Nancy from Circulation recommended this book to me. In particular, she said the audiobook was really enjoyable — and she was right — I loved it! It is narrated by two different women playing the role of the main characters. The voices were perfect for the story, and I was quickly drawn in. But I don’t think I would have picked it up without her glowing review. Here’s what Nancy has to say about this book:
In the small southern town of Plainview, Indiana, there are three female childhood friends, Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean, who have lived through the 1960s, one adventure after another. Nicknamed “The Supremes” at an early age due to their looks, attitude, and regular meetings at the same table at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner.
The story begins as the girls reach middle age. Their group includes their husbands, and they meet regularly after church for dinner at Earl’s, now managed by his son. You soon find out Earl’s is much more than the first black-owned business in a racially divided town. It is a place of refuge, peace talks, and forgiveness.
The first of the wonderfully charismatic, strong-willed women you meet is Odette who is the “say it like it is and don’t take no guff off of anyone” member of the trio. I fell in love with her sense of humor and her realistic viewpoint when she describes an early morning bout with hot flashes and her refrigerator remedy. She states, “I opened the refrigerator door to get the water pitcher and decided to stick my head inside. I was in almost to my shoulders, enjoying the frosty temperature, when I got the giggles thinking how someone coming upon me, head stuffed into the refrigerator instead of the oven would say, ‘Now that’s a fat woman who is completely clueless about how a proper kitchen suicide works!’” Her adventures include visits from her pot-smoking mother and Eleanor Roosevelt (who, by the way, are both dead), and a life-altering event that requires the strength of her family and friends to get her through.
Clarice is the wife of a charming, handsome, but unfaithful, husband. He probably loves her, but can’t seem to manage to be monogamous. She realizes she is following in her mother’s footsteps–and struggles with the thought of how her life might be without him. She has the perfect marriage in the public eye, but a not so private truth has to be faced eventually.
Beautiful Barbara Jean, the last of the trio, seems to be the one who has dealt with many of her life decisions poorly and struggles to hide her drinking as a result. The loss of her first love, marriage to a much older man, and losing a child are things even the best of friends cannot always fix. Luckily for her, Clarice and Odette don’t give up trying.
The story is told by intertwining tales from the past with the current lives of the three and the multitude of friends and family characters they encounter daily. The author invites you to step into the lives of these amazing women as they face racism, greed, emotional and physical tragedy, all the while demonstrating the bond of true friendship. There will be tears of joy and sorrow shed for the characters one minute, and the next you’ll get the giggles–as Odette would say.
Check the WRL catalog for The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat
Jemmy Button tells the story of a young boy from a faraway, tropical island, who is taken to England to be “civilized” and the book illustrates his encounters with a strange new world and his decision to return home.
Jemmy Button is based on the true story of Orundellico, a native of Tierra del Fuego, who was taken to England in the early 1800s by Captain Robert FitzRoy, in order to be educated in Christianity and the ways of Western world. Jemmy is named for the mother-of-pearl button that the captain gives in exchange for him. But several years later, he returned to Tierra del Fuego with the captain on the HMS Beagle, accompanied by a young Charles Darwin. Upon reaching the island, he quickly shed the clothing and trappings of Victorian England and relearned his native language.
However, the book is not so much a biography, as a representation of this terribly alienating experience from Jemmy’s point of view. The lyrical prose (The British explorers tell Jemmy, “Come away with us and taste our language, see the lights of our world”) is complemented by beautifully imagined illustrations. The first thing that struck me about this book was the cover, with its bold, simplistic design and Jemmy’s little face peeking curiously out from the tangle of greenery. It made me curious to discover Jemmy Button’s story. Throughout the story, he is painted with red ochre skin and curly black hair, and he walks naked through crowds of overdressed silhouettes in shades of blue and black. He is bought clothes, taken to concerts, and even meets royalty, but he never feels at home.
“Jemmy felt almost at home. Almost, but not quite.”
After experiencing all these new places, he realizes where he truly belongs and decides to return home. The illustrations are rudimentary and unsophisticated – and very powerful. Jemmy stands out in every illustration – he is often painted in a more childlike way, with blurred lines and messy hair, whereas the English men and women he is surrounded by are painted much more deliberately.
