Illustrator of the Week: Explorer: The Mystery Boxes

Explorer: The Mystery Boxes edited by Kazu Kibuishi

Seven clever stories answer one simple question: what's in the box?

This is a graphic novel full of short stories by seven wonderful artists Kazu Kibuishi, Raina Telgemeier, Dave Roman, Jason Caffoe, Stuart Livingston, Johane Matte, Rad Sechrist, and Emily Carroll.  My favorite story was The Butter Thief, but I thought all were interesting and fun although I wouldn't say any were particularly deep and are clearly aimed at intermediate readers. So this week's illustrator of the week features all the artists from this collection.







Under the Floorboards by Emily Carroll




Spring Cleaning by Dave Roman & Raina Telgemeier 


The Keeper's Treasure by Jason Caffoe

The Butter Thief by Rad Sechrist


The Soldier's Daughter by Stuart Livingston with Stephanie Ramirez



Whatzit by Johane Matte with Saymone Phanekham

The Escape Option by Kazu Kibuishi


Flip Book Review

Flip by Martyn Bedford

When he went to bed in December, Alex Gray was your average fourteen-year-old, mostly unpopular with a love of the clarinet and chess. When he wakes he finds himself in a different bedroom, in an unfamiliar house, with a different family, and it is four months later. When he looks in the mirror, Alex no longer sees himself, instead it is another boy's face...another boy's life. A boy named Flip. How has Alex come to be trapped within this body and more importantly, why is he here?

From the very beginning, this novel was riveting. Obviously, Flip is acting a little strange from the minute he wakes, but only the family dog truly recognizes that Flip is not Flip. Bewildered, alone, and afraid, Alex immediately begins searching for answers, eventually stealing money and traveling back to London in hopes of convincing someone, anyone, that he is Alex in a Flip body. What Alex learns is that he is experiencing a very rare phenomenon called Psychic Evacuation, where the soul flees an often dead or dying body in search of a new one. Except Alex isn't dead, he's in a vegetative state in a hospital in London.

Despite being fantasy, Alex was a solid realistic character. The way he deals with this bewildering problem the way that I think most of us would. There are tears and anger and a complete unwillingness to be this new person. Especially when you consider that if Alex is in Flip's body, then where is Flip? I loved that Bedford did not avoid technology, but rather embraced email, PINs, google searches, etc. and used it to move the plot forward and not in a way that felt like it would be dated. I was engrossed from beginning to end and think even those who are not huge fans of sci-fi or fantasy would greatly enjoy this novel.

Oh, and once again. I hate the US cover.

Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It Book Review

Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems by Gail Carson Levine

 William Carlos William's is famous for his "This is Just to Say" poems, the most famous being:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The poems are simple and cranky, a form that is easy to reproduce and I would venture to say children would greatly enjoy creating their own.

Gail Carson Levine takes Williams' poetry style and gives them a fairy tale spin. The intro poems is as follows:

This is Just to Say

My bulldozer
has flattened
the thorny hedge

you mistakenly
expected to sleep behind
until the prince came

Forgive me
I'm charging tourists
ten dollars
to visit the castle

The book is cute and witty and would be a simple and fun introduction to poetry for all ages. There are some really great moments like the "introduction" poem being a couple pages in as well as information regarding the history and form of these particular kinds of poems. The illustrations by Matthew Cordell blend well with the poems, often adding an added humorous dimension to the already hysterical poetry.

Ungifted Book Review

Ungifted by Gordon Korman
HarperCollins Children's Books
Release Date: August 12, 2012

Donovan Curtis is profoundly ungifted, as in not a genius by any stretch of the imagination. But when Donovan accidentally causes a catastrophic accident that ruins the school gym, he finds himself in need of a hiding place and through a series of mishaps he soon finds himself swimming in a sea of geniuses. For the kids at the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, Donovan represents a world outside their "gifted" bubbles, a world of normalcy, where kids go to school dances and watch YouTube and grades are just average. Everyone knows that Donovan doesn't belong at the Academy, but what would they ever have done without him?

