It's not all that often somebody tries to write a sequel to a classic like this. It's a really big risk - tough to avoid looking like you're just totally crassly trying to cash in on the love and affection for the original book... or else you just look like you're writing fanfic. I'm sure there are any number of "Arwen and Aragorn's Honeymoon" manuscripts languishing in the depths of your laptop's hard drive. And rightly so. Do not print that thing out. Ever.
Oy, the book awards. Not the Nerdies, which are voted on by you the public; nor the Cybils, which have open nominations and then two panels of book bloggers as judges; and not the Maryland Black Eyed Susan Awards (nominated by school librarians, voted on by students), the Eisners, the National Book Award or the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, which I sure wish we had in the U.S.
Jon Scieszka has five brothers. Jon Scieszka is a funny writer. Ergo, Jon Scieszka's stories about growing up with his five brothers = funny. Oh, I laughed out loud, all right. I read bits aloud to the librarians in the workroom who wanted to know just what was so damn funny, and they laughed out loud. But we're moms. Moms of boys. We have to think boys are funny, or else go googoo and end up carted away in a van.
I first reviewed this book two years ago. I read it to myself while our house was undergoing extensive renovation. It was kind of a distracted review, touching on Peruvian hats, Luke Wilson and my great-cousin Margaret's nose.
But such a funny book. I really needed the laughs during those dark days - my kitchen was open to the outside world for about a week, making it less kitchen-y and more like, let's say, a shed.
We have revisited Knucklehead this summer, now that it is available on audio, read by Mr. Scieszka himself. I checked it out of the library specifically for the benefit of my husband and his multitude of siblings, many of whom were going to be in from out of town and spending copious hours in our minivan last week.
Hothead by Cal Ripken, Jr. and Kevin Cowherd
Football Champ by Tim Green
My cousin is a groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles, and Cal Ripken, Jr. is his hero:
In fact, it wouldn't be too far off the mark to say that here in Baltimore, Cal Ripken, Jr. is everyone's hero. He's my hero just for being a worthwhile hero. So many sports stars aren't. But even if he's not your hero, it is at least impossible to say anything not nice about the guy. Gentlemanly demeanor. Sterling work ethic. Humility. Compassion. Intelligence. Humor. Blue eyes like lasers. And his sense of responsibility toward the kids who look up to him verges on the ecclesiastical. Every sports star should be setting an example like this.
When you were in sixth grade - think back - did you have questions? Were there conundrums? Navigational issues? Did gym class make you cry? Was there a kid who wouldn't quit buggin' you? What about that embarrassing nickname you couldn't seem to shake?
And who can you go to for advice? Mom and Dad are nice, but a little out of touch; and teachers - well when the teachers aren't busy enforcing all those those weird arbitrary rules (can you really get detention for eating chalk?) they're spouting aphorisms that either everyone already knows or nobody can understand.
Sixth graders need Yoda. Wise, cryptic, all-knowing Yoda.
Ten year old Caitlyn seeks closure. She's not entirely sure what closure is, but she knows that it will help her come to grips with the death of her big brother Devon. And Caitlyn's not the only one who needs closure - the school shooting that claimed Devon's life has plunged her entire town into a morass of sorrow and confusion. Everyone she knows - the kids at school, her teachers and counselor, and especially her father - is shaky and stunned. But Caitlyn has Asperger's syndrome. She experiences the behavior of others as a series of unrelated vignettes whose meaning she must puzzle out, and while she has some tools for solving these puzzles - the facial expressions chart in the counselor's office helps - her best guide has always been Devon.
I am not lazy! Ok I'm lazy, but I'm not being lazy about this, I swear! I have already reviewed Kevin Bolger's very funny book Zombiekins, actually I reviewed the audio, you can read that review on Amazon eventually or in SLJ right now, and I do encourage you to do so - I used alliteration and everything! So this is my seven-year-old's review. But just because I've done this with two posts in a row doesn't mean that I've given up on writing my own reviews.
It's just - it's Halloween! Time for flesh-eating zombie stuffies to limp menacingly out from beneath your bed and into your dreams! Let Zhou tell you all about it:
Is it just me, or is this The Year of the Superhero in middle-grade and YA books?
I'm all up in the Michael Owen Carroll right now of course, having just reviewed Super Human here on Pink Me; and The Rise of Renegade X is sitting on my to-read pile; I just finished Michael Grant's The Magnificent 12: The Call last night: plus we're listening to Mike Lupica's Hero in the car, and holy god - not since I took one for the team and listened to The Da Vinci Code have I been more appalled by an author's lazy writing, glacial pace, disrespect for the reader...
...oh wait, where was I? Ahead of myself, that's where. That's what happens when you try to write book reviews while listening to The Flaming Lips. "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", off At War With The Mystics, is what inspired the title of this post. By the way, if you have food issues, don't click that link, just watch them perform on Letterman, below.
It is also apparently The Year of Superhero Books Written by Guys Named Michael. Weird. Take that, trend trackers.
