Posts from the ‘Children’s Literature’ Category

The Witch Boy

Witch BoyTitle: The Witch Boy
Author/Illustrator: Molly Knox Ostertag
ISBN: 9781338089516
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2017.

“I don’t understand why Juniper and Hazel and them can all learn how to talk to trees and make potions and do spells and I can’t. It’s not fair.”
“But, Aster, that magic isn’t for you. How many times do I have to explain that?”
“But I want to learn it!”
“Women and men have different types of magic, and witches pass down their knowledge from mother to daughter. That’s how it is and how it’s always been, my son.
But it’s not like there’s nothing for you! Soon your shapeshifting will begin, and with it, the ability to see demons and to fight them. You’ll be one of the men.” (7-8)

In an insular community in the woods, a family of witches and shapeshifters pass along their skills to their daughters and sons, respectively. All except for Aster, who is more interested in learning magic and spells then shape shifting. When first one, and then multiple, young shapeshifters go missing, the family rallies to find them, but they still don’t stop to listen to Aster’s findings. Past problems come back to haunt them, and Aster might be the only one who can figure out what’s going on in time to stop it.

I find myself evaluating my views about this book. I originally felt that this is a relatively heavy-handed, thinly-veiled allegory of coming out as transgender, which a number of reviewers and bloggers have mentioned. However, I am reminded of Tamora Pierce, who wrote the Alanna series about a girl becoming a knight and assuming the disguise and role of a boy in order to accomplish her goal. Upon reading that series when I was younger, and even today, it never dawned on me to make those same assumptions about Alanna. Alanna was simply a tomboy, much like myself at that age, who enjoyed pursuing hobbies that were typically deemed masculine. Aster, in the same way, doesn’t want to be a woman, he just wants to do things that are identified in his society as feminine. That’s not transgender, but instead it’s fighting societal stereotypes of gendered activities.

I think the difference between my perception of Alanna and Aster is not only the modern day awareness of non-gender conforming actions, but also the use of this characteristic in the stories. Alanna’s story, while dependent upon keeping her identity a secret, has other traits that appear throughout the story, such as her impulsiveness, reluctance to ask for or accept help, her fears and hopes and dreams and motivations. Aster wants to do what “girls” do and has the magic of a witch inside of him, even though everyone else perceives him as a shapeshifter and expects him to be a shapeshifter. He seems quiet, but he is dedicated to his family, even though they continue to deny him his desires. That’s the entirety of our knowledge about his personality. The story is dependent upon the “I want to do what I’m not allowed to do” troupe with very little backstory or explanation of how or why events proceed as they do. His entire purpose is to be recognized as someone who can perform feminine tasks, which doesn’t yield itself to much engagement from readers.

There are a number of additional questions regarding the background of the characters. They all seem to be related, but there is no information about where the in-laws came from and how people who married into the family acquired their powers. What prompts these disappearances to begin now, after all these years? Even after the cause of the disappearances is discovered, the culprit’s consequences are left unresolved. As already discussed, the transgender analogy is not quite the appropriate term, but if you insist on using it that label also falls apart at the end, where one of the characters claims to have a little bit of both witch and shapeshifter. Is that a nod to individuals who identify as pansexual or intersex? Instead, I think it’s meant on commentary that men and women can pursue tasks regardless of if they are seen as masculine or feminine in nature.

The artwork is similar to a lot of the graphic novels produced by Graphix, with solid, digital illustrations. I’m beginning to hope that in the future we see more variety in the artwork of graphic novels done by that company. They have good stories, but there is a sameness that is starting to make their work distinguishable from other publishers. The scenes where we discover the cause of the boys disappearances are appropriately scary and thematically colored in a wash of red, definitely distinguishing it from the more cheerful and vibrantly colored outdoor daily scenes.

It’s a nice story, but I feel like the commentary on it’s merits might be misguided. A sequel arrives on shelves later this fall, so we’ll have to see if more character development occurs. Aster’s new friend Charlie takes center stage alongside Aster on the cover, so maybe more interplay between their two lives and worlds will give us more interest and insight in their personalities then the one-dimensional portrayal provided.

rainbow books From HB 6-2016I’m making an effort to review stories centered around gender during June, in recognition of June being LGBT Pride Month. Stay tuned for more.
Image used from Horn Book’s 2016 Pride Month Kickoff

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The Marvelwood Magicians

Marvelwood Magicians.jpgTitle: The Marvelwood Magicians
Author: Diane Zahler
ISBN: 9781629797243
Pages: 188 pages
Publisher/Date: Boyd Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights, c2017.

