Friday, July 29, 2011

I Want My Hat Back

I Want My Hat Back, Jon Klassen, Candlewick Press, September 2011

This morning Candlewick tweeted an adorable picture of a gray bunny with a little red paper cone hat taped to his head. (I'm a bunny owner. Stuff like that kills me. Though mine would NEVER allow me to tape anything to his head, & if I somehow managed to he'd rip it off & eat it.) The picture was a hat tip to the upcoming picture book I Want My Hat Back, the debut by author/illustrator Jon Klassen, & when I saw it I realized - How have I not expressed my love for this book yet?!

When my Candlewick rep came to visit in the spring she said, "There is this new book. It's going to be huge. & it is so wonderful I want to read it to you right now." So she did. (Props to Candlewick for having such enthusiastic reps!) It was like preschool story time all over again. She read the book to me - a deceptively simple story about a bear who loses his hat & asks all his friends if they've seen it - & by the end we were both laughing hysterically. A month later at BEA, Jon Klassen was there & I was giddy as 12-year-old me at a Hanson concert to meet him & get my hands on a copy of the book. "This is the best picture book I've read in years!" I gushed. I probably embarrassed him. I gushed to so many people prior to his signing that I ended up in his line with a queue of at least 10 other people to whom I had gushed earlier that day. I am an I Want My Hat Back evangelist, much as I am an Adam Rex evangelist. (Seriously, go buy all of his picture books. You won't be sorry.)

The illustrations are as simple as the plot - soft watercolors in warm browns & black with a dash of red - but they evoke the kind of brilliant dry humor usually only reserved for BBC sitcoms. Catch a glimpse by watching the book trailer. If you don't find the trailer funny, you probably won't find the book funny. & you don't have a sense of humor. I kid.

But not really.

Told entirely in dialogue, the story just begs to be read aloud, & a child reader will be a few steps ahead of the bear in figuring out where his hat went, which makes for fun interactive reading. But, like with Adam Rex's picture books, I concede that grown-ups will get more out of this book about a very droll bear & his missing hat than a child will. I concede also that those grown-ups will need a slightly twisted sense of humor, as - SPOILER ALERT! - the sneaky rabbit who steals the hat gets his, um, just desserts in the end.

Which leads me to a very important point: Kids aren't introduced to enough twisted humor these days! Books like I Want My Hat Back are so vital. It's the quest Maurice Sendak has been on since he started writing: introduce kids to darkness early, so that they'll be able to laugh about it when they grow up. (I paraphrase.) Childhood favorites of mine included Sendak's Outside Over There (kidnapping & a freaky ice baby)Guess What? by Mem Fox (a gloriously messed-up book that you have to see to believe), & In a Dark, Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz (a little girl's head falls off!). I Want My Hat Back isn't horrific in such visual ways; it's very tame by comparison. But it is the people who are in Sendak's camp who will really appreciate the book. The ones who applaud the notion of "You think this book's too scary for kids? So? Wet your pants." (I paraphrase.)

I Want My Hat Back isn't scary, per se. But when you're reading the book with your son or daughter or doing storytime in your library, be prepared to answer the question, "What happened to the rabbit?" & don't sugar-coat it. Because it won't be funny that way.

Lastly, if my evangelism isn't enough, as Levar Burton would say, you can't take my word for it! Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, recommended I Want My Hat Back in a blog post for "Dinner: A Love Story." I too have read the book almost 50 times, & yes, it sustains.

Verdict: You need this book on your shelf to love & treasure & laugh at for years & years. I cannot wait to see what else Jon Klassen has up his sleeve.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Mostly True Story of Jack

The Mostly True Story of Jack, Kelly Barnhill, Little Brown, August 2011.

