Hi, there!

Here are some new reviews of children's books and movies, added to the Read That Again! website in Summer, 2011. 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: Summer, 2011

Picture Books & Chapter Books

"April And Esme, Tooth Fairies"
Written by Bob Graham
Illustrated by Bob Graham
(Candlewick, 2010)

Two young tooth fairies, sisters April and Esme Underhill, go out on their first big tooth-gathering expedition, while their anxious parents wait at home, hoping their kids stay safe. The girls are raring to go, and while they hit a couple of snags, basically all goes well. Their home life is packed with the funky, alterna-vibe of other Bob Graham families, the parents are concerned but casual, their house is snug but slightly shabby. I'm a big fan of Bob Graham's work though I have to admit that this book felt forced and fell a little flat for me... Also, this particular literalization of the tooth fairy mythos comes off as a little creepy -- it's the Underhill family business, which is fine, but it's the way they keep old baby teeth hanging off the rafters in their house that seems a bit weird. I suppose overall the story is innocuous, although I was disappointed considering how much I love Graham's other stuff. (B-)

"On The Seesaw Bridge"
Written by Yiuchi Kimura
Illustrated by Kowshiro Hata
(Vertical Press, 2011)

A charming, Aesop-like parable of a fox chasing a rabbit, and finding a friend. As the fox pursues the rabbit across a wobbly footbridge, the foundation gives way and the two animals find themselves trapped on a giant teeter-totter, each unable to upset the delicate balance lest they fall into the rushing river below. Predator and prey suddenly become equals and, what's more, each has to cooperate with the other in order to survive. But what happens when they are free again? Will their old nature reassert itself once the danger is gone? Parents who want to teach cooperation, empathy and compromise will enjoy this one... Nice collage-like artwork as well, sort of a mix of Eric Carle and Taro Gomi. Check it out. (B+)

Written by Kathryn Otoshi
Illustrated by Kathryn Otoshi
(KO Kids Books, 2010)

A cool picturebook for math-minded kids (of all ages), sort of a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer remake for the mensa crowd. Our hero, an anthropomorphized numeral zero, thinks of itself as a loner and an outsider, and not nearly as cool as all the other numerals... Envious and insecure, Zero tries to contort her shape to look like a One or an Eight, or anyone more substantial, but always winds up snapping back to her old round self. It isn't until she discovers her amazing multiplying power -- turning ones into tens and hundreds and thousands and millions -- that Zero lightens up and builds some self-esteem. This one's got it all: self-acceptance, diversity and tolerance, the power of cooperation and a dash of mathematical geekiness that would make Gautama Siddha proud. I also appreciated how, even though Zero feels inadequate and embarrassed, the other "kids" are actually quite nice to her -- indeed, it's their cheering her on that helps her discover her own hidden potential. (Note: This is a sequel, of sorts, to Otoshi's anti-bullying book, One) (B+)

"The Boy, The Bear, The Baron, The Bard"
Written by Gregory Rogers
Illustrated by Gregory Rogers
(Neal Porter Books, 2004)

A nice entry into the wordless picturebook genre... Chasing a lost ball, a modern boy slips into an abandoned theater and, walking through the dusty stage curtains, finds himself magically transported into the past, where a cranky William Shakespeare chases him around a lively, riotous Elizabethan London. There's a caged bear as well, and a lot of action before things get back to normal. A fun romp, and potentially a good supplement for any grade school explorations of Shakespeare and his times. (B+)

"Tell The Truth, B.B. Wolf"
Written by Judy Sierra
Illustrated by J. Otto Seibold
(Knopf, 2010)

In this sequel to Sierra's delightful Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf, the retired badguy is still an upstanding citizen, but when asked to tell a few stories about the old days, the rascal can't resist stretching the truth just a little bit. The three little pigs, who were there too, scold the Wolf from the sidelines and try to get him to walk the straight and narrow. Overall, this feels forced and doesn't have the freshness and charm of the first book. It's okay, but didn't really resonate. (B)

Comics For Kids

"Archie: The Best Of Dan DeCarlo, v.2"
Written & Illustrated by Dan DeCarlo
(IDW Books, 2010)

