Illustrator of the Week - Laura Park

Laura Park first came to my attention after reading the wonderful Middle School, the Worst Years of My Life. Laura Park describes herself as a cartoonist and illustrator with a fondness for colorful inks and Lady Falcon pen nibs.

Children's Books Featuring Bikes or Along for the Ride

I couldn't decide on a good title for this post. One must make these things so that they are googleable, however I would rather have something catchy, and yes even kitchy, but it is the price one must pay in order for people to find these things.

I recently learned of a new film being released called Premium Rush in which a NYC bike messenger is featured. As an avid cyclist, this peeked my interest although I am miffed by the whole one speed bike with no brakes, but then again I don't live in a place that is flat and I am not brave enough to go without brakes. Also, I love my fast road bike with its many gears. After watching the trailer a few times (yes, I do get a little obsessed over these things), I couldn't help but think of all the wonderful books out there that feature cyclists and their riders, something that for most kids is a major part of their growing up experience. See my previous entry regarding Summer Sounds. So I pulled together a small compilation of books that aren't about bikes, but rather feature them. I hope it will add a book or two to your reading list. And the movie trailer of course.

Virtuosity Book Review

Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez

Carmen is a violinist, a child prodigy with an over-bearing stage mom, an old-as-dirt but brilliant instructor, and a looming violin competition that will either make or break her career. Jeremy is the competition. As she gets to know Jeremy though, Carmen begins reevaluating her life. Does she really need drugs, even prescribed drugs, to keep down her anxiety? Can she really like someone who is supposed to be the enemy? And more importantly, does she really want to win?

As a violinist myself, although by no means remotely child prodigy like in nature, I picked up this book purely for it's content. Halfway through I was rolling my eyes, unable to get past the teen angst ridden romance breeding between Carmen and Jeremy. I was making all kinds of sweeping guesses as to how the book would end and truthfully, at least in the beginning and middle, I did not think Carmen deserved to win. Not because she wasn't good, but because she really didn't want or need it. But then the end came and I was wrong.

Virtuosity is so much more than a romance. It is about a girl, even one whose path seems so clearly cut out for her, who is searching for herself. Violin has always been the only option, as her mother made all too clear. Everything in Carmen's life revolves around the violin. Except for the occasional run with her step-dad, Carmen's sleep schedule, schooling, work, business, and relationship with her mother are all she knows. Jeremy isn't just a love interest, he is the one who shows her that there is more to life than competition, more to herself than a violin.

In the end, Carmen is forced to make some very hard and very grown-up choices, but they are her choices and there was a pride in this accomplishment, more pride than I would have felt over any competition. Despite my resistance, Virtuosity was a very solid book for me with two wonderful characters who made this romance critic fall in love.

Minor flaw: Isn't that cover terrible? Would you have known that this was a book about a violinist? I think this may make my end of the year category for "Best Book Hidden Under the Worst Cover".

Talisman of El Book Review

Talisman of El by Alecia Stone
Centrinian Publishing 
Release Date: May 20, 2012

Charlie's life isn't what anyone would describe as good. Having lost his mother and then father, Charlie now lives with an adoptive dad who turns out to be a criminal. As his world spirals out of control, Charlie meets up with Alex and Richmond and together they go on a journey to discover Arcadia, a world that is like a heaven below the earth. A world in which Charlie may just belong.

Although slow to start, Alicia Stone paints a very vivid portrait of Arcadia that makes the reader wish it were real and not imagined. Deftly weaving in werewolves, angels, demons, Mothman, and the Garden of Eden, Stone's fantasy world made the journey fun and accessible. Not to mention the plot twist in the end that was both unexpected and brilliant. 

I do wish a bit more thought had been put into the real world events or at least as much detail payed to our world as there was to Arcadia. Charlie is a good strong character, but I did find it unbelievable that a man like his adoptive dad who reveals himself to be a thief and a liar would just let Charlie go off and do whatever he liked without serious consequences. For example, when Charlie is gone half the night in the woods at the very beginning of the book, Jacob barely bats an eyelash which I found wholly unlikely.

