Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Creepy Carrots

A PBOW feature

Creepy Carrots
Aaron Reynolds, author
Peter Brown, illustrator
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012
2013 Caldecott Honor Book

A great title for October and all the Halloween-inspired "creepy" books. Thankfully for this gal, this particular book is not your typical Halloween/creepy fair. (Don't judge a book by its cover!) Children enjoy being slightly creeped out, and this book does just that. Winner of a Caldecott honor this past year, Creepy Carrots is indeed distinguished. If you haven't checked it out yet, hopefully this post will convince you to do so!

Palette: With such a notable palette, we really must start here. It just jumps off the cover (and every page). Black and orange. Well, black, varying shades of gray, and varying shades of orange. We're programmed (at least in America) to automatically associate that palette with creepy Halloween images. Even young children do this--after all, every store in America is sporting these colors in some fashion this month. But is this palette effective? Oh my, yes. Carrots are, after all, orange. So, that's a given. The varying shades of orange add great extra dimension. And the grayscale elements simply make the orange elements pop all the more. This is essential for the success of these illustrations. We must notice those creepy carrots immediately. And, when we take a second look, we must immediately see what we thought were the creepy carrots (or, did the creepy carrots merely perform a quick switch?). The grayscale background feeds the film noire look nicely, don't you think?

Cover, Endpapers/ Title Page: AAGGHH... Just look at that cover! We are suitably creeped out, reminded of film noire, and ready for a spooky adventure. Even the title letters are not stable (cue spooky background music). And just look at those perfect endpapers. The perceptive reader will note the differences between front and back... (now you have to go look!). Clever. And that title page jumps out at us. Somehow the arrangement of the letters with their accompanying shadows looks a teensy bit like a graveyard.... (cue more spooky music).

Composition/Layout: Note the sequential art on some spreads, the use of shadows, the close-ups of teeth chomping as well as the parallel scenes with creepy carrots and their non-creepy counterparts. These illustrations are well thought out. The details are consistent and work well to enhance the text. We call this seamlessness: note that the text and illustrations are incomplete without the other. The scene when Jasper's brushing his teeth (oh, you have to see that page!), the text merely says, "That night, as he was brushing his teeth, there they were!" I love the scene when he gets home: the text says, "But when he arrived home that evening..." and the illustration shows him fleeing the shed with the carrots (seen through the window) dancing gleefully.

Plot: I love a plot with wiggle room, don't you? We end the book and immediately want to go back and reread to see if our first assumptions were actually correct. Huh. How do those carrots do it?

Audience: I'm not sure what word to use for this category, but the "feel" or "mood" of this book is perfect for a preschool and kindergarten audience. Perfect. It's just creepy enough without being over the top (after all, if the monsters are carrots, well, how much harm can they really cause?). And the end is just over the top enough to make it very silly and enable the audience to relax again into giggles.

All in all, a winner for sure. See more of the artistic process at the publisher's website. If you need a good creepy story for this month--one that's not too creepy--then check this one out. And it also works for a great story any other time of the year, too!

If you've read this book, what did you think? Like it? No? Why?

Next up: Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca. Moonshot is a slightly older title (2009) and should be in your local library.

Book from my local library; cover image from publisher's website

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt

The Spider and the Fly
Mary Howitt (based on her cautionary tale)
Tony DiTerlizzi, illustrator
Simon and Shuster, 2002
Caldecott Honor (and multiple others!)

"Will you come into my parlor," said the spider to the fly.... This famous poem was first published in 1829. Tony DiTerlizzi takes it and makes it into a deliciously creepy cautionary tale. One of my favorite reads this summer (and I read 300 picture books!), it's a perfect picture book to explore a little during October.

Palette: This book is completely done in black and white. This adds, of course, to its ghostly, haunted-house feel. There are ghost bugs that glow ominously in their transparent bodies. And DiTerlizzi fills many pages with details that would be overkill in color, but which add tremendously to the subtle background. For instance, in one early spread, we almost don't notice that the wallpaper is patterned with flies, the lamp on the wall is a fly, the footstool is a lady bug (with "dead x" eyes), and the cookbook on the side table is titled The Joy of Cooking Bugs. These are the sorts of details that reward a close reading of the book, but because the palette is black and white, they don't jump out and overwhelm the picture.

Details: Since I mentioned the details, let me elaborate a touch. There is so much to see in this book! A fun accompaniment to a bug unit, there are buggy details everywhere. Each room has different bugs on the wallpaper. The table is laid with a variety of buggy delights. A large horned beetle is mounted over the fireplace. If the poor fly would just look around! The audience wants to warn her to stay away from this spiderly gentleman. He's not what he seems!

