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/Illustrator: Sara Varon
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Dog brings home a build-your-own-robot kit and finds his new best friend–Robot. The two do everything together: library trips, movies, the beach. Well, the beach was a bit of a mistake. Or rather, the water was a mistake for Robot. He rusts up so he can’t move! Dog doesn’t know what to do, so after trying everything, he quietly slinks away, feeling guilty for leaving his friend. Gradually, Dog tries to move past the guilt and loneliness by making new friends . . . with mixed results. Meanwhile, Robot lies abandoned on the shore, daydreaming about all sorts of might-have-been’s and could-be’s. But maybe there’s hope for both of them yet.
I really enjoyed this cute graphic novel, Robot Dreams. The art is simple but bold, not especially beautiful, but oddly attractive and expressive nonetheless. It works well for the story. And the story is unexpected, to be sure. At first, it’s all happy and sweet–the kind of story you give an upbeat soundtrack with birds singing in the background. Then everything gets all sad and poignant–somehow heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. I love that the story resolution is at the same time unexpected (not at all the stereotypical happy ending I had figured would come) and cathartic; there’s a great message of healing and forgiveness there that I think is great for readers of all ages. And that’s something else that is great about this graphic novel–it really is appropriate and enjoyable for everyone from pretty young kids to adults.
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5
Wizard Howl’s evil ways are so rampant that word of them reaches even to the back room in the hat shop where young Sophie Hatter spends her days making hats (which may or may not be magical). It is said he eats the hearts of young girls! But when Sophie accidentally falls afoul of the determinedly evil Witch of the Waste–who turns her into an old woman who can’t tell anyone she’s under a curse–Sophie wanders into the hills where Howl’s castle magically roams. And upon encountering this magical castle, Sophie lets herself in and befriends/bullies Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer, much to the chagrin of Howl’s assistant Michael. Surprisingly, wizard Howl doesn’t oust her from the castle the moment he returns home–although he doesn’t exactly give her a warm welcome either–so Sophie sets herself up as a long-term house guest and cleaning lady. It turns out that all those rumors about Howl eating hearts are just that–rumors spread by Michael to keep townsfolk from bothering Howl. Sophie quickly finds out that Howl isn’t actually evil at all . . . just selfish and vain and noncommittal as can be. How vexing!
How could anyone not love Howl’s Moving Castle? It’s one of my absolute favorite books ever. The concepts behind it are fascinating: a castle magically powered to wander the hill country, a door that opens to different places at different times, a curse you can’t talk about. Plus the delightful way Jones weaves all the different threads of the story together so that they fit just right in the end but are an enigma throughout the story. And of course, this tale is full to bursting with strong (temperamental) characters: Sophie with her nosy, opinionated ways–and her tendency to be a bit of a bully. Howl in all his vanity and womanizing and slithering out of situations–transformed from a sick, sad character into a wondrous one by his insight, kindness, and incredible skill. (You know, Howl reminds me remarkably of the Doctor now that I think about it. Odd.) Then there’s Calcifer with his tricksy cleverness–somehow you can’t help but like him. And nearly buried under these incredible characters are any number of other excellently developed individuals that you only really notice on a second or third reading: Sophie’s creative, determined sisters; Howl’s assistant Michael, who is actually a really nice guy with a lot of character when you get around to actually noticing him; and any number of others as well. Seriously, read Howl’s Moving Castle. Then go back and read it again, because as great as it is the first time around, it might just be even better the third and fourth time.
Author/Illustrator: Kazu Kibuishi
My rating: 5 of 5
Copper and his dog Fred have the most unusual adventures. Sometimes it’s surfing incredible waves or going fishing. Other times, they travel in space or hop across mushroom tops over a huge gorge (ignoring the nearby bridge). Occasionally, they even do something normal like go shopping. Whatever the case, their imaginations illuminate the situation, providing both fun and insight–even if Fred does get a bit carried away.
