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.
Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce
My rating: 5 of 5
Liam has always been tall for his age, getting mistaken for being older than he is and being teased by other children for it. Now at the age of twelve, he’s already growing facial hair and being mistaken for an adult. Which is mostly awful. . . . But it does have its advantages at times. Like when he was mistaken for a new teacher at his new school or when he and his classmate Florida would go to the stores with him pretending to be her father. And ever one to push the limits, Liam begins to see just how far he can go with this “adult” thing–never dreaming that doing so would end up with him being stuck in a spaceship with a bunch of kids looking to him to get them safely home.
So, Cosmic was one of those books that blew my expectations completely out of the water. I had never even heard of the author previously (clearly an oversight on my part), and it appeared both from the cover and the description to be a rather average middle-grade story of hijinks and randomness. Well, the middle-grade hijinks and randomness is definitely there, but average this book is not. It uses humor and a tall tale sort of setting to look at what being an adult is really all about–as well as to examine how much the advantages of being an adult are wasted on actual grown-ups who don’t have the sense of fun and irresponsibility to really enjoy them. It also looks at major themes like fatherhood and the relationships between fathers and their children in a way that is quite touching. But the story never gets bogged down in these themes; rather they are revealed gradually through the improbable and ridiculous circumstances in which Liam and his companions find themselves. It’s very funny–perhaps even more so reading this as an adult, although this is definitely written for a younger audience and is completely appropriate for such, even for a younger elementary grade readership. There’s something of a universality in the midst of absurdity to be found in Cosmic, and I would highly recommend this book.
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 5 of 5
Zita the Spacegirl, vol. 3
After being wrongfully accused of crimes she didn’t commit, young Zita has been tried and imprisoned on a dungeon world along with her friend, Mouse. She finds herself in a cell with a living ragpile and a talking skeleton–a skeleton whose fingerbones can open any lock. Befriending these two, Zita takes her first opportunity to break out and try to rescue her friend Mouse. Along the way, Zita finds unexpected help as the friends she’s made and people she’s helped along her journey join forces to help her escape.
I’ve said it before, but Ben Hatke’s graphic novels are fantastic. I absolutely loved the first two Zita stories, and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl is the perfect conclusion to this delightful trilogy. While being perhaps a bit darker than the first two (being set almost entirely in a prison setting), the story remains consistent in its emphasis on friendship, courage, and doing the right thing. Zita’s an amazing girl, no question, and the friends she makes are delightful, unexpected, and heartwarming. The art is fabulous, full of quirky originalities. I also love that the story is rich enough to be fun for an adult reader while being clean and simple enough for an elementary-grade reader to also enjoy. Additionally, I liked that the ending of this one was conclusive enough that I’m not searching for a continuation while still being open enough that there could potentially be more volumes in the future (unlike the earlier volumes which absolutely demanded a continuation). I think I would highly recommend The Return of Zita the Spacegirl to pretty much anyone–just read the first two volumes first.
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Illustrator: Paul O. Zelinsky
My rating: 4.5 of 5
In the children’s home where Earwig and her friend Custard grew up, most of the children are excited and nervous when foster parents come through to pick which children they’ll take home. Not Earwig; she makes faces and tries hard not to be chosen. Why would she want to leave when everyone at the home does exactly what she wants them to? But one day, and ugly, wrinkly old woman and a tall, skinny man (whom Earwig could swear has horns) come through and, against all odds, decide to take Earwig home. Not home to a loving family, of course, but to be the witch’s assistant–the ugly woman being the witch, naturally, and a mean one as well. Earwig, not so easily discouraged, takes up the challenge to make this ornery, strange household do what she wants just like the people at the home did . . . and quite a challenge it’s going to be!
If you’ve been around my blog much at all, you’re well aware that Diana Wynne Jones is one of my absolute favorite authors. Earwig and the Witch was actually a new read for me, and quite the fun story it was as well. It’s a shorter story than most of hers, only 6 chapters, if I recall correctly (I’m not bothering to look right now), but told with all her usual aplomb. The plot is also a bit simpler, making this accessible to a younger (say upper elementary, perhaps?) audience. I think what struck me most about this story is that the main character is, in a sense, rather as awful and ornery as the witch herself–which is possibly why they fit so well together. But the way in which this clever, determined child finds ways to beat the stronger, better-positioned adults is oddly reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s writing at times. I really loved it! Earwig and the Witch is a highly recommended read all around.