Aaaannd... It was not exactly the comedy I'd been led to expect. This, of course, is neither the book's nor the author's fault. Instead, it is a clear-eyed Civil War picaresque told by an orphaned boy doggedly searching for his older brother, who has been illegally conscripted into the Union Army. Homer's journey starts at his home in Maine, where he runs into slave-catchers, and moves south, by rail and by steamship, by traveling show and by hot-air balloon, all the way to the battle of Gettysburg. Using this structure, Philbrick is able to shoehorn in a lot of mid-nineteenth century social landscape. This is historical fiction absorbed the easy way.
Most of the way, Homer's misfortunes are quickly recovered from - he is thrown in a pigpen, but then his furious reaction to the teasing he undergoes is noticed by the proprietor of a medicine show, who rescues him, cleans him up and gives him work impersonating a feral child in his show. Homer even gets candy and meets a nice lady with tattoos. It's a book that bounces from up to down and back again in a peppy, plotty way.
However, once Homer gets to Gettysburg, there's no up side. Philbrick describes the wailing of injured men, the misery of battle, and the terror that Homer experiences, which is intensified once he finds his brother Harold, and sees Harold rush into danger.
My kids were downright stunned by the sorrow and violence in the Gettysburg chapters. But still, I don't call that a bad thing. War is sad and violent, and my kids are old enough to get that message. I will say that the contrast between the last quarter of the novel and the first three-quarters was maybe a little abrupt.
Bob the Builder reads the audio, and while adults may find his broad vocal characterizations a little TOO broad, it is definitely easier on kids when characters have their own distinct voice.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Fever 1793.
Avi. The true confessions of Charlotte Doyle.
Babbitt, Natalie. Tuck Everlasting.
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan. Narrated by Mister Jim Dale.
Bruchac, Joseph. But not for super-little kids - too scary!
Buckley, Michael. The Sisters Grimm (series). Awfully funny and even more clever, although I didn't like the way the sisters sniped at each other in the first book. The kids did though. I'm just too sensitive.
Collins, Suzanne. Underland Chronicles (series).
Cooper, Susan. The Dark is Rising (series). IF you can find them. Ably narrated by Simon Jones.
Dahl, Roald. British A-listers such as Alan Cumming, Eric Idle, Jeremy Irons, and Lynn Redgrave read Dahl’s subversive stuff. As does the author himself.
Dowd, Siobhan. The London Eye Mystery.
Fleming, Ian. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. SOOOO much better than the movie. Hard to find, but worth it. First of all, mom's not dead, she's along for the ride, and second of all, the ride is great!
Funke, Cornelia. The Inkheart series, the Ghosthunters books, Dragon Rider, and The Thief Lord. Brendan Fraser narrates some of these, and he has a nice voice for it. But they're no George of the Jungle. (And yes, any excuse will suffice for me to link to a picture of Brendan Fraser in that movie.)
Gaiman, Neil. The Neil Gaiman audio collection. Silly + weird = fun. Don't miss the author interviewed by his daughter at the end.
George, Jean Craighead. My Side of the Mountain. Dated, but still beautiful and exciting. Another one that's kind of hard to find.
Landy, Derek. Skulduggery Pleasant series, read by Rupert Degas. Rupert Degas is my new hero. His characterization of the Troll under Westminster Bridge alone is worth the price of admission. There's an interview with the suave, sarcastic, conceited Skulduggery himself at the end. You know, Rupert Degas also reads Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Brr - if I didn't have kids in the car, I would totally be listening to that.
Law, Ingrid. Savvy.
Lofting, Hugh. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. Don't let the interminable, strange, sappy movie spoil this crazy old story for you. There is no Anthony Newley and his fruity accent here.
Lowry, Lois. The Willoughbys. Vellly intelesting narration by Arte Johnson, who, apparently, is still alive.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter. Award-winning narration by Jim Dale, who I swear has won every award except knighthood and an Oscar for his work on this series.
Riordan, Rick. Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Ok, I don't like the reader's brutal Queens accent and extremely poor Greek pronunciation. But I suck it up, because the stories are terrific and the kids LOVE them. And so should you.
Selden, George. The Cricket in Times Square. Friendly narration by the versatile Tony Shalhoub, lovely violin passages.
Snicket, Lemony. A Series of Unfortunate Events (series). Although this series is no longer the hot ticket in print, I feel like the audio versions will persist in popularity, because of Tim Curry's chuckling, mournful, spitty, insane readings. A depressing yet beautiful and hilarious song by The Gothic Archies is a bonus on each audio book.
Stanton, Andy. You’re a Bad Man, Mr. Gum. A truly distinguished audio book. Read by the author, he takes liberties with his own text, adapting certain 4th-wall-busting asides to the audio format. Plus, my god this book is funny! The red fairy in the bathtub who hits Mr. Gum with a frying pan whenever his garden starts looking messy... brilliant!
