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Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in May-June, 2009. 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: May-June, 2009

"Starlight Goes To Town"
Written by Henry Allard
Illustrated by George Booth
(Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2008)

A kooky story about a restless chicken named Starlight who wants to escape life on a poultry farm and become a high-fashion model in Europe. She is aided in this quest by the sudden appearance of her fairy godchicken, who does a pretty good job granting wishes, until she unexpectedly takes a vacation and leaves the wishmaking in the hands of her klutzy assistant, who still grants wishes, but gets the orders mixed up. As you might guess, this is a pretty silly book. A nonsensical romp, you might even say. And the silliness is greatly enhanced by the contributions of cartoonist George Booth, a longtime favorite of mine. The story itself didn't completely click for me, although the lampooning of fairy godmothers was kinda fun. Worth checking out. (B)

"Dolphins On The Sand"
Written by Jim Arnosky
Illustrated by Jim Arnosky
(G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2008)

A truly heartwarming story about how a coastal village saves a beached pod of dolphins from dying in the sand. When a kayaker discovers the dolphins stranded near a reef, they go off and get help, and a group of volunteers stay up all night, keeping the animals hydrated and calm until the morning tide comes in and they can get them back into the ocean. The peril of the animals is made plain, but it isn't too frightening for younger readers and is easily balanced by the example of compassion and empathy on the part of the humans. Author-illustrator Jim Arnosky has been making nature-oriented children's books for decades, and he is at the height of his powers here. A lovely book with a real, happy ending. (A)

"Doctor Ted"
Written by Andrea Beaty
Illustrated by Pascal Lamaitre
(Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, 2008)

A cute, clever, and ultimately irritating fantasy of childhood omnipotence. Here, an adorable young bear named Ted wakes up one day and wants to play doctor; he goes to school dressed in his lab coat and starts handing out goofy diagnoses left and right, and when this gets him in trouble with the teachers and principal, he cheerfully ignores their reprimands and keeps on "being" a doctor. (Part of the humor is that he prescribes cures that have nothing to do with the illnesses -- crutches for the mumps, a full body cast for bad breath, etc. -- jokes that probably soar over the heads of many young readers. If you have to stop reading the story to explain your jokes, maybe they don't really work... ) Anyway, when a playground accident occurs -- injuring a teacher, no less! -- it turns out Ted really does know how to be a doctor, and he saves the day! Functionally, the humor of the book is well-crafted, but it's the overall tone that made me dislike it, the flouting of adult authority has become a convention in modern kid's lit, and is almost always seen as a positive virtue. It's not, though, and if some kid shows up in a lab coat and starts handing medical advice and is told not to, well -- silly, uptight, priggish me -- it kinda seems like the kid should do what the teachers tell him and stop playing doctor. This didn't feel like a book that was celebrating creative, imaginative play as much as a story of an unintentional brat who didn't know when to stop and listen to the adults. But, oh-ho-ho! how funny it was to see the principal get all red in the face! I liked how this started, didn't like the end. (C-)

"The Best Book To Read"
Written by Debbie Bertram & Susan Bloom
Illustrated by Michael Garland
(Random House, 2008)

Ah, pro-library propaganda! Ya gotta love it: I do. A group of schoolkids go to their local library and pick out books about space travel, magic, insects, baking and knights of yore... Oh, and dinosaurs, too, of course. It turns out that the best book of all is... whichever book you enjoy reading! I wasn't wild about the computer-generated artwork -- it's easily understood and wel-designed, but notably artificial and a bit sterile, on a not-too-subliminal level. But it's effective, and not all that alien to contemporary kids, so I suppose I'm just being a grump. All in all, this is a fine book, not the greatest, but still good. (This is, by the way, a sequel to two other books, The Best Place To Read and The Best Time To Read, which I also remember liking.) (B)

"Momma Loves Her Little Son"
Written by John Carter Cash
Illustrated by Marc Burckhardt
(Simon & Schuster, 2009)

A children's picturebook written by John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, two members of country music royalty. Up 'til now, John Jr. has pursued their legacy mostly through producing albums such as tributes and posthumous releases; here he distills what were apparently nursery rhyme-like tidbits his mother used to say or sing to him. The artwork by Marc Burckhardt is perhaps the strongest element of this book (he has also painted a few album covers, including June Carter's "Wildwood Flower" album) being bold and colorful. I'm not sure the same is entirely true of Cash's text. Although it is meant to rhyme, it doesn't feel like it does, and the meter it often hard to track. The appeal of the book is also limited to mother-son relationships (making it a nice mother's day present, perhaps, but daughters are left in the cold...) and by the religious theme that's introduced at the end (in the obligatory kid's book sleep scene, they take time to pray... Again, for the right families, this isn't a problem, although some families might be put off by it.) This book is certainly a reflection of the Cash family's values - family bonds, positive thinking, religious faith. But in some ways it also feels like a private text, a personal reminiscence rather than a more general kid's book. It's certainly worth checking out, and for some readers, I'm sure it will ring true. (C)

"Polo And The Magic Flute"
Written by Regis Faller
Illustrated by Regis Faller
(Roaring Brook Press, 2003/2009)

