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Adventure of Meno by Tony & Angela DiTerlizzi
Book 1: Big Fun!
Book 2: Wet Friend!
Simon & Schuster; Oct. 09; 48pp; $9.99 HC
978-1416971481 / 978-1416971498
Core Audience: giggly children 2-6 and retro-loving adults
Strengths: Appealing square trim, poppy visual approach, silliness
It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to talk about books, partly because all of the industry upheaval this year has directed my attention to larger issues, and partly because I am in the middle of writing a book myself. So it was a real pleasure to tear open an envelope recently and have these two books tumble out.
Just the antidote to too much heavy thinking.
Meet Meno, the supercute space-elf hero of Tony & Angela Diterlizzi’s new series for the peepers. With his green beanie, irrepressible cowlick, and nifty sweater & tie set, Meno is the embodiment of My Three Sons meets Dennis the Menace with a pinch of Japanese-inspired Friends With You thrown in for good measure.
Tony and Angela have said they were inspired by lots of mid-century influences when creating these books. Things like “Little Golden Books, old Fisher-Price toys, and vintage cereal boxes” as well as funny words like pickle, weasel and spork. They must have had a lot of fun doing this project, and it shows. Populated with friends like Yamagoo, Wishi, and—my favorite—Zanzibar who lives in his HAPPY FUN BOWL, Meno’s world is full of interesting names to roll around on the tongue.
Presented in “Vibrant MENO-COLOR” the books’ clean layout, punchy full bleed art, and bouncy text add up to a high-style package that will be equally at home on a children’s bookshelf or a pop-culture lover’s coffee table.
Because of their strong aesthetic and minimal, playful text, it would be easy to dismiss these books as a design exercise, but that would be a big mistake. In our house we’ve tested these books on a range of ages from 2 to 8 (as well as 40) with great success. We’ve even adopted some “menoisms” into our daily routine. We sometimes drink “moo juice” and like Meno, we always want it to be “sunshine time” at our house.
This cheeky series may not appeal to all parents, especially those who are overly concerned with the occasional silly potty joke or creative play with language. Dick and Jane do not make an appearance in Meno’s world, but that’s part of the appeal. These books will entertain in direct proportion to an adult’s willingness to get goofy. They fall into the same category as tickle tag, making silly faces, and rolling around on the floor. Lots of fun, and a great opportunity to share some all-ages giggles.
Meno is BIG FUN for sure.
Tony & Angela discuss the project
Tony and Angela read Meno (I especially like their rendition of the diminutive farts at the end. So silly!)
Alabama Moon by Watt Key
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; September 2006; 304 pp; $16.00 HC
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.
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
Hello faithful readers. This review was actually the VERY FIRST review I posted to pixie stix, and I wrote it first because it was one of my favorite books last year. Unfortunately, that meant that it went up before anyone was regularly reading, and so it has gotten lost.
So, I am bringing it back one more time, BECAUSE IT’S THAT GOOD! It will even keep adults up late–I lost sleep over it–and it’s a great choice for teen book clubs. Go get this book!
Life As We Knew It
by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Harcourt, October 2006, $17.00 HC
Core Audience: Most obvious audience is girls 14+ but should be hand sold to boys because it’s so compelling
Strengths: Authentic writing, vivid post-apocalyptic scenario that will be an eye-opener for modern teens
Young readers today are so used to the comfort of technologies such as cell phones, e-mail, cable television, and the internet that most of them never stop to think about how vulnerable these luxuries are. Let alone things like electricity, food in the supermarket, gas at the gas station, and medical care at the local hospital. What I loved about this book is how effectively it shows how a breakdown in society can slowly strip away our creature comforts one by one until we are reduced to our most basic instincts for survival.
When an asteroid hits the Moon and pushes it closer to the Earth, the environmental catastrophe that results will change life on the planet forever. Unlike typical disaster movies like War of the Worlds or Independence Day, the believability of this book comes from the fact that the events take place over many months, and chronicle what a disaster might look like from the perspective of one family in one community. Told through the diary entries of a normal teen, this novel is so authentically written and so compelling that once you get into it, it will be hard to put it down. Even better, when you do put it down, it will take a few minutes to pull yourself back from the sense of impending disaster that this book will evoke in you. Ultimately, this book delivers a positive message about self-reliance and hidden strength, and it is one of my top picks for the year. Not only is it a great story, but it has an important message to send to young readers about not taking life for granted.
