John Stanley’s comic, Melvin Monster is about a little monster who does good things, which makes him a hugely annoying person in the monster world, where you’re supposed to do bad things. His parents are called Mummy (a mummy) and Baddy (a frankensteinian monster) and they have an alligator in the house that is constantly trying to eat Melvin. They’re fun comics (and John Stanley is the guy who created Little Lulu if you need an idea of the art style) that should still mostly work for kids today, especially ones with a good grounding in classic Warner Brothers cartoons.
Judith Viorst’s book Lulu and the Brontosaurus (illustrated by Lane Smith) is a short chapterbook that feels like a long picturebook, but with more narratorial digressions. I liked it.
Lulu is an obnoxious whiny kid who wants a brontosaurus for her birthday and when she doesn’t get one she goes off into the forest, being a jerk to all the dangerous animals she meets. When she finds the brontosaurus and tries to make it her pet, the brontosaurus makes her a pet. Then she escapes and is much nicer to all the terrible animals, but it doesn’t solve all her problems.
What I especially liked were the metafictional elements Viorst adds in, including an explanation that yes, these days it’s called an apatosaurus but this is her story and she’ll tell it the way she wants. There are also three different endings to the story. The narrator has an impact in the way the story is done and it feels very much like a told story, not a text (much like A Tale Dark and Grimm).
Sardine in Outer Space is a science fictional story written by Emmanuel Guibert and drawn by Joann Sfar that’s much more goofball than y’know, serious speculation, but is also a tonne of fun. Sardine is a little girl who travels around in space with her pirate uncle Captain Yellowshoulder as they fight the terrible villain Supermuscleman in a collection of short episodes.
There’s lots of travel to one-note worlds where they deal with aliens and the stakes are always very high, loads of traps and clever escapes. It’s exactly the kind of thing I wished I’d had to read as a kid, like Spaceman Spiff adventures, but packed into a book. It’s translated from the French by Sahsa Watson but feels very natural in its voice.
Joann Sfar is of course responsible for the grownup comic The Rabbi’s Cat, but also for the kids comics Little Vampire and Dungeon which I also recommend. Sardine is much more madcap and targeting younger readers than the Dungeon series.
Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog is a novel in verse about a kid and being a poet. The poems are very short, and are often responses to poems written in class. The narrator is astute when he talks about poems only being poems if they look like poems and maybe this whole criticism thing is kind of silly, don’t you think? The book is good and has some good emotion to it. It also includes (excerpts from) the poems some of these are in response to. A good little book.
My friend Jamie did a paper on the different versions of this Chinese folk tale sometimes called Five Chinese Brothers, in which these identical brothers have superpowers that help them survive a town that’s bent on killing them. Seven Sons is an adaptation of the story set in the American old west in a California gold mining town.
In this version the seven brothers (who are nameless) live outside town with their mother and most people in town think there’s only one of them. When a couple of kids end up dead even though a brother tries to save them a mob forms and tries to take revenge, but their powers and that of their mother interfere.
Framing all of this is a story of a graffiti artist who escaped into a shop and is old this version of the story as “the real one.” And then the afterword goes into a nice explanation of the different versions of the folk tale. It’s all very layered and I was really impressed with the story. The art is this roughly inked style that feels like it could have come out of that time, but done with calligraphy brushes. I quite enjoyed it, especially with the priming of hearing about Jamie’s work doing this research.
John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a strange little book. It’s about Bruno, a very naive 9-year-old boy from Berlin whose father is a Nazi commandant transferred to Auschwitz.
Bruno, being nine, thinks life on the other side of the fence from his house must be gobs of fun, what with the pajamas they get to wear. He meets a boy on the other side of the fence and they strike up a friendship, in which Bruno displays his ignorance and privilege. It’s not a terribly realistic story and belongs in the zone of fairy tale, but set in our own monstrous history. Nothing really sounded very German, but did sound very much the way a British person would portray a naive little German boy. It’s like Bruno was Pooh, stuck very far from the Hundred-Acre Wood. I liked it, but if you want a more in-depth German kids in WW2 story read The Book Thief.
