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Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in October-December, 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 & Media Reviews: October-December, 2008

"Max's Words"
Written by Kate Banks
Illustrated by Boris Kulikov
(Farrar Straus Giroux/Frances Foster, 2006)

I'm a big sucker for pro-reading, pro-literacy books, and this is one of the better ones I've seen... Author Kate Banks has a habit of writing really weird, off-center books, but this is a pretty straightforward narrative, and it has some nice, clever twists, and is an ideal book for an interactive, collaborative reading-together session with a kid who's just starting to read on their own. The story revolves around a little boy named Max, whose two older brothers are both collectors -- one collects stamps, the other coins -- and who are also very competitive and unwilling to share their collections with Max. (B+)

"When Dinosaurs Came With Everything"
Written by Elise Broach
Illustrated by David Small
(Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Mega-fantasy fulfillment in this wide-eyed epic about a day when dinosaurs are given away everywhere as complimentary gifts... Buy a dozen doughnuts? Have a triceratops! Get a haircut? Take a T-Rex home! New shoes? Heck, how about a diplodicus? The narrator is a young boy, who of course thinks this is the greatest thing ever... Meanwhile, his mom has her doubts, and decides to cut a few errands off her to-do list. But she is eventually won over when she sees how helpful giant spiky lizards can be (turns out they're great around the house...!) Although this isn't the greatest book ever, it is good, goofy fun. Ideal for all the dino-fanatics out there... You can never have too many dino books. (B)

"Angel Girl"
Written by Laurie Friedman
Illustrated by Ofra Amit
(Carolrhoda, 2008)

A children's picture book about the Holocaust, set in a concentration camp. Wow, what a downer. But still, it's an amazing story, beautifully illustrated, about a young Polish Jew who was only eleven when he was sent to a work prison (and the rest of his family was sent to a death camp) and how his struggle to survive was given an unexpected boost by the appearance of a young girl from the nearby village who started to bring him an apple every day to supplement his starvation diet. He survived the was, then emigrated to America where he started life over. Unexpectedly, years later, he met the same girl again -- they were set up on a blind date -- and after they realized who each other was, they fell in love and married. Although the picturebook medium seems a bit brief to fully encompass the horrors of the Holocaust, this is still a fairly unflinching story. The first half of the book, showing the narrator's agony and desolation living inside a concentration camp, is quite powerful, although by comparison the second half, in which he is liberated, repatriated and finds the love of his life, flies by too fast and seems a bit fantastic. (Apparently there is some controversy about this story's accuracy -- nonetheless, there are plans to adapt it into a feature film.) Regardless, this book would be a good way to introduce the themes of the Holocaust to young readers of an appropriate age -- it's a good starting point, although you'd certainly want to follow it up with other resources. Probably not best for readers who are too young, though. (B)

"Jenny Found A Penny"
Written by Trudy Harris
Illustrated by John Hovell
(Millbrook Press, 2008)

A good introductory book about money management and financial literacy. A young girl named Jenny starts saving money so she can buy a special toy... She needs a whole dollar, and through foraging and various chores, she manages to scrounge up enough five pennies, two nickels, one dime, a quarter and -- oooh! -- a half-dollar coin, adding up to one dollar at last! But tragedy strikes -- twice! -- when she finds out that she also needs tax to buy what she wants, and then, as she dejectedly leaves the store, she spills all her coins on the ground, and has to pick them up off the sidewalk and out of the gutter. When she re-counts her cash, though, there's a big surprise when she finds out that she actually found an extra dime -- enough to buy what she wants after all! The icing on the cake is when we find out what it was she wanted to buy: a piggybank, so that she can keep saving in the future! I wasn't wild about the modernistic collage-ish artwork, or to rhyming text, but this is still a good, entertaining book, and it has a great educational message. As we are discovering these days, financial literacy is an important educational need in our society, and anything that helps build financial skills can be a welcome addition to a child's skill set. If your kid is ready for it, this book is certainly worth checking out. (B+)

