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Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in February-March, 2008. These are mostly new(ish) books, but also include some older books we just found out about and liked more than others. Recommendations and submissions are welcome: please feel free to contact us about other books, new and old.

Many more books are reviewed in the site's permanent archives... These are organized alphabetically, either by Author Name or by Book Title.

New Book Reviews: February-March, 2008

"Little Boy With A Big Horn"
Written by Jack Bechdolt
Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino
(Random House/Golden Books, 2008)

Contemporary artist Dan Yaccarino tackles a golden oldie, first published by Golden Books in 1950, with artwork by Aurelius Battaglia... I'm not familiar with the original, but Yaccarino's illustrations are certainly up to the task, cheerfully depicting the tale of a young boy named Ollie who's trying to learn the tuba but winds up being chased out of every rehearsal place he finds, by parents, neighbors, farmers and farm animals who all complain about the noise. He keeps moving from spot to spot until, finally, he finds himself floating out at the edge of the foggy harbor just in time to warn an incoming ship with one big TOOOOOOOOT of his horn. Celebrated as a civic hero, the boy gets a scholarship to a conservatory, and at last finds a place where he can cut loose with his horn. This kind of gives a mixed-message about taking music lessons and the pacing of the story is a little ponderous, in that way old books can be, but this story will resound with the right audience and Yaccarino's art certainly makes it sparkle. (B-)

"And The Train Goes..."
Written by William Bee
Illustrated by William Bee
(Candlewick, 2007)

A kooky trains-and-sounds book with a jarringly bright, crazy-quilt visual style, this reminds me of some of the kid's books and print advertisements of the late 1950s and early '60s, where an impish pop-culture sensibility combines with highly formalized artistic technique. Indeed, some of the visual content is hard to take in, at least at first blush -- the pictures are so curlicued and baroque that the eye might not be able to make sense of it, at least not when reading along with the text. But if you come back to it and just zone out on the pictures, they are packed with fine-lined delights. The story is okay, but it's the graphical aesthetic that's the real attraction here -- in today's visual landscape, these pictures look unique and are just the kind of thing that the right readers could pour over for hours on end, just spacing and tripping out on. It's a nice train book, too, but it has a distinctly 19th-Century look to it that may be unfamiliar to some modern railroad enthusiasts; great for folks with a retro sensibility. (B-)

"The Girl In The Castle In The Museum"
Written by Kate Bernheimer
Illustrated by Nicole Ceccoli
(Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2008)

A trippy book about a teeny-tiny fairy-type girl who lives inside a snowglobe castle on display in a surrealistic museum of children's toys... She has melancholy dreams of being visited by children, a boy, from the outside world, and princess-like, she waits, trapped in amber, but forever there. The soft-gothy visual aesthetic brings to mind the work of stop-motion animator Jan Svankmeyer -- odd objects litter the scenes, the figures look fragile, enticing and remote. This is an odd, even creepy, book, one that will resonate deeply with the right audience, and will doubtless make indelible impressions on those select few, wan, pre-Lemony, Gaiman-friendly readers. If your kid is going Goth and still wonders about the Faerie Lands, you might wanna pick this one up. (B+)

"Mercy Watson: Three-Treat Collection"
Written by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
(Candlewick, 2007)

This slipcased box set gathers together the first three chapter books featuring that porcine marvel, Mercy Watson, a happy-go-lucky, toast-loving pig who lives in a suburban house and sleeps in the same bed with the jovial, childless Mr. and Mrs. Watson (much to the chagrin of their cranky next-door neighbor, Eugenia Lincoln, who has a thing against both pigs and people who are cheerful...) Included in this collection are Mercy Watson To The Rescue, Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride and Mercy Watson Fights Crime which introduce us to the cast of characters and set the tone for the rest of the series (which now includes a fourth book, Mercy Watson: Princess In Disguise, ith more to follow. The series is purposely written in a dumbed-down style, finding humor in repetition and overly-elaborated language, doing stuff like referring to each character by their full name twice in every every sentence. Likewise, the artwork is a combination of bright, colorful realism and mildly grotesque exaggerations (in the case of the human characters). Mercy's adventures are dopey and the plots are inconsequential, leaving room for the general goofiness of it all to take center stage. I wouldn't put these books at the top of my reading list, but we enjoyed them, and kids who are into goofiness and silliness just for the heck of it might get a big kick out of Mercy and her pals. The stories grow on you, especially if you read them all together. Can a TV cartoon series be far behind? (B)

