Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Chestnut King

By N.D. Wilson

Random House Books for Young Readers, 2010

$16.99, ages 9 and up, 496 pages

It's been three years since N.D. Wilson wowed readers with the first installment of The 100 Cupboards trilogy, and as the series comes to a close, I feel as though I've come out of an incredible adventure.

In much the same way that D.M. Cornish's mythical Half-Continent in the Monster Blood Tattoo series seemed so tangible and alive, Wilson's Henry, Kansas, and his worlds of the cupboards, Baden Hill, Hylfing and even Endor feel like places I've entered.

In this last, climactic book about Henry York and the magical cupboards he found hidden in his aunt and uncle's Kansas farmhouse, Henry is no longer the naive, sheltered boy who wonders why he's so disconnected from the parents who raised him in Boston.

Though still a nervous boy prone to throwing up when he's scared, he is now the powerful seventh son in a line of seventh sons, rooted to another world that he's destined to protect.

It's been a year since Henry and cousin Henrietta found seams leading to other worlds through 100 cabinets in the farmhouse attic and their late grandfather's bedroom, and a year since they made the mistake of wandering too far into one and freeing an evil witch-queen from her tomb.

In that time, Henry has made discoveries he never imagined, most importantly that he was born into one of these magical worlds in a seaside town known as Hylfing.

There, behind one of the cupboards, Henry is reunited with his birth mother Hyacinth and sisters Una and Isa, and christened Henry York Macabee just in time to free his legendary birth father, Mordecai Westmore, from a faeren curse and help bring down one of witch-queen's henchmen with a magical arrow.

Now turning 13, Henry has settled into his new life in Hylfing, occasionally sneaking back to Kansas through a cupboard he moved from the farmhouse attic to a shed by his birth parents' home to pitch baseballs to his friend Zeke Johnson, but now he's saddled with an enormous burden.

The witch-queen, Nimiane, whom he released from cupboard number 8 when a mythical creature, a raggant, came looking for him, is leaving a trail of death across the worlds. She wants to devour life from the city of Dumarre, the capitol of his new home, and turn it into a new Endor, an empire of death.

Nimiane, who is blind and sees through a cat she carries, also wants to find Henry, take over his soul and gain strength from his newfound powers.

In the second book, Dandelion Fire, Henry's palm was branded with the magic of dandelion fire, a supernatural power that guards his soul from evil and gives him second sight to escape the witch-queen's trickery, but he was also scarred by Nimiane.

During a confrontation in the farmhouse, Nimiane's blood wormed into his jaw, and now it threatens to spread into his brain and turn Henry into a fingerling, a dead body that does Nimiane's bidding through a finger that sprouts from its head.

The question that keeps us riveted in Book 3 is whether Henry's dandelion fire will be a match for Nimiane's immortality, her "great, grinding death," or whether his mark will be her curse?

Like dandelion weeds, which find life again by broadcasting seeds and multiply quickly, his dandelion fire gains strength from its own renewal -- but as Nimiane feeds off of the living, her power also grows, as does the scar in Henry's jaw that's pulling him to her.

Henry knows his father Mordecai and uncle Caleb entombed the witch-queen once when they were young and might be able to do so again, but this would not save Henry's life. Only when the witch-queen dies will the cold blood in his jaw die as well.

But killing off an undying queen may not even be possible, especially now that the emperor of Dumarre has made a deal with Nimiane.

In exchange for giving his City of the Seas immortality, he is letting the witch-queen hide in his palace and control his fleet in the harbor, as her witch-dogs, wizards, and fingerlings order his imperial soldiers to kill those who oppose her.

And now Mordecai and Uncle Caleb have gone to Endor to search for a way to kill the witch and save Henry's life, and unknowingly left Hylfing vulnerable to soldiers under the witch-queen's control.

Just when Henry is reunited with his brother James, soldiers break into their Hylfing home and haul James away with Uncle Frank, Aunt Dottie, Hyacinth, Isa, cousin Penelope, and wizard friend Monmouth to an imperial ship. Soon after, they burn down their home, entrapping his grandmother, Henrietta and his loyal raggant inside.

