I am trying to do better about reading children’s lit in certain age ranges; I usually go to town on my picture books and YA titles, the two ends of the continuum. But — for whatever reason — I don’t read as many beginning readers and chapter books, in particular. So, I’ve been doing some reading lately in each age category (I don’t think I missed any, though — technically — board books aren’t represented here) and figured I’d do a post featuring one title for each one (my YA category, though, features two stellar titles I just finished). So, let’s get to it — children’s literature across the board, from picture books to the two best YA titles I’ve read this year.
Here’s a little gem for you: Hippo! No, Rhino by Jeff Newman, nominated for a Cybil Award in the Fiction Picture Books category. This is a sly, clever, hip, little slip of a book; it’s mostly wordless; and it’s got the look of a picture book that might have been the shizizzle when I was a toddler (in the ’80s — okay, um, the ’70s). Enter the zoo with a baffled zookeeper who doesn’t quite know his animals (and looks not unlike Cheech or Chong), whistling a tune while he just guesses at the correct signage for our poor rhino protagonist. As the title tells you, our clueless zookeeper puts up the “hippo” sign, and the wackiness ensues. You need to pick up the book at the very least to see the groooovy folks who visit the rhino’s cage, only to have him yell and whine and cajole and wheedle and whimper and try to convince someone — just anyone — that he’s truly a rhino. There’s much humor and style here, and when a sympathetic little boy in a bright, yellow coat shows up to right things, well, my heart did a little cheer for him, the only one amongst the adults all day who is paying any attention at all (making it an empowering read as well for children). The oranges and yellows and teals and purples on clean, white backgrounds — created with watercolor and gouache, along with pencil, ink, marker, and pastel — are a visual treat, and children will have much fun finding the storyline all on their own by following the pictures, giving this one a touch of the graphic-art style of illustrating. (And for a really good read/laugh, read Newman’s profile at Amazon, particularly his take on the Society of Illustrators 26th Annual Exhibition of “The Original Art” — at the end of October — in which his head nearly exploded, as he put it, and he screamed like a girl when he spotted Mo Willems. Oh, and he totally says “and, scene” at the end of an anecdote he shares about the event, and I laughed until I about soiled my pants. It’s the little things. And I’ve done enough time as an insufferable Actor Geek to find that amusing).
Aggie and Ben: Three Stories by Lori Ries and illustrated by Frank W. Dormer — This is a beginning reader book that will also score big with the preschoolers when read aloud, and I hope Ries and Dormer bring us even more Aggie and Ben stories. They’re unassuming and sweet and focused on all the right details that make preschoolers and emerging readers want to squeal. This is the children’s book debut for Dormer, an editorial illustrator, and thank goodness he’s joined the club with his watercolor and ink drawings that give us interesting angles (check out that cover) and lines and frames and close-ups (Aggie pouncing after a ball from a bold, exciting perspective) as well as lovable, memorable characters. In this book of three stories about Ben’s trip to the pet store to pick any pet he wants, your favorite emerging reader will surely relate to Ben’s ponderings over the consequences of choosing one animal over another; his sheer delight at having a puppy in the home and his attempts to mimic said puppy (until the puppy takes a swig of some toilet water); and Ben’s attempts to deal with bed-time fears with his new puppy pal at his side. Again, here’s hoping for some more Aggie and Ben adventures in the not-so-distant future . . . And now on to a chapter book, the most oft-ignored category of children’s lit for me (I hang my head) . . .
Mercy Watson Fights Crime by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen — Ah, controlled vocabulary, lots of repetition, lots of repetition, reading levels, simple sentence structures, self-correction, self-monitoring — the world of learning to read. Fortunately, for us, Kate DiCamillo is here to provide an entertaining series of chapter books for your favorite wee one who is just past learning this daunting task and ready to experience those thrilling things called chapters (technically, this is probably considered an easy reader, but since it is divided into chapters, it’s somewhat of an emerging reader/chapter book cross-over title, in my opinion). I have not read the first two Mercy Watson books, but this is one mirthful, adventurous tale with a cast of unforgettable characters — Mercy, the buttered-toast-lovin’ pig (and who doesn’t love toast? Yum); Leroy Ninker, a thief whose real goal is to be a cowboy; Mr. and Mrs. Watson (who seem firmly lodged in their stereotypical gender roles, as Van Dusen — with his colorful, exaggerated gouache illustrations — seems to be making a sincere attempt to be retro); and the neighbors, Eugenia and Baby Lincoln, who have more personality in this short book than a lot of characters in poorly-written tomes. The plot is simple: Mercy awakens at night to hear Ninker stealing objects from the Watson home, but — thinking it’s someone about to make her some toast — she follows her joy and heads to the kitchen, only to end up, when it’s all said and done, giving Ninker a bronco ride of sorts in the back yard, much to the bewilderment of all the neighbors and law enforcement. How they get to that point is for your favorite emerging reader to find out with this lively, playful title.
