Monday, January 5, 2009

PW's Starred Reviews

This week's Publisher's Weekly includes the following starred reviews:

Picture Books

Fletcher and the Springtime Blossoms by Julia Rawlinson, illus. by Tiphanie Beeke. Greenwillow, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-06-168855-3

Introduced in Fletcher and the Falling Leaves, the cute little fox Fletcher now discovers spring. Seeing blossoms swirling through the air—Beeke renders them as a flurry of white smudges—Fletcher becomes convinced that the snow has returned. Feeling “bouncy [and] full-of-importance,” he sounds the alarm to his forest comrades, who are not a little peeved when they realize Fletcher’s mistake. All is quickly forgiven as they revel in the glories of the season: “The animals scooped up pawfuls and clawfuls of blossoms from the ground, and covered him in a tickly shower of fluttering white petals!” The distinctly British lilt of Rawlinson’s prose should prove captivating for preschoolers. But it’s Beeke who gives this book its reason for being. Working in her signature naïf style, she gives each character a vivid personality (the steadfast porcupine and slacker rabbits are particularly memorable) and conjures up an irresistible forest: bathed in warm greens and yellows, punctuated with impish bursts of color, and just imposing enough to be a suitable setting for adventure. Ages 3–7. (Feb.)

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! Jonah Winter, illus. by André Carrilho. Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-375-83738-8

The huge lenticular cover image of pitcher Sandy Koufax in action makes this book hard to ignore; Winter’s fan-in-the-stands-style prose and Carrilho’s high-impact, editorial-style images make it hard to forget. Neither author nor artist “explain” the famously self-contained 1960s Dodgers pitcher (“Just when you were startin’ to understand him, he’d haul off and throw you a curve,” says the anonymous former teammate who serves as narrator). Instead, they capture what it feels like to be in the presence of an exemplary athlete. The obstacles that Sandy Koufax faced—physical limitations; anti-Semitism (“Some of the guys said some pretty lousy things behind his back—things I can’t repeat”)—are portrayed with zero sentiment; readers will root for Koufax because he is an engine of pure action. Debut artist Carrilho, offering texturally complex, digitally manipulated pencil drawings, has a bold, arresting aesthetic: while his harsh shadows, distorted perspectives and angular faces speak of a hardboiled reality, the baseball field itself is a storied place, rendered not in green but gold. Koufax becomes a figure of totemic strength, his eyes narrowing to black slits underneath bushy eyebrows, his body twisting as he delivers the perfect pitch. Not just a home run, this book is a grand slam. Ages 4–9. (Feb.)

River of Dreams: The Story of the Hudson River by Hudson Talbott. Putnam, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-399-24521-3

Putting his powers of visual explanation to the test, Talbott (United Tweets of America) presents a staggering amount of information about the Hudson River without ever overwhelming or confusing readers. A series of watercolor spreads, unified by the image of the river flowing across each one, traces the Hudson’s role in the colonization of New York, the Revolution, the era of steamboats, the building of the Erie Canal; its fate as railroads eclipsed shipping’s importance; its environmental degradation; and its rebirth. The image of the river often doubles as a timeline, helping to organize the information and make room for extra details. Side tours explore the river’s literary and artistic history. Striking trompe l’oeil devices enliven many of Talbott’s paintings; on one page, a locomotive appears to hurtle “full steam ahead” through a bucolic river scene toward the viewer, a terrific visual pun on the railroad’s social and economic effects. Talbott makes good use of irony (the Native Americans’ stewardship of the Hudson River Valley “was great while it lasted”), but does not avoid emotion (immigrants at Ellis Island represent “another river.... a river of dreamers”). Ages 6–8. (Jan.)

Poetry

A Foot in the Mouth: Poems to Speak, Sing, and Shout Ed. by Paul B. Janeczko, illus. by Chris Raschka. Candlewick, $17.99 (64p) ISBN 978-0-7636-0663-3

As the in-your-face title implies, the poems in Janeczko and Raschka’s collection (following their A Kick in the Head) are not complacent, although plenty are funny and some are familiar, like the irresistible “Jabberwocky” and the singsong chanting of Macbeth’s witches. Punchy collages flutter across airy white pages in loose visual arrangements; torn scraps of origami paper layer with fluid lines in tart color. Janeczko introduces the collection with the idea that “Poetry is sound,” a pleasure to vocalize and memorize. “If you’ve never read a poem to somebody, you don’t know what you’re missing,” he promises, and ebullient choices like Avis Hartley’s “Come, drum! Sound out the day!” reinforce his exhortation. All the pieces have an edge, from Janet S. Wong’s uncomfortable “Speak Up”—whose “American” speaker wants an Asian American to “say something Korean”—to Charles Follen Adams’s “An Orthographic Lament,” reflecting that unusual spellings are enough to make a person “commit Sioux-eye-sighed.” Two poems from bilingual authors appear side-by-side in English/Spanish comparisons. By the time the volume closes with Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” readers will be emboldened to join in the “song.” Ages 8–12. (Mar.)

