Just like those “tastes great! Less filling!” beer commercial arguments, it’s easy to imagine passionate young readers trying to describe what’s most special and unique about Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.
However, instead of trying to describe what the book is, an easier task might be in isolating what the book isn’t.
For starters, know that Timmy Failure is planning on becoming a rich and famous private detective, despite his uncooperative elementary school cohorts.
Couple that with a clueless mother and a love-hate relationship with a 1,500-pound polar bear partner, and readers will agree that this gumshoe has challenges.
In fact, his shoes are where he pens mantras or memos of goals he’s set. “Keep Mom in dark” is noted on his left sole.
Thankfully, this isn’t a high-fiber, good-for-you title. Wicked fun is found throughout. Readers will discover that Timmy’s mom doesn’t have a well-paying job. She’s dating Crispin, a questionable beau into bowling. When Timmy is disrespectful, he can’t be sent to his room.
He doesn’t have a room, just a fold-out couch.
Adults who don’t judge books by their covers still might judge a creator by his past. Pastis is known more as a cartoonist of Pearls Before Swine. No more. He writes in a top-notch kid-centric style that has droll touches of adult humor adorning every chapter.
For instance, Timmy describes Flo, the local librarian:
“And Flo is not short for Florence. It’s short for ‘Misshelve my books and the blood may FLOw.’”
The corresponding artwork indicates that Flo is a bearded biker gang alum. Another sketch notes that the fear of Flo reading “another book on how to kill things” was actually a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Likewise, one noted foe in the story is Old Man Crocus. A neighbor? Nope. He’s Timmy’s over-the-hill, burnt-out teacher.
Our young hero tries to imitate classic detectives. When accepting the case of a student’s dead hamster, Timmy begins with: “Did he have any enemies? Did he have a lot of money? Was he depressed?”
Ultimately, Timmy serves all his classmates, solving their mysteries. Fame and fortune hasn’t come yet. Readers who note the “No. 1” on their covers will be assured of another rollicking T.F. adventure.
For anyone who feels The Wimpy Kid may be getting too wimpy, this is the book alternative for you. Timmy Failure is anything but.
—Tom Owens, author
Tim Federle’s book debut is fiction. Or is it?
Fans from American Idol, The Voice or Glee will love the depth of 13-year-old Nate Foster’s wild ride to New York City to audition for E.T. The Musical.
Nate is a theater-loving runaway. A runway for only for 24 hours. At least, that’s his plan. Apart from the theater, he’s living in a world of complex characters. Nate himself divulges in his first-person, present-tense recap:
“I am a freshman at the College of Sexuality and I have undecided my major…”
In fact, much of the homophobic taunting Nate endures comes from his older brother.
Nate’s family is struggling with other dramas. Anthony’s squeaky-clean image gets tarnished by story’s end. Nate’s mother has a drinking problem. His dad faces a marital challenge.
For unlikely support, Nate discovers that a disowned aunt who lives in New York City becomes his secret weapon. Most of all, classmate Libby maintains her masterminding best-friend status, despite a potential kiss in the book’s beginning.
The reader will feel like they’re getting inside scoops from Nate in the next seat at the cafeteria table. Chances are, the reader gets at least one sassy aside (or more!) from Nate every 2 to 3 pages.
Amazingly, Federle stuffs his novel with insider details that any age of musical theater fan would savor. As an actor in five Broadway shows himself, Federle takes the reader deep into the making of a major musical. An authentic “been there, done that” vibe runs through this entertaining tale.
One subversive fascination in the book is watching Nate and Libby find a new way to swear. Their exclamations are coded, using the names of failed Broadway shows. Not just names, either. Nate dishes the dirt, remarking why these flops flopped.
What makes this middle-grade novel a show stopper is Federle’s willingness to let Nate have a life outside of school. In a sense, being a student is only Nate’s job. Federle lets him live his passion, which isn’t found in a classroom.
Many good things are happening for Nate by book’s end, although readers don’t get a full idea of all the glory awaiting him.
Sounds like a curtain call, even an encore, are in order for Nate and author Federle. When there is an E.T. musical and Nate’s a star, readers will want front-row seats.
—Tom Owens, author
Have you ever heard of a barking spider or a yeti crab? Which is tougher: a honey badger or a tardigrade? Is a blobfish uglier than a hagfish? These are just a few of the 50 unusual creatures that Hearst includes in Unusual Creatures. Mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, insects, arachnids, even microbes are included. The book does not pretend to provide encyclopedic coverage of any of its creatures, but it does give the reader enough of an introduction to each to invite further inquiry.
