Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Secret of the Stone Frog

The Secret of the Stone FrogThe Secret of the Stone Frog by David Nytra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A building comes to life
TOON Books is dedicated to bringing the world of graphic novels to a younger audience. They have produced some wonderful books including the “Benny and Penny” series by Geoffrey Hayes, “Stinky” by Eleanor Davis, “Little Mouse Gets Ready,” by Jeff Smith and “Zig and Wikki in the Cow,” by Nadja Spiegelman and Trade Loeffler. The books are beautifully produced and feature art by some of the finest illustrators working in the field of comics and graphic novels. This one, written and illustrated by newcomer David Nytra is a stunner. Nytra’s black and white art, reminiscent of Winsor McKay’s “Little Nemo” comic strip from the early 20th century is incredibly detailed and full of surprises. The story starts off and ends in a child’s bed but whether what falls in between is a dream or not is left for the reader to decide. When two young children, Leah and Alan wake up in the middle of the forest, they are told by a talking stone frog how to get home. But their mysterious guide also gives them a warning: “Stay on the path!” Anyone who is familiar with the lore of fairyland knows that strange things can happen to those who stray from the path. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that it doesn’t take long for Leah and Alan to be tempted off the path, and yes, very strange things do begin to happen. They meet giant, fuzzy bees who steal words, a trio of foppish lions, giant rabbits, and some bizarre denizens of the deep sea, who ride a subway dressed in suits and top hats. Besides the aforementioned “Little Nemo,” the book’s surreal episodes also have the feel of Lewis Carrol’s “Alice in Wonderland.” This is a book I think kids will want to read over and over again. The fantastic illustrations by themselves are enough to keep readers coming back for repeat viewings. I loved this book!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Fairy-Tale Detectives (The Sisters Grimm, #1)The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book, the first in the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley, has a clever premise - that fairy tales are real and that after years of tension and persecution from humans, fairy tale creatures, (or Everafters, as the fairy tale creatures refer to themselves), have left their homelands and moved to America. Settling here hundreds of years ago when America was still relatively unpopulated, tensions between Everafters and humans once again flare as civilization impinges on their new home. The series is centered around Sabrina and Daphne Grimm and their grandmother Relda who is in charge of solving any mysteries that arise involving the Everafters. And yes, they are supposed to be descendants of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the original "fairy-tale guys." My first thought when I began reading this book was that it was nothing but a kid-friendly rip-off of "Fables," the long running graphic novel series by the talented Bill Willingham. The premise in "Fables" is very similar - characters in fairy tales are real, they have been persecuted and forced into exile in our world where they must learn to live in hiding among humans. “Fables” made its debut in 2002. The Sisters Grimm series began in 2005, so it's very possible that author Michael Buckley was aware of it. Now, the new ABC TV series "Once Upon a Time" has a similar premise, so I guess this is one of those ideas, that once out there, is picked up and 'borrowed' by others. Since all of these fairy tale characters are in the public domain, I guess they're fair game for authors to use in any way they want. If you want to trace this trend back even further, I suppose you could make the case that author Gregory Maguire popularized the idea when he wrote his best-selling novel, "Wicked" that gave us the backstory to the Wicked Witch of the West and allowed us to see the events from "The Wizard of Oz," from the 'villains' point of view. Anyway, I suppose authors borrow from one another all of the time. Although "Fables" and "Wicked" are definitely for adults, this is the first time I've seen the premise adapted for kids. I did enjoy this book quite a bit, it’s well written, the story moves along quickly and the three main characters are nicely developed. In the beginning of the book the two girls are orphans being shuttled from foster home to foster home. When they finally end up with Relda Grimm, the younger girl, Daphne, is delighted by the woman’s eccentricities but her older sister Sabrina doubts the woman’s stories and, since they were told they had no living relatives, believes the woman to be a liar. Buckley does a good job of dramatizing the tension between the two girls and in portraying Sabrina’s doubts and her later remorse when she finally is shown proof that Relda is what she claims to be. The plot revolves around the destructive appearance of a giant in the town of Ferryport Landing, a strange occurrence considering that all of the beanstalks had been destroyed and all of the magic beans confiscated, cutting the giants off from contact with the other Everafters. Who has helped the giants return to our world? Can the Grimms gain control of the situation before word spreads outside of Ferryport Landing? When Relda and her friend Mr. Canis are kidnapped by the giant, it’s up to the two young Grimm sisters to solve the mystery and save their grandmother. Along the way we get to meet Mayor Charming (the former Prince Charming), Jack (of Jack and the beanstalk fame), Puck (from ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream), the Magic Mirror (from Snow White) and several other familiar fairy tale characters. The book is a fun read, and Buckley does a great job of bringing childhood favorites into the ‘real’ world. Sure to appeal to fans of magical stories, especially those that enjoy an element of mystery. The atmospheric illustrations by Peter Ferguson are an additional treat!

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Thursday, September 06, 2012

The One and Only IvanThe One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This story about a gorilla, two elephants and a stray dog living as caged sideshow animals in a shopping mall is sweet and touching. Told from the point of view of Ivan, the gorilla, it is a compassionate look at the world as seen through the eyes of a caged animal. Ivan has always been an easy going gorilla, seemingly content to watch TV and finger paint. He doesn't seem to mind that he's a money-making display for gawking shoppers. But when a baby elephant is added as a new attraction to the Exit 8 Big Top Mall, and a tragic event occurs, Ivan begins to see the world in a new way. He no longer sees his home as a domain, but as a cage. Through his finger paintings, Ivan manages to make a change for the better for all of the animals at the Big Top Mall.

This book would be an excellent way to introduce a child to the meaning of compassion. It's also a wonderful tribute to the power of art. The book is told in short, almost poetic segments and would make a great read-aloud. It is 300 pages long, but the type is large and there is a lot of blank space between the lines of text. In other words, it's a fast read. As an illustrator, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the wonderful illustrations by Patricia Castelao that beautifully capture the poignancy of the story.

I've always had ambivalent feelings about zoos, mostly because I hate to see animals in cages, but the world has changed and fortunately so have most zoos. With habitat loss a major concern for many wild animals, zoos are in the forefront in trying to save many of the world's endangered animals. And although zoos still aren't the ideal home for a wild animal, they sure beat the conditions that Ivan and Ruby have endured living in a shopping mall.

Applegate was inspired by a real gorilla named Ivan who spent 27 years on display in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. Due to the efforts of animal rights activists, Ivan was finally sent to live in a zoo in Atlanta, where, for the first time in his life, he was able to interact with other gorillas. Ivan was still alive when this book was released earlier this year, but sadly he died on August 21st, 2012. He had been in declining health for a number of years and died while under anesthesia administered to him during a routine physical exam.

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