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: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Teddy Kristiansen
My rating: 4.5 of 5
A hard-boiled detective investigates the legendary case of Humpty Dumpty’s murder. A boy wanders off along the railroad tracks and has a close encounter with a troll under a bridge. Another boy finds himself at the wrong party, where the guests talk about the strangest things. An intergalactic scam artist tells the tale of one of his greatest cons. And a group of jaded epicureans bemoan that there’s nothing new for them to taste . . . until one of their members mentions the legendary Sunbird. In other words, pure literary magic.
In the spirit of Ray Bradbury’s classic children’s book R Is for Rocket, Neil Gaiman pulls together a collection of his short stories that seem well suited to a younger audience, and publishes them together in one neat volume, M Is for Magic. I love it. These tales are some of Gaiman’s best short stories, whatever the age of the reader. They evoke the things I love best of his writing–the wit, the magic, the amazing literary style that is both captivating and easy to read. One thing I found unique about this collection (as compared with his adult short-story collections) is the picture it gives of growing up in the sixties. Probably an unexpected but natural result of most of the stories being written in respect to the author’s own childhood, but there’s an authenticity to the feel of that era as demonstrated in these stories that’s really neat to read. I do have to warn: while a more child-friendly collection than his others, there are still a few things in these stories that might be a bit old for some children. Generally speaking, I’d say this collection would be best for a 12 and up audience. Whether you’re looking for a fun fantasy/sci-fi short story collection for a kid you know or you’re interested for yourself, I think M Is for Magic is a choice that’s, well, magical.
Author: Mariko Nagai
My rating: 5 of 5
Mina Tagawa was born in the U.S. She sees herself as an American just as surely as her best friend Jamie Gilmore is American. Sure, her family speaks both English and Japanese in the home, eats miso soup as well as potatoes, it’s never mattered. Until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and suddenly everyone in her hometown looks at her like she’s the enemy. Until she and her family are forced from their homes into camps like war criminals in their own country.
Dust of Eden was a hard book to read. I can only imagine how hard it was to write. I feel that Mariko Nagai chose a very important but difficult topic in depicting the internment camps the government forced many Japanese Americans into during the second World War. And I do feel that she handled this topic with grace and respect. Mina is a beautiful character, and her loving family and supportive friend Jamie do a lot to soften the story without diminishing the unfairness and wrongness of the situation. The entire story is written in verse from Mina’s perspective, and Nagai’s poetry is truly beautiful and moving–a style that reminds me greatly of Helen Frost’s work in that it is poetic and elegant without ever stooping to being rhyme-y or cheap. I ended up crying through a large portion of the book; it’s that sort of story. I found Dust of Eden in the children’s section, and it’s appropriate for younger readers although I would recommend an adult reading the story first and being available to discuss it. But this is a book that breaks age barriers and speaks an important memory to adult readers as well.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Charles Vess
My rating: 5 of 5
Blueberry Girl is a prayer (to the fates, I think? Doesn’t really matter here.) for a not-yet-born baby girl. And it is absolutely gorgeous in every way. When I usually think of this sort of book, I think of something dull and stereotypical, wishing for sunshine and ease and, well, nothing really likely or meaningful. This book is something else; it’s a prayer for wisdom, for joy in spite of sorrow, for truth, for a myriad of experiences. It’s a prayer I would love to have prayed over me. I was crying by the time I finished reading it. And the wonder and beauty of the text is emphasized by Charles Vess’ incredible illustrations. It’s neat seeing his work in this sort of context, where there’s no precise story to follow. The pictures are really breathtaking. Highly recommended to all, but I would especially note that Blueberry Girl would be a fantastic gift for expectant parents.
By Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess
My rating: 4.5 of 5
A Fall of Stardust is a unique little collection that I got as part of Gaiman’s recent Humble Bundle. It’s kind of a reader alluding to his (incredible) novel Stardust. Remarkably, it’s only about 14 pages long, including the cover, yet it packs quite the punch. The majority of the volume is a short story (almost more of a vignette) about a girl named Jenny who watches as magpies gather around her, recalling a superstitious poem about them and truly experiencing that one precious moment of her life. It’s a truly beautiful piece. The remainder is a short group of poems that somehow or another connect to the world behind the Wall. My favorite is the last, which is a pantoum–making the repeating lines actually work in context and make sense is somewhat mindblowing to me. And of course, the whole collection is illustrated in Charles Vess’ skillful hand, which I always enjoy seeing paired with Gaiman’s writing; it just fits. So yeah, if you’ve enjoyed Stardust in the past and get a chance to read A Fall of Stardust, I think you’d likely find it enjoyable (plus it’s a quick read).
Author/Illustrator: Tohby Riddle
My rating: 4.5 of 5
This is the story of winged, magical beings who quietly come to our world, mostly unnoticed and unappreciated. It is the story of one who became lost, alone and uncared for. And it is the story of a small group of individuals who were different, who noticed, and who determined that this amazing being would not be forgotten.
Unforgotten is really an remarkable book. I hesitate to call it a graphic novel, although that is what it is marketed as. It’s really more of an illustrated poem almost. There’s no particular meter or rhyme, so it’s not traditional poetry. But the sparse, carefully chosen words and the way it’s written in three sections with the first and third parts echoing each other makes it seem poetic . . . although I didn’t actually realize this until I saw the page in the back where the entire text of the book is printed out together. When you’re reading it, it’s dispersed in tiny pieces amidst the artwork so you hardly notice you’re reading at all. And the artwork is really something amazing in itself. It’s this incredibly complex and surprising collage of photographs and drawings, all jumbled together in a way that should be discordant, but that actually works quite effectively. Especially since the “angels” are placed as this simple, white drawing in the middle of all the crazy photographs, making this center of calm and quiet in the midst of it all. Also, I think it’s great that this is such an ageless book–it’s written such that children and adults alike can enjoy it, and I couldn’t really even say which audience it was written for. I would definitely recommend Unforgotten for readers of all sorts and all ages.
On a side note, it was weird for me to read Unforgotten at the time that I did. It’s been too recently that I watched “Blink” and “The Time of Angels”/”Flesh and Stone” . . . so the whole angels coming to earth without, initially, a clear explanation of what they’re doing there, was actually a bit eerie for me. I read the whole first section with a sense of foreboding! It was only the second time around, when I’d established that these angels are benevolent beings, that I was able to enjoy Unforgotten as it was meant to be read.