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Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in July and August, 2008. These are new(ish) books, but might 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: July & August, 2008

"Little Apple Goat"
Written by Caroline Jayne Church
Illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church
(Eerdman's, 2007)

A happy little goat living on a nice little farm develops a taste for fresh fruit, plucking apples, cherries and pears right off the trees. When a terrible storm flattens the orchards, everyone is sad, but soon after (rather quickly, as a matter of fact) a new orchard sprouts up by the fence where Little Apple Goat like to spit her pits out. Not the most amazing narrative, but it has a nice message of circle-of-lifey renewal and unexpected happy endings. Plus, it's pro-fruit, which is also a plus. The artwork is very appealing, simple and clear. (B)

"The Cow That Laid An Egg"
Written by Andy Cutbill
Illustrated by Russell Ayto
(Harper Collins, 2008)

Marjorie, a barnyard cow is envious of all the other animals, who are all "special" somehow, although the cow neurotically feels that she is not... In addition to the other cows (who can all ride bicycles) the chickens are a particular source of envy -- gosh, if only the cow could lay an egg! Well, the other kind critters on the farm help out, planting one of their own eggs (with spots painted on it) underneath dear old Marjorie, who wakes up and practically has a cow, she is so delirious with joy. While the chickens are more than willing to go along with the ruse, the other cows grow suspicious and accuse the hapless Marjorie of being a fraud. Just as tensions rise to a head, the egg begins to crack open and out emerges a little baby --we told you so!! -- chick. Then, in a clear homage to Horton Hears A Who, the little peeper opens its beak and lets out a large, delicious MOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Another daffy offering from Great Britain, with collage-style artwork from the puckish Russell Ayto. (B-)

"Princess Baby"
Written by Karen Katz
Illustrated by Karen Katz
(Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2008)

An adorable, pink-clad toddler complains that her parents (and everybody else) keep calling her by the wrong names: Cupcake, Buttercup, Sweetie Pie, Little Lamb, etc. -- when what she really wants to be called is... Princess Baby!! Aimed at smaller kids (and their parents) this is about as smotheringly precious and cutesy-wootsy as it sounds, although that may appeal to some families. Graphically strong, and very girly, as well, since PB spends several pages dressing-up in order to be cute enough to say her secret name out loud. Also, a nice, gentle text addressing the need for tiny people to assert themselves. (B-)

"Someday When My Cat Can Talk"
Written by Caroline Lazo
Illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker
(Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2008)

This children's picturebook goes off in several different directions and might try to do a little too much all at once -- is it a book about kittycats, or about European travel? The "hook" in the title is that, when her cat learns to talk, he'll tell her all about his world (preferably in rhyme...) That's all very well and fine, but then, after a few pages of telling her about dogs and flowers and fish, the cat jumps a ship and goes abroad on a whirlwind tour of Europe with cute little couplets for each destination - England, France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Greece. The artwork (from Kyrsten Brooker, whose work I like a lot) helps bring the text alive, but the story is muddled. It's also not particularly cat-oriented, when you come down to it: he runs an Olympic torch relay, goes in for bullfighting, etc., but his feline nature mostly gets lost in the mix. The concept might work for some folks (cat loving parents about to take Junior overseas on the Grand Tour?) but others might get a little lost in the rush to pack in so many ideas all at once. (C+)

"Rainbow Magic -- The Weather Fairies, No. 1: Crystal, The Snow Fairy"
"Rainbow Magic -- The Weather Fairies, No. 2: Abigail, The Breeze Fairy"
"Rainbow Magic -- The Weather Fairies, No. 3: Pearl, The Cloud Fairy"
"Rainbow Magic -- The Weather Fairies, No. 4: Goldie, The Sunshine Fairy"
"Rainbow Magic -- The Weather Fairies, No. 5: Evie, The Mist Fairy"
"Rainbow Magic -- The Weather Fairies, No. 6: Storm, The Lightning Fairy"
"Rainbow Magic -- The Weather Fairies, No. 7: Hayley, The Rain Fairy"
Written by Daisy Meadows
Illustrated by Georgie Ripper
(Scholastic Books, 2006)

