Earlier this year, we lost one of the greats. Terry Pratchett was a satirist worthy of being commented on in the same breath as Mark Twain. The only British author to outsell him was J.K. Rowling. Pratchett wasn't always huge though, and that's how you arrive full circle at The Dragons at Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett. It is a collection of the short stories that Sir Terry first published when he was just a starting journalist for the Bucks Free Press.
Most of Pratchett's infamy comes from the Discworld, a world carried on the back of four elephants which naturally stand on the back of a massive turtle. The Discworld gave birth to Rincewind, the least magical wizard ever, an orangutan librarian, a kind but often confused Death, witches, watchmen and dozens upon dozens of novels — and wordplay so brilliant that no one can catch every nuance on the first reading. (Fortunately there's enough in every book to make multiple readings an entirely enjoyable venture.) The Discworld exists as a satire of the world we live in, covering everything from holidays, feminism, religion and a million other sacred cows poked with both anger and understanding. Pratchett came to be known for fantasy that hit close to home. The Dragons of Crumbling Castle is far closer to home.
Meet corrupt small town politicians cooking the local egg dancing competition. There is a pet tortoise that only wants freedom. The book has wacky races and the enduring question of what Santa Claus would do if he wasn't Santa Claus. (Apparently, nothing well.) Two of the stories here went on to lead to Sir Terry's first novel The Carpet People, about tiny, tiny people who live amongst the strands of the carpet fiber and are forced to move when the Fray gets too close. It turns out that even when he was young, Pratchett understood that the world was more than slightly mad. These are light enough stories that I'd recommend them for parents reading to their children, and the entire book has been enthusiastically illustrated by Mark Beech.
We're not done with Pratchett yet. He has at least two more finished books coming out this year.
The legends of Bigfoot and his cryptid relatives (Yeti, Chupacabra, etc.) have been around for centuries, but author/illustrator Kevin Sherry has put a new spin on this old standard. In The Yeti Files #1: Meet the Bigfeet, Sherry tells the story from a Yeti’s point of view. Told in semi-graphic novel style with lots of illustrations, the reader is introduced to Blizz Richards, the Yeti narrator, and many of his friends and relatives. After receiving an invitation to a Bigfeet family reunion, Blizz relates how such reunions used to be held annually until his cousin Brian broke the code of the cryptid community and vanished forever.
Filled with silly humor, the story follows the plight of Blizz and his helpers — a goblin, an elf and an Arctic fox — as they try to find Brian and thwart the attempts of an evil cryptozoologist who wants to expose the cryptids to the world! While elementary aged children will undoubtedly enjoy the illustrations and offbeat story, Sherry has put enough subtle details in his drawings to entertain older readers too. The vocabulary can be a bit daunting, but Sherry does explain some of the more difficult terms (for example, cryptid is “a hidden animal whose existence has never been proven”). The first book in a new series, the story ends with a teaser for the next installment which may involve the Loch Ness Monster!
Kevin Sherry is a local Baltimore author who also founded Squidfire.com, an online t-shirt business.
Fourth grade can be tough, especially when it seems like your best friend has thrown you over for the new girl in school, your dog is being sent away to obedience training camp, and you have to sing a solo in the school play. In Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake, Julie Sternberg’s heroine Eleanor is back for another series of ups and downs. Eleanor’s latest set of woes begins when Ainsley arrives on the scene and seems to steal away her best friend Pearl. Unsure what to do, Eleanor becomes frustrated by Pearl’s apparent fascination with everything Ainsley does or says, and accidentally blurts out a secret about Ainsley that causes a rift between the girls.
On top of this drama, Eleanor is also selected to star in her school’s fourth grade show, an original, all-rabbit musical adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. Petrified of singing by herself, and possibly looking foolish in front of her friends and Nicholas (the boy she may have a crush on), Eleanor looks for ways to back out of the show. Can Eleanor overcome her stage fright, prove to her parents that her dog has been broken of his bad habits and find a way to make things right with Pearl?
Sternberg has created a likeable heroine in Eleanor. While it’s not necessary to read the first two books in the series to understand the story, readers will undoubtedly want to discover more about her. The story is told in verse, which may appeal to reluctant readers who are daunted by traditional chapter books with long passages of prose.
