Friday, February 26, 2010

The Sable Quean (Redwall)

By Brian Jacques, illustrated by Sean Charles Rubin

Philomel Books, 2010

$23.99, ages 12 and up, 368 pages

What happens when two battle-crazed hares, one an expert with a sword, the other a champion with a spoon, set off for adventure in Mossflower Wood and run into a pack of vermin that is up to no good?

A rousing good tale of good versus evil, with plenty of breaks in the ruckus for plum duff and cordial, ditties and marching tunes, and a riddle to aide our humble heroes in uncovering what is hidden.

In this splendid 21st book in the epic, best-selling Redwall series, we find yet another vicious band of no-gooders trying to upset the bucolic world of the squirrels, otters and other gentle woodlanders of Mossflower.

Buckler Kordyne, a brave warrior hare, has been sent away from the mountain fortress Salamandastron with his food-guzzling scout Diggs to figure out what he wants from life when he stumbles upon a sinister plan to steal away Mossflower's young ones and take over Redwall Abbey.

Until now, the woodlanders had been enjoying peace in Mossflower and believed the days of battling their enemies the Ravagers were over -- which made for a pleasant time inside Redwall, but had amounted to a dull life for Blademaster Buck, who hungered for adventure.

Salamandastron's Badger Lord could see that young Buck was frustrated with teaching sword fighting; Buck disparaged it as "playing at being a warrior" and was acting rebellious. So the Badger Lord ordered him to take time off to travel with his trusted assistant, the hare Subaltern Digglethwaite, Diggs.

Buck is told to travel to his brother's farm and along the way to stop by Redwall to give the Abbess Marjoram a gift of new ropes for its bell tower, but the closer the young swordsman and his chunnery friend get to the monastery-like Redwall, the less tranquil the countryside seems to be.

First they run into a scoundrel fox and weasel trying to kidnap a shrewmaiden named Flib then meet up with a family of actors, The Witherspyk Performing Players, whose raft has run aground and before there's time to help them refloat the raft, the family's hedgehog twins and Flib go missing.

Hoping that the gentle folk at Redwall may have seen the little ones, Buck, Diggs and the Witherspyk family decide to head downstream to the abbey, aided by an army of compassionate Guosim shrews who lash their longboats to the side of the raft and join in the paddling.

But at Redwall, the news is bleak: two more babes are missing there as well. A vermin caught inside the refuge confesses that a vixen known as Vilaya the Sable Quean and her ruthless warrior Zwilt the Shade are sending Ravagers into the woodland to steal young ones.

Unless Buck, Diggs and the woodlanders can find Althier, an underground cave where the children are hidden, before a horde of Ravagers descends upon the abbey, they could lose Redwall, and worse yet, their young ones. But who is this mad hog Triggut Frap doing prowling around the babes?

It will take all of the good creatures in Mossflower, including its late savior Martin the Warrior mouse, a warrior mole, an old volewife and a heavy-handed badgermaid, to save the day.

The Sable Quean was a delight from the moment I opened it. I loved how richly the Mossflower world was imagined, from the woodlanders' brogues to their savory feasts and ballads. But the greatest draw for me was observing the animals interact, the banter that goes on, the harmless jabs, the camaraderie.

I had this strange and wonderful feeling that I was there too -- that the gentle folk had laid out a welcome mat for me to join in their adventure, a figurative pat on the back and boisterous "Over here, friend," before passing a scone and leading me along on their quest.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Cloud Tea Monkeys

By Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, Illustrated by Juan Wijngaard

Candlewick, 2010

$15.99, ages 4-8, 56 pages

When a farmer forbids Tashi from taking her sick mother's place in the tea fields, a troop of monkeys brings the peasant girl the most exquisite tea in the land in this breathtaking Chinese fable about extending the hand of kindness.

Every morning before sunrise a barefoot Tashi tags along with her mother, aunt and a woman friend as they carry baskets larger than Tashi down the hill to the tea plantation and labor under the watch of a critical Overseer.

