Saturday, July 27, 2013

And Tango Makes Three

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell.  Illustrated by Henry Cole: At the Central Park Zoo, there is a penguin family unlike any other.

I know the controversy surrounding this book very well.  I have heard about it from colleagues at school and I have read some of its reviews. Some of my classmates work in bookstores and have told me stories where they are not allowed to keep this book on the shelves because people get offended by it. The reviews, I had to stop reading those because the clear prejudice and blatant homophobia was too much to bear.  

I really love this book.  The story is so well written and full of warmth that you really cannot help it. I believe this book highlights the fact that there are many forms of family and that no one definition is fitting. 

This book focuses on the same-sex penguin couple Roy and Silo located at the Central Park Zoo. It uses their story to introduce the topic of same-sex couples and their adoption of children to young readers.  I think the book handles this beautifully.  It also shows just how amazing these two fathers are when it comes to caring for their adopted child.  They work together to take care of the egg and when Tango is finally born, they teach him how to do what penguins do (i.e. swim).

If anything, this story shows just how not different same-sex couples with children are.  They, like single parent family units and heterosexual family units, want what is best for the child.  

This story is not really about the penguins at all.  At its core, it is about family and about raising a child with love.  Why shouldn't family units of all forms be able to do something so basic as that?

"That very night in Max's room a forest grew..."

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak:  Max makes some trouble and when his mother gets mad at him, he travels to the land of the wild things.

I love this book and I think every child should see it.  Not only is Maurice Sendak's art incredible but the story he wrote is timeless.  It is an important book too because it is unique.  A lot of children's picture books present a child character that is cute and always sweet and never difficult.  This child does not exist.  

Children, like adults, change and feel.  It is natural for them to show anger, be cruel and cause trouble.  Where the Wild Things Are shows a child character who is all of the above.  I think this is important because it breaks down those stereotypes surrounding children and childhood.  This is  definitely a book children will relate to.

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak: Mickey falls a long way and into the Night Kitchen where three bakers are baking a cake.

I know the controversy surrounding this book is in relation to a naked child being depicted through the artwork, but I cannot understand why it causes so much discomfort.  It is a child in their birthday suit. I remember having a little cousin of 3 years of age who liked nothing more than to take off his clothes and run around giggling. He usually did this at family functions. He thought the clothes were restricting him and so he took them off to feel more comfortable. Let's remember that this is Mickey's dream and in this world he wants to be free from the frustrations of the waking world.  

I firmly believe that the nudity is innocent and has no gross connotations attached to it.  That is why I cannot comprehend why some people are so freaked out by it.

Other complaints have been that the three chefs are creepy.  They are a bit.  I admit this.  But I also think they do not mean or intend to eat Mickey and bake him into the cake.  They do not notice him in their routine.  In fact, their eyes are closed as they stir the bowl. Once you realize this, the creepy factor sort of fizzles out.

I like this book and its oddities make it unique and different.  I also think that in the end, this book is about a boy's dream about cake. And while I do like it, I am not as attached to it as I am with Where the Wild Things Are. 

Of course, not everyone will agree.  A lot of people will come away from reading this review and never want to give this book a chance. It is my hope that those same people take a look at themselves and ask why the naked image of a child (a simplified one) disturbs them so much.

Here is a great animated interview with Maurice Sendak, which I think deserves a watch.  The man was great and a true treasure and he is missed.  It would have been his 85th birthday just this passed June.

Title source:

Sendak, M. (1963). Where the Wild Things Are. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children's Books.

Monday, July 8, 2013

"Adults follow paths. Children explore."

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman:  A man in his 40s returns to the neighborhood he lived in when he was a child and starts to remember something and someone important.

He met her when he was 7-years-old at the end of the lane.  She showed him a pond on her farm and told him it was an ocean.

If you follow me on twitter, you know that I love Neil Gaiman.  I talk about him and his books often. You are probably thinking that because of that I could not be objective in reading this novel and preparing a review.  Au contraire mon frere.   

This is the first novel he has written in some time so I was wary of it.  I went into this with no expectations.  I had a 50/50 chance of either liking it or disliking it.  