Ava loves words and wordplay, especially palindromes, due in part to her name being a palindrome: A-V-A. So are her sister’s, mother’s and father’s: Pip, Anna and Bob. It’s no wonder that palindromes are an important part of her life, along with writing in her diary and trying to decide what she wants to be when she grows up. In Ava and Pip by Carol Weston, fifth grader Ava uses her diary to share her feelings and thoughts about such critical issues as her sister’s shyness, her parents’ tendency to ignore her and her hope of becoming a writer.
Although Pip is 2 years older, Ava feels responsible for her sister and wants to help her overcome her shyness and be more outgoing. In an odd turn of events, she finds help from a new seventh grader named Bea, who seems to be everything that Pip is not: bold, confident and mature. However, Ava and Bea’s plan to turn Pip from a wallflower to a social butterfly may not be as easy as they believe.
Weston’s book is reminiscent of the Ramona and Beatrice stories by Beverly Cleary, particularly the relationships between the sisters and their parents. The character of Ava is well-drawn even if she does seem unusually precocious at times for a fifth grader. This book would especially appeal to children who are going through the trials and tribulations of middle school, and also those who love playing with words.
It’s hard work for picture book protagonists to get a decent meal these days. In Buddy and the Bunnies in: Don’t Play with Your Food, our hero is a monster to be reckoned with. All frantic mouth and teeth, wide eyes and pointy claws, Buddy announces his intention to eat a trio of peaceful, checkers-playing white rabbits. But these clever lagomorphs have other ideas for keeping Buddy busy, beginning with playing hide and seek and baking a dozen delicious cupcakes. Each day the horned, orange-striped monster returns for a rabbit repast, and each day there are more bunnies who are too much fun to eat. Children are guaranteed to laugh out loud at Buddy’s wild mood swings, from frightening and frantic to endearing and delighted, broadly depicted by author-illustrator Bob Shea. His bold, bright pastel palette adds to the story’s upbeat, energetic tone. Buddy and the Bunnies demands repeat read-alouds.
The trench-coated fox of Mike Twohy’s Outfoxed makes a midnight run to the chicken coop, mistakenly grabbing a duck in his haste. The two return to his den, where the exhausted predator is all set to cook his prey. But this is no ordinary duck! Thinking on her feet, the fowl proclaims that she is actually a dog. Duck jumps and slobbers and barks, working hard to convince Fox of her worthiness as a canine companion. Twohy, a longtime cartoonist for The New Yorker, uses a brightly inked comic book style to tell this comedy of mistaken identity. Young readers are sure to delight at Duck’s misbehaving dog act, while the book invites a debate of the merits of the old saying “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” Outfoxed is sure to be a story time favorite.
In an alternate Victorian-era England, all towns have a resident monster whose job is to scare and thrill the residents, as well as to protect them. Stoker-on-Avon has a problem: their monster is suffering from depression and a general lack of confidence. Much to the townsfolk’s dismay, Rayburn hasn’t attacked in well over a year and a half. Rob Harrell’s graphic novel Monster on the Hill chronicles the efforts of Charles Wilkie, doctor and inventor, who has been dispatched by the town fathers to “fix the monster.” Timothy, the self-proclaimed town crier/street urchin, stows away in the doctor’s trunk in order to be a part of the mission.
Rayburn, a heavy-lidded, horned, winged, rust-colored creature, boasts no special skills or talents. He doesn’t breathe fire and he can’t fly. After diagnosing his problem, Wilkie suggests a restorative road trip to visit other town monsters to pick up some “tricks of the trade.” His old school chum Noodles, better known as Tentaculor, may offer just the boost he needs. This edgy, drolly humorous graphic novel will capture the imagination of a wide range of readers, much like Jeff Smith’s popular Bone series. Harrell captures a Victorian feel while sprinkling in modern anachronisms to good comic effect, as vendors hawk Tentaculor merchandise (like trading cards and Tentacu-Pops) after a recent attack. Older children who enjoy tales of adventure and dragons will enjoy the twist on the usual trope. Harrell’s wide-eyed villagers and thoroughly detailed monsters are enormously visually appealing, as is his choice of a bright, colorful palette. Readers will eagerly await upcoming books in this ongoing, all-ages series.
Classic fairy tales are enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to a number of imaginative retellings, both in print and on screen. Adults and children alike will want to read the original stories in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, first published in 1823, and reissued in a brand new collection. This volume includes detailed etchings of the period by noted English caricaturist George Cruikshank, supplemented by a half dozen color illustrations by popular artists like Quentin Blake and Helen Oxenbury. The German tales, handed down through oral tradition, were published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who called them “House Stories.” They were meant to be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone in the house, not just children. This collection contains 55 stories, from the familiar “Ashputtel” (German for Cinderella) to the lesser known “Faithful John,” many of which contain creepy or unsettling elements—these are not the happily ever after Disney versions.
