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Agate: What good is a moose? by Joy Morgan Dey, illustrated by Nikki Johnson
Lake Superior Port Cities; April 2007; 32 pp; $17.95 HC
Core Audience: Children 4-8; Anyone who has ever felt outshined
Strengths: Luminous artwork; great message
If you have been reading pixiestix for awhile you are probably aware of my feelings about marginal books that are either self-published, or that are produced by small presses that don’t quite get how to put the total package together. I receive hundreds of unsolicited pitches every year for these kinds of books, and when you combine that with the thousands of mainstream books that flow across my desk in a given year, it really takes something to make me sit up.
And this, my friends, is that something.
Meet Agate, the hero of this wonderful and unexpected picture book from a pair of artists and a small regional press from Duluth, MN. Agate is in a metaphysical quandary. “What good is a moose?” he asks when he compares himself to all of his other “birthstone” friends, like Garnet the Crocodile, Emerald the Lion, and Sapphire the Hippo.
He has a big case of the inferiors, and any child who has ever felt dull will recognize themselves here. At the back of the book, there is a nice appendix that talks about birthstone gems. The writing and rhymes here are very sweet, but what really makes this book is the incredible watercolor illustration presented on a sparkling white ground.
These are just quick scans. For the full effect, get a copy and check out how eye-popping they really are. I particularly like the way Nikki Johnson has let the natural flow of the paint create the rich texture of the animals in motion.
This book really has it all: clean uncluttered design, a nice story, a good message, a eye-catching cover, fresh art, and the element of surprise. This proves the point that a small press with no background in kid’s books really can do a great job. Amazing books can come from anywhere, which why it is SO important that people setting off to make a picture book (or indeed any book) for the first time really understand what it takes, and know the market.
Apparently the author and illustrator brought the project to the press. Bravo to Lake Superior Port Cities for recognizing that Agate really is a gem of the highest order.
Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George
Bloomsbury; March 2007; 336 pp; $16.95 HC
Core Audience: Girls 10+; Dragon lovers; the shoe obsessed
Strengths: Strong saucy girl as central character; unexpected twist on the fairytale genre
Creel hasn’t been dealt the best hand in life. Her mother, a skilled seamstress, and her father, a struggling farmer, have died of a fever leaving her in the hands of a conniving aunt. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her aunt–always looking to work an angle– has decided to sacrifice Creel to the local dragon so that she can be rescued by the prince and the whole extended family can move into the castle once the two are married. After all, this is how it works in a fairytale, right?
Well, there are a couple of problems with this scenario. First, there hasn’t been an actual dragon sighted in the cave near Creel’s village for many years. No one’s really sure he’s there. Second, Creel isn’t the traditional beauty that princes usually go out of their way for. Third, Creel has other ideas about her future, and they don’t involve marrying the pompous local prince and supporting her free-loading family.
It turns out that Creel is a gifted needle-worker in her own right, and she’d like to go to the capitol of the kingdom and seek her fortune there as an artist. But first there is the problem of the Dragon to get over. Creel is smart, and she thinks that perhaps she can talk her way out of the situation and gain a piece of his hoard in the bargain. Well, things don’t go quite as planned. There is a dragon in the cave, but it turns out that he and the other dragons of the kingdom don’t want anything to do with humans. He’d rather stay at home and hoard his favorite object–shoes. (In fact, all of the dragons in this book hoard something unusual… shoes, dogs, stained glass windows…)
Creel is used to making the best of it, so instead of the gold, she convinces the dragon that she will leave and take the prince with her, sparing him the annoyance of a confrontation, if he will give her any pair of shoes from his hoard. She figures that at least she’ll have a good pair of shoes for her journey. Reluctantly the dragon agrees, and Creel’s choice of the simple blue slippers sets in motion a chain of events that will bring her kingdom to the brink of war. As it turns out, these are no ordinary slippers. Then again, Creel is no ordinary fairytale heroine.
Although there’s no shortage of books in the fairytale genre, I really enjoyed this story because of the offbeat choices Jessica Day George makes with he characters, and the well developed personality of Creel. She is spunky without being overly preachy, and smart without being a smartypants. I especially liked the elements of her creativity, and I LOVED the dragons. Very funny, and very likeable. Readers will really invest in these characters, which will make the escalating conflict toward the end of the book all the more compelling.
This is a fun, fast-moving read, and I suspect this may be the start of a series. If it is, I look forward to another fun Creel-ian adventure.