This is the second series of "Rainbow Magic" fairy books written by Daisy Meadows, picking up where the seven-part "Rainbow Fairies" series left off. These books are innocent and engaging, focusing on two young girls, Kirsty and Rachel, who meet while on vacation with their parents, and are drawn into the magical world of the fairies, who are in conflict with the mischievous Jack Frost. The structure of this series is nearly identical to the first: the girls are given a quest in which they must help seven fairies who have been bothered by Jack and his goblin helpers. In each book they complete one part of the quest and meet one new fairy, each one with sparkles aplenty and cute, super-girly outfits and princess-y names such as Hayley, Heather, Iris, Amber and Iris... It is important to know going in that these books are interconnected -- each individual volume ties in with the others, so you will want to start with book #1, then go on to #2, etc. The plots are not very complicated, but they do make reference to each other, and the idea is to read them all together. The other thing to know is that these books are not very scary or troubling - there is action, but not much real danger (the goblins are easily vanquished, and not very frightening) so if you are looking for longer narratives for young kids to read, but don't want anything disturbing, this series is good option, even if the level of writing is pretty brainless. One criticism is that the books are pretty WASP-y, and while a couple of the fairies could conceivably be seen as Asian, basically the entire series takes place in an all-white, middle-class world, populated with thin, blonde girls and a few brunettes. Other than that, though, this is a good series for families looking for light, engaging, age-appropriate stories. Not much depth, but they are very readable and engaging; the first series was a little more inspired. (B-)

"As Good As Anybody"
Written by Richard Michelson
Illustrated by Raul Colon
(Harper Collins, 2007)

This is a good nonfiction picturebook for older children interested in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. It compares the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish Jew who fled the Holocaust as a young man and came to the United States, where he was drawn into the civil rights movement, and became one of MLK's allies in the Jewish community. Both men were bright, articulate and charismatic, and they were both motivated by their sensitivity to injustice, which they saw plenty of in their own young lives. The book shows how people from different cultures and divergent faiths can join together for a common good, and transcend the differences that are often used to keep people apart. Although their religious faith is mentioned, it is used in a restrained, tasteful way, making the book accessible to more secular or nondenominationally-oriented readers. Good starting point for a 20th Century civics/history lesson. (B+)

"Waking Beauty"
Written by Leah Wilcox
Illustrated by Lydia Monks
(Penguin/G.P. Putnam, 2008)

The sequel to Wilcox's delightful fairytale spoof, Falling For Rapunzel, this book recreates some of the loopy charm and tart, clever rhyming of the first, although it's not quite as punchy or crisp. Here, a hapless prince comes across a sleeping princess, but every time the three fairies that guard her bed try to tell him what to do, he interrupts them and tries something else. When he finally realizes they expect him to kiss the girl, his reaction is decidedly six-year-oldish: yucko! Prince Charming does as he's told, though, and just as he's starting to enjoy the kiss, the princess wakes up and decks him. (Then she has to wake him up.) The sensuousness of the kiss and the thematic emphasis on her punching the prince may be a little worrisome to more overprotectivoid parents, but on the whole this is a fine, fluffy treat. I absolutely love Lydia Monks' artwork, and once again she delivers on this one. A nice twist on the fairy princess genre. (B)

Movies, Music & Other Stuff

"National Geographic Kids"
(National Geographic)

Wow - what a travesty. After a yearlong gift subscription to National Geographic's Little Kids magazine (which is insubstantial, but harmless) we thought it might be nice for our kid to graduate to the larger-format Kids magazine, expecting it to be a long-term stepping stone to the more venerable adult magazine. Then we got our first issue. Omigawd. We were utterly shocked at how terrible and completely inappropriate this magazine is. Yeah, sure, they have a banner headline proclaiming a "Green Tips" section, but the magazine is awash in advertising and the exact kinds of mindless consumerism that have destroyed our environment. There are ads for candy, TV shows, trading cards, Pop Tarts, video games and DVDs as well as several pop culture articles that double as product and movie advertisements and even a regular column reviewing video games (!) This is not what we expect from National Geographic. They have utterly sold their souls and forsaken the core mission of the original magazine. What little nature-oriented content there is in this "magazine" is poorly written and pitched to the lowest common denominator. Assuming this is a magazine intended for kids ages... 6-12, maybe?... the level of writing is insultingly close to moronic, little more than blurbs and factoids amid garish, slapdash graphic layouts. It's not worth the paper it's printed on. We immediately called their subscription department and demanded a refund -- next I'm going to ask the local library to cancel their subscription as well. Unless there is a major editorial overhaul, I would strongly recommend that families avoid this publication" find a good nature book for your kids instead.

