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.

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!

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The Muppets Christmas Carol

I admit, I’ve never been much for the classics. I’ve never read them, except for when forced to by school, though I think most of us are in the same boat. Safe to say, however, that I’ve never read Dickens, and have never really had an interest. I’m sure he’s a wordsmith, but he’s never made my list of books I want to made. Jane Austen barely made it, and she’s as girly as it gets. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been adapted and re-adapted dozens and dozens of times; I could pick any version from screen or stage to review, and I think everyone has their favorites. My – and my family – have laid our favorites in the child-friendly muppet version, the aptly named The Muppets Christmas Carol.

This is the movie we always watch on Christmas Eve; that’s our tradition. The Muppets Christmas Carol is a musical, done with muppets, puppets, and people. You might start cringing when you think about muppets doing their take on a serious Dickens work, but I’ve always thought the managed the line very well. They balance kid-friendly comedy with Rizzo the Rat and the Great Gonzo with the serious themes of death, rejection, and hopelessness.

The movies starts lightly enough, with some moody acting from Michael Caine (as Scrooge), balanced by the eternal optimism of Kermit (playing Bob Cratchit). There are sad moments from the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, but the appearance of the ghost of Christmas Future is quite intimidating and terrifying, at least as far as the Muppets go. Even the narrators – Gonzo and Rizzo – run away until the finale, breaking the fourth wall as they go.

The songs are a great part of the movie. The opening song “Scrooge” is very enjoyable, introducing the main character while showcasing the traditional Muppet group-singalong. Caine’s introduction is delightfully chilly. The second song, “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas” is the reason my family watch this movie on Christmas Eve – it’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas! And we all sing along with Kermit, naturally. This is balanced by the beautiful, sad song Belle sings at the middle of the movie; a song that, sadly, has been cut from some versions of the film. I’ve never been sure why; perhaps because it does not, technically add to or move the plot forward.

The puppeteering is, as always, fantastic. The Muppets have some of the most talented puppeteers around, and each Muppet has their own look, personality, movement and life on-screen. I’ve always loved the Muppets, and this movie only increases their nostalgic power.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope your holidays are restful, festive, and full of excellent food! And remember: only one more sleep ’til Christmas.

Christmas Specials – The Twelve Days of Christmas

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. It’s beautiful and rose-coloured, making us long for Christmas Specials passed. Never mind how incredibly bizarre some of them are. A lot of Christmas specials fall into this category – but then again, so do a lot of children’s shows in general.

The Twelve Days of Christmas is the story of a melancholy princess, the persistent suitor, the squire, and a crossword puzzle.

Intrigued yet? The suitor, a knight, has been pining over the princess for years, and is determined to finally have her. He sends his squire Huckleberry to steal her Christmas list so he can give her everything she desires. He accidentally steals the answers to her father’s special crossword puzzle, and ends up giving her the answers as presents. This idea might still be impressive, if only she wasn’t allergic to birds. In the end, however, Huckleberry produces a laugh from the princess, and ends up with her hand in marriage.

This special is cute and harmless. The animation is cheap and nothing special, but the story is different to say the least. For a 30-minute Christmas special, it’s not bad; the characters are diverse, and most go through a character development arc, which, while not hard, is difficult to do. So, congrats to the writers for managing to accomplish that – it’s silly and educational all at once! Though it’s not nearly as sweet as the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

There are a few things that are annoying, but those come mostly from my own personal preferences; first and foremost that I dislike wimpy heroes. He never gets any stronger; just more henpecked by the princess and the knight. The narrator, served by the Partridge who lives in a pear tree, is equally annoying. But then, I dislike an omnipotent narrator who is part of the story – it defeats the purpose. And she’s no Boris Karloff.

There are highlights: the father is delightfully reminiscent of the Sultan from Aladdin, and I love chubby, loving, doting obliviousness in my father figures. I enjoy the princess as a character, mostly because she speaks to the uncaring teenager within me. I can’t say much for her taste in men, but she just wants someone to make her laugh. Can’t fight with that.

