I’m sick of historical fiction. I’m sick of contemporary fiction. I’m sick of realism and science fiction. Fantasy I watch with a wary eye. I don’t al...moreI’m sick of historical fiction. I’m sick of contemporary fiction. I’m sick of realism and science fiction. Fantasy I watch with a wary eye. I don’t always feel this way but when I’ve read seven depressing meaningful middle grade books for kids in a row the old noggin screams for something enjoyable for once. And to place into this mental desert a book like The Screaming Staircase ... well, it’s the best possible cure for what ails ye. A pleasure from tip to tail, this is the book you hand the advanced readers that claim they’d rather read Paradise Lost than Harry Potter. Smart as a whip, funny, witty, and honestly frightening at times, Stroud lets loose and gives readers exactly what they want. Ghosts, kids on their own without adult supervision, and loads of delicious cookies.
It all began with The Problem. One day, for no apparent reason, the dead started to walk amongst the living. Not just walk, but really wreak some serious havoc. Here are the facts of the matter. 1. If you see a ghost, run. 2. Don’t let a ghost touch you, or you’re dead. 3. Only kids can see ghosts. What are we to make of these facts? Well, it’s no surprise when ghost-busting operations hiring children start cropping up. Enter Lockwood & Company. Run by the charming Anthony Lockwood alongside his two compatriots Lucy and George the ramshackle operation is barely scraping by. Enter a job that goes particularly wrong when the kids accidentally burn down their employers’ home, and it would take a miracle to save the agency. Fortunately, a miracle shows up in the form of a very rich and powerful man. He’s hiring the three to take on the most haunted house in all of Britain. The catch? No one’s ever gotten out of it alive. Will our intrepid heroes take on the job, or is there more at work here than meets the eye?
There is no debate surrounding the joy one feels when reading this book. It is already beloved. Even without his popular Bartimaeus series, Stroud could have debuted with The Screaming Staircase and garnered legions of fans upon impact. That is not to say that it is without debate, however. Indeed, there is one point of contention that is raised when people learn of this book. In a word: audience. Can one honestly hand this book to a savvy 11-year-old reader without so much as a blink, or should you give it to a teen instead? In my experience I’ve noticed that before people have read the book they look at it and instantly assume it’s YA (young adult). Whether it’s the plot description or the cover or what have you it seems teen to them. However, once they’ve actually sat down and read the book cover to cover, most folks I’ve spoken to agree that it’s just fine for the juvenile crowd. Is there more blood than you can shake a stick at? Sure. But it’s ghost blood. Hardly the same thing. The closest thing I can compare it to is Joseph Delaney’s first book in The Last Apprentice series, Revenge of the Witch. Scary but not inappropriate, which is a delicate line to walk. It doesn’t hurt matters any that the kids in this book never give their ages. They’re on the cusp of adolescence, sure, but the fact that there are no allusions to crushes or palpitations of the heart is significant in its absence. It’s kind of the perfect thing to hand that kid who can’t stand even a whiff of romance in their fiction.
At its heart this is a great book to scare a kid with. Over the years I’ve noticed that love of horror begins at a very young age and never seems to go away. I used to have a four-year-old come to my reference desk in the library over and over asking for “scary” books. Pretty much as long as I could hand him something with a vampire or a monster on the cover, he was content. Once they start reading on their own, many kids gravitate to the Goosebumps section of their library. Low-key horror thrills, tailor made for the 7-10 year-old set. But as with all things, kids outgrow fads. They find Goosebumps babyish. They want something with a little more bite. So rather than hand them Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children quite yet, I need something that will run a finger down their spines without tripping wholly into teen territory. In the past the aforementioned Revenge of the Witch was my go to book. Now The Screaming Staircase will serve just as nicely.
One point that I’m in danger of not mentioning is the fact that the book is bloody funny. Who else could get away with a sentence like, "..George Cubbins, handsome as a freshly opened tub of margarine, as charismatic as a wet tea towel lying scrumpled on the floor”? Scrumpled. Delicious. Actually, Stroud is at his best when Lucy is describing George. “With his glasses off, his eyes looked small and weak – blinky and a bit baffled, like an unintelligent sheep that’s taken a wrong turn. But when he put them on again, they went all sharp and steely, more like the eyes of an eagle that eats dumb sheep for breakfast.” All throughout the story you are in Lucy’s head and though she is allowed to make her own fair share of stupid mistakes (no Hermione Granger she, thank heavens), you like her snarky sense of the absurd. Lucy actually acts as a kind of Watson to Lockwood’s Holmes, but not the bumbling Watson we’re so familiar with these days. She’s got a good head on her shoulders. You come to like her compatriots too, for that matter. A wittier crew you won’t find this year.
Above and beyond the humor, however, there’s much to be said for Stroud’s actual writing. As I mentioned before, you love the characters. The plot and mystery components play fair (and I admit that I didn’t suspect the true villain of the piece when I probably should have). But it’s the wordplay that gets me. Consider a sentence like this: “In fact, it wasn’t at all an ugly hallway; in bright sunlight it might have looked quite pleasant. But not so much now, with the last light from the door panes stretching out like skewed coffins on the floor in front of us; and with our shadows neatly framed inside them..” Or, later, my favorite part is when Lucy is naming her old partners in the ghost busting business. “We worked together. We had fun. We saved each other’s lives a bit. Their names, if you’re interested, were Paul, Norrie, Julie, Steph, and Alfie-Joe. They’re all dead now.” It’s just a little twist of the knife, but it gets the job done.
There are some moments of British-to-American translation that rankled me but will pass unnoticed by the general child population. Lucy is continually talking about “tea and cookies”, a phrase guaranteed to jar in the head of this particular Anglophile. My suspicion is that this was a true “tea and biscuit” book from start to finish, but that biscuits have an entirely different connotation in the States and as a result the word was switched. Other switches passed me by unnoticed, which is to their credit. Pity about the cookies. Still, it’s a remarkably mild complaint to make. Cookies schmookies. The book’s a pip.