The story explores themes of travel, homesickness, longing, and diversity. In today’s multicultural environment, this book is particularly appropriate. It teaches us the dangers of treating those who are different as inferior and the insensitivity of attempting to impose one’s culture on others.
Jennifer Uman is a self-taught painter and illustrator and Valerio Vidali is an Italian illustrator of magazines and children’s books. Historical notes are available at the end of the story.
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The sequel to Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side finds Jessica married to Lucius Vladescu and living in a castle. In many a story this would be the beginning of happily ever after, but not for Jess. She has to prove herself and claim her throne by convincing the Vampire nation that she is capable and can rule. Everything is hard, even ordering food, speaking the language, and figuring out who is for and who is against her. When Lucius is accused of murder, her one rock is gone. Who can she trust? Her uncle and his daughter who seem to care, her best friend Mindy who has come to stay and help, or Lucius’s Cousin Rainero Lovatu? Can Jessica save Lucius and herself?
As the story unfolds we learn more about Rainero and Mindy, who have established their own relationship full of twists and turns. Uncle Dorin seems to want to help as does his daughter Ylenia. We are drawn into the morass of problems and responsibilities Jessica faces. Can she prove herself worthy of becoming Queen?
Beth Fantaskey has created a fascinating Vampire world inhabited by memorable characters. Even Jessica, who sometimes seems wimpy, is real and believable. And, while Jessica does ultimately rise to the occasion, the book ends before we know if she will actually become Queen. The book is beautifully written and staged, leaving the reader hoping for a third book telling us how it all ends for Jessica and Lucius, Mindy and Rainero, and Vampire nation.
Check the WRL catalog for Jessica Rules the Dark Side
Check the WRL catalog for Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side
When Maxine Cambridge is dumped by her controlling husband for a younger woman, she moves in with her mom. The divorce is messy. She describes it as being at DEFCON 5.
In her desperation to get a job, any job, she unloads the whole story to the luckless manager of the Cluck Cluck Palace–so right from the beginning of the book, you know what Max is up against. There’s a prenuptial agreement. Her husband cheated on her. She left their home with their teenage son, but few clothes, very little money, and not a glimmer of self respect–and she needs a job desperately. Now imagine the scene as she attempts to keep a hapless teen from entering the restaurant until she convinces the manager to hire her. Actually, just read the book, it’s as good as anything you could imagine.
Moments after the most humiliating experience of her life, an old high school classmate notices her. And this is not just any guy–this is a guy who leaves Max speechless as she gazes up at his handsome face. She doesn’t recognize him as the geeky kid who had been her lab partner senior year. But now Campbell Barker exudes sex appeal and success. It really hits home for Max how little she has accomplished since high school. She can barely make excuses for why she can’t have coffee with him to catch up on what’s been happening in their lives since high school before she breaks down.
As fate would have it, Campbell is helping his dad do odd jobs–at the same senior citizens retirement village where Max’s mom lives. Max and Campbell run into each other again and again. And finally things start to look up in her life, not just because of Campbell’s attention, but because she gets a job and starts building her self-esteem.
The book has a good bit of romance, some steamy sex, a number of laugh out loud moments, and a dollop of self-analysis as Max remembers how she doesn’t have to give up all her hopes and dreams just to be with a man. Let me tell you, Campbell is a treasure to put up with all the self-doubt Max has to work through!
I liked the characters and appreciated that they were more mature than the 20- or 30-somethings that seem to dominate the romance genre. The dialog is snappy and fun. The supporting characters are interesting and provide some depth to the story (though this is still a breezy read). There’s a great twist to the divorce at the end. It made me feel good to spend a few hours in Max’s world.
Check the WRL catalog for You Dropped a Blonde on Me
A few months ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Magicians. After finishing it, I picked up the sequel, The Magician King. This book picks up immediately after the previous story ends, although you don’t necessarily need read the first book to follow the second one. In The Magician King magic is real, but mostly kept hidden, at least on Earth. That sounds like the world of Harry Potter, but it is not. For starters, the characters in The Magician King are much edgier, and the dark places Harry Potter characters delve into are shallow in comparison to where this book goes. This is modern fantasy fiction, set in the present day, featuring 21st century people.
