Tag Archives: children’s fiction

When You Reach Me

Author: Rebecca Stead

My rating: 5 of 5

Growing up, Miranda’s life has been pretty normal. Her childish yet bright single mother falling in love, wavering over whether to give Richard (Mr. Perfect) a key to their New York apartment, getting all excited over entering a TV game show, making plans for what to do with the winnings before she ever gets on the show. Her best friend Sal who has always been there for her, growing up together, like two sides of the same coin. But her sixth grade year, Miranda’s life begins to fall apart. Sal stops talking to her for no obvious reason, and suddenly nothing seems certain anymore. And then she starts getting these messages, small notes giving her instructions, telling her things about the future that no one should have known, claiming that the writer has come back in time to prevent something awful–and that her following these instructions is vital to this happening.

When You Reach Me is one of those unexpected, brilliant finds that just go to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Although the whole Newbery Award should have probably been a good indicator of that. It’s like this fabulous mashup of the things I love best of the writings of Madeleine L’Engle (no surprise, since she’s clearly an influencer of Stead’s writing), E. L. Konigsburg, and Frank Cottrell Boyce. The writing itself is just really good, for one, with layers of depth in the characters and little observations of the everyday thrown into the mix and with a lot of character development and growth and self-realization over the course of the story. That in itself would make for a great story, but then you throw in all the time-travel stuff and the mystery surrounding that, and the book goes to a whole new level in my mind. I liked that attention was given to the effects of time travel, but essentially zero mention was made of the actual mechanics; it wouldn’t work in every situation, but for this story, it was the best possible way to handle the topic. The inclusion of all the references to A Wrinkle in Time really helped to set the stage and explain the time travel better, so that was nicely done as well. Oh, and this is an actual instance of first-person, present-tense that actually works; it feels like reading a letter for the most part, maybe that letter Miranda was supposed to write. Recommended particularly for middle-grade readers, but this is one of those stories that surpasses its recommended grade range, so if you like the above authors’ works and are interested in time travel-related stories, When You Reach Me may be worth trying.

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Cinnamon (Picture Book)

Author: Neil Gaiman

Illustrator: Divya Srinivasan

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Once upon a time, in a small, faraway kingdom, there was a young princess who was blind and who would not talk. Her parents offered (dubious) rewards to anyone who could get her to talk, but although many tried, none succeeded. . . . Until one day, a fierce, man-eating tiger came to the palace and offered to help the princess find her voice.

Cinnamon is a lovely picture book combining the talents of two of my favorite creative individuals–Neil Gaiman and Divya Srinivasan. I would have to say that it manages to highlight the things I love about both of their work. The tale itself is, in a sense, classic fairy tale material. The combination of the mundane and the fantastic, the inevitable flow of events, the underlying darkness at times, and the sometimes fable-like quality all contribute to this feeling of fairy tale that the story evokes. Yet at the same time, it manages to avoid the downfall of many fairy tales when they are told as such–being boring. This story certainly is not boring, and I contribute a lot of that to the author’s great talent and sense of humor. Quirky and realistic details like the stunted mango trees and the contrast between the Rani’s cranky old aunt and the picture of her in her youth give the whole story a much more vibrant and interesting flavor than it would otherwise have. Srinivasan’s art is also huge in transforming this story, giving it a vibrance and luminescence that is just stunning. If you’re familiar with her Little Owl books, the style is very similar and equally charming and lovely. Settings that are generally alluded to in the text are brought to life, again helping to make this story anything but boring. My favorite illustrations are the ones showing Cinnamon and the tiger together as the young princess experiences life afresh through the tiger’s influence. There’s just so much emotion and depth in those pictures that it’s quite moving. I think Cinnamon is a great picture book for younger readers (I’d say ages 5 or so and up, depending on the reader), but is also an enjoyable tale for older readers to share as well.