Henry's only hope to save his family, his world and himself could rest with The Chestnut King, the ruler of an aloof band of pirate faeries. Mordecai thinks the king, known as Nudd, may know where to find an ancient relic believed to control the witch-queen's immortality, the Blackstar.

But even if Nudd knows where the star is, will he be willing to help? He's already sent his faeren to capture Henry's friend, the rogue faerie Fat Frank, and taken his cousin Anastasia, Una and friend Richard with him. Will he prove to be friend or foe? And if he does agree to help, at what cost?

Though Wilson's descriptions of Endor's history are at times complex, I was completely enthralled in this series and loved every moment.

I was drawn to the inventiveness of Wilson's story, and how skillfully he moved it along, quickly shifting among different characters and their adventures. At times it felt as if the characters barely caught their breath and they were thrown back into danger.

I also liked how genuine the characters felt, the frailty Wilson shows in each of them, as well as the loyalty, boldness and humor.

One of the great lines of the book comes from Zeke after a near-death escape with Henry and Henrietta from fingerlings into Kansas.

Henry is feeling defeated and Henrietta, always a bit brash, is giving him an earful for daring to suggest that he give up.

She rattles off all the ways they could still try to bring down the witch-queen -- poison her, bomb her, burn her -- when Zeke chimes in and suggests they get Frodo to destroy her like he did the Dark Lord in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

"Maybe she has a ring," he says. "All we need is a hobbit and a volcano."

Wilson's humor, often subtle and unexpected, comes through at just the right moments, adding levity during the darkest parts of the book and heightening the euphoria when Henry's family and friends make it through another close call.

I loved the subtle symbolism in the book, the nod to the Wizard of Oz (Henry's uncle name is Frank and his wife Dottie's name is short for Dorothy), the references to baseball, and the care Wilson took to carry through every theme to the end, no matter how secondary it became as the main story advanced, including how life continued in Henry, Kansas, after Henry and his family left.

One of the risks of any series is that over the course of several books a plot can lose its momentum and spark, but Wilson's imagination was always up to the challenge. His story line, so unique and imaginative, never languished over the three books, and I was continually carried away from my own reality.

At times I caught my eyes darting from one line to the next, my hands gripping either side of the book and myself holding my breath as Henry York and his family struggled to escape danger.

I only wish there was another adventure still to come for Henry York, but for now, I'll be content with whatever Wilson sends our way.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kiss Kiss

Written and illustrated by Selma Mandine, translated by Michelle Williams

Golden Books/Random House, 2009

$9.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

Ordinarily you wouldn't expect a hardback book to look snuggly, especially one that doesn't have touch-and-feel panels. But Kiss Kiss sure makes you want to nestle up inside of it.

In Kiss Kiss, French author-illustrator Mandine turns the familiar premise, what kisses feel like, into something fresh and irresistible.

Each picture evokes a softness beyond what you'd expect from a book page and leaves you wishing you could feel everything you see.

The Golden Book opens with a rosy-nosed boy in a yellow hooded sleeper asking his pudgy stuffed bear if he knows what a kiss is like.

Then with every page the little boy describes each kiss that he knows.

First it's Mommy's super soft kiss. As Mommy and the boy embrace, his hood becomes a wig of the softest wool and you see heart-shaped clouds float away, carrying the bear and the boy's toy chick blissfully with them.

Daddy's kiss isn't so soft with all of those prickly whiskers on his chin, but it doesn't hurt. It tickles.

As Daddy and the boy giggle in each other's arms, his hood resembles the outside of a cactus, while in the distance his toy alligator sits upright like a saguaro, with the chick perched on its head.

In the next pages, you see Grandpa's kiss turn into strands of cotton candy as his beard envelops the boy in sweet softness, and watch Grandma blowing noisy kisses that transform the boy into a pink musical note.

There is the kiss the boy can see, the chocolate one from little brother Christopher, who forgets to wipe his mouth; the one that makes him blush, from a girl with a polka dot red hoodie; and the sloppy one from his dog that sprays heart-shaped droplets all over his face.

