Weekend Shorts: Picture Books

It’s been a little while since my last Weekend Shorts post, which is weird because I have a lot of things to tell you about briefly! Let’s start the catchup process with the shortest of shorts — picture books!

The Bear Ate Your Sandwich, by Julia Sarcone-Roach
The Bear Ate Your SandwichBack in October my library participated in the Read for the Record event, in which libraries around the world read the same book on the same day and count up all the people who read or listened to it. Pretty cool, right? I ended up being the person to do my branch’s mini-storytime, which was nerve-wracking, but it turned out all right!

The book itself is super cute, with gorgeous artwork that shows us the story of a bear who leaves the wilderness, finds itself in a nearby city, happens upon your lunch, eats your sandwich, and then hitches a ride back to the forest before you even notice your sandwich is missing! Then, in a stunning plot twist (spoilers!), it turns out this story is being told to you by your little dog, who looks suspiciously like it might have just eaten a delicious sandwich. Dun dun! The little kids I read this to thought it was hilarious, so that works for me.

Edward Gets Messy, by Rita Meade and Olga Stern
Edward Gets MessyThis one I didn’t read to anyone but myself, in the workroom, while I was checking in the day’s new books. I don’t generally read the new picture books, but this one was written by a Book Riot contributor so I’d been hearing about it via my BR podcasts, including one that had an interview with her about the process of writing it.

Because of the podcast, I was looking at the book a little differently than I might a random picture book, trying to figure out which parts were original and which edited, looking at the pictures and thinking about how the author and the illustrator never spoke and wondering what that illustrating process was like.

But! The book was suitably adorable to keep me from thinking too hard about that stuff. This one is about Edward, a little pig who does not like getting messy. He avoids anything that might even remotely cause a speck on his cleanliness, and so of course he misses out on all the things. But then he accidentally gets a little messy and realizes that sometimes messy is a good thing!

My first thought after reading this was, I bet there’s a kid out there making a giant mess in their house because of this book. “Edward says it’s okay to get messy!” Probably you should only read this to your weirdly spotless toddler?

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, by Matthew Inman
The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long DistancesThis one might be for adults, but it’s definitely a picture book! I picked this book up ages ago, back when I was still a running person (stupid injuries), largely because it’s by Matthew Inman.  If you’ve ever read his comics at The Oatmeal, you’ll know both the art and humor styles.

You find out pretty quickly that the main titular reason is that Inman doesn’t want to be a fat kid anymore, which seems a little self defeating, but then again, I’ve read The Oatmeal.  But then he goes on to say that you can’t become a runner for vanity reasons, because you’ll get giant legs, so.  Hmmm.

Inman talks about a lot of the fun and horror of running, from the obsession to keep doing it, the mental clarity you get while running, how to run your first marathon, what to eat as a runner, and how to get into the sport the “right” way.  It’s a little all over the place, but it’s got enough truth nuggets to be appreciated by any runner type you might know.

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingI had heard all the good things about this book, but I was hesitant to read it because I have an irrational mental block against both memoir and poetry. I know, I know. I’ve had some success lately with memoir on audio, though, so when I saw this was available on OverDrive, read by Woodson herself, and also very short, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.

It did not hurt. It was actually quite wonderful.

The audiobook definitely helped, as Woodson’s poetry is free verse and so the book sounds like a regular memoir most of the time. But the audio also makes the poetry part so much better because you can hear where Woodson breaks her lines and where she wants the emphasis and I’m looking at the print version right now and it’s just not the same. There are a few poems where the spacing and italics and the white space in the print version have their own sort of gorgeousness to them, but overall I am very glad I chose to listen to this.

Oh, what’s the book about, you ask? Right. Well, it’s a memoir, of course, of Woodson’s childhood growing up briefly in Ohio and then primarily in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the height of the civil rights era.

“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.”

Those are the first lines of the first poem in the book, and they set the stage for what’s to come. Woodson and her siblings grow up with a Southern mother and Northern father and feel the strain of that geographical divide no matter where they’re living. In South Carolina they live with their mother’s family in their mother’s home, but even their mother is wary of their lives there. As a Northern transplant to a very Southern part of Florida, I was startled to hear these words coming out of my car speakers:

“Never ma’am—just yes, with eyes
meeting eyes enough to show respect.
Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days . . .”

That first part is absolute crazy talk in my neck of the woods, where a forgotten “ma’am” gets even grown adults in trouble. “Ma’am” and “sir” have become so ingrained in my vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine anyone purposely not saying them, but of course it makes perfect sense in the context of the time.