The second volume of this gorgeous reissue series, featuring a trove of classic comics by the great Dan DeCarlo, generally considered the definitive "Archie" comics artist. Curated by the IDW editors, this features a strong selection of material, stronger than most Archie collections, with great gags and the deliriously kooky, smooth-lined, subtle artwork that was DeCarlo's trademark: if you're a fan of "Love And Rockets" cartoonist Jaime Hernandez, then you'll delight in reading one of his main influences. The story selection is top-notch as well, a better-than-usual representation of classic Archie strips, with plenty of Betty & Veronica "good girl" art, hilarious gags and deliciously retro '60s fashion. Finally, the book itself, as an object of material culture, is pretty groovy. About 50% larger than a regular comicbook, hardbound, with sleek, thick, glossy pages and super-clean reproductions of the original art (and bright, bold colors), this book is a delight to hold and to page through. Highly recommended! I'll be first in line for Volume Three, and I'm also looking forward to IDW's upcoming Bob Montana and Harry Lucey collections. Great stuff! (A++)

"Chi's Sweet Home, v.1"
Written by Konami Kanata
Illustrated by Konami Kanata
(Vertical Press, 2010)

It's challenging to find Japanese manga that are really suitable for smaller children, but this series is one of the gems. It's a thoroughly charming story about a stray kitten who gets taken in by a warm Tokyo family, who give the kitten shelter and food and love, and grapple with all the typical hazards of raising an adorable little cat: torn clothing, sandbox training, getting "pinned" on your lap, etc. The story is told from Chi's perspective, although we the readers can also understand what the humans are saying, although Chi does not, setting up many of the comedic elements of the story. This really is a wonderful series, and is also free of many of the fetishistic peculiarities of modern manga. Highly recommended, although if your child enjoys this and wants to read other manga, you may have a hard time finding anything else that will match this one's light, little kid-friendly tone. (A+)

"Chi's Sweet Home, v.2"
Written by Konami Kanata
Illustrated by Konami Kanata
(Vertical Press, 2010)


"Chi's Sweet Home, v.3"
Written by Konami Kanata
Illustrated by Konami Kanata
(Vertical Press, 2010)


"Chi's Sweet Home, v.4"
Written by Konami Kanata
Illustrated by Konami Kanata
(Vertical Press, 2010)


"Chi's Sweet Home, v.5"
Written by Konami Kanata
Illustrated by Konami Kanata
(Vertical Press, 2010)


Written by Jim Ottaviani
Illustrated by Leland Myrick
(First Second, 2011)

A marvelous nonfiction graphic novel based on the memoirs of physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, who worked on the first atomic bomb and helped pioneer the fields of quantum physics and nanotechnology. Feynman's own writing is a popular, beguiling mix of autobiographical, topical and scientific, and has a literary quality and puckishness that also comes through in these illustrated pages. Writer Jim Ottaviani has worked on many of these stories before, in his Two Fisted Science anthology, but here Ottaviani zeroes in on Feynman and finds a worthy hero. There are plenty of great stories, scientific and personal, and while Ottaviani glides around overly-technical dissections of the physics involved, readers get a sense of the times, the intellectual tumult of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, when practical and theoretical science vaulted into the heavens. There is also Feynman's raffish, self-effacing persona, and the bittersweet tragedy of his first marriage, to Arline Greenbaum, a highschool sweetheart who had contracted tuberculosis before they wed. After the development of the atomic bomb, Feynman settled into academic and research, and, surprisingly, these sections of his story are fascinating as well, largely because of his charming narrative tone. Feynman's playful, iconoclastic nature underscores the creative, intuitive nature of science -- when necessary he sidestepped orthodoxies and pursued his own intuitions in whatever ways he needed to find the solutions and insights he sought. Feynman thought of mathematics visually (with numbers and symbols appearing in his mind in various colors) and when he presented his original research on quantum electrodynamics, he gave his lectures using a peculiar kind of pictorial notation, which he had invented to work out his own ideas. This is one of his most inspiring legacies, the urge to follow creative thinking and make it work, despite the resistance of institutions or peers who might be critical of your methods. Feynman is one of the great role models of creative individualism, and this aspect of his is what comes through most clearly in Ottaviani's work. A great book for science-minded tweens and teens (and adults, too!) (A+)

"Thor The Mighty Avenger, v.1: The God Who Fell To Earth"
Written by Roger Landridge
Illustrated by Chris Samnee
(Marvel Comics, 2011)