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. Alfred Molina ("Throw me the idol, I'll throw you the whip") does for the sound of Treasure Island what N.C. Wyeth did for the look - now, whenever I think of that book, I will hear Mr. Molina's voice. Stevenson's very large and at times obsolete vocabulary (what is a mizzen, anyway?) is a lot easier for kids to digest in the audio context. And Molina is a genius with characterization, by turns silky, gruff, naive, you name it.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. The Little House books. Cherry Jones reads these, in a timeless voice that is both dry and warm. Even if you know these books well, her perfectly paced performance brings them to life in a new way.
White, E.B. Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. Julie Harris reads Stuart Little, and White himself memorably reads Charlotte's Web. Beautiful and kind of heartbreaking there at the end.
Winkler, Henry. The Hank Zipzer series. The Fonz reads his own books, and when you hear him do it, you'll think, "Seriously? Somebody cast this funny little guy as a cool motorcycle dude?" The seventies really were a little weird.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Anything she reads herself is always going to be beautiful and affecting.
You're a bad man, Mr. Gum! by Andy Stanton, read by the author
"'I am glad you asked me that,' said Friday, 'because the universe is my specialist subject and I am the winner of quizzes where that's concerned.'This audio book had our whole family giggling all the way up Interstate 95 from Georgia when we came home from Spring Break. Really. Now, I don't want to take away from the print edition, which is certainly a funny book, with hip little illustrations and a chapter entitled "Mr. Gum Has a Cup of Tea" whose entire text is "Mr. Gum had a cup of tea," but on audio...
Let's put it this way. The other audio book that we really enjoyed on that trip, Neil Gaiman's The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection, included an interview with the author as a Special Bonus Feature. The interview is conducted by Gaiman's daughter Maddie, who asks good questions, including: "Why do you like audio books?" Neil answers this (and all the other) questions with his accustomed brevity, saying, (and I am paraphrasing here - that thing about Gaiman's brevity was me lying) that he likes audio books because he as an author can read the book as he first heard it in his head when he wrote it. Funny voices and all.
So, Andy Stanton apparently had choirs of lunatics speaking in his head when he was writing You're a Bad Man, Mr. Gum!. Or maybe just Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and the entire Monty Python ensemble, including the dead guy who wanted to be a doctor. His characters are by turns terrible and silly, mystical and silly, adorable and silly, crabby and silly, and... silly. PLUS we get extremely Adams-y silly stuff like"
"She ran past a cat's ears that were lying on the pavement and a cat's nose and whiskers that were lying on the pavement and a cat's body and tail and legs and eyes and claws that were lying on the paveme -- in fact it was all just one cat, lying on the pavement."And don't look for any Special Bonus Features on this CD, or in the book, because there AREN'T ANY.
Or... that's me lying again.
A few things pleased me mightily:
WOLFSNAIL! The little non-fiction book that could (win a Geisel Honor, that is). When I plucked it more or less at random off a cart, I was surprised and amused at the idea of a predatory snail. After I read it, I was SO impressed that the book was based on direct observation instead of being rehashed from an encyclopedia entry. And indeed, the photos are beautiful and the prose is effective. But come on, a predatory garden snail? That is just funny.
Becoming Billie Holiday got a Coretta Scott King Honor. This was the first book I reviewed for School Library Journal. I was so honored to have been sent such a special book, especially the first time out. I sweated blood over that review, conscious that it was going to be in the running for awards this year. What I wrote is on Amazon.
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. Oh do I love this book! Maybe I've mentioned it before. Ah, yes, it appears I have. I like Marla Frazee quite a lot - she has a rare ability to crack up grownups and still be appealing to children. She's like Sesame Street in book form.
Garmann's Summer got that prize for a book in translation. I think it is more notable for the illustrations than the text, but I'm just pleased it got the recognition. It's a weird book but it addresses fear - in a fearless way - which I think is something we need to see more of.
Stinky got a Geisel Honor, and I'm going to agree with that. I think Eleanor Davis has a fresh approach to color and knows what kids like.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian got an Odyssey Award. What's an Odyssey Award, you ask? And why is this spectacular book so far down the list? Well, Odyssey is an audiobook award, and Our Sherm got it for reading his own book. Hmph. He should have gotten the Printz for it, and he didn't. Not this year, and not last year. And the audio version is out of print already according to Amazon.
I'm extremely happy, though, to see Stephen Briggs recognized for his narration of Terry Pratchett's Nation. Briggs is a frickin' NUT when it comes to reading this stuff - his character voices actually cause me pain. I tried reading A Hat Full of Sky out loud to my kids after we had heard the audiobook of The Wee Free Men, and when I tried to imitate the way he did the Nac Mac Feegle (the wee free men), I think I herniated my larynx. And Nation is a terrific book, even if it dwells a little heavily on matters of faith and dogma.
A few things displeased me:
Where is Adam Rex when these things come around? The guy can paint, he can draw. He can cartoon. He can write doggerel poetry worthy of Punch. He's funny as can be. Kids of all ages like his stuff. And he showed, with The True Meaning of Smekday, that he can write long-form fiction too. So what's it going to take for him to get a little recognition? Sheesh.
