City of Light, City of Dark

City of Light, City of DarkTitle: City of Light, City of Dark
Author: Avi
Illustrator: Brian Floca
ISBN: 97805311068007
Pages: 192 pages
Publisher/Date: Orchard Books, c1993.

People! The land you wish to build on belongs to us, the Kurbs. Still, we are willing to lend you this island as well as our power so you may have the light and warmth you humans require. But there is a price. Each year you must enact a ritual to show you acknowledge that this island remains ours and is governed by our rules. If you fail to perform this ritual-be warned!-the consequences for you will be dire! (8)

Before people had arrived in New York, the Kurbs controlled the lightness and darkness. When people landed on the island, the Kurbs agreed to hide the power somewhere on the island and give the people six months to find it as the land progressively got colder and darker. If it wasn’t returned noon on December 21st, it would be plunged into darkness, but if it was returned it would gradually get lighter and warmer until it was hidden again on June 21st. One woman needs to find the power and return it to the Kurbs, but a greedy blind man, his reluctant assistant, and a young girl and her friend are all searching for it too for very different reasons. Who will find it first?

This is Avi’s version of the Persephone myth, adapted for modern-day New York. I liked the concept, but with my love of Avi’s stories, I was surprised at the narration, which seemed rush and disjointed. The book starts as a mixture of text and graphic novel panels, and then eventually transitions to only graphic novel format. There is too much plot time between the background setting flashback in the beginning and then the bulk of the story. It took him that long to track down the token… Really? Maybe other reviewers are right and it would have been better as a textual novel, as large amounts of the plot are layer out in stilted, expository dialogue.

With Floca’s recent Caldecott Award win, and repeated recognition by the Sibert committee, I was surprised by this first effort at illustrating a novel. Maybe he should stick with the picture book format and continue to color his drawings. I expected more of the sweeping skyline that we see on the cover of the original publication, but the black and white renderings found in the interior seemed rushed, vague, and not detailed. On page 35, he actually draws arrows to guide readers from panel to panel, which seemed unnecessary and awkward. All told, it would be a nice thing to provide readers who are interested in stories influenced by mythology, but it is not the best work of either the author or illustrator.

Robot Go Bot

Every month, each staff member takes the time to review a title that has arrived this month in 100 words or less. I include my contributions in a feature I like to call To the Point Tuesday. Feel free to comment with a link to your own to the point reviews.

Robot Go BotTitle: Robot, Go Bot!
Author: Dana Meachen Rau
Illustrator: Wook Jin Jung
ISBN: 9780375870835
Pages: 32 pages
Publisher/Date: Random House, c2013.

For the earliest of readers, this picture book formatted like an early reader presents an unnamed girl building a robot friend. Things start off well, with the pair happily playing together with bubbles, a ball, a boat, and a book. But then the girl finds other uses for the robot, she orders the robot to “Hoe, Bot!” “Grow, Bot!” and “Mow. Mow. Mow Bot!” Bot understandably gets frustrated and leaves. When the girl finds him, it’s to ask him back and give him his turn on the swing, learning her lesson and providing an example of good manners and friendship.

Wonderland

WonderlandTitle: Wonderland
Author: Tommy Kovac
Illustrator: Sonny Liew
ISBN: 9781423104513
Pages: 160 pages
Publisher/Date: Disney Press, an imprint of Disney Book Group, c2008.

“Seems you’ve been incriminated, bunny-rabbit. For suspicious dealings with the Alice monster…”
“But, I–”
“Monster? What’s this about?”
“While you were gone, there was an impostor here! She wrecked some of the rooms, and shot the groundskeeper out of the chimney like a pea out of a peashooter.”
“I thought she was you at first!”
“Thought she was me?”
“Well, she was a girl like you, and was wearing some sort of dress, and she had some sort of hair on her head–I don’t know! I suppose I was distracted at the time.”
“Am I that nondescript? I know I’m just a maid but…”
“Bong! Bong! Bong! Time’s up, Rabbit! Your days of favor with the Queen are over!” (21-22)

Mary Ann has just returned to Rabbit’s house when they are told by the Chesire Cat that the Queen is on her way. She’s been wrongly informed by the Tweedles that Mary Ann is “the Alice monster” who wrecked so much havoc in Wonderland. When the cat tricks Rabbit into calling the Jabberwock, Mary Ann finds herself plummeting down another hole and meeting another Queen. But will this queen be anymore helpful than the first, or has Mary Ann gotten herself into deeper trouble?