Gordon Korman delves into the world of the gifted with a wonderful character in Donovan Curtis. Quick thinking, brash, but relatively normal, Donovan is a perfect foil against the many characters introduced throughout the book. Compared to his two best friends, the Daniels, Donovan looks like a genius, but when measured against the kids at the Academy, he is a dull star. Alternating between Donovan, his classmates, sister, and teachers, Ungifted is humorous and fun and I think many kids will find themselves relating to the various dilemmas that Donovan and his friends find themselves in.

My one criticism would be that the children at the Academy are your quintessential stereotypes of smart kids, to the point that the characters sometimes felt a little flat. All the gifted children were portrayed as having no social skills and lacked any kind of normal in their lives, which makes them the dorkiest most socially abnormal school in the world, because there is no way every single smart kid would be dressed like a stereotype and unable to make friends. Noah, the Academy's smartest student has an IQ of 206, which is simply impossible. Stephen Hawking only has an IQ in the low 160s. Only. And the other students are at least as smart as Hawking. Although I loved the plot and Donovan, I found myself having to treat the novel more like a fantasy in this respect. I imagine if a person had the intelligence of Noah they would be in college by the time they were 12.

This point aside, the focus really is on Donovan and he really is a wonderful character who I wouldn't mind meeting up with in another book. One can only imagine the kind of trouble he will get into.

A Confusion of Princes Book Review

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

Princes aren't born, they are made. One would think being a Prince in an intergalactic empire would be the perfect job. Especially when those Princes, of which there are millions, have been augmented with technology that makes them quicker, brighter, telekinetic, and strong than any human. But Prince Khemri quickly learns that being a Prince of the Empire comes with considerable danger. Sure there are rules to being a Prince, but it seems like those rules are always being broken by the very people who are supposed to be above the law. Khemri thinks he was taught everything, but perhaps the things he has to learn will require him to experience life as an ordinary human rather than a Prince.

A Confusion of Princes is solidly Science Fiction, not to be confused in the slightest with the ever popular Dystopian Sci-fi sub-genre. This is universes, galaxies, space ships, planets, habitats, space fights, and a lot of space jargon. Nix crafts a universe that is big, so big that at times it was definitely a confusion of princes. Like any good sci-fi Nix just drops the reader into this world where a Prince is not a person of royalty but rather an elite group of what I can only describe as super soldier. In this world they use words like Bitek, Psitek, and Metek, and all the reader can do is go along for the ride and trust that they will eventually figure it out.

The story itself doesn't feel terribly original, reminding me of a mash-up between Ender's Game, Star Trek and Dune. There is a space/naval academy like in Ender's Game. A hive mind collective in the Empirial mind, similar to Star Trek, and a definite Messiah like hero quality that is all Dune. But...and this is a big But, none of that matters because Nix weaves a tale that is compelling, with enough action to draw in any lover of action and adventure.

I would have been interested to see Khemri come to his realizations about the Empire, and his destiny, and superiority without having to become human. It felt rather cliche and it felt like a big duh moment. Of course if you were forced to be human and to live among them you would figure out some things. Personally, I really liked when he was with the humans and found his time at the naval academy to be rather boring. What am I saying? Simply this, the premise of the story, like all sci-fi was fun, but the heart of the story, the human element, was lacking.

Illustrator of the Week - Colin Stimpson

English born illustrator, Colin Stimpson is a well-known illustrator who moved to the US while working on Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame then Hercules and went on to be the Art Director for The Emperor's New Groove (one of my favorite cartoon movies). Since moving back to England, Stimpson has continued to work for Disney as a freelance Production Designer and has begun to illustrate children's books, first with The Poison Diaries and now with his newest book which he wrote and illustrated, Jack and the Baked Beanstalk.