I'm not totally sure, but I think this was the first-ever picturebook featuring the ever-optimistic, cheerfully adventurous cartoon-figure dog named Polo, who travels the world and beyond always coming up with unique and inventive ways to get past every obstacle, all told in wordless but enchanting multi-panel comicbook form. This is the first time this particular volume has been in print in America: folks in France have been enjoying it for years now, and it follows the reprinting a couple of years earlier of the larger, longer Polo epics, The Adventures of Polo and Polo And The Runaway Book. Kids who have already bathed in the glory of those books may find this shorter volume a little less mind-boggling, but it's still charming and sweet, and would be a perfect introduction to the character for families who haven't already gotten on the Polo bandwagon. The story's pretty simple: while out on an adventure, Polo meets a serene, mystical panda bear who gives him a flute, and they travel together for a while, stopping at the panda's pagoda before making it back to Polo's house. Compared to the later books, this is a bit basic, but fun nonetheless. Highly recommended: I'm a big fan of the series! (B+)

"Polo & Lily"
Written by Regis Faller
Illustrated by Regis Faller
(Roaring Brook Press, 2004/2009)

The Polo series really starts to cook with this adventure, which introduces a character who we'll all want to see more of: Lily is a little stripey girl rabbit who rides on a cloud as if it were a magic carpet. She has a bright, smiley optimism and carefree sense of adventure which matches Polo's, and once they meet, they become fast friends. We also see the inside of Polo's groovy treehouse, a home that would make Snoopy green with envy. Part of the charm of the Polo books are their exploration of the everyday, so here we see Polo doing a little bit of gardening, some cooking and a bit of reading before he falls asleep... We also see how he gets his telephone - it's a gift from Lily -- and the story ends with her calling him up to say "hi". Although it's short in length, this is one of the most charming Polo books, and certainly a delight to read. (By the way, be sure to look for Lily later on, in the beginning of Polo And The Runaway Book, one of the longer Polo epics: she sends him the book.) (A+)

"Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became An Inventor"
Written by Emily Arnold McCully
Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
(Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2006)

An excellent nonfiction book, particularly for families in search of strong historical female role models. This beautifully illustrated picturebook is the biography of Margaret E. Knight, a 19th Century inventor who began tinkering around at a very young age and hwo, at the age of eleven, invented a safety device that prevented industrial accidents in the New England textile mills. She later became involved in a patent dispute with a businessman who stole her design for industrially produced paper bags, a device that established her as the inventor of the folding paper bags we still use today. This is a great book for slightly older kids -- it has a relatively long text, and the sequence in which one of her friends is injured in a factory acident -- which spurred Ms. Knight to invent the textile rails -- may be a little upsetting. Overall, this is a great book; if you're on an American history kick and notice a shortage of female heros, this book may help fill the gap. (BTW, Emily Arnold McCully has authored several other biographies that you might want to check out as well...) (A)

"Daddy, Papa, And Me"
Written by Leslea Newman
Illustrated by Carol Thompson
(Tricycle Press, 2009)

A great little boardbook, softly celebrating same-sex marriages. Without fanfare or apology, this quick-moving twenty-pager shows two cheerful daddies and one happy little toddler (of indeterminate gender) playing games, making music and baking cakes all day long -- until the poor daddies get so tired, the baby has to tuck them in. It's a cute book, especially with illustrations by Carol Thompson (who's a big favorite of mine). Just the right present for just the right new family. Ditto for the two-mommies version, Mommy, Mama, And Me. (B+)

"Mommy, Mama, And Me"
Written by Leslea Newman
Illustrated by Carol Thompson
(Tricycle Press, 2009)

The L-word counterpart to the gay-daddies boardbook Daddy, Papa, And Me is equally charming, with a happy couple taking their toddler out for a fun day in the park, then back home for some cooking, dinner, a bath, and the inevitable toddler-book good night. Lots of cuddling, love, tenderness and smiles. As with the other book, no apologies are made for the nontraditional couple, and no speeches are made either: the pictures speak for themselves. Also, the gender of the child isn't made explicit, so it's a great gift for any number of family or friends. (B+)

"Play With Me"
Written by Michael Elsohn Ross
Illustrated by Julie Downing
(Tricycle Press, 2009)

A sweet, beginning-level book showing parents and babies, of many species, playing together. In addition to all pictures of happy, frolicking families, there are also little captions on some pages that tell us the baby names of some of the critters... Yes, you might have known that dolphins have calves and zebras have foals, but did you know that baby wombats are called "joeys," too, just like kangaroos? Or that squirrels have pups? A good, basic book, cheerful and bright, with a simple rhyming text that scans well (although the captions in the pictures may destract you from the verses...) Nice. (B)

"Good Egg"
Written by Barry Saltzberg
Illustrated by Barry Saltzberg
(Workman Press, 2009)

This is an absolutely delightful, pop-up-style board book for younger readers, in which the narrator talks to a single white egg as if it were a dog being trained to do tricks. Readers can help the egg "roll over" and "sit" etc. by pulling tabs and strings. There's a small delay when the egg is asked to talk, but after you turn just one more page, then the egg cracks open and the peep-peep-peeping begins. My preschooler is probably a bit old for this one, but greatly enjoyed it; little kids will love it, too. (A+)

