Something Beautiful

By Sharon Dennis Wyeth
Do you have something beautiful?
Our young, nameless protagonist is a black girl growing up in a not-so-beautiful neighbourhood. Trash fills her courtyard, and someone has painted “die” across her door. Homeless people sleep on the streets, wrapped in plastic and cardboard. But her mother once told her that everyone has something beautiful in their life – where is hers?
Something Beautiful is a journey through this young girl’s neighbourhood, interacting with different people to find their something beautiful; that thing that makes their heart glad. For some people it’s a stone, for others the laugh of a child, or a special meal.
The strength of this story is how thought-provoking it is. What is your something beautiful? You don’t need to have grown up in a similar neighbour to our protagonist to understand her struggle. We all wish for something that is special, and that makes her that much more identifiable. All the pleasures she finds are simple ones, and maybe it will help us remember that we don’t need big things to make us happy. Hold onto the small things.
The illustrations, courtesy of Christ K Soentpiet, are beautiful. My favorite illustration is the haunting depiction of the homeless lady, who uses plastic as a blanket. You won’t soon forget that image. Each character is unique and exquisitely depicted, even if you’re only seeing them from behind. The dour images of filth and decay in her courtyard are counterbalanced by the smiles on the faces of everyone she meets. Little girl is something beautiful.
This is a simple, brilliant story for children. Something Beautiful needs nothing else beyond what it has to make itself stand out. It is haunting and uplifting all at once, and will stay with you and your child long after you finish reading it.
Suggested ages: 6-9

Revenge of the small Small

By Jean Little

Bullying is a hot topic right now, and when I found this book buried in my sister’s closet (I love snooping in there), I thought the timing was very fortuitous. After all, it’s the chance to discuss something relevant! Something fresh! Something published in 1992!

Okay, so maybe it’s a little old. But some topics never go out of style!

Revenge of the small Small focuses Patsy small, youngest of four children. She is, like all youngest sisters, perfect in every way. When her three older siblings get the chicken pox, she makes out like Florence Nightingale, catering to their every whim and need. But, when the tables are turned, they laugh at her requests and leave her all alone.

Dad to the rescue! He brings Patsy home a truly ginormous (that’s a word, right?) box of craft supplies. Seriously, this box is something those whackadoodles from Craft Wars would kill for. While the other three hover around, anxious to share, Patsy shuts them down and keeps all the supplies to herself. As any kid would do.

And so Patsy starts on her project (honestly, I think she has the longest bout of chicken pox in the history of books). She starts building a town, full of streets, houses, schools, and… a cemetery? Yes, really. A cemetery. With her three siblings buried inside, all with “awful” epithets.

No, really. “A bad brother”. “A mean sister”. “A lowly boy”. I wish I had a scanner to show you the Home Alone face the second brother is making at his tombstone. All three are shocked, SHOCKED  that their perfect, angelic, meek little sister could write such atrocities about them. So, as you do, they immediately change overnight into the most perfect, wonderful, supporting, loving, caring, attentive siblings on the planet.

I know this book is meant for kids. I do. And bullying is hard to write about. But this was the best the author could come up with? Two brothers and a sister who act, well, like older brothers and sisters. Heck, they were nicer to Patsy with all their teasing than I ever was to my sister, and she turned out okay!

(Hey, wait… this book was in her closet, wasn’t it? Hey! What’s this little effigy?)

Revenge of the small Small is pretty weak in story. The siblings, while made out to be the utmost villains in Patsy’s mind, are actually pretty lifelike. They’re mean, but trying to be helpful in their own ways. Even Patsy’s reaction of brushing them aside for her revenge is accurate to what any child would do. But the teasing she goes through is pretty weak (she reacts to being called an infant the same way she would if someone told her ol’ Yeller was shot at the end of the book). She receives obvious favoritism from her father, and never once do their parents step in to stop the teasing.

Despite the failings, this was one of my favorite books (for different reasons than my sister, who was obviously using it as inspiration). The artwork is amazing – my hat off to you, Janet Wilson. The characters are well drawn, the items are well drawn, and the town Patsy makes looks like something a child would actually draw. It makes me so sad that such amazing artwork is attached to such a weak story. It wouldn’t even be so bad if there was a better means of changing the other’s minds, but really. If this was real life (and most of the book is faaaairly realistic), the siblings would just destroy the headstones, or retaliate with more snarky comments. They’re kids!

If you have a younger daughter being the victim of sibling bullying, you could pick up this book to entertain her with. But I’m pretty sure there are better ones out there. Find those ones, or pick this up for the art.