You would be forgiven for thinking this book a work of historical fantasy fiction, were it not informing you left and right of its contemporary nature. Velcro holds the rapiers in place, for example. In another moment a television is mentioned. Yet there’s something classic in its form. I suppose you could technically call the story post-apocalyptic, if you consider the apocalypse in question The Problem. You could call it a straight up horror story. Or you could turn around and label it a mystery. And what about fantasy? It’s definitely in that genre as well. Howsoever you feel like labeling it, there’s one thing you can certainly label the book: good. It’s a delight from start to finish and after you’ve devoured it you find yourself craving more more more. For everyone then. Child, teen, adult, or slow shuffling specter, this is a book for you. Try it on for size.
My two-year-old is dealing with the concept of personhood. Lately she's taken to proclaiming proudly "I'm a person!" when she has successfully mastere...moreMy two-year-old is dealing with the concept of personhood. Lately she's taken to proclaiming proudly "I'm a person!" when she has successfully mastered something. By the same token, failure to accomplish even the most mundane task is met with a dejected, "I'm not a person". This notion of personhood and what it takes to either be a person or not a person reminded me a fair amount of Anne Ursu's latest middle grade novel The Real Boy. There aren't many children's books that dare to delve into the notion of what it means to be a "real" person. Whole hosts of kids walk through their schools looking around, wondering why they aren't like the others. There's this feeling often that maybe they were made incorrectly, or that everyone else is having fun without them because they're privy to some hitherto unknown secret. Part of what I love about Anne Ursu's latest is that it taps directly into that fear, creating a character that must use his wits to defeat not only the foes that beset him physically, but the ones in his own head that make even casual interactions a difficulty.
Oscar should be very grateful. It's not every orphan who gets selected to aid a magician as talented as Master Caleb. For years Oscar has ground herbs for Caleb, studiously avoiding the customers that come for his charms, as well as Caleb's nasty apprentice Wolf. Oscar is the kind of kid who'd rather pore over his master's old books rather than deal with the frightening conversations a day in his master's shop might entail. All that changes the day Wolf meets with an accident and Caleb starts leaving the shop more and more. A creature has been spotted causing awful havoc and the local magic workers should be the ones to take care of the problem. So why aren't they? When Oscar is saved from the role of customer service by an apprentice named Callie, the two strike up an unlikely friendship and seek to find not just the source of the disturbance but also the reason why some of the rich children in the nearby city have been struck by the strangest of diseases.
Though Ms. Ursu has been around for years, only recently have her books been attracting serious critical buzz. I was particularly drawn to her novel retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" last year in the form of the middle grade novel Breadcrumbs. So naturally, when I read the plot description and title of The Real Boy I assumed that the story would be some kind of retelling of the "Pinocchio" tale. As it turns out, there is the faintest whiff of Pinocchio circling this story, but it is by no means a strict model. As one of the librarians in my system put it, "I am scarred for life by Pinocchio (absolutely abhor any tale relating to inanimate objects longing to become real to the point where I find it creepy) but did not find this disturbing in the least." Truth be told it would have been easy enough for Ursu to crank up the creepy factor if she had wanted to. But rather than clutter the text up with unnecessary disgust, the story is instead clean, fast, exciting, and to the point. And for all that it is 352 pages or so, you couldn't cut it down.
There have been a fair number of novels and books for children this year that have been accused of being written with adults rather than children in mind. I've fielded concerns about everything from Bob Graham's The Silver Button to Cynthia Rylant's God Got a Dog to Sharon Creech's The Boy on the Porch. Interestingly, folks have not lobbed the same criticisms at The Real Boy, for which I am grateful. Certainly it would be easy to see the title in that light. Much of the storyline hinges on the power of parental fear, the sometimes horrific lengths those same parents will go to to "protect" their young, and the people who prey on those fears. Parents, teachers, and librarians that read this book will immediately recognize the villainy at work here, but kids will perceive it on an entirely different level. While the adults gnash their teeth at the bad guy's actions, children will understand that the biggest villain in this book isn't a person, but Oscar's own perceptions of himself. To defeat the big bad, our hero has to delve deep down into his own self and past, make a couple incorrect assumptions, and come out stronger in the end.
He is helped in no small part by Callie. I feel bad that when in trying to define a book I feel myself falling back on what it doesn't do rather than what it does do. Still, I think it worth noting that in the case of Callie she isn't some deux ex machina who solves all of Oscar's problems for him. She helps him, certainly. Even gets angry and impatient with him on occasion, but she's a real person with a personal journey of her own. She isn't just slapped into the narrative to give our hero a necessary foil. The same could be said of the baker, a fatherly figure who runs the risk of becoming that wise adult character that steps in when the child characters are flailing about. Ursu almost makes a pointed refusal to go to him for help, though. It's as if he's just there to show that not all adults in the world are completely off their rockers. Just most, it would seem.
There's one more thing the book doesn't do that really won my admiration, but I think that by even mentioning it here I'm giving away an essential plot point. Consider this your official spoiler alert, then. If you have any desire to read this book on your own, please do yourself a favor and skip this paragraph. All gone? Good. Now a pet peeve of mine that I see from time to time and think an awfully bad idea is when a character appears to be on the autism spectrum of some sort, and then a magical reason for that outsider status comes up. One such fantasy I read long ago, the autistic child turned out to be a fairy changeling, which explained why she was unable to communicate with other people. While well intentioned, I think this kind of plot device misses the point. Now one could make the case for Oscar as someone who is on "the spectrum". However, the advantage of having such a character in a fantasy setting is that there's no real way to define his status. Then, late in the book, Oscar stumbles upon a discovery that gives him a definite impression that he is not a human like the people around him. Ursu's very definite choice to then rescind that possibility hammered home for me the essential theme of the book. There are no easy choices within these pages. Just very real souls trying their best to live the lives they want, free from impediments inside or outside their very own selves.
