Category Archives: Review

Gilles Bachelet’s MRS. WHITE RABBIT

In case you don’t know me, I’m a Carrollian; that means, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are beloved books of mine. This blog is named after this obsession and the shrinking Alices in the banner are ones I drew long ago in my days as an aspiring illustrator. (More can be seen here.) I speak, write, do, and seek out all things Alice all the time. My current WiP is centered around the real story behind the fictional ones. And because of this obsession I’m always eager to see new interpretations of Carroll’s characters, setting, and words. Sadly, too many miss hugely (Tim Burton’s Alice films are the latest travesties), but some really capture Carroll’s wit in unique and original ways. Such a one is French book creator Gilles Bachelet in his delightful oversized picture book, Mrs. White Rabbit.  I picked up a copy of this several years ago in Germany and was over-the-top excited when publisher Anita Eerdmans told me that Eerdmans was bringing it out in the US.

The text is Mrs. White Rabbit’s tired, frustrated, teeth-clenched, and hilariously dry diary entries. These are wittily brought to life in illustrations large and small. There’s her oldest Beatrix who, after considering a wide variety of occupations, has decided she wants to be a supermodel and is spending all her time on the scale. A double page spread shows the worried mother’s 100 different recipes for carrots with the sad note: “nothing will do.” Alice makes an appearance (we see the poor woman vacuuming around her huge foot) and Mr. White Rabbit suggests hiring her as a babysitter. “Another one of his brilliant ideas? Who wants their children looked after by someone who doesn’t know how to stay a reasonable size?”

Poor, poor Mrs. White Rabbit whose husband is far too busy at the palace to help. She sadly writes : “My life is quite different from what I once dreamed about.  I would have loved to be a writer. To invent stories full of marvelous places and extraordinary characters. But how could I find inspiration in my dull everyday life?”  Of course, the illustrations show both the mundane and the marvelous.

This book is wonderful to look at — the illustrations are full of references to the original book as well as full of other wry tweaks playing off the text. There are great easter eggs through out; for example, I’m guessing the twins Gibert and George are a reference to the real-life artist pair. While those who know the original story will delight in this clever take, those who don’t will also enjoy the detail art and understandably grumpy view of this fairy tale rabbit spouse.

At the end, while Mr. White Rabbit rushes to fix things with his wife — the final image does not suggest he is successful. Perhaps in the sequel — Mrs. White Rabbit Runs Away?— we could see her having some of those fun adventures she dreamed of!

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Coming Soon: Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief

Elizabeth Wein’s books offer so much. The worlds she creates are remarkable in their textures; whether they are set in actual historical pasts or fantasy historical pasts, they are rich with touches large and small that bring the worlds alive for readers. She does something similar with characters, making them complex, flawed, and vivid whether they are the ones we care deeply about, those that terrify us, or simply those a bit more on the fringe of the story. All of them feel fully rounded, ones we readers inhabit fully as we read. Then there is plot — Wein is a master at creating complex, driving, tangled, twisty, and unpredictable plots.  Lastly, there is emotion, and not just for the characters — these are books that set readers’ hearts pounding, produce gasps of astonishment, smiles at the wit, and tears of joy and sadness.

Among Wein’s works are two novels set during Word War II: the jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing Code Name Verity and the equally dramatic and heartrending Rose Under Fire. Now we have The Pearl Thief, a prequel to Code Name Verity, featuring a much younger Julie. I admit I was a bit wary starting the novel, wondering if Wein was pushing too far with the same characters , but I needed have worried. This work is marvelous, as fully realized in all its facets as all the others. While the book isn’t out for a while yet, I wanted to get my thoughts down now (in a spoiler free way of course) so as not to have them drift away and to, hopefully, excite those of you waiting for it.

It is 1938 as the story begins and we meet fifteen-year-old Julie heading home to her family’s Scottish estate from her Swiss boarding school for the summer. The death of her grandfather and the need to pay off his extensive debt has meant that the estate has been sold and is being turned into a school. And so Julie’s return is bittersweet, her family occupying a few rooms of the place temporarily until they move out for good. Shortly after her arrival she lands in the hospital, having been hit on the head by an unknown assailant and then saved by local Travelers. Things and people go missing, mysteries pile up and Julie, her brother Jamie, and the Traveler siblings Euan and Ellen try to get to the bottom of it all.

While it has some of the delicious attributes of a cosy mystery, this is far more rich, a highly complex narrative featuring Julie’s coming-of-age (emotionally, sexually, and intellectually), the unpacking of family histories (Julie’s and the Travelers), direct presentations of period prejudices, all within a riveting plot full of Wein’s trademark twists and turns. As in her previous books, Wein creates a rich past world, fascinating characters, dramatic scenes, and great emotional depth. While it is not necessary to have any familiarity with Code Name Verity, those who have it will enjoy the younger Julie, observing her developing into the young woman that she is later on. Finally, in addition to everything else, Wein is just a wonderful wordsmith. I love her sentences, her dry wit. Say this brief bit on page 47.

