Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Middle Grade Mermaid Stories!

Mermaid stories are insanely popular. Debbie Dadey’s Mermaid Tales series is always out over here; I have early readers and middle graders constantly asking me where they can find more mermaid books, and YA has a whole category of mermaid books. If you’re of a certain age (or your parents are), like me, you remember the movie, Splash, which is getting a reboot with Channing Tatum as a mer-guy now. There’s something fascinating about the world under the sea.

The Little Mermaid, by Metaphrog, (Apr. 2017, Papercutz), $13.99, ISBN: 9781629917399

Award-winning graphic novelists and Eisner Award nominees Metaphrog – aka Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers –  are award-winning graphic novelists who have crafted a graphic novel retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.  For those of you who only know the Disney version, heads up: this is not that version. There’s no happy singing crab, Bette Midler is not a fabulous underwater witch with killer vocal cords, and the ending is very different than you may expect. The Mermaid – unnamed here – falls in love with a young prince whom she saves from drowning, and makes a bargain with a witch in order to grow legs and be with him, but the price is high.

Metaphrog create beautiful art to tell the mermaid’s tale. With shades of blues and greens, they weave magic, loneliness, and mystery into their story. The waves seem to lap off the cover, beckoning the reader to come in and read their tale. This adaptation beautifully translates this powerful tale. Pair this one with Metaphrog’s graphic adaptation of Anderson’s The Red Shoes and Other Tales.

Fish Girl, by Donna Jo Napoli/Illustrated by David Wiesner, (March 2017, Clarion), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0547483931

Another Little Mermaid retelling, Fish Girl tells a different, slightly darker tale. The Fish Girl is an attraction in a seaside exhibit; the proprietor refers to himself as Neptune, god of the oceans. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Neptune isn’t all that he claims to be, and the circumstances under which he keeps Fish Girl in captivity are unsettling, bordering on menacing. A girl visits the exhibit one day and catches a glimpse of the fish girl; the two strike up a secret friendship as Mia – the name Fish Girl’s friend bestows on her – wants more than life in a tank, and begins pushing her boundaries.

This is a more modern update of the classic fairy tale, with unsettling implications. Neptune is not a benevolent sea god; he’s not a loving father figure, and I found myself fighting a panicky feeling – most likely reacting as a parent – because I wanted Mia to get away from him. The story is intriguing, and will draw readers in, keeping them riveted until the last page is turned.

While I normally love David Wiesner’s artwork – Art & Max, Flotsam, Tuesday, you name it – this isn’t his usual artwork, where the colors blend and shade to provide depth and dimension. It’s still beautiful artwork, but it’s more flat here, really letting the story take center stage. His use of sea colors is lovely, and he creates a loving relationship between Mia and her guardian, the octopus.

I’d suggest these for higher middle graders – 5th and 6th graders – because the overall content may be upsetting to younger readers. Would I let my kids read them at that age? Yes, but that’s me. Read these first, and let that be your guide; make sure your younger readers know that these are different ways of telling the Disney story they may be familiar with.

Posted in Fantasy, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Surreal Brooklyn: Vassa in the Night

vassaVassa in the Night, by Sarah Porter, (Sept. 2016, Tor/Forge), $17.99, ISBN: 9780765380548

Recommended for ages 12+

A retelling of the Russian folktale “Vassilissa the Beautiful” introduces readers to a surrealistic, modern-day Brooklyn where magic and mayhem rule the day. Vassa is a teen living with her stepmother, half-sister, and stepsister; she really only gets along with Chelsea, who isn’t even technically related to her. She also has a wooden doll, Erg, that is alive and a bit of a kleptomaniac, but Vassa can’t tell anyone about her, so everyone thinks she’s the one with the problem. Mean-spirited Stephanie sends Vassa to the store in the middle of the night to pick up light bulbs, but the only store open is the awful BY’s, where they behead shoplifters and leave the heads on pikes outside the store. Vassa goes to the store, fully aware that Stephanie is trying to get her killed.

When she arrives at the store, she discovers that the outside of BY’s is just the beginning of the weirdness, and that she’s caught up in it more deeply than she could have guessed. She’d better hold on tight to Erg if she wants to get out alive.