Here, author Lev Grossman revisits many of the main characters from his earlier novel, including protagonist Quentin, his Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy classmates Eliot and Janet, and his public high school friend Julia. The author also centers this book on the world of Fillory, a delightful land written about in a series of children’s books that any reader familiar with C S. Lewis will recognize as Narnia-esque. It turns out Fillory exists; you just need to know how to get there. Quentin and his friends have found out how. In fact, as The Magician King begins Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia are the royalty of Fillory. Keep in mind that Fillory is to Narnia as Brakebills is to Hogwarts, which is to say, both of the former places are much less safe, secure, and pleasant than the latter locations. Fillory is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface. There is turmoil, terror, and evil with which to contend. In Fillory, quests are a part of life. Quentin recognizes and embraces this fact and is determined to discover and pursue his quest to the end.
I hesitate to give more away about the plot, since this is a book that is enhanced with each turn of the page. The basic story is simple: A man has a worthy quest and follows it to its conclusion. Grossman takes that simple thesis and forces the reader through some scary, unappealing, and challenging machinations. His characters are both flawed and powerful and the combination has serious consequences.
The Magician King also provides the reader with numerous underlying philosophical, or perhaps metaphysical, questions about power, life, elitism, what is important, love, death, and responsibility. These topics are not directly explored, but are, nevertheless, present throughout the story. A reader can try to grapple with them or simply set them aside.
Grossman has written The Magician King in an engaging and fluid manner. At times I put the book down because the story was a little too intense for my mood. But, I always picked it up again. Pieces of this book are haunting, other portions are illuminating. Either way, reading The Magician King is a kind of dark magic all it own.
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The famous author of Good Night, Baby Bear; Happy Birthday, Moon; and Moon Bear, Frank Asch, has done it again in this picture book. The Sun is My Favorite Star has Asch’s signature illustrations and teaches young children about the sun in an appreciative manner. The young girl depicted in this book lists many reasons why the sun is her favorite star, including: “In the evening, it paints pretty pictures in the sky for me. Even in the night, it sends some light to keep me company.”
This book should be part of any Frank Asch collection because it helps introduce abstract concepts to small children while wowing readers with the gorgeous drawings.
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Laurel never dreamed that walking home from dinner at her neighbor’s and choosing homework over ice cream would save her life. Laurel’s parents, brother, and neighbors head off for dessert, leaving Laurel and the neighbor’s son, David, to their own plans. They never make it home. Laurel must now handle losing her entire family to a car accident David’s father seems to have caused, and cope with the survivor’s guilt she feels.
Beginning of After tells the story of Laurel’s first year without her family. She completes the end of her junior year, takes her SATs, goes to prom with Joe, the Brian Krakow to David’s Jordan Catalano (My So-Called Life reference – I just couldn’t shake this comparison throughout the entire book), gets a summer job, and starts senior year all while trying not to break down. And she does break down, occasionally at the most inopportune times.
Laurel’s relationships with friends, her grandmother (who comes to live with her), counselor, therapist, Joe, and with David are all woven into a wonderful story of her life after loss. At times it is tragic and moving, and others uplifting and exciting. Ms. Castle takes you along on Laurel’s journey and every emotion Laurel feels and reaction she has is earned and realistic.
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Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, by Michael Daly
I looked at the title of this book and I thought, “Elephants, this could be a heartwarming story, a la Disney.” I was wrong. It was dark and disturbing, as well as revealing and intriguing. It also is not so much the story of Topsy the elephant, but the stories leading up to the story of Topsy the elephant.
Topsy has two main themes running through its pages. First it traces the tawdry history of elephants as center pieces in American circuses. These largest of land mammals have amazed and terrified audiences in America since 1795. Second, Daly relates the dawning of the electric light bulb, including Edison’s perfection of the bulb and Westinghouse’s successful commercialization of electricity. The author brings these seemingly disparate topics together under one big top for a show you probably have not seen before.
Daly uses his pages to weave together an interesting account of the rise and rivalry among the largest nineteenth century circuses, integration of pachyderms into that form of entertainment, and the history of the electrification of America. Along the way Daly examines the development of the electric chair, competition between circus greats P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh, and the bitterness felt by Thomas Edison toward George Westinghouse. Barnum and Forepaugh competed using all resources available to them, including guile and humbug, to present the most profitable circuses in the world. They told outrageous lies, fleeced their guests, and activity worked to outdo one another. Edison viewed himself and his inventions as unimpeachable and incorruptible. He activity sought to discredit Westinghouse as an inventor and businessman. Even as Edison resolutely refused to face reality, his name remained synonymous with the brilliance of his light bulb.
