Friday, October 30, 2009

Murder at Midnight

By Avi

Scholastic Press, 2009

$17.99, ages 9-12, 272 pages

While trying to persuade his master to keep him on as his servant, a 10-year-old orphan named Fabrizio becomes entangled in a plot to overthrow the ruler of Pergamontio in this thrilling prequel to Avi's Midnight Magic.

Fabrizio, who was saved from a life on the streets to become the personal servant to Mangus the Magician, is finding it hard to hold onto his position. Mangus thinks Fabrizio is an idle chatterer and a fool for thinking magic is more than illusion, and doesn't believe he needs him.

The magician's wife Mistress Sophia favors the boy, but she's leaving the city to care for her sick sister, which means Fabrizio will have to deal with his difficult master on his own. And if he doesn't convince Mangus that he's useful, Mangus will send him back to the streets to a life of begging.

But then the unimaginable occurs. The surly old magician is accused of plotting to depose King Claudio, the ruler of Pergamontio, and suddenly Fabrizio has a far greater challenge than pleasing his master. Unless he proves that Mangus is innocent, his master will be burned at the stake for treason.

His master's troubles begin when a mysterious figure in a hood shows up at Mangus' magic show and warns Fabrizio that the magician's life is in danger. Two days later the kingdom's chief prosecutor DeLaBina charges Mangus with producing leaflets that call for the king's overthrow.

DeLaBina claims the leaflets were copied too perfectly to be hand-written. Thus Mangus must have created them with magic, as news of the German invention, the printing press, had not yet come to the kingdom. Making matters worse, an informer at the magic show saw Mangus snatch images of the king from thin air and make them disappear then promise to create something from nothing and turn it into many things.

Though DeLaBina offers to spare Mangus' life if he rids the city of the leaflets and reveals who asked him to make the papers, these seem like impossible requests, even for the illusionist and his scrappy servant, and soon both are locked away in the king's castle for plotting against the king. But then Fabrizio remembers his master's lessons in logic and proves he's more clever than anyone knows.

While awaiting execution for aiding Mangus, Fabrizio escapes from his cell, and with the help of a girl he calls a devil, begins to unravel a conspiracy within the King's court. Together they concoct a plan to save Mangus that pits the king's eldest son against his trusted count and requires a coffin to be delivered to the crypt where Mangus is tried.

Master storyteller and Newberry Medal winner Avi creates another taut, suspenseful story that will have you reading faster with every page. What is particularly captivating about Avi's writing is that his characters come to life primarily through dialogue and actions. Avi doesn't pause long to describe his characters and yet you walk away feeling so invested in the characters that it's hard to let them go.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Middle-Child Blues

By Kristyn Crow and illustrated by David Catrow

Putnam Juvenile, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

If you have a middle child, you are a middle child or you just want to read the best new rhyme around, this book is for you.

Crow and Catrow pay tribute to all of those who feel "in-between," "hardly noticed," "hardly seen," with text and pictures that will make you laugh as they inspire those of us with more than two children to think about how we raise our middle child.

Lee, the middle child of three, has the forgotten and confused middle-child blues. He sees his little sister Kate getting out of responsibility and his older brother Ray getting more privilege. "Ray can order a 'Big Bun,' / Kate's meal has a toy. / I get a plain cheeseburger / since I'm just the middle boy."

And later, in the quintessential comparison that many siblings do, he relates his place in the family to a train. "I'm not the shiny engine / or the little red caboose. / I'm just a boring boxcar, / so I wonder, what's the use?"

But even though Lee has this curse he didn't choose, he finds an outlet for his frustration. He puts his woes to lyrics and woos a crowd of middle children who share his blues.

Soon TV crews show up and just as he swoons that he wishes his folks had a clue, they join in the singing and proclaim they're middle children too. They just forgot, they say, to which Lee plucks his guitar and smiles then struts off stage to the middle of his family's car for a middle-child snooze.

Crow's insights into being a middle child are spot-on (she has three middle children of her own to learn from) and her text combines a perfect rhythm with an irresistible beat, while Catrow's wild and crazy illustrations match Lee's rocking-out personality.

If you're like me, you might find yourself singing as you read and imagine the deep twang of a bass guitar as the book begins.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Toby Alone

By Timothee de Fombelle

Illustrated by Francois Place and translated by Sarah Ardizzone

Candlewick Press, 2009

$17.99, ages 9-12 , 384 pages

Toby Lolness, a nimble boy no taller than a crumb, flees the hatred of his people in this fast-paced Lilliputian adventure set in the branches of an oak tree.

At 7 years old, Toby is exiled with his parents, Maya and Sim, from the top of the Tree to the Low Branches, when Sim, a great scientist, refuses to share an invention that would speed up development on the Tree.

