ladybug named Polly, comes over to give her a pep talk, and soon, starting out with modest goals and working her way up to bigger and better things, Eensy is back in action and (literally!) climbing towards the stars. The premise is great, the "freak out" part is really funny, although I have to admit the message-y part of the text is a little too on the nose. Still, a welcome lesson for how to handle life's little ups and downs, and with cool artwork, too! (B)
Written by Suzy Lee
Illustrated by Suzy Lee
(Chronicle Books, 2011)
An almost-wordless picturebook told mostly in black-and-white (with a smidge of yellow) about a child who plays around with light and shadow inside a coat closet, imagining fantastical creatures and objects inside the distorted shadows, as the bare-bulb light dangles about. The design of the book is innovative, with a flipped-over, dual-page layout that plays around with the contrast of light (real world) on one side, and dark (fantasy) on the other. The first time I read this, I found it a bit too dense (especially in comparison to Lee's sweet, simple, earlier work, Wave, which I enjoyed quite a bit... But exploring it again, I relaxed into it, and besides, my kid likes it a lot. A nice, artsy book that will appeal to imaginative readers. (B+)
"A Sick Day For Amos McGee"
Written by Philip C. Stead
Illustrated by Erin Stead
(Roaring Brook, 2010)
"Doctor Strange - Marvel Masterworks, v.1"
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by Steve Ditko
(Marvel Comics, 2010)
Out in paperback and no longer out of print, the classic 1960s adventures of Dr. Stephen Strange, master of the mystic arts... This was one of Marvel's most offbeat and visionary comicbook titles, with wild, imaginative stories and super-groovy artwork. The series lapsed into tedium, but these early adventures are a lot of fun. Maybe not suited to younger readers, but tweeny kids who are into Harry Potter and all that might get a kick out of the dimension-hopping Dr. Strange, in all his bright, primary color glory. Highly recommended! (A+)
"Garfield & Company, v.1: Fish To Fry"
Based on the work of Jim Davis
It is one of my great shames in life that my daughter is so into that obnoxious cartoon cat, Garfield (I was always a "Calvin And Hobbes" kinda guy, myself...) Anyhoo, she likes Garfield and was thrilled to see these cartoon anthologies based on the new Garfield Show TV series, which uses CGI animation to bring Garfield's world to life. These books use stories from the series, with adapted screenshots as artwork, in a graphic novel format that allows three stories to be collected in each volume. This first book has the episodes "Family Snapshot," "Nice To Nermal" and "Fish To Fry," all of which I am happy to report are better written and more engaging than that dreadful series they had on in the 1990s... More important than what I think is what my kid -- the Garfield zombie -- thought: she dug it. Tore through 'em, read 'em again, asked when the next volume was coming out. So there you have it. Phooey on Dad. (B)
"Garfield & Company, v.2: The Curse Of The Cat People"
Based on the work of Jim Davis
More kooky Garfield mayhem! This volume includes "The Curse Of The Cat People," "The Pet Show" and "Bone Diggers." (B)
"Yakari, v.8: The White Fleece"
Written by Job
Illustrated by Derib
When a cranky eagle attacks one of Yakari's tribesmen and steals the talisman that gives him strength, Yakari decides to pursue the eagle to its aerie. It turns out the eagle has been terrorizing all the other animals on the mountainside, but with the help of a herd of mountain goats, Yakari confronts the bully and gets the amulet back. However, he doesn't stop the eagle from bullying the other critters, so the story ends on an unsatisfying note -- things are okay for the humans, but the marmots and goats are still under his thumb. (There's also a weird sequence where a hungry Yakari suckles from the teats of one of the goats... I guess that's true to nature, but kind of a little bizarre.) Anyway, this wasn't my favorite Yakari book, but it's nice to see the series continue. Worth checking out. (B)
"Zita The Spacegirl"
Written & illustrated by Ben Hatke
(First Second, 2011)
