Jul/Aug 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

Summer Reading for the Under Ten Crowd

Review by Colleen Mondor

In the delightful graphic novel Otto's Orange Day author Frank Cammuso and illustrator Jay Lynch have put together the kind of story that will amuse early readers with its giddy plot and zany main character. Otto the cat loves the color orange and he literally sings its praises in the book's opening chapters. When a package arrives from his Aunt Sally Lee, he finds himself in the fortunate position of meeting a real live "genie of the lamp." What does Otto want? Well, everything to be orange, of course! But that does not work out the way he thought it would ("orange lamb chop, orange spinach, orange mashed potatoes," and the worst: "orange milk"!) and pretty soon Otto is desperately looking for a way to make everything the way it was before. The genie is cranky though and doesn't want to reverse the wish so Otto is stuck until Aunt Sally Lee arrives and with some careful thinking they figure out a way to de-orange the world.

This is an exuberant book—the pictures nearly bounce off the page and Otto's excitement and glee are irresistible. He is a fully-formed character from the first page and only becomes more endearing as the book continues. Cammuso clearly loves this little guy and gives him enough attitude to stretch his appeal from preschoolers up to the more jaded eight- to nine-year olds. He's funny and snarky and a little too smart for his own good. When the genie shows him the error of his ways, Otto just can't believe it and really doesn't want to admit he's wrong. It's nice to see that he isn't made small by this whole experience, but just makes more friends, bounds out the door and sets off on his next adventure. Is there a moral in here? Well, yeah—don't wish the world to be orange—but otherwise, it's just a big, fun story that is a party to read and look at. This is perfect—perfect—for reluctant readers.

Geoffrey Hayes has another fun offering from Toon Books with his story about mouse siblings, Benny and Penny in Just Pretend. The mice are very cute—stress that, especially cute—but more importantly Hayes has nailed them as a very typical big brother who wants to do his own thing and a very typical little sister who wants to be part of whatever he's doing. (I'm writing from direct little-sister experience here.) In Benny's case it is all about pretending to be a pirate and Penny is, well, Penny is not what he considers pirate material. "Pirates are brave and you are a cry-baby!" This sort of thing does not dissuade her, however, and Penny keeps plugging away, trying to insert herself in Benny's game. Finally he snaps and gets a little mean: "You are a dumb, bad little sister!" which does cause a few tears. The kids eventually make up, with Penny showing she has the pirate stuff (big time) and Benny apologizing.

It's a message book (as is Otto) but it's such a fun lesson with amusing little characters that young readers (or listeners) are going to fall for it big time. Hayes is both writer and artist here and he draws Benny particularly well; his anger and frustration leap off the page and appear in sharp contrast to Penny's patient assault on her brother's fortress of solitude. (Actually, it's a box that he pretends is a ship, but the message is the same.) I found Benny and Penny to be quite engaging and like Otto, head and shoulders above the standard "early reader" fare. These books are 100% the way to go for action oriented little ones, especially of the kindergarten age. Toon Books is onto something really smart with these titles and is certainly a publisher to watch.

In his new variation of the classic "Three Little Pigs," Etienne Delessert has added not only gorgeous pastel illustrations that cover the pages but also a wolf of epically scary proportions. From the very beginning of Big and Bad it is clear that the pigs aren't the only ones afraid in Delessert's world; all the animals in the forest are terrified of the newcomer and, as he graphically describes the wolf, they have reason to be. Consider the following passage:

When Wolf wasn't hunting
he was making splendid hats
with the fur of animals he
had gobbled down.
His head was so large that he needed
the skin of seven cats to cover it.

A flock of birds flies into the wolf's mouth after he eats to "clean his gruesomely shiny teeth" and while all the animals fight back, (beavers try to drown him, crows pelt him with walnuts, moles dig traps) it soon becomes clear that "the planet will be too small for his appetite." The animals of the forest must work together to kill the wolf and so, with the three "plump little pigs" as bait, they craft a plan to lure the wolf in and ultimately destroy him.

There is no blood in this story and the violence is largely relegated to the text. Even in the end when the wolf meets his just deserts, he simply goes flying into space with colorful orange streaks portraying flames drawn across his back. It is a more graphically written story than most, however, and the author makes it clear that the wolf  is a dangerously fearsome beast. "I'm going to swallow these sweet little pigs in one gulp and skin those beautiful cats: what a great hat they'll make." For readers who embrace the wildness of animals it will be welcome; just make sure you don't read it to those who see the wolf as a big puppy—the sight of those dead cats on his head might be a tad too disturbing.

Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley is the story of an unusual friendship between Pearl, who is "very loud" and Charlie who is "very quiet." Pearl can (and will) talk about anything while Charlie prefers the quiet of a good book. She likes to solve mysteries, he would rather be safe. Through several simple and colorful pages, author/illustrator Aaron Blabey makes it clear that there could not be two children who are more different. But rather than end with a dissatisfying "But they love each other!" conclusion, Babey shows how the two friends need each other: Pearl makes Charlie feel brave, Charlie holds Pearl's hands when she forgets her mittens. When she gets tired from "running amok" he tucks her in and shows his good bedside manner. When he "feels small or lonely or just plain blue," Pearl tells him not to worry. Basically, while they do not have much in common, there are clear reasons why they are friends. Pearl also seems to have a bit of Pippi in her, which makes the story even more appealing. All in all, the book is comforting on many levels (while still remaining funny) and a classic crowd pleaser around bedtime.


Ages Seven and Up

For the post-picture book crowd there are several excellent offerings for the summer that should be sought out. With The Attack of the Volcano Monkeys (about the coolest title ever), Wiley Miller returns to the adventures of Ordinary Basil, a boy from the coast of Maine who seems to have the most amazing things happen to him. This fully illustrated novel picks up right where the first book ends and doesn't let up for a second. Basil arrives home barely alive but quickly realizes that he has left his friend Louise behind on the dreadful Monkey Island and must return to rescue her! Aided by the timely arrival of Professor McGookin, he sets off to find Louise, all the while recounting the events that resulted in his sudden return. Going back and forth between what he and Louise found on the island and how they were suddenly separated while under attack from some truly mean monkeys and his concerns for what they will find when they return, Basil carries the reader along until suddenly the island is right above them.  There is now a tsunami threat and it takes quick and creative thinking on the part of many to save the day. Basil is determined, Louise is tough and Professor McGookin is brilliant. The whole thing is classic 1930s Saturday-serial fun and flies by, just as it should. It's partly crazy (we are talking about monkeys involved in a battle to control their own government) but also has cool science, a pterodactyl and killer owls. The color illustrations on every page are detailed and precise, adding an extra element of pseudo-authenticity to the story. This is a series with a definite vintage feel to it, and I mean that as a high compliment. If you're looking for good old-fashioned fun that is not the slightest bit outdated or foolish, then Basil is your boy. Highly recommended.

Urban fantasy author Charles de Lint has a unique offering from Subterranean Press with his collection of five modern fairy tales, What the Mouse Found and Other Stories. (Purchase of the limited edition version of the book includes a sixth story.) As he explains in an introduction, the stories were all written more than a decade ago for several children in his life. They are based on various toys and sculptures found in the home he shares with is artist wife, MaryAnn, and photo illustrations of these inspirations accompany each story. What readers will find here is exactly what they love about classic tales, just written in a more contemporary language. While they largely still take place in the hills and dales familiar to fans of Kenneth Graham and A.A. Milne (whom de Lint acknowledges in his introduction), the children here will likely seem more familiar in their language and behavior, but just as eternally endearing as Christopher Robin. From Sophie, who enjoys a dream life in the title story that includes a treasured toy from "the Wide World" to Christine, who finds a present under the tree from someone more amazing than Santa in "Gnomin' in the Gloamin'," there is a level of sweetness—of kindness—present in What the Mouse Found that harkens back to the older stories but still includes a modern feel. It is through bridging these two worlds that de Lint finds the most success with his collection, and keeps it mindful of its 21st century publication while still timeless in content. And don't be concerned that the stories are of a saccharine nature; the cat in "Tip & the Lion" is most certainly rough and tumble, all the kids are smart and sassy (in a good way) and the entire collection exhibits the best aspects of a child's universal curiosity for the outdoors and the mysteries that lie there.

