3 science fiction picture books

Most of the books I buy at full-price are picture books.  That’s not a complaint, by the way.  I’m very happy to supply so many classics (and new favorites) to my friends’ kid lit libraries, and to support my local bookstores in doing so.  This past weekend I discovered a couple of new-to-me space-themed books while perusing the kids’ section of a couple of stores, and I thought I’d post mini-reviews of them here on the blog. I don’t think you can start a love of science fiction (or just plain science!) too young.

interstellar cinderella by deborah underwood, illustrated by meg hunt book coverOnce upon a planetoid,
amid her tools and sprockets,
a girl named Cinderella dreamed
of fixing fancy rockets.

With a little help from her fairy godrobot, Cinderella is going to the ballbut when the prince's ship has mechanical trouble, someone will have to zoom to the rescue! Readers will thank their lucky stars for this irrepressible fairy tale retelling, its independent heroine, and its stellar happy ending.

Deborah Underwood’s Interstellar Cinderella is a futuristic re-telling of the traditional fairy tale in verse, accompanied by Meg Hunt’s colorful illustrations.  In this version of the story, Cinderella has pink hair and a penchant for mechanics.  In fact, she ends up proving her worth by fixing a broken spaceship (instead of fitting into a glass slipper).  The poem is fun and funny throughout, and character diversity is always a plus.  Hunt includes a lot of visual interest on every page, which could be a little confusing to the eye the first time, but fantastic for rereads.  I picked the book up for the hologram/metallic lettering on the cover, but my favorite illustrations ended up being the end papers, which featured Cinderella’s various tools, labeled inventively.  This is a great modern take on a popular princess tale, and one I’d suggest to anyone looking for an alternative or companion to the Disney classic. It’s sure to be a bedtime favorite for little girls (and their parents).  

zathura by chris van allsburg book coverOn the last page of the Caldecott-winning book Jumanji, young Danny Budwing is seen running after his brother, Walter, with a game tucked under his arm. Now after twenty years, Chris Van Allsburg is ready to reveal what happens when Danny and Walter roll the dice. This time the name of the game is Zathura and the battling Budwing boys are in for the ride of their lives.

Zathura unleashes intergalactic challenges that require even the quarreling Budwing brothers to work as a team.

Chris Van Allsburg’s Zathura is an older title, but it is definitely a classic (as are almost all of Van Allsburg’s titles – this is the author behind Jumanji and The Polar Express, after all!).  I was familiar with the title because I’ve seen the film based on this book starring a young Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart.  The story is quite a bit like Jumanji, actually – a pair of brothers find an old game about space, begin to play it, and discover that the game alters reality.  Sci-fi elements include space travel, robots, aliens, and time travel.  Van Allsburg’s black and white ink drawings illustrate the adventure in beautiful detail.  My favorite bit is that the brothers go from antagonizing one another to working together and valuing each other, though things get iffy once or twice.  Zathura will please the older end of the picture book crowd as well as the littlies (and it would be a great gift to accompany the film!).

your alien by tammi sauer, illustrated by goro fujita book cover
One day, you'll be looking out your window when something wonderful comes your way...and you will want to keep him.

When a little boy meets a stranded alien child, the two instantly strike up a fabulous friendship. They go to school, explore the neighborhood, and have lots of fun. But at bedtime, the alien suddenly grows very, very sad. Can the boy figure out what his new buddy needs most of all? This funny, heartwarming story proves that friends and family are the most important things in the universe…no matter who or where you are.

Tammi Sauer’s Your Alien is a story written in the second person, featuring the adventures of a boy who finds an alien one night, adopts it and takes it everywhere, even to school.  In the end, the alien gets lonely, and the boy must find a way to make things right.  The story has strong themes of familial love and the comfort of a hug (for all).  It’s very funny in parts, and just short enough that the second person narration didn’t lose its effectiveness.  Goro Fujita’s illustrations are vibrant and both complement and elevate the text.  They have a little bit of a film magic quality to them, so young ones will be reminded of their favorite movies featuring creatures from outer space. Your Alien is perfect bedtime reading, especially for the 3-6 year old set and anyone who enjoyed E.T. as a kid.

brilliant

Monday, August 10, 2015 | | 2 comments
One of my favorite things in books as I’ve grown older is when a city (or urban landscape) is so deeply a part of the story and atmosphere that it becomes a character in its own right.  When I was a kid, not so much.  Then I mostly cared about fantasy landscapes, about going through the wardrobe into somewhere different, with a MAP! (and dragons, if at all possible).  Roddy Doyle’s depiction of Dublin in Brilliant, is the happy medium between those two. Readers can hear the life of the city, feel it, see it in the eyes of his characters.  At the same time, it’s not overpowering.  Character voices (including that of a meerkat named Kevin) steal the spotlight in this charming, modern middle grade fantasy.

