Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘humor

cover image for Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As GhostsDragonbreath: No Such Thing as Ghosts by Ursula Vernon

It’s Halloween night and Danny and Wendell – and the skeptical, scientific minded Christiana Vanderpool – have just encountered something far more dangerous than any monster: Big Eddy the bully. When Big Eddy dares Danny to go inside a house that everyone says is haunted, Danny isn’t worried about being seen as a coward, but he figures the house can’t possibly be any worse than having to deal with Big Eddy, no matter how scary it looks.  But is Christiana right? Are there really no such things as ghosts? Or is there really something not quite living lurking inside?

The comfort of series is that we know what we are getting. Which can sound boring and immature, but often that depends on the reader and author.  When you are 8 and still learning to read, familiarity is actually a useful trait to find in a book.  And there’s nothing boring about knowing that what you are going to get is an excellent story.  For even five books in, Vernon’s Dragonbreath series is still brilliant and funny and clever and fresh.

There’s lots to adore about this series, as I’ve talked about before, but what struck me most while reading this installment is how well-rounded the female characters are.  Quite often books that feature boys and/or are meant “for boys” (by people who divide books up in that sort of way) have female characters that are caricatures, but not so here. Dragonbreath may focus on boy characters, but the girls and women (or, rather, female lizards and such) all have personality and opinions.  And even when their opinions are incorrect (according to the boys, or the narrative) they are never framed as unreasonable or silly or lesser.  They remind me a bit of Sayer’s books in that sense, despite the obvious other differences.

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cover image for Waiting is Not EasyWaiting is Not Easy by Mo Willems

Piggie has a surprise for Gerald.  The only problem is that it’s not ready yet, and waiting isn’t easy.  But some surprises are worth waiting for.

Another wonderful Piggie and Elephant book from Mo Willems.  I especially liked the way the word balloons grew so big that they became part of the action, rather than just text.  And, of course, Willems’ ability to surprise us all with the unexpected, even when we know it’s coming.

cover image for AlwaysAlways by Emma Dodd

Whether sad or happy, naughty or nice, a small elephant is always loved.

This is hardly a unique premise, but it’s not like there’s never a demand for new books for parents to give their little ones, telling them they love them. Dodd’s illustrations are adorable and the sparkle throughout the book – ranging from a few glittering stars to a large shiny lake – help make it memorable. Which is exactly what one looks for in this kind of book.

cover image for MirrorMirror by Suzy Lee

A sad little girl finds something surprising in her reflection.

The blurb on the back of the copy I read claims that the ending to this story “provides a gentle reminder that every action has consequences.”

My friends, the twist at the end of this story is no “gentle reminder.”  It’s a bit of a mind bender actually, seeing as how [spoiler alert! – it’s unclear if it’s the original little girl or her reflection that pushes the mirror over and makes the other disappear].  All of which makes Mirror a great example of why I love Suzy Lee’s books AND why I think they are a fantastic example of speculative fiction in picture books.  (Yes, these two opinions are very related).

cover image for Is There a Dog in This Book?Is There a Dog in This Book? by Viviane Schwarz

Having established that There Are Cats in This Book (or wait, are there????), Schwarz and her feline creations must now determine if this new book also contains…a dog!

These books are so clever and funny, and do such a great job of breaking the fourth wall, that it makes me incredibly sad that they are not all still available to order for the library.

So you all remember the gag from Mo Willems award winning We Are In a Book, yes?

The part where Piggie and Gerald realize that they can make the person reading the book aloud say really funny words, like BANANA, yes?

inside pages for We Are In a Book

(And if you don’t, why haven’t you read these books yet, hmmmm?????)

Well, BJ Novak has written a book that takes that same gag and runs with it – with hilarious results, as you’d expect.

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it looks to be a very funny and well done book.  Full of nothing but text that is sure to make primary graders giggle, the book has no pictures (that’s actually it’s name, too, The Book With No Pictures) but it does have colored and very graphic text to give the audience something to look at when it’s read aloud, and to help newer and pre-readers make that connection between the funny words and the text on the page.

inside pages for The Book With No Pictures

All well and good.  Looks like an awesome book to have around, and somewhat useful in helping newer readers conceptualize text and therefore transition from easy readers to chapter books and novels.