My first experience with the work of Kazu Kibuishi was his incredible graphic novel series, Amulet. I was delighted to find this collection of his webcomic, Copper, at the library recently (although many of the comics presented in this volume are also available at his website. While his other works are more traditional graphic novels, Copper is more of a comic-strip sort of work. Most of the clips are only one page long and are completely self-contained, although there is something of a continuity and connection between them. I love the art style used in these comics; it’s classic Kibuishi, but with a simpler, more basic design than most of his other works. It really works well for the story. The characters are wonderful as well. Copper himself is optimistic and cheerful, but basically level-headed. And immensely imaginative–a substantial portion of the stories take place in his head, transforming the mundane into the incredible. And Fred . . . a talking dog with an imagination as huge as his boy’s. And I just love the way he’s so pessimistic about things at first, but then when he tries them, he ends up getting carried away and overdoing it. Too funny! I think Copper is a great collection for anyone, young or old, who enjoys creativity and a good laugh.
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/Illustrator: Dan Santat
My rating: 5 of 5
On a distant island, imaginary friends live together just waiting to be imagined, to be chosen by a child. But one little creature finds himself waiting and waiting . . . and waiting. It seems like he’ll never be imagined. But rather than give up, becoming discouraged or cynical, he does something extraordinary. He goes off to find his chosen child all by himself, facing all sorts of adventures and dangers on the way. And even when it looks hopeless, he keeps searching until he finds his friend, his name (Beekle), and a happy future–together!
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend is so many positive things that I could go on raving about it for quite a while. This picture book’s story is immensely optimistic and yet also practical, full of good messages such as “believe the best of your friends even when circumstances make it seem like you shouldn’t” and “take positive action instead of sitting around feeling sorry for yourself.” It’s really delightful and encouraging. Plus, it’s just fun and imaginative, and the characters are likeable and believable. And the art–I can see why this won the Caldecott. It’s bright and fun and adorable: a hint of Shaun Tan, a touch of kawaii anime style, and a lot of originality, all perfectly combined. Even the lettering is a perfect fit. Seriously, you should check out The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend and share it with the young readers/listeners in your life, especially those around 4-6 years old; they’ll love you for it.
My rating: 4 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience
There are plenty of girls who would love some excitement in their lives. Miyuki-chan? Not so much. She’d be happy to be able to just go to school, work her part-time job, and hang out reading and playing video games like a normal girl. But Miyuki-chan has . . . a unique sort of problem. Adventure just seems to find her–and drag her into the midst of it, whether she wants to go or not. Whether it’s falling down the skating bunny-girl’s hole into Wonderland on the way to school or getting dragged straight into her video game to be the heroine, Miyuki-chan’s been there and done that. And probably will again. . . .
I may have mentioned before, but I love CLAMP’s manga, always. Having said that, Miyuki-chan in Wonderland is a bit different from anything else they’ve ever written. It consists of a series of short chapters (7 in all, fitting into a single manga volume), each focusing on a single, bizarre episode in Miyuki-chan’s life. I really like the character of Miyuki-chan; in a lot of ways, she’s your average high-school girl, only I’d say that she’s generally just a bit more blonde and go-with-the-flow in character than most. Overall, a nice kid though. The folks she runs in to on her adventures . . . not always so nice. And I must give the warning: this whole story is kind of yuri. I mean, there are some pretty sadistic individuals that Miyuki-chan encounters, all of them female. So, the end effect can be sort of hentai. One of the reasons I don’t like this one as much. But . . . Miyuki-chan always makes it out okay, so it’s not as creepy as it could be. And the situations she ends up in are certainly varied and imaginative–you kind of get the impression that the CLAMP members were just having fun and went with whatever they felt like writing at the time. On the plus side, there are some fun references, including references to other CLAMP works. (Oh, and I’ve mentioned this before, but check out Miyuki-chan making cameos all over the place in Tsubasa!) I guess I would mostly recommend Miyuki-chan in Wonderland to older readers who are familiar with CLAMP’s work and who enjoy something a bit off the wall (a more limited demographic than usual, I know).