Middle School: Get Me Out of Here Book Review

Middle School: Get Me Out of Here by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts

Rafe is back in this sequel to the wonderful Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. Although Rafe was supposed to go to Airbrook Arts Community School for the rest of middle school, life had different plans. After his mother's work burns down and she is unable to get a job, Rafe, his sister, and mother all move to the city with his Grandma. There is always a silver lining and that comes in the form of Cathedral School of the Arts who miracle of miracle thinks he is talented enough to attend. Not even an awesome arts academy can change things like a bad record or an absent father or an imaginary friend that he is far too old to have. Lost in the tumult, Rafe just wants to Get a Life, but being good this year proves to be harder than he imagined.

A perfect book for the Diary of a Wimpy Kid lovers, this second Middle School book has the fun drawings and great characters, but has a bit more levity and real life events that take it from a cute middle grade book with pictures into something deeper and more sinister. There is a wealth of reality here, with his mother unable to get a job and Rafe beginning to have questions about his father.

I wish there had been a bit more about Art and art school though. There was a lot of focus on what was going on a home and Rafe's new friend that I felt like I lost some of the reason why Rafe was there in the first place. Especially since everything kind of unravels (purposefully by the author) in the end. Patterson and Tebbetts accomplished a lot in this book and I admit I teared up towards the end, because Rafe is truly a great character.

Despite all this heaping praise though, I feel like the end was rather rushed and very convenient. When his new friend plays a cruel trick on him, Rafe is so quick and easy to forgive which felt nice but out of character. We have all been hurt before and I would venture to say that many of us carry the battle scars from supposed friends when we were kids and teenagers. Rafe just lets it go. Also, somehow the diner has been rebuilt in less than a year and is up and running and his mom gets her job back and everything is just so--perfect. And somehow he is allowed back into the school he was originally going to attend. What it felt like was the publisher said that book needed to be around 250 pages so when they realized they were running out of room they just crammed everything into it.

Although I loved the book, the end left me feeling let down somehow as if all that reality had been some kind of trick.

Cold Cereal Book Review

Cold Cereal by Adam Rex

 Cold Cereal Facts
Serving size 1 chapter
Number of servings 40
Primary human characters 3
Scottish Play Doe, aka Scott (possible changeling)
Erno Utz - genius
Emily Utz - supergenius
Magical creatures at least 3
Mick Leprechaun (or Clurichaun)
Harvey Pooka (rabbit-man)
Biggs indeterminate origin (hairy, large)
Evil organizations 1
Goodco Cereal Company - Purveyor of breakfast
foods aspiring to world domination
Adventure 75%
Diabolical Schemes 40%
Danger 57%
Legend 20%
Magic 68%
Humor 93%
Puzzles 35%
Mystery 49%

Not a significant source of vampires.

May contain nuts.

Daily values based on individual interest. Reader's estimation of value may be higher or lower, depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing.

Simply put: Evil cereal company is stealing magical creatures and instilling their magic into kids' cereal for nefarious schemes which Erno, Emily, and Scott must get to the bottom of with the help of a magic half bunny, a Clurichaun, and a rather large and possible Bigfoot.  

I am a huge Adam Rex fangirl and as with all his books, Cold Cereal is slightly offbeat with strange characters, smart kids, and more than one surprise. It was so easy to like these kids for they were relatable and perfect conduits for introducing this strange magical world.

Throughout the pages are Adam Rex’s signature illustrations, similar to the ones in The True Meaning of Smekday, which I was rather grateful for, for at times the descriptions of these magical creatures was a little hard to imagine and yet there was an illustration on the next page to help with this very problem.

The book did feel a bit too long at just over 400 pages. Even with the last third of the book being non-stop action I did wonder if it couldn’t have been pared down just a bit. Perhaps the hardest thing about the book though was that Rex left it open for a sequel and although I enjoyed the story (lengthy as it was) I don’t know if I liked it enough to want to read another one. It felt like a novel until the very end and despite my devotion to all things Adam Rex, I don’t know if I am devoted enough to reading another 400 page Cold Cereal book.