Daly’s timeframe spans the entire 19th century. Among many topics he touches on are politics, economic, crime, transportation, animal welfare, geography, racism, alcoholism, public entertainment, and capital punishment. Clearly a great deal of research went into writing this book. He writes in an easy style that keeps your attention, although often examines disturbing events. Most of those events relate to what today is nothing short of unrepentant animal abuse, especially with respect to circus elephants. It was tempting for me to skip these parts, however, they are an integral part of Topsy. This popular history includes plenty of fact and figures, but it is more story than history. That is to say, the goal is to illustrate how various people and events interacted during the 1800s to “make history.”
Whatever you do, don’t read this book expecting the glamour of circuses or the genius of inventors. Daly’s text strips away both. I sought both and found myself disappointed. Not because Topsy failed to deliver a compelling and interesting tale, but because it’s not a sweet and innocent account.
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Over the past few years there seem to have been a number of movies related to professional magicians. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, Now You See Me takes its place among them, providing some strong performances and an unexpected plot for the audience.
The movie starts by introducing us to four magicians (Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher, and Franco), each making a living at their chosen profession, however, not all of them necessarily in the most ethical manner. In turn, each illusionist mysteriously receives a Tarot card that includes an invitation to gather in a single location, at a particular time. The magicians, for whatever reason, feel compelled to heed the call and find themselves in an enigmatic apartment. Smoke fills the room and the next thing we know a year has passed. They are transformed into the Four Horsemen, the top magical act in Las Vegas, playing to a sold out theater. The Four Horsemen are in the midst of their greatest performance. They promise that before the show ends, they will rob a bank. And they do. This all happens in the first twenty-five minutes of the film. From there, it gets exciting.
While the magicians soon are wanted criminals, they also continue to perform, eluding agents Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Laurent), and staying ahead of professional illusion exposer, Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman). Filled with entertaining repartee, creative magic, and plenty of sleight of hand, like any magic show, Now You See Me, keeps the audience guessing. It is a fast-paced, crime, mystery thriller. What it lacks in character development it makes up for in story arc.
I enjoyed the plot, characters, writing, and concept of this film. However, as much as I enjoyed Now You See Me, I admit to personally being disappointed by parts of the final resolution. That shouldn’t stop anyone from watching this movie. I know others liked the ending just fine. Now You See Me is a fun example of a film filled with magic, but not encumbered by wizards. It has sophisticated themes appearing throughout the story, although nothing too risqué. So, if you enjoy a good show magic show you may want to sit down and watch this one.
Check the WRL catalog for Now You See Me
This whimsical tale takes readers inside a magical world where a Thumbelina-sized girl is stuck within a castle in a museum. She likes when the children come to visit her, but she has a tendency to get lonely after they leave for the night. Readers are sucked into her miniature activities and pensive solitude. Elementary-aged children will enjoy this book, and Nicoletta Ceccoli’s illustrations capture the imaginations of readers of all ages.
Check the WRL catalog for The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum.
“Life is poppin’ and seventeen-year-old Seven McKnight is rockin’ Stiles University’s hottest baller, Josiah Whitaker, on her arm when it all falls apart. With groupies threatening her basketball wife status and Josiah’s dreams of the NBA blowing up his ego, Seven finds herself in a tailspin. . .should she stay or leave? In steps the unbelievably fine sophomore heartthrob, Zaire St. James, who’s been watching Seven and waiting for his chance. With Josiah doing his own thing, Seven finds herself falling for Zaire. But just when she decides to give Zaire her everything, Josiah becomes determined to win Seven back by any means necessary. . . ” – summary from Book Cover
I thought this book was fantastico! The characters were really funny and made me laugh. This had to be the only book in history to make me laugh out loud. I would definitely recommend it.
Check the WRL catalog for Upgrade U
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s history-making race around the world by Matthew Goodman
In 1873 Jules Verne published his novel Around the World in 80 Days in which Phileas Fogg wagers his fortunate that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. In 1889 a brash young female reporter who went by the pseudonym Nellie Bly convinced her bosses at the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) to send her around the world. Her goal was to complete the trip in under 80 days. Reading about the trip the morning of Bly’s departure, Cosmopolitan magazine owner John Brisben Walker, convinced Elizabeth Bisland to undertake a similar trip. Both women left New York within hours of each other on November 14, 1889. Bly sailed east and Bisland trained west. The “race” was on. Eighty Days is a well researched, truly enjoyable, retelling of their travels, triumphs and defeats.