In this kid-friendly reboot of Marvel's great Asgardian superhero, Thor is reimagined as a less stuffy, less pompous, less boring thunder god, a recently reincarnated deity who is a little confused about his role in the grand cosmic framework, and less prone to spouting absurd pseudo-Shakespearian thees and thous. In short, he's more modern, easier to identify with, and way more fun. Don't get me wrong -- I liked the old Thor as a kid and appreciate the inclusion of a few of the old, original stories in the back of this book, but ya gotta admit he is one of the classic superheroes who hasn't held up well over the years. The reboot is quite welcome. The stories are good, too: if you want a good, lighthearted, irony-free, old-fashioned super-book to share with your kids, this is a great candidate. Marvel needs more books like this one for younger readers to enjoy. (A)

"Thor The Mighty Avenger, v.2"
Written by Roger Landridge
Illustrated by Chris Samnee
(Marvel Comics, 2011)

More fun stuff. In this volume, Thor fights Prince Namor (aka the Sub-Mariner) and Iron Man, and learns more about his Asgardian heritage. Backup features include reprints of old adventures from Journey Into Mystery #85 and 86, from 'way back in 1962(!) (Note: Unfortunately, I am told, Marvel apparently already canceled this title, so the eight issues in these two collections is all there is... at least for now. Pity. Because this book is a lot of fun! 'Nuff said.) (A)

"Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, v.2: Chameleons"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by David LaFuente & Takeshi Miyazawa
(Marvel Comics, 2011)

Oh, golly. This book is so very, very good. There's snappy dialogue that pops off the pages, stylish artwork, lots of interpersonal character growth-y type stuff and a little bit of action, too. In this volume, Peter Parker's Aunt May has taken in several strays, including the Ultimate versions of the Human Torch and the Iceman, and this trio of super-teens are a lot of fun to hang out with. This book comes close to being a perfect read for the younger young readers, although there's a teensy tilt towards more PG material - the boys talk about girls (often referring to them as "chicks") and there are a few mild swear words -- "hell," "pissed" -- that make this more of a tweenie/teen thing. But it's a great read... Indeed, the book seems to be shifting closer to the feel of the Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man series, with more emphasis on the high school romance aspects, and the friendships between all the kids. Well-paced and well-written, with a strong sense of humor... this title is miles ahead of the other Ultimate books. Highly recommended. (A++)

Movies & Video

"Cars 2"
(Pixar, 2011)

Man, I really super-duper hated this movie. I mean, just to set the record straight, I am a huge, huge Pixar fan -- Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, Wall-E: Loved 'em! But I saw this film in the theater with my family and I HATED IT. Indeed, I would rank it among my all-time least favorite movies, alongside Jade, Showgirls, Poetic Justice and The Adventures Of Milo And Otis. Harsh words indeed. So what's wrong with Cars 2? The short answer is that it's just not a very good movie. It's loud, frenetic, full of an unstoppable avalanche of leaden exposition and endless yammering, the plot is simultaneously predictable and hard to follow and -- most importantly -- it lacks the genuine emotional core that makes most Pixar films so great. The first Cars movie had a similar problem - can we really care about anthropomorphic automobiles? - and while the original film made a decent effort at building believable characters, this sequel completely fails. It's all about the action, and the strained attempts at humor or clever dialog simply fall flat: I never laughed at anything or cared about any of the characters. On the plus side, the graphic design is impressive: the visuals of London, Paris and Monte Carlo (as well as the desert landscape of the original film) are stunningly rendered. But without a good script, who cares? Eye candy isn't enough to make a good movie; also the 3D effects weren't very impressive: regular old 2D would be enough. Of course there are lots of car chases and racing scenes, and if you're really into cars -- NASCAR, Hot Wheels and that sort of thing -- I suppose you'd dig this film. But I thought it was a dud. One of Pixar's few bum notes. Oh, well. Maybe next time. (D)

"A Cat In Paris"
(Folimage, 2010)