Barkbelly, by Cat Weatherill
Knopf; June 2006; 320 pp; $15.95 HC
Core Audience: Readers 8+; GREAT family read-aloud
Strengths: Unusual premise; precise and imaginative use of language; unpredictable story arc
Every once in awhile a book comes in that begs to be read simply because as a reader you have no idea where it’s headed. It looks and sounds interesting, and it just keeps on going. This is one of those books.
It starts with a shiny wooden egg that drops from the sky, and lands in a field where it is destined to taken home by a kindly farmer after it knocks him on the head. Of course, the egg is not what it seems, and neither is the story.
Cat Weatherill is a performance storyteller in the UK, and the richness and folksiness of her written language bespeaks her profession. This is the tale of Barkbelly, a wooden boy who springs from the aforementioned egg, and then spends the rest of the novel on an adventure of self-discovery. Strong, and seemingly indestructible, Barkbelly approaches life with enthusiastic curiosity and candor. Although on the surface it seems like there might be some obvious overtones of that other famous wooden boy with the long nose, this story is more imaginative and less preachy, and it sets out for new ground immediately.
Equal parts fairytale, archetype, and adventure, Barkbelly is full of wonderful character names like Anvil Allsop, Candy Pie, Mop Mallory, Farmer Muckledown, and Sir Blunderbuss Tything, as well as marvelous place names like Ashenpeake, Pumbleditch, and Pebbleport. And then there are all of the other whimsical elements that keep unfolding like the giant Golden-Spiked Far Forest [Hedge]hogs with magical powers, the sparkly cast of Carmenaro’s Circus, the giant pots of boiling jam, and the attack by the Pirate Captain Lord Fox. During the course of the story Barkbelly discovers that there are more wooden people like him in the big wide world, but his starry-eyed expectations of finding family do not match the reality he encounters. Each of Barkbelly’s adventures is full of juicy, tongue-pleasing language that just begs to read aloud, and plot twists that fire the imagination.
At its heart, Barkbelly’s tale is really a fable about a boy who runs away from a past mistake, and discovers after much trial and error that the solution to his problem— and his true self—lie back where he started. The journey is necessary to find it out for both the character and the reader, and in the end we all celebrate the humble blessings that are right under our noses.
Lemonade Mouth, by Mark Peter Hughes
Delacorte; March 2007; 352 pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: 14+ readers of both genders
Strengths: Nice blend of characters; told in both male and female voices; good feel for the trials and tribulations of small town high school life
Remember that famous scene in the Breakfast Club? The one where they’re all hanging out in detention? A bunch of kids from all areas of the high school food chain, brought together by circumstance for one fateful moment. Okay—now imagine what would happen if everyone in that room was musical. Including the teacher.
That’s the unexpected jumping-off point for Mark Peter Hughes’ new novel, which chronicles the unlikely rise of five students from the freshman ghetto to teen rock visionaries in a small-town RI high school. Told in the alternating voices of the various main characters, both male and female, this is a story of some students who improvise a song one day in detention out of boredom, using whatever they have on hand. The teacher hears it, and contrary to everyone’s expectations, suggests they try playing together. The five students, who prior to that day have never had much to say to each other, decide to give it a try. In the process they manage to create a band—the aforementioned Lemonade Mouth—that is so original and genius that it starts a little revolution in the school and unseats the popular hierarchy in the process. All of the classic high school archetypes are here: the shy and misunderstood poet, the rebellious transplant, the overachiever, the insecure funny guy, and the bohemian hipster to be, but Hughes manages to flesh them out with thoughtful writing and some very honest situational comedy.
