V O L U M E 2 , N U M B E R 6 • J U N E 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.
I’ve just learned the winners of this year’s Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards. Established in 1967, these annual children’s book awards honor excellence in three categories: Fiction and Poetry, Nonfiction, and Picture Books. The picture book winner is Bubble Trouble, by Margaret Mahy and Polly Dunbar; Mahy sat for the “Five Questions for . . .” feature in last month’s Notes. Terry Pratchett, author of the popular Discworld and Tiffany Aching books, won the Fiction prize for his novel Nation, a not-quite-fantasy, not-quite-historical-fiction story about two intrepid children rebuilding a civilization from the ground up. Winning for Nonfiction, Candace Fleming’s The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary, is the best of the many children’s books published last year in honor of Lincoln’s bicentenary. The judges also selected two honor books in each category, and complete information about all the titles can be found on our website. The awards will be bestowed in a ceremony at the Boston Athenaeum on October 2. Congratulations, everyone!
Gene Luen Yang won the 2007 Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature for his graphic novel American Born Chinese. Now, partnering with illustrator Derek Kirk Kim, he has just published The Eternal Smile, a collection of three related graphic tales that question our distinctions between dreams and reality. What if, the book asks, the world is very different from what we think? What if we are really asleep? I caught up with Gene via e-mail, so I have no way of knowing if he was actually awake for these questions!
1. What do you say to people who think a comic book or graphic novel is no substitute for a “real book”?
Well, I sympathize. Ever since my wife and I had our first child five years ago, I’ve become more and more of a curmudgeon. Fatherhood just does that to you, I guess. I catch myself muttering “kids these days . . .” under my breath more often than I like to admit. My pants keep riding higher and higher for no apparent reason.
I like old ways of doing things. Combining words and pictures in books, though, isn’t new. We’re clearly in the midst of a comics resurgence, but the modern comic book has been around for nearly a century. And, if you accept Scott McCloud’s definition, comics as a medium has been around for many, many centuries before that.
Books are about communication. And books communicating through images, even sequential images, aren’t something new trying to substitute for the tried and true. They’ve always been there. They’re getting more attention now, sure. But they aren’t going to replace the prose novel. Instead, what I think we’ll see is a bleeding of the boundaries between media. Comics will bleed into prose and vice versa. Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is just one example of what I’m talking about. There will still be pure prose and pure comics, but there will also be more and more works that are difficult to categorize.
2. How did you and Derek Kirk Kim divide the storytelling responsibilities?
For The Eternal Smile, I wrote the stories in thumbnail form and handed the thumbnails to Derek. Derek handled the character designs, the penciling, the inking, the coloring, the lettering, and — in the case of the last story — the painting. Everything the reader actually sees on the page came from Derek’s pen, brush, or computer.
Derek also had more influence over the storytelling in the last story, “Urgent Request.” He told me early on that he wanted to try a new way of putting a comic together, where he’d draw the panels first and then figure out how to lay them on the page after he was finished. He also wanted to throw the word balloons off-panel so they wouldn’t play such a big part in the panels’ compositions. As a result, he figured out the compositions, the page layouts, and the page turns for “Urgent Request.” Much of the look and feel of that story is his.
The Eternal Smile is the most visually stunning book I’ve ever been a part of. I’m very proud of it.
3. What’s with you and frogs?
That’s a good question. For the second story in The Eternal Smile, “Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile,” I needed a land-dwelling funny animal that was partial to lakes. Since ducks had already been taken by Disney, frogs seemed like a natural choice.
Derek and I did the first story, “Duncan’s Kingdom,” ten years ago, when we were in our twenties. I don’t remember why I (or we) chose to use frogs. And, really, how much of what goes on in the mind of your average twenty-something male actually makes sense?
4. What’s with you and dreams?
Again, good question. Not sure I have an answer. I could make something up about dreams being a window into the soul, blah blah blah. But at this point in the interview, when we’re already on the second to last question, that seems like a lot of work. How about this:
Dreams. Are. Awesome!
5. How do you know you’re awake?
The Eternal Smile is a book that defies age-leveling: it’s not obviously a book for teens, but neither does it exclude them, a transcendence of “intended audience” shared not only by many graphic novels but by much of what is published for young adults today. Here are a few titles that graduating seniors can enjoy in concert with their grown-up friends.
