Monthly Archives: August 2012

Adaptation

Malinda Lo’s latest, Adaptation, is a Sci-Fi Thriller Romance which means it has aliens and conspiracy theories and kissing. Sound fun? It is. Oh, and if you have ornithophobia (fear of birds), then it might not be for you. There are some scary birds in this book. In fact, that’s where the story starts.

Reese and her debate partner, David, are stranded at the airport with their coach on the way home from a tournament. A series of plane crashes, reportedly caused by large bird strikes, causes all flights to be cancelled and airspace to be closed until the authorities can be sure they understand the circumstances of the crashes. So the three rent a car to drive back home, only as panic builds in the general population, the roads are far from safe. Reese and David end up driving alone on the Extraterrestrial Highway and then another accident happens. A bird flies into their headlights and they crash. When they wake up in a military hospital in Nevada, no one will give them much information about their injuries or the treatment they received, and they must sign nondisclosure agreements before they can go home. They can’t even tell their parents about what happened to them. Keeping everything secret only gets harder when the massive scars from Reese’s injuries fade so quickly she can’t believe it, and she begins to have strange sensations that she has never felt before. Then she meets Amber, who is mysterious and beautiful and a welcome distraction, and Reese begins to have other feelings she’s never experienced, which is confusing enough, but even more so given that until Amber, she’d thought she was crazy about David. What really happened to Reese and David, and what are the implications for their futures, and for society at large?

The opening of Adaptation is super suspenseful and tension builds immediately. Lo does a brilliant job capturing the fear and the increasing panic after the bird attacks. You’ll be turning the pages fast. The pace does slow quite considerably once the romantic plot thread with Amber is introduced, and while you have to adjust to this a little bit, I think that the shift in pacing is true to Reese’s situation. It is entirely believable that she would throw herself into this new relationship as an escape, in order to feel something other than fear and worry. Also, the fact that her relationship with Amber gets a lot of focus makes it more believable and nuanced than I think it otherwise would be if it was introduced only in passing. I was surprised that it took centre stage, but not disappointed, as I think that their relationship mirrors and develops some of the themes Lo explores in the main plot: isolation, self-discovery, secrets, and connection.

There’s a sequel coming next year, and good thing too, because that ending is about as cliff-hanger-y as you can get.

Adaptation is published by Little, Brown.

 

The One and Only Ivan

Often, the longer a book sits in my TBR pile, the less likely I am to read it. It gets forgotten, or it loses its initial appeal. Then there are the books in the pile that you look at and you think, “Oh, yeah! I still really want to read that one. I’ve got to get to it.” And months pass. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, somehow ended up stuck for ages in TBR status, and reading it has made me wonder what other miracle books might be in that pile, because I think this book is one miraculous book.

The One and Only Ivan is the story of a gorilla who lives in a cement and metal “domain” in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. He’s been there for 27 years. There’s a jungle scene painted on one wall of his cage and people pay to see him, though not as many as when he was young. Ivan is alone in his domain, but he has friends: Stella the elephant, and Bob, a stray dog who forages for scraps in the Mall trash. There’s also Julia, the daughter of the man who cleans the mall at night. She likes to draw the animals, and talk to them. Ivan is an artist too. He paints what he sees in his cage, mostly apple cores and banana peels. He wishes he could draw something that doesn’t yet exist, that he only imagines, but he’s not unhappy with his ordinary pictures. As the mall starts losing money, the owner, Mack, brings a baby elephant to be part of the show and hopefully to drum up business. Ruby’s arrival signals a change in Ivan. He promises Stella that he will protect Ruby no matter what and find a way to get Ruby to a safe place. It will take all of his courage, creativity, and hope, to make good on that promise.

And FYI, you will be needing tissues.