This is a really great, really fun, fast-moving sci-fi graphic novel starring Zita, a plain, regular Earth girl who gets flung across the cosmos onto a weird, doomed planet packed with zillions of bizarre aliens and robots, some quite friendly, some much less so. Zita -- spunky, resourceful, loyal and brave -- is resolved to save a playmate who got snatched up by a sinister, squidlike mercenary, and she faces all manner of weirdness in her quest. She also makes new friends and they have equally appealing personalities... This was a very satisfying, compelling story, particularly nice since it's completely appropriate for younger readers, not too creepy (though, admittedly, a little bit in a couple of places) while packed with on-purpose silly plot elements and one heck of a cool female adventurer. Really, the only negative comment I have is that the book ends so quickly and I am so totally ready to read the sequel (or sequels!) as soon as possible. If you enjoyed the early issues of Scott McCloud's classic "Zot" series, you'll love this, too. (A+)
A fairly fast-moving, straightforward board game which mostly hinges on memory skills: players roll dice and move across paths in the "forest" -- when you land on spots that hold treasures, you get to peek underneath and see which prize lies below. Each one is a symbol from a classic fairy tale: Rumplestiltskin's spindle, Cinderella's glass slipper, etc. Then, when that symbol comes to the top of a pile of cards at the end of the board, you can race over and claim the card, assuming you still remember which symbols are where. Memory-challenged adults may find that their fresher-brained children will clobber them time and time again on this one, and that's fine. Pretty fun, and easy to learn, ideal for younger players. (B+)
Pirate Versus Pirate
(Out Of The Box, 2008)
A good beginning strategy game, recommended to us by our local comics'n'games store. Two or three people can play, each represented by a color-coded band of little soft-plastic pirates, with little curved swords. (They're so cute!) You roll bone-shaped dice and race across the board, plucking up silver or gold coins from the far end of the board and then try to bring them home before your opponents win first. The rules are deceptively simple: for one thing, you can't just race back and jump back into your boat, you have to roll the exact number on the dice to get each coin into the right square, so it might take you a while win each coin. Meanwhile, you opponent is out there, too, and might either be running home with coins of her own, or chasing you down to ambush you and steal your loot. Each player makes a choice between stealth or aggression -- you can just go after the other guy, but then it will take you longer to get your own loot, and your guys can be killed, too. You also have to balance the number of players you put into play -- if you lose your only pirate on the board, it might take you a while to catch up to the other team. Not too complex, but you still have to consider several different variables at once. Plus, who can resist those wicked little plastic pirates chopping each other with tiny cutlasses? Arrrhhh, indeed. (A)
If you like Scrabble, and come from a Scrabble-playing family, I'd say this kids' version is not worth buying. The graphics are ugly and hard to focus on, and the game itself is less than satisfying, and doesn't inspire much in the way of learning new words (particularly since one version of the game asks the players to spell out predetermined words that are printed on the board itself...) Don't sell your kid short: just get a regular Scrabble board and teach them to use that. They are smart enough to play real Scrabble, not some tacky, dumbed-down kids version. (A+)
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader"
(20th Century Fox, 2010)
This one was a real dud... Lots of would-be grandeur and very little dramatic impact. I mean, we saw it in the theater, and I sat patiently attentive, not thrilled but not moved. It wasn't until later when I thought about it that I realized how absolutely flat the experience had been, and how lame the movie was. The only truly cool thing in it was the computer-rendered golden dragon; the other things -- the script and acting, and most of the special effects -- were all rather mediocre. In particular, the 3D effects were utterly disappointing, not just pedestrian, but actually quite bad, with human actors frequently appearing deformed or out of focus. (I'm sure they'll fix it on the home-movie release, but I resent having paid extra for it in the theaters...) Most of all, it was disappointing because