And that’s how most of the poems go — they’re mostly short, some very short, reflections on mostly normal events like moving and going to school and making and keeping friends, but they’re all imbued with history, whether the history of Jacqueline Woodson or her family or the South or the whole country.

It’s a beautiful book and if you are on the fence about it for any reason, please do give it a try, especially in audio. You probably won’t regret it.

Recommendation: For everyone, really.

Rating: 9/10

City of Ember, by Jeanne Duprau

City of EmberAnother pick for my library book club — this one I hadn’t even heard of until I found four copies of it in my children’s section, and then I figured, hey, if we already have a lot of copies of it…

Also my coworker said it was good. I’m not that lax with my book club picks, y’all.

So this book. It is yet another post-apocalyptic kids book, but the twist to this one is that you find out at the beginning that some people called “Builders” built (naturally) the titular city after some catastrophe and left time-locked instructions to be passed down mayor-to-mayor for a couple hundred years so that the future residents could come back to wherever their ancestors started.

Except, of course, the instructions get lost, and now Ember is a couple decades past its expiration date and barely hanging on to its stores of canned food and lightbulbs, which are super important because when the lights go out they ALL go out, and there’s no sun or moon hanging around to help out.

Our hero Lina finds the instructions shortly after they’ve been baby-nommed, but with the help of our other hero Doon she sets off to solve the mystery of the instructions and of the weird way that Ember’s mayor has been acting lately.

And… that’s practically the whole book. It’s super short and super fast. It’s also the first book in a series of four, which is part of why it seems so fast — as soon as you reach what feels like the midpoint, the book is over and it’s time to go buy the next one. I was not warned of this! At least it’s not a cliffhanger; if you take the book as standalone, which I am likely to do, it ends in a place where you can kind of make up your own ending.

I enjoyed the trade-off in narration between Lina and Doon, and I liked that they were young enough that there was no dang love story mucking everything up (though I’m sure that’ll come in a few books…) and that they shared pretty equally in responsibility for solving the instruction puzzle and attempting to follow through on said instructions and generally trying to make their town a better place. And I’m intrigued by a a lot of the details that didn’t get explained in this book — the unknown area outside of Ember’s light, the reason for building Ember in the first place, why Ember wasn’t made self-sustaining in the first place — all those sorts of things that will probably get explained in later books.

But I probably won’t read those later books, because there was so little to the book as it stands that I’m just not invested. Like Divergent, if I had had all the books sitting in front of me it might have been a different story, but sadly, I did not. I will definitely be foisting the series on all my little library patrons, though, and I am positive they will tell me all about it when they’re done.

Recommendation: For kids who haven’t yet delved into post-apocalyptic/dystopian worlds and/or are slightly too young for The Giver.

Rating: 6/10

Weekend Shorts: X-Men, Rocket Girl, and Lemony Snicket

Well, it happened. My pile of single-issue comics got so overwhelming that I begged my comic shop to sell me the trades instead. It was a good experiment, but clearly I need a giant paperback book staring me in the face rather than a pile of itty-bitty issues.

I’ve still got that pile, though, so I’ll see if the potential for giant stacks of trades gives me more incentive to read the single issues?

And, because I only managed to read two issues since last time, I’ll throw in a recently-read kids book that was delightful but not really meant for discussing at length. Let’s go!

X-Men #2
X-Men 2I read the first issue of this new series almost ten months ago (criminy) and I liked it a lot — lady X-Men kicking butt? I’m in! In this issue, there’s a lot of butt-kicking but unfortunately for the X-Men it’s mostly by this chick (chicks?) called Arkea who is the sister of the creepy dude from last time and is also inhabiting the body of an X-lady I don’t know and using it to take over the school. As you do. There’s some exposition about how she inhabits technology and downloads information to herself, and there’s lots of fighting and the school gets locked down and then at the very end there’s a timer that is like three seconds from going off and that is probably not good. Apparently this storyline is going to be wrapped up nice and neat after the next issue, which seems… unlikely… but then again I’m used to The Unwritten and its disdain for closure.