I went to ALA hoping to come home with a copy of The Mostly True Story of Jack after seeing it in Little Brown's summer catalog. The title & its cover grabbed me, calling to mind the story of Jack & the beanstalk while also looking like something a little out of the ordinary. The blurb is intriguing: "When Jack is sent to Hazelwood, Iowa, to live with his crazy aunt and uncle, he expects a summer of boredom. Little does he know that the people of Hazelwood have been waiting for him for a long time..." I snagged an ARC & it shot to the top of my to-read pile.

I was relieved & delighted to find that the book lived up to its lovely cover: It has elements of ages-old storytelling but feels contemporary. It is challenging, suspenseful, & compulsively readable. The characters are thoughtfully drawn, the setting well described, & the fantastical elements of the story are totally cool in an almost eerie way - a house that lives & breathes, shivers & tingles; women made of bark & corn silk; a schoolhouse with the power to collapse in on itself & regenerate.

One of the book's strongest points is the mystery Barnhill begins weaving on page one. "Frankie was the first to know. Frankie was the first to know most things - but, since he hadn't spoken since he was eight years old, it didn't matter what he knew. ... Frankie laid his left hand over the knot of scars that curled over half his face. ... It's coming, the scars said. ... No, Frankie thought, shaking his head. Not it. He. He's coming."

How did Frankie know things before anyone else? Why can't Frankie talk? What happened to him? Why is he scarred? Who is coming?! I have to read on! & so it goes until page 319.

Jack goes from a life of near-literal invisibility with his parents & brother to Hazelwood, where everyone pays him attention & everyone knows something he doesn't. The mystery, rather than unfolding throughout the story, becomes increasingly more complex as the story progresses. What a wonderful thing to encounter in a middle-grade novel! Barnhill doesn't dumb anything down for her audience; the answers to the questions she poses are not easy or obvious. She challenges her readers to think & speculate from beginning to end. I remember reading Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door when I was in elementary school & being entirely overwhelmed when Meg & Calvin shrink down to go inside Charles Wallace's body to find out what's wrong with his mitochondria. The ideas were all so much bigger than me & the references were all so much more than I could understand in third grade, but I loved it nonetheless - the complexity, the fantasy, the mystery. Not that The Mostly True Story is complex on a biological scale; the similarity is that both Barnhill & L'Engle respect their child (or adult!) readers enough to let them figure things out on their own. If you have to go look up mitochondria in the dictionary, or in Jack's case, look up references to Gog & Magog, Lyonesse, or Ys, so be it. Barnhill lays out the puzzle pieces & says "Okay, now you put it together. You're smart enough."     

I honestly can give this book my personal highest children's book compliment: The Mostly True Story feels like a new classic, a modern fairy tale. Except for a mention of computers toward the very end of the book, the story's events could unfold at any time. When there is nothing to date a story, it becomes timeless. I love this quality in children's books, a quality that is becoming increasingly rare. The last time I recall having this reaction to a book - a story that blends new & old with the result being something original & timeless - was with Grace Lin's wondrous When the Mountain Meets the Moon. (My review of that one here.)

I will happily give The Mostly True Story of Jack a place on my bookshelf & most definitely will reread it at some point in the future. It's the kind of book that almost needs a reread or two to be fully appreciated. I heartily recommend it, & already look forward to Barnhill's next children's book. In the meantime, check out her blog, because it's great. (I too have loved Labyrinth since I was a child, & I too was both scarred & fascinated by David Bowie's tight pants.)  

Next up: The Magician King by Lev Grossman (...if I can find my copy! Ack! Where did it go?!)       

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Ashes, Ilsa Bick, Egmont USA, September 2011.

So I lied. This isn't the book I said I'd be reviewing next, but I recently finished this one & it's fresh in my mind & it's full of BLOOD & GUTS!

I was not expecting to enjoy Ashes. I love dystopian literature, but one has to be wary when there's so much of it hitting the market. All these one-name dystopian romance/thrillers are starting to run together, am I right? Matched, Crossed, Divergent, Uglies, Ashes, Delirium, etc. But this one was getting considerable buzz, & in the name of my job, I decided to read it. The synopsis didn't grab me: "An electromagnetic pulse flashes across the sky, destroying every electronic device, wiping out every computerized system, and killing billions" (Amazon).

