Monday, September 28, 2009

Beautiful Nonsense Saves the Night

What the Dickens
by Gregory Maguire
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2007

What-the-Dickens, as the subtitle suggests, is the story of a rogue tooth fairy. It is also the story of three children, Dinah, Zeke and Rebecca Ruth, trapped in their house with their elder cousin Gage; outside, a terrible storm rages, and their parents have gone missing.

To keep them in good spirits, Gage tells them a story about the skibbereen - what human beings would know as "tooth fairies", and a renegade fairy named What-the-Dickens. What-the-Dickens is born in an empty tuna can, unaware of who or what he is, or much of anything, really. The story catches young Dinah's imagination, and gets them all through the night.

This is not a particularly spooky book, but it is a beautiful and imaginative one. The childrens' fear of the storm and their parents' absence gives Gage's story a sense of urgency: Dinah's immersion in the tale reminded me pleasantly of "Neverending Story", or any number of times when I was a child, reading my way through rough weather. The story of What-the-Dickens is only half the tale, though. This book was also about the power of storytelling itself, and the potency of belief in magic and prayer. Best of all, though deeply philosophical and thought-provoking, the book places itself easily in the grasp of its intended ten-year-old audience.

Gregory Maguire is known for his reworked modern fables, notably his series of books starting with Wicked. His choice of the tooth fairy in this book is interesting, because the origin of this creature is already terribly obscure: to tell the tale of the skibbereen (ironically also the name of an Irish township) really does require making it up as you go along, which Maguire does with all the craft of a master storyteller. In fact, I suspect Gage is Maguire, folded into the story even as the character folds himself into the narrative of What-the-Dickens. Late in the book, Gage has a moment of discovery about himself, his love of stories and of telling them, which struck me as a deeply autobiographical moment. All in all, a valuable read for any child with a love of stories told to keep back the dark.

Monday, September 21, 2009

She's Tough. She's Brave. She's 75.

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid Of Anything
by Linda Williams
Illustrations by Megan Lloyd
Harper Collins, 1986

The weather is cooling, which means fall is in our midst. This is my favorite time, with pumpkins on my balcony, gourds on my counter, walking my dog in the graveyard across the street to see the colors, and harvest stories and scary tales leading up to Halloween. For the little ones just getting into the spirit of the season and spooky tales, here is a friendly yarn about a gallant granny and a pumpkin head spook.

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything is a story that focuses around a brave little woman and a scary entity she meets in the woods on her way home from collecting seeds and herbs. Having walked a little too far to gather wild nuts and seeds, it is a dark and lonely walk back home for the little old woman. As often happens on these scary solo treks, she happens upon frightening figures. She first meets a suspicious pair of animated shoes, then pants, then a shaking shirt, on and on until she meets the frightening piece de resistance, a great and ghoulish pumpkin head. The culmination of the creepy clothing and the putrid pumpkin head put quite a fright in the once brave old woman and she runs home. When the being comes knocking on her door later that night readers will see how even a horrible scare can rejuvenate one’s bravery and even instill some creativity and ingenuity.

I chose this story for its simple style. It is just the right length for afternoon reading time at home or morning story time for preschoolers in class or at the library. This book focuses around the common motif of visibly constructing the story line as the plot rolls along. This is a useful tactic in picture books for pre-readers because it allows them to make predictions about what comes next. It reminds me of the story the Old Woman and Her Pig or the The Teeth in the way the events crescendo into the climax. The repetition of the events in the story help support a child’s ability to see how parts of a story relate together and it gets them excited about what will happen at the end. “Two shoes go clomp, clomp, and one pair of pants go wiggle, wiggle.” “Two shoes go clomp, clomp, and one pair of pants go wiggle, wiggle, and the shirt went shake, shake.” This type of storytelling allows children to remember the events more clearly and also to participate in the story telling with the “clomp, clomp” and the “wiggle, wiggle” type verse. The illustrations in this book are stylistically simple and as such, fit in very appropriately with the text. Despite the fact that mostly simple lines and primary colors are used, the artwork pops. The tone of the illustrations is not too frightening for a young audience. Overall this is a nice quick reading little picture book.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Taking the Sparkles Out of Your Gothic

Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales
edited by Deborah Noyes
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2004

Gothic! is a fantastic collection of short stories by some of the best contemporary writers of YA and horror fiction, including Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Caitlin R. Kiernan and Vivian Vande Velde. Like all good collections, the stories in Gothic! explore the theme from a number of angles, ranging from loving homage to wry satire (and sometimes both at once).

Hands down, my personal favorite is "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire", by Neil Gaiman; it's probably not as funny if you aren't familiar with old-school penny dreadfuls, but if you are it's a laugh riot. My other two favorites come right in the beginning of the book: "Lungewater", by the late Joan Aiken (who died the year this book was published), tells a modern story in the language of gothic horror, while "Watch and Wake", by M.T. Anderson, blends contemporary suburban fantasy with traditional (but terrifying) folk myths.

Some of the stories in this collection are more silly than scary, but all delight in the morbid and macabre. All of the authors are current or rising stars of their craft, so for the teen reader who's looking for something with all the aesthetic flavor of Edgar Allan Poe or HP Lovecraft (but have read the entire collected works of both, repeatedly), this is the place to start. The beauty of a short story collection is its ability to showcase new talent, and connect readers to the authors of the sort of story they are looking for. This is especially true for the YA set, who might not want to commit to a whole book without having a taste of the author's style first.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Brains at Every Single Meal, Why Can't We Have Some Guts?

Frankenstein Makes A Sandwich
by Adam Rex
Harcourt, Inc., 2006

It is most certainly impossible to not fall madly in love with monsters after reading Frankenstein Makes A Sandwich (byline: And other stories you’re sure to like, because they’re about monsters, and some of them are also about food. You like food don’t you? Well, alright then.). Author/illustrator Adam Rex, utilizing the literary art of poetry, presents a creative anthology of monster stories.

