Monday, January 30, 2012

Waiting for the Magic, by Patricia MacLachlan

     I am afraid – and it pains me to say it – this book just doesn't feel like MacLachlan. Maybe she's been moving in this direction and I just didn't know it...the most recent book I've read by her was Baby, published 19 years ago. But Baby, Journey, and the Sarah, Plain and Tall series all had something this book didn't. They each contained a story that dealt with loss, pain, and how people who share in mourning or rejoicing relate to each other. The older books do it in a way that does not talk down to kids, which is something I've always admired. And also, there are no machinations or devices to carry the plot along – the move on their own, carried by the spare writing and the heavy, but not heavily exposed, emotion.
     But in Waiting for the Magic...of all things...talking dogs! Not just dogs that look smart, or behave as though they had something to say. Talking dogs! And they were totally unnecessary. Will and Elinor's dad would still have come home and buckled down and been a responsible father and husband without the aid of four mismatched hounds sending thought waves to everyone in the family. The characters were good, true to original MacLachlan form, original and believable and dimensional. The four-year-old is bright but goofy, and the ten-year-old is reserved and reluctant to believe and to forgive. The parents are less interesting and immature – not, I suppose, atypical of real life.
     And then, did I mention this? There are four talking dogs. These dogs bring magic into the home and set the world to rights, and destroy the story. It might be good for a family to have a dog, it could bring a sort of common ground to people who are distraught, and serve to bring together children and parents in caring for this animal. But under no circumstances can a dog tell a person what color coat it wants, whether your mom is going to have a baby, and how to get your dad to straighten up and fly right. Dogs are not counsellors. They are not little furry angels doling out advice. They do not have some higher understanding that their owners are incapable of achieving without their assistance. They are just plain ol' dogs.
     What I enjoyed so much about MacLachlans' earlier works was the strength and resilience of the human spirit in her characters. They encountered great trials, and they overcame. They worked through things on their own, or with other characters, to get through the hard times and start enjoying the good times again. They had dignity and strength and worked hard and were able to make changes. Waiting for the Magic has very little in common with those books, and it's an unfortunate thing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz

"They call me Faithful Johannes because I have devoted my life to the Kings of Grimm. To helping them. To advising them. To under-standing them."
“Understanding them?” the young king asked.
“No, under-standing them. In the ancient sense of the word. Standing beneath them. Supporting them. Bearing their troubles and pains on my shoulders.”

Ah, yes. The Brothers Grimm. Some of my first, and favorite reading material. At the tender tiny age of six or seven I first began greedily reading the blood-filled books by the German fairy tale writers. I think my predilection for sad endings originates from the Grimm tales, where though some people live happily, there is still a larger ratio of unhappy denouements.
I perfectly understand the need for cleaned up versions of these stories, bedtime material for the less callous bookworms and reading encouragement for the small generations with less stomach – or perhaps it's just to assuage the fears of protective parents who fear their little darlings will grow up into murderers after being exposed to Cinderella's stepmother's gruesome end. I understand – and even under-stand, to a degree – the place that such unsullied stories hold.
But give me the gritty, unapologetic horrors of the original Grimm's tales.
A Tale Dark and Grimm does just that. Even before the first chapter is underway, the author warns that all the little children who shouldn't hear scary stories should now exit the room. Big kids, read on...this is what fairy tales used to be like. Fairy tales used to be awesome. Using six of Grimm's less-well-known stories, and interweaving them all with the same characters (twins Hansel and Gretel's troubles didn't stop with their murder of the Gingerbread Witch), Gidwitz presents a new audience with the darkest and grisliest of the Grimm tales. Frequently making interjections, the narrator reminds me of Lemony Snicket's mournful supplications to the reader to turn back, stop reading, this is too sad, too awful for you to bear. For a child with a shred of curiosity, this just urges them on to discover what could be so terrible.
The book crumbles a little in the final three chapters. I don't recognize the plot devices as anything from the brothers Grimm, though it may be drawn from them, and it gets a little weird when the kids who until now have been very clever and resourceful, pull together a very shabby plan to kill a dragon who is terrorizing the land. It ends with a happy family who have realized that though they may not always understand each other, they should always under-stand each other.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

