Earlier this year, we lost one of the greats. Terry Pratchett was a satirist worthy of being commented on in the same breath as Mark Twain. The only British author to outsell him was J.K. Rowling. Pratchett wasn't always huge though, and that's how you arrive full circle at The Dragons at Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett. It is a collection of the short stories that Sir Terry first published when he was just a starting journalist for the Bucks Free Press.
Most of Pratchett's infamy comes from the Discworld, a world carried on the back of four elephants which naturally stand on the back of a massive turtle. The Discworld gave birth to Rincewind, the least magical wizard ever, an orangutan librarian, a kind but often confused Death, witches, watchmen and dozens upon dozens of novels — and wordplay so brilliant that no one can catch every nuance on the first reading. (Fortunately there's enough in every book to make multiple readings an entirely enjoyable venture.) The Discworld exists as a satire of the world we live in, covering everything from holidays, feminism, religion and a million other sacred cows poked with both anger and understanding. Pratchett came to be known for fantasy that hit close to home. The Dragons of Crumbling Castle is far closer to home.
Meet corrupt small town politicians cooking the local egg dancing competition. There is a pet tortoise that only wants freedom. The book has wacky races and the enduring question of what Santa Claus would do if he wasn't Santa Claus. (Apparently, nothing well.) Two of the stories here went on to lead to Sir Terry's first novel The Carpet People, about tiny, tiny people who live amongst the strands of the carpet fiber and are forced to move when the Fray gets too close. It turns out that even when he was young, Pratchett understood that the world was more than slightly mad. These are light enough stories that I'd recommend them for parents reading to their children, and the entire book has been enthusiastically illustrated by Mark Beech.
We're not done with Pratchett yet. He has at least two more finished books coming out this year.
Victorian London was a nasty place to be if you had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the economic divide. It gets worse, however, if you're stuck in a part of town where there's a bogle – nebulous, unpredictable monsters who eat children left alone. Get stuck while sweeping a chimney? There might be a bogle there ready to eat you. Go down to fetch something from the cellar? Better hope that if you're alone, you're really alone. There is only one way to hunt bogles, and that's to bait a trap with a child who must sing with their back to the bogle until the bogle is exposed enough to be killed by a poisoned weapon. As bogles descend upon London, Catherine Jinks has woven a light but effective bit of period horror in A Plague of Bogles.
Jem Barbary has his sights set on the prestigious job, at least by the level of unlucky London, job of bogler's boy. He wants to be the bait for Alfred Bunce, London's only remaining bogler, semi-retired. After the events of How to Catch a Bogle, Jem has decided to give up crime. He used to be a pickpocket in a Fagin ring, but he hasn't given up playing whatever angle he can think of. Unfortunately, that seems to involve a whole lot of lying and leading publicity back to people who'd rather keep their heads down. He's also out for revenge against his former mistress, Sarah Pickles.
Like a good ghost story, A Plague of Bogles is both scary and fun. London is full of colorful characters trying to survive on a few cents a day. Street patter is used so fluidly that there's a large glossary at the end of the book just to make the dialogue clear. Jem Barbary and all the supporting cast are great characters, wildly flawed but determined. The standout passages, though, go to the bogle hunting. Every single time is a slow boil, impending, but certain, doom creeping up until just the last moment when everything snaps like a mousetrap.
“Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish on on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it’s stupid.” — Mr. Daniels quoting “a wise person” in Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
In Hunt's new novel, sixth grader Ally is one such Fish in a Tree. Because her father is in the military, Ally has transferred to her sixth school, where she is already known as a troublemaker. She will do anything to get out of reading or writing, including defiantly drawing on the desk right in front of the teacher. When she gives her pregnant teacher a sympathy card at her baby shower, her teacher and principal are horrified. The reader, however, knows the truth: Ally can’t read.
Expertly portraying the reality of a learning disability and the impact it has on a child’s academic and social life — as well as her self-esteem — Hunt delivers a heartfelt, beautiful story about school, friendship and hope. Ally’s savior is her new substitute teacher, Mr. Daniels. Besides figuring out her secret, he convinces Ally that she is smart and that he can help her. New friendships with other “outcasts” boosts her morale and brings a little more happiness to her life.
This is an overall great read with believable characters the reader will cheer for. Fans of Hunt’s other book, One for the Murphys, and R. J. Palacio’s Wonder will enjoy this book for its characters and theme of overcoming an obstacle to survive in middle school.
Stanley the beagle's family is awakened throughout the night by what they believe are his normal "handydog’" activities. As each of the four children go to their parents' room to investigate the strange noises they hear, their father assures them that It's Only Stanley. But this is no ordinary night. Author Jon Agee's usual over-the-top events and humorous illustrations will appeal to the intended audience.