Silent Film: The presence of several pages that are completely black save for the text in the center and a spider web in the background add to the silent black-and-white film feel nicely. The whole book thus feels like an old horror film whose melodrama is almost funny to our modern eyes.

Characterization: I don't usually discuss this much in a picture book, but this book presents such clear characters. DiTerlizzi even includes a letter from the spiderly gentleman at the end that essentially asks readers, "what did you expect? I'm a spider after all." Since the bugs along the way are silently warning the fly, and since she's presented as quite the gullible female, and since she seems totally immune to any and all signs of danger, the reader feels like the end is unavoidable. In fact, the spider himself is more the character we focus on. He's so charismatic and charming, we all fall under his spell.

Book from local library (although it's available in many local bookstores for this season!); cover image from publisher's website

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Moonday by Adam Rex

A Picture Book of the Week feature

Adam Rex
Disney-Hyperion, 2013

This is the picture book that inspired this little PBOW feature. I was blown away by this book, and I knew nothing about it before picking it up off the store shelves a couple of weeks ago. WOW. I mean, look at that cover!

The storyline is, on the face of it, rather simple: the moon follows a family home one night and "lands" in their backyard...where it stays. The next "morning," there is no morning because the moon is still there. Everyone goes throughout their day wearily and sleepily. Finally, the little girl in whose backyard the moon is hanging out figures out how to get the moon back into the sky. Charming, right?

The illustrations are what take this book over the moon (ha ha ha). The moon, when it's in the backyard and the viewer is near the backyard, is prominent and takes up the page. But even when it's far away, our eyes are still drawn to it. On Seven Imp., Julie Danielson features this book along with some process art and commentary by Adam Rex himself: you must check it out because he shows in one spread how he drew lines to make sure he got the perspective right (the classroom scene with the moon seen through the window). I'd read the book before I saw her post, and seeing how he drew some of these scenes made me want to go right back and read the book again! A great picture book does that to you.

The palette is surprisingly rich for a book about night-time. There is a lot of dark used, obviously, as well as the lighter colors of the moon itself. But there is plenty of color in general throughout the book--very saturated colors (just my style). And I love the glow he gives to the moon. I'm not an artist by a long shot, and it always mystifies me when an artist captures that "glow" so well.

The movement in these illustrations is top notch: movement of people, movement of time, even the movement of a yawn! I'm not sure what term to put here. Sometimes, there is clear sequential art (such as in a comic book or graphic novel when separate images are all lined up together). Other times, the illustration shows the little girl (usually) in multiple places on the same page so that we see her activity. I love this technique when it works, and it most definitely works in Moonday.

The juxtaposition between text and illustrations and, simultaneously, between gravity and humor is expertly done. This is hard to explain without showing you spreads and their accompanying text, so you'll just have to trust me here. The style of these illustrations is not comic-book style, casual sketch, or anything "silly," and yet--the story is silly in a way. There are downright hilarious moments (such as when the tide rolls into the backyard or the dogs start howling). But Rex doesn't tell us the dogs are howling. He shows us the dogs howling. The text is almost deadpan in its tone--while the illustrations are quietly making us chuckle.

I always note the endpapers (one of my things for a couple of years now), and these are jet black. Perfect. The whole book appears dark from a distance with the glowing exception of the moon.

So, have you seen this book yet? What did you think? Like it? No? Why?

Next PBOW is: The Spider and the Fly. This book is a slightly older title; it's in libraries, but it's also in bookstores right now because it's sort of "seasonal" with Halloween coming up (although it's not about Halloween).

Book from Barnes and Noble. Cover image from ... can't remember! EEP! I frequently get them from goodreads .

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sky Jumpers

Sky Jumpers
Peggy Eddleman
Random House, 2013

Hot off the press, this debut novel plunges us into a technology-challenged post-WWIII landscape which includes the deadly "Bomb's Breath," a ring of pressurized air that will kill anything that breathes it in.

Hope, her friends Brock and Aaren, and Aaren's little sister Brenna are part of a fairly isolated community known as White Rock. White Rock is located in a crater that was formed by one of the deadly bombs of WWIII. Hope, Aaren, and Brock have figured out how to "sky jump" off a cliff through the Bomb's Breath (holding their breath) and land on the ground below the toxic air. While this would truly horrify their parents (all of whom have known people who died in the Bomb's Breath), it becomes the way these children will save their community with danger strikes.