Suggested ages: 3-6

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

By Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter is somewhat of a legend among children’s authors. She writes these incredible little stories featuring different animals. Living in the country, Beatrix was inspired by her own animals and surroundings, and it shows in both her writing and artwork.

Her first, and most well-known work, is The Tale of Peter Rabbit. This is one of those beloved tales that will live on eternally; who doesn’t know about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail? (And Peter, naturally). It’s such a wonderfully whimsical story, full of relatable and realistic characters.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit is the, naturally, the tale of Peter Rabbit. Sent out to play while his mother goes shopping, Peter leaves his three good sisters to gather blackberries on the lane while he goes to munch on vegetables from Farmer McGregor’s garden. Eschewing the rules, he gets lost inside the garden, then spotted by the villainous farmer. Fleeing, Peter must hide from the farmer and get out without getting caught.

Peter is a very naughty rabbit; he disobeys his mother, is terribly frightened, nearly captured and killed, and loses all his neat little clothes. Little boys take note! Don’t disobey your mothers, or enraged farmers might chase you down too. (Though, I admit, if my son snuck away to eat vegetables from a farm, I would be a very happy mother indeed.) I love how believable little Peter Rabbit is; he’s defiant and uncaring at first, then scared, almost gives up until encouraged, then runs the gamut of terror and tears. More children need to cry in stories when things get scary – I don’t think it happens enough. But it’s a true representation of what you would do.

I love this story. When you think of Beatrix Potter, this is the story you think of. First published in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was the first of her many, many stories. And there are a lot of them; I was given The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter by my grandparents in 1989, and I still don’t think I’ve read all the stories therein contained (23 of them). Some of them are classics, other’s I could never get engaged in. Some are quite dark, but that was Beatrix’s style, and it works very well.

She was an observant lady, watching the movements of animals, developing a very unique and beautiful style of art. I admit, I love the art more than the story, and she uses it in a unique way. Rather then full-page illustrations, her stories are decorated with small pictures, sometimes three to a page, each next to a paragraph to illustrate that particular happening. Sometimes I wonder if she wrote or drew her stories first; they fit together perfectly.

If you don’t own this story, go pick it up. I often say that a book that’s still in print 20 years after first being published is a good book; this tale is still around 110 years later! If that doesn’t say something about Ms. Potter, nothing will.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

Big Sarah’s Little Boots

By Paulette Bourgeois & Brenda Clark

When we’re small, small issues take on big importance. So when a favorite toy breaks, or you rip a dress, or outgrow a favorite article of clothing – that becomes a big deal.

Unless you’re a destructive little beast like me and purposefully destroy the lovely clothes your parents gave you. But even then, you’ll probably enjoy this story.

Big Sarah’s Little Boots was one of my childhood favorites. The titular character, Big Sarah, loves her rainboots. They’re bright, shiny yellow, and when she jumps in the puddles they go SQUISH and the water goes KERSPLAT! But then, one day Sarah tries to put them on, and her boots have shrunk! She tries everything – pulling on them, growing them in the garden, playing tug-of-war with them – in an attempt to make them bigger, but nothing works. Time for Big Sarah to get bigger boots!

Big Sarah’s Little Boots is a nice book helping explain to children that it’s okay to move on to something new; you might like it just as much (if not more) than what you had before. The majority of the story, however, is dedicated to Sarah trying, so very hard, to cling to her beloved old boots – just like any kid would do when presented with change. I know I can say that, at 15 5, I was not very good at adapting to change. If you need proof, just go visit an elementary school on the first day of class and see how many children are crying.

The story is great. The text is simple and easy, with onomatopoeia to make it more fun. There’s no rhyming pattern, but it flows easily, and there’s enough repetition to make it stick.

There is a lot of white space at the beginning of the book, but it fades around the middle point, when Sarah tries to make her boots stretch. It’s this middle part that meshes text and images the best, and are among the best in the book. It helps immensely that the pictures are amazing. I know I say this a lot, but it’s true; great pictures make a children’s story, and children get the best illustrators. I can’t tell you what medium is used, but the colours are bright, the artwork is amazing, and it’s so true to life some of them could almost be pictures. There’s one picture of Sarah pulling her socks off in an attempt to get the boots on, and it’s so incredible I just want to pin it to my wall. The details in these pictures will make them a lot of fun for children to look through; I remember the details of the skipping ropes tied to her boots, and the different styles of rainboots she tries on, from when I was a kid.

