Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The White Stuff

Over the course of Betty White’s recent blazing-hot comeback, she’s played a hit-taking, Snickers-eating football player; a pee-drinking anthropology professor (Community); exaggerated Larry David-esque versions of herself (30 Rock, Ugly Betty); and, in The Proposal, Sandra Bullock’s character’s randy grandma who harasses an unlikely stripper played by Oscar from The Office -- not to mention being, at age 88, the oldest person ever to host Saturday Night Live.

On top of all that irony-studded glamour, she narrates A Child’s Day Out (Blackstone Audiobooks), audio stories by Mary Sheldon. The five-CD set (approximately 5 ½ hours) includes seven tales following main character Lizzie and her pal Eric as they have bland elementary-school-aged adventures. Jaunty, inoffensive music plays in the background as White relates how the friends visit an aquarium, meet some farm animals, check out the library, etc.

Since her Golden Girls days, La Betty’s humor has come from the kindly, slightly bewildered way she delivers a bawdy line. She’s on best behavior here -- no kitsch, no hook -- and it’s more than a little dull. But there’s such earnest warmth to her voice (she could make the phonebook sound like a Hallmark card) that it won’t kill you to listen to these stories at least once, especially if you’re in need of a hug. And it also wouldn’t kill you to give your grandmother a call -- she loves you very much.

-- Elissa Gershowitz

Dispatches from Transylvania

"To my son, my husband, and my cell phone." -- iDrakula's dedication

Bekka Black’s new novel iDrakula (Sourcebooks Fire) retells Bram Stoker’s classic epistolary story entirely through digital communication, including text messages, email, and websites. This “e-pistolary” format itself is still unusual, but it’s quickly gaining ground, particularly for teen readers (see Elizabeth Rudnick’s Tweet Heart, published in June).

Black streamlines Stoker’s plot and takes some liberties in recasting his characters. Abraham Van Helsing becomes Abe, a med school cutie, rather than a distinguished professor. Jonathan Harker, as a cheating boyfriend instead of a doting husband, makes way for Mina Murray to pursue a new romance (and steal the limelight). Still, non-purist Stoker fans will enjoy this reimagining as a loving homage to the classic; readers up on their vampire lore will chuckle at allusions like “Tepes Travel” and “Ask Vlad” search engine. As in the original novel, readers must fill in the gaps between communiqués to finish the narrative; what’s left to the imagination can be even creepier than what’s included.

Sourcebook’s iDrakula app for iPhone and iPod Touch manages to fill in some of these gaps without limiting the reader’s interpretation. The app -- a hybrid of e-book, cell phone novel, and radio play -- incorporates the whole text of the novel, plus additional audio of phone calls and voicemails between characters. Content opens day by day for fifteen days to unfold the plot in real time. (Impatient readers can opt to unlock everything at once.) The one-day-at-a-time pacing and the act of scrolling sharpen suspense, though users unfamiliar with the story may be confused by the way some messages open out of order. The blood-spattered, cracked iPhone image of the app lends a sense of foreboding to even innocuous messages.

The app is free to download and sample for the first five days of the novel, but beware: the freebie ends on a cliffhanger.

Like Loser/Queen, it remains to be seen how the paperback itself will fare. Readers who encounter iDrakula in paperback will probably seek out the app for additional content, but I doubt the app with its extras will promote sales of the physical book. I hope that readers thirsty for more after reading Black's retelling in either format will seek out Stoker’s novel (if they haven’t already) to really scare themselves silly.

-- Katie Bircher

Friday, November 19, 2010

And you thought I was kidding about the Silly Bandz.

As promised, some book-related ephemera!

The eponymous boxes. Behind them you can see (left to right) a Halloween card sent by Penguin ("Happy Halloween from Dick and Jane and Vampires"), a leaf art thank-you note from Lois Ehlert, a Bink and Gollie watch, and pink pouches of fairy dust. What you sadly can't see, obscured by the mountain of packages, are a Very Hungry Caterpillar wall calendar and a print from Carin Berger's Forever Friends.

