May 31, 2018
How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read? By Jane Yolen. Illustrations by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.
A Werewolf Named Oliver James. By Nicholas John Frith. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.
Moo Moo & Mr. Quackers Present: What’s Cooking, Moo Moo? By Tim Miller. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Although it is a longstanding feature of kids’ picture books to have animals take the place of children and stand in for them during adventures ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous (and including the everyday), many authors continue to find new and clever ways of extending this convention and keeping it alive and lively. Jane Yolen and Mark Teague are particularly adept at this in their long-running series showing kids as dinosaurs – anatomically accurate dinosaurs (based on the latest scientific knowledge) doing distinctly un-dinosaur-like things in typical human-middle-class settings. This lets Yolen and Teague accentuate both kids’ bad behavior (in the early part of each book) and their good actions (in the later part of each entry). And Teague’s fanciful colors for the dinosaurs – very little is known about the colors that dinosaurs actually sported – enhance the presentations tremendously. The latest book in the series ends differently from earlier ones and becomes overtly instructive – an interesting twist. Yolen and Teague start out with typical enthusiasm and abandon in How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read? A Kileskus misbehaves by using a book to bat a ball; a Brachyceratops plays book-throwing games with a cat and a dog; a hilariously overacting Amazonsaurus (one of the ultra-heavy, long-necked dinosaurs) is caught in mid-leap, having a temper tantrum that is about to lead to a book being crushed by her gigantic body; and so on. Human adults are sprinkled through the pages to react with suitable dismay to the antics of the kidosaurs: the Dryptosaurus sitting on the toilet in a thoroughly messed-up bathroom, reading a book called “Potty” as a parent stares at the mess all around, is a classic among Teague’s pictures. What is wonderful about this series is that even when things turn preachy later in each book, the dinosaur pictures are so much fun to see that the lessons go down easily: there is an irresistible picture of a mom about to turn out the light while a huge-billed, multicolored, vaguely birdlike Zhejiangopterus is still happily reading in bed. The final three pages here, instead of extending the story, display all 26 letters of the alphabet (capital and small) and give information on learning to read – complete with small dinosaur pictures as illustrations. That makes this particular book into a fine teaching tool for pre-readers and the earliest readers. And it neatly responds to the question in the book’s title: How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read? The answer: with this book itself.
There is nothing hyper-realistic in the illustrations for Nicholas John Frith’s A Werewolf Named Oliver James, because, after all, who really knows what a werewolf looks like? But if a child could turn into one on the way home from band practice, he might look just like Oliver James after his transformation – which turns the boy into a really cute and really huge-toothed version of the mythical wolf-human hybrid. Frith uses mostly dark colors in the book, implying without ever specifically saying that the full moon is what transforms Oliver James – who does not quite know what has happened to him, but is delighted to discover that he now has super-speed, super-strength and the ability to do super-leaps. He also has a problem: dinner is at 6:00, and he knows he has to be home by then, but buses will not stop for a werewolf, and trains, bikes and cars are not really options. So Oliver James heads for home on foot (or paw) – speedily, to be sure, despite the fact that it is now raining. The rain stops soon enough, but Oliver James still has a problem: should he be late and have his parents be upset, or should he just walk into the house in his werewolf form and risk scaring them, as he has scared all the other people he has encountered since his transformation? Might as well go in, he decides – and gets a surprise when his parents are not the slightest bit troubled or concerned about his werewolf form, having changed into werewolves themselves. The change lasts only overnight: the next morning, there is no full moon anymore and everyone has returned to human appearance. But now, at least, Oliver James knows why he changed – and kids who read this lighthearted and very amusingly illustrated book are likely to be frustrated when they find out that their parents have not given them any lunar transformational powers.
Tim Miller’s restaurant-themed adventure of Moo Moo the cow and Mr. Quackers the duck may not be directly comparable to anything that human kids can do, but these two characters certainly mess things up as much as boys and girls would if they tried to run a restaurant. There is something especially clever in the design of Moo Moo & Mr. Quackers Present: What’s Cooking, Moo Moo? The book has a standard wraparound dust jacket, but unlike almost all such protective wrappers, this one is very different from the book covers that it conceals. Those covers show “The Daily Quack” (“price: a lot”), which features the cow and duck on the front page (the book’s front cover) and classified ads on the back page (the book’s back cover) – the ads asking for ballerinas (“no cows or ducks allowed”), offering a can of worms for sale, and more. And oh yes, the restaurant that Moo Moo and Mr. Quackers open turns out to be a can of worms. Yes, literally: worms are not officially on the menu, but they do turn up. What is on the menu is everything else, since the Moo Moo Special (“all my favorite foods mixed together, of course”) includes sardines, carrots, “Jell-O in a bag,” popcorn, mayonnaise, frozen fish, pineapple, cupcakes, watermelon, and a few other ingredients that turn out to be about as appetizing in combination as they sound. The restaurant is Moo Moo’s idea, paid for with the money from the long-suffering Mr. Quackers’ piggy bank, but after customers’ initial enthusiasm for trying something new, the project quickly collapses and the establishment has to be sold. To make up for everything and have a chance for the two friends to spend more time together, Moo Moo suggests a vacation – but as the last page of Miller’s book shows, matters are again going to get out of hand (or, for Mr. Quackers, out of wing) very, very soon. The cartoonish illustrations and overall silliness of the situations, added to the unexpected additional-but-related “Daily Quack” story, make this book a great deal of fun for kids who would never, ever think of making a huge mess of, say, the kitchen. Nope. Wouldn’t ever happen.
Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Sea Monsters. By Jackson Pearce. Illustrations by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. $9.99.
Following Baxter. By Barbara Kerley. Harper. $16.99.
The third Pip Bartlett adventure follows quite directly in the footsteps of the first two, but Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Sea Monsters has enough fun and mild mystery so it will not seem repetitious to readers of Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures and Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training. The underlying premise of all the books is that Pip can talk to animals, and if that seems like a magical ability, it should, since she talks to magical animals. Indeed, a lot of the fun of these books is reading about the magical animals that Jackson Pearce imagines and that Maggie Stiefvater neatly illustrates as if they are being discussed in a magical-creatures guidebook – whose existence more or less ties all the Pip adventures together. Pearce and Stiefvater make the magical critters just a step or two beyond real-world ones, helping kids relate to the imaginary animals and their behavior. In Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Sea Monsters, the title character is a “slimekraken,” a highly intelligent deep-sea creature more or less resembling real-world deep-sea krakens (probably giant squid). It is the keeping of a slimekraken in a tank for display and educational purposes, and its eventual release, that provide the mystery and drama of the book. But it is Pip’s ability to speak to the slimekraken and many other magical creatures that keeps matters entertaining and enjoyable. Other critters here are the “spinnerseal,” an adorable-looking, furry and very definitely seal-like creature that, among other things, helps Tomas – Pip’s timid, highly allergic, easily frightened and hypochondriacal best friend – learn a bit about swimming, which he has always been too frightened to try; eel-like “tubeknots” that live tangled together; hermit-crab-like “crabbels” that turn out to be able to put on theatrical productions; “Eastern sandmarchers,” birds resembling real-world sandpipers except that they “always march in lock-step”; “vanderbirds,” which look like pelicans with under-wing pouches in which they collect snacks; and more. Pip’s ability to communicate with all these creatures gives her and Tomas clues to the reasons for apparent vandalism in the town of Port Candor, where Pip, Tomas, Pip’s cousin Callie, and Tomas’ family are on vacation: the vandalism turns out to be connected to the well-meaning but misguided captivity of the slimekraken, who turns out to be not so much monstrous as she is lonely. Really, the mystery here is on the mild side and the upbeat ending a foregone conclusion. But the parade of just-unusual-enough animals and Pip’s special communicative abilities (in which, of course, the rather dim adults do not believe) combine to make this series entry attractively amusing.