Applegate’s prose has a pared down quality that brings it close to poetry. The directness and simplicity of the language fits with how you might imagine a gorilla to think and perceive the world. Each short chapter is perfectly shaped for great emotional impact. It’s not often you find a book that will not intimidate a less confident reader but that still has such rich themes and gorgeous writing. I’d feel confident putting this one in the hands of a child who is more reluctant as well as an avid reader. It will prompt thinking and discussion about the issues connected to humans’ use of animals for profit, but also inter-species understanding, and compassion. The gentle sweetness of Patricia Castelao’s spot illustrations enhance the reading experience. Can you say perfect read aloud? Teachers everywhere, take note. You want this one.

Here’s a Q&A with Katherine Applegate, and you should take a look at the website for the book where there’s some extra information for curious readers and for teachers to bring into the classroom.

The One and Only Ivan is published by Harper, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

Viriginia Wolf

A great picture book often leads me to a more intense emotional response than a great novel. I’m sure the illustrations have something to do with it, and the fact that you can take it all in in one sitting. At the same time, a great picture book is only the beginning of my response as a reader. It’s not like I read the last page and close it up and I’m finished. The story and the images slip into my head and change how I think and see the world. Of course, you don’t come across this kind of book every day, but when you do, you recognize it right away. Virginia Wolf, by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, is one of those rare books.

You have to wonder how Maclear came up with the idea to explore what a moment of Virginia Woolf’s childhood might have looked like in a picture book. If I were an editor, I’d probably have been raising my eyebrows on hearing the concept. It’s an original and unusual idea and it doesn’t sound like it could have much kid appeal, but the result is a story that can be appreciated without the reader having any awareness of the allusions throughout to Woolf’s life. It presents two sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, and what happens when one day, Virginia wakes up “feeling wolfish.” Virginia descends into a dark place, where everything is wrong and nothing seems to help. But it is her sister’s love, perseverance, and creativity that helps Virginia to find her way back to seeing beauty again. I am in love with the trailer. It’s perfect:

 

Now that is one stylish trailer.

Arsenault’s illustrations are wonderful. The way that they move from being muted and washed out at the beginning, when Vanessa is trying to understand her sister’s state, to almost completely black and white as Virginia becomes more and more wolfish, to the wild burst of colour at the end, shows a perfect understanding of the emotional rhythm of the text. There’s an article on Arsenault in Issue 14 of Uppercase Magazine which I enjoyed reading and you might want to check out.

Virginia Wolf reminds me in its themes and its strangeness, and in its emotional force, of Shaun Tan’s sad but beautifully uplifting picture book, The Red Tree. Like Tan’s book, Virginia Wolf is fantastical and a little unsettling and sad and sweet all at once, which I suppose makes sense since it’s partly an exploration of what depression looks like through a child’s eyes. It’s the sort of reading experience that pulls you away from everything around you. It convinces me that Maclear and Arsenault are a brilliant creative partnership. You finish this book with the feeling that you’ve read something different. Deeply captivating, Virginia Wolf is a unique work of art.

Virginia Wolf is published by Kids Can Press.

Junonia

Kevin Henkes’ Junonia has been on my list for ages, and when my eye chanced upon it at the bookstore last week it felt like fate. Right now, at the end of a turning point summer in our house, might be the perfect moment to read it. Before I get to the story, I have to mention that as an object, this is such a pretty book. You just want to hold it and gaze at it. It has weight, the right paper, a striking cover, simple and evocative illustrations to open each chapter. It’s just an elegant package. It begs to be adorned with a shimmery ribbon and placed in the hands of a turning-ten birthday girl.

Junonia opens as only child, Alice Rice, returns to the beach cottage where she and her parents have always spent her birthday. This is an important year because she will be turning double digits: 10. She wants everything – the beach, her party, the whole summer – to be perfect. But when special friends don’t return, and her Aunt Kate brings along a new boyfriend and his difficult daughter Mallory, it seems that nothing is going to be right, let alone perfect. Woven into this is Alice’s wish to find a rare junonia shell for her collection. For the first time, she feels disappointment creeping into her beloved beach vacation.

