Great Graphic Novels Noms 2015: Memoir and Contemporary Stories

by Tessa

Read about this series of posts here.

FUN FACT: All of the selections today are by writer-artists (one person writes and draws the book). They are the singer-songwriters of the comics world.


El Deafo

Cece Bell, writer and artist

Amulet Books

Anticipation/Expectation Level: I’d heard lotsa good things about this one.

My Reality: All the praise is deserved. It’s a mildly fictionalized memoir about Cece Bell growing up with deafness, outside of the Deaf community – it’s about feeling awkward because she’s afraid she looks so different and because of the challenges of navigating a world that doesn’t always make the allowances it should for a lip-reading child, and it’s also about basic growing up stuff: friendships, family, school. Bell has a good ear for social detail and her chronicles of trying to find a true friend and feeling lonely will win her many readers (I hope). And she’s also funny.

Will teens like it?: Yes. Fans of Raina Telgemeier and The Wimpy Kid/Big Nate will be into this for sure.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:



All Star

Jesse Lonergan, writer and artist

NBM ComicsLit

Anticipation/Expectation Level: None. I knew nothing about this going in.

My Reality: Great realistic fiction which I think sometimes is thin on the ground in the comics world, especially for the high school level. All Star is squarely high school oriented. It’s not the baseball story that the cover may lead you to believe it is. It’s about the golden boy becoming aware of his golden boy privileges and trying to do the right thing. I’m always fascinated to read about fictional or nonficitonal characters trying to do the right thing. (All Star may seem autobiographical but it’s not). Lonergan writes clean, beautiful action pages that made baseball not so boring even for me. His characters are exaggerated – a little boxy like Jeff Lemire’s but more like walking skeletons.

Will Teens Like it?: Teens might not get all the cultural references going on, but hopefully that won’t turn them away from the story.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yeah.

Art Taste:



Tomboy: a graphic memoir

Liz Prince, writer and artist

Zest Books

Anticipation/expectation level: I got a personal recommendation for this from several people whose taste I trust.

My Reality: Loved it! Prince doesn’t try to tamp down on the ambiguity of her feelings about how she wants to be in the world. Because these go against culturally built up norms for gender expression she struggles with how she feels about girly things, how she has been taught to think about being a girl, and how she feels comfortable and if that has to fit into a gendered behavior. But it’s told as a story that is open, using a black and white, thin-lined style that I think of as “refined sketchbook cartoon” – really accessible and enjoyable for a huge age range.

Will Teens Like It?: I put this on display on Tuesday and a teen immediately picked it up.

Is it “great” for teens?: YES.

Art Taste:



I Think I Am In Friend-Love With You

Yumi Sakugawa, writer and artist

Adams Media

Anticipation/Expectation Level: I had read this on Tumblr or something before it was published. I thought it was cute to a point.

My Reality: I like how the format: small and square, with one text panel and one picture to each spread, makes the reading go more slowly. More like a picture book for adults. Sakugawa has a very appealing drawing style. The narrator of this book is a of a monstery design, sort of a cyclops Cousin It. She draws with a thin, textured pencil line, with a good eye for design. While I have experienced friend crushes and support the idea of more talk about the importance of friend-love and friendship as sustaining relationships, I feel like this book is more about friend-crush desperation. A reviewer at Rookie reads it as an exchange between the crusher and crushee, but I see it as a long declaration from the protagonist to an oblivious friend crush. A declaration that would make most people uncomfortable because it lacks confidence. And it is steeped in the social media world of today, and those references will become dated and take away from the chance of this being a classic book with a universal message. So I can’t fully get behind this as a great book but I do think it is cute and harmless – even maybe confidence building?

Will Teens Like it?: Yeah, this is built for sharing on Tumblr.

Is it “great” for Teens: I don’t know. I see it more as a novelty picture book?

Art Taste:



Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: Fun Fantasy series – Adventure Time, My Little Pony, Three Thieves, Skyward, Zita and Philemon

by Tessa

Read about why I’m reading these books here.

Today I’m taking a look at the light fantasy series that have been nominated this year.


Adventure Time with Fionna & Cake

Natasha Allegri, artist and author

KaBOOM! Studios

Anticipation/expectation level: High. I can’t remember how, but I was following Natasha Allegri’s livejournal before she graduated from undergrad and was pleased to see that she got a job on some show called Adventure Time. 

My reality: Yep, this book is the whole package. It’s gorgeous, it has humor and heart (see, respectively: when Lumpy Space Prince uses a wishing wand to make himself beautiful, the whole conclusion which I won’t spoil for you). Allegri’s genderswapped Adventure Time universe is as strong as the original, keeping the basic dynamics of the characters’ relationships the same, but still creating original situations. Cake is not Jake, but is how Jake would be in cat form. There are also little shorts at the end from writers and artists like Lucy Knisley and Noelle Stevenson. How do these comics all turn out so well? The only part that didn’t work for me is a short digression about a cat and its nine lives, which was sort of related but came out of nowhere.

Will teens like it? I know some teens who are already all about Bee and Puppycat, so yeah.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes – I realize it’s hard for me to be objective, but I did read these comics before I watched Adventure Time and greatly enjoyed them, so I think that knowledge of the show isn’t a huge stumbling block.

Art Taste:


check out Natasha Allegri’s tumblr, you won’t be sad. There’s a small pitch for a show called Cat Mommy



Adventure Time, Volume 5

Ryan North, Writer

Braden Lamb, Mike Homes, Shelli Paroline, artists

KaBOOM! Studios

Anticipation/expectation level: I could safely predict that I’d like this. The first 3 made it onto GGNT 2014. I’m wondering why Volume 4 wasn’t nominated? (I did go ahead and read it, and it isn’t the strongest volume but it’s not so off game as to not be nominated, but anyway).

My reality: This one is all Bubblegum – and Lemongrab. It’s a bit about how Princess B struggles with feeling like she’s a ruler when she has to rely on Finn and Jake so much, and a little about her mistakes in the past… and how they ALL COME TOGETHER. Again, it can be read as a standalone adventure.

Will teens like it?: They do.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes

Art Taste:



My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Volume 5 

Katie Cook, writer

Andy Price, artist

IDW Publishing

Anticipation/expectation level: Low-ish. I’m old enough to have lived through the first Ponies craze, but wasn’t inspired to watch the show or the documentary about the people who love the show, even though I don’t have anything against it.

My reality: Volume 5 of the comic series is about Celestia’s history with an alternate version of Equestria/Canterlot, and the trouble it is causing everyone. She enlists the special pony brigade or whatever they are called to help fix it before reality as they know it is destroyed. The main points of the universe were easy to pick up on. I still don’t know each pony’s name, but it didn’t affect my reading of the comic as far as confusion goes. It was a nice story about friendship and magic where the stakes were suitably high. One thing that annoyed me: I was a bit irked that, in a universe built on the concept of friendship, the small dragon always gets forgotten and ignored. What is up with that? Double standards.

Will teens like it?: I think this would be popular with younger teens.