I've heard a smattering of objections to the book at this point that are probably worth looking into. One librarian of my acquaintance expressed some concern about Ursu's world building. She said that for all that she plumbs the depths of character and narrative with an admirable and enviable skill, they never really felt that they could "see" the world that she had conjured. I suspect that some of this difficulty might have come from the fact that the librarian read an advanced reader's copy of the book without the benefit of the map of Aletheia in the front. But maybe their problem was bigger than simple geography. Insofar as Ms. Ursu does indulge in world building, it's a world within set, tight parameters. The country is an island with a protected glittering city on the one hand and a rough rural village on the other. Much like a stage play, Ursu's storyline is constricted within the rules she's set for herself. For readers who prefer the wide all-encompassing lands you'd see in a Tolkien or Rowling title, the limitations might feel restrictive.
Now let us not, in the midst of all this talky talk, downplay the importance of illustrator Erin McGuire. McGuire and Ursu were actually paired together once before on the underappreciated Breadcrumbs. I had originally read the book in a form without the art, and it was pleasant in and of itself. McGuire's interstitial illustrations, however, really serve to heighten the reader's enjoyment. The pictures are actually relatively rare, their occasional appearances feeling like nothing so much as a delicious chocolate chip popping up in a sea of vanilla ice cream. You never know when you'll find one, but it's always sweet when you do.
Breadcrumbs, for all that I personally loved it, was a difficult book for a lot of folks to swallow. In it, Ursu managed to synthesize the soul-crushing loneliness of Hans Christian Andersen's tales, and the results proved too dark for some readers. With The Real Boy the source material, if you can even call it that, is incidental. As with all good fantasies for kids there's also a fair amount of darkness here, but it's far less heavy and there's also an introspective undercurrent that by some miracle actually appears to be interesting to kids. Whodathunkit? Wholly unexpected with plot twists and turns you won't see coming, no matter how hard you squint, Ursu's is a book worth nabbing for your own sweet self. Grab that puppy up.
When I was a kid I tried to learn how to draw by reading Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. A lot of the book was dedicated to showing your avera...moreWhen I was a kid I tried to learn how to draw by reading Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. A lot of the book was dedicated to showing your average layman how to draw by concentrating on drawing the negative spaces between the object you wanted to render and its environment. I haven't thought about that book in a very long time and probably could have continued on my merry way without it, had it not been for my stumbling on A Funny Little Bird by Jennifer Yerkes. A sweet story with a sublimely subtle but infinitely clever premise and ending, this is a tale about adaptation, camouflage, acceptance, pride, and standing out by blending in. It's a metaphor for introverts and the unsung heroes in our lives. Strange and lovely all at once, here's one book that turns simplicity into an art.
For you see there once was a funny little bird that seemed to disappear into the background wherever it went. When it was invisible to the eye, it was lonely. When it was noticed, it was teased. One day, in a fit of pique, the bird sets out to find its own path. Along the way it collects all the beautiful things it can find, building itself up, puffing itself up with pride. When a clever fox tries to take advantage of the bird's new one-of-a-kind look, the bird realizes the advantage of invisibility. It isn't just that it can hide from dangers. It can help others hide as well. This is a bird with a calling.
The book was an Opera Prima finalist in the Bologna Book Fair Ragazzi Award 2012. Originally published in France as Drole d'oiseau, this is a title that understands the importance of minimalism in children's literature. In terms of the storyline itself, the trick to Yerkes's art is in making absence tangible. The bird itself is only suggested by the hint of a wing here, and eye and beak there, and maybe two legs (if it's walking). The end result is that there can be as much fun in locating the bird as there is in reading its story.
Part of what makes the book so interesting is that it could be read in two entirely opposite ways. On the one hand you could think of it as a conformity tale. The bird isn't noticed as unique so it gets some awesome feathers in the hope that it won't be teased or ignored anymore and learns that standing out can make you a target. That's one way to read the story. The other way is to say that the book is anti-conformity. The bird stands out and then tries to be like all the other birds by grabbing some feathers, only to find that by being near invisible its unique talents give it an edge. Naturally when I think of picture books about fitting in I think (for good or for evil) of Marcus Pfister's Rainbow Fish. Unlike that book, however, fitting in isn't the ultimate goal and neither is standing out. Being true to yourself is the storyline here, and as such it's kind of an anti-Rainbow Fish.
Your standard Ugly Duckling storyline is where a creature locates another of its kind and finds solace that way. Then there are the books where an outsider finds a community of fellow outsiders. But what makes A Funny Little Bird so unique, in a way, is that it doesn't follow any of these set formulas. If our hero finds peace of mind it's by single-handedly coming to a kind of peace within himself. He doesn't rely on others to give him that approbation or acceptance. Maybe that's why I like this so much more than your average rebel picture book fare. It actually contains fairly practical advice for living in the world. Use the strengths you have, even if they seemingly put you at a disadvantage.
As a child, I strived to attain invisibility. I did everything within my power to hide myself from the eyes of my peers, often with remarkable success. Happily, I don't feel I really missed out on much as a result. But in my younger days, it might have been nice to read about a creature that could successfully blend in with its surroundings. Maybe I would have found a kindred spirit of some kind. At the very least I would have found a book worth owning and loving. Justifiably a hit overseas, one can hope that A Funny Little Bird will find its own audience of shrinking violets here in the States. Beautiful with a wit of its own, Yerkes shows that you don't have to be flashy to be remarkable.