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The Snowman (1982 Movie)

TVC London

My rating: 5 of 5

One day a young boy awakens to a delightful surprise–lots and lots of snow! He can’t wait to get out of the house to play in it. In fact, much of the day is spent in the construction of a most excellent snowman. But the boy awakens that night at midnight to find something most wondrous–his snowman has come to life!

The Snowman is one of those delightful classic stories that just never loses its charm. I grew up watching this, and recently revisiting it with my 3-year-old niece (who, incidentally, also loves it), I found myself just as enchanted as when I was a child. The only words in this entire movie are in the introduction; other than that, it’s told entirely in pictures and music. And what pictures and music they are! The art is expressive, hand-drawn animation following the original picture book (also wordless) closely. It’s truly beautiful and charming. And the music is absolutely breathtaking and unforgettable. And the story itself is innocent and adorable while also being filled with and open wonder that you just don’t see nowadays. It’s nostalgically lovely. Honestly, I find myself unable to avoid comparing this movie to some of Studio Ghibli’s movies–in the fabulous music, the beautiful animation, the attention to detail, the way it looks at the mundane with new eyes, the wonder of the boy and the snowman’s journey, and the copious attention to nature that is given here. I love it and would highly recommend it to anyone; it’s entirely appropriate for even little children, but has a charm that may just capture the hearts even of an older and more jaded audience.

Directed by Dianne Jackson/Produced by John Coates/Music by Howard Blake/Based on The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

 

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Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir (2015- Cartoon)

Zagtoon with Method Animation, Toei Animation, SAMG Animation, AB Droits Audiovisuels, SK Broadband, & De Agostini Editore

Status: Ongoing (2 Seasons, 34 episodes)

My rating: 4 of 5

In present-day Paris, Marinette deals with the same things most students do–friends, schoolwork, crushing on the cutest boy in the school. Not that Adrien seems to even notice her particularly, although it would help if she could actually talk to him without tripping all over herself and looking like an idiot. But that’s not all she deals with, because you see, Marinette has a secret alter-ego–the superhero Ladybug, sworn protector of Paris along with her partner Cat Noir.

Miraculous Ladybug was a fun, unexpected find for me, something I’ve heard other people mention but didn’t have high expectations for myself. It’s a French kids’ CGI adventure show, and it’s pretty random for something like that to even cross the radar in the States anyhow. Not surprising, though, considering that this show is actually quite good. It pulls from a lot of different sources, giving it a unique flavor–kind of a mix of mahou shojou and your more traditional superhero stories, but also a cute slice-of-life story. The CG can feel a bit stilted at times, but overall the animation is excellent if not my ideal style; it still has some cute anime influences, which is fun. This story is solidly a kids’ show. It’s clean–astonishingly so, in fact. It has the repetition, the set episode pattern, to make it ideal for a younger audience (although that very thing may get kind of annoying for older viewers). By the end of each episode, everything is cleaned up and put back right, and the city views Ladybug and Cat Noir as proper heroes. Moreover, the show teaches important life lessons like responsibility, honesty, and courage. All of which make this an excellent show for children, but there is actually something there for older viewers, too. Because behind the masks and the cheesy villains and all, you’ve got some awesome characters who show growth over time. You’ve got diversity. You’ve got an adorable slow-burn romance. You’ve got real, developed friendships and Marinette has an awesome, supportive family. So there’s more than meets the eye in this cute kids’ show. I’m looking forward to seeing where Miraculous Ladybug goes in the future (I’ve only seen season 1 so far), although I’m dying for some development and a reveal between Adrien and Marinette. We’ll see if/when that ever comes.

