Archives for posts with tag: humor


Orphans are a common trope in children’s literature. I’m sure many people have researched and written on this topic, so I won’t do that here. But I will say that Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell with illustrations by Terry Fan (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, out today), delightfully plays with and challenges all the conventions of books about orphans. It is wonderfully mystical, and laugh out loud funny. Charles Maxim finds Sophie floating in a cello case in the English Channel after a shipwreck. According to the pin on her front, reading 1! it is probably Sophie’s first birthday. Charles, a scholar, takes her in and plans to care for her, despite the consternation of one Miss Eliot from the National Childcare Agency:

‘But it’s a child! You’re a man!’
‘Your powers of observation are formidable,’ said Charles. ‘You are a credit to your optician.’
‘But what are you going to do with her?’
Charles looked bewildered. ‘I am going to love her. That should be enough, if the poetry I’ve read is anything to go by.’

So Sophie isn’t alone; Charles does love her, and despite her rather unconventional upbringing and the fact that Charles allows her to wear trousers (!), she is happy. They are happy. Until Sophie turns 12 and the National Childcare Agency decides that Charles is an unfit guardian for a young woman. Sophie, who has hair the color of lightening, and loves to play the cello, has memories of her mother aboard that ship. She also finds an address for a music shop in Paris in the cello case that Charles finds her in. The two of them spirit away to Paris to look for her mother. There Sophie discovers a world of urchins — not street urchins, but rooftop urchins. With a little friendship, music, and just a touch of magic, Sophie might find exactly what she is looking for on the rooftops of Paris.
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Mo Willems’s fans will be delighted to know that he has a new picture book available, entitled That Is Not a Good Idea! (Balzer + Bray, $17.99). The story unfolds like a silent movie with color images interspersed with dialogue on black pages. A dapper male fox meets a demure female goose. The two strangers take a walk through the woods and then decide to have lunch. The audience, comprised of six delightfully cute baby chicks, continually interjects, yelling, “that is not a good idea” at the screen. Like all of Willem’s book, this one has a twist, but just when you think you know what the twist is going to be the story twists off in a completely different direction. Although younger children might not recognize the silent film motif, they will appreciate the humor of this story. Pigeon lovers should make sure to look closely; as usual, he makes a cameo.

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9780440228004I think books have an infinite range of functions. I hate to be general to the point of uselessness, but they can entertain, teach, challenge firmly-rooted ideals, encourage self-reflection, open up new cultures and experiences. The list goes on.  I think the best stories are ones that do several of these at once rather than just one. Stories that are pure entertainment are usually mindless to the point of embarrassment. Stories that are purely about instruction are boring and terrible to wade through. Even when I agree with the subject matter being taught, I hate books that are so focused on forcing the message that they don’t actually contain an interesting and engaging story. Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (Random House, $6.99) is the perfect combination.

Kenny, aged 10, narrates the story of growing up in Flint, Michigan.  He’s struggling to grow up, but is honest about his weaknesses. He can be naive, he isn’t always a good friend or a good brother, and, although he hates to admit it, he cries a lot. He’s also smart, observant, and rather witty: “It’s times like this when someone is talking to you like you are a grown-up that you have to be careful not to pick your nose or dig your drawers out of your butt”. Basically, he’s a 10 year old kid.

Kenny is an objective narrator. He provides just enough information about his family, his schoolmates, and his town to paint a vivid picture, but doesn’t over explain and ruin the chance for readers to figure things out for themselves. Class is an issue in this book, but Kenny never overtly labels any other character. Instead he notices what his classmates do or do not have, mentions kids forgetting their lunch, or lists the number of shirts and pants someone wears. It’s up to the reader to understand, for example, that Rufus’s family doesn’t have enough food to send school lunches, or the real reason Larry, the bully, steals Kenny’s gloves.

I like that. Writers such as Curtis clearly respect child readers, because they provide all the pieces, but let the readers put them together for themselves.

Although most of the first three-quarters of the book are humorous anecdotes about the “Weird Watsons”, the “go to Birmingham” part of the title hovered like a shadow and provoked not a small amount of anxiety.  Also, the book is dedicated “In memory of  Addie Mae Collins (born 4/18/49, died 9/15/63), Denise McNair (born 11/17/51, died 9/15/63), Carol Robertson (born 4/24/49, died 9/15/63), and Cynthia Wesley (born 4/30/49, died 9/15/63) the toll for one day in one city”. That anxiety proved not to be misplaced and there is a church bombing at the end of the book. I thought Curtis handled these final chapters extremely well. There is enough description to convey the horror of the bombings that occurred in Birmingham, but nothing in this book felt too much for a 9-12 to handle. Also, *spoiler alert* the scenes of Kenny’s post-trauma reactions were far more poignant and effective than having Joetta die would have been. Curtis follows up with an epilogue and in his discussion of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, he rightly notes that, “Although these may be nothing more that names in a book to you now, you must remember that these children were just as precious to their families as Joetta was to the Watsons or as your brothers and sisters are to you”. The ache of worrying about Joetta, followed by the thrill of learning that she survived, makes the historical reality of Addie, Denise, Carol, and Cynthia’s deaths even more heartbreaking.

Both the novel and the epilogue end positively, but with a call to action. Overall the book is a reminder of all the best qualities of children’s literature. A great read for any day of the year.

I used to hand-sell Janell Cannon’s Stellaluna (Harcourt, $17.00 or Red Wagon Books in a $7.99 board book) all the time, but I haven’t recommended it in ages. I was wondering the other day why that is. I think, like in the case of Mr. Popper’s Penguins, that I assume most everyone knows about these kinds of books. They’ve been around for 10 or more years — Stellaluna was first published in 1993. They are still in print and available on publisher’s back lists. They’ve had a flurry of activity, press, and publicity surrounding them. But I’ve been proven wrong again and again. So I need to start pulling Stellaluna out more often.

9780152802172Stellaluna is a soft, lovely book. Cannon’s illustrations are detailed but uncluttered, if that makes sense. The illustrations are mostly close-ups of the important characters and actions. The drawings of the bats and birds are so minutely detailed, you can practically see every hair and feather. The background, however, is limited to sky, moon, tree, forest. In this way, the reader connects with Stellaluna’s plight and doesn’t get distracted by peripheral things.

Like the illustrations, the story is soft and lovely. There is a satisfying cadence to the words, and the humor is quiet and endearing. The humorous parts often occur in the spaces between the words and the images. After Stellaluna gets lost in the forest, she is adopted by a family of birds. Bird ways are not bat ways and Stellaluna tries desperately to fit in with her new family. The text tells us of her genuine intentions, but the illustrations show us Stellaluna’s awkward attempts to land on a branch or to *not* hang by her feet. The resolution is both comforting (her mother finds her) as well as a nod to the importance of being the best you you can be, instead of trying to fit in with everyone around you. The moral, however, doesn’t overshadow the story or the illustrations, which, can I say again, are soft and lovely.

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