V O L U M E I , N U M B E R 9 • N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 8
In this issue
For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
English author-illustrator Mini Grey won a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award in 2005 for Traction Man Is Here!, a picture book about how a boy’s imagination turns a G.I. Joe–like action figure into a hero. In the sequel Traction Man Meets Turbodog, the valiant toy (and his personal Sancho Panza, Scrubbing Brush) must defeat a battery-operated (and very boring!) nemesis. Grey’s energetic books celebrate the creative impulses sparked by ordinary things — including plastic.
1. Your books are filled with talking dolls, dishes, forks, and potato peelings. Is your kitchen a lively place?
I have a little boy who is two, so at the moment there is a train track running through my kitchen that delivers raspberries. There’s a lot of jelly on the floor, as that is currently Herb’s favorite thing.
2. In a genre filled with bunnies and comforting plushies, do you ever get grief for making a hero out of plastic?
Plastic is a perfectly respectable material; in fact, plastic is simply amazing — what other material can be squashy, hard, waterproof, fluffy, see-through . . . and on and on! Plus it is brilliant for packaging fragile fruits. But plastic has got a bad name because it usually gets thrown away. We should treasure our plastic things!
3. Traction Man can work wonders with string. Can you?
I used to be a member of the Crochet Club when I was about ten (yes, my school had a Crochet Club!). Crocheting brings us useful items such as doilies. I always like to have a big string supply in case of emergencies. My knotting skills, however, are dire: I tried to learn some basic knots but still can’t reliably do even a reef knot. I need to work on my knot repertoire.
4. Who or what was your childhood Traction Man?
My brother had a lot of Action Man dolls. Action Man came with a range of outfits and accessories for underwater, deep-sea, space, etc., and some of Traction Man’s outfits are inspired by those. Some Action Men had real, fuzzy hair and swivel eyes, and they usually had quite loosely attached feet that came off in their boots and then the foot was lost in the boot forever. They had to put up with some hair-raising treatment — when they weren’t being tossed out of upstairs windows with a “parachute” made out of a hanky and string, they’d have to act as dutiful boyfriends for our dolls. Poor chaps.
5. Traction Man originally arrived at the boy’s house at Christmas, and the holidays are coming. How do you select a gift for a child?
I think the best sorts of toys leave plenty of room for the imagination. Toys that are too automated or animated or talk too much don’t let you imagine for them. Also, it is good to make things, so stuff to make things with is good.
One of the most heated presidential contests in decades is now over, but, as these three new picture books prove, Democrats and Republicans aren’t the only parties prone to squabbles, battles, and brawls. Jack Wants a Snack by Pat Schories is a wordless story of a little girl trying to keep dog Jack away from her quiet backyard tea party. But after pestering her for some of the treats she’s serving her dolls, Jack joins forces with the girl to chase a popcorn-stealing chipmunk. The illustrations will keep pre-readers intrigued, switching perspectives and zooming in and out to reveal each stage of the amusing altercation; above all, they allow pre-readers to tell the tale of the tiff themselves. (2–5 years)
In Cary Fagan and Nicolas Debon’s Thing-Thing, spoiled Archibald Crimp throws his new stuffed animal out his hotel window. As Thing-Thing anxiously falls, its odd and unexpected appearance encourages hotel guests on various floors (salespeople at a presentation; a nostalgic old woman) to gain new perspectives on their lives in page-long mini-narratives. Creatively designed pages and rapid changes in perspective keep things visually engaging, and the happy ending will leave everyone satisfied. (5–8 years)
In Dinosaur vs. Bedtime by Bob Shea, a small red dinosaur (read: toddler) takes on the world, one battle at a time. His enemies include a pile of leaves, a big slide, and a plate of spaghetti. The aftermath of each encounter is a gratifying “Dinosaur wins!” Dinosaur’s biggest challenge proves to be bedtime, but his eventual capitulation is as entertaining as his victories. This one is ideal for active, energetic kids, with minimal text, lots of noise (“ROAR! ROAR! ROAR!”), and spare backgrounds. Dinosaur’s ferocity and determination make him a strong, lovable character. (2–5 years)
