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.
Authors: Laurence Yep & Joanne Ryder
Illustrator: Mary GrandPré
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Miss Drake (who is of course a dragon of the highest breeding) has just lost her favorite pet Fluffy–a human who insisted on calling herself Amelia. And while Miss Drake had intended to give herself some time to mourn before choosing a new pet, fate (with some help from Amelia) has other things in mind in the form of Amelia’s incorrigible 10-year-old great-niece, Winnie. Now Winnie is convinced that Miss Drake is her responsibility, and she’s not about to leave the dragon alone, no matter how she’s ignored or threatened. It looks like Miss Drake has a new pet after all, one that’s sure to make life . . . interesting.
What a fun story! A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans was a delight from start to finish. The story is told in first person from old Miss Drake’s perspective–so you get an ornery-yet-genteel flavor to the story as a whole. And her reactions to Winnie–who is energetic, precocious, and bright–are most amusing. This is a very unusual children’s fantasy, highly character-driven with a mostly slice-of-life plot flavored heavily by, oh, the presence of a dragon and her dealings with other fantastic beings. The feel of the book actually reminds me of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest books somewhat (especially the first one). In any case, I’d definitely recommend A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans, especially for elementary-age girls, but truly for everyone (my dad loved it)–it’s fantastically cute and funny!
Author: Roald Dahl
Illustrator: Quentin Blake
My rating: 4 of 5
Retired Mr. Hoppy has held secret affections for his neighbor, widowed Mrs. Silver for years, but he’s too shy to tell her that. And Mrs. Silver is too caught up in her pet tortoise Alfie to take any notice of Mr. Hoppy. . . . That is, until one day when she mentions to Mr. Hoppy how very much she wished Alfie would grow bigger. Which gives Mr. Hoppy an idea. He sets out on a clever scheme to win the attention of Mrs. Silver using dozens of tortoises, a hint of deception, and a touch of magic.
Roald Dahl is such a classic children’s author, his books hardly need any introduction. Having said that, I didn’t discover Esio Trot until I was in college. It’s a cute illustrated short story about an elderly couple falling in love in a most unusual way. As a story, I did enjoy it very much: it was clever and sweet and cute. And of course, Dahl’s writing style is excellent as always, and Blake’s illustrations are the perfect complement. However, as I often find with Dahl’s books, there are morally ambiguous or questionable sections, things that would make me hesitate to read this to younger children. Mr. Hoppy wins Mrs. Silver’s love and gets his “happily ever after,” but he gets there by tricking Mrs. Silver. Personally, I would have trouble being in a relationship that began that way, trust being a huge thing in my book. Also, as a pet owner myself, I find it odd that Mrs. Silver could be so fond of Alfie and yet not notice when the pet she was fawning over was no longer actually Alfie at all . . . maybe it’s different with tortoises, but if my cats were traded in (even for other cats that looked absolutely identical), I would still know. And heaven help the person who took off with the real ones! Still, taken at face value, Esio Trot is a fun, funny children’s story–and hey, it might be a good discussion starter for your kids.
My rating: 4.5 of 5
As you should know, CLAMP school is an incredible place that fosters learning and fun for students of all ages from kindergarten through graduate school. But there are forces out there that would prevent the smooth operation of the campus. And that’s where Duklyon comes in. Under the leadership of their mysterious “General” and with the heavy-handed assistance of the lovely Eri, Kentarou Higashikunimaru and Takeshi Shukaido defend the school and its students from evil of all sorts. Which mostly means beating up whatever absurd creature the Imonoyama Shopping District Association decides to throw at them this time before Eri beats them up for being too slow. Fight on!
Taken as a serious sentai manga, Duklyon would be pretty much awful. But I can’t imagine actually reading a sentai manga to begin with, and this is so much better! Because Duklyon is essentially this huge parody of sentai stories. The Kentarou and Takeshi are cute and interesting characters–the dynamic between them is very amusing!–although they are also somewhat useless, as becomes more and more apparent as the story progresses. Then there’s Eri, ever ready with the big comedy hammer to pound them . . . well, except for when Sukibayashi-kun is around. Then she’s too busy acting the blushing maiden to be any good to anyone. Never mind that Sukibayashi is very obviously the villain. It’s a miracle any of them keep their identities the secret they’re supposed to be! Maybe it’s a tribute to the obtuseness of the people around them. . . . It’s fun having the CLAMP school detectives in on the fun too. For one thing, the General is oh-so-obviously Nokoru (wearing sunglasses, which totally disguises his identity). Even better (probably my favorite episode of the entire story) is when Duklyon faces off against the Man of Many Faces–the one time they are soundly defeated. I do love Akira-kun; so cute! So basically, the entire Duklyon manga is this big comedic parody, but it actually is very funny and cute–hey, it’s CLAMP. Recommended particularly for CLAMP fans and notable for being appropriate for younger audiences than most of their manga, probably fine for elementary readers and older.
Author: Paul Fleischman
Illustrator: Kevin Hawkes
My rating: 5 of 5
Wesley’s always been, well, different. His parents worry about him; the other kids pick on him; he just doesn’t fit in anywhere . . . until one summer when everything changes. Wesley decides to work on a summer gardening project, but instead of growing carrots or tomatoes, he prepares the soil and leaves it open for whatever seeds happen to fall, refusing to pull up the shoots that appear to be weeds. And what plants they grow into! Wesley finds all sorts of uses for every single part of these incredible plants. But it’s more than that–he’s developing food, clothing, language, and eventually community and games–all because of this one summer project. In essence, he’s created his own miniature civilization. Pretty incredible!
Weslandia was an unexpected find, although I’ve always enjoyed Fleischman’s writing. It’s an incredible picture book–beautiful and imaginative–that doesn’t just bring a whimsical fantasy to life (although it does that with aplomb!) but also delves into the concepts of what really makes a civilization. Even better, it breaks the concepts down into pieces that even younger children can readily appreciate–without being didactic about it. It’s a story about creativity and ingenuity. Also a tale about being yourself, not giving in to peer pressure, and making friends your own way. All in all, pretty amazing. Not to mention, Hawkes’ art is, as always, charming. I would recommend Weslandia to readers of all ages–but I’d also note that it would make a great jumping off point for classroom discussions about building civilizations and suchlike. Either way, great fun!
Author/Illustrator: Dr. Seuss
My rating: 4 of 5
In the kingdom of Didd lives a small farm boy by the name of Bartholomew Cubbins. Now, Bartholomew has a rather plain hat that he wears nearly all the time, a very ordinary hat with a perky feather sticking up from the top. Nothing special, but Bartholomew likes his hat. But one day, something extraordinary happens: as the king passes by, everyone removes their hats, including Bartholomew. But the king and his whole processing come back to him, insulted, because there’s still a hat on Bartholomew’s head! Bartholomew, the king, the guards, and just about the whole king’s court do their best to bare Bartholomew’s head, but for every hat that’s removed, another appears in its place until it seems like Bartholomew’s snowing hats. Whatever shall he do?
I’ve grown up reading Dr. Seuss since I was little, but I only found The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins fairly recently. It’s fun–fairly different from, say, The Cat in the Hat, but fun still the same. It has more the feeling of an old-school children’s tale, something long ago and far away, maybe by Hans Christian Andersen. With a little bit of Through the Looking Glass thrown in–all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t fix the problem, you know? But at the same time, it does have a certain Seussical quirkiness to it, that sense of fun and whimsy. It doesn’t read in great swathes of rhyme and easily sounded out words, although the reading level isn’t particularly difficult. This would probably be best for readers in elementary school, although it would also be a fun read-aloud story for younger audiences. If I had to guess, I’d suspect that this was rather earlier in Seuss’s writing, so he was still developing his own personal style. But it’s still a great story, and the illustrations are great fun as well–seriously the facial expressions are great! I’d recommend The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins to anyone who enjoys a light-hearted, classic picture book–whether they’re kids or not.