Barbara Kerley’s Following Baxter is fun and amusing, too, although this standalone book (aimed at the same age range as the Pip Bartlett novels: 8-12) is a little too thin and a touch too obvious to gain more than a (+++) rating. Baxter is a dog with whom 11-year-old Jordie Marie Wallace seems able to communicate: he seems to understand everything she says, although he does not reply in kind as the magical creatures do to Pip. Baxter lives with Professor Reese, who has just moved in next door to Jordie’s family and who is working on the usual important and secret experiments that preoccupy scientists in fantasies for this age range. Specifically, what Professor Reese is in the process of discovering and exploring is teleportation – instantaneous transmission of objects and people from one place to another. Jordie and her younger brother, TJ, spend a lot of time with Professor Reese, and Jordie, who narrates the book, soon discovers, “There was this secret layer of science that had always been there, when I made hot chocolate in Dad’s microwave or turned on the lights. The secret layer of science was everywhere. I’d just never noticed it before.” And now that Jordie does notice the ubiquity of science, she becomes involved when Professor Reese’s teleportation experiments, predictably, go awry. How does Baxter fit into all this? Baxter is declared “king of the bounce” for his ability to catch balls no matter the direction in which they bounce – even superbouncy ones that “superbounced superfast.” And this ability turns out to be crucial in getting the teleportation device working properly and then figuring out exactly where things are going on the other end when they do not go just where they are supposed to go. This becomes a significant issue when Professor Reese herself is teleported to – well, somewhere – and Jordie and TJ need to do some detective work to figure out where “somewhere” is. This gets them involved with a series of numbers that in turn relate to Baxter’s microchip while corresponding to latitude designations, and – well, Kerley complicates the mystery enough to keep things interesting, and even overdoes it a bit, especially by introducing a rather surly detective who is using silly and feckless adult reasoning to search for the professor when it is obvious that dog communication and microchip manipulation are called for. The use of the detective is not the only slightly off-kilter element here: there is also the relationship of Jordie’s parents. They “are separated, but we all still live together. Sort of. Dad’s part of the house is a studio apartment built right on top of the garage.” Umm, well, OK. Anyway, there is nothing genuinely scientific in Following Baxter, and Kerley knows it, explaining at the back of the book just how complicated genuine teleportation would be, if it could be done at all. Following Baxter is all in fun, and if Baxter turns out to be a livelier and more fully realized character than any of the humans, that is unlikely to trouble preteen readers very much, if at all.
Bat and the Waiting Game. By Elana K. Arnold. Pictures by Charles Santoso. Walden Pond Press. $16.99.
Into the Nightfell Wood. By Kristin Bailey. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Although neither of these novels is labeled as a sequel, both are second entries in series – and both feature central characters with a disability of some type that is important to the story but that does not in any way limit their involvement in the events. Thus, one element of both books’ stories is their underlying notion that being disabled does not mean being unable to accomplish things – and have exciting adventures. Actually, the adventure in Bat and the Waiting Game, for ages 6-10, is a mundane suburban one, involving family, friends, school and pets. But it is somewhat out of the ordinary because the pet here is a baby skunk, known as a kit, that Bat is caring for after his mother, a veterinarian, brings it home. Bat’s parents are divorced, so there are the usual-for-this-age-group difficulties associated with the situation (that is to say, mild misunderstandings). But it is Bat himself – so named for the initials of his name, Bixby Alexander Tam – who is the most unusual element of the book, since he has autism spectrum disorder and his responses to stimuli are not the ones to be expected from most kids his age. Yet a major point of the book is that everyone accepts Bat just as he is, at every step of the way in the story: his parents; his sister, Janie, whose school performance is ruined when Thor, the skunk, sprays the auditorium after Bat unwisely brings the animal to school; his best friend, Israel; his teacher, Mr. Grayson; and everyone else who appears in Elana K. Arnold’s novel. This is thus a book of determined mainstreaming: there are no significant bumps in the road for Bat or anyone who interacts with him, and everybody is accepting, helpful, and more than willing to treat Bat exactly the way everyone else is treated. To say this is a naïve and wishful interpretation of the integration of autism into society is to state the obvious – but families with children at or near Bat’s position on the autism spectrum will welcome the normalization of the condition that the book offers and may even be able to use it as a teaching tool for families with non-autistic children. Charles Santoso’s pleasant, anime-inspired illustrations treat all the characters with equal sensitivity, just as Arnold’s writing does. There is little unusual in the plot and interactions in Bat and the Waiting Game, which is a followup story to A Boy Called Bat. But at some level, that is exactly the point Arnold wants to make: Bat and other children on the autism spectrum are exactly like everyone else here, except for some very small and easily handled behaviors that may seem slightly quirky. In the real world, these children are not exactly like everyone else and not as simply integrated into everyday activities as Bat is, but families with kids like Bat would certainly like them to be. So if Bat and the Waiting Game depicts an idealized world, it does so for good reason and out of good motives, and at least does not take things so far as to make the entire setting seem like an unattainable fantasy.
The world of Into the Nightfell Wood, on the other hand, is an unattainable fantasy, by design. This is the sequel to The Silver Gate and offers the further adventures of that novel’s protagonists: Wynn and her older brother, Elric. Intended for readers ages 8-12, Into the Nightfell Wood features a protagonist with a rare genetic condition called Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome. This is a disease that causes short stature, moderate to major learning difficulties, various distinctive facial features, and broad thumbs and first toes – for which reason it is sometimes called broad thumb-hallux syndrome. A difficulty with Into the Nightfell Wood is that readers need to know about Wynn’s genetic inheritance from the start, even though it is not presented here: it was discussed by Kristin Bailey in an author’s note to The Silver Gate. Not knowing about Wynn’s condition makes Into the Nightfell Wood, which already follows the preteen fantasy-adventure formula rather slavishly, seem even more formulaic. For example, much of the book involves Wynn’s discovery that she is braver, stronger and has more abilities than she herself has ever believed. That common trope of the genre gains extra depth for readers who understand what genetic background Wynn possesses and is learning to overcome. Similarly, Elric’s love for and faith in his sister, another standard element of fare of this sort, means more in light of Wynn’s condition; readers unaware of it will find less to enjoy and admire in the siblings’ relationship. The story itself here is quite a standard one. In the first book, Wynn and Elric were on a quest for safety, which they found by passing through the Silver Gate and being adopted by the Fairy Queen, who declared them prince and princess of the realm. The queen has her own problems, however, in Into the Nightfell Wood. She shields the land from the darkness that dwells in the Nightfell Wood, which is under the control of the evil Grendel. But her power is being undermined by her grief over the long-ago kidnapping of her own child, and she is overprotective of the new prince and princess. So soon enough, inevitably, Wynn is tricked into going into the Nightfell Wood, and Elric has to find and save her, and there ensue alternating chapters of the siblings’ adventures as they endure treachery, danger and violence while discovering kindness, bravery and love. There are the usual battles, imprisonments and escapes, and there is the usual pass at meaningfulness as Wynn and Elric learn about the true nature of evil. But Into the Nightfell Wood is mainly interesting for its focus on the siblings and their relationship – and that element is additionally meaningful only if readers know about Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome and how it has affected Wynn. Pre-reading of The Silver Gate is really a must for enjoyment of this successor novel.
Victoria Bond: Soul of a Nation—Concerto Portraits of Presidential Character. Frank Almond, violin; John Bruce Yeh, clarinet; Mark Ridenour, trumpet; Gabriela Vargas, flute; Roosevelt University Chamber Orchestra conducted by Emanuele Andrizzi; Chicago College of Performing Arts Wind Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires. Albany Records. $16.99.
