Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family


When I was growing up both The Musters and The Addams Family were on TV. For me--then and now--the people I knew could be divided into two camps: Munster or Addams. I was (am) very firmly pro Addams. In fact, I confess to sneering a bit at those who preferred the less sophisticated Munsters. In the world of easy readers something similar is going on with a couple of bad cats. I'm talking about Jack Gantos's Rotten Ralph and Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty. Bad Kitty would be right at home in the Addams's macabre mansion, while Rotten Ralph would be tormenting Spot in 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

Although Rotten Ralph lacks the finesse of Bad Kitty, he's not without his charms. And in his latest outing, the bad-tempered feline returns home to visit his family to try to understand just why he's so rotten. Sarah, Rotten Ralph's put upon owner, is at the end of her rope when she can't find a catsitter willing to take on her disobedient pet. She issues an ultimatum to Ralph: "There better be some changes in the morning…or else!" In his bedroom, Ralph flips through a photo album that shows him in his younger years tormenting his feline family. The trip down memory lane inspires Ralph to return home.

Ralph's reunion is anything but sweet. With the exception of his mother, the other members of his family show their own rotten side, and by the end of his visit Ralph has an epiphany: He turned out rotten because everyone was rotten to him. A repentant Ralph returns to Sarah determined to reform. Will it last? Fans needn't worry. Ralph is sure to be his rotten self again by the next installment.

Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family
By Jack Gantos
Illustrated by Nicole Rubel
Farrar Straus Giroux, 48 pages
Published: March 2014

Monday, August 18, 2014

Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine

The best nonfiction books make their readers want to go out and learn more about the subject. By focusing on one relatively minor aspect of Queen Victoria's long, long life, Gloria Whelan's latest book will have children hurrying off to the library (or Internet) to find out all they can about the Victorian age. Some of the questions they might have include: Why were women required to wear corsets and layers upon layers of petticoats? What was so scandalous about seeing a queen's knees? What is a lady-in-waiting? Nine children! Were all families so large back then? Luckily the author's note and list of sources will give curious readers a starting point in their research.

In this irreverent, rhyming picture book, Queen Victoria longs for a refreshing swim in the ocean while residing in Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight. But social conventions being what they were back in the day, she can't, alas, put so much as a royal toe into the Atlantic. Happily, Prince Albert is determined to find a way for his beloved wife to "dabble and splatter and swim like a fish." After considering--and abandoning--the catapult, Albert has his Eureka moment. With help from his offspring, he devises a wheeled bathing machine that allows the Queen to discreetly change into her bathing suit and enter the water unseen.

Nancy Carpenter's colored pen-and-ink drawings are as charming as the text. Each spread is bursting with activity and telling details that add to the story's magic. There's a funny bit a la Monty Python of the Queen being flung from a catapult prototype into the sea. And the images of Queen Victoria cavorting in the water are priceless. Highly recommended!

Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine
By Gloria Whelan
Illustrations by Nancy Carpenter
Simon & Schuster, 40 pages
Published: April, 2014

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Bea and Mr. Jones

Amy Schwartz's first picture book was published in 1982, way before Take Your Daughter to Work Day was conceived. In this hilarious variation of stories about trading places, Bea, fed up with kindergarten, and her father, worn out from being an advertising executive, swap roles.

With her deadpan humor, Schwartz deftly creates a believable story that depicts each character succeeding in his or her new career. Bea shows herself to be remarkably adept at advertising. Not only does she laugh hardest at the boss's corny jokes, she also saves the Crumbly Crackers account with her jingle. And Mr. Jones equally excels at kindergarten. He's a whiz at the colored lollipop game, rescues the class genius from a magnolia tree at recess, and aces his job as milk and cookie monitor. The detailed black-and-white illustrations add to the book's charm and anchor the fantasy, as when we see Mr. Jones on the floor spelling out "antidisestablishmentarianism" with alphabet blocks.

The ending, though, is what really sets Bea and Mr. Jones apart. In most stories about trading places, the protagonists see why they are ill-suited to their new positions and gratefully return to the status quo. Not Schwartz's duo. Bea lands a promotion and eventually becomes president of toy sales, while Mr. Jones continues to go to kindergarten. As Schwartz succinctly states, "Mr. Jones and Bea had each found their proper niche in the world." May we all be so lucky.

Bea & Mr. Jone
By Amy Schwartz
Bradbury Press, 32 pages
Published: 1982

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Fall Ahead!

