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savvy

Savvy by Ingrid Law

Penguin; May 2008; 352 pp; $16.95 HC

978-0803733060

Core Audience: Readers 12+ and folks who love predicting award winners

Strengths: Completely original from cover to cover and then some

Twelve-year-old Mibs Beaumont has been counting down the days till her thirteenth birthday—the day her “savvy” will make itself known. Will she be able to create hurricanes like her brother? Or capture wonderful sounds in canning jars like her grandmother? Then Mibs’ father has a terrible accident just before her birthday, and Mibs feels sure that her savvy will be to help her dad. When she stows away on a traveling salesman’s pink bus to try to get to her father’s distant hospital, she finds herself on a madcap odyssey in the heartland of America—one that is as full of unexpected adventure and friendship as Mibs herself. Like some of my other favorite offbeat books of recent years, this story is absolutely original, with detail and a richness in the writing that paves its own way. This novel is also remarkable in the fact that it combines matter-of-fact bible belt imagery and fantastical super-powers in the same story in a way that manages to be neither off-puttingly dogmatic or overly fantastical, but rather sort of dreamy and lyrical. A book as unexpected as its main character and anyone who reads it seems to love it, no matter where they are coming from.

Rating: 9.0

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Patron Saint

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante

Bloomsbury; April 2008; 304 pp; $16.95 HC

978-1599902494

Core Audience: Girls 14+ and adult crossover readers

Strengths: Timely subject, amazingly perceptive writing, and unflinching honesty

If you haven’t yet read this book personally, move it up your pile, because this is one of the best reads I’ve chewed through this year. This book is timely in that it centers on two girls being raised in a fundamentalist religious cult, but this book completely steers clear of sensationalism. It’s told in alternating voices of two childhood friends: one girl who now buys the party line, and the other who chafes under it like a wet wool blanket. It is an amazing piece of writing about finding one’s voice, conformity, the nature of family, identity during adolescence, and it has a satisfying and redemptive ending. There were a couple of harrowing moments in the reading where I was so emotionally invested that I had a hard time remembering that I was not actually in the book. The unflinching honesty probably comes from the fact that the author herself was raised in a cult, and has had many years to come to terms with her family’s experience. (The first draft of the book was a memoir which was deemed too dark for sale.) Because of the topic, many folks may need a handsell on this book, but they will not be disappointed. This is a great one for mother-daughter book clubs, and will offer much fodder for discussion.

BONUS: This book will raise may questions about the nature of fiction and memoir for readers, and Cecilia Galante has put some substantial thought into her website where she thoughtfully answers the questions readers often ask.

Rating: 9.5

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Agate cover

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

978-0942235739

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.

WGIAM?

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.

giraffe

giraffe

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.

agate stone

 

Rating: 9.0

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cinderella

Walt Disney’s Cinderella by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Mary Blair

Disney Press; August 2007; 64 pp; $16.99 HC

978-1423104216

Core Audience: Children 4-8; Design lovers of all ages

Strengths: AMAZING original concept art from Mary Blair

Culturally, we are in a new golden age of design right now, with a distinct blurring of the lines between commercial and fine art. It’s everywhere you look: Target’s Design for All project is pulling in designers like Isaac Mizrahi and Michael Graves, Todd Oldham is busting a move for La-Z-Boy, the geniuses at Pixar are re-inventing animation, and even the most humble toilet brush is not immune to its own version of an extreme makeover.

It makes sense then that contemporary artists are looking back to the last golden age of US design, the mid-century. Ground-breaking artists, who until now were largely unsung, are finally getting their props and it’s about time. The vaults are being thrown open, and we’re all reaping the benefits.

One of my all time favorite of these artists is Mary Blair. Incredibly versatile, winsome, and magical, Blair’s use of color and form rivals the great modernists. (I’m not kidding, here.)

