Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in Fall, 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.
"Tumtum & Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall"
Written by Emily Bearn
Illustrated by Nick Price
(Little Brown, 2009)
This thick volume gathers together three novellas -- presumably published separately in the UK? -- about two happily married mice named Tumtum and Nutmeg who live in a mouse-sized mansion hidden in sealed-up corner of a decrepit English country house. The humans who live there are a down-on-their-luck family headed by a hapless single father, Mr. Mildew, an absentminded inventor who cannot keep the house clean or pay much attention to his grubby but otherwise lovable children. The maternally-minded Nutmeg decides to make the children her special project and enlists her husband in the task of visiting their room at night to repair curtains, mend clothes and the like, all while the children sleep. This fantastical scenario (which leads the children to believe they have a fairy guardian) is appealing, as is the view into Bearn's vision of rodent society. The book becomes less savory, though, with the introduction of a particularly nasty antagonist, the imposing Aunt Ivy, who installs herself in the Mildew household and brings with her a vicious hatred of mice. From there, the first story becomes grim and bloodthirsty, a jarring combination of Beatrice Potter and Lemony Snickett. The bleak, nastily "realistic" tone of the story that follows -- with an increasingly grotesque Aunt Ivy vowing to kill the mice with poison and gas -- was unpleasant, and not particularly skillful in terms of the writing. I think Bearn was definitely aiming at a Snickett-like sardonicism, but that only works if you like the Snickett books to begin with: I got tired of them after a while. Older kids might like this; you might think twice about exposing younger readers to this somewhat bloodthirsty narrative. (B-)
"Lights Out, Night's Out (AniMotion)"
Written by William Boniface
Illustrated by Milena Kirkova
(Accord Publishing, 2009)
A very cool AniMotion book, in which the opening of a page causes an animated panel to move on the pages... This one is nocturnally themed (providing an educational framework) and features raccoons, owls, hedgehogs, crickets and more, each with their own little poem, and an AniMotion window that shows movement at every slight jiggle of the book... In some ways the AniMotion elements are a little distracting, but also undeniably cool. If the similar books from Workman Press that were popular holiday gifts in the last few years appealed to you... but perhaps you wished they'd had more substance to them... Well, this series will really wow you! Great book for parents and kids alike! (B+)
"Polo And The Dragon"
Written by Regis Faller
Illustrated by Regis Faller
(Roaring Brook, 2009)
Another early adventure of Polo, the ever-optimistic, cheerfully adventurous cartoon-figure dog who travels across 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. Folks in France have been enjoying these stories for years now, and we Americans got our first dose with 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 short but sweet -- if you're a Polo newbie, maybe go for this first and savor the longer books later... Or maybe the other way around... I dunno. Either way is good! (A)
"Polo And The Magician"
Written by Regis Faller
Illustrated by Regis Faller
(Roaring Brook, 2009)
"How Oliver Olson Changed The World"
Written by Claudia Mills
Illustrated by Heather Maione
(Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2009)
A charming chapter book about a meek third-grader named Oliver Olson whose overprotective parents keep "helicoptering" over his every move, keeping away him from sleepovers or any other form of independent self-assertion. Oliver has a few outside influences, however, that help him gain a little personal space -- a beaming, cheerful teacher whose creative assignments spark some initiative in poor Oliver, and an overbearing, brash classmate, Crystal, who becomes his partner on a project to build a diorama of the solar system. Originally it was to have been a solo project, but when Oliver and Crystal both decide to take up the cause of Pluto -- which has recently been downgraded from its exalted status as a planet -- and to work together building a clever display protest on behalf of Pluto. It's a lucky break for Oliver, whose parents tend to take over his school work and do it for him, and with Crystal as a mirror to show just how intrusive his parents actually are, he takes steps -- first tentative, then decisive -- to break out of old patterns. This book has a lot of things going for it. It's funny, well-written and interesting; there are a lot of pleasant surprises, are positive growth all over, including some nice examples of people changing their minds after they've thought about something for a while... And there's a spot of science as well, what with the whole Pluto thing and all. (If you are one of those people, as am I, who still feels Pluto was done wrong, this book will be amusing on an astronomical, as well as literary, level...) Recommended! (A)