If you love your fairy tales fractured, they don’t come any more flipped than Vassa in the Night. Magical realism fans will embrace this story and so will fans of surrealist writing. Vassa is a smart heroine who undertakes a hero’s journey here; Baba Yaga – called Babs here – is appropriately awful, and Erg emerges as the best sidekick since C-3P0 and R2D2 teamed up. There’s great character development, cringe-worthy moments, and some beautiful storytelling. Every time Sarah Porter describes the swans that gather around Vassa, I just want to close my eyes and listen to the beating of their feathers around me. There will be moments where you have to put the book down and wrap your head around what you’ve just read, but it’s all worth it. Read the original folktale here first if you want a better grasp on the story, or just dive in if you like to live dangerously.

Sarah Porter’s author website has more information about her books, a gallery of artwork (some inspired by her books), and updates from the author.

 

Posted in Early Reader, Fantasy, Fiction, Preschool Reads

Suite for Human Nature is a musical folktale made art

suite for human natureSuite for Human Nature, by Diane Charlotte Lampert/Illustrated by Eric Puybaret (May 2016, Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)$17.99, ISBN: 9781416953739

Recommended for ages 4-10

A musical collaboration between legendary songwriter Diane Lampert and Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis becomes a beautifully illustrated parable on humanity in this gentle story about Mother Nature and her challenging children.

Mother Nature is busy. She’s got seasons to change, flowers to wake up and put to bed, and all of Earth’s creatures to care for. But she really longs for children of her own, so using bits and pieces of nature – sticks, stones, seeds, leaves – she ends up making five children: Fear, Envy, Hate, Greed, and Fickle. Each time, she’s taken aback when she realizes how tough it is to raise a child, and asks humans – the creatures that can’t fly, swim, roar, or gallop – to keep an eye on her unruly children once she buzzes off to tend to another season. Each time she returns, she creates another child, hoping to even things out, and each time, things get a little more complicated, especially when the children’s personalities start rubbing off on the humans. When she takes some advice from the Winds, and creates Twins, though, things change.

Suite for Human Nature is told in old folktale tradition, telling the story of human nature; its strengths and its weak spots, and the one thing that conquers all. Breathtaking acrylic and linen illustrations by Eric Puybaret make this a joy to read and gaze at. This is a better read-aloud for slightly older listeners, who can sit for a little longer and use their imaginations to fly away with this story. Ask your listeners to draw their feelings – what materials would they use? What colors would they give them? Older kids doing a unit on fairy tales and mythology could compare this story to the myth of Pandora’s Box.

Absolute must for collections. I would love to get hold of the actual music.

Diane Lampert (1924­–2013) was a renowned songwriter who contributed to lyrics for artists from The Beatles to Brenda Lee and over twenty movie title tracks such as The Snow Queen, I’ll Take Sweden, Billie, and Silent Running, as well as songs for The Wild and the Innocent, and Trees Lounge, and for Bob Hope, Gary Grant, and Buster Keaton, among others. Suite for Human Nature first debuted at a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, with the world-famous Boys Choir of Harlem.

Eric Puybaret has illustrated many children’s books, including Suite for Human Nature; the bestselling Puff, the Magic Dragon; The Night Before Christmas; Over the Rainbow, as well as many others in his native country, France. Eric’s critically acclaimed work was praised by The New York Times as “elegantly rendered” and Publishers Weekly calls it “graceful [and] whimsical.”

Have a look at some of Eric Puybaret’s beautiful art:

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Posted in Animal Fiction, Early Reader, Fiction, Preschool Reads

Marianne Dubuc retells the story of Noah in The Animal’s Ark

animals arkThe Animal’s Ark, by Marianne Dubuc (Apr. 2016, Kids Can Press), $16.95, ISBN: 9781771386234

Recommended for ages 3-6

It’s raining! The animals huddle together to try and stay dry, but the rain keeps coming and the land is filling up. Thank goodness, a nice man named Mr. Noah shows up with his boat and lets the animals on, two by two, to stay warm, dry and safe. At first, the animals cuddle together and sleep, play games, and get along, but the rain keeps falling and things start to get a little cramped. When are they going to find dry land?  When is this rain going to stop?