I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean by Kevin Sherry
Penguin/Dial; May 2007; 32 pp; $16.99 HC
Core Audience: Children 4-8; Braggarts everywhere
Strengths: Bold punchy artwork; Very funny
Let’s start with the basic premise of this story. Here we have a giant squid that just can’t get over himself. After all, he is bigger than most things in the ocean, and if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s the BIGGEST thing in the ocean.
Jelly fish? Bigger.
Sea turtles? Yup. Bigger.
He even says he’s bigger than the shark, but he’s careful to say it quietly. In fact, he’s so busy proudly telling us how big he is that he doesn’t even notice the (very big) whale that’s behind him. But you know what they say…pride go-eth before a fall.
I really love this book both for the incredibly appealing artwork, and for the absolutely irrepressible squid. Anyone who has ever worked with children will recognize in this squid the child who has unshakable confidence about their own abilities, no matter what reality has to say about it. Preschoolers will adore everything about this book, and with successive readings they will join right in. (Fun bonus: Bathtub stickers are included so kids can play out the story in the tub.) Although our squishy hero does wind up on the inside of the whale at the end, he won’t be kept down, and he finds a way to see the bright side.
This is Kevin Sherry’s first book, and I hope it won’t be the last. It’s fun, charming, well executed, and a delight from start to finish.
Extra Bonus: Squids must be a thing for Kevin Sherry, because he also has a fun online venture called Squidfire, featuring very hip T-shirts printed with great designs including—you guessed it—squids!!
The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers
Penguin/Philomel; April 2007; 32 pp; $16.99 HC
Core Audience: Children 4-8; Ravenous readers of all ages
Strengths: Awesome artwork, fun play on words
I don’t know what it is about Irish humor that I love so much, but I can’t resist it when I come across it. Maybe it’s the storytelling tradition over there, but there is a wonderful drollness and a slight off-kilter quality to it that is distinctly zany, and it never fails to amuse me. This book is an excellent example.
It starts out innocently enough: it’s about a boy who loves books. Can’t get enough of them. He devours them, really.
He eats them up.
For the hero of Oliver Jeffers’ newest story, it starts out small. A distracted lick. Followed by a nibble. A page, or two. By Wednesday he had eaten a whole book. And come to find out, the best part is it makes him smarter. Pretty soon he’s smarter than his dad, and smarter than the teacher. He’s eating books left and right, and red ones are his favorite. He loves being smart. But like so many things that diminish when you over-indulge, our hero soon finds himself feeling a little ill. Then alot ill. Then he finds he can’t eat another book if he tries.
What will happen to our little book lover now?
Of course, this bibliographic parable has a happy ending when our hero finds that there’s more than one way to enjoy books. Kids will love the kookiness of the story from start to finish. Jeffers’ art style is full of funny details and punchy visual elements which will give young readers plenty to look at during multiple readings. I am particularly fond of the bite-shaped diecut in the back cover of the book, and the disclaimer that reads “Please do not try to eat this book at home.”
Jeffers has won critical acclaim in Europe, including a nomination for the Kate Greenaway Medal (the UK equivalent of the Caldecott) for his second book Lost and Found. With this third book, Jeffers has a nice body of work going, and I think he’s definitely an author to watch.
I’m looking forward to his next tasty treat, for sure. Yum, Yum.
Bonus: Check out Jeffers’ lovely little website
The Police Cloud by Christoph Neimann
Random House/Schwartz & Wade; March 2007; 40pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Children 3-6; Lovers of wonderful illustration
Strengths: Nice blend of a soft story with the ever-popular police and fire genre
This is a wonderful story about a little cloud with big aspirations.
It seems that ever since he was a wee puff, he has dreamed of being a police officer. But who ever heard of a cloud in the police force? When the police decide to give him a chance, nothing goes right in spite of his great intentions. His fellow officers get caught in his fog when they go to chase a robber, and his vapor makes it hard to direct traffic too. It seems like he can’t even patrol the park without getting in the way of the sun. What’s a little civic-minded cloud to do? (Hint: Join the fire department.)
This is Neimann’s first picture book for kids, but his art is very well known from his grown-up work for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Time magazine. Here his pictures are bright, punchy, and engaging, with bold fields of color and elegant typography. What I most like about this book is how it combines a sensitive character arc with all the hard edged things typical boys love, like city streets, cars, policemen, and fire trucks. Imaginative and beautifully executed, it will have broad appeal for a wide range of readers. Best of all, it’s a great read-aloud.
You go, little cloud!
