Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis (Faber)

I read about this book somewhere, and now wish I could remember where it was as it was such a remarkable little read. i've read numerous pieces of it aloud to whoever would listen, such is its cleverness. Written as free verse through the eyes of Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the cat, with many other creatures included. I particularly loved the lesson of the moth. "We get bored with the routine / and crave beauty / and excitement / fire is beautiful / and we know that if we get  / too close it will kill us / but what dos that matter / it is better to be happy / for a moment / and be burned up with beauty / than to live a long time / and be bored all the while."
Lessons in life, new ways of looking at the world, a little gem.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Buzzy Bee's Birthday Party and three other stories by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Richard Hoil

This is just the sort of bright popping digital illustration and story-telling by formula that I instinctively don't like. But that's a personal taste thing, and I wanted to look more closely at this book to make a judgement that's not just whether I like it or not - essential if you have to judge books for awards, as I do at the moment.

When I looked over these four stories again I started to appreciate the cleverness. Joy Cowley is, of course, one of our most lauded writers for children, and is particularly known for the number of books she's written for the educational market, which this fits in nicely with. It's no easy task to use a restricted vocabulary and blend creatively story-telling with teaching facts like the days of the week, counting to ten and the like, but Joy does find ways to twist the tale with cleverness and play, as in the title story where Buzzy Bee carefully counts out his nine invited guests and makes sure he has nine of everything ready for the party, only to discover that there is nothing for him because he didn't count himself. Clever, and I wonder how many children will work that out as they repeatedly count to nine as the story progresses.

From an illustrative point of view this is a fairly straightforward task for the illustrator who isn't required to do more than illustrate the text, there's no sub-plot going on here, as we would look for in a more 'literary' picture book. One requirement is that he depicts the characters accurately as they are all based on classic New Zealand wooden toys - Buzzy Bee, Loopy Lou, the ducklings... The small children enjoying the books might not already know these characters but the parents and grandparents likely to be purchasing the books almost certainly will, and perhaps the toys themselves will be bought along with the books. We do love our Kiwiana here in New Zealand and I think there will be plenty who will respond to seeing their familiar toys on the cover and want to buy.

So I can't go as far as to say this is a literary masterpiece, but I can say it's an excellent example of its genre, with interesting stories to teach basic concepts, and nicely produced by Upstart Press, who are pretty new on the block.

Buzzy Bee's Birthday Party and three other stories
Written by Joy Cowley
Illustrated by Richard Hoit
Upstart Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-927262-06-1

2-7 years
Each story can also be found as an individual book

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Set in 19th century Norway when superstition rules and it's hard labour just staying alive. Astri (14) is sold to a horrible old goat herd by her aunt and must leave her little sister Greta behind. She dreams of escaping to go and find her father in America, but it seems she is bound for a life of slavery. She's a smart girl though, and eventually tricks old Svaalberd  and makes a desperate escape along with a dumb girl also held prisoner. In their scrambling escape and attempt to rescue the sister we are caught up in the danger as their every move is precarious and it seems they will be caught at any moment. 

Astri makes sense of the world by referring to old fairy tales, making cleverness from what we might have thought of as only a simple story, but for Astri they are part of her plot for escape and justification for everything she does, and she's not always honourable in her own actions, stealing and playing tricks on people who help her along the way. She's stroppy and determined and will do whatever she has to in order to achieve her goal but the reader might not always find themselves on her side, but you will be compelled to run along with her to see how it all turns out in the end.

There are excellent author notes providing background to the story.

West of the Moon
By Margi Preus
Amulet (imprint of Abrams)
ISBN 978-1-4197-0896-1
Hardback NZ$25.99


Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Riverman by Aaron Starmer

12-year-old Alistair thinks he's pretty ordinary and is startled when a neighbouring girl he was friends with when he was younger, Fiona, asks him to write her biography. She will tell him her story and he is to record it so that if anything happens to her people will know why.  It seems unbelievable at first but Alistair is drawn in to the story, and decides there's an underlying reason for Fiona's behaviour. 

