Picture Book Perusal: There is a Tribe of Kids…

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If you are as much a fan of wordplay and wordishness as we are here on the Shelf, you should definitely seek out a copy of Lane Smith’s There is a Tribe of Kids.  We were lucky enough to receive a review copy from PanMacmillan Australia, who are publishing the title here in April, and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Did you ever want to waddle with a colony of penguins? Wriggle with an army of caterpillars? Or march with a troop of monkeys?

Lane Smith takes us on a colourful adventure through the natural world, following a child as he weaves through the jungle, dives under the ocean and soars into the sky. Along the way he makes friends and causes mischief with a dazzling array of creatures both large and small – but can he find a tribe of his own?

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It was the stark white-blue tones of the cover that caught my eye with this book, quickly followed by the absolutely adorable hairy goats and finally, the cheeky little protagonist hiding amongst the huddle.  I couldn’t begin to guess what the story might be about from the cover and the title, so it was with a little spark of delight that I opened the book to find out that not only was it about a tour through the little (and large) parts of the natural world, but also an homage to creative collective nouns.

The book begins with a small boy and the titular tribe of young goats and quickly moves on as the boy finds himself dropped, flopped and generally jostled from one group of animals to another.  He goes floating with a smack of jellyfish, crosses swords with a crash of rhinos and even follows a trail of shells to a surprise ending that will have fans of wordplay and synonym grinning from ear to ear.  My favourite page involved the boy mucking in with a turn of turtles, before getting bored with waiting for them to catch up and then falling asleep.

In each scene, the boy takes on some of the characteristics of the animal or environment.  He uses twigs as horns while with the kids, practices inching along with no hands among the caterpillars and snuggles in for the night on a bed of clams.  The illustrative style reminded me strongly of Chris Judge’s Lonely Beast series of picture books, with double page spreads cordoned off into smaller panels to illustrate multiple scenes on a single page.  The textured images perfectly suit the natural terrains that the boy encounters and the greens and browns alternating with whites and blues throughout give a thoroughly outdoorsy feel to the goings-on.

The illustrations here definitely bring the minimalist, repetitively formed text to life and elevate this book to one that deserves to be pored over again and again.  I can certainly see some mini-fleshlings being inspired to crawl like a caterpillar, climb like a kid or balance like a rock tower after flicking through this one a couple of times.

It’s for these reasons that I’m going to have to appoint There is a Tribe of Kids a TOP BOOK OF 2017 pick!

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Until next time,

Bruce

 

Word Nerd: A Middle Grade Read-It-If Review…

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You know that wonderful feeling when you get a run of books that you’ve just really enjoyed reading?  Well I’ve had that feeling all this week.  Apart from yesterday’s Top Book of 2016 pick, I’ve got some other great reads coming up this week that gave me a cheery glow in the very pit of my stony heart.  Today’s book is one of those glow-makers.  We received our copy of Word Nerd by Susan Nielsen from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ambrose Bukowski is a twelve-year-old with a talent for mismatching his clothes, for saying the wrong thing at the worst possible time, and for words. In short, he’s a self-described nerd. Making friends is especially hard because he and his overprotective mother, Irene, have had to move so often. And when bullies at his latest school almost kill him by deliberately slipping a peanut into his sandwich to set off his allergy, it’s his mother who has the extreme reaction. From now on, Ambrose has to be home-schooled.

Then Ambrose strikes up an unlikely friendship with the landlord’s son, Cosmo, an ex-con who’s been in prison. They have nothing in common except for Scrabble. But a small deception grows out of control when Ambrose convinces a reluctant Cosmo to take him to a Scrabble club. Could this spell disaster for Ambrose?

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Read it if:

*you are a kitchen scrabble player looking for ways to step into the big leagues

*you can’t go past a good “dark horse” story

*you enjoy reading about (peanut free) baklava as much as you enjoy eating it

*you’ve ever made a friend that your parents considered to be a bad influence

*you tend to judge books (read: people) by their rotund, malodorous or otherwise unflattering covers

I’ve had Word Nerd on my Book Depository wishlist – you know, that list of 1000+ books that I will buy when I win the lotto – for quite a while so when I saw it come up on Netgalley I jumped at the chance to review it.  After all, how could I, a bona fide, dyed in the stone, word nerd pass up a book about word-nerdery, especially one aimed at a middle grade audience?