"Annie And Simon"
Written by Catherine O'Neill
Illustrated by Catherine O'Neill
A charming set of four stories featuring a lively young girl and her infinitely patient, affectionate older brother who encourages and enables her no matter how silly she becomes. Sounds familiar? Yes, fans of Charlie And Lola will get a kick out of this book as well. Lovely artwork, with lots of added details in the each frame. (A)
Written by Daniel Pinkwater
Translated by D. B. Johnson Illustrated by Fred Marcellino
(Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
A nice book about making art, personal expression, and perception. A quiet, humble bear starts working on a painting and is interrupted by two "fine, proper gentlemen," who insist on imposing all kinds of interpretations on the bear's work. When they finally go away, we get a chance to see what the bear had envisioned, which, in this edition, comes in a neat surprise "reveal." This is actually a remake of an older Daniel Pinkwater book, first published in 1972 with different artwork. Pinkwater's prose isn't quite as stylized or as absurdist as it would later become, but this is a lovely book, nonetheless. Recommended! (B+)
"Louise The Big Cheese: Divine Diva"
Written by Elise Primavera
Illustrated by Diane Goode
(Simon & Schuster, 2009)
An engaging book about Louise, a young grade-school girl who yearns to be the big star in her class play, and has to grapple with her own egotism and with the disappointments that can accompany high hopes and grandiose thinking. This was a nice story, although there are a lot of threads in the book, perhaps too many for the picturebook format. Initially, with the emphasis on her home life and her apparent envy of her older sister, it seems to be a sibling-rivalry narrative, but that thread quickly drops out when the rivalry is between Louise and her best friend, who gets the lead in the school's "Cinderella" play, while Louise winds up playing a lowly mouse. Louise takes it hard, and behaves badly, giving her friend the silent treatment for many days, until at last the day of the performance comes, and Louise has fun in spite of herself, and reconnects with her BFF. Some details, like her oft-stated envy of her older sister's "Divine Diva" lipstick may be perhaps more emotionally resonant to young girls, particularly those with older sisters who get to dress all "grown up" before they can, but in terms of streamlining the narrative, it was a little cumbersome. Overall, a nice book with a performing arts emphasis, and lots of opportunities to discuss and examine certain kinds of less-than-ideal behavior -- jealousy, pettiness, egotism -- all framed in a relatively sympathetic, nonjudgemental manner. And, of course, Diane Goode's artwork is always a treat. Recommended! (B)
"All The World"
Written by Liz Garton Scanlon
Illustrated by Marla Frazee
(Simon & Schuster, 2009)
This deluxe-sized children's picturebook is a celebration of the world around us -- the social, cultural, agricultural and ecological aspects of life, as seen through an idealized, multicultural rural community located perhaps on the California shores. The rhyming text did not sing to me, but there is clearly great passion and conviction on the part of the author, and Marla Frazee's artwork brings this rapturousness to the page as perhaps few other kid's lit illustrators could. I am a big fan of Frazee's work (particularly "Everywhere Babies" and "Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild") and was especially impressed by the expansiveness and numinous quality of these pictures. The book itself may be a bit too gooey-spiritual or crunchy-granola for many readers, but it is still powerful and evocative, and for families that are looking for eco-spiritual message books, this one's a doozy. Definitely worth checking out. (B)
"The Fog Mound, Book One: Travels Of Thelonius"
Written by Susan Schade
Illustrated by Jon Buller
(Aladdin Books, 2007)