Fiona claims that she has visited a strange parallel universe where she could create her own world by simply thinking of things which then came into being, but that there are many others who also have their own worlds, and some of them are being picked off by someone called the Riverman. Full of mystery and imagination, reality and fantasy collide and it's hard to tell what's real and what's imagined.

There is a great crew of supporting characters too, I particularly loved Charlie, Alistair's daredevil friend who blows several fingers off messing about with fireworks.

This is the first in a trilogy and wonderfully written with strong complex characters and ideas.

The Riverman
By Aaron Starmer
Farrar Straus Giroux
ISBN 978-0-374-36309-3
Hardback NZ$31.50
Fiction for 10-14 years.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Shackleton's Journey by William Grill

It's a hundred years since Ernest Shackleton selected 26 men from 5000 applicants to sail to Antarctica and attempt a crossing of the continent on foot. It didn't quite work out as they planned and this beautiful atmospheric hardback tells the story of what happened on this extraordinary journey.

While we are reading the facts they are accompanied by wonderfully simple Illustrations with coloured pencil in icy shades of blue and white, and earth shades of yellow and brown. The design reflects the subject matter, the crew and the dogs laid out in a grid, lists of supplies, maps, then big gorgeous spreads - a double page of pack ice, isolation depicted with the fainted strokes of blue on white and a tiny boat at the bottom of the right hand page, a blizzard with no text at all, just booming clouds and raging seas.

We learn about many of the individual men, how their skills and ability to improvise and work together, not just doing their work but also in cheering one another along, keeping everyone motivated.

This is such a beautiful way to learn about a subject, incorporating an artful hand with perfectly rendered text and balanced design with plenty of space, right down to the ice flow end-papers and compass-like cover illustration, this is a treasure-trove of this little bit of history.

Shackleton's Journey
Written and illustrated by William Grill
Flying Eye Books
ISBN 978-1-909263-10-9
Hardback NZ$41.50

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee (Picture book)

I requested this wordless picture book from the library after seeing it listed on several 'best of 2014' book lists and I absolutely agree that it's one that should be on the top of the pile.

A farmer - beautifully simple with his black hat, trousers and suspenders, and his white shirt and beard (looking rather Amish), is in his field with his pitchfork, gathering hay. He sees a circus train go by from which a clown baby is thrown - on purpose? practising his tumbling tricks?, either way he is smiling and tells his story in a brief series of movements before embracing then taking the man by the hand. They return to the farmhouse -a simple weatherboard home with a porch, a cow and a few chickens. As the sun sets the only other thing seen in the broad double page spread is a tree on the horizon.
At home we see a series of vignettes as they chat, eat their simple meal, wash in a barrel, where the smiley painted clown face is washed off leaving a rather forlorn face that is somehow magically portrayed with just a few dots. The next pair of illustrations show us the farmer watching the baby sleep with the moon out the window, then greeting him with funny faces as the sun rises through the window, followed by the farmer dancing and jumping until he brings a smile to the little clown's face, then breakfast and all the farm chores.

As the day comes to an end they head, with a picnic basket in hand, to that one tree seen earlier and as they sit the circus train drives across the horizon, greeted with much excitement as it stops and a carriage full of clowns emerges to greet the lost baby. The farmer isn't forgotten though, he gets major cuddles before he leaves, and a hat swap. The farmer walking home looking a mite sad but wearing his clown hat and with a cheeky monkey following behind, and we know that his simple life will never be quite the same again, each has left a bit of themselves with the other.
The superb illustrations, using black Prismacolour pencil and gouache*, are spare and echo the loneliness of the farmer's life, whilst also conveying that a few things is all you need to make a home. I love the colour palette with the farmer's black and white, the clown's red and yellow, the gold of the fields and the sunshine. The red of the clown's hat is echoed in the farmer's long johns and the picnic blanket. The big wide double page spreads seem to give you permission to stop and think about the story, what's happening? what are each of them feeling? Without a single word we are engaged and touched by these characters, and perhaps we will take a bit of them with us after reading too.