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 5 of 5
Zita the Spacegirl, vol. 2
Being famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know? Zita quickly finds this out after she and her friends save Scriptorius. Soon her picture is plastered on walls everywhere she goes, and everywhere she is greeted by huge crowds wanting to meet her and get her autograph. Sometimes she’d really just love some time to herself, right? So when Zita encounters a robot that almost-perfectly mimics her, she decides to take advantage of the situation for a while and let this robot take her place–just long enough for her to get a break. The only trouble is that robot-Zita sees itself as the real hero, as Zita herself, and volunteers the crew to go save a planet . . . leaving the real Zita and her friend Mouse behind!
I absolutely loved the first Zita graphic novel, and I think Legends of Zita the Spacegirl is a strong follow-up, consistently portraying the things that I loved in the first volume. Zita is a strong character, and she encounters a lot of strong individuals along her journey–several of whom have a huge impact on her. I really loved the introduction of Madrigal in this volume; it’s clear she and Piper have a history, and I’m really curious to see that developed more. And I appreciated that robot-Zita, although wrong for a good part of the story, has redeeming aspects to her as well. The plot is exciting and full of adventure, but definitely ok for elementary-age kids. It even highlights important character traits like loyalty and self-sacrifice, while avoiding being “preachy” in the slightest. And I just love the art; it’s gutsy and adorable, whimsical and eclectic. Actually, it reminds me a lot of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Kazu Kibuishi, while still having its own unique quirks that are just fantastic. I would highly recommend Legends of Zita the Spacegirl to just about anyone of any age; it’s a wonderful story!
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Zita the Spacegirl, vol. 1
Zita had to push the big red button–I mean, come on, wouldn’t you? Trouble is, her best friend Joseph got sucked into some warp-hole portal thing when she pushed the button. So now she’s responsible, and being who she is, Zita is determined to follow her friend and get him home safely, whatever it takes. Pushing the big red button again, she finds herself in a busy alien metropolis–one full of all sorts of creatures and robots she’s never seen before. Also, a metropolis doomed to be struck by an asteroid in only three days. Everyone is trying to get off-world as quickly as they can, and Zita’s got a daunting deadline in which to find Joseph. Actually, finding him turns out to be easier than expected; he’s been kidnapped to use as a sacrifice to stop the asteroid. But rescuing him is something Zita couldn’t possibly do alone, so it’s a good thing she’s been busy making friends in this new world.
Wow. I’d heard good things about this graphic novel, but I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy it that much. Zita and her friends are wonderful characters, full of individuality, experiencing conflicts, and growing as they go along. I especially enjoyed the Piper’s character, even though he seems like a bad guy at times. And Zita herself is so perky and indomitable and ready to befriend anyone that she’s quite captivating. I’m definitely looking forward to how the group as a whole develops over future volumes of the story. The art really fits the story as well–attractive, interesting, and just rough enough to support action and movement well and be kid-friendly in feeling. Which is something I love: the story is definitely a great one for kids to read, even elementary kids. Yet the plot and characters are developed enough to be fun to read for grown-ups as well. Oh, and the art is full-color throughout; it fits nicely with the general style. Actually, the whole style is pleasantly reminiscent of Kazu Kibuishi’s work Amulet without feeling “copy” like at all. I would definitely recommend this first volume of Zita the Spacegirl, and I will certainly read the following volumes myself.
Author/Illustrator: Daniel Pinkwater
My rating: 3.5 of 5
One day, while his parents are out, Ned Feldman notices a noise beneath his kitchen sink. Upon investigating, he finds a strange little man claiming to be a spaceship captain–also claiming that his spaceship is occupying the same space as Ned’s kitchen sink! He invites Ned to come in and take a quick trip with him. And what do you know, it actually is a spaceship–a pirate spaceship, although the captain is not exactly the most scary pirate around. Ned and Captain Bugbeard encounter all kinds of interesting things in space, even giant chickens and a yeti!
Ned Feldman, Space Pirate is one of Daniel Pinkwater’s older adventures for younger kids. And I must say, it’s classic Pinkwater. The story is absolutely, ridiculously off-the-wall in the best possible way. The characters and situations are so absurd that you find yourself just accepting them in spite of yourself . . . it’s that kind of story. But definitely a fun read. Also, it’s nice in that it’s written for elementary-age children and would be appropriate for a younger reading level. Pinkwater’s illustrations fit the quirky style of the story perfectly, making the story even funnier than it already is. I would absolutely recommend Ned Feldman, Space Pirate for anyone who enjoys zany adventure stories, and especially for younger children and for anyone who already has enjoyed other books by Daniel Pinkwater–he really is a fantastic author.