Remembering how much he is loved, the boy beams with happiness, but does Bear really understand what makes a kiss?

Bear, whose stitches are loose from so much cuddling with the boy, isn't so sure he does, but tries to make one anyway.

On the last pages readers find Bear puckering up to them and a sentence for them to finish: "A kiss for …"

Mandine's illustrations are soft and dreamy like those of Italian illustrator Nicoletta Ceccoli (Oscar and the Mooncats, The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum), and have a sweet silliness that will endear children immediately.

I can't think of a sweeter story to read tonight after my child pulls up his covers.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rose's Garden

By Peter H. Reynolds

Candlewick Press, 2009

$15.99, all ages, 40 pages

Standing astride a giant floating teapot, a girl named Rose sails the world gathering seeds for a city garden in this uplifting tribute to the late Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The girl, with her long jacket trailing behind and her head held high, echoes the spirit of the Kennedy matriarch -- her steely determination, exuberance and desire to increase the well-being of others -- as she pulls together a community to grow a garden.

The garden is both a metaphor for faith and symbolic of a mile-long ribbon of parks and public spaces in Boston inspired by Kennedy's life, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, which officially opened in 2008, 13 years after her death at age 104.

In Reynolds' story, Rose is steadfast and sure, and drifts from place to place until her teapot, an ornate vessel the length of a large rowboat, is brimming with seeds of all kinds and she wanders into the port of a bustling city to look for a site for her garden.

From his lighthouse window, the harbormaster suggests Rose float upriver to where it's lovely, but Rose wants to search the city first.

There she finds a forgotten stretch of earth between two walls of buildings -- a barren plot similar to areas transformed into the Kennedy greenway -- and decides this is the place that needs her seeds the most.

But the garden doesn't come easily for Rose. As she's working the soil, a flock of birds swoops down on the teapot and the birds eat most of the seeds.

(The greenway too was slowed by obstacles, many related to the rerouting of Boston's overpass, the Central Artery. Room for parks became available as the artery was moved underground.)

Rose is startled, but she sees how full and happy the birds seem and realizes all is not lost. So she slips into the teapot to gather the few seeds that are left, determined to make the most of what she has.

Parents may be reminded of Kennedy's famous quote about her own resilience after tragedy, including the assassinations of sons, President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy:

"Birds sing after a storm; why shouldn't people feel as free to delight in whatever sunlight remains to them?"

Just like moving on in real-life, however, the seeds don't take quickly to the cityscape. Seasons pass without signs of life in the garden, with each season exacting its severity on the land.

Yet Rose doesn't give up and soon word of her faith spreads through the city.

Children from all over the city go to the empty plot to meet Rose and deliver her flowers they've made from paper. Like the seeds she's tried to spread, they share stories of their journeys to the city and together, become a community.

In a similar way, the greenway reunited the neighborhoods of Boston, connecting four park areas from the North End to Chinatown. Each park now celebrates the neighborhood it passes through and the city's history as a whole.

At the sight of all of the paper flowers arranged in the soil, Rose's heart brims. An entire city has pulled together. Then she wades through the sea of blossoms and a miracle unfolds.

She hears a bee and follows the buzzing to a real red rose bursting out of the paper garden, the first of many flowers sprouting to life.

At his mother's funeral in 1995, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy spoke of an inner strength that radiated from his mother's life, and thanks to Reynolds' tender tribute, we feel it once more.

Reynolds, a New York Times best-selling illustrator, is also author of So Few of Me, The North Star, The Dot and Ish.

To watch a "Telefable" version of the story, go to www.rosekennedygreenway.org/programs/telefable.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fun, Fast Facts: Five Books Kids Can't Put Down

If your kids crave information but are tired of wading through dull texts, here are five fact books from DK Publishing that will change the way they look at nonfiction.

How to Be a Genius: Your Brain and How to Train It, explores the wonders of the brain, from how it gathers data to how it reads emotions and grows, with puzzles, experiments and illusions to trick the brain, test memory and boost creativity.