* Thank goodness for publishers who include this information in the credits.

The Farmer and the Clown
Wordless picture book by Marla Frazee
Beach Lane Books (imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing), 2014
ISBN 978-1-4424-9744-3 (Hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4424-9745-0 (ebook)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Tā Daniel Hākari Matariki (Daniel's Matariki Feast) by Rebecca Beyer & Linley Wellington, illustrated by Christine Ross

I reviewed Daniel's Matariki Feast  for New Zealand Book Council's enews to schools The School Library last year, and now it's out in te reo Maori. The translation was done through Te Reo o Taranaki - a charitable trust, and was arranged by the authors who work at Puke Ariki.

I'm delighted that there are New Zealand publishers like David Ling at Duck Creek Press, and Scholastic New Zealand, who produce te reo versions of their picture books. It can't be a very profitable thing to do but our country needs as many of these resources as possible to keep the Maori language alive and well. 
Here's my original review:

Daniel is nervous on his first day at school. The teacher invites him to help in the garden with the rest of the class. Together, they pick pumpkins, talk about the Matariki feast they are going to have, and what the Māori New Year means. Daniel’s Mum remembers her granny looking for the seven stars, and they make her pumpkin cake for the feast. A warm, friendly story about why and how Matariki is celebrated as a time for remembering, sharing and beginning new things. Beautifully drawn illustrations capture the very Kiwi setting and celebrations. Suitable age 4–8. 

Daniel’s Matariki Feast

Written by Rebecca Beyer and Linley Wellington 
Illustrated by Christine Ross

Duck Creek Press, 2014
Hardback, ISBN 978-1-877378-90-4, $29.99
Paperback, ISBN 978-1-877378-91-1, $19.99

Tā Daniel Hākari Matariki
Publication March 2015
Paperback, ISBN 978-1-927305-02-7, $19.99

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Crossover by Kwame Alexander

This is a rattling, bouncing, rhyming, shouting flurry of a verse novel centring around basketball and family. Josh Bell (aka Filthy McNasty) and his identical twin brother Jordan (JB) have been playing basketball since they could walk, thanks to their father who was a star ball player until suffering an injury. They are all pretty much obsessed with the game and the boys are stars of their team, playing way better than their age (12) would suggest.

While their father urges them on to greater achievements in basketball, their mother is hot on discipline and the importance of their schoolwork. She's also assistant principal at their school so always knows when they're in trouble. She's also constantly nagging their father about his hypertension (which killed his father at a young age), and recruiting the boys to help ensure he doesn't eat the wrong things or get too wound up but their father is a powerful personality and hard to persuade.

Josh takes particular pleasure in words; his vocabulary featuring as title and subject for a dozen poems which serve to further explain his current state of mind. Also making regular appearances throughout are the ten rules of basketball, which somehow seem just as much rules for life as for the game. (Rule No. 1: “In this game of life / your family is the court / and the ball is your heart.” School is also where a girl - Alexis, upsets the solid bond between the twins when she and JB get together and Josh is left alone and angry.

The use of verse is perfect for this story - the rhythm of the words matching the pace of the action - sometimes a driving, urgent rap, sometimes a slow considered reflection, or a pacing out of misery when things go wrong, it both shares the action and conversations, and the thoughts shared with no-one but the reader.

I'm a very non-sporty person, I'm quite happy to know next to nothing about most sports, but basketball is the exception, thanks to my son taking it up when he was young, and a lack of coaches which meant either I became coach or he couldn't be in a team, so I did what I had to; I said yes and got books out of the library about how to play. So I willingly threw myself into reading Crossover and delighting in actually knowing some of what it was talking about on the court, the fast paced tumble of words and rhythm bringing the game to vivid life. Credit due for the graphic cover design which instantly identifies the basketball subject-matter with a clever text ball giving just a hint to the power of words within.