Mother got up again, with an air of determination.

“Perhaps I’m a witness!” I said relishing the idea.

No one else relished it.

The Pearl Thief is a complete delight. Highly recommended.

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Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer!

I’ve got a review of Melissa Sweet’s glorious biography of E. B. White, Some Writer!, up today at the Nerdy Book Club.  In addition to my discussion of the book I touch upon my own teaching of White’s children’s books and, at the end, of lovely dessert — a bunch of spreads from the book itself.

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I Review Two Books about the Historic “Wild West” in the New York Times Book Review

Here’s the intro to my reviews of Candace Fleming’s Presenting Buffalo Bill and William Grill’s The Wolves of Currumpaw in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review.

Learning about a country’s real past is a fraught activity; once mythological versions become embedded in the public consciousness they are tough to dislodge. Take the American West. Those of us who came of age in the last century did so with movies, books, television shows, toys, games and school curriculums that told us of wide-open and empty spaces, of buffalo and land free for the taking, of sturdy and stoic white settlers, of adventurous cowboys, and of fierce and frightening indigenous people. This romanticized notion of the so-called Wild West is remarkably resistant to correction and stubbornly enduring, as evidenced by those who can’t see why American Indian sports team names and mascots are offensive. As for who was responsible for the myth in the first place, many names could be suggested, among them Buffalo Bill Cody and Ernest Thompson Seton — as young readers of two new books will discover.

 

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Coming Soon: Jason Reynold’s Ghost

I’m in love with Jason Reynold’s forthcoming Ghost.  Both the book and the title character. Reynolds’ presentation of this feisty, complicated, and endearing young man is deftly demonstrated through his first person narration of this winning middle grade book. It is the story of a young black boy in middle school who has experienced something dreadful, but who doesn’t want attention paid to him because of that. This is a boy who aspires to being a basketball player (though he hasn’t exactly tried to do it) and then, out of the blue, discovers that he has a talent for running. This is a boy who, before he knows it, is part of an elite track team and, by the end of the novel, cares deeply about doing well in it.

In the close first person narration we are with Ghost as he reacts to bullies, to an horrific event that affects who he is, to his new track teammates, to his self-consciousness as to his neighborhood, to his poverty, to his coach, and to simple pieces of his day. Say sunflower seeds. Reynolds describes wonderfully Ghost’s delight in them, eating them, spitting them, and buying them at the local store with his delightful repeated exchange with the store’s owner. It is a small lively thread that winds through the story, deepening our understanding of Ghost as well as those around him. There is superb dialog, real situations, fabulous description (I can just see the shoes — those generic ones he reworks for running and the other pair that is critical to the plot so can’t say more here), and impressive characters. I am certain Coach, Ghost’s mother, his friends and foes at school, and his teammates will stay strong in my mind for some time to come. To me that is one way to consider good writing — does it stay in your mind? Reynolds’ here absolutely does.

Having trained with a coach as part of a track club decades ago I can vouch for the authenticity of the workouts, say those “fart licks” (the real term is fartlek —a Swedish word for exactly what Ghost and his team mates do). I can’t wait for further books featuring Ghost, his teammates, and those great adults in his life.

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Pamela S. Turner’s Samurai Rising

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My interest to date in samurai has been close to zero, my tolerance for violence and gore minimal (Game of Thrones had me running in the opposite direction), and being a pacifist I usually find books with endless descriptions of battles and war plans tedious. Yet all of this went out the window when I started Pamela S. Turner’s Samurai Rising. Immediately I was besotted, eager to return to it when I was forced to put it down to do other things,  fascinated by the topic, taken by the exciting storytelling, appreciative of Turner’s way of addressing the issues of research; all in all it was a riveting read.

The very real story of a famous Japanese samurai,Yoshitsune, Samurai Rising is also Turner’s journey as she sifts through all the stories to see what is true and what is not; it is the story of pride and vengeance, of politics; it is one view of Japan in the late twelfth century. Turner does a remarkable job making a complicated story accessible to young readers (not to mention much older ones like myself). Aware of just what will be confusing, she works to help distinguish similar-sounding names, provides the bricolage of setting, elegantly slipping in “surely” and “probably” when necessary to both show there is no way to know for sure and to still provide the story of small tidbits of information to help the reader imagine what things actually looked like and felt like.

One of the many things I liked about the book was Turner’s way of slipping in wry and pithy comments here and there to clarify.  Say on Page 19 when after a paragraph culminating in a quote describing the military brilliance of Yoshitsune’s great-grandfather, she had a short one sentence paragraph: “No pressure, Yoshitsune.” Or how about on Page 127 when she writes, “You know strife has gone on too long when even the samurai are sick of violence.”

