Thursday, March 31, 2011

London calling

I just reviewed Salvatore Rubbino’s nonfiction picture book A Walk in London (Candlewick, March) for the May/June 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. A follow-up to A Walk in New York, Rubbino’s new book is equally engaging, informative, and beautifully illustrated—and had me longing for a plane ticket back to my beloved study-abroad city.

Needing a London fix, I picked up London: A 3D Keepsake Cityscape illustrated by Sarah McMenemy, also from Candlewick and due out in May. At roughly 4 inches by 4 inches with an accordion-fold format, this definitely isn't a tour book or map to use as reference while wandering Kensington or Westminster, but it makes a perfect souvenir or gift. Both sides of the accordion showcase twelve cut-paper, pop-out illustrations of London landmarks with general information about each. Two maps place the sites in geographical relation to one another. For London lovers like myself, these pop-outs of famous places like Westminster Abbey (where Prince William and Kate will be married on April 29th!) or The London Eye are a great way to reminisce.

I hope more Keepsake Cityscapes are in the works and can’t wait to see which city will be next: New York? Boston? Paris? Rome? Washington, D.C.? There's a world of possibilities.

—Cindy Ritter

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Upcoming stars

Look for these starred reviews in the May/June issue of The Horn Book Magazine:

Tweak Tweak by Eve Bunting; illus. by Sergio Ruzzier (Clarion)
RRRalph by Lois Ehlert (Beach Lane/Simon)
Good Luck, Anna Hibiscus! and Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke; illus. by Lauren Tobia (Kane Miller)
The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm; illus. by Adam Gustavson (Atheneum)
The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson (HarperTeen/HarperCollins)
Lark by Tracey Porter (HarperTeen/HarperCollins)
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (Knopf)
Encyclopedia Mythologica: Dragons & Monsters by Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda (Candlewick)
Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins; illus. by Vicky White (Candlewick)
Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air by Stewart Ross; illus. by Stephen Biesty (Candlewick)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Public Service Announcement

Children's Technology Review is a monthly Consumer Reports-like PDF newsletter "designed to summarize the latest products and trends in children’s interactive media." They review lots of children's apps, of course, and they've ventured into book app territory, as well. Their focus, natch, is on the quality of the technology rather than the text and illustrations, but they got it right when they included Loud Crow's Popout! The Tale of Peter Rabbit on their list of Best Apps for Kids of 2010.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

We're still waiting for spring in Boston...

but the Spring 2011 Guide just came in!

We can't stop exclaiming over the gorgeous cover, featuring art from Anita Lobel's Nini Lost and Found. Kudos to all the Guide goddesses and designer Lolly -- and Ms. Lobel, of course.

Hide-and-Seek with Charley Harper

The modernist wildlife artist Charley Harper died in 2007, but his work lives on via books and merchandise featuring his recognizable art. It was only a matter of time before an app appeared, and Night and Day Studios has taken the challenge. Their Peekaboo Forest reconfigures elements of Harper's paintings and silkscreen prints (such as Foxsimiles, Weasel, and Octoberama) into a series of forest settings that change with the seasons. Rather than a story, Peekaboo Forest falls somewhere between a concept book and a game: touch an animated peeking-out tail or ear to reveal a labeled forest creature, accompanied by audio of the animal's sound and name.

The app features three narrators, in English and Spanish, who can be turned on and off. My favorite is the child narrator (credited as 3-year-old Hazel), who's adorably exuberant if occasionally harder to understand than her adult counterparts. The animal sounds are also optional -- but what's the fun in turning those off? Offering the choice to turn off narration while keeping animal sounds is a smart move, allowing sound to act as a clue to each creature's identity without having the answer imposed upon you by some know-it-all narrator. The sounds are sometimes surprising: along with the typical ribbits, buzzes, and squeaks, there are snorting and chomping noises. Some "peekaboos" are unexpected, too, as when eyes glowing in the dark illuminate a pack of raccoons.

While gorgeous and well-conceived in many ways, Peekaboo Forest does have some flaws. The order of animals' appearance is dictated by the app, rather than the user. Frustratingly, there's no way to skip from season to season or animal to animal; in order to see foxes in the fall, for instance, you have to make your way through winter, spring, and summer at 3–4 animals per season. The animations are non-repeatable, though a "loop" option allows you to cycle through the year indefinitely and catch 'em next time around.

Harper's boldly colored, geometric nature art -- with plenty of eye-catching patterns -- is well-suited to this kind of educational game, and Night and Day has nicely reimagined his work for a new format and young audience. I'm looking forward to seeing what the company does next (and hoping they work out a few kinks).