brilliant by roddy doyle book cover
The Black Dog of Depression has descended over the adults of Dublin. Uncles are losing their businesses, dads won’t get out of bed, mothers no longer smile at their children. Siblings Raymond and Gloria have had enough and set out one night with one goal in mind: to stop the Black Dog, whatever it takes. In a chase through the streets and parks and beaches of Dublin, the children run after the Black Dog, and soon dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of kids join in their fight. They discover they have one weapon against the Black Dog. The weapon is a word: “brilliant.”

Illustrated throughout by a bright new talent and told through the masterful dialogue for which the acclaimed Roddy Doyle is known, Brilliant is a very special book with a storybook feel.

Gloria and her older brother Raymond (Rayzer for short) are mostly happy, even when they’re squabbling.  They know life in Dublin has changed, but they don’t know what caused it.  When their Uncle Ben comes to live with the family, they are determined to learn why, even as they enjoy his presence.  On one eventful night, they and the other children of Dublin run the town, from the zoo to the water – meeting talking animals, learning the power of language, and chasing the specter of an enormous black dog.  

When I finished this book, I couldn't help but grin at the joy it brought me and the laughter and tears it provoked. In that moment I didn't care who it was written for, I just knew that it had been a good read. Not five minutes later, I was deep in conversation with two wonderful fellow bloggers, and they lamented a new rash of middle grade fiction that seems to be written "for adults" rather than children.

I let that digest a bit, and by the end of the night I was afraid that my glorious experience with Brilliant meant that it was indeed "one of those" books. I've been thinking about it ever since, actually. And here's what I've decided: 1) Yes, the story has a "moral" and at times reads a bit like a fable about how children can cure the ills of the world (and that's not a message I endorse 110% but we'll leave it for now). 2) It will appeal equally to adults AND children. For *very* different reasons.

What adults will like: The book's accessible treatment of depression, the fantastic writing (especially the dialogue - which Doyle is really a master of), the positive and hopeful themes, and the romp through Dublin (an expert tour if there ever was one). What kids will like: The sibling hijinks, the talking animals, forbidden nighttime adventures, the quest to do the right thing, jokes, and victory at the end. The book might not work for every reader, but there's something in it for readers of all ages.

Listen, if you haven't read Roddy Doyle yet, do. He writes hilarious, beautiful, tragic, wonderful stuff. You can feel Ireland in every page, and his books for young readers have hints of the fantastic throughout. Also: Emily Hughes’ illustrations are an A+ addition to the book.

Recommended for: all ages fans of stories about family and doing the right thing, for anyone looking for a great read aloud pick for the 7-10 year old set, and fans of Lauren Oliver's Liesl & Po.

Brilliant will be released in the U.S. by Amulet (Abrams) on September 8, 2015.

Fine print: I picked up an ARC of this book for review at BEA 2015. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

uprooted

Tuesday, August 4, 2015 | | 3 comments
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m a fool for fairy tales.  I will pick up almost anything with a fairy tale-like plot and like it.  I am very much the intended audience for Naomi Novik’s adult fantasy Uprooted.  And if all that it took to fall in love with a book was a mix of elements from past favorites, I'd be praising this one to the skies. It has the feel of a Robin McKinley book (McKinley is one of my all-time favorite authors, FYI).

I didn’t expect to find myself setting this book down over and over again. Little snags pricked my concentration until I took a break to consider them and jot a note for later. Rinse, wash, repeat.  End result: while generally I adore the sort of book Novik wrote (a dangerous fairy tale), there were bits of it that did not work for me at all. To be fair, there were also bits that were quite special. My abiding love for fantasy was enough to pull me through the book, but not enough in the end to inspire devotion.

uprooted by naomi novik cover
“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

Note: There will be (extensive) spoilers

Agnieszka lives in a valley near a dangerous Wood, where the Dragon, a magician-lord, takes a local girl away to live in his tower with him every ten years.  All her life Agnieszka has known that she’ll have to face a “choosing,” but everyone expects the Dragon to take her best friend Kasia.  Agnieszka herself is an unambitious girl, always running ragged in and out of the less dangerous parts of the forest, so no one is more surprised than she when she is taken by the Dragon instead.  Thus begins the adventure, because nothing (and no one) in the tale is exactly what they seem.