The end notes are fascinating as Turner uses them to not only indicate her sources, but to add in more information that she couldn’t squeeze into the main narrative. There’s a lengthy bibliography and even more information on Turner’s website, including some very interesting videos for those that want to get a sense of kendo and the dance done by Yoshitsune’s lover as described by storytellers and then Turner in the book. There are maps throughout the book to help readers get a spatial sense of what is happening, a helpful cast of characters at the beginning, and an index. Finally there are Gareth Hinds’ dark and brooding illustrations, capturing the movement and drama and ominous nature of the history being told.

One of my favorite books of 2016 so far, I recommend it highly.

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Reviewing When We Think We Know or A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Alexander Pope

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the conundrum that happens when reviewers think we know, but don’t. My friend Roxanne Feldman addressed this beautifully in her post, “Doing the Diversity Thing Diversely, Part 3: How Can We Know When We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know?,” focusing in on the reviewer’s difficulty when:

DKDK One is unaware of one’s lack of knowledge in a particular area. More often than not, one also believes that he/she actually has solid knowledge about the matters at hand. This often makes it difficult for anyone to obtain actual knowledge.

Roxanne then goes on to unpack two examples. The first is her evolving response as a Chinese reader to The Five Chinese Brothers. Writes Roxanne:

I myself have engaged in several discussions over the years on the portrayal of Chinese culture and characters in children’s and YA books.  I always do this with much trepidation: since there is no way that I can truly be the spokesperson for an entire (and extremely complex) culture, even if it is considered MINE.  (I am now even more aware of the differences between Chinese and Chinese American Cultures.)

Having defended the book some years ago against others who saw the illustrations as racist, Roxanne now feels:

I have also come to realize how much I also DKDKed! My insistence to support the use of yellow for the faces is based on my personal experiences: as a Chinese girl growing up in a homogeneous environment, proud to be a member of the “yellow race,” and never having to contend with my ethnic identity.  It is a highly biased stance (and I wanted to break the connection of Yellow=Undesirable, what an naive idea!)  I disregarded the real experiences of Chinese and Asian American child readers.  Just because I don’t find being labeled “yellow skinned” hurtful does not mean that there are not many who are indeed hurt.  In this case, I believe that their views are more valid than mine.

Roxanne’s next example is from the Kirkus review of my book, Africa is My Home. Before the book was published, my biggest anxiety was that a reviewer would catch something that I or the illustrator had overlooked and managed to get glaringly wrong. It hadn’t occurred to me that a reviewer would do so inaccurately as happened in the Kirkus review, a case of the reviewer not knowing what he/she didn’t know. Do read Roxanne’s thoughtful research and unpacking of the “flaw,” the lack of variety in skin tone in the illustrations.

How do we review when we worry about what we don’t know? Take my favorable New York Times review of Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil. As someone who is passionate about how the continent of Africa is represented, I wanted to do right by the book while recognizing that my knowledge about the Dafur conflict and its people was limited to news accounts. I did some research and fact checking for my review, but there was no way I could do enough to be absolutely 100% certain that all was correct. In the end it came down to trust, that Andrea with her stellar reputation — having done her own copious research and reached out to some seemingly excellent experts — had gotten it right.

Or how about when we are of the ethnicity or culture represented in a book, but have polarizingly different responses to the way it has been represented as happened last year during the discussions around The Hired Girl? My background as the child of secular German Jews probably had something to do with my enthusiasm for the book. Yet devoted and practicing Jews with very different backgrounds from mine did not see eye to eye, some loved the book while others did not (a range of these responses can be seen in this Heavy Medal post) . What are we to make of these varied responses in lieu of our concern about equity? What to think about what we Jews knew in or didn’t know in terms of that book as it represented our culture? Did we assume and trust too much? Or not enough?

Having been brought up by German parents and spent years in Germany as a child, I am sensitive to representations of things German. This has made my reading of books set there to be perhaps different from someone without my background. In a recent book set in 1980s East Berlin, little errors kept pulling me out of the story, say a bratwurst sandwich (these are eaten with rolls, not in an American-style sandwich), a stove described as too small to roast a turkey (not a usual part of German cuisine), and so forth. In another forthcoming book of a similar time and place I found that the author was more successful with the  German stuff, perhaps because, unlike the previous writer, she had spent significant time in East Berlin during the time in question. In this case, something else specific to my experience caused distractions — the child American main character’s ease with the German language based on seemingly minimal previous experience. As someone who spent time in Germany as a child, some of it in German schools, my experience was significantly different. Now does it matter? The story is not about the child’s experiences in the schools, after all. And understanding German is critical to the plot. I doubt any reviewer is going to give any thoughts to the boy’s remarkable ability with the language unless they’ve had experiences that will alert them to it. Presumably reviewers have and will assume sufficient familiarity with German culture and history to do justice to such books.

So what do we do as reviewers? I think we can only be as aware as possible, be open to corrections, to be conscious that we probably don’t know as much as we think we know, and try to go beyond that dangerous “little learning” about which Alexander Pope is so scathing.

 

 

 

 

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