“Stand there, and look at the pendulum,” Master Morogh ordered Bell. Bell planted himself in front of the metronome, and Master Morogh started it up. Click-clack, click-clack it went, back and forth. Mattie watched Bell fearfully. It took only a couple of moments for the light to leave his eyes. Like the frat guy and the woman before him, his expression went slack and lifeless.
“No!” Mattie said again. She started for the stage, her heart pounding. “Bell, come back here!” But Bell couldn’t hear her. […]
“Bell, wake up!” Mattie cried. There was something wrong here, something very wrong. (90-91)

Mattie Marvelwood’s big mouth and mind-reading have gotten her in trouble again, resulting in her gifted family being fired from the traveling carnival where they worked.  They think themselves lucky when they stumble across a circus, with ringleader Master Morogh instantly adding their acts. The circus has two tigers, an elephant, and another family, with a daughter who instantly becomes Mattie’s friend. But something isn’t right, as one entertainer after another begin to lose their talents. Some are more ordinary, like singing and tumbling, but the Marvelwood’s abilities are more magical in nature. Suspicious that Master Morogh might be the mystery manipulator, it’s up to Mattie to save the day, without losing her own abilities in the process.

With the recent popularity of The Greatest Showman, I wonder if there will be an influx of people looking for circus themed books.If they are young enough, you can give this title to them.  The cover reminds me of the classic cover of The Great Gatsby mixed with Kehret’s Danger at the Fair for some reason, but it’s tamer than both of those books. Mattie is understandably weary of strangers due to her talent of mind-reading and predictably frustrated that her life and family aren’t normal. There is some diversity, with Mattie’s dad being Scottish and her mom being “India Indian.” The mystery is not a “who done it” but more of a “will they get away with it” as about half way through the story you know who is to blame for the missing abilities. Besides Mattie, most of the characters are one dimensional, acting to emphasize aspects of plot or Mattie’s personality rather then develop their own attributes, only being identifiable by their act or relationships to each other. Mattie’s own feelings of her mind-reading talent changes drastically, from exasperation to acceptance in very little time, but the conclusion is solid and ties up all the loose ends. A fast read, entertaining but not very memorable, emphasizing that no matter the circumstances the show must go on and you can trust your family, even when they aren’t related by blood.

Last of the Sandwalkers

Last of the Sandwalkers.jpgTitle: Last of the Sandwalkers
Author/Illustrator: Jay Hosler
ISBN: 9781626720244
Pages: 312 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2015.

Our mission is to look for life in this vast nothingness. This was my idea. My plan. And at that moment, it seemed insane. Impossible. Stupid. Terrifying.
But then I took my first step into the desert sand and I had the strangest feeling that I was…
…home.
With that, my doubts evaporated. I walked into the desert and never looked back. (4)

Bug’s Life crew, move over. There’s a new group of tiny explorers on the scene, one part Indiana Jones, one part MacGyver. There’s Lucy, the tinkerer and unlikely leader; Professor Owen, stuffy tag-along supervisor who secured funding; Professor Bombardier, the matronly care-taker of the group; Mossy, the brawn of the operation; and finally Raef, who doesn’t really know his role in the group because he’s suffering from amnesia. When the majority of the group get separated from one of their own and the archaeological find of a lifetime, it’s going to take all their ingenuity and teamwork to get back across the desert. Fighting foreign insects and unknown creatures, they quickly realize that it’s a bug eat bug world out there, and they are on the bottom of the food chain. And it doesn’t help that one of the team might be hoping they all don’t make it back.

If you want to see a graphic novel that packs science into a suspenseful story, Jay Hosler does it right. A biology professor at Juniata College, he appears to know his stuff as both a scientist and a cartoonist. He effortlessly weaves cool insect facts into the plot featuring five characters that are five different types of insects. The characters and readers are in the same position, learning new interesting facts about the way these new creatures eat and protect themselves. Readers also get see the scientific process at work, because although most kids might come to the correct conclusion, the insects routinely alter their understanding of what they found based on new information and discoveries. Want more information? He cites his inspirations chronologically in the included annotations, going chapter by chapter, page by page, panel by panel. While his references seem to skew more scientific then school-age, they range from Charles Darwin’s autobiography and university publications to National Geographic articles and NPR blogs.

