Category: Children’s

Thunder Boy Jr.

Cover image for Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Moralesby Sherman Alexie

Illustrated by Yuyi Morales

ISBN 978-0-316-01372-7

“Don’t get me wrong. My dad is awesome. But I don’t want to have the same name as him. I WANT MY OWN NAME.”

Thunder Boy Smith Jr. loves his dad, Thunder Boy Smith Sr., aka Big Thunder. But he doesn’t like sharing a name with his dad, and he really doesn’t like the nickname that comes with it, Little Thunder. “That nickname makes me sound like a burp or fart,” he complains. So Thunder Boy Jr. starts brainstorming ideas for his new name, and tries to figure out how to talk to his dad about his feelings.

Sherman Alexie’s new picture book Thunder Boy Jr. is an examination of the concepts of identity and family, as a child tries to figure out his own place within his family and culture, and also who he is separate from those things. Though he enjoys a happy and loving relationship with his parents, he is starting to think about who he is apart from them. The inspiration was drawn from Alexie’s own life, since he is himself a Junior (indeed that was also the name of the character in his semi-autobiographical YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian). Surprisingly, the seed of the idea for the book came to him at his father’s funeral, when he was struck by the reality of seeing his own name on his father’s tombstone.

Thunder Boy Jr. is illustrated by Yuyi Morales, who received a Caldecott Honor for Viva Frida in 2015, and is also a multiple winner of the Pura Belpré Award. The background colour palette is relatively muted, with occasional splashes of colour, but the bright colours show up more prominently in the clothing of the characters, and also in Thunder Boy’s imaginative sequences. Both background and foreground are beautifully textured, adding depth to the colours. Morales scanned many of the colours and textures from “the remains of an antique house in Xalapa, Mexico,” and incorporated them into her digital paintings to achieve this effect.

Over at American Indians in Children’s Literature, Debbie Reese has written a number of thoughtful and interesting pieces about Thunder Boy Jr. She addresses a few potential issues, including the fact that no tribe is specified to contextualize the naming traditions depicted (potentially leading to the idea that all Native American tribes are the same), and also raises concerns about how the story might further the appropriation of those traditions. She called for an author’s note to address some of these problems, since the 100, 000 copy print run of the book makes it evident that the audience will reach well beyond insiders who already have the context to understand this without explanation.

After the sequence in which Thunder Boy Jr. imagines a variety of possible names he might take for himself that celebrate his own actions and identity, he says “I love my dad but I want my own name. What do I do? What do I say?” For me this seemed like the natural place to address some of these issues with a conversation between Thunder Boy and his father about his feelings. So when I turned the page, I was a bit disappointed to find that rather than addressing the importance of communication, Thunder Boy Sr. just knows how his son is feeling, and decides it is time to give him a new name. “My dad read my mind! My dad read my heart!” Thunder Boy Jr. enthuses. And while this was a touching moment, it felt like an easy out.

Despite these issues, Thunder Boy Jr. is a humourous and touching children’s book dealing with significant themes. Thunder Boy has an honest, child-like voice, and I think kids will delight in the potty humour of his perception of his nickname. Hopefully we can all read responsibly and not take this as an invitation to demean or appropriate Native American naming traditions.

Full of Wonder by Yuyi Morales

The Sleeper and the Spindle/ Hansel and Gretel

hansel-and-gretel-and-the-sleeperWritten by Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by Chris Riddell/ Lorenzo Mattotti

ISBN 978-1-4088-5964-3/ 978-1-935179-62-7

In the past week, Neil Gaiman has released two new picture books—Hansel and Gretel in the United States, and The Sleeper and the Spindle in the United Kingdom. Neither one is available on the opposite side of the pond yet, but both can be purchased online. Each work reimagines well-known fairy tales, though The Sleeper and the Spindle pulls from more than one source. Gaiman’s retellings are hauntingly well-written, as well as notable for featuring active and resourceful female protagonists. The settings remain medieval, but the context is decidedly more modern; Gaiman gathered inspiration for Hansel and Gretel from his visits to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. Meanwhile, The Sleeper and the Spindle has drawn attention in the press, which has latched onto this image of the Queen kissing the sleeper to wake her:

 

wake-the-sleeper-chris-riddellDespite this striking illustration, The Sleeper and the Spindle is no lesbian love story; the Queen has a handsome prince waiting to marry her back home, though he is never pictured. This misleading attention is the only respect in which readers may find themselves let down by this story, which is not what early coverage of this title may have led you to believe.