"Little Rabbit's Christmas"
Written by Harry Horse
Illustrated by Harry Horse
(Peachtree Press, 2007)

I was sad to see that Harry Horse, the Scottish author-illustrator of the "Little Rabbit" series, had died in 2007... The circumstances of his death are pretty ghastly (in fact, I'd recommend you don't read about them, and concentrate on his books, instead...) but I do love the Little Rabbit books. This is the fourth and last of the series, and as in the others, Little Rabbit is a flawed yet charming character. Excited by the coming of Christmas, the youngster demands his parents get him a fancy red sled, and when they do, he joyfully takes it out to the woods, but doesn't want to share the special toy with his friends. Then, while acting grouchy and surly with his pals, he accidentally wrecks his new treasure. His loyal, forgiving friends pitch in and help fix the sled, and then at last a chastened, thankful Little Rabbit is able to share. It's similar territory to the earlier Little Rabbit Goes To School, but in some ways it's nice to see that the character hadn't completely "grown up" and learned his lesson yet. This is an appealing character not in spite of, but because of his flaws -- Little Rabbit's selfishness and lack of self-awareness feels completely honest and authentic. Here is a five-year old that we can recognize and cherish, unpleasant at times, but sweet and innocent as well. The artwork here is less polished and less exquisitely detailed than the earlier books, but charming nonetheless. Recommended. (B+)

"Mrs. Muddle's Holidays"
Written by Laura F. Nielsen
Illustrated by Thomas F. Yezerski
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008)

A thoroughly delightful story about an older woman who breathes joyful life into her neighborhood by creating all kinds of goofy new holidays: Earthworm Appreciation Day, First Robin Of Spring Day, and the like. One by one, the children on her block join in on these events and begin to see the magic of the world around them in ways that President's Day and National Stamp Collecting Week don't quite inspire. After a full year of special celebrations, the kids decide to treat Mrs. Muddle to a bit of her own medicine, and throw a huge neighborhood party in her honor. Everything about this book is nice: the overall tone, the concept, the artwork, the message, and the embrace of joyfulness and positivity. Hopefully it will lead many readers to join in on the fun, and invent a few new special days themselves. (A)

"Boys Of Steel: The Creators Of Superman"
Written by Marc Tyler Nobleman
Illustrated by Ross MacDonald
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

A loving tribute to the writer-illustrator team of Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster, two kids from Cleveland who created the most famous superhero of all time: it's a bird, it's a plane, its... SOOPERMAN!! Drawn in the fluid-yet-rough style of the original 1930s "Superman" stories -- the stories that changed the face of American publishing -- this book tells the story of how two nerdy highschoolers dreamt up a new kind of hero, and how they got their work published, despite great odds. The book reads well, like the simplest, best superhero books, and gives a nice insight into how Superman was created, and why. Although the story doesn't dwell on how Superman may or may not have been a projection of Jewish ideals and morality onto a world facing the Holocaust and World War II, it does address the misery of the Great Depression and, perhaps more importantly, the personal tragedy of Jerry Seigel's own life: a panel showing how his father died of a heart attack while a victim of a late-night robbery is an image straight out of the Batman series, and does much to explain Seigel's interest in creating a character who could defend the little guys from the forces of evil. The choice of illustrator Ross MacDonald makes perfect sense, since he has already paid homage to the superhero genre in books like Another Perfect Day, and he hits the nail right on the head with this perfectly paced picturebook. Probably best for older kids, but a fine biographical work, with a fun, positive tone. (Note: although the main story sticks to a celebratory tone, the written postscript includes an even-handed explanation of the lengthy legal struggle that Jerry Seigel waged against DC Comics, after the media giant stiffed him and Schuster from receiving any portion of the royalties from the lucrative Superman movie franchise... You don't have to read the postscript, but it's nice to know it's there.) (B+)

"The Kitten Who Thought He Was A Mouse"
Written by Miriam Norton
Illustrated by Garth Williams
(Golden Books, 1951)

