Mini Reviews: Sam Garton’s Otter

Otter Loves Easter by Sam Garton

In this charming tale, Otter loves Easter because Easter means chocolate!  But she doesn’t want to share her Easter gifts with her friends.  With his typical wit and whimsy, Sam Garton presents  a story with illustrations that will amuse readers and a lesson that will warm their hearts.  After all, if the Easter Bunny is good at sharing, perhaps Otter can learn to be generous, as well. 5 Stars.

Otter: Hello, Sea Friends by Sam Garton

This beginner reader introduces young readers to various sea creatures from turtles to sharks to Otter’s favorite–the penguins.  Though the sentences are simple, Garton’s illustrations bring a special charm to the story.  It’s delightful to watch Otter’s body language throughout the book.  Her expressiveness makes her contrition just as charming as her excitement.  You just want to scoop her up and give her a hug!  There’s not much of a story here aside from the trip to the aquatic park, but reading Otter is a treat nonetheless.  4 Stars.

Otter: Let’s Go Swimming by Sam Garton

This is the best Otter beginner reader yet!  It has all of Otter’s signature charm, including her habit of ascribing her fears to friends Teddy and Giraffe.  The illustrations are disarmingly charming–I even laughed out loud!  Thus far I have found the picture books superior to the beginner readers, but this latest may have started a new trend. 5 Stars.

The Princess and the Page by Christina Farley

The Princess and the Page

Information

Goodreads: The Princess and the Page
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 28, 2017

Summary

Keira has no idea that her family are Word Weavers, who can make stories real by using a magical pen.  All she knows is that her mom hates stories; only lists, facts, and the “the truth” are allowed in their home.  So when Keira stumbles across a beautiful pen hidden in her parents’ bedroom, she takes it and begins to write a fairy tale,  But she has no idea what her words will unleash or the danger she will find herself in.

Review

Magical pens and stories springing to life sound like the perfect middle grade fantasy, so I was excited to read this one.  Who wouldn’t want the stories they put on the page to take on a life of their own?  Unfortunately, The Princess and the Page did not capture my attention the way I thought it would, and I closed the covers with some disappointment.

I thought the prose jarringly clunky and unsophisticated in general, and I considered DNFing because of it. I’ve talked about before how I think that many modern authors simply do not have great prose (Sorry!), but there’s neutral prose and prose that’s grating; Farley’s leans toward being the latter, and this is one thing I really cannot stand in books.  It’s also one thing that an editor cannot really fix for you, short of hiring a ghostwriter to redo all your sentences.

However, I continued powering through, only to discover that the book also contains one of my other least favorite things: ridiculous sounding pseudo Middle English. Farley lays it on thick, and the result is cringe-worthy.  The medieval character (technically French, but the book is in English so….) runs about spouting gems like this: “Thou art most certainly not what I was expecting, but that is nary a worry…Come hither!”  Worse, Farley is not consistent with the grammar.  (Seriously, Middle English has actual grammar rules you should look into if you want to emulate it.)  So the character says “Dost thou” but “thou can” instead of “thou canst.”  I simply couldn’t take a character who speaks like this seriously.  Think of writing medieval dialogue like writing accents in fiction; you want to give readers a taste of it, not write a character who sounds like a hilarious stereotype.

Beyond these issues, I was not a huge fan of the plot.  There are aspects of it that are interesting, since Keira has to deal with a story she wrote coming to life.  It also has a great setting, a mysterious castle in France, and the glamorous set-up that Keira has won an all expenses paid dream vacation there.  However, the novel is meant to be part mystery, as it takes Keira and her friends a while to figure out what’s happening in the castle, how the actions are related to the story she wrote, who is responsible for certain actions, etc.  The issue is that Farley relies on the trick of artificially withholding information in order to create suspense.  For instance, readers are never told how Keira’s fairy tale actually goes, so they have to wait for actions to happen in the text and Keira to reveal pages later that real life is mirroring her tale.  This also means the story is sometimes choppy because it’s not always clear what is going on.

There are things that I like about The Princess and the Page, but since I considered DNFing a couple times due to the prose and the jumpy plotting, I decided to give it two stars.  It has a pretty high overall rating on Goodreads, however (books about stories always seem to be a hit), so others might enjoy it even though I did not.

Briana

Why I’ve Never Liked Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

Discussion Post

When I was in elementary school, my teachers used to read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree aloud to my class.  I understood that my teachers thought that the story depicted selfless giving on the part of the tree.  Year after year as the boy and then the man come to her asking her to give of herself to him, she happily obliges, allowing him to take her apples, her branches, and, finally, her trunk.  But, despite my teachers’ apparent love for this story, it never enchanted me.  To me, it was a dark and twisted tale, one in which a man unthinkingly kills someone who was kind to him, because he thinks only of his own needs.