Clearly, I could not.

This is one of those middle grade reads that can be enjoyed by older readers mostly due to the fact that it takes place, for the most part, outside the trope-laden school setting.  Ambrose is home-schooled (by the time a few chapters have passed) due mostly to his mother’s overblown anxiety about his well-being and therefore the book is free from the stereotypical child characters one might usually find in books for this age group.  Instead, Word Nerd feels like a book for a grown up (or growing up) audience, as Ambrose is forced by necessity and circumstance to take a look at himself and decide what kind of person he wants to be.

The thing about this book that pleased me the most was the authenticity of the characterisation.  Ambrose is a genuine rendering of a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old boy, with all the misplaced confidence, anxiety, awkwardness, and interest in pubescent issues that being a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old boy entails.  The author doesn’t gloss over the grown-up issues that Ambrose is confronted with through his interactions with his upstairs neighbour, Cosmo – including, but not limited to, jail time and drug use – but neither are these gratuitously exploited.  Essentially, Ambrose reads like an unfeigned interpretation of a young boy attempting to make his own choices and emerge, flaws and all, from his mother’s protective shadow.

I knocked this one over in only a few sittings because the narrative was both absorbing and undemanding, and peppered with quirky but real-seeming characters.  I’d definitely recommend this for young readers of middle grade who can handle some grown-up issues, or for older readers looking for a charming and memorable pre-coming of age tale that is wordy in all the right places.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Now Listen Carefully: Did You Take the B From My _ook?

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We recently received this accusatorily-titled book from Harper Collins Australia and were immediately primed to see whether the claim on the cover – that this was a book that would “drive kids crazy” – was accurate, because we all know there is nothing funner than inciting (quickly reparable) mental anguish in children.  Before we begin, this is definitely a read-aloud title and involves a bit of audience participation, so if that’s not your bag, you should probably move along.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

From the brilliant brains behind THIS IS A BALL comes a new giggle-inducing bestseller!
For the Grown-Ups:

OK. Two things you need to know. Firstly, your favourite thing in the whole world is the letter B. And secondly, you’re about to sneeze and all the Bs are going to be blown out of the book. So until you can get your favourite letter back, you’re about to sound really, really silly … And the kids will love it!

Did You Take the B from My _ook? by Beck and Matt Stanton is the epitome of interactive reading.  In order to appreciate the book, it MUST be read aloud, and requires the listeners to contribute in order for the narrator to solve the problem of the missing ‘b’s.  The illustrations are basic and sparse here and don’t really carry the story at all, but are helpful in prompting that listener participation that is so vital to the reading experience.  I can imagine that the larger the audience experiencing the book, the better the overall fun factor will be, as it’s the kind of book that benefits from more than one voice in the telling.

Admittedly, on first reading, I was skeptical that this book would actually be as funny as the cover and blurb make out. Not being the target audience, however, I decided that in order to be fair, I would have to snaffle a mini-fleshling or two and use them as guinea pigs (in the pursuit of literature-based science,  obviously).  Luckily, I had both a five and a two-and-a-half year old mini-fleshling just lying around the place ready and willing to sacrifice their sanity for the greater good of this blog.

So on I read.

And while the older mini-fleshling warmed to the book slowly and quite enjoyed the audience participation elements, the two-and-a-half-year-old wandered off in the middle in search of fruit, seemingly uninterested in the plight of the narrator and the ultimate fate of the tale. The five year old didn’t ask for the book to be read again, either, which may, or may not, be a telling factor in his level of engagement with the book.  On the other hand, he did say that he enjoyed the book because “it was tricky” (in the sense of tricksy, rather than difficult), which would indicate that the authors have hit the mark in making this unlike your average storybook.

Clearly, my experiment involves a statistically insignificant sample and no great conclusions can be drawn from it.  I still have the sense that this book didn’t quite work to the level I expected, given the enjoyment we’ve extracted from other such interactive tomes – Please Open This Book! by Adam Lehrhaupt or This Book Just Ate My  Dog by Richard Byrne, for instance.  The difference, of course, is that the two books I have just mentioned rely heavily on the interplay between words and pictures to drive the interactive nature of the story, whereas Did You Take the B from My _ook? relies more on the aural aspect.