Tashi, who is only slightly taller than her mother's waist, is too young to pick tea and amuses herself while they work under the shade of a tree, sharing fruit from her lunch bag with a family of monkeys that has been chased from the plantation by the Overseer.

One day, Tashi's mother becomes too ill to go to work and Tashi tries to fill in for her picking tea leaves so she can pay a doctor to make her well, but the Overseer berates her for trying and kicks over her basket.

Then Tashi's aunt, too fearful of losing her job, turns her back on Tashi.

Feeling alone and helpless, Tashi runs crying to the tree, as the monkeys circle around her, coming closer than they ever have before.

With no one else to turn to, she shares what has happened with the monkeys. But her sorrow only grows when a few of the adult monkeys grab her empty basket and run away with it up the mountains.

Too upset to cry out, Tashi curls up with the youngest monkeys and falls asleep, only to be awakened by a loud chatter. The adult monkeys have returned with her basket filled to the top with sprigs of the most magical mist-washed tea.

Thinking she might have another chance with the Overseer, Tashi drags the basket back to the farm, only to stop in her tracks when she sees the Empress's Royal Tea Tester, who has come to the plantation in search of the finest teas.

When the tea tester tastes Tashi's tea, he's amazed that such a small girl could pick such exquisite "cloud" tea -- the tea can only be found in high, dangerous parts of the mountains -- and makes her an offer she can't refuse.

Peet and Graham set up the story so beautifully that you come away from this gentle tale feeling as though you've walked in Tashi's shoes, while Wijngaard's artwork is stunning.

He envelops you in subtle changes in light, especially as the sun rises, and paints the facial expressions of characters so vividly that you feel as though you can see into their character.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Making Sense of the Gods: Five Fun Myth Books

Young Zeus

By G. Brian Karas

Scholastic Press, 2010

$17.99, ages 4-18, 48 pages

Encyclopedia Mythologica:
Gods & Heroes

By Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda

Candlewick Press, 2010

$29.99, ages 9-12, 12 pages

Mythical gods may not rank up there with wizards and vampires as your child's favorite characters -- and not surprisingly. With so many duking it out for control over the universe, it's enough to make your child's head spin.

But when you think about how often myths pop up in children's books -- from Chris Van Allsburg's The Wreck of the Zephyr to Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series -- it's hard not to want to nudge your child to learn the basics.

Just knowing a little about the gods, heroes and beasts of Greek, Roman and Nordic mythology can enrich your child's reading experience -- and ideally, give them insight into some of the books they already love to read.

The challenge, of course, is finding mythology books that are interesting enough to draw readers away from their usual selections and brush up on who's who.

Fortunately there are some really great books that bring levity, clarity and a lot fun to the subject.

One of my new favorites is Karas's Young Zeus -- a perfect picture book to introduce young readers to the Greek gods' family tree. Karas retells the story of the chief deity in such a playful way its seems more like a fairy tale than an ancient legend.

The book opens with the queen of heaven Rhea whisking her baby son Zeus out of harm's way to the island of Crete. Fearing that Zeus's sinister father, the Titan Cronus, will eat Zeus if he discovers his son is still alive, Rhea asks an enchanted she-goat Amaltheia to keep Zeus hidden until he's grown.

Though Zeus is happy playing in the golden sun with all of the beasts and birds of Crete, he misses playing with other gods, and asks "Ammy" (Amaltheia) why he's all alone. Like all Greek mythology, it's complicated, but Ammy manages to give Zeus a good run-through of the quarrels that led to his dilemma.

First, of course, was the marital discord between his grandparents the sky god Uranus and earth god Gaia -- Uranus loved twelve of his children, the Titans, but was so ashamed of the six who were monsters that he locked them away in the underworld against his wife's wishes.

Then there's that louse Cronos, who was asked by his mother Gaia to dethrone Uranus and free his six monster siblings, but instead left them in the underworld to suffer. He was so power-hungry that he eventually gobbled up all of his children (except Zeus of course) for fear they might overthrow him.