This review was a bear to write, and it departs a bit from my usual, somewhat detached style.  Hold tight, folks!  I’ll go over what made the book hard to read, and issues stemming from that first, and then I’ll go into what I liked (I promise there’s quite a bit – there IS a reason I finished it!).

Difficult item #1: Much of the early action and character-building in this book centers on rape. Agnieszka and her community fear that that is what happens to girls in the Dragon's tower. It's what the royal court assumes is happening. It almost happens in chapter three. It's just so omnipresent – I couldn’t help but wonder what purpose it served – was it going to be likened to some sort of magical violence? Traced to some cultural or historical precedent? Would Agnieszka’s fear trigger some sort of important revelation?  Just: why?  I was honestly confused by it, especially when Agnieszka seemingly (suddenly) dropped all fear of rape 1/3 of the way through the book, despite the addition of even more characters who could have conceivably hurt her. Even the thought of death or being unwillingly and painfully taught magic isn't something Agnieszka focuses on (or indeed the story dwells on) as much as rape. Then to add to that, the Dragon sees attempted rape only as an insult to himself (see a$$hole, definition of).

That brings me to item #2: Interactions between the Dragon and Agnieszka.  The Dragon didn’t ever become less of a d!ck.  That made their relationship (if you want to call it that) one of the strangest I’ve ever read about.  There was not even a straightforward we-hate-each-other-but-really-it’s-love thing going on – it seemed more like a I-think-you’re-a-horrid-excuse-for-a-human-being-but-oh-wait-magic-now-you’re-attractive transformation.  Mind: boggled.  Agnieszka's attitude and motivation changed. She became more complex (transformation from an unsuspicious peasant to a somewhat-more-canny-but-still-deeply-sincere witch). The Dragon?  He achieved a soupçon of flexibility.  He learned to respect an equal as an equal, finally. Well: whatever. It didn't make or break the book for me, and I suppose that's the best you can hope for if a supposedly passionate relationship leaves you feeling distinctly cool.

Item #3 is strictly a nit with how the dialogue was written.  Agnieszka would think a long, drawn out and complex thought (or what the textual clues were telling me was a thought?!), and other characters would answer her in dialogue as if she'd spoken aloud. I couldn't find any trace that the Dragon or others were telepathically reading her mind, so it was just: why. It was odd and it pulled me out of the story.

Final item (#4): Gray characters like Prince Marek and the Falcon who were supposed to be relatable in some way were… not. As best I could tell, I was supposed to have sympathy for those two because they either had great talent or were loyal to one person.  I personally couldn't find anything in them to respect/understand or ultimately pardon.  Ultimately, I didn’t think any of the male characters in the book were relatable.  Which: okay, but strange, since I could see that Agnieszka herself thought they were.

Now, on to the things I liked!  Kasia: a true best friend, with complex feelings and motivations of her own. Novik played with tropes of best friends and I really loved that she turned the “saving the damsel in distress” clichĂ© on its head and elevated female friendship throughout the story. Kasia’s strength (if you want to call it that) was being changed in fundamental nature but not letting it change her spirit. Agnieszka’s was in growing and learning to see a new future and a new relationship with that person.  I want Kasia’s story next.

The story’s first real hook for me was when Agnieszka experienced the terror of the Wood for herself. Until then the evil was abstract, though of course monsters had already been spotted and defeated. It took almost a quarter of the book to get there. I don't know that I would be that patient for any other genre, or for a book less highly-regarded.  The action picked up quite a lot 2/3 of the way through. Up to that point I was in a holding pattern of pick it up, put it down. Pick it up again. It is traditional storytelling, there was a vague sense of foreboding, but the hook came late (unless fear of rape as a catalyst worked for you where it didn't for me).

Another plus: the villain of the piece (the Wood).  What can I say?  I liked it.  Novik does believable malevolence, violence, and genuinely terrible consequences for evil incredibly well.  Speaking of the Wood, I really adored the sense of place that Novik developed in Agnieszka’s home valley.  Yes, it was a backwater, and yes, it was dangerous, but all of the people are held to it.  The world-building was on point.

In all, I’d say Uprooted is a book that treads the middle ground between Emily Croy Barker's The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic and Robin McKinley or Patricia McKillip's YA-crossover fantasy. I very much enjoyed that it was a standalone, and I saw flashes of brilliance, but in the end I came away a bit too troubled to call it a favorite.

