The Paper Bag Princess

By Robert Munsch

Girls, don’t ever let a boy use you! That always feels like the message behind this great Munsch tale.

We start out in a beautiful castle with a beautiful princess who’s head-over-heels in love with her aloof (but handsome) fiancee. Then a dragon comes along, burning everything up and kidnapping Prince Ronald. Well, Elizabeth isn’t about to stand for this, and sets out to defeat the dragon. Not with swords and armour, of course – the only thing not burned up by the dragon was a paper bag. But Elizabeth has her wits and determination, and she wants her husband-to-be back!

I’ve always enjoyed this story. It’s like the children’s version of an adult show: the titular character is about to get married to her emotionally distant boyfriend, a massive crises ensues and she comes into her own. After defeating the world-ending evil, she realizes what a dirtbag her intended is and breaks free to become her own women! (Cue: dramatic guitar riffs)

This is a great story for kids, even if they don’t realize all the great messages going on in it. Just the image of a princess with a burnt crown and a paper bag is going to be enough to hook their attention. There’s also the repetitive factor that Munsch delivers very well, hooking kids in.

The illustrations are funny and detailed, done by frequent Munsch collaborator Michael Martchenko. (Can you imagine being in a conference with these two and only addressing them by their last names?) The Paper Bag Princess is a solid book, one of his earliest ones (number 3), and while he’s done better, this still reigns as one of the best.

Suggested Ages: 3-6

The Balloon Tree

By Phoebe Gilman

Have you ever told your child a bedtime story? I haven’t, but I’ve read reports of people who have. You start out with something fairly mundane – like a car ride. And then all of a sudden you take off to the moon and the car ride story turns into an epic adventure against the furry bat-men of Mars. Or something like that.

That how this book feels to me. It’s like Gilman’s children asked for a story about Princesses AND balloons, and this story is what resulted. I love it.

The Balloon Tree has it all. A princess in a castle, an evil Archduke, peril, secret passageways, a desperate quest, magic, salvation, and balloons. Pair that incredible artwork that features a ton of interesting, minute details, stories within the art and you have an amazing book.

Princess Leora’s father has to leave for a tournament. Scared of her uncle the Archduke, the King tells her that if anything goes wrong she should just release a bunch of her beloved balloons from the top of the tower and he will come rushing home to her. A great plan until the Archduke attempts a coup, destroying all the balloons so Leora can’t alert her father. With some advice from her friendly court wizard, Leora must now find one whole balloon so that she can summon her father.

Epic.

I think this book is a must-have for any little girls library (and little boys too). I’ve said it before (see Something From Nothing), but I love Gilman’s artwork. Not only does she create fantastic (and touching) stories, but she creates incredible artwork. The main pictures are well done, colourful, interesting, and lively, yes, but there’s more. Sometimes she shows the knights traveling, or creating movement by having someone break the barrier. It’s sheer magic.

Just look at the colours, the attention to detail! And these are two of the less Easter Eggy pages.

To me, this book is a lost classic. I think we read it to pieces, and I have no idea where my copy has gone (thus, “lost”). If you notice in the cover picture, this book has been around for 20 years, which tells me a lot of good children’s books came out in the 80’s. But more then that, it’s a testament to how good Gilman’s books are. I think children still know the name Jillian Jiggs, who has wonderful pigs that I made my mother make for me. And if you don’t know Jillian Jiggs, you are a heartless person who either suffered cruelly as a child, or is making your child suffer. Go, go, discover Phoebe Gilman. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Suggested Ages: 3-6+ (or all ages)

 

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.

The Secret World of Arrietty

I am a huge Hayao Miyazaki fan. I watched his older movies (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Totoro, Castle in the Sky) long before the explosion of awesomeness that was Spirited Away ever hit North American shores. And while I love the newer movies, I admit they don’t hold the same magic touch that they used to. Howl’s Moving Castle is fun, but Ponyo just confused me. His latest offering, a remake of The Borrowers by Mary Norton, had me very excited. I loved the 1997 movie, so add that with my favorite movie maker, and I was right there in line!

I’ll admit up front: I was disappointed again. Not because it was a bad movie; it just confused me.

Having only read synopsis’s of The Borrowers online, The Secret World of Arrietty seems to follow the pattern pretty well. A young boy, Sean, is sent to his Aunt Jessica’s house to rest before a critical heart operation. Meanwhile, small Arrietty is preparing for her first borrowing. You can probably see where this is going, and Ariretty ends up being seen silouetted through a tissue. Having seen a little person, Sean is now intent on finding her and making friends.