Sim is convinced his invention, a black box that converts the Tree's sap into energy, would be abused by weevil breeder Joe Mitch, who is tunneling out the Tree's trunk and digging out huge housing projects into the branches.

He maintains removing sap to power projects would put the Tree in peril. But his neighbors, who aren't convinced the Tree is alive, see his refusal to share his discovery as an impediment to progress and the Tree's council, increasingly under Mitch's thumb, sends the Lolness family to the Land of Onessa.

After several years in exile, however, the Lolness' are called back to the Treetop when Maya's mother dies. There, Sim's old friend Zef Clarac, the Treetop lawyer, hands Maya a rare, expensive Tree Stone, which belonged to her mother. The stone, though it has no powers, is the tree's treasure and would give absolute power to Mitch and his men if they got control over it.

Just as the Lolness family is about to leave for the Low Branches, Mitch and his men ambush them at Zef's house and demand the stone and Sim's black box. But thanks to Sim's quick wits, Toby, now 13, is able to slip out of Mitch's clutches with the stone, setting off a terrifying manhunt for Toby down the Tree.

With a bounty on his head and his parents in a dungeon in the Treetop, Toby flees for safety in the Low Branches, and along the way discovers the loyalties of old friends, is nearly fed to weevils, gets buried in a cave by snow, loses his dearest friend and falls from the Tree into the hands of the feared Grass People, who are believed to be planning an invasion of the Tree.

French playwright de Fombelle creates a fascinating, fun adventure while skillfully weaving in political commentary in this first book in a series translated from French. If your child loved the Littles or the Borrowers, they'll be enthralled by Toby's world and find it hard to wait for the next installment.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

13 Picture Books for Halloween

books for children

Witches, spiders and monsters, oh my! With Halloween quickly approaching, I've compiled a list of 13 great picture books about things that cackle, creep or go bump in the dark.

1) I Need My Monster, by Amanda Noll, illustrated by Howard McWilliam, Flash Light Press, 2009. Nothing lulls Ethan to sleep like a scary monster under his bed, but when his drooling monster Gabe takes off for the night, Ethan is desperate to find a creature scary enough to keep him in bed and auditions substitute beasts who are too silly or mellow to take his place.

2) The Nightmare Before Christmas, story and pictures by Tim Burton, Disney Press, 1993. In the poem that inspired Burton's movie classic, Jack Skellington grows bored of the terrors in Halloweenland, stumbles upon a portal in a tree to Christmas Town and kidnaps Santa so he can spread his own version of laughter and cheer in a sleek coffin sleigh.

3) Vunce Upon a Time, by J. otto Seibold and Siobhan Vivian, Chronicle Books, 2008. Dagmar the vampire would rather eat carrots than blood, but when he learns candy is being given away in town for Halloween, he can't resist getting in on the treats and thinks up a scary garlic costume to wear, only to realize he doesn't need a disguise at all.

4) Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson, illustrations by Axel Scheffler, Dial, 2001. In this perfect read-aloud that kids will want to recite from heart, a cat, dog, parrot and frog are invited for a ride on a witch's broom after each recover something she lost, then band together to scare off a dragon who decides, just this time, "to eat witch without fries."

5) The Spider and the Fly, by Mary Howitt, illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi, Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2002. DiTerlizzi's transforms this classic poem with black-and-white illustrations that almost glow, pages of text that look like intertitles in a silent film and whimsical characters that lure you in, from a fly in flapper dress and parasol to a spider resembling the late actor Vincent Price.

6) Thelonius Monster's Sky-High Fly Pie, by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Edward Koren, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. A monster decides that flies would taste best in a pie and with the advice of a spider, pours a jar of flies onto a sticky molasses crust and invites his most disgusting friends and relations over for a slice in this hysterical book made all the better by New Yorker columnist Koren's scribbly style.

7) Winnie the Witch, by Valerie Thomas, illustrated by Korky Paul, HarperCollins Publishers, 1987. Winnie the Witch keeps tripping over her black cat Wilbur because everything in her house is decorated in black, but when she casts a spells to turn Wilbur different colors it only makes matters worse, so she comes up with a plan that will make both of their lives more colorful.

8) The Wizard, by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Brandon Dorman, Greenwillow Books, 2007. A wizard works his evil spells to turn a frog into a flea, two mice, a cockatoo, chalk, a bell then back into its original form, only to make it vanish into a cloud of smoke in this magically illustrated version of Prelutsky's 1976 poem.

9) The Monster Trap, illustrated by Dean Morrissey, written by Morrissey and Stephen Krensky, HarperCollins Publishers, 2004. While staying over at his grandpa's for the first time, Paddy thinks he hears monsters in the night so his grandpa builds an elaborate monster trap from antiques in his shop that's so fun it works in this beautifully illustrated book.