Although Mr. Panda seems apathetic when offering colorful donuts to his black-and-white animal friends, he has a method to his madness. One by one, those who want a donut are refused, until a bright-eyed lemur remembers the magic word. A manners book that isn’t preachy, Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony is a perfectly silly reminder to young children. Stark but inviting illustrations match the minimalist text.
In Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, CJ and his grandmother leave church every Sunday and wait for the bus. But this Sunday CJ, has a lot of questions for his caregiver, wondering why they don’t have a car, why they have to go to church and why a blind man cannot see. Each time his grandmother answers with the wisdom of experience and age. Christian Robinson’s bright and child-friendly illustrations are a perfect match for the urban setting of this contemporary and diverse tale.
Marlin Rackham comes from a proud lineage. His father is one of the great explorers, the conqueror and defender of the jungle of South America. Ronan Rackham owns The Zoo at the Edge of the World, a collection of jungle animals built on a temple in British Guiana. Unfortunately for Marlin, he has a severe stutter and can only clearly speak to the animals around him. When his father brings a jaguar out of the jungle, suddenly the animals are able to talk back. Author Eric Kahn Gale asks big questions while crafting a story that is more Heart of Darkness than Doctor Dolittle.
Marlin's life isn't easy. His brother is an unmitigated bully. His father is a legend. Everyone thinks he's an idiot because he can't speak. When a powerful duke brings his family to the zoo and a man-eating jaguar is captured for exhibition, Marlin gets caught in the middle of British colonial politics. What is a boy to do when he can't speak, but understands entire sides to the conflicts that no one else is even aware of?
The tour program is interspersed regularly, providing a counterpoint to what actually happens in the story at any time. As the zoo goes farther and farther off schedule, the attempt to write puff pieces becomes ludicrous. This is a delightfully dark children’s book recommended for readers of Kipling's The Jungle Book. It's frightening and realistic, and follows the implications of its magic through. In a world where animals can talk across species lines, they still need to eat each other.
As the days get longer and the nights get shorter, we start to see evidence of the changing seasons which tells us spring is coming. On March 20, we will welcome the first official day of spring. What better way to shake off the winter doldrums than to dive into some children’s picture books about the changing of the season!
In Daniel Kirk’s new picture book The Thing About Spring, Mouse, Bird and Bear are excited to see the buds on the trees and the little tender shoots coming up from the ground. Their friend Rabbit does not share their enthusiasm. Rabbit loves everything about winter. He can find his friends by following their tracks in the snow. If spring comes and the snow melts, he won’t be able to make snow bunnies or snow forts. In order to keep some of his favorite season around, Rabbit scoops some snow into a bucket in order to save it. Will Rabbit’s friends be able to convince him that spring is going to be great? Digitally enhanced pen and ink illustrations help to bring the story to life as we watch the season change through pictures.
A school field trip to the country is just the thing to chase away cabin fever. It's also a great way to explore the opposites found on every page in Sun Above and Blooms Below: A Springtime of Opposites by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky with boldly colorful, collage-style illustrations by Susan Swan. Whether it’s open and closed, up and down or many and few, children will delight in seeing the seasonal changes that bring about new life on the farm.
Paul Gude’s picture book A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant highlights the close friendship between a silent, thoughtful giraffe and his constant companion, an enthusiastic, loquacious elephant. The second outing for this dissimilar pair, Surprise features three funny, knowing stories that manage to distill the essence of what true friendship entails. In the first, Giraffe struggles to find the right time to play his alpine horn. The second depicts Giraffe working through the night to honor Elephant’s wish for a toboggan. The final story finds Elephant diligently preparing to throw her friend the perfect surprise party. Gude’s simple yet expressive line drawings and bright, zingy color palette are immediately appealing to young readers.
BTC: Congratulations on the publication of the new Giraffe and Elephant book. I understand that this duo has been around for quite some time. Tell us their origin story and a little bit about their history. And why a talking elephant?
Paul Gude: My standard line when people ask me why Giraffe doesn't talk is to say, "You're less surprised about the talking elephant?" So, you've beaten me at my own game. My hat is off to you. Giraffe came first. I would draw little pictures for my friend with little captions. I drew one that said, "Here is a giraffe eating some leaves!" She made some comment like, "I like giraffes almost as much as I like elephants!" I drew another picture with a giraffe and elephant eating ice cream cones together with a caption like, "You don't have to choose! Giraffes and elephants are friends!"