I think Unusual Creatures will lure reluctant readers into its pages, as well as provide more committed readers with a lightly amusing informative treat. The author starts out by explaining the system of biological classification from kingdom through family and down to species, and gives the formal Latinate classification for each of his creatures, but this is not at all off-putting, since he presents the information simply, clearly, and quickly. Besides, it only takes up two pages which you (or your reluctant friend) could easily skip. He then dives into the axolotl for his first creature, and the fun begins. For some of the entries, he provides a brief poem to supplement the facts, for others he provides amusing true-false or multiple-choice quizzes, and sly bits of humor are scattered throughout the book.
Each creature illustration is nearly full-page with a ruler alongside to get a sense of the animal’s actual size (from hundredths of an inch to feet). The creature’s territory/distribution is also shown, and usually some other odd fact or two is illustrated.
The author gets perhaps a little preachy in two pages at the end, where he addresses the environmental issues inherent in discussion of rare and unusual animals. Again, this is a section that could be skipped or emphasized depending on the interests of the reader.
My initial reaction to this book was ambivalence, but the more I think about Unusual Creatures, the more I like it. It is a smorgasbord, where reluctant readers can pick and choose the weirdest or cutest or most disgusting creatures to read about, and more advanced or eager readers can enjoy the whole book and perhaps use it as a jumping-off point for further zoological investigations.
If you have or if you are an upper-elementary student or older, give Unusual Creatures a try. You will undoubtedly make a few new friends in the animal kingdom.
—Steve Mudd, author
Who—or what—you choose to love is the subject of another gem from author James Howe.
Otter and Odder describes a male otter who falls in love with a female fish.
“Impossible,” he said. “I am in love with my food source.”
Therein lies a mystery in Howe’s fable for our times. Is he creating a story of tolerance, or showing readers the possibilities of vegetarianism?
Either way, the book is a joy.
Shattering assumptions becomes the challenge of Howe’s main character.
Otter must face the whispers of his species. He must consider for himself what is “right” and “natural.” Again, tradition includes a traditional diet.
The “way of the otter” gets contrasted to “the way of the heart” when Otter seeks advice from wise neighbor beaver. The youngest reader will appreciate the difference between loving someone, as opposed to loving to EAT someone.
Both creatures learn to ignore peer pressure as they decide how to find true happiness.
Few authors in children’s literature today would earn the right to conclude their book with “And they lived happily ever after.” Howe’s conclusion is the perfect choice for the perfect narrative.
Two-time Caldecott medal winner Chris Raschka chose watercolor and pencil for the deceptively-simple illustrations in the book. Adult romantics yearning for a tale of star-crossed lovers might be wishing for more grandiose artwork. Nevertheless, Raschka excels with fun, fluid lines in this aquatic surprise.
Don’t be surprised if Otter and Odder becomes a crossover hit. Adults seeking a Valentine’s Day gift may flock to this title. This book would speak to any age.
Love is love. If anyone can make the case in such sweet, sincere terms, it’s author Howe.
—Tom Owens, author
Susanna Reich writes like a cat. She describes the life of famous cook Julia Child in nimble feline terms. Her book Minette’s Feast doesn’t pussyfoot around. This Paris cat remained a member of the family for Child and her husband.
The author relied on Child’s own words to tell the tale of one beloved cat. The books Appetite for Life and My Life in France allow Reich to give young readers a true look at life unknown to many animals: roaming the family kitchen and tasting the fare. Beforehand, readers can relive daily Parisian life savored by Child and her husband. They dine at sidewalk cafes inhabited by dogs, cats and even pet birds.
The authentic touches will delight adult readers especially. Turning a Brussels sprout tied to a string into a toy for Minette? Vintage Child. Or, classic Reich.
Readers will be able to define French phrases presented in context, in cases like learning how to say, “A house without a cat is like life without sunshine!” Illustrator Amy Bates shows equal talent in depicting animals and humans, a feat showcased in her 2008 picture book The Dog Who Belonged to No One. In Minette’s Feast, Bates rises to the occasion of representing an image seen often through thousands of PBS programs. Happily, many double-page spreads allow readers to see the cat being overshadowed by the oh-so-tall cook. Child’s size wasn’t always apparent in her TV appearances.
Minette the cat gets an epic double-page solo near book’s end. When Child cooks something that appears to be turkey or goose (but isn’t identified, perhaps to soothe vegetarian readers) Minette is given a bone. She rejoices and finds many ways to enjoy the morsel. Each happy gyration is described and depicted. Bates’ pencil-and-watercolor creations are the ideal ingredients for this tale.
Meanwhile, author Reich respected Child’s droll sense of humor. Not until the book’s glossary and pronunciation guide does a reader learn that Minette’s term of “poussiequette” is not true French. The author lets us decide that the Childs made their own phonetic French term to honor their cat.
Likewise, Reich reveals that Minette’s middle name of “Mimosa” came from an odd spontaneous dining choice.
The last page, in an author’s note, is the ultimate topping on the literary dish Reich creates. She tells that she met Child once. In fact, Reich made the official gift presented to Child during her 80th birthday party.