10) Bone Soup, written and illustrated by Cambria Evans, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. A hungry skeleton tricks a village of witches, mummies and zombies into sharing their stash of foul foods in this hilarious spinoff of the old French tale Stone Soup. (See my full review in September listings.)

11) The Gargoyle on the Roof, by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Peter Sis, Greenwillow Books, 1999. In this collection of 17 ghoulishly fun poems, a troll is so desperate for company he sets up a toll-free number for someone to call him, a bugaboo lies in wait in the refrigerator to snatch children if they misbehave and a vampire tries to groom himself though his mirror shows no reflection.

12) Bats at the Beach and its sequel Bats at the Library, written and illustrated by Brian Lies, Houghton Mifflin. 2007, 2008. Bats find adventure in the night in these entrancing books: first on the beach roasting bugs on a fire and flying each other as kites, then in a library duplicating themselves in copy machines and playing house in a pop-up book.

13) The Ghosts of Luckless Gulch, written by Anne Isaacs, illustrated by Dan Santat, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008. A fleet-footed girl named Estrella chases after a gang of ghosts who've stolen her pets, and after a harrowing underground rock slide, drives them out of sight, in this larger-than-life tale.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Lego Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary

By Simon Beecroft, contributed by Jeremy Beckett

DK Publishing

$21.99, ages 7+, 96 pages

Is the airspace in your living room under regular assault by Lego starfighters guided by small hands?

Is the bottom of your purse a black hole of mini Lego light sabers, capes and headless stormtroopers?

Does your child swap heads on Lego minifigures to create an evil Yoda Vader or bikini-clad Chewie?

If you answered, "Yes," or have a knowing smile on your face after reading these questions, this is the book you have to get!

DK's Lego Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary is one of those perfect gifts to stow away and surprise your brick-building fan with when he's least expecting it. (That is, unless he detects its arrival in your shopping bag with his Lego Mindstorm sensors and swoops in on you by surprise.)

The much-anticipated visual guide to the history of Lego Star Wars is everything your child hopes it will be: pages upon pages of all of the warships ever to fly through the galaxy, detailed diagrams of gadgetry, and close-up pictures of every minifigure and creature to do battle, from Yoda to a dewback lizard and rare General Grievous in a cape.

There's even an exclusive Luke Skywalker minifigure, tucked into the cover of every book to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Lego Star Wars, and a flip-book element to the lower corner of every page. Flip all the corners on the right to see Luke brandish a lightsaber; do the same on the left to see stormtroopers march into battle.

At the beginning of the book is a timeline of when each model was released since 1999, the year Lego partnered with Lucasfilms to produce buildable replicas, and as you continue on, you'll see spreads dedicated to major characters, armies or battle stations with fun trivia tucked into the text or brought to your attention in "Brick Facts" boxes.

Don't be surprised if your Lego Star Wars fan runs to you and spills every cool fact he just read before taking another breath.

"Did you know the headlamps of an airspeeder are really minifigure drinking cups? That the gorg in Jabba's snack bowl is a frog from a fairy tale set? That the 2006 Imperial Star Destroyer set included Emperor Palpatine as a hologram? That every Lego model is tested in an oven so it can take the heat of a sunny window in someone's house?"

More than just a catalogue, the book shows how sets fit together to recreate the saga. It also explains how some minifigures evolved (at one point we see four Han Solos lined up with different face colors or pants) and how accessories are used, whether it's an ion pistol or a nutrient jar at Jabba's Palace. (Each jar is equipped with automated legs and carries the brains of monks who've reached enlightenment.)

More highlights include a two-page spread detailing every nook of the 2008 Death Star set, from a garbage squid living in a trash compactor to a tiny viewscreen in the superlaser control room. There's also a picture of the Rebel Fleet set that won the 2009 fan's choice award, an 18-inch-tall Darth Maul built with techniques used by Legoland experts and a photo of artist Nathan Sawaya's 5.5-foot tall brick sculpture of Han Solo in Carbonite.

If your Lego builders are like mine and explode with joy at the mention of a Lego catalog in the mailbox, or, like Zac the Lego Maniac from the 1980s TV ad, practically build Legos in their dreams, buy this book and the force will be with you. You will not only make your Lego fans deliriously happy, but keep their noses in a book longer than their required reading time and score cool points for weeks to come.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

13 Novels for Halloween

halloween children's books

Looking for a ghoulishly good novel for Halloween? Below is a list of 13 book series and single titles that you won't want to put down.

This year's list includes rousing adventures with monsters, bewitching tales of high jinks and scary mysteries that leave you holding your breath.

1) Here Be Monsters! (The Ratbridge Chronicles), written and illustrated by Alan Snow, Atheneum, ages 9-12, 544 pages. Arthur tries to thwart a fiendish plot to take over the town of Ratbridge with the help of boxtrolls, cabbageheads, rats, pirates and a frustrated inventor in this silly fantasy filled with more than 500 irresistible drawings.