Is it “great” for teens?: It’s a solid comic. It wasn’t transcendent or something I’ll independently enthuse about. But I can’t say it’s not perfectly positioned for its audience and age group.

Art Taste: mlpmultiverse


The King’s Dragon

Scott Chantler, artist and writer

Kids Can Press

Anticipation/expectation level: I’ve read two other volumes of this series (called the Three Thieves) and always found them to be exciting, well-plotted, and drawn with a lively, accomplished hand. Actually I’ve read all the volumes but the first one.

My reality: It might be strange to read The King’s Dragon and go back to catch up on the story, because this volume focuses on a man who has so far been the villain of the tale, the man chasing the titular Three Thieves, Captain Drake. It gives us his backstory and, as usually happens with these things, makes him a more sympathetic and complex character. There’s very little movement in the story’s plot – most of the action occurs in flashback. But I still think that it would be easy to read this apart from the other books and not feel lost. It is Captain Drake’s story. Chantler does pacing well, and his is very cinematic. I could almost hear the strings of the suspenseful soundtrack as I moved back and forth in his memory. It’s a series that should get more attention from readers.

Will teens like it? Yes, even though it’s primarily marketed for middle grade readers, it’s a good adventure for anyone.

Is it “great” for teens? Yeah!

Art Taste:



The Return of Zita the Spacegirl

Ben Hatke, writer and artist

First Second

Anticipation/expectation level: I’m an unabashed Zita pusher to parents, teachers, aunts, and all other readers.

My reality: As a fan of the series, the last book paid off. But it’s been awhile since I read the 2nd installment, and I couldn’t recall each member of the ragtag team’s situation/quirks from where they were left off. For the most part, this is Zita’s story of defeating someone hellbent on destroying Earth out of spite and escaping a prison camp, so the intermittent flashes to her other friends all over the galaxy aren’t that much of a distraction. But they do eventually come into play. For someone coming in cold to the universe, the story won’t have much extra emotional resonance, and the emotional hook depends on being familiar with Zita’s journey. But the main things that I love about Zita are there: absurd humor, lots of cute and weird creatures, struggle overcome by pure will and help from friends, triumph over evil, and there’s the extra punch of wistfulness at the end.

Will teens like it?: It might read younger, but I think teens will like it.

Is it “great” for teens?: It’s great if you’ve read the other volumes. Alone, I don’t know if it’s great.

Art Taste:



Skyward Volume 1: Into the Woods 

Skyward Volume 2: Strange Creatures 

Jeremy Dale, writer and artist

Action Lab Entertainment

Anticipation/expectation level: All that I knew before I read this was that its creator had suddenly and tragically died. And that people had really liked the comic.

My reality: From reading the letters from fans printed in the collected editions, I can see what people like about this title. It’s a new fantasy world. It’s imaginative, filled with warrior rabbits and other magical stuff. It’s got a bit of joking camaraderie. It’s built to be a fun ride – a search for a missing boy by the forces of good and evil caught in a war that’s much bigger than him, etc. It feels familiar. For me, it felt too familiar and it wasn’t my type of humor or art – but at least the clothes are equal opportunity painted on. When characters are alone they tend to narrate whatever they’re thinking, which always strikes me as unnecessary. I can see the merits for readers, but this one didn’t do much for me.

Will teens like it?: I don’t know if I can see heavy investment potential, but there’s nothing here that would be an immediate turnoff.

Is it “great” for teens?: I think this is decent.

Art Taste: Comparing the pencils to the colored version, I’d have to say that I prefer the pencils. The coloring makes everyone look really shiny and covered in vinyl and obscures a lot of the artistic talent.



Cast Away on the Letter A


TOON books

Anticipation/expectation level: Neutral. TOON Books does interesting stuff. When I got this in at the library, it was very slim like a picture book and looked like it was a reprint/revival of a classic european adventure comic. (The introduction confirmed this).

My reality: Philemon is hugely popular in France, a beloved character. In his introduction to general American eyes he explores a well on his rural French property that keeps burping up messages in bottles. He finds himself stuck on the letter A in “Atlantic Ocean” – a fantastical adventure befitting such an illusory place ensues. I appreciated the imagination and history that come with the comic, and I’m glad that more European comics might get printed over here and find a wider audience, but I’m not going to rave about it to teenagers.

Will teens like it?: Due to the length and lightness of the story, plus its cultural cache, I think this will appeal to mostly young readers or adult readers. The pacing and plot don’t fit modern teen comic book standards.

Is it “great” for teens?: Nah

Art Taste:


Reading the Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: Already reviewed from Telgemeier, Tamaki(s), Pope, and Smith

by Tessa

Read about the whys of this series here.

Sometimes you eat too much pizza. Sometimes you review a book on a nominations list that you were planning to write mini reviews on. Sometimes you do both when the mini-reviews are to be written. I already did the work, so you can clicky click to the reviews!



Raina Telgemeier, writer and illustrator

Graphix (Scholastic)

I reviewed it on here!

Excerpt: “Telgemeier’s writing and drawing makes me feel comfortable, like I’m reading a surprisingly interesting (and long) cartoon in a newspaper. Her family stories have the rhythm of a good sitcom, replete with punchlines and realistically wacky situations. I was so happy to slip back into those rhythms. . .”

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes. Telgemeier is my go-to author for realistic teen comics, and this one is no exception.


The Rise of Aurora West

Paul Pope, Writer

J.T. Petty, Writer

David Rubin, Illustrator

First Second

I reviewed it on No Flying No Tights

Excerpt: “The daughter of Arcopolis’s late science hero, Haggard West, the gritty Aurora has a room full of secrets and a calling to kill the monsters that have overrun her city. The Rise of Aurora West is a bracing piece of the fantastic. It will retain fans of theBattling Boy world with a compelling mix of new backstory and connections to that which is to come.”

Is it “Great” for teens?:  Yes. I love the adventure, danger and mystery in the world that Pope has created, and Aurora has a complex and emotionally layered story to tell. (Just wish it were in color).


This One Summer

Jillian Tamaki, illustrator

Mariko Tamaki, writer

First Second

I reviewed it here!

Excerpt: “It’s a summer made of moments, and some of them will affect Rose in obvious, rememberable ways, and some of them are the kind that pass by and come back in embarrassment or with a laugh years later, or might never be remembered at all. Here we get to see them play out and wonder which are which.”

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes. I think everyone should read this. It’s gorgeous. Read it. Read it. Read it.


Barbarian Lord

Matt Smith, writer and illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

My review is over at No Flying No TightsHere’s a small excerpt:

“Those who come to Barbarian Lord looking for a simple adventure will find their fair share of fights, trolls, political machinations, and swords. However, some readers may be put off by its formal language and sentence construction (e.g. “Your gods are as grim as your land. You should look to Skraal, who flies over your mountain god and must then be his better”). For those who love traditional storytelling and the epic deeds of gods, monsters, and men, there is much to enjoy herein. Barbarian Lord subverts expectations by delivering more than it seems at first to offer—just as Barbarian Lord is more than a brutish warrior beneath the grimace.”