The plot did get muddy at times, with the narrative breaking off suddenly and then the details being filled in later, but Stone had such a clear vision of her world that most readers will continue to wade through the muddle in the middle. 

One last bit of criticism that is by no means the fault of the author; if this book should be published in the U.S., it will definitely need a language makeover. Range=oven, Draw=drawers, Toilet=bathroom, bunking off=skip school, etc. Although I usually understood what it meant though inference and I suspect most kids would too, it did bring me out of the story sometimes, which is something I don't think the author would want or any reader for that matter.

Recipes in Picture Books

As a kid one of my favorite books involved not only food, but one very awesome recipe for blueberry pancakes. After baking a Blueberry Raspberry Boy Bait Cake (yes, that is its real name) I was inspired to find picture books with some fun recipes to boot. Don't look for the recipes here though, you'll have to buy the books in order to do that.

Picture Books on NPR

Check out this piece about children's picture books as featured on NPR.

Rapture of the Deep Book Review

Rapture of the Deep by L.A. Meyer

Jacky Faber. Soldier, Sailor, Lieutenant in His Majesty's Royal Navy, one time Pirate, Belle of the West, Dancer, Musician, and Spy is at it again. On the day of her wedding to a Mr. Jaimy Fletcher, Jacky is once again abducted by the Royal Intelligence Agency and is offered a choice, one that leads her back to the Caribbean. Diving off the coast, Jacky is being forced to search a ship with sunken treasure with the hopes that she will receive a royal pardon and can actually marry her fiancee. But as usual nothing ever goes as planned and Jacky finds herself in an ocean of trouble with flirtatious pirates, angry Spanish commanders, and some seriously tempting treasure.

In this seventh book in the Bloody Jack series, Jacky is in her element. In control of her own ship, if not her own life, Jacky for the most part is rather happy in this tale and it felt so refreshing for her to just be enjoying herself even if it couldn't be with Jaimy. Always the imp, Jacky can't resist squirreling away a little bit of the treasure for herself, but then what did you think she would do?

As usual, L.A. Meyer deftly inserts various literary and historical references like a diving bell, diving equipment, Cuba, cock fights, slave trade, and the tensions between various countries to color Jacky's world. Although I had to roll my eyes a little when Jacky "invented" scuba gear and knots for diving. (the credit for swim fins should go to Ben Franklin)

One thing I haven't written too much about in previous reviews is how L.A. Meyer uses stories, sea shanties, and ballads to fill this world. Rapture of the Deep features a lovely rendition of Drunken Sailor, Bully in the Alley, Hush-a-Bye, Go Down Moses, Blood Red Roses, Lazarus, and some wonderful Brer Rabbit tales. For a little fun I will include some wonderful musical clips for those who want to hear some rather drunken sounding songs or learn a new lullaby.

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom Book Review

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy and Todd Harris

Prince Frederic, Prince Liam, Prince Duncan, and Prince Gustav all have one thing in common. They are all known as Prince Charming. After saving Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel, the princes are all trying to live up or down their reputations no thanks to the lousy bards who wrote those tales. Rejected by their princesses, the League of Princes Charming must battle a witch, bandits, dragons, and one very large giant in order to prove that they are the heroes no one thought they could be.

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is fun romp with a cast of characters that always kept a grin on my face. From the bumbling adventure-phobic Prince Fredrick, to the gruff and overly manly Prince Gustav, to the dashing Prince Liam whose entire kingdom hates him, to Prince Duncan who thinks he has magical good luck. But this isn't a story aimed purely at boys for there are some great strong female characters as well as Ella who often rescues herself and Snow White who is forced to go off in search of her missing prince. Accompanied by adorable Disney-esque illustrations this is the perfect book for any fairy tale lover.