2) Dreamhouse Kings Series, Books 1-6, written by Robert Liparulo, Thomas Nelson, ages 12+, 304 pages. After the King family moves into a run-down Victorian house, 15-year-old film buff Xander and his brother David stumble upon portals leading to far-off places in this pulse-pounding mystery series.

3) Barnaby Grimes series, by Paul Stewart, illustrated by Chris Riddell, David Fickling Books, ages 9-12, 224 pages. Leaping from roof to roof in a fictional city, a courier lad named Barnaby stumbles upon macabre mysteries involving a wolf-like creature and a stuffed bird in this Dickensian series by the creators of the bestselling Edge Chronicles.

4) Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury, illustrated by Joseph Mugnaini, Yearling, ages 9-12,160 pages. Eight boys follow a mysterious character named Moundshroud back in time on Halloween night to find their missing friend Pipkin in this haunting, exuberant classic that explores the history of this scary holiday.

5) The Worst Witch series, by Jill Murphy, Candlewick Press and Puffin Books, ages 9-12, up to 352 pages. A bungling girl witch-in-training named Mildred Hubble gets into hilarious fixes with her cat Tabby at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches in this classic 5-book series that debuted in 1974, with the latest books released in 2007.

6) Chrestomanci Books, by Diana Wynne Jones, Greenwillow Books, ages 9-12, up to 688 pages. Enchanters with nine lives try to stop the misuse of magic in parallel worlds in this outstanding fantasy series of six books and several short stories by the author of Howl's Moving Castle.

7) Mariah Mundi series, by G.P.Taylor, Putnam Juvenile and Faber Children's Books, ages 12 +, up to 336 pages. A 15-year-old orphan becomes an assistant in a hotel magic show and together with friend Sacha uncovers a box that can turn anything into gold in the first book of this spine-tingling 7-book series: The Midas Box.

8) The Last Apprentice series, by Joseph Delaney, illustrated by Patrick Arrasmith, Greenwillow Books, ages 12 +, up to 416 pages. Twelve-year-old narrator Tom Ward confronts all manner of boggarts, ghosts and other wicked beasts as apprentice to Mr. Gregory, a tall, hooded man he calls a Spook, in this chillingly good series, now in its eighth installment.

9) Tiffany Aching Adventure series, by Terry Pratchett, HarperTeen, ages 12 +, 336 pages. A girl witch learning her craft travels through Fairyland to rescue her brother, drives away a mind-controlling creature and thwarts the advances of the Wintersmith in this hilarious fantasy series, a subset of Pratchett's adult Discoworld.

10) Theodosia series, by R. L. LaFevers, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka, Sandpiper, ages 9-12, 400 pages. Eleven-year-old Theodosia Throckmorton learns how to remove curses around her father's museum, then takes on a secret society trying to bring chaos to the world in this fun, action-packed fantasy series.

11) Billy Bones books, by Christopher Lincoln, illustrated by Avi Ofer, Little, Brown Book Group, ages 9-12, 304 pages. Living in a mansion's secret closet with his skeleton family, 10-year-old Billy Bones discovers a shocking secret and searches for his Uncle Grim and cousin Millicent in the hidden world of Nevermore in this delightfully macabre series of two books.

12) The Black Book of Secrets and The Bone Magician, by F.E. Higgins, Feiwel and Friends, ages 9-12, up to 288 pages. Higgins presents two different stories in the same world of intrigue. In The Black Book of Secrets, Ludlow Fitch assists a mysterious pawnbroker trading money for secrets in a big black book, and in The Bone Magician, a corpse watcher named Pin Carpue encounters a magician who can raise corpses from the dead and make them speak as a killer roams the streets.

13) Seer of Shadows, by Avi, HarperCollins Children's Books, ages 8-12, 208 pages. A 14-year-old photographer's apprentice named Horace Carpetine sees the ghost of a couple's dead daughter in the background of a portrait and tries to prevent her from punishing those who hurt her in this wonderfully creepy tale by Newberry Medalist Avi.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Snow White: A Three-Dimensional Fairy-Tale Theater

Adapted and illustrated by Jane Ray

Candlewick Press, 2009

$19.99, ages 3 and up, 10 pages

Reading through Ray's 3-D adaptation of the Brothers Grimm's Snow White evokes the same wondrous feeling as peering into a dollhouse through a miniature window.

Designed to look like a theater, this fascinating book is made up of six two-page spreads that resemble a stage in different acts. The reader is the audience, sitting before the stage, looking into scenes angling back to the fold and following text by flipping open red curtains to either side.

Ray creates a sense of depth similar to that of dioramas in natural history museums by allowing the spreads to open no further than a 120 degree angle. This allows two layers of delicately cut trees, beams, walls, windows and people to appear on the stage against a scenic backdrop.