New Standards: Music for Bassoon and Piano. Ann Shoemaker, bassoon; Kae Hosoda-Ayer, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
New Works for Viols, Voice, and Electronics. Kristin Norderval, soprano; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; Valeria Vasilevski, narrator; Parthenia (Beverly Au and Lisa Terry, bass viols; Lawrence Lipnik, tenor viol; Rosamund Morley, treble viol). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Many contemporary composers, and contemporary performers who focus on works of today and the recent past, seem always to be searching for new ways to use music, ways to make connections sometimes with listeners, sometimes with fellow performers, and sometimes with society at large so as to make social or political points. And at least some composers working today draw directly on music of the past as a model, or a lens through which to see what they want listeners to observe. The four presidential-focused concertos by Victoria Bond (born 1945) on a new Albany Records CD quite clearly have Copland’s Lincoln Portrait as a model – Bond herself says so – but they also, and rather more interestingly, adapt Charles Ives’ approach of including familiar, even homespun music within the newly composed material. In Bond’s works, for example, this results in providing aural touchstones for a musical study of Theodore Roosevelt by including, among other tunes, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” These four concertos are in fact studies rather than tributes, along the lines of Ives’ portraits of transcendentalists: all four Bond pieces include words by Myles Lee that take a rather too-modern perspective on the presidents and tend to judge them by inappropriately contemporary standards. Like Lincoln’s own words in Copland’s work about Lincoln, Lee’s writings about these four presidents are intended as scene-setters, but they also come across interpretatively in ways that are rather grating and add little, if anything, to Bond’s music. The music itself is intelligently and often cleverly constructed. The sequence on the CD is a personal rather than chronological one. The violin-and-strings concerto, Soul of a Nation, is in some ways the most interesting piece: it focuses on Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s only polymath president, and incorporates music by Corelli that Jefferson kept in his library at Monticello. Henry Fogel is the narrator here, with violinist Frank Almond and the Roosevelt University Chamber Orchestra conducted by Emanuele Andrizzi. The music of this piece is heartfelt and often soulful, exploring greater depths than Bond probes in the other concertos. The Jefferson work is followed by The Indispensable Man, the title referring not to Lincoln but to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the one president here whom Lee appears to admire unreservedly. David Holloway narrates and John Bruce Yeh is the clarinetist in a work whose jazzy riffs and bouncy percussion meld, sometimes a touch uneasily, with Big Band sounds. The ensemble parts here and in the remaining concertos are very well played by the Chicago College of Performing Arts Wind Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires. The third concerto, The Crowded Hours, focuses on Theodore Roosevelt and features Ray Frewen as narrator and Mark Ridenour on trumpet. Percussion plays a significant role in this rather martial work, interspersed with popular tunes of Roosevelt’s time. Last on the CD is Pater Patriae, narrated by Adrian Dunn, featuring Gabriela Vargas on flute, and focusing on George Washington. Here the music, which includes 18th-century fife-and-drum tunes, is jauntier and generally more unsophisticated in sound than that of the other concertos, presumably to make Washington come across as a man of strength and moral clarity but also making him seem rather superficial. Of course, every generation has different heroic figures, and every musical generation delineates its subjects differently: Ives was as much a man of his time, in this sense, as Bond is a woman of hers. If there is something rather too studied in some of Bond’s music (and much of Lee’s verbiage), it does not detract from the very fine construction of all these works and the genuinely interesting material that appears in all of them, from time to time if not from start to finish.
Bond reaches out to a broad American audience with her presidential concertos. Ann Shoemaker seems more interested in reaching out to other performers – bassoonists who, like Shoemaker herself, would like to find some additional works to play. The result is an MSR Classics release that is a musical hodgepodge, containing material written as long ago as 1899 and as recently as 2007, most of it falling into the salon-music category through pleasant construction, some mildly memorable tunes, and very little that is aurally challenging. Performance challenges, however, abound, and Shoemaker surmounts all of them to excellent effect: this is really a CD for bassoonists and for listeners interested in seeing just how much the instrument (whose range is considerably wider than most people realize) can do both expressively and virtuosically. The oldest work here, 3 Pièces pour basson et piano by Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), is one of the most engaging, giving the bassoon plenty of chances to sing warmly and sweetly, setting a quiet and contemplative mood to fine effect. The Koechlin work contrasts very pleasantly with the three more-outgoing ones that follow it on the disc and focus on the bassoon’s more-playful side. These are Etude No. 5: Variations on “Streets of Laredo” for solo bassoon (1982) by John Steinmetz (born 1951); Brightening for bassoon and piano (2007) by Marcus Karl Maroney (born 1976); and Scherzo in G minor for bassoon and piano (1948) by Oleg Miroshnikov (born 1925). In the Maroney and Miroshnikov works, and the others here that use piano, Kae Hosoda-Ayer does a fine job of backing Shoemaker up while allowing her to stay firmly in the limelight; the recording adds to this effect by placing the bassoon prominently front-and-center. Other works here have a distinctly French flavor (whether or not written by French composers) and a fair amount of élan: Neuf Pièces Breves pour basson et piano (1965) by Pierre Max Dubois (1930-1995); Variations Concertantes pour basson et piano (1970) by Ida Gotkovsky (born 1933); and Suite pour basson et piano (1957) by Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986). Dubois’ work most thoroughly explores the bassoon’s many moods, from an opening Pomposo to a Pastorale to an Adagio that contrasts nicely with the succeeding Giocoso. Also nicely contrasted on the CD are the two parts of Sicilienne et Allegro Giocoso pour basson et piano (1930) by Gabriel Grovlez (1879-1944), followed on the disc by the more monochromatic Black Anemones by Joseph Schwantner (born 1943) – a work written for voice and piano in 1980, transcribed for flute and piano in 1991, and here showing the bassoon’s ability to replicate both vocal elements and the characteristics of a higher woodwind. The fact that none of the composers heard here is particularly well-known (only Koechlin and perhaps Tansman will be familiar names to most listeners) shows how far-ranging Shoemaker had to be in her search for new and/or neglected bassoon repertoire. It would be nice to report that she found some genuine gems, but in fact the works here are more of the semi-precious variety: bassoonists may well want to incorporate some of them into recitals, but the CD is unlikely to repay everyday listeners through multiple hearings – the material, while generally quite pleasant, offers little to bring an audience back repeatedly except for the high quality of Shoemaker’s playing.
The sheer sound of another MSR Classics release is also its main attraction. This is a CD of world première recordings of contemporary works for Renaissance viol consort – quite a concept! – plus an electronically enhanced version of the 850-plus-year-old chant Alleluia, O Virga Mediatrix by Hildegard von Bingen. This piece opens the CD and sets up its female orientation: all the works are by women composers, a fact far less relevant than the pieces’ thematic focus on storytelling. What the viol ensemble Parthenia does to and with the gorgeous von Bingen chant will be very much a matter of taste; but then, so will all the works here, even though the chance to hear a Renaissance viol consort in pretty much any repertoire is a highly welcome one. Nevertheless, listeners should know that none of the composers here pays any particular attention, much less tribute, to historical works for viol consort: this is decidedly modern music that uses the viols (and, yes, electronics) in strictly contemporary ways. Nevertheless, sensitivity to the intimate sound of viols is evident in some of the music. In particular, From a Fairy Tale (2013) by Frances White, from a story by James Pritchett, explores and exploits the otherworldly aspects of the viols’ sound to fine and suitable effect. Thorns for viol quartet and bass-baritone (2013), by Tawnie Olson, is also unaffected and direct, with a finely honed performance by Dashon Burton adding to the effect of a piece that does not overstay its welcome. The other two works on the CD are somewhat thornier than Thorns, and they are the longest pieces on the disc. White’s A Flower on the Farther Side (2010), for viol quartet and electronic sound, seems rather self-conscious in its integration (or dis-integration) of the centuries-old instruments with the usual parade of electronics. And the longest piece here, the four-movement Nothing Proved Can Be (2008) by Kristin Norderval, for viol quartet, soprano, and interactive audio processing, is the most curious – intellectually fascinating but emotionally rather vapid. The issue here has to do with content as well as sound: the words are those of Queen Elizabeth I, the topic no less than her rise to and retention of power and the sacrifices and ruthlessness required of her. The use of instruments of Elizabeth’s era to set her own words gives the work a kind of time-capsule quality and a sense of solidity, but the actual music and the audio processing used to enhance (or at least alter) it create a disconnect between what is being said and explored, on the one hand, and the way things are being said and explored, on the other. The result is a work of undeniable complexity whose intricacy of thought and design is clear but whose impact is less visceral that Norderval surely intends it to be. The members of Parthenia play this and all the other pieces here – all written and premièred by the ensemble – with commitment and, when called for, considerable beauty. The verbal participants – Burton, Valeria Vasilevski and composer Norderval as a soprano – evince a strong sense of commitment to the material and a high level of comfort with these works’ style. The CD is a fascinating foray into nowadays little-heard sonorities that are reinterpreted in a strictly up-to-date context – a disc for a rarefied audience that will find the material sometimes charming, sometimes thought-provoking, and sometimes, however improbably, both at once.
