V O L U M E 2 , N U M B E R 8 • A U G U S T 2 0 0 9
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.
With the publication this month of Thumb and the Bad Guys, Ken Roberts’s short middle grade novels about an isolated small town now number three, with each one receiving a starred review in The Horn Book Magazine. The Thumb in the Box introduced us to the town and our hero, Thumb, so named for the practical joke he plays on any and all visitors; Thumb on a Diamond has the kids learning baseball in order to score a trip to the big city of Vancouver, where they encounter such unknown delights as escalators. In this latest entry, Thumb and friend Susan decide to play detective, but it’s harder than they thought to find a suspect, let alone a crime, in their town of 143 people. With their graceful language, involving story lines, and unique comedy, the Thumb books can be enjoyed by readers reluctant and otherwise, kids and parents alike.
1. Is New Auckland based on a real place?
Yes. It is loosely based on the village of Hartley Bay, British Columbia. I visited Hartley Bay as a storyteller in 1985 and have never forgotten the beauty of the location or the friendliness of the people. In the first Thumb book I tell the story about a fire truck being donated to my fictionalized village that has no roads. This happened to the coastal village of Bella Bella in British Columbia, and people there loved telling me the story.
2. What kind of a role does the unique setting play in the kind of stories you can write about Thumb?
The village in the Thumb books is the star of the series. The unique setting gives me the chance to tilt the world just a little bit so I can follow the effect. I adore a form of fiction that some people call fabulism. Writers of fabulism create worlds that closely resemble the “real world” but with small differences — animals might talk or people might fly. Gabriel García Márquez uses these techniques to perfection. Setting stories in New Auckland gives me the chance to create an invented world that hopefully exists just this side of believable. The Thumb stories are not fabulism, but they exist in the same universe. My goal is create a village bearing similar characteristics to the town where Robert McCloskey set his Centerburg stories.
3. Why do you think people, adults as well as kids, like reading books in series?
I haven’t really thought about it. I can tell you that when I wrote the first Thumb book I never intended to write a series. I have written two more Thumb books only because I like the characters and I like the tone of the stories. I am thinking of writing a fourth book because my teenage children are developing the hearts of romantics and I can’t help wondering how Thumb might feel, if he were to fall in love.
I only enjoy a series when the author places a strong emphasis on character and less emphasis on plot. It is fun to see how good characters will behave in different situations.
4. How easily does humor travel across the U.S.-Canadian border?
When I am sitting in my office I can actually see the neighborhoods where Hollywood comedians Jim Carrey, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, and Dave Thomas all grew up. Canadians seem to produce written, oral, and visual humor that appeals to American audiences. I know that my books are seen as possessing a certain innocence. If this is true, the innocence is genuine, but I am not at all sure that it reflects a Canadian trait. I grew up in California, still have duel citizenship.
5. What's your favorite practical joke?
Practical jokes tend to have a nasty side that I don’t like. I do like elaborate ruses. When I was growing up my father used to dress up like a female clown every Halloween, and he would entertain the neighborhood. He could juggle and play the harmonica and do magic tricks. He was very good, but he kept his performing skills well hidden the rest of the year. Neighbors did not know that this clown was my normally serious father. My brothers and I loved to listen as neighbors speculated about the identity of this clown. We never gave away Dad’s secret. This is my favorite “ruse.”
By the way, our next-door neighbor, a librarian named Mrs. Crandell, was the only person who ever figured out that this clown was my Dad. She didn’t tell anyone, but Dad did gain an equally disguised magician’s assistant the next Halloween.
With the first day of school just around the corner, here are some more middle grade novels, on everything from math phobia to pen pals, that should help ease kids back into the classroom.