Bonus: Check out Christoph’s brand new (and charming) site for the book: www.policecloud.com
17 Things i’m not allowed to do anymore by Jenny Offill & Nancy Carpenter
Random House/Schwartz & Wade; December 2006; 32 pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Children 5-8; Adults who remember being less-than-perfect
Strengths: Engaging art; Funny, funny, funny
This book is an ode to every sassy girl who has ever lived. (I am one of those sassy girls, and I bet many of you are as well.) It is a laugh-out-loud litany of one troublesome idea after another and the consequence is always the same… “I am not allowed to (insert idea here) anymore.”
From gluing her brother’s bunny slippers to the floor, to setting Joey Whipple’s shoes on fire with the sun and a magnifying glass, to a reoccurring obsession with beavers, to my favorite—giving her brother the “gift of cauliflower” [by flinging it off his forehead with a fork], the heroine of this picture book is irrepressible.
The artwork in the book is just as lively, with a wonderful combination of pen and ink illustration, collage, and mixed media. It spills across the page with great exuberance, and does an excellent job of working with the text to give you the full flavor of its spirited protagonist.
There are many books about behaving badly, but it is much rarer to find one that celebrates the individual with as much warmth and humor as this one.
Because of the weird 12/26/06 release date, I hope this book doesn’t fall through the cracks and get lost in the shuffle for awards and recognition.
It’s a gem.
Okay, I feel that I have been giving short shrift lately to picture books, which as a designer are one of my first loves. I am having book guilt. So, I have decided that this is Pixie Stix Picture Book Week, and I will post a new review of one of my spring favorites each day. Enjoy!
Polo: The Runaway Book by Regis Faller
Roaring Brook; January 2007; 80 pp; $16.95 HC
Core Audience: All ages; Lovers of great design; Aficionados of wordless picture books
Strengths: Lyrical story full of wonderful visual detail and charming plot twists
Those of you who have been faithful readers know how much I loved Faller’s previous book The Adventures of Polo. Published first in France, these books about a little dog with a great imagination and a bottomless backpack are among my favorite offerings of the last year.
There is so much to love about Polo, it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the design. Faller’s illustrations are crisp, engaging, and totally irresistible. He plays liberally with graphic formats, using frames, full-bleed, and white space in unexpected juxtapositions throughout the book. An unspooling ball of red yarn breaks the right hand margin, and on successive pages becomes a Family-Circle style loop-de-loop, the ground, a hill to slide down, and then the outline of two trees and a dog-eating castle. Line as path, line as ground, line as object. The book is full of these kinds of graphic transformations.
Before we even get to the title page, we have a whole wordless vignette with Rabbit buying and sending a book to Polo on his little island. Drawn only in black, white, and yellow on a tomato red background, this little prequel grabs the attention from the get go, and sucks the reader right into Polo’s world.
And what a world it is. Magical. Lyrical. Full of the most amazing things. I LOVE books that unfold in a way that takes me on an unexpected journey, and Faller has one of the most unfettered imaginations going. When Polo’s new book is stolen by a little yellow creature–(a star? an alien? a florescent dust bunny with arms?)–Polo immediately sets off from his island in hot pursuit. What follows is a delicious adventure where the chase is only half of the fun. Each development is less predictable than the last as Polo meets a cast of characters including a humongous penguin, a little pig princess, elephant belly dancers, cloud wrestlers and a genie complete with wishes. And them there are the conveyances… A rope to nowhere, a hot air balloon, a raft, a mechanical flying bird, a magic liquid mirror, a dandelion puff, and numerous ladders, holes, caves, nooks, and crannies. Really, I can’t do the book justice in words when it comes to how imaginative it is. You just have to check it out.
Although Polo’s books are officially labeled with a 4-8 age range, to dismiss them simply as picture books for the youngest readers does them a great disservice. At 80 pages, the visual complexity, unexpected plot twists, wordless storytelling, and multiple frames are quite sophisticated, and the lyricism of the story will capture the imagination of everyone who picks them up—even adults.
At this point I am going to give you my rating, and if you are just interested in the review, read no further. This book is FABULOUS, and if you like great design and visual storytelling, stop reading and go order it now.
However, if you are interested in a little more analysis on the publishing industry, read-on….