I plodded through the first 50 pages or so, which follows Alex, a bitter teenage girl with a brain tumor, on a trek through the woods to fulfill a personal mission. She comes across Ellie, an 8-year-old girl, & Ellie's grandfather, & then BOOM! EMP! Grandfather drops dead. Not knowing what happened or the extent of the damage, Alex continues on her way. Soon, she has Ellie and young army vet Tom in tow, & the group finds itself just struggling to survive. The EMP has killed most adults. The very old & very young have survived, & teens are turning into the Changed.

I wasn't hooked until the moment Alex & Ellie come to a clearing in the woods. Amongst the trees, two teens crouch over a dead body, which they are dismembering & eating. & it's GROSS. Entrails & innards & blood & guts & the girl even pokes a finger into the dead person's eyeball & eats it like a lollipop.

Okay, Ms. Bick, you have my attention.

From then on it's like watching an awesome, gory zombie movie with slightly more depth, & I mean that as a sincere compliment. (Though to be fair they aren't really zombies in the traditional sense, more like people transformed into crazed cannibals.) Bick is brilliant with disturbing imagery. Before long I felt genuinely invested in this little band on their quest for survival, much like I rooted for Shaun & his buddies on their way to the Winchester, & Jim & co. as they moved through desolate England trying to avoid those infected with the Rage.

Like most contemporary zombie movies, Bick doesn't do anything particularly new or different. For the most part, the components of Ashes, from the restructuring of society in isolated factions to Alex taking out the Changed like a badass, already have been depicted on screen or paper. & like most contemporary YA novels, a love triangle arises & Alex finds herself torn between boy loyalties.

Does that make it any less fun? No. It's fun as hell. I devoured the book like the Changed devour their prey, gooey intestines & all.

My main criticism of the book is that it is rather overwritten. Bick's action scenes flow well, but her description is so wordy it can get exhausting. Metaphor really gets away from her. I noted the words "bloom," "squall," & "dazzle," which appear so many times in the novel I lost count. "Bloom" as in "the blood bloomed on his shirt," & "squall" like "the floorboard squalled under her foot." The light always "dazzles." You should never think while reading a novel, "Boy, I feel like I've seen this word a hundred times," especially when it's an unconventional word use like the verb "squall." Also, the ash theme is very heavy-handed. Ashes are everywhere; everything looks ashy. It could've been tamped down quite a lot & still been effective.

But that's the editor in me talking. & that's a complaint I bet won't register with 95% of the people who read this book. What's more, I predict that 95% will love the book wholeheartedly, because it's good, clean, gory fun. Not only will I pick up the sequel as soon as I am able, but I will likely reread "Ashes," in the same way that it's always fun to rewatch "Night of the Living Dead."

I hated Twilight. I enjoyed the Hunger Games & Uglies but haven't felt compelled to pick up the sequels. But something about Ashes puts it a few cuts above. It might be the gore, which I do so love. It might be that Alex is a strong, believable protagonist. Even when she reflects on her attraction to the guys in the book, it is always framed in the context of survival. In essence, she is a teenage girl - & all teenage girls get crushes - but she has more important things on her plate. 

Verdict: Pick this one up when it hits bookstores in September! & in the meantime, check out Ilsa Bick's blog. Good stuff.

& just as an aside, my boyfriend sees all the books I bring home & dubs a lot of them derivative crap just by glancing at the cover. He's disliked most of the trendy YA he's read, but he picked this one up & blew through it in a few days just like I did. I'm tellin' you, it's addictive stuff.

Next up: The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill.