At first it's awkward not to open the book flat and you struggle to find a comfortable way to read it in your lap, but the more you gaze into Ray's magical scenes, the less focused you become on the book's restrictions. You find yourself transported into the fairy tale in a way that flat images may suggest but normally can't show.

The first act, staged to look like a winter wonderland, sets the magical mood of the book: with the queen standing at a stone balcony adorned with bare vines and ornate columns as snow falls in the woods and birds look on from icy perches. Staying true to the 1857 fairy tale, the queen pricks her finger and wistfully wishes for a child with lips as red as the drop of blood that falls from her finger.

The queen, as we know, realizes her dream but dies soon after Snow White's birth, and in the second act, we leap ahead in time to find Snow White, now a young girl, playing on the floor of the castle with her cat. Across from her on stage right, her wicked stepmother, the new queen, glowers at her magic mirror on the wall, which has just informed her that Snow White is the fairer beauty.

In act three, the story shifts to spring; trees are bursting with leaves and blossoms, and squirrels are scampering from tree to tree as a deer wanders into the scene. The huntsman, unable to follow through with the queen's orders to kill Snow White, is seen departing with his bow and arrows, as Snow White runs deeper into the forest toward a brick cottage where seven dwarves are busily tending to chores.

By act four, the queen has already made her sinister entrance into the forest, dressed as an old peddler woman. As we look over a picket fence and through trees, we see Snow White standing at a cottage window, as the queen cinches a belt to her waist. Behind the curtain on stage left, we learn that the queen eventually pulls the belt so tightly that Snow White can't breath. But fortunately the dwarves discover Snow White passed out in time to revive her.

Turning to act five, we open the curtain on stage right to learn that the queen has again tried to hurt Snow White, this time by slipping a poisoned comb in her hair, and again the dwarves save the day. On stage, however, the scene is very somber. As we look past a wooden beam hung with hats and shawls, we see the dwarfs crowded around Snow White, who is unconscious on the floor, having bitten into a poisonous apple, the last attempt by the queen to hurt her.

But luckily this story has a fairy tale ending, and turning to the last act, we look through the trees to see Snow White many years later in the arms of a prince who is about to kiss her. Fittingly, as we learn behind the curtains, it wasn't the kiss that saved her, as the Disney version goes. Nor was it the clumsiness of the prince's servants, as the Grimm tale suggests. In Ray's remake, it was a dwarf who tripped trying to lift Snow White's glass coffin who dislodged the poisonous apple from her throat.

The format of Ray's book and her lush scenes really set this version of Snow White apart. When opened on its side to a favorite act and displayed on a dresser top, it's as alluring as a dollhouse. You can't help but peek in and imagine what it would be like to wander through the scene.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Storm in the Barn

Written and illustrated by Matt Phelan

Candlewick Press, 2009

$24.99, ages 9-12, 208 pages

Phelan uses the graphic novel format to great effect in this mythical story about a boy who saves his family's farm from ruin by defeating an elemental villain during the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Set in Kansas in 1937 near the end of the disaster, the story of 11-year-old Jack Clark and his family's struggle to survive the dust and drought is told through spare dialogue and sweeping sequences of action that capture the haunting mood of the time.

As the story opens, Jack's neighbors are fleeing from their Kansas farm as clouds of dust roll into town. Their sedan has just taken off through a brown haze, when a figure in a blue cape suddenly appears in the headlights. The father hits the breaks, only to find no one there, and brushes it off as nothing.

Then the story jumps to the next day. Jack has just been slugged by bullies in the center of town, when another dark cloud falls over them. The bullies take cover in the general store, but Jack, wanting to get far away from them, races down the road to his neighbor's abandoned barn, only to find the door jammed. With the dust storm at his heels, he flees to his house, barely getting inside before the cloud can envelop him.

The doctor is there with his parents, checking on his older sister Dorothy, who is coughing in the next room from dust-induced pneumonia. They are perplexed why Jack didn't take shelter sooner in the store and the doctor assumes Jack was intentionally trying to run into the storm. As Jack goes to Dorothy's bedside, he overhears the doctor suggest he has "dust dementia."

That night, Jack overhears his parents talking about packing up and leaving their farm, and finds himself staring out of his window into the darkness. Suddenly a blinding light flashes from inside his neighbor's barn, and Jack rubs his eyes in disbelief, wondering if the doctor is right and he is losing his mind.

Each day, Jack finds himself increasingly preoccupied by the barn.

First he finds his baby sister, twirling outside the barn with an umbrella, singing about rain she's never seen, and later, he manages to yank loose the barn's door. Inside, he steps into a puddle and thinks he smells rain. Then in the night, another burst of light lures him back to the barn and he spots a bag rumbling in the rafters and a spooky visage drenched in water.

