Friday, April 30, 2010

The Storm in the Barn

I've long been a supporter of graphic novels and comics as a way to get children (and sometimes adults) to read. As a kid who grew up on Uncle Scrooge and Archie comics, I have no issue with the blending of pictures and words. In fact some stories need to be told in graphic novel form. They need the images to drive the point home. I would say that Matt Phelan's The Storm in the Barn is one of those stories.

The book follows Jack Clark, an 11 year old boy who is growing up during the dust bowl of the thirties. His life is terribly hard and Jack feels like there is nothing he can do. His family's farm is completely exhausted, his sister is dealing with dust pneumonia, and now people are starting to talk about Jack having dust dementia. But he knows what he saw. The light in the neighbors barn and the strange man were real. Jack sets out to solve the mystery and bring back rain to the parched community.

If this sounds like a fantasy, in some ways it is. But this book has so much more than just a fantasy story. This is a historical novel and Phelan does not pull any punches when showing us how tough life was in the dust bowl. Images are muted and colors are faded. Even the people themselves are faded, without smiles or cheer. The town is nearly dead and we see those few surviving people as they scrap for what little they have, all the while under threat of being swindled by hucksters who offer an end to their problems. Jack is tormented by a group of four or five boys who take out their frustrations on his poor body. The dust bowl was a cheerless time and Phelan manages to bring that despair to each page.

The only rays of sunlight for Jack are at home. His sister tells him the Oz stories (recently published at that time) and the family shares some wonderful moments by her bedside. But even those are overshadowed by her persistant coughing and Jack's grim and angry father. As I said, Phelan pulls no punches. The library had this book shelved for young children but I think this would work perfectly at the middle/high school level when learning about the dust bowl. I know that it was one of the best portrayals of that time period that I've ever seen. And it was a hard and hostile time.

Phelan uses his muted palette and spare words beautifully to create an incredibly moving story. Not much needs to be said to see the desperation on Jack's face or the rest of the townspeople. The scenes surrounding a jackrabbit round-up (you don't want to know) will stay with me for many many weeks. All done silently but effectively. It is only once you get to the ending that we can (like the townspeople) start to feel the relief of burden. The ending of the story is a wonderful fantasy that erases some of the sadness of the early part of the book. I won't tell you more, other than that it is incredbly beautiful. And touching. And powerful. But that pretty much sums up the rest of the book as well. A must read for adults and older children. Beautiful.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gator Gumbo

I’ve read tons of Little Red Hen variations but none with quite the enjoyable flair of Gator Gumbo, written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Sally Anne Lambert. The story follows Monsieur Gator, an alligator living down in the Bayou who can never find enough to eat. He’s gotten too old to hunt and because of that he is teased by the local critters. One day Monsieur Gator gets tired of the teasing. He decide to cook up some gumbo like his mother used to make. So he asks the critters who will help him gather water and no one will help. Then he asks about catching crawdads and again no one will help. The picking of okra, the grinding of spices, and the adding of rice is the same story. No one will help. But when Monsieur Gator asks who will help eat the gumbo all the critters rush towards the pot. But the gator sends them back saying that he cooked so he’ll be the one to eat. When they beg for one single taste he finally relents and they end up with far more than they bargained for.

This could have been a simple Little Red Hen story but Fleming decides to give the story a little more spice. First there is the obvious Southern dialect that Fleming uses. Monsieur Gator answer the critters after they say they won’t help, “Then I’ll be doin’ it myself”. This dialect is subtle but adds just the right amount of flavor to the story. I enjoyed how Fleming takes a character that we probably shouldn’t like (alligators tend to be villains in other stories) and makes him devious but lovable. We see the other critters (possum, skunk, and otter) as the more despicable characters. That makes the ending more bearable for young children. By that point we are rooting for Monsieur Gator and his tasty Gumbo. The book was a delight to read, mixing onomonepia words with each action. As Gator mixes in the rice that will thicken his gumbo we hear Pour! Scrape! Glop! And when he cuts up the okra to got into the pot it is Pluck! Slice! Pop! These added sound effects give the book just a little added flavor. This would be a wonderful read aloud.