From left to right:
-- a "scrapbook" and (underneath) tote bag promoting Travels with Gannon and Wyatt: Botswana
-- a BLAD of Matthew Reinhart's and Robert Sabuda's forthcoming Encyclopedia Mythologica: Dragons and Monsters-- the Dick and Jane and Vampires Halloween card again (I just really like it)
-- The Boxcar Children, The Buddy Files, and Zapato Power-themed "collectible shaped rubber bands"
-- Frankly Frannie pencils
-- Sandra Boynton's Amazing Cows doorknob hanger and info packet, including a free download of her 17-minute version of "Bolero" for orchestra and kazoo, AND
-- a DVD of interviews with Maya Soetoro-Ng and Yuyi Morales about their picture book Ladder to the Moon.
Whew! If you packed everything into the handy Gannon and Wyatt tote bag, you'd have a well-rounded (if somewhat haphazard) bookish goody bag.

I'm pretty sure Reinhart's and Sabuda's pop-up dragon can kick our dragon's butt.

A thoughtful note from former intern Meaghan, enclosed with her box of review copies from IPG.

Don't you wish you got Boxcar Children Silly Bandz in your mail?

-- Katie Bircher

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Prez's picture book

Although President Obama's Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters (Knopf) came in too late for review in the Horn Book Magazine, I thought I might offer a few comments here.

Like most celebrity picture books (by which I mean picture books written by people famous for doing something other than writing books for children) the book has a Message. With a conceit of self-esteem building for his daughters, Obama's book asks a series of questions such as "Have I told you that you are creative?" and "Have I told you that you have your own song?" Each question is amplified by a thumbnail portrait of a famous American: Georgia O'Keeffe exemplifies creativity; Billie Holiday "sang beautiful blues to the world." It's a gallery of the usual suspects -- others include Martin Luther King, Jr., Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson, and George Washington -- with only the unexpected choice of architect Maya Lin ("Have I told you how important it is to honor others' sacrifice?") adding much surprise. The inclusion of Jane Addams, Cesar Chavez and Sitting Bull may limit the audience to left-leaners, although the radical ideals of these Americans are only described in the gentlest of ways ("Cesar picketed, prayed, and talked"). The writing is sometimes windily portentous ("we watched [Neil Armstrong's] lunar landing leaps, which made us brave enough to take our own, big bold strides") but I guess that is how Presidents think they are supposed to talk. No-nonsense facts about each subject are at the back of the book.

Loren Long's acrylic pictures have genuine warmth, however generalized, with portraits of the American heroes facing small, neat figures of (presumably) Malia and Sasha joined, as the book goes on, by each of the profiled subjects as he or she might have appeared as a child. It's a clever idea and beautifully executed. The Thomas Hart Benton style Long frequently employs is here well-suited to the subject.

I think it would be hard to read the book out loud without sounding pompous, particularly in the closing pages ("Have I told you that they are all a part of you? Have I told you that you are one of them, and that you are the future?") but those who could read aloud Susan Jeffers' "Chief Seattle" book without blushing might not have any trouble. The question, as always, is: would this book have been published had it been written by someone else? The answer, as it usually is, is probably not, but the pictures do give the book some claim to legitimacy (something Long managed once before when he illustrated a not-bad picture book by Madonna, Mr. Peabody's Apples). I can see kids asking for this and making claim to a favorite page or hero. I can also see parents wanting to read it to children for all the wrong reasons -- because it builds self-esteem or instills good values -- but we can only hope that the kids will either set them straight or vote with their feet.

--Roger Sutton

Monday, November 15, 2010

Extra points for participation

You may have heard this summer's buzz surrounding Jodi Lynn Anderson’s (bestselling author of Peaches) Loser/Queen (Simon & Schuster), an “interactive” novel for which cyber fans voted weekly on turns in the plot. With the paperback edition’s release date of December 21 approaching, and the ARC landing in the Horn Book offices, I came to wonder if the summer’s hype speaks for anything beyond a very marketable idea.