The House in the Night? FTW? Over the similarly-themed and much more kid-friendly (hint: kids like color) In a Blue Room? I don't know. It didn't do anything for me, although I agree that the art is very nice. I just... I think that the art in this book is for grownups. I much preferred Susan Marie Swanson's previous To Be Like the Sun.
The Newbery titles, with the possible exception of the Big Winnah Mistah Gaiman's Book, are ALL GIRL BOOKS. UH.GAIN. AM I TIRED of trying to find books for boys who are told "Read an award-winning book". They've already READ Hatchet, ok? (Ooh, nice new cover on Hatchet, BTW) Throw my guys a bone, willya? Hold your nose and give Diary of a Wimpy Kid an award. It's not so bad!
Well, that's all. Tune in next year when I get to grouse about awards again. Better yet, keep your eye on the Cybils Awards - I actually participated in those, so I will have no room to complain!
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read by Cherry Jones
I loved these books as a kid - loved the simplicity, loved the ingenuity, thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn't entertain myself for hours (days! months!) playing with wood chips and/or grass. Begged my parents to tap the maple trees out front of our suburban house. Sigh.
Recently, I thought I'd pull them out and see if my boys would be as spellbound as I had been. Well, they are. My copy of Little House in the Big Woods is inscribed "To [Your Neighborhood Librarian], on her eighth birthday -- Love, Granny and Sam," and that was as fascinating to my sons as the Nazca lines are to conspiracy theorists. I can't imagine their ideas of me as a child.
What I didn't expect, however, was that my husband and I would become spellbound as well. After we read Little House in the Big Woods aloud, we switched to audio. Cherry Jones (the president on 24 and Matt Damon's mom in the Ocean's Eleven movies), is the perfect reader for these books. Her voice is both warm and dry - though she sometimes reads with a smile in her voice, she never, ever gets sugary. There's just enough astringency there to give a hint of the extraordinarily isolated and precarious life Pa has signed the family on for, and her slightly measured pace is just right for young listeners. A frequent reader on NPR's Selected Shorts, Ms. Jones has a voice you want to listen to.
That's a real plus, because these books have so much to offer beyond the narrative. The choices that Mrs. Wilder made when she wrote them reveal the changes that she observed in her lifetime. She wrote the books in the 1930's, when she was in her 60's, and took care to scrupulously document such processes as building a log house (with only hand tools and two people) and packing a covered wagon. She takes the time to describe food and objects that, by the 1930's, were no longer in use, like the three-legged iron pot that Ma cooks in over the campfire.
However, many frightening or dramatic events are recounted without much comment and without echo. When the entire Ingalls family is so sick with malaria that none of them can get up for a cup of water, Laura narrates the incident, mentions that it was awfully lucky that one of their (distant) neighbors happened by, and moves on. But - says the adult reader - those people could have died! How many little houses on the prairie ended up little mausoleums on the prairie? And later the adult listener gradually realizes that the family has eaten nothing but meat and cornmeal for the better part of a year. No eggs, no vegetables, no wheat products. If I were Pa, I'd have taught those girls to steal eggs from the prairie chickens.
At the end of the book, Pa learns that they must vacate the land that they have settled and plowed. Without discussion, despair, or dithering, and with a minimum of planning, Pa announces that they are leaving the next day. The family gets up in the morning, puts all their things into the wagon and leaves behind those extraordinary structures that Pa built with his bare hands, seemingly from thin air: the house, the well, the stable, and the plowed field full of seed. That's just what they did, and through the level-headed offices of Mrs. Wilder and Ms. Jones, we hear it, we understand it, and, like Pa and Ma and the girls, we move on.
I don't know if historical fiction will ever get better than this.
So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld
Loved it! The whole "cool hunter" thing is a bit nineties, but you gotta love a good mystery, and a good mystery that is full of cool stuff is even better. Also, Westerfeld's examination of the co-opting of youth trends for mass consumption is straight out of Commodify Your Dissent, a compendium by the folks at The Baffler that every teenager should read before cracking that next can of Monster Mixxd Energy Juice.
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
Farthing by Jo Walton
Technically a grown-up book, I would recommend Farthing to any young adult reader interested in speculative fiction, history, or mystery. It's an illuminating "what-if" novel set in an England that has accepted Hitler's "Peace with Honor" - disguised as an old-fashioned English country house mystery: Gosford Park meets Brazil. There are many discussions involving sexuality, i.e. who is homosexual and who is not, but no sex.
The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones by Anthony Bourdain
Essays by the author of Kitchen Confidential and The Bobby Gold Stories. I recommend the crap out of Tony Bourdain - but not, typically, for kids. There's the language, not to mention the extremely frank talk about sex and drugs. There are some teenagers, though, especially the ones considering restaurant careers... hey, they should know what they're getting into!
My rising 2nd grader read:
Black Lagoon adventures, books 1-7 by Mike Thaler ; illustrated by Jared Lee
The kid is giggling to himself as he goes through and then reading passages out loud to his younger brother. I'm taking that as a thumbs-up.