Is it “great” for teens?: I don’t know! I definitely like it. I can see some teens getting into it. Once more of them read it I’ll get back to you….

Reading the Great Graphic Novels for Teens 2015 noms: Gandhi, giants, and other real lives

by Tessa

Read about the whys of this series here.

It’s always fun to see what kind of comic biographies and memoirs are published in a year. You never know who you’re going to learn about.  Here’s my take on the nominated bios and memoirs.


Gandhi: my life is my message

Jason Quinn, writer

Sachin Nagar, illustrator

Campfire Bookas

Anticipation/expectation level: I wasn’t a fan of the other Gandhi graphic novel I’ve read (that got on a GGNT list), so I just hoped that this one was better. I had enjoyed Jason Quinn’s take on Steve Jobs from Campfire press, as well.

My Reality: I am convinced that no one should try this again unless they are Osamu Tezuka and want to do a bio of Gandhi in the same vein as the multi-volume Buddha – that is, comprehensively, with humor, and not so concerned with the facts. Because the fact is that there are a lot of facts about Gandhi, and when they try to be shoehorned into one book it tends to turn into a mess of jumping around in time, explicating things, and hero worship. Which is how I feel about this.

The setup doesn’t make sense to begin with. Gandhi is near the end of his life about to go out to a rally, and starts to reminisce. It doesn’t ring true that anyone would reminisce about their life as if they were explaining it to an audience, in chronological order. Why the weird framing device?

The art and panels are well-designed, with an eye to keeping the eye fresh. Characters are portrayed in a realistic style that has an energetic aesthetic – a nice change to comic biographies that feature leaden art that seems to be worried it won’t be realistic enough, and sinks under those worries.


Here’s a terrible cell phone photo for an example.

The thing is that they tried to fit too much into too small of a book. As you can see there are Too many words, but the art has a light, life-filled energy, and the panels fit the story, instead of constraining it into a fixed number per page. Yet even creative paneling can’t help pacing that is jumping years with each page turn. There’s not enough time or room to explain who everyone is or give a proper context to the social and political situations. The authors use Gandhi to gloss over any uncomfortable issues in his life (probably leaving worse ones out, I don’t know, I haven’t read a proper biography that tries to be objective). I was left with the general feeling that Gandhi was a great guy, and the rest of it was a blur. And that’s why I don’t think it’s a very good introduction or short overview either – I just get the feeling that we’re not getting the whole story.

Will Teens like it?: Teens will definitely like to use this for any reports or papers they need to do on Gandhi

Is it “great” for teens?: To be great it would need to be a lot longer and more comprehensive.

Art Taste: see above.


The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft

Reinhard Kleist, writer and artist

Self Made Hero

Anticipation/expectation level: I knew nothing about this and barely looked at the cover or jacket copy before starting to read it.

My Reality: This was fantastic! And heartbreaking. My visual literacy failed me because I didn’t notice the people on the cover who are clearly entering a work camp during World War II. The book opens with a boy on a mysterious drive with his angry, menacing father – Harry Haft. Soon it goes to flashback and the man that was just so alarming and unlikeable becomes sympathetic in short order. (Not a)Spoiler: at the end of the book the trip at the beginning is revealed and, if you are like me, will leave you sobbing. I feel like most people could just pick up the book and read the story fresh – no synopsis needed, but if you want one:

Harry gets sent to the concentration camps early in the war, and even younger than the age limit at which the Nazis were then taking people – because of a simple mixup that might easily never have happened. He endures years going from camp to camp, making what allies he can, protecting who he can, and being made to box other inmates. Even when he makes it through he has anger, grief, and life to contend with.

Kleist’s art reminds me of Nate Powell’s. He’s very adept at using black brushstrokes and maneuvering around light and shadow to make powerful splash pages and to bring out the oppressive atmosphere of the camps. The world opens up on the page, with panel borders often eschewed in place of white space.

Will Teens like it?: They might not pick it up off of the shelf without a hand-sell but it’s an engaging story that is tightly paced and has a great chance of hooking a teen brain.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes

Art Taste:

Boxer Title Slide 3


The Dumbest Idea Ever!

Jimmy Gownley, writer and artist


Anticipation/expectation level:   I’d read the last of Gownley’s Amelia books, and liked it, but didn’t have the attachment of reading the full series.

My Reality: Gownley tells the story of his own adolescence, framed through his rediscovery of comics and discovery of seeing himself as a comics artist, due to being grounded by illness. He struggles with first love, being bored in a small town, and the perils of success at a young age. As a writer, Gownley knows how to keep on the level of tweens and teens – his pacing is steady and hits the right notes of pratfalls and embarrassments and dumb jokes but doesn’t forget the depth and immediacy of feeling that comes with growing up and feeling grown up. He also treats the creative journey seriously and shows it as work, and work that teens can do – not something that’s magic, and not viewed through a hackneyed lens of nostalgia. It’s a hard balance to strike! His art is simple, with the heightened physicality and gestural faces suited to the story (think Raina Telgemeier and Lynn Johnston)

Will Teens like it?: Teens are the best audience for this (not that adults won’t enjoy it) – and they already do like it.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes, it has fun, understands them, and treats them like humans.

Art Taste:



Andre the Giant: Life and Legend

Box Brown, writer and artist

First Second

Anticipation/expectation level: High. At some of my most impressionable times in childhood I watched The Princess Bride (over and over) and saw the first Andre the Giant Has a Posse stickers before Shepard Fairey became famous. But I didn’t know much about him or his wrestling career, and so was looking forward to the comic.

My Reality: I did learn so much more about Andre. Box Brown goes to great lengths to research his life and provide a picture of the whole man, warts and all, drawing heavily on interviews, videos of wrestling matches, and articles (detailed in a lenghty endnote/bibliography section). It’s a book about Andre, but it also necessarily presents a backstage view of the business of wrestling, and that proves fascinating as well.

His pared down figures and carefully composed panels have a surety to them that adds to the feeling that this a story that comes from dedicated time – an analogue to a long-form profile in a magazine like the New Yorker. The world that Andre lives in is clear and unchangeable, and often cruel, just as Andre’s disease is unchangeable and inevitable. Andre has to navigate both as best he can, and the struggle, kept inside, is shown through his actions more than his words. At the end of it, I didn’t feel like I knew Andre as a person, but I felt like I knew his world. I couldn’t tell if it was because Brown wanted to stick closely to his sources and not speculate about Andre’s feelings, or if it was because Andre was naturally a private person, and no one really knew him in that way. But it’s definitely a book that sparks an interest for more – and that is something that I think makes a nonfiction comic great.

Will Teens like it?: Teens who are into wrestling will definitely like it. I wonder how many teens know who Andre the Giant is… but he has a story that is interesting regardless of his level of fame, and the anecdotal nature of the story is good for teen readers.

Is it “great” for teens?: I’m on the fence.

