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

Thursday, May 15, 2014

I Didn't Do My Homework Because...

Ah, the homework excuses. I never used them myself because I was too chicken to show up at school empty handed. In my very brief teaching career--one semester--I did hear quite a few from my students, though. None, however, as inventive as the ones the boy narrator of this book lays on his teacher. Starting with "an airplane full of monkeys landed in our yard" and ending with "a tornado swept up all my books," the boy's outlandish tales are cleverly illustrated by Benjamin Chaud (The Bear's Song). Madcap and detailed, each pen-and-ink illustration is worthy of being pored over to fully appreciate the humor. The illustration for "our roof suddenly disappeared" shows a wrecking ball (maneuvered by the family dog) knocking off the roof with the startled people inside gazing up and the homework pages blowing away. While many of the excuses are satisfyingly dramatic--"giant lizards invaded my neighborhood"--others are understated and depend on the art for the full effect. My favorite of these is: "We had a problem with carnivorous plants." The accompanying illustration shows a giant-size Venus flytrap with its devouring leaves clamped over the heads of the boy, his father, and the dog.

Essentially an extended list, this picture book/easy reader has a satisfying twist at the end after the boy gives this last explanation to his teacher. She doesn't believe any of them, naturally, but why she doesn't is sure to have young readers chuckling--and perhaps plotting which excuse they might use!

I Didn't Do My Homework Because…
By David Cali
Illustrated by Benjamin Chaud
Chronical Books, 44 pages
Published: March 2014

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

26 Characters Exhibit at Oxford's Story Museum

Last week I traveled to London and Oxford with my husband on a combined business/sightseeing trip. In Oxford I was busy doing research for an upcoming book, but I squeezed in a visit to a brand new Story Museum exhibit that I'd read about at Monica Edinger's excellent blog Educating Alice. The exhibit's curators asked a number of authors and performers (the majority will be more familiar to the British than those of us who reside on the other side of the pond) to pick their favorite childhood literary character. The chosen ones were then invited to dress up as their character and be photographed by Cambridge Jones in their new duds. Each story character was given his/her designated space or room that features the photograph as well as other props. Many include sounds that heighten the experience (the wind howls in the Mary Poppins room, for instance) or recordings of the authors and performers reading a story or being interviewed about their characters. The exhibit takes up the whole of the museum and is set up like a treasure hunt. Visitors search out all 26 characters and check them off. A completed list earns the museumgoer a prize, redeemable at the museum shop across the way.

The day I visited I was the only adult sans child, and I felt a bit conspicuous as I stalked the building clicking away with my camera. While I can't list all there was to see, here are some of my favorites. As for choosing my own childhood literary character, I have to go with Peter Pan (also chosen by author Cressida Cowell). My absolute favorite exhibit space, though, was the one dedicated to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Holly Smale selected Jadis, the White Witch as her character. To enter, you open an unmarked wardrobe and push past a row of fur coats. Then you're inside a magical darklit room dominated by a huge sled and a life-size photo of Smale dressed as the White Witch. Goosebumps will follow, I promise.

The entrance to the exhibit opens with a tower of cards referencing Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.


Another section features an assortment of costumes to dress up in.



And, once clad, a throne to sit on.


Neil Gaiman chose Badger from The Wind and the Willows as his favorite character.


Katherine Rundell picked Max from Where the Wild Things Are.


Here's Katrice Horsley sailing through the sky dressed as Mary Poppins.


Another childhood hero of mine--the Wicked Witch of the West, as portrayed by Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman.


The exhibit remains open until November so if you find yourself in the neighborhood, it is well worth a visit. And if a trip to Oxford isn't in the cards, why not dress up as your own childhood story hero? I'm getting out my green tights right now.
 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bad Kitty: Drawn to Trouble

As a published author and someone who has taught creative writing, I have read many books on how to write. (And I do mean many. A quick count of the books on the shelves yields 45 books on the subject.) None, however, managed to crack me up--until, that is, I read Nick Bruel's latest. It must be the seven-year-old in me, but Bruel never fails to make me laugh. In Drawn to Trouble, Bruel inserts himself into the storyline, showing kids how to create their own stories. He begins by introducing himself as the author and illustrator of the Bad Kitty books, going so far as to draw a mirror so readers can see how handsome he is. (Bruel's definition of an author (found in the handy appendix) is: "An incredibly beautiful person who writes books and always smells like lavender, even in hot weather."