The story follows Cammy, a typical high school “loser” who has more in common with the grandparents who raise her than she does with her classmates. She begins receiving mysterious text messages revealing secrets that bring down the most popular kids at school, and after a make-over facilitated by her mysterious “White Rabbit” texter, Cammy moves up the social ladder. Though the story of outcast turned teen queen is nothing new, Cammy is relatable -- especially so, I’m sure, to the readers who helped shape her actions online. The fact that these readers’ imaginations helped create the novel will probably make them want to own what feels in part already theirs. But, even if the paperback and e-book editions sell like hotcakes with web fans, what about those who did not participate in the online plot-planning? I didn’t, and I was underwhelmed because, marketable idea aside, the story itself is not a homerun. It needs the hype; it needs the extra points it earned by letting readers participate.

Loser/Queen does not bend genres or break fictional ground, but it does reexamine what it means to create a work of fiction. Luring readers with the invitation to participate in the creative process might catch on. Sure, this strategy may seem gimmicky to some, but to me it seems visionary. Come on, who doesn’t like to feel included? Personally, I’ll be watching for more of the like (and rooting for more exciting outcomes).

-- Katrina Hedeen

Friday, November 12, 2010

Skellig flies again

I was pleasantly surprised by the made-for-TV adaptation of David Almond’s Skellig, a Printz Honor and Carnegie Medal–winning book. Released on DVD in August 2010, Skellig: The Owl Man (an unfortunate subtitle added for the U.S. release) originally aired in the U.K. in 2009.

Fantastical realism at its finest, Skellig is the story of ten-year-old Michael and the mysterious being he discovers in an outbuilding of his family’s new house. This creature, Skellig, looks like a man but eats bugs and mice, has tattered wings, eventually flies, and inexplicably heals Michael’s ailing baby sister. Is Skellig human, an angel, or something else entirely? Michael’s question to Skellig, “What are you?” is the mystery that the book never truly resolves; wisely, neither does the movie. Instead, both novel and film allow this unanswered question to linger, capturing the mystery and wonder that accompany Skellig.

TV and film star Tim Roth (Lie to Me, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) as the enigmatic Skellig is superb in his portrayal of the gruff but gentle character. As Michael, relative newcomer Bill Milner is just the right mix of sensitive and sincere—qualities that explain his desire to help Skellig. Young actress Skye Bennett as Michael’s new friend Mina exudes her character’s inquisitive, free-thinking nature, but she plays a less active role in the film. The whole cast is uniformly outstanding in their realistic, moving performances.

This faithful adaptation includes all the book’s characters, and the storyline closely follows that of the book (with dialogue picked up almost word for word at times). The film version even keeps small details such as owls bringing Skellig mice to eat. References to Icarus and William Blake remain—though I was disappointed that the film’s discussion of Blake, whose work is so relevant to the storyline and referenced extensively by Mina, is reduced to one scene.

The film does heighten fantastical elements of the book. Michael now has a fear of heights, making it all the more dramatic when the audience finally sees Skellig fly and adding action to this otherwise quiet story. The addition of a shed burning scene, in which Michael saves Skellig, highlights Skellig’s ability to heal Michael’s burn by holding his hand. This proves to Michael that Skellig can save his sister, something Michael only wonders about in the book. The film creates a spiritual connection between Michael, Skellig, and the baby that the book only hints at, and the filmmakers use an eerie technique with Skellig’s eyes to make him seem even more otherworldly. I chalk up all these minor differences to artistic license and the natural evolution of a story from page to screen.

My favorite cinematic enhancement of the book is the soundtrack, composed by veteran music man Stephen Warbeck, whose film credits include Billy Elliott and Shakespeare in Love, for which he won an Oscar for original score. Warbeck gives a musical narrative voice to this moving story, at times hauntingly ethereal, but sometimes hopeful and soaring in its composition to appropriately suit the emotion of a particular scene. In addition to the music, the cinematography, camera angles, and Skellig’s makeup and wings contribute to the mood of the film. While I always hope seeing a movie based on a book will lead an audience unfamiliar with the text to seek out the source material, I certainly would recommend the reverse this time—lovers of Almond’s award-winning novel won’t be disappointed by this impressive film.

-- Cindy Ritter

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New Notes from the Horn Book

The November edition of our newsletter Notes from the Horn Book is currently winging its way to inboxes, jam-packed with
- five questions for Lincoln Peirce, creator of Big Nate
- comic novels
- poetic picture books
- big kids' nonfiction
- must-have holiday books
and more!

