Thursday, September 18, 2014

Cybils Judges Announced!

And I'm one of them! I've been a part of this annual award for four years now, and it never gets old. I'm looking forward to reading and discussing some fabulous easy readers and beginning chapter books in the months to come. Nominations start on October 1st, so mark your calendar and get ready to submit your favorite books.

And a big round of applause for all the judges who donate a huge amount of their time to this worthy endeavor.

For more info on the Cybils and a list of the judges, click here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Trouble with Dora

Today's post is not a book review. It's a rant at how sexist stereotypes still persist. As any preschooler knows, Dora the Explorer is an intrepid pint-sized adventurer with a purple backpack and a boot-wearing monkey for a sidekick. A show featuring her exploits took off in 2000. Five years later, Dora's cousin Diego was given his own series.

When my nephew was younger, he loved Dora and wore her backpack with pride. It didn't matter to him one wit that Dora was a girl. And yet, fourteen years after the show's debut, Dora has been sold out, a victim of merchandising. The above photo was snapped in my doctor's waiting room. Sexism is so insidious that it took me a while to realize what was wrong with the decals stuck to the wall. But look closely. The toons' body language says it all. Dora stands with her arms folded, legs crossed, while Diego is running full speed. The message is clear: Girls = Passive; Boys = Active. (I won't even go into the butterflies surrounding Dora versus the menacing paw prints near Diego.)

Not to be hasty, I checked to see if there are more active wall decals of Dora on Amazon. Not really. There's one showing her holding a bunch of flowers and another, the best of the bunch, in which she's on tippy toes, arms wide open.

Now imagine a preschool boy seeing the two figures on the wall. Would he choose Dora as his model? Not likely. A preschool girl would, though. And with her choice comes the implicit message that boys do all the running.  

Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go generally get high marks from the media for setting nonstereotypical examples for its young viewers. Unfortunately, its licensing department has a long way to go.

Okay, today's rant is over.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Comics Squad: Recess!

It's September and the kiddies are back at school, getting reacquainted with math, trading lunches, and praying for recess. Recess! That hallowed period carved out of the school day when no one is telling you what to do--or not much. In celebration of this cherished intermission, the brother-and-sister team of Jennifer L. Holm and Mathhew Holm (creators of Babymouse and Squish) and Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Lunchlady) have put together a collection of graphic shorts that feature every student's favorite subject.

The eight comic selections veer from the silly to the sillier. The anthology starts with the brilliant Gene Luen Yang's "The Super-Secret Ninja Club," a savvy story about a dweeby kid who aspires to be a member of said club. Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame signs in with a subversive homework assignment from our friends George B. and Harold H. Their assignment is prefaced with a note home from their teacher, who informs the parents: "I have told both boys on numerous occasions that the classroom is no place for creativity." Other contributors include Ursula Vernon, Eric Wight, Dan Santat, Raina Telgemeier, and Dave Roman. All supply hilarious riffs on the ups and downs of recess.

Comics Squad: Recess!
Edited by Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm, Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Random House, 144 pages
Published: July 2014  


Friday, August 29, 2014

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up

"My kingdom for a horse," so said Shakespeare's King Richard. Leroy Ninker, Kate DiCamillo's spunky hero in her brand new chapter-book series, understands the sentiment. A worker at a drive-in theater's concession stand, Leroy wants to be one of the cowboys he sees projected on the Bijou's big screen. He has the hat, the boots, and the lasso, after all. But what he doesn't have--as a coworker helpfully points out--is a horse. Leroy is determined to rectify this and sets out to get a horse that's been advertised in the Gizzford Gazette. By the time he arrives at his destination he's already named his majestic steed Tornado. But when he's introduced to Maybelline, an old horse with just four teeth in her head, Leroy falls head-over-hooves in love with her.

Maybelline's former owner informs him of the three things he must know about his new responsibility: She craves compliments; eats like, well, a horse; and, most importantly, she does not like to be left alone. Naturally, Leroy finds out the hard way how true this last one is. But what Leroy lacks in judgement he makes up for with his huge heart and his talent, hitherto unknown, for poetic sweet talk.

DiCamillo, as befitting a Newbery Medalist, has an abiding love for words and knows how to turn a phrase to make it sparkle. Here's how she describes Leroy's meeting with Maybelline:

"He put out his hand and touched the horse's nose. It was damp and velvety. Leroy felt his heart tumble and roll inside of him. Oh, to be a cowboy with a horse! To ride into the sunset! To ride into the wind! To be brave and true and cast a large, horsey shadow!"

Perfection!

Van Dusen, who also illustrated the Mercy Watson books, continues his fine work. While Leroy with his long, pointed nose is cartoonish, the cowboy cantering across the big screen is portrayed realistically, making for an interesting and unusual contrast. And Maybelline's former owner with her long, equine face and prominent front teeth bears more than a passing resemble to a horse.
 
With this first book in the series, Tales from Deckawoo Drive gets off to a promising start. As Leroy would say, "Yippie-i-oh!"

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up
By Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Candlewick Press, 96 pages
Published: August 2014


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