Despite the simplicity of the special, I have to say that most children probably won’t get the nostalgic shout-outs that are present as the “12 Days of Christmas” singers. For each gift, there’s a singer/s impersonating well-known artists (such as Elvis) as they sing their verse. I know I certainly missed that reference when I was young, and almost missed it now. I’m going to blame that on bad singing and worse animation though.

Check out this silly special. I don’t see it on television much, and it’s a nice way to break up the traditional lineup.

Plus, you can just see it below.

Christmas Specials – How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

Based on the work of Dr Seuss

If you were of the right age (which I am not), you would swoon over the pair of Dr. Seuss and Boris Karloff. Or you would cock your head and go “whaaat?”

For those of you not in the know, Boris Karloff was an actor in the 1930’s who played, among others, the iconic role of Frankenstein’s Monster. Basically, a horror movie actor of extreme popularity. What does this have to do with Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas!? Why, he was the narrator! And the Grinch’s voice. And it’s probably the only reason kids today might have any clue who Boris Karloff is. Though, to be fair, at least he’s still known for being mean, green, and terrifying. Or at least green.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! is one of those classic Christmas specials that should and will never die. It is short, sweet, and captures the story of Dr. Seuss’ story perfectly. We all know the story, and if you don’t then please go watch the video below; we cannot let this travesty continue.

In brief: every Who down in Whoville loved Christmas a lot. But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not. Therefore, he decided it was an excellent idea to steal Christmas by taking all their presents!

Okay, so that doesn’t rhyme very well. Or at all. Luckily, Dr. Seuss’ version is much more readable. But that’s the gist: the Grinch hates Christmas and wants to take it away. Because he especially hates the noise of the presents and the Whos singing, he decides to steal the presents, dressing as Santa Claus to escape notice. When the night is done and he’s about to dump the presents off the mountain, he hears singing; the Whos are singing a welcome to Christmas despite all their presents being gone. Suddenly understanding the meaning of Christmas, the Grinch rides back down the hill, delivering all the presents back to the village folk.

In essence, the story is about the true meaning of Christmas being not in the presents, but in the spirit of the season; the love and giving. It seems simplistic, but who said Christmas had to be complicated? The part where the Grinch’s heart grows is one of my favorite scenes, and I love the “Welcome Christmas” song the Whos sing. There are only three songs in the special, and each one of them has a special place in my heart. That’s what nostalgia does, kids: makes you miss things you see only once a year. But that means it’s working!

The special is faithful to the book with only a few embellishments (like the songs). While I cannot, at all, be considered an expert or even mildly informed in the art of animation, I enjoy what the special has done. The details of the special mimic a Seuss-ian feel, with simple lines and stylistic angles. When the Grinch goes slithering around the floor after presents, you feel kind of creepy, but it’s funny too. If you consider this like a book, then the animation is great, because it can interest young children without overwhelming them with details.

I have not seen specials on television of late, but perhaps I’m missing the proper times and channels. If you happen to see this special when flipping through your local listings, make sure to call your kids and enjoy 30 minutes of the Grinch.

The Polar Express (2004)

Christmas is, if nothing else in my books, the season of traditions. Every year at the preappointed time we start pulling out the same songs, the same books, the same movies, and I love it. Tradition is the thing that makes family. Every one of you reading this can tell me at least one tradition your family has, whether it be centered around Christmas or another event. One of my favorite family traditions are the movies we watch every year, and the order we watch them in.

The movies that we watch are the same ones now as they were when I was small, and that is, in part, what makes them so awesome. As part of a special Christmas present from me to you, I will reveal every Christmas movie we watch between now and Christmas Eve, so make sure to check back every day!

Now, since you can both read the above title, you know the first movie I’m going to talk about is The Polar Express, that 2004 Tom Hanks vehicle of an adaption of a beautiful book.

I have mixed feelings about this movie. While the book ranks as one of my all-time favorites to read, the movie leaves me ambivalent. Part of the reason for that is the animation. I love computer animation, but sometimes I just can’t stand it. One of my favorite movies, Hoodwinked, has some of the worst animation I have ever seen. The Polar Express strikes me as the same. Not because the animation is bad, no, not at all. It’s because I find the characters expressions… apathetic. Sure they move and smile and look pretty realistic, but no one in the movie gives any real expressions, and that makes me feel disconnected from the story. I wish they had instead gone with a more traditional form of animation, or just picked different character forms.