Another person bent on finding the little people is Aunt Jessica’s housekeeper Hara. Hara is, to be kind, a few slippers short of a shoe closet. She is insane. Without much/any proof that Sean has seen a little person, she starts to follow and spy on him, trying to catch him talking to a little person. When she discovers a hole in the floor that leads to the Borrower’s house, she traps Homily (the mother) to prove to everyone she’s not crazy. But magically, all the proof she’s collected disappears and she’s left looking certifiable to the pest control operatives and Aunt Jessica.

I have two big criticisms about this movie: one is the relationships the characters have; the second is the pacing.

The character interactions sometimes border on the cartoonishly weird, only they’re not funny (sometimes). Sean is a very deliberate, slow-moving, calm sort of person, but it comes off creepishly stalker-esque when he meets Arrietty for the first time. Pod is strong and stoic and communicates primarily through grunts. Homily is a basket-case of worry, but that seems true to the book, and she’s actually my favorite character. Hara deserves her own special post, I can’t even describe how little sense she makes. And Spiller, who makes two appearances in the movie, is reduced to a caveman, albeit, a caveman who can fly with his magic flying-squirrel cape or…something.

I saw the movie when it was populated primarily with small children. I will give them credit, for a bunch of 6-year-olds and under, they were quiet and engrossed in the movie (except for one little boy in my row who decided that beating up the chair in front of him was more important, but hey! he never talked). This astounded me, because the movie takes a lot of time to show us the boring, mundane tasks of the two houses. That’s not a bad thing, and the movie is set up well. The problem comes when you realize they’ve spent an hour and a half to set up the movie before trying to cram action and resolution into 30 minutes. Homily’s capture and rescue by Sean and Arrietty is really the only tension in the movie, and daddy Pod is missing from the entire act! Deciding the home isn’t safe anymore, the Borrower’s move out, and into another house. This, after the movie spends a good deal of time talking about how there’s a dollhouse built specifically for the borrowers. They never use it. Why?!

Despite how much vitriol I’m spouting, I did not dislike this movie. It has the traditional Miyazaki touch, with beautiful artwork and animation. There’s nothing scary about it (unless you count Hara’s over-the-top villain antics) which makes it good for the kids. They might get bored, though, especially on repeat showings when they realize nothing’s happening.

Go check out this movie. Or even any of the other Miyazaki movies from the beginning if you’ve never seen one before. There’s something in them for everyone, old and young.

Tatterhood

By Lauren A. Mills

I love folktales. Love. I’m tempted to say it’s the biggest section on my site. This is for a good reason: they’re archetypal, they can bridge cultures, and they’re reflective of our own culture, or even ourselves. I think we’re drawn to find fairytales that reflect ourselves, and this might explain why I love Tatterhood. The explanation being that I love ugly ducking stories (I still hope that I’ll turn into one), and I adore strong, feisty heroines who stand up for themselves and their loved ones.

Tatterhood has become a born-again favorite. I initially stumbled on it decades ago, and rediscovered it when I was looking up children’s books for my Children’s Services and Resources class (better known as the reason for this blog’s existence). I love it. I love the artwork, which are beautifully done by the author, I love the relationship between the main characters, I love the lesson, and I love the ending.

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, so let’s take a step back. Tatterhood is based on a Norwegian tale. The King and Queen long to have children, but the Queen has been unable to conceive. Taking the advice of an old woman, the Queen gives birth to two girls: the eldest, Tatterhood, and Isabella. Tatterhood carries a wooden spoon, rides a goat, dresses in rags and is generally repugnant. Isabella, by contrast, is beautiful, gentle, graceful and obedient. It is therefore double the tragedy when Isabella’s head is switched with that of a goat as retribution for the Queen’s mistake.

Rather then abandon her sister, Tatterhood demands a ship and sails off to discover a cure for her sister’s malady. They have a grand adventure and Tatterhood is successful in restoring her sister’s head. Ultimately, they land on a foreign land, and she demands to meet the King. He finally comes, sees Isabella and asks her to marry him on the spot. As part of the agreement, his brother has to marry Tatterhood.

I won’t give away the very ending, because it is to me one of the best parts of the story. Go find this book, then come back and read my review; don’t worry, I’ll wait.

The artwork of this story is phenomenal, and I think Mills deserves a lot of credit for her work. The fey design of the characters, the amber saturation, and the attention to detail are incredible. The details are what make it work. The hobgoblin villains, the wildness of Tatterhood, the gentleness of Isabella – it all comes through in the artwork with a life of it’s own.