May 24, 2018
The Cardboard Kingdom. By Chad Sell. Knopf. $20.99.
My Magic Breath: Finding Calm Through Mindful Breathing. By Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor. Pictures by Michelle Polizzi. Harper. $17.99.
An exceptionally inventive and intelligent graphic novel that integrates significant themes of friendship and identity into its flow without ever becoming overbearing or preachy, The Cardboard Kingdom nearly represents a new form of communication. Graphic novels themselves blend comic-book elements with traditional narrative, but Chad Sell – with the additional involvement of 10 other artists, that being part of what makes the book special – expands the graphic-novel approach itself and uses it to tackle some real-life conundrums in a highly sensitive yet age-appropriate way. The book’s very first chapter, “The Sorceress,” created by Sell and Jay Fuller, sets an offbeat and highly intriguing tone: the entire chapter is wordless, and it takes a moment of study of the first two full-page drawings even to figure out what is going on. The left-hand page is a cartoonish rendition of a sorceress in the mode of Disney’s Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. The right-hand page shows the same character in a much more “cartoon-realistic” style, the sort that actually could be included as a still in an animated film. Turn the page, and the story’s third page shows the sorceress and a minion doing their evil – until they are interrupted by seeing a girl drawn to look like a real-world human being. And that forms the visual transition to the story’s fourth page, where it turns out that both sorceress and minion are kids playing in a house’s back yard, their “victim” a doll. This is how the story – and, eventually, the entire book – proceeds, by intermingling and interweaving the fantasies of middle-school children with the everyday circumstances in which they bring those fantasies to life. The Cardboard Kingdom gets its name from the abundant use of cardboard boxes to make costumes and props for the ongoing role-playing. And the book gets its unique style from the fact that the controlling hand of Sell is evident throughout, keeping character portrayals and scenes consistent from chapter to chapter, while other cartoonists – David DeMeo, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, Cloud Jacobs, and Barbara Perez Marquez, in addition to Fuller – contribute specific kids and specific characters to the neighborhood and fantasy-kingdom mix.
All this is clever and enchanting enough, but there is considerably more here. The kids are multiethnic and multicultural, and that has become a tired trope of books for preteens (and other age ranges as well). But here the kids’ families and characteristics are not merely sops to political correctness. These children have real-world issues. One girl is taunted as “Loud-Mouth Sophie” by the neighborhood bully, then criticized by her own grandmother for sounding like “a hellion” or “a banshee.” So she backs down from her plan for an exuberant costume and tries to be demure, but feels worse and worse – until her mother eventually realizes what is happening and helps Sophie regain her enthusiasm. The bully has his own story, one of not fitting in and feeling he is too old for dress-up games even though he really wants to participate – and here too there is eventually a satisfactory resolution, brought about largely by the kids themselves. Then there is the very intelligent boy who insists the fantasy characters are impossible because “physics won’t allow” what they do – who eventually finds his own role, as “Professor Everything.” And the boy whose parents are in the middle of breaking up, who becomes “The Gargoyle” to “stand guard over this house” when his enraged father turns up one night – and whose determination to “defend the whole block” shows in several pages of wordless, unusually shaped panels that clearly communicate his attentiveness and nervousness. And Amanda, the Hispanic girl who proclaims herself “The Mad Scientist” – complete with mustache – and whose straitlaced father means well in telling her that “changing your friends around…isn’t helping them,” but who eventually softens when he realizes that her mustache duplicates his own. The kids here are fully formed individuals, and even their parents have more realism than parents usually do in any books (traditional or graphic-novel-style) for this age group. Young readers who want to find characters who “look like me” should have no difficulty doing so here – but that superficial “look like me” approach is really an adult construct of limited value, because what kids care about is characters with whose experiences and feelings they can identify, even if the physical resemblance is not exact. So the multicultural neighborhood where The Cardboard Kingdom takes place is all well and good, and handled far better than such elements usually are. But what really matters is that all children in this age group, of any race or ethnicity, should be able to find elements to which they can relate in this summertime story – which ends in exactly the right, consistent way, in a bang-up fantasy finale that eventually leads to a scene in which all the creators of the “kingdom” are heading into the first day of a new school year, their shadows showing the shapes of some of the marvels that they, thanks to Sell and his collaborators, have made so memorable.
The way that even the best of intentions can go awry through heavy-handed implementation is clear from the equally well-meaning but altogether less persuasive My Magic Breath, a book for younger kids – ages 4-8 – that is intended to teach the basic benefits of mindfulness without actually using any such big word. Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor explain, in suitably simple language, the importance of focusing on breathing when trying to calm down and refocus. And Michelle Polizzi’s illustrations are nicely suited to the text, showing all sorts of multicolored swirls and shapes curling out of a little girl’s mouth as she breathes in a way that “helps when you have too many thoughts running through your head,” and showing somewhat similar but darker-colored shapes to go with a comment about “when you are worried, or nervous, or sad.” The book’s approach is participatory: Ortner and Taylor address their readers, tell them to think of something that “happened today that made you smile,” then instruct them to “blow out all those happy thoughts onto the page,” and so on. But what if nothing happened to make a child smile during the day, and what if the page saying “now, that looks like happiness” does not reflect how the child reading the book feels at that exact moment? Well, then, too bad – there will be a disconnect between the reader and the book’s words and pictures. That is the weakness of this (+++) book: it expects young children to accept what it says about their feelings and their thoughts at any given moment, then instructs them how to handle themselves at a time when they may simply not be in sync with what the book has to say. To be sure, this matter can be mitigated by having an adult read the book to and with a child, choosing a reading time when the grown-up believes the child will be receptive to the book’s lesson. An adult who chooses the right time will be helping the child use breathing to cope with everyday stress. But even then, the specificity of the book may interfere with the clarity of its message: after several pages of positive breathing, Ortner and Taylor write, “I bet you have a big smile on your face.” But what if the child does not have that smile? He or she is likely to think, “What am I doing wrong?” And that is the opposite of the way the authors want kids to feel when trying the techniques they recommend. The suggestions themselves are quite good, including the one to keep a negative thought “stuck in your mind” and then “blow out your breath” and “use it to push out your sad thought.” Again, Polizzi here provides guiding illustrations that go from dark to multicolored. But again, what if a child does not find that this works? “What am I doing wrong?” This is not a small issue: even adults learning meditation and controlled breathing sometimes find that the requirements associated with the instructions increase their stress. Indeed, mindfulness meditation is not for everyone, although when it does help, it can be a good coping strategy. The issue where My Magic Breath is concerned is that the authors unequivocally state, as they take young readers through breathing exercises, “Whew! You did it! Good-by, sad thoughts!” But, since this will not work all the time for all children, the book creates the possibility – by its insistence on being didactic and on pretending to know exactly how its readers feel and respond – of making kids who already feel bad feel even worse. Parents need to use this book carefully: at the right time, with the right child, it can certainly be helpful, but its direct and unsubtle approach carries with it the risk of having an effect that is the opposite of the one its creators intend.