I don't readily compare books to Ramona (now THERE'S a sentence opener, ladies and gentlemen). To compare any children's book to Beverly Cleary's clas...moreI don't readily compare books to Ramona (now THERE'S a sentence opener, ladies and gentlemen). To compare any children's book to Beverly Cleary's classic series just leaves one wide open to ridicule. The Ramona books are classics for a very particular reason; they place a sturdy, hard-as-nails finger directly on an age that is traditionally forgotten. Kids between the ages of six and ten are nebulous creatures. Too old to be cute little itty bitties and too young to enjoy the rights and privileges of their older kin, the 6-10 year old crowd straddles our traditional age ranges. Walk into any library or bookstore and you'll see titles for kids separated in a very particular fashion: picture books, easy readers (for when they're first learning to read), early chapter books (self-explanatory), and middle grade fiction. What's missing is what the Ramona books are. They're older than early chapter fiction but younger than middle grade. There is no term for this kind of book, and indeed it's one of the most difficult types of books to locate on a shelf. Now, at long last, The Year of Billy Miller comes to occupy that same space, but its similarities to Ramona don't stop there. Filled with heart, smarts, humor, and a boy-centric p.o.v. that is almost impossible to pin down, Henkes has finally done for the chapter book set what he’s been doing for the picture book readers for years. He’s created a character for the ages.
Billy Miller wasn’t always worried that he wouldn’t be smart enough for second grade. To be blunt, the idea never even entered his brain. Then he fell. It wasn’t life-threatening or anything but that fall from a guardrail to the ground certainly gave him a bump on the noggin. When he heard his mom confess to his dad that she worried there might be some kind of permanent damage, that’s when his own worries started. Fortunately his Papa sets him right telling his son, “... I know – and I know everything – that this is the Year of Billy Miller.” Turns out, Papa’s right. Between making up with his teacher, helping his Papa with his art, attempting to stay up all night with his little sister Sal, writing a poem about his mom and so much more, second grade is turning out to be a full year. And Billy Miller’s going to be smart enough for all of it.
Boy books. Oh, they're all the rage these days, didn't you know? Seems you can't walk two steps out your door without being barraged by calls to come save the boys. They don't read enough... no wait, they read but they need their own books. No, think again, they need more nonfiction. Or is it sports stories? Or humor? However you choose to define them, boy readers are highly sought after. Getting their personalities down on paper, however, is remarkably difficult work. The lazy writers will just throw some gross details on a page and then call their work done. Sometimes there will be a reference to sports and the like, but so many miss the point. When you're writing the p.o.v. of a boy you need to know exactly what it is that makes that boy tick. Now take Billy Miller here. Early in the book his parents are talking about his recent bump on the head and his mom says, "But I worry that down the line something will show up. He'll start forgetting things." His father's dead-on reply is, "He already forgets things... He's a seven-year-old boy."
Evidence of Billy's boyness is everywhere. For example, when he’s supposed to be writing a poem about his mother this is how the text explains his plight: “Billy had trouble getting started. He opened his poetry journal to the first page and wrote: My Mom. He couldn’t think of anything else to write, so he drew a series of volcanoes in progressive stages of exploding.” It would be difficult for me to explain to you how much I love that detail, but if pressed I would try. Then there's his nemesis Emster. Henkes never highlights this fact, but it's probably important to note that long before she's making Billy's life a misery, Billy cast the first shot across her bow. Which is to say, when she introduced herself in class as "Emster" he was the one who mistakenly (but buffonishly) misheard her as "Hamster". That's the kind of move guaranteed to make an instant enemy, and though Billy never remembers this moment again (and, if he did, it's difficult to say if he'd know why it was so important) it's clearly the catalyst for things that come.
Now consider the risk Henkes took with this book. His hero is seven. Yet Billy stars in a book that's 240 pages in length. There are some interstitial pictures, but nothing like what you'd find in the early chapter book section of your library. Even if you look up this title on something like Amazon.com you'll see that the suggested age for this book is "8 and up". Now does that make any sense at all to you? How many kids do you know that get a kick out of reading books about children younger than themselves? What we have here is a readaloud book. The kind of book meant for bedtimes and for those teachers who tackle a chapter a day in class. Henkes could have bowed out and upped his hero's age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn't. He made Billy a 2nd grader because that's what Billy is. His mind is that of a second grader. His actions are those of a second grader. To falsely age him would be to make a huge mistake. Granted, Henkes risks alienating potential readers, but remember Ramona again. Aren't there older kids who like to read about her adventures? And hasn't she managed to last all these years in spite of these very concerns? You betcha. It's all about the writing, baby.
To point out that the writing in this book is superb is akin to pointing out that air helps one to breathe. It’s obvious. This is Kevin Henkes, after all. Still, I’ve never quite connected to his novels in the same way that I’ve connected to his picture books. It’s probably just me (the shiny Newbery Honor sticker on Olive s Ocean is a clue) but his magnificent ability to hone a point down to its most essential details is very well suited to a 32-page format. I hadn’t felt a similar ability until I read Billy Miller. First off, the lines themselves are just keen. Here are two of my favorites:
“Billy had known Grace since kindergarten. She was so shy she seemed almost invisible. Like vacuums, her wide eyes were sucking in everything.”
“Billy sat alone, considering the choice he had to make. He sucked the web of skin between his thumb and pointer finger, his hand falling across his chin like a beard.”
Beautiful. Then there are the characters themselves, it’s nice when the wise all-knowing parents (in this case, primarily the dad) is flawed. This is nice. He gets testy when his work isn’t going well, which makes for a nice character detail. The mom sort of sinks into the woodwork (though she does have a nice moment with Billy when he has to write about what she likes) and it’s hard to remember much about her, but the dad uses terms like “Isn’t she cute? Just looking at her shreds my heart.” Sal, Billy’s little sister, is an appropriate mix of cute and annoying. Billy is a typical older brother but you have to love it when he freaks himself out by thinking of scary things in bed and runs to her room for companionship and comfort. It shreds my heart, it does.
In the end, The Year of Billy Miller is a stand-alone title that really does leave you wanting more. You've gotten so close to Billy and his family that they stick in your brain long after you've closed the covers. You can't help but hope that there are more Billy Millers on the horizon. To create just one would be a cruel tease. At the very least this book is a boon to any librarian who has faced a parent at a reference desk saying, “My kid loves Ramona. What else do you have like that?” Ladies and gentlemen, we have our answer. Absolutely remarkable.