Created by Thomas Astruc/Written by Thomas Astruc & Sébastien Thibaudeau/Directed by Thomas Astruc, Christelle Abgrall, Wilifried Pain, & Jun Violet/Music by Jeremy Zag, Noam Kaniel, & Alain Garcia/Voiced (in English) by Cristina Vee, Bryce Papenbrook, Keith Silverstein, Mela Lee, Max Mittelman, & Carrie Keranen

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Rapunzel’s Revenge (Graphic Novel)

Authors: Shannon Hale & Dean Hale

Illustrator: Nathan Hale

My rating: 3.5 of 5

For most of her childhood, Rapunzel lives a life of luxury with her mother, Mother Gothel–only she mustn’t ever look over the massive “garden wall” surrounding her home, she mustn’t question her mother, and she mustn’t mention her odd memory-like dreams. But on her twelfth birthday, Rapunzel just can’t contain herself anymore. She uses her impressive lasso skills (taught her by one of Mother Gothel’s guards, a kind man by the name of Mason) to climb the wall–only to find a world of desolation and slavery, which she soon finds is controlled by her mother . . . or, well, the person she thought was her mother. It turns out, she was taken from her real mother when she was just a little kid, and her actual mother is a slave in the mines now. In an attempt to control Rapunzel, Mother Gothel has her imprisoned in a tall tree that she’s created with her growth magic. But Rapunzel’s not one to sit demurely waiting for a rescuer, nor is she one to leave her real family in trouble.

I’ve seen some pretty interesting retellings before, but Rapunzel’s Revenge has got to be one of the most interesting and frankly bizarre to come my way in quite some time. It’s a western fantasy/weird west remix of the tale, complete with deserts, lassos, and outlaws–but with magic, too! And it’s not just a straight-up Rapunzel retelling, either; you’ve got Jack and the Beanstalk, for sure, and certain elements from a handful of other classic fairy tales. It’s pretty crazy, really, but in an interesting way. Rapunzel is an excellent example of the modernized empowered “princess,” a girl who’s smart and determined and takes matters into her own hands. Stubborn and kind of awkward, too, with enough personality to make her a sympathetic character, not just a modern stereotype. Her friend Jack makes a nice counterpart, with both of them challenging each other, forcing character growth and revealing character traits to the reader. As for the plot itself, it’s mostly a big rescue journey/adventure from the point where Rapunzel rescues herself and meets Jack–and it’s at this point that the western elements really start to show. It wasn’t the greatest plot ever, but a solid middle-grade story, still, plus a creative outtake on the whole retelling thing. The art is honestly not my style, but it works well enough for the story and I don’t have anything objectively negative to say about it–it’s just not what I prefer for graphic novels personally. I’m not sure I’d recommend Rapunzel’s Revenge for everyone, but if you like graphic novels and are interested in a quirky retelling with a strong female lead, it’s a story you just might enjoy.

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Rise of the Guardians (2012 Movie)

DreamWorks Animation

My rating: 4 of 5

The first memory Jack Frost has is of the Man in the Moon telling him his name . . . and nothing else. Left with no direction, and quickly finding that no one can see or hear him, he becomes something of a drifter. Not that that stops him from enjoying himself. Hundreds of years later, Jack is still getting up to mischief and bringing snow for kids to enjoy, even if they can’t appreciate that it’s he who is causing it. So, being neither the responsible nor the recognized sort, Jack’s calling by the Man in the Moon to be a guardian–a protector of the hopes and happiness of children everywhere–is a huge surprise to everyone including the current guardians. And Jack certainly does give Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the Sandman quite a time with his antics . . . but maybe that’s exactly what they and the children need, especially in a time when darkness so threatens in the form of the Bogeyman.

