Monday, July 30, 2012

The Shark King

Nanaue is not your average little boy. For one thing, he sports some mean snapping jaws between his shoulder blades. Perhaps that's because Dad is the Shark King, a shape-shifter who fell in love with Nanaue's mother, a mere mortal.

The Shark King, one of Toon's graphic novels, retells a Hawaiian legend, adapting it for beginning readers. The story is simple, yet powerful. Nanaue's father leaves the night before his son is born, and the boy grows up yearning for him. That doesn't stop Nanaue from enjoying his prowess in the water. A fast swimmer, he boasts, "No fish in the sea can outswim me!"

Nanaue also has a bottomless pit for a stomach and devours fish. (He is half shark, after all.) His appetite gets him into trouble when he sabotages the local fishermen's catches. Pursued by them, he leaps into the ocean and finds his way to his father. His mother? She's left behind, but she's obviously not the clingy sort. She's content to savor the tasty sea snails they drop off for her.

What I like best about this book is the bold, vivid artwork. R. Kikuo Johnson does an excellent job of conveying action and pacing his story. Kids will be completely absorbed as they flip the pages, wondering what will happen to Nanaue next.

The Shark King
by R. Kikuo Johnson
Toon Books, 40 pages
Published: April 2012

Monday, July 23, 2012

Another Great One Gone

If I were a children's book author of a certain age, I'd be quaking in my boots. So many VIPs have died in 2012 and the year is only little more than half over. To the list of Maurice Sendak, Jean Craighead George, Else Minarik, and Donald Sobol, we must now add Margaret Mahy, a New Zealander author and winner of the prestigious Hans Christian Anderson medal.

Mahy was a special favorite of mine. She wrote wonderful supernatural novels--I especially like The Haunting and The Changeover--but I'm also a big fan of her picture books. The Man Whose Mother is a Pirate is classic Mahy, as is The Three-Legged Cat. Both books feature characters who trade in their constricted lives to roam the world.

And what a marvelous stylist she was.

The little man could only stare. He hadn’t dreamed of the BIGNESS of the sea. He hadn’t dreamed of the blueness of it. He hadn’t thought it would roll like kettledrums, and swish itself on to the beach. He opened his mouth and the drift and the dream of it, the weave and the wave of it, the fume and foam of it never left him again. At his feet the sea stroked the sand with soft little paws. Farther out, the great, graceful breakers moved like kings into court, trailing the peacock-patterned sea behind them.”
--From The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate

RIP Margaret Mahy. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always

Tao Nyeu presents four short stories in her latest picture book about two BFFs, or make that FFAs (Friends for Always).  The first story starts with a spat, as the two friends disagree on a chilly day whether socks or mittens should be worn on tentacles. Not a problem for most readers, but then we're not cephalopods.

The second story offers a surprise. When Squids dreams he has X-ray vision, readers get to lift the flap to see what's going on inside a giant submarine cruise ship. Story number three, "The Hat," is the strongest of the bunch. Octopus finds a cowboy boot and decides it's a hat. His confidence in his choice wilts as other sea creatures see the boot as a vase, flowerpot, and doorstop. Luckily Squid shares his friend's vision. In the final story, the pair imagine what the fortune in their cookie holds for them.

Nyeu creates a whimsical world for the friends to inhabit. Her silkscreen illustrations, in subdued pastel hues, are intricate and full of surprises. Beginning readers will pour over the witty details and asides, such as a pair of lobsters gossiping over bowls of soup. ("So I heard Lucy molted the other day." "You don't say!")

Squid and Octopus is a charming addition in the long tradition of fictional duos.

Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always
by Tao Nyeu
Dial, 40 pages
Published: June 2012

Monday, July 16, 2012

RIP Else Holmelund Minarik

On July 12, Else Holmelund Minarik, author of the Little Bear I Can Read series (so wonderfully illustrated by Mauruce Sendak), died at age 91. The Little Bear books helped this blogger learn to read and to love reading and so I owe Minarik my gratitude. In my school first graders were given Dick and Jane primers to practice on. I never got far with them, but at home there was a stack of well-thumbed Little Bear books. My mother read them to me, and I would mimic her, pretending to read the words when I had only memorized them. (I wasn't fooling anyone, myself included.) Then, one day, I picked up one of the books and--miracle of miracles--I wasn't reciting. I was reading! The letters on the page had magically shifted and suddenly made sense. So thank you, Else Holmelund Minarik, for writing words that mattered.

Read the New York Times obit here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Beware the Ninja Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales

Beware, indeed. The Ninja Weenies are a bunch of martial arts wannabes causing havoc at the narrator's school. Then his birthday party threatens to be ruined by the bullies until a real ninja comes to his rescue. That's just one of the more than two dozen short stories in David Lubar's latest collection. The stories are super short--most run three to four pages--and all feature outlandish or downright weird happenings. A snow globe that makes real snow, a pool that becomes the ocean, casting its young swimmer adrift, bedbugs that suck an unfortunate hotel guest dry. Boys are the protagonists in the majority of the tales, but one of my favorites features a girl. In "A Christmas Carol," Carol loves Christmas so much she wishes it will never end. When a genii dressed as Santa grants her wish, savvy readers suspect how it will end. The tale, however, turns our expectations upside down.

While not all the stories deliver, enough do to make this a worthwhile collection. Fans of The Twilight Zone will find much to enjoy between its pages. Lubar wraps up his book by revealing how he got the idea for each story, a nice touch.

Beware the Ninja Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales
by David Lubar
Starscape/Tom Doherty, 192 pages
Published: June 2012

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Greyhound of a Girl

Roddy Doyle is one of my favorite contemporary novelists. I especially like The Woman Who Walked into Doors and Paula Spencer. So I was intrigued to discover he also writes fiction for children. His latest is A Greyhound of a Girl, and it's an unusual take on a ghost story. Set in present day Dublin, the novel's protagonist is Mary, a 12-year-old who speaks her mind, occasionally veering into being cheeky. One day coming home from school she meets a curiously old-fashioned woman who seems familiar, although Mary is sure she's never seen her before.

It turns out the woman is the ghost of her great grandmother, who died suddenly of the flu in 1928. She's returned to guide her daughter, Emer, who's dying, from this world to the next. To do that she needs Mary and her mother Scarlett's help. The four generations of women embark on a journey one night, traveling to revisit the farm where the great grandmother and grandmother once lived.

As in his adult books, Doyle is especially strong on dialog and the three women and one-woman-in-waiting banter in distinctive, colloquial voices. Doyle explores mother-daughter relationships from different viewpoints and astute readers will enjoy seeing how Scarlett's struggles for independence are later echoed by Mary. And while the novel pingpongs from present to past, because the characters are so clearly drawn, the reader is never confused. If you like your ghost stories light on scary and full of heartfelt emotion, A Greyhound of a Girl is for you.

A Greyhound of a Girl
by Roddy Doyle
Amulet, 208 pages
Publication: May 2012