Rocket Girl #1: “Times Squared”
Rocket Girl 1While I’m liking X-Men and its gang of heroes saving the world against… things… I have to say that Rocket Girl may be more of what I am looking for in a new comic. For one, I don’t feel like I’m missing something every time I don’t know a character. For two, the story is nice and specific from the beginning: our hero, 15-year-old Dayoung Johansson, is a cop from the future 2013 sent back to the present 1986 to stop a company from inventing time-travel and becoming a Goliath-like corporation in the future world of flying cars and stuff. Wait, is this girl the reason I don’t have a flying car? Maybe I’m not rooting for her anymore… Anyway, in this issue she comes back in time and blows up the time machine thing and goes off to be a cop to the consternation of actual 1986 cops who do not have rocket boots and are therefore just jealous, and I am really excited to see what she does next. Preeeeetty sure I’ve got the next issue around here somewhere…

When Did You See Her Last?, by Lemony Snicket
When Did You See Her Last?I read the first book in this series about four months ago and loved it, so of course I had another branch send over the second practically right away, and also of course it languished on my desk until I realized that I couldn’t tell other people to read it if I continued to have it checked out. This book continues the story of young Mr. Snicket, working with a terrible chaperone to solve strange mysteries. This time the mystery is the disappearance of an ink heiress, and it involves stolen notes, impersonation, forced labor, a creepy hospital, and all of the awesome (and differently awesome) townspeople from the first book. I loved the characters and I thought the story was delightful and if you’re a Snicket fan this series is a must-read. If you’re not a Snicket fan, I don’t understand.

What quick reads have you been reading quickly lately?

Weekend Shorts: Mitosis and Nancy Drew

I’ve got two very different stories to talk about today — one a delightful interlude to tide me over until a sequel, the other a horrible travesty upon my childhood. Which to talk about first…

Mitosis, by Brandon Sanderson
MitosisOh, let’s start with the good. I like good. I like Steelheart. I like this story, which starts with our good friend David really super extremely excited about… eating a hot dog. I mean, I get that he hasn’t had one in ten years, but… a hot dog? I’d be more excited about, like, pizza, although I don’t really like Chicago-style pizza… this is not the point! Although, pizza, yum.

Anyway, there are hot dogs eaten and also we find out — spoilers if you haven’t read Steelheart yet, which, go do that now — that the Reckoners have managed to more or less reclaim Chicago, although they can’t do much about that steel everywhere, and also that David is being called “Steelslayer” and given all sorts of credit for defeating Steelheart. So of course another Epic, this one aptly called Mitosis, shows up in Chicago demanding to speak with David to find out what really happened. We learn a little bit more about the Epics and their powers and weak spots, and we get a decent setup for the upcoming Firefight, and all and all I am entertained.

The Demon of River Heights, by Stefan Petrucha
The Demon of River HeightsAaaaaaaaaaaaaah. So you may remember that ages ago I partook in a Nancy Drew Challenge in which I was going to read all of the 56 original (well, “original”) Nancy Drew books, except I only made it to 11 before I was like, I think I can predict the next 45 just fine, thanks. But I read and loved all 56 as a kid, as well as all eleven billion of the new Nancy Drews that were out in the early nineties, so I couldn’t help myself when I realized that this graphic adaptation existed in my library. Please, help yourself and avoid this!

For one, this graphic novel suffers from the all-too-common GIGANTIC BOOBS problem, with even sporty George sporting a rack larger than mine. I’m not sure the artist understands the audience for Nancy Drew stories. Secondly, it suffers from the same predictability as the original series, except with more explosions. Thirdly, it was published in 2005 and is a ridiculous time capsule of mid-aughts technology, you know, when smartphones were this crazy new thing that had yet to take over the world? So Nancy drives this hybrid car, which she keeps forgetting to put gas in, and also keeps losing cell phone reception, which, fair. But then George has this fancy not-iPad with “wifi and cell-phone dial-up” that, I shit you not, she uses to look up how to fight a bear while Nancy is FIGHTING A BEAR in the MIDDLE OF THE WOODS. So there’s that, and actually that’s just a few pages in so if you want to pick up the book just to enjoy Nancy punching a bear in the face I think that’s probably totally legit. I can only imagine what will happen in the rest of the series, because I am NOT reading any more of it. (Unless you tell me it’s awesome, then maybe.)

Bone Quill, by John and Carole E. Barrowman

Bone QuillGrarrrgh, cliffhangerrrrrrrrr. I hate cliffhangers. I like my books to have an end, even if it’s one that leaves a million questions to be answered by the next book. Not only is it polite to give readers an ending, it makes it easier for this particular reader to, you know, remember what happened when it comes time to read the next one! It’s only been a couple weeks since I finished the book and it’s already leaving me…

Which is really unfortunate because this book was otherwise fantastic! It begins pretty soon after the end of the last book, which saw our intrepid child artists alternately fleeing and fighting bad guys and demons using crazy art magic. Now Matt and Em are stuck inside their grandfather’s castle, safe but bored out of their skulls — well, until they inadvertently figure out a way to be neither of those.