The face belongs to a greedy storm king, bent on depriving the land of rain until everyone is so desperate for water that they bow to him as a god. Already, the townsfolk have resorted to nailing snakes to fence posts, a superstitious offering to invite rain, though they have no idea this phantom exists.

The Storm King senses that Jack is a timid boy and, when confronted, taunts him about being useless, while Jack -- desperate to feel valuable on the farm and to hold his ground with bullies -- grows increasingly angry and begins to believe there's a way to make the phantom release the rain.

First Dorothy, who spends her days reading L. Frank Baum's Oz series, unknowingly helps Jack to see the villain for who he is. While at her bedside, Jack asks Dorothy why the wizard left Kansas for Oz, and she guesses that he wanted to become special and powerful. Then the owner of the general store spins a tale about another Jack who outsmarts the king of wind by squeezing milk from stone and goes on to defeat him with his own weapon.

The next day Jack passes a huckster selling a contraption he claims will produce thunder, then in turn unleash rain, and Jack begins to understand what the mysterious bag in the barn could hold.

Rain, of course, was not a cure-all for the real Dust Bowl. As we know, the disaster was rooted in unsound farming practices and drought only exacerbated it. But as Phelan states in an author's note at the end of the book, his desire was not to simply replay history, but to reimagine it from a children's perspective and key into their love of folklore, as well as their fascination with the Wizard of Oz movie, which debuted two years after this story occurs.

And indeed, he does just that -- and along the way, demonstrates the literary power of the graphic novel.

It is said that silence speaks louder than words, and interestingly it's the panels of wordless images in Phelan's novel, created with charcoal and earthy watercolors, that really pull me in. As I follow one panel to the next, the suspense builds (much like in a silent movie), and I sense how consuming the dust must have been for those who lived it. I can almost feel grit on the page and hear the ghostly wail of the wind as it leaps from frame to frame.

There is one particularly dark moment in the book, when the farmers, crazed by the drought, round up and kill rabbits that are eating what is left of their crops -- a panel washed in red conveys the brutality. Phelan also uses a few strong words at the beginning of the story to evoke the farmers' frustration. Yet nothing seems gratuitous; these spare, edgy moments bring to bear the torment endured by farmers and help make Phelan's first graphic novel a powerful glimpse into this haunting time.

To learn more about Phelan, the illustrator of the 2007 Newberry Medal winner, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, visit View Candlewick's video trailer of the book below!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Leon and The Place Between

By Angela McAllister and illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith
Templar Books, 2009
$16.99, ages 4-8, 48 pages

Do you believe in magic? You just might after reading this spellbinding book about a boy named Leon who goes to the place where magic is kept when it's not being conjured from thin air.

Across the carnival grounds, a gold tent catches Leon's eye and he slips inside with brothers Tom and Pete and sister Little Jo to witness a magic show unfold. The crowd is restless for something to happen. Tom and Pete think magic is just smoke and mirrors, but Leon knows better. "It will be magic," Leon promises. "You have to believe."

Then the lanterns go out. The tent is dark except for a few gold stars glistening on a stage curtain. There's a loud hush and a blue glow lights the curtains. As the curtains part, there is a bang and jugglers tumble out with juggling pins flying through the air. Then, just as quickly, the act stops, and the pins go up into the air and disappear.

The crowd goes wild and once again there is darkness.

This time a lamp shines on a barrel organ piping the song of a carousel as its handle turns on its own. Golden notes float to a fold-out page on the left to reveal a fantastic menagerie of mechanical toys. A performing monkey resembling a paper marionette signals to a filigree moon to illuminate the toys. Paper cut-outs of animals gallop off a carousel to an ark and a fanciful flying machine shoots sideways.

Then silence. The mechanical toys creak to a stop, the curtain closes and Leon edges forward as delicate gold stars drift about his face. "Now, he says, his eyes wide with expectation. "Now it's going to happen."

Out of a cloud of purple smoke, the master of magic, Abdul Kazam, appears in a flowing purple cape etched with mystic symbols. A pendant with an all-seeing eye and vining threads of gold hangs from his neck. Sparks fly from his fingertips, as white handkerchiefs released from his hands transform into a flock of doves.

Then Kazam asks the crowd, "Who will step into the magic?" and Leo eagerly comes forward. As Leo steps through the door of the magician's storeroom, a decorative wooden box set in front of a red tapestry, he falls into an immense space filled with violet light and hanging globes of soldered gold threads.

Leon lands on a magic flying carpet, where a boy in pantaloons greets him and takes him on a flying tour of all of the things that vanished in the magician's act, from playing cards to shadow puppets to a glamorous female assistant. But as the carpet comes to a halt, something twitches behind Leon and he discovers an illusion that he can't resist.

The storytelling and pictures in this book are so exquisite that you'd almost believe they arrived, like everything else in the magic show, by sleight of hand -- if only you'd let yourself.