Sarah Dessen has a well-established crossover audience of teen girls and adult women; in Along for the Ride, Auden spends the summer after graduation with her father and his second wife and their newborn baby daughter. As always with this writer, the adult characters are developed with as much precision and sympathy as the young protagonist. (14 years and up)
The heroine of Tim Wynne-Jones’s thriller The Uninvited has already finished her first year of college when she flees New York (and a disastrous affair with a professor) for the supposed shelter of a cottage her father owns in rural Canada. But what Mimi discovers there are secrets from her father’s past that she can’t out-run. (14 years and up)
For seventeen-year-old Marcelo, the protagonist of Marcelo in the Real World, a summer job in his father’s law office presents a host of challenges all heightened by his Asperger’s. His literalness gets him into trouble: he is unsure about the even obvious intentions of others, and his obsession with religion leads him to question some of the morally hazy activity of the firm. Author Francisco X. Stork portrays Marcelo with insight and respect, his disability an organic part of the story rather than a gimmick. (14 years and up)
Fantasy and science-fiction readers have long been accustomed to crossing over the boundaries of juvenile and adult literature. Firebirds Soaring: An Anthology of Original Speculative Fiction is an excellent collection of eighteen short stories and a novella by fantasy and sci-fi writers including Nancy Farmer, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and Sherwood Smith. Many of the stories aren’t easily categorized; as editor Sharyn November writes, “It’s more fun to blur the boundaries, anyway.” (12 years and up)
Middle-grade animal lovers have a whole field full of novels to choose from this summer. Here are four that stand out from the herd.
In The Cats of Roxville Station by veteran children’s author Jean Craighead George, an abused and abandoned young tabby adapts to the feral cat community in suburban Roxville Station — and slowly, cautiously bonds with an orphan boy whose foster mother hates cats. Jean George vividly evokes the feline society, and Tom Pohrt’s bird’s-eye views and up-close drawings help readers easily follow the action. (8–12 years)
Kate Thompson’s Highway Robbery is a horse story rich in language, told with panache and begging to be shared aloud. A wily street urchin spins a lively yarn about a gentleman who promised him a guinea for holding his horse. The man disappears, the boy waits, and eventually soldiers appear saying the mare is renowned highwayman Dick Turpin’s Black Bess, and they’ll reward the boy if he helps them catch the thief. Comical, detailed illustrations show this narrative’s Dickensian denizens and the elegant Black Bess — if that’s who she is. (8–12 years)
Horse Diaries is a new series perfect for its intended horse-obsessed primary-grade audience. In Elska by Catherine Hapka and Bell’s Star by Alison Hart, the equine main characters narrate their own stories: Elska is a silver dapple Icelandic filly who lives in Iceland in 1000 BCE; Bell’s Star is a Morgan colt, born in Civil War–era Vermont. Young horse devotees will love the horse’s-eye view and will enjoy learning details about each breed. Occasional black-and-white drawings and fact-filled appendices add much to the tales. (7–10 years)
With the publication of Poppy and Ereth, Avi brings a close to his six-book saga about kind and brave Poppy the deer mouse and her friends and family. All the Poppy books feature plenty of fast-paced action, cliffhanger chapter endings, in-depth characterizations, and some comical theatrics courtesy of curmudgeonly Ereth the porcupine. Brian Floca’s thoughtful drawings bring Poppy’s woodland home to life. (8–12 years)
With longer days and warm nights, June is the perfect time to celebrate everyday (and not-so-everyday) summer adventures in picture books.
In Farley Follows His Nose by Lynn Johnston and Beth Cruikshank, Farley, the floppy-eared sheepdog from Johnston’s comic strip For Better or For Worse, lets his sense of smell lead him around town. Every other spread ends with what Farley smells, arranged in a wave of words (“freshpaintbananapeelspowertoolssawdust and . . . A POOL!”). Johnston’s energetic cartoon drawings capture the goofy canine protagonist’s zest for life. (5–8 years)
Betsy Franco’s Pond Circle begins, “This is the water / the deep, still water / that filled the pond / by Anna’s house.” As the cumulative story progresses, so does the food chain: a frog gobbles the beetle that ate the mayfly nymph and so on. Stefano Vitale’s oil on wood illustrations are beautiful and true to nature. “Facts to pond-er” includes additional information about the animals represented. (5–8 years)
The family in Thunder-Boomer! by Shutta Crum doesn’t need to leave their farm for some excitement. Carol Thompson’s mixed-media illustrations and the sounds strewn throughout the text (“Rumble-brum-brum” “Splash! Sploosh!”) capture the urgency of a summer thunderstorm. Crum also manages to include elements of humor in the midst of the drama. (5–8 years)
For a seaside fantasy, it’s worth checking out David Wiesner’s wordless picture book Flotsam, winner of the American Library Association’s 2006 Caldecott Medal. A young boy comes across an old-fashioned underwater camera at the beach; he has the film developed and is treated to images of a deep-sea world beyond imagination. This is no ordinary trip to the shore, and Wiesner’s crisp compositions bring the fantastic visions to life. (5–8 years)
Toy vehicles are making tracks in sandboxes all over. These books keep preschool wheels turning and gears shifting.