Every year, White Rock sends a troop of volunteer guards down the road to the next settlement (Browning) because it's fairly protected by the snow and Bomb's Breath during winter. Bandits roam freely and often attack these small communities, and sometimes the volunteer guards don't return. This year, however, bandits figure out how to enter White Rock in the winter. They attack, hold the entire town hostage, and are demanding the town's full supply of their only antibiotic. Hope, Aaren, Brock, and little Brenna manage to escape the large community center and flee to Browning. They must jump through the Bomb's Breath and struggle against deadly cold, but they do make it. Are they in time to rouse the guards at Browning? The guards can't go back through the Bomb's Breath, so how will they rescue White Rock's citizens? Will Hope's father, whom the bandits shot, die before she returns?

This is a fun debut and is satisfyingly one novel rather than a giant series. Perhaps there will be more, but it doesn't need a sequel. Lots of action and bravery will hook young readers. Hope, Brock, Aaren, and Brenna are fairly stock character types for middle grade fiction, but they are unique in their sky jumping. The plot wraps up pretty neatly in the end, but the escaped bandit makes for a nice unresolved element. Tiny sparks of romance will please some middle grade readers, but there is not enough to turn away those who don't want romance. All in all, Sky Jumpers is a fun read and one I recommend!

Book in ARC form via netgalley and thanks to publisher; cover image from publisher's website

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Flora's Very Windy Day

A Picture Book of the Week (PBOW) Feature

Flora's Very Windy Day
Jeanne Birdsall, author
Matt Phelan, illustrator
Clarion, 2010

I'm a fan of Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwick books, and I've also enjoyed what I've seen of Matt Phelan's work (in fact, I recommended his Around the World graphic novel for one of our Redeemed Reader 2013 Summer Reading Read-Along titles). When I noticed this book in Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago, I immediately pulled it down to read it. My first thought was, "Why haven't I heard about this book? It's lovely!" (And I've since checked it out from the library for more rereads.)

Sometimes you just need a "charming" picture book--not one that's breaking the mold, shaking things up, being a touch obscure in the name of "art." You want a good read that's enhanced by great illustrations. That's what this book delivers. Let's unpack it a bit.

Cover/Endpapers: Everything about this cover says "Fall" and "Windy." Kids are flying through the air, trees are sporting their autumn colors, the kids are wearing coats, the author's and illustrator's names are curved. Even the title font choice is "windy" in feel. If you're perceptive, you'll notice that these two children are probably brother and sister since the girl is bigger than the boy--and also that this story is about the girl since she's front and center. And you'd be right. Endpapers are purple and plain. Why purple? Did you notice those boots on the boy? Purple does play subtly into the story. Nice choice, book designers!

Opening Pages: The action starts immediately: windy tree on title page, two children starting to have an argument on the next pages--we're prepped for the angry emotion we see right away on that first page of the text. Flora is MAD. And we already know why!

Illustrations/Composition: These are just marvelous. Some pages have lots of white space with sequential action nicely shown (Flora struggling into her boots, her brother being blown away). Some pages feature full page illustrations with enough white space left for text (such as when the mother is present). Other pages are double spreads that take up the entire page (Flora sailing up to her brother, the various conversations Flora has with the different elements). You might note that the double spreads are all during the windy "sky" times, while the other types are firmly grounded on earth. The bookends to the sky journey are the spreads featuring those red boots up close (and empty!). These are the types of decisions that set the better picture books apart. There's a lot of intentionality in them. I could go on about palette, facial expressions, perspective--but I won't. Just don't miss that final text-free page!

Text: Birdsall writes beautifully here. No talking down, no overuse of clever phrases or words in general, no analyzing. Just a great story in a childlike voice. Flora is mad at her brother and doesn't want to have him tagging along; she wishes she were somewhere else. The wind scoops up her brother (she follows), and then various elements (rainbows, eagle, moon, and more) ask if her brother can stay with them. Flora realizes in the end that she loves her brother after all. Aww... see? But it's not saccharine in the least.

This book should be in your local library as well as in your local bookstore. Enjoy!

If you've read this book, what did you think? Do you like it? No? Why?

Next PBOW Feature: Moonday by Adam Rex (finally!)

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Song of the Quarkbeast (Dragonslayer #2)

The Song of the Quarkbeast (Dragonslayer #2)
Jasper Fforde
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013
(originally published in the UK in 2011)*

*I'm one of the privileged few who got to read this second book before it came out in the U.S. I have a connection who is also a big Jasper Fforde fan, and she buys his books from the U.K. and then loans them to me! But for those of you not so fortunate, know that this book just came out here in the ol' U.S. of A.

First, let me assert once again that the U.S. covers of these books are a bit subpar in "oomph" when compared with their Anglo cousins. (Although the paperback version of The Last Dragonslayer is far superior to the hardback.)