The initial mystery in Mr. Karp's Last Glass is just what the new tenant renting the attic in Randolph's house is collecting. The eleven-year-old is a bit of a collector himself ("beer-bottle caps, writing instruments and words") so he can appreciate the possibilities that might be hiding in all those curious boxes that Mr. Karp has delivered. He sets out to meet his new neighbor, first at work and then finally on the front porch (it takes a little while to build up his courage and initiate a conversation as Mr. Karp is a very private man), and discovers that Mr. Karp is a very particular collector. Oddly enough (and this is extremely odd) he collects water, from distant places and times throughout history. Mr. Karp has water from the swimming pool of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, from actress Sarah Bernhardt's bath after her performance as Cleopatra in 1891 and most appealingly, "from a drinking bottle used by Jackie Robinson... during the last game of the 1955 World Series." What Mr. Karp does not have is a collection that surpasses all others. It is in pursuit of the ultimate water collectible that he abruptly leaves for a trip to Kyoto, leaving Randolph to dwell on just what all this collecting business really means and how much it should matter.

Randolph is a typical and very likeable kid and Mr. Karp, for all his eccentricities, is more interesting than weird. Author Cary Fagan also does a good job at making Randolph's family a colorful group (one especially annoying sister, two hardworking parents embroiled in a lawsuit over an unfair firing and two other siblings who chime in with appropriately silly comments from time to time) and rounds out the novel so it expands just enough beyond Randolph's interactions with Mr. Karp to be realistic. It is the nature of the collection that really holds the reader's interest, however—it's just so weird to imagine collecting water—yet Fagan explains how and why someone would do such a thing and manages to allow the conversation to expand beyond water and into whatever else you might feel compelled to have—regardless of logic and reason. In the end, Mr. Karp returns from Japan with an epiphany and Randolph has a bit of one as well. It's a nice story with a quirky bent that is well told. Lots of appeal for this one; I suspect it will be a quiet seller that readers will happily pass along to their friends.

After the success of their Flight graphic novel collections, Editor Kazu Kibuishi and the rest of his crew of contributors are back with Flight Explorer for younger readers. The ten full-color comics within range from the sweet jubilance of Kean Soo's Jellaby story "First Snow" to Johane Matte's devilish Egyptian tale of one snotty animal and one scrapper, "Perfect Cat." This volume, like its predecessors, has a lot to offer. There are more talking animals than in Flight and the dangers often turn out to be funnier than you would expect (Kibuishi's "Copper" is an excellent example of this) but mostly you've just got a collection that will appeal, in one way or another, to pretty much any kid.

Space opera is alive and well. Jake Parker's adventure "Missile Mouse: The Guardian Prophecy" and Philip Craven's weird tale "Big Mouth" will ring true to anyone who has ever wondered over the "Oswald" cartoon. (Where is that town and why are these animals the residents there?) Steve Hamaker's "Fish N Chips: All in a Day's Adventure" and Ben Hatke's "Zita the Space Girl: If Wishes Were Socks" are both SF stories as they involve robots and futuristic settings but they are really about more pedestrian issues like having a lunkhead for a partner who does not pull his weight and wishing for the wrong thing without realizing it (a la poor Otto with his genie issues). These are comedies through and through. Rounding out the collection are some shorter stories, including Rad Sechrist's sly "Wooden Rivers: Rain Slickers" (which totally struck me as Cannery Row meets steampunk for the younger set), Bannister's absurd Tarzan adventure, "Delivery" and Matthew Armstrong's gorgeously drawn wordless tale "Snow Cap: 2nd Verse" which is not sweet, but certainly stirring.

Altogether, Flight Explorer is an excellent way to go when easing kids out of the heavily illustrated early readers and into wordier titles. As a big fan of comics, I think it is never too early to get kids reading this medium and I love the variety that the Flight collections offer. It takes awhile to figure out exactly what a kid likes; with books like these they get a chance to see how much is out there and thoroughly enjoy all that comics have to offer.

It's not just about the capes, honest.


Otto's Orange Day
By Frank Cammuso
Illustrated by Jay Lynch
Toon Books 2008
ISBN 0-9799238-2-4

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend
By Geoffrey Hayes
Toon Books 2008
ISBN 0-97999238-0-8

Big and Bad
By Etienne Delessert
Houghton Mifflin 2008
ISBN 0-618-88934-5

Pearl Bailey and Charlie Parsley
By Aaron Blabey
Front Street 2008
ISBN 1-59078-596-6

Ordinary Basil: Attack of the Volcano Monkeys
By Wiley Miller
Blue Sky Press 2008
ISBN 0-439-86132-2
128 pages

What the Mouse Found and Other Stories
By Charles de Lint
Subterranean Press 2008
64 pages

Mr. Karp's Last Glass
By Cary Fagan
Groundwood Books 2008
94 pages

Flight Explorer
Edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Villard Books 2008
ISBN 0-345-50313-8
108 pages


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