Recommended for: fans of adult fairy tales and fantasy, those who crave dynamic female characters, and anyone who liked Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker.

fika: the art of the swedish coffee break

Judge this book by its cover (go ahead, it’s safe!).  The cover illustration tells you everything to know: Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall’s Fika: The Art of The Swedish Coffee Break, with Recipes for Pastries, Breads, and Other Treats is a book about coffee breaks done right (in the Swedish tradition). It's 25% lifestyle and history, 75% a cookbook, and 100% interesting.  Of course, I would say that – baking is my jam.

fika: the art of the swedish coffee break by anna brones and johanna kindvall book cover
An illustrated lifestyle cookbook on the Swedish tradition of fika--a twice-daily coffee break--including recipes for traditional baked goods, information and anecdotes about Swedish coffee culture, and the roots and modern incarnations of this cherished custom.

Sweden is one of the world’s top coffee consuming nations, and the twice-daily social coffee break known as fika is a cherished custom. Fika can be had alone or in groups, indoors or outdoors, while traveling or at home. A time to take a rest from work and chat with friends or colleagues over a cup and a sweet treat, fika reflects the Swedish ideal of slowing down to appreciate life’s small joys. In this adorable illustrated cookbook, Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall share nearly fifty classic recipes from their motherland—from cinnamon buns and ginger snaps to rhubarb cordial and rye bread—allowing all of us to enjoy this charming tradition regardless of where we live.

My dad’s family is Danish-American, but his mother died young, so no recipes traveled down that side of the family tree to me.  I’ve always been curious about Scandinavia and its food, though.  With the last name Larsen and as the shortest (at 5’10”) of a bunch of giants, it makes sense.  When a Swedish cookbook popped up on my radar, I took note.  I asked my library to order a copy.  I then read it cover-to-cover and baked out of it and racked up $7.50 in library fines and put it on my wishlist so that one of my freakishly tall brothers can give it to me as a gift. 

Fika is arranged seasonally and traditionally (by traditionally I mean there are sections of the homemade favorites, the items you’d find mostly in a bakery, and then heartier items like breads at the end).  While the focus is on baked goods that go with coffee, there’s also a fair bit about the slow, handmade, homemade traditions of day-to-day life in Sweden.  I enjoyed the bits about history – where and how certain dishes originated, the proper way to enjoy them, suggested flavor combinations, and so on.  But the star, of course, is the food.

muskotsnittar (nutmeg slices)

The authors included recipes that run the gamut from easy (a spiced shortbread cookie) to complex (holiday fare), with easy-to-follow instructions. Johanna Kindvall’s art brings each recipe to life.  That’s a distinctive thing about this cookbook – there aren’t any photographs.  Instead, Kindvall’s illustrations of the steps and finished product are the guide.  And her art is both charming and informative.

kronans kaka (almond potato cake)

To “test” the cookbook I made 4 recipes: Nutmeg slice cookies, almond potato cake, toasted rye buns and soft ginger cookies.  Since the focus is on “homemade” and slow living, the instructions don’t call for any intensive appliances (though there were some tools I didn’t have, but I got by with substitutes), but I used my mixer with no ill effects.  Reading the recipes all the way through is a must – some of them take a day or two to complete! 

rostade ragbullar (roasted rye buns)

The nutmeg cookies turned out well and my book club devoured them: A-.  The almond potato cake was a solid B – good when it came out of the oven, but not something I’d make again unless I have gluten-intolerant guests.  The rye buns (I’ve never baked with rye flour before!) were fantastic: A.  And the soft ginger cookies were GREAT, A+.  Note: These recipes called for less sugar than American favorites across the board. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but it’s something to be aware of.  The stars of Swedish baking seem to be nuts, cardamom and other “Christmas-y” spices – I don’t know if I’ve ever baked out of a cookbook with fewer chocolate recipes!  It was kind of liberating. I look forward to making even more of these recipes in the future.

mjuka pepparkakor (soft ginger cookies)

Is it clear that I like this cookbook?  I hope so.  If there’s one thing I can point to as a “con” I’d say that the authors didn’t need to devote quite so many words to urging readers to slow down and savor their coffee breaks.  That’s preaching to the choir.  In the end I didn’t mind it, though, and I don’t think many will.

In all, Fika is a beautifully illustrated homage to Swedish baking, with tasty recipes and tidbits about history and culture sprinkled throughout.  I can’t wait to have a copy for my own bookshelf.

Recommended for: anyone who likes to experiment with baking, those interested in international food traditions, and for the perfect treats to go along with a cozy cup of coffee.

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking!
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