Although it drags a little in the middle, being overly long especially in the dialogue, once the story picks up again I was well-pleased. Kids have proven that if a story is good the length is not as important and I think they will have no problem with this novel.

Illustrator of the Week - Mehrdokht Amini

Mehrdokht Amini is a London based illustrator from Tehran with degrees in graphic design and art research. Her illustrations appear in books in both Arabic and English. Her newest book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns is reminiscent of so many Disney designs, but her whimsical style and middle eastern roots bring the characters to life in a magical way.

Wonder Book Review

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Ten-year-old August Pullman or Auggie will be going to school for the first time this year. He is bright, funny, and smart, traits that most people never get to see because they can't get past his face. Born with a rare genetic defect, Auggie's face is like none others and for some kids that is simply too much. As the school year progresses, the reader follows Auggie, his sister, and his new friends as they all struggle to find normal.

Told from varying perspectives, Auggie's story is definitely one of triumph and despite its extremely didactic nature is a good read for for children and adults to comprehend, understand, and put into practice. It is nice to see the different perspectives like Auggie's sister and friends at school. I wasn't happy with the character of Justin, Auggie's sister's boyfriend, whose perspective felt rather forced and the lack of capitalization drove me batty. Sadly, there was no perspective of the "bad kid" Julian, which would have been rather interesting.

As good as I thought the book was I think that there are a few issues with it, one being its contemporary references, which I am sure will date the book rather quickly, like those 'Saturday Night Live' skits that aren't so funny anymore because you don't know the context. The last few chapters of the book, having returned to Auggie's perspective felt very very didactic as if Palacio just wanted to be sure that her readers really got the lesson they were supposed to learn.

As I cannot help but do, I have to also look at these kind of books through the lens of my Masters thesis on disabilities in children's literature. In my analysis of disabilities in children's literature I found that there were five major guidelines that, if followed, create well-rounded, emotionally resonant, and creative stories that will stand the test of time. Wonder met all but one. You will find no stereotypes, no labels, within these pages. The characters all speak for themselves and interact with the non-disabled characters in true-to-life ways. All the characters are well-rounded with their own interests, thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. The one that Wonder did not meet is that there is no real plot beyond the disability. Wonder is about Auggie's disability, it is the catalyst and the crux of the story. Remove the disability and there simply is no book. I would have loved for there to have been a little bit more to the story than just kid with a disability goes to school.

During my research I discovered that there is always a reason, a catalyst, for writers who choose this subject matter. Palacio is no exception.

     "About five years ago I took my kids to visit a friend of mine who lives out of town, and at some point during      the day we found ourselves sitting next to a little girl who looked the way Auggie looks in the book. We were in front of an ice cream shop, and she was sitting next to us with her mother and a friend. My younger son was only about three at the time, and he reacted exactly the way you might think a three-year old would react when seeing something that scared him: he started to cry—pretty loudly, too. And though my older son, who was ten at the time, knew better than to stare, his expression said it all despite his best efforts: he looked like someone had just punched him. It was terrible, on all counts, and I got up as quickly as I could to remove us from the scene—not for their sakes, of course, but to spare the little’s girl’s feelings. As I pushed my younger son’s stroller away I heard the little girls’ mom say, in as sweet and calm a voice as you can imagine: “Okay, guys, I think it’s time to go.” And that just got to me. On the drive home I couldn’t stop thinking about how that scene had played out. It occurred to me that they probably went through something like that dozens of times a day. Hundreds of times. What would that be like? What could I be teaching my children so they could understand how to respond better next time? Is “don’t stare” even the right thing to teach, or is there something deeper?"

I definitely think Palacio has done this with her novel, giving readers a chance to go deeper, teaching them. Parents could learn a lot from this book too, so that they do not make the same mistake as Ms. Palacio, scooping up their children and whisking them away either because their child is crying or out of fear that their children may ask the "wrong" question. 