it was so lacking in the tone of the original C. S. Lewis novels -- this entire franchise aims at Peter Jackson-esque "big" moments and cinematic bombast, but what's so wonderful about the Narnia books are the odd meditative moments and in particular Lewis's breathless evocation of Nature. It's not surprising that this would be completely lost in a Hollywood adaptation, but what they've replaced it with simply fails to inspire the imagination or capture the heart. The good new is that while looking forward to seeing this film, we managed to read most of the Narnia books, and got a good dose of the Old Magic. I'm pretty sure I'll skip the rest of the movies, though. (C-)
This sly spoof of superhero comics is a real winner. Told from the viewpoint of the bad guy, a flambouyant but hopelessly star-crossed, blue-skinned evil genius named Megamind whose nemesis, Metro Man, has managed to trash him for decades while still posing for his publicity shots. One day, though, the tables are turned, and Megamind finds himself on the winning side for once: now what's he gonna do?? Two great comedic talents emerge in this top-notch kiddie flick: Will Ferrell gives Megamind a truly loopy, geeky charm, while David Cross is incredibly fabbo as his outlandish sidekick. (Side note: Minion is kinda similar to Cross's role as a sarcastic robot helper in the sci-fi eco-epic Battle For Terra... has he been typecast as some kind of wiseguy ghost in the machine?) Anyway, we saw this one in the theatre, loved it, bought the mega-disc home video and love that too. It's a fun, funny movie with a touchingly sentimental core... The sequel bonus short, "The Button Of Doom," is also a real hoot. Highly recommended!! (A+)
"Shaun The Sheep: The Big Chase"
(Hit Entertainment, 2010)
A wonderful series for all ages to enjoy... Tangentially a spinoff from the Aardman studios Wallace And Gromit series, this claymation extravaganza has become a runaway hit on British TV, and is equally delightful for viewers worldwide, as there is no dialogue in any of the episodes, just a sharp, sublime sense of humor, matched by equally delightful animation. Shaun is the most down-to-earth (though occasionally mischievous) member of a wily flock of sheep living on a rundown rural farm. The clueless, myopic farmer entrusts most of the herding duties to his dog, Bitzer, who wields a coach's whistle and not much else in his hapless attempts to keep the sheep in line. Each episode is short but sweet, packed with brilliant bits of comedic timing and hilarious visual asides. In this volume Shaun and his pals are plagued by an arrogant magpie, and go off on a crazy, Keystone Cops-style car chase across the English countryside... and Bitzer might have to go to obedience school! If you're already a fan, this disc delivers... And if you haven't tried the Shaun series yet, you're in for a treat. Pick a disc, any disc, and dig in. (A)
"Shaun The Sheep: A Woolly Good Time"
(Hit Entertainment, 2010)
"Shaun The Sheep: One Giant Leap For Lambkind"
(Hit Entertainment, 2010)
Shaun and space aliens? Dude, we are so there!! (A)
"Tinker Bell And The Great Fairy Rescue"
The third film in the new Pixie Hollow series is a winner. Predictable and a teensy bit cloying, but it delivers what it should and has a reasonable amount of emotional heft. Here, Tinker Bell is inadvertently captured by a little English girl named Lizzy, who lives in an isolated farmhouse with her emotionally remote father and dreams of fairies all day long, drawing fairy pictures, writing fairy stories and holding pretend fairy tea parties while her entomologist dad pins butterflies to corkboards and catalogues their wingspans and color patterns. We are led to believe that Lizzy will hold Tink prisoner and cut her off from all that she loves, in a taffeta-covered version of Sid's room in Toy Story. But Lizzy, as it turns out, really is a sweet kid and she really does "get" the whole fairy thing, communicating with Tinker Bell despite the fact that fairy language just sounds like little ting-a-lings to the human ear. Their friendship provides a slightly unexpected twist to the plot, and while it's not hard to see where things are going to go with Dear Old Dad, the movie is still enjoyable and thankfully free of gratuitous sex or violence. Certainly, if you enjoyed the other two movies, you'll love this one, too. (B+)
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