"Ranger Rick"
(National Wildlife Federation)

Yay. After our soul-chilling encounter with the overly-commercialized National Geographic Kids, we got several recommendations to try the National Wildlife Federation's Ranger Rick magazine instead, and were pleased to find that it was exactly the kind of eco-friendly, nature-oriented magazine we were looking for. There are lots of cute articles about critters and plants and bugs, with puzzles, games and activity pages, nice photography and adequate artwork... and most importantly there are no ads The NWF's nature conservation/activist philosophy intrudes a little bit -- I don't have a problem with the message, but it's hard to introduce into a kid's magazine without hitting a preachy, clunky tone -- bit overall, this is a fine magazine. If you're looking for a nature-oriented publication that can help get you kid in touch with the world around us, this is a great option. NWF has two other magazines, Wild Baby Animal and Your Big Backyard, which are geared towards younger kids. Their website is sadly lacking in online content, but you can still check it out and give them a donation, if you fee so inclined.

"Beauty And The Beast" (DVD)
(Disney, 1991)

Throwing ourselves further down the Disney-princesses well, we finally let out kid see Beauty And The Beast and... surprise! It's pretty good. The animation has its jerky, antiquated moments, but the plot is good, and the songs are great. No, seriously. There's a lot of clever wordplay in the lyrics -- in the best Hollywood-Broadway musical tradition -- and enough intellectual heft to keep your parental brain lobes functioning, despite multiple viewings. The emotional message is a double-edged sword -- on one hand the look-for-beauty-beneath-the-surface, take-time-to-know-someone message is welcome. The inferred domestic abuse subtext is a little more complicated: he's scary, she leaves him, she comes back. Yeah, maybe it was just a spat, but these films are ultra-mega-archetypal, and they get into little brains, in very deep places. So, watch it yourself ahead of time and see what you think. We were pleased: this is good popular culture, even if it is all girly and stuff. (A)

"Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane"
Written by Sean McKeever
Illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa
(Marvel Comics, 2007)

Author Sean McKeever's brilliant, intricate, sensitive graphic novel series focusses on the early teen years of Mary Jane Watson (later to become "Mrs. Spider-Man"), her infatuation with the new local superhero, and the complex social and emotional world of high school. This is a rare comic book in which each character is keenly defined, and Mary Jane's life is in an emotional turmoil that will remind many readers of their own adolescent angst. After science geek/cutie pie Peter Parker starts going out with Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane swallows her hurt and gives up her claim on Peter's affections. In the place of the intimacy she desires, MJ instead substitutes popularity and glamour: her acting debut in a school production of Shakespeare makes her the talk of school, and the "new" Mary Jane emerges as the glib, fast-talking, devil-may-care flirt that readers first met in the original 1960s Spider-Man. It's all a facade, however. Mary Jane is "going plastic," becoming a shallow fake and a school celebrity, rather than face up to and feel her real emotions, and eventually this falseness comes back to bite her in the butt.

If this sounds like heady stuff for a comic book, that's because it is. This series is, quite simply, one of the psychologically complex and real-feeling super-comics ever published, reclaiming both the superhero and romance genres from their pitiably one-dimensional historical roots. Spider-Man makes a few cameos, but they are almost afterthoughts -- the writing and emotional tone of these books are absolutely pitch-perfect. The manga-ish artwork is also a delight, packed with tremendous visual nuance, warmth and wit. Sean McKeever and Takeshi Miyazawa's glimpse into highschool life is doubtless tamer and more benign than what kids today are really going through, but it still has resonance and depth far beyond any other teen-themed comicbook I could think of... Besides, this isn't meant to be an issue-oriented teen book, filled with public service announcements about teen sex, drugs or Columbine-like obsessions -- it is, instead, an interior study of one of the key female characters in the superhero universe. And it succeeds on every level.

If the goal of these books is to draw more girls into reading comics, more power to 'em! I have a little girl who is interested in comics, but most of what's out there is wildly inappropriate for little kids, especially young girls. This title ranks alongside Scott McCloud's late, lamented Zot! as one of the few comics I could think of that I would actually recommend for parents who are looking for wholesome, substantive, engaging comics to give their kids. It's pretty darn good! (ReadThatAgain children's book reviews) (A)

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