I had this crazy idea of just drawing the giraffe and elephant doing all sorts of things together. So I kept at it. The very next thing they did was steal a van. Then Elephant shot Giraffe out of a cannon. They invented new words. Every day it was something new. That was in 2000. In 2001, my friend KMO at C-realm.com gave me space to publish them. This was before Tumblr and its ilk, so having a place to put an archive of comics was kind of a big deal. I just kept doing them over the years, until I amassed almost a thousand.
I flirted with publishing a collection of them in the mid-2000s, but nothing came of it. Later on, a friend of the editor who had been trying to get someone to publish the book asked her if she knew anyone who might need representation. She put him in touch with me and that's how I got my agent.
We sent out the collection, and the feedback was, "We like the characters, but can they be involved in a story?" At one time I would have taken this to mean, "We don't like your book," but I had matured enough by then to know it meant, "We like the characters, but can they be involved in a story?" My agent was smart enough to make sure I understood that this wasn't a brush-off, and set me to work telling the stories. That became When Elephant Met Giraffe, which my agent sold to Disney/Hyperion. That's kind of how they solidified into the personalities that they are today. Granted, they're drawn a bit better now as well. Years of practice can help in that regard.
BTC: What medium do you use to create your art?
PG: While I like pen and ink just fine, Giraffe and Elephant were born as crudely drawn characters using a mouse and Photoshop. They've been mostly digital from then on, although I do experiment from time to time. The artwork for both When Elephant Met Giraffe and A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant was done on an iPad 2 with a program called iDraw. It was actually the cheapest option and I was short on funds.
BTC: When I read the Giraffe and Elephant books, I was reminded of both James Marshall’s George and Martha and of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie. Did they come to mind as you were writing the books? Which children’s authors or illustrators inspire you?
PG: I love Mo Willems. I was lucky enough to interview him back when that was part of my day job. He's very friendly and super funny. It's worth noting that he and I are both published by Disney/Hyperion and he was there first. So, I'm hoping the fact that we both have characters who are elephants will stop being a sticking point for some folks eventually. Your question was very polite, but others have been quick to criticize as though my elephant is derivative. I think it's a little unfair. First of all, his elephant's name is Gerald. Elephant's Gerald. Say it out loud, and you get what kind of a genius that man is. Second, anyone who reads Mo's books and mine knows that his are mostly dialog-driven, whereas mine are more narrative. In short, they are much more like George and Martha. More of what I was reading as a kid, I suppose. Maurice Sendak was a big one for me. Also, I loved Shel Silverstein. Other favorites from my childhood include the Ann Trompert and John Wallner book Little Fox Goes to the End of the World. So many others I know I'm forgetting. In these modern times I'm a big fan of Zoom and Re-Zoom by Istvan Banyai and Jon Klassen's hat books. Again, I know there must be more. I'll have to check my daughter's bookshelf.
BTC: One of the things I loved about both When Elephant Met Giraffe and A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant is that they’re picture books adults also enjoy — they’re droll, and not preachy or sappy. How does being a parent affect your work?
PG: The funny thing about the publishing world is that it moves so very slow. When I was writing When Elephant Met Giraffe it was a little too advanced for her. By the time it was published, she had already outgrown it. She's 9 now, way outside of the target demographic. Still, she's the one looking over my shoulder when I'm working. So, I suppose in a way that's a big reason why I throw in humor that everyone can enjoy. I want my kid to still think I'm funny. In a more pragmatic sense, the parents are the ones who are going to have to read the book over and over again, so I try to make it as painless as possible. Very few words. Funny pictures. You can't go wrong. Well, you can go wrong, I suppose. It depends on who you ask.
BTC: One "quirk" of Surprise mentioned by a major review publication is the fact that Giraffe uses an acetylene torch to build a toboggan. Were you surprised by this bit of criticism?
PG: Oh, boy. Yes. This was brought up as the book was in production, and I was like, "No, no, they can be wood or metal. I know. I had a metal one." Apparently I am one of the few people who remembers these types of toboggans that had metal scoops on the front, though. If you look for pictures of them online, the curved part at the front is almost always wood. I kept searching and searching until I found a picture of one. I thought I was going crazy. They exist, though. I've seen them. I've linked to one on my blog. It's odd to me that people leap to the idea that Giraffe is erroneously using a torch on a wooden object rather than the thing he's constructing being partially made out of metal. I assume they simply don't have the design skills of a giraffe.
BTC: I recently followed Giraffe on Twitter. I’ve enjoyed having a look into his psyche. What prompted him to get on social media? What kind of device does he use?
PG: It's always been in the back of my mind that Giraffe has a very rich inner life. When Elephant isn't distracting him from his studies, he's pursing art and science through his own self-taught methods. As an offshoot of this, I had an idea that Giraffe has built himself this amazing contraption that allows him to communicate on Twitter via Morse code. There's a pressure plate he uses to tap out words, and then this complex series of switches turns it into text. Where does he get his Wi-Fi service though? Giraffe keeps secrets even from me.