Steady Hands: Poems About Work by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer., illus. by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy Clarion, $16 (48p) ISBN 978-0-618-90351-1

Inventive, complicated collages and well-crafted poems focus on the activities of working people in this eye-catching book. With an observant eye, Zimmer (Sketches from a Spy Tree) captures different individuals performing work with “steady hands.” She details the “flap/ roll/ flap” of the baker kneading dough or the way a clerk performs “a ballet/ of hands” as she sorts, scans and bags groceries. Sometimes she gives the worker a backstory or views him after hours—a former lawyer prefers “the predictable company of dogs” and becomes a dog walker, while the exterminator doesn’t mind the guys at the bowling alley “calling him Roach.” Halsey and Addy’s (Amelia to Zora) hip collages combine individual cut-outs of people along with drawings, photos, textured backgrounds and designs. The aspiring filmmaker pops out of a box of movie popcorn while the tow-truck driver “fishes in the city,” literally reeling in cars. The sophisticated look should generate plenty of interest from the target audience. Ages 9–12. (Feb.)

Fiction


Happenstance Found by P. W. Catanese. S&S/Aladdin, $16.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4169-7519-9

Catanese (the Further Tales Adventures) dazzles in the first of the planned Books of Umber series by wittily subverting genre tropes. Happenstance, a boy with strange green eyes, wakes up in a cave with no memories of who he is or anything about the fantastic world in which he lives. He soon encounters Lord Umber, an adventurer who seems familiar with our world as well as his own, and his two companions—a brute cursed to be forever truthful and a one-handed artist and archer. En route to Umber’s home, they discover that Hap can see in the dark, leap many feet in the air, speak numerous languages and go without sleep. As the group attempts to learn about his origins, they’re forced to confront a supernatural assassin and secrets from Umber’s own mysterious past. Catanese packs a lot into the book: rich characterizations (Umber, who turns out to be from another dimension, suffers from depression and wishes he had his meds), well-choreographed action sequences and genuinely surprising twists at the end. As auspicious start to the series. Ages 8-12. (Jan.)

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. Scholastic/Levine, $17.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-545-05474-4

Artfully crafted characters form the heart of Stork’s (The Way of the Jaguar) judicious novel. Marcelo Sandoval, a 17-year-old with an Asperger’s-like condition, has arranged a job caring for ponies at his special school’s therapeutic-riding stables. But he is forced to exit his comfort zone when his high-powered father steers Marcelo to work in his law firm’s mailroom (in return, Marcelo can decide whether to stay in special ed, as he prefers, or be mainstreamed for his senior year). Narrating with characteristically flat inflections and frequently forgetting to use the first person, Marcelo manifests his anomalies: he harbors an obsession with religion (he regularly meets with a plainspoken female rabbi, though he’s not Jewish); hears “internal” music; and sleeps in a tree house. Readers enter his private world as he navigates the unfamiliar realm of menial tasks and office politics with the ingenuity of a child, his voice never straying from authenticity even as the summer strips away some of his differences. Stork introduces ethical dilemmas, the possibility of love, and other “real world” conflicts, all the while preserving the integrity of his characterizations and intensifying the novel’s psychological and emotional stakes. Not to be missed. Ages 14–up. (Mar.)

Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey. Harcourt, $17 (368p) ISBN 978-0-15-206384-9

A romance involving a high school girl and a handsome vampire may sound a little too familiar, yet this first novel quickly bursts ahead of the pack of Twilight-wannabes. Down-to-earth mathlete Jessica Packwood is completely horrified when, a few months shy of her 18th birthday, a Romanian named Lucius Vladescu shows up on her doorstep, claiming that he and she are vampire royalty betrothed to each other since infancy—what’s worse, her adoptive parents verify the betrothal story and explain that her birth parents identified themselves as vampires, too. Fantaskey makes this premise work by playing up its absurdities without laughing at them, endowing Jessica with a coolly ironic sensibility and Lucius with old-world snobberies that Jessica’s girlfriends find irresistible. Jessica’s laidback parents serve as foils for imperious Lucius (“Can I ever again be happy in our soaring Gothic castle after walking the halls of Woodrow Wilson High School, a literal ode to linoleum?” he asks sarcastically); a scene at a steakhouse where the vegan Packwoods meet the carnivorous Vladescus is first-rate comedy. The romance sizzles, the plot develops ingeniously and suspensefully, and the satire sings. Ages 14–up. (Feb.)

Willoughby and the Lion by Greg Foley. HarperCollins/Bowen, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-06-154750-8

Foley (Thank You Bear) scores points for unique visual presentation in this sumptuously produced, two-color book, instantly distinguished by its heavily embossed jacket. Willoughby Smith has moved to a disappointing new home, pictured in a flimsy black line on an expanse of white. One day, Willoughby sees a lion perched on a boulder. Rendered in metallic gold ink, the lion shines, its gleam set off by the book’s highly coated paper. The lion promises Willoughby 10 wishes but adds, “Unless you wish for the most wonderful thing of all, I’ll be stuck on this rock forever.” Willoughby’s first nine wishes benefit himself, from a palace shown in gold on black (it resembles a crisply engraved metal plate) to “a hot-air-balloon-submarine,” intricately diagrammed in white on gold. With every wish, the ratio of gold to gray increases and Foley’s compositions, mingling line drawings with digitally manipulated b&w photos, become more complex. Brassy layers and a sprinkling of stars imply fantastic wealth, leavened with grayscale pixels; the elegant combination of the two basic colors boosts the visual impact exponentially. The 10th wish, whispered to the lion, finally reverses the acquisitive sequence; Foley implies selflessness at last, signaled by an expansive sunrise of gold lines against pure white, and a small gold coin labeled “true friend” (a removable facsimile is stored within the interior back cover). A second Willoughby title, about Willoughby and the moon, will use black and metallic silver ink. Ages 4–7. (Feb.)

Congratulations to all of these authors! I look forward to reading these titles as they become available.

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