My husband read:
How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein
Recommended road trip reading. At every state border, as we hollered out "Good-bye, Georgia!" and "Hello, Alabama!" Bob would have some anecdotal treasure to relate about battles, topography, bureaucratic snafus, and the duplicitousness of Virginia. Luckily, he kept most of them to himself. (I kid! I kid!)
Also, he read The Economist. Also the newspaper. On the beach. I swear, one of these days I'm going to strap him to a chair and force Robert Ludlum down his throat. Or... eww.
Our faithful minivan transported us a grand total of 2875 miles. And did we listen to books in the car? We did!
My boys, who are 5 and 6 years old, now know the traits and attributes of all the major Greek gods and a fair number of the minor ones. They cried out for "more Percy" every time we got into the car. Unfortunately for my husband and I, the narrator, Jesse Bernstein, is... well. In addition to a gritted-teeth Queens accent that would make Archie Bunker proud (shtreet, frushtrated, firmiliar, foward, bedgeroom), the guy continually misplaces the emphasis in sentences and phrases. Also? A word to audio book producers? When your narrator encounters the word "ichor" and pronounces it "icker"? Stop the tape and look it up. He does animal voices really well, though.
On the road I started reading the second Skulduggery Pleasant book, Playing with Fire. I am pleased to report that it is starting out just as sardonic and action-packed as the first book, and I am proud to say that I am working Skulduggery's deep velvet voice almost as well as Rupert Degas, who read that first book so amazingly well that we replayed sections again and again.
Here's to beach chairs, lounge chairs by the pool, couches in shady living rooms. Anywhere you get a chance to just sit and read. That's vacation, baby.
For really little kids, say, up to 4 or 5, you have to go with collections of shorter stories. Long narrative is kind of lost on them, and they can get bored and cranky when they've lost track. On the other hand, you the parent are going to be in that vehicle too, and all is lost if the story or voice makes you so crazy that you drive into a bridge abutment before you make it to the family reunion. Unless your goal is to give everyone else something to talk about in years to come, and hell, you could do that just by talking about your intestines every chance you get (we miss you, Cousin Roy!).
Luckily for you, some of the most accomplished professional voices in the world occasionally record children's books. Here's a good long list (remember, they're short, so grab a big stack!) of audio books that small people enjoy and bigger people don't hate:
The One and Only Shrek by William Steig, read by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci
I reviewed it this March, and I was incredibly impressed. Worth listening to again and again, whether you're an adult marveling at Meryl Streep's virtuosity, or a kid who thinks that a talking bone is just funny.
The Stink books by Megan Mcdonald, read by Nancy Cartwright
Nancy Cartwright is one a hard-working person. Among other things, she's Bart Simpson - Bart Simpson! Some adults (my husband, for one) find her Stink voices grating, but kids think they're hysterical. She injects plenty of variety, so kids can tell the characters apart, and the mechanics of her reading - pace, emphasis, etc. - are flawless.
In addition, I find Stink Moody to be a more sympathetic character than his older sister Judy. McDonald includes informative sidebar material and unexpected incidental funny stuff. I love that one of Stink's friends insists on being called Sophie of the Elves, and that bit is carried through all the books. Also available: Stink and the World's Worst Super-Stinky Sneakers & Stink and the Great Guinea Pig Express and Stink and the Incredible Super-Galactic Jawbreaker.
Three Tales of My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett, narrated by Robert Servra
This CD of three stories is gentle to the point of lullaby. But kids love 'em. We listened to this CD last summer in the car, and this year when my son's first grade teacher read it aloud, he was a big celebrity in class because he knew what was going to happen. It's old-fashioned and well-written and original and underappreciated.
Dr. Seuss on audio
Anyone who's ever had to read If I Ran the Zoo every night for about two months knows that reading Dr. Seuss aloud is no laughing matter. It's written in anapestic tetrameter, a term that certainly sounds like it was invented just for him, and is chock-full of made-up words and names that would stop even the most nimble-tongued truck. The
John Cleese, Walter Matthau, and Dustin freakin' Hoffman are among the name-brand voices that read Seuss stories on The Cat in the Hat collection (image above).
On Green Eggs and Ham and Other Servings of Dr. Seuss, we are read to by brave enunciators such as David Hyde Pierce, John Lithgow, and Michael McKean, who will always be Lenny to me.
Billy Crystal, Hoffman and Mercedes McCambridge (also the voice of the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist!)do the voices on Horton Hears a Who and Other Sounds of Dr. Seuss.
Lithgow and Ted Danson read the more message-y stories on Oh, the Places You'll Go! and The Lorax.
If you can't find these collections, the British comedians Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall (Vyv and Rick from The Young Ones (dating myself, fine, but it was a very funny show)) are the improbable narrators of the cassette-and-book versions of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back . I would give a lot to get my hands on those.
Other audio collections for very young audiences that I would recommend:
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, narrated by Alfred Molina
Yesterday afternoon, as my friend Sam came to pick up his kid, I was on the porch with my laptop. "Blogging again?" Sam asked.