Isobel is the strongest, fastest, fiercest bunny in her Bunjitsu school, yet she tries her hardest to never hit anyone. Faced with tough challenges such as getting into a locked room, facing down bullies, dealing with nightmares and learning new fight strategies, Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman teaches a lesson in every chapter. Join Isobel as she handles her problems in the most peaceful way possible, until she determines it is time to fight back! Great stories children will easily relate to, short chapters children can easily handle, along with charmingly simple illustrations make Bunjitsu Bunny a great choice for both a read aloud and for young independent readers. The Bunjitsu Code listed at the back of the book will empower your young readers to be their most powerful selves.
Princess Magnolia is a fancy-tiara-, frilly-pink-dress-wearing kind of princess, until her monster alarm sounds – then she becomes…the Princess in Black! While entertaining the nosy Duchess Wigtower, Princess Magnolia’s monster alarm sounds. As she quickly excuses herself to transform into the ninja princess hero that saves the day, she worries that the curious Duchess will discover her secret. With a pet unicorn that transforms into her black pony sidekick and a secret passageway to the Monster Land entrance, The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale delivers all of the superhero accoutrements expected, including a young lad in distress – Duff. The first in a promising new series from the authors of Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, The Princess in Black grabs the reader in the first few pages and never lets go. With bright, beautiful illustrations by LeUyen Pham, it is perfect for both a read aloud and for the young independent reader (or for the young independent reader to read aloud!) This series is sure to be a favorite.
In addition to being a Maryland-based author, Mary Downing Hahn is known for creating memorable characters who go through some tremendous situations that young readers can relate to. In Where I Belong, Hahn does it once again with Brendan Doyle, a misfit living in foster care who wants to find someplace where he can fit in and feel safe. Brendan’s life has been full of misfortune; abandoned at birth by his supposedly crack-addicted mother, he has bounced around in the foster care system until he feels completely unloved and unwanted. Yet, Brendan’s saving graces are his artistic ability and amazing imagination which allow him to escape the painful reality that surrounds him.
Brendan loves fantasy fiction, particularly stories about the Green Man and the creatures that live in the forest. When running away from some bullies, Brendan stumbles into the forest near his home and discovers an ancient oak tree that he feels would make a great fortress. Although he completes his treehouse, he totally neglects his schoolwork and is forced to enroll in summer school in order to enter middle school in the fall. At first, Brendan tries cutting class until his new teacher explains things in a way that finally makes sense. Brendan even tries to befriend Shea, a girl with her own painful secrets, and a mysterious stranger in the woods who may be the Green Man himself. It seems as if Brendan may finally have found two people he can care for until a series of events threatens to permanently destroy his world.
Hahn does an amazing job of capturing the way Brendan perceives his life and his frustrations about not being understood by people such as his teachers, school mates and foster mother. For both children in similar circumstances and adults who have experienced being an outsider, Brendan’s struggles to be himself yet longing to fit in somehow will resonate with them.
In William Alexander's Ambassador, Gabe Fuentes is an illegal alien. The Envoy is an extraterrestrial alien. Together, they might just have a chance at saving Earth.
Gabe is a quiet, competent boy, used to juggling his family, school and friends in such a way that he causes the minimal amount of trouble. He thinks things through before he acts in the most efficient manner. These traits, and the fact that he’s still “neotenous,” young enough to be open-minded, land him the almost completely powerless but absolutely necessary position of “Ambassador of Earth.” When he sleeps, his entangled mind is transported to a dreamscape populated by the children of every sentient culture in the galaxy, and sculpted to make sense to the mind of the viewer. Gabe sees his ambassadorship as a large playground, and so long as he doesn’t look at them sideways and break the illusion, all of the other ambassadors look like Earth children.
He’s going to need to figure out this interstellar diplomacy stuff fast. Space pirates are trying to kill him. A hostile alien force is marching across his stellar neighborhood on a campaign of purification. The cops just pulled his father over on a routine traffic violation and are going to deport his parents. His house just blew up. He’s not alone. His family are survivors. His best friend’s family has had back-up plans for him for years. Gabe also has the Envoy, a morphing blob who speaks in his mother’s voice, both helping him negotiate and throwing him into the path of pirates and genocidal conquerors.
William Alexander throws out invention after wild glorious invention, but grounds them in the normal family life of people outside the law. Gabe is a kid like a thousand other kids, marginalized by the laws of a country that doesn’t want to accept he even exists. He may save the day, but that might create even bigger problems. Expect the sequel in September of 2015.