Here are some new reviews of children's books and movies, added to the Read That Again! website in Winter, 2011-12. 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.
"Floors, Volume One"
Written by Patrick Carman
(Scholastic Press, 2011)
Almost every kid's book in the last hundred years opens by introducing an orphan - this one introduces two: the mysterious Mr. Merganzer Whippet, who misinterprets his father's dying words and devotes himself to a life of wackiness and wacky inventions, and a young semi-orphan named Leo Fillmore who lives in the basement of the (super-wacky) hotel that Mr. Whippet builds, working alongside his maintenance-man father, crawling through secret passageways and into the super-wacky rooms that Mr. Whippet built years ago, before his mysterious disappearance. Through various mysterious and wacky methods, Leo is given a quest to save the hotel, and has to navigate through the rooms -- one built like a pinball machine, another like a giant pastry shop, etc. -- gathering clues while also dodging the grouchy hotel manager and the oddball residents that live in the kooky luxury suites. There's an obvious Willy Wonka comparison to be made, and the various novelty-themed rooms are an attempt to impose a videogame-like structure on the story (perhaps with eyes to a movie adaptation?) I read this book aloud to my kid and, honestly, found it a bit gimmicky and strained. It wasn't awful, but it didn't sing to me in a poetic, great-literature kind of way. It's an okay book, but the characters are kind of flat and the action is often difficult to visualize and mechanistically written. This is probably one of those "dude, don't take everything so serious" moments, but still - you could do better. (C+)
"The Astonishing Secret Of Awesome Man"
Written by Michael Chabon
Illustrated by Jake Parker
(Balzer & Bray, 2011)
This kids' picturebook started out as a series of bedtime stories told by author Michael Chabon to his son (...lucky kid!!) and was honed down to a crisp, captivating, clever narrative about a superdude with many awesome powers and many fabulous adventures. Chabon, whose novel "Kavalier And Clay" brought classic pulp/comicbook culture to a mainstream, highbrow audience, walks the walk in many ways -- he recently invested in a local comic shop -- and he knows how to write a fun super-story. This bright, cheerful book is full of good humor and hits a nice emotional tone, helped immensely by the bold, kinetic artwork, drenched in primary colors and dynamic lines of action. You can see the book's "hook" coming a mile away (who is Awesome Man??) but the obviousness is part of the fun, particularly for younger readers who love to guess the endings to short books like this. It's a fun book that many children can enjoy. On a minor aside, I would love to see Chabon write a regular comics series aimed at younger children, an audience sorely neglected by today's industry... I'm pretty sure he would do an Awesome job. (B+)
"The Secret Box"
Written by Barbara Lehman
Illustrated by Barbara Lehman
(Houghton Mifflin, 2011)
Another entry in Lehman's sizable catalog of wordless picturebooks... This one is strongly reminiscent of David Wiesner's Flotsam, telling the tale of several generations of children (growing up in the same orphanage?) who find a mysterious old box packed with pictures and memorabilia from a fantastical, lost-in-time beachside amusement park. It's a fun story, though in my overprotectivoid glory, I feel obliged to point out that the magical passageway that the kids run through to get to Seahorse Pier looks an awful lot like a water culvert, and as a kid I was always told to never go in those, since people often drown inside them. Otherwise, great book! (B-)
Written by Chris Monroe
Illustrated by Chris Monroe
(Carolrhoda Books, 2010)
A cautionary tale, but a fun one. Two young sheep, Blossom and Rocky, keep sneaking away from the flock, defying their patient but persistent guardian, a sheepdog named Murphey who saves them time and time again, calmly scolding them but never losing his cool. One day, the naughty little lambs literally go too far, and realize that many boring old Murphey was right -- the world really can be a dangerous place! Will Murphey save them one last time? You'll have fun finding out, reading Monroe's fast-paced, genuinely funny story which is packed, graphic novel style, with lots of visual detail and playful narrative on every page. Recommended! (B+)
"The Little Book Of Hindu Deities"
Written by Sanjay Patel
Illustrated by Sanjay Patel
(Plume Books, 2006)
The scary, intense world of Hindu mythology, given a cutesy, Sanrio-style makeover, courtesy of Pixar animator Sanjay Patel. Patel's a pop-culture kid, born into a devout Hindu family, but raised in California on a steady diet of 1980s-era American TV cartoons and Looney Tunes oldies. In this book, he integrates these seemingly divergent cultural influences, depicting dozens of gods in the multi-limbed, cosmos-shaking Hindu pantheon using lots of bright colors, bold cartoon outlines and big, round, velvet-painting eyes. This is a guide book, not a narrative: each deity gets their own adorable portrait with a matching page of explanatory text. The profiles are pretty straightforward and informative, giving newcomers a good introduction to an often-daunting mythos. Patel also has an illustrated version the Ramayana epic, but it's a little more intense, full of flaming heads, skulls and all that other cycle-of-destruction iconography. You might want to start here, first. He also has a poster book of many of these same deities which might be fun as well. (B+)