A thoroughly engaging, if slightly scary, story about a talking chipmunk named Thelonius who makes his way through the ruins of a ruined, post-apocalyptic world in which humans are extinct and (some) animals have the power of speech. Swept out of his forest home by a flooding rain, Thelonius finds himself stranded in the mythical, mysterious City Of Ruins, a decimated human city that has been taken over by various animal gangs, the worst of which is a pack of rats, led by a bloodthirsty lizard known as the Dragon Queen. Despite the foreboding setting, Thelonius finds friends -- honest, intelligent animals such as a bear named Olive who has a way with machines (and has built her own helicopter) and a porcupine who lives in a book store (and has studied up on what happened to the humans). They escape from the city and embark on a quest to find Olive's home, an animal Eden hidden on a mountaintop, where different species live together in a pacifist, agrarian utopia. The book is half graphic novel, half chapterbook, an intriguing mix of formats whose novelty helps pull the narrative along, even in spots where it is actually a bit clunky. The book is inherently compelling, and will draw in young readers, even if its underlying premise is a little creepy. Kids have to be of the right age to deal with the concept of apocalypse -- and of humans being evil, when seen from the vantage point of other species -- but for 10-12 year olds who are ready for a little bit of Planet Of The Apes-like action, this is a pretty fun series. Certainly worth checking out. (B+)
"The Fog Mound, Book Two: Faradawn"
Written by Susan Schade
Illustrated by Jon Buller
(Aladdin Books, 2008)
Thelonius and his friends grow restless in the placid Fog Mound, and with new knowledge of the end days of the human race, go on a new journey to discover how their world was formed. They encounter a swarm of mutant crabs (scary!) and a band of pirate crocodiles (arrrrhhh...!!) as well as more of the remnants of human civilization. Not as engaging or original as the first book, but hey, once you're in for a penny, in for a pound. So what happens next? (B+)
"The Fog Mound, Book Three: Simon's Dream"
Written by Susan Schade
Illustrated by Jon Buller
(Aladdin Books, 2009)
This volume is the most action-packed of the three, using the long set-up of the other books as a springboard into a final, climactic battle with the evil Dragon Lady and her "ratmink" hordes. After the battle is won there is a quick, rather abrupt, epilogue in which our chipmunk hero has a dream vision in which everything is explained to him, including a lightning-fast explanation of the eco-pocalypse the humans brought upon the world. There are some interesting ideas, but the last few chapters feel rushed and unsatisfying; too much of a deus ex machina, and too much of a hurry to wrap things up. Still, overall this was a good series. It's definitely engaging and original; the apocalyptic themes might be a bit much for younger kids who would be otherwise drawn to the comicbook art style, but for older children, this will be a fun read, and possibly quite thought-provoking (B)
Written by Sara Varon
Illustrated by Sara Varon
(First Second Books, 2007)
Otherwise known as "the sad robot book." A heartrending and deceptively simple graphic novel about a love affair between an anthropomorphic dog and his/her robot companion. The dog builds the robot from a kit, and they are best friends forever until the day he takes the robot to the beach and leaves it there after it rusts up. The dog feels bad about abandoning his friend and makes one half-hearted attempt to rescue it, but gives up all-too-easily and goes back home, throwing himself into finding new friends to hang out with. The robot, meanwhile, lays immobile and is covered up with sand while still optimistically dreaming that the dog will come back and love him again. Told almost entirely in pictures, with a handful of incidental words, this book has a universal appeal and is okay for younger readers (five and up?) even though the issues of romantic love and betrayal are a bit deeper and darker than the cartoonish art might lead you to believe. Although it is a very sad narrative, the book is filled with beauty and imaginative wonder -- an engaging story that shows the strengths of the comicbook medium. Recommended! (A)
"The Fabulous Feud Of Gilbert & Sullivan"
Written by Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Richard Egielski
(Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009)