Tom’s Midnight Garden: A Graphic Adaptation of the Philippa Pearce Classic. By EDITH. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $22.99.
Mr. Wolf’s Class. By Aron Nels Steinke. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
The very best graphic novel adaptations use the form itself as an element in telling their stories. They do not simply show the exact scenes described in their sources – they go beyond the words to use illustrations to highlight the emotions of characters and to make descriptive passages come alive for readers in ways beyond those called up by the original material. There are very few graphic novels with this kind of power – P. Craig Russell’s two-volume adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2014) is perhaps the finest recent example. The adaptation of Tom’s Midnight Garden by EDITH (who uses only one name) is very nearly on the same level. Philippa Pearce’s book is less-known in North America than in England, but it is one of those rare novels that treat children like fully formed human beings who are capable of encountering strange, even unnerving aspects of life and learning from them – along the lines of, say, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. A Carnegie Medal winner after its 1958 publication, the book is the story of a boy named Tom Long, who is sent to live temporarily with his pleasant aunt and stern, straitlaced uncle while his brother, Peter, is quarantined with measles. Tom himself is kept in his aunt’s and uncle’s home because of the possibility that he might have the same disease and be infectious – the measles vaccine was not available until the 1960s. Resentful of the situation and his isolation, Tom broods – until one night he hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike 13. When he goes down to check on the clock and opens the back door, Tom finds himself in a huge, expansive garden rather than the drab, citified back yard of his aunt’s and uncle’s home. This could easily become a kind of Narnia tale at this point, but Pearce takes the story in a very different direction. Night after night, Tom visits the garden, soon making the acquaintance of a girl named Hatty – apparently the only person who can see him. The two become fast friends, sharing their worries, concerns and troubles and having a variety of small adventures. But there are hints that something deeper is going on, as when Tom sees a tree fall in a storm and the next night sees it standing straight, unharmed. The story soon becomes one about ghosts and time – is Hatty a ghost in Tom’s time period, which is clearly later than hers, or is Tom a ghost in Hatty’s, or is something even stranger happening? Eventually Tom discovers that Hatty is growing up even though he remains the same – and at the book’s climax, Tom discovers who Hatty really is (not just “was”), and the two of them try to untangle the strange threads that have bound them together. Tom’s Midnight Garden is a very atmospheric book, and what EDITH does so well with it is to emphasize its settings and the way they reflect the events. The panels are all rectangular – there is no attempt here to use unusual panel shapes for their own sake or for effect, as in many graphic novels. And many of the best panels are wordless: Tom’s first sight of the garden, the look of his bare feet in the grass, the contrast between the outdoors and the prison-like conditions of the dull home of Tom’s aunt and uncle (where Tom’s room actually has bars on the window, left over from its onetime use as a nursery), the first time Tom realizes that Hatty can see him (he sticks his tongue out and then so does she), and so forth. Carefully conceived poses help EDITH bring the emotional impact of the book to the fore, as when orphan Hatty’s dreadful aunt calls her “liar” (a medium-close picture of the aunt grabbing Hatty’s arm), “criminal” (Tom’s shocked, wide-eyed reaction to what is happening), and “monster” (the aunt dragging Hatty away) – followed by a full page of wordless reaction panels. The emotional heft of the story comes through with exceptional clarity in this highly sensitive graphic adaptation, and even though much is, of necessity, left out, everything that matters the most is included and given heightened impact. Young readers who do not know Tom’s Magic Garden may be inspired by this graphic novel to read the book itself. But even if they are not, the adaptation itself so beautifully captures the mood of the book and the thoughtful questions it poses that children who know the novel only as EDITH interprets it will retain much of the effect of wonder that Pearce’s original produces.
At the opposite extreme from the involvement, delight and thoughtfulness of the Tom’s Midnight Garden adaptation is the first book in a new series that is as straightforward and humdrum as possible. Aron Nels Steinke’s Mr. Wolf’s Class is about a fourth-grade class doing entirely ordinary things – everyday, frequently boring things. The characters are all cartoon animals, drawn in a flat style with little attention paid to anatomical correctness (Mr. Wolf’s bent elbows look especially unrealistic, even by cartoon standards: whatever arm has the elbow bent is significantly longer than the other). It is hard to see what sort of message this book tries to convey, because all it does is take readers through a completely typical day at a completely typical school in which completely typical things happen to completely typical people – well, animals, but none of them has any animal characteristics whatsoever. Samples of dialogue: “What is your name?” “I need to go to the bathroom.” “I’m so sleepy.” “Line up for lunch.” “Five more minutes of recess.” “Can I play?” “Don’t forget your homework.” More than 150 pages of this becomes very, very wearing and very, very tiresome. The purpose of this graphic novel is very hard to discern. Fourth-graders need not read it – they are living it. Third-graders probably should not read it – it gives them little to look forward to in fourth grade. Fifth-graders will not want to read it – it will be old news to them. The largely expressionless faces and flat drawing style make Mr. Wolf’s Class seem like a book that would appeal to the earliest readers, perhaps kindergartners or first-graders, but it is hard to know whether that is the intended audience. Graphic novels need not be over-the-top – or based on classic novels – to be interesting and to communicate effectively. But they have to have something to communicate. Mr. Wolf’s Class simply puts across the idea that in fourth grade, kids do math, read, go to lunch, have recess, and go home. All that is true, but it is hard to see the point of putting such extremely basic information in graphic-novel form. Mr. Wolf’s Class is a (++) book that does little to whet the appetite for the planned followup, Mystery Club – although hopefully the title of the next book indicates that a bit more excitement lies ahead.
Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort. By Will Taylor. Harper. $16.99.
Elementals No. 1: Ice Wolves. By Amie Kaufman. Harper. $16.99.
As scene-setters for new fantasy series, these books do a good, if formulaic, job of setting up their story lines and the worlds in which the events take place. Preteen readers will quickly be able to decide whether either book introduces characters and events worth following into the future, whether both do, or whether to look elsewhere. Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort has an intriguing premise and an interesting take on middle-grade friendships, in which one best friend seems to be growing up more quickly than the other until an unanticipated adventure brings them even closer together. Maggie has been missing Abby for six weeks of the summer, while Abby has been at Camp Cantaloupe – but the two friends do not quite connect when Abby comes home, because Abby now has a bigger circle of friends and is interested in more aspects of the real world than Maggie is. Despite the somewhat jarring rejoining, the two friends put up a couple of pillow forts – Maggie with enthusiasm, Abby initially more reluctantly – and then discover that they can magically travel directly from one to the other. As if that is not enough, they find that the pillow forts can be portals to places a great distance away, specifically to Alaska, where Maggie’s uncle is studying whales in a remote location. Soon the girls are visiting him regularly. But they are also running afoul of an organization they had no way to know about: NAFAFA, the suitable acronym of the oddly named North American Founding and Allied Forts Alliance. It turns out that there is a network of pillow forts all around the continent, but there are regulations and requirements for building and using them, and Maggie and Abby have been breaking all the rules. NAFAFA demands that the girls toe the line or their forts will be destroyed. And then it is Maggie who seems the more-mature of the two, refusing to accept NAFAFA’s demands at face value while Abby wants simply to go along with them. Then, to bring in the real world in ways neither girl ever expected, they find out on one visit to Alaska that Uncle Joe has been seriously injured. Now they have to reveal the secrets of their fort to others in order to save him – all the while trying to fend off NAFAFA, especially one megalomaniacal character. Will Taylor’s blend of fantasy and real-world events is a bit creaky here, and his efforts to be politically correct by having Abby’s father dating another man seem forced and unnecessary. So does the use of silver sunglasses by NAFAFA members. But the relationship between Maggie and Abby is well developed, and the girls themselves have sufficiently contrasting personalities to make them appealing to a variety of readers. The book’s ending is disappointing in being an overt cliffhanger: readers will have to wait for the next book to find out what will happen, and may be frustrated as a result. On balance, though, the strengths of Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort outweigh its weaknesses.