This is a captivating and fascinating story. First, neither traveler had more than two days to prepare for their amazing adventure. Second, both traveled alone at a time when very few women did so. Third, the publications sponsoring the tours did so entirely for their own profit. Fourth, the race around the world became a national sensation and made the names Bly and Bisland world renowned for a time. In 1890, when woman’s equality was shunned by most, these ladies became international celebrities.
Goodman bases his text entirely on the words of the protagonists, using their writings and published articles. He goes to great lengths to provide useful and interesting background information to help the reader see the whole picture. Eighty Days helps the reader comprehend how exciting this undertaking was to Americans across the country. This was akin to any major modern sporting event in terms of the enthusiasm of the fans and excitement it generated. The anticipation of the outcome is palpable as you read.
There are numerous details that make Eighty Days a wonderful read for anyone interested in history. The nature of their trips ensured contemporary discussions about Victorian mores and gender roles, as well as constant instances of ingenuity, romance, greed, and intrigue. It is fascinating to consider how technological advances made it possible to complete the rapid tour.
Both women made it around the world in under 80 days, however, you will have to read the book to find out who won and how the race changed their lives. The fact that few of us know about this great race proves the adage that history is quickly forgotten, but relearning it is worth the effort. If you want further proof consider the following:
As I read this book, I recalled that early in this library’s history a donation of quality books was given to the Williamsburg Public Library. After finishing Goodman’s book I confirmed my suspicion that it was none other than Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore (she married Charles Wetmore in 1891), and one of Bisland’s relatives, who made the gift of 250 books to our library in 1910. How cool is that?
Check the WRL catalog for Eighty Days
Also available as an ebook
This new twist on a classic will be a big hit with dinosaur lovers! The discovery in 2005 of modern birds living amongst dinosaurs inspired Cheryl Bardoe to create this cute story. As you can imagine, when the little ducklings see the baby Tyrannosaurus rex they all agree with the neighbor that he is “the ugliest duckling I’ve ever seen!” As the baby T. rex travels to make his home away from his duckling family, he finds that he inspires only fear in all the other creatures he encounters. He is convinced that he is a monster until a lovely large green dinosaur who looks a lot like him takes him home to live with her and her children.
The last few pages containing “scientific illustrations of the dinosaurs and other flora and fauna that play a part in this book” and the author’s and artist’s notes demonstrate Bardoe and Doug Kennedy’s commitment to making not only an amusing book, but also one based on the most recent paleontological research. Kennedy’s watercolor illustrations bring a cartoon-like charisma lacking in many dinosaur books, which bring to life this prehistoric time.
Check the WRL catalog for The Ugly Duckling Dinosaur: A prehistoric tale.
“Straight-A junior Julia may be accident prone, but she’s queen of following rules and being prepared. That’s why she keeps a pencil sharpener in her purse and a pocket Shakespeare in her, well, pocket. And that’s also why she’s chosen Mark Bixford, her childhood crush, as her MTB (“meant to be”). But this spring break, Julia’s rules are about to get defenestrated (SAT word: to be thrown from a window) when she’s partnered with her personal nemesis, class-clown Jason, on a school trip to London.” – Summary from book cover
I thought this book was great. It gives us something different to think about. In some parts it was really ironic, but in most parts the book was great. I’ve read it seven times, over and over again. Sorry to say I barely like reading but I love this book. I would definitely recommend it.
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This week, WRL Development Officer Benjamin Goldberg takes a look at some fascinating books and films.
This is a sweet movie. As school children Albert and Anthony found each other in the school cafeteria. They instantly became best friends and magicians-in-training. And so began the story of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). As adults they transformed into full-fledged magicians, having crafted a Las Vegas magic show that delivers them to the pinnacle of their profession. But, where can they go from the top?
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone follows a familiar buddy film storyline. There’s nothing innovative in that respect, but the well-rehearsed construct does not detract from the enjoyment of the movie for me. It makes it comfortable to watch. As with many films of this ilk the story includes a love interest, Jane (Wilde), a nemesis, Steve Gray (Carrey), and a guiding light, Rance Holloway (Arkin).
Early into the story the duo’s popularity is vanishing, their act is stale, and their friendship has all but disappeared. Smaller audiences and the rising infamy of street magician/competitor Steve Gray force them to try to freshen things up. The attempt is a complete failure and presto chango, even the illusion of friendship is gone. Like a woman in a box, their friendship is sawed in two. You see it coming because Burt has become an egotistical, self-absorbed, fool. The rest of the film is about putting the friendship back together (focusing more on Wonderstone than on Marvelton, as the title suggests) and saying abracadabra to magically reunite the act. Carrell and Buscemi are wonderful as best friends and angry partners. They have a chemistry together that is fun to watch. Carrey’s character is classic Jim Carrey. He’s obnoxious, loud, annoying, and witty. Wilde and Arkin fill out the cast with nice performances that add to the story.
While a straightforward storyline, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone includes some inside jokes about (and I suspect for) magicians, that suggest the script was Informed by someone familiar with the world of illusionists. Some of the lines and attitudes offer glimpses into the world of performing magicians. In fact, the production notes reveal that world renowned magician David Copperfield served as a special consultant on the movie.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was a delightful family (PG-13) movie. We made our ice cream disappear while watching it. There are some scenes that are suggestive, but nothing too racy. The plot provides a simple, positive moral that leaves the audience ready to pick a card, any card.
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Volume 22 of the Graphic Novel Classics series contains twenty-three stories and poems written by famous early black authors and poets, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Each tale is then adapted and illustrated by notable contemporary black writers and artists including Jeremy Love, who wrote and illustrated the stunning Bayou graphic novel (review here), Trevor Von Eeden, who wrote and illustrated the two-part graphic biography The Original Johnson about the early boxer Jack Johnson, and Mat Johnson, who wrote the graphic mystery Incognegro (review here). With such a talented group of contributors, I had high hopes as I turned the pages of the first story, and I was certainly not disappointed.
Without a doubt, the stories are still as powerful today as when the words were first put onto paper. Sometimes sober, sometimes funny, and always heart-searing, even without the artwork this volume would stand alone as a fantastic collection of literature. But it is the illustrations, framing and woven into the lines of words, that really make the selections shine. Each artist brings their own unique style of lines and coloring to their work, which helps separate the stories from each other in tone and pace. Authors who have multiple contributions have their work drawn by different artists, and the contrast of styles give each piece a different life.
I would be hard pressed to select an absolute favorite among the works, but The Two Americans starts off the book with a powerful, wrenching emotional blow. In contrast, The Negro is simple, beautiful, and cosmic in its elegance. Each of its mere six panels could be justifiably framed and put on a wall as standalone art, something you don’t often get from a graphic novel.
Recommended for readers of poetry, short stories, and/or with an interest in American culture presented by the unflinching voices of those who experience it’s ugliest side.
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Some apocalyptic stories begin with human folly. Ashfall starts with a catastrophe that no human could ever prevent, the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park. Some authorities think that these supervolcanic events have occurred several times in the course of human history. They may have caused ice ages and may have caused a bottleneck in human evolution. Perhaps humans can predict supervolcanic events in the short term if we notice a rise in seismic and volcanic activity but no human power can prevent them.
In Ashfall, Alex is an ordinary teenager living in a suburb in Iowa. He argues with his mother and likes playing World of Warcraft. He is thrilled when his parents go on a weekend visit to his uncle’s farm 3 hours’ drive away in Warren, Illinois and leave him home alone for the first time.
Nobody suspected that this routine Friday would be the last ordinary day that anyone in America, and maybe the whole world, would ever see. Alex’s house suddenly explodes into flames and all the phones, internet and even the radios don’t work. He goes to a neighbor’s house and for days the world is plunged into darkness as they are surrounded by a noise so loud that they have to stuff toilet paper in their ears and wear headphones to prevent pain. At first Alex has no idea what is going on, but his neighbor connects the crazy events to a short radio news bulletin about a volcanic eruption.
Even when they know what has happened, nobody knows what it means for them in the short term or humanity in the long term. All Alex knows is that he must find his family, so he sets off with cross country skis and a backpack of food. Conditions are terrible as every water source is poisoned and it becomes so cold that it starts snowing in September, but the behavior of people is far worse. Some are kind, together in towns to look after each other, but with civilization collapsing, criminals have no restraints. Alex meets good people like sharp-tongued Darla but also murderous criminals like Target.