109 Forgotten American Heroes spotlights heroes (and a few villains) many kids never learn about, from the high-climbing ear cleaners of the Lincoln Memorial to the inventor of the yellow smiley face to a Massachusetts nurse who almost started the American Revolution.

Open Me Up: Everything You Need to Know About the Human Body details all that it means to be human -- including how cells divide to make bodies grow, how bodies stay warm when it's cold, what happens in the brain during sleep and which joints allow heads to turn.

The Greatest Intergalactic Guide to Space Ever follows the Brainwaves, tiny Smurf-like characters, in outer space as they learn about stars, black holes, nebulae and more. On one page, kids see them steering bumper cars to rotate planets around the sun and on another they get stuck in a soup of particles after the Big Bang.

Ask Me Anything: Every Fact You Ever Wanted to Know answers almost any question kids could ask and many they probably never thought of asking, including: Will the sun shine forever? Why don't haircuts hurt? Why do bones remain for centuries after a person dies? and my favorite: Can a car run on chocolate?

Each book is packed with facts, but doesn't require pages of reading.

What's more, none looks like the stereotypical reference book, in which the layout is predictable and is designed for retrieving information more than settling in for a long read.

With a standard encyclopedia, kids tend to look up something, then close the book, but with these compendiums, there's so much to catch their eye that they want to hang out and explore.

In Open Me Up, even the content pages are fun to look at, with break-out boxes of titles and pages pointing to relevant body parts on a human body diagram.

Authors lead kids into a subject with bold headings, then deliver snappy text and fun angles to keep them interested.

A spread in Open Me Up titled, "Dental Kit," shows foods moving on a conveyor belt into a metal grinding machine with teeth. The teeth are cataloged as tearers, choppers, crushers and so on, as they prepare food for swallowing.

Many of the books also have games and quizzes spread throughout or make kids feel a part of the subject matter in other ways.

In The Greatest Intergalactic Guide to Space Ever, readers experience outer space through the antics of the cartoon Brainwaves, who go everywhere kids can't go but perhaps wish they could.

Brainwaves zoom through space on flying bicycles, surfboards, even a motorized toilet; climb aboard a planetary merry-go-round; and vacation on Mars. There they bungee jump off canyons, ride a cable car to view two moons and attempt a game of fetch with a Mars rover.

In Ask Me Anything, authors connect readers to the subject through a fun feature titled, "What about me?"

In a spread about space flight, kids learn they could book a seat on a spacecraft for $200,000 and in a section on gravity, they discover their sneeze exerts g-forces similar to those felt by astronauts during a space shuttle launch.

Facts are given without long lead-ins or elaborations, and introductions are either spare or nonexistent.

The books are the antithesis of the dull text book and authors aren't afraid to poke fun at the traditional format.

In 109 Forgotten American Heroes, a warning label is posted in bright red above the introduction, "This section is intended only for readers interested in reading a long, laborious, actual introduction." Then when the actual foreword begins, the authors exclaim to the readers, "Still! You're still here!"

Information, whether it's silly or serious, is explored in ways that kids can relate to, with quirky references, imaginative tie-ins to their experiences and eye-catching graphics.

Open Me Up shows pathways of blood as streets on a map, body tissue samples as slices of cake and organs of the digestive system as a colorful series of skinny balloons, while How to Be a Genius depicts the brain as a building under construction with workers adding to the scaffolding.

Sometimes well-known images are repackaged in a hip way or the subject matter is adapted to famous paintings and pop art. Portraits might be pixelated or shown in multiple frames against bright colors like Andy Warhol's silkscreen images of celebrities.

Some spreads look like advertising campaigns. Others resemble old circus posters or political pamphlets, or feature caricatures, blueprints or game boards. A spread on Mary Todd Lincoln's superstitions in 109 Forgotten American Heroes looks like a Ouija board.

And there's usually something to laugh about.

In 109 Forgotten American Heroes, cartoon characters gorge on giant french fries as kids read about a salesman who introduced the idea of jumbo portions to fast food chains.