Alaska is not the setting for Ice Wolves, the first book in a series called Elementals, but it certainly could be if the sequence were set on Earth rather than in the land called Vallen where it actually takes place. The story here is even more formulaic than is usual in middle-grade novels, and that is saying something. There is a land where there is magic. There are opposing forces known as Ice Wolves and Scorch Dragons – fire and ice, see? There are 12-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, who are very close. There is a ceremony at which it turns out that one twin can shapeshift to an Ice Wolf, the other to a Scorch Dragon. So the twins – are they even really related? – are supposed to be lifelong enemies. But they will not have it that way. And in this first book, Rayna, who has dragon blood, flees the Wolf Guard and is captured by the dragons – while Anders, who has wolf blood, must train at the Guard’s Ulfar Academy in order to learn about wolves and dragons and find a way to save his twin sister. Like Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort, this first Elementals book cares about political correctness – actually to an even greater degree, since the village of Holbard, where the story takes place, is known worldwide for being diverse, multicultural, and all that good stuff. Also like Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort, the first Elementals book ends with a cliffhanger that will have readers either eagerly awaiting the next installment or being frustrated at being told, after more than 330 pages, “This could be a beginning.” Perhaps, but the ending is rather predictable and, in truth, something of an anticlimax rather than a climax. In fact, the whole story is on the dull side, and Amie Kaufman cheats readers in several ways – for instance, the central notion of how close Anders and Rayna are must be accepted because Kaufman says so, not because readers ever see anything happening to show their bond. In truth, Kaufman seems more enamored of the diversity elements than of the story: she uses the whole “multicultural” thing to explain her created world and its mythology, in passages that are more interesting than, for example, the long sections about Anders’ schooling. Kaufman has written a number of books for teenagers, so-called Young Adult fiction, but this is her first book for younger readers. Unfortunately, it feels as if she oversimplified quite a few things in her effort to reach the target 8-12 age range.
Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014-1019. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: Triple Concerto; Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano. Anne Gastinel, cello; Nicholas Angelich, piano; Gil Shaham, violin; Andreas Ottensamer, clarinet; Frankfurt Radio Symphony conducted by Paavo Järvi. Naïve. $16.99.
The Cedille label is in essence a narrowly focused one: it is a nonprofit focused on music created by and/or performed by artists in the Chicago area. But its new release of Bach’s violin-and-harpsichord sonatas provides powerful evidence that even a regionally focused organization can produce something truly world-class. This is a recording for which it is hard to muster enough superlatives: it is the equal of any version of these works currently available, and is indeed at the very top of the available performances – in fact, its bargain price (two CDs priced as one) could readily make it the first choice for anyone interested in this repertoire who does not own the music already. Historically aware performances are often so larded with explanatory material, so bogged down in explaining why things were done this way even though nowadays they are done that way, that the music itself gets buried under the scholarship. Not so here: Rachel Barton Pine, whose 2015 Cedille recording of Vivaldi’s concertos for viola d’amore showed that she has a marvelously firm understanding of Baroque style and its expressive possibilities, offers playing that is even more poised and involving here. She and Jory Vinikour are first and foremost communicative musicians, with a remarkable sense of give-and-take and such joy in what they produce together that it is hard to imagine any listener being unaffected by the emotional impact of these readings. Yes, emotional impact: this is as far from dry, academic Bach as it is possible to go, yet the performances are so in tune (sorry about that) with Bach’s time and Bach’s era’s performance practices that they could be described as “learned” (two syllables) if that word did not have negative connotations such as “dry” and “boring.” These performances are neither.
Pine and Vinikour do not make a big deal about the historical authenticity they bring to this music. Interested listeners can turn to the enclosed booklet to find out that Pine plays a 1770 Nicola Gagliano violin with Gamut strings, and uses a replica bow made by Louis Bégin, while Vinikour here uses a harpsichord built in 2012 after a model from 1769. This is worth knowing, but wholly irrelevant to the effect of the music. These are marvelously varied works, colorful and packed with emotions ranging from the nearly lugubrious to the bright and forthright. Each individual movement of each sonata is a gem in its own way, not least because the pervasive use of fugue here seems far less studied and scholarly – in these performances – than it generally does when Bach is played. The sonatas are in six different keys, three major and three minor, and their movements are in far more keys than those, with middle movements frequently ending on the dominant to pull performers and listeners directly into those that follow. The richness of the sonatas is quite extraordinary. Consider just the opening movements. The first sonata (in B minor) is distinguished by its somber opening Adagio; the second (in A) starts with a movement marked Dolce that is indeed sweet, not in Romantic terms but in a manner more courtly; the third (in E) begins with an extended Adagio featuring highly ornamented violin passages; the fourth (in C minor) opens with a lovely Largo in the form of a siciliano; the fifth (in F minor) starts with the longest movement in any of the sonatas, a deeply introspective and solemn Largo; and the sixth (in G) opens, surprisingly, with an Allegro, a bright and upbeat start to the only one of the sonatas in five rather than four movements – and the only sonata featuring a movement for harpsichord alone. Bach may have originally intended this sixth sonata, BWV 1019, to start with a slow movement, as all the others do: there is a Cantabile in G, BWV 1019a, that is one of his most wonderful inspirations, and Pine and Vinikour offer it at the end of the set as an appendix. Had Bach used it in the sonata, it would have been the longest movement in any of these works and would likely have overbalanced the whole piece; this may well be the reason he omitted it. Pine and Vinikour give the movement a kind of celestial ethereality that makes it in some ways the capstone of the whole sonata sequence. But every work here has its many pleasures. These are basically trio sonatas, although for two instruments, because Bach treats the two hands at the harpsichord as independent much of the time – a technique that, by the way, absolutely requires use of a harpsichord, not a piano. It is simply amazing to hear Pine and Vinikour bringing out Bach’s individual melodic lines, keeping the sparkling canons and fugues crystal-clear while blending the instruments’ sounds when called for. This is, by any measure, a top-notch performance of some marvelous music – a worthy addition to the collection of anyone who loves Bach’s music as it should sound, and can sound only in the hands of the very best interpreters.