"The House In The Night"
Written by Susan Marie Swanson
Illustrated by Beth Kromes
(Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

A gorgeously designed picturebook with a deliberately old-world look and feel, with etched art that is reminiscent of Wanda Gag's books, or older primers from centuries gone by. The text is inspired by an old nursery rhyme, and has a somewhat solomn tone, with short phrases doled out in a way that echoes Goodnight Moon (and a kid's bedroom vantage point that echoes it as well...) This book is beautiful, particuarly the graphics, although it felt a bit too serious and dense to me -- it didn't quite capture my kid's attention either, although I imagine that for the right family at the right time this could easily become a treasured text. (B+)

"The Thirteen Clocks"
Written by James Thurber
Illustrated by Marc Simont
(NYR Children's Collection, 1950)

This is an utterly delicious, deliciously wicked satire of good, old-fashioned fairytales in which gallant princes rescue hapless damsels from unreasonably wicked villains. Like all great adventures, this story gets its biggest kick from the bad guy, and prose stylist James Thurber goes all-out in constructing the meanest, wickedest, most dastardly baddie of them all, a fellow who is so evil he tortures small birds for fun and wears not only an eye patch, but a monocle, too. Thurber gleefully piles on the fairytale cliches and blithely pokes holes through each one. The real joy of this book is in reading it aloud and sharing it with others: you can'y help but get caught up in the rhythm of the writing, or laughing out loud when Thurber delivers a real whopper. The story is also quite inventive, introducing magical creatures unlike any seen before, as mysterious and unpredictable as they are enchanting and bizarre. This is one of the last books Thurber wrote -- dictated and scrawled down as he was losing his sight, and wonderfully illustrated by Thurber's collegue and friend, Marc Simont. Out of print for years, this book is a delight waiting to be discovered by both Thurber fans and folks who like good, creative children's fiction. Highly recommended! (A+)

"The Fantastic Undersea Life Of Jacques Cousteau"
Written by Dan Yaccarino
Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino
(Knopf, 2009)

A superb picturebook biography of French ocean diver Jacques Cousteau, with luminous artwork by author-illustrator Dan Yaccarino. I've admired Yaccarino's work in the past, but think he's really outdone himself on this one, taking full advantage of the pages and palettes before him. Plus, what a great story: Cousteau's accomplishments are amazing, from creating the first scuba suits to pioneering small, single-pilot submarines. And who knew he built (and staffed) an underwater research station, where divers lived underwater for over a month? Yaccarino's colorful work stands in the shadows of Jennifer Berne's earlier Manfish picturebook; hopefully readers will find the two to be complimentary; what I regret is that the old "Fantastic World" TV series is no longer available, having been distilled down to a few DVDs under a different title. Still, this book will evoke a sense of wonder in children and rekindling it in their parents. Recommended! (A+)

Comics & Graphic Novels

"Franklin Richards: Lab Brat"
Written by Marc Sumerak
Illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos
(Marvel Comics, 2007)

Are you looking for relatively nonviolent superhero books for very young readers? Something fun and exciting yet "age appropriate"? Allow me to introduce you to Franklin Richards, the son of Reed and Sue Richards, of the ever-lovin' Fantastic Four. These digest-sized books are a real hoot. Transforming Reed & Sue's often-bland son into a budding juvenile deliquent, these stories are full of gleeful mayhem as young Franklin (drawn and scripted very much in the style of the awesome comic strip "Calvin & Hobbes") keeps raiding his dad's super-science lab in search of some gizmo that'll either help him with his homework or maybe just keep from being bored. He is pursued by his robotic nanny, H.E.R.B.I.E., who clucks and fusses ineffectually as Franklin shrinks himself, alters reality, de-evolves his classmates at school or disrupts the space-time continuum (again!). The comedic beats are perfect, the artwork and stories are really fun and -- best of all -- it's one of precious few mainstream comics today that is actually okay for really young readers to get into. My kid loves it! A very fun series... all three volumes are highly recommended! (A+)

"Franklin Richards: Collected Chaos Digest"
Written by Marc Sumerak
Illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos
(Marvel Comics, 2008)


"Franklin Richards: Not-So-Secret Invasion Digest"
Written by Marc Sumerak
Illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos
(Marvel Comics, 2009)


Movies & Video

"Bolt!" (DVD)
(Genius Entertainment, 2008)

An entertaining, action-packed animated adventure-comedy about a movie-star dog who doesn't know his adventures are actually part of a TV show. This Truman Show premise swiftly gives way to a more conventional buddy-film/road movie format as Bolt gets loose and needs to team up with a streetwise alley cat who helps him get back to Hollywood. The first time I watched this, I was a little nonplussed, but it's grown on me -- it's noisy and a little confusing (my kid's pretty young) but more thoughtful and clever than a lot of other films aged at this age group. Definitely worth checking out. (B+)

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    The e-mail address is: joesixpack AT slipcue DOT com.

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