Friday, June 29, 2012

Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King by William Joyce

This is a new series featuring the imaginary heroes from childhood.  In this one Nicholas starts the story as a swashbuckling bandit, but is changed by his love of a little girl into the kind and magical St. Nicholas all children know.  In the process Nicholas and Katherine (the little girl) must team up with the good wizard, Ombric, and the mysterious spectral boy to fend of the evil powers of the Nightmare King.  It is a very imaginative story.  When I was a very little girl growing up on the Wasatch Front in Utah, I used to look up at the outline of the trees along the crest of the mountains and I thought it was the Pioneers Crossing the Plains.  I had heard about the "pioneers crossing the plains" all my short life, and the silhouette looked just like what I had heard about, so I thought there were pioneers up there perpetually walking with their animals and pulling their handcarts.  That is the kind of imagination this book calls upon.  If a child has that kind of imagination, this is a wonderful story full of excitement, courage and heart. The book is lavishly illustrated and full of warm reassurances that if we can only believe nothing really bad will ever happen to us. The other books in the series, "The Guardians," feature the Easter Bunny and the Man In the Moon. (228 p)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann

As I read the first quarter of this book I groaned inwardly.  It started out sounding rather cheesy.  Ms McMann made some mistakes that I believe are common with inexperienced writers. The book starts with a boy, Alex, who is about to be "eliminated."  In the society all children are watched from birth.  As they approach age 13 they are categorized as Necessary, Wanted or Unwanted.  Those that are unwanted are taken to a lake of boiling oil and thrown in. In the book the families of the "Unwanteds" hand their children over to death without much fuss. The children who are unwanteds walk to their death without protest. So here is problem #1. For the rest of the book the characters act like pretty normal, rational human beings.  The giving over of the children to death is so contrary to normal behavior it defies belief. In other words, I did not think their was enough support in the story that I would believe that parents and children would act that way. The author needed to convince me more that this would happen in that world. 
As the children walk to their supposed death, and the gate of the city is closed behind them, they are suddenly magically transported in to a world more wonderful than they ever knew exited. The children see bright colors and experience music and art for the first time. So here is problem #2.  The author records their response to their miraculous rescue as a group.  Except for one dissenter child, all the children act in tandem.  They gasp as a group, they look around wide eyed as a group. The author even suggests that they are all thinking the same thing at the same time.  So that is a tidy way to relate that part of the story, but in real life people do not act in tandem. They have similar feelings and reactions, but if someone tells us they are feeling the and doing the exact same thing at the same time, we do not believe them. It would have worked better if the reader would have seen Alex's thoughts, and seen through Alex's eyes what one or two of the other children were doing.  Then the reader would naturally extrapolate that the group as a whole were having similar feelings.  Does that make sense?  

We, as human beings have a limited ability to take in detail.  We don't  perceive everything with which we come in contact.  When we see a tree, we don't look at every leaf on every branch.  We see a few leaves on one branch, and then we notice that there are more, so we assume that the other leaves and branches are like the one we looked at more closely.  The part suggests the whole. The opening scenes of the book would have worked better if McMann would have given us the part in more detail, and then just suggested the whole.

OK, that was long winded.  The rest of the book got better, and I actually enjoyed the story.  The magic system was based on art.  The children learn fighting spells that are associated with painting, singing, dancing and acting, which I thought was kind of fun. The interpersonal relationships were quite complicated. How does one feel toward your family if they gave you up to be killed without regret? Reader beware that in the final battle some of the children face their own parents and siblings, and the family members try to kill each other. So if that bothers you you might want to skip this one. (390 p.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

This was an interesting little story.  It starts with a grown woman, looking at a picture from her childhood.  She remembers two boys, brothers, who came as immigrants from Mongolia to her school in Bootle, England thirty years earlier.  The first day they are at the school they choose her as their "good guide" and she accepts the appointment with gusto.  She helps them learn to fit in, dress normally, and play football. Then, one day the boys don't show up at school. She goes to look for them and they meet and take an almost mystical journey to a nature reserve in a nearby town.  After the adventure she leads them back home, only to have them be deported soon after.  The story is a little odd, and the characters are quirky, but the whole is charming and engaging.  There were a few scenes where I laughed out loud.  For Americans it is a different look at illegal immigration. (42 p) 