It was a pleasure to see the world and life through the eyes of these thoughtful, hardworking, impulsive young men, and heartbreaking to see the tragedy that unfolds, at the same time knowing that they will survive it because of their inner and family strength. I hope this book makes its way into the hands of many young teens who can see their own lives and experiences expressed in these pages, and pick up a few clues about how to express and conduct themselves through the ups and downs life brings.

The Crossover
By Kwame Alexander
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
ISBN 978-0-544-10771-7


Monday, January 5, 2015

Go Home Flash by Ruth Paul

Flash is the sort of dog that really appeals to me - not too big but not too small, a little bit scruffy and slightly grubby (I love the spatters and texture of his coat) and so cute that you can't help but forgive him when he gets into trouble, which happens constantly in this charmer of a picture book, follow-up to the equally delightful Bad Dog Flash.

It's a large size landscape format so the watercolour illustrations have plenty of room for variety. Some pages have a series of vignettes that capture the momentum and mischief of the young pup and his busy family. Other pages capture a full scene like the kids soccer game or classroom, or we zoom in close to see things from a dog's-eye point of view - I love the early scene where we see just the legs and briefcase of the dad rushing off to work as Flash looks out the dog door. The illustrations convey the very busy lives of the whole family, full of things the young readers will likely be familiar with -  going shopping, to school and to work; whilst the text is primarily a simple narration of Flash's own busy day full of smells and sounds and temptations, interrupted by the recurrent 'Go home Flash!'

Flash is based on Ruth Paul's own dog's younger days and her affection for him is clear in the illustrations and the fun of the story, which concludes happily (of course) with Flash dreaming of a great game of 'chase the cat' (whilst sleeping under a lovely patchwork bed cover!) then finally being taken out for a walk. 

Young children love to read books that reflect their own lives, indeed many children might identify with Flash himself and his propensity to find trouble simply through his enthusiasm for whatever he's keen to do at the time. This story is bound to be in high rotation with everyone joining in on the 'Go home Flash' chorus.

You can read about Ruth Paul, and see a photo of her with her own dog in an interview by Joely, Caitlin, Sophie and Laila from Lyttelton Primary School on the excellent Poetry Box blog. 

Go Home Flash
Written & illustrated by Ruth Paul
Scholastic New Zealand 
October 2014
ISBN 978-1-77543-245-6
Paperback $19
2-7 years

Also in te reo Maori
E Hoki Flash
ISBN 978-1-77543-268-5

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Alligator in an Anorak by Daron Parton

I have a fondness for alphabet books but I know there is often confusion about who they are for, certainly many in my collection are far more sophisticated than a 4-5 year old requires. The presumption is that they are for children who need to learn their letters, and perhaps they are, but they are often so much more, and sometimes the alphabet is simply a device to bring order to the subject the creator is keen on. 

Alligator in an Anorak will certainly be useful for children learning the alphabet, the feature letter is stands out in colour from the otherwise grey text, though from an educational perspective I wished for lowercase letters as well as capitals. 

But don't just share it with the little kids, let everyone have a look because there is some really quirky, interesting artwork here, and it's a nice piece of book design too, though I know that the pristine white cover with the glossy green alligator in his yellow anorak (is a raincoat the same thing as an anorak?), is not going to remain sparkling white once a few children get their mitts on the book.
Crab in a Caravan

The aim of the game here is to put interesting animals in funny situations - does the alligator need an anorak? Of course he doesn't, he loves the water. Does a tiger belong in a tent? Of course not (unless he's eating the occupant). I love the idea of the child reader anticipating what will be on the next page, particularly once they know their alphabet so they can predict what's coming next and what absurd situation will it be in. One of my favourites is the whale in the wigwam where only a tiny part of the whale even fits inside.

Most of the time this works well but a few pages don't play by the rules, they have an easily anticipated animal somewhere that's entirely reasonable - a fish in a fountain - fair enough. The zebra in the zoo - what's silly about that? That last one made me sigh a little because the book should close with a bang as good as what you got, if not better, for any other page.