McAllister writes like a magician forecasting her act to an audience -- her words, appearing on the page in vintage lettering, have a feeling of suspense and amusement, while Baker-Smith wows with fantastical illustrations that combine real photographs and painted images.

Sometimes you have to look closely to separate photos from art, as is the case with the organ's musical notes, made of images of fine gold cord. (Shiny gold threads, foil leaves and stars appear on every page, swirling about like wisps of magic.) But a few times photographic images pop from the page, like the all-seeing eye in the magician's pendant. By using a real eye, in this case, casting a sideways glance, Baker-Smith heightens the image's spectral feel.

There is so much to discover on the page -- from the similarities between the tapestry and the magic carpet to the finely painted blue swirls and objects that shimmer against dark backdrops and seem to disappear and reappear as you shift the book from side to side -- that you find yourself marveling at the details and backtracking just to make sure you haven't missed anything.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


By Scott Westerfeld and illustrated by Keith Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 2009

$19.99, ages 12 and up, 438 pages

A young archduke is rushed from his bed chamber in the middle of the night on the pretense of training for battle, only to discover that his parents have been poisoned to death and he's on the run from assassins in this inventive sci-fi novel by the author of the teen trilogy the Uglies.

In the style of steampunk, Westerfeld reimagines the battle lines of World War I with anachronistic technologies. It is the Victorian era of steam machines; society is divided into aristocrats and commoners, and women are forbidden to be soldiers. But now, Clankers (or fabs) are using war machines resembling living creatures to battle Darwinists, who fight back with beasts fabricated into machines.

The novel, the first in a series, moves between two parallel plots, the escape of Prince Alec, a Clanker, from his homeland, the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, to a castle hidden in the icy cliffs of the Alps, and the daring adventures of Deryn Sharp, a Darwinist girl, who rises to the ranks of middy in the British Air Service by posing as a boy. By mid book, their two lives intersect in an exciting rescue attempt that pits a hydrogen-breathing airship made from sea creatures against AT-ST-like walking machines.

As the story begins, Prince Alec is taken in the night by his fencing instructor Count Volger and master of mechanics Otto Klopp to hide in a mountaintop castle after his parents are assassinated by an operative sent by former ally Germany. Though Alec initially suspects he's been kidnapped by his teachers, he quickly realizes that Volger and Klopp are his only allies when a German dreadnought attacks the walker they've fled in.

Meanwhile, Deryn has begun posing as the boy Dylan to finagle her way into aviator training and during an exercise gets swept away over London in a runaway hot-air beast, only to escape midair into another flying beast that resembles a zeppelin, a behemoth hydrogen-breathing Leviathan fabricated from a whale. But when the Leviathan goes down in battle in the Alps near Alec's castle, an uneasy alliance is forged between Alec and a Darwinist doctor transporting eggs to the Ottoman Empire.

Though Deryn's transition to middy aboard the Leviathan was a little confusing, this was an enthralling adventure, owed in a large part to the inventive workings of Westerfeld's beasts of battle and animalistic machines, and Thompson extraordinary sketches, which allow you to wrap your head around what these fantastical creations might look like. I found myself as fascinated by Westerfeld's imagination as I did by the beasts and machines he fabricates on the page.

Click Scott Westerfeld on my links to see Thompson's Darwinist-Clanker map of Europe. View Simon & Schuster's trailer of Leviathan below!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Home Sweet Home Decorative Prints

Illustrations by Suzy Ultman

Chronicle Books, 2009

$24.95, all ages

It's easy to go gaga over Ultman's collection of 12 ready-to-frame prints inspired by her childhood, the latest in Chronicle's wall art series. They're so sunny and serene, you feel happy just having them around.

Echoing her love of nature and travel, Ultman depicts some of the simple wonders of growing up in New England, from tree groves, owls and acorns to harbor whales and hot air balloons, as well as an imaginary world where snails carry cottages on their backs and worms with bowler hats and hair bows live in apple houses.

A few of Ultman's designs are single character images, like one of a bird serenely sitting on a high-wheel bicycle with a weather vane on the handle bars, but many are collections of happy things. In one Ultman shows rows of apples with rosy faces mixed in with apple halves suggesting an orchard, while in another kites with big friendly eyes and breezy tails look at you from the sky as if they're inviting you to come and play with them.

Flipping through the prints, reproduced on 12-inch by 16-inch thick paper, is like looking into the face of a genuinely happy child. The warm colors and wide eager eyes of Ultman's subjects, both animate and inanimate, draw you in, and suggest contentment as well as pleasure. Some eyes are quietly happy, like the simple dot eyes on snails, while others sparkle, like the circular eyes of owls with solid pupils and loopy lashes.