-- Katie Bircher

Monday, March 21, 2011

App Smackdown

Eileen Christelow’s Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed (HMH) and Sandra Boynton’s The Going to Bed Book (Little Simon) are probably on most toddlers’ bookshelves. How do the app versions of these popular titles compare to the books and to each other?

Oceanhouse Media’s Five Little Monkeys takes the high road. Less about bells and whistles and more about improving reading skills, this app features unobtrusive monkey noises and other sound effects accompanying static illustrations. Tap objects on the screen and the word for said object appears briefly along with the narrator saying “pajamas!” or “ice pack.” Does that feature “promote reading in young children” (per OM’s website)? I’m no reading specialist, but I wonder why we need to "promote reading" among this book's audience. Read to your bunny, sure, but work on word recognition? Way to suck the life out of a good storytime. Even if the narrator wasn’t irritatingly chipper (which she is), I found this good-for-you route to be dull -- no improvement over or substitute for the old-fashioned book or audio book. And if you choose to turn off the narrator, why not just pick up the book, which is easier for little hands to hold anyway?

Loud Crow Interactive, in my admittedly limited experience with these things, knows how to produce book apps (check out their Peter Rabbit -- it’s superb), honoring the original book while adding just the right amount of special-effects pizzazz. With Sandra Boynton’s The Going to Bed Book, I'll even go so far as to say that Loud Crow’s digital interpretation is superior to the print edition. Blasphemy? I guess that depends on what you feel a book app should be. I’m not suggesting that this app replace the book, because once a child is distracted with rocking the boat, popping bubbles, and wiping steam off the screen (totally cool) they're not going to pay much attention to Boynton's verse. Speaking of which, Billy J. Kramer’s soothing, accented narration and the quiet, gentle background music enhance the whole experience. Like Oceanhouse, Loud Crow’s app highlights each word in the text as it’s being read, a harmless if pointless exercise for the board-book set. Here, however, when you slide out an onscreen drawer, instead of hearing and seeing the word drawer, a bunch of pajamas pop out of the drawer and fall all over the screen. Tip the screen side to side and the jammies tumble to the left and the right. Just the kind of surprise this audience likes, and just the kind of thing that apps do best.

-- Kitty Flynn

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I'm currently appreciating Teeth: Vampire Tales (HarperCollins), an upcoming short story anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The big-name contributors such as Neil Gaiman, Ellen Kushner, Holly Black, Tanith Lee, and Garth Nix initially caught my attention, but it's refreshing to find tales by authors I haven't read before (Suzy McKee Charnas, Steve Berman) or haven't read in this genre (Cecil Castellucci, Delia Sherman). With series like Twilight, House of Night, Vampire Academy, Vampire Kisses, and Vampire Diaries running at a minimum of four volumes each (often more like six or seven), sometimes vampire fiction feels as endless and unchanging as its undead protagonists. Short stories by new voices make for a nice change.

The Fledgling Handbook 101 by P.C. Cast and Kim Doner (St. Martin's Griffin) is a "nonfiction" companion to P.C. and Kristin Cast's "vampyre" boarding school series, House of Night. Purportedly a student handbook for incoming first-years (think J.K. Rowling's "textbooks" Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), The Fledgling Handbook covers history of the vampyre race, what to expect during one's vampyre transformation, school rules and traditions. Journal sections allow the student to chronicle accomplishments and adventures while at the school. Cast and Doner create lore for the pseudo-Wiccan magic-wielding vampyres from human history and mythology, recasting monarchs, gods and goddesses, and artists as vampyres. Did you know Cleopatra, Boudicca, and Hippolyta were "Nightkind"? No? What about Cicero, Sappho, and Shakespeare? Clearly you weren't paying attention in world history.

-- Katie Bircher

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cover Girls

I smiled when I saw Mitali Perkins’s Facebook status update the other day. Apparently it was World Read Aloud Day -- one of those things, like Mitali, that I can usually feel pretty good about (unlike Turn Off Your TV Week or Stop Eating So Much Takeout Month). On World Read Aloud Day I read a chapter of Jennifer L. Holm’s Newbery Honor Book Our Only May Amelia to my ten-year-old daughter. Despite her love for Babymouse, she’d been resisting Holm’s May Amelia because of a preference for contemporary realistic fiction, and the sepia-toned photo of a girl in overalls on the cover just wasn’t cutting it. But she was intrigued when I brought home the sequel, The Trouble with May Amelia (see the May/June Horn Book for the review), with its upbeat color photo of a contemporary-looking girl in overalls (a cover that made me snort, but hey, whatever works, you marketing people). We read it, she loved it, and now we’re making our way through the first book.

