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!
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.
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!
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.
Author/Illustrator: Hervé Tullet
My rating: 4 of 5
We are presented with a page, completely blank save for a solitary gray spot. Invited to tap said spot, we do and are presented with an explosion of spots of all colors. And now that we have colors to work with, we’re challenged to try combining them to see what happens when we mix it up.
Mix It Up! is certainly not the sort of picture book to which I am accustomed. It isn’t actually a story at all. I’m honestly at a loss as to how to even categorize it. It’s an interactive experience for kids presented in book format; that’s the best explanation I can come up with. A bit more complex that your usual “name the colors” book, Mix It Up! visually and experientially teaches kids color theory, what happens when you mix different colors, how to create shades and tints, that sort of thing. It’s all very vibrant and interactive–rather than didactically telling the reader what’s happening, it invites us to see and discern for ourselves. This book is great for kids that need a bit more interactivity as it asks them to tap, shake, squish, and tilt the pages as they go along; fortunately, the pages are actually sturdy enough to withstand this kind of abuse. As far as recommended age goes, I think Mix It Up! is best suited for a slightly older demographic than most picture books, although it could be pretty flexible. My two-and-a-half year-old niece enjoys the first half, but the latter parts where more inductive reasoning is required are a bit beyond her appreciation yet. I’d say around five would be the ideal age for this book, but it would depend on the kid. For any age, it’s a great introduction to color theory.