No stone or leaf is left unturned in his detailed black and white illustrations, with painstaking backgrounds filled with action. The team gets into one hazard after another, and as one members predicts repeatedly that they are going to die, they routinely ban together, utilizing their strengths. It doesn’t hurt that in addition to encountering road blocks and hazards they also encounter some street-wise strangers who are willing to aid them in their journey. There were some great dynamics and personalities in the group, and their conversations with each other read very natural and true to real life. The repertoire and back and forth banter mimics some conversations I’ve had with my friends, ranging from idle threats and teasing to chastisements and encouragement and some flashbacks that are seamlessly incorporated. This is most certainly an asset to teachers focusing on critical thinking skills, the scientific method, adaptations, and bugs in general, but it’s also a fun read for those seeking tales of adventure and ingenuity.

Baby Monkey, Private Eye

Baby Monkey Private Eye.jpgTitle: Baby Monkey, Private Eye
Authors: Brian Selznick and David Serlin
Illustrator: Brian Selznick
ISBN: 9781338180619
Pages: 191 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2018.

Baby Monkey someone has stolen my […]!
Baby Monkey can help!
Baby Monkey looks for clues.
Baby Monkey writes notes.
Baby Monkey eats a snack.
Baby Monkey puts on his pants.
Now Baby Monkey is ready!
Baby Monkey solves the case! […]
Hooray for Baby Monkey!

Each of the first three chapters of this extended easy reader follow the same format as outlined above. The only clue that readers receive as to the identity of the thief are the footprints that Baby Monkey discovers and follows. Just as you think you’ve figured out the routine, the repetitive nature of the chapters diverges, as in the fourth chapter Baby Monkey is tired and hilariously needs some prodding to solve that case. The fifth chapter divulges even further, making readers second guess the entire premise of the story by the last scene, where observant readers will see the inspiration for all those criminals.

I’m unclear what aspects debut author Serlin (Selznick’s partner) and Selznick contributed to the story. Selznick’s pencil illustrations however are instantly recognizable and as detailed as to be expected, with Baby Monkey’s office accessories changing with every case and the book he is reading lending a hint to the upcoming theft. The snack in each chapter changes and is contained in a clearly labeled ziplock bag, instantly recognizable to children as something they might have packed for their snack. Monkey’s struggle to get into his pants is the visual gags that appeal to children, but I do wish one of this resulting misadventures had yielded both legs in one pant leg. Missed opportunity Selznick, in my opinion. Quite often found with his tongue sticking out of his mouth in concentration, Baby Monkey is adorable in every way possible, with ears sticking out of his head that are almost as big as his eyes (Mickey Mouse comparisons are inevitable) and cowlick/Mohawk fur on his head that reminds me of a troll doll. The over-sized magnifying glass that he carries around clinches it. It might be a big world, and Baby Monkey might be little, but he’s found his place in it.

I echo Betsy Bird‘s sentiments and exasperation about where the heck we’re supposed to put this cross over, combo format. I strongly believe it is best suited for easy or early reader collections, or better yet simple chapter books if your library has that category. The repetitive narration, simple word use, and large bold font is meant for those beginning or struggling readers, and advanced readers typically looking in the fiction area are well above this level. They still might find enjoyment, but it’s not really meant for them. It’s meant for reading aloud and sharing with families of small children, especially those of mixed ages. A coworker with three little ones ranging in ages from I think 3-7 years old said her whole brood of boys enjoyed it. That is where Selznick has hit the sweet spot, geared for a whole new and younger fan base then his previous works.

The Fast and the Furriest

I originally intended to post these in October, but the end of the year got away from me. Since I can’t draw, in honor of Inktober 2017 I searched out a graphic novel to fit each daily theme presented. Now that October is over, I finally have a chance to catch up on my blogging. Here’s my submission for the theme from October 1st: Swift.

Fast and the Furriest.jpgTitle: The Fast and the Furriest
Series: March Grand Prix
Author/Illustrator: Kean Soo
ISBN: 9781623701710
Pages: 137 pages
Publisher/Date: Capstone Young Readers, a Capstone Imprint, c2015.

In a Zootopia meets Cars idea mash-up, three issues assemble this volume of comics about a bunny family supporting their racecar driver relative. March has his parents and three sisters, mechanic May, baker April, and baby June. Assisted by “Uncle Hammond” (although his actions place him of a similar age as March), March races in two races, one on a track and one in a desert, and attempts to make a delivery for April when her bakery opens. Bright possibly digitally colored illustrations could draw comparisons to Raina Telgemeier. The different types of species represented is occasionally the punch line, such as when opponent Lyca Fox (get it?) calls her canine pit crew dogs (which they are). All’s well that ends well, as each of the three short stories end with a deus ex machina type resolution. His car is fixed and his father’s advice proves valuable, the eaten tarts are forgiven, and the whole racetrack celebrates March’s second place finish. While encouraging a suspension of belief, they also promote ideals like helping others, taking responsibility for your actions, and that you don’t always have to win to have fun. A fast read for young speed demons.