This is an adorable retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark by an illustrator with a gift for telling entire stories within her art. Marianne Dubuc is wonderful with putting little winks and nudges to readers in her illustrations: she told us the story of Little Red Riding Hood in The Bus Ride, where we saw a little girl riding a bus to her grandmother’s house; in Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, she told us the story of a postmouse making his mail delivery rounds, while her illustrations told us the stories of all the animals who lived in the forest. Here, we see little touches that tell us volumes about life aboard the ark; predator and prey all living together and having fun at first, grateful to be out of the rain. We see a chameleon blending into a tiger, attached to his hind quarters while the tiger naps; snails draw mazes with their snail slime; the elephant helps bail out the ark when a leak springs up. We also see what happens when a hedgehog’s prickles get… prickly, and a cat sharpens her claws in a very inconvenient spot. The animals’ postures go from relaxed to combative, and a crocodile is ready to snap! Ms. Dubuc’s pencils and crayons provide a soft, colorful story that kids will love to read and have read to them, over and over again.

While The Animal’s Ark is a retelling of the biblical story, this is a book that can be read to all audiences. Noah is a kind man with a boat, offering to shepherd the animals through the storm. The rain and flood are just a heavy storm. It’s a good introduction to the story for Christian readers; parents and teachers can lead children into a deeper discussion at their leisure. This makes the book work well for public storytimes with diverse audiences; kids love animals stories, and that’s exactly what this is.

Get out your stuffed animals and make your own story arc around the carpet or the bed. Talk about what animals you’d let board the ark – would you let an alien board the ark? What about animals like the dodo bird, or a dinosaur? And what other things did the animals do on the ark? Did the chickens lay eggs and the bees make honey to help feed everyone? Get creative, and let the kids get creative; you can turn this into a lesson on animals or you can turn it into a wacky storytime. It’s up to you.

Posted in Toddler Reads

Book Review: Mary Engelbreidt’s Mother Goose, by Mary Engelbreidt (Harper Festival, 2005)

Mary-Engelbreits-Mother-Goose-One-Hundred-Best-Loved-VersesRecommended for ages 3+

Mary Engelbreit’s Mother Goose brings together 100 nursery rhymes – some, well-known and loved; some lesser known – in one volume and illustrated in Ms. Engelbreit’s traditional nostalgic style. In a note at the end of the book, she writes about her granddaughter’s influence and the desire for the innocence of “simpler and slower times”. She created the illustrations by going with the first images that popped into her head after reading the poems over, and takes care to include images of children from different ethnicities. The colorful illustrations are laid out against a plain white background. The text is in a plain, black font, taking no attention away from the pictures. The illustrated characters are dressed in a variety of outfits, from medieval to modern, but always with a retro twist that Mary Engelbreit is known for. The endpapers feature popular nursery rhyme characters set against a sky blue backdrop.

There is usually one rhyme to a page, along with a companion illustration; there are two to a page for shorter rhymes, but the pages are never cluttered. More popular rhymes, like Humpty Dumpty, get their own spread. Some of the rhymes appear to be abridged, but this is not mentioned anywhere in the book. An introduction by Lenoard Marcus, an author, critic, and children’s literature historian, explains the history of nursery rhymes. There is a board book available for this title which is much shorter, for younger audiences. The book is also packaged with a CD, with Academy Award nominated and Golden Globe Award-winning actress Lynn Redgrave performing a full-length reading of the book.

A nursery rhyme storytime would be the perfect venue for this book, as the illustrations will draw young audiences’ attention. The popular nursery rhymes invite interaction, as the children and caregivers can recite rhymes along with the storytime leader. There are fingerplays for many of these rhymes. A reading can be enhanced by either a puppet show or a flannelboard, and there are many CDs with nursery rhymes that can can enhance a storytime craft; Prekinders is one of many sites that provide free nursery rhyme printables.

The author’s website features author information, a shop, and a crafts area where caregivers and educators can download coloring sheets and crafts.