Last But Not You Know

The Penderwicks At Last by Jeanne Birdsall. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018. 9780385755665. 304pp.

When I’m not reading comics, I favor dark mysteries, science fiction on an epic scale, and heroic fantasy so violent that I can’t recommend it to many. And when I’m looking for books that meet these tastes, I seek out recommendations from folks who read widely in these genres. (“I read 300 fantasy novels a year and this was the best.”) But when I’m looking for books outside them, I want to find the books people read kind of in spite of how they can be easily described. (“I don’t like literary fiction, but I couldn’t put this down.”)

Well, I don’t read many kids chapter books, or books that paint a rosy picture of family life and childhood. But this is one of those, and it’s the book I most anticipated reading this year. It’s  the fifth book in the Penderwicks series, so minor spoilers ahead. Take it from an atypical recommender — start at the beginning and don’t stop until you’ve read them all.

This one focuses on Lydia, the youngest Penderwick sister. Her oldest sister Rosalind is getting married, and decides to have the ceremony at Arundel, the setting for the first book (where the four original Penderwick girls met now honorary Penderwick Jeffrey, who lived there with his mother, Mrs. Tifton, and her horrid then current husband). (Sorry for the long sentence. There’s just so much context here.) Lydia heads to Arundel early with Batty (now a young adult, still a singer), to start cleaning the place, and soon Jane (waitressing while working on her books) arrives to start making the dresses. It’s a great excuse to get everyone together, and to see them through young Lydia’s eyes as she explores Arundel (and the stories she’s heard about it) with her new friend, Alice. There’s lots in here about dealing with the pair’s annoying beloved older brothers, plus Mrs. Tifton is around, still intimidating and unpleasant to kids, still worried that her beloved Jeffrey (who now owns Arundel) is going to get sucked into marrying one of the Penderwicks.

This book contains more amazing dogs than have ever existed in my cat-centric world, plus one cool sheep. Give it to everyone you know, even the cat people.

Big Lizard in the Big City

Bolivar by Sean Rubin. Archaia, 2017. 9781684150694. 224pp.

In a lot of ways this is the longest picture book I’ve ever seen. Or is it a graphic novel? Since there are comics and a tiny bit of prose, it’s probably fair to say it’s both. And it’s even more important to say that I enjoyed it as an adult, not for some generic, unnamed kid’s sake sake.

Bolivar, a dinosaur, lives in New York City, but only his neighbor Sybil seems to notice. Everyone else is too busy. (Bolivar lives on corned beef sandwiches and tonic water with lime.) Sybil spends the first part of the book trying to convince everyone that Bolivar is a dinosaur and entirely fails (in fun ways) to get evidence. After Bolivar is given a parking ticket (despite not being a car), he has to go to City Hall and file a complaint, and the book takes a fun turn.

My favorite part of the book are the illustrated mosaics on the endpapers, the title page, and on the subway walls in the book. I cannot imagine how much time Rubin spent on them, and they look amazing. But really the whole book is fab. The people are very cartoony but have a lot of character, the streets and interiors are amazingly detailed, and every page has a texture that reminds me of Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I’m so happy Archaia published this in an oversized format — it really deserves it.

Bonus: The whole book is as much a love letter to New York as Roz Chast’s latest.

“You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair…”

Anne of Green Gables: a graphic novel adapted by Mariah Marsden and illustrated by Brenna Thummler. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2017. 9781449479602. 230pp.

I’ve tried to read the original novel by L.M. Montgomery a few times — it’s a favorite of my friend Liz and her family — but it’s never hooked me. But this relentlessly colorful graphic novel finally did the trick.

Anne Shirley is a red headed orphan girl sent to siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert’s farm. (It’s in Avonlea, on Prince Edward Island, but I don’t think that’s mentioned.) The Cuthberts wanted a boy to help out, and seem about to return Anne to the orphanage when her chattiness and sunny disposition gets the better of them, and they keep her. She falls in love with her new home, charms Matthew Cuthbert in particular, and makes a friend, all while having hilarious misadventures. The summers are green, the falls have spectacular colors, and her competition and interactions with fellow student Gilbert Blythe speak of their relationship to come.

Og-la-di Og-la-da

Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere by Elise Gravel. Harper, 2017. 9780062351265. 170pp.

I introduced Sarah to Elise Gravel’s sketchbook last week (as I write this). She and I are both huge fans of Gravel’s Disgusting Critters series and the friendly monsters she draws. This hybrid chapter book/graphic novel features more of the same sense of humor and silliness. (Grumpy little Olga resembles the grumpy self portrait Gravel drew in her sketchbook.) Olga loves animals (except mosquitoes), so there are lots of drawings of them throughout. She proves animals beat humans in head-to-head cuteness contests, and shows that even their farts are cute. Her closest friend is a spider named Rita who she pretends speaks French and to whom she says, “I’d like to give you a hug, but you would die.” Olga makes observations galore, which leads her to find the coolest animal poop ever (it looks like Skittles). Her new friend, the smelly animal of the title, looks “like a cross between an inflated hamster and a potato drawn by a three-year-old.” All it says is “meh.” (You’ll want one of your own, too, even though it smells like sardines.) Olga does some research to find out what Meh is and, perhaps more importantly, what it eats. It’s a fun way for a young scientist to explore the scientific method — there’s even a simplified two-page summary of the scientific method at the end.