MB

During a career than spanned more than half a century, Blair did fine art, illustration, commercial design, murals, and children’s books, but she is best known as one of Walt Disney’s favorite house artists. She did the concept art for more than a dozen Walt Disney projects including The Three Caballeros, Song of the South, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, as well as the design for the ubiquitous It’s a Small World attraction which she created at Walt’s behest for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Here’s a tiny little taste of some of her work to wet your whistle:

blair collage

Blair’s work has an irrepressible optimism paired with a sophisticated sense of composition and color that I just love. It’s the pure embodiment of that great Charles Mingus quote: “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

***

It used to be that you had to hunt and peck to find examples of her original work for Disney. Most of it was residing in WDAS’s Animation Research Library collection. Now you can have a little bit of this magic on your very own bookshelf!

Disney Press has taken the original concept art for Cinderella (1950) and worked it into a new book with great text by Cynthia Rylant. It has been released with very little fanfare into a market crowded with Cinderellas, but this book is really amazing, and deserves a closer look.*

Title

Cinder's house

carriage arrives

at the doors

at the ball

riders

In his book Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in 1950s Animation, Amid Amidi makes the argument that the male-dominated, hard-edged animation department at Disney didn’t quite know what to do with Blair’s dreamy, color-block style, and that’s why she didn’t receive more external recognition during her time there. (She finally did recieve a posthumous nod with a “Disney Legends” award in 1991.) However, anyone who knows the movie will recognize the impact Blair’s art had on the final product. The drama, color, scale, and composition are all hers.

Nearly sixty years later, Blair’s art has lost none of it’s power. Walt Disney loved her work because like him, he felt she was able to tap directly into childhood. Disney Animator Marc Davis recalled, “She brought modern art to Walt in a way that no one else did. He was so excited about her work.”

A whole new generation of readers and design enthusiasts will feel exactly the same.

Rated: 9.5

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_________

Web Worthy

Meadow Gold 2

BONUS: Check out this very cool Mary Blair 1950’s B&W commercial for Meadow Gold Ice Cream.

Many thanks to Fred Cline for making it available. Fred knew Mary and her husband Lee, who encouraged him to study design and animation, and he is doing a great job of carrying the torch.

ALSO: If you are excited by Mary Blair’s work and want to learn more, check out this great retrospective: The Art and Flair of Mary Blair (978-0786853915; Disney Editions; $40.00 HC)

SUPER DOUBLE-BONUS IF YOU LIVE IN SAN FRAN: The Museum of Cartoon Art has an exhibition up by the same name running until March 2008. Lucky!

*Book images: Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

 

pink cover 2

Pink by Nan Gregory, illustrated by Luc Melanson

Groundwood; July 2007; 32 pp; $17.95 HC

978-0888997814

Core Audience: Girls ages 3-10; Anyone who hasn’t gotten the fabulous thing they most wanted but didn’t need

Strengths: Heartbreakingly honest writing; a fresh approach to the subject of PINK

Once in awhile a book comes along that just melts your heart—and not because it is full of puppies, or children in flower costumes, or rhymes about bellybuttons. Rather, it stops you in your tracks because it cuts right to the heart of childhood pain. This is one of those books, especially if you grew up in a family where resources were sometimes outpaced by desire.

Vivi loves pink. She wants nothing more than to own something perfectly, gloriously pink, just like the popular girls. It is all she can think about.

pink pp1

Vivi’s parents love her very much and try to pinkify her life any way they can, but theirs is a family with more creativity than money, and they can’t afford to indulge the material desire that “The Pinks” represent. They try to get Vivi to appreciate all the free pink in the world, but Vivi won’t be derailed. When Vivi tries to express her intense desire, her mother tells her that there is enough pink to go around, and her father praises the “pink in her cheeks.” Vivi feels they don’t understand her.

One day as she is passing the local toy store, she sees the most perfect expression of her desire: a pink bride doll. Vivi doesn’t have enough in her piggy bank to buy it, so she decides to work around the neighborhood for a few months to earn the money. She works hard, and is close to her goal, but when she brags about the doll to “The Pinks” in a fit of playground hubris, she finds her dream has slipped away.

The subtle messages about family love in this book are many. Readers will appreciate Vivi’s parent’s efforts on her behalf, and will prefer the magical creativity of her family even if Vivi doesn’t always. The lovely artwork perfectly depicts the melancholy longing of Vivi’s world, as well as the warmth of her family.

pink tree

This story is a great jumping off point for discussions of peer pressure, the difference between “want” and “need”, and how difficult it is to envy others who may have more than you. In the end Vivi doesn’t get the object of her desire, but we see her family supporting her as she works through it.

