Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Dory Fantasmagory

Think of the many characters in children's literature who we thrill to meet on the written page yet would steer clear of in real life: Pippi Longstocking, Tom Sawyer, Ramona... Add to that list another name--Dory, aka Rascal.

Rascal is a wonderful creation from the fevered brain of Abby Hanlon. She's concocted a six-year-old who rings so true that she is equal parts exasperating and endearing. Rascal, you see, has been blessed (or cursed, depending on your viewpoint) with an extremely vivid imagination. While your average kid creates an imaginary playmate or two, Rascal cooks up up a whole cast of characters. Her favorite is Mary, an impish monster who enjoys being towed around the house in an empty laundry basket and who is always ready to play. Her willingness is a boon because Rascal's older sister and brother want nothing to do with her.

The siblings' insistence that Rascal acts like a baby is what sets the plot in motion. The pair invent Mrs. Gobble Gracker, a scary witch who steals baby girls, to keep Rascal in line. Their plan misfires spectacularly. Rascal conjures up Mrs. Gobble Gracker almost immediately and spends all her time trying to escape from her clutches. At one point she decides to fool the witch into thinking she's not a child but a dog. To her delight she finds that her brother has always wanted a pet. She gets some much needed attention from him as she does tricks for him, goes for walks on a leash, and eats from a bowl. That it's exhausting to be parent to such a child is made clear when Rascal (now Chickenbone the dog) accompanies her mother to the doctor's office for a check-up that goes hilariously afoul. By the final chapter, readers will be gratified to see how Rascal finally gets her heart's desire--playtime with her sister and brother.

The illustrations add to the high-jinks and readers will delight at the cartoony images of Rascal, her imaginary friends, and her sole enemy. Mrs. Gobble Gracker is spindly with a long nose and vampire-like fangs, while Mary is a friendly-looking creature with striped horns.

In Dory Fantasmagory Hanlon has given us a character whose personality is a force of nature. Like a mighty typhoon or a hurricane, she can't be stopped. Let's hope that Hanlon writes another book about her soon.

Dory Fantasmagory
By Abby Hanlon
Dial, 160 pages
Published: October 2014  


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My Heart Is Laughing

Like My Happy Life, Swedish author Lagercrantz's latest offering is a heartwarming and affirming peek into a child's small world and all the drama it entails. In this fully realized sequel, Dani is adjusting to life without her best friend, Ella. Even so, in school she keeps the seat next to hers empty for when Ella returns. When her teacher reminds her that Ella won't be coming back, ever-hopeful Dani replies, "You never know."

In addition to missing Ella, Dani faces new challenges. Two girls bully her after they discover a boy they like prefers Dani. In a truly upsetting scene the pair pinch her arms until Dani fights back with a squirt bottle full of sauce. What differentiates this book from many others about bullying is the subtle way Lagercrantz explores her young protagonist's heart. Dani isn't even fully aware that she's being picked one. Upset at what she's done (she also squirted her teacher), she runs home and locks herself in her room. When her father finds out about her transgression, she refuses to talk to him or explain why she was provoked. It isn't until her father sees her bruised arms that he suspects the truth and storms off to the school, Dani at his heels.

Young readers will be both relieved and surprised at the ending. While the villains of the piece (two girls who in superficial ways resemble Dani and Ella), never apologize for their actions, Dani magnanimously forgives them. With gentle humor, Lagercrantz gives us an optimistic protagonist who refreshingly chooses to see the glass life has handed her as half full rather than half empty. Eriksson's appealing line illustrations perfectly complement Dani's rosy worldview. Highly recommended.

My Heart Is Laughing
By Rose Lagercrantz
Illustrations by Eva Eriksson
Gecko Press, 120 pages
Published: 2014

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny

In my family not one but two of my sisters are black belts. All four of my nephews have studied various martial arts, and my 13-year-old niece is a kick-ass student of tae-kwan-do. Me, I stick to yoga. All this is to say that through the years I've become acquainted with the tenets behind martial arts. And that's why I can highly recommend Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny, a beginning chapter book featuring Isabel, the BEST bunjitsu artist in her school (dojo).

