Tag Archives: children’s fiction

Explorer: The Mystery Boxes

Editor: Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 3.5 of 5

The great thing–the scary thing–about boxes is that they can contain just about anything. Or nothing. You’ll never know until you open them. It could be something that will change your perspective for the better. Or it could be something that will wreak havoc with your life. Maybe it’s an opportunity for a second chance. But then, maybe it’s best left closed–after all, once you’ve imagined all the things it could be, perhaps whatever it really is might be a disappointment. You never know. . . .

As with Kibuishi’s other Explorer books, The Mystery Boxes is a collection of graphic short stories by various authors/artists focusing on a theme–in this instance, boxes. You’ve got quite the gamut of stories here from creepy (“Under the Floorboards” in which a wax doll tries to take over a little girl’s life), to corny (“Whatzit” in which a weird alien kid is pranked and returns the favor), to moving (notably “The Keeper’s Treasure” and Kibuishi’s own story, “The Escape Option”). Honestly, my opinions about these stories range widely, with some of them being lots of fun and others just being kind of “huh?” for me. Some of them, I just don’t quite get what the author was getting at, I guess. But then, there are stories like “The Keeper’s Treasure,” “Spring Cleaning” (goofy but amusing), and “The Escape Option” that I think still make Explorer: The Mystery Boxes well worth the time to read it.

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Framed

Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce

My rating: 4.5 of 5

In a small Welsh town where it rains nearly daily and nothing every really happens, Dylan finds himself the last boy anywhere near his age. So even a soccer game is out. Left keeping the petrol log for his family’s gas station/mechanic shop and avoiding the unwelcome attentions of “Terrible” Evans, it seems like nothing will ever change . . . until one day when a whole cavalcade of vans rumbles past their station, up the mountain, to the abandoned slate quarry. Suddenly, the town is abuzz with gossip. Perhaps even moreso when it becomes known that the contents of the National Gallery have been temporarily relocated to the quarry due to flooding. And somehow, the presence and exposure to the art there begins to change Dylan and his town . . . but will the changes all be for the good, or will Dylan and his siblings be inspired to more sinister designs?

As always, Frank Cottrell Boyce delivers a home run of a story in Framed. The writing, the characters, the themes–it’s all brilliantly executed and very readable. I love the way he chooses a few motifs and uses them repeatedly to tie the story together and draw out deeper ideas in a way that’s relatable. Surprisingly, this is perhaps the most credible and realistic of his stories that I’ve read to date; most of them tend to be rather tall-tale like (or even just be absurd science fiction), but this story is something that–while improbably–could possibly actually happen. Which is actually pretty great, because this is a story of inspiration and positive change in the midst of darkness and stagnation. I love the art aspect of this story as well; in a lot of ways that aspect reminds me of E. L. Konigsburg’s books (she’s another favorite of mine!). All in all, Framed is a great middle-grade story which reaches way beyond its intended grade range–recommended for basically anyone!

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Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth

Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce

Illustrator: Steven Lenton

My rating: 5 of 5

Prez used to live with his grandfather, a crusty old sailor who took care of Prez and told stories about traveling the world. Then, as his grandfather’s memory got worse and worse, Prez took care of his grandfather. That is, until they came and took Prez’s grandfather away and put Prez in the Temporary. Now Prez is staying with the Blythe family on their farm for the summer–trying to help where he can, but not saying a thing. Enter Sputnik: a weird little alien wearing goggles and a kilt who always carries a doorbell with him. He tells Prez that 1) he’s here to look after Prez and 2) they only have until the end of summer to save the Earth. Yikes. On top of that, Prez can’t figure out why everyone just accepts Sputnik’s appearance out of nowhere and is so thrilled when he shakes their hand . . . oh, wait, to everyone else, Sputnik looks like a dog. This is going to be an interesting summer.

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is just so utterly zany that I can’t possibly do it justice. It has all the fabulous writing of Boyce’s other books, which I just love. The characters are heartwarming and funny. I really liked the Blythes; they manage to be good people with kind intentions without being an overkill unbelievable foster family. I absolutely adore the way Boyce writes family conversations; it’s like this cloud of sentences competing on the page! And there’s Prez, sitting quietly in the midst of it all. Sputnik’s character is fabulously absurd–he adds quite the wild-card effect to basically everything. Gravity tides, real working light sabers, reverse grenades that put things back together . . . physics does not work normally around this strange being. But I love the way he sees the world, the way things we typically think of as amazing are unimpressive to him, but random ordinary things are important enough to be worth putting on his list to save the planet. He has a way of making you re-think priorities. Basically, Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is a fabulous, funny middle-grade story, and I would highly recommend it.

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First Test

Author: Tamora Pierce

Protector of the Small Quartet, vol. 1

My rating: 5 of 5

A decade after the kingdom of Tortall decided to accept girls to train as knights instead of just boys, ten-year-old Kel becomes the first girl to actually apply. Inspired by tales of the Lioness’s valor and already skilled through her training in the Yamani court, Kel is determined to succeed and become a knight of Tortall. But she is shocked when Lord Wyldon, the training master, puts an extra requirement on her that the boys don’t have to fulfill: her first year is a probationary period, and only if she satisfies him at the end of it will she be allowed to stay on as a knight-in-training. Hurt and frustration are barely the beginning of what Kel feels, but her time with the Yamanis has also trained her to hide her emotions and press on through unrealistic expectations, deep-seated prejudice, bullying, and social rejection until she proves herself.