[Begin digression into TRENDWATCH industry-speak]
For my part, although the Polo books are certainly picture books in production format, I place them in the rapidly growing category of graphic novels for children, and I think they fall on one end of a spectrum that includes things like Emmanuel Guibert & Joann Sfar’s Sardine in Outer Space series and Jeff Smith’s Bone series, which is having an incredible resurgence among elementary readers. In fact, take a good look at the publishing news right now and it’s hard to miss the buzz in this area: in 2006 graphic novels hit $330 million in sales in North America, (surpassing the comic book format), with booksellers clamoring for more titles published for kids because of the demand they’re seeing at book fairs and in stores.
Why do I bring this up? Certainly wordless picture books are not new in and of themselves. (Think Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, Itstvan Banyai’s Zoom, or Patricia Lehman’s The Red Book and forthcoming Rainstorm.)
However, given the growth in the graphic novel category, and young readers’ increasingly sophisticated and technological world which predisposes them to a high level of visual comprehension, I think this is an exciting time to explore innovative formats and hybrids of traditional publishing forms. Polo is an excellent example of blending genres to great effect, and I expect we will see more and more of this in the kids’ market.
In fact, Roaring Brook’s children’s graphic novel imprint 01:FirstSecond, under the direction of the brilliant Mark Siegel, is on the cutting edge of producing great new graphic work for a whole range of young readers, from elementary school to the most sophisticated teens, and they are actively reaching out to educate the traditional children’s book market. Many other publishers have been launching their own graphic novel imprints for kids as well. (Do a search at Publisher’s Weekly Online for the term “Graphic Novels”, and you’ll get 58 story hits just since the first of this year.) And let’s not forget Manga, which has never been stronger in the US. In a few years we’ll be able to look back on this period as a new golden age of graphic novels, with a whole expansion of the market for kids.
So now what?
I would ask you where you fall? Do you get this genre? If you are a bookseller or a librarian, where do you shelve graphic novels for kids? Do you think it’s a real trend? Do you care?
I think it is a trend, but I also think that there is a pretty clear line between people who get this genre, and people who don’t. I’m not sure if it has to do with age or perception or relationship to technology or what.
However we can always return to the basics. A book like Polo, which straddles these worlds, is at the end of the day, a wonderful book … and comfortingly familiar for all its brilliant ambition.
Yay, Polo. Je t’aime.
For a compelling diversion, visit Polo’s magical world online at Chez Polo. It’s worth it just for the soundtrack.
How It Happened in Peach Hill by Marthe Jocelyn
Random House/Wendy Lamb Books; March 2007; 160 pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Middle grade readers 9-12; people who are intrigued by the subject of fake spiritualism; Scam artists
Strengths: Solid writing that sucks you in immediately, original scenario with bite
This was a sleeper on my galley pile, and I’m so glad I picked it up because it was one of the more enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long time.
Fifteen year-old Annie has a problem. She and her mother have just moved to town, and Annie would like to settle down for awhile, instead of moving around all the time. Peach Hill is a nice quiet ordinary town, and Annie can see that it has a lot to offer. She’d like to make some friends, go to school, and maybe kiss the boy with shiny black hair. In other words, just be normal. But as it is, this can’t happen because everybody in town thinks she’s a drooling dim witted idiot.
Because that’s the scam.
Annie’s life isn’t like the other kids’ lives, and her mother isn’t like other mothers. She’s a spiritualist—Madame Caterina—and she’s come to Peach Hill to read palms, foretell the future, speak with the dead, and take the town for all it’s worth. And Annie is her secret weapon. She can hang around the market and the town square, slack-jawed and lazy-eyed, and go unnoticed except for a few sympathetic glances. Little do the people know that she’s collecting secret intelligence on all of the townsfolk that her mother can then use to defraud them.
But one day Annie decides she’s had enough, and she stages her own miraculous healing, thereby outflanking her canny mother, and setting the scene for some of the more remarkable events Peach Hill has seen for a long time. Smart and strong, Annie has been well schooled in the power of lies, and she turns the table to her advantage.
I loved this coming of age story both because of the spunkiness of Annie’s character, and because of the great supporting cast that makes up this small town. The prohibition-era backdrop is filled with wonderful cameos like the scary revival preacher who makes moonshine in his shed, the two town policemen, one small and one large, the truancy officer who would give the shoes off her feet to keep a kid in school, and the mysterious Mr. Poole who lives in a big house on the hill and has some secrets of his own. This would make a great mother/daughter book club choice or a family read-aloud.
Best of all is the freshness of Annie’s voice, which perfectly captures the tension she feels between the cynicism of the life she’s been brought up in, and her longing for a better, more honest life for herself. She knows she could be as good a grifter as her mother; in fact the town desperately wants her to be the miracle he mother claims her to be. But once Annie starts to think about what SHE might like, things take on a whole new perspective.
