Category Archives: Reviewing

Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

I love words and I love art that plays with words. ABC books, abecedarian novels, lipograms, everything and anything that plays with the art of words is art right up my alley. And so having adored Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s glorious Caldecott Honor A River of Words, I was agog with anticipation waiting for their latest, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus.  And now that I’ve seen it, let me tell you — it was worth the wait.  Bryant again captures the essence of a complicated individual in spare and beautifully crafted text. Having now written a book about a real person myself, I’m all the more in awe of anyone who takes on a full biography for children, managing to economically pull out just what is needed about that person’s life for young readers to best appreciate his accomplishments. Roget was clearly one brilliant man who loved all sorts of things, words among them. Bryan elegantly presents Roget’s lifelong passion for word lists as well as much more. She communicates beautifully just why such lists are so worthwhile by having Roget answer his mother’s questions with a single word and then mull over what better ones there might be. She suggests the darker parts of his life, but mostly she shows readers a person who was a passionate learner, passionate creator of word lists, and someone who figured out how to put those passions together to create a unique and wonderful book, the thesaurus.

Words, words, letters and numbers and then more words float through this book. In the text, through the perfect design and, most wonderfully, through Melissa Sweet’s art. These marks of language are everywhere in this book, those of Roget’s lists dance across one page, march down another, and flit throughout in magical ways.  On every page, Sweet’s assemblages of paintings and collage are an exuberant delight; the realistic paintings celebrating different parts of Roget’s life are often layered one above another; here’s one with an elegant file folder border; there’s another with paper scraps of lists peeking out behind it. Page after page words drift through, around and in the paintings via speech bubbles, book covers, cards, signs, maps, labels, diagrams, and more. Color and texture are used to brilliant effect, at times repeating within and without an illustration. Most of all it is Sweet’s playful use of language through her lovely realistic watercolors of Roget and his experiences, her glorious assemblages of meaning, that bring Bryan’s words, Roget’s life, and this book to an ethereal place of pleasure.

All in all, The Right Word is a

spectacular

brilliant

marvelous

superb

magnificent

dazzling

work of art.

 

 

 

 

 

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Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Madman of Piney Woods

I was on the 2008 Newbery Committee that honored Christopher Paul Curtis’s Elijah of Buxton so I was both eager and nervous to read its companion, The Madman of Piney Woods.  Eager because I so admired the first book, and nervous because you just never know. Happily, I was delighted with the book and those at the Horn Book  Magazine where I reviewed it agreed with me, starring it. I concluded my review (which you can read here) thus: “Woven throughout this profoundly moving yet also at times very funny novel are themes of family, friendship, community, compassion, and, fittingly, the power of words.”

 

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Barry Jonsberg’s The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee

Barry Jonsberg’s The Categorical Universe of Candice Pheean Australian import, is one fabulous book.  I’d had the ARC for quite a while, but it took Betsy Bird’s rave review to finally get me to read it and I’m so glad I did. Twelve-year-old Candice is one of those delightful singular narrators — she is definitely different, but not in a way that can be nicely and conveniently categorized.  Classmates term her SN for special needs, but there is no sense that she is being provided any special support at all. She tells her story clearly, without discomfort, with thought, and with delightful humor. Her family is struggling emotionally for many good reasons, but Candice is keeping going even as her parents are barely able to do so. Candice knows herself, she knows she is different, and is completely comfortable with that. Occasionally there is a tinge of Pollyanna in her, say when she is paired for a school project with the classmate who seems to hate her most. Candice both knows Jen detests her and thinks that they will be great friends because of the project. Does the latter prevail? Sort of and sort of not. Read the book to see.

Jonsberg’s writing is a dream. He has structured the book as a school assignment Candice is given — to write an abecedarian  autobiography — one paragraph for each letter. Our girl takes it and runs with it, letting us know at the beginning that she is tossing the one paragraph rule, giving each letter a full chapter instead.  She loves the dictionary and Dickens and it shows. Hers (or rather Jonsberg’s) ability to write a scene is just delightful. I dare you not to be moved by those with her parents. Or intrigued by those with Douglas Benson from Another Dimension. Then there are those passages where Candice ruminates, say about trying to get her fish to become an atheist. Or about the death of her baby sister. Or about her Rich Uncle Brian. I’m a teacher so I have to say I adored Candice’s, Miss Bamford.  She just appreciates Candice and I appreciate her, pirate attire and all. (Read the book to see what that is all about.)

So go find and read this book — it is terrific.

Coda: The SLJ reviewer wrote,  “This is a strong readalike for Counting by 7s (Dial, 2013) and Out of My Mind(S. & S., 2010.”  I have to say this makes me very uncomfortable as it suggests there is a category of books of different, so identified because of unusual personality or severe physical differences. The girls in each of these books are each such distinctive individuals, their situations are not the same, and the writing is not the same.  The idea that young readers would read all three for the same reason disturbs me — it suggests they are looking for books about kids who are not them, who are fascinated by their differences. Sure they will admire these three girls, but why throw them together this way?

 

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Jennifer L. Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish

Who doesn’t enjoy a well-drawn curmudgeon? Children’s books are rife with them. From dour Eeyore moping about the Hundred Acre Wood to the irritable Mary Poppins, they come in all shapes and species. Proudly singular, such cantankerous characters are invariably exasperating, endearing and entertaining all at the same time. And now along comes Jennifer L. Holm with a doozy. Best known for her works of historical fiction, three of which have won Newbery Honors (“Our Only May Amelia,” “Penny From Heaven,” “Turtle in Paradise”), and the graphic novel series “Babymouse,” Holm uses a surprising twist to bring us a particularly memorable grouch in her latest, “The Fourteenth Goldfish.”