So, I’ve had Rise of the Guardians recommended to me a surprising number of times from some unexpected sources . . . so I thought I’d finally give it a try. And I have to say that I’m fairly impressed. Compared to other CG kids movies from this era and in this sort of vein, it stands out as being quite well done and enjoyable. It’s not that it has the greatest animation; frankly, it’s kind of dated in that regard. But the use of color in telling the story is excellent, and the character designs are much better than I’m used to seeing. Well, the characters in general are quite well done. Never thought I’d actually be interested in Santa Claus, say, or the Easter Bunny as characters in a story, but the creators do a great job of fleshing them out, giving them interesting personalities–like making the bunny a huge, tattooed rabbit with an Aussie accent and boomerangs! Jack is, without a doubt, the best of this movie, though. His personality is such a great mix of the brash confidence of Captain Kirk mixed with the uncertainty and the sense of fun of Merlin–all of which comes through so brilliantly in his voice, facial expressions, body language, everything. Casting Chris Pine for his character was a stroke of genius, and I feel like Jack’s expressions frequently mimic those I’ve seen on Pine’s face in his role as Kirk, which is both amusing and fabulous. The plot is not the most original in the world, but it’s done in an engaging way, letting the characters’ personalities do a lot to direct the flow of the story. And they do manage to both make it a kid-appropriate (though definitely PG) story and one that can hold interest for adults as well–without all the crude jokes that so ridiculously and obnoxiously permeate the majority of kids’ movies today. I enjoyed Rise of the Guardians more than I expected to and would recommend it to others.

Directed by Peter Ramsey/Produced by Christina Steinberg & Nancy Bernstein/Screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire/Based on The Guardians of Childhood by William Joyce/Music by Alexandre Desplat/Starring Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, & Jude Law

 

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Mighty Jack (Graphic Novel)

Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke

Colorists: Alex Campbell & Hilary Sycamore

Mighty Jack, vol. 1

My rating: 5 of 5

Jack’s summer promises to be anything but enjoyable–his mom’s working extra this year to support her kids, so Jack’s left to take care of his sister Maddy who never talks and needs extra-special care. He can’t even spend the time he’d like making friends . . . and that girl who lives down the street and practices swordplay in the yard sure does look like she’d be an interesting friend. A family trip to the flea market  changes everything, however, as an unusual man sells Jack a pack of weird seeds, promising they’ll change his life. They certainly do that! For one thing, Maddy gets remarkably excited about these seeds, pouring herself into planting and taking care of them. For another, well, the seeds sure do seem to be magic–as in, some of them get up and move, some have faces, others explode or give you special abilities if you eat them. Crazy cool stuff, but pretty dangerous, too. Enter the sword-swinging girl from down the street. Lilly is entranced by the incredible things Jack and Maddy have growing in their back yard, and she knows how to deal with the more dangerous stuff. Maybe this summer won’t be so bad after all.

Wow. I have loved Ben Hatke’s work ever since I first read Zita the Spacegirl, and Mighty Jack was certainly not a disappointment. It sort-of plays off the whole Jack and the Beanstalk story, only it’s re-imagined to such an extent that it doesn’t really feel like a retelling at all; it’s brilliantly original. As with the Zita stories, the characters, art, and story are all fresh and rich, colorful and inviting. It all just draws the reader in in such an enjoyable way. I loved all three of the main characters, the way they fit together, the way they grow throughout the story, the way their flaws influence the progression of the story, all of it. Extra perks to the author for strong female characters, for a cool homeschooler, and for including a character with autism, all of whom are a rich part of the story. I loved Jack and Maddy’s mom and Lilly’s brother as well–yay for developed and interesting supporting characters. Bonus points for the cameo of characters from the Zita stories–the guy who sells Jack the seeds and basically jump starts his whole story is a crossover character, and his placement in this story was fun. Regarding the art in particular (besides the obvious fact that it’s awesome), I loved Hatke’s skill in giving subtle expression to the characters, especially in the way he showed so clearly how Jack is just at the age where girls are becoming interesting and how he totally has a crush on Lilly, but how their relationship grows to be so much more than that. It’s powerful, how much he can express with so little. Also, I totally love the color palette used in this graphic novel. Mighty Jack is a graphic novel that I would highly recommend for anyone, regardless of age, although it’s technically children’s fiction–great story that I’m looking forward to continuing in future volumes.

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