Friday, July 8, 2011

We the Animals

We the Animals by Justin Torres, HMH, September 2011

I picked up We the Animals at BEA this year after Publishers Weekly dubbed it "One of the Books You Should Pick Up at BEA This Year." My first thought as I snatched a copy from the Houghton Mifflin booth was "Well, dang. I thought I was getting a galley*. This is just a blad**." The slim volume is maybe 1/2-inch thick. I am so used to hefting a few-inches-thick YA paranormal romance (hefting most right into my giveaway pile) that when I get a book that adds up to all of 125 pages, it doesn't feel like a book at all. Funny how times change.

Before I get into the book itself, I want to add that it's interesting how the cover changed from the ARC I have to the final cover you see above. The cover of the ARC is solid blue, with the title, blurbs, & author name scribbled in white writing, harsh lines that almost look scratched into blue paint by a child. From the front cover a large pair of black & white eyes looks out, also crude & hand-drawn. Two smaller pairs look out from the back cover. They aren't sinister, like the predatory eyes that shine from the blackness in cartoons. But they aren't kind, either. They might be curious, looking out into the unknown. The cover perfectly captures the spirit of the book: animalistic, innocent boyhood. Boys aren't cruel & predatory, not intentionally, nor are they kind, again, not intentionally. They are natural, wild, animal boys, the three brothers.

Doesn't the cover above look joyful by comparison? That image evokes summertime, joy, Peter Pan - perhaps then, the idea of eternal boyhood. (Maybe this isn't coincidental; one chapter of the book is called "Never-Never Time.") To me, this image of leaping, bounding, joyous brothers doesn't at all capture the spirit of the book the way the ARC cover does. It doesn't balance the joy with darkness. But hey, it's just the cover. That's not what you came here for.

We the Animals is a dark, beautiful, raucous novel - or novella, I suppose - that never stops moving. I read it in one sitting, completely caught up in the musical, poetic quality of Torres's writing. Now, a few weeks since finishing it, the memory of reading it feels like a flurry of activity and violence. No emotion in the book, which follows in sharp vignettes the growing-up years of brothers Manny, Joel, & the nameless narrator, & their Puerto Rican father & white mother, is felt halfway. Every feeling is strong. The anger & hurt are harsh, but so is the love. Even love - parental love, brotherly love, romantic love - is expressed through gritted teeth, & always haunted by the fear that the hug or kiss will soon turn violent & dangerous. It almost always does.

From the book's opening line, "We wanted more," to its closing line, "Here they go," nearly every sentence in the novel suggests movement & intense emotion. There is not a word too many in this book. What I found most fascinating is that despite the spare prose & short length of the story, after the narrator grows from the trusting naivete of youth to the confused & frightened sexually aware adult, I found myself longing for his boyhood, of the time before the boys understood their parents' relationship, of the time when the narrator & his brothers smashed tomatoes in the kitchen. Their mother caught them; instead of getting mad, she joined in. "Do it to me," she says. They smash a ketchup bottle with a rubber mallet & cover her. The images of their gleeful childhood moments that express the strength of the family are indelible & endearing, yet always juxtaposed with inescapable violence, the dysfunction. "Our mother yelped & slid to the floor & stayed there... ketchup everywhere, looking like she had been shot in the back of the head." 

The boys-as-animals metaphor might be too heavy-handed if the book were longer, but as it stands, it is parcelled out into a perfect portion. If I have any complaint with the novel, it is that the narrator's discovery, exploration, & struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality is crammed into the last 40 pages of the novel. It isn't that it was poorly explored or fleshed out, or out of balance with the rest of the story, it just wasn't quite enough. I suppose I felt like the brothers sitting around the table at the opening of the novel, banging their forks on the kitchen table. I wanted more. 

*galley: proofing copy of a book often used for advance reading copies
**blad: or, book layout & design: a pre-pub booklet that might just have a few chapters of the book in it

P.S. Just as an aside, I have to mention that Justin Torres is incredibly nice. I always enjoy a book a little more when the author is kind & personable (conversely, I always enjoy a book a little less when the author is haughty or rude). I look forward to reading more from him.

Next up, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs, Quirk Books, 2011.