The title poem of the book sets the pace for rhymes that effortlessly roll off the page and off the tongue. The liquidity of the text throughout the book makes it quite a lyrical read-aloud as well as an enjoyable treat for solo reading. “When Frankenstein prepared to dine on ham-and-cheese on wheat, he found, instead, he had no bread, (or mustard, cheese, or meat).” Some other characters featured throughout the book include the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, the Yeti, and the Phantom of the Opera, to name a few. Some of the characters appear once, and some are featured a few times. For instance, the Phantom of the Opera has a few poems dedicated to him for his inability to get catchy tunes out of his head while he tries to compose his arias (my personal favorite when he can’t get “The Girl from Ipanema” out of his head). The poems in this book create silly scenarios, such as spinach remaining stuck in Dracula’s fangs because everyone is too afraid to tell him its there. Possibly better yet, these poems are a wealth of valuable information, such as suggesting one to make a hat out of carrots so zombies will abstain from your brain.

To complete a poetry collection as varied and bizarre as this, Rex created accompanying illustrations that are purely magical. Paying homage to famous illustrators of children’s literature throughout the book, such as Richard Scarry and Tony Diterlizzi, he showcases a diverse color and style palette. The variations of media to represent the different personalities of each creature was an act of simple beauty. Vibrant colors, detailed ink drawings, and shiny black and whites are a few of the impressive artistic techniques employed. Overall, this book is the perfect marriage of silliness, gentle gore, flowing text, and smooth illustrations. I think children will delight in this book and quite simply, gobble it up. Just like Frankenstein did with that molding heap of unsavory edibles. Bon app├ętit!

Monday, September 7, 2009

You've Been Laminated!

The Librarian From the Black Lagoon
by Mike Thaler
Pictures by Jared Lee
Scholastic Inc., 1997

Being young and curious about the world is a great thing. But sometimes, with that curiosity there is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the possibilities.

In a cautious and kooky picture book, The Librarian From the Black Lagoon, author Mike Thaler introduces young children to a new adventure; going to the library. There are rumors afoot. Horrible, cruel, and disturbing rumors of a monstrous librarian with a beastly personality who glues children to chairs, laminates them if they talk, and entices them with a “petting zoo” of porcupines and piranha fish. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. With such a wicked librarian loose in the stacks, all who enter must wonder, will they ever come back alive?

Exploring fear of the unknown and taking that concept to a silly extreme, Thaler produces a picture book that plays right into a child’s psyche. Children swap stories, funny and horrific alike, and utilizing this tool of the bubble gum set, the author creates a tale that exploits the stereotype of the shushing librarian and the vulnerability of a grade school age child. I think most of people can relate to this depiction. If not with a librarian as the central figure, at least some type of authority figure that was a mysterious and stern creature that gave us the willies before we realized what a helpful and gentle soul they were.

With it being national library card sign-up month and with all the wee ones heading back to school I thought it the perfect time to share a story such as this. It’s a little suspenseful, a little spooky, and overall, a little silly. What a great formula for a shared reading experience.

Personal Note: I used to be terrified of the librarian at my elementary school. She was tight-lipped with a thin penciled frown. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in school, when I was working as a student assistant in the library, that I realized this mean looking lady was just a shy woman who was more comfortable dealing with catalog cards than children. We warmed up to each other quickly and were great friends until she passed away to a terminal illness. I guess what I’m trying to say is, give things a chance, even if they seem scary or uncomfortable. You just never know what lies beneath the surface.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Internet Will Eat You

by Aaron Alexovich
New York, NY : Minx (DC Comics), 2007

Kimmie66 is a fantastic little graphic novel that blends elements of cyberpunk, goth and various internet cultures, narrated by Telly Kade, a fourteen year old girl from the 23rd Century.

Telly, like everyone else from her time, spends almost all of her time in a lair - one of the many immersive virtual worlds where people work, play and socialize in the future. The lairs are strangely familiar reflections of modern Internet subcultures, structured to their aesthetic tastes. Telly's own lair of choice is a vision of the collective modern Gothic id; a fusion of Victorian and industrial influences. (Full disclosure: I would probably live there, too.) Her story begins when her best friend, Kimmie66, sends her a suicide note - and then starts making appearances in all the lairs, haunting the virtual world.

Like all good cyberpunk (and all good YA fiction), Kimmie66 is loaded with social commentary and the exploration of identity in an age of technology-enabled anonymity. In searching for the truth about Kimmie, Telly is faced with the realization that she truly knows less than nothing about the girl she thinks of as her best friend. She also confronts a society rigidly divided into isolated cliques and clubs, when travel between social circles isn't simply frowned upon - it's forbidden. Telly herself is already a rebel in this sense; the first scene we see is her travelling between isolated groups, looking for her friend Nekokat ("cat cat") to share the grim news. Telly is an explorer at heart, which is really what the story is about, incidental to the plot.

Aaron Alexovich's art may seem familiar: this is because he worked on Invader Zim (one of the all-time best subversive cartoons) with Jhonen Vasques (that name again...) and, more recently, contributed character designs for Avatar: the Last Airbender. The blurb on the back of the book describes his hallmark style as "spookycute", which very much applies to Kimmie66, which sports the most adorable ghost-bleeding-from-her-eyes scene ever. Find it, read it, love it.

A note about the publisher - we'll probably see a lot of their work here on SB/SC. Minx is an imprint of geekery giant DC Comics, specializing in graphic novels for teenage girls. Many of these stories are simply amazing, and a good number of them are qualifiers for Spooky Books treatment.