For those of you who read Hughes’ wonderful first novel I Am the Wallpaper —(which I adore, by the way. The paperback is coming in February from Random House- 978-0440420460)—you may recognize Wen, who played a peripheral but important role in that story. Here he is front and center, dealing with the discomfort of having a crush on his Dad’s curvaceous new girlfriend, and trying to get through his days in the grind. Although there are passing references to the previous story, this novel is fully independent, but it’s fun to see him in his context if you’ve read the other one.
I’m pleased that Hughes turned in such a strong effort for his second novel. His writing has an offbeat honesty that will put him in the pantheon of great YA writers if he can keep it up. I am especially impressed with his ability to write spicy and believable girls’ voices. This story has just enough teen angst and edginess in it to ring true without crossing any discomfort lines. This is one of those unusual novels that you can recommend to every reader with a clean conscience.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrated by Carson Ellis
Little, Brown & Co; March 2007; 485 pp; $16.99 HC
Core Audience: Boys and girls, ages 8-12; lovers of classic storytelling in the gothic tradition of Joan Aiken
Strengths: Great, adventurous writing full of fun mystery and intrigue
This is one of those rare books that have all of the classic elements that make a timelessly great story. Like the first time I read a story by Joan Aiken, Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, or Roald Dahl, it felt like this book was written just for me, in the most delicious and savory way. This is the first book from newcomer Trenton Lee Stewart, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
When 11 year-old Reynie Muldoon’s attention is captured one morning by an ad in the paper asking “Are You a Gifted Child looking for Special Opportunities?” he is intrigued. Who would write an ad like this to children, rather than their parents, he thinks. There’s no doubt that Reynie is smart enough, and he is definitely in the market for a Special Opportunity. So off he goes to answer the ad, precisely following all directions.
Although dozens of children show up to answer the ad and take a mind-boggling series of tests, only Reynie and three others—a boy an two girls—are left at the end. They have been brought together by the Mysterious Benedict Society, and they have a job to do. They are a team of pint-sized geniuses who embark on an adventure so mysterious, so devilish, so fiendishly clever and risky that only a team of misfit kids like themselves could pull it off.
This story is packed with irresistible details: a mysterious school on an island run by a sinister man, extraordinary but flawed heroes, spyglasses, secret signals, codes, drippy underground tunnels, bullies that get their comeuppance, plenty of humor, orphans, long-lost parents, acrobatics, mistaken identity, a humorous case of narcolepsy, and so much more. Young readers will get a vicarious thrill as this team of incredibly skilled smarty-pantses overcome danger and strike a blow against an evil authority. The great black and white illustrations at the start of every chapter perfectly capture the quirky gothic flavor of the story.
I loved this book from start to finish, and it is definitely a favorite pick for 2007. The story ends in such a way that I am sure more adventures are coming for The Mysterious Benedict Society, and I can’t wait!
By Philip Reeve
Bloomsbury; Sept. 2006; 250 pp; $16.95 HC
Core Audience: Children ages 8-12
Strengths: Humor, great blend of genres
Imagine what would have happened if Jules Verne had written a Jane Austen novel for the junior set, and you start to get an inkling of what Larklight by Philip Reeve has in store. It’s a delicious blend of tongue-in-cheek Victorian propriety, comedy and swashbuckling space adventure, revolving around a rambling house called Larklight that just happens to be traveling through space.
As the novel opens, we are introduced to Arthur Mumsby and his sister Myrtle, who live with their father (a slightly forgetful professorial type), in a huge and rambling house containing not a few mysterious secrets. Not much seems to happen here at Larklight. The children fret about their boredom until one day they receive notice that they are to have a visitor. Of course, the nefarious visitor is not what he seems, and soon the siblings are off on an adventure all over the galaxy.
This novel is more evidence that Reeve, who received much critical acclaim for his Hungry City Chronicles, is an author whose imagination produces the most amazing material. He combines genres, time periods, the familiar and the fantastical into an extraordinary romp. What I loved most about it is the offhand way he manages to convince us that it is the most normal thing in the world for these two Victorian children to be living in space in the first place, as if it were no stranger than some sleepy town in the English highlands. A thoroughly original book and tons of fun!
This review originally appeared in the 9/14/06 issue of PW Children’s Bookshelf.