A few middle graders want to become president of the United States when they grow up, but all of them dream of greatness. Perhaps that’s why the biography shelves are full of inspiring stories. Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by Marc Tyler Nobleman introduces readers to two shy, awkward guys who endured ridicule and rejection before their “greatest superhero of all time” took off. With stylish, era-evoking illustrations by Ross MacDonald, the book brings to life the writer and illustrator who together created the iconic comics hero; an afterword provides more details about the men’s lives after Superman’s debut. (7–10 years)
In Manjiro: The Boy Who Risked His Life for Two Countries, Emily Arnold McCully outlines the true-life adventures of a boy instrumental in opening Japan to the West. In 1841, fourteen-year-old Manjiro and his fellow shipwrecked crewmates were rescued and taken to Massachusetts, where Manjiro gained the respect of the townspeople; nine years later, he returned to Japan and helped encourage trade and goodwill between the two countries. Lush watercolor illustrations provide the hero with richly evoked historical settings. (7–10 years)
The new picture book biography Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told introduces readers to a woman who was born into slavery, fought injustice and inequality through her writing, spoke out against the poor treatment of black people, and advocated for women’s suffrage. Her heroic story, as told by Walter Dean Myers with illustrations by Bonnie Christensen, may inspire future activists and politicians. (7–10 years)
Of interest to slightly older readers is Lang Lang: Playing with Flying Keys, an autobiographical account of the brilliant young pianist’s childhood and adolescence. He tells readers about winning (and losing) major competitions, his difficulties with his father, and traveling around the world. Budding musicians will appreciate Lang Lang’s effort to show that “classical music is just as cool as the music kids love today.” Photos, a glossary of composers, and some of Lang Lang’s “favorite things” (favorite actresses include Sarah Jessica Parker and Angelina Jolie) are included. (10–14 years)
Did we ever really believe that comics were a boys-only club? In Shannon and Dean Hale’s Rapunzel’s Revenge, this Rapunzel doesn’t wait for a prince to come calling, “Let down your hair.” Instead, she literally takes her hair into her own hands — using her braids as Western-style whips in order to rescue her mother and end the witch’s reign of terror. With illustrations by Nathan Hale, this interpretation of the familiar folktale is full of high action, suspense, and wisecracking banter. A perfect introduction to the world of graphic novels for intermediate readers. (9–12 years)
Rue, the protagonist of The Good Neighbors: Kin, by Holly Black with art by Ted Naifeh, begins seeing menacing figures all around her and discovers that, through her mother, she is related to the faerie folk. Rue surrenders her wish for a normal life as she solves a murder mystery and begins to unravel the complexities of her identity and her new dark world. The ending leaves readers hanging, eagerly awaiting the next installment. (14 years and up)
Nicknamed Skim (“because I’m not”), Kim, the brooding high school heroine of Skim by Mariko Tamaki, is a lesbian, misfit, and aspiring Wiccan, putting her at odds with her classmates and the Girls Celebrate Life club. Kim’s loneliness and confusion — conveyed through delicate drawings by Jillian Tamaki — is both raw and real, and readers of this graphic novel can’t help but hope she finds her happy ending. (14 years and up)
Janes in Love, by Cecil Castellucci with art by Jim Rugg, revisits the characters from their acclaimed graphic novel The Plain Janes, as the members of the guerrilla art group P. L. A. I. N. (People Loving Art In Neighborhoods) deal with domestic terrorism, mental illness, friendship, and first love. The text and art compassionately relate the anxious times — our own — in which the Janes live and create inspiring everyday heroes out of these high-schoolers. (14 years and up)
Kids have long known that even the most benign-seeming community can have its secrets, and three new mysteries expose local scandal, corruption, and conspiracy to delicious effect. Apple picking meets ace reporting in Peeled, the newest offering from Newbery Honor author Joan Bauer. Most of Banesville, a small town where apples are big business, gets its news from the local paper, The Bee. But sixteen-year-old Hildy Biddle, blossoming journalist, makes sure The Core, her high school paper, covers more than cafeteria specials. When The Bee reports local sightings of the seemingly paranormal, it’s up to The Core to tell the public who is planting the seeds of fear — and why. (12 years and up)
