Posts from the ‘Children’s Fantasy’ Category

Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon.jpgTitle: Egg & Spoon
Author: Gregory Maguire
Narrator: Michael Page
ISBN: 9781491502167 (audiobook)
Discs/CDs: 11 CDs, 12 hours 51 minutes
Pages: 475 pages
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014. (audiobook) Candlewick Press, c2014 (hardcover)

She is an insane old woman, though Cat, but at least I’m safe in the warmth, and she knows ho to cook. The old woman was ladling pink broth into a bowl whose sides were etched with obscure runes. “Drink up, my dear. I find borscht a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside.” […]
Cat demurred and said, “Who are you really?”
“I’m Queen Victoria. I’m Nellie Bly. I’m Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean — what difference does it make? I’m hungry and I want to eat, so do my bidding.”
“I couldn’t dare take your supper. I have nothing to pay you with.”
“You’re not taking my supper, you’re supplying it.” (141-142)

Gregory Maguire creates a tale reminiscent to the Prince and the Pauper. Even though Ekaterina isn’t a princess, she has many more advantages than Elena, who is essentially starving to death as she tries her best to care for her sick mother after her father has died and her two brothers taken away from home. A lightning strike forces their unlikely meeting, and Elena finds herself in an enviable position when the Ekaterina’s train takes her away from the poverty and towards the Tsar’s palace. She hopes to use that opportunity to reclaim her brother from army conscription, but she doesn’t know that Ekaterina is hot on her trail with her own transportation. In their travels, they realize that Russia might be in more trouble than either girl, and are recruited by the fabled folkloric witch Baba Yaga to solve the problem of melting ice and disappearing magic.

Michael Page’s voice is properly moderated between the high pitched, stereotypical screech of Baba Yaga and the clipped tones of the prince (although he does sound vaguely English and not Russian). Even the two younger girls have slight differences that easily distinguish between the educated Ekaterina and the more rurally raised Elena. The sweeping landscape is described beautifully, and Elena’s situation is especially heart-wrenching when readers realize the troubles behind her meager existence.

Maguire’s tale is less impressive, for if readers are familiar with the story of the prince and the pauper, then they essentially have the plot of the first part of the book. The second half pairs the girls on an adventure to save Russia. It’s discovered that the floodwaters and dampened winter and magic are connected, involving the firebird and ice dragon. I was unfamiliar with the ice dragon legacy, and was intrigued by my introduction to this Russian myth. By the end of the novel, the twist, feel good resolution revealing the cause of the trouble is somewhat moralistic and preachy, encouraging the human race to whine and want less and focus more on reducing the wants of others. It’s an unexpected altruistic message, and while anti-materialists might appreciate the thought, I was disappointed that such a long journey yielded so little action in the conflict.

The magic in the story is supplied by the magic that the girls encounter through their association with Baba Yaga, who has multiple distinguished and unique traits including her unpredictability, attitudinal house which reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle, sarcastic shape-shifting familiar, and pattern of speech which allude to time travels or future premonitions. She is by far my favorite character in the whole story. I can only imagine the fun Maguire must have had in writing her scenes considering the fun I had reading them. Her nontraditional exclamation “Honey Buckets!” became a term of endearment towards her guests, who while certainly unpredicted are not entirely unwanted, regardless of what she alludes. I find that same sort of unexpected endearment towards her in what ultimately is a overly long, predictable plot. Extreme fantasy and fairy tale/folklore fans might appreciate this exposure of not-often portrayed Russian mythology, but most will probably loose interest before the quest even begins.

A Nearer Moon

A Nearer Moon.jpgTitle: A Nearer Moon
Author: Melanie Crowder
ISBN: 9781481441483
Pages: 150 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

[…] It was one of Mama’s never-to-be-broken rules:
Don’t go past the bend in the river.
Don’t go below the dam.
Steer far away from the slick.
People said there was a creature that lived beneath the slick lying still as a gravestone on top of the water, a creature that cast a curse on the swamp and sickened anyone who drank it. But Luna didn’t believe in the creature, and she didn’t believe in curses. (10-11)

Luna and her little sister Willow love going out on the water on their pole boat, trying to catch fish in the dam that their village of stilted houses lives over. Only the oldest residents remember the days before the dam mysteriously appeared, stopping the river and turning the bright waters into the treacherous swamp. Luna doesn’t believe in curses until their boat mysteriously dips under the water line and Willow ends up with the swamp sickness. With only weeks until the wasting illness kills her sister and no cure in sight, Luna might have to start believing in magic and miracles.

Told in alternating perspectives, first from Luna’s and then from the view of a water sprite decades prior, it’s at first a little confusing. But very quickly readers will realize that they are similar stories of sisterly bonds and the lengths sisters will go to maintain them. Having just watched My Friend Totoro, the two stories are similar, with an independent pair of sisters who take advantage of the world around them, encounter a magical creature, and have to overcome an illness. Crowder’s writing style and word choice also remind me of Thanhha Lai’s Listen, Slowly, very lyrical and descriptive. Luna’s grandmother at one point “raised her eyes to the ceiling, searching the cobwebbed corners of her mind” which just sounds so poetic.

Luna is a likeable character, who feels guilt over her involvement in her sister’s illness and that it’s her sister and not herself who got sick. She adventures time and again out by herself, or with steady childhood friend Benny by her side, in efforts to cure this disease that everyone else has resigned to the fact that it’s incurable. “It was a supremely stupid thing she was doing. And if the brief history of her life was any indication, if she was set on doing a supremely stupid thing, it was best to have Benny along.” (33) I’m envious of her freedom of movement, as I don’t think my mother would have let me out of her sight after the first attempt, much less the second or third. Any other book would have made Benny and Luna a romantic pairing, but I’m so glad they are just friends here.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sprite’s side of the story. It proves Crowder’s efficiency with words, that she’s able to so effortlessly squeeze two stories into only 150 pages. Perdita is an adventurous water sprite whose twin sister worries about her never-ending ramblings and roving. She and Luna are a lot alike in their independent and inquisitive natures. The stories start decades apart but they finally catch up to one another in the end. I loved the ending, as (if blog readers will allow me one final comparison) just like in Frozen there really isn’t a bad guy, but only broken hearts that once mended heal everything. A beautifully told story.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Unusual Chickens.jpgTitle: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
Author: Kelly Jones
Illustrator: Katie Kath
ISBN: 9780385755528
Pages: 216 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2015.

“Dear People Who Sell Special Chickens,

Look, maybe Mom was right about not writing while I was angry. I’m really sorry I said that stuff. Probably you’ve been busy too. But now I really need you to write back, even if you don’t send me a catalog. Because a chicken showed up yesterday, and I think it must be one of yours, because it is really definitely not an ordinary chicken. I’m pretty sure my parents are going to freak out, and I really need to figure out what to do. What are you supposed to do with a found chicken—is it like a found dog? Do chickens go to the pound? But it’s got to be yours. It’s really unusual, for sure. Can you please come get it quickly? Sincerely, Sophie […]

“Dear Great-Uncle Jim,

You know that chicken I told you about? It can use the Force.” (33-36)

Sophie moves with her mom and dad to her Great-Uncle Jim’s farm, which her family inherited upon his death. Through letters she writes, but can’t send, to her dead grandmother and great-uncle, and letters to the Redwood Farm Supply, which she does send, Sophie details her exploits as she discovers first one, then two, then even more chickens on her great-uncle’s farm. These chickens are anything but ordinary, and Sophie is not the only person who notices the unusual attributes. There may be a chicken thief on the loose, and Sophie is going to do everything she can to protect her posse of poultry.

This is a book that needs to be read aloud to classes everywhere, perfect for fans of Charlotte’s Web or other farm based fantasies. Sophie is a biracial only child, which is addressed but never obsessed over. She is self-reliant, strong-willed and independent, writing at one point “Don’t you dare send someone to take my chickens.” Knowing when to ask for help, she consults the library and other experts in researching the care and feeding of chickens. Sophie occasionally has a sarcastic way of approaching things, like telling her grandmother “I’m really sorry you’re dead” that make her an endearing and relatable protagonist. The most realistic aspect of the narration style used is there is very little directly quoted dialogue, which is rarely found in actual letters and lends a more realistic tone to the story. The illustrations are quirky and charming at the same time, adding to the plot’s humor without turning into slapstick. Give this to fans of humorous stories who are uninterested in the potty humor of Underpants. Get it, read it, share it, and recommend this unusual book. One of my favorites and one of the most memorable of the whole year.

Space Dumplins

This week, in honor of World Space Week, we’ve got reviews featuring space, in all it’s many forms. Today, I’m presenting an action packed space adventure by an award-winning graphic novelist.

GRX050 Silver Six COV TEMPLATETitle: Space Dumplins
Author/Illustrator: Craig Thompson
ISBN: 9780545565431
Pages: 316 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., c2015.

Violet Marlocke’s father is a lumberjack in a futuristic space-age time and her mother works as a fashion designer for a pretentious boss who only cares about next season’s trends. Lumberjacks in this alternate reality don’t cut down trees, but harvest and transports whale poop produced by giant flying space whales, which is then processed into energy. One whale has recently eaten Violet’s school, and areas in the path of destruction are being evacuated. When Violet’s father goes missing after a whale diarrhea environmental disaster, she heads off in a slightly restored space junker, along with a young chicken and a lumpkin, who’s contrariness is seen not just in his attitude but his uncharacteristically short and round body, resembling a walking talking kidney bean. Enlisting the helps of her father’s lumberjack buddies, Violet quickly realizes that there is more happening than she realized, her father’s life is on the line, and her actions might affect more than one family.

Rather than stick to a monochromatic scheme like some graphic novelists, Craig Thompson’s latest creation is literally BURSTING with color, starting with the raised lettering on the cover for the title. The roids, or asteroid belt, where Violet and her family work is the darker shades, lending to its recognizable position as lower class. By comparison, the space station reminds me of the Capital from The Hunger Games series, with overly prejudiced and super stylized citizens in neon and bright shades. Whale poop is portrayed as clingy green goo, reminiscent of the slime made in science class or seen on Nickelodeon, and the whales are bold purple. Even the aliens and fashions and ships are unique, with some of the aliens having claws, suction-shaped fingers, or appendages protruding from their heads. The details are also incredible, down to the tattoos on Violet’s father, which are distinct, identifiable, and most certainly contain significance, even if we don’t figure it out.

The plot is smart and sophisticated as well. Elliot the chicken has a dream journal and cites Biblical references. There’s commentary about socioeconomic classes, prejudices, environmental disasters, unions, and government conspiracies. At one point when talking with Elliot, Violet comments “You must go crazy cooped up here all the time.” and Elliot responds “COOP? Please no speciesist slurs.” Two panels later (on the same page), Violet deadpans “So, you’re no FREE-RANGE CHICKEN, huh?” (41) and we’re not quite sure if she meant it as a “slur” or seriously. The ending reminds me of Men in Black, and I even liked the epilogue, even if it does get slightly hokey/preachy towards the end. With plenty of action and subplots, this is meant for invested and engaged readers. For fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or any slapstick, unimaginable science fiction space odyssey that somehow meshes into a coherent, believable, and satisfying read, this one will surely entertain both kids and adults. This is poop humor done right.

Princeless 1

PrincelessTitle: Princeless (first four issues)
Author: Jeremy Whitley
Illustrators: M. Goodwin (art and colors) and Jung Ha Kim (letters)
ISBN: 9781939352545
Pages: Unpaged (128 pages)
Publisher/Date: Action Lab Entertainment, c2015

That very day, the prince and princess were married. They lived happily ever after and had lots of beautiful children. The End.
“That story is complete hogwash. [..] First of all, it’s full of plot holes. I mean, really, what kind of dragon dies with one blow? Not to mention, how did he get her down from that tower?”
“I suppose he climbed.”
“Climbed? Climbed Mom? He climbed ‘the tallest of tall towers’. Then managed to get the helpless princess of his down without any kind of magic? Did you see that girl’s arms? They’re PIPE CLEANERS! She’s not climbing down anything! […] And how did she get up there in the first place? Who has the kind of grudge against this beautiful princess that they would lock her in a tower? […] Plus where do you even buy a dragon? Dragons are wild animals! You’re going to put that thing in charge of your daughter? What if it wanders off? What if it eats her? […] All I know is, when I turn sixteen, you and dad had better not lock me in some tower.”

Oh, but that’s exactly what happens to Adrienne, is she gets locked in a tower guarded by a dragon waiting to be rescued. After several princes get eaten and one runs away screaming, she takes matters into her own hands. Breaking both herself and her dragon Sparky free, they begin a quest to rescue the rest of her sisters from their respective towers. Returning to her home leads to a case of mistaken identity, and now she’s running from her own guards. Will a plucky blacksmith’s daughter with her own ideas of women warriors be an asset to her quest?

Remember all those good things I said about Nimona, and how it subtly alluded to cultural tropes regarding superheroes, feminism, and tradition? Place all those things in glaring, blinding, glowing neon skyscraper height letters, and you get Princeless. Plastered on the front cover is a quote from Comics Alliance hailing it as “the story Disney should have been telling for the past twenty years,” but I feel that’s true only if Disney was being run by overly politically correct government officials. In less than two hundred pages we cover:

  • anti-feminist messages of old-fashioned fairy tales (quoted above)
  • blatant recognition of sexism in the costumes of female heroes (“What I’m saying is why should a woman’s armor have to show cleavage or stomach? […] Why not make real armor, which would actually be effective in a fight for a woman warrior?”)
  • the mistaken emphasis of women’s worth as a commodity instead of a companion that persists in some cultures even today (“And the worst part is, all he wanted was money for her”)
  • patriarchal views of the role of women in society (“It is not a woman’s place to rule, but to be ruled.”) and
  • the stereotyping against “feminine” qualities in men and “masculine” qualities in women.

Why don’t we just use Bedelia’s giant hammer to pound feminist philosophies into everyone’s head, as that would be about as subtle as this book. I guess for some people it’s necessary to be this obvious, but it seriously impacted my enjoyment of the story, not because I disagree with the messages. I agree whole heartedly that young girls need realistic role models of all types in literature, and have long wished that more superheroes took the functional female route instead of the spandex bikini-clad boobs and butts. However, let the story prove the point, and don’t make medieval characters spout modern-day political talking points ever dozen or so pages.

Now don’t misunderstand, I did enjoy the premise of the story. The details were really key, with Princess Adrienne actually falling off her dragon the first time she hops on due to the lack of a proper saddle. I like her ingenuity when it comes to getting herself out of trouble. Her ethnicity, minus one early mention about how she will never be a “fair maiden”, amazingly goes largely unremarked upon but is unquestionable in the illustrations. Princess Adrienne has an admirable attitude, not similar to Junie B. Jones but more to that point that she knows what makes sense and she’s not afraid say what she’s thinking. I’m hopeful the series will become less about what other comics and fairy tales are lacking and more about the good qualities that this storyline offers. There are certain scenes that really steal the show, especially the last one with Adrienne’s sister, and those are the types of scenes that I want to see more. A good, promising start if you’re willing to dodge the propaganda when necessary.