This is a quintessential “summer that everything changed” middle grade novel, but it is graceful and remarkable because it is so understated. Henkes conveys Alice’s emotions with beautiful subtlety and truth. There are lovely poetic details throughout, particularly in his descriptions of the natural world. Kids will certainly appreciate and connect with Alice’s devotion to tradition and her disappointment and difficulty when what she loves and expects becomes something new. This is a book about simple pleasures and feeling safe and loved in your family, no matter how small it might be.

Junonia is a delicate work of art, and, like its namesake, it leaves you feeling lucky to have found it.

Junonia is published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

What to do if an Elephant Stands on Your Foot

Here are two things I discovered about picture books through Year 1 as an elementary school Teacher Librarian: a good joke never stops being funny, and don’t underestimate the power of a well-timed page turn.

These truths convince me that What to do if an Elephant Stands on Your Foot, by debut picture book author, Michelle Robinson, is sure to be a hit with the small people when I head back to the library in a couple of weeks.

“If an elephant stands on your foot, keep calm. Panicking will only startle it.”

Good advice indeed. So opens this adorable book of wisdom for wannabe safari adventurers. I’ll bet you can imagine where it goes from there. The hapless main character just cannot seem to follow the narrator’s instructions in any situation, leading him to more and more dangerous encounters with various jungle creatures. Those wee folk, they love the repetitive structure. Same joke? Slightly different scenario? Bring it on. They’ll be laughing. Personally, I get a big kick out of reading this kind of story to a group because inevitably, the more they laugh, the more you’ll be laughing too, and it sure is a wonderful feeling to be enjoying a story so much together. There are plenty of opportunities for dramatic page turns throughout this one as the reader cannot wait to see if the main character will find a way to escape again. It reminds me a little of another great new picture book that I had the luck to see tested before it’s August release on a young audience in my school library, It’s a Tiger! by David LaRochelle with illustrations by my fav elf-y illustrator, Jeremy Tankard. (That title will be getting it’s fair share of love soon).

I like the sass in the narrator: “Honestly, you’re hopeless! If you’ve been noticed by a crocodile, don’t expect me to help you.” I’m sure kids will buy in to this too. That personality is echoed to perfection by Peter H. Reynolds’ spot-on delightful illustrations. The over-the-top reactions of the “hero” will crack kids up, and the facial expressions on all of the animals are pretty priceless. The colours really pop off the page, enhancing the energy of the narrative. Altogether, the whole package has a larger-than-life, exaggerated feeling that is pure fun from start to finish.

Sure to make September storytime a blast.

What to do if an Elephant Stands on Your Foot  is published by Dial Books for Young Readers.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette

I’d say that The Penderwicks might be the perfect fictional family to spend a little time with when the real world feels crappy and overwhelming. There’s something about Birdsall’s blend of sweet sisterly affection, family melodrama, gentle humour, and happy endings, that can make a girl feel hopeful again. Sure, some might say that these books stretch belief because they seem too good to be true, perhaps a little precious in places, but you know what, sometimes everyone needs a little too good to be true. Sign me up.

This third book in the series follows most of the Penderwick family as they head to Point Mouette for a summer vacation. Rosalind is visiting a friend in New Jersey, and Mr. Penderwick is off on his honeymoon, so Skye must take on the role of the Oldest Available Penderwick, much to her distress. In preparation, she makes a huge list of things to remember in order to take the best possible care of her littlest sister, Batty. Of course, this list gets destroyed, leaving Skye to struggle along and figure out how to be responsible by herself. All three of the sisters come into their own through their new experiences. Growing up is bumpy, but it’s all so much nicer when you have sisters you can depend on.

As with the past Penderwick stories, the adventures here are the kinds of adventures that real kids have, not very big, but seeming to be big to those involved. I like that aspect of Birdsall’s writing very much. She is incredibly successful at making what is important and exciting and challenging for kids come across as important and exciting enough to propel her plot forward and keep the reader invested. It’s also wonderful how this author succeeds in crafting each of the sisters as fully their own person, three-dimensional, with unique traits and voice without making any of them seem forced or hard to believe or over-written.

