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Monday, January 30, 2012

Next Year's Caldecott All Sewn Up? New Books — Extra Yarn

Courtesy HarperCollins

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Every now and again, I come across a picture book that has such a classic feel that I have to flip back to the copyright page and double-check to make sure I couldn’t possibly have read it as a child. The most recent book to send me into such warm and glorious bouts of nostalgia is Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. Like so many favorite picture books of my own youth, this one has a story that is simple, yet full and rich.  It’s the kind of plot you could retell at a bedtime years later, even if you couldn’t find your old copy of the book. It’s the kind of fable that, despite being completely fresh and unique, feels like it has been told and retold for generations. Not stale, not clichéd – just timeless.

It’s the story of a young girl who finds a box of never-ending yarn and sets about knitting sweaters for everybody and everything in town. Her spirit of generosity is tested (as is the magic of the yarn itself) when a greedy archduke comes calling. The paintings by Jon Klassen (who is fast becoming one of my favorite illustrators ever) could not be more perfect. With a bright array of changing colors for the yarn and muted earth tones for everything else, his sweet and comical pictures help tell the tale in just the right way.

Together, the story and art scream “Instant Classic.” No, scream isn’t the right word. There’s nothing screamy about this book. It’s got a much quieter, more nuanced power. It put me in mind of Leo Lionni with a slier sense of humor, or Tomi Ungerer on one of his brighter, happier days. But Extra Yarn feels most like a classic Barnett/Klassen book, which is how I expect people will be complimenting other picture books a few decades from now.

Best for: Picture book lovers of all kinds; fans of wry fables; people who liked I Want My Hat Back, but were hoping for something a bit gentler.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wishes Fulfilled: New Books — Bigger Than a Bread Box

Courtesy Random House

Bigger Than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

I’ve made it pretty clear on this blog how much I enjoy magical realism. But my affection for lovely, entertaining, suspenseful, and moving Bigger Than a Bread Box goes far beyond the presence of a wish-granting bread tin. What really made me love Laurel Snyder’s new book so much is its protagonist.

            Twelve-year-old Rebecca is a eminently realistic tween girl — flawed and likable. She gets bored by Civil War documentaries, she gets frustrated by her little brother who she really loves very much, she shares laughs with her best friend by sneaking peeks at dirty greeting cards (just one of the wonderful little details in the book). Everything she does is believable. Which is why, reading about her from a parent’s perspective, I so often felt like I wanted to be there to comfort her through her angst — or warn her against the ill-thought, disaster-bound choices she was obviously making. Kids are so much more interesting to read about when they make mistakes.
            In the story, Rebecca’s parents split up and she is forced to move with her mother into her grandma’s house. Adjusting to a new house, new school, new neighborhood, and new friends is just as difficult as you’d imagine. But it’s made a little easier (or at least more surprising) by Rebecca’s discovery of a magical old bread box. Whatever she wishes for appears from within its tin confines. She starts off by wishing for exactly the type of things you’d expect a kid to wish for: money, an iPod, macaroni and cheese. But when her newfound loot doesn’t immediately change her life for the better, she ups the stakes, wishing for more unexpected (and harder to explain) prizes. And of course, the one thing she wants most — a reunion for her parents — is not something that can appear in a bread box. And when she learns a dark and morally challenging secret about the bread box, the tension increases exponentially.

            This is a tale of dangerous magic, the kind that looks incredibly promising and appealing, but which — if misused — can lead to ruin. Be-careful-what-you-wish-for predicaments start snowballing. And you, the reader, want so badly for things to work out for this girl, that you can’t help but be drawn in.

Best for: Lovers of magical realism; readers looking for tween drama with a unique twist; collectors of antique bread boxes

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Fairy Tale of Tween Angst: New Books — Breadcrumbs

Courtesy HarperCollins
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

If you’ve read any of my previous book reviews, you may have figured out that I’m a sucker for magical realism (I’m also a sucker for magical magic, but that’s beside the point). I love when I find a story that works so brilliantly as a subtle, slice-of-life drama that you don’t blink an eye at the fantastical and otherworldly elements sprinkled throughout. I have seen the excellent Breadcrumbs (which has already received many much-deserved lauds) described as a modern retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” — and it is — but there’s so much more going on here than just “let’s set an old fairy tale in modern times.”