Written by Brian Selznick
Illustrated by Brian Selznick
(Scholastic Books, 2011)
Another wonderful novella/graphic novel from author Brian Selznick, using the same combination of wordless, cinematic panels contrasted by bursts of pictureless text that made his previous book, "Hugo Cabret" into a contemporary masterpiece. Although "Wonderstruck" might not be as vivid a story as "Hugo," is is compelling nonetheless: I've read it twice -- once while vetting it for my daughter and later while taking turns with her, me reading the text pages, her flipping through the pictures. Well, actually, I've only read it one-and-a-half times: she finally snatched it away and finished it by herself... which I think is great. If you liked "Hugo Cabret," this followup will not disappoint... A quick, engrossing read. Highly recommended! (A)
Written by Herve Tullet
Illustrated by Herve Tullet
(Chronicle Books, 2011)
This is an absolutely brilliant work, which reminds us of the simple imaginative power of books. The text is in the form of a voice, instructing readers in various steps that "change" the pictures in the book, and praise them for following instructions. Like the old Sesame Street "There's A Monster At The End Of This Book" story -- where Grover pleads with readers to not turn pages, etc. -- "Press Here" turns readers into collaborators when they make the choice to play along with an obvious fiction, that the book is "speaking" to them, and that their actions have an effect on what happens in an already-printed story. It's a kind of make-believe that will strike a rich, resonant chord for many readers, young and old, a trick that taps into a deep creative wellspring, the kind of uninhibited playfulness we shared when very young, but often discard as we mature. Plus, it's delightful to have such a low-tech approach work so well in an era when we count on computers and elaborate special effects to provide our entertainment. I loved this book, my kid does too, and chances are you will, as well. Highly recommended! (A+)
"Not For Parents - London"
Written by Klay Lamprell
(Lonely Planet, 2011)
Okay, I admit: I peeked. Even though it said "not for parents!" a bunch of times, I still looked and I liked what I saw... This half-comicbook/half teen magazine-style travel book is good for younger travelers, tweenage and up, who are headed on a family vacation to England. The book is made mostly of two-page spreads with bright, cartoonish art and easily digestible chunklets of information about a variety of topics: the royal family, fashion trends, museums, landmarks, Harry Potter, Madame Tussauds, Shakespeare, the Tube, all handled with a light touch. While the old folks are poring over the teeny-tiny print in their boring grown-up guide books, the younger generation will be giggling in the back seat while reading this slim, humor-filled volume. What are they giggling about? Wouldn't you like to know?? But it's NOT FOR PARENTS! HAH! (B)
"Not For Parents - Paris"
Written by Klay Lamprell
(Lonely Planet, 2011)
Peeked again. Another set of easily digestible info-chunks about a variety of topics: French art and fashion, museums, landmarks, cuisine, little dogs in cafes, gargoyles and cathedrals, the Eiffel Tower and the making of the Statue of Liberty, the French Revolution, and even a bit about Asterix & Obelix... all handled with a light, humorous touch. Just remember: it's NOT FOR PARENTS! Zut allors! (B)
Written by Anne Ursu
(Walden Pond Press, 2011)
I enjoyed this book quite a bit... The voice of the central character, a sad, but sweet fifth-grade girl named Hazel, had a lovely, believable tone... She speaks to herself with an ironic tone, but she's not nasty-tempered or suffused with false, media-generated "cool," she hasn't had a bunch of phony cynicism projected at or into her, and still loves the old fairytale and fantasy books she read when she was little. Hazel is, in short, an appealing character and a realistic one -- she's strong inside, but hapless when confronted by the grown-up world and it's unfairness and random hardships, and she is devastated when her best friend, the boy next door, suddenly turns cold and rejects her as a "baby." Turns out he's under an evil enchantment, and when Hazel figures it out, she determines to save him, plunging into the book's second half where a pastiche of fairytale elements coalesce into a sinister and surprising fantasy tale. This book is still a little too "old" for my kid, but I look forward to passing it along in a couple of years and greatly enjoyed reading it myself. Make a great movie, too. (B+)
"Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean"
