Thursday, March 26, 2009

More Books for Kids

I read most of these for Eisner consideration, and hope to discuss them briefly -- though I always hope that, and usually fail.

Otto's Orange Day by Frank Cammuso and Jay Lynch (Raw Junior/Little Lit Library, April 2008, $12.95)

A little orange-loving cat-boy gets a genie in a box from his Aunt Sally Lee, and decides to wish that everything in the world were orange. In best Midas fashion, he soon learns that sometimes too much of a good thing is just too much. The usual Three Wishes complications set in, until the status quo is restored.

My own younger son (Thing 2, as I usually call him here) is a big fan of the color orange, but, sadly, he's aged out of picture books and into chapter books recently, so I didn't really get to share this with him. (Instead we've been reading a succession of "Junie B. Jones" books, which I'm enjoying almost as much as he is, though probably for slightly different reasons.)

The art is nice, but this really is a book for little kids, simple, obvious moral and all. If my own young 'uns were still in preschool, I bet we'd love it, but, as it is, I've aged out of books like this.

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes (Raw Junior/Little Lit Library, April 2008, $12.95)

Another book from the same series; a sequel, The Big No-No, is coming along in May. The two title characters are mice children, brother and sister, and the older Benny wants to play pirate without his kid sister. And she wants to tag along. The vocabulary is on a beginning-reader level; a lot of kindergartners will be able to read (or help a parent through) this book.

The art is particularly attractive in this one, but, again, it's a story for little kids and the people who read to them. It's a cute story, but even seven-year-olds are likely to find it "babyish."

Jack and the Box by art spiegelman (Raw Junior/Little Lit Library, October 2008, $12.95)

Yet more from the Little Lit empire, which is determined to conquer the world of children's books for comics. This one is by the husband of Little Lit's Editorial Director, Francoise Mouly. (And, yes, Spiegelman is definitely more famous in his own right as the author of Maus, but he can still get introduced as "Mr. Mouly" now and then.)

A boy named Jack gets a new toy -- which is, of course, a Jack-in-the-Box. (Although this one claims its name is Zack.) They play hide-and-seek, the only game the toy knows, and everyone says "silly toy" a lot. In a Cat-in-the-Hat-ish turn, some damage to Jack's room is done by a proliferating stream of creatures from the box, which Zack then fixes up as good as new.

Again, it's an early reader with a simple vocabulary and an obvious moral. Spiegelman is obviously having a lot of fun with it, and that's infectious -- I enjoyed this best of all of the "Little Lit" books that I've seen.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman: by Marc Tyler Nobleman; Illustrated by Ross MacDonald (Random House, August 2008, $16.99)

This is a more typical lap book -- or, actually, since it's more likely to be read by kids boys on their own, it's destined to be read by a lot of first- and second-graders, particularly those looking for a quick book-report subject.

Nobleman focuses on the nerdishness of the young Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel as he tells the story of how they created Superman as kids in Cleveland. (The story that every comics fan, no matter how peripherally connected, can recite from memory.) There's an afterword that explains how they signed away all rights to that creation, and were cheated in the bargain, but the main story is entirely peppy.

MacDonald -- and I still do a double-take every time I see his name, even though he's gotten a lot of work as a children's book illustrator these past few years -- has a nostalgic, '30s style which works well with the material. His work is the best part of the book; the story has been told so many times that the events almost have crease marks in them.

The Composer Is Dead: by Lemony Snicket; Illustrated by Carson Ellis; Music by Nathaniel Stookey (HarperCollins, March 2009, $17.99)

This, of course, isn't eligible for last year's Eisners -- it's neither a comic nor published in 2008 -- but it is the new Lemony Snicket book, so I wanted to read it.

And now I have. It's a minor work, another in the long line of books meant to introduce young people to classical music in a "fun" way. In this case, an Inspector is questioning the various instruments of the orchestra -- or, presumably, the people playing those instruments, but it doesn't make much difference -- to see who killed the composer.

Each section lives up to its own stereotype, which is amusing, but not much more. The art is solid, but the story was done in a much more amusing fashion thirty years ago by Monty Python as the song "Decomposing Composers."

There's also a CD of music composed by Nathaniel Stookey and played by the San Francisco Symphony (with some kind of narration by Snicket), but I didn't listen to that. This isn't quite spinach, but it's definitely in the family of leafy green vegetables; there's very little of the sly subversion of "Snicket's" novels for young readers.

I wish Daniel Handler would either retire the Snicket name or make the jump into a new work of similar heft to "A Series of Unfortunate Events." (Even a single YA novel would be good at this point.) The three books that have appeared since the end of that series have all been very frivolous, in various ways, and disappointing to boot.

There's a Wolf at the Door: Five Classic Tales Retold by Zoe B. Alley, with pictures by R.W. Alley (Roaring Brook Press, October 2008, $19.95)

Five fairy tales, all featuring the Big Bad Wolf, are retold in a very unthreatening style, with all danger carefully drained from them. It's the same wolf throughout, so he goes from one failure to the next, and that's mildly amusing.

(There's a Wolf aims at mildly funny for kids throughout, and hits that mark pretty consistently. These are very much tamed fairy tales, in which not even the Wolf gets hurt. There's no need for a woodsman in the Little Red Riding Hood story, or for a stewpot under the chimney for the Three Little Pigs.)

It's quite wordy, and most of the words -- all of the captions, and most of the dialogue -- is set in an obvious type rather than hand-lettered (or set to look like hand lettering). So it doesn't look as pleasing as it could, and it takes longer to read than one would expect. But the art has a fuzzy, cross-hatched sweetness, and I expect little kids will like these versions of the stories much better than those with more bite.

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