That’s the beginning of my very enthusiastic review of The Fourteenth Goldfish in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review.  Read the rest of it here.

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Coming Soon: Katherine Coville’s The Cottage in the Woods

I love fairy tale reworkings. At the same time their popularity of late has resulted in a lot of mediocrity and so when I come across something new I’m both excited and wary. Is it going to be a goofy-movie-Shrek-imitating-like thing or more in the vein of Michael Buckley’s Fairy Tale DetectivesChristopher Healy’s Hero’s Guides, or Adam Gidwitz’s Grimm series?  And if YA dark is it going to be a lame bodice-ripper or something with heft, like Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away? And so seeing a  description of Katherine Coville’s debut novel The Cottage in the Woods on Edelweiss,  I requested it on a whim and began reading it with very low expectations.  And so what a lovely surprise when it turned out to be completely engrossing, a book I read steadily until I was done. In other words, reader, I liked it very much.

The story is a unique melding of a Regency Romance/Victorian Gothic set within a fairy tale world. Our heroine and narrator is Ursula Brown, a very proper young bear who has come to the Cottage in the Woods, the wealthy Vaughn family’s estate near Bremen Town, as their young cub’s governess. The three Vaughn bears live an elegant and refined life and Ursula slips into it without much difficulty, tolerating Mr. Vaughn’s stern admonitions, appreciating Mrs. Vaughn’s kind gestures, and falling very much in love with her sweet young charge, Teddy.  But life in the area is not easy. The Enchanted — those animals who talk, dress, and act as humans do — are struggling with envy, prejudice, racial hostility, and out-and-out vigilantism from some of their human neighbors.

The publisher indicates that this is a reworking of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” It is indeed, but I don’t wish to give away just how. I will say that I found it an enormously clever rethinking of that particular story, very much in keeping with the literary tradition Coville is working in, that of the Victorian novel.  I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of them these days and so I was very impressed with how well Coville used those tropes in her story. Ursula is very introspective, the various Enchanteds in her world are as proper and polite as anyone in an Austen, Bronte, Eliot, or Trollope novel. There is plenty of drama here, but not the swashbuckling sort of some of the other fairy tale workings. And while somber on occasion it isn’t as dark as some of the YA ones around.

There are so many clever fairy tale/nursery rhyme touches that also allude to the Victorian novel tradtion. For instance, Teddy’s nurse is an illiterate tippling badger who is quite jealous of our heroine and an amusing contrast to the cozy cute ones of Potter and others. Best of all is the Goldilock’s plot thread — it is a brilliant rethinking of the story within a classic Victorian Gothic setting.  And I love the representation of the doctor who comes to examine her at one point with his Freud-like Viennese accent.

So keep an eye out for this one. I can’t wait to see what others make of it.

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José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro’s Migrant

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The recent attention being paid to the many young undocumented immigrants coming across our country’s southern border brings to mind the remarkable book, Migrant by  José Manuel Mateo’s and illustrated by Javier Martínez Pedro. This story of one young boy’s difficult migration from Mexico to the United States is one spectacular book. Beginning in a rural village, readers learn why the young boy’s mother makes the difficult decision to leave. Their father has already left and, when he stops sending money and she cannot find work locally, she decides to leave with her two children, the narrator and his sister. The rest of the story is of their hard and frightening journey as they make way to Los Angeles. What really makes the book stand-out is that the poignant words are illustrated by one huge piece of art. Inspired by the codices the early people of Mexico and Central America, the intricate black and white art is viewed in an accordion format, something you fold it out as you read the story of the family’s journey. You can get a sense of this and the art itself at Jules’ featured post about it here.  Highly, highly recommended.

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Jude Watson’s Loot

I love me a good caper story. Lighter, smarter, funnier, and a lot less gory than many other sorts of crime fiction, done well, they are great fun to read.  And when a heist is involved, ideally in some exotic locale, all the better.  I’m not an expert by any means, but my favorite of these sorts of stories involve some sort of initiating event and then a super cool and super smart individual assembling and leading a motley crew to steal something from someone who doesn’t deserve to have it in the first place. Say the movies, “How to Steal a Million” or “Ocean’s Eleven.”  Now along comes Jude Watson‘s Loot: How to Steal a Fortune. Her name may not be terribly familiar to you, but what she’s written probably is, say a bunch of the 39 Clues books and many (many) Star War titles. But what caused me to snap up and read this title was when I learned that Jude Watson happens to also be Judy Blundell who wrote the fabulous National Book Award winner What I Saw and How I Lied.

It starts out darkly with a job gone very, very wrong. We meet almost-thirteen-year-old March McQuinn, who has spent his whole life traveling around with his father, helping him with his cons and heists, mostly homeschooled in a desultory way. Now Alfie McQuinn has fallen off an Amsterdam roof and March is  sitting next to him listening to his dying words, “Find jewels.” The moonstones, the grieving March assumes, seven otherworldly gems that are the central objects of desire in this novel. But it turns out that his father means something else entirely. It seems March has a twin sister named Jules from whom he has been separated his whole life. She, like March, has had an unconventional upbringing and is equally  savvy in  the murky world of con artists and thieves. The two soon meet and end up in a dreary American foster home. There they join forces with two other smart young people and head off to solve the mystery of their father’s death, get those moonstones, and do a whole lot more that is far too complicated to describe in brief, not to mention potentially spoiling if I do. What I can say is that it is loads of fun.

As in the best caper and heist stories, this one is full of snappy dialog, razor-sharp sentences, and clever plotting. The baddies are deliciously nasty and deserve what they get, the kids are endearing, and all in all it is a great edge-of-your seat read.

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