Friday, October 31, 2014

The Case for Retellings

Neil Gaiman
Photo: Kimberly Butler
Why retell a fairy tale? If you have something new to say. And Neil Gaiman retells Hansel & Gretel in a truly haunting, original way. Lorenzo Mattotti's illustrations picture not a house brightly accented with rainbow-colored candy, but rather a dark wood where shadow prevails.

Here, Gaiman focuses on the ravages of war, and turning out the children as a means of survival for the parents. It's as grim as a fairy tale gets. Unless you read Adam Gidwitz's A Tale Dark and Grimm, in which the parents try to decapitate Hansel and Gretel (they get their heads back). Yet Gaiman also conveys the father's conflict--he doesn't want to "lose" his children in the woods, and delights in their return.

Lorenzo Mattotti
Gaiman also characterizes the candy-covered home's owner as an "old woman," never a witch. Having painted these as destitute times, the author gives readers some empathy for the old woman and what drives her to desperate measures. Another of my favorite riffs on Hansel & Gretel is Donna Jo Napoli's novel The Magic Circle, which provides a history for "the Ugly One," as the witch in her retelling is called, and adds a layer of complexity as well.

Mattotti's artwork is stunning in its relentless swirls of dark shadows, which make manifest the darkness of the woods, yes, but also the dark side of the parents, which dominates their psyches enough to turn out their own children. The father here shares much in common with the father in Gaiman's recent adult book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as if the man, overtaken by his obsession with a woman, is unable to stay true to his role as protector of his children. (Though Gaiman disagrees with my interpretation of the father's motives in Ocean in a very thought-provoking way.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Chillers & Thrillers

 As Halloween draws near, we have some favorite chillers and thrillers, from board books to YA novels to audiobooks. The Hallo-Wiener by Dav Pilkey, debuting in a board book edition, stars a Dachshund named Oscar, teased by his canine peers for his shape, size and bun costume--until he proves to be the perfect foil to a menacing "monster."

Two beginning readers emphasize the treats of friendship: Dog and Bear: Tricks and Treats by Laura Vaccaro Seeger and Katy Duck's Happy Halloween by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, illustrated by Henry Cole. Don't forget Adam Gidwitz's original spin on the Brothers Grimm, starting with A Tale Dark and Grimm, and closing with The Grimm Conclusion. Another book to keep readers up nights (in the best way) is Guys Read: Thriller, edited by Jon Scieszka. Candace Fleming uses a real cemetery as a backdrop for her collection of spinetingling tales On the Day I Died; the audiobook would make a sensational soundtrack for a haunted houseparty.

The YA short stories in Monstrous Affections, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, include as many psychological thrillers as situational chillers. Two teenage friends drink down a petrified bat with unnerving results in Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King. Hitting close to home in the wake of the Ebola virus, Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson combines spies, intrigue and a deadly pandemic. 

Readers can now enjoy Neil Gaiman's Newbery Award–winning The Graveyard Book three ways: the original novel, the audiobook (read by the author) and the new two-volume graphic novel set (adapted by P. Craig Russell). Check out Kevin Nowlan's rendering of the bloody knife that opens Volume 1, and Scott Hampton's climactic scene in the Frobisher Mausoleum in Volume 2.

This round-up first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Treats of Friendship

Laura Vaccaro Seeger

A deep and abiding friendship between two very different personalities forms the core of Dog and Bear: Tricks and Treats (and all the Dog and Bear books) by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Their latest adventure plays up those contrasts using some time-honored Halloween traditions.

Dog takes risks; Bear is more prudent. Dog inspires Bear to try new things; Bear encourages Dog to slow down, think things through. Seeger's stories grow out of the friends' personalities and how they resolve their dilemmas. And they do solve their problems themselves, without any help from grown-ups. So how do they react to Halloween rituals? What if Dog were to misunderstand how trick-or-treating works? Instead of giving out candy, he confiscates it (not meaning any harm, of course). Children are in on the joke, and Dog doesn't recognize his faux pas. Costume hunting and prank playing (much more benign than egging or TP-ing, of course) make up the themes of the other two stories.

With just a sentence per page, these adventures feel complete and make the ideal books for beginning readers as well as picture book lovers. We can't wait to see what Dog and Bear will do next.

Friday, October 10, 2014


Dav Pilkey with his Hallo-Wiener
Photo credit: Karyn Carpenter

Oscar, the Dachshund hero of The Hallo-Wiener by Dav Pilkey, is a mascot for kindness, and how it reaps its own rewards.

The other dogs are not very kind to Oscar (calling him "Wiener Dog" and laughing at him), but that does not keep him from wearing the bun costume that his mother gives him for Halloween (even though that only ramps up the name-calling and laughter). Oscar wears the costume to be kind; he doesn't want to hurt his mother's feelings.

And despite how the other dogs treat Oscar, he comes to their rescue when they're in trouble. At this age, when toddlers and preschoolers are just beginning to leave the unconditional love and protection of their parents and caregivers to enter daycare and preschool, Oscar sends a strong example of being kind no matter what.

Although the other dogs are rude to Oscar, he does not have to return their rudeness. He chooses to be kind, and to come to their aid when a scary "monster" (two cats in disguise) chases them. His act of kindness opens the other dogs' eyes to look beyond Oscar's appearance and recognize an act of true friendship. For toddlers, pair this with Baby Be Kind.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Testing Boundaries

Una LaMarche

In Like No Other, Una LaMarche lets readers inside the traditionally private Chabad-Lubavitch community for a rare view of its traditions. Readers enter through the experience of 16-year-old Devorah Blum, whose chance encounter with Jaxon, an African-American young man her age, prompts her to question some of those traditions. Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway marks the boundary between their two communities, but they meet in the hospital that serves them both when the elevator breaks down.

Devorah would never, under normal circumstances, be with a boy her age unchaperoned, let alone a boy outside of her community. They talk about their families, music, and through their alternating first-person narratives, readers watch their mutual attraction develop.

LaMarche reveals the complexity of the mores behind the Chabad-Lubavitch way of life. Devorah jokes that yichud (the rule against two members of the opposite sex alone together) stems from the belief, "Plop two teenagers in a confined space, let them get to talking, and sooner or later the conversation will go to a sinful place..." Yet their attraction bears this out. These rules are rooted in life experience. 

But when does Devorah get to test these boundaries for herself and gain her own life experiences? She's smart and curious and willing to take responsibility for her actions. The author, without didacticism, explores the territory between faith and doubt, fate and free will. Can one's faith strengthen without doubt? Can one respect boundaries without testing them? These are all questions that teens innately raise for themselves, and LaMarche's romance about two 16-year-olds curious about and attracted to each other, gives teens an apparatus for examining these questions for themselves.