Written by Sarah Stewart Taylor
Illustrated by Ben Towle
(Disney Hyperion/Center For Cartoon Studies, 2010)
This brisk, compelling graphic novel tells the story of aviator Amelia Earhart's historic 1928 transatlantic flight, viewing it through the eyes of a young girl living in the Newfoundland village that Earhart embarked from... The writing is economical, and the artwork is expansive and uncluttered, recalling the work of cartoonists such as Seth and Scott McCloud. Both elements mesh perfectly, and while the narrative (wisely) is not crammed with details, it is evocative and propulsive. If you're looking for an Earhart bio that's appropriate for younger readers, this is an excellent introduction to her legacy: my kid read it several times in a row and definitely got Amelia fever. Highly recommended. (A+)
"Amelia Rules: The Meaning Of Life... And Other Stuff"
Written & Illustrated by Jimmy Gownley
(Atheneum Books, 2011)
This is the seventh volume in the "Amelia Rules" graphic novels, a thoughtful, surprisingly challenging series that I am a big fan of. That being said, I have to admit, this is not my favorite volume, as the characters seem caught in a lull and I wonder where the story is headed. Amelia and her pals are growing up, slogging their way through middle school and continuing to shape their identities. Some characters, notably the boys Reggie and Pajamaman, are basically put on hold here -- Reggie develops a crush on a girl, but that's about it. Meanwhile, Amelia confronts various unpleasant realities, including being labeled "a bad kid" at school, and having to knuckle under to a stern school Principal. Her rockstar aunt is off on tour, and is largely absent from the action (which is okay by me) and Amelia is caught up in making new friends while reconnecting with old ones. The book whizzed quickly by, and I found myself weighing whether to show it to my kid, who is a little young for the series, but loved the earlier books. I am particularly hesitant as the author pushes the characters into darker territory -- nothing too harrowing, but more appropriate for older (tween-to-teen) readers. In literary terms, it's better than a lot of popular fiction for kids, although I did find the ending, in which the kids confront the sorrows of modern war, after one girl's father is lost in combat, to be a little maudlin and strained. It's an issue that does confront a lot of kids these days, but the scene didn't ring entirely true for me. Anyway, I was psyched to see a new Amelia Rules out, although in this volume the series does seem to be in a bit of a holding pattern. Looking forward to the next volume, and hoping there will be more forward growth ahead. (B)
Written & Illustrated by Vera Brosgol
(First Second Books, 2011)
This graphic novel debut is a stunner from start to finish, technically adept and soulfully scripted. Cartoonist Vera Brosgol is a first-generation Russian-American and puts her own immigrant experience at the center of this story, painting a marvelous character portrait of her heroine, Anya, a young Russian girl who was learned to assimilate in America, but not quite fit in. Glum, rebellious and insecure, she stumbles upon a real-life ghost story and becomes enchanted with, or by, the spectre of another girl who died nearly a century before. But as many readers will know, ghosts are usually around for a reason, and this innocent, impish shade has a dark side of her own. This was a remarkably compelling comic, a quick but richly rewarding read -- Brosgol tackles the horror genre with great intelligence and depth, creating a truly spooky experience. A great book for teens and adults; younger readers might get a little creeped out. Edgar Allen Poe would be proud. (A)
"Archie: The Best Of Dan DeCarlo, v.3"
Written & Illustrated by Dan DeCarlo
(IDW Books, 2011)
More Archie goodness, from the guy that many fans consider the quintessential Archie artist. As with the first two volumes in this series, this is a durable, high-class hardbound edition, easy to read and packed with great stories and even greater artwork. BTW - I recently updated my comicbook section to include a new Archie page. (A++)
Written & Illustrated by Doug TeNnapel
This is a fast-paced sci-fi adventure story about an average American family who go on vacation and accidentally get mixed up in an intergalactic war... They're marooned on a mysterious island filled with all sorts of hostile alien lifeforms (drawn in a style that reminds me of Jeff Smith's "Bone" series) and at times the action gets a bit intense. (Parents of smaller ids, beware!) There's an inspirational side as well: family members, who went into the adventure with a bagful of typical resentments and miscommunication, wind up banding together and finding resourcefulness and emotional depths they hadn't realized they possessed. Great book for middle-schoolers and above, a real pager-turner with a weird, engaging plot. Recommended! (B)
"Chi's Sweet Home, v.7"
Written by Konami Kanata
Illustrated by Konami Kanata
(Vertical Press, 2010)
"Chi's Sweet Home, v.8"
Written by Konami Kanata
