Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fiction: Tales of a Sixth-Grade Muppet

The muppets are big news right now, with the new movie coming out this winter. Kids publishing is keeping up, and this middle grade title (aimed at grades 5-8) is perfect for fans!

Like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, the doodle-style art is mixed in with a first person narrative. The story follows sixth-grader Danvers Blickensderfer as he is transformed from an ordinary, goofy kid into a fuzzy headed muppet! Of course, once he's a muppet, his world is slowly infiltrated by characters from the muppet show. This might sound like a good thing, but imagine being heckled by the critics everywhere you go, or being chased by the Swedish Chef with a knife!

Boys who love slapstick humour and the muppet show will enjoy this quick read for its heavy illustrative content and fast paced plot.

Wordless Picture Book: Hocus Pocus

Normally, I'd put a picturebook in the preschool books section. But this book? It's PERFECT for kids in grades 1-5, and so I've slipped it into our kids' book blog.

I'm partial to wordless picturebooks on principle. They require kids to "read" the images very carefully, and apply their knowledge and understanding to the art. They have to work extra hard to derive meaning from the text, because the author/illustrator isn't making anything explicit. They essentially become the co-authors of a wordless book, as the message that they get from reading it is so heavily influenced by the experiences and understanding that they bring to the table when they read.

Hocus Pocus is the tale of a magician for hire, his faithful dog, and the rabbit that lives in his magic hat. When Mister Magic and dog come home from work, both settle down for a nap. Rabbit pokes out his head, and decides it's time to play! A hilarious dog-and-rabbit battle ensues, with rabbit scheming to get the tasty carrots on the counter, and dog pulling out all the stops to stuff him back into the hat.

The art is framed in comic-strip style, with white space dividing the small frames (up to six per page). The cartoon drawings are digitally inked, with bold retro-sixties graphics and bright, attractive colours.

The standout aspect of the illustrations, though, is definitely the expressiveness of the characters. Although there are no words or speech bubbles, each character's emotions are screamingly apparent through subtle tricks of eyebrow tilts, mouth quirks, and body posture. Kids will love poring over the pictures as they read the emotions and follow the slapstick action. A fabulous book, and one that takes a surprising amount of book-comprehension (rather than word-literacy) to read successfully.

Wordless picture book
Grades 1-5
Click here to visit the Port Moody Public Library's catalogue!

Nonfiction: Trapped

In 2010, 33 miners were trapped 2000 feet below the Chilean desert when a cave in collapsed the shaft leading to the surface. This book tells the story of their rescue, as people from all over the world worked frantically to save them.

The text follows the timeline of events from the perspective of both the trapped miners, and the rescuers aboveground. Some kids will be interested in the technical information about mines and rescue operations, while others will be gripped by the suspense as various rescue attempts fail and are adjusted.

It's obvious that this title is aimed at older kids and younger teens. The prose is simple and straightforward, but the format looks like a chapter book. The pictures and diagrams are sparsely placed throught the text, and there is a glossary of mine terms and a brief biography of the miners at the end of the book.

This book has surprisingly wide appeal. Kids who are fascinated by rescue stories and high-stakes technical feats of engineering will enjoy it as much as kids who want to focus on the human-interest side of the story.

Grade 6-10
Click here to check out the Port Moody Public Library!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nonfiction: You Are the First Kid on Mars

This chatty nonfiction title has standout illustrations, and scientifically current ideas about the future of space travel.

Facts about space travel to Mars are integrated seamlessly into the narrative story, which follows you (a school-aged boy) on your journey from Earth Base to the red planet. The simple prose describes each step of the journey, from the layout of the space station to the exploration of the Martian surface. The fantastically realistic illustrations supplement the simple text by providing accurate and appealing depictions of spacecraft, planetary surfaces, and people.

The author touches on some fascinating topics (such as the possibility of Martian life) while glossing over practical details, like the feasibility of actually establishing an extraterrestrial colony, and the development timeline for the technology needed to make this possible. It would have been nice to see these topics covered briefly in the short fact section at the end of the book, where readers can learn more about the planet's characteristics.

This is an appealing title with excellent illustrations, and a fresh approach to planetary exploration: it's a bit short on fact and detail, but most kids will happily read up on specifics in other titles while appreciating this book for its originality.

Grades 3-6
Click here to check out the Port Moody Public Library's catalogue!

Biography: Jim Henson: the guy who played with puppets

OK. You know Jim Henson, right? The creator of the muppets, creative force behind Sesame Street, voice of Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog?

Right. Of course you do. EVERYBODY knows who Jim Henson is, or at least knows his work on sight. Pretty much everyone around agrees that he was an amazing individual, which is why any biography about him had better involve a whole lot of awesome.

This biography? It's serviceable. It's very nice, in fact. It's written in picturebook format, with lovely soft-realism illustrations featuring Jim and his creations. The text is written at about a grade 4 level, and it summarizes Jim's life and work in earnest detail. The problem, really, is the distinct lack of awesomeness.

When you read a biography about a guy who created the muppets, you kind of expect a splash of whimsy. You want titillating details about how he came up with a puppet that lives in a garbage can. You're looking for hilarious interjections from Animal, some snarky comments from the Critics, and maybe some cookie crumbs scattered here and there in the gutters. Jim Henson was a guy brimming with originality and creativity: this biography is...not.

Technically, this biography is perfectly adequate. It takes a broad overview of Jim's personal life, provides general information about his work, and contains attractive illustrations that fit the text. But I can't help feeling let down, because I was desperately hoping for something amazing, brilliant, funny, and totally worthy of Jim Henson's lasting genius. Adults who are lifelong Muppet Show and Sesame Street devotees may pick up this book to learn more about Jim, but there's nothing here to wow a kid who isn't already a fan.

Grades 3-6
Click here to visit the Port Moody Public Library's catalogue!