Later, kids read an end note (literally after the index and credits) thanking all of the "heroic" trees that were sacrificed to make the book.

Sacrificed perhaps, but definitely not wasted.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Magic Under Glass

By Jaclyn Dolamore

Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2010

$16.99, ages 12 and up, 320 pages

Eighteen-year-old Nimira thinks she's found the safe future she's been waiting for when a handsome sorcerer rescues her from a seedy life as "trouser girl," but when she arrives at his estate, Nimira is swept into a sinister coverup and must call upon the spirits of the netherworld to help her save a fairy prince.

Desperate to leave behind her humiliating job as a chorus girl, Nimira accepts an offer by Hollin Parry to perform at his estate with a piano-playing automaton. Parry confides that past singers fled his estate after claiming the clockwork man was haunted, but he insists its movements are only lifelike, not real.

Parry, a wealthy widower still anguished by his wife's death, is drawn to the defiant Nimira and doesn't believe she'll be spooked like his past hires. Nimira, who has waited four years for a better life, having fled her country of Tiansher for Lorinar when she was 14 to seek her fortune, wants to believe Parry is right.

Seizing her chance to break free of the possessive owner of the Tassim dance troupe and make a better wage, Nimira leaves the city of New Sweeling with Parry in a coach for Vestenveld estate. Though the country estate looks cold and lonely upon their arrival and she's greeted brusquely by a meaty-armed servant woman, Nimira feels burdens lift as she's whisked into a world of privilege.

But nothing is quite as it seems and soon Nimira discovers dark forces at work at the estate and a disturbing sentiment to destroy the fairies living over a wall from Lorinar. Nimira is horrified when she discovers real fairies frozen under glass in Parry's late father's study and learns that the wind-up automaton she's to perform with is actually a lost fairy prince trapped by a spell.

While Nimira is alone with the automaton, the fairy prince reveals himself, moaning out to her and tapping piano keys that correspond with letters of words in a plea for help. He explains he is Erris, the ninth son in line to the fairy crown, and was imprisoned inside the clockworks 30 years ago by his enemies during the last Fairy War.

Erris explains that he has been waiting for his human friend Garvin Pelerine, Lorinar's late ambassador of magic, to free him from the clockworks and is shaken when Nimiria tells him that Garvin has died, reportedly at the hand of fairy bandits.

The fairy prince doesn't believe fairies were to blame and suspects foul play by Garvin's human rivals in the Sorcerer's Council. Garvin held a controversial view that fairies could be allies, while many on the council believe fairies are evil and conspire to conquer humans.

Erris fears the new ambassador of magic Soleran Smollings will harm him if he discovers he's inside the automaton and believes his only hope to break the spell that keeps him trapped inside it is if Nimira can get word to Garvin's close friend, fellow sorcerer Karstor that he's at the estate.

But when Smollings arrives at Vestenveld to see the automaton, he already suspects it is the long lost fairy prince and devises a plan to trick Karstor into revealing that the clockwork man is Erris. Unless Nimira can get to Karstor first and warn him not to react to the automaton with recognition, Erris will be destroyed.

Meanwhile, strange things are occurring in the night at Parry's estate. A young woman with glowing orbs bobbing around her head bursts into Nimira's room screaming for help and is chased by Smollings wielding a sorcerer's staff.

Hollin, running in after them, tells Nimira the girl is a madwoman that Smollings is transporting to prison, but Nimira soon discovers that the woman is imprisoned on the third floor of Vestenveld and is being used by Smollings and the cruel servant woman, Miss Rashten, for dark magic.

With Smollings closing in on Erris, Nimira's only chance to save her fairy prince may be to go to the woman on the third floor and ask for her help summoning a spirit to break the spell. But even if the spirit has the power to free Erris from the clockworks, without a human body to return to, is Erris already beyond saving?

With some novels, you spend the first few pages getting your footing, trying to figure out what's going on, but with Magic Under Glass, you're instantly transported into the story without any effort. I loved the mixture of exotic and magical, and the subtle hints at romance, and finished the book with that delicious feeling you get from being swept away.