How I wish I could say this book was as awesome as its cover. Seriously, look at that cover! The creepy levitating child, the desolate background, the crude chalk writing, the nom de plume Ransom Riggs. The plot sounds equally intriguing. A boy named Jacob, in an attempt to solve the mystery surrounding his grandfather's death, travels to a small island off the coast of Wales & encounters an orphanage filled with "peculiar" children stuck in time. The book is infused with vintage photography (well, some vintage, some that just look vintage) of eerie people, places - images that I hoped would be creepy & add a lot to the story.

& the hype? Oh, the hype. People called it "chilling" & "wondrous," the book's website dubs it "unforgettable," & EW desribed it as having an "X-Men: First Class-meets-time-travel story line, David Lynchian imagery, and rich, eerie detail." The film rights have already been sold.

Unfortunately this book is one of those cases where you need to take the stellar reviews with a grain of salt. It was not a bad book. It wasn't poorly written. But it was a disappointment. About a third of the way through I had the thought, "It feels like the plot is mostly done already. What is he going to fill the last two-thirds of the book with?" When I finished the book, I still wasn't sure. There is an excellent setup - the grandfather's death in swampy, sultry Florida, the cryptic message he leaves with Jacob, the puzzle pieces that fall into Jacob's hands & propel him forward - but all of that is finished when he arrives at the island. He still has loose threads to pull, investigations to do, people to question, a father to dodge (he stays pretty absent through the entire book, just bird-watching & steadily becoming a drunk), but the meat of the book is spent running around, & the ending is fairly predictable, which is especially disappointing, considering the book was advertised as being so original.

I spent the whole book waiting to be scared, or at the very least unsettled, but I never was. I thought surely the pictures would unsettle me, but they just felt forced. It was obvious the parts of the story that were written around the photos; they didn't complement the text seamlessly the way they should have. The plot would be moving along, then a short anecdote would come up, then you got a weird photograph, always feeling a little out of place.

The book didn't have enough of anything. If you lack the verbal power to create horrifying scenes with description, you have to rely on a really thrilling story to keep the reader hooked. If you can't create a really thrilling story with your action, you have to rely on your ability to thrill through depiction. Poe was spare in his prose, but crafted unique plots that made his stories indelible. Daphne du Maurier, in Rebecca, unfolded events slowly & quietly, but her setting - also England, the description that rolls in like fog, & the subtly terrifying Mrs. Danvers wielded overwhelming suspenseful power. But Riggs didn't have quite enough of one or the other, no really memorable characters, no really memorable events, no really memorable imagery save for the orphanage. 

& I just have to add, seriously? David-Lynchian imagery? I suffered through Blue Velvet & I adored Twin Peaks & others, but Riggs didn't come close to that level of creepy. David Lynch can put on an R-rated (or at least PG-13, in the case of television) freak show, but Riggs stayed well within the bounds of YA lit and wrote a very tame, slightly Poe- or Lovecraft-inspired story with a couple of tentacled-monster-jumps-out-of-the-shadows-&-says-Boo! moments & a sweet budding romance between Jacob & a peculiar girl with the ability to produce glowing balls of light.

In all, this book, the first official YA effort by Quirk Books is a novelty product, though don't get me wrong - I love Quirk Books & can't wait to see more from them. I just wanted so much more from this one. If you choose to read it, don't expect it to live up to its blurbs - "horrific," "dangerous," "desolate," "thrilling" - rather, expect a safe story with some interesting photos peppered throughout. & I have to consent, I am quite a fan of anything disturbing. The scarier the better. If you say I'm going to be scared, I better be scared. So admittedly, someone less well-versed in the horror genre might be more pleased with this book than I was.

The setting was undoubtedly the best part. I'd spend any number of pages in a seaside, British village filled with grubby fishermen & run-down houses. But as for the events that unfolded there, well, they left a lot to be desired.

Next up, We the Animals by Justin Torres.