Art Taste:



The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story

Vivek Tiwary, writer

Andrew Robinson, artist

Kyle Baker, artist

Dark Horse

Anticipation/expectation level: Skeptical. There are a number of Beatles comics from different angles (okay, I don’t know if there are a number. There’s at least one other). What angle is this working, and what does it add to what’s already out there? How does it stand up?

My Reality: It’s very hard to argue that anyone involved with the Beatles was more important than the Beatles. One might be able to make a case for Brian Epstein, their manager, who worked tirelessly to get them signed after rejections all over the place, and had a lot of great PR ideas and ambitions for the band. However, I don’t know if this is the book that really seals the deal on that argument. The endeavor feels uneven as a reading experience. For example, Baker and Robinson’s art is in some ways a perfect fit for the time period it’s representing – the faces are fresh but a bit mischievous and elfin, the bodies fit well in their jaunty, modern clothing, all angles and curved, swooping hair. The light of Liverpool is foggy and hushed, except when Epstein falls into his daydreams of matadors – but the faces also look too posed – they’re not speaking, they’re cutouts behind speech bubbles. The establishing scenes are reused in several places as if to cut corners, and the art can at times take a turn for the too-digital, clashing with the penciled feel of the rest of the pieces. The story, too, propels itself on Brian’s ambition. He feels a connection with the Beatles – which is explained through a confusing mashup of a live show and an anecdote about a matador. Then the reader is left to take the drive at face value and go along for the ride – as are the Beatles themselves, mostly shown as jokey and game for Epstein’s help – the lucky recipients of his magic touch. Then there’s Moxie, the figment of Epstein’s imagination who is also sort of real? I’m not sure what the book is trying to impart other than an awareness of Brian Epstein, but it looks good doing it.

Will Teens like it?: Unless the teen is a huge Beatles or 60s nerd, probably not.

Is it “great” for teens?: I would not say it’s great. Or for teens. But I don’t regret reading it.

Art Taste:



Next week: more books!

Summer Reads Pt. 2: Sisters and The Book of Bad Things

by Tessa

It’s part 2 of my “books I’ve read this summer about summer” posts! Today I’m covering 2 dece reads for middle schoolers (and other people who read and like books). Unfortunately, both of them won’t be published until the end of August. Which is a great time to read books about summer in order to hold on to that summer feeling.

[Disclaimer: I’m reviewing Advance Review Copies of these books, so between now and when they’re actually published, things could have changed in the book.]


Raina Telgemeier

Graphix, 2014



Raina Telgemeier is a godsend for realistic comics lovers who want to read stories about the middle school years. This is her follow up to her first book, Smile, which was about her totally falling on her face/mouth and having to deal with the messy dental aftermath of it for a long time, during her most awkward years.

This one’s about her sister. Actually, spoiler alert, it’s still about Raina and her feelings about her sister Amara. The framing is a road trip that she, her mom, her sister, and her little brother take, going from California to Colorado to visit family, and is punctuated by flashbacks that explain more about how the sisters grew to have their tense relationship, and why Raina won’t sit in the front seat of the van.

The flashbacks have a neat yellow filter on the pages, making it clear that the story is in the past. I wish all of the ARC I saw was in color, but that would be crazy expensive and I understand why it switched to black and white, but I’m glad I got a preview of what the coloring will be like (done by Braden Lamb, who does stuff for the Adventure Time comics!). The past sequences, with the filter, look like yellowed color photos, while the present sequences, and the present sequences capture the color of the late 80s, which is when I think this was set (maybe early 90s?), as does the fashion, of course.

Telgemeier’s writing and drawing makes me feel comfortable, like I’m reading a surprisingly interesting (and long) cartoon in a newspaper. Her family stories have the rhythm of a good sitcom, replete with punchlines and realistically wacky situations. I was so happy to slip back into those rhythms that I wasn’t bothered at first by the arc of the story. There is one scene at the end, though, that packed a big emotional punch, and it’s delivered by Amara. That made me realize that I didn’t know much about her. It’s a function of Raina not being allowed/distancing herself from Amara, so she doesn’t know what her sister is like. But it also leaves much of the book’s story obscuring half of what the book is about. It’s Sisters, not Sister, and it would have been a more powerful book for me if the big realization weren’t related to one sister not really being present in the story except as a mystery and antagonist to the other. This misstep in plotting won’t hurt the book with its core audience, though, and there are many solid scenes in there for fans to savor.


The Book of Bad Things

Dan Poblocki

Scholastic, 2014


A colleague of mine brought this back from… BEA? And when I saw that it was middle grade horror and that SLJ compared it to R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and John Bellairs, I gladly took it off of her hands.

I’ve never heard of Dan Poblocki before, but he has written a lot of MG horror. Thanks for keeping the torch alight, Dan Poblocki. But you need to work on your tumblr.

The Book of Bad Things is about Cassidy Bean. She’s part of an exchange program in New York City, possibly part of a social work program, that lets her go and live with rich people in upstate New York during the summer. She’s visited one family, the Tremonts, for a couple summers, but this summer she’s arriving late to Whitechapel because the Tremonts took a while to say that Cassidy was welcome to come.

Something happened last summer to Cassidy and the Tremont’s son, Joey. They went out to the big house where Ursula Chambers, the town hermit lived. She yelled at them, and then later, Joey’s dog died, and for some reason, those two things became connected for Cassidy and Joey. Cassidy blamed herself for having the idea in the first place, and the summer seemed ruined.

Now she’s back with a new journal: The Book of Bad Things, where she writes down her fears and anxieties. Joey isn’t talking to her, and Ursula is dead. All her belongings are being raided by the townspeople, because Ursula didn’t have a family. Then, the people who took Ursula’s things start seeing her. And they start dying.

What I liked most about this book was that it wasn’t afraid to be scary and gruesome. It makes its characters question the line between reality and what they’ve seen in horror movies that feels more sophisticated to me than most horror setups in books for the younger set. Poblocki plays with the ideas of ghosts, zombies, psychic/emotional manifestations, and curses, and the real life scariness of hoarding, anxiety and hurt friendship. Sure, Cassidy’s narration is a bit stiff at times, but she’s a very serious girl, so it fits her. It also never states what race Cassidy is, so it’s possible to read her as black, which is important for many kids.

As an adult reader, I wasn’t terrified, but I can tell that if I had read this when I was a tween, it would have firmly lodged itself in my psyche.





Down but not meowt: Claws by Mike and Rachel Grinti



Mike and Rachel Grinti

Scholastic, 2012

review by Tessa


Emma Vu

Helena Vu

Mr. & Mrs. Vu

Jack the Magic-less Cat


One day Emma’s older sister Helena is around and life is happy. Then Helena goes missing, and her family is quickly losing all its money in trying anything to find her – including associating with crags, or magical creatures, a culturally-shunned segment of the population. It isn’t long before Emma takes advantage of her parents’ distracted and stressed out state to accept the help of cats in order to pursue her own investigations.

UK cover!

UK cover!