When I think of fractured tales, I think of Grimm or Andersen fairy tales and not necessarily Alice in Wonderland. But first we had this graphic novel, then Wondla, then the movie, and now there is the television series Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and suddenly it’s become a classic. The inside jacket informs readers that this book “collects six Eisner Award-nominated chapters originally published as single-issue comics”.

Tommy Kovax and Sonny Liew prove to be a successful team. Just paging through it you realize the variety of layouts, which I think contributes to the unsteadiness of the reader. It is Wonderland after all, and you never know what you will find in this tops turvy world. We also see the political rift that Alice’s visit caused, as a back story is added involving a group that the Mad-Hatter describes as “followers [...] who call themselves “The Curious” (96). It’s lines like that and many more, along with the somewhat disjointed narrative, that harken back to the original and the Disney movie (especially the artwork) but the team makes it their own story. Readers never quite get the definitive answer they are looking for in comparing Mary Ann and Alice, who have multiple differences but even The Curious recognize that they might have an advocate in the mild-mannered maid after their original departed.

There is no author’s note that reveals how the illustrations are done or what was used, but here again there is variety. The Queen of Hearts garden scenes and the Mad Hatter’s tea party are bright and full of light. Then with literally a flip of the page in some cases, Mary Ann and her companions find themselves underground or in the Tulgey Wood, with a shadowed background and more muted browns and blues. Overall, I wonder how satisfied Mary Ann will be when she finally has a chance to return to her duties of cleaning Rabbit’s house after her adventures. Readers however should be satisfied with the tale.

Caldecott Honorees and Winner 2014

The American Library Association Youth Media Awards were announced in January, and I’m slowly working my way through the winners and honorable mentions. The Randolph Caldecott Medal is awarded for the most distinguished American picture book for children. There was one winner and three honor books named this year.

LocomotiveTitle: Locomotive
Author/Illustrator: Brian Floca
ISBN: 9781416994152
Pages: 64 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, c2013.

I had actually included this title in a local newsletter article about train books, so I will let my earlier comments about the book stand on its own. For older readers, there is the incredibly detailed Locomotive by Brian Floca. Starting with the cover and continuing inside on more than one occasion the watercolor illustrations appear to burst from the page. The book follows the story of a family traveling by rail across the country from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California in 1869. You’ll find this title not with the picture books, but with nonfiction due to the detailed narration. Packed with information, Floca uses short sentences that mimic the steam engine, and his generous use of onomatopoeia means the pages are filled with banging, clanging, huffing, puffing, and chugging. The various jobs on board are distinguished from one another, and the mechanics of the train are outlined not only in the text but also in the back jacket where steam power is explained with words and pictures. Pay careful attention to the little details too, as each station and location are identified by name and small details such as the cowboy’s horse running away at the sound of the train might be missed on first glance.

Three Caldecott Honor Books also were named, with two out of the three Caldecott honorees this year being wordless and the third one is nearly wordless. Has it ever happened where all the honorees are wordless?
JourneyTitle: Journey
Author/Illustrator: Aaron Becker
ISBN: 9780763660536
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press,c2013.

Bored children have been escaping into other worlds for years, including Max in Where the Wild Things Are, Harold with his purple crayon, Alice and her looking-glass, and the siblings who visit Narnia through the wardrobe. The same applies to this unnamed young lady in Aaron Becker’s wordless picture book. With her dad on the computer, her mom on the phone, and her big sister on a handheld device, the girl draws a door on her bedroom wall with a red crayon and escapes into another world. The red crayon creations, including a boat, a hot air balloon, and a flying carpet, pop against the primarily blue, green, gray and yellow landscapes. The other part of the pictures that is unique is the purple bird that requires the girl’s help to escape its own cage. It is a story of imagination brought to life, and two kindred spirits finding each other at the end.