"I was just going to write a review of Treasure Island." I said, shutting the laptop.
"Don't let me stop you," he said. "I can just get [Nature Girl] and go."
"Nonsense." I replied. "The book's been out for 130 years, there's no need for me to review it any time soon. Sit down. See if there's any beer in the fridge. Get me one, in fact."
And that's how it goes at my house. That's also, by the way, the major reason I don't write myself. No gift for dialogue. Or plot.
Which brings me to Robert Louis Stevenson, whose gifts for both you don't need me to point out. Henry James praised the book, for Pete's sake. It's captivating:
Enthralled by the action, tickled to recognize the seminal appearance of familiar elements such as the Black Spot, the talking parrot, and "X marks the spot". Spellbound.
It is very worth reading. Or, actually, not.
Hear me out: I never read Treasure Island as a kid. Or Kidnapped, or The Last of the Mohicans, or Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Around the World in 80 Days, or even The Three Musketeers. I was a kid who read constantly and convulsively, anything I could put my hands on. I read while I walked to school, and relied on my friends to stop me before I walked out into traffic. But even though I knew there were wonderful stories inside those books - I'd seen the movies on The Wonderful World of Disney - I just couldn't get past the language. There's a lot to get past:
You might as well have snipped up a hundred words, dropped them in a hat, and pulled out any 41, for all the sense that paragraph makes to my little boys, or to me, for that matter. If I were reading it out loud to my kids, I wouldn't have the first clue how to do it - it's hard to put emphasis in the right place when you don't understand what you're saying. I would stumble, and they would be bored, and we'd miss the chance to enjoy the book together.
Imagine my pleasure, then, to discover this audio version. Alfred Molina, who made his film debut 27 years ago as the treacherous guide in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, reads this book as only an adult British male actor could. Smoothly sailing through narration larded with terms such as "mizzen" and "coracle," "jolly-boat" and "foc'sle," Molina's voice is neither too fast nor too slow, and while he spares no effort bringing his characters to life, he never injects corny suspense or surprise as he reads Jim's narration - he lets Stevenson's words convey the emotion.
Those characterizations, though: amazing. It's as if the entire adult male cast of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are living in our CD player. Molina does outsize and swaggering, like Geoffery Rush's Barbossa; husky and mournful, like Stellan Skarsgård's Bootstrap Bill; his Dr. Livesey sounds as cultured as Lord Cutler Beckett... I swear, Gore Verbinsky could have saved a fortune by simply hiring Alfred Molina and shaving him seven different ways.
We've just finished the book, and it was a terrific thing to share. I would stop the CD every now and then to explain things, "Did you get that? He was in the apple barrel and he overheard Long John Silver planning to take over the ship?" and we Netflix'ed the movie at one point, but by and large the abstruse language fell away, and the story came right through, for all the world like a magnificent ship under sail, cresting the waves.
Gosh, it seems like I've just hated everything I've read lately, doesn't it? Peter and the Starcatchers got the big raspberry, I got all kvetchy about Peak, and The Name of this Book is Secret just didn't ring any bells for me. I haven't even put up my review of The Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson, and just as a preview? it's not 100% positive either.
Skulduggery Pleasant is Derek Landy's first book for children, and the second is already in the can, which is a Very Good Thing. His characters are broadly drawn, meaty, yet precise - like Chinese calligraphy done with a big fat brush dripping with ink. The dialogue is snappy, with some fun deconstructionist bits; and the plot is just twisty enough: not even the very close listener Mr. Four could find any holes.
But the real revelation here is Skulduggery Pleasant himself, a several-hundred-year-old living skeleton working as a freelance detective. He's urbane. He's competent. He's noble. He knows it. And his wit is very, very, very dry. He puts me in mind of James Bond, if Clive Owen had gotten the job. Or Indiana Jones, perhaps as played by Hugh Grant.
It's fairly unusual in contemporary children's literature to find a leading man per se: that is, an adult male that carries the book. Adult males are villains (say, Voldemort), or guides (Dumbledore), or surrogate fathers who aren't around much either (Sirius Black), but it's usually the eleven-year-old orphan who is the center of attention. Skulduggery Pleasant is written from the point of view of its main female character, an eleven-year-old girl named Stephanie Edgely, but it's Skul who drives the action. He's more than a mere guide for Stephanie. It's interesting, and I think it's because Derek Landy's background is in screenwriting rather than children's literature. My guess is that nobody told him.
Which is not to say that Stephanie falls by the wayside. More than your usual preternaturally resourceful girl protagonist, she is written from the inside out, and feels very real, though a bit devoid of background. Even her parents, bit players for sure, are people who you feel you kind of know.
A word about the audio edition - GET THE AUDIO EDITION. Like the Lemony Snicket books read by Tim Curry, it has original music: deep, jazzy bass, thumps of percussion, fingersnaps and distant screams; and, also like those books, it is read by a MASTER of vocal characterization.
