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 →
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn and Pub draws the most interesting characters. There are the regulars, of course. The observant Mr. Dickens is in quite often, and his friends Wilkie Collins and William Makepeace Thackeray visit now and again. There’s the staff, including a cook who depends on more than a secret recipe to produce her famous Cheshire Cheese, and a maid with a remarkable talent for discovering mice (and an unfortunate, blithering terror of the same). Turn your eyes downward, and you’ll discover a black cat who smells strangely of…cheese?…and a bold little mouse apparently fascinated by Mr. Dickens’s latest project. And then there’s the queen…but that would take far more explaining that we’ve room for here.
Listening to The Cheshire Cheese Cat, I couldn’t help but think of both The Tale of Despereaux, with its literate mouse and affectionate human girl, and the Jacky Faber books, which take place in a similar time and place and are also narrated by Katherine Kellgren. While I’m a big fan of both, one of the things that impressed me most about this book was the fact that even with these similarities, The Cheshire Cheese Cat stood out as distinct, both in story and narration. Deedy and Wright’s story mixes fascinating bits of real history (see below), a touch of speculation — how did Dickens overcome writer’s block? — and a string of perfectly-timed complications to tell a story about friendship and honesty that will keep readers and listeners engaged from start to finish. Kellgren, for her part, creates a whole new set of voices for these characters, so that while the accents will be familiar to those who know Jacky, the characters themselves are unique. A great choice for bedtime installments, or a family roadtrip this summer.
Ivan’s feelings about human beings are complicated. On one hand, humans destroyed his family and carried him far from home. On the other, he enjoyed his childhood in Mack’s house, raised more or less like a human son. And while he’s not sure he remembers how to behave like a wild gorilla, his domain at Mack’s mall is reasonably comfortable. He even has his own TV.
Stella, Mack’s elephant, remembers more about life before, and understands more about the life she and Ivan are living now. When Mack brings in Ruby, a baby elephant, in an attempt to revive his failing mall, Stella is horrified. And Ivan? He discovers that Mack’s “domains” start to look an awful lot like cages once a child is closed inside.
I loved Ivan. His voice is straightforward, insightful, and occasionally witty, without ever feeling affected. I liked Stella’s gravity and Bob the stray dog’s attitude, and I was impressed by the open exploration of the complex relationship between the human and the animal world. That said, it took some time for this book to settle for me. I liked it, but it’s a quick read, and I reached the end feeling like it hadn’t quite accomplished what I’d anticipated — I didn’t feel entirely satisfied. I think, though, that this is a book that deserves contemplation. Applegate’s few words sketch an image with the potential to linger in the memory and challenge the reader in more ways than one, if it’s given the space to do so. So here’s what I suggest: read the story once for the characters. They’re wonderful. Then sit with it awhile and, if you can, read it again. Then come and tell me what you think.
The Boy In The Dress is television comedian Walliams’ first book.
The story is about Dennis, a twelve-year-old soccer lover, who lives with his older brother John, and their father, who resorts to eating to cope with his divorce from the boys’ mother. Dennis finds interest in women’s fashion and comfort in his mother’s old clothing, and it is here that he discovers that he enjoys cross-dressing. He remains shy and wary of sharing this discovery with his family and friends until his father catches him with a copy of Vogue. His father is outraged, and his brother calls him “Denise.”
He meets school idol Lisa Jane, and becomes friends with her when he is given detention as a result of a misguided kick. She convinces him to dress up in a wig and dress, and when he passes unnoticed as exchange student “Denise” at a local corner store, he decides, after much contemplation, to attend school dressed as a girl. While he does a good job of convincing many schoolmates, his cover does not last. When a soccer ball passes by him he can’t resist the urge to kick the ball. His wig falls off and his worst nightmare comes true as he humiliates himself in front of the whole school. On top of everything, he is expelled from the school. Just when it seems things are going all askew, the author adds a little twist, bringing a nice closure to the story.
I came upon this book quite randomly when the red cover caught my eye. Though quite thick, the white space and short chapters made it even more appealing. It is a good book that addresses some questions such as what it means to be different, and accepting who you are. While there were some moments that the story slows, and the UK monetary terms can be a little confusing, it is a book that I am glad to have come upon and can recommend as one that may help readers to manage some of the trepidation associated with being different.
Julie’s new classmates, Chingis and Nergui, have a lot of stories to tell. Some are interesting, like the ones about their home in Mongolia — complete with Polaroid pictures! Some are strange, like the reason Nergui needs to keep his hat on in class. And some are downright scary. Is Nergui really being chased by a demon? Julie, the boys’ guide to life in Bootle, spends the most time with Chingis and Nergui, but even she can’t quite sort out the line between truth and fiction in their stories. Following the boys home one night reveals some of the answers, but new questions arise when their whole family disappears the same night. A final twist, courtesy of the now-adult Julie, provides the explanation for the book’s title.
The Unforgotten Coat offers a portrait of immigration — specifically illegal immigration — through the eyes of children. Julie’s host-child voice, pleased to welcome but openly curious, creates a familiar frame for the more complex perspectives of the two boys, struggling to comprehend the relationship between the old home and the new, and the threats associated with each, even as they interpret that relationship for their classmates. The surprising source of their photographs of home adds an intriguing layer to the story’s mystery, and might well inspire a bit of experimenting on the part of readers. I’ll let you discover that secret for yourself!
Lucky Trimble, resident 42 of Hard Pan, California, population 43, has one of the three paying jobs in town. Three times a week she sweeps up the patio in front of the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center so that the Smokers Anonymous members won’t have to see the cigarette butts of the alcoholics and overeaters, the Overeaters Anonymous members won’t have to see the others’ candy wrappers, and the Alcoholics Anonymous members won’t have to see everyone else’s beer cans. When she finishes sweeping, Lucky likes to listen to the meetings, where members take turns telling again and again how they hit rock bottom, found their higher powers, and got their lives in order. The stories are good, even if she has heard them before, but what Lucky really wants to know is how to find her own higher power so she can get some control over her life. Having lost her mother to a freak electrocution, and terrified that her Guardian — her absent father’s previous wife Brigitte, from France — will give up on Hard Pan and Lucky and go home, this is no idle wish. Frustrated with the lack of detail regarding how to find her higher power, Lucky decides that perhaps she’s had the order wrong all along. Maybe she needs to take control of the situation first, and let the higher power follow.
Patron fits a lot into a small package — Lucky is just over 130 pages — without the story ever feeling forced. With well-chosen details and a handful of vignettes, she creates a believable community making do in near desperate circumstances. I particularly loved the characterisation of Lincoln, a “knot artist,” and Lucky’s efforts to frame her experiences in scientific terms that, while far from accurate, feel somehow logical and familiar just the same.
The first story in Tales from Outer Suburbia is one page long. Two, if you count the illustration. It tells about a water buffalo who used to live in a vacant lot near the narrator’s home. If someone asked the water buffalo a question, he would point in the direction of the answer. Some followed the buffalo’s direction, and were always pleased with what they found, but most quickly talked themselves out of the attempt, noting that the buffalo couldn’t tell them where to go, or how far, or what they’d find. Eventually, people stopped asking altogether, and then the buffalo himself left. The end.
None of the other works in the collection are quite this short, but most have a similar feel. Rather than telling stories, per se, with a problem, climax and resolution or even, most of the time, with memorable individual characters, each creates a reality, drawing on the familiar and the bizarre to hint at possibilities–perhaps truths–that the reader is left to sort out and judge on his or her own. Many of the stories challenge the reader, both in form and content, making Tales from Outer Suburbia an excellent introduction to picture books intended for older readers.