Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman

Enthusiasm coverAshleigh has a history of enthusiasm. When she loved Little House on the Prairie, she tried to wear her flowered nightgown to school. When she was into The Wet Blankets, she camped out — with the ingredients for a wet blanket salute — in front of a music store that promised free tickets to their next concert. Now, besotted with the newly-discovered Pride and Prejudice, Ashleigh is covering her “lower limbs,” learning country dances, and figuring out how to crash a prep school dance to find Mr Darcy…and a nice Mr Bingley for her best friend.

Julie, the best friend, and the narrator of Enthusiasm, is a quieter sort. She’s happier reading a good book than trying to live it, but she goes along with Ashleigh’s projects, partly out of love for her friend, and partly because, embarrassment aside, she usually does have a good time. It’s true that Pride and Prejudice was Julie’s favourite book long before Ashleigh embraced it, and the “Mr Bingley” they meet at the dance does seem a much better fit for her enthusiastic friend. But Ashleigh’s never been anything but generous, and sometimes you have to put aside your own feelings to support your friend. Right?

One of Enthusiasm’s real strengths is its exploration of friendship. Julie and Ashleigh misunderstand and occasionally (unintentionally) hurt one another, but both are consistently motivated by an interest in the other’s happiness. Is the story rather “light and sparkling”? Sure. But with solid characters, believable friendships, and a hint of Austen more creative than most, I’d say this one’s well worth a read.

A small warning: The characters do use an unusual collection of slang words, which is a bit jarring at first. The words are used consistently, though, so they fade into the background pretty quickly.

Read more reviews at Austen Prose and Angieville

Read an author-supplied excerpt from Ashleigh’s book, Dancing and Its Relations to Education and Social Life, With a New Method of Instruction Including a Complete Guide to the Cotillion (German), With 250 Figures, by Allen Dodworth: http://www.pollyshulman.com/dodworth.html

Ten: For Young Writers Part 2 — Books

Last month, I highlighted some great online resources for young writers, and promised two more posts: books for young writers, and stories about young writers. This week’s Ten offers up books for, and do I ever have some neat titles to share!

Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook written by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter and illustrated by Matt Phelan
Purposely written for readers who love to write, and for those who don’t (or have never really thought about it), Mazer and Potter’s book invites anyone to jump in and try writing for themselves — with a bit of help to smooth the way. The authors take turns addressing each topic, so the book can easily be read all at once, or in small bits, and both write with humour and casual authenticity that gives the book as a whole a welcoming feel.

Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine? The Art of Making Zines and Mini-Comics by Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson
Todd and Watson’s book, with a variety of presentation that echoes the diversity of its subject, is ready and waiting to tell readers pretty much anything they could possibly want to know about making and distributing zines. Ideas for content? Yup. Quotes and stories from those who’ve made zines before? Absolutely, whether the zine had a 2-issue run or developed into a thriving commercial magazine. Tips on inking, photocopying, folding and binding your zine? Pages and pages, all with illustrations. There’s even a list of comic book stores open to selling zines on commission. Continue reading

The Quiet Book written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska

The Quiet Book coverWhen do you feel quiet? Deborah Underwood’s picture book suggests a variety of situations in which someone might encounter quiet — for example, while waiting, hiding, or processing a surprise or a disappointment. While the situations included in the book are likely to be particularly relevant to small children (jelly side down quiet; tucking in teddy quiet), most are universal enough to recall experiences of stillness and quiet to the minds of older readers as well. In fact, as you work your way through the book, it seems quite natural to slow and remember feeling this kind of quiet and that, and to feel quieter in the act of remembering.

Renata Liwska illustrates each type of quiet with one or more of a community of childlike animals. A hedgehog checks out his new brush cut. A moose waits to be picked up from school. A rabbit hides from an intimidating relative. Some illustrations are focused — only one or two characters and the necessary props — while others involve detailed backgrounds, suggesting the atmosphere surrounding this particular quiet: a time of day, another activity being missed, a place, or a bit of weather. All are presented with a softness that’s less sweet than cosy.

The Quiet Book is much more experience than story, and I suspect that it would be as useful for inspiring discussion around different experiences and emotions as for preparing a little one for bed. Underwood and Liwska have also collaborated on The Christmas Quiet Book (almost as good) and The Loud Book (which has the opposite effect). All three are well worth experiencing for yourself.

Find more reviews at Crowding the Book Truck and Quill & Quire (thanks especially to the latter for helping me to capture some of the language needed to describe this book).

Catch a glimpse of Deborah Underwood’s and Renata Liwska’s Creative Spaces at From the Mixed Up Files.

Cover image from The Quiet Book, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska. Copyright © 2010. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Tales of Two Quirky Heroes by Jason.

You may be familiar with the ironic humour and sardonic canine charm of Norwegian comic book artist and author Jason, real name John Arne Sæterø. His art is reminiscent of Hergé, in that he draws in a seemingly simple style and uses colours that are bold and bright. His stories are populated by anthropomorphized dog-people doing their best to succeed at life. The first Jason book I read, The Left Bank Gang, starred a dog-faced Ernest Hemingway and several of his famous pals planning a bank heist. Jason writes with a wry sense of humour that easily disregards the restrictions of reality; the result is pure entertainment.