If you can find this book, I suggest you pick it up. It was published in 1987 in Toronto, so it’s probably not the most accessible, but I’m sure it’s out there. It’s cute, educational, beautifully written and illustrated. If your child has a favorite toy/piece of clothing/binky/blanky/etc., they’ll be able to relate to this book. Everyone has gone through the same growing pains as Sarah, and it will show them that they’re not alone.

~

And since we’re coming up to mother’s day, I will give incredible props to my mom that 99% of my books from my childhood have survived as long as they did in as good a condition as they did. Every child should have the opportunity to find all their old books in the basement and be able to raid them for a blog!

Love you mom ❤

~

Recommended Ages: 3-6

Cinder

By Marissa Meyer

Cyborg Cinderella. The words evoke feelings of intrigue and dismay: the originality of such a concept vs the worry of it being done badly. Twisting a fairytale, after all, is nothing new (though it is eternally fun); there are so many versions of Cinderella/Snow White/Red Riding Hood/etc. that I feel they should be a genre unto themselves. Some of the adaptions are unique, funny, and engaging; good reads. Others are horrendous; I think we can all agree that we’ve read some awful adaptions.

Cinder is the tale of Linh Cinder, master mechanic of New Beijing. Set in the future, long after World War IV, after humans have colonized the moon and mutated into a separate race, Cinder is a cyborg orphan making a living as a street mechanic for her stepmother. An outcast because of her cyborg status (among other things, she has a fake arm, leg, spine and heart), Cinder is volunteered as a test subject for a deadly plague that has been decimating New Beijing. This, unfortunately, interferes with a job from Prince Kaito, who needs her to urgently fix is android. Throw in a sick sister, a wicked stepmother, an evil Queen bent on world domination, politics and love, Cinder has her hand full.

I found Cinder to be a good read. Nice and easy, with a lot of pseudo-science that made it seem nice and real. The plot was somewhat predictable (as ya do), but at the same time I found it a really good play on the normal Cinderella mythos. Cinder the Cyborg turned into a really unique concept that came off much, much better then I had hoped for when looking at this book for the first time.

I’m usually leery about first-time novels, because I feel like authors lose a lot of their creative power against editors’ whose job it is to make money. I’ve been impressed by both Cinder and Legend for their unique stories, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from both. Cinder is just getting started, developing what promises to be a good trilogy. I don’t mind predictability in my beginnings so long as the ending doesn’t disappoint. I have faith that Meyer will take her Cyborg Cinderella (I love that alliteration) and run with it. Hopefully to the Moon and back.

(Read the book to get the joke)

Recommended Ages: Teen

Legend

By Marie Lu

I’m a member of the online art community deviantArt; I’m sure some of you have stumbled across that website in the past, and it showcases some incredible instances of art. One the artists I followed early on was an artist and aspiring author, mree. She’s a very talented artist, and spent a lot of time developing character designs for her written characters.

Well, congratulations mree (aka Marie Lu)! You need aspire no more!

Around Christmas 2011, Marie’s debut novel, Legend hit shelves. It’s very on-trend right now; a dystopian world reminiscant of The Hunger Games where all children must go through a Trial at the age of 10. The score you receive at the Trial will impact what happens to you later on – labour camps, drudgery job, or elite. Allow me to assure you that this is not The Hunger Games. I really enjoyed the setting, the characters, and how Lu creates a world that sucks you in.

Legend takes place in a future where the United States of America no longer exist. Instead we have the Colonies (as yet unseen), and the Republic. Our story takes place in the Republic, and splits between Day and June. Day is a criminal in the vein of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich, derailing the Republics plans, and helping provide for his family. June is a prodigy with a perfect Trial score, slated to be one of the most elite Republican soldiers. Their paths cross when June is tasked with tracking Day down, an endeavor that has so far proved futile for the army.

The biggest plus of Legend is the setting. It takes place in California, but it could be anywhere. And yet, there are ties to the physical place, and hints of the old USA. While a fairly short story (all things considered), the world feels comfortable, like you could visit it. There’s nothing shoved in there to make it fit, like some stories I’ve read. The plot reads well, and everything flows into each other. A lot of plot threads are left unanswered, but I will wait for the sequel(s), and assume that they will be answered there.

I admit, I wasn’t eager to pick up Legend. I did, however, recommend it to my chiropractor, who bought it as a Christmas present for his wife. After she read it, she started gushing about it, and lent it to me to read. I was completing my final semester of my Masters at the time, and didn’t have the time; I’m ashamed to admit I held onto that book for almost 3 months. When I finally did pick it up, my initial feeling was “meh”; I felt that it was generic. Then I really got into it and changed my mind. That’s what I would call the trick to this novel: don’t get stuck on thinking it’s a Hunger Games knockoff. It’s not, I promise.