As it is a retelling, there are of course differences from the original as Mills puts her own spin on the story. The basic elements are all still there, however, for which I am grateful. At the heart it’s still a story of light and dark, but here dark is not bad. It’s different, and ultimately even more lovely. Tatterhood is a lovable character, maligned by her mother despite being the oldest but still loved by her twin. She’s misunderstood, and doesn’t really care what you think. This attitude is amazingly refreshing; Tatterhood is a great role model for those who are different.

This story is sadly obscure, and I’m eternally grateful that my library system owns a copy. If you’re looking for a story with oddities, hobgoblins, strong heroines, donkeys, spoons, and high adventure on the seas, this book has it all, tied up with a pair of fairy tale endings. I highly recommend you check it out.

Suggested Ages: 6-9

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+

There Were Monkeys In My Kitchen!

By Sheree Fitch

By far one of my favorite books from when I was a child. Sheree Fitch, if I was to be asked, is one of the best children’s author out there, especially when it comes to her poetry. Books like Toes in My Nose, or Mable Murple are classics. If you do not have a book by Sheree in your collection, you need to run out now and read one.

There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen! is a zany tale about Willa Wellowby who wakes up and find her house has been invaded by a myriad of different types of monkeys (including, but not limited to, gorillas, orangutangs, baboons, and chimpanzees), who are busy causing ally types of mischief. They’re bouncing basketballs, playing bagpipes on her bed, taking bubblebaths! And no matter how many times Willa calls the beloved Canadian institution, the RCMP, no one seems around to help her.

The entire book is written in rhyming couplets, which makes it a complete joy to read aloud. It’s bouncy, fun, and flows. The whole book follows the same tempo, without the need for awkward gear shifts.

The illustrations, provided by Marc Mongeau, fit the story perfectly. The colours are fantastic, and the linework is wonky and silly – which is a perfect fit for this story. The scene were Willa winds up in the bath with such a silly look on her face is priceless, and has to be one of my favorite illustrations ever.

There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen! won the Mr Christie Award in 2002 for Best Children’s Book (ages 8 and under). I would recommend this book for 3-5, though there are some vocabulary that will undoubtedly stump your child. The vocabulary never seems forced, and you get to pull double duty: entertaining and educating your young one! Without them knowing it, even! Seriously, parents, does it get any better then that?

If you want to hear the poem before you rush out and buy this eloquent tome, here’s a youtube video of Sheree Fitch reciting There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen!

Dear As Salt

By Rafe Martin

When my sister found out I was doing this blog, she demanded that I do this book. She wasn’t even aware of the title I had chosen at that point (I wish I had seen her expression when she first saw it. Alas, she lives in Alberta, so I am out of luck). So today, I shall tackle the inspiration for my blog and review Dear As Salt.

One day, a melancholy King decides to find out how much his daughters’ love him. He calls each of his three daughters before him, and pretends to be very angry, accusing each of not loving him enough. The first two daughters answer that they love him “as much as bread” and “as much as wine”, and the King is please. But when his youngest (Zizola) comes before him, she answers that he is “as dear as salt” to her. Viewing this as an insult, the king flies into a rage and orders her killed. Rolling her eyes, Zizola’s mother hides her daughter in a giant chicken-shaped candlestick and orders one of her servants to take it to the market and sell it to a decent man. A prince comes along, makes some nice (if unrealistic) remarks about how he would use the candle to give people comfort, and ends up with a giant, black, chicken-shaped candlestick with a hidden princess inside.

Dear As Salt is a great book for young girls in the 5-9 age range. It has humour, though the humour is visual, and never once touched on in the text; it’s very subtle, and more for the parents or sharp-eyed child. There are repetitive stanzas within the text to help children memorize the story and keep them engaged. The moral at the end, when the King finally realizes the meaning behind his daughter’s statement that she loved him “as dear as salt”, that she loved him most of all his daughters and he had her executed is quite effective. If it was done in movie form, it would be quite the climactic final scene.

The artwork is gorgeous; the colours are lush and vibrant and a real treat for the eye. It gives the feel of a Renaissance-type painting, with Italian-inspired backgrounds. There is very little white space, and the images beautifully reflect the text. There is a little disconnect between the serious tone of the text and the subtle jokes of the images (see again: giant black chicken-shaped candlestick). This book is a lot of fun for both parents and children to share together.

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