So, unfortunately I haven’t had time lately to read much middle grade fantasy so I’m not even going to try to couch my comments in relation to the field as a whole. I’m just going to tell you why Claws grabbed me.

It’s set in a world where magic is known but not socially accepted, except by excitable teenagers who watch a show called Gnomebots, read Tiger Beat style magazines about the glamorous (literally) lifestyle of fairies, and read dubious information about the magical world on CragWiki. However, most people avoid crags and, therefore, Emma’s first encounters with them are a little scary and not what she expected. The book opens with Emma and her parents moving into a decrepit house next to the big forest that took over a human city some years ago. Crags live near there, but most humans have relocated. Emma’s parents have had no luck with normal policework in finding Helena, her father has lost his business, and he’s ready to try the magical underground for any information on his missing daughter.

Emma finds that her next door neighbors are a boring snake-man who has a lecture for everything and a hag who has had all of her teeth pulled so she won’t eat any more children – doomed to a life of unfulfilled hunger- but that doesn’t stop her from trying to lure Emma into her house.

magic cat photo by flickr user SuziJane

magic cat photo by flickr user SuziJane

Pretty much immediately, Emma finds that a cat has been living in her family’s new house, and he doesn’t intend to stop doing so. Cats are magical creatures and can talk in this world, and this cat, Jack, has done something to get him kicked out of his pride. But he also has a way to transfer the pride’s power to Emma. He wants her to do this, and in return, he’ll help her find Helena.

I loved reading a good fantasy grounded in reality that didn’t exalt magic but still made it exciting, dangerous, and fun. Each crag that Emma meets has his or her own personality, and the crag world, apart from the class tensions between it and humans, has clear tensions between creature groups and within peer groups. The Grintis pack all of this effortlessly into 250 pages. The reader doesn’t have to work to see it happening, but it’s not explained in expository dialogue, either (thank goodness).  The facts that are presented straightforwardly come in quotes from CragWiki at the beginning of every chapter, and serve to deepen the world.

Does this book fulfill its intentions?

Claws hit a sweet spot for me, readingwise. Emma doesn’t hesitate very long before accepting Jack’s deal. I could easily see the book veering off in a much different alternate-future direction, where it spends the first book with Emma hemming and hawing about her decision, in order to stretch out and become a trilogy.  Instead Emma goes for it. In a sense she has nothing much to lose – her friends at school have turned against her now that she lives in an undesirable area, and she’s lonely all the time – she misses her sister and her parents are fully preoccupied and brokenhearted for the same reason. But I feel like she also decides to accept Jack’s offer of the Pride Heart because it’s exciting. I’d be willing to bet that most 12 year olds have an innate sense of their own impending destiny – who among us wouldn’t have accepted the chance to assume the source of power for a pride of magical cats? (Cat-allergic peeps aside.)

My cat is obviously magic.

My cat is obviously magic.

Once her decision is made, Emma is set up for a crash course in Adventure and Split Second Decisions, and after a few false starts it seems she’s well-suited for it. I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone, but I will say that the end set-piece, which takes place in a faery-run high rise in the human downtown, is a particularly well-done example of the ways in which the faerie can be simultaneously attractive and deeply, primally scary. It involves something called eye-puppets.

In addition, Claws was refreshing because it provided intrigue and a personal-growth story with real emotion and imagination, and, because of its target market, had none of the love triangle or sexy urban werewolvery that has become so tiresome to me, even secondhand from reading reviews. I could read it and wholeheartedly enjoy it in the moment as a grown lady, and also think about how much I would have loved it as a younger person.


– I met Rachel Grinti at a local conference where I was co-presenting something and she gave me a copy of Claws for free cuz she’s nice. I’m so glad that she did.

-Emma’s parents are Vietnamese-American and when she’s feeling tired of her new family life as The Girl With the Missing Sister and worn down by her new cat magic responsibilities she reminisces about the better times when her family would make homecooked meals. I think it’s safe to say that this is the only book I’ve read that could make me want to eat banana pudding.

Readalikes, as far as imaginative worldbuilding goes.


The War Between The Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids by Stanley Kiesel

The world of this book isn’t strictly magical, it’s just weird and surreal and things matter of factly happen that you as a reader know are totally crazy but you don’t care because it has hooked you with its very weirdness. A girl eats a janitor and it blew my mind that that could even happen in a book.


How to Ditch Your Fairy  by Justine Larbalestier

The fairies in this book are very much fairies and not faeirie as in Claws, but Larbalestier brings the reader into her sort of complicated world–where everyone has an invisible fairy that bestows specific luck or powers onto their human, and it’s luck of the draw whether you get a good one or a useless one, or just a really annoying one–with ease.

Why Aren’t You Reading… The Tapestry Series by Henry H. Neff?


by Tessa

Maybe you’re already reading this series, about a boy named Max who finds out that he’s the son of an Irish mythological figure, and goes to magical boarding school in America (not in that order) and then the world irrevocably changes because the wrong book gets into the wrong allegedly-demonic hands,  in which case RAD, can we chat about it together?

BUT – I’m guessing that lots of people haven’t – at least it hasn’t been written up in the many places that I go to hear about books. Granted, there are way more places to go read about books that it’s just not possible for me to visit. There are a couple of reasons that may explain this – the series is older middle grade and the first two books read very much like American Harry Potter, so I feel as though it may have been dismissed as reductive in some people’s minds.

There are some very compelling reasons (I hope) to give The Tapestry series a second look if you weren’t into the first book or a first look, if you haven’t  yet heard of it.


– Irish mythology!

Ever since I read The Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland, collected by Jeremiah Curtain, I’ve been into the meandering, tough, hyperbolic, funny stories from that country. Even though I know I’m mispronouncing all the names when I read it in my head. Max finds out (spoiler alert?) that he’s the sun of Lugh Lámhfhada, an Irish god associated with the sun and athleticism, which means he’s the half-brother of Cúchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, which is why he’s known as the Hound of Rowan (Rowan being the American Hogwarts stand-in here). Not that you have to know anything about Irish mythology to read the series, I just enjoy that Max has a grounding in a mythology that exists outside of the books.

Cuchulainn Slays the Hound of Culain via Wikipedia

Cuchulainn Slays the Hound of Culain via Wikipedia

This also means that Max is a real badass. He’s full of Old Magic and a member of the Red Branch (magical CIA type people) and although he wields the Gae Bolga, a sword/spear embedded with the terrifying bloodlust of Cúchulainn, he’s a pretty thoughtful kid thrust into a world where he has to make life or death decisions for, like, the entire human race.

Actually there are 3 children of Old Magic in this series. They all have their own strengths, and their own secrets. The magic is well spread out among the students and teachers and the political intrigue is well done.