Ashfall can be enjoyed as a tense action adventure with fascinating post-apocalyptic problems. Who would have considered that flat-roofed buildings are a terrible choice during a supervolcanic eruption because they may collapse under the weight of the ash? But Ashfall is more than a simple thriller. Author Mike Mullins movingly and realistically portrays Alex’s growth from a spoiled teenager to a strong and mature young man, capable of surviving in the new, harsh world.
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2013 is shaping up to be a very good year for author and illustrator Jon Klassen. Not only did he win the Caldecott Medal for This is Not My Hat, but another book he illustrated, Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, was selected as a Caldecott Honor Book.
Extra Yarn tells the story of Annabelle, a young girl who finds a box of yarn while she is playing outside in the snow. She takes the box home and uses the yarn to knit herself a sweater. After she finishes the sweater, she notices that she has some extra yarn so she uses the yarn to knit a sweater for her dog, Mars. Soon, Annabelle’s sweaters attract attention and brighten her surroundings everywhere she goes. Not everyone is a fan of her sweaters; a local boy mocks her and her teacher says the sweaters are a distraction in class. Annabelle responds by knitting sweaters for everyone in her community, except for Mr. Crabtree who gets a knitted cap. Even the animals and buildings receive sweaters and she never runs out of yarn. News of Annabelle’s remarkable box of yarn reaches an archduke, who has a sinister plan to obtain the yarn.
Extra Yarn is a lovely story that shows how one girl’s simple act changes her entire community. The use of color is one of the most effective aspects of Klassen’s illustrations. Klassen begins with a drab color palette when Annabelle finds the box of yarn, then gradually adds a bright and varied palette as she knits more and more sweaters. Fans of Klassen’s other books will have fun spotting some very familiar faces, all surprise recipients of Annabelle’s sweaters.
Sweet and charming, Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn is bolstered by Klassen’s clever illustrations.
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It cannot be more appropriate for a biography of Hergé, the author of the Tintin books, to be rendered in a graphic novel format using ligne claire, which is French for “clear line,” an iconic style of illustration that is immediately recognizable as his. Tintin has been enjoyed by readers for decades, and interest was recently reignited by the 2011 computer-animated film, The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Stephen Spielberg.
Hergé was the pen name of Georges Prosper Remi, a Belgian cartoonist who was born in the early 20th century, and the book, with some artistic license, traces his love of drawing back to his earliest years. Each chapter comprises a vignette covering a particularly notable piece of his life. While the book is presented in chronological order, several years often separate each fragment of life that is portrayed. The result is a thorough, focused story that allows for a smooth flow of narrative without an exhaustive overload of minutia.
A fun aspect of the book, for any reader of the Tintin adventures, is the real-life people who served as inspiration for some of the colorful Hergé characters. Hergé’s father had an identical twin brother, and the two share a scene that immediately calls into mind the comic relief provided by the bumbling detectives, Thompson and Thomson. The back of the book has short biographies for several of the notable people who played a part in the life and work of Hergé. Although I usually skim over parts like this, I found the bios filled with interesting tidbits that perfectly complemented the story itself. One such was the brother of Hergé, portrayed only as a baby in the book, being the evident inspiration for Captain Haddock, due to his habit of using colorful language after a stint in the army.
An enjoyable and absorbing read, recommended to readers of biographies and graphic novels.
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The pigeon receives an unforgettable lesson in politeness in Mo Willems’ hilarious The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?
All the duckling wants is a cookie, and just by asking politely he is rewarded with a large cookie full of nuts. The duckling’s happiness comes to a sudden end, however, when the pigeon spots the cookie. The pigeon asks the duckling how he got the cookie, and is flabbergasted to learn the duckling got the cookie just by asking. An indignant pigeon then tells the duckling all the things he asks for – from driving the bus to his own personal iceberg – but never seems to get. The pigeon’s lamentations finally come to an end when the ducking surprises him with an unexpected act of kindness.
Warm and humorous, The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? is a fun book that gently reinforces the importance of being polite. Willems’ illustrations are simple but effective, consisting of little more than the pigeon, duckling, and cookie set against a plain and uncluttered background. Willems’ dry humor will also appeal to older readers who will sympathize with the duckling’s request at the end of the story.
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