If you can get past the zombie-people, the movie is beautiful. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered, and the train is a thing of beauty. And that scene with the ice train on the ice? Or that up-shot of bell through the ice? Be still my beating heart! They do ice incredibly well, along with snow. Which is good, seeing as this is, in fact, a Christmas movie set in winter. The way the environment moves around the characters is enough to almost suck me in, so long as we don’t go to a close-up too often.

I would also like to add a caveat to my character-hatred: the way the characters are written is fine. There’s nothing too stiff or stilted about them; in fact the Hobo ranks as one of my favorite characters from a children’s movie. The train engineers are hilarious and I wish they had more screen time. The main trio and annoying kid are all stereotypes, sure, but that’s what kids movies do to their main characters, so I’ll let it slide. At least they all get some character growth and go home a little different from when the train picked them up. So maybe just squint your eyes when the camera shows a person then go back to admiring the gorgeous scenery.

I also love the music. There are a few exceptions (“Hot Chocolate” springs to mind; Tom Hanks, I love you but you can’t sing), but when they get the music right, they nail it. Alan Silvestri provides a brilliant background soundtrack, and the moving “When Christmas Comes to Town” is one of my favorite Christmas songs.

It’s easy to see why, on one hand, the movie did mediocre at the box office; it can be really hard to embrace a movie where the people look like manikins, and it’s a Christmas movie so how many times do you really need to see it in theatres? By the same token, I also understand how it has since gained a cult following. If you watch it enough, you learn to look around the bad character capture/design and just appreciate the beautiful source material. Or you could read the book; same thing.

There are a lot of good points to this movie, and the plot sticks relatively close to the book (now if we could just cut the part with her ticket; why was that even included??). The Polar Express takes you on a wild ride from Michigan to the North Pole and back again, and teaches you, like the book, to believe.

(Man I wish I could make that word sparkle for you all.)

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship

By Arthur Ransome

I think folktales are the best kinds of stories. Not only are they great for kids – heck, they’re practically tailor-made for our little ones – but they’re great for adults too. There’s nothing like sitting back and sharing an old-fashioned folk tale. They’re the first stories we hear, the basis of our inspirations later in life, and can be found almost anywhere if you look hard enough. Even more, they’re a universal the world over. Just look at the world-wide variations on Cinderella that can be found.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a retelling of a Russian folktale. This book was the first time I ever saw the word “Czar” (we will not get into how long it took my parents to teach me how to pronounce that, or how confused I continue to be at how many different ways there are to spell this word), “moujiks” (peasants), or “faggot” (as in faggot of wood, not the derogatory term). Isn’t it great how books teach us new things?

This book is pretty long as far as children’s stories go. It starts with the Czar sending messengers all over the land, offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who brings him a flying ship. The messengers bring news to a small hut in the woods, wherein lives a family with three sons. The first two, smart and clever boys, decide they want to go out and try their luck. Their father gives them fine clothes, and their mother bakes them white rolls and gives them corn brandy before sending them off. The third boy, known only as the Fool/Fool of the World, says that he would like to follow. Sick of him, the mother gives him dry crusts and water and pushes him out of the house.

So the Fool walks along, merry as can be, when he comes across an ancient. They share a meal, and the old man tells the Fool how he can get a flying ship. Obeying the ancient’s instructions, the Fool finds himself with a flying ship. As he goes across the country, he starts collecting all manner of strange folk. First, there’s the man who listens; the man who can run around the world in one stride; the man who can shoot things at an incredibly far range; the man who can never get enough to drink; the man who can never get enough to eat; the man with the faggot of wood that turns into soldiers; and the man with the straw that turns the hottest day to winter. Quite the collection, really.

Upon arriving, the Czar looks out and sees the flying ship, but he is far from happy to see that his daughter will be marrying a peasant. He decides to present the Fool with challenges that will run the Fool off and leave the Czar with the flying ship. Of course, each challenge plays to the strength of one or more of the Companions, and the Fool ultimately bests the Czar, marrying the princess. The last page tells us that the princess and the Fool fall madly in love, the Czar and Czarina think very highly of their son-in-law, and the Fool becomes a very clever man.

