Friday, June 26, 2015

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower

Most biographies for kids feature upstanding citizens and if they do have a fault or two, the writer quickly glosses over them. Tricky Vic is a rare example of a picture book bio that chooses for its subject an out-and-out scoundrel. And what a bad seed old Vic was. Born Robert Miller in 1890, the Czech showed his true colors at an early age, dropping out of the University of Paris to become a professional gambler. Soon he took to the high seas, donning the alias Count Victor Lustig as he conned wealthy passengers aboard ocean liners. Arriving in the United States after World War I ended, Vic pulled a successful con job on Al Capone, one that allowed him to work the Chicago area with Capone's blessing.

But Vic's greatest scheme was yet to come: selling the rights to demolish the Eiffel Tower to greedy scrap metal dealers. He worked this con not once but twice! But the adage "crime doesn't pay" proved all too true in Vic's case. He was arrested in 1935 and after escaping from prison was recaptured and sent to Alcatraz. He died of pneumonia twelve years later.

Vic's crime-filled life is a great story and Pizzoli (The Watermelon Seed, Number One Sam) does a fine job telling it. Sidebars on prohibition, Parisian landmarks, counterfeiting, and Alcatraz round out the tale and put historical events in perspective for young readers. What makes Tricky Vic really stand out from other picture book bios, though, is its graphic design and artwork. Pizzoli has done a masterful job of creating jaw-dropping illustrations using "pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silkscreen, Zipatone, and Photoshop." The effect is both retro and modern. His best creative decision by far was not to give Vic features. Instead his face is represented by a thumbprint, giving this consummate con artist an air of mystery. Readers will instinctively recognize that Vic's true identity and nature can never be pinned down. He remains an enigma.    

Tricky Vic
The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
By Greg Pizzoli
Viking, 39 pages
Published: March 2015

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig

And really what story couldn't be improved by a pig in a wig? This beginning reader, told in rhyme, is a fun romp that begins: "What this story needs is a pig." In the ensuing pages the plump pink porcine acquires a wig, a boat, a moat, and a succession of animals--all squished into the teeny pink ship. Eventually the pig calls a halt to the pile-up and orders her fellow passengers off. But she soon realizes that a boat ride by oneself can be lonesome. But never fear, what the story needs now--a bigger boat--provides a happy solution for all.

Virján illustrates her story in eye-popping colors. Her flat cartoon style works well with the simple yet outrageous story line. Beginning readers will enjoy all the amusing details in the art, such as the dog and frog holding up number ratings as the goat balances on the log. Short on text but long on fun, this book is a winner!

What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig
By Emma J. Virján
Harper, 40 pages
Published: May 2015

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Meet the Dullards

Mr. and Mrs. Dullard want a peaceful, uneventful life for themselves and their three offspring: Blanda, Borely, and Little Dud. And who can blame them? But it has become increasingly difficult to maintain their stress-free life in the wake of recent events. Only last fall, they experienced leaves changing color. And on the day this tongue-in-cheek picture book begins, "an upsetting commotion in the driveway" takes place. To wit, a slug crosses their driveway. As Mr. Dullard observes, "There's never a dull moment."

After catching their three children reading books about the circus, their parents take action and move. In their new home, however, things go from bad to worse. An exclamation-using neighbor brings them applesauce cake make with chunky, not smooth, applesauce, and then the family discovers a brightly colored room in their new digs. (They didn't notice this before they bought the place?) After further adventures at the paint store--where they purchase a customized paint, the color of "oatmeal left in the pot," Mr. and Mrs. Dullard hope to put the horrors of the day behind them by watching paint dry. Blanda, Borely, and Little Dud have other plans, though, and subversively undermine their parents best-laid plans for them.

Readers will be chuckling way before they finish Pennypacker's droll tale of how these two helicopter parents foolishly try to curb a child's natural enthusiasm. And Salmieri's flat, goggly-eyed characters are anything but dull. His portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Dullard's reaction to the exuberantly painted room is priceless. Meet the Dullards belongs with other classic stories featuring conformist adults, such as Parry Heide's The Shrinking of Treehorn.