Aside from the odd disappointing page I think this is a tasty piece of picture book publishing, full of style and panache. It's been published by Random House Australia, but the author was born in the UK but lives in New Zealand, with his Kiwi wife and two kids, and teaches illustration at Auckland's AUT. 

Alligator in an Anorak
Written & illustrated by Daron Parton
Random House Australia (distributed here by Random House NZ)
1 October 2014
NZ release 21 November 2014
Hardback $24.99
ISBN 9780857983091
ebook 9780857983114
Picture book

NB: I haven't seen the ebook yet, will report back when I've had a chance to play with it.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Poetry is a great way to tell a story, even a biography, the truth told in just the perfect number of words, no more, no less.
Jacqueline Woodson tells not only her own story but those of her parents and grandparents in a time of great change in America. From the days of slavery to feminism, trying not to forget all the old ways in the midst of gaining the new.
She writes wonderfully about learning to read, how much slower she was than her older sister, but how stories embedded themselves in her mind so she could tell them well before she could write them down, and there's a slowly growing ember of the desire to become a writer.
This book is a brilliant way for a child reader to develop empathy for those who struggle one way or another to make their way in life, but somehow do it all the same. 
The story of the author researching her own life story is briefly outlined at the end, and is a tribute to all those family members who came before her, who come together in the pages of this book to tell a very fine story. National Book Award winner.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books / Penguin Group USA) ISBN 978-0-399-25251-8`

Friday, January 2, 2015

Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman

This delectable picture book ticked all the boxes for me, from the rotund trio in their sailboat on the cover of the generously proportioned square format hardcover, to the map of their journey on the final endpapers, the book had me exclaiming over the clever details in both the visual and the text.
The three young bears - Dash, Theo and Charlie (who is a girl bear) try to get at the honey pot on a high ledge when they knock down and break their mother's treasured blue shell.

A little bit afraid of their mother ("who, after all, was a bear"), they take to sea in their boat, deciding that if they can replace the shell she won't be so mad. 

They ask other seafaring bears for advice, including a raft full of Huckleberry Finn types, and the Moby Dick inspired crew of a boat called the Melville. A "big, salty bear" tells them to look for "an island shaped like a lumpy hat" though has no idea where the shell would be. "Just look in the right place".

They have an amazing journey including a page where the text simply says "Their voyage was not without incident." but the double-page spread depicts, in gorgeous watery blues and greens, a pod of whales under the water and lifting the boat up into the air.

When they finally find the lumpy island they commence looking everywhere - under the water (this page reminds me of The Water Babies), in the trees, on top of the mountain where a mountain goat obviously doesn't think much of their invading his territory, even in a dark cave.

The by now very grumpy bears ("were most unhappy and stared at teach other with very squinty, very mad bear eyes"). They have a jolly good bicker amongst themselves about whose fault everything is until a storm - another dramatic spread with the only text a large "BOOM!" with lightning in the sky and huge waves sweeping in. "They don't care whose fault it is anymore, they were all in the same boat." - such cleverness, and again on the next page "And then, like turning a page, the little boat sailed out of the storm" They are miraculously near their home island, completing the adventure story cycle of home, off on an adventure, and home again, and know they must go and face their Mama, and because they are again "in just the right place" they find another blue shell on the beach and race home with it. Mama of course forgives them and gives them (with a little echo of Max in Where the Wild Things Are) a warm supper - but no dessert.

There are many more literary references hinted at, the bears' boat is called the Ursula K which is surely a nod to Ursula LeGuin, but also perhaps to the term 'Ursine' - relating to bears. They sail past an island featuring a fun fair which is surely Coney Island, I'm sure there are others that I haven't identified and I keep going back for another look to see what else I can spot. 

A charming story with finely acquitted watercolour illustrations with added depths to ensure enjoyment of both adult and child reader. A complete and rather perfect picture book.

Three Bears in a Boat written and illustrated by David Soman (Dial Books for Young Readers - Penguin USA. ISBN 978-0-8037-3993-2.