Korgi: Problem with Potions

I originally intended to post these in October, but the end of the year got away from me. Since I can’t draw, in honor of Inktober 2017 I searched out a graphic novel to fit each daily theme presented. Now that October is over, I finally have a chance to catch up on my blogging. Here’s my submission for the theme from October 12th: shattered.

Korgi 4 Problem with Potions.jpgTitle: Korgi Book 4: The Problem with Potions
Author/Illustrator: Christian Slade
ISBN: 9781603094030
Pages: 116 pages
Publisher/Date: Top Shelf Productions, c2016.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken a look at Korgi, to the point where I reread books 1-3 before progressing to the fourth book in this series. Readers realize that Ivy and Sprout don’t always have the perfect relationship that we’ve previously seen, as Sprout gets into a jar of food, tracks footprints over the floor, and breaks a dish before finally getting thrown out of the house by Ivy. It’s then that reoccurring characters the creephogs receive some of the spotlight, as they mistakenly supersize, spotify, and stupefy poor Sprout. Ivy gets him some help, but meanwhile the two brothers we finally met in book three are out for revenge, and wake a skeletal unicorn in their efforts.

Taken individually, the books are all appealingly cute and perfectly suited for multiple age bedtime reads (so long as everyone can see the pages). But the pacing as a series is starting to suffer.  A new character introduced in the final pages is an intriguing addition, but it’s taken us 10 years to get to this point and we’re still no closer to guaranteeing Sprout and Ivy’s safety. In fact, they are probably in more danger then they were in the beginning now that the “big baddy” has started making appearances in the plot. I’m not sure now why the antagonists from the first two books were introduced to begin with, as their actions seem removed from the overarching story. Also, characters Scarlett and Lump, who we saw in previous books, are still included in the (this time more detailed) character list, even though they don’t even make an appearance in book four. Maybe when the fifth one finally rolls around we’ll get some more answers. The illustrations are still engaging and I’m in love with the disguised resurrected unicorn (does anyone make them as plush animals?) but I do wish we were a little farther along. I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of these characters, but I won’t guess when the next book will appear and it’s doubtful original readers will still be interested in discovering the overall conclusion.

The Road to Epoli

Since I can’t draw, in honor of Inktober I searched out a graphic novel to fit each daily theme presented. Now that October is over, I finally have a chance to catch up on my blogging. Here’s my submission for Oct. 22nd’s theme: trail.

Road to Epoli.jpgTitle: The Road to Epoli
Series: Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo (#1)
Authors: Ben Costa & James Parks
Illustrator: Ben Costa
ISBN: 9780399556135
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2017.

Rickety Stitch is a revived skeleton. Although like most of his kind he has no physical brain, his personality pegs him as an anomaly. Working several dead end jobs with his friend The Goo gets him nowhere, as Stitch strums on his lute, trying to capture the song that haunts his dreams. En route, The Goo gets captured and Stitch gets pressed into service of capturing a gnome for a giant ogre-spawn as the only way to rescue his friend. With the help of an imp with questionable motives and morals, a naive gnome, and a no-nonsense unicorn, Stitch discovers that this might be the first step of an epic story, one he will no doubt be singing about when it finally ends.

The vibrant colors used in the illustrations remind me of Princeless or Nimona, inevitably appealing to a broad teen audience. I also feel like this might provide an introduction to the idea of D&D, if only because it feels like multiple campaigns might be in the works, and there are plenty of incidents where readers might questions motives and actions of the characters. Will he or won’t he? The humor inside the story also appears to be aimed at older audiences, as Rickety Stitch is continuously seen drinking in taverns, complaining about job politics, and waxing existentially about his identity and purpose. Whether being stabbed or scorched, Rickety Stitch seems immortal in his ability to avoid any permanent damage. By the end of the book, the plot seems to have been one long set-up for future tales, as Stitch is still struggling to remember the song that plagues his dreams and seems no closer to his vaguely determined destination, although he does finally receive a map for guidance. The characters are more memorable than the story, and I’d be curious to see how that translates for future installments. I feel this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Rickety or The Goo.

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