Rupert Degas is apparently a voice superstar in the UK, with everything from Bob the Builder to Haruki Murakami on his resume, but this is the first time I've heard him. He reads an Irish tween girl as convincingly as an adult woman from London, and he has a vast repertoire of deep, hoarse, whispery, creaky, etc. that he gleefully applies to everyone else in the book. The cackling, gibbering, transforming Troll under Westminster Bridge should win this guy an Audie all by itself. We've played that chapter "about a hundred and sixty-seven times, and it KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME"!
When we finished the audio book this afternoon, my two boys and I were left craving more Skulduggery, and there it was! a bonus track featuring an interview with the man himself: relaxed, egotistical, coy, and dead-on funny. Can't wait for the sequel.
Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
I've never read this book, or its sequels, before now. "Whaaat?" you gasp. "Fantasy adventure based on familiar characters in children's literature, and YOOOU haven't READ them?!"
Ah shut up. I know what these books are without reading them. So do you. And I know the kid who reads these books - or who will at least give them a try with very little need for wheedling or booktalking. That kid is not, as we say, a discriminating reader. That kid will read very long books regardless of whether they're terrific or not, because that kid likes to read. When that kid asks me for book recommendations, it's not because he or she has trouble finding books that appeal to his or her taste, it's because that kid has READ EVERYTHING ELSE.
So when the response to everything I suggest is “Already read it,” I start suggesting books I haven't read but have heard are good, and the Dave Barry Peter books are in that category.
I always meant to though, and when I saw that the audio version was narrated by the great Jim Dale, I snapped it right up for our Spring Break road trip. Let me tell you, this book made the long hours bombing up and down Virginia interstates go by quickly for my young boys. Even my husband was hanging on every word, although there was a dreadful chapter somewhere at the end of the first third of the book that was SOLID EXPOSITION. Even Jim Dale was rushing through that one.
Now that we've finished the book, I have to say that my opinion of it has not changed. It's a galloping adventure that follows a familiar arc, populated with half a Magic Kingdom's worth of good guys and bad guys. But it's almost as if the lead character could be any of the eleven-year-old orphans that litter children's literature. Peter Pan is nowhere in sight. Now, I recognize that Peter and the Starcatchers is a prequel to Peter Pan, and so Peter is not yet Pan, thoughtless and amoral, uncivilized, illiterate, pure id – but the Peter in this story? His behavior is beyond reproach. He is loyal, brave, caring, and smart. He's a hero almost from the first page. He is fabulously dull.
No wonder the authors felt compelled to feature not one but two villainous sea dogs, each with a comic-relief henchman (Smee, of course, assists the proto-Hook), and not one but two tempting and resourceful female sidekicks (I do wish to thank the authors for a neat explanation of mermaids). And by the end of the book, it felt as if we were going down a checklist of story elements that had to be in place. Hook loses a hand? Check. Tinkerbell? Check. Peter can fly? Check. Crocodile? Check.
And I missed Pan - surly, solipsistic, charismatic, somewhat dicky Pan.
The Name of this Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
Two kids, not popular at school, become unlikely allies in their quest to solve a mystery, foil creepy villains, face peril, etc etc yes we know.
More than anything else, this book reminded me of Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. The main characters are more prickly than appealing at first, and maintain their less-pleasant quirks throughout the book, which is nice to see, for a change. Often, authors will drop that stuff once they've established the character as an “individual” and the plot takes off. There are lots of riddles and lots of abstruse knowledge, in this case about people with sensory differences, especially synesthesia. A pretty unusual topic to find in a kids' book, and hey! I'm all for interesting information tidbits tucked into the plot.
My kids thought it was just as funny as could be, and the plot was straightforward enough for them to follow. I wouldn't say that it was one for my all-time favorite list, but eh, it'll appeal to the funny mystery lovers.
The One and Only Shrek by William Steig, narrated by Stanley Tucci and Meryl Streep
Oh my god.
I have enjoyed the work of William Steig since I was a child. Sure. Who hasn't? And I enjoy a good film performance as much as the next person - didn't everyone cheer when Meryl Streep whacked Kevin Bacon with an oar in The River Wild? And Stanley Tucci's arched brow has added a certain something to all kinds of movies, plus he may be the only Italian-American actor
living today alive or dead to have never been on The Sopranos.
But I will put it to you that these three powerful, creative humans have only now, in concert with one another, attained the pinnacle of their potential.
Tucci snarls arrogantly as Shrek and simpers decadently as Shrek's princess. Streep howls like the wind, whistles, imitates a trumpet, sobs, and does some kind of lapping thing with her mouth to sound just like falling rain. It's VERRRY impressive.
William Steig's books aren't big message or theme books, but listening to these stories read by such masterful narrators, you can hear clearly what was important to the author. Love, responsibility, fidelity, courage, justice. Not little themes, you know. Screw 'sharing' and 'teamwork': in Steig's world, if you get turned into a dog, you go home to your wife and suffer and try to make her feel better, until you get turned back into a person. In William Steig's world, you walk over the mountain through a blizzard with a twisted ankle to deliver an empty box to a duchess to keep your mother's reputation intact.