The Bach sonatas date to the early part of the 18th century, about 1720. By the late part of the same century, the “trio” concept no longer involved Bach’s contrapuntal sleight of hand and was attached, in the Classical era, strictly to works using three instruments. An early Beethoven contribution to the form, dating to 1797, is the charming and unusually scored Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 11. The performance by Andreas Ottensamer, Anne Gastinel and Nicholas Angelich on the Naïve label is a particularly pleasing one: it sounds as if the performers genuinely enjoyed themselves when making the recording. This trio is sometimes played with violin rather than clarinet, but it sounds much more interesting – and is unique in its scoring among Beethoven’s works – when the woodwind is used. This is unassuming music, meant to appeal to popular tastes of the time: the finale is a set of variations on a then-very-popular tune that was later used by Hummel and Paganini as well. Ottensamer, Gastinel and Angelich make no attempt to give the trio a grander scale or greater sense of importance than Beethoven intended: their playing is precise, light, and beautifully blended. The Op. 11 trio predates by six years a “trio” of another sort, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, which also gets a first-rate reading on this CD. Interestingly, given Beethoven’s prowess as a pianist, it is really the cello that strides forth most strongly in the Triple Concerto, introducing the themes of all three movements and essentially shaping the direction in which the music goes. The cello writing is not very idiomatic, spending a lot of time in the instrument’s higher register, but it is that very characteristic that makes a well-played version of the Triple Concerto so interesting: like the Op. 11 trio, this concerto has scoring that is unique among Beethoven’s works. The overall structure of the Triple Concerto is unusual, too: there is a very long first movement, which is normal for concertos, but then there is a very short second movement – little more than an interlude – followed by quite an expansive finale that actually sounds as if it could have gone on even longer had Beethoven not been busy with Fidelio at the time (the conclusion of the finale is somewhat perfunctory). Gastinel and Angelich interact with Gil Shaham at least as seamlessly as they do with Ottensamer: the three solo instruments weave in and out of the material with strength, elegance and suitable deference to each other – which is to say that none of these virtuoso performers feels the need to upstage the others, and all are willing to handle the music as a sort of updated concerto grosso. In addition, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Paavo Järvi provides just the right sort of accompaniment for this unusual work, neither swamping the soloists nor underplaying the importance of the orchestral forces by staying too far in the background. All in all, this “double triple” Beethoven CD offers highly satisfying readings of two works that are somewhat off the beaten path where this composer is concerned, and very much worth hearing when they are performed as sensitively as they are here.
May 17, 2018
Take a Ride by My Side. By Jonathan Ying. Illustrated by Victoria Ying. Harper. $14.99.
Toad on the Road: Mama and Me. By Stephan Shaskan. Harper. $17.99.
“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!” So wrote Dr. Seuss in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The words could be the motto for both these books for kids ages 4-8 – both are all about going from place to place and finding enjoyable (if not laugh-out-loud funny) things at every location. In Jonathan Ying’s Take a Ride by My Side, two friends, a cat and a dog, start out on “a trip from here to there” with minimal luggage but big plans. This is a book where the journey definitely matters more than the various destinations (except for the final one). The whole book is about ways of getting from place to place, starting with a bicycle with a sidecar (hence the book’s title) and then traveling in a canoe, a submarine, an airplane and even a rocket ship. Apparently the dog – who is the one who keeps proposing going onward to somewhere new – has both a pilot’s license and an astronaut’s rocket-flying ability, since dog and cat eventually travel all the way to the moon. Victoria Ying draws both characters simply, with an emphasis on their big eyes and almost perfectly round heads. Eventually, though, the two make it to the very best place of all: their home, where the whole adventure started. “But even though it’s fun to roam,/ there’s nowhere quite as great as home,” writes Jonathan Ying, as the friends sit in their living room in front of a wall on which there are pictures of all their adventures. Hmm…Victoria Ying never shows either of them carrying a camera or cell phone, so who took those photos, including the one on the moon’s surface and the one shot deep underwater from outside the submarine? Young readers may well wonder just what happened. Parents can come up with whatever answer they like, or just suggest that kids think something up on their own.
The second Toad on the Road book keeps its characters earthbound and in pretty much the same area, but it expands on Stephen Shaskan’s previous Toad book, in which characters who worried about Toad sitting in the road eventually got help for their vehicles from Toad’s mother, who turned out to be a tow-truck driver. In Toad on the Road: Mama and Me, both Toad and Mama Toad are in the truck (labeled “Mama Toad’s Towing”) and are being helpful to everybody, with the repeated refrain, “Mama and Toad will save the day!/ Everyone shout: Hip hip hooray!” First Mama and Toad come upon Goat, whose delivery truck (“Bob’s Bounce Houses”) has run out of gas. So they supply some. Then they encounter Fox’s van (“Bob’s Balloons”) with a flat tire – which they promptly change. And then they find Moose’s car (“Bob’s Pizza”) stuck in some mud at the side of the road – and use the hook on the back of their tow truck to get the car out. Goat, Fox and Moose all show their appreciation for the help with thanks and a statement that their deliveries “will surely get through” because of the toads’ tow truck’s assistance. And where do you suppose all the deliveries might be going? To a thank-you party for Toad and Mama Toad for all they help they give everyone! Shaskan’s cartoon illustrations are broadly conceived, with little attempt to make the animals at all realistic – clearly these characters are stand-ins for humans showing their appreciation for friends and helpers. The final page’s “hooray to our friends for all that they do” message makes the book’s focus abundantly clear. Gently amusing and written with plenty of easy-to-remember repetition, Toad on the Road: Mama and Me will be fun not only for early readers but also for pre-readers, who will enjoy the easy-to-follow rhythm of Shaskan’s rhyming.
Noir. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $27.99.
Secondhand Souls. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $15.99.
Christopher Moore writes picaresque novels that are really more like picaresque scenes strung together so they kind of fit but never fully cohere, and it does not really matter. Moore’s wonderfully pithy description of one character in his latest novel, Noir, actually fits the entire Moore oeuvre: this character, a foul-mouthed kid of a type much favored by the author for scene-setting and other nefarious purposes, is described as being “well stocked with enthusiasm and bad intentions.” That is Moore himself to a T.
One does not approach a Moore novel seeking coherence or carefully arranged plots dependent more on comic-but-realistic life flow than on comic-and-ridiculous coincidences. One approaches Moore in the knowledge that everything he does is a sendup of something or other, of a genre or a character type or of other people’s storytelling or of his own style. One example from Noir of the last of these has the narrator, a distinctly non-poetic protagonist named Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin, saying, “the fog off the bay was streaming between the buildings like a scarf through a stripper’s legs, leaving everything damp and smelling of sailors’ broken dreams.” That is a remarkably good parody of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett genre, a doggone good description of how the fog in San Francisco really does behave (and presumably did in 1947, when Noir takes place), and a passage so dramatically over-the-top that Moore must have known he was using it to go over the top of his own over-the-topness. Moore’s descriptive passages about San Francisco, like Richard Kadrey’s about Los Angeles in Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels, are not at all the point of the books but are a major reason they are so compulsively readable. It is hard to imagine anyone but Moore writing that, when it comes to driving in San Francisco, “it was like trying to find your way in a bruised martini full of lightning bugs.”
Sammy, the guy talking about the scarf and martini, is at the epicenter of a series of bizarrely Moore-ish characters and bizarrely Moore-ish events. Among the former are a blonde named Stilton, aka “the Cheese”; the already-referred-to kid, who is a semi-professional nuisance and misuser of just-learned vocabulary words; Eddie Moo Shoes of Chinatown notoriety; the smarmy General Remy, who is in charge of a dump of a military establishment out in New Mexico in a town that goes by the name of Roswell; a bunch of guys in black suits and ever-present sunglasses who belong “to an agency that was so new, and so secret, that it had failed its basic mission the day the second guy joined”; and the usual mixture of girlfriends, boyfriends, girlboyfriends, corrupt cops, maybe-Satan-worshiping bigwigs – you know, just your normal Moore cast of characters. It is almost a disappointment when, toward the back of the book, everything starts to make a weird kind of sense, including the previously confusing presence of two narrators (Sammy plus someone using the authorial third person and promising to explain later). Moore loves low comedy: the scene of Sammy trying literally to ice his ex-boss, “ex” because said boss unwisely pried open a crate containing a deadly snake that Sammy ordered for a Chinatown-related scheme, is a bit of hilarious slapstick that definitely fits the definition of “black humor” if that phrase is even allowed nowadays. Moore also loves formulaic heartstring-tugging, as when Sammy hears a street musician playing the blues, gets the blues himself, and gives the guy almost all his money. And Moore loves pushing a plot in so many directions that readers can barely keep up and it is obvious that things cannot possibly fit together – then fitting them together. Most of all, Moore loves writing, the sheer cadence of words (including more than a few four-letter ones), the unfolding of a story set in a world distinguished from the real one only by the occasional intrusion of supernatural elements – although, come to think of it, maybe it is the real world, only slightly unmoored (or Moored). Noir is part tribute to its genre, part spoof of it; part satire, part fond replication; part clever sendup, part trying-to-be-clever parody. What matters is that it is all Moore, which means it is compulsively readable – not because of cliffhangers (although it has plenty of them), not because of any desire to know what happens how to whom (although Sammy and Stilton are characters about whom readers can actually care), but because of the sheer power of Moore’s writing, the certainty that however weird and bizarre and peculiar a description or observation may be, there is going to be another one, equally weird and bizarre and peculiar, on the next page. And there almost always is.
