Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You Can't Take a Balloon into...

The Metropolitan Museum
The National Gallery
The Museum of Fine Arts

by Jaqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser

Thumbs up.

I really liked this set of three wordless picture books. In each, there is a brother and sister and the grandparents touring a famous museum in an important American city. The girl brings a balloon along each time and has to leave it outside with a different someone in each book. The balloon gets away and floats around the city visiting famous landmarks. Meanwhile the children and grandparents are inside viewing famous works of art. But all ends well as the balloon finds its way back to the museum each time, just in time for the family to come out.

The Metropolitan Museum is in New York City, the National Gallery is in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts is in Boston. The author/illustrator team really hit their stride with the second book. The second and third include a map of the city with the route the balloon is traveling and all the famous landmarks. All three include notes at the end on the works of art viewed by the family. But the second and third also include notes on famous people who somehow end up with cameo appearances around town in the illustrations. In the second and third, Ms Glasser also manages to have the people in the balloon chase imitate whatever is going on in the art work being viewed back at the museum.

Theses really are a treat to look at. Although the reviews on Amazon rate them for ages K-3, K-4, and K- 5, respectively I "read" one of them to my kids the first night we had them from the library and I had all ages on the floor surrounding the book. I would have enjoyed spending much longer to look at them, and still hope to get a chance, in order to absorb all the historical figures popping into the pictures. I think the bigger kids have had them in their bedrooms going over them.

Other children's picture book connoisseurs may recognize the illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser. She did the illustrations for the historical picture books by Lynne Cheney, such as A is for America and A is for Abigail. She also does the Fancy Nancy books, of which we are great fans.

Mr. Darcy, Vampyre

by Amanda Grange

Thumbs up.

Ms Grange has written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, beginning the morning of the wedding and continuing onward. As Elizabeth experiences various premonitions, Mr. Darcy is increasingly erratic and aloof. Since the title makes no secret of it, Mr. Darcy is a vampire and the story involves the duel plot line of Elizabeth trying to figure out the strange behavior from her new husband and also a danger that follows them as they tour Europe on their wedding trip.

Although Ms Grange does not write in the familiar Austen style, the characters do think and speak true to the expected regency style. I really liked Ms Grange's use of metaphor and poetic prose. It was very pretty writing and she was able to make the reader really see and hear the things the characters were seeing and hearing.

Ms Granger also cleverly included realistic locations and historical events to give the reader a tour of early 1800s Europe.


"To Try Men's Souls"

"To Try Men's Souls" by Newt Gingrich (and coauthor): Thumbs up

I really enjoyed this rich and vivid novel that chronicles the amazing Christmas crossing of the Delaware by George Washington and his (at that point) very ragged and exhausted army. It is a moment of history that, of course, we are all familiar with but that is played out in this novel in a very thorough and moving way. The story follows General Washington, Thomas Paine, and a young militia man whose family's loyalties are divided as a result of the war and who is wholly committed to the cause of the Revolution. Gingrich's writing is very engaging and I found the book emotionally draining at times as I felt the absolute improbability of victory under the circumstances and therefore the unbelievable triumph of it in the end. In the context of the battle, Gingrich interspersed the struggles of Tom Paine in producing words to inspire such a demoralized and ragged army. His "The American Crisis" takes on even greater meaning when seen in the context of when it was written.

As it fits into the time period we are studying in history, I knew I would take interest in this book. But as I have been disappointed in other popular historical fiction writer's works, I found I was very happy with both the topic and the great writing of this amazing book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Toby Alone

by Timothee de Fombelle
translated by Sarah Ardizzone

Thumbs up.

This was a really fun and interesting children's book. The plot is engaging and the book features some interesting philosophical points. This book could be useful for engaging an older child in a discussion or analysis of current events or history. But the story does not get bogged down with the philosophizing. I would say that a independent reader of 3rd or 4th grade could read it. But for reading aloud, my pre-schoolers through high schoolers all were engaged. The illustrations by Francois Place are cute pen drawings somewhat reminiscent of those by Quentin Blake in the Roald Dahl books, with similar silliness and exaggeration.

The characters are colorfully developed and tale moved along at a quick pace. The author keeps a reader curious by telling just a bit about a person or occurrence and then leaving the reader to wonder while he backs up and gives a bit of history about that person or occurrence. This plot devise can be difficult for books at this reading level, but Mr. Fombelle does it well.

The main story revolves around Toby and his survival. He is being chased by bad guys and he is seeking his parents. The rest of the details make up the plot. Toby and those of his society are tiny (Toby is less than 1/2 mm tall) and their world is The Tree.

The book is definitely anti-fascist or anti-totalitarian. It does this well. The tyrant in the story, among other things uses fear to stir up the populace against Toby and his family and keeps every one ignorant by criminalizing publishing and information dissemination.

The plot is also somewhat green and anti-industrialist, but it is not preachy. I was apprehensive for a stretch, that the book would end up being anti capitalist or big-business or free-market. Mr. Fromelle's fascist was definitely abusive to The Tree and he also made poor use of the available science for his own commercial gain. But the author stopped short of implying that any of these things inevitably lead to fascism, or that anyone who engages in capitalism or big business or the free market is always a fascist. And Mr Fromelle also included many interesting characters of independent thought and behavior.

I see Mr Fromelle has also written Toby and the Secrets of the Tree. I think I'll have to see whether I can get it from the library.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies

by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Thumbs up.

This is a hoot. Combine the silliness of a hoaky martial arts movie, the kitch of a bad horror flick and classic regency fare and what do you get? Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies. I was constantly fighting off the urge to read snippets to whoever was near.

Mr. Grahame-Smith takes the framework of the Jane Austen original and inserts a zombie plague, the Bennet girls having been highly trained in Shaolin monasteries in Tibet, and the gradual decline of a good friend who has been bitten by an unmetionable.

I hope they make a movie.

The illustrations will be bit distracting for regency fans, because in all but the first, the clothing style is totally wrong. Imagine Lizzy doing a side kick in late 1800s/early 1900 clothing with kind of a Wild West flair.

In doing a little side reading on this book, I see that there is a movie currently in production called Pride and Predator, produce by none other than Elton John. Pardon me, I guess I should say, Sir Elton John.