"Diary Of A Wimpy Kid"
Written by Jeff Kinney
Illustrated by Jeff Kinney
(Abrams, 2007)

Greg Heffley is the kind of kid you probably want to keep your children away from, except chances are that if your kids are normal American rug-rats -- especially norman American adolescent boy rug-rats -- they are already just like him. Likewise, if you are a dutifully overprotectivoid parent, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid is the kind of book you might want to want to keep your little angels away from, but chances are that many of them have already read the book, since it is a national best-seller, wildly popular with the pre-teen crowd, as well as with the adult audience it was originally intended for. Wildly funny and refreshingly honest, Diary follows the mundane exploits of Greg, a marvelously flawed, utterly self-centered junior high student who always paints himself as the hero, whether he is being picked on by his older brother or if he himself is taking advantage of his best friend, Rowley, a neighborhood kid who Greg thinks is a dork and a simpleton. Originally conceived of as an online cartoon series, Diary is the bratty smaller cousin to the contemporary "young adult" novel boom: the themes are dark and cynical, but drugs and sex haven't entered into Greg's world yet, so there's still an innocence that is just as compelling as Greg's conniving narcissism. Writing in his journal, Greg mercilessly picks apart the foibles of his parents -- a humorless, lecturing mom and an utter patsy of a "nice" dad -- as well as his dopey, heavy metal-loving older brother and various and sundry teachers, etc. Greg has a harder time focussing his lens on himself and his peers: the same kind of manipulation you use on your family looks less cute when you try it out on your classmates, but Greg, the character, doesn't have the self-awareness to see what a rotten little punk he is. And that's the brilliance of this series: it's a joyful celebration of the clueless Eddie Haskell in us all, a Katzenjammer Kids for the 21st Century. Because of author/illustrator Jeff Kinney's utter honesty in presenting a real-live, all-American sneaky brat, the character leaps off the page from the very start. This is a version of adolescence that many people will identify with and remember all too clearly. We'll be charmed by Greg's callow selfishness and shake our heads fondly, remembering the days when we were just like that ourselves. Then we'll hide the book and hope to heaven that our kids'll never find it! It's a fun read. (B+)

"Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules"
Written by Jeff Kinney
Illustrated by Jeff Kinney
(Abrams, 2008)

This second volume of Wimpy Kid stories is just as compulsively readable as the first -- indeed, it reinvigorates the series a bit by focussing more attention on Greg's rotten older brother, Roderick, and delving into their ongoing sibling warfare. Roderick throws a Risky Business-style house party when the 'rents go out of town (and locks his little brother in the basement so he won't get in the way...) but Greg gets in trouble anyway, just because that's the way it works when you're a kid. Meanwhile, he's up to his usual hijinks at school and at home: Greg becomes popular after inventing a way to psychologically torture another kid by getting the whole school to pretend he doesn't exist; he has ongoing difficulty understanding why his durfy pal Rowley is so popular with the girls, and he frets endlessly that Roderick will "out" him over an embarrassing incident that happened over Summer vacation... Greg gives Roderick all kinds of power over him all year long (and won't tell us what happened, until the very end) and of course it turns out to be hardly anything at all -- just the kind of thing that a preteen kid would agonize over, although the panic doesn't really translate into the adult world. I have to admit, this series got to be a little exhausting after a while, although I read it from start to finish, unable to put it down. It's just that I had this nagging feeling that I should chase that kid away or call the cops or something... And what the heck is a twelve-year-old doing going out trick-or-treating, anyway? What a rotten kid! (PS - for more on the series, check out www.wimpykid.com ) (B+)

"Bella And The Bunny"
Written by Andrew Larsen
Illustrated by Kate Endle
(Kids Can Press, 2007)

A nice story about a girl who likes her school (nursery school? kindergarten, maybe?) and especially likes the class pet: a cute little bunny rabbit that she likes to visit and play with. One day, Bella leaves her snuggly new sweater -- a handmade gift from her grandmother -- at school, and looks for it in a panic, with the help of all her friends. They look through every nook and cranny of the schoolroom, in the nap area and the storytelling corner, etc., until finally they find it: the bunny rabbit had taken the sweater and was cuddled up with it because if was so soft. Awwwwwww. A nice book to read if you're trying to make the school environment look friendly and inviting for kids who are starting out their schoolgoing careers. Nice artwork, too. (B)