Originally published in 1951, this is a classic from the Golden Books collection, a silly story about an orphaned kitten who is found by a friendly family of mice, who decide to raise the cat as one of their own children, even though it may grow up to be a deadly predator. Eventually, the kitten is found by some humans, and discovers that he is in fact a cat... But he always remembers the kindness of the mice who raised him, and decides never to chase them, even though that's what cats are supposed to do, and he even teaches the other cat in the house not to teach them as well. An interesting story, with the added bonus of Garth Williams artwork -- which is always a treat! (B)

"Jack And The Box"
Written by Art Spiegelman
Illustrated by Art Spiegelman
(RAW/Toon Books, 2008)

This is dark-toned children's book from renowned illustrator Art Spiegelman (known for his work on RAW magazine, The New Yorker, the "Maus" graphic novels, and a murky past as an underground cartoonist and Wacky Packs designer) It's very much in keeping with the "Kid's Lit" series he edited -- artful stories that are intended as much for eggheady kids as for their adult minders. In this story, a boy named Jack gets a jack-in-the-box as a present, but soon finds that the toy has a mind of its own. Their interactions are brief, oblique, and sometimes a bit creepy. This seems to play into the same fear that some people have of clowns, where something that's supposed to be "fun" turns out to have a dark, hidden side. I think for the right reader, this would be a great book, although we were a little creeped out by it. Worth checking out ahead of time. (C)

"The Donut Chef"
Written by Bob Staake
Illustrated by Bob Staake
(Random House/Golden Books, 2008)

Because we're still vaguely anti-sugar around our house, as dutiful overprotectivoid parents we don't encourage thinking about doughnuts as a major food group... Thus, this is one of the few books reviewed here that has not actually been field-tested on a real, live little person. The artwork is pretty cool: Staake makes the most of the geometric possibilities of doughnuts and other pastries, particularly on a couple of bold splash pages worthy of Busby Berkley or M. C. Escher -- but the story itself is kind of a wash. It's about a friendly, traditional doughnut maker who gets caught up in a retail war with a competitor -- each baker invents more and more outlandish, high-concept, yuppified goodies, until finally neither shop has anything even remotely resembling a good, old-fashioned cruller. One day a little girl walks into one of the fancy-schmancy stores and complains that she can't find a plain old sugar donut, and the bakers are both shamed into going back to basics (which, it turns out, is what all the other customers wanted, too, only they didn't know it until the little child pointed it out...) None of the plot points -- the emperor's new clothes angle, the critique of consumerism and hyper-capitalism, or the heartfelt appeal to recover the honor and soul of the nation's sat-fat industry -- really hold much appeal for me. In the end, it's just a book that glorifies doughnuts, and since we don't eat doughnuts in our household, why read the book? Also, the "hero" baker's immediate embrace of an all-out doughnut arms race makes his character hard to sympathize with: instead of the expected cliche of his standing up for traditional sugar'n'starch values, he wholeheartedly jumps into making xxxxxxxxxxxxx and whatnot, which makes him just as crass as the guy next door. The Art Deco-ish artwork holds some thrills, but the book is a lot like a doughnut: a quick, sweet rush, and then you feel kind of nauseous. (On the other hand, if you are a big doughnut fan, you'll probably love this book; it's all in the eyes of the beholder. (C-)

Movies & Video

"Peter And The Wolf" (DVD)
(BBC/Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2008)

Technically stunning, and thematically dark, this amazing adaptation of Sergei Prokoviev's classic children's piece, features marvelous stop-motion animation from director Suzie Templeton. The film places "Peter" squarely back into its Russian origins, but rather than an idealized rural-agrarian past, it places the story in a more modern setting, amid glum, drab, rundown shacks and tattered forests, a grim vision of a Soviet-era or post-Soviet Eastern Europe, complete with gun-toting thugs (the hunters of the original story here seem more like cold-hearted militiamen) and the nearby village appears as a rundown, dismal cinderblock outpost. Amid this crushing gloom, Peter finds wonder and joy, unlocking a secret garden where he and his friends the bird and the duck (both crippled and unable to fly) are able to play and forget the bleakness around them. While this may sound a bit miserable, the film itself is a marvel: the amount of work that went into this film is amazing, with Templeton devoting a full five years of her life to completing the piece. Equally engrossing are the added special features, including a making-of video and interview with Templeton and her cohorts that gives a sense of the sheer scope of their project, and the level of detail that went into this production. While the film itself may be a bit dark for smaller children, it will enthrall older kids and adults alike... This is a real class act, a film worth having and viewing for years to come. Recommended! (A)