Flora and FlamingoTitle: Flora and the Flamingo
Author/Illustrator: Molly Idle
ISBN: 9781452110066
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Chronicle Books LLC, c2013.

Personally, this is not my favorite honoree. On minimalistic white backgrounds bordered by pink flowers, a girl in a yellow bathing cap, pink swimsuit, and dark flippers tries to imitate the actions of a flamingo. Initially perturbed by the unwanted admiring copycat, the flamingo eventually extends a wing and they engage in a ballet that ends in a cannonball and a bow. While the fold out spread works for the double page cannonball spread, there are other pages with lifting flaps that I think instead would have worked better as a page turn. But you can definitely see the author’s background with Dreamworks, which is mentioned in the back jacket biography. The emotions are beautifully portrayed through the body language and slight changes in facial features for both the girl and the flamingo.

Mr. Wuffles!Title: Mr. Wuffles!
Author/Illustrator: David Wiesner
ISBN: 9780618756612
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2013.

I talked in my Coretta Scott King post about authors and illustrators whose names have come up for awards again and again and again. David Wiesner is one of those people for the Caldecott. He has won the award three times (Tuesday, The Three Pigs and Flotsam) and this honor now makes three honors (Free Fall and Sector 7). Give someone else a turn already! But I do see the appeal and the reason for the ongoing admiration. This latest title appears to be partially influenced by Wiesner’s own cat, and the observations of the cat’s attitudes and movement show. There is disdain towards a handful of toys until Mr. Wuffles the cat stumbles across a tiny silver spaceship occupied by even smaller green spacemen. We can’t say the work is completely wordless, as the cat’s owner courts the cat with new toys at the beginning and end of the story, spacemen talk in geometric symbols and the ants they encounter communicate with tiny dots. But the thing that really caught my attention was how Weisner conveyed the sense of motion with the cat, especially on the penultimate page where we see multiple tails as it flicks back and forth in anticipation. It’s a technique that is repeated several times in the book, designating motion with the cat’s paws and head. The pictures are vibrant, colorful, oversized, and action packed as the aliens try to repair their broken ship and escape the cat with the help of their new ant friends. And those claws on the cat… Watch out! Give this to any cat owner, as they will be able to relate.

The Rithmatist

RithmatistTitle: The Rithmatist
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Illustrator: Ben McSweeney
Narrator: Michael Kramer
ISBN: 9781427237439 (audiobook), 9780765320322 (hardcover)
Pages: 378 pages
CDs/Discs: 9 CDs, 10 hours
Publisher/Date: TOR Books, a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. c2013.

The door stopped rattling. All was still for just a moment, then the door burst open.
Lilly tried to scream, but found her voice caught in her throat. A figure stood framed in moonlight, a bowler hat on his head, a short cape covering his shoulders. He stood with his hand on a cane to his side.
She could not see his face, backlit as he was, but there was something horribly sinister about that slightly tipped head and those shadowed features. A hint of a nose and chin, reflecting moonlight. Eyes that watched her from within the inky blackness.
The things flooded into the room around him. Angry, squirming over floor, walls, ceiling. Their bone-white forms almost seemed to glow in the moonlight.
Each was as flat as a piece of paper.
Each was made of chalk.
They were each unique, tiny picture like monsters with fangs, claws. They made no noise at all as they flooded into the hallway, hundreds of them, shaking and vibrating silently as they came for her.
Lilly finally found her voice and screamed. (12-13)

Joel missed his chance to become a Rithmatist when he was younger, but he still gets to observe Rithmatists practice at school. His father was a master chalk maker, but died in an accident and now his mother works non-stop at school in order to pay his debts. Changes and challenges are in the air, as a new professor joins the staff and shakes up the school. When students start disappearing, Joel and a remedial Rithmatist student aid an aging professor in investigating where they went. With no way of protecting himself, Joel isn’t the only one who fears he is in over his head.