"A Tale Of Tails"
Written by Elizabeth H. MacPherson
Illustrated by Garth Williams
(Golden Books, 1962)

A nice simple celebration of those odd appendages that so many species have behind them (but we do not) -- behold, the mighty tail! Traveling from species to species, MacPherson gives humorous asides about a number of different critters, and even provides a smidge of natural history for budding naturalists to absorb. Her writing is clever and engaging, and is well matched by Garth Williams' delightful artwork, which has a lovely design quality to it, simple and elegant. I'm not familiar with the larger edition, but this board-book adaptation is pretty swell. Great for the littlest readers. (B+)

"Piano Starts Here"
Written by Robert Andrew Parker
Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker
(Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2008)

The biography of legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum, as told by Tatum in the first person, from his perspective as a pre-Depression-era child prodigy. This is a nice historical work that shows the open-air rough and tumble of the music business back in the first quarter of the 20th Century -- musically-oriented families might want to explore in conjunction with some of Tatum's recorded work. There are a few elements of the story that may be confusing or upsetting to smaller children: Tatum's early years working in nightclubs and gin joints isn't ignored, but it is presented rather neutrally, and adult readers may marvel at the absence of child labor laws, back in the good ol' days. (Tatum also died from complications of lifelong alcoholism, and while this doesn't come up in the book, one wonders about the connection to these early childhood gigs working in booze-soaked bars...) Tatum became all-but blind as a child, and if you haven't discussed disabilities with your kid yet, this book could provide a starting point, as well as a positive role model of a person who overcame blindness to become an internationally known performer. Nice artwork, too -- very reminiscent of the line drawings and watercolors that graced many classic jazz LPs back in the 1950s and '60s. Certainly worth checking out if you have a love of music and jazz that you'd like to pass on to your kids. (B+)

"The Random House Book Of Poetry For Children"
Edited by Jack Prelutsky
Illustrated by Arnold Lobel
(Random House, 1983)

Back in print, and fun as ever...! This is a big, densely packed treasury of poems both silly and serious, playfully illustrated by the venerable Arnold Lobel. Although it's geared towards the younger set, this anthology never condescends towards its audience. Like many similar collections, it's grouped by themes, often brief and fleeting -- a couple of pages of bird poems, followed by poems about flowers, games, friends -- all under larger headings such as a section of nature poems, one about the changing seasons, one on city life, etc. There's plenty of humor mixed in with some deep thought and reflection... Over 500 poems in varying modes and moods, all neatly packed into a solid, satisfying tome -- a great way to introduce young'uns to the world of poetry. (A)

"The Silk Princess"
Written by Charles Santore
Illustrated by Charles Santore
(Random House, 2007)

A beautifully-illustrated retelling of an ancient Chinese myth about the discovery of silk by the Empress Lei-Tsu, back in 2700 BC. Santore creates a new character to draw modern audiences in: a young princess who wanders the length of the empire, unraveling a silken cocoon as she goes, encountering a massive dragon and a mountain god who teaches her the secrets of weaving silk. The princess is made more sympathetic by a feminist twist: the Emperor also has two sons, who he dotes on, but he completely ignores his daughter until she reveals the secrets of the luxurious new fabric, and along with these secrets, her own bright spirit. Perhaps the greatest recommendation for this book is the artwork: modeled after classic Chinese paintings, it is lavish and expansive, with each page turning into a broad, panoramic two-page spread. It's like getting your kid a book of Van Gogh prints to stare at -- exposure to these classy images will surely help expand one's aesthetic horizons. Nice, fantasy-filled story, too! (B+)

"Would You Rather Be A Bullfrog?"
Written by Dr. Seuss (as "Theo LeSieg")
Illustrated by Roy McKie
(Beginner's Books, 1975)

A lesser-known, but no less wonderful offering from the good Dr. Seuss. The text is typically giddy, offering a series of silly choices: Would you rather be a dog or a cat? A bullfrog or a butterfly? A bloogle bird or a bumblebee? The interactive, participatory text works remarkably well -- you'll soon find your kid shouting out, "I wanna be a rooster! A jellyfish! The moose!" Although, if you're like me, and like Seuss, you might have trouble picking between the cat and the dog. A fun, simple, cheerful book.. Recommended! (B+)

"Ned's New Friend"
Written by David Ezra Stein
Illustrated by David Ezra Stein
(Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 2007)