The problem is the way I keep seeing it framed in social media.

Rather than placing the book in the proper juvenile literature context – in terms of other books that do similar things, or in terms of how kids actually learn to read, it’s presented as making the argument that pictures are a distraction rather than one of many useful tools employed in children’s literature.  The implication is that pictures in books are too juvenile even for little kids, once they learn to read.  Which is as wrong as saying that reading aloud to kids isn’t needed once kids learn to read.  The truth is, both pictures and reading aloud are helpful in developing reading skills, especially in newer readers.  As are books with no or fewer pictures, and kids practicing reading themselves.

There’s also, of course, the undercurrent of the idea that this man has come along to show all us women (as women make up the majority of primary teachers, early learning experts, and children’s librarians) how to do it right for once.

The Book With No Pictures sounds like a wonderful book, and one I can’t wait to read aloud to my kids at the library.

It is not, however, without precedent.  And it is not the radical break from traditional children’s literature that the people commenting about the awful state of education today seem to think it is.  And it’s not going to stop me from reading books with pictures as well as words, reading books with picture but no words, telling felt stories, or trying to get my hands on some early learning kamishibai stories from Japan.

cover image for The Fly on the WallFly on the Wall by E. Lockhart

Gretchen Yee knows that the way to fit in at her alternative arts focused high school is to stand out, but she can’t quite manage to stop getting noticed for the wrong things.  In fact, her problems just keep piling up: Boys baffle her.  All of them, really – but especially Titus.  Her drawing teacher is less than appreciative of the comic book style art she favors.  Then there’s the news that her parents are getting a divorce, and her dad is moving out.

In a moment of frustration, Gretchen wishes that she could be a fly on the wall in the boys locker room, to see what they are like when they aren’t around girls. Maybe then she could at least figure boys out.  Then she gets her wish. Literally.

I can’t overemphasis how weird this book is.  Because yes, it’s a remake of metamorphosis, set in an alternative high school in New York City.  It’s also fun and quite brilliant, tackles bullying, friendship, and of course dealing with crushes, lust, and hormones.

Needless to say, Gretchen spying on the boys is hardly an appropriate thing to do, but she’s a fly o the wall and therefore has remarkable peripheral vision and she’s trapped in the room – not peeking through holes in the wall.  Most importantly, Lockhart handles the situation really well, both in terms of Gretchen’s decisions and how the boys are treated by the narrative.

cover image for Our Only May AmeiliaOur Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

May Amelia is the only girl in her family, and she just so happens to also be the only girl among the pioneers who have settled along the Nasel River in the new state of Washington.  Being the only girl isn’t always easy, especially when her mother keeps trying to turn her into a Proper Young Lady, and her grandmother finds fault in everything she does.  But no matter how many scrapes she gets into, she’s still the only May Ameilia they’ve got.

May Ameilia’s voice is really what makes this book work as well as it does. Her syntax, phrasing, and perspective transports readers to a different time and place.  Inspired by a journal Holm found that was kept by one of her own ancestors, the novel is told in first person and covers a year or so in May Amelia’s life.  Solid and entertaining, Our Only May Amelia isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it manages to be unique and memorable.

I also want to note that there’s not any significant discussion of the impact that pioneer settlement had on the people who were already living in the area when the settlers came, as it’s told from May Amelia’s point of view.  The narrative is respectful of the rare Native American characters in the book, but of course not everyone in the story is.  I didn’t see anything that makes the book inappropriate for youngsters (although I’m also hardly the best judge) but a follow-up discussion with readers would be appropriate if possible, especially considering how rare Native American voices are in most library collections.

cover image for Where Things Come BackWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Nothing newsworthy happens in Lily, Arkansas. Families scrape by – or don’t, and leave their loved ones to grieve.  But reporters begin to descend upon the small town when someone claims to have spotted the Lazarus Woodpecker, previously thought extinct.  For seventeen year old Cullen the return of the Lazarus Woodecker is merely a source of irritation and occasional amusement.  Until his younger brother, Gabriel, disappears and Cullen is left wondering if Gabriel will ever manage to find his way back home as well.