See, it turns out that in addition to being able to animate things that they paint and speak telepathically, the twins can also — wait for it — time travel via painting. Because of course they can. On the plus side, this helps them find their missing mother; on the minus side, they find themselves in the middle of an epic battle eight hundred years ago that it is possible they may have started. Dun DUN.

I loved this book for all the reasons I loved Hollow Earth, plus reasons like time travel (yay!) and characters making very terrible decisions (yay?). I am still surprised by the realistic interactions between the kids and their respective lower-case guardians, in which the kids listen to the adults exactly as much as they think they need to, and the adults understand that the kids are still going to go do incredibly stupid things but are willing to let them make mistakes. This approach does not always work out for the best, but does any, really?

I am also very intrigued by the dun DUN parts toward the end of the story that lead into the dreaded cliffhanger, and am curious to see how the Barrowmans are going to get everyone out of this one in the appropriate number of pieces. They will, right? This is a series for kids. It’s going to be okay. I think. When does the next book come out?!

Recommendation: If you can stand it, wait to read this one until the next one comes out, someday. Otherwise, read it now!

Rating: 9/10

Rare Beasts, by Charles Ogden

Rare BeastsI saw a few books in this Edgar & Ellen series going out of my library around Hallowe’en, and when I picked up this first one and noted the phrase “fans of Lemony Snicket” in a blurb on the back, you know I was sold.

The premise is simple: Edgar and Ellen are twin kids left alone at home by their parents, who have clearly run screaming from their weirdo children. The twins are inveterate troublemakers and spend their days running around their giant house, playing a game of hide and seek in which the loser gets hog-tied, and their nights painting rude words on their village’s signs. When they get bored of all that, they venture out into the village to bother the normal folk.

In this book, the twins realize they have no money to fund their schemes, and so they scheme to sell exotic pets for outrageous sums. The pets are, of course, pilfered from all the villagers and decorated with glitter and whatnot, and also of course it proves difficult for the twins to sell these pets a) to people who are looking for their own missing puppies and cats and pythons and b) for thousands and thousands of dollars to people who live in a small village.

It is a super adorable story vaaaaguely reminiscent of the Snicket in that it shares the same sense of humor if not Snicket’s way with words. There are also some delightful references to Poe (of course) and an ending that is appropriate to the reality of the story, which I wasn’t quite expecting. I like that we are obviously supposed to sympathize with the twins’ boredom and sense of adventure, but not with their actions. Good lessons for small children!

I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series unless I somehow run out of books to read at work (unlikely!), but I will definitely be recommending it to a few short people I know.

Recommendation: For your favorite trouble-making child.

Rating: 8/10

The Song of the Quarkbeast, by Jasper Fforde

The Song of the QuarkbeastAgain, perpetually: Me + JF 4eva!

Speaking of books that aren’t what I expected, after our last encounter with Jennifer Strange and company, I figured it would be Dragon Central in this series. Sadly, our dragon friend is mentioned only in passing, but happily there is enough craziness in Fforde’s world to make up for the lack.

A brief summary of said world: it is a sort of post-magic world, wherein magicians used to be awesome and all-powerful but now there’s not enough magic energy to go around and so these same magicians are relegated to basic handyman jobs and making pizza deliveries on flying carpets. Our protagonist, Jennifer Strange, is a teenage, non-magician acting manager of Kazam, a company of crazy old magicians who get into the usual amount of shenanigans.

In this go-round, Strange is herding her ragtag group in preparation for the rebuilding of a large bridge, with hopes of securing future engineering contracts for her company. The head of the competing magic company, however, is not thrilled to see Strange’s magicians doing well and so more or less challenges them to a magic duel — both companies will repair the bridge at the same time and whichever group finishes their half first gets to absorb the other company.

Of course, that head, the newly self-christened All-Powerful Blix, is not up for playing fairly, and also of course, magic is fickle and so Kazam’s magicians are sidelined one by one for various reasons. Strange must try to fix all of her magicians and also catch a glimpse of Kazam’s regular manager, who is bouncing around space-time due to a spell, and also see about a potentially stray Quarkbeast and try not to let it be killed.

As always, I greatly enjoy Fforde’s way with words and his commitment to making his invented worlds as full of life and insanity as possible. He gets in some good digs at our real world and our reliance on things that run essentially on magic, as well as more generally at the incompetence of bureaucracy, but mostly he is content to let his characters do whatever they want, which is consistently amusing. When does his next book come out?