I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen because Neil Gaiman talked about what an influential writer of fantasy Alan Garner was. While it does feel influenced by Lewis and Tolkien (with its very English kids off visiting the romanticized countryside), it’s much better than most knockoffs. It’s written for children and thus does focus more on a clear plotline than on character development, but man, does it do a great job of it.
Garner describes terrifying creatures and situations so well. Hell, he describes everything so well. The story moves surprisingly quickly, eschewing faux mystery for having the kids do more stuff. There’s an underground chase scene that has hard choices foisted on them at every turn and they don’t do everything exactly perfectly and it hurts them. A lot of the story is about hiding from bird spies for three days trying to meet up with the wizard to return the stone to him, and getting rejuvenation from elves, which yes, is very Tolkieny, but the language he uses never feels like an academic writing it (though if you hate made-up words, or words from old European languages that sound made-up you will hate this book).
There are more books in the series, but the book does have an ending (though it’s a touch abrupt). This is the kind of thing I’d been hoping The City of Ember would be (and wasn’t). It is vastly superior to most traditional fantasy tales. I really liked it.
I’d known the storyline of Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember from my time working in the children’s department, but I hadn’t read it till now. There’s a lot less to it than I imagined.
Lina and Doon are twelve, so they’re assigned jobs in their underground city called Ember, which is all the world anyone knows exists. Lina gets to be a messenger and Doon is working in the Pipeworks. The thing is that the city is undergoing a crisis: they’re running out of supplies and things are breaking down more and more. Doon wants to save the city by figuring out how to fix the generator. Lina keeps dreaming of another city out beyond the darkness. The story follows these two kids dealing with the growing crisis that no one else seems to be handling.
It’s a simple story with much less urgency than you would think. There’s a chewed up message the kids are trying to interpret so they can be the saviours of everyone, but it’s more difficult than they’d first thought. There’s a none-too-subtle environmental message to the story, and kids rebelling against terrible authority, which is always fun. Good book with an easy straight-forward storyline. There are (necessary) sequels.
I read Cyclist BikeList: The Book for Every Rider in the last session of our Survey of Children’s Literature class. We were talking about informational books.
This book is aimed at middle school kids who are getting into cycling. It’s got a bit about the history of bicycles, and some stuff on how bikes work, which really informs the meat of the book, how to choose a bike. It’s got breakdowns of the differences between Road, Mountain, BMX and Hybrid bikes in terms of tires, frames, the reasons you’d get which. It also has a section on picking a bike shop and the kind of equipment and food that’s good for cycling. I loved the safety section which included the advice to yell and ring your bell at people who turn right in front of you as you’re riding on the street. “They are breaking the law!” the book exclaims. “You are in the right place! Don’t let them intimidate you”
The book was illustrated by Ramon Perez, who was at Emerald City Comicon and my friend got a sketch from. He’s an Eisner nominated comics guy and the illustrations in the book are very contemporary looking. There are also a few photos for things like the parts of a bike.
The book was very good, and I’d definitely recommend it. It’s not targeted at a YA audience, and is more cool for a twelve-year-old than something a fifteen-year-old would want to read. It’s also a bit mroe focused on long-distance biking as recreation than short urban rides, but whatever.
Susin Nielsen’s Word Nerd is about a twelve-year-old kid named Ambrose whose mom is way overprotective. He makes friends with Cosmo, his landlord’s adult (and ex-con) son through Scrabble. It’s set in Vancouver (Kitsilano to be precise), and from the name-dropping of places they go, I feel confident I could find the block Ambrose would have lived on. There’s a peanut-allergy aspect to the character (he almost dies early on from jerks putting a peanut in his sandwich) but it feels like more of a justification for his mom to be overprotective. There’s also some talk of drugs and Ambrose stops Cosmo from slipping back into junkiedom.
Ambrose’s mom was very controlling and the book does try to get at why, but in a kid-focused kind of way. If I met Ambrose and wasn’t inside his head for the book, I’d find him an annoying twerp, much like Cosmo does at first, but he gets some of his obnoxiousness toned down as it goes. He helps Cosmo, Cosmo helps him, and they have to keep it secret from his mom.
It was a good kids book, maybe okay for the younger side of YA.