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: Daniel Pinkwater
My rating: 4 of 5
When Arthur is sent to pick up his family’s turkey for Thanksgiving, things get a bit out of hand . . . He ends up coming home with a live, 266-pound hen instead! That would have made quite the Thanksgiving dinner, only Henrietta (as Arthur quickly dubbed her) grows on the family and Arthur decides to keep her as a pet–trains her to do tricks and everything. Unfortunately, keeping a giant chicken isn’t quite so easy as keeping, say, a dog, and Arthur’s father soon demands that Arthur return Henrietta to where she came from . . . which is sad, but understandable . . . except that Henrietta escapes and tries to return to Arthur–running loose all through Hoboken and causing mass chaos wherever she roams.
Daniel Pinkwater is an expert at writing funny, quirky stories that are truly a treat to read. The Hoboken Chicken Emergency is one of those. It’s written on probably a late-elementary- to middle-school level, but personally I think it would be fun for anyone of any age, as long as they’re able to appreciate Pinkwater’s sense of humor (yes, some folks might have a problem with that). The whole tale is absolutely an absurd tall tale from start to finish. But it’s also a cute story of family and pets and understanding that has some good takeaways. It’s also interesting to read something written in the 70’s, even as a tall tale, just to see how much culture and society has changed in that time–kind of depressing, but fun to get a slice of that time. The classic illustrations are priceless as well: black and white and kind of, well, lumpy, but expressive and very fitting for the story. For anyone who loves a good laugh and a good yarn, I think The Hoboken Chicken Emergency would be a great choice–and of course, check out the sequel, Looking for Bobowicz.
Author: Lloyd Alexander
Illustrator: Trina Schart Hyman
My rating: 4.5 of 5
A young carpenter has become disillusioned with his career and uncertain of his future. So one day, on a whim, he visits an old fortune-teller who has set up business over a cloth merchant’s shop. The fortune the old man gives him is absurd–but couched so cleverly that it sounds impressively positive. The young man leaves, convinced his future is bright, but he soon comes back with more questions . . . only to find that the old man has disappeared and the family he was staying with is convinced that he transformed himself into the young carpenter. And clever enough to see an opportunity when it presents itself, the young carpenter decides to take up a new career in fortune-telling, with surprising results!
If you’ve read any Lloyd Alexander, you’ll quickly recognize his distinctive, fable-like style in The Fortune-Tellers. Although, unlike most of his books, this is a short story–a children’s picture book, actually–it carries much the same feel as longer works such as the Prydain books or The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian. It’s quite the charming tall tale, full of wit and irony in good measure as well as a hefty dose of humor. It’s notable that the text itself is–like many of his stories–very unspecific regarding the location; this is the sort of story that could happen anywhere (which I love about his books!). But this picture book does something very interesting; it takes a story that could happen anywhere, anytime, and through the use of illustrations, sets it in a very specific location–the country of Cameroon. Hyman’s pictures are exquisite–colorful, intricate, and full of life and personality. The portray the place and the individuals involved so well that it gives an entirely new flavor to the text. It’s quite charming. I especially love her work with all the fabric patters–they’re really beautiful. I think The Fortune-Tellers is a fun and fascinating tall-tale sort of story that would be enjoyable for both children (probably around 5 and up) and for adults as well.
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.
Author: Neal Shusterman
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Antsy Bonano can’t remember the first time he met Calvin Schwa, known to one and all as “The Schwa”. But then most folks can’t; the Schwa’s just like that. You can be right next to him and forget he’s even there . . . sort of like he chameleon’s into the surroundings. And he’s hard to even think about for long, your thoughts just sort of wander off to other things. The Schwa has been aware of this circumstance–something Antsy refers to as being “functionally invisible” or “The Schwa Effect”–for most of his life, but it’s only when Antsy notices him enough to actually pay attention that someone finds a way to capitalize on this phenomenon. The two quickly become partners, raking in money from jobs and dares. But even in the midst of his newfound popularity, the Schwa still worries what will happen if his deepest fears come true and he’s forgotten altogether . . . a fear that seems less unlikely the longer Antsy knows him.
Neal Shusterman’s novels are always exceptional and original, and The Schwa Was Here is no exception. This is a delightful middle grade/high school contemporary novel that slips comfortably into the realm of the tall tale, similar to how Louis Sachar and Daniel Pinkwater’s stories tend to. The characters are robust and interesting, and as long as you accept the premise of “The Schwa Effect” the story is absolutely fascinating. It makes you take a slightly different look at daily life and the people around you. Plus there’s that element of mystery scattered throughout. The story ranges from enigmatic to funny, commonplace to philosophical in an instant, examining a variety of situations and relationships and surprising the reader in wonderful ways. Plus, the whole tale is told in Antsy’s delightful Brooklyn tone–his voice is really fun to read. And I love the way he sometimes wanders off topic, clearly illustrating his point about how forgettable the Schwa really is. I would highly recommend The Schwa Was Here to basically anyone, but especially to those who enjoy a fresh, fun look at middle grade stories.
Note: The Schwa Was Here is connected to Shusterman’s Antsy Does Time—technically it precedes Antsy Does Time–but it’s totally ok to read them in either order. No major spoilers or plot problems either way.
Author: Paul Fleischman
Illustrator: Kathy Jacobi
On the eve of his twelfth birthday, Aaron is given the greatest responsibility of his life to date: he is left to stay at home overnight while his mother takes the wool she’s dyed and woven to market. It was supposed to be a quick overnight trip, but a snowstorm blows in, blocking the roads. Aaron doesn’t know when his mother’s coming home, or if she’s stuck on the roadside or been attacked by highwaymen. All in a worry, the mute boy packs his bags and goes out to find his mother. Troubles pile on troubles, however, as he finds himself lost in the woods, unable to ask for help among a society where only the educated can read and write. Even worse, when he arrives at the Half-a-Moon inn, hoping to get help, he finds himself instead captured and forced to labor for the evil innkeeper. Will he ever find his mother?
Paul Fleischman is truly a gifted author, as is shown clearly in this little gem, The Half-a-Moon Inn. This small story is a delightful adventure, packing a much greater punch than you would expect from a tale less than a hundred pages long. Fleischman builds the atmosphere brilliantly, crafting a story that’s engaging and original, yet not too scary for younger readers (I’d say, around 8+). The setting is a unique blend of historical fiction and tall tale, evoking a feeling of England in the late-medieval era, yet drawing in fantastic elements such as seeing people’s dreams playing across their eyes when they sleep. I know it sounds kind of odd, but it works. I would definitely recommend The Half-a-Moon Inn to basically all readers early elementary and up; it’s exciting and atmospheric, with just the right touch of scariness.