Second, let me say that you must, you absolutely must, read The Last Dragonslayer before reading this book--or even this review. If you haven't read that book, then at least read my review of it. Otherwise, what I'm about to tell you will make no sense whatsoever.

We meet up with Jennifer Strange and the other oddballs at Kazam right away, and we are also immediately plunged into the action. King Snodd IV is up to no good (as usual), and he has hatched a nefarious plan to control Magic (thus controlling the world). iMagic (big business) and Kazam (small business), as the two primary workers of Magic, are pitted against each other in a contest. The fate of the planet seemingly hangs in the balance, and King Snodd is not playing fair. He has rigged the contest...or so it would seem.

Thankfully, those strange Quarkbeasts come into play again along with ancient Magical forces. Thanks to Jennifer's quick thinking, her sidekick Tiger Prawns, a Transient Moose whose special talent is finally realized, a pair of Quarkbeasts, and various and sundry other strange characters, big business doesn't carry the day.

This is a quick read, a very quirky one (what did you expect? It's Fforde!), and a satisfying one. I liked the ending very much (more than the ending to the first book, that's for sure). It's not quite as good overall as the first book, but only slightly less so. If you're a Jasper Fforde fan and/or relish quirky fantasy, then this series is a winner. If you read and enjoyed The Last Dragonslayer, then you must read this book! Fforde's snarky wit and clever storytelling is so much to fun to read.

Recommended for 12 and up. Book from my friend; cover image from publisher's website.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Nino Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

A Picture Book of the Week (PBOW) Feature

Nino Wrestles the World
Yuyi Morales
(A Neal Porter Book) Roaring Brook Press, 2013

Sometimes, when I write these reviews, I'm tempted to go ahead and label it "award winner" in my categories. When I've really been convinced in the past, I've been right! (Let me refer you to Chime, Inside Out and Back Again, Code Name Verity, and Bomb to name a few...). In addition to my "gut" on this one, I should point out that Neal Porter Books/Roaring Book Press has a pretty good track record in recent years for Caldecott winners/honors: A Sick Day for Amos McGee, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, My Friend Rabbit, Green, Grandpa Green, First the Egg.

So, am I going on record to say that Nino Wrestles the World will win at least a Caldecott honor? No. But I'm betting that between the Caldecott and awards like the Pura Belpre, this book has a fighting chance at award status come January. So, consider yourself forewarned. I'm not the only who thinks so; it's appearing on mock Caldecott lists such as the one at Calling Caldecott over at Horn Book.

I'll confess right up front that this cover, while it made me chuckle, also made me inwardly groan: there's a boy in his underwear on that cover and all I could think of was the likes of Captain Underpants. C'mon people, is this what we're descending to? But so many people were raving about this book. I took the plunge and checked it out from the library. Lo and behold, I liked it enough to feature it in a PBOW and go on record to say that it's got big time award potential. What won me over?

Book Design: no question, here. This book has some stellar design. Endpapers show very cool extra information that is not hidden by those library book jacket flaps. In fact, if you read this book in order and don't immediately check out the back endpapers like I did, you won't recognize what's coming at the end. I like the heavy quality of the paper, the bold typeface, the superhero "Spak" and "Taka" moments, the whole package.

Palette: I'm a sucker for a good palette. I admit it. Soft, bold, monochromatic, whatever--no real preference except that I like to notice it. It needs to look intentional and really contribute to the book. And the palette here is perfect: bold colors with heavy black lines add to the retro superhero feel and also echo the Mexican feel (you'll recognize the same colors from your favorite Mexican restaurants: orange, red, yellow, splashes of bright blue, etc.).

Details: Notice those "toys" there in the opening pages? You'll see them again--in the Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling) matches with Nino.

Composition: Notice that each time Nino is meeting his latest opponent, the opponent looks larger than life? He or she dominates the spread. As soon as Nino starts wrestling, though, the opponent shrinks to manageable size. This holds true until Nino meets his final two opponents. (I won't spoil it for you.)

Text: The words have to work for me. I've seen picture books with great illustrations but lackluster words, and I move on. Here, the text is sparse and works well with the bold illustrations. I love the overall plot and the total lack of feel good text at the end (again, I won't soil it for you...). In addition to this, the Spanish is worked in expertly. There are so many bilingual books out there where the book feels like a book-to-teach-awareness-of-Hispanic-culture. (sigh) But Nino Wrestles the World is simply a great book that also happens to raise awareness of Mexican wrestling and the Spanish language.

What do YOU think of this book? Like it? Not? Why?

Next week's PBOW, in case you want to track it down, is Flora's Very Windy Day. This was published a year or so ago, so you should find it easily in libraries. But it's a fantastic fall book for this season!