Missing out? View the November Notes online at the Horn Book website, then subscribe for upcoming issues.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rocker Moms v. Soccer Moms

B is for Boombox”; “F is for Flames”; “M is for Mohawk.”
-- from Alternative ABCs by 13th Floor

Okay. I know I’m not the intended audience for this book, as a parent or as a children’s book reviewer. I’m not young, hip, or edgy -- quite the opposite on all counts. But AMMO Books sent this no-baby-appeal board book to the Horn Book, so it’s fair game, I say.

Alternative ABCs is an unfocused grab-bag mash-up of anything that smells even remotely counterculture-y or anti-establishment. We've got the twenty-six letters represented by such things as Earth Day and hot rods, skulls and tattoo ink, quarter pipes and vegetarians. (Hey! I’m a vegetarian! Maybe they are talking to me.) Adding to the noise, the often unreadable text and chaotic graphic design completely overwhelm each double-page spread.

This hipster baby shower gift (if hipster parents-to-be have showers) has me looking more affectionately at the previously maligned Baby Goes Beep board book -- at least that baby's got kid appeal. Also, I’m reminded of Candlewick’s 2009 Art for Baby, which while taking a gimmicky highbrow approach to the concept book still has the right stuff to engage the youngest book lover. Alternative ABCs offers nothing for infants and toddlers beyond a lot of attitude and thick, sturdy, chewable pages.

On their website, the publisher admits as much: “This is the board book that Soccer Moms run from and Rocker Moms gravitate to.” Come on, AMMO Books, give Rocker Moms a bit more credit. Why wouldn’t they want to stimulate their babies’ interest in books as much as anyone in mom jeans?

-- Kitty Flynn

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fantasy series get graphic

Disney-Hyperion adds another dimension to two of their popular fantasy series with new graphic novels.

Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (adapted to the graphic novel format by Robert Venditti; art by Attila Futaki and color by Jose Villarrubia) introduces Percy, the half-human son of Poseidon, and the other inhabitants of Camp Half-Blood, a haven for young demi-gods. A feud between the gods provides Percy with the opportunity to prevent celestial war and make his distant father proud. Jackson devotees may miss omitted or compressed scenes (no Medusa in the Garden Gnome Emporium? Di immortales!), but the spirit of the original holds up well. The precise timing of panels lends extra oomph to punchlines and action scenes, while settings spanning multiple panels or full pages suggest the epic scale of Percy's quest.

The first in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series, The Amulet of Samarkand (adapted by Stroud and Andrew Donkin; art by Lee Sullivan and Nicolas Chapuis), follows magician's apprentice Nathaniel and his unwilling djinni Bartimaeus as they try to stop an overthrow of magician-run Parliament. Readers may wonder who's really in charge: ambitious but inexperienced Nathaniel, or cheeky Bartimaeus, who's been around the block a few thousand times. This version suffers a little from the loss of Bartimaeus’s flippant footnotes, a prominent comic device in the novel. But the smart-aleck djinni still gets in plenty of verbal and visual cracks, maintaining the book's balance of humor and danger.

Both adaptations seem better suited to an audience already familiar with the series than new readers, but fans will appreciate these new incarnations of favorite characters.

-- Katie Bircher

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Once you pop, you can't stop

Gloomy weather and an almost-empty office provided the perfect opportunity to try Pop-Up: Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book by Ruth Wickings and Frances Castle (Candlewick). This book/activity kit introduces paper engineering mechanics from basic (angle folds and parallel folds) to complex (noisemakers and spirals), then demonstrates the concepts in four projects. Punch-out pieces with peel-off adhesive make the book nicely self-contained -- no scissors or glue required. Cindy, Katrina, brave intern Irene, and I sat down with a copy apiece and started building.

Four pop-ups and quite some time later, we sat back and surveyed our work. Each of us had assembled a dragon, castle, Frankenstein’s laboratory, and jungle scene -- with mixed success.

Some of our pop-ups worked better…

than others.