There has been a spate of books for the pink hedonists lately, (Fancy Nancy, Pinkilicious), and as anyone who is living with a Disney-Princess loving two year-old will tell you, they have their place. But it is very nice (and much rarer) to see a book that holds the other side with such sensitivity and grace. This sleeper, which comes from a small Canadian Press, is one of my favorite books of the year.

Delicious.

Rated: 9.0

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Alabama Moon

Alabama Moon by Watt Key

Farrar, Straus & Giroux; September 2006; 304 pp; $16.00 HC

978-0374301842

Core Audience: Boys 9+; readers who loved Hatchet or Holes; paranoid survivalists

Strengths: Incredibly vivid writing; a charming and original hero in the spirit of Huck Finn

First, let me say that this review is way overdue, because like Susan Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It, this book is at the absolute top of my favorites from 2006, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone except the faithful readers of this blog, unfortunately. This was an egregious oversight, because I can’t say enough good things about this book. This book was recently awarded the E.B. White Read Aloud Award by ABC’s independent booksellers, and it sure deserves it. It grabs you by the throat from the first paragraph, and doesn’t let go.

Written by first-time author Watt Key, Alabama Moon is the story of ten year old Moon who has spent his entire life deep in the Alabama woods with his survivalist father. He knows everything about taking care of himself in the wild from hunting food to building a shelter, but he has never spent much time in the company of strangers. When Moon’s father dies after breaking a leg, his last piece of advice is for Moon to go to Alaska to find others like them. Of course, as soon as Moon sets foot outside of the woods, he finds himself caught up in a world of trouble, and he must figure out a way to make his skills work for him when he has no experience of society.

This novel is amazing both for the originality of its voice, and the fine line it treads between poignant drama and the particular comedy that comes from the clash of two cultures. It is a testament to Watt Key’s writing that he is able to give Moon the complexity of character where his rebelliousness, his vulnerability, and his self-reliance show through in equal measure. The book is full of authentic detail and woodcraft, and boy readers in particular will get plenty of vicarious enjoyment out of Moon’s skills. (My favorite—making a hat worthy of Davy Crockett from the butt-end of a white tailed deer.) Moon is so irrepressible, readers are quickly in his corner as he confronts and rejects the expectations society has for him. In the tradition of Huck Finn and other fine iconoclasts, Moon just will not be kept down.

Of course, in the end we want for Moon what he wants for himself—a place in the world where he belongs. As a first time author, Watt Key has written a remarkable book, and although its most obvious appeal is for middle grade boys, this book deserves a much wider readership. Afterall, the themes of family, friendship, and belonging resonate far beyond the Alabama woods.

Get thee to a bookstore.

Rating:9.75

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I’m the biggest thing in the ocean

I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean by Kevin Sherry

Penguin/Dial; May 2007; 32 pp; $16.99 HC

978-0803731929

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.

Shrimp? Bigger.

Clams? Bigger.

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.

Bravo.

Rated: 9.0

Web Icon

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!!

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the Police cloud

The Police Cloud by Christoph Neimann

Random House/Schwartz & Wade; March 2007; 40pp; $15.99 HC

978-0375839634

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!

Web Icon  Bonus: Check out Christoph’s brand new (and charming) site for the book: www.policecloud.com

Rated: 9.0

 

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17 Things

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

978-0375835964

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.

Rated: 9.5

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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!

The runaway book

Polo: The Runaway Book by Regis Faller

Roaring Brook; January 2007; 80 pp; $16.95 HC

978-1596431898

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.

Rating: 9.5

However, if you are interested in a little more analysis on the publishing industry, read-on….

Polo in Bed 2

[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.

Web Icon

For a compelling diversion, visit Polo’s magical world online at Chez Polo. It’s worth it just for the soundtrack.

____________________________________________________________________________

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Howdy!

Welcome to pixie stix kids pix, the site for reviews and opinions about new and interesting books for children and young adults, by a professional in the children's book industry.

What rates?

When I read books they get rated on a 10 point scale. What I like is subjective, but basically I look for great content, excellent design, and fresh ideas. Generally, only books that receive a 7.0 or higher make it on to the site.

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