I was surprised by how well described the chalk drawings were on the audiobook, and thought the details had been added for listeners benefit. Turns out not only are there drawings, but also descriptions of what they look like and how they function included at the beginning of each chapter. The descriptions test your memory for geometry terms from way back when, but they still make sense. I was also grateful for the map at the beginning of the book that detailed where these places were on an altered map of the United States. What happened to the country, I’m not sure we’ll ever know the full details of, but the names and placements of the communities make sense in an almost post-apocalyptic manner.

I also appreciated the turn of events that occur throughout the novel. The tension is drawn out (pardon the pun) slowly, with first one then multiple students going missing, and the trouble escalating. It’s similar to the trouble facing Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, as parents either pull their students from the university or are encouraged by the authorities to leave them there under the protection of the guards. But Joel is not the fated wizard who will save the world. In fact, he is powerless against the chalklings – creatures made of chalk that can attack both chalk defenses and living beings — instead using his analytic brain to overcome what he sees as a handicap. Melody is the loquacious, wise-cracking side-kick in this story, whose curiosity and optimism get the better of her and repeatedly put her in danger. But Joel needs her Rithmatist skills, however remedial, and their dynamics and budding friendship evolve and appear very naturally as they interact with increasing frequency through their studies with Professor Fitch. I also liked Professor Fitch, who seems best suited to mentor both Melody and Joel. As the principal of the school at one point tells Joel, “Professor Fitch likes to be bothered [...] particularly by students. He’s one of the few true teachers we have at this school.” (83) Professor Fitch emphasizes strategy over showmanship, and really encourages reason from the pair.

The problems that Joel and Melody encounter are neatly tied up by the end of the book, only to have author Brandon Sanderson throw a twist into the mix, so the last few chapters open a whole new can of worms. Readers will have to wait for the sequel to truly discover where Joel, Melody, and the person responsible for the disappearances are headed. And unfortunately, the sequel is not expected to see the light of day until 2015. Plenty of time for readers to practice their own rithmatist skills.

Monster on the Hill

Will Eisner Week 2014Did you know it’s Will Eisner Week this week, from March 1st through March 7th? Neither did I until I stumbled upon the announcement of the celebration in January. Will Eisner Week “is an annual celebration honoring the legacy of Will Eisner and promoting sequential art, graphic novel literacy, and free speech.” Looking for more information? Visit the website. In honor of Will Eisner Week, I’m going to take this opportunity to review graphic novels, which I’ll readily admit I don’t read enough of. My third featured book will be last year’s Monster on the Hill, by Rob Harrell.

Monster on the Hill

 

 

Title: Monster on the Hill
Author/Illustrator: Rob Harrell
ISBN: 9781603090759
Pages: 185 pages
Publisher/Date: Top Shelf Productions, c2013.

“That reminds me. Who do you ‘ave watchin’ over your town while you’re here? One of the retired guys? Jimmy the Gomper?”
“Umm…”
“YOU LEFT YOUR TOWN UNMONSTERED?? ARE YOU CRAZY? The Murk senses these things, Rayburn!! He could be on his way there now! What, did you sleep through town guarding 101?”
“Actually, yes. It was dreadfully dull.”
“He Guys. Check out this rock I found! It looks just like Town Father Stevenso… What’s the matter?”
“We may have a problem.” (70-71)

Rayburn is a horrible monster, who really doesn’t venture into the neighboring 1860s English town and certainly doesn’t ravage it like he is supposed to in order to promote tourism. So a disgraced doctor and a loudmouth newsboy embarks on a journey to give him the confidence he needs. Their journey takes them away from town to visit an old friend. But while Rayburn’s gone, the town might have a real monster to worry about. It’s a race to see who gets back to town first, Rayburn who can protect the townspeople or the Murk who wants to terrorize them.