A beautifully illustrated, historically-oriented picturebook telling of the rocky creative partnership of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, the librettist and composer of some of the greatest comedic operas in the English language. Richard Egielski's highly stylized artwork is beautifully designed and delightful, drawing inspiration from sources such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Aubrey Beardsley, as well as classic Japanese painters and print artists whose work influences the pages for "The Mikado." I had a harder time with the text, though, which seems to affect a wry, insouciant Gilbertian air, but also assumes the reader's familiarity with the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, and perhaps does not explain the story as well or as plainly as it might have. For example, Sullivan complains at the start that Gilbert's operas are always "the same," but Winter doesn't elaborate: how were they the same? Are they all tragedies? All of them about the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock? He refers to the "topsy-turvy" stories, but doesn't really explain what they are. Although he does try to bring the readers into the mindset of the Victorian world, Winter cuts corners where he doesn't need to, and may leave some readers (myself included) a bit in the cold. For families already immersed in Gilbert & Sullivan, though, this book will be a delight, particularly if you've got the cast recordings to back it up. A very classy book about some very classy, very funny art. (B+)
Care Bears On Fire "Get Over It!" (S-Curve Records, 2009)
This is the second self-released album (good luck finding the first!) from this teenage all-gal punk trio from Brooklyn, NY. They're teenage, but just barely: CBOF actually started the band when they were 11 and 12 years old; some members just turned thirteen. The kids are adorable -- any hipster parent would be so proud! -- and music is great. There are at least two classic tracks on here, the perky, anti-conformist "Everybody Else" (which has two video versions floating around online) and the even more stinging "My Problems," in which a junior-high iconoclast stands up for her right to be imperfect -- the lyrics are awesome, with a chorus that kills:
My hair's not bouncy/what should I do?
My teeth aren't straight/my clothes aren't new
My freckles are weird/my hands aren't slender
I got too many problems to remember...
Everything's wrong/my face my hair
What they don't know/is that I don't care
I don't need you to tell me who to be
I'll decide what's wrong with me...
The lead singer/lead guitarist Sophie (no last name given) is a dynamic and compelling rock'n'roller. Her lyrics are generally sharp and incisive, and she combines sneers with sympathetic outsider-geek anthems, a combination of Joan Jett, Joey Ramone, and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Specs. And it's a good thing that, as her lyrics mention, that her hands aren't slender, 'cause this gal can really play guitar! The confidence, cleverness and talent of this band is tremendous -- far from being a novelty act, they are clearly a force to be reckoned with. If they stick to it, they could be real-deal rock stars of major proportions. Keep an ear to the ground to find out where they go from here! (A)
They Might Be Giants "Here Come The ABCs" (Disney Sound, 2005)
The first of their explicitly educational albums, this has some of the roughness of a TV pilot, as well as the promise of of a good first season. I didn't find most of the alpha-songs tremendously catchy or coherent, they're more in line with the band's more toss-offy material, but they're okay. Likewise, the accompanying videos are a bit choppy, although you can see what they're getting at, a sort of hip, less didactic version of Schoolhouse Rock for the DIY-indie crowd. Stay tuned, though: the next disc (Here Come The 1-2-3s) is a real doozy! (B)
They Might Be Giants "Here Come The 1-2-3s" (Disney Sound, 2008)
This album is great -- an absolute home run. TMBG explores mathematics and mathematical concepts with the same sort of freewheeling playfulness as in their fabled solar-themed "Why Does The Sun Shine?" song, from years gone by -- they impart real information along with a sense of wonder and inquisitiveness that will pull little listeners in and, doubtless, inspire countless kids into careers in science, or, perhaps, pubic accounting. The melodies and catchy and the animation is brilliant and cheerful, with humorous interludes with two nearly-identical puppets that play the parts of John & John, the Giants themselves. The record starts off with some interesting explorations of abstract concepts such as "Zeroes" and the more philosophical "One Everything," which explores that mind-blowing ontological concept of a universe, one "thing" that encompasses everything. Other numbers are examined on a less cosmic scale, back here on Earth, but the songs are goofy and fun, and the animation perfectly matches this vibe. This CD-DVD combo is a lot of fun, particularly the video content. It's the kind of thing where parents will wind up walking around humming the songs themselves, and may want to watch the video more than the kids do(!) Highly recommended! (A+)
