Tuesday, January 31, 2012


By Jon Agee

(Hyperion, 2008)

I’ll admit the cover illustration looks enticing: pathways meandering by palm trees, pink condos and blue sky. What a stark contrast to the black, rainy sky I took in as I began my daily 2 ½ hour commute to work at 5:45 this morning. The middle word of the title, in bold yellow block letters looks even more inviting. Alas. Like Space Mountain at Disneyland, the best rides have the longest waits.

Unless you’re Brian. He may be young, but poor Brian is worn out from the daily grind of schooldogwalkingviolinlessonsandeatyourbroccoli. Enough already! Brian summons the family to the living room and announces, “It’s been a wonderful eight years, but I need a break.”

Bravo, Brian.

And so young Brian does what all retired folk must do: he moves to Florida. What a life! Golf. Tennis. Middle of the day movies. But there’s also drawn out storytelling about surviving hip replacement surgery. And prune juice smoothies. Is Brian truly suited for retired life?

Something captivates me in Agee’s simple illustrations, particularly as to how he draws Brian’s companions at the Happy Sunset Retirement Community. The sum is certainly greater than the parts. Like comic strip art, a minimal number of lines and squiggles manage to create expressive, distinct characters. I longed for another book devoted entirely to Myrtle and her massive photo album of all her grandchildren. Time stands still as she smiles and points to yet another baby picture.

Throughout The Retired Kid, Agee conveys a gentle sense of humor that can be appreciated by young and old. Even those of us with hot flashes of retirement envy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


By Brian Selznick

(Scholastic, 2007)

It is worth celebrating that two of the Best Picture Oscar nominees are based on screenplays adapted from children’s books. Has that ever happened before? First, there is WAR HORSE, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo. As well, there is HUGO, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. (I have yet to see either movie. Books first!)

Hugo Cabret tells the story of a boy who secretly lives within the walls of a train station in Paris. As with so many protagonists in children’s novels, he is completely on his own. His father recently perished in a fire and Hugo’s only living relative is an unpredictable alcoholic uncle left one night and never returned. Hugo lives in his uncle’s tiny apartment, worried that he’ll be sent to an orphanage if he should be discovered living alone. So as not to arouse suspicion, he spends his days completing the duties of his uncle’s job, fixing and winding the many elaborate clocks in the train station. (In an age of digital time telling, I wonder how many young readers would benefit from a lesson about old clocks and hand-wound pocket watches.)

Hugo survives as best he can, stealing milk and baked goods from local merchants. Should he be caught, he knows the Station Inspector will send him to jail. Still, Hugo’s thievery involves more than food. He takes wind-up novelties from a sour old toy booth owner. These toys—and the shop owner—serve a greater purpose, integral to the story.

Like the previously reviewed (but later-written) Wonderstruck, Hugo Cabret is a both a hefty volume and a quick page turner. Selznick advances the story, alternating between textual passages and sketch sequences. Some written pages have more white space than words, a design necessity when the next page turn leads to a series of sketches. If only the words were included in the book, Hugo Cabret would amount to about 150 pages. The sketches and the authentic stills from silent movies create the heft, making the book come off the presses at over 500 pages. I am sure there was a great deal of discussion about whether the drawings could be reduced or eliminated to cut costs. Thankfully the visual reading remains a key part of the book. Readers will find great satisfaction in advancing so quickly through a massive book. How satisfying to finish a tome as thick as a briefcase!

Forget Diary of a Wimpy Kid....Up next, War and Peace. Or another Selznick book.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Written by Eugene Trivizas

Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

(Heinemann Young Books, 1993)

My grandmother once shocked me by saying, “Nothing is silly. Silly is stupid.” No doubt she blurted that in a moment of exasperation as I stuffed pickles in my nose and tried to speak Duck. Still, her words have always troubled me. How could she miss out? After all, sometimes silly was uproariously funny. You just have to be in the right mindset.

And how I’d love to have been in Eugene Trivizas’s mind as he created The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig! If you are going to turn a fairly tale on its head, by all means, go all out. Mission accomplished. The title, of course, reveals the twist, but it’s the details that transform this story into its own cherished classic.

As the wolves venture into the world on their own, they stumble upon a kangaroo pushing a wheelbarrow full of bricks. Naturally! And how lucky! Everyone knows that kangaroos are only too happy to give away all that they cart around in their wheelbarrows. All one has to do is ask. (Politely, of course.)