With Gaiman’s strong writing working so seamlessly, in both books it is easy for the art to take centre stage. The Sleeper and the Spindle is illustrated by Chris Riddell, who also did the drawings for the UK edition of Fortunately, the Milk last year (the US edition was illustrated by Skottie Young). However, the mood is entirely different from the zany images Riddell produced for that book. The black and white drawings here are graceful and minutely detailed, subtly accented by shimmering gold highlights.  The story features a young Queen, whose kingdom is endangered by the spreading sleeping sickness that plagues a neighbouring realm, and threatens to spill over into her own land.  Assisted by three dwarves, she passes under the high mountain range that separates the two nations, and sets out to rescue the sleeper from a castle encased in thorns. This epic quest gives Riddell broad scope for his powers, and he more than delivers. Indeed, the entire book is an exquisite work of art, with beautiful end papers, metallic ink accents, and a translucent dust jacket that allows vines and roses to overlay the sleeper on the cover.

into-the-woods-lorenzo-mattottiPainted in lush, dark India ink, Lorenzo Mattotti’s work in Hansel and Gretel is also black and white, and yet could not be more different in style from The Sleeper and the Spindle. Whereas Riddell’s work is delicate and detailed, Mattotti is boldly minimalist, relying on a masterful use of positive and negative space to create his images. There are a number of beautiful double-page spreads in The Sleeper and the Spindle, but in Hansel and Gretel, text and image alternate constantly, so that every illustration is able to take up two full pages. However, even the text-only pages are beautiful, featuring flowering vine motifs in the corners, and bold, red dropped capitals that are the only hint of colour in the entire story. The book’s design has a modern minimalism, but is no less beautiful than its more opulent sibling in its own way.

Like the illustrations, the text of the story is deceptively simply, but the starkness is chilling. The woodcutter’s dilemma is created by war and famine, leaving the man unable to provide for his children. As in the original Grimm’s tale, the woman who advocates for the abandonment of the children is their mother, not their stepmother, making the tale that much more disturbing. However, Gaiman retains the reluctant father, who his persuaded by his wife to do something terrible; in Grimm’s, both parents are complicit in the decision. These narrative choices strike a nice balance, creating a tale that is at once haunting and hopeful.

The Sleeper and the Spindle is the longer and more complex tale, perhaps better suited to a somewhat older audience that has the patience to sit through a lengthier story. But as usual, Gaiman’s works defy easy categorization for age groups, appealing to adults and children alike.

The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit

Cover image for The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit by Emma Thompsonby Emma Thompson

Illustrated by Eleanor Taylor

Based on the works of Beatrix Potter

ISBN 978-0-7232-6910-6

 “He came upon a sign which read ‘KEEP OUT.’ I imagine it will not surprise you to hear that Peter did not KEEP OUT. He WENT IN.”

Despite having run afoul of Mr. MacGregor in Beatrix Potter’s classic The Tales of Peter Rabbit, young Peter has not reformed his ways. Feeling restless and longing for a change of scene, he contents himself with raiding a picnic basket on the MacGregor farm. But when he falls asleep in the basket after gorging himself, he wakes up to find himself on the wished-for adventure after all; the MacGregors have inadvertently taken him to Scotland. Escaping the wrath of the MacGregors for eating their picnic, Peter becomes lost in the wilds of Scotland. Fortunately for Peter, there are rabbits in Scotland, too.

Thompson’s tale takes Peter slightly farther afield than Potter’s original works, many of which took place within the confines of Hill Top Farm. However, the adventure fits Peter’s character. Unfortunately, the portrayal of Scotland is slightly cliché, with the action focusing on Peter attending a Highland Games for rabbits. Despite this limited scope, Taylor’s portrayals of the Scottish landscape are quite lovely. In general, although a very good imitation of Potter’s style, Taylor’s illustrations are slightly rounder, brighter, and more cartoonish than the original books.