Oh, and I love the red cover. A lot.

Illustrator of the Week - Alison Jay

Alison Jay is a London based illustrator who has worked on illustrations for everything from poster art to TV commercials to picture books. Her illustration style uses Alkyd, a quick drying oil paint on paper and sometimes adds a crackle varnish to make her work look aged. Her books include Welcome to the Zoo!, If Kisses Were Colors, Listen, Listen, and the newest The Cloud Spinner.

Lulu and the Brontasaurus Book Review

Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Lane Smith

Lulu always gets what she wants, which is why she is rather surprised when her parents refuse to allow her to have a Brontosaurus for a pet. Never mind that dinosaurs and humans never lived together, the author is well-aware of this fact, but she doesn't care. This is her story after all. With her parents' unrelenting, Lulu sets out to get her brontosaurus. But there is one thing that Lulu never considered...perhaps the Brontosaurus wants a pet of his own, a pet that looks very much like Lulu.

This terribly adorable chapter book, illustrated by the wonderful Lane Smith is perfect for reading aloud and early readers. It is clever, cute, and has just the right amount of attitude. The authorial intrusions only add to the cuteness, but not in a way that was annoying or overly cheeky. Lulu learns a rather valuable lesson about not always getting what you want not because the thing is impossible to get (although getting a Brontosaurus would be difficult), but rather because some things we should not have. In the end, well, there are actually three endings of which you can choose from.

My Bonny Light Horseman Book Review

My Bonny Light Horseman by L.A. Meyer

Well, it has finally happened. Jacky Faber, lieutenant in his Majesty''s royal navy, Belle of the West, card shark, sometimes lady, and one-time pirate has been captured once again by the British, heading to England for what is sure to end at on a hangman's noose. This would be her fate too if she hadn't agreed to work as a spy in France, thwarting the plans of Napoleon and his armies. Despite her deep reluctance, Jacky does so, first as a dancer in Paris and then later as a messenger in the army. But Jacky is torn between her allegiances for in the end the only people she cares about are her friends and the wars between countries mean little to her.

In the last book, Mississippi Jack I was highly disappointed, with far too many vignetted stories to form a cohesive whole. I said in my last review that I thought perhaps book 5 was unnecessary and I still think that is true. There was very little in Mississippi Jack that really played into this novel beyond her new card shark abilities and a short visit to New Orleans. All that said, this book is so much more focused than the last.

L.A. Meyer loves to weave history into his stories and this one is no exception. Napoleon's army invaded Berlin, Germany (Prussia) on October 27, 1806 and Jacky Faber is in the thick of it, leading the charge. Although it is difficult to determine how much is fact and not without reading an entire book on the Napoleonic wars, I was completely entranced.

Once again Jacky's virginity always seems to be up for grabs and I found myself always rooting for her maidenhood. Come on Jacky, you can do it. That said, why do all the men like Jacky so much. Yes, she is smart and conniving and has one serious knack for always knowing the right thing to do and say, but it seems that every young man she meets wants to not only marry her but to bed her. Poor guys, for Jacky will do everything (and I mean everything) but have sex with them, leaving them love lorn and sometimes dead. I do love Jacky, but she really needs to keep it in her pants in a manner of speaking.

Although there are three major things that happen in this book, I was rather pleased to see that they all connected to one another, never felt forced, and kept me on the edge of my seat. If you were one of those who thought to quit reading because the last book was just too much, I can assure you, this one is right on track.

Illustrator of the Week - Marjorie Priceman

Marjorie Priceman is an author and illustrator of over two dozen picture books, two of which were Caldecott Honor Books. My personal favorite is Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin!, but that may be the violinist in me. Other notable illustrated books include Jazz Age Josephine, Paris in the Spring With Picasso, The Bake Shop Ghost, Cold Snap, The Brand New Kid, One of Each, and many many more.