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.

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