People by Blexbolex

      The works of French comic artist and illustrator Blexbolex took a while to catch on, and his first creations were self-published. But in 2009, Blexbolex received a prize for “Best Book Design of the World” for his L'Imagier des gens (2008) at the Book Fair of Leipzig.
     People is not just a simple picture book. About 200 pages long, each page sports a simple, stylized portrait of various kinds of people, identifying each in bold blue letters – some of my favorites being Farmer, Explorer, Soloist, Hermit, Gypsy, and Sandwich-Board Man. The facing pages usually correspond somehow, as with Fisherman and Fishmonger, Movie Watcher and Movie Director, Corpse and Retiree. The colors are bright, the shapes are simple, and there is no story involved, but People is engaging and fun.
     I enjoyed every page and laughed over the subtle (or sometimes obvious) humor embedded in the pictures. Everyone is a sunburned shade of bright orangeish-pink, the Mermaid and the Nudist aren't wearing enough clothes, and there aren't any Librarians, Airplane Pilots, Archeologists, or Crazy Cat Ladies, but I thoroughly enjoyed People and wouldn't mind adding it to my groaning shelves if I ever happened upon a copy.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Rapunzel's Revenge

By Shannon and Dean Hale, Illustrated by Nathan Hale (Shannon and Dean are married - Nathan is no relation. So they say.)
First reading, I liked it. I enjoy a good fairy tale any time, whether in its most traditional form or wildly adapted, as long as it holds the story.
...As long as it holds the story. See, Revenge didn't do that. It began promisingly, with a little girl and her weird mother, (who, curiously enough, don't look anything alike), living behind a huge unscaleable stone wall. Beyond the wall is a wild-west landscape filled with thieves, outlaws, ranches and dusty towns. Red-headed and curious, Rapunzel escapes over the wall at the age of twelve, and in the brief few moments she is in the outside world, she discovers her 'mother' is a witch named Gothel, this witch rules the land with terrible tyranny through her magical vegitation production powers, Rapunzel was kidnapped as a tiny child when her real parents stole lettuces from Gothel, and Rapunzel's real mother works jut beyond the wall in Gothel's mines. What a miracle, finding her mother just like that and discovering everything she did! Gothel removes Rapunzel posthaste to a magic tree tower for a four-year time out to think about what she has done and how naughty she was to be defiant. Meanwhile, Rapunzel grows up and her hair grows yards and yards. Cue the prince, right?
Wrong. Rapunzel escapes (much like in the new Disney version, Tangled.) Then she meets the theiving rascal, Jack, who totes around his pet goose (who refuses to lay a single egg) and a special bean in his pocket. The two set out together to restore peace and order and growing things to the land and defeat Gothel. Through the rest of the story, Rapunzel is the hero, the one who rescues, the one who saves the day. Of course, she and Jack fall in love and everything ends up peachy.
This all reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend a long time ago about the movie Enchanted. She had the same problems with that movie as I have with this book. The fairy tale was corrupted, mostly by feminism - girls saving princes, cynisism overriding chivalry. Not that girls shouldn't be able to escape from wacky tree fort prisons, but this kind of fiction is not supposed to work that way. My friend was right when she objected to the way the classic fairy tale themes were turned upside down to market towards today's audiences. In Rapunzels' Revenge, wrong is still overcome by right, but right has taken on a new form. It doesn't fit the old fairytale standards anymore. Jacob and Wilhelm most likely are turning in their graves.
The graphic novel format of the book was its best quality. Oddly, it bears a lot of parallels to the movie Tangled (which I don't care to go into here.) It was published three years before the movie came out. There is a sequel, Calamity Jack.
Incidentally, Enchanted is and remains one of my favorite movies...for other reasons.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix

It's simply written, it's short, it's engaging, and it is good. I'm going to read the rest of the series.
Among the Hidden is set in a future, totalitarian America, where famines and draughts have led to strict government surveillance and the Population Law, restricting families to having only two children. But then there's Luke – his parents' third child. He's had to remain hidden his entire life, and no one besides his mother, father, and two brothers know he exists. The year Luke is twelve, the woods surrounding the family's farm is cut down for housing and the family that moves in next door also has a secret, hidden, third child. Luke escapes one day from his attic and meets Jen, and she introduces him to her secret world of higher class privileges, illegal potato chips, government propaganda, and an internet chat room she created for hidden children. Jen is fiercely dedicated to bringing justice and freedom to the hidden, and tries to convince Luke to go with her to a rally, a children's crusade against the Population Law.
Luke stays behind.
Jen is killed.
In the end, Jen's father helps him escape with a donated ID. (It works the same as an organ donation.)
There were two things I particularly appreciated in the book, and first was its pro-life stand. It presents a world where not only is it legal to dispose of unwanted children, it is required, and it is the government who makes that call. Luke, Jen, and the other hidden children are the primary characters, the ones we want to live and succeed, the ones we care about. Life is a word they frequently use and something they long to have. Second, the book encourages action. When Luke's fear keeps him from joining Jen's rally, he says, “Isn't there another choice?” Jen replies,
“Another choice. Another choice.” she paced, then jerked back to face Luke. “Sure. You can be a coward and hope someone else changes the world for you.”

Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

I should have known immediately from the rave reviews given by Booklist and ALA and School Library Journal that this book would be no good. But, I read it anyway, and learned the hard way – the book was no good. The writing style was, perhaps, a little better than a lot of the YA material out there, and there were some funny moments. Not laugh out loud funny, but smirk a little bit and then yawn funny. There was language, crudity, and some seriously creepy stuff – dead humans rebuilt into zombie warriors resembling Edward Scissorhands? A baby girl whose grandfather implanted a device into her brain that contained all his own experience and knowledge? A group of humans called Skinners who do just that – flay the skins off of their humanoid, slightly mutated enemies and fly them like banners throughout a future London? Really?
Finally, the book lacked any resolution. We follow Fever (the title character) as she leaves the place she was raised among emotionless scientists, learns about her mysterious background and begins experiencing strange memories (which we later discover belonged to her nonhuman grandfather), then finally learns who her parents were. And then there's an attack on London. And then the mayor of London and the attack leader have a fistfight. And then Fever's brain implant gets zapped and she stops having someone else's memories. And then she gets in a boat and leaves. And then she philosophically wonders who she really is and who she wants to be. The end.
I think the book was trying to portray war and prejudice in a negative light. There certainly was enough of both in the book - humans tried to destroy the superhuman mutants, and then the superhuman mutants retaliated and brought war against the humans. But that message was haphazard at best, unresolved, and so buried under the author's overimagined future world that it was obscured.

I didn't like it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dying to Meet You, by Kate and M. Sarah Klise

      I liked this book. It had a sweet old lady ghost in it. An old house with 32 ½ rooms. A selfish writer of children's books who didn't like children. A kid whose best friend is a ghost, and whose parents abandoned him and went on a lecture tour in Europe, set on proving ghosts don't exist. It's a delightful blend of amusing, grim, and silly. Being presented entirely through written correspondences between several characters and a few newspaper clippings, Dying has enough visual stimulation to attract distracted readers (it's rated for 3rd or 4th grade levels.) The mean old guy learns to love again, the kid gets a new sort of family, and the ghost receives recognition and acceptance.
     Also, the author and illustrator are sisters. Their website states that their mother read them to sleep every night, their father was a writer, and they started writing and illustrating together before their teens. They loved E. B. White, The Phantom Tollbooth, Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl, and Garth Williams. I heartily approve. 
     I wouldn't be surprised if I found myself picking up some more of the Klise's books to enjoy. Who says grown-ups in their 20's can't read little kid books? Little kid books are brilliant. Well, the brilliant ones are, anyway. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Introduction - Plus, City of Ember

     Once upon a time there was a girl who read a lot of books and wrote down what she thought about them. And sometimes she read really really dumb books, books way below her reading level (or interest), because her brother's place of employment, which was a bookstore, was looking for suggestions of young adult or children's books that were popular and not complete trash. So the girl thought, what the heck, all this reading, all this writing, all this world wide web, let's mash it together. So she did. That's all you get for explanation. Let's move along. 
The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau

     Wherein two youngsters aged 12 years who most 12-year-olds will have difficulty relating to improbably and unexpectedly find their way out of the city they live in. The boy, Doon, is intent on saving everyone from the inevitable darkness that will consume them when the city's generator dies and all the lights of Ember are forever extinguished. Lina isn't worried as much as Doon until she discovers the long-forgotten Instructions for Egress and realized they were meant all along to someday leave. The two children suddenly find themselves on the run from the authorities and are forced to escape using the Instructions, and after a float down the subterranean river, a climb towards the surface and a scramble through some tunnels, Surprise! The city you're from is underground, and there's a great big world up there!

      Charming enough. Written, I think, for a younger age than I was expecting. There is nothing to prevent a child of any age with an advanced enough reading level from enjoying this book. The only difficulty is that children do not like to be wiser than the book they are reading. It takes away the magic to discover mistakes, or see solutions to simple problems that the characters (thus, apparently, the author) have blindly missed. The book encourages good morals, however, and the children are not bratty or superior to their elders as is so often presented in children's books. I'd recommend it for precocious young readers.

Expect Nothing

     A friend of mine once said, as she was frosting Christmas cookies, "Keep your expectations low, and you'll never be disappointed." Well, I would not adopt that philosophy as applicable to all areas of life, but I have to say it's not a bad rule to follow in a general way. Take blogs, for instance. If I expect to become a blogging wonder, or if you expect to read many fascinating and informative posts, we both will soon be wanting our money back.
     The difficulty with the aforesaid phrase is that it can lead to a lack of effort or interest on the part of  those involved. I intend not to allow this negativity influence my writing, and I hope not to embarrass either the writer or reader with halfhearted babbling. And who knows? There's always the chance of being pleasantly surprised.