Lu gives us a story of two star-crossed lovers, two 15-year-olds trying to find answers to what their leaders are doing and why. There’s romance, action, scheming, tragedy and the promise of more. Many of the plot threads are left hanging, with the promise of resolution in later books. I look forward to sequels, and seeing the future adventures of June and Day. I hope that Lu can continue with what makes her book unique, and avoids the cliches that dominate the market today.

Edit: Marie just released the news of her sequel in the Legend trilogy. The second book will be titled Prodigy, scheduled for release on Jan 23rd, 2013.

Mirror, Mirror

It’s going to be quite the battle this year, with two Snow White movies due out in 2012. The winner of the race into theaters, of course, is Mirror, Mirror, starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins. I admit, I’m torn about this movie: on one hand, I know it could have been so much better; on the other I loved it.

The story is fairly typical of a reimagined Snow White. Father dies/disappears, Queen takes control of the kingdom and it falls into neglect. Sweet, innocent Snow White is ordered killed when she becomes a threat, she escapes, falls into the clutches of the seven dwarves. Somewhere along there a prince appears, a mystical fight is waged, an apple is offered, and the Queen is vanquished forever.

I’ll start with my negatives. First, Lily Collins is a beautiful girl, but she’s not the most emotive actor. Mainly, she’s sitting there, posing prettily for the camera (which she does very well). In the action scenes she does tolerably well, and when she stops trying to be pretty I’m quite happy.

There are few plot conundrums as well. First and most obvious is Prince Alcott’s friend Renboch. He appears in the kingdom with the Prince, then disappears, not to be seen or heard from again until the final scene. When he does reappear, it doesn’t appear that he’s accomplished the one mission he’s been given, making his character completely pointless.

I had some problems with the set too. The palace, while opulent, appears set the most oblivious cliff, not to mention that it’s as far away from its town as one can get. When Snow White does venture into town, there are almost no villages. This is reflected at the Queen’s Wedding Party, her Gala, and even Snow White’s wedding.  This is a kingdom with apparently no people! With Sean Bean (surprise!) as King, you’d think more people would live there!

On the plus side, apart from Lily Collins, everyone else is a great comedic actor. Armie Hammer does a great job as Prince Alcott, and I can believe the relationship between him and Snow. It takes some talent to switch from charming to slapstick comedy, and he pulls it off well. In the same vein, Julia Roberts switches from menacing to flighty to cartoon villain. It’s quite delightful to watch.

While the story is nothing special or overly unique in a Snow White tale, I did like that the characters weren’t stupid. There’s one bit at the very beginning where one of the servants leads Snow to the decision that she has to go visit the town, but that’s about as stupid as it gets, and one can chalk that up to bullying and naiveté. *Spoilers* At the very end of the movie, when the Queen appears with the all-important apple, Snow catches on and hands it back to her, forcing her to eat it. I could have cheered to see her using some common sense when a creepy old woman offers you an apple and tries to force you to eat it right now*End spoilers*

Overall, this was an enjoyable film. While clearly aimed at younger kids, it has laughs for adults too. The kids, especially, will enjoy the silly special effects (I use the term loosely) and the frilly outfits. They won’t notice a slip in the acting, and will try to do Snow’s dance in the weird ending music video.

And, if nothing else, there’s Sean Bean. See it for Sean; you know you want to.

Harry and the Terrible Whatzit

By Dick Gackenbach

Who’s never been afraid of anything? If you just raised your hand, I declare you a liar. Or the bravest person on Earth.

Because everyone (yes, everyone) is afraid of something, there are a lot of books out there dealing with children’s fears. Because little minds are so active, they can find terror in everything. That’s not a bad thing, but it can make the basement pretty frightening.

Enter Harry and the Terrible Whatzit. Pair this with Monsters, Inc. and your little one will never be afraid again! Or they’ll shift their fear onto something else – but they won’t be afraid of monsters under the bed!

More

Dragonsong

By Anne McCaffrey

One of the great things about fantasy books is that it can make the transition into reading adult fare much easier on the young reader. In a lot of cases, authors who transition from YA fare to adult (or vice versa) aren’t changing much of their style – the only difference is the length. (I have a 600+ page YA novel on my floor that says young adults can read books over 300 pages, publishers!) Patricia Wrede falls into this category, and so does Anne McCaffery, who served as my indoctrination into the genre of fantasy.