– Totally epic, metal demons

Demons are a big part of this series. They are trying to infiltrate Rowan to steal a powerful book that can rewrite REALITY ITSELF… and they eventually do. But they don’t turn the world into a stereotypical hell. It becomes more feudal, and more pastoral. But still with tentacled horrors that live inside wells and terrorize families. As the present becomes the past… with demons, things are correspondingly more epic. It recalled the lyrics of metal bands such as the brutal (read:rad) Absu. This is from a song off of 2009’s Absu:

The old woman of Nippur
Instructs Ninlil to walk the banks of Idnunbirdu
She thrusts he magic (k)
To harvest the mind of the great
mountain-lord Enlil

The bright-eyed king will fall to your anguish
His soul lures the hexagonal room
He who decrees fates – his spirit is caught
His soul lured to the hexagonal room

A silk veil strewn over you
Your face is the cosmos
You hide it in shame

I admire an author who is not afraid to change the entire nature of the Earth. Neff does it and pulls it off without becoming too lost in the large canvas he’s created.

A new kind of adversary

Astaroth is the main antagonist, although the political intrigues of the demon world shift around during books 3 and 4. He’s firmly not in the Eye of Sauron all seeing all evil all the time camp. He’s an activist godlike figure. Like if NoFace from Spirited Away had all the powers of Old Testament God but not all the wrath – Astaroth pretends he’s a softy but really the world is just his plaything. He’s doing it for humanity’s own good. He thinks humanity is better without choices. His face is an always-smiling white mask.

an imagining of Astaroth from the Dictionnaire Infernal (1818) - via Wikipedia

an imagining of Astaroth from the Dictionnaire Infernal (1818) – via Wikipedia


– The first book is deceptively Harry Potter-like (with a dash of Riordan’s The Olympians)

I dunno, this isn’t a huge con for me, but it’s worth noting. Also, if you read the first book and were not into the Hag “humor”, it is much diminished in the others.

– The illustrations can take away from the story sometimes.

I hate saying this because Henry Neff is the writer AND illustrator, so these are the representations of the images that inspired the story that I enjoy reading so much… however, there have been times when seeing the illustrations takes the wind out of the much creepier thing I was thinking of in my brain, inspired by the prose.

– His website uses Papyrus as a title font.


Obviously the pros are much stronger than the cons, so what are you waiting for?

Two Middle-Grade Mysteries with Ageless Appeal: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” and Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire!


“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” All The Wrong Questions #1

by Lemony Snicket

Art by Seth

Little, Brown and Company 2012


Mr. and Mrs. Bunny – Detectives Extraordinaire!

by Mrs. Bunny, translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath

art by Sophie Blackall

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012

reviews by Tessa

Lately, even with the weather soaring to climate-change induced heights instead of wintery lows, I’ve still been craving cozy reading.  For me that usually means something funny, fast, and in a genre.  I really  hit the jackpot this week and last, with two middle-grade-marketed mysteries that could be read and enjoyed by anyone except maybe for babies, who knows what babies are thinking.

who even knows. from Open Clip Art library

who even knows. from Open Clip Art library

The only thing you have to ask yourself is: do I want to be reading something atmospheric and silly or aggressively silly?  For the former there’s “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”, the first in the All the Wrong Questions series by Lemony Snicket (illustrated by Seth) and for the latter, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire! by Mrs. Bunny, translated from Rabbit by Polly Horvath and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

Seth! Seth! Seth!

Seth! Seth! Seth!

“Twice I almost fell asleep thinking of places and people in the city that were dearly important to me, and the distance between them and myself growing and growing until the distance grew so vast that even the longest-tongued bat in the world could not lick the life I was leaving behind.” (21)

“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” brings back Snicket in top form, but this time he delves into his own sad and action-packed past, reviewing all the wrong questions he’s asked throughout his life, and presumably leading to tragedy and further mystery.

We find him, at the opening of the story, (you can preview the first chapter here) in a greasy tearoom at a train station, saying goodbye to his parents at the age of 13 and going to act as an apprentice of some sort to someone.  The mystery begins at once, for he does not get on the train. A woman with wild hair drops a note on his lap, giving him five minutes to meet her out front in her roadster–but he must leave through the bathroom window.  Evidently prepared for this, Snicket finds the ladder stowed in the bathroom and exits, but is not prepared to be whisked out of the city to a new destination.

There’s someone in the city waiting for Snicket to help investigate important things in the sewer system, but there isn’t a way for him to go back. He’s now apprenticed to S. Theodora Markson, ranked 52 on the list of as many people with whom it was possible to apprentice, and on his way to Stain’d by the Sea, a seaside town no longer by the seaside.

Seth's illustrations add to the considerable atmosphere of the book.

Seth’s illustrations add to the considerable atmosphere of the book.

Markson and Snicket pass deep wells where giant needles dip in and out, harvesting ink from frightened octopi, the last of their kind.  A bell rings and Snicket is told to wear a silver mask because of “water pressure” although there is no water around. It’s just a taste of the confounding and lonely things to come. He finds that they will be investigating the burglary of a statue of a legendary sea creature–said to be taken from the home of one prominent family in town by members of the other prominent family, and yet the two families are not enemies.

Along the way there are the usual vocabulary lessons (“bombinating”, “hawser”), dryly specific advice, but not as much advice as the Snicket who narrates The Series of Unfortunate Events dispenses. “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” is about a much less assured Snicket at a much more malleable time in his life.  He’s probably still smarter than his mentor, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t acting a little impulsively and having melancholy adolescent feelings about things, as opposed to the older and more settled in inevitable sadness voice from the previous series of Snicket books. There are even two possible romantic interests and a hint that we will learn about some Snicket family members. For me this meant extra emotional depth in a quick read, just as I had hoped for and expected. The mysteries just keep begetting more mysteries, like a man whose hat is filled with men wearing hats containing ever tinier men with hats and so on. In other words: delicious complications!


Just go back and re-read Series of Unfortunate Events, as I plan to. Or start on the Mysterious Benedict Society series, by Trenton Lee Stewart, which has a similar tone and feel.

Mr. & Mrs.!

Mr. & Mrs.!

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire! has very little melancholy (unless you’re severely inclined to it) and, perhaps in its place, a lot of silliness. Fierce silliness. Unselfconscious silliness.

I admit that I initially checked this book out because of Sophie Blackall, being a huge fan of her art. And it took me a bit to get into the story, which starts out with the human side of things, explaining 5th-grader Madeline’s world, where she’s the square living with a Canadian commune of benign, marimba-playing, luminaria-loving, monarchy-disdaining hippies (including her parents, Flo and Mildred).  The descriptions came off as odd and forced-whimsical with a whiff of mockery, without being charming. I’ll get to the bunnies and then make my decision, I thought.

Luckily for me, the second chapter introduces Mr. and Mrs. Bunny. They are a couple set in their ways but given to impulse, and with a great bantering style. And the second page of the second chapter stops to note that

“Marmots, of course, were the bane of many a bunny’s existence. With their constant whining and tendency to matted fur, no one wanted to live around a marmot. Except perhaps another marmot. And sometimes not even they.”

a marmot, provided by Wikimedia

a marmot, provided by Wikimedia

I used to make zines for my sister, and one of them had a nice large picture of a marmot. I’d intended to make this an ad for the organization M.A.R.M.O.T. but could not think of a phrase to fill out the acronym. Now, any book that understood the comic possibilities of marmots was one that I would definitely have to read.