The end result of my reading was positive. When I read the first few chapters, something struck me right away.  This novel had the same feel as Gaiman's other novels.  A spark of something that is so intrinsically his could be found in the writing, and it was nice to see that that had not changed. This leads me to my first point of like.

The descriptions of events, people, thoughts and feelings were amazing.  Through careful language, Gaiman builds up an image for you that is incredible.  The flea's various descriptions were pretty awesome so much so that I felt like I knew what it sounded like. The scary moments, of which there are a good few, were truly terrifying and it is all thanks to the way it was written.  It was also interesting that what scared me was a mix of the human and the fantastic.  

I really liked the boy character and the man he grew up to be.  It was interesting to sort of see them side by side continually throughout the book.   In this novel you get to hear the boy's voice come out but also see the introspection added to an event by the adult version of him.  A lot of Gaiman's ideas about childhood and adulthood are interesting and he definitely tackles them here.  A lot of people won't agree with him, but I think there is some uncomfortable truth to what he presents.

The book's pacing is great.  It was not slow or bogged down with filler or fluff.  It is the perfect length.  It tells as much as it needs to and not much more.

I do not quite know how to label this book.  I think it has a lot to offer for dual audiences (children and adult) but there are some things that make it more of a book for older audiences.  

I have heard the term "fairy tale" attached to this novel but is it one?  A fairy tale straddles the line between folk tale (stories passed by word of mouth) and the literary tale (something written by an author) (Hallet & Karasek, 2009, p. 18).  Fairy tales are a mix of old and new (Hallet & Karasek, 2009, p. 18).

This is what I was taught so it would be interesting to see why this story is being labelled as a fairy tale when I cannot see the influences of any earlier folk tales.  This is just me, of course.  Maybe others have seen the nods to older stories that I have completely missed.  Or maybe the definition of the fairy tale has evolved without my notice. Either way, I welcome discussion.

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I have included a little video of Mr. Gaiman reading a little bit from this book.  Hearing him read is exciting and an experience all on its own so do check it out.

If you would like to read another review with much more authority and weight than I carry, here's the review by Benjamin Percy at The New York Times.

Gaiman, N. (2013). The Ocean at the End of the Lane. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Hallet, M. & Karasek, B. (Eds.). (2009). Folk & Fairy Tales. Peterborough, ONT: Broadview Press.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

"No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine."

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale: Charlotte Kinder is pretty sure she's forgotten how to relax and have fun. Being a divorced single mom with her own business, she doesn't have time for it.

But with the encouragement from friends and her children, she finally takes a vacation.  At Pembrook Park, she can finally live out her Jane Austen inspired fantasies but something isn't right.

Charlotte thinks something sinister is afoot and she cannot tell if it is real or all an act.  This was supposed to be just a mindless vacation in Austenland but now it's turning into a real life murder mystery.

I enjoyed this novel somewhat.  I know that sounds ominous but while it was an okay read, I found myself absolutely frustrated with this novel at times.  It was not the good kind of frustration either.

I loved the main character, Charlotte.  At first you're convinced that she's just imagining the mystery surrounding her visit at Pembrook Park but she turns out to be right all along.  I also liked how this adventure helped her become stronger and more confident in herself.  After her divorce, there was a lot of sadness and her insecurities reared their ugly heads so it was great to see her triumph over them.  

This novel even includes a nod to the first novel, Austenland, which I thought was nice.  There are some familiar faces and even a mention to characters that are no longer part of the story.  

What I did not appreciate in this novel was the fact that it was so slow.  It took a long time to work up to the actual mystery in Pembrook Park and even then it was overshadowed by the humor.  It completely killed any chance this book had at making the-thing-readers-didn't-know intriguing.  It just didn't hold my interest at all.

And the romance!  The romance was so...not something I saw coming.  It didn't feel romantic at all really. It was quiet and I actually thought they were going to end up good friends rather than in a relationship.  I've seen more love and tension in a classic than I did in this novel.

At the end of the book, I was perplexed as to what this book was supposed to be or what it was trying to accomplish.

Title source:
Austen, J. (2006).  Northanger Abbey. New York, NY:  Knopf Publishing.

"Anyone can die. It's living that requires courage."

Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki:  

Himura Kenshin was an assassin during a time of revolution that saw the current power crushed and replaced.  The Meiji era is a time of peace and Kenshin has left his fighting days behind him.