Breadcrumbs is about childhood friendships — how solid and unchangeable they can seem, how strangely fickle and malleable they can be, and how utterly important they are either way. It’s about the way friendships, especially at that age, help us form a view of ourselves and our world. And the story just happens to have a child-stealing witch in it. And a mystical forest, and a magic mirror. But those Hans Christian Andersonian bits aren’t the story; they just help tell the story. And wonderfully so. After all, your tween years are such a surreal mishmash of hormones, emotions, pressures, and changes that it often feels like you’re roaming through an alternate universe half the time anyway.  In that sense, Breadcrumbs feels like a better bookshelf companion for Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (another masterful piece of magical realism, or more appropriately, sci-fi realism) than anything by, say, Gregory Maguire (whose work is wonderful in a very different way).

To tell her sad and lovely story of friendship, Ursu makes genius use of not only “The Snow Queen,” but an anthology’s worth of other Andersen tales. I don’t want to spoil too much, but as ten-year-old Hazel treks through the dark and danger-filled woods in search of her missing former best friend, she runs into one Andersen character after another — and grows in some way with each encounter. My daughter is just about Hazel’s age and I can’t wait to pass Breadcrumbs on to her. But I’m going to have her read up on her Andersen first. Getting the references only adds to experience.

Best for: Tweens going through rough patches (or anybody who remembers being one); Hans Christian Andersen fans who have been longing to see any of his stories other than "The Little Mermaid" get its due; readers who enjoy their fantasy adventures with more brainwork than fisticuffs or swordplay

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It's a Toy! It's a Game! It's Skylanders! – Video Game Review

Skylanders Spyro's Adventure (for Wii, PS3, Xbox 360, 3DS, Mac, and PC)

It’s almost embarrassing how much I enjoy Skylanders. It fills me with a sort of nostalgic glee. Not way-back nostalgia like you get when you encounter pixely old Atari games like Frogger or Breakout; nostalgia for the dawn of 3D gaming and the colorful classics of the Nintendo 64 and the original PlayStation 1. The moment I started playing Skylanders, I realized how much I’d been missing a certain kind of game: Vibrant cartoony graphics, with loads of action and exploration, and whimsical characters adventuring across creatively magical landscapes. Skylanders made me think back to the fun I had playing Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot, and even the original Spyro the Dragon (the star of which is revived nicely here).

Of course, Skylanders has a gimmick: You place toy characters on a plastic “portal” (which is connected to your game console by USB port) and watch them magically appear in the game world for you to use. During a gaming session, all experience, powers, and money earned by your character are stored on a chip within the figure and will be at the ready next time you play. The game comes packaged with three Skylanders (including the titular Spyro) and you can swap characters in an out as often as you want. And while there’s nothing stopping you from completing the game with just those three heroes, there are twenty-nine others temptingly available for purchase at your local toy and video game stores.

Each Skylander has a completely unique set of moves and powers, upping the temptation factor. And to make matters worse, each character belongs to one of eight “element” groups (fire, water, air, earth, life, magic, tech, and undead [they sort of lose me on that last one]}, and each level of the game has bonus areas that can only be entered by members of certain element. So while you can reach the conclusion of the game with only three Skylanders, you’ll never be able to see all the secret areas. But that doesn’t mean you’d need to buy all 32 characters — as long as you have one of each element, you’re good. Still, at an average cost of $8 per figure, that means you’re paying an additional $40 over the typical $70 for the game starter pack.

Courtesy Activision
So is it worth it? I still say yes. Here’s one of the coolest things about these Skylanders figures and their power portal: They’re truly universal. If you use your characters to play the game on, say, an Xbox 360 and then take them to house of a friend who has the game on a Wii, you can bring your Xbox-primed characters into that Wii game complete with all their earned experience, powers, etc. Same goes for a PS3. You can even use them on the handheld Nintendo 3DS (which has a completely different version of the game, by the way). And whatever game system you have, you can use port your same toy figures into the Web MMORPG, Skylanders Universe (which works on both Mac and PC). This universality is a trend I’d love to see continue.

In addition, the story is fun, the writing can be very clever at times, there are a ton of awesome hidden treasures to find, and the co-op capability makes it a nice game for parents and kids to play together. To be honest, there’s no way I could not love a game in which the villain surprises you with a deathtrap called the Deadly Shark Bath of Doomsharks.

Best for: Gamers keen on early-90s nostalgia; avid collectors; parents looking for light-hearted action for their kids; people with the room to store 32 toy figurines

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Word Nerds Rejoice: New Books — The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

Courtesy of Dutton Children's Books
The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

There simply aren’t enough good suspenseful dramedies that revolve around Scrabble. So I would like to thank Meg Wolitzer for her new novel, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. As a word nerd myself, I thoroughly enjoyed watching her characters drill one another on anagrams, strategize about ways to use a Q, and puzzle over why a word like “za” is legal when no one in the world actually refers to pizza as “za” (although that’s what the Scrabble dictionary says it means).