“GZZZZZZZZZK!” In Machines Go to Work by William Low, a backhoe is ready to go, but is it going to dig up the tulips? Nope. Open the flap: the backhoe is digging holes for new trees. What about the fire truck? Is there a fire? No — a kitten is stuck in a tree. Each flap offers a surprise and, along with some terrific sound effects, encourages listeners to join in the reading. Richly colored art features realistic pictures of the machines and their operators. (2–5 years)
Need more flaps? Roxie Munro’s got ‘em. In Go! Go! Go! readers can open, open, open, to see balloonists go up, divers go down, race-cars go round, horses go fast, and more. Each vignette has a multi-flap scene of the go-getters getting ready (unloading and prepping hot-air balloons, for instance) followed by a spread with a flap or two that opens further and further to show the action (the balloons rising higher and higher). (3–6 years)
Jennifer Riggs Vetter’s version of Down by the Station expands the well-known song about those “little puffer-billies all in a row” to include all kinds of familiar vehicles: school buses, tractor trailers, airplanes, sailboats, rockets, etc. Frank Remkiewicz’s cheery watercolors illustrate the zippy rhyming text, showing happy animals and their rides. “Vroom vroom beep beep! Off we go!” (2–5 years)
“Millions of years ago prehistoric trucks roamed the earth.” Dinotrux by Chris Gall shrewdly combines two of kids’ biggest obsessions. Unlike today’s trucks, Dinotrux were not so helpful: clever art and a tongue-in-cheek text introduce, among others, Rollodon, who “NEVER watches where he’s going,” Garbageadon, who eats “everything in sight,” and Deliveradons (think UPS), who nap “when they should have been working.” (3–6 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
Some suggestions for listening during those summer road trips ahead.
Families with young children — particularly young siblings — will enjoy the seven new stories in Friend or Fiend? With the Pain & the Great One by Judy Blume. Older sister Abigail (“the Great One”) and younger brother Jake (“the Pain”) survive an embarrassing pronunciation mistake during reading-circle time (Jake), a friend betraying a confidence (Abigail), and a disastrous visit with some fiendishly behaved cousins. Throughout, Blume demonstrates her remarkable understanding of how kids act and feel. Narrator Kathleen McInerney’s spot-on interpretation captures both the humor of and the challenges of the situations. (7–10 years)
Dominic isn’t one of William Steig’s best known books (those would be Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Doctor De Soto, and of course Shrek!), but this brief, heartfelt novel is worth knowing. Dominic the dog sets off to seek his fortune, choosing the adventurous fork in the road over the dull one. And adventure he gets, tangling with the villainous Doomsday Gang and along the way finding true friends and, eventually, true love. In his compelling yet gentle narration, Peter Thomas brings out the action but also a quiet philosophical undertone. (7–10 years)
Three series conclusions for middle-grade and middle-school listeners are all excellent. Katherine Kellgren reads The Diamond of Darkhold, the conclusion of Jeanne DuPrau’s Book of Ember series, with great drama and vim, as befits the story’s excitement. Rick Riordan’s immensely popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians series comes to a close in The Last Olympian, and longtime series narrator Jesse Bernstein reads with enthusiasm, if not always consummate skill — a lot like Percy himself. Best of all, perhaps, is the audiobook version of Louise Erdrich’s The Porcupine Year, the conclusion to the Birchbark House books. Twelve-year-old Ojibwe girl Omakayas endures a difficult winter of famine and loss but emerges, stronger, on the cusp of womanhood. Narrator Christina Moore reads with such immediacy that listeners will find themselves rapt. (9–12 years)
If the movie version of Prince Caspian wasn’t enough, families can listen to Lynn Redgrave reading C. S. Lewis’s classic, as the four Pevensey children return to Narnia to depose the wicked usurper King Miraz and restore Prince Caspian to his rightful throne. Redgrave’s classically trained, theatrical voice is a perfect match for the romanticism, drama, and old-fashioned flavor of the book. (For total immersion in Narnia, the complete Chronicles are available in a boxed CD set, narrated by Redgrave and fellow luminaries such as Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart.) (9 years and up)
An audiobook that will be treasured as much by adult listeners as by their children is Terry Pratchett’s Nation (winner of a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award — see above). Though it’s set in an alternative nineteenth-century universe, it’s less a fantasy than a compelling adventure, coming-of-age tale, romance, and subtle challenger of accepted wisdom. It all begins when a devastating tsunami wipes out everyone on a South Sea island except young Mau; the same wave also maroons a sheltered British girl there. Pratchett brings all his signature wit, imagination, and ability to craft believable characters for his story of how Mau and Daphne rebuild the Nation. Stephen Briggs’s superb narration highlights the story’s energy, emotion, and humor. (10 years and up)
—Martha V. Parravano
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