Illustrated by Konami Kanata
(Vertical Press, 2010)
Written & Illustrated by Dan Santat
(Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011)
A funny and delightfully kid-friendly superhero graphic novel, chronicling the exploits of a quartet of powerful but nebbish-y super-animals who all happen to be the pets of Captain Amazing, a Superman-like, semi-indestructible mystery man who has one weakness: his peanut allergy. The animals all have great characters, each distinctive and believable, and each with their own strengths and flaws. The artwork is great and the story flows quickly along, with many hilarious moments. My kid loved this book... I did, too! Perfect for fans of "Mega Mind" or "Penguins Of Madagascar"... You also might want to check out Santat's equally wonderful picture-book, Oh No! (A)
"Ultimate Spider-Man: Death Of Spider-Man"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2011)
Although story arcs in which superheroes are killed are, almost by definition, gimmicky, this volume (which gathers Ultimate Spiderman issues #156-160) is a fitting end to a great comicbook series. Yeah, yeah, I know -- the series continues with another kid taking up the mantle of Spider-Man, but most fans can stop here, with the death (no, really!) of the alternate-reality USM/Peter Parker. It's a fast-paced, gripping super-story, with traces of the crisp writing and humorous dialog that made USM one of the best Marvel Comics of the last few decades, but also with a crushing sense of finality and doom that is borne out in the remorseless battle sequence in which the Green Goblin finally kills Spider-Man. Peter Parker's nobility in the face of his own death carries real tragedy and pathos -- technically this may be an "alternate" version of Spider-Man, but it's really the same Peter Parker we grew up with, and he really does die, and it has surprising resonance. There's a loss in the real world, as well: the USM book has consistently been the only title in the "Ultimate" brand that was worth reading, the only one not subsumed by a quasi-fascistic worship of violence for violence's sake. Indeed, USM was truly a great comicbook, consistently entertaining and full of the wide-eyed sense of innocent, kinetic adventure that Marvel exemplified in the 1960s, and gradually lost touch with from the '70s onward. Bendis may be able to sustain some of that elegant momentum in the re-re-rebooted series, but not for long, if at all. A pity. And, of course, there's always the possibility of a Peter Parker clone lurking in Ultimate-land... they had plenty of them popping up when the original Spider-books began their great decline, lo, those decades ago. But let's hope not: this was a powerful, heroic death, and it would be best if Marvel left well enough alone. (A+)
"Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost In The Andes"
(The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library)
Written by Carl Barks
Illustrated by Carl Barks
(Fantagraphics Books, 2011)
This is an exquisite comicbook reprint series, one of many high-end efforts spearheaded by Fantagraphics... Most recently, the Boom! Studios publishers had the rights to the Disney/Duck material, but if this first book is any indication, I fervently hope that Fantagraphics can hang onto the franchise, since this is the finest edition of the classic Carl Barks canon that I've seen to date. Previously my allegiance had been to the old (and long out of print) squareback books that Gladstone did in the 1980s and '90s, but this one blows those editions out of the water. The hardback binding is solid and substantive, while the interior layout is spacious and relaxed - no narrow margins or squinched-up artwork here. The lay of the pages is marvelous as well: each page fairly flutters open, with no tight binding to pull the book shut. Absolutely beautiful workmanship. And of course the stories are delightful, a generous helping of classic, vintage Carl Barks genius. This particular volume has a rather high ratio of un-PC ethnic stereotypes -- a voodoo-created goon, bizarre Aztec leprechauns, not-so-bright African tribesmen, etc., but you just have to take that as part of the territory, a reflection of the times in which these stories were written. The storytelling, however, is fantastic, as is Barks' smooth, concise graphic style. If you love this material, snap this book up, and hope that the series is enough of a success for all the Barks stories to make it into this high-class format. They'll be the pride of your bookshelf! (A-)
"A Cat In Paris"
A real gem from French animators Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol... Not available in the United States (yet) though we saw it at the San Francisco Film Festival and loved it. It's practically an anti-Disney kids' movie: it's stylish and unpredictable; there is a dead parent, but it's the kid's dad, not her mother (who, rather than being dead is a no-nonsense police detective...) and best of all, it presents cats in a favorable light and makes fun of dogs instead. Like I said: the opposite of Disney. Lots to love here: inventive graphic design and a slinky spy-jazz score, bold colors and an original plot about a quiet cat who slips out at night to join a lithe, roguish burglar who likes stealing stuff just for the challenge, but has a strong sense of right and wrong when it comes to taking care of little kids. Plus some really fun, really mean bad guys! We had a few problems with the English-language voiceovers, but they were minor compared to the picture's many charms. I'm hoping this'll come out in America sometime soon... it was a gas! (A+)