My teachers would have seen the tree as a example to us all.  The tree loves her Boy unconditionally and does everything in her power to provide for him and to make him happy, even though he is grateful for none of it.  I appreciate this interpretation and can only hope that I can become a little more like the tree myself–generous, cheerful, and willing to sacrifice for the good of others.  However, I cannot help but feel that the interpretation is missing something–a recognition that, even though the tree is generous and loving, that does not excuse the actions of the Boy.

As a child, I possessed the sense of justice that many children possess.  I knew instinctively that the boy was wrong and selfish, even though this is not something any adult would have said.  The focus was all on the positive–how kind and giving is the tree!  No one mentioned that the tree was capable of such sacrificial lengths only because the Boy she served was willing to chop her down without a second thought.  A more well-rounded interpretation of the story would, I think, acknowledge that it is not okay for someone to keep taking, taking, taking with nary a thank you.  Nor is it acceptable for someone to ask another person to hurt themselves so that they can attain more wealth or material possessions.

Am I being too literal?  Well, that is what elementary school me thought when my teachers read this story aloud.  I never liked The Giving Tree.  I found it disturbing and I found it even more disturbing that the adults seemed unperturbed by the ending, in which an old man sits down on the stump of the tree he has killed.  The tree is happy because she can keep on giving and the man rests content, still oblivious to his selfishness throughout his life.  (Yes, technically the tree is still happy so I guess she is not really dead, but surely the man who chopped her down didn’t expect her to somehow go on living?  That is not  how trees work!)  To me, the story was more about the depredations of the selfish Boy than it was about the abused love of the tree.

Years later, I still cannot stand The Giving Tree.  I cannot help but think that readers too easily dismiss the actions of the Boy in order to praise the sacrifices of the tree.  I am pleased to learn that some criticism has been leveled at the work, with some readers interpreting the work more along the lines that I do–as a story about the selfishness of the boy or the ways in which humanity destroys nature.  But I suspect that many elementary school teachers go on reading the work, happily untroubled by its darker undertones.

How do you interpret The Giving Tree?

Penguins Love Colors by Sarah Aspinall

penguins-love-colorsINFORMATION

Goodreads: Penguins Love Colors
Series:  None
Source: Received from publisher in exchange for an honest review
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

Six little penguins love colors, but their home is full of white snow!  Can they find a way to create a colorful surprise for their mama?

Review

Penguins Love Colors is the charming tale of six little penguins named after flowers–Tulip, Tiger Lily, Dandelion, Broccoli, Bluebell and Violet.  Even though they are surrounded by snow, they want to paint their mama a surprise. Thus begins a sweet story that will help younger readers learn to recognize and name colors.

Sarah Aspinall clearly created her book with beginner readers and their caretakers in mind.  Not only does it teach colors through naming and repetition, but it also includes the types of prompt questions adult readers are encouraged to ask of their young audiences to develop reading skills.  “Do you think they made a mess?” the text asks and “Do YOU know [which penguin painted which flower?]”  These moments encourage the reader to pause  for the child to predict what might come next and to try to identify the color that matches each flower.  Adult readers who are unsure what types of questions to ask their children or who are just beginning to learn what types of questions they should ask while teaching literacy will surely find these prompts useful.  And children will enjoy the interaction.

The bright pictures add to the book’s appeal.  A rainbow of color appears on nearly every page and the penguins spin and slide exuberantly through their vibrant (if snowy) world.  Readers are sure to fall in love with them as they break out their paint brushes to get creative.  And maybe readers will want to get creative, too!

Krysta 645 stars

Bonus Content

Interested in Penguins Love Colors?  Sarah Aspinall has created coloring pages and a teaching guide for you to use!  Check them out below!

coloring-page-1

coloring-page-2

penguins-love-colors-curriculum

Otter Goes to School by Sam Garton

Otter Goes to School by Sam GartonINFORMATION

Goodreads: Otter Goes to School
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

When Otter asks how Otter Keeper became so clever, he tells her about school.  Since Otter can think of several friends who need school, she starts her own.  But when Teddy worries that he isn’t good at anything, Otter begins to think she isn’t a very good teacher.

Review

Like  many of the other Otter books, Otter Goes to School does not have a particularly original premise–picture books about going to school are rather plentiful.  However, Otter gives this story added warmth and charm.  With her signature humor and many cute otter faces, she makes this book worth a reread.

What I love most about the Otter books is the expressiveness of the pictures and Otter’s enthusiasm for life.  Whether she’s dancing, giving out gold stars in class, or coloring, Otter loves it all.  It kind of makes me want to jump in and share the fun.  Everything is the best thing ever!  All this enthusiasm is balanced by some of Otter’s low moments, whether she’s scared or frustrated or sad.  Then her little whiskers droop and you want to give her a hug because Otters, you know, are just meant to be happy.

Spending a day with Otter is always a delight.  I hope there are many more Otter books to come to brighten our days.

4 starsKrysta 64

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

secret-keepersINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Secret Keepers
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

When Reuben discovers an old watch hidden in the most unlikely of places, he dares to dream that his life could change.   With the money he could gain from selling it, he could help his mother return to school and find a better-paying job.  But soon Reuben learns that the watch hides a terrible secret and that the shadowy figure who rules the city of New Umbra is actively seeking it. Can Reuben and his friends outwit a man who has never been seen?  Or is lights out for Reuben?