Little did Cronos know, however, that when he began to eat his kids, his wife Rhea wrapped a rock up in a blanket to look like Zeus, and stole Zeus away to safety, which brings Ammy to the end of her story -- and the beginning of Zeus's legendary fight for justice.

On the next pages, Zeus embarks on a quest to free his siblings, the other Olympians, from his father's stomach and together with the help of his uncles in the underworld, defeat Cronos and his other sons, the wicked Titans.

Karas brings humor and magic to this tale, depicting scenes as I child might imagine them. There's mother Rhea sweeping down like a storm cloud with baby Zeus, then a young Zeus, nearly as tall as the tree he's sitting by, moping with his head in his hands because he doesn't have any gods to play with.

Another splendid new release is Reinhart and Sabuda's Encyclopedia Mythologica: Gods & Heroes, an overview of ancient myths with intricate pop-ups no child can resist.

On one page Thor, the Nordic sky god, pops out at readers with a magical hammer over his head while on another an Aztec serpent flies toward them with its jaws open. (Just be sure to open and close each spread slowly. Some pop-ups have to be guided closed to prevent elements from overlapping and ripping.)

Watch a book trailer of the pop-up below!

You also can't go wrong with the 2007 Mythology and the 2009 followup The Mythology Handbook: An Introduction to the Greek Myths, both part of Candlewick's "Ology" series.

Mythology, the scrapbook of fictional nineteenth century scholar Lady Hestia Evans, includes fun pull-out parts and flaps, and curiosities. including a card game featuring the 12 Olympians. The Mythology Handbook, a workbook of lessons for Hestia's two children, includes mazes, a word search using Greek letters, stickers, fact files and maps.

Another wonderful book is Eric A. Kimmel and Pep Montserrat's The McElderry Book of Greek Myths, a 2008 release from Margaret K. McElderry. Perfect for bedside reading, the anthology brings to life 12 myths (among them Pandora's Box and the story of Pygmalion) with richly colored images that meander around the text.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Wish Stealers

By Tracy Trivas

Aladdin, 2010

$16.99, ages 8-12, 284 pages

Griffin Penshine never thought twice about making a wish until the day she met an old woman and accepted her box of stolen wishes. Now one wrong wish from Griffin could lead to powerful trouble unless she can return 11 pennies to their rightful owners.

In this charming debut by Trivas, Griffin is the kind of girl who throws caution to the wind: she never misses a chance to blow dandelion fluff or rescue a friend's loose eyelash so she can make a wish of her own, and she never hesitates to wish wondrous things, like raindrops turning into chocolate.

But when 12-year-old Griffin is tricked into becoming the new guardian of stolen wishes on the eve of her sixth grade year, suddenly all of her good thoughts are being cancelled out and anything she wishes for out of anger but doesn't really mean (especially toward the nasty girl in class) is coming true.

Unless Griffin can figure out how to break the curse of being a wish stealer, she could lose all of the things she's dreamed about, becoming an amazing bass guitarist, having a healthy new baby sister, seeing grandma recover from her dizzy spells, and all that's good inside of her could shrivel up just like it did in the old lady who stole the wishes.

Griffin's troubles begin one afternoon at her neighbor Mr. Schmidt's antique store. While tagging along with her astronomer mother Dr. Penshine, Griffin is approached by his great-aunt Mariah Weatherby Schmidt and offered a shiny penny and a box of polishing cloths. Though deep down Griffin wants to refuse the gift, something inside her can't resist.

The penny, an 1897 Indian Head, seems to have a hypnotic pull over her and that night, Griffin discovers that it's not the only one. During a thunder strike the box of polishing clothes mysteriously pops open and reveals 10 more Indian Head pennies and a note from Mariah, detailing a wicked curse that she's passed on to Griffin.

