Monday, December 7, 2009

PW's Starred Reviews

-- Publishers Weekly, 12/7/2009

Picture Books

Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli, illus. by Kadir Nelson. S&S/Wiseman, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4169-3505-6

While Nobel Medalist Wangari Maathai has been the subject of two earlier picture biographies (Jeanette Winter's Wangari's Trees of Peace and Claire Nivola's Planting the Trees of Kenya), this story is structured more like a folktale, portraying Maathai as healer and botanist. “These are strong hands,” she tells a woman who does not have enough food to feed her family. “Here are seedlings of the mubiru muiru tree.... Plant as many as you can. Eat the berries.” Nelson's (We Are the Ship) breathtaking portraits of Maathai often have a beatific quality; bright African textiles represent fields, mountains, and Maathai's beloved trees. Maathai knows that some trees make good firewood, others form hedges to keep livestock safe, while the roots of others clean dirty water. After every encounter, a Kikuyu expression is repeated: “Thayu nyumba—Peace, my people.” Mama Miti, as Maathai comes to be known (it means “mother of trees”), is rewarded not with fame or power but with the satisfaction of seeing Kenya restored. Napoli (The Earth Shook) creates a vivid portrait of the community from which Maathai's tree-planting mission grows. Ages 4–8. (Jan.)

Back of the Bus by Aaron Reynolds, illus. by Floyd Cooper. Philomel, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-399-25091-0

This sterling collaboration views Rosa Parks's 1955 refusal to give up her bus seat through the eyes of a perceptive boy seated with his mother in the rear of the bus. Early on, the child rolls a treasured marble up the aisle and Parks good-naturedly shoots it back to him. He tucks the marble safely away when the bus fills with passengers and he senses trouble up front: “Some folks look back, givin' us angry eyes. 'We do somethin' wrong, Mama?' I say all soft.” Reynolds's (Superhero School) lyrical yet forceful text conveys the narrator's apprehension and Parks's calm resolve, which inspires the boy. “[S]he's sittin' right there, her eyes all fierce like a lightnin' storm, like maybe she does belong up there. And I start thinkin' maybe she does too.” Cooper's (Willie and the All-Stars) filmy oil paintings are characterized by a fine mistlike texture, which results in warm, lifelike portraits that convincingly evoke the era, the intense emotional pitch of this incident, and the everyday heroism it embodied. Ages 6–8. (Jan.)

Fiction

The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean. Harper, $16.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-183665-7

Kindhearted Pepper Roux has been led to believe that “[c]hildhood was a mouse trap from which he could never expect to escape,” his death by age 14 foretold in a dream. His maiden Aunt Mireille takes it upon herself to pave Pepper's path to heaven with daily prayer, constant confession, and rote memorization of last rites. So when Pepper awakens on his 14th birthday still alive, he launches himself on a sea voyage, intent on outrunning death. Mistaken for the ship's captain (his father), he is befriended by a compassionate, cross-dressing steward, Duchesse. Creating vivid characters is just one of McCaughrean's (The White Darkness) gifts—Aunt Mireille joins Dahl's Spiker and Sponge as one of the Most Evil Aunts in children's literature. Pepper flees across the French countryside from one disastrous job to another—delivery boy, horse wrangler, deli clerk, and even journalist, which allows McCaughrean to wink at readers as Pepper complains, “Copy editors cannot read anything without changing it.” As his journey ends in a cleverly orchestrated climax, readers will root for Pepper to get the ending he deserves—a happy one. Ages 10–up. (Jan.)

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. Dial, $17.99 (448p) ISBN 978-0-8037-3396-1

Fisher (the Oracle Prophesies series) scores a resounding success in this beautifully imagined science fantasy set in a far future where, many years earlier, civilization was artificially frozen at late-medieval levels in order to save the world from dangerous technologies. Simultaneously, all of the world's malcontents and madmen were sealed into an unimaginably vast, sentient prison named Incarceron, where a dedicated group of social engineers intended to create utopia. Claudia, the brilliant daughter of the cold-blooded warden of Incarceron, has been raised from birth to marry and eventually control Caspar, the simpleminded heir to the throne. Finn, a young man without a past, is a prisoner in Incarceron, which has become a hideous dystopia, an “abyss that swallows dreams.” When Claudia and Finn each gain possession of a high-tech “key” to the prison, they exchange messages, and Finn asks Claudia to help him attempt an escape. While he negotiates the hideous maze of the prison, Claudia makes her way through the equally deadly labyrinth of political intrigue. Complex and inventive, with numerous and rewarding mysteries, this tale is certain to please. Ages 12–up. (Jan.)

Children's Comics

Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai by Stan Sakai. Dark Horse, $14.95 (64p) ISBN 978-1-59582-362-5

The heroic but sweet-tempered samurai rabbit celebrates the 25th anniversary of his first appearance in comics with this fully painted hardcover. Yokai are the evil supernatural creatures who can invade this world on dark nights; Usagi is walking through a forest on such a night when a distraught mother begs him to find her daughter, who's been stolen by a shape-changing kitsune. He meets a variety of hostile spirits and demons as he undertakes that mission. He also encounters his enigmatic acquaintance Sasuke the Demon Queller, from whom he learns that the yokai are gathering to swarm into the human world and conquer it. It's up to the two anthropomorphized little animals to stop them. Sakai's art deftly demonstrates that comics can be simultaneously cartoony and scary, especially in a double-page spread of the Demon Queen and her hoard; moreover, the comic's design, linework, and coloring are simply lovely. Unlike the bleak cynicism of many contemporary comics, this beautifully produced little book shows how much love Sakai still has for his rabbit ronin. A 2009 Eisner Award nominee for Best Continuing Series, Usagi Yojimbo is a genuine pleasure for readers of all ages. Ages 9–12. (Dec.)

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