Running With Trains Book Review

Running With Trains: A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices by Michael J. Rosen

Perry rides the B&O railroad every week, traveling between his grandmother and his mother. As the train zips past the countryside Perry ponders his life and that of others. Like the little boy he sees every now and then who tends to the cows. Does that boy feel free? Meanwhile, that same little boy Steve sits on the fence and wonders where the people on the train are going and how free they must feel, not trapped as he feels by this country life. Their lives intersect for only a moment, but they both come to conclusions about each other and life.

Told with a mixture of poetry, prose, and letters, I thought the poems were well-structured with rythm and energy that sometimes felt like a train winding its way through the countryside. The prose portions on the other hand felt rather disjointed from the story and I wondered as I read it whether it would not have been better (although admittedly not easy) to turn the information from each prose vignette that opened each chapter into a poem itself, allowing the book to be a true novel in verse like Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ron Koertge or Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse or even Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes, which is also with two voices.  I get the author was trying something different and perhaps uniqueness will pull in readers who enjoy a little prose with their poetry or vice versa.

The premise of the story was solid, two boys wondering and wishing for something on the other side of the fence, dreaming of life beyond their own. Many of the poems are quite beautiful, but there simply wasn't enough of a connection to the characters for me to feel like it was a true novel instead of the small window into their lives, a window that I wanted to be just a little bigger.

Illustrator of the Week: Frank Dormer

From Amazon: Frank Dormer likes to draw monsters and dinosaurs. His wife would like him to help with the dishes once in a while, but drawing dinosaurs is hard work. Once a dinosaur tried to step on his drawing pad, and Frank had to throw some popcorn at the other end of the room so the dinosaur would move. True story.

From Frank: Hi! I’m Frank Dormer. I draw a lot. sometimes I draw kids doing normal things. What I really like to draw is dinosaurs and cowboys. My wife says that I am drawing too much. Who doesn’t want to draw dinosaurs and cowboys!

Frank W. Dormer's Illustrations give me this vague nostalgia for Jack Kent. Although I would be hard pressed to explain why as I myself am not an artist, despite all the various invites to artist symposiums and illustrator blog groups, but when I picked up The Obstinate Pen, I was drawn in by it and that is enough for me.

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict Book Review

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart

Nine-year-old Nicholas Benedict has a host of problems from being an orphan to a rather large and unfortunate nose. The worst by far though is his narcolepsy, which causes him to fall asleep any time he gets too excited, scared, or happy. At a new orphanage, Nicholas hopes he can change his image, but soon finds himself neck deep in a mystery that will tax his considerable genius-like abilities.

I have never read the Mysterious Benedict Society series, in which I can only assume the young Nicholas Benedict is either the patron of or very important to that story. So important that Trenton Lee Stewart found it necessary to provide the series' fans with a prequel. Having not read the series I thought a prequel would be the perfect place to begin. I was wrong.

Perhaps Nicholas Benedict is rather extraordinary in the series, but in this book I found him to be wholly unremarkable. His nemesis (plural), the Spiders, a gang of mean children at the orphanage, were so stupid that I believe any child with any sense could have dealt with them in some capacity. The adults were so naive and self-absorbed that Nicholas had as much freedom as he needed (and the author wanted) to solve a mystery. Of course, Nicholas did do a number of extraordinary things but his genius came off more as a plot contrivance. I mean, who learns sign language in one night? Are we reading a fantasy here?

There were of course the usual plot points: Orphan boy sent to new orphanage, hopes to make friends despite whatever disability he has (in this case narcolepsy), makes enemies with the resident bullies, director of orphanage is hiding something, and Nicholas (who is incredibly nosy) invades someones privacy sure that the adults plan on using a lost treasure for personal gain. Oh and don't forget, Nicholas somehow knows how to solve all of the orphanages financial woes better than any of the adults in the story, for no adult is as smart as he.

Now, I know this is a children's story and as you are all well aware and I am not remotely upset with children going off and having adventures. The problem with it was that it felt so much like a fantasy that I had a hard time seeing young Nicholas as anything more than a plot device.

Full of exposition and floundering towards the end, the story simply felt bloated by Nicholas' own importance, as if the author really wanted the reader to understand what an awesome person this kid will be someday. I wasn't convinced.