The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit has been published as a large picture book, a decision which seriously underestimates the distinguishing charm and appeal of Potter’s child-sized volumes. A smaller edition more in keeping with Potter’s style is available in the UK (ISBN 9780723276333). Included with the large picture book is an audio CD, on which Thompson performs a lively reading of the book complete with musical accompaniment, undoubtedly useful if you have children who always want you to “read it again!”

Children are unlikely to be bothered by the differences between Potter’s style and her modern successors, but adult fans may not find all they are hoping for here. Nevertheless, The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit is a charming revisitation of a beloved character, and a prime opportunity to introduce a new generation of readers to Potter’s classic tales.

Chu’s Day

Cover image for Chu's Day by Neil Gaiman and Adam RexWritten by Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by Adam Rex

“When Chu sneezed, bad things happened.”

For a little anthropomorphic panda named Chu, every day is fraught with a burning question: will he sneeze today? Because when Chu sneezes, the disastrous consequences are out of all proportion with his size. Everything, from book dust at the library, to pepper at a diner, to animals at the circus, might be the thing that sets Chu off. And nobody wants to be around when that happens.

Neil Gaiman is a wonderfully diverse author, and Chu’s Day is one more example of that fact. Chu’s Day is for younger children, and unlike his older children’s books—Coraline and The Graveyard Book—it isn’t at all creepy. Quite the opposite, in fact. As suggested by the bright yellow cover and soft, warm illustrations, the story is light and humourous, with mild fantastical elements. Adam Rex’s large, bright illustrations, including several lavish double-page spreads, make Chu’s Day a perfect story time book. The repeated almost-sneezes have great read-aloud and audience participation potential. Best of all, the story is charming enough that adults shouldn’t get bored when they are inevitably asked to read-it-again!

All Hallow’s Read: The Graveyard Book

Cover Image for The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaimanby Neil Gaiman

ISBN 978-0060530921

“It takes a graveyard to raise a child.”

 

Nobody “Bod” Owens gets off to a Harry Potter-like start in life when his family is killed and he is nearly murdered in his crib. Bod escapes largely due to chance and his adventurous spirit, and is adopted by the benevolent ghosts in a nearby cemetery, where he is granted the Freedom of the Graveyard. Bod is able to gain a unique glimpse into their world but, because he is a living boy, he is never able to fully become a part of it. Although the graveyard provides some frights and dangers of its own, the constant threat comes from the world outside, where the man who murdered Bod’s family searches for him still.

Neil Gaiman brings the graveyard to life, giving it a culture all its own, including holidays and traditions. The ghosts from various periods provide a light primer on significant events in English history, including the Roman invasion, the plague, and the witch trials. A book that takes place almost entirely in a cemetery has the potential to be boring, but Gaiman uses the setting to advantage, rather than allowing it to limit the scope of the plot. The mood of the book is only enhanced by the eerie black and white illustrations by Gaiman’s frequent collaborator, Dave McKean. Like Coraline, The Graveyard Book is a dark and scary tale, but Gaiman leavens the gloom with humour, wit and sometimes downright absurdity. For example, the less-than-benevolent ghouls of the graveyard have, with cheeky self-importance, named themselves after famous political figures from around the world.

Gaiman references Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as one of the primary inspirations for The Graveyard Book, and the narrative structure follows a similar pattern of cumulative short stories and events that add up to Bod’s coming-of-age in the graveyard. The odd incidents and challenges that make up his day-to-day existence are more important than the facts of how and why he came to be there.  However, this structure leaves many questions unanswered at the end of the book; readers who want everything neatly explained may be disappointed.­

Gaiman caps the book off with a bittersweet ending which trusts that young readers are capable of appreciating and understanding more narrative complexity than many authors give them credit for. Combined with Gaiman’s high-level vocabulary, this is an excellent selection for precocious readers, or for parents and children reading together. Although there are some asides designed to help young readers understand things that are obvious to the adult reader, this is otherwise an excellent read for grownups as well as children.

 

All Hallow’s Read is an initiative by Neil Gaiman to encourage readers to share scary books at Halloween. Learn more at: 
http://www.allhallowsread.com/