"Sesame Street: Furry, Fun And Healthy Too" (DVD)
(Genius Entertainment, 2008)

If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it... We popped this exercise-oriented Sesame Street collection in, and my little girl (who still likes to say "hi" back when video characters say hello to her) jumped out of her chair when Bert and Grover asked her to do some calisthenics... "Look at me jump!" she chirped. The next day, after a swim class, she showed me how to do the breast stroke: "Ernie showed me how to do this on the Sesame Street video!" I kid you not. So, this educational DVD was a success, at least in this neck of the woods. I still have a hard time with the new voice for Ernie... but there was only one Jim Henson, so what are you gonna do? If you're looking for a fun video that promotes good health, diet and exercise choices, this is a fine option. Very little Elmo, too, if that helps. (B+)

"Tinkerbell" (DVD)
(Walt Disney, 2008)

With this new computer animated film, Disney is trying to bridge the gap between younger girls, who love the princess stories ("Cinderella," "The Little Mermaid", etc.) and older, 'tweeny types who are now into edgier material, such as the Bratz dolls and Hannah Montana. The group this movie is aimed at, five-to-eight year olds, have been tilting towards the teen-oriented material, and this is an attempt to bring them back to a younger mindset. It's a welcome effort, certainly for many parents who may feel their kids are "growing up too quickly," exposed to sophisticated or violent material that isn't really appropriate to their age groups. Tinkerbell is a good option, one that both parents and kids will welcome: it's wholesome, formulaic, cloying at times, but generally enchanting and refreshingly nonviolent.

The story is simple... Tinkerbell the fairy is born out of a dandelion seed, and learns about her life in the bustling fairyland of Pixie Hollow (based on the extensive Pixie Hollow book series). There are plenty of magic sparkles and dazzling magical lights, a full contingent of friends -- both a set of supportive gal pals and a couple of nice, nerdy guys that she works with in the tinker shop -- and a few benign but slightly intimidating authority figures (the tinker shop boss, the fairy queen and the duke in charge of the annual spring celebration). There's only one "bad guy," a mean girl who is jealous of Tinkerbell and tries to undercut her successes, but no real violence or menace -- no one gets hit, or shot or physically menaced, and the mean girl gets her comeuppance in the end. The story also revolves around Tinkerbell's efforts to fit in. She is klutzy and insecure, yet also rebellious because she doesn't accept her role as a tinker (mechanically-inclined fairies who fix things around Pixie Hollow) and she also doesn't accept the limited role that other fairies see for the tinker group. With her natural talents and undying optimism, Tinkerbell eventually wins over her critics -- and even her own self-doubt -- and manages to win the day. Her problem-solving skills and positivity make her a welcome role model for little girls (and boys, too, if they're into fairy stories...) and bode well for a continuation of this new Disney franchise.

The CGI animation is reminiscent of the "Shrek" films, with a few extra sparkles and sequins thrown in for good luck... It's not quite as dazzling or satisfying as the hand-pained masterpieces of the Disney classics of the 1940s and '50s, but it's still pretty captivating. And while the music is a bit more contemporary and pop than I'd like, it's okay. Much of the score has a Celtic twist to it, in the pop crossover-y Mary Black/Capercaillie/Clannad style, and that may be of interest to families with folk music/ren fair leanings... Overall, it's a pretty nice film. I'm glad we got it for our little girly-girl to enjoy. (A)

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