The Kind of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Oh, delicious, delicious! My faithful followers will know that I really liked the first two books in this series, The Thief and The Queen of Attolia. This book now confirms Eugenides as one of my favorite characters in children's literature.  The book starts, as the other two did, with someone in jail.  This time it is not Eugenides, but a young soldier, Costis.  He is in jail because he punched the new king of Attolia, Eugenides, in the face, and he knows he must die.  However, Eugenides pardons Costis and makes him his personal attendant. Costis soon discovers that the reprieve is only a partial one, as Eugenides finds endless ways to try Costis' patience and loyalty. Like all of Attolia, Costis hates the new king because they believe that he stole the crown and the queen. As Costis watches the new king as he blunders his way around the court, he begins to wonder if there is more to Eugenides than meets the eye.  Admitedly, this book starts a little slowly.  Costis is just not as interesting of a point of view character as Eugenides.  But it gets so wonderful in the middle.  There are some really priceless scenes that I savored in my mind for days afterward. Turner does a great job showing how Eugenides transforms from a man to a king, and how his love for the queen transforms her from a tyrant back into a woman. (387 p)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Of Mice and Magic by David Farland

This is a book by a local publisher and author. It was a cute story about a boy who gets changed into a mouse by a mouse wizard, and goes on a quest to save all the mice in the world who are caged in pet shops.  The characters in the book are surprisingly complex, and Farland does a good job of creating a voice for each.  My main problem with the book is that Farland writes in superlative.  Whenever a character gets upset they are weeping, or trembling or shaking with emotion.  There is no subtlety.  This creates two problems.  First, the author cannot build up emotion to an emotional climax because it is so high from the beginning.  Second, the reader gets emotionally tired out early in the book, and after that it is easy to just laugh when the character is shaking with rage, or weeping with despair yet again.  I think children might not be bothered by this particular writing deficiency as much as adults, and will probably enjoy the creative story and premise. (276 p)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen

Gary Paulsen is an interesting guy.  He doesn't do public appearances very often because he is rather reclusive and likes to take long solitary trips in the wilderness.  We were lucky at the Provo Library to get him to visit a few years ago and he spoke just like he writes with a no-frills, warts-and-all frankness that is miles away from any attempts at "political correctness."  This is a different kind of book for him and a different kind of Revolutionary War narrative than I have ever read.  He states in an author note that he was trying to write an unvarnished view of what the Revolutionary War was like.  I get the feeling that he believes that children's books often over romanticize that war more than, perhaps, other wars because it is connected with the founding of our nation and our national identity.  In this story, a boy, Samuel, lives on the frontier.  One day while he is out hunting a group of Hessian mercenaries come and slaughter most of the people in his little town, and take his parents captive. Samuel sets off on a perilous trip to try to free his parents from the British.  In between each chapter Paulsen includes often gruesome historical facts about how British treated prisoners, and how many died in overcrowded prison camps and the like.  It is a book that will appeal to boys and really does offer a whole new perspective on the Revolutionary war. (164 p)

Kenny and the Dragon by Tony DiTerrlizzi

DiTerlizzi is most famous for his series, The Spiderwick Chronicles. This book is like that series in  some ways.  It is a short fast read, and deals with a child discovering that magical creatures are real.  This book, however, is much less intense and scary than the Spiderwick Chronicles. Kenny is the son of a simple farmer.  One day the farmer comes home all a blither because he has seen a dragon on their property. Kenny is an adventurous young rabbit (yes, the family are rabbits) and he goes to the hill to see the dragon for himself.  The dragon, Grahame, turns out to be kind, intelligent, and cultured, and Kenny and he become instant friends. Not everyone in the village feels as friendly to Grahame, so the King calls on his famous dragon slayer, Sir George, to dispatch the creature.  It is up to Kenny to find a way to keep the town from hurting Grahame, and visa versa.  This is a cute, non-threatening adventure story. Kenny, Grahame, Kenny's parents, and even George have comfortable, likeable personalities. This book is a good choice for kids who like How to Train Your Dragon as either a read alone, or read aloud. (151 p)