What I read to my five-year-old that evening was a little less literary. Visiting the office over school break, she had nabbed a paperback -- Magic Hearts, an entry in Aladdin’s Candy Fairies series by Helen Perelman. The cover picture, a fairy decked out in pink glitter, had caught her eye, natch. Candy Fairies is a dream come true for my kindergartner: fairies and candy, what else is there? Well, those people at Aladdin know what else. “Berry … the Fruit Fairy enjoyed making delicious fruit candies, but she also loved making jewelry. The more sparkle the better! Berry loved anything and everything to do with fashion.” For the five-year-old whose favorite dress-up outfit always includes sparkly rings and fairy wings (and who enjoys watching What Not to Wear, Project Runway, and America’s Next Top Model -- jeez, we do need to turn off that TV), it’s book heaven. And while it’s not great literature, it did make me laugh out loud with this winner of a line: “Raina gasped. ‘Oh, Fruli!’ she exclaimed. ‘You scared the sugar out of me!’” Oh, Fruli, indeed.

-- Jennifer M. Brabander

Friday, March 11, 2011

Celeb BFF wisdom?

Like many children who grew up in the nineties, I know who Elizabeth Berkley is -- she played Jessie Spano on the popular, heavily syndicated Saved by the Bell. So when Ask Elizabeth (Putnam, March) came into the office, I snatched it up out of curiosity (and perhaps fear). As it turns out, it’s getting a lot of attention. It’s an off-shoot of her non-profit workshops and web forum, “Ask Elizabeth,” which aim to promote the well-being of adolescent girls worldwide. The book presents itself as “group diary” and “life handbook for teenage girls,” offering stories, declarations, and questions by teens, and advice from experts and Berkley herself on issues key to a girl’s emotional life: self-esteem, body image, love, loss, friendship, and family. I was skeptical, but Berkley makes for a dependable confidante, and the book covers the topics adequately and creatively. Even the scrapbook-like design is alluring, if a bit difficult to read at times. Yes, I am a softie for girl-power self-esteem boosting (and maybe nineties sitcom stars), but Ask Elizabeth does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it well.

In a kind-of-similar but far more superficial vein, Lo Bosworth (right-hand gal to Lauren Conrad on MTV’s The Hills) poses as a BFF figure and addresses teen self-worth through the lens of boys and relationships in her January paperback release The Lo-Down (Simon). The reading is appropriately light, complete with quizzes, self-esteem–building exercises, and activity ideas. To the audience of Hills fans she’s speaking directly to (or at), Bosworth’s voice will sound cool and cute, her teachings wise and trustworthy. Non-fans, on the other hand, should be wary -- the advice may fall flat if you couldn't care less about the celebutante dishing it out.

-- Katrina Hedeen

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

New Notes

The new Notes from the Horn Book is coming soon to an inbox near you, with
- five questions for Lee Bennett Hopkins
- poetry picture books
- new chapter books for young readers
- nonfiction about American legends
- young adult historical fiction

In each newsletter you'll also find online resources provided by Teaching Books. This month's links include audio excerpts of featured books Amelia Lost, Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream, and The Notorious Benedict Arnold. Sign up here!

Smart books for all kids

Ellen Raskin was thinking outside the box before most of us even knew there was a box. A writer, an illustrator, a designer -- she combined them all into a profession she called bookmaking. In her novels, the typeface is as much an element as the mystery/puzzle plot, which is as integral as the wordplay, which also shows up in the illustrations....

When Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me won the Newbery Medal in 2010, many critics and readers traced its lineage back not only to the 1963 winner A Wrinkle in Time but also to The Westing Game, a puzzle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a coming-of-age novel, which won in 1979. Now Dutton has brought back into print Raskin’s three remaining novels: Figgs & Phantoms (1974, and a Newbery Honor Book), The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (1971), and The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues (1975).

All of them welcome the reader in as a participant in solving the mystery or completing the quest; all of them speak to both head and heart (especially Figgs & Phantoms, one of the most poignant explorations of grief I’ve ever read). They are smart books, but they don’t exclude anybody; they’re for all kids.

-- Martha V. Parravano

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Required reading for Women's History Month

We've just put up a list of recommended women's history books on the Horn Book website.

The board Book of Sleep

Knopf recently released a board book version of Il Sung Na's The Book of Sleep. In the original edition, a playful and spare text accompanies sweet illustrations that, upon closer look, contain a multitude of textural and illustrative details (including the protagonist owl as a search-and-find character on spreads where another character takes center stage). An engrossing and calm nighttime read, The Book of Sleep can withstand many re-readings.