Most times, children fall into books (possibly a series) in their early years and move into the adult books because they enjoy the author and have run out of “age appropriate” material to read. In my case, I went backwards; one of the librarians showed me Ms. McCaffery in the adult section and that was it. I tried to read every one, adult or not. Until very recently, I don’t believe I even realized Dragonsong was a YA book.

Dragonsong is McCaffery’s second series set on the Pern. The protagonist is a young woman named Menolly, who is a gifted musician and singer who is not valued by her fishermen parents. When her mentor dies and she cuts her hand, it looks like any dream she ever had of becoming a harper (musician) is lost. All this changes the day she runs away and discovers a clutch of fire-lizards, miniature dragons, who imprint on her and become her second family.

The primary antagonist of the Pern books is a vicious thing called Thread, a silvery, worm-like matter that falls from the sky and devours anything organic until there’s nothing left. Being caught outside during Threadfall is a death sentence, and this is exactly what happens to Menolly one day while foraging. Trying to out-run the Thread she is saved by a Dragonrider, who takes her to a Weyr (where the dragons and dragonriders live). From there, she is discovered as by the Masterharper himself, and it seems that her dream to become a Harper might become a reality.

This is, of course the first in the Harper Hall of Pern series; the first two books follow Menolly’s growth, and the last follows one of her friends in his maturity. Gender themes and coming-of-age abound in these books, but they strike the right balance. Menolly’s parents are believable, though you aren’t meant to like them, and for me that’s one of the most important parts. You don’t sit there and roll your eyes and feel like Menolly is a spoiled brat; you feel that she has been wronged and is right to get away. At the same time, you realize that her parents do love her, but they cannot understand her. To their too-practical eyes, her music is useless in a Hold where one needs all hands to deal with the catch.

McCaffery does well at keeping her characters real, and I love her depiction of Pern. I love a good world, and Pern is one of the best. Including the other series and standalones that center on the Dragonriders of Pern, McCaffery has created one of the best worlds I’ve ever seen, complete changes in the times, circumstances and technology.

Mind you, these books are quite old; most were published in the 1970’s. I read them in the 1990’s, 20 years later, and I still thought they were fantastic. Sometimes the old is the best, and McCaffery is certainly one of the major players in this genre, despite the age of her books. If this appeals to you, but you’re not sure you want to read something possibly so dated, I suggest The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, or Eragon by Christopher Paolini, as some options for teens.

Recommended ages: 9-12+

Home Alone

And now for something with almost no seasonal or religious affiliation (yet somehow retaining both) – Home Alone!

This is one of those classic movies that I almost didn’t see. Please don’t ask me how. I just remember that, when everyone else in my class was excitedly talking about how they were going to see Home Alone and bust a gut over it, I was sitting there with my head cocked going “Home Alone what now?”

I’ve never been one for comedies, but if I can handle them at any time, Christmas is the time. And Home Alone is one of those classics that should always be played at Christmas. What’s not to love? The acting is great, especially when you consider how old half the characters are, the story is fun, and because it’s set at Christmas time you can do all the fun things and no one will get mad! Because it’s Christmas!

Most of you will know the story: boy (Kevin) gets left home alone while his ridiculously large family flies to France, mother goes insane trying to get home to find him and no neighbours are around to go help him. Conveniently, burglars are hitting up every empty house on the street, and the McCallister house is the perfect target. Kevin decides that he will not sit back and let his house be burglarized, so he sets up a series of elaborate traps to keep the robbers out. Just when things look darkest, he’s saved by the friendly/creepy-looking man who shovels snow and the family all make it home for the holidays. Hugs all around!

What they don’t show you is the family realizing exactly what Kevin’s destroyed while they’re gone, and how many, many years Kevin spends grounded.

Home Alone is a great movie, especially at Christmas time. The focus is on the screwball comedy and both sets of actors (the thieves & Kevin, the parents/adults) carry off their roles very well. We can forgive the child actors for their occasional slips because, hey, they’re kids, and that’s what they do!

There’s even a Christmas message shoehorned into the overall story, which is impressive when you consider that the whole thing is one kid trying to defend his house against two crafty (I use the term loosely) robbers. But it’s there; it even takes place in a church! Kevin even says grace over dinner! I am shocked. Shocked!

This movie is not for everyone. Overall, I think it’s harmless, and most kids in North America have seen it at some point in their lives. It’s a great movie to put in, sit back, and laugh to a semi-Christmas message. And because it does have a Christmas message, I give it a thumbs up for the holiday season.

(please use discretion based on the ages of your children)

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: