Saturday, March 24, 2012

Read to Me - Picture Book Challenge ~ I Want My Hat Back

I am not an artist.  I can draw stick figures, a decent house, and recognizable flowers, but that's about it.  I am not an artist, so I rarely critique the art in picture books.  I do love illustrations, but I just don't have any idea what it takes to create them.  Genius and an eye for detail are what I assume it takes.  The illustrations in I Want My Hat Back inspired me to change my ways and start my review of Jon Klassen's book with a critique of his art.

They're funny.  The illustrations are funny.  I especially like that everyone's eyes are the same.  And, no mouths.  None of the animals have mouths, yet they are some of the most expressive picture book characters I've seen in ages.  The lack of expression makes the characters expressive.  Does that make sense?

The story is all dialogue.  A bereft bear goes in search of his missing hat, asking animals he meets along the way.  One of those animals, a fast talking rabbit, almost fools the bear (even though he's wearing the missing hat right on his head.)  Just when the bear is about to give up hope of finding his pointy, red hat, a deer triggers his memory and he takes his hat back from the rabbit.  But, not before the bear does something that results in him doing some fast talking of his own.

When I read this story to my kindergartner, she didn't get the twist at the end.  She didn't understand that the bear ate the rabbit.  She liked the story and loved the illustrations, but the subtlety was too subtle.  Today, I read the story to a group of second grade students.  They howled with laughter at the story's ending.  "He ate the rabbit!  The bear ate the rabbit!"  They loved it.

Two years makes a big difference when they are the two years between six and eight years old.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Breaking Stalin's Nose

"The Young Pioneer is devoted to Comrade Stalin, the Communist Party, and Communism."

Sasha has always wanted to be a Young Pioneer.  It's what all good communist children strive for.  Sasha's dad is a decorated officer in the State Security - a secret agent who Stalin once called an iron broom purging the vermin from our midst.  Sasha worships Stalin and pities those who don't live in the great U.S.S.R.

Breaking Stalin's Nose is the captivating story of a young boy whose world turns upside down when his father is arrested as an enemy of the Communist party.  With no place to go and no one to turn to, Sasha tries to go on as if nothing has happened, convinced his father will be released once Comrade Stalin realizes the mistake.  All too quickly Sasha must face the reality that his heroes are not what he thought they were - including his father.

Eugene Yelchin is the writer and illustrator of picture books.  Breaking Stalin's Nose is his first novel.  The story takes place over two days, but captures the realities of the thirty year reign of Joseph Stalin.  As an illustrator, Yelchin is able to portray the characters, their personalities, and life in the Soviet Union in stunning black and white pictures.

Breaking Stalin's Nose is a must-read, historical fiction book for middle grades readers.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


I've decided to tear my review of Breadcrumbs in half.   The obvious way to do this would be to review the first and second halves of the book separately.  After all, the first half of Breadcrumbs is about the real world of Hazel and Jack, and the second half is a fairy tale.  A very dark fairy tale.

I'm not going to do that.  I'm going to review the writing first.  This will be part #1.  Then I'm going to review the story - part #2.

Part 1 - Writing

Anne Ursu is an artist.  Her writing is beautiful, her sentences are magical, and her word choice is both lyrical and jarring in equal measure.  Her descriptions of the cold, unforgiving forest of the Snow Queen make me shiver.  Literally.  Her characters, and there are many, are well-written and easy to imagine.  I am especially impressed (envious) of her ability to illicit a visceral response.  When she describes the mind control the Snow Queen has over Jack and Hazel, I feel it, too.

"He was afraid she would stop coming, that he would disappoint her-or even worse, bore her.  She would lose interest, not even notice him anymore.  He would not give up, though.  She would not like that."

Part 2 - Story

Anne Ursu wrote a captivating story.  The idea is bold and I love the abrupt switch from the real world to the fantastical.  The characters in the novel's first half are often sad and occasionally bad, but they are very real.  The characters in the second half of the book are quite different.  Well-constructed and written well, the characters in the woods are from the darkest regions of the fairy tale world.  Deceptive, greedy, mean, and obtuse, they have lost their humanity.

My issue with the Breadcrumbs - and it's a pretty big one - is that I couldn't see this book in the hands of a middle grades reader.  I had a nagging concern that I couldn't quite define until the book's conclusion - Breadcrumbs is on the wrong shelf.  With a story this complex and writing this studied, Anne Ursu's book needs a more mature crowd.   I hope this book will find a crossover audience in young adult book lovers.  It deserves to be read.

Blog you later!

Ali B.