The Last Musketeer coverThe Last Musketeer stars Athos, who remarkably is still alive in present day France — how or why this is the case is not explained. One of the other Musketeers, Aramis, also survives, although he has traded his adventures for a quiet married life. When the planet Mars attacks France, Athos goes to Aramis with a plan to fight the Martians, but Aramis refuses to help. Undeterred, Athos hi-jacks a Martian spaceship, ends up in prison, escapes, battles with Martian robots, and eventually secures the help of the daughter of the Martian dictator. Athos also discovers what really happened to Porthos, the third musketeer. This comic is appropriate for middle school students, but would likely be enjoyed by any comic fan. Watch a video preview on YouTube, and read this super short review form Publishers Weekly.

I Killed Adolf Hitler coverThe hero of I Killed Adolf Hitler is a 20th-Century hitman. In the alternate reality of this book, assassins are legitimate businessmen hired by average folks to exact revenge. Hired by a scientist with a time machine, the hero of this story goes back to 1938 to assassinate Hitler. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite as planned, and instead Hitler escapes to the future, leaving the assassin to wait until he is in his 70s to try again. This story is more about relationships and letting go than it is about the wish-fulfillment of assassinating Hitler. Due to the sexual innuendo and murders so frequent they verge on banal, I would recommend this for ages 16+.  This review from ComicSphere provides more description of Jason’s unique storytelling style. Read the Artist Bio at Fantagraphics, or a Q&A with lots of sample art at The Casual Optimist.

What Makes a Hero?

For an online Comics and Graphic novel course (LIS 518). I read a blog post by Laura Hudson called “The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and their ‘Liberated Sexuality,” which described Catwoman being objectified and reduced to her cleavage in the first few pages of issue #1 of the New 52 Catwoman; her responses, though totally understandable and justified, were quite different from my own. I had subscribed to four titles in DC’s New 52 – Green Lantern, Batwoman, Wonder Woman and Catwoman; I had been enjoying them all for 14 months when I read Hudson’s post.

The vehemence of the post made me go back and re-read Catwoman #1. It also had me wondering why I enjoy Catwoman, and if my comic subscriptions could pass the Bechdel test – which measures female representation in movies with 3 simple criteria. Those criteria are: there must be more than two female characters, they must talk to each other, and their conversation must be about something other than a man. Hudson’s blog post states that female super heroes, specifically Catwoman and Starfire, are not heroes at all; so I set out to define concrete criteria for heroism that could be easily quantified to find out if Catwoman was the hero of her own story or not. I counted frames in the first 6 issues of the New 52 series for each title, 24 comics that were each counted 19 times. I am not familiar with Starfire so I cannot comment on that series. Continue reading

Ten: Defining “Hero”

The topic for this week’s Ten followed my discovery, on following a recommendation, that my library had three different books called Sidekicks — a middle grade series starter, a YA novel, and a graphic novel. Of course I requested all three. As I read these, and the others listed below, I found that while the term “hero” is still popular, almost every story focused on a “hero” is at least partly concerned with what exactly heroism means. Traditionally — according to dictionary.com — a hero is (some mix of) daring, altruistic and courageous, and admired by his or her community for these qualities. Is that really what makes a hero? And what does heroism look like when you’re called on to be the hero? Check out this week’s titles for ten answers.

Sidekicks written by Dan Danko and Tom Mason and illustrated by Barry Gott
A group of kids with promising but undeveloped powers provide their services whenever the League of Big Justice needs a hand. When the League is captured, Guy Martin (Speedy) leads the other sidekicks on a rescue mission. While several characters claim the role of “hero” based more on supposed “powers” than on actual heroic activity, Guy and his fellow sidekicks are brave, resourceful, and willing to use their respective talents to help when needed. Continue reading

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton by Matt Phelan

Bluffton coverHenry can’t believe his luck. Just down the road from his ho hum town, a whole troupe of vaudevillians have moved in for the summer. There’s an elephant, a zebra, and, best of all, a boy Henry’s own age who can tumble and flip like you wouldn’t believe.

The rest of Henry’s community gets over the excitement quickly — the troupe seem nice enough, but the vaudeville lifestyle doesn’t fit well with their comfortable routine. Henry finds something special, though: not only a hint of the life he’d like to be living, out on the road, performing for sold-out audiences, but also a true friend in the one and only Buster Keaton. Buster, for his part, is glad to experience a bit of normalcy for a change. Henry slips away from the family store as soon as he can each day, and heads out to Bluffton to hear stories from the adults, and fish, swim and play ball with Buster and Lex, the son of another of the acts.

So it goes for two summers, but by the third, Henry has started to discover some of the benefits of his own world. When Buster visits Henry on his territory, a bit of jealousy might prove enough to end the friendship for good.

Matt Phelan turns his soft and whimsical style from illustration to graphic novel in Bluffton, giving the final presentation a nostalgic feel that fits Henry’s reminiscences perfectly. And though Henry’s story is fiction, much of Buster’s is true, so readers get a fascinating glimpse into a largely-forgotten era of show business. Recommended especially for readers with an interest in the history of the stage.

Check out the Kirkus review.

Read a Q&A with Matt Phelan.

Watch a Buster Keaton movie for yourself on the Internet Archive!

Releases July 23, 2013. I obtained an advance copy of this book from Candlewick via NetGalley. I received no compensation; my interpretation and opinions are my own.