A real gem from French animators Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol... Not available in the United States (yet) though we saw it at the San Francisco Film Festival and loved it. It's practically an anti-Disney kids' movie: it's stylish and unpredictable; there is a dead parent, but it's the kid's dad, not her mother (who, rather than being dead is a no-nonsense police detective...) and best of all, it presents cats in a favorable light and makes fun of dogs instead. Like I said: the opposite of Disney. Lots to love here: inventive graphic design and a slinky spy-jazz score, bold colors and an original plot about a quiet cat who slips out at night to join a lithe, roguish burglar who likes stealing stuff just for the challenge, but has a strong sense of right and wrong when it comes to taking care of little kids. Plus some really fun, really mean bad guys! We had a few problems with the English-language voiceovers, but they were minor compared to the picture's many charms. I'm hoping this'll come out in America sometime soon... it was a gas! (A+)

(Twentieth Century Fox, 2011)

I didn't have high hopes for this one, and was still disappointed by what I got. Weak characters, cookie-cutter plot, borderline racism in the presentation of the Brazilian characters and, worst of all, the samba was way, way watered down. (And I ought to know what I'm talking about...) I mean, seriously... Did Tracy Morgan have to be the voice of the Brazilian everyman, gettin' all funky with his natural self and acting all street and spouting all that tacky, dated slang? Yeah, sure, there's hip-hop culture in Brazil, but was it really necessary to present such a North Americanized version of it in an attempt to make this film, I dunno... more accessible to some imaginary version of an American audience that couldn't handle the Brazilians seeming more Brazilian? It's just one aspect of a general tepidness that drags this film down... Some pretty colors, but otherwise a rather leaden production, with a predictable plot that just drags itself to the finish line as we wait and wait and wait for it to be over. I suppose if the music had been better, I might not have been so annoyed, but as it was, this flick evaporated from my mind the moment we left the theatre. Alas. (C)

"Gnomeo & Juliet"
(Walt Disney, 2011)

Shakespeare as seen through the eyes of a garden gnome... Or at least that was the sales pitch for this computer-animated oddity. The work of the Bard only serves as a vague inspiration for this cutesy tale of two young lovers kept apart by their feuding families (rival bands of garden gnomes living in two kooky neighboring British gardens...) After this starting point, the filmmakers go off on goofy tangents that have more to do with bringing to life the small-scale worlds of these little yard-dwellers... But unlike, say, Pixar's Toy Story there's little happening in the plot to make these animated inanimate objects seem particularly interesting. The plot seems forced, as does the humor, replacing kinetic energy and high decibel levels for actual wit. This was a passable, kid-friendly way to spend an afternoon, but it didn't stick to the ribs. I suppose it's possible this manic film will steer a few viewers towards the pleasures of English literature... But I doubt it. Mostly it seemed pretty in-one-ear-and-out-the-other. (C+)

"Kung Fu Panda 2"
(Dreamworks, 2011)

I'm a big fan of the first Kung Fu Panda film, and was dismayed to see lukewarm reviews for the sequel. Well, we went to see it, and it's fine. An entertaining, beautifully rendered film that's okay for little kids while still engaging for the rest of the family. There's a lot of kung fu-ing throughout but the violence has a largely cartoonish feel to it, and the emotional focus stays on the characters, not on the hitting. It's also not too scary for little kids: indeed, the Gary Oldman-peacock bad guy in this one is quite a bit less intense and onscreen-scary than the Ian McShane-tiger baddie in the last one... You'll boo at the bad guy, but no one will get freaked out by him. The script isn't as funny or multi-layered as the first film, but it matches the tone of the original, and the characters stay true to themselves... Likewise, the art design remains on a high level, with Asian motifs and a level of aesthetic grace that brings to mind animation classics like Disney's Sleeping Beauty -- the creators seem to be putting their heart into the visuals, and it pays off well. We paid extra to see it in 3D, and it didn't seem like a rip-off: there wasn't anything as breathtaking as the flight sequences in How To Train Your Dragon, but the effects were solid throughout... This Dreamworks team seems to be taking the technology to a higher level, where animated films can be given visual depth without looking gimmicky or slipshod; it was a bit workmanlike, but I mean that in a good way. If you liked the first film, you'll like this one, too... It probably won't blow your mind, but it is a lot of fun. (B+)

"Thomas And Friends: The Birthday Express"
(Hit Entertainment, 2011)

Here's one for the toddler crowd, a collection of Thomas The Tank Engine stories, including one with a birthday theme (where the trains deliver a mysterious present to a big party...) and not only that, but DVD set also comes with a real wooden whistle, so your kid can toot-toot-toot around the house, just like Thomas! All very British and polite... A nice gift for some little engineer in your life. (B+)

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