Now a wandering swordsman, he looks to fight for those who cannot protect themselves.

I have loved this series ever since I was thirteen years old.  I watched the anime and then picked up the books when I saw them at the library.

The story in Rurouni Kenshin is interesting because it harks back to a historical period in Japan's history and introduces it through its main character, Kenshin.  Along the way we see his struggles to find a place within society as well as build a new life for himself.  It has a lot of action and the panels really come alive through the well crafted art.

It also helps that the supporting characters like Kaoru, Sanosuke, Yahiko and Megumi are great and help expand the story.  There is also a bit of romance and a lot of humor to this series, which made it certainly memorable for me.  It has a lot of heart and it has been a serious treasure for me since I was  a kid.

A warning though to readers, there is a lot of violence depicted in the pages of Rurouni Kenshin so if you're a little squeamish or you dislike violence then this is not the manga for you.  I recommend this manga for older teens around the age of 17. 

Novels are not the only things being adapted to film but also manga.  Rurouni Kenshin was recently made into a film and two sequels have already been announced.

The only problem? There has not been any news on licensing the DVD for a North American release.  Not to say that we haven't had various chances to see it since there have been screenings of the film at various film and cultural festivals.  I tried to make the one in my city but couldn't so my one chance to see this film kind of went up in smoke.  I hope one day there will be a DVD license for Canada so that I can buy this and take it home.

I have posted the trailer below and it's incredible.  Seriously, press play and you will be blown away.  The casting is fantastic and the look of the movie is something I hoped for when this film was still a foggy idea in someone's mind.  I'm also happy that the film is Japanese made.  I have a feeling that if America tried to adapt this film, it would turn out like their failed attempt at adapting Akira.

If you live outside of North America and want to know if the DVD has been released in your country, this blog on tumblr will have the answers you seek.  They do great work there and work hard to keep their information up-to-date but of course nothing is ever completely error free.

Title quote source:
Watsuki, N. (2009). Rurouni Kenshin. San Francisco, CA: VIZ Media LLC

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Thomas knew he had no choice. He moved."

The Maze Runner by James Dashner:  A boy wakes up in a metal box, his only memory his own name. When the box finally opens, he's surrounded by the faces of other boys.  They tell him they were expecting him and welcome him to the Glade, a place surrounded by stone walls that open into a maze.

The next day, a girl arrives in the box.  They've never gotten a girl before and she brings a message with her - everything is going to change.

I've been reading a lot of series books lately and this was the first one I picked up because I heard about the film, which makes me 4 years too late.  I thought that I was going to be underwhelmed by this book.  I was skeptical because too much hype does not automatically mean that it is good or that I will enjoy it.  It turns out that I really liked it.

The mystery of the maze and of the kids stuck in the glade had me hooked. It was interesting to see this whole little society of people working together to survive their daily life and then to survive the changes they eventually face.  I loved the idea that they had their own words for things.  It's a detail that I think helped build Dashner's world for me as a reader. 

Another aspect to this novel that caught my attention was that the connection that the male main character and the girl in this story did not take precedence over the more important events of the story.  I have seen too many interesting books fall into the same formula where the true story is ridiculously smothered by a relationship so Dashner's book was refreshing. 

Finally, the book does not waste time.  It did not feel slow at all or like there were any unnecessary lulls while I was reading it, and the chapters flowed well from one to the next.  

The mystery for me was genuinely interesting and I will be reading the rest of the series very soon.

This may not be news to a lot of people but The Maze Runner movie is currently in production and being filmed right this second.  To the side is some concept art of the maze and it was revealed today what the movie logo would look like.  MTV also released some stills from the film today right over here.  Check out all the links because they are pretty impressive. I am loving all of it.

I am definitely excited about this adaptation, and I think it is partly because James Dashner's enthusiasm is catching and because I genuinely enjoyed the novel.

Dashner's story, as I said earlier, is a different experience from The Hunger Games or any of the other YA books that have been turned into films.  I hope that the movie keeps that unique spirit because I think people will enjoy it.

Ball, W. (2013).  The Maze Runner. [digital illustration].  Retrieved from

Dashner, J. (2009). The Maze Runner. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.