Nonfiction trends in children's literature are oddities. For all that children make up such a large swath of the American population, relatively few p...moreNonfiction trends in children's literature are oddities. For all that children make up such a large swath of the American population, relatively few people specialize solely in creating works of nonfiction for them in a variety of different, potentially pleasing, ways. That said, when you look at enough of it over the course of a given season, a pattern starts to emerge. And as of right now as I write this review in 2013 the hottest new trend in nonfiction works for the young is the incorporation of infographics into books that would otherwise be considered just a sneeze shy of textbooks in terms of interest. Suddenly topics that previously bored to tears are now awash in colors and funky forms. True, it's all still stats and facts, albeit made slightly more visually stimulating, but there's something to be said for that. What I didn't see coming was the application of this form to the topic of Native Americans. Probably one of the most popular topics a children's librarian faces on a regular basis, very little concrete, inoffensive, and contemporary information exists for children. S.N. Peleja seeks to change all that and the end result is a book that has its flaws but after much consideration may ultimately be the best thing out on the market today.
"Native American people are as different as the land they come from." So begins Kevin Loring, winner of the 2009 Canadian Governor General's Literary Award for Drama and a member of the Nlaka'Pamux First Nation in British Columbia. As he explains, the topic of this book is gigantic, so the author has touched on many basic aspects of Native American lives in order to inspire further reading. Using every graph, chart, word cloud, and statistic available, author/illustrator S.N. Paleja delves into Origins, Tribes and Society, Plants and Animals, Culture, Making Contact, and Modern Day topics chapter by chapter. We look at the wide variety of housing depending on climates and needs, place names we use today, the top languages as of 2012 (Navajo is king), sports, population shifts and much much more. In closing Paleja includes a Selected Bibliography of up-to-date sources, a section of Further Reading for young eyes, and an Index.
So here's the downside of infographics in books for kids: Kids don't care about infographics. Adults care about infographics. Show an adult (or even a teen ala The Fault in Our Stars) a Venn Diagram and watch as their pulse quickens. Now show that same image to a kiddo and to them it's a circle overlaid over another circle and . . . . yeah. That's what that is. Pleasure reading for the youngsters, this is not. That said, this isn't really meant to be a pleasure reading book anyway. It's a book of facts, presented in a visually stimulating format, ideal for homework assignments. The Index at the end will allow kids to latch onto specific tribes, terms, concepts, and historical moments as well. Few will be the reader that goes through the book start to finish.
Any time a children's librarian sees that a new book about Native Americans / American Indians is on the market the wariness factor starts to rise. Talk about difficult subject matter. On the one hand, librarians are inundated with requests from children, teachers, and parents for more books on specific Native tribes and histories because that's what the schools are demanding. It's an important piece of history. On the other hand, we have to be incredibly wary and cautious going forward of any new material on those subjects. Misinformation is rampant, as is the general feeling from these books that this is a race of people that died out long ago. So to counter all of this with, of all bizarre notions, a factual all-encompassing title utilizing infographics . . . well, it's at the very least worth a look.
To reassure gatekeepers like myself the book is prefaced by Kevin Loring, a member of the Nlaka'Pamux First Nation. In this introduction Loring specifies that this is just a snapshot of various aspects of Native American life. Then he discusses the term "Native American" in the first place and explains that there were many sources where this information was culled (indeed the Bibliography at the back is extensive for a book for 9-12 year-olds). In what might be considered a stretch by some, Loring then links the infographic style to the pictograph tradition of some tribes. Certainly I've seen that style of illustration used in books by Paul Goble and S.D. Nelson but here it just feels convenient, more than anything else.
As it stands, the biggest problem with the book is the very basis behind it. Infographics work best when you deal with generalities rather than specifics. And while Loring has confronted this problem head on, that doesn't necessarily mean it's not still an issue. You might argue, and argue well, that any book about any person using infographics is going to reduce those people into numbers. Native Americans, unfortunately, have had that very act done to them for centuries. Then there are the visuals. In the Plants and Animals chapter the rote Native Americans pictured there are meant to symbolize tribes like the Hopi, Navajo, and Cherokee, and so the image of the woman is just in a standard dress, not distinguished in any way. It's a tricky line to walk. The text is, for the most part, factual though there are moments that give one serious pause. It was a Kirkus review that pointed out that the hugely problematic sentence, "Generosity is an important aspect of Native American spirituality" is shockingly broad. Likewise, there might be some question as to the wisdom of using symbols like a bound hand to represent kidnapping when explaining various European crimes. It's good that this is acknowledged, but could be considered callous too. That said, there's something particularly satisfying about seeing Christopher Columbus held accountable for these crimes. Many biographies of the man conveniently forget that part.
Where the book shines brightest is when it gives an accounting of matters that are difficult to envision. Consider the old line that certain tribes would use "every part of the bison" in their everyday lives. How exactly does that work? Well, on the page "What can you make with a bison" the idea that you're dealing with a "walking department store" suddenly makes perfect sense. Before you is an image of a bison with labels indicating body parts and what they could be reconstituted into. There's the standard hide to blankets and bones to knives but then there's also some of the lesser known qualities like hooves to glue, blood to paint, and sinew to sewing thread. In other parts of the book there's also a satisfying account of when specific tribes came in contact with specific settlements from overseas. Everything from 1000 CE: Norse to the 1529 Spanish are distinctly specified and pointed out.
Another point in the book's favor is the fact that contemporary statistics play a large part. As I mentioned before, glance through an average children's library of Native American information and literature and you're going to come away fairly convinced that there aren't any tribes or people left. Name me three middle grade children's works of fiction about contemporary American Indians. Can't be done. So to see a kid's book continually mentioning everything from the 18% increase in business ownership by Native Americans between 2002-2007 (as opposed to 9% for white Americans) or the growth in population between 2000-2010 (27% in the U.S. and 45% in Canada) is unprecedented. As the book is Canadian originally, it takes care to show not just where they live in the States but in places like Ontario or the four Western provinces as well.