Author Adam Gidwitz begins The Grimm Conclusion, the third book in his popular series of retellings, by noting “once upon a time, fairy tales were grim.” He further states that the versions of the stories that most people know are “incredibly, mind-numbingly, want-to-hit-yourself-in-the-head-with-a-sledgehammer-ingly boring.” The narrator of this novel follows Grimm characters Jorinda and Joringel as they become participants in other Grimm stories. Infused with a dark sense of humor, Gidwitz’s popular novels embrace the blood, gore and general horror of the original tales. As a former school teacher (and Baltimore native), Gidwitz knows how to enthrall his audience.
Fairy Tale Comics: Classic Tales Told by Extraordinary Cartoonists edited by Chris Duffy presents a plethora of stories from various sources Grimm and beyond. Cartoonists represented include a veritable who’s who, some new to children’s storytelling. Each story is rendered in full color comic panels. Perennial favorite Raina Telgemeier (known for the graphic memoir Smile) takes on Rapunzel, while Gilbert Hernandez (of Love and Rockets fame) shows us his version of Snow White. Fairy Tale Comics is a visual smorgasbord for the imagination of readers of all ages.
Nick and Maxine are off on another adventure with their babysitter in Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice by Daniel Pinkwater. In this delightful sequel to Mrs. Noodlekugel, the four mice friends make a terrible mess at tea-time, causing Mrs. Noodlekugel to realize that it is time to have them checked by an eye doctor. Nick and Maxine keep Mrs. Noodlekugel and Mr. Fuzzface, her talking cat, company on the bus trip to the oculist’s office. It is a story loaded with whimsy (talking cats), eccentricities (the mice can’t talk, but they do need glasses), and a little bit of mystery. The absurdity of a monkey waiter, mice riding on hats and eye doctors who treat mice will make the reader giggle. An unexpected family reunion ties the story together and provides a neat conclusion.
The charming narrative is broken up into easy-to-manage chapters with large print, making this series a perfect choice for the new chapter book reader. Engaging illustrations by Adam Stower add to the overall appeal. Reminiscent of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, but without the character building lessons, the Mrs. Noodlekugel series is pure fun.
Sir Sidney runs a very unusual circus. Children are admitted free, everyone is given complimentary popcorn and lemonade, and he manages to keep his ticket prices to $1 for adults. While this may seem like an odd business model to adults, children will be delighted by The Show Must Go On!, the first book in the Three-Ring Rascals series by Kate Klise. Klise and her sister M. Sarah Klise, who draws the whimsical illustrations, have collaborated on other children’s books including Letters from Camp and Regarding the Fountain and their teamwork makes for a fast-paced story with plenty of pictures.
Sir Sidney loves his circus, but he decides he needs to take a break and advertises for someone to take over for him. Enter Barnabas Brambles, a somewhat shady character who presents his certificate from the University of Piccadilly Circus in London, England to prove he is a “certified lion tamer.” The wary Sir Sidney decides to let Brambles take over the circus for a week on a trial basis. Soon it becomes apparent that Brambles is up to no good, and the plucky performers must act quickly to save their beloved circus. Children who love animals and circuses will find plenty to like, even adults will enjoy the silly humor that is a trademark of the Klise sisters.
In Neil Gaiman’s latest children’s book, Fortunately, The Milk, a father goes through an incredible series of side adventures as he tries to return home with a bottle of milk from the local store. In fact, it seems as if this hapless man encounters every sort of being from children’s literature: aliens, dinosaurs, pirates, vampires (which Gaiman calls ‘wumpires’), ponies and human-sacrificing islanders. After the father is late coming home with milk for his children’s cereal, he relates a tale that is both fantastic and silly about travelling through time with a very intelligent Stegosaurus. Naturally, his children don’t believe a word he says, but a twist at the end makes them wonder if there was any truth in his alibi.
Gaiman, whose past books include Coraline and The Graveyard Book, shares a story that could easily be turned into a Tim Burton film. Burton and Gaiman have collaborated in the past and it feels as if this book was written with a movie deal in mind. The pen and ink illustrations by Skottie Young add to the humor and give a definite comic book flavor to the tale. For youngsters who enjoy a fast-paced read with plenty of pictures, Fortunately, The Milk delivers in barely more than 100 pages.