Long ago Mariah stole pennies from a wishing fountain to indulge herself with treats. Every time she scooped up change, she blocked any wish someone made from coming true. Now that Mariah is 92 and her life is coming to a close, she's chosen Griffin to be the next wish stealer -- anyone in possession of the stolen pennies automatically bears the curse -- and made it next to impossible for Griffin to do anything about it.

Mariah warns Griffin that wish stealers are controlled by three rules: 1. Their good wishes can no longer come true. 2. Anything evil they wish for will happen. 3. If a wish stealer tells anyone about the curse, that person will be doomed for life and will never have wishes come true. What's more the longer a wish stealer is in possession of stolen wishes, the more corrupt she becomes.

Not a great beginning for Griffin's sixth grade year, but with a little insight from ancient alchemists, an eerie troupe of traveling Shakespearean actresses, and a Pennies for the Planet fundraising campaign, and some guidance from her grandmother, Griffin might just find there's something more powerful than a wicked curse.

This story sparkles from start to finish -- the perfect pick-me-up for any reader who's ever thrown a wish to the wind. Every chapter ends with an inspirational quote about believing in yourself and not letting others trounce on your dreams, either from a famous thinker or the author, including some I'm sure to borrow.

My favorites, "Stuff your ears with clouds," (Grandma Penshine's advice if someone tries to pull you down with negativity), and philosopher Joseph Campbell's "Follow your bliss."

Consider sending this gem to your favorite middle-grade reader, along with a box of 11 shiny pennies she can label and give away, as well as a few good luck charms similar to those given to Griffin by her grandmother, a shiny river rock, a ring with a faux blue gem and one lucky penny of her own.

Then check out these great websites under my "BLOGS AND LINKS I'M FOLLOWING" -- and -- and help turn wishes into gold.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Purple Kangaroo

by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Peter Brown

Simon & Schuster, 2010

$16.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

In this goofy fun book by Comedy Central comedian Black, a monkey claims to be a mind-reader and tricks readers into thinking exactly what he wants them to.

When readers first meet the monkey, he appears be running a lemonade stand. But then he starts talking about reading their minds and it's clear he isn't selling drinks.

What this long-tailed wiseacre is "selling" is a joke, but first he's got to set it up and give readers a good mental image, in this case one so vivid that it will seem like their own.

The monkey, a slick fellow with a perma press smile, opens his routine using the element of surprise.

Hidden behind the lemonade stand, he calls out, "Hey Kid!… I can read minds. It's true. In fact, I can read YOUR mind."

Then he pops up from behind the stand, and slides a "Mind Reader" sign over the one reading "Lemonade" on the stand.

(Clearly this is a bit the monkey's done before.)

Next, he asks readers to think of something "so spectacular that nobody has ever thought of it in the entire history of thinking about things."

He plugs his ears and asks readers to say their thought out loud, assuring them that he can't hear anything they say.

After all, "I'm just a picture in a book."

Next, readers witness the monkey's "unusual, incredible, amazing, and slightly alarming magical powers" (his eyes spiral), as he makes a wild guess at what they're thinking.

"You were thinking about a purple kangaroo!" he exclaims.

Of course that wasn't what readers were thinking about and the monkey, like any smooth-talker, has already thought of what to say before readers can reply.

Pretending he needs to jar their memory of the kangaroo, the monkey launches into a succession of absurd details about the kangaroo.

You remember, he says emphatically,...

The monkey who was looking for his chinchilla friend Senor Ernesto de Pantalones while roller skating and juggling five fragrant bananas?

The one who blew an enormous bubble of rainbow gum out of his nose and was showered with gold coins for his feat?

The one who then used the money to hire a rhino to fly him in a paisley blimp into the stratosphere so he could search for his friend?

The one who found his friend waving a flag on the moon?

Well, he adds with a fit of laughter, you're thinking about it now!

A goof at heart, Black uses the craft of joke-telling, adds in a bit of absurdity and creates a book too silly to resist.

Black co-stars with Michael Showalter in Comedy Central's "Michael & Michael Have Issues."

Don't miss the hilarious video below of Black reading his book!