Meet the Dullards
By Sara Pennypacker
Illustrations by Daniel Salmieri
Balzer + Bray, 32 pages
Published: March 2015

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Owl Boy

Owl Boy is a hoot! Al is the boy in question and to say he likes owls is an understatement. Al's obsessed with these big-eyed raptors. Every inch of his room is covered with owl memorabilia and he entertains his family with endless facts about them. Al is living a happy life--until he's sent off to camp one summer. Forced to eat meatloaf (when owls eat mice), play on sports teams (when owls are solitary), go to bed at nine (when owls go out at night), Al takes a detour while out on a hike, deciding to look for owl nests instead. He soon becomes separated from the other campers and must spend the night in the forest. Much to his initial delight, Al finds himself eye to eye with a real live owl. Boy and owl explore the forest and Al gets to experience it like as an owl would--right down to an owl's rodent-filled diet. This last bit has an unexpected effect on Al. And while his obsessive nature isn't curtailed, it does find expression in a new, less distasteful hobby.

Schatell does a masterful job of humorously showing us Al's love of all things owl. His cartoony illustration of Al's owl-decorated room (down to the owl-patterned curtains)  is worth the price alone. As the book says, it's "an owl extravaganza"!


Owl Boy
By Brian Schatell
Holiday House, 32 pages
Published: 2015

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Lion, Tiger, and Bear

Oh my! I found this Level 4 reader while browsing at my local library. Nonfiction books can be a hard sell for beginning readers. Often, the books just rehash the same topics to death or they water down the content to such a degree that they are boring to read. Not so for Lion, Tiger, and Bear. Ritchey tells a heart-warming, high-interest story of how an African lion, a Bengal tiger, and an American brown bear became an unlikely trio of friends.

The animals were discovered in 2001 in the basement of a house where the owner was keeping the cubs illegally. The rescued cubs, suffering from various ailments, were sent to Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary. The caretakers there noticed that separating the cubs caused them distress so the decision was made to keep the trio together.

Ritchey presents this information without dwelling too long on upsetting details-Baloo the bear needed surgery due to a too tight harness that had dug into his skin--and gives a strong sense of the animals' personalities. The story ends on an upbeat note with an invitation to readers to visit the three compadres in person at their Georgia-based sanctuary. Photographs of the animals as cubs and fully grown will captivate the intended audience.

Lion, Tiger, and Bear
by Kate Ritchey
Penguin Young Readers, 48 pages
Published: 2015

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ling & Ting: Twice as Silly

In their third outing, twins Ling and Ting supply beginning readers with many opportunities to giggle and guffaw. Each of the six stories showcases the zany imaginations of young children at play. In the opening story, Ting attempts to plant cupcakes, and when that plan falls through, she comes up with another silly option--jellybeans. In subsequent stories the girls have fun with red paint, swing into outer space, come up with a wild plan to get apples, read each other's minds, and, in the grand finale, write a silly story that incorporates all their earlier adventures.

Bright and colorful, the illustrations add to the silliness, as when Ling and Ting are shown staging a breakout at the monkey cage an the zoo. I especially liked the design of each story's title page, which employs a key element of the story: The title of "The Garden" is spelled out in plants, "On the Swings" in puffy clouds, and "Apples" in rosy red fruit.

Another winner from the amazing Grace Lin!

Ling & Ting: Twice as Silly
By Grace Lin
Little, Brown   44 pages
Published: November 2014

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Seuss Fans Rejoice!

Even though Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, died more than twenty years ago, new work of his continues to be published. The latest is a recently discovered "lost" manuscript--with illustrations!--titled What Pet Should I Get? The book features the same brother and sister protagonists who appeared in One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, and was apparently written sometime between 1958 and 1962. 
Published by Random House Children’s Books, What Pet Should I Get? will be on bookshelves on July 28th of this year. At least two more books are in the works, all based on materials uncovered in the good doctor's home. Mark your calendars, Seussians!