Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K.G. Campbell

Flora and Ulysses coverFlora Belle Buckman knows better than to hope. Already a confirmed cynic (her mother says so), ten-year-old Flora has adopted the very helpful comic book feature, Terrible Things Can Happen to You, as her guidebook. Its often-repeated advice, “Do not hope; instead, observe,” has proven especially useful, rescuing her from the perils of hope and reminding her that acting on what she sees and hears is much more reliable. Observation tells her that her mother loves Mary Ann, the shepherdess lamp, more than she does Flora, for example, and allows Flora to behave accordingly.

The problem is, there seems to be a lot of hopefulness around Flora lately. First there was the squirrel, Ulysses, who survived being vacuumed up and gained amazing superhero powers, like flying and the ability to type poetry. He’s always hopeful about something, and he loves Flora more than any lamp, and possibly more than giant donuts. Then the annoying William Spiver showed up next door; he seems to be setting a lot of his hopes on being Flora’s friend. Even her father, quite possibly the world’s loneliest man, seems to be feeling hopeful, what with everything that’s been going on. And Dr Meescham ignores Flora’s favourite advice entirely, hoping always that something wonderful will happen, even when it doesn’t. Even when terrible things happen instead.

Will seal blubber be enough to help a young cynic hold out against so much hopefulness?

DiCamillo has a knack for blending Douglas Adams’s casual absurdity with a fair amount of heart. Add two children with vocabularies that are impressive, but never unexplained, a nod to the grammar-sensitive, and a poetry-loving squirrel you can’t help but love, and you have a story that will appeal particularly to those of us with a bit of a nerdy bent.

Find other reviews at the New York Times, A Rogue Librarian’s Reading List, and Fuse #8.

Discover the Flora and Ulysses origin story in this article from Publishers Weekly.

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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

Ten: The Books that Will Be 2013

This weekend, I went to the Alberta Library Conference and, among other things, had a chance to read about (and sometimes preview!) some of the books that will be coming out this year. This week’s Ten highlights titles that I’m most excited to read and, hopefully, share with you later this year.

Dream Boats coverDream Boats written by Dan Bar-el and illustrated by Kirsti Anne Wakelin
Released June 2013
“Where do children go when they close their eyes to sleep?
They step onto their dreamboats and sail toward adventure.
From Maiqui in the Andes floating through the constellations, to Aljuu paddling along the shores of Haida Gwaii with Eagle, Orca and Black Bear, to Ivan sailing into St. Petersburg, then sneaking between the bony legs of Baba Yaga, stories and memories lead them on.
Dream Boats takes readers into the dreams of children around the world, dreams that are filled with family and legends, culture and love. Written in lyrical prose by Dan Bar-el with gorgeous art by Kirsti Anne Wakelin, this is a book to be treasured by generations of dreamers. (from simplyreadbooks.com) Continue reading

Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Cosmic coverLiam is twelve, but he looks a lot older. Old enough to be allowed on the big rides. Old enough to be mistaken for a teacher on his first day of middle school. Old enough, when the opportunity presents itself, to play classmate Florida Kirby’s dad when four winning parent-child pairs are invited to try out a brand new, top secret amusement park in the middle of the Gobi desert. As it turns out, the main attraction of this new park is a space shuttle intended to be pilotable by guests of the park — specifically, that is, by children. Although the original plan is for the invited children to test the shuttle alone, Liam manages to secure himself a place as chaperone on what proves to be, not surprisingly, a disastrous trip.

The core of Cosmic is an exploration of what it means to be “dadly.” As an oversized child, Liam is able to look at the role from a range of perspectives — that of a son, certain his father will protect him; that of one of several fathers competing to prove themselves the best dad; and that of one temporarily responsible for parenting four other twelve year olds in the midst of a dangerous situation. The resulting portrait is complex and ultimately affirming, both to parents and to the preteens for whom the book is written.

One more thing, and one of my favourite bits of this book: Boyce’s writing style in general is enjoyable, but he has a real knack for analogies. Watch for passages like this one:

“It was so dark we couldn’t tell who else was there. There was just a bunch of yawning, stretching shadows. Even the Possibility Building didn’t look that solid, until the Sun rolled up and peeled a strip of shadow off its back, as though it was a huge red banana. And then it tore up all the other shadows like tissue paper and there was everyone unwrapped on the tarmac, like surprises.”

Read reviews from Educating Alice and Kirkus

Watch the official book trailer: