Friday, September 20, 2019

Review - Harriet the Invincible

Harriet the Invincible (Hamster Princess #1)
by Ursula Vernon
Date: 2015
Publisher: Dial Books
Reading level: MG
Book type: illustrated chapter book
Pages: 256
Format: e-book
Source: library

Sleeping Beauty gets a feisty, furry twist in this hilarious new comic series from the creator of Dragonbreath

Harriet Hamsterbone is not your typical princess. She may be quite stunning in the rodent realm (you'll have to trust her on this one), but she is not so great at trailing around the palace looking ethereal or sighing a lot. She finds the royal life rather... dull. One day, though, Harriet's parents tell her of the curse that a rat placed on her at birth, dooming her to prick her finger on a hamster wheel when she's twelve and fall into a deep sleep. For Harriet, this is most wonderful news: It means she's invincible until she's twelve! After all, no good curse goes to waste. And so begins a grand life of adventure with her trusty riding quail, Mumfrey... until her twelfth birthday arrives and the curse manifests in a most unexpected way.

Perfect for fans of Babymouse and Chris Colfer's Land of Stories, this laugh-out-loud new comic hybrid series will turn everything you thought you knew about princesses on its head.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I wasn't sure what to expect from this one. The synopsis says it's perfect for fans of Babymouse, but I'm definitely not one of those. Still, I came across one of Vernon's stories in an anthology and thought it was hilarious, so I decided to give this book a try. Harriet the Invincible is actually a highly enjoyable illustrated chapter book. I even want to keep going with the series (which doesn't always happen)!

Based on the story of Sleeping Beauty, Harriet the Invincible begins with a curse. On her twelfth birthday, Harriet will injure herself on a hamster wheel and fall into a deep sleep. Wanting to get ahead of the curse, her parents search out princes they can have on standby for when the curse hits. Harriet is rather unimpressed with the idea. After discovering that the curse will happen no matter what--and that she is therefore invincible--she goes questing and has lots of adventures, getting in all the fun she can before the curse hits.

But Harriet is not an ordinary princess, and when it's time to be cursed, she fights back... and accidentally puts everyone else in the kingdom to sleep! Despite her misgivings, she goes in search of a prince to help wake up her parents and subjects, with her riding quail, Mumfrey, as her loyal companion.

This is a really cute take on a fairy tale. It has a feminist bent, and Harriet is no shrinking violet of a princess. She's strong and smart and capable. The supporting characters are just as good, from the evil fairy Ratshade to the reluctant prince Wilbur.

The illustrations are simple, but necessary, as they often take the place of the text (you can't just skim over them, or you'll miss important bits of the story). Mumfrey is particularly fun to look at... but, then again, he's just a fun thing to think about. He's a riding quail, complete with saddle. What's not to love?

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised. Vernon tells a good story here, turning the Sleeping Beauty tale on its ear and giving us a much more proactive princess than the passive sleeper we see in the original. I'd recommend this one to middle graders and up (it's smart and funny enough to entertain older readers, as well) and to anyone who likes fairy tale retellings with a bit of a twist.

Quotable moment:

Harriet gripped her sword more tightly and took a step forward.

Ratshade sneered at her. "Still playing with swords? You should learn how to act like a princess!" She twitched her claws, and the sword shot out of Harriet's hands and buried itself in the wall next to Wilbur's head. Wilbur yelped and jumped sideways.

"I am acting like a princess!" yelled Harriet. "I'm a princess, and therefore any way that I act--oh, never mind!" She lunged for the sword.

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

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall: 3.75 out of 5

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review - Sir Tim Is a Little Jealous

Sir Tim Is a Little Jealous
by Judith Koppens
illustrated by Eline van Lindenhuizen
Date: 2019
Publisher: Clavis
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

Sir Tim and Sara go to the park together. Sara spends time playing with her friend Max. How does that make Tim feel?

A sweet and recognizable story about being a little jealous. For friends and knights ages 4 years and up.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

The premise of this book is decent, but the way the topic is ultimately handled didn't impress me.