Can anything come between a cowboy and his horse? Well, the horse didn't think so, but when Cowboy Ned meets a filly named Clementine, his sidekick cayuse Andy gets a little mopey and down in the dumps. Andy flirts briefly with sabotaging the romance, but in the end, he saves the day and helps Ned and Clementine hook up... The story ends on an unresolved note -- we don't know exactly how things will turn out, but we know that Andy has learned how to share his friend, and that all three characters will probably share an adventure or two, riding into the sunset together. It's kind of a goofy story, but it's nice, and it can serve multiple functions, as either a parable for childhood friendships, first loves lost, or about parents who find new partners. (B)

Other Stuff

"Charlie & Lola" (DVD)
(BBC, 2007)

We have become major, major converts to the wildly imaginative, heartwarming and refreshingly true-to-life Charlie & Lola series. Leave it to the Brits: this BBC series follows an indefatigable 3-ish, 4-ish little girl named Lola and her infinitely patient older brother as Lola learns to deal with disappointment, friendship, responsibility, how to play games without cheating all the time, losing baby teeth and wanting to do the same stuff that the big kids do. Sure, when you put it that way, the show sounds totally preachy, but actually it's quite the opposite: Lola is a marvelously flawed character -- she learns and changes, but only a little bit at a time, and she remains essentially the same self-centered, unconsciously destructive little kid she starts out as... She's also adorable, both for her mischievousness and utter transparency and 'cause she's a cute little kid. The series is based on author Lauren Child's popular picturebook series which set the basic visual template of collage-style graphics and wild flights of fantasy. (Although once you get hooked on the cartoons, the books will seem flat by comparison... ) The relationship between the two siblings is wonderful: Lola is a wheedling little pest, yet Charlie is calm and forebaring and always finds the sweet side to Lola's self-absorption. It's nice to see such a richly-layered, loving relationship in a kid's dramedy -- Charlie is a great role model, and a good counterpoint to Lola's immaturity: if he turned out so nice, she probably will, too. The series is remarkably intelligent, well-written, well-acted (with stellar voice talent), witty, wry, and never stoops to the kids-are-little-monsters grotesquery that dominates American animation today. Plus -- omigod! -- the theme song is so addictive! It's like a crack-coated hybrid between a '70s gameshow theme and an old Looper album. You will hum and whistle it endlessly, and never regret it once. Join usssssss.... join ussssss.... (A+)

  • Shoot Me Now: my kid followed a link from the ofttimes-ricketty Sesame Street website into their newer, glitzier, internationally-oriented Panwapa Island page, which is geared towards CTW's rapidly-expanding global audience. It's a much more high-tech site, with high-quality video streaming and long video sequences, featuring stories about cross-cultural understanding and compromise, etc. You can play games in various languages -- Spanish, Arabic, etc. -- and while on one level I'm happy to hear my kid parroting back the numbers 1-10 in Japanese, I have reservations about her learning it from the teeth-clenchingly shrill-voiced Panwapa muppets. It's like they colonized an entire archipelago of Elmos. The content is alright, but golly, the voice work is irritating. It's the kind of thing that seems specifically designed to drive parents bazonkers. Yeah, I guess that's educational...

  • A friend recently recommended Peep & The Big Wide World, a super-cutesy animated series from the Discovery Channel that features a bunch of simplistically rendered cartoon critters who have mildly illuminating adventures. The site's main draw is that they post a new cartoon every day, and these are moderately fun, although a bit on the dopey side. (No video archive, though -- I guess you'll have to tune into Discovery to get a bigger fix...) The site also has some games, although they're all pretty lame, and a section of suggestions for science projects you can do with your kid, like walking down the street writing down all the bugs you find, etc. I wasn't super-impressed, but my kid has been sitting in front of the computer drooling over the mouse -- she's gotta get it out of her system, I guess. Once again, I'm learning my lesson about previewing things first... Sigh.

  • Oh, God - shoot me again!! Our lil' angel was working on her fourth sonata the other day, when a co-worker loaned us a copy of Wonder Pets, which is immensely brainless but kind of cute. The plot is always the same: three cute little animals -- a gerbil, a duckling and a turtle -- cowboy up and save someone, and sing the same songs and say pretty much the same stuff each time. I like the animation (fairly crude photo-collage) but man, is this show babyish! Still, it's hard not to sing along when they say their slogan: "What's gonna work? Teeeeeeeeeeeamwork!" My brains are melting. Help me.

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