Review

Writing a book that would stand up next to The Mysterious Benedict Society was always going to be difficult for Trenton Lee Stewart, but he manages it here with apparent ease.  Immediately he welcomes readers into the story in much to the same way he welcomed them into Reynie’s story long ago.  We have a boy who is a little unusual, but certainly loving, and definitely about to have the adventure of a lifetime.  All he needs now is a team.

Reuben, however, is not a second Reynie.  He is a loner, stealthy, keeping to the shadows.  And he has a mother whom he loves very much and who works very hard to support him–Stewart does not shy away from addressing poverty and how it can affect a family.  His story is different because his main motivations are always how to help and protect his mother.  He’s a good kid.  And readers are encouraged to root for him.

Reuben’s team will be assembled a little haphazardly.  He’s used to working alone and comfortable walking in the shadows.  Still, he meets a watchmaker who comes from another country and somehow worked her way from poverty to a modest little shop.  He meets a young, redheaded girl who believes in daring and honesty.  And he finds himself protected by a man who likes a good fight, but for the right cause.  They are a strange crew, but they work.  And their diversity of experiences is what makes them strong.

Notably, the team’s experiences really are valuable here.  The team has to anticipate and work out problems if they are to succeed in saving the city of New Umbra from a power-hungry man.  Have you ever read a book and wondered, “Why didn’t the characters think of this very obvious hole in their plan?” or “Why didn’t the character just do X, Y, and Z?” or even “Why is the author suggesting that this character is smart when he doesn’t have to do all that much?”  Well, the characters here are really smart, they really figure stuff out, and they always go for the most obvious solution when they find themselves in trouble.  There’s no running forever in a straight line from a boulder they could have escaped by simply turning to the right.  Do you know how engaging a story can be when there are real problems and real answers?  It’s incredible!

Once again Stewart has presented readers with a fun and complex read, one full of sympathetic characters, high-stakes missions, and just the right dash of humor.  Is it too soon to ask him to release another book?  What will we all do until he does?

5 starsKrysta 64

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

the-inquisitors-taleInformation

Goodreads: The Inquisitor’s Tale
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: September 27, 2016

Official Summary

1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.

Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.

Review

As some of you who follow the blog know, I study medieval literature, so I really, really wanted to like The Inquisitor’s Tale.  The world simply needed a middle grade novel inspired by Saint Guinefort (a greyhound who really did acquire his own cult during the Middle Ages).  Touches of Joan of Arc and other historical figures make this book right up my alley. So I’m sad to say I was bored through most of the book, and I really don’t think I would have enjoyed it if I’d read it as a child.

Most of my pleasure in the book came from playing “spot the medieval reference.” And medieval references are something Gidwitz is great at.  The book draws on a lot of medieval tales but mostly uses them as inspiration, rather  than using them in their entirety. So Jeanne has elements of Joan of Arc, but she isn’t Joan. She has visions, for instance, but she is not called to lead France through a war.  Jacob isn’t any historical figure in particular, but represents the Jews who lived in France in the Middle Ages.

And Gidwitz portrays the attitudes of the Middle Ages pretty faithfully.  Though there are violent parts of the book, one could argue that the darkest parts of the story are the various prejudices the children protagonists encounter: against Jews, Muslims, women, peasants, etc. Gidwitz explores these issues thoughtfully, while asking some tough questions like “How can someone say they hate Jews while befriending a Jewish boy?” Gidwitz shows the nuances in medieval thought, which is great, since the Middle Ages often get dismissed as a boring period of complete ignorance in pop culture.

The format of the book is also clever, if you’re into Chaucer.  Gidwitz alludes to The Canterbury Tales by having different characters tell each chapter and titling them such things as “The Jongleur’s Tale.”  There are also asides, as the storytellers interact with each other, in between telling their tales.  This structure, however, is also one of the sticking points for me.   It means that the protagonists’ story is told by a conglomeration of people who, for the post part, were not really in the story.  It creates some distance between the protagonists and the readers. It also means the story is constantly interrupted by the frame tale, which is something I just personally dislike in books.

The other reservation I have is about the plot and pacing. As I mentioned, I was simply bored thought a lot of the book. Stuff was constantly happening, but it took a while for it to all come together into any discernible overarching story.  I felt as if I were just watching characters run around inanely for half the book. The only reason I didn’t DNF is because, seriously, I’m really into the Middle Ages.

The Inquisitor’s Tale has really high ratings in general on Goodreads, and I can respect that since the book is clearly well-researched and rather creative.  However, this is one instance where I would love to get some children’s opinions on the book.  I do not think I would have liked or finished this novel if I had read it when I was in middle school. It’s slow and complex and altogether simply unusual for a children’s book. I didn’t relate to the characters or even understand for half the book what it was they were trying to accomplish.  I wonder if this will be a hit with adults more so than with the target audience.

3 stars Briana