They Might Be Giants "Here Come Science" (Disney Sound, 2009)
John and John get pretty hardcore brainy on this one, which is a definite bump-up in terms of the age group it's aiming for... This is an album unapologetically zeroed in on nerdy science kids, though also accessible to the less-technical among us. Electricity, evolution, the light spectrum, photosynthesis, chemistry and the table of elements each get a song; also included are explorations of more general themes, such as the scientific method and the value of empirical research. There's also, of course, a version of their classic "Why Does The Sun Shine?" (The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas...") which is cool, but even cooler is the follow-up song, in which they actually correct the science behind the first tune, and attempt to explain that, indeed, the Sun isn't a ball of gas, but rather of plasma. I'm not sure I 100% understand about this weird form of matter, but I love that TMBG are proof-reading their own lyrics. It is telling (and a little sad) that following the eight-year anti-science resurgence of the Bush years, the Giants felt compelled to start this album off with a song called "Science Is Real," which posits the benefits of understanding the physical world -- given the historical context, this could be taken as a polemical song, though mostly it's just a good, catchy tune. That's true with most of these songs, and when your little scientist starts walking around humming the names of the elements, or explaining how trial and error works, you'll be pleased. Not as snazzy musically as the 1-2-3s album, bur still pretty fun, with some great visuals and graphic design. What's next? Philosophy? Economics? I'm there! (A-)
"Shaun The Sheep On The Loose" (DVD)
(Hit Entertainment, 2009)
A hilarious set of short claymation cartoons featuring a mischievous Shaun The Sheep (previously seen in the "Wallace And Grommit" series...) These clever, slapstick-y stories are told largely without dialogue, as an adorable, troublemaking flock of sheep quietly drives their dimwitted shepherd a bit loopy. The comic timing and comedic brilliance of the Aardman Studios crew is undiminished, and while some other other post-Grommit projects ("Creature Comforts," et. al.) may have been a bit too mature for younger viewers, this collection is appropriate for all ages. Recommended! (A)
"Shaun The Sheep: Little Sheep Of Horrors" (DVD)
(Hit Entertainment, 2009)
More great stuff, including an episode with a Halloween theme... You gotta love Shaun! (A)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki (2008)
I had the good fortune to see this film in a large, modern movie theatre, with a lot of little kids in the audience for a mid-afternoon matinee showing. It was a great movie, totally "age appropriate" for the enchanted five- and six-year olds, as well as their appreciative adult attendants. Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's films can sometimes be a little too weird or sinister for this age group, but this time he managed to temper his dark side a bit and make a film that still celebrates nature and respects its dangerous side, while not also creeping the bejeezus out of little viewers. The film is sort of a sideways retelling of the "little mermaid" tale, taking place by the Japanese oceanside, and this wave-washed setting affords Miyazaki many opportunities to evoke the power of the natural world, as well as to frequently overwhelm the viewer's senses. (It was gorgeous and evocative on the big screen; I wonder how much of this will translate to video...) Although some of Miyazaki's older fans may grumble about him babying-down his material, "Ponyo" is clearly a great film, probably better than naysayers might think, and certainly one of the best films made for small children in the last twenty or thirty years. The character animation is a bit rough, but the backgrounds and overall design of the film are rich, sensual and majestic, and Miyazaki's key themes come through loud and clear. Highly recommended! (A+)
PS - Please feel free to send us feedback, corrections or other recommendations for books, websites, children's films and other cool stuff.
The e-mail address is: joesixpack AT slipcue DOT com.
Other Book Reviews
Slipcue.Com (Music & Film)