Good thing, because Mr. & Mrs. Bunny may not be great detectives but it’s fun to follow them as they bumble along with gumption.  As a couple, they don’t come off as a stereotype of an old bickering married pair, although they have been married for a long time and they do bicker.  There’s something about them that still seems fresh. It could be that they are scatterbrained. It could be that when Mrs. Bunny starts poking Mr. Bunny in the side for emphasis, she continues to do so because it’s fun, and then Mr. Bunny pretends not to notice but saves the retaliatory pokes for later, when she won’t expect it – and later in the narrative where it’s funnier to see brought up again.

It’s also a jumbled world where Foxes can learn to speak English in order to decode recipes for making food of rabbits, where bunnys can drive cars and build villages with freestanding Olde Spaghetti Factories, just like human towns, but clearly have their own bunny priorities like too much fursweating under a waterproof cap, or being called in front of the dreaded Bunny Council.

I laughed and/or smiled many times to myself while reading it, especially for the parts where the ongoing joke about Madeline having a gigantic bottom came up.  I even laughed in public while reading alone at a bar. That alone makes a it recommend-worthy, I think, and the mystery itself is solved in an escalating way filled with madcap rubbery red herrings all over the place.  There’s even a couple phrases of Fox to be learned from it, and also how to hypnotize a marmot.


M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales series (start with Whales on Stilts!) is pretty close in humor, although a bit more absurd.  And you’d do well to also read Maryrose Wood‘s Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, also delightfully illustrated by a talented person, Jon Klassen.


Chicken is Chickens!: Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

A Review of Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Wendy Lamb Books (Random House), 2012

By REBECCA, August 20, 2012

Rebecca Stead Liar & Spy


Georges (the S is silent): lovely, observant, sincere (but not saccharine) seventh-grader you totally want to be friends with

Safer:  a coffee-swigging, super-observant, home-schooled spymaster and dog-walker

Candy: Safer’s younger sister, she occasionally does recon spy work for the cause

Pigeon: Candy and Safer’s older brother who is very avian-oriented

Bob English Who Draws: an unexpected school friend, he knows all about spelling reform

Georges’ dad: communicative, and supportive dad who is always up for Chinese food, yay!


When Georges moves in to his new Brooklyn apartment, he quickly joins Safer in a building-wide surveillance of the mysterious Mr. X, who Safer says must be evil. His dad lost his job, his mom is always at the hospital where she works, and a gang of boys at school have painted Georges with a target, so he likes hanging out with Safer . . . until Safer’s spy demands start to go a little too far.


Georges has only moved twelve blocks away from the house he and his parents were forced to move out of when his father lost his job, but it gives him totally different vantage point on his Brooklyn neighborhood. Georges’ neighborhood, school, and apartment building are the world of Liar & Spy and Georges moves through them with familiarity and affection, observing delightful things and thinking delightful thoughts:

“We’re playing volleyball, with an exclamation point. Ms. Warner has written it on the whiteboard outside the gym doors: Volleyball!.

The combination of seeing that word and breathing the smell of the first floor, which is the smell of the cafeteria after lunch, creates some kind of echo in my head, like a faraway shout.

In the morning, the cafeteria smells fried and sweet, like fish sticks and cookies. But after lunch, it’s different. There’s more kid sweat and garbage mixed in, I guess. Or maybe it’s just that, after lunch, the cafeteria doesn’t have the smell of things to come. It’s the smell of what has been” (3).

Georges’ voice is strong and extremely relatable—I totally wish I lived in his apartment building and would get to chat with him in the lobby or the basement. It’s a world where things are both rife with mystery and shockingly clear; where kids’ play has complete power and yet is powerless against larger fears and threats. Every character feels fully-realized, even the gym teacher or a girl with a crush who appear for but a few sentences, which makes me feel like I live in this world, too, and am merely hearing the story of someone else’s view of it.

When You Reach Me Rebecca SteadLike Stead’s previous novel, When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy is about middle-school-aged kids, but is plenty rich to appeal to older audiences, for sure. For a short novel (180 pages in my copy), Liar & Spy covers a lot of ground. The plot isn’t complicated, but it’s a book with a lot of components, all of which feel like they are in their right place. It’s the same feeling I had when reading When You Reach Me (which I love love loved): that I was reading a book by someone who really knew what she was doing. Stead makes it feel effortless. Pre-teen boys, a potential serial killer, bullying, how taste works, spelling reform, candy, the nesting habits of parrots, umami, phobias, home-schooling, Brooklyn restaurants—all the pieces orbit each other like a perfectly balanced mobile, and at the end you realize that without every one of them it wouldn’t be the same beautiful whole.

Plus, did I mention it’s wicked funny? It is. Here’s a story from Safer and Candy’s brother, Pigeon, who doesn’t eat birds:

“‘So one day when I was totally little, Mom, Dad, and I are driving along this road up in Connecticut and we see these cows. And I’m like, what are cows for? I mean, what do they do, you know? And Mom’s trying to give me the easy answer, so she tells me, “Cows are for milk, remember? Cows give us milk.”

‘But then Dad pipes up, “And meat.” And I’m like, “What do you mean, meat?” Then he tells me that hamburgers are cow meat. And this lightbulb goes on in my head, and I start thinking about all the foods we eat, and I’m asking, what about dumplings, and what about bacon—and they’re telling me, pork dumplings are from pigs, blah blah blah. I was real interested in all of it. It’s one of those things you remember—you’re just a little kid, and you’re finally clueing in to the real world, you know? And so then I say, “What about chicken? Where does chicken come from?” And right then this other lightbulb goes on in my head, and I start screaming, “Chicken is Chickens?”‘ (62-3).

what are this book’s expectations? does it live up to them?

Harriet the Spy Louise FitzhughYes! (that was the second question first, but I got really excited.) In a lot of ways, Liar & Spy kind of reminded me of what it might be like to be friends with an altera-verse Harriet the Spy. It’s not that the book is similar to Harriet the Spy, but that Georges’ experience being friends with Safer feels like glimpses into what Sport might feel like hanging around with Harriet when he really wants to be playing baseball (or, in Georges’ case, watching it) instead.

I think, too, that there is something about the experience of growing up a kid in New York (my mom is a Brooklyn kid, like Georges, although Harriet lives on the Upper East Side) that tinges books set there. The kids’ relationships with neighborhood-ishness really appeal to me (I love placey places). They approach a neighborhood Chinese restaurant or the newsstand at the entrance to a certain subway stop with the same particular ownership and favoritism that non-city kids would the park on the corner, and for whatever reason I find the idea of a kid having regular interactions with the people who run these places really delightful.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884

So, throughout Liar & Spy, we get the feeling that there are things going on in the background that aren’t addressed head-on (you know, like in real life). This gives a real richness to the book, and also prompts the kind of questions that might feel trite in a novel with older characters, but feel exactly right in a novel with middle-school-aged characters. Georges is named after Pointillist Georges Seurat, his parents’ favorite artist, and like the Seurat poster hanging in Georges’ living room, at the end of Liar & Spy, you can look back at the big picture of the book and see all the little pieces come together, and it’s really lovely. Stead masterfully embeds hints to what is going on that make sense when looked back on.