I’ve always been a bit thrown off by that ending; when you call someone a Fool, I never think of them as smart. I suppose he could be a savant, or maybe he just needed some guidance and education to become an enlightened man. Perhaps he wasn’t a fool at all, and was just a very kind, naive man who thought the best of everyone, and Fool was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, I think I like that one.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a Caldecott Award Winner. The pictures are interesting for kids; it certainly has a distinctive feel. I remember the pictures as well as I remember the text, and while I don’t think the art is spectacular, it does have a folksy, Eastern-European feel, which fits with the text very well. They are simple illustrations with bright colours. There is never a page without action; in almost every page there is someone walking, or flying. It gives this long book an pace and keeps the children’s attention grabbed.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters

By Rick Riordan

To see Percy Jackson & The Olympians: the Lightning Thief here.

Percy Jackson returns in his second book, The Lightning Thief. Another quest, a new family member, and the return of old favorites.

Trouble is brewing in Camp Half-Blood again. The tree that keeps the Camp safe, Thalia’s tree, has been poisoned, and the camp activities direction, Chiron, has been accused of this travesty and been fired. Amongst all this, Percy is having dreams of his friend Grover, dreams that include conversations. Realizing they’re real, Annabeth and Percy realize that Grover has found the Golden Fleece, which can be used to heal Thalia’s tree. Requesting that someone be sent to find the Golden Fleece (and Grover), the new activities direction elects to send Ares’ daughter, Clarice, rather than Percy and co. Not about to be left behind, Percy, his half-brother Tyson and friend Annabeth to help their fallen friend.

If you enjoyed The Lightning Thief, you’ll love The Sea of Monsters. It has all the same trademarks of humour, wit, mythology, and action. Sea of Monsters is a fast-paced adventure, with a deadline (the demise of a tree), a recurring villain (Luke and Kronos), traps, interfering Gods, and tribute to various Greek gods, demigods, titans and monsters.

For children roughly 9-12, this is a great book for boys. If you’ve read this site at all, you’ll understand that it can be hard to find books for boys; when you find one, hold onto it and make sure they read it all. The Percy Jackson is great because it targets all the things boys enjoy which still being accessible and enjoyable for girls. If you’ve enjoyed these books, I’m going to throw in a quick recommendation to look up Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles (starting with The Red Pyramid). They are similar to the Percy Jackson books, only they focus on Egyptian mythology and feature a brother-sister team.

Mr. Bach Comes to Call

By Susan Hammond

The basic premise is this: A young girl is practicing Bach on the piano, despite any desire to do so. Mr. Bach then appears and teaches her the value of the piano, while simultaneously telling her of his life and music.

Mr. Bach Comes to Call is a great mix of back-from-the-dead autobiography and concert CD. Many of Bach’s most famous musical works are played within the story, both in the background and featured on their own without any interruption. I don’t really remember what I enjoyed most – the story or the music. But I don’t even have to choose, because Mr. Bach Comes to Call gives us both in one.

Suggested Ages: 4+

Hammond, S. (1990). Mr. Bach Comes to Call. The Children’s Group.

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Eyeshield 21

Written by Riichiro Inagaki, Illustrated by Yusuke Murata

Eyeshield 21 is a multi-volume saga in manga (comic) form. Specifically, Eyeshield 21 deals with American Football, a sport that does garners about as much enthusiasm and understanding in Japan as it does among North American women.

The hero is bullied Sena Kobayakawa, a tiny, blindingly fast boy whose idea of success is just being accepted to high school. Tricked/bullied into joining the two-man American Football team by the demonic Hiruma, Sena becomes the star of the team with his lightning-fast reflexes and speed.

The pace of the story is excellent, as is the character development is exquisite; and all of it built around the development of an underdog football team.

Suggested Ages: 12+

Inagaki, R., & Murata, Y. (2005) Eyeshield 21: Volume 1. Viz Media LLC.

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