There’s more to Susan Juby’s Getting the Girl than A Guide to Private Investigation, Surveillance, and Cookery (its subtitle). At Harewood Tech, certain girls get “defiled” — i.e., rendered socially invisible. Also invisible: whoever’s posting those girls’ pictures on the bathroom mirrors. The ritual goes unchecked until student Sherman Mack steps up to investigate. Even if he does have an attractive, artistic ulterior motive named Dini, Sherman may be just what Harewood Tech needs. (14 years and up)
Why is everyone in town so interested in the all-school spelling bee? Who are Helen and Agnes, and why are they doing so much lurking? What does omphaloskepsis mean, and how do you spell it? Adam Selzer’s I Put a Spell on You: From the Files of Chrissie Woodward, Spelling Bee Detective holds the answers, along with tidbits on Shakespeare, heavy metal, class clowning, and the goings-on at Gordon Liddy Community School. Yes, that Gordon Liddy, of Watergate fame. Is someone a crook? M-A-Y-B-E. (10–13 years)
We all have our own favorite holiday books — my own include Robert Sabuda’s Christmas Alphabet and chapter four of The Story of the Trapp Family Singers — but in the spirit of the season, there’s always room for more. Here are a few new picture books to brighten up the upcoming holidays.
Decorated by Karla Gudeon with delicately filigreed illustrations in happy colors, Harriet Ziefert’s Hanukkah Haiku offers one short poem for each of the eight evenings: “Three candles tonight. / Mommy makes a dreidel spin. / Nun, gimel, hey, shin.” Each page turn reveals another candle on the menorah. (4-8 years)
A similar anticipatory mood is struck in Merry Christmas, Ollie!, the latest in Olivier Dunrea’s winning series about a gaggle of little goslings. Gossie, Gertie, BooBoo, and Peedie are all waiting and preparing for Father Christmas Goose, but Ollie is impatient: “‘I want Christmas NOW!’ shouts Ollie.” Preschoolers will empathize, and appreciate this small, square book made for little hands and hearts. (3–6 years)
Older children and adults will enjoy the sardonic but still agreeably sentimental tale of a Christmas anti-hero, The Lump of Coal, by Lemony Snicket (pseudonymous author behind the Series of Unfortunate Events). This lump of coal wants a miracle, and only a truly circuitous journey finally puts him in the hands of someone who can provide him one. Illustrated with elegant humor by Brett Helquist, the book looks like a Christmas chocolate mint and is stocking filler–sized. (7 years and up)
Loren Long’s Hans Christian Andersen–like Drummer Boy is a sumptuous picture book just right for a Christmas Eve family read-aloud. “In a wintry little town not far from here” a little toy drummer boy is found and lost several times over before he finds himself back at home and part of a Nativity crèche. Large snow-speckled paintings are good for group viewing, and the Drummer Boy’s repeated tattoo — ”Boom pum pum boom pum” — will have listeners softly joining in. (7 years and up)
We recently received an e-mail from a grandmother concerned that her seven-year-old grandson could read at a fifth-grade level but wasn’t ready for fifth-grade books. It’s a common dilemma, one also explored by author-librarian Christine McDonnell in an article about “early expert readers,” as she calls them, published in this month’s Horn Book Magazine.
Parents of an early expert reader — heck, parents of any kind of a reader, from reluctant to ambitious — are confronted with two sometimes-conflicting sets of expectations: what they want for their child and what their child wants for him- or herself. I would suggest that, ultimately, satisfaction will be found for the former by assiduous attention to the latter. Just because your child can read at a fifth-grade level doesn’t mean he needs to at all times. (Think about your own reading: just because you can read Henry James doesn’t mean you must, does it?) At the same time, of course, just because your child is seven doesn’t mean she can’t take a crack — if she wants to — at Harry Potter, either. Given access to a wide variety of reading — both print and pixeled texts — and given the proper tools and encouragement to wade through it and choose, children turn themselves into the readers their parents want them to be.
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