First Test is such a great reminder of just why I love Tamora Pierce’s books so much. It’s this fabulous mix of fantasy and slice-of-life, encompassing bits of school story (the majority of the tale), culture and history, exciting battles, amusing relationships with various animals, and growing friendships among many other things. Plus it’s an excellent look into changing perspectives on what women are capable of and that whole dynamic. Kel is a powerhouse, incredible character–the perfect individual for this particular story. Her story is so similar to and yet so different from Alanna’s in the Song of the Lioness Quartet that it’s quite interesting to compare the two. And knowing that Kel has Alanna’s secret backing is fabulous. But seriously, I love Kel’s stubbornness and determination, the way she works so hard to get where she wants to be. And the way that she’s quiet and feminine–which is partly stubbornness in the face of opposition itself–but is also ready to get into fistfights when necessary also contributes to a richness of character. Plus her friendships with all the various animals and her  intentionality in standing up for those who are weaker and afraid. She’s just a very well-realized and fascinating character, and I love that about her. I also really love her opinionated and chatty mentor Neal as well–also a richly developed and complex character who is quite likeable. It’s been entirely too long since I’ve read these books, and I’m greatly anticipating re-reading the rest of this quartet. I would highly recommend both First Test and the rest of the quartet to . . . well, basically anybody who likes a solid fantasy. As far as appropriate age recommendations, this quartet (like the Song of the Lioness books) is difficult to place, but I would say that First Test at least is appropriate for middle-grade and up (possibly even older elementary). Just be warned that the later books in the quartet grow up as Kel grows up, so there may be some more mature content there.

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The Astounding Broccoli Boy

Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce

My rating: 4 of 5

Rory Rooney is all about being ready for everything, but the truth is there are some things you just can’t prepare for. Like being bullied by the biggest kid in your class. Or being accused of trying to poison him after he steals your food and has an allergic reaction. Or falling in a river and turning green. Broccoli green. But surprisingly enough, being green is something Rory can deal with. The doctors are baffled, but he’s convinced that his verdancy can only have one diagnosis: super.

I swear, where has this author been my whole life?! I just recently discovered Boyce’s writing when I read Cosmic, and The Astounding Broccoli Boy is another homerun of an absurd middle-grade adventure story. The author does a great job of creating relatable but interesting characters. The situations in which the characters find themselves are absolutely ridiculous–totally the realm of tall tales–yet with enough Truth (the kind that impacts people, not necessarily the kind that is scientifically provable) that the story is still grounded and real to the reader. The author uses the ridiculous, the humorous, and the adventurous events the characters encounter to express something practical and immediate, and I love that. Plus, the story is just fun, full of hijinks and misunderstandings and fun references. I would definitely recommend The Astounding Broccoli Boy for middle-grade readers in particular, but also just in general; it’s good fun.

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The Swamps of Sleethe: Poems from Beyond the Solar System

Author: Jack Prelutsky

Illustrator: Jimmy Pickering

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Past the outer reaches of our solar system lie wonders the likes of which you could never imagine. But beware! Not all of those wonders are friendly, and some are downright deadly . . . planets that make you laugh yourself to death, giant demon birds, a beholder who waits in silence with one solitary, staring eye. Scary stuff.

The Swamps of Sleethe does something most unusual–it combines the dark cautionary tones of older fairy tales with the chilling horror of a good ghost story with an absurd Seussical element. All in a variety of verse forms. And manages to do it well! I actually quite enjoyed this strange collection of children’s poetry. It’s obviously tailored to appeal to a middle-grade audience, but I enjoyed it as an adult as well. Fair warning that basically all of these poems are describing strange ways to die on equally strange and impossible planets. It’s all pretty macabre, but as with Last Laughs, it’s in  a darkly humorous sort of way that’s actually kind of appealing. (Or maybe I’m just a terrible person and they’re not really funny at all.) The last poem was kind of a sucker punch to the reader, but a timely one that made the whole volume all the more powerful and striking. Ooh, and the illustrations that accompany the poems are just fabulous–interesting color combinations and weird but fascinating designs that I really liked. I wouldn’t say that The Swamps of Sleethe is for everyone, but if you enjoy a bit more macabre sense of humor, this could be fun. Or if you’re a parent/teacher who’s having trouble getting a middle-grader to read poetry, this could be a good option to try; they might actually find it enjoyable!

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Little Robot

Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke

My rating: 4.5 of 5

A box tumbles out of a moving truck, only to be discovered by a little girl exploring outside. She opens to box to find a little robot, just the right size to be her friend. These two develop an understanding and a growing friendship, although like any friends they must work through their share of misunderstandings. All is not well, though, as those that made the little robot come searching for it–whether or not it’s willing to go.

The creator of the adorable Zita the Spacegirl has brought us another excellent children’s graphic novel in Little Robot. This is a perfect story for basically anyone; it’s charming, creative, simple, yet engaging. It would actually make a pretty solid easy-reader for children learning to read for themselves. Most of the text is reasonably simple–I actually love that in a few instances where a more difficult concept was being expressed, Hatke actually used a picture in the text bubble rather than trying to use too many words to explain or worse trying to oversimplify the idea. There’s a mild amount of peril, but the ending is happy and satisfying. The little girl in this story (who is never actually named) seems to only be about 5 or thereabouts, although she’s surprisingly precocious in some ways for that age. She’s got a fun personality. Also, points for making her not white and giving her a wrench to carry around and fix stuff. The art in this whole story is Hatke’s typical style–in other words, it’s fabulous. The colors, the lines, the textures, and the angles are all just perfect. Basically, I loved Little Robot and would highly recommend it to anyone of any age.

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