Fall is right around the corner--next month, folks--and that means crisp apples in the farmers' markets, little and not-so-little ones traipsing back to school, and, of course, new books hot from the presses (or fresh through the Internet). This fall's output promises some enticing reads. Here are a few I'm especially looking forward to curling up with:

I'll start with a picture book. One thing that always makes me happy is a new book by Amy Schwartz. Her Bea and Mr. Jones is one of my all-time favorites. Her latest is a tribute--in rhyme--to the things that make her happy. Among them: "fuzzy sweaters, long letters, slippery floors, dinosaurs." Pub date: October 7













And yet another Dr. Seuss book has been "found." This collection is a follow-up to 2011's The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories. I wasn't all that taken with it (read my review here; there's a reason stories are "lost") but, still, new stories from the great Seuss is always a cause for celebration. Pub date: September 9












Yipee-Ki-Yay! Kate DiCamillo has started a new series of chapter books for beginning readers. Tales from Deckawoo Drive will feature characters from DiCamillo's previous series about Mercy the pig. The first book stars Leroy Ninker, a would-be cowboy who works at the concession stand at the Bijou Drive-In Theater. Illustrations are by Chris Van Drusen.
Pub date: August 26











Readers of this blog will probably be more familiar with Cece Bell as the author/illustrator of the endearing beginning reader The Sleepover, starring best friends Rabbit and Robot (read my review here). Bell has also written and/or illustrated several picture books. El Deafo is a departure, a graphic novel memoir about her struggles with hearing loss at an early age. 
Pub date: September 2 










Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sparky!

Children's books about kids who want pets but aren't allowed them are a dime a dozen. So it's a challenge to come up with a new spin on such a hackneyed  topic. Offill (11 Experiments That Failed) not only is up to the task, she's created an exceptional picture book in the process.

 The wistful girl who longs for a pet of her own isn't deterred when her mother says her only option is a creature that "doesn't need to be walked or bathed or fed." Ever resourceful, the girl does her research and orders a pet that meets her parent's criteria: a sloth. The newly christened Sparky is anything but. It takes Sparky so long to fetch a ball that its owner is able to go inside and have dinner while waiting.

It's clear that the girl wants more from her pet, more than Sparky can provide, yet it's also clear that a sloth is better than no pet at all. After a disastrous talent show in which Sparky fails to distinguish himself before an audience of three--the girl's mother, the school crossing guard (who approves of Sparky's because he never runs in the street), and Mary Potts (a stuck-up fellow classmate with pet issues)--the young narrator makes peace with her pet's limitations. The book concludes with Sparky and the girl on a branch, content to be in each other's company as they appreciate the sunset.

In his first outing as a picture book illustrator, Appelhans, an animation artist, uses an understated palette to showcase Offill's droll humor. Like Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back), he manages with a few strokes of his brush to get a lot of mileage of of a creature who shows minimal emotion. In fact, Offill and Appelhans do such a great job of making sloths appealing, their readers might pester their parents for one of their own.

Sparky!
by Jenny Offill
illustrations by Chris Appelhans
Schwartz & Wade, 40 pages
Published: March 2014

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Miniature World of Marvin & James

Marvin is a beetle with a talent for drawing. James, a young boy, is Marvin's BBF. The Miniature World of Marvin & James is the first in an early chapter-book series that tells about their adventures. Interestingly,  the characters come from a best-selling middle-grade novel Elise Broach wrote titled Masterpiece. In that story James and Marvin help recover a drawing stolen from an art museum. I haven't read Masterpiece yet (though I plan to), but Broach's new work most certainly holds its own.

The story starts with James packing for a weeklong vacation at the seaside. Marvin, alas, will not be going and is already missing James. Once James has left Marvin mopes around under the kitchen sink until his mother persuades him to play with his cousin Elaine. The two young beetles have an exciting adventure (and close shave) with an electric pencil sharpener during which Marvin overhears a phone conversation that suggests that Marvin has made a new friend. Marvin spends the remainder of the week worrying that James has replaced him with another BBF.

As in so many books for beginning readers, this book tackles the challenges of friendship. In simple yet poignant sentences Broach parses its complexities while managing to tell a rip-roaring story at the same time. Readers will be transfixed by Marvin's adventures and satisfied with its heartfelt conclusion. Murphy's pen-and-ink illustrations are a delight, capturing an array of insect emotion. A first-rate chapter book all around!

The Miniature World of Marvin & James
by Elise Broach
illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Henry Holt, 104 pages
Published: 2014

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Most Magnificent Thing

Practice makes perfect? Not necessarily, but that can be a good thing, at least according to this picture book. As anyone who has tried to get something "just right"--whether it's leveling a picture frame or composing a work of art--knows, the process can be supremely frustrating and usually impossible to achieve. The "regular girl" in this delightful picture book by Ashley Spires (Binky the Space Cat) is certain she can beat the odds.

While out scootering with her best friend--an adorable pug--she is struck with an idea for a magnificent invention. Over the next few pages Spires shows the girl hard at work on her invention. She gathers her supplies; she "tinkers and hammers and measures" and when she's finished--it's all wrong. This does not deter our heroine and she tries again and again and again, but none of her eleven creations are magnificent--not even close.  At which point the girl has a meltdown and quits.

Luckily her best friend suggests a walk, and over the course of their stroll, the girl cools down, and refreshed, sees her rejects in a new light. They aren't complete failures. "There are some parts of the WRONG things that are really quite RIGHT." Inspired anew, the girl tackles her project again and this time it's a success. It's worth noting, however, that the invention is not perfect: "It leans a little to the left, and it's a bit heavier than expected. The color could use a bit of work, too." But in spite of its flaws it is still magnificent. So what is the most magnificent thing? Let's just say that the girl's loyal assistant is rewarded for all his hard work as the pair scooter away, the pug in a brand-new sidecar.

The Most Magnificent Thing
by Ashley Spires
Kids Can Press, 32 pages
Published: April 2014