Recommendation: For lovers of Fforde or those with a love of things that make no sense and yet totally do.

Rating: 9/10

Who Could That Be At This Hour, by Lemony Snicket

Who Could That Be at This HourSpeaking of kids with no parental guidance who are measurably smarter than the adults around them…

Man, I love Lemony Snicket. I’m not sure how this book got past my radar last year, but there must have been something really exciting going on, because otherwise I would have tripped over myself to get in line to read this first book in a series about the childhood of one Mr. Snicket, the writer of many fine books about my favorite orphans.

So it turns out that as a child, Snicket was part of some shadowy organization (of course) doing shadowy things (of course), and as we meet him he has just graduated Shadowy School or whatever and is off to train as an apprentice to a chaperone called S. Theodora Markson, who we find out is ranked last on the list of chaperones (of course). Snicket chose her to further his own mysterious plans, but her one accomplishment is ruining said plans, so he’s stuck with her on a shadowy-organization-approved case involving the retrieval of a maybe-stolen maybe-valuable object. Theodora bumbles her way through the case while Snicket, of course, learns the true facts, but if you’ve ever read Snicket’s work you know things don’t wrap up in a nice neat bow at the end.

The series is titled “All the Wrong Questions,” and as such there is a recurring theme in the book of Snicket asking questions and then remarking from the future that that was entirely the wrong question, and here are some questions he should have asked, or possibly here are some questions of equivalent worth that have nothing to do with anything. It is both dryly humorous and also a great way of getting the reader (or at least me) to think a little harder about this book that is just flying by and see those clues that Snicket is planting. Snicket also pulls in the “[word], which here means [meaning]” phrase from his previous books, except in this one he actually has his characters speak this phrase, which is ridiculous and wonderful.

I loved this book. It’s sarcastic and funny and pulls in a lot of references that the kids who read this book will hear of as adults and think, ohhhh, that’s where that came from. Even my usual complaints about books for kids fail here, because Snicket takes those stories’ failings to extremes that make them hilarious. Basically, this book was written just for me, and I couldn’t dislike it if I tried.

Also, fair warning, Snicket has given me my new catchprase: “Don’t repeat yourself. It’s not only repetitive, it’s redundant, and people have heard it before.” Thanks, Snicket! My friends are going to love you!

Recommendation: For people who like happiness, if happiness can be defined as complete insanity wrapped in sarcasm.

Rating: 10/10

Hollow Earth, by John and Carole E. Barrowman

Hollow EarthI may have mentioned before in this space a love of things Doctor Who and Torchwood. Not an unhealthy obsession, like some people I know, but enough of one that when I saw a book partially written by Captain Jack come into my library, I mean, I checked it out immediately.

That book was Bone Quill, the second in this Hollow Earth series, because of course it was, and of course again we didn’t have the first book in my library so I made my home library bring it to me. Libraries are awesome, guys.

Also awesome? This book.

In the world of this story, there are people called Animare who can draw things and make them come to life through the wonders of imagination and also people called Guardians who have super-empathic abilities that allow them to keep the Animare from going overboard with the redrawing life thing. These two sets of people are not supposed to make babies with each other, but of course babies were made, and those twins are our fine protagonists. They have abilities of both Guardians and Animare, and are actually kind of better at both than they should be, and the head of the Council of Fancy People Who Make the Rules (and some other members, but mostly the head dude) would really like them both to be stopped before they can be way too awesome.

So the twins and their mother run off to Scotland and the twins learn about their powers and how to really use them and bad people come and bad people are stopped (spoiler?). There are some pretty awesome action scenes involving animated Scotland-parts and drawings made in minds rather than on paper and all that fantasy stuff is pretty awesome.

But I think what I liked best about the book was the way the Barrowmans made all the kids (the twins and the friend they pick up) into real kids — feeling smart, being stupid, and understanding that both of those states can coexist. They even acknowledge that adults sometimes know what they’re doing, and in fact call for help when things get dangerous! I’ve read so many orphan or pseudo-orphan stories where the kids are 2000 percent smarter than the adults around them, and those can be awesome, but it’s great to see a story in which children are loved and cared for and still go out and defeat bad guys (with help).

I will definitely be reading Bone Quill sometime before the library wants it back, and then probably pining away for the third book as soon as I’m done!

Recommendation: For fans of fantasy and heroic kids and art and Scotland.

Rating: 9/10