After Bruel has kids draw Bad Kitty, giving them step-by-step instructions, he tackles the various elements of fiction: character, setting, conflict, plot, etc.  He does it all humorously, putting poor Kitty in dangerous situations to illustrate his points. For instance, when discussing setting, Bruel dunks Kitty in the ocean, plops her down in the middle of a jungle, and then in a zombie-filled graveyard, before finally settling on Kitty's home. (Not that home is any safer. In one instance a giant octopus comes oozing through the door.) As usual, Uncle Murray chimes in in the series' Fun Facts spreads. In this book, he tackles the difference between plot an theme, the importance of using dictionaries, and ways to end stories. Inspired by the Looney Tunes short classics Duck Amuck and Rabbit Rampage (as well as Winsor McKay's 1914 short cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur), this wacky book is sure to have budding authors scribbling away.

Favorite line: "Like all children's book authors, I am extremely good-looking."

Bad Kitty: Drawn to Trouble
by Nick Bruel
Roaring Brook Press 128 pages
Published: January 2014

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Sleepwalkers

Viviane Schwarz's debut graphic novel is a strange book, but strange in a good way. Its inventive plot takes readers into a fantastical dreamworld populated with the oddly engaging characters of Schwartz's fecund imagination. I confess it took me a while to become invested. Initially it's difficult to figure out what's going on, and if I, an adult, find the plot a challenge, kids in the targeted age group--seven to ten years olds--are even more likely to give up. If they persevere, however, they will be rewarded with a story that offers a reassuring message of overcoming one's fears.

The premise revolves around nightmares. Kids who have recurring bad dreams or who are afraid to fall asleep can write a letter about their fears and put it under the pillow. The Sleepwalkers will then come and rescue them. Who are the Sleepwalkers? At the start they are three wooly sheep and a friendly dog traveling in a self-navigating nightmare-proof house. The sheep, alas, are getting on in years and need replacements. These they conjure up out of well-used objects: An old quilt becomes an insecure but good-hearted bear; a pair of sock turns into an enthusiastic monkey; and a quill pen is magicked into a crow with a nib for its head. All three apprentices must learn how to rescue children from their nightmares. The dreams they enter are truly horrifying, especially when illustrated with Schwartz's manic artwork. A girl dreams hordes of mice are chasing her through an all-cheese landscape; a boy is stuck in a nightmare in which he's trapped in a prehistoric pterodactyl-shaped plane; another child is lost in a jungle teeming with beasts made from hair. With help from the sheep and the dog, the apprentices manage to solve each case, but in doing so they must confront their own inadequacies. Bonno, the cuddly bear, is my favorite. Timid at first, he slowly finds his courage as his concern for the children overrides--but never vanquishes--his fears. With each nightmare, the kids learn a way to master their bad dreams, often literally. The boy trapped in the airplane, for instance, is shown how to navigate the machine and gleefully exclaims: "I am the prince of all pilots!"    

This gift of empowerment isn't all that Schwartz (There Are No Cats in This Book) gives to her readers. Studded throughout the book are fun extras, like instructions on how to make a sock monkey or a recipe for a banana milkshake. With a copy of The Sleepwalkers under the pillow, a child could face whatever terrors the night dreams up.

The Sleepwalkers
by Viviane Schwarz
Candlewick, 96 pages
Published: May 2013

Friday, February 28, 2014

Ball

It might seem odd that a picture book that repeats just one word is an Honor Book for this year's Geisel Award. Yet Ball offers beginning readers much more than the opportunity to really, really learn how to decode the word ball. It tells a fantastic story almost entirely in pictures. The long-snouted, rotund mutt--who could come straight from a New Yorker comic--is obsessed with his red ball. From the moment his redhead owner awakes he is after her to throw his toy, which she enthusiastically does--until it's time for her to leave for school. Dog then spends the agonizing hours until her return trying to get the other members of the household (a blissed-out yoga mom, a drooling infant, and the family cat) to play ball without success. Finally Dog stumbles into a restless sleep and dreams of--what else--chasing his ball. The dream sequence is sidesplittingly funny, especially the spread that leads him down a toilet and through a labyrinth of pipes. First-time author/illustrator does a bang-up job of creating a humorous homage to dogs and their love of balls.

Ball by Mary Sullivan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 40 pages
Published: 2013