This is a great novel that I’d recommend to anyone who loves strong characters, a little mystery, unexpected plot twists, and a touch of fraud thrown in for good measure.
Palm reading anyone?
Order this book from your local independent bookstore
Leap by Jane Breskin Zalben
Random House; January 2007; 272 pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Girls and boys 10+ who like stories based in reality
Strengths: Alternating viewpoints; great writing that really captures all of the conflicting emotions of pre-adolescence
These days, there are so many books being written for the middle grade audience that have grand character arcs and larger than life storylines that it is easy for the quieter books to get lost among all the destitute orphans, the young wizards, and the wise-cracking goofballs.
Here is a lovely book about a group of friends growing up in Flushing, Queens, and what happens to their small community one year when one of them has an unexpected accident. It changes not only his life, but it subtly shifts and re-focuses the lives of everyone in the community.
When Daniel almost dies due to an allergic reaction during routine dental surgery in the days after 5th grade graduation, the neighborhood doesn’t know how to react. Handsome, gifted and athletic, Daniel seems like the last boy who could have something bad happen to him. Soon it’s clear that something bad has happened, and worse—it was his best friend’s dad who was doing the surgery. It’s not as if he died, say some, while others don’t know what to think about the fact that Daniel cannot do many of the physical things he could do before, like walk without help, and swim on the school team. It is clear that his life and the lives of his family have changed radically. It’s worse for Krista, who used to be Daniel’s best friend, and who feels guilty for not reaching out to him now even though they aren’t as close as they used to be. Torn between her old allegiances, her family, and her social life, she’s not sure she can do the right thing even though she wants to.
Told in the alternating voices of Daniel and Krista, this novel perfectly captures all of the nuances of that transitional period between childhood and adolescence when identity is fragile, and alliances and feelings shift on a daily basis. In another author’s hands this subject matter could easily go over the edge into melodrama, but Zalben uses a delicate touch and real empathy for her characters which keeps the overall tone hopeful without being saccharine. There is a great supporting cast and excellent development of character and place.
In the end this is a novel about real characters–both kids and adults–having real and complicated emotions, and it perfectly demonstrates the idea that sometimes we can only discover the value in our lives by taking a leap of faith.
So when you get tired of all the hype and silliness, Leap is just the novel to keep it real.
Rainstorm by Barbara Lehman
Houghton Mifflin; April 2007; 32 pp; $16.00 HC
Core Audience: Young readers ages 3-7; Lovers of wordless picture books and mysterious keys
Strengths: Crisp illustration, magical and mysterious premise
COMING SOON TO A BOOKSTORE NEAR YOU
You remember those days.
Days when you were stuck inside—alone—on a rainy day with nothing to do and no one to play with. Everything seems to take on the same drab feeling, and nothing feels interesting.
So it is with the character in Barbara Lehman’s new book, Rainstorm. From the very start, on the cover of the book, we see our hero gazing forlornly out the window on a dark and blustery day. Although you can’t see it on the flat illustration above, colorless spot-varnish raindrops fall from the leaden sky. Clearly this is no day for playing outside. There seems like nothing to do but wander aimlessly around the big house, kicking a ball for lack of anything better to do.
BUT—and there is always a “but” in Barbara’s stories—things become a lot more interesting when or hero discovers a key under a chair, and in true Lehman style, the key unlocks an adventure bigger than any box, closet or trunk. This rainy day is about to get a whole lot more interesting.
For those of you familiar with Lehman’s previous books, Museum Trip, and The Red Book, (which won a Caldecott Honor), you will recognize her crisp artwork, appealing visual style, and engaging wordless storytelling. I particularly love the way these books manage to surprise us with plot twists and magical elements while keeping the visual story from becoming overly busy or complicated. They are a masterful study in simplicity and restraint, and because of that they appeal to a wide range of ages. Subtle details, like the oppressiveness of the big house, they boy’s tie, and his transformation once he finds the key are things to be discovered with each reading. For instance, why is there a blue sky in the INSIDE of the house on the cover?
As with all of her books, careful attention has been paid to the design and production of the book, so that it all works beautifully together. Details like the spot varnish raindrops on the cover, the larger vertical trim, and the thoughtful variation of frame and full-bleed illustration enhance the unexpectedness of the story. It is a pleasure to flip each page and see what happens next.
It is truly a wordless and wonderful adventure. I want to find one of those keys, too.