Isabel encapsulates the underlying philosophy of martial arts. As she eloquently states, "Bunjitsu is not just about kicking, hitting, and throwing….It's about finding ways to NOT kick, hit, and throw." Each short chapter demonstrates a Zen-like lesson that is thought-provoking rather than didactic. In "The Challenge" a big and burly jackrabbit dares Isabel to meet him in the marsh for a fight, vowing to hit her so hard that she will "fly to the moon." He waits and waits, but she never shows up. Max finds her and asks if she lost on purpose. But she didn't lose, Isabel tells her friend. "He did not hit me." This is not to say that readers won't find some serious fighting in the book. In "The Pirates" Isabel battles a boatload of foxy pirates, while in "Bearjitsu Bear" Isabel seemingly takes abuse from a boastful bear until she shows him who's boss.

Author  and illustrator John Himmelman, a martial arts instructor, based Isabel on one of his students.  Since girls often get short shrift when it comes to combat sports, Isabel's feisty attitude is an especially welcome addition to the world of chapter books.

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny
By John Himmelman
Henry Holt, 128 pages
Published: October 2014

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Scary Stories for Beginning Readers

Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have raised goosebumps in many a child. (The truly spooky illustrations by Stephen Gammell add to the shiver factor.)  But Schwartz also compiled two collections of scary stories for those just learning to read.

In a Dark, Dark Room introduces beginning readers to scary men with long teeth, a ribbon-wearing girl with a secret, and a driver passing a cemetery who stops to pick up a young boy on a rainy night, among others.














Ghosts! continues the shivery suspense with stories about spirits from another realm. In the collection a boy and a girl explore an abandoned house, a cat haunts a pet shop, and a teeny tiny woman takes a set of teeny tiny teeth from a grave.















Both books are a delight, and it's a matter of personal taste which books' illustrations you prefer. Dirk Zimmer illustrations for In A Dark, Dark Room are deliciously eerie, while Victoria Chess's chubby ghosts are more funny than frightening.

And if you'd like to hear "The Green Ribbon," one of the stories from In a Dark, Dark Room, then click here.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Flat Rabbit

Let me say it right away: This is one strange book. After a first read, I was pretty sure I would not be reviewing it. Then a few weeks passed and I picked it up again and reread it. It's still a strange book, but this time I saw its appeal.

The Flat Rabbit has a simple plot. A dog and a rat come across a rabbit on the side of the road. The rabbit is obviously deceased, run over no doubt by a car. Yet this fact is never mentioned. The crux of the book is the dog and rat deciding what to do with the rabbit. They knew her vaguely but weren't close. Yet something must be done; they both feel they can't leave her carcass lying there. After pondering the problem, the dog comes up with a solution. He and the rat peel her body from the road and attach it to a kite. Then they fly the kite until is high above them and release it to continue its journey skyward.

What I found compelling the second time around was the questioning attitude of the dog and rat. Much like children, neither one had answers--or even were sure of the questions. Yet they didn't flinch from the subject of death and how best to honor a life.

Marita Thomsen translated Oskarsson's text from Faroese, and to my ears has done a good job. The minimalistic text is understated and at times droll.

"They could leave her outside number 34, but what would the people there think if they saw a dog and a rat bringing back their rabbit, totally flattened? No good would come of that."

Oskarsson's illustrations, done in pastel watercolors, are equally spare. Everything isn't spelled out for young readers; they'll have to make connections by closely looking at the pictures. Is the gray car on the facing page that shows the flattened rabbit responsible for its condition? The author/illustrator isn't saying.

Honest, secular books for children about death are rare indeed. Margaret Wise Brown and Remy Charlip's The Dead Bird springs to mind. My favorite, though, is Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch. (Read my review.The Flat Rabbit has joined this short list. I'm glad I gave it another chance.

The Flat Rabbit
by Bardur Oskarsson
Owl Kids, 40 pages
Published: september 2014

  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Alice's Wonderland and Me


The past year has been a busy one for me, and the image above shows why. I researched and wrote Alice's Wonderland: A Visual Journey through Lewis Carroll's Mad, Mad World. It was a hoot and a half, especially getting to watch all the old and new Wonderland movies, TV shows, operas, and ballets that are out there. The book is due out on November 1st, so if you're at all interested in Alice and her gang, this is a shameless pitch to buy my book.

I received my advance copy last week, just in time for me to trot off to Toronto and give a presentation about the book to the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. My hubby and I had a blast there--Carrollians are a welcoming bunch--and I enjoyed listening to the other talks and going on a tour of the Toronto Public Library's fine collection of Alice memorabilia.

Here I am at the podium.


Tomorrow I'm off on another exciting adventure. I'll be at Comic Con in New York City, my old stomping grounds. You can read all about it at QGeekBooks. So if you happen to be at the Javits Center this Friday between 1 and 3, look me up. I'd love to meet you!


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.