I don't think it's possible to make an infographic book of Native American statistics that is without its problems. The very nature of the idea itself is rife with difficulties, after all. Still, I look at other books that have covered the territory that Paleja has covered here, and I can't help but find them lacking. Either their scope is too small (just looking at The United States / a section of the country / a moment in history, etc.) or they bore the reader to tears. Paleja in turn gives us a book that generalizes even as it specifies. It's obviously not perfect, but it's the best we've seen in a very long time and for that reason alone I think it's notable. Worth looking at. Worth considering.
Corner a children's librarian. Say the words "Japan" and "baseball". Ask for picture books that involve both topics. What will you get? If I were a be...moreCorner a children's librarian. Say the words "Japan" and "baseball". Ask for picture books that involve both topics. What will you get? If I were a betting woman I'd say that nine out of ten librarians would probably hand you a book about America's Japanese internment camps and the folks in there that played baseball to keep their sanity intact. Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki or Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss come immediately to mind. That tenth librarian might go in a different direction, though. Maybe you made it clear that you wanted something contemporary. Something that involves Japanese baseball today, but is written in a style that would engage both the very young and your older, more sophisticated seven-year-old. Until now, you would have been up a tree. Fortunately for all parties, Take Me Out to the Yakyu swoops in to save the day. Visually splendid with a text that manages to be simple without being simplistic, I look at this book and realize that while I've nothing else like it on my library shelves, I'd pay all the money in the world for this format to be replicated over and over again. Until that happy day occurs, let's bask in Meshon's gift to us.
"I love baseball . . . in America . . . and in Japan." The boy telling us this is a ruddy-cheeked cheery little dickens. In his left hand he holds the red jersey of a Japanese team. In his right, the blue of an American. He then leads us through what it's like to attend a baseball game with his American pop pop in the States and his ji ji in Japan. Some differences are small. You might take a bus rather than a car to a game in Japan, or you might wear an oversized foam hand rather than toot a giant plastic horn in America. Some differences are fairly large. There's the food, the different ways of tackling the seventh inning, and even what a fan might buy on their way out. At the heart of it all, though, is the fact that when it comes to baseball, there's only one real way to close out the day. Lie down on your bed or your mat and think, "What a wonderful day!" A glossary of terms and an Author's Note are included at the end.
When I review a book for kids I like to include some "readalikes" into the piece for folks looking for similar fare. People looking for picture books that discuss life in contemporary Japan in a style similar to Meshon's are in luck since there are books like Etsuko Watanabe's My Japan and Aoki by Annelore Parot out there. Baseball fans, by the same token, could enjoy Ballpark by Elisha Cooper or something a little more esoteric like The Boys by Jeff Newman. Where I get stumped is when I try to think of a picture book that takes a singular event and shows what it's like alongside that same event in another country. The best I could come up with was Mirror by Jeannie Baker, which shows scenes of daily life in Australia on one page, and Morocco on another. Yet even with Baker's work there was a mildly unnerving civilized vs. uncivilized vibe about the book that put some readers on edge. Amongst Meshon's many strengths here is the fact that he really manages to make Japan familiar and unfamiliar all in the same breath. I think part of the reason it works as well as it does is that our hero has been living in both Japan and America for so long that he doesn't find one style of life or living any better, or more surprising, than another. Japan isn't exoticized in any way (nor, for that matter, is America). The side-by-side comparisons also have the additional advantage of being just as interesting to American child readers as it would be to Japanese kiddos. No mean feat.
Naturally when someone makes as strong a picture book debut as Take Me Out to the Yakyu, you want to know more about them. Aaron Meshon is interesting because his forays into the book world have been relatively few and far between. A RISD grad (naturally) he did some art for a Brooklyn tour guide once but beyond that I couldn't find that he'd done much on the publishing end of things. Until now you'd be more likely to find his art in a magazine or on a mural in a Brooklyn coffee bar. His style doesn't slot into an easy description either (I just deleted a very lame attempt to call it "Hello Kitty meets Adventure Time" which has only the barest ring of truth to it). The colors are used in a clever matter in this story as well. Blue for America and red for Japan, the contrast is killer. The consistency of the color palette is comforting and moves the reader along at a smart and steady clip. There's the occasional oddity (I'm not sure why our hero's speech appears as a purple speech balloon with eyeballs during one two-page spread) but it doesn't distract much. Long story short, what we've got on our hands here is a true original. Don't blink or you might miss it.
I have a two-year-old that I have turned into a walking litmus test. It is very dangerous to use your own child as a testing ground for books that are way above their reading level/comprehension. My kid does not care about baseball. She's only just now able to define what a basketball is. As for Japanese culture, that begins and ends with her ability to dissect a sushi roll like she was a surgeon attempting a difficult removal of a kidney stone. That said, she would sit down and listen to every last word of Take Me Out to the Yakyu. Not because the text is babyish, mind. It's just that Meshon has a singular ability to get to the bloody point. From page one onward you know exactly what this book is about and how the author is going to format it. Then there are the ways in which the author has chosen to incorporate Japanese and American words into the text. Descriptive terms like "Fastball" and "Sokkyu" appear within the pictures themselves, adding life and color. Adults like myself will be interested in hitherto unknown facts like that the Japanese shout terms like "Do your best" at their players (I love that Meshon pairs these essentially positive shouts alongside the very American cheers of "Win! Win! Win!"). Likewise the Glossary of terms and informative section at the end that covers everything from baseball history to game length to mascots will be welcome reading for parents and gatekeepers and interesting for the occasional kid enthusiast.