Rob Harrell’s oversized drawings really pack a punch with this story that plays on just about every genre’s stereotypes. I envision Timothy the town crier/urchin/newsboy as a distant ancestor to Loud Kiddington from the 1990s TV show Histeria!, repeatedly shouting in a cockney English that just begs the word “governor” to pass his lips (and it actually does). The distracted and disgraced doctor Charles Wilkie speaks in a prim and proper manner that brings to mind Giles from Buffy, with his stoic face accentuated by his glasses and white hair covering his head, chin, and eyebrows. When Rayburn fights a venus fly trap like plant, your guess is fulfilled when he promptly gets his head stuck in its jaws and is shaken like a rag doll, being flung up and down, at one point doing the splits across its gaping mouth before emerging triumphant and doing a victory dance mimicking an end zone dance at the Superbowl.

The energetic text is filled with exclamation points, which seem to appear on almost every page. Sound effects are thrust into the pictures comic book style, and I’m sure words like “Ka-THOOMP!” and “YEEAAUGH!” would just improve a read-aloud experience in some story-tellers capable hands. My one quibble with the story is the whole premise of cities reaching out to a monster to continually rampage a village doesn’t strike me as a smart PR move. The monsters are treated like athletes, with trading cards and toys made in their likeness. Maybe it is similar to disaster tours of volcanoes and mob scenes, or maybe it’s like the Godzilla movies where as long as it’s another city, it’s fun to cheer on the monster? All I know is that readers who enjoy those types of things will welcome this over the top addition to graphic novel collections. One idea for a curriculum connection would be to have children design a monster for their own town.

SPF 40

Will Eisner Week 2014Did you know it’s Will Eisner Week this week, from March 1st through March 7th? Neither did I until I stumbled upon the announcement of the celebration in January. Will Eisner Week “is an annual celebration honoring the legacy of Will Eisner and promoting sequential art, graphic novel literacy, and free speech.” Looking for more information? Visit the website. In honor of Will Eisner Week, I’m going to take this opportunity to review graphic novels, which I’ll readily admit I don’t read enough of. My second featured book will be last year’s SPF 40 by Sharon Emerson and Renee Kurilla.

SPF 40
Title: SPF 40
Series: Zebrafish
Author: Sharon Emerson
Illustrator: Renee Kurilla
with help from Didi Hatcher and the team at Fablevision
ISBN: 978141697085
Pages: 117 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2013.

I didn’t realize initially that this was a sequel, but it is a continuation of a story. The other slightly confusing part is who wrote this. I originally thought that picture book author Peter Reynolds, since the cover proclaims “Peter H. Reynolds and FableVision present” but then the title page specifies the true author and illustrator, which I have always thought was a little unfair to authors when they don’t get cover recognition.

Regardless of who is responsible for putting together this story, it’s a sweet simple story with a lot of players. Gummy bear loving Plinko and fuscia haired Tanya (who’s in remission from leukemia) are off to be camp counselors, where they make friends with a diabetic named Scott and a red-haired Coley, who strikes me as overly enthusiastic about everything. Walt and Jay are teeming up not only to drive the library’s book mobile around, but also distribute Jay’s comic book. Purple haired Vita is the only one left behind, and while her first year in Southside High was huge, her first summer is turning out to be a bust. What will she do to occupy her time, instead of sitting in front of the television?

You might have noticed that I stressed hair color with a lot of the characters. That doesn’t just emphasize the colorful and varied cast, but it also signifies that you’d better be paying attention to names, because they are mentioned very infrequently and I found myself relying on their faces instead of their names to distinguish everyone. Maybe if I had read the first book first I wouldn’t have been so clueless with names. The hair color isn’t the only thing that is colorful, with all the pictures are bright and bold and eyecatching.

The book covers a lot of ground not only with characters, but also with topics. While they seem young, they are obviously also older then they first appear. Walt and Jay drive the library bookmobile, Vita has a dog friend Pepper who’s owner takes him to be read to hospital children, turtle hatching, and medical research involving glow in the dark fish and wireless insulin distribution. While I wish some of these topics were covered a little more, the limited exposure definitely keeps the story lines moving, making it a fast read.

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