Following the illustrated step-by-step instructions, we quickly learned that an unclear directive or ambiguous diagram could have disastrous results, as when one dragon's tongue ended up protruding from beneath its jaw. The perforated pieces were so beautifully detailed that we had a hard time punching them out; Irene exclaimed in frustration, "I need tiny fingers!" while at the other end of the table I inadvertently ripped the head off a castle guard. After each pop-up, a “mini master class” invites budding paper engineers to explore the techniques further. Cindy doubted that merely following directions for the four main projects would give enough understanding of the concepts to go entirely DIY. Overall, we thought the pop-ups provided a good rainy afternoon activity for kids about age nine (rather than the suggested seven) and up.

With a minimum of parts, easy-to-follow directions, and a satisfying noisemaker, Frankenstein's lab (featuring monster) was the biggest hit of the four projects.

Candlewick's catalog copy for Pop-Up reads, "Do you delight in seeing an ingenious pop-up 'pop' but feel utterly daunted at the thought of making one yourself?" After spending an enjoyable afternoon with the book, I still feel daunted -- but maybe not utterly so.

-- Katie Bircher

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

YA from the Olden Days

Two novels from the late 1960s dawn of “the new realism” have resurfaced. Will they find new readers? The first thing that strikes me about John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (originally published by Harper in 1969) and June Jordan’s His Own Where (Crowell, 1971) is how short they seem—Donovan’s book is just under two hundred pages in its new paperback edition from Flux, and His Own Where, newly reissued in paperback by the Feminist Press, an even more slender ninety-two. And while each was viewed as groundbreaking in its time, they both seem kind of quiet in today’s world of high-concept YA. I’ll Get There is about a boy learning to live with his alcoholic mother after the death of his beloved grandmother; His Own Where is a tender romance between two black teens living on the rough side of Brooklyn. What got the Donovan attention was its matter-of-fact inclusion of a nascent homosexual relationship between the hero and another boy, and it was in later years vilified as one of several teen books with gay themes that used a car crash as a way of resolving the story. (What critics frequently missed was that many 1970s YA novels used a car crash as a way of resolving the story!) His Own Where was celebrated for its use of what was then called Black English, but as Horn Book editor Paul Heins pointed out, Jordan did more than that, “combining words and phrases of dialect in a stream-of consciousness style that attempts to remove the barrier between words and experiences.”

With its allusive poetic style, His Own Where is the more lastingly radical of the two books, where I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip is more of a landmark, its influential place in the YA canon acknowledged by the three essays, all worth reading, appended to the Flux edition. Both books remind us that the big business of contemporary YA publishing began more than forty years ago with a very brave start.

-- Roger Sutton

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Baby beeps again as a board book? Genius!

Or is it?

Last month Albert Whitman reissued Rebecca O’Connell and Ken Wilson-Max’s previously out-of-print picture book, The Baby Goes Beep, as a board book.

I was thrilled to see this book back in print, first because over the last year my two-year-old son has expressed his love of the hardcover office copy a bit too ferociously (sorry, Roger), second because it’s a perfect fit for the board book format. And to think that the Horn Book lamented this book’s OP status last year!

My excitement was tempered, however, when I opened the new edition and saw what the publisher took out. Beginning on the endpapers, the original edition told a subtle story of a baby’s day, filled with familiar events like running errands with his parents, playing at home, eating dinner, having a bath, and going to bed. Now with sixteen whole pages missing, this is not the same creature. The pace of both the pictures and the text is choppy and not as satisfying. The new edition isn’t a total disgrace, though. O’Connell’s simple words (“The baby goes Splash / The baby goes Splash Splash Splash Splash”) and Wilson-Max’s bright and bold illustrations will lure in new readers who perhaps won’t miss what they’ve never known.

But I guess I’ll be sneaking the office copy back home. It’s time for my one-year-old to have her way with it.

-- Kitty Flynn

Welcome to Out of the Box!

Every day dozens of packages arrive at the Horn Book offices. Most contain books which will be reviewed by The Horn Book Magazine or The Horn Book Guide. Some boxes, bearing paperback series or reprints, activity kits, pop-ups, movie tie-ins, or promotional materials, don’t. Others (like one including Champagne Cocktails: 50 Cork-Popping Concoctions and Scintillating Sparklers) seem intended for a different recipient altogether.

From board books to box sets, promotional Silly Bandz to heartfelt author letters, these books and bookish ephemera have often been seen only by Horn Book staff -- until now.