The wolves are indeed sweet, civilized things. They play croquet and enjoy afternoon tea. How dare a dirty, rotten pig mess with them! Big pig huffs and puffs when he comes upon the wolves’ new home, a quaint brick abode on the edge of the forest. We know from the original fairy tale that huffing plus puffing does not equal a mound of bricks in the rubble. However, big pig, being despicable and cunning, returns with a sledgehammer to destroy the home and send the cute, furry wolves a-running with only their coveted teapot in paw. (Yes, these wolves, know what is important.)

I shan’t give away more of the plot, but I am willing to bet my grandmother would have tossed the book aside by the time she got to the part with the flamingo. Silly? Stupid? Ah, come on. It’s pure joy!

Friday, January 20, 2012


By Chris Van Dusen

(Puffin, 2005)

Fisher Price cars, Matchbox cars, model cars...boys love them. These speeding, crashing, even flying toys become characters, defined by a child’s ever changing imagination. Many a boy dreams of being a race car driver, a bulldozer operator or perhaps a Zamboni master. These are the boys who will love If I Built a Car.

As the book begins, Jack rides in the back seat of his father’s car. It is a vehicle that fails to impress.

This car is OK. This car is not bad.
But it’s just a car. Nothing great. Nothing grand.

Jack uses the ride to think about his designs for a truly remarkable car, a dent-proof, passenger-safe invention with a face, fins and a Plexiglas dome. Inside, this contraption offers comforts that exceed the perks of glitziest stretch limo. Who wouldn’t want to nap while Robert the Robert navigates the journey, especially when “he’s guaranteed not to hit telephones poles”? Ah, luxury without the irksome lawsuits.

There’s more to amaze the reader. Jack’s creation floats on water, dives below the surface and catapults into the sky. The feature that is my personal favorite is that noxious fumes are transformed into tantalizing smells such as just-picked roses or fresh-baked blueberry muffins. How nice of Jack to provide momentary pleasure to pedestrians who cannot have their own super-mobile!

There is much for intrigued readers to digest. Van Dusen does not water down the vocabulary as he refers to retractable wings, zeppelins, a catamaran and even a stickleback gar. On first read, the terms will be overlooked details as the illustrations serve as the focal point. However, on repeated visits, the inquisitive reader/listener will want to know more. I can see this book triggering rich discussion, online research and a search for more books about different modes of transportation.

The illustrations provide a retro-modern vibe reminiscent of the futuristic depictions on “The Jetsons.” In fact, the endnote about the author indicates that Van Dusen’s inspiration came from visions of the future portrayed in Popular Science magazine from the 1950s and 1960s. The shout-out to the past extends to the malts and aerosol cheese snacks stocked in Jack’s über awesome invention.

The best part of reading If I Built a Car is the book can be a vehicle to the planning and drawing of the reader’s own fantasy car. Perhaps the child can create a whole new transport line, with sporty compacts, state of the art ambulances and truly magical school buses. Fifteen years from now, I may still be driving the same ol’ Civic, but what fun it will be to see a fleet of innovative inventions whizzing by me on the highway!

Monday, January 16, 2012


Written by Brigitte Raab

Illustrated by Manuela Olten

(North-South Books, 2006)

Young readers are exposed to many stories. Engaging nonfiction books are harder to find. First published in German—how fun would it to be to learn how to properly pronounce Wo wächst der Pfeffer?Where Does Pepper Come From? offers silly and serious answers to questions most of us (including adults) have cannot explain with our own general knowledge.

As an example, Raab asks, “Why are flamingos pink?” The silly answer is, “Because they’re embarrassed about being stared at in the zoo.” Manuela Olten provides an equally amusing illustration, with a dog barking at the birds and a man snapping a photo while an exhausted child has a public meltdown and two other children are more interested in fighting over cotton candy than observing the more natural wildlife. You’ll have to grab a copy of the book to find out the real explanation, told in an efficient twenty-five words.

All but one of the humorous answers is greeted by a simple “No!” with quirky pictures of children being told their guesses are off base. The factual answers are accompanied by several cells of illustrations to enrich the text.

It is a quick read, only eight questions and answers, including the title query. Aside from the common theme of being based in nature, there is no particular link between the questions. The book reads like trivia and, as with all trivia, some of it will be retained, but most will be quickly forgotten. That’s all right. Seeing the cover will remind children that the book is a good read and many will want to dive back in for another trivia round, taking pleasure in what they recall and relearning all that has been forgotten.