Lambert creates beautiful watercolor illustrations that give the story emotion and highlight the action well. Monsieur Gator is portrayed with plenty of emotions. We see him at the beginning of the book as a sad and tormented creature, then angry, and finally the devious and determined reptile that will hatch a plan for his revenge. The other critters are presented as mean hooligans who think nothing of tossing eggs and rocks at our poor alligator. The backgrounds tend to be muted greens and browns and really capture the feeling of the swamp. The animals are dressed in bright colors and stand out nicely. In fact each critter wears a different color to make for some very colorful scenes when they are all together. I was particularly impressed with Lambert’s depiction of the cooking pot. The steam, the crawdads, the okra all sit at the top making for a very tasty looking meal. Finally when the animals beg for just a taste of the wonderful smelling stew, the look on their faces is of fake sincerity. And Monsieur Gator looks so sneaky when he finally gives in. The last line is a wonderful surprise. And be sure to read the cookbook lying on the ground next to the very happy alligator. A fun book, a great read aloud, and a spicy story.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tatty Ratty

The problem with having two blogs is that one of them is always falling behind. I'm sad to say that it has been this one. But my hope is to change that today. I'm going to plan to spend this wonderfully rainy weekend working up some reviews ahead of time. I figure if I have a bit of a cushion, I'll be more likely to post frequently. I'm going to start with a couple of the books that Jeff brought home for me during my ankle recovery.

In Tatty Ratty by Helen Cooper, the story follows a young girl who leaves her beloved stuffed rabbit on the bus. After initially being crushed by the loss her parents encourage her to imagine all the adventures that her bunny can get into by himself. First he hops off the bus, then finds a train to drive home. After having breakfast with the three bears and riding with Cinderella in her pumpkin coach, he sails off into the sunset with pirates (during her bath-time of course). But a dragon picks him up from the pirate ship and sails him up to the moon. There he is cleaned up and his fur which has been cleaned and renewed, is dusted with moon dust until it glows white. After his cleaning and primping, a spaceship takes the new looking bunny and delivers him home. Well, not quite home, but close enough that the little girl can find him at the local store.

I loved how this book took a very typical situation, a lost toy, and created a number of little stories based around it. The mixing in of familiar nursery rhyme characters is wonderful since they are figures that children have been exposed to all their lives. They will get a kick out of recognizing the stories. This is a great story to tell any child dealing with a missing favorite toy and may get them using their imagination to think about what their toy is doing. The story mixes the routine of the household along with the adventures of the bunny, so that we see what the girl is doing to inspire each story change. Each story is really there to show how the bunny gets cleaned up for the ending. When driving the train he gets his buttons back. During breakfast with the three bears he gains enough weight to fill out. The encounter with the pirates includes a dunking in the sea which washes his fur. And then of course the scene with the man in the moon makes that fur again. The subtle foreshadowing leads to the wonderful ending in the store. I loved the ending where the little girl feels that she's found her bunny all cleaned up and fresh at the store the next day. A sweet story that reminds me of the stories I told about my toys when growing up.

The artwork is beautiful, soft, and colorful. The sections will Molly are realistic and although they are colorful, are scenes that we've seen every day. But once the story switches to Tatty Ratty's adventures the rules of perspective and realism are tossed away. The images become more colorful and cartoonish. The scene where Tatty Ratty returns to earth from the spaceship, using a big red umbrella is one of the more beautiful images I've seen in a while. You can see a bit of it on the cover above. It was wonderful to watch the bunny go from his ratty self at the beginning to the cleaned and soft looking bunny at the end. I'm not sure what media Cooper uses but the colors and the soft edges makes the artwork even sweeter. A wonderful book for a child who's lost a toy, or anyone who likes a little imagination along with their toys.