Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Review - The Great Dictionary Caper

The Great Dictionary Caper
by Judy Sierra
illustrated by Eric Comstock
Date: 2018
Publisher: Simon Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book non-fiction
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: library

When all of the words escape from the dictionary, it’s up to Noah Webster to restore alphabetical order in this supremely wacky picture book that celebrates language.

Words have secret lives. On a quiet afternoon the words escape the dictionary (much to the consternation of Mr. Noah Webster) and flock to Hollywood for a huge annual event—Lexi-Con. Liberated from the pages, words get together with friends and relations in groups including an onomatopoeia marching band, the palindrome family reunion, and hide-and-seek antonyms. It’s all great fun until the words disagree and begin to fall apart. Can Noah Webster step in to restore order before the dictionary is disorganized forever?

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This book is actually kind of fun... though I would have a few reservations about recommending it to younger children.

Set around the idea of a bunch of words escaping from a dictionary, this book shows off different types of words, with (mostly) clear illustrations. We see onomatopoeia, antonyms, contractions, action verbs, rhymes, anagrams, palindromes, and more. The illustrations looked very retro to me, which I kind of liked.

My only complaint is that, on some pages, it wasn't always clear which type of word was which. For example, on the conjunctions page, those words are mixed together with interjections. Yes, the interjections page came immediately before, but there's no colour or illustration difference setting off the two types of words, so if these are new concepts, there might be some confusion.

Other than that, though, this is a fun look at many different kinds of words. The section with archaic words was especially entertaining. At least that page didn't cause a garboil in my head. (Thankfully, those words are included in the glossary at the end.)

Quotable moment:


Premise: 4/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 3/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall: 3.67 out of 5

Review - Don't Dangle Your Participle

Don't Dangle Your Participle
by Vanita Oelschlager
illustrated by Mike DeSantis
Date: 2014
Publisher: Vanita Books
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book non-fiction
Pages: 22
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

Words and pictures show children what a dangling participle is all about. Young readers are shown an incorrect sentence that has in it a dangling participle. They are then taught how to make the sentence read correctly. It is done in a cute and humorous way. The dangling participle loses its way and the children learns how to help it find its way back to the correct spot in the sentence. This is followed by some comical examples of sentences with dangling participles and their funny illustrations, followed by an illustration of the corrected sentence. Young readers will have fun recognizing this problem in sentence construction and learning how to fix it.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I'm not sure how much the target audience will get out of this, considering I've seen the dreaded dangling participle in published novels (obviously, it's a tricky concept, even for adults). I think the explanation pages at the beginning might be a little bit confusing for kids; things are explained clearly, but with an unfortunate side effect of sounding a bit like a textbook. Once the book gets into the silly illustrated examples, things are much better. You can clearly see how the dangling participle changes the meaning of the sentence. (I did think a couple of the examples--Susie and her balloons and Ida and her ice cream--might've been a little confusing, though, as they could've been fantasy or simply figurative language, and not necessarily dangling participles in certain contexts.)

I probably would've liked this book when I was a kid (more than I did as an adult), but then I've always been interested in how languages are put together. I'm not sure if it would have a broad appeal for the general population of young readers, though.

Quotable moment:


Premise: 3/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 3/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 3/5

Overall: 3 out of 5

Review - Birds of a Feather: A Book of Idioms and Silly Pictures

Birds of a Feather: A Book of Idioms and Silly Pictures
by Vanita Oelschlager
illustrated by Robin Hegan
Date: 2009
Publisher: Vanita Books
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book non-fiction
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

Children are innately curious about words, especially phrases that make them laugh ("Ants in your pants!"), sound silly ("Barking up the wrong tree" or "Goosebumps") or trigger images that tickle a child's sense of the absurd ("Like a bull in a china shop"). Birds of a Feather introduces children to the magic of idioms words that separately have one meaning, but together take on something entirely different. Birds of a Feather introduces idioms with outlandish illustrations of what the words describe literally. The reader then has to guess the "real" meaning of the phrases (which is upside down in the corner of each spread). At the end of the book, the reader is invited to learn more about these figures of speech.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This is not really what I was expecting, and it kind of missed the mark for me. This is basically just a collection of illustrated idioms (some illustrated better than others; what was with the square "butterflies in your stomach"?) with basic descriptions of what the idioms mean. For example, "ants in your pants" means you are "excited and squirmy and can't sit still". Unfortunately, that wasn't enough for me. I wanted to know why that combination of words came to be used in that way, and I probably would've loved learning about the origins of these idioms (since I would've known the basic meanings of many of them as a child, anyway). There is one example of this at the end of the book, where "barking up the wrong tree" is given a more thorough treatment. I would've preferred the whole book to be like that, with the origins of these idioms explained, rather than just their meanings.

The illustrations are hit and miss for me, and I don't like the way the explanations are printed upside down in tiny print, necessitating flipping the book around if you want to read them (I read this on a laptop, which was pretty awkward). I also don't like how "bring home the bacon" has to adhere to gender stereotypes with the phrase: "In our family, my dad brings home the bacon." This book was published in 2009; why can't the mom bring home the bacon?

Overall, this wasn't great. If the author had extended the idiom origins throughout the whole book, rather than just having one footnote at the end, I would've liked this one more.

Quotable moment:


Premise: 2/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 3/5
Originality: 2/5

Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall: 2 out of 5

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Review - Brave Thumbelina

Brave Thumbelina
by An Leysen
Date: 2018
Publisher: Clavis Publishing
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 29
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

An Leysen's breathtaking and magical retelling of the classic fairy tale of Hans Christian Andersen!

Once upon a time, there was a woman who desperately wanted a child. One day, a good witch passed her house and gave her a flower seed. The woman planted the seed and took good care of it. Before long, two little eyes curiously stared at her between the petals. Inside the flower was a tiny girl! The woman named her Thumbelina. It soon became clear that Thumbelina was a very brave little girl.

In this magical picture book, An Leysen retells the classic fairy tale of Hans Christian Andersen. For children ages 5 and up and anyone who loves enchanting fairy tales.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's story just didn't work for me. I'm not sure if the original would work for me, either, since it seems to be a very dated, sexist story. Every male in the book wants to own or marry Thumbelina (which is creepier still because she's portrayed as a little girl).

We're told her mother was very "kind" to her, but she kept her daughter in a box with a lid (and no air holes that I could see). Her mother wasn't the brightest bulb, though, as she complained about not being able to have children. As far as I could tell, she was a single woman, so it wasn't any wonder she wasn't getting pregnant! (Somebody neglected to have "the talk" with her, I guess.)

It's too bad this particular story was chosen for a retelling, because the illustrations are really pretty. They're probably the only thing I liked about this book. I don't think I'd give it to a child, simply because of the problematic messages of women as property and needing to be saved by a man.

Quotable moment:


Premise: 2/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 3/5
Illustrations: 4/5
Originality: 1/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall: 2.33 out of 5

Review - The Prince and the Dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang
Date: 2018
Publisher: First Second
Reading level: YA
Book type: graphic novel
Pages: 288
Format: e-book
Source: library

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride—or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia—the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances—one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

WARNING: Major Spoilers! To read this review with the spoilers hidden, check it out on Goodreads.

Just so I don't get any hateful comments, let me start by saying I don't have a problem with the overall premise. My complaints about this book aren't because it's about a teenage boy who likes wearing dresses; rather, it's the fact that the premise seems shoehorned into a historical setting, rendering the whole thing rather unbelievable.

Graphic novels can often be a little short on story, and this is the case here. Basically, we have a seamstress (Frances) who's hired by the prince (Sebastian) to make him a wardrobe of fabulous dresses so he can tear up the town as his alter-ego, Lady Crystallia. Okay, fine. But I found that I had to suspend a ridiculous amount of disbelief, right from the very beginning. I found the pages at the end, where Jen Wang explains her process and shows some early sketches from the book, rather interesting. Had she gone with teenage Sebastian's original look, I might not have been fighting with my brain the whole time when it was screaming, "Nobody would have believed this man was a woman!" In the final version, Sebastian is drawn with a very prominent nose and ears, rendering him unambiguously male. Even when he's wearing his dress and wig, it's obvious he isn't actually a woman. (Someone with such distinctive features never would've been able to pass for a woman... never mind go unnoticed as the crown prince.) It's sort of the Clark Kent/Superman thing, where you're wondering the whole time why people never notice it's the same guy; glasses don't make that much of a difference.

But what really ticked me off, right near the end, was how Frances, Sebastian, and the king hijacked the fashion show, pulling the royalty card to get their way. Never mind that it wasn't their show. Never mind that they were on private property. They basically turned a turn-of-the-century Parisian fashion show into a Pride Parade... and everybody loved it. Again, we're back to the believability factor. Yes, it's Paris, which was known as being a leader in fashion... but if Sebastian dressing as a woman caused such a scandal, why was everyone so willing to embrace cross-dressing on the runway? After that, the book completely lost me, since everyone came around (including the store owners), Frances and Sebastian got exactly what they wanted, and everything was tied up in a tidy, sappy, unrealistic little bow. I don't have anything against happy endings, but this was just too much.

I'm left questioning why the author chose to set the story when she did. A more modern setting would've worked better. As it is, it paints everything with a very modern brush, implying that the world of turn-of-the-century Paris was a lot more tolerant and accepting than it actually was. The dialogue also would've worked better with a more contemporary setting; the overly modern turns of phrase continually pulled me out of the flow of the story, almost from the very beginning.

While I hoped to enjoy this one, I didn't. Jen Wang is a talented artist, but I'm not sure the choice of setting combined well enough with the subject matter here. If you can suspend disbelief and don't mind seeing 21st-century values superimposed on historical stories, you might like this one more than I did.

Plot: 3/5
Characters: 3/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing & Editing: 3/5
Illustration: 3/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 ladybugs

Monday, November 12, 2018

Review - The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
by Kate DiCamillo
illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Date: 2000
Publisher: Candlewick Press (MA)
Reading level: MG
Book type: illustrated prose novel
Pages: 183
Format: e-book
Source: library

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a china rabbit named Edward Tulane. The rabbit was very pleased with himself, and for good reason: he was owned by a girl named Abilene, who adored him completely. And then, one day, he was lost...

Kate DiCamillo takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the depths of the ocean to the net of a fisherman, from the bedside of an ailing child to the bustling streets of Memphis. Along the way, we are shown a miracle -- that even a heart of the most breakable kind can learn to love, to lose, and to love again.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I'm not a crier when it comes to books... but this one nearly had me in tears by the end.

My mom read this one herself years ago, long before I'd discovered Kate DiCamillo's books. She enjoyed it, and I sort of filed that information away, along with a vague notion that I should one day give this book a try. Now that I've read it, I really wish I hadn't waited so long. It's probably one of the best reads I've had all year.

DiCamillo has this way of writing for kids that challenges them and respects them as intelligent readers. She's not afraid to use big words or deep concepts. That's the case here, as well, with the story of a proud, somewhat-vain china rabbit who finds himself lost. Throughout his journey, he meets friends and enemies, and all the while he grows as a... well, not a person, but as an intelligent being. He learns to love, only to lose hope when he's separated from the ones he loves over and over again. But, eventually, the love returns, completing the miraculous journey that's just as internal as it is about travelling in the world.

In some ways, this seems like a fairy tale. In other ways, I was reminded of stories like The Velveteen Rabbit, with the theme of a toy being loved so much that it eventually becomes real. Edward was always "real", though; his journey had more to do with being his best rabbit self.

The illustrations are the perfect complement to the gentle story. Some are monochromatic, and others are in full colour, but each one helps Edward's world come alive in the mind of the reader.

I don't know if I can recommend this one enough. It's a great middle-grade read, as it's not too long, but it's perfectly suitable for older readers (including adults) as well. Kate DiCamillo has yet to disappoint me.

Quotable moment:

Edward hung by his velvet ears and looked up at the night sky. He saw the stars. But for the first time in his life, he looked at them and felt no comfort. Instead, he felt mocked. You are down there alone, the stars seemed to say to him. And we are up here, in our constellations, together.

I have been loved, Edward told the stars.

So? said the stars. What difference does that make when you are all alone now?


Plot: 5/5
Characters: 5/5
Pace: 5/5
Writing & Editing: 4/5
Originality: 5/5

Enjoyment: 5/5

Overall Rating: 4.86 out of 5 ladybugs

Review - A Boy and a House

A Boy and a House
by Maja Kastelic
Date: 2018
Publisher: Annick Press
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

What will the little boy find at the top of the stairs?

When a little boy sees a cat slip into the open door of an apartment building, the temptation is too great: he follows the cat into the lobby. Before continuing up the stairway, the boy picks up one of several discarded drawings that litter the floor.

Another open door awaits. Again, the boy follows the cat, this time into an apartment filled with books and toys. No one is there, but a table set for tea testifies to the fact that someone has been there recently. More drawings are scattered throughout, which the boy picks up one by one. With his pile of sketches in hand, he continues up several more staircases until he reaches an attic where a wonderful surprise awaits him.

The stunning illustrations in this wordless book invite the reader into a mysterious world that evokes the beauty of the past. Drawn by the light radiating from every open doorway, the boy lets his curiosity take him on an amazing journey of discovery, which young readers can elaborate with their own versions of the story.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Sometimes a book is so good and yet so uncomfortable at the same time that it's really difficult to rate. A Boy and a House is an aesthetically pleasing wordless picture book that made me intensely uncomfortable, even while I appreciated the artwork. Why? Because the dingy colour palette, combined with the subject matter, made me really fear for the child. This appears to be a European title, and I get the feeling that Europeans aren't quite as worried about child luring and abductions as North Americans are. The little boy following a trail of mysterious drawings into the bowels of a house--unaccompanied, and at night, no less--felt uncomfortably like he was being lured to me. (Yes, the explanation and ending are innocent enough, but that doesn't erase the discomfort I felt the whole time I was "reading" this.)

The illustrations are cute, and there's plenty to look at in every picture (including some unexpected surprises). Perhaps if the setting had been more fantasy-like and less real-world urban, I wouldn't have had such a visceral reaction to the thought of a tiny boy trespassing in a nearly abandoned building all by himself.

Quotable moment:


Premise: 3/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: n/a
Illustrations: 4/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall: 3 out of 5