When Sir Tim goes to the park with his friend Sara, he ends up jealous and engages in attention-seeking behaviours that escalate to the point of peril. The moral of the story seems to be to put your life in danger to get your friends to pay attention to you (at least, I wouldn't be surprised if that's the takeaway for some readers).

Yes, Sir Tim is jealous. But that's his own fault. At the very beginning, when they arrive at the playground, Sara actually says: "There's Max. Let's go and play with him!" Now, to me, that sounds like an invitation. Sara's not leaving Sir Tim out of anything. She didn't say: "There's Max. I'm going to go play with him!" But you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, the way Sir Tim interprets it. His stomach starts to feel funny and he begins to try to draw Sara's attention away from Max. She doesn't seem to notice his attempts (although she does wave at him at one point, so she's not intentionally snubbing him). Eventually, Sir Tim decides to climb a tree. When the branch breaks and he falls, Sara comes running over and asks if he's hurt. He confesses that he thinks she doesn't like him anymore, and she tells him that he's silly (he is) and that just because she plays with other kids sometimes doesn't mean they're not still best friends. Then she tells him that the next time they come to the playground, they can all play together (which seems unnecessary, because she basically invited him to play with her and Max at the beginning).

All of this seems to add up to a little kid who feels like he should be able to own his friends. The fact that Sir Tim is a boy and Sara is a girl makes it even worse. If Sir Tim doesn't get a handle on this little problem, it's going to turn into a great big one later on. I can just see him turning out to be one of those guys who throws a tantrum if his girlfriend so much as looks at another guy.

The knight bit is cute (Sir Tim always wears his helmet and his dog's name is Dragon), but that's not enough to save this one for me. Sir Tim didn't learn enough of a lesson about jealousy. And since that's what this book is all about, it kind of fails.

Thank you to NetGalley and Clavis for providing a digital ARC.

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

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall: 2.33 out of 5

Review - The Circus Comes to the Village

The Circus Comes to the Village
by Yutaka Kobayashi
Date: 2009
Publisher: Museyon
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 41
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

When fall arrives, the circus comes to Paghman village, one of the few pleasures for the villagers. Yamo and his friend Mirado are very excited. Yamo misses his brother, who has gone off to war. Mirado’s father is also away at war. At the circus, the boys browse the vendors, ride the swings and enjoy the shows. Mirado plays his father’s flute with the circus band and his music moves the people’s hearts. When the circus moves on the next day, Mirado leaves with it. As the villagers prepare for the severe winter ahead, Yamo thinks about his friend Mirado and wonders how he is doing. Finally, snow falls. The villagers are happy, since the snow leads to the next year’s harvest. Kobayashi's illustrations portray the beautiful village life that fall. Then, on the final page we are stunned to learn: "This winter, my village was destroyed by the war, and people escaped to other villages.” But the reader is ultimately left with hope, as the springtime announces the villagers' return.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I don't seem to have much luck with books translated from the Japanese. I don't know if it's a translation issue or a cultural thing or what. But I've found that many of them have disjointed narratives and some don't seem all that suitable for their target audience.

This is a story set in Afghanistan, although without the illustrations (and the fact that the setting is mentioned), you wouldn't necessarily know it. No effort was made to include any words from the local language, and this extends to the main character calling his mother "Mom". It's difficult to pinpoint what time this takes place in, too; I'm guessing it's present day (or, at the very least, within the last 50 years or so) given the presence of trucks.

There really isn't a lot of plot, other than the circus coming to town. Yamo and his friend Mirado (are those Afghan names? They almost sound Japanese to me...) are excited when they get to go. They ride the rickety wooden rides, look at ice cream (which is apparently only to be looked at, not eaten), and watch a show. Mirado plays his flute, gets applause, and decides to leave town with the circus (his grandma said it was okay). Snow comes to the village, and everyone is excited because it's good for the crops.

And then the book hits the reader with this weird gut-punch that seems to come out of nowhere. The village is destroyed by war that winter and the survivors abandon it. The village then sits empty as it waits for people to come back.

What the heck does that have to do with anything? If the synopsis didn't give all that away, it would've been a terrible shock. I went into this knowing that the village would be destroyed, but I thought maybe there would be some nuance or sign of hope. And I expected that it would tie in with Yamo's story somehow. But... no. The destruction of the village doesn't have anything to do with the circus or the plot of the book. It's almost like the author thought, "Well, I set this thing in Afghanistan. I guess I have to blow something up to show the horrors of war." But it doesn't work, and it just seems like a cheap trick to add some shock value. (It might've been too much for a picture book, but if Yamo had been killed or injured in the destruction of the village, it would've made more sense and tied the whole thing together. As it is, it seems like this book contains two disjointed narratives: one about the circus coming to town, and one about the war.)

So... I didn't like this one. The illustrations are nothing special, the writing doesn't evoke a sense of time and place, and the story is disjointed and relies on a shocking twist that barely relates to the rest of the plot. I've read better children's books set in Afghanistan. Try The Breadwinner: A Graphic Novel for a better look at a child's experience in the war-torn country.

Thank you to NetGalley and Museyon for providing a digital ARC.

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

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall: 2.17 out of 5

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Review - Ping

Ping
by Ani Castillo
Date: 2019
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 48
Format: e-book
Source: library

With the visual ingenuity of Press Here and the emotional resonance of What Do You Do with a Problem?, this wise and timely book about the fragile art of personal connection will strike a chord with children and adults alike.

In the era of social media, communication feels both more anxiety-producing, and more inescapable, than ever before. This clever, comforting picture book debut explores the challenges and joys of self-expression and social connection.

Using an imaginative visual metaphor to bring to life how we send out (ping!) and receive (pong!) communications, Ani Castillo's words and pictures will empower and inspire anyone who has experienced the fear of sharing themselves with the world.

With an artful, accessible package, an eloquent message, and a lot of heart, here is a new classic to bring courage and comfort to humans of all ages.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This book is one big metaphor, with ping pong standing in for personal connection. As an adult, I can appreciate the message. I have my doubts, however, as to whether kids (especially younger ones) are going to "get it".

The simple text likens life to a game of ping pong. What you put out there are "pings" and what comes back to you are "pongs". You can only control the pings, not the pongs. The book basically acts like a simple instruction manual for connecting with others and with the world at large. It's fine, as a premise.

The illustrations leave me a bit cold. They're too simple for my taste. They clearly convey their message, but they're not especially fun to look at.

This is a book that will probably be overlooked because it's a picture book. But I can see it actually having more value to older readers (middle grade and up, probably). Younger children might like the bright colours and the funny-looking characters, but the message will likely go over their heads (especially since they're too young to have withdrawn into the world of virtual connection yet).

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

Enjoyment: 3/5

Overall Rating: 3.33 out of 5 ladybugs

Review - The Pirate Tree

The Pirate Tree
by Brigita Orel
illustrated by Jennie Poh
Date: 2019
Publisher: Lantana Publishing
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: library

The gnarled tree on the hill sometimes turns into a pirate ship. A rope serves as an anchor, a sheet as a sail, and Sam is its fearless captain. But one day another sailor approaches, and he's not from Sam's street. Can they find something more precious than diamonds and gold? Can they find... friendship?

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This book made me a little uncomfortable. It supposedly depicts a new friendship, but I was distracted by the obvious power imbalance.

Sam has a tree that she imagines is a pirate ship. One day, a boy named Agu shows up. He's new in town and wants to play. But Sam isn't interested... until she finds out that Agu is from Nigeria and knows lots of stuff she doesn't.

The problem is, at the end, rather than being equals, the book refers to Agu as Sam's "new crew member". She's still the captain. She's still in charge... even though Agu obviously knows more about ships and sailing. It comes across as white privilege.

The illustrations don't really excite me, either. They're a little rough for my taste, and for pictures that are supposed to show two children's imaginations, they don't seem quite fanciful enough. Aside from the accessorized birds and fish, there's not much that really struck me as being that imaginative.

I didn't like this as much as I hoped I would. What tries to be a book about new friendships and inclusion seems to inadvertently reinforce old societal mores (the white kid is in charge, despite being less qualified than the black kid, and almost seems to be using his expertise for her own gain). This could've worked better had the ethnicities been swapped, or if it had simply been about a more generic new kid in town rather than an immigrant. As it is, though, it opens up a few cans of worms that distract from what the book was trying to do: tell a story about friendship, acceptance, and imagination.