Answers to questions you may have never even contemplated about salt, pepper, sheep and migrating birds await.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


By Jeremy Tankard 

(Scholastic, 2007) 
Oh, what does it mean when I can connect all too easily to a book called Grumpy Bird? (Let’s just pretend I am thinking about the screechy Steller’s jays in my backyard.) 
To be sure, I am not the only one who has awoken in a bad mood just like Bird. First, we see him eyes closed in his nest. Even in slumber, he appears annoyed. (Perhaps, in his dream state, he realizes that the early birds have snatched up all the worms.) 

As the sun rises, Bird opens one eye. I’ve seen that kind of look. STAY AWAY! Tankard’s text instantly amuses: He was too grumpy to eat. He was too grumpy to play. In fact, he was too grumpy to fly. “Looks like I’m walking today,” said Bird. 
And yet, as Bird walks, the other animals do not stay away. They ask Bird what he is doing. Being a grumpy Bird, he curtly replies but for some reason the animals are undeterred. They follow Grumps. In time, all of them accomplish something quite remarkable. 
This book is a great springboard for discussing different moods. Sure, we all want to be happy, but that is not always the reality. We need to acknowledge children’s other feelings. It is okay to be mad, grumpy, sad, anxious. It is how we deal with those feelings that matters. 

Grumpy Bird is, of course, primarily entertainment. Bird is fictional kin with Oscar the Grouch and Statler and Waldorf (the two old guys among the Muppet posse). 

In the book, the animals all follow Bird. In life, it is better to give the sour individual some space to let him or her work through the mood and to then invite friends and family when ready to mix and mingle once more. After all, grumpiness can knock the happiness out of all who get sucked in.  

I recommend this book but I also recommend giving Grumpy Birds some time to walk alone.

Monday, January 2, 2012


By Brian Selznick

(Scholastic, 2011)

Normally I post about picture books, but Wonderstruck is like a picture tome, coming in at more than 600 pages. It is currently a hot read at my school—I had to snatch a copy from the public library—and follows Selznick’s previous epic The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Part of the appeal for these books is that they are undeniably fun reads. How cool to cart a massive book around and finish it in a day or two! The text is easy to read and regularly interrupted with pages of Selznick’s pencil sketches which advance the story. In no time, the reader has swept through the first hundred pages. By then, there is no going back. When finished, there is a greater feeling of accomplishment than reading a shorter, traditional novel that actually has more text. Sometimes size matters when seeking to boost reading attitudes.

The story jumps back and forth from the text-driven setting of Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, 1977, to the sketched story that begins in Hoboken, New Jersey, 1927. I shall focus on the events arising in Gunflint Lake where eleven-year-old Ben bunks with his very different cousin Robby after the recent death of Ben’s mother in a car accident. On a hot, stormy night, Ben creeps back to his mother’s house on the neighboring lot, only to make some surprising discoveries, including a book about museums, entitled “Wonderstruck”, and a locket belonging to his mother with a picture inside of a man named Daniel.

Ben, already deaf in one ear, dials a phone number in the middle of the storm and becomes completely deaf due to a lightning strike. While hospitalized in Duluth, Ben hops a bus to New York in search of the man in the locket whom he suspects may be his never-known father. Being young and deaf in New York City can be scary, even dangerous as Ben soon discovers. But Ben finds shelter in the American Museum of Natural History, Selznick’s tribute of sorts to E.L. Konigsburg’s classic From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Like The Mixed-up Files, Wonderstruck should tweak readers’ interest in museums and galleries and in understanding the past. But what stands out more is Selznick’s portrayal of living as a deaf person. The girl from 1927 is also deaf. Eventually, in searching for Daniel, Ben and the girl from the past meet up, introducing the reader to another magnificent museum piece.

Selznick’s sketches are outstanding in their detail. While many a reader will flip rapidly through these pages, the works should be pondered for their wordless portrayals of the past and for the artistic skill that is evident on each page. For me, Selznick’s greatest artistic achievement comes in the realism he conveys through characters’ eyes.

This is the kind of Big Book that, like the Harry Potter series, will get tweens keen to reread the same book, to talk excitedly about a common work and to explore other books. And all that is truly Wonderful!