To clarify, while I mentioned earlier in this review that there are no picture books quite like Meshon's out there, that's not 100% accurate. It's true that there are no simple picture books of a kiddo living in Japan and America that compare. There are, however, books that have taken the format of two different homes brought together for side-by-side comparisons and applied it to other situations. I've seen this happen in books about divorce like Living with Mom and Living with Dad by Melanie Walsh, and I'm sure there are stories about visiting different grandparents, or what people do in Latin American vs. United States households. That said, for sheer appeal, Meshon stands out. Basically what you have here is a book that is so amusing that the fact that it also happens to teach interesting facts is almost beside the point. Kids will gravitate to this book because the art looks like fun, the text is really amusing, and it's about baseball. And if they happen to learn a ton about Japanese culture along the way? Bonus. A necessary purchase them. For sports fans and seekers of multicultural fare alike.
Sometimes I think half my job simply consists of making lists. Not that I'm complaining. I love lists. I love making them, and checking them, and addi...moreSometimes I think half my job simply consists of making lists. Not that I'm complaining. I love lists. I love making them, and checking them, and adding to them. Lists let the organizational part of my frontal lobe feel needed and wanted. Still, once in a while you get stuck on a list and it's hard to move. For example, just the other day I was asked to come up with a list for Kindergartners of books that talk about Native American tribes. Some of the books, I was told, would also have to talk about American Indians living today. Now I don't know anything about you. I don't know if reading this review you're a teacher or a librarian or an interested parent or my mom. Whosoever you might be, you are still probably very aware that asking for nonfiction titles for very young children on Native Americans is akin to asking for the moon and the stars above. Half the stuff on library and bookstore shelves is woefully out-of-date and offensive while the other half is written for kids ten-years-old and up. The pickings for small fry are slim. Enter Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo. The rare book that is both poetry and fact, with content for both big and little, here we have a title that finally fills that gap. Best of all, you don't have to be looking for school or specialty fare to enjoy this one. Like wild bucking stallions and bulls that could impale you without so much as a snort? Welcome to the world of Navajo rodeo.
"Can't sleep. Can't eat. Mind keeps figuring, figuring, figuring - how tight to hold, how far to lean, how hard to squeeze to stay on top." That's just a sample of the thoughts going through a person's head before the Navajo rodeo. Though it has its roots in places like Arizona and Texas, rodeos can be found all over the Navajo Nation and are family affairs. Setting her book during the course of a single rodeo day, author Nancy Bo Flood plunges readers into what might be an unknown world. We see children near bucked from woolly riders (sheep), adults flung from broncos, women who sweep the barrel racer events, steer wrestlers, and, best of all, bareback bull riders. Saturating her text with facts, background information, and tons of photographs, this is one title that will prove tempting to kids already familiar with the rodeo world and those approaching it for the very first time.
It's a challenge facing any work of standard nonfiction for kids: How do you prefer to present your material? In this particular case, Ms. Flood has a wealth of information at her fingertips regarding the Navajo rodeo circuit. Trouble is, you can fill your book to brimming with the brightest and shiniest photos that money can buy, but if you've long blocks of nonfiction text you might lose your readership before you've even begun. Now in this book Ms. Flood presents her material over the course of a single rodeo day. It's a good format for what she has to say, but the downside is that there are sections at the beginning that aren't all that thrilling. If kids are coming to this book to see some high-flying riders, they'll have to first wade through explanations about the announcer and the arena. That's where the poetry comes in. Sure, there are big blocks of explanatory text before the action begins, but Flood tempers each two-page spread with not just photos and explanations but also poems. The advantage then is that younger children can read the poems while older ones get something out of the nonfiction sections. Win win!
It sounds strange to say but in many ways the book that to me feels the closest to the format of Cowboy Up! is Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz. Both books find that the best way to get kids to swallow a spoonful of nonfiction is with a bit of first person narration. With that in mind, the poems in Cowboy Up! offer great promise. Each one is written in the first person and could easily be considered short monologues. The small child auditioning or the teacher who wants to do a theatrical presentation with readily available material would do well to take these poems and use them freely. Now granted, the poetry can be touch-and-go at times. I've a friend who personally cannot stand free verse in children's books because to her it just looks like the author took a paragraph and broke it up into arbitrary lines. I happen to like free verse, insofar as I like any poetry, but I admit that the ones found here varied widely in terms of quality on a case-by-case basis.
Much like the poetry, the photography in this book can vary. Some of the shots (created by photographer Jan Sonnenmair) are brilliant. I'm quite fond of the image on the jacket as well as shots of riders mid-air (one hand waving freely about their heads), the portraits (love those endpapers, though the decision to flips the images was a poor one when you consider library processing techniques), and even one of a rainbow rising behind the honor guard. On the other hand, there are times when it feels as though the book ran out of the good photographs and had to rely on some of the lesser variety. For example, there's a shot of an announcer that looks like it appears twice in two pages, only flipped. This is a rare occurrence, but it happens early enough in the book that a reader could be forgiven for wondering if more duplication is bound to happen.
When I think of books that talk about contemporary Native Americans today, the pickings for kids are slim. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian isn't exactly meant for the 12 and under crowd. Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky is pretty good, if a bit poetic (this might have something to do with the fact that it's a book of poetry). And the book Native Americans A Visual Exploration by S.N. Paleja covers a lot of ground, but only in brief. No, the whole reason Cowboy Up! even works is because it's not trying to be about anything but how particularly cool this kind of rodeo is. This is Navajo life in the 21st century. So forget depressing texts that cover the past with all the interest of a phone book. Flood and Sonnenmair have culled together a look at the just-as-interesting present, and given it a format that will stand it in good stead. Cowboys and cowboys-to-be everywhere, stand up and rejoice. Your rodeo is here.