Like a lot of coming of age stories of this type, Where Things Come Back felt like it was trying too hard to be clever and introspective.  Also, the split in narrators was confusing (I suspect it was partly meant to be) and the missionary’s point of view felt forced rather than authentic. I know a lot of people loved it (it did win the Printz award after all) but I was more than happy to send my copy back to the library.

cover image for The End (Almost)The End (Almost) by Jim Benton

A blue bear named Donut has a story he wants to share with you!  But when the story is over, will Donut be ready for the book to end?

I could tell you how silly and hilarious this book is, but since it’s written and illustrated by Jim Benton – creator of Dear Dumb Diary, Frannie K. Stein, and the Happy Bunny – do you really need me to? More seriously though, Benton did a great job adapting his humor to a younger set of kids than his books usually target. It’s not quite There is a Bird on Your Head levels of funny, but it is definitely entertaining.

cover image for HippoppositesHippopposites by Janik Coat

This is, indeed, yet another board book about opposites for young children. Coat’s book is worth highlighting, however, because of it’s uniqueness and memorable design.

This particular concept book doesn’t feature a popular character or only make use of the typical pairings for such titles.  Instead, the pages inside use a (often) red hippopotamus to illustrate the difference between heavy and light, in front and behind, etc.  By using the same basic shape for each page (the red hippopotamus has a very geometric design to it) Coat’s book is able to present concepts (like “transparent”) that would be much more difficult otherwise  This is also one of those board books with the extra thick and glossy pages, and several of the shapes on the pages are raised or indented, making the pages easier and more interesting for little hands.  Not every pair works as well as it could, but it’s well done overall. Highly recommended.

 

inside pages of Hippopoositesinside pages for Hippopoositesinside pages of Hippopposites

 

cover image for The Juvie ThreeThe Juvie Three by Gordon Korman

Gecko, Arjay and Terence have all been given a second chance.  Pulled from juvenile detention, an adult prison, and a reform school in the middle of farm country, the three boys have been selected to instead live with the idealistic Douglas Healey in New York City as part of a special probationary program.  While Gecko and Arjay are determined to do whatever it takes to make sure they aren’t sent back, Terence is only concerned with making money (illegally, if needed) no matter the consequences.  When Terence tries to sneak out one night, Arjay and Gecko go to stop him, and Healey comes in during the chaos and is knocked unconscious, and sent to the hospital as a John Doe, in the process.   Prompting all three boys to make a pact and work together to keep their school and social worker from finding out that anything has gone wrong.

Yeah, that look on your face right now? Is probably the same one I had while reading this book. The Juvie Three is a good example of the narrative supporting bad decisions, versus bad decisions simply being something that people do.  It’s not that the boys make a mistake that ends up hurting someone, but rather that the boys never even discuss how their continuing actions may harm Healey.  The book acknowledges the mistakes they make, but it never acknowledges the reasons why they were bad decisions.  This lack of nuance, ironically, actually makes the boys decisions harder to understand, as it makes the whole story feel shallow and lacking in internal logic.

(This is also where I feel like Young Adult books do have a responsibility to bring up issues that younger readers may not think of themselves: leaving Healey as a John Doe not only leaves Healey without support, it deprives the medical professionals of the information they need to treat him properly. Healey isn’t merely a broken lamp that can be hidden in the closet; the boys continuing silence places him in danger every moment they stay silent. I was extremely disappointed that none of the adults brought this up once the truth came out.)

Korman’s jocular and irreverent style, which I loved in Son of the Mob, does not work well here it all. It is possible to write funny books about serious and dark subjects, but that isn’t what Korman has done in The Juvie Three. Instead, he has taken a serious subject and watered it down, and the book inevitably suffers for it.