Liar & Spy is available NOW!

personal disclosure

I had the pleasure of getting my book signed by Rebecca Stead at BEA, and she was extremely lovely and gracious, and liked that our blog was called Crunchings & Munchings because she, too, loves Gurgi. I feel this needs to be said because I have a particular dread of meeting people that I admire, for fear that they will be disappointing. Check out this post over at Rookie on the topic.

Rebecca Stead rocks!


Skellig David Almond

Skellig by David Almond (2000). Like Georges, Michael, the protagonist of Skellig, has recently moved into a new home, where he meets a home-schooled girl who teaches him new things. Michael finds a bird-man-angel who eats Chinese food dripping with bugs in his shed. It’s a short, simple story, but has an elliptical, fantasy quality (what is the bird-man-angel? what is really wrong with Michael’s baby sister?). Lovely and lyrical.

What They Always Tell Us Martin Wilson

What They Always Tell Us by Martin Wilson (2008). Brothers James (a senior) and Alex (a junior) are close in age but not in much else—James is an outgoing overachiever and Alex has withdrawn into depression and is questioning his sexuality. But when the brothers make friends with their oddball 10-year-old neighbor, they find common ground they didn’t know they had.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009). I know maybe it’s cheating to put an author’s own book on the readalikes list, but in the case of When You Reach Me, I’ve included it because although the books share very little in terms of plot they are very close in style and worldview, so I think someone who liked one would really enjoy the other. Also, seriously, this book is amazing. I can’t say any more for fear of spoiling it. Don’t read anything about it; just read it. Now. It’s short. I swear you’ll thank me.

procured from: ARC from the publisher at Book Expo America

Re-Read: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles

A Review of The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards

HarperCollins, 1974

By REBECCA, August 6, 2012

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles Julie Andrews Edwards


Ben, Tom, and Lindy Potter meet Professor Savant one Halloween night, and aren’t sure whether they believe him that there is a place called Whangdoodleland, where the last of that kind rules over a kingdom of otherworldly creatures. But, the more they practice the Professor’s methods of using their imagination to get closer and closer to Whangdoodleland, the more convinced they become that they can travel there and meet the Whangdoodle. Once they’re in Whangdoodleland, however, they realize that imagination is a dangerous tool that can be used against them just as easily as they can use it for their own purposes.

why am i re-reading this?

Julie Andrews as Mary PoppinsI’ve been feeling a little lazy and uninspired in my reading lately. Maybe it’s the oppressive heat of this interminable summer; maybe just a little slump brought on by a borderline-shameful bout of attention-span-ruining tv on dvd watching; I dunno. Either way, I decided it was time to go back to my roots and pull one of my childhood favorites off the shelf. I first read The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles as a very young kid (it’s middle grade, I should mention) and had no idea that the author who created this super creative world was none other than the rather stern, besmocked, rosy-lipped Mary Poppins that my sister made us watch repeatedly. What?! Someone who can act, sing, dance, and write? No fair! Inspiring!

I have really strong memories of the world of Whangdoodleland from reading it as a kid. It’s filled with awesome creatures and gorgeous landscapes:

“Their first impression of the forest was that it was dark and gloomy. But as their eyes adjusted to the light, they saw that it was unusually colorful.

The plum-colored trees had brown, gnarled trunks. Most of them were embraced by a vivid pink ivy, growing and twining around the tall columns and twisted limbs. Garlands of the honey-cream flowers hung from the branches, linking one tree to another. The floor was mossy and bedded with ferns the color of amethyst. Huge pearl-white and crimson orchids grew at the side of the road, which pointed straight as an arrow into the dark interior.

Then they saw the eyes. There were thousands of them—large, unblinking, tortoiseshell-yellow orbs staring down through the leaves from every part of the forest” (169).

Julie Andrews Edwards The Last of the Really Great WhangdoodlesBut my favorite thing about The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was that Professor Savant wasn’t able to get to Whangdoodleland without the Potter kids because the only way to get there is to have a boundless and malleable imagination—an imagination that only children have. So, Savant engages the kids in what is, to them, a great adventure; at the same time, though, he is placing them in great danger because he is dependent on the resource of their imagination. Lindy is seven, Thomas is ten, and Ben is thirteen. By the logic of the book, Lindy has the deftest imagination and is better than her brothers at surrendering to it entirely. Some of the most interesting moments in the book are when Ben, on the cusp of losing his childish ability to view reality as something different, is unable to do what he needs to do to keep himself and his siblings safe. At the start of the book, his maturity makes him responsible and trustworthy; someone Lindy looks up to. But, in Whangdoodleland, he’s something of a liability, and Edwards does a great job of capitalizing on those moments.

did the book hold up?

Mostly. I had forgotten that the mythology of mystical creatures in Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles is that these creatures used to have a lot of power when people believed in them, but

“as the years passed, man became involved in technology and agriculture and industry. Of course, it was natural for him to want to learn about his environment and the laws of nature, about the universe and how to get to the moon, and so on. But as he broadened the new part of his mind, so he closed down a beautiful and fascinating part of the old—the area of fantasy. The more knowledge man gained, the more self-conscious he became about believing in fanciful creatures. People began to think that such things as dragons, goblins and gremlins didn’t exist. The terrible thing is that when man dismissed all the fanciful creatures from his mind, the Whangdoodles disappeared along with them” (34).

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles Julie Andrews EdwardsThis sets up the stuff about kids’ versus adults’ imaginations and their relative power really well. One of the tropes that I often like in middle grade fantasy is the way that fear gains power the more you believe in it—the nightmare of imagination’s power. Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles has a splash of this for sure, but it wasn’t quite as dark as I remembered. The Prock, a skinny, slinking man who I always thought of as a sinister villain when I read the book as a kid now appeared to me as a totally reasonably watchdog of the magic of Whangdoodleland. He tries to stop the Professor and the Potters from getting to Whangdoodleland and meeting the Whangdoodle because he fears that if they can get there then humans could potentially overrun Whangdoodleland.

The scenes where the Professor trains the Potters to get in touch with their senses and imaginations totally hold up (plus they are constantly eating picnics and scones and stuff, yum!) and I found myself wishing, just as I did when I was a kid, that I could go on grand adventures via my imagination.

The only thing that felt a great deal different on this reading was the quest that the Potters go on to get through Whangdoodleland and meet the Whangdoodle. It didn’t seem quite as tense and suspenseful as I remembered, and the little clues they get along the way didn’t seem quite as clever. Still, though, the meeting with the Whangdoodle was just as delightful as I remembered and the ending just as good.

Check out this awesome art that a 3rd grade class did after reading The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles:



Swamp Gaboon!

procured from: my home library

So, what about you? Any childhood favorites you’ve been meaning to dust off?

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