In Best Friends and Drama Queens (the third book in the Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls series), new-girl Cheyenne begins to change the dynamics of Allie’s fourth-grade class, insisting that everyone act more “mature” — i.e., “going with” boys, playing kissing games, etc.). Anyone who resists is a baby. How Allie overcomes the humiliation — and, ultimately, the pressure to grow up too soon — is told believably and with much insight by popular author Meg Cabot. (8–11 years)
Also appearing in her third book is “navy brat” Piper Reed. Piper is always full of ideas: here, in Kimberly Willis Holt’s Piper Reed Gets a Job, she has a few too many at once. Piper tries to juggle three jobs while conveniently putting her big biography project on hold. The ensuing disaster could have been worse, and Piper gets her priorities straightened out. Piper’s personality is infectious, and she’ll appeal particularly to fellow reluctant students whose talents may not always be channeled conventionally. (8–11 years)
The intrepid Babymouse returns to slay the dragon of math phobia when she is strong-armed into joining the mathlete team in Babymouse: Dragonslayer. Readers will be drawn into the graphic novel format as author Jennifer Holm and illustrator Matthew Holm humorously interweave reality with Babymouse’s epic (and pink-tinged) fantasies. This time the message is a valuable one, too, as Babymouse learns that “just because you’re not good at something, it doesn’t mean you have to be terrible at it, either.” (8–12 years)
Andrew Clements writes a mean school story (Frindle; No Talking), and his latest, Extra Credit, is no exception. Abby loves athletics and the Illinois outdoors but hates homework, and she will have to repeat sixth grade unless she completes an extra credit assignment. She begins a pen pal correspondence with Sadeed, a student in Afghanistan. At first desultory, the exchange becomes important to both Abby and Sadeed, deepening into true friendship — but threatening the safety of Sadeed’s village. Readers will give high marks to this timely, thoughtful story. (10–13 years)
—Martha V. Parravano
Dinosaurs who love math? Pandas (real ones) in kindergarten? These and other picture book topics will get younger readers in the mood for school, with stories and poems about the humorous aspects of learning, the closeness of classroom friendships, and more.
Dinosaurs and math are two often fearsome subjects, but there’s nothing to be afraid of in Michelle Markel’s Tyrannosaurus Math, about a dinosaur who, upon hatching, counts his fingers and toes, forming his first number sentence. He explores skip counting (ornithomimus footprints), symmetry (teeth on the left and right sides of his mouth), division and fractions (splitting hadrosaurs with his siblings), among other subjects. Doug Cushman’s acrylics reinforce the math and add enormously to the amusement factor. (6–9 years)
Kindergartners — and older kids, too — will love Panda Kindergarten, about an actual group of pandas attending “school.” Joanne Ryder introduces sixteen super-cute young pandas at China’s Wolong Nature Preserve; ready to leave the nursery and their mothers, the cubs spend about a year together, playing and learning. Katherine Feng’s photos of the pandas romping on their playground, eating lunch, and napping together will have even the wiggliest kids sitting still and turning pages. (4–8 years)
In Messing Around on the Monkey Bars: And Other School Poems for Two Voices, Betsy Franco’s fresh and dynamic poems make good use of steady rhythm and humor, and paintings by Jessie Hartland match the book’s playful tone. Young students will agree — reading these nineteen poems, designed to be read aloud by two or more readers, is nearly as much fun as swinging around on the monkey bars. (6–10 years)
When Anna gets invited to play with cool (and mean) girls Kayla and Melanie she reluctantly leaves behind good friend Julisa. Both Anna and Julisa miss each other and eventually find their way back to being Two of a Kind. In a thoughtful text, Jacqui Robbins conveys the hurtfulness of elementary classroom cliques; Matt Phelan’s soft watercolor illustrations add a gentle but emotionally powerful touch. (6–9 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
Summer’s not over yet! Need something to savor between naps in the hammock or strolls on the beach? These YA short story collections are ideal for dipping into again and again.
Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd celebrates the geeks among us. The stories, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci, capture what it means to embrace geekdom, in high school and beyond. M. T. Anderson’s “The King of Pelinesse,” about a boy who visits the sci-fi author with whom he believes his mother had an affair, is a standout, as is Scott Westerfeld’s hard-boiled “Definitional Chaos,” an action-filled mind game that pits the protagonist against an ex-girlfriend of dubious morals. (14 years and up)
Cecil Castellucci is one of the talented storytellers exploring the mysterious in editor Deborah Noyes’s new collection, Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical. From behind the scenes with sideshow performers, these stories reveal the stranger truths the audience is never meant to see and offer touches of humor and pathos among the thrills. (12 years and up)
And if it’s thrills you seek, check out The Ghosts of Kerfol, five interconnected tales all written by Deborah Noyes. The author’s inspiration is Edith Wharton’s ghost story “Kerfol,” set in 1613 France and featuring a jealous husband, a lonely wife, ghostly dogs, and a strange murder. Noyes begins by retelling Wharton’s story from the point of view of a servant girl. Subsequent entries bring readers back to the manor over a span of two centuries, where visitors are haunted by characters from the past. A brooding gothic atmosphere is maintained throughout the different time periods. (14 years and up)
The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows, edited by Jonathan Strahan, features sixteen stories by a mix of acclaimed YA and adult authors, including Garth Nix, Cory Doctorow, and Neil Gaiman. The tales showcase settings ranging from bleak near-futures to careening spaceships and extraterrestrial communities. This collection is a feast of provocative, action-packed, and fully imagined science-fiction worlds.
We’re going to meet our first grandson later this month — Miles, born in June. So the baby-book buying pressure is on, but since my own experience with children that young is severely limited I turned to some experts.
Terri Schmitz from the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, MA, recommends And If the Moon Could Talk, a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner written by Kate Banks and illustrated by Georg Hallensleben, as well as Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. The first is a dreamy bedtime book; the second an all-day bounce-around.
Oxenbury, Horn Book moms remind me, is the master of the baby book, with Clap Hands, Tickle Tickle, All Fall Down, and Say Goodnight contemporary nursery classics. Short and sweet, these sturdy board books feature big pictures of babies’ favorite subject: other babies.
Susan Marston, editorial director over at the Junior Library Guild, adds Barnyard Dance!, Moo, Baa, La La La!, and Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs!, all by Sandra Boynton, all great fun to read aloud over and over and over. Gretchen Hunsberger, Massachusetts programs director from our office neighbors Reach Out and Read, adds Boynton’s Hippos Go Berserk! to the list. She also echoes the point that “babies love looking at faces of other babies.” The Global Fund for Children’s board book, Global Babies, offers a multicultural take on this concept. And Hunsberger likes Margaret Miller’s Look Baby! board books (Baby Faces, Baby Food, What’s on My Head?, etc.) for their up-close and colorful photos of expressive babies.
While it seems like baby books have a hard time staying in print — Kitty Flynn particularly mourns the unavailability of Rebecca O’Connell and Ken Wilson-Max’s The Baby Goes Beep— these recommendations do suggest criteria for what to look for. Think big clear pictures of familiar subjects, rhythmic text, repetition, and sound effects. I’m sure Miles will have his own opinions on the subject before too long. I’ll keep you posted.
While I understand the arguments for year-round school, I hope we also consider the necessity of markers in a young person’s life. Summer vacation is not simply a break, it is a breath between two distinct experiences. The difference between grades — whether first and second or sophomore and junior — is huge in a kid’s life, a fact we increasingly acknowledge with ever more frequent graduation ceremonies. It’s a communal variation on birthdays. Summer vacation allows a child to go away from school and come back different, simply by virtue of that annual, formal pause in structured education. They are still learning: whether they go to camp or on a family trip or work or just hang out with their friends and complain of boredom, kids in summertime are educating themselves in the extent of their own resources. (Thus my dislike of summer reading lists.) They are learning what they can do. And come late August or September they learn something else: how to handle the new.
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