But when you get home late with a crazy story about a magical talking bone and your mom thinks you're just making it up? The magical talking bone corroborates your story for you. That's William Steig's world, and we've been listening to it in the car over and over and it hasn't gotten old yet.
What do you want me to say? If the kid in question likes stories about monsters that aren't very scary... if the kid likes the funny... if the kid likes the mythical creatures... yeah man, you can recommend this series of books (How to Train Your Dragon: The Heroic Misadventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III) to a lot of kids. Heck, there's a movie contract already, so you know it's got broad appeal. (Either that, or an eleven-year-old orphan, which actually this one does not - Hiccup's father, Stoic the Vast, is alive and well and very loud.)
In fact, we listened to this one on audio. Gerard Doyle was the narrator, and holy moley - the guy really put his back into it! He even sang! He was so entertaining that while we noticed the author's occasional overuse of phrases and words, it just didn't bother us. Based on this reading, Gerard Doyle has made my short list of all-time favorite readers (others are Tim Curry, Jim Dale, Stephen Briggs, and Stephen Fry). Thumbs up.
No, I do have one more thing to say: Hiccup is brave and smart and a loyal friend. This is a funny book with a big heart. Extra thumbs.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is my favorite book of all time. In it, two kids, Jamie and Claudia, decide to run away from home. Since they're smart and practical (not to mention snobbish and greedy) and don't want to end up on a curb in Times Square, they plan to run away to a place that's indoors and has some of the comforts of home. They pick the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Isn't that great? That's a thought process that basically makes sense. And you can tell right off that this is not going to be your hijinky plot-driven pratfall novel - they don't run away to the circus, they run away to an art museum. E. L. Konigsberg writes great books, with sharp characters, but this is her genius work. An unpleasant, geeky girl with a violin case and an annoying little brother goes into an art museum - and that's the premise for a successful, beloved kids book? Dag.
What keeps this book going, and what fascinated me as a kid, is the view of the off-hours museum through Claudia's eyes. Claudia is a pretty dissatisfied kid, and in the peace and beauty and mystery of the museum, she has a chance to get out of her crabby self and become absorbed in the beautiful, weird, storied objects that surround her. She gets to touch and examine precious things that are usually off-limits, and in the process, one object stops her in her tracks - a small sculpture of an angel.
When it was my turn, my object was Cupid and Psyche by Jacques Louis David.
I came around a corner in the Cleveland Museum of Art, looking for something to write a paper on for ARTH103, and this baby popped me right in the eye. It's enormous, for one thing, and very detailed, almost realistic. Cupid is climbing out of bed, smirking - yeah, he tapped that - and now he's trying to get out of there without waking her. I believe I met this painting before I met my husband, but this is kind of what my husband looked like when he was 19, when we met (minus the smirk, he would insist I point out).Claudia wants to learn everything there is to know about "her" angel, and in the process discovers something that only the titular Mrs. Frankweiler knows (looking back, Mrs. Frankweiler had to be a registrar - registrars are consistently the coolest, geekiest people in all art museums I've come across). Though the angel isn't really Claudia's, this secret knowledge is. The process of discovery, the possession of knowledge, and her intimacy with the object change her, showing her what is best and noblest in her nature.
When I had my Art History classes in the basement of the Cleveland Museum, I would leave through a set of very high, very heavy double doors. I'd run down the wide marble steps that led to the Lagoon. I was usually the only person there, and at those moments, I always felt like Claudia - I felt like I lived in that museum, and that all the treasures inside of it were mine. Eventually, I spent so much time with those objects that, like Claudia, I did own them in a way. I sat in front of paintings and tapestries and Japanese woodcuts for hours, desperately hoping to find enough to say about each object to fill a ten-page paper.I am not a spiritual person. Maybe I'm the antithesis of spiritual - I'm a physical person. I believe in the transformative power of knowledge, and I believe that firsthand observation is the best way to gain that knowledge.
When you can take time to absorb the textures and smells of an object, you can absorb its language, feel the actions that made it, and figure out which questions to ask. You can meet its maker.
Me, I know the political climate that Jacques Louis David painted in - I know why there are laurel leaves on Psyche's bed. I know what the missing letters in the Byzantine tapestry were, and I know what happened when the weaver was running out of room on the right side.
Don't get me wrong - it's not the trivia itself that I groove on. What I like is the way you can decode details of the artist's world backwards from the details of the work.
When I finally had a chance to decide what to do with my life, I chose to live in museums, like Claudia. That book showed me a place filled with intrigue and stories, a place where you could figure out things that nobody else knew.
I have spent a lot of time in Claudia's museum, both as a student and working there, and she was right -- knowing that place feels like having a big cool famous friend. It was a privilege every single time I went into the workrooms of any museum I worked in, from Birmingham to Brooklyn to Baltimore.Maybe if I'd read a different book, a good book about a scientist kid, for example, I might have been a botanist (except I still would have flunked Calculus). But I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and it changed my life.