I like a bit of subtlety with my “meaning”. What I mean by that is that when I pick up a book for kids, it’s tough on me, as a reader, to go through s...moreI like a bit of subtlety with my “meaning”. What I mean by that is that when I pick up a book for kids, it’s tough on me, as a reader, to go through something saturated and imbued with the weight and splendor of meaning on every page. It bogs me down. And, to be frank, this is what makes it so hard for kids to read some of those old classics like Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer or Johnny Tremain. Meaning, for me, should be a slight subtle thing that is all the more powerful when it comes seemingly out of nowhere. Now if I have learned anything over the years, it’s that DiCamillo has no difficulty retaining child readers. Her fans are legion. And what has always been the most difficult for me about her books is how remarkably meaningful they are (though clearly kids have no difficulty cutting through it like a hot knife through butter). I’ve always much preferred her lighter fare, like the Mercy Watson series or the remarkable Bink & Gollie books. Those titles were for younger readers, of course, so maybe it’s just that I have the retention of an eight-year-old child. But then we come to the lovely Flora and Ulysses. It’s written for the 9-12 year-olds of the world but is much sillier and sweeter than much of what she’s done before. Helped in no small part by K.C. Campbell’s perfectly placed illustrations, Flora and Ulysses does precisely what I always want in a book. It lures you in with the ridiculous and then when you least expect it gets you in the gut with a bolt of pure, uncut, unadulterated meaning. Rare fare.
It all began with a vacuum cleaner. Not just any vacuum cleaner, mind you, but a Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X. One minute Mrs. Tickham is being dragged through her yard by a piece of cleaning equipment that clearly has a mind of its own, and the next she’s vacuumed up a live squirrel. Flora, child cynic and lover of all this comic book related, witnesses the event and when she runs to the squirrel finds that not only is it all right, it is imbued with superpowers. The squirrel, now dubbed Ulysses, is truly an extraordinary creature. It can leap tall buildings with a single bound (and fly!). It has super strength. And best of all, it can write poetry. Flora is convinced that Ulysses is a superhero, and it’s up to her to help him fulfill his destiny and protect him from his nemesis. Trouble is, how do you tell who a true nemesis is? And what if it turns out to be someone close to home?
So the writing is what floats or sinks any children’s book. With that in mind, it was interesting to me to see where this particular book fell on the writing spectrum. To my mind, there is a fine line between the charming and the precious/precocious. There is a whole genre of preternaturally intelligent children in children’s literature (E.L. Konigsburg typified the genre). The trick is figuring out how to balance intelligence with precociousness while remaining something a child would actually want to read. In this book DiCamillo straddles this line with the dexterity of a showman. Her characters may use words like “malfeasance”, “unremitting”, and “capacious” but you don’t resent them for it. Then there are the moments where the words ask more of the reader than your standard middle grade fare. Sentences like, “What good does it do you to read the words of a lie?” Add in the first mention of Rilke I’ve ever seen in a children’s book and you could, potentially, have something intolerable. Instead, the book ends up mighty fine. On beyond merely, tolerable. It’s a delight.
Much of this has to do with the wordplay, of course. Individual sentences can be remarkably funny. Example: “George... we have a problem. Your daughter has become emotionally attached to a diseased squirrel.” Later: “... the torturing of dogs was the one reliable pleasure of a squirrel’s existence.” Full credit must be paid to any book that is actually funny. This book is, and that can be a rare thing in a given year. DiCamillo also appears to be aware of the fact that if you add the word “squirrel” to any sentence, it is instantly funnier. Substitute any other animal (even "dodo") and the humor is gone. Maybe this is because squirrels are simultaneously ubiquitous and forgotten.
One way of looking at this book is to consider it a paean to comic book lovers everywhere. You wonder then if, at first, DiCamillo felt any inclination to go whole hog and to turn the whole book into a comic. For all that I will defend them unto the high hills, there is something limiting to the form if you’re coming at them from a novelist perspective. I think it was Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics who put it best when he pointed out (and here I’m paraphrasing heavily) that while we consider great literature high art and we consider visual art high art, for some reason putting the two together creates something supposedly lesser. Comics are their own unique beastie, and anytime you meld image with text you are creating a new style of visual learning. As it currently stands, Flora and Ulysses is a creature that would have had more difficulty seeing the light of day in anything but the 21st century. Only in this new publishing era where the stigma of comics has abated if not disappeared altogether
Is it an insult to Mr. Campbell to call him Sophie Blackall-esque? Dunno. I’m not sure what the ethics are in such a case. Whatever he is, Mr. Campbell is a true find. It’s a risk to begin any DiCamillo novel with such a heavy concentration on a book’s art. Yet Campbell is up to the challenge. His Flora is nicely cynical. His Ulysses is absolutely adorable, in spite of his mostly bald state. The comic panels contain the book’s most ridiculous moments while safely couched in a superhero format familiar to so many. Altogether, his contributions make the book more accessible and adorable than it has any right to be.
Separately, DiCamillo and Campbell have created strong works of literature. Together? There’s something undeniably sweet (and not in a saccharine way) at the core. In a way, it all comes down to Ulysses. I can say with certainty that though pigeons have their children’s book mascot in Mo Willems’s ubiquitous character, there has never been a proper squirrel spokescritter. Scaredy Squirrel comes the closest but even he turns out to be a flying squirrel and not your common everyday park denizen. Ulysses may fly but that’s just part of his superhero physique. What both DiCamillo and Campbell have accomplished is an ability to turn your average squirrel’s desires (which, to be frank, are mostly food-based) into something loftier and more touching. Ulysses may crave giant sprinkles, but he also craves poetry and wordplay and affection. If you’ve never wanted to hug a squirrel before, consider those days long gone.
Oh, there will be those that don’t love this book as I do. Who yearn for the deep underlying context of a Tulane or a Despereaux. To them I offer a respectful and heartfelt “Phhhhhhttttttt”. You can have your weighty subject matter all you like. Me? I like a little silliness with my fictional fare. I like my superpowered squirrels and giant donuts and interstitial comic book moments. And I like those moments when depressed dads find happiness and little bald squirrels burrow themselves into the arms of the girls that love them dearly. That, to me, is worth reading. To me, it's exceptional stuff.