Yes, there is a pretty big coincidence at the heart of this story, but you know what, I’m okay with that, and I think that old and new Penderwick fans will be too. Ms. Birdsall writes with such grace, creating a wonderfully classic world in these books, that somehow I think I could believe in just about anything she put on the page.

Perfect for wrapping you up in warmth when life gets tough, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette will make you feel good about life, the universe, and everything.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette is published by Knopf.

 

Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey

Whether you’re making it to the beach this summer, or you’re just dreaming about sand and surf, Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey will help you remember why there’s nothing like a day spent at the shore.

There are a few new characters in this offering: Granny’s excitable dog Truffles, a little girl and her own loyal hound Fluffy, and the Dollies, who look super cute dressed to match the Raspberry Ripple ice cream they share with Traction Man. As always, it’s the little adventures turned BIG that make this duo hilarious, such as when they explore “the secret crevices of the Rockpool” and lead the charge during “Operation Picnic.”

The level of detail in many of the illustrations is a big part of what makes this book (and the other Traction Man adventures) so much fun. You could spend a good twenty minutes reading the endpapers alone, as Grey introduces one of the Dollies, Beach Time Brenda, to the reader through an advertisement at the beginning and a mini-comic at the end. I love the humour. Brenda is “fully accessorized with lots and lots of stuff” and she comes with “teen tottery microshoes,” “sundowner cocktails and snacks,” and a “small plastic barbecue.” Ah Mini Grey, I get you. I really do.

The Traction Man books are all about being over the top with melodramatic adventure and dialogue that is often silly and exaggerated and therefore perfect for an action figure hero. But the best part of this whole delightful package is, I think, the way that the books celebrate good clean, honest play, the old-fashioned kind where kids are given space and a few great toys to create something themselves, a story, an adventure, and memories.

It’ll make you feel ready for anything, most certainly for more Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush.

Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey is published by Alfred A. Knopf.

A hound, and a short mid-summer reading review…

You know how sometimes life chases what is really good and close to perfect with something that is terrible and close to the worst? That’s what it has sent my way the past couple of weeks. I had a beautiful trip up North. It was exactly everything I’d been looking forward to. Sadly, it was this little guy pictured above who brought me smashing back to reality with an awful scare. Serious sickness, major surgery, and a lotta bad news later and we are looking at a big fight up ahead.

I don’t know about you, but he sure looks like a fighter to me, yes? (That’s the tail caught mid-wag in the background).

So, deep breath, we are aiming for bravery around here, and with that spirit in mind, I thought I’d try sharing two little mini reviews of some of the books read so far this summer.

Bitterblue

Absolutely stunning, and a worthy companion to Graceling. This is the story of a young Queen who is faced with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding the kingdom that was shattered by her father’s evil reign. Not sure who she can trust and what is true, she tries to look ahead and make right what she can. You will love Cashore’s rich language and powerful imagery, but most of all, it’s the characters who will get into your head. I think that this book has more thematic complexity than Graceling, as it makes readers think about the cost of truth, the different faces of bravery, and whether or not it is possible to heal after devastating cruelty. Wonderful.

Wonder Show

If you like circus stories, and you like writing that makes you picture the characters and places in your mind the whole way through, then this book is going to be a treat for you. It’s the tale of Portia, who runs away from the Home for Wayward Girls and the awful Mister who runs it. Where better to run than a traveling sideshow? Portia is also looking for her father, who she thinks may have a connection to the circus. As with most coming of age stories, Portia finds something more and something different than what she expected. This book is very finely crafted, with a world that will sweep you in, and impressive creativity. It made me want to read everything else Hannah Barnaby writes.

Here’s hoping the end of the summer means some good healing for the hound, and some more stories worth remembering.