Really real friend friends

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham. First Second, 2017. 9781626724167. 224pp.

I feel like I’m seeing Pham’s name and artwork everywhere. I loved The Bear Who Wasn’t There (am I imagining the scene with a giraffe on a toilet?) and I’ve got Isabella for Real near the top of my to-read pile. And she also drew a full length graphic novel with Shannon Hale (Princess in Black, Rapunzel’s Revenge (I know she’s written a lot of other cool books, but those are my favs))?!? When does she sleep?

First, the art: fantastic. Pham captures the red-headed Shannon’s everyday antics and really brings her imagined games to life, too. She’s right up there with Raina Telgemeier. Wow.

The story: This is Shannon Hale’s story, based on her memories of elementary school friendships. (There are awkwardly beautiful pictures of Hale at the back for comparison with the character’s look, along with an author’s note about the story.) Shannon loves her friend Adrienne so much! But in second grade, others want her attention, too, and then Adrienne moves away. Shannon makes another friend, Tammy, who clearly wants Shannon’s friendship while all Shannon wants is for Adrienne to come back. And then she comes back. It’s painful to to read, and it only gets worse as girls form grade school cliques and Shannon moves in and out of them — lots of social anxiety, lots of stomach cramps. It’s saved from a didactic after school special vibe and comes alive because Shannon doesn’t always do the nicest thing, and like in real life it’s often not clear what she should do. (I’m leaving this where my high school aged daughter can find it.)

Fly Daddy Fly

My Dad’s A Birdman by David Almond, Illustrated by Polly Dunbar. Candlewick, 2008. 9780763636678. 128pp.

Gene: Before I moved last year I hadn’t seen this book for a long time, and I hadn’t really thought about it, but as I was looking at my shelf I realized this is the book from my daughter’s childhood that means the most to me. It’s one of the first chapter books we read together. It’s illustrated. And it’s all about a little girl coming to understand her very weird dad.
Sarah: (laughs)
Gene: It’s My Dad’s A Birdman by David Almond, illustrated by Polly Dunbar.
S: On the title page he’s eating a worm!
G: Lizzy’s the little girl. Her dad is kind of sad and unkempt.
S: Sad bathrobe dad!
G: She kind of takes care of him. There’s a guy named Mr. Poop who is taking entries for The Great Human Bird Competition, a contest to see who can be the first to fly across the River Tyne and win thousands of pounds. Mr. Poop comes around and calls for entries with a bullhorn, as one does. And Lizzy’s dad enters. He plans on wearing the wingsuit he’s made.
Continue reading “Fly Daddy Fly”

Like I Need a Reason to Crave Asian Style Pastry

Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong by A.J. Low. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2016. 9781449477899.

sherlocksamElementary-aged, Singaporean amateur sleuth Sherlock Sam (real name: Samuel Tan Cher Lock) teams up with his sister, his cousin, and his snarky robot Watson to solve the mystery of his Auntie’s missing heirloom cookbook. Sherlock Sam is earnest, he learned all about problem-solving from Logicomix, he’s annoyed that adults keep pinching his chubby cheeks, and he’s motivated by food. This book made me hungry: it’s packed full of Singaporean delicacies (Sherlock Sam’s love of his Auntie’s ayam buah keluak is the main reason he wants to solve the case quickly).

This is an illustrated chapter book (though Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Kids imprint is known for graphic novels) with delightful black and white spot illustrations by Andrew Tan.

You can take the boy out of the cave but you can’t…

Caveboy Dave Book 1: More Scrawny Than Brawny by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Phil McAndrew. Viking, 2016. 9780147516589.

caveboy-dave-1Dave Unga Bunga wanted to invent something that everyone needs, like his grandfather (fire) and father (the wheel) did, but his stick-like “forfood” was a little ahead of its time. He thinks that maybe he should just become a hunter. But his teacher, Mr. Gronk, is unimpressed by his “running away from your prey like a terrified chipmunk” technique. This is a problem because Dave’s Baby-Go-Boom ritual is tomorrow. If he can’t invent something impressive overnight, he will have to venture into the wild with four friends. There they’ll need to hunt and kill one of the deadly and delicious animals known as The Big Six: a slothopod, a pokeyhorn, a flying rippy-beak, a giant blobby-good, a slugosaurus, or a stabby cat. If they can’t come back with meat for their tribe, they can’t come back at all. Ever.

I know that all sounds very threatening, but it’s really not. Dave is hilarious, and so are his inventions. McAndrew draws him like a completely well-meaning goober. In fact I love everything about the character and creature designs in this book, though my favorites things are the fake animals Mr. Gronk uses to train the kids (with limited success).

This graphic novel would be a fun and logical next step, reading level-wise, from Captain Underpants, and it won’t bore fun-loving grownups who read it aloud or read along.