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

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 2.33 out of 5 ladybugs

Review - Rowdy Randy

Rowdy Randy
by Casey Day Rislov
illustrated by Zachary Pullen
Date: 2019
Publisher: Casey Rislov Books
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

"Yeehaw!" Rowdy Randy shouted to the wind. "I was born to buck!" Rowdy Randy is the toughest cowgirl around. Never mind that this broncobuster is a horsefly. She acts taller than any tall tale. She might be easy to overlook, but Rowdy Randy definitely can t be ignored. She spends her days buzzing and biting all the creatures in her path, all the while stirring up a whole heap of trouble. Saddle up and hold on tight for a story that ll jangle your spurs and blow your cowboy hat clean off.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I wanted to like this one more than I did. It sounds like a fun premise. The problem is... there's no story.

Rowdy Randy is a horsefly. She wears chaps and cowboy boots and glittery green eyeshadow (the picture that was chosen for the cover isn't the best; it's relatively unappealing, compared to the rest of Zachary Pullen's fun illustrations within). Each day, Rowdy Randy looks for critters to annoy. I think. I had to go back and reread the beginning to try to figure out what the setup was. As far as I can tell, that's all the story this book has going for it: the horsefly encounters a bunch of different animals and... well, maybe she tries to annoy them, but in a lot of cases she's trying to engage with them. So I'm not entirely sure what the point of the book is. To show that horseflies are annoying? What a waste of the cute illustrations!

This could've really been something special with a better story. To make matters worse, the book ends abruptly with what appears to be a cliffhanger. The last words are literally, "Is this how it ends?" Well, we have no idea! The next page has a picture of Rowdy Randy riding a jackalope, as if nothing happened. I... don't get it.

The pictures are lovely and fun, and the writing is surprisingly good for a self-published work. There's just the little matter of there not being a story. For a reader, that's kind of difficult to overlook.

Thank you to NetGalley and Casey Rislov Books for providing a digital ARC.

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

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall: 2.83 out of 5

Review - Stormy

Stormy
by Guojing
Date: 2019
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: library

From the creator of the New York Times best-illustrated children's book award winner The Only Child, comes a gorgeous and moving wordless picture book that's perfect for dog lovers.

In this heartwarming, wordless picture book that's perfect for dog lovers, a woman visits a park and discovers a pup hiding under a bench--scruffy, scared, and alone. With gentle coaxing, the woman tries to befriend the animal, but the dog is too scared to let her near. Day after day, the woman tries--and day after day, the dog runs away. With perseverance and patience--and help from an enticing tennis ball--a tentative friendship begins. But it's not until a raging storm forces the two together that a joyous and satisfying friendship takes hold. Guojing poignantly explores how trust doesn't always come easily, but how, over time, and with kindness and determination, forever love can grow.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Stormy should warm even the coldest heart. Dog lovers are going to be hit particularly hard by this one, though. It's hard not to love this sweet story about a lonely little dog and a girl who has a lot of love to give.

Like The Only Child (which I read earlier this year), Stormy is told entirely without words. Guojing's illustrations are such that no words are necessary. The story unfolds at a natural pace, and the illustrated panels show the hesitant development of a relationship. The little dog is skittish and won't let anyone come near. But the girl is persistent. She brings a ball to the park and tries to engage the dog in a game of fetch. It doesn't exactly work, and the girl has to leave yet again. One night, the dog follows her home and gets caught in a storm. She doesn't realize this, and goes looking for it at the park. Will their paths cross? (I'm sure you can guess the answer, based on the book's subtitle. Still, watching the two grow closer is delightful to watch.)

The pictures are breathtaking. The little dog is charming, and Guojing has perfectly captured its emotions in the soft-looking illustrations. Unlike the pictures in The Only Child, these ones are in full colour. I had a hard time choosing which one I wanted to include in my review; there are so many beautiful ones that highlight this relationship of patience, perseverance, and love.

It's amazing how so much emotion and story can be conveyed without any words at all. I can't wait to see what Guojing does next.

Quotable moment:


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

Enjoyment: 5/5

Overall Rating: 4.6 out of 5 ladybugs