The board book adaptation is a somewhat different story. Because the original encourages many readings, the concept of translating this book into sturdy board format seems a good one. The book suffers no abridgment in its new form and remains its whole, satisfying self. What does suffer in the new format is Na's multimedia mastery and tiny details in the illustrations. Compared to the picture book's 10" x 10" trim size, the 6" x 6" size of the new board book significantly reduces the images and, accordingly, their detail. While you might think that the glossy paper-over-board should make the details pop more than does the matte paper of the original, all of the art is instead much darker, forcing a loss of richness in both texture and depth.

A lap-sized edition would have been a better choice, allowing parent and child to share the book for bedtime read-alouds. It's difficult to imagine the toddler who needs a copy of The Book of Sleep durable enough for repeated solitary readings, especially when the tiny details that Na renders so beautifully are nearly invisible.

-- Natasha Gilmore

Friday, March 4, 2011

Keep your friends close, and your frienemies closer

I have to admit that when I slipped Amy Holder's debut novel The Lipstick Laws (HMH/Graphia, April) off the shelf, I was motivated mainly by the jacket summary's similarity to Mean Girls. Packed with cliques, hot boys, revenge, and a tyrannical friendship pact sealed with a bright red kiss, The Lipstick Laws would be ripe for adaptation as a sequel to the 2004 film -- if ABC Family hadn’t already released Mean Girls 2 in January.

The Lipstick Laws lacks all of the wit of Tina Fey’s script and all of the substance of the movie's nonfiction inspiration, Queen Bees & Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. Narrator April Bowers spends most of her time vapidly obsessing over boys and insulting the physical appearance of her classmates, making the reader wonder: what really makes her better than reigning queen Britney Taylor? April is sucked in, chewed up, and spit out by the Lipstick Lawlords, the popular clique headed by Britney. This drives unpopular April to plot a series of humiliating pranks to bring Britney down a notch or two. Though April finds a new group of friends and realizes some of her own shallow faults along the way, by the time she calls off her final prank -- because she realizes it's potentially lethal -- readers will undoubtedly be rooting for everyone involved to sink into high school obscurity.

-- Elizabeth Parks

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"It's your Day of all Days! It's the Best of the Best!"

As you may have noticed, yesterday was Dr. Seuss's 107th birthday (and the 14th annual Read Across America Day). I celebrated by drooling over the unbelievable Dr. Seuss-themed goodies over at Cakewrecks and making a birthday card for the good doctor with an app from Oceanhouse Media:

I really would have liked to party with Michelle Obama and a gigantic Cat in the Hat, though. How did you celebrate?

-- Katie Bircher

Muppet News Flash!

Need something to tide you over until the new Muppet movie opens in theaters November 23rd? Look no further than BOOM! Kids' two Muppets comics series.

I grew up watching The Muppet Show and the Muppet movies with my family and I’m counting down the days until the movie opens, so I’ll admit I opened the books with the bar set high. Overall, I think the creators manage to capture the spirit of Jim Henson’s original characters and the tone of the Muppet productions.

The adaptations of literary classics (to date: Robin Hood, Peter Pan, King Arthur, Snow White, and Sherlock Holmes) are more successful than The Muppet Show Comic Book stories, which serve as enjoyable companions to the TV show. Sure, literary purists will scoff at the Electric Mayhem rock band portraying the Seven Dwarfs and the Great Gonzo as Sherlock Holmes, but those folks probably won’t pick up these books anyway. Muppet completists, on the other hand, will get a kick out of seeing old friends in these classic roles. The characters retain their own quirky personalities (e.g., Fozzie Bear’s sense of humor, Miss Piggy’s diva temper), humor, and Muppet-centric cultural references.

Most of the illustrators’ renderings of the characters are passable, but a note to Roger Langridge: your Kermit (left) looks like he was stretched on the rack, and the rest of the characters are also frightening versions of themselves. The texts would have benefitted from some fine-tuning, but the venture is one I’m glad BOOM! Kids (now Kaboom! as of February 21) has undertaken. Every book acknowledges The Muppets Studio, which adds an additional level of credibility. What stories should the Muppets and Boom! Kids/Kaboom! tackle next?

-- Cindy Ritter

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Blogging women's history books

A full month of blog posts commemorating women's history begins today on KidLit Celebrates Women's History Month. Creators and critics of children's literature (including Anita Silvey, Candace Fleming, Kathleen Krull, and Tanya Bolden) will highlight excellent books about women's history. The blog is off to a great start with a review of Laurie Halse Anderson's Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, a picture book biography of Sarah Hale.