Overall, I would have to say that while there were enjoyable elements to this book, I think it is best suited to read-alouds with a bigger audience – in the classroom or library storytime, for example – where the interactive nature can really shine and listeners can bounce off each other and the narrator.  As holidays are just about to end here in Queensland, maybe some parents should pick this one up and casually drop it to their child’s teacher, then sit back and bask in the admiration that flows from being the one to bring in “that really funny cool book”.

Thanks again to HarperCollins Australia for sending us the copy for review.

Until next time,

Bruce

Tomes from the Olden Times: Heaven Cent…

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Afternoon there intrepid book-wranglers!  It’s about time I delved back into those books I read as a youngster, into the books that have shaped my reading journey.  I used to call this spot “Retro Reading” but as other blogs are using that title, I’ve decided to rebrand my nostalgic wanderings as (cue deep, booming voice) “Tomes from the Olden Times”.  The image above is particularly relevant for today’s pick, because it features an animated skeleton.  Animated as in sentient and capable of movement, not animated as in cartoonish. Although…

Allow me, if you haven’t already made its acquaintance, to introduce you to the Xanth series, by shelf-bracingly prolific author Piers Anthony.  The series (one of many….and I mean MANY) series that Anthony has authored, features the magical world of Xanth, that lies in geographically the same area as our Florida, but is entirely separate from it.  One of the main features of Xanth (apart from its magicality) is its fondness for punnery.  Puns abound.  They’re everywhere.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the title of the first Xanth book (indeed the first Piers Anthony book) I ever encountered:

Heaven Cent

Heaven Cent is book number eleven in the Xanth series.  Why did I start with eleven? Your guess is as good as mine.  Perhaps I was eleven when I first picked it up.  Regardless, this book follows nine year old Prince Dolph as he sets out on a quest to find the missing Good Magician Humphrey, chaperoned by the aforementioned animated skeleton, Marrow Bones.  If you are wondering who these characters might be and how they fit into the world, I can assure you that in all honesty, it really doesn’t matter.  As I said, I started with book eleven, and I followed the story just fine.  Dolph and Marrow encounter various challenges along the way, including that of Dolph becoming betrothed to two girls simulataneously and everything ends happily (as, I was to find out later, often happens in the land of Xanth).

I particularly chose this book as a Tome of the Olden Times because it is chock full of puns and obvious humour and a pretty basic storyline.  I had loved this series as a kid, but I could simply not imagine how an adult could stick with such a book for 300 plus pages, let alone do this repeatedly over a VERY long running series.  So I was very interested to see what my feelings were for this pivotal childhood book as an adult.

The long and short of it is….it held up okay.  Admittedly, I read this story multiple times as a kid, so it was like revisiting an old friend.  Weirdly though, there was nothing more that I got out of it as an adult than I had as a kid.  There were no jokes that I discovered anew that had gone over my head as a younger reader, no insightful twists that I had blithely skimmed over in childish innocence.  Essentially, I felt that while I had grown and matured over the years, the book was exactly the same read for me now, as it was then.  I did not expect this turn of events, but in some ways it’s kind of reassuring.  The book (and the whole series really) would make great candidates for my Utopirama reviews, in that nothing truly bad ever happens and things always right themselves in the end.  In that regard, the Xanth series would be a great choice for those times when you want something light on drama, and heavy on fantasy and punny humour.

A word of warning however.  I read a lot of Piers Anthony as a kid, and as an adult, I have come to the conclusion that he must be a bit of an oddbod.  While Xanth is pretty harmless, there are plenty of other books of his that are spectacularly inappropriate for children (but I read them anyway…why? Who knows).  I remember absolutely LOVING his Mode series (which I’ve since found out has continued past the last book I read many years ago) as a young teen and it features suicidal ideation, self harm, a very dubious romantic relationship clearly involving a minor and a whole lot of other guff that really, I probably shouldn’t have been reading at that age.  I suspect that should I pick that one up again as an adult, there would be plenty of new and interesting material that my kid-brain missed the first time around.  I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good thing. I’ll let you know if I decide to give it a second airing.

So if you’re looking for light and fluffy, stick with Xanth.  If you’re looking for hot and heavy, Mr Anthony can furnish you with some of those sort of tomes also.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from any of you who have read these books, to find out what you think of them!

Until next time,

Bruce

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