Minette’s Feast is a joyful remembrance of a beloved feline friend who inspired a culinary queen.
—Tom Owens, author
Author Tom Angleberger has an extemporaneous style and a loopy sense of humor that are right at home in a middle-school crowd. His characters are annoying, endearing, over-confident, despairing—in other words, they’re pretty real kids, for all their broadness.
The middle-school world, in the first two installments, is also refreshingly real. One episode asks why kids should be expected to hawk school merchandise. (Yoda’s solution is logical and hilarious.) Conformity (among kids) and conformity (required by school rules) is a frequent, funny and thought-provoking theme.
The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee is the third in Angelberger’s Origami Yoda series. The strongest social commentary here seems to be against the local private school: here, all the rich kids walk lock-step in their prescribed system, mouthing insincere appreciation for individuality. Public school is obviously superior—despite the afore-mentioned blips.
All three books feature Star Wars characters, recreated in origami and used as sort-of puppets by the middle-school kids. Instructions for the folds, so readers can make their own, appear at the back of each volume. Cool, not too hard, room to individualize and fabulously low-tech!
Also surprising, in the first two books, is that familiarity with Star Wars lore is purely optional: readers need only accept that Yoda is a wise character with lop-sided syntax, and that Darth Paper (oops!—Darth Vader) is a bad guy.
The current book stands on its own, too, but—every character in it knows Star Wars so well. That takes away some spark of reality.
But the biggest leap of faith comes in the set-up. The first two books had a catalyst character: Dwight, who rarely appears in this story. Proving Dwight right or wrong gave the first two books purpose. It’s unclear why the other kids write this new “case file” (a faux notebook, complete with rumples, cross-outs, and crazy, doodled pictures—an engaging facsimile of the real thing).
The very end may help explain. Angleberger is, of course, a Star Wars fan. And anyone familiar with the earliest movies knows that, as in any good serial, some episodes end with cliff-hangers.
If fans wish for more from the current book, the last page promises there will be.
—Diana Star Helmer, author
During World War II many Jews were sent to concentration camps. Many of them went into hiding so they would not be sent to the horrible camps. Anne Frank and her family are one of the most well-known families to go into hiding. While the Franks were in hiding, their youngest daughter Anne kept a diary of her experiences. She describes what it is like to be living in a strange place away from home, what it is like to hide from the government, what it is like to live with seven other people in a cramped space, and how restricted they were.
I really enjoyed The Diary of a Young Girl because of its truth and its great descriptions. Anne is writing to an imaginary person named “Kitty” and it seems as if she is writing to a good old friend. After reading this young girl’s journal you will have a different perspective on what it was like for Jews during that time. I know I did.
—Megan Zamow, 7th Grader
Double-crossing a business partner. Plagiarism. Are those uplifting themes or storylines appealing to young readers?
Author Marc Tyler Nobleman defies the odds on both counts in his stellar, surprising Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.
Bill Finger thought he was collaborating with artist Bob Kane on a new series for DC Comics in 1939. Kane sold the premise, taking all the credit. His contract allowed him to be recognized as sole Batman creator. Finger worked in frustrated anonymity, an angry ghostwriter.
Ironically, Nobleman discovered that Kane called the prolific Finger “the boy wonder” for all his input on the storylines. The nickname became the famed description for Robin, Batman’s youthful sidekick.
All comics need heroes. In this book, Nobleman details how Batman fans kept Finger’s little-known contributions preserved in comics history.
Nobleman’s writing style reflects comic book drama. He uses punchy puns, enjoying the names of Batman and comic writer Finger. At the same time, he infuses character into the picture book, recounting how Finger kept a “gimmick book” of facts and trivia bits for future comic books. As a jaw-dropping complement to Nobleman‘s work, pair his super-heroic writing with the pitch-perfect illustrations of Ty Templeton. Templeton’s art looks worthy of a Batman comic book, complete with action-packed layouts. Ironically, Templeton’s extensive comic book credits include none other than Batman.
Nobleman distinguishes himself as a four-leveled talent with the book’s postscript. He sparkles as an author. Avid comic fans will agree that Nobleman is a solid historian, analyzing background art in a 1943 Batman issue for a surprising discovery. His detective work in finding sources to interview (Finger died in 1974) is an exciting as any crime-solving.
What’s left? One noble feat of activism. Nobleman finds out if Finger left any heir, and if there’d be a way that the comic co-creator’s possible offspring could receive some kind of compensation.
Be sure to read to the last page. The revelation is a true-to-life happy ending that would make even the Caped Crusader smile.
Young readers will take new pride and ownership in their own creations after reading this book. Even more, they might wonder who some of the unsung heroes were as their favorite stories were born.
—Tom Owens, author