"The Secret World Of Arrietty"
(Ghibli Studios/Disney, 2012)
Once again, Japanese director/producer Hayao Miyazaki crafts an animation masterpiece, with this light, luminous adaptation of Mary Norton's classic children's fantasy novel, "The Borrowers," about a secretive race of tiny people who live in the floorboards of a rural house, pilfering small amounts of food and trinkets from under the unsuspecting noses of the full-sized human "beans." Miyazaki's innovative visualization of the Borrowers' world adds tremendously to the power of the story, making the nuts and bolts of Norton's story easier to grasp and even more wondrous than in the prose of the book itself. The artistic textures and details, particularly in his exterior shots, in the natural world, are nothing short of stunning. This script is one of his more accessible, mainstream works, with little of the eerie, double-edged supernatural elements that make his earlier films so ambiguous and perplexing. However, he still offers a view of a magical, wondrous world that is a welcome contrast to American films in which magic and fantasy are more like commodities than actual mysteries - the Ghibli Studios films have a unique feel and tone that radiate from this wonderful film. Appropriate for a variety of ages, including smaller children -- a slower-paced, enchanting film with captivating drama and a real sense of wonder. Highly recommended! (A)
"Shaun The Sheep: One Giant Leap For Lambkind"
(Hit Entertainment, 2010)
A funny, fast-paced childrens' series for all ages to enjoy... Tangentially a spinoff from the Aardman studios "Wallace And Gromit" films, 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. In this volume, the show's cast is joined by a race of outer-space aliens who crash-land on the farm and are aided by Shaun and his crew. They later return to have a little fun -- the aliens are expressive and funny, a great addition to the show. (And would be great in a series of their own!) Other episodes are more down-to-earth, with typical farmyard hijinks. This disc is as much fun as all the others in the series... And if you haven't tried STS yet, you're in for a treat! (B+)
"Shaun The Sheep: We Wish Ewe A Merry Christmas"
(Hit Entertainment, 2011)
Another nice installment of this British kid's series, with seven new episodes including some seasonal good cheer... The opening Christmas episode is nice, a heartwarming cartoon in which the farm animals rally together to give the lonely farmer a happy Christmas; the other cartoons are fun as well, following the now-standard STS formula. An episode where baby Timmy's favorite toy gets trapped under a five-ton block of granite was particularly funny. If you like Shawn already, you'll enjoy this collection as well. Happy holidays! (B+)
"Timmy Time: Picture Day"
(Hit Entertainment, 2011)
A spinoff from the (excellent!) Shaun The Sheep series, "Timmy Time" focusses on the toddler lamb named Timmy, whose role in the Shaun cartoons is usually to cry about something -- a broken toy, a lost pacifier -- until somebody fixes the problem for him. Here, Timmy confronts the social complexities of nursery school, with a super-cutesy cast of barnyard babies, including his best friend, an enthusiastic, super-talkative duckling who likes to wear aviator goggles. Their preschool has two teachers, a demure, jovial owl and a gangly, sympathetic, um, crane? The kids get into typical preschool conflicts -- fighting over toys, fingerpainting, circle time, and Timmy behaves imperfectly, learning lessons in life as he puzzles his way through each day. I thought Shaun The Sheep was already pretty well suited for preschoolers, but Timmy does take things down a notch or two: the artwork and animation are much simpler, as are the plotting and pace. Gone are the tiny, fine-grain details in the backdrops, and the characters are much more plainly rendered. However, the comic timing is is familiar, and nursery-school age toddlers will find the scenarios -- in a school or daycare setting much like their own -- to be captivating. No violence to speak of, though some nice role modeling for problem solving and conflict resolution. Great for the tiny tots, although it may be hard for older viewers to work their way backwards from Shaun to Timmy Time. (B)
"Timmy Time: Timmy Steals The Show"
(Hit Entertainment, 2011)
"Timmy Time: Go-Kart Timmy"
(Hit Entertainment, 2011)
"Timmy Time: Hide And Seek"
(Hit Entertainment, 2011)
PS - Feel free to send us feedback, corrections or recommendations for other books, websites, children's films and other cool stuff.
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