Nimona

NimonaTitle: Nimona
Author/Illustrator: Noelle Stevenson
ISBN: 9780062278234
Pages: 266 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperTeen, an imprint of HerperCollins Publishers, c2015.

“The agency sent me. I’m your new sidekick!”
“That makes no sense. Why would they send some KID to be my sidekick?”
“I don’t know, something about helping your image? They want you to appeal to today’s youth.”
“Did the Agency really send you?”
“Yes”
“Where’s the letter?
“I left it in the… uh… FIIIINE so the Agency didn’t send me.”
“I KNEW IT.”(1)

Ballister Blackheart, “the biggest name in supervillainy” has just become the unlikely recipient of a surprisingly bloodthirsty sidekick named Nimona. Not because he really was looking or wants one, but he has to grudgingly admit that she has some traits that could be useful. While they both have their own ideas about villainy, they find common ground in fighting against the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, specifically Ballister’s nemesis Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. Everyone has secrets though, and when those secrets are discovered, they lead to questions regarding who is good, who’s bad, and who can be really trusted.

An award-winning web comic gets the graphic novel treatment and I’m so glad it did. While I’ve gotten more involved in graphic novels and web comics in the past couple years, I am by no means an expert and it’s fortunate I can expand my exposure to them when they get printed through traditional means. Noelle Stevenson does an admirable job of embracing the stereotypes and tried and true troupes of the genre while still breaking tradition and flipping them on their head. Yes there is a bad guy and a good guy, a plucky sidekick and a secret agency, but there is also an overly secured secret lair that everyone knows about and double and triple cross traps that fail, succeed, and then fail again and are openly discussed. Oh how I love plucky sidekick Nimona! Her dialogue is spot-on, she’s all over the place with energy, and then she has this other side of her that you get to meet that makes you sit up and take notice of her in a whole new light.

The thought-provoking plot provides lots of surprises, with questions of good versus evil, personal identity, friendship, and science, most of which I can’t talk about without ruining the joy of discovering them for yourself. The artwork is just as stunning, with action-packed panels at every turn, filled with explosions but just as frequently zooming in on quieter character development, subtle hints and details, and back stories. This being originally a web comic, you do notice a change in the rendering of the characters, but I think they change for the better, and the sheer number of panels rendered for each page is impressive to say the least. Stevenson put a lot of effort into this, and it shows!

This is one of my favorite graphic novels of the year in a crowded field of girl-powered themed exploits that were published this year. I’m fan-girl fawning over her, and if I was to ever cosplay someone, I think Nimona would be my first choice, although I have no idea how I would do her hair style justice. Pick this up, get acquainted with her, and — since the ending ties up everything but still leaves an opening for more adventures — we all need to hope like heck Nimona will receive the sequel treatment.

Korgi Book Three

Korgi 3 A Hollow BeginningTitle: Korgi Book Three: A Hollow Beginning
Author/Illustrator: Christian Slade
ISBN: 9780329889081
Pages: 112 pages
Publisher/Date: Top Shelf Productions, c2011.

It’s impossible to quote a wordless picture book. If you’ll remember my previous review of the first two books, I predicted that there would be a third book. This one is different than the other two, as there is more violence, which I was somewhat shocked by. The illustrations are still gorgeous, detailed, and expressive, with a flashback sequence set apart by a thicker border around each panel and darker lines composing the drawings. Ivy and her korgi Sprout have discovered a sliver of… something (it resembles a pieces of sharp glass) with a drawing on it. After asking around the village, they visit Wart, the librarian/historian for the town. (Side note, as a librarian, I’m drooling over Wart’s book collection and shelving.) Wart tells a story of where the piece may have come from, but it is almost stolen from the duo until a friend saves the day. Although the very last page seems to be the perfect ending (in a photo-copy-and-frame-that-drawing kind of way), there are still some unresolved plot points that may lead to a fourth book in the series, especially when tying the flashbacks to the current story line.

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