Part of Me: Stories of a Louisiana Family by Kimberly Willis Holt — This is some quiet, understated writing from Holt, whose writing is always as spirited and genuine as she is (I only sat next to her at a lunch once and chatted briefly, but she’s the real deal and an oh-so friendly person). In this series of short stories, we trace the roots of a Lousiana family over four generations, beginning and ending with Rose (and, thankfully, we’re given a family tree in the book’s opening, a handy device which I consulted a great deal). And librarians and book-lovers will be particularly pleased that books and writing and the love of both tie the stories together with one, cohesive thread. The book opens with Rose at 14 years of age in 1939 (having to get a job and thus lying about her age to get a driver’s license in order to drive the bookmobile through the bayou communities) and ends with Rose in 2004, thrilled that her life-time memories are being published in a book in her twilight years. And in between are the stories of Rose’s son, Merle Henry, in the late ’50s; Merle Henry’s daughter, Annabeth, in the early ’70s; and, Annabeth’s son, Kyle, in 2004 — and with us learning a bit more about each character and those around them in the succeeding generation’s story. This one’s not a stunner (as Fuse #8 put it in her detailed review, which — unfortunately — I can’t link to, since she temporarily removed her intermediate-aged book reviews); it’s not as striking as some of Holt’s other titles, and I did find myself wishing some stories were a bit longer so that the characters could be a bit more fleshed out. But, they are what they are — straight-up lovely short stories written with tenderness and humor that will engage the intermediate-aged readers at which they’re aimed, particularly those who love to read about reading and love books about books.
Okay, if you at all care about what I have to say about books, which is a big humble assumption on my part if you’re reading this, take note: These are two of the best YA titles I’ve read this year, and the latter one is probably, hands down, the best book I’ve read all year. Whoooaaaa, duuuude. Bold statement, but true. So, here we go . . .
Clay by David Almond — Oh David, David, David. When you get one of his titles, do you not run home squealing in delight? He is one of the finest of YA writers, I believe. And Almond has written another riveting, unputdownable book, recently published here in the U.S. but originally published in England last year, “that has many connections to my own life,” he writes on his site, and is a first-rate, wondrous, spectacularly disorienting venture into the spiritual landscape of a young boy’s mind. Set in Felling-on-Tyne, the town where Almond grew up, we meet Davie, an emotionally precocious teen and altar boy at his Catholic church. Davie and his best friend, Geordie — who are taunted by Mouldy, a monstrously intimidating bully — are bewildered by the new boy in town, Stephen Rose, whose father has died and whose mother has gone insane, by all accounts, and who is now living with his aunt, known in town by the boys as “Crazy Mary.” Eventually, Stephen Rose convinces the impressionable Davie that he can create life with his clay sculptures, and the two boys bring a tall, bulky clay man to life one night by the light of the moon, Stephen soon commanding this hulky figure to go after Mouldy in Davie’s scared-silly absence. Touching upon issues of mind control; madness; the creative, often burdensome power of art; and goodness vs. evil (amongst other weighty issues), Almond poses formidable questions for readers in a penetrating, chilling narrative, providing no easy answers or, in fact, any answers whatsoever. This makes me extremely happy, as I think we have a dearth of YA novels that address issues of spirituality and religion — at least ones that are written as excellently as Almond writes, without being heavy-handed and while honoring the complexity of the issues for philosophically-minded teens. As the VOYA review puts it, we are left wondering: “Does evil exist? If one believes in God, must one believe in evil too? Does a creator look after his creation or leave it on its own? Is God looking after humankind or has he abandoned us because of our wickedness?” A truly haunting must-read title, one of the best I’ve read this year.
Actually, wait . . . not to be a Big ‘Ol Tease, but I’m going to hold off on telling you about the YA title I just finished that is the. best. book. I’ve. read. all. year. This post is long enough, and this stunner of a title doesn’t deserve to be hidden at the bottom of a post; it deserves it’s own little spotlight. So, I’ll tell you about it really soon. Thanks for listening, if you’re still with me.