The pattern is recognizably the same even though the story is completely different in Moore’s previous novel, Secondhand Souls, originally published in 2015 and now available in paperback. However, this is not a standalone book, although it makes some half-hearted efforts to be one. It is a sequel to A Dirty Job (2006), set a year later and bringing back just about all the characters who survived the earlier book and a few who didn’t. Be advised that trying to read Secondhand Souls on its own will indeed produce all the typical reactions to Moore, from groaning at groaners to puzzling at puzzles to laughing out loud at laugh-out-loud scenes, but the reactions will be far more muted than if you read A Dirty Job first. That is, it is one thing to know that a former nun has implanted the soul of “beta male” Charlie Asher in a 14-inch-high meat puppet with a crocodile head, duck feet and 10-inch penis, but it is another thing to know why she did this. The “why” is told, in excruciating and excruciatingly funny detail, in A Dirty Job. In Secondhand Souls, you just kind of have to accept it as background. Likewise, the role of Charlie’s now-seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, as the Luminatus, a kind of death-beyond-death figure, is central to Secondhand Souls but makes more sense (at least a little more) if you know the earlier book. Also likewise, the reason the disappearance of Sophie’s “goggies” (a couple of gigantic hellhounds that protect her) in Secondhand Souls is so important has to do with their appearance in A Dirty Job. And so on. In Secondhand Souls, Sophie fills the profane-mouthed-kid role, Archer is the somewhat feckless but basically good guy in Sammy “Two Toes” mode, Audrey the ex-nun is the Cheese, and the various hangers-on are the various hangers-on. But the characters are different enough so that the good-vs.-evil story of Secondhand Souls reads nothing like the what-the-heck-is-going-on story of Noir. In fact, what is at stake in Secondhand Souls is pretty much everything, as readers will realize when the harbinger-of-doom banshee and the three murderous raven-women show up in (where else?) San Francisco. Secondhand Souls, like Noir, has a stylistic oddity, in this case not in the narrators of the main narrative but in several of the stories-within-the-story in which unsettled ghosts tell the sad tales of their lives, resulting in deviations from rather than deepening of the book’s plot. The save-the-world-again idea of Secondhand Souls is, to be sure, secondhand, but the reason it works as well as it does is that it is secondhand Moore, which is well above firsthand almost-anybody-else. On its own, Secondhand Souls is less successful than Noir. But when paired, A Dirty Job and Secondhand Souls are, together, just as strange and delightful and out-and-out peculiar as all the books that Moore has been producing, with remarkable consistency, ever since Practical Demonkeeping (1992). Moore has never written anything that is not worth reading: his is a uniquely skewed worldview, wrapped in a style both playful and pointed, inside plots that are almost incidental to the hijinks and low humor in which his novels abound.
Monday’s Not Coming. By Tiffany D. Jackson. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
There is something exceptionally annoying about books that insist they are capital-I Important and capital-M Meaningful and lots-of-capitals Not To Be Ignored Because They Deal With Major Issues. A really good writer can get away with this sort of pompous self-puffery by treating issues of the day with style, sensitivity and an awareness that the audience reading the book is likely to be a diverse one that will not necessarily share the author’s viewpoint or sense of societal outrage. And then there are authors such as Tiffany D. Jackson, who basically come forward and try to “guilt” readers into finding a story such as Monday’s Not Coming significant even though the plot creaks, the style is dull, the structure is difficult to follow, and the characters are portrayed in a way that prevents the book from striking a chord with people who are not willing to be “guilted” into empathy.
There is something significant underlying this novel: the plight of the multiply marginalized, of girls who are virtually invisible by reason of their skin color and/or behavior and/or activities and/or family situations and who can therefore disappear without making so much as a ripple in society. In fact, Monday’s Not Coming is loosely based on real-life incidents in Washington, D.C. But what matters is not the realism or lack of realism of the foundational story – what matters is how cogently the author communicates it. And that is where Monday’s Not Coming falls short.
The story is about eighth-grader Claudia Coleman and her best and only friend, Monday Charles – who mysteriously disappears one day. Monday is not there when Claudia returns to school after the summer, and Claudia gets more and more worried as the days pass and Claudia never shows up – and no one seems to have any idea of where she is, or even to care very much. The school removes Monday from its system, her phone does not work anymore, and even Monday’s family seems, if not indifferent, then strangely quiet about Monday’s disappearance, giving different and incomplete explanations at different times. So far, so good from a storytelling standpoint. But Jackson wants to tell the tale in a capital-I Important (or capital-I Intriguing) way, and it does not work. Claudia is part of the problem: she is in her midteens (the book is intended for readers ages 13 and up), but she sounds much of the time like a preteen, and a young one at that. Jackson herself is another part of the problem, because she structures the book in multiple timelines that are very difficult to follow and overly complex. “Before” deals with Claudia finding out that Monday is missing, “After” has to do with the time when Claudia has learned what happened, and then there are chapters such as “One Year Before the Before” and “Two Years Before the Before,” which confuse matters considerably and make it difficult to figure out just what occurred or was learned when. And Jackson is prone to melodrama, as when she reveals that Claudia suffers from PTSD because of Monday’s disappearance and presents other plot twists, including the “reveal” that marks the book’s climax but that is somewhat anticlimactic. The result is a story that often seems overdone and overemphatic.
There is sex and talk of sex in Monday’s Not Coming, and bullying, and drug and alcohol use, and there are issues of abuse and privilege (in the form of gentrification of “culturally rich” but impoverished neighborhoods) and mental health and being downtrodden and so forth. Make no mistake: these are legitimate issues. But loading them onto a book that is also loaded with a creaky, self-consciously “literary” style rather than being told in straightforward fashion with, perhaps, a few flashbacks, simply makes the story less compelling than it could be. This could easily have been a family story – one that would connect with families of all types and colors and income levels – because at its heart, Monday’s Not Coming is about what secret-keeping does to people and how dangerous it is to be silent when you see things that are not supposed to be seen. But by making the book overcomplicated in design and making the protagonist sound much of the time like someone far younger, Jackson vitiates a potentially powerful story.
It has become fashionable in some circles to assert that if you haven’t “been there” yourself, you cannot possibly react “properly” to a story about people who are different from you – because of gender, sexual preference, skin color, ethnicity, religion, or some other characteristic. That is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that. Certainly an author who wants to reach only people like herself can write stories about people like herself in language that she believes only similar people will understand. And there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that: some books are self-limited by design. But when an author seeks to reach out beyond those who have “been there,” to show people who have not “been there” what it feels like to “be there,” she has an obligation to present relatable material and relatable characters in such a way as to connect with people who have not personally experienced the living conditions of those characters. Retreating behind a wall of “you’re not like me so you can’t possibly get it and besides you’re a racist/sexist/some-other-epithet” accomplishes exactly nothing if the purpose of a book is to reach out. If its only purpose is to reaffirm what others who have “been there” already believe, that is a different matter. Walling oneself up with one’s imagined “tribe” is a protective maneuver, and sometimes an effective one. But it comes at the expense of genuine connection with members of other “tribes” who may genuinely want to understand matters that go beyond their personal experiences. Monday’s Not Coming is too disjointed, too ill-structured, and ultimately too unconvincing in its narrative to offer more than a “guilt trip” reason for people who are not like these characters to care about what happens to them.