Ultman's compositions are spare and her lines are very clean, giving the posters a modern feel, and yet they also have a gently bold look, reminiscent of 1950s children's book art, especially that of illustrator Art Seidon, whose 123 board book sprang to mind when I first saw this collection. Her use of color and pattern also fits into the style of popular fabric designer Amy Butler, who shares Ultman's affinity for simple organic designs inspired by real life.

Following Chronicle's exciting release of 12 Eric Carle decorative prints in April, this latest collection is all you need to decorate a nursery. In fact, there are more than enough prints to go around a room so if you can stand to part with a few, consider giving them as baby shower gifts. Just slip them in ready-made frames and you'll be sure to elicit oohs and ahhs.

Friday, October 2, 2009

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

Created by Jeremy Holmes

Chronicle Books, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8, 18 pages

In Simms Taback's Caldecott Honor version of the old lady who swallowed a fly, we saw how absurd it was for a lady to pack in so many creatures into her stomach. Now, thanks to the darkly funny mind of Jeremy Holmes, we get even closer to her gastric dilemma and discover that the creatures she swallowed had a mischievous side.

In this irresistible redo, Holmes changes the book format into something wickedly macabre -- the book is both a story and a flat replica of the old lady meeting her end. He also imbues the creatures with a bit of cunning, adding in curious dining outfits and implements that suggest they knew what they were getting into. Yet, Holmes doesn't stray from all tradition. He stays faithful to the lyrics of the classic song by Alan Mills and Rose Bonne, and in doing so makes his version feel as authentic as any that came before.

One of the most amusing parts of the book is looking for the story. First you have to slip off the sleeve of the book, which doubles as the old lady's herringbone jacket. The book is a long thin paperboard box painted to look like the lady. She's a stout gal with a dour, square face dominated by big round spectacles that fills out the top third of the book. At her midriff above spindly legs, an argyle dress opens (with all modesty, I must add) to reveal the first page of the story. On the left is the beginning of the rhyme and to the right, a square gut containing the fly that made it down her throat. It's a fascinating creation, with the old lady clad in muted, Victorian attire and the box suggesting a vintage papier-mâché collectible.

The story begins of course with the fly, who by the looks of his pirate hat, telescope and map of the world, either flies prepared for any adventure (and found himself quite by accident down her esophagus) or had every intention of flying down the old lady's throat and exploring her digestive system. We are left wondering if this poor lady was really a nut or was so appalled to have a bug in her system that she simply lost her perspective. On the opposite page, we see the refrain "I don't know why she swallowed a fly" in italics and wonder if perhaps Holmes was still trying to figure this out as well.

But of course as we know, the fly never lives long enough to have much of a look. In comes the spider, dangling down by a thread. He's quite dapper, dressed in a purple polka dot tie, button-down shirt made of newspaper and eight dress shoes. All 12 eyes sit jumbled atop his head and above him hangs a fly chart, the web where he keeps track of his prey. Below in a sea of gastric juices, a skeleton head wearing the pirate hat, a wing, and the map, are sinking to parts not drawn, suggesting the fly's demise.

By the next page, all that's left of the spider are three eyeballs dangling from the mouth of a long-necked bird and all eight shoes floating in the digestive sea. The bird, who arrived in the old lady's stomach wearing a sheriff's badge, bandanna, cowboy hat and boots, must scrunch her neck just to fit into the cramped organ, reminding readers how crowded the old lady's tummy is becoming.

Next we spy the cat, decked out in a chef's hat, with fork and spoon in hand, about to dine on the bird, who has just been served up on a platter. But little does the cat know that on the next page he'll be sawed in half by a dog who is dressed as a magician -- and, from the looks of his skeleton-white head and stitched mouth, looks as macabre as a character from a Tim Burton movie.

Soon a snake with a clown nose, collar and wig slithers down the old lady's throat and opens her mouth over the dog as she prepares to pull him. The dog futilely tries to prop the snake's mouth open and sinks deeper into the gastric juices. By the next page, the snake too is gobbled up. All we see is her tail sticking out of the mouth of a cow, but not your typical grass-loving kind. This one has the horns of devil, a trident-like tail and Gothic wings, and is so big Holmes has to fold out the page to fit her in.

By the time we get to the horse, the rhyme is up. Only a small block print of a horse is needed, for once the old lady swallows the horse, "She died, of course." And that's where Holmes really shines.

Turning to the last page, a paperboard slat shifts to the left and the old lady's eyes slide shut. It's deliciously ghastly and matter-of-fact, with the old lady's body now arranged for an eternity of rest. Her dress is back in place, her arms (now skeletal) are crossed over her chest, and her fly swatter is clutched in her hand.

Though darker than other takes on the rhyme, Holmes' version never becomes gory (though you could draw a comparison between it and the Gothic works of the eccentric late American illustrator and writer Edward Gorey, both cleverly wry.) I can't recommend this book enough -- one look at it and you know you have to have it (not only to read but to add to your Halloween decor).