But I’m making the book sound like a Words With Friends chat board: It’s not. The plot revolves around a national Scrabble youth tournament and the various pairs of middle-schoolers who trek across the country to out-word one another. It has a somewhat similar feel to one of my favorite documentaries, Spellbound (about the contestants in the Scripps Spelling Bee). And the playoffs in Fingertips can be just as taut and suspenseful as the drawn out letter-by-letter spellings in that film.

It helps that the cast of kids here is extremely likable. You’ve got the titular Duncan, a poor, picked-on boy whose cachet in school rises when a popular kid chooses him as his Scrabble partner. And there’s April Blunt, whose geekish love of words makes her the black sheep among her family of workout-mad triathlete types. And Nate Saviano, a Manhattan skateboard buff whose father — a former Scrabble almost-champion — forces him to play. There are others, too. And you’re not really rooting against any of them, so it becomes almost painful knowing that only one duo can win in the end.

Most of the what goes on in these pages is realistic kids-dealing-with-the-pains-of-being-kids Judy Blume-ish material. But there is an out-of-left-field supernatural-ish twist in that Duncan has the power to “see” with his fingertips. He can read letters sightlessly, by merely touching them. Therefore, he should be able to feel the letters on Scrabble tiles and choose a perfect hand on each turn. The question becomes whether he will use this power to cheat or not. And there’s a lot of tension in the making that decision. Which is all the better for us readers, of course.

Best for: Scrabble geeks; fans of realistic kid fiction who can handle a little suspension of disbelief now and then; outsider-ish tweens and the people who love them.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hail to the Chief: New Music by Caspar Babypants

Sing Along! by Caspar Babypants

If you don’t already know Chris Ballew by his wonderfully ludicrous nom de song Caspar Babypants, you may remember him as the guy who sang that “Lump” song from the ‘90s. The former Presidents of the United States frontman has revived himself as a refreshingly different and wildly entertaining children’s musician. His latest CD, Sing Along! is high on my recommendation list of literal kid pop.

There are lots of acts out there crafting fantastic rock, folk, bluegrass, and even calypso music for young audiences. But one of the great things about Caspar Babypants is that his songs genuinely sound like children’s songs — he’s got a cover of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “Ring Around the Rosie” on this album, for Zanes’s sake! — and yet, they remain unalienating to adults. There’s a happy poppiness to all of Sing Along’s tracks, and many — especially the pumping “Spider John,” the rousing “Long, Long Dream,” and the uber-catchy “Wild, Wild Time” — will make you do just what the album’s title asks of you.

The original Babypants tunes are the highlights of the CD, but I also personally love when Ballew layers his POTUS alt-rock sound onto children’s classic, as he does with a quick-picking, driving guitar riff behind “Pussycat, Pussycat.” And I can’t let this review end without a mention of “Sun Go,” Mr. Babypants’s hauntingly lovely acoustic duet with one of my other favorite kids’ singers, Frances England. It’s the kind of family music that may be squarely aimed at the lower age end, but remains happily appealing to those on the upper end as well.

Best for: Young kids who want their music to sound like it’s intended for them; former Presidents of the United States fans; classic kid-tune revisionists

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Don't Read the Jacket Copy: New Books — Stuck

Courtesy Philomel Books
Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

This is a toughie. Stuck is, without a doubt, one of my favorite picture books of the year. I knew the moment I read it that I needed to blog about it. The difficulty comes in figuring out exactly how to review a comic tour de force like Stuck without spoiling the absolutely hilarious running gag that makes the book such a blast to read.

I’ve been a fan of Oliver Jeffers ever since his first picture book, the magically poignant Lost and Found (which was, coincidentally, the very first book I reviewed in the very first issue of Cookie). That book was easy to write about. It is a gorgeously illustrated story about a boy who helps a wayward penguin back home to the South Pole. It, too, has plenty of wonderful subtle humor, but none of it is so intrinsically tied to the plot that a summary of the book would ruin the jokes. And that is the case with Stuck. To explain why Stuck is so wonderfully funny, would be to take away the joy of discovering that absurdist, mildly subversive humor yourself.

Stuck is about a boy who needs to get his kite untangled from the branches of a tall tree. To say more than that would be too much. What happens next is so simple — and so unbelievably silly — that it’s pure genius. Like the best sketch comedy, Stuck manages to take one basic joke and keep building upon it and enhancing it for bigger and bigger laughs. It’s laugh-out-loud stuff. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Stuck releases on November 11th.

Best for: Fans of The Simpsons or perhaps even Monty Python; anyone who understands that humor can be sophisticated and silly at the same time; kite lovers.