December 17, 2020

Review: The Wakanda Files: A Technological Exploration of the Avengers and Beyond

The Wakanda Files

By Troy Benjamin
Available now from Epic Ink
Review copy

I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I eagerly dived into The Wakanda Files: A Technological Exploration of the Avengers and Beyond. The conceit of The Wakanda Files is that Shuri has ordered the publication of Wakanda's intelligence files regarding the Avengers technology. Through this conceit, various aspects of all the MCU movies so far are explored.

Illustration of Maya Hansen's badge

There's also a fun gimmick. The Wakanda Files also includes a Kimoyo bead–shaped UV light. Some pages have Shuri's commentary written on them, which can be revealed by the UV light. It is a pretty small beam that needs to be held close to the page, but the words can be read even in full light. I also like that effort was put into ensuring the small Kimoyo bead light wouldn't be lost. It magnetically attaches between two other Kimoyo beads, and a clear plastic slip case ensures that everything is kept together.

Troy Benjamin's writing is pretty workmanlike, given the point of view of the text, but it does pay attention to detail. It is also accompanied by cool illustrations and renders made by a variety of artists and studios, including a pull-out on the Iron Man suit.

Blurred screenshots of the Hulk

However, The Wakanda Files does have one big failing. When it includes photos from the movies, it applies a heavy Gaussian blur over them. It looks terrible, especially when those photos are huge and cover half a page or more. I suppose the intention was to make them look like the illustrations, but they don't. They just look back. This is a huge detraction in an expensive table book meant to be nice to thumb through.

This odd decision keeps me from recommending The Wakanda Files. The text isn't interesting enough to make up for the horrible quality photos.

December 13, 2020

Review: The Nocturnals Adventure Activity Box

The Nocturnals Adventure Activity Box

By Tracey Hecht
Illustrated by Kate Liebman
Available now from Fabled Films Press
Review copy

The Nocturnals Adventure Activity Box looks something like a subscription box (and I do know there are similar ones for books). Inside is the first hardcover chapter book in The Nocturnals series, The Mysterious Abductions, The Nocturnals Activity Book, and a plush of Dawn the fox. There's also a bookmark. The book and plush can be purchased separately, but the activity book is unique to the box.

The Dawn plush is extremely cute. Mine arrived with the fur needing some fluffing, but that's typical for shipped stuffed animals. The neckerchief she's wearing comes right from the first chapters of the book, a detail that will delight kids who are sticklers from accuracy. It is stitched on, but a parent can cut it off if desired.

The Nocturnals Activity Book is a black and white and has several different versions of a few activities rather than several different activities. There are word searches, crosswords, matching animals to facts, and some arts and crafts. The cut-out sections are printed so that no activity on the reverse side is destroyed. There is a bingo that needs multiple players, kiwi birds that can be cut out to play hockey (like in the book), masks of the main characters, and hearts that can be made into the main characters faces. The activity book notes it is for fourth and fifth graders, but I would say a third grader could definitely do the activities, especially since the crossword includes a word bank. (Weirdly, words are repeated between the crosswords.)

The centerpiece, of course, is the book itself. The Mysterious Abductions is the tale of three nocturnal creatures: Tobin the pangolin, Bismark the sugar glider, and Dawn the fox. They come together to form a brigade to protect their fellow animals. Their first case involves a series of strange disappearances.

The chapters in the book are short and filled with action, propelling a young reader along. There are lessons about teamwork and standing up to bullies. The characters themselves mostly have surface traits. Dawn is the stalwart leader, and has an intriguing past with a coyote. Tobin is steady. Bismark is an insecure show-off.

Kate Liebman's sugar glider

Bismark, unfortunately, is the most talkative of the Nocturnals and the worst part of the book. His dialogue is super annoying, speaking in triplicate and peppering his speech with languages such as Spanish and French. I think it is supposed to be a fun way to introduce common non-English phrases to kids, but it irritated me, especially coming from Bismark. He hits on Dawn constantly, even though she shows no interest in him. This sort of lothario used to be a stock comedy character, but it isn't cute, especially in a kid's book.

Also, in a series with a running message against bullying, Bismark is one of the biggest bullies of them all. Throughout their adventure, the brigade meet up with other nocturnal animals who join the team to help out. In The Mysterious Abductions, this includes a trio of bats. Bismark insults them constantly, including calling them dingbats and mocking the way they speak in threes (look whose talking). Weirdly, no one seems to have an issue with how he speaks to their allies. 

The narrative even seems to agree with him at one point, when Dawn notes, "But upon inspecting the creatures before her, she understood what he meant. The fur on their chests was matted and mangy, and their rickety wings were covered in scrapes. (37)" There's no reason for the bats to be in such poor shape, and the other animals aren't treated so rudely or remarkably dirty. Bats are cool! I found their treatment egregious and contrary to the book's message.

Kate Liebman's art is featured in full color at the beginning of each chapter. Some of it is cute, in a slightly askew way. Some off-putting.

I think this activity box is a super cute idea to turn the first book in a series into a gift. But I don't think I can recommend this series.

December 9, 2020

Review: The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns

The First Free Women

Translated by Matty Weingast
Foreword by Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi
Available now from Shambhala
Review copy

The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns is a new translation of selected poems from the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, a Buddhist religious text from about 80 BCE, written shortly after the life of Buddha. The women who wrote it had once been rich, poor, mothers, daughters, wives, sex workers, but all came to walk the Path and become Buddhist Nuns.

I have not read any prior translations of this text, though I am now curious about picking some up to compare the renditions. Weingast's goal, as laid out in his introduction, is not to provide an academic translation, but one that maintains the poetry of the originals for a contemporary audience. I appreciate that he is up front that this is a translation that takes liberties. He did consult the Buddhist Nun Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi (who wrote the foreword) in his work.

Though The First Free Women is a slim volume of less than 200 pages and most of the poems fill a mere fraction of the page, this work took me several nights to read. These are poems that spoke to me, and made me think. Few sophisticated literary techniques are used, but poetry can be plainspoken and still ignite the mind with its ambiguities.

I am not Buddhist, but I feel there was still much for me to find within these pages. These women are focused on their religious journey - how they came to it, whether they questioned it, their advice - but each poem offers a fascinating glimpse into their lives.

Weingast's introduction notes that Buddhist Nuns still aren't accorded the respect of Buddhist Monks and that they have had to fight for ordainment that sometimes isn't recognized. I do not know who could read these words and think women less than men. But I know the world, and I do not doubt it.

The First Free Women is a fascinating read, and I am quite glad it found me.

December 5, 2020

Review: Anti/Hero


By Kate Karyus Quinn and Demitria Lunetta
Illustrated by Maca Gil
Available now from DC Comics
Review copy

DC Comics might annoy me frequently, but they are killing it with their DC Kids line. Anti/Hero introduces two young heroines from East Gotham who are set up to appear in further adventures, either other graphic novels or comics, though Anti/Hero does tell a complete story.

Piper Pájaro has super strength and is determined to use it to be a superhero. Unfortunately, she has a reputation with the cops as the Wrecking Ball due to the accidental damage she causes. Piper is also struggling with her school life since she has trouble paying attention to school work. Sloane MacBrute is a thief known as Gray, armed with drones and working for local crime lord the Bear to help pay her mother's medical bills. At school she whizzes though assignments but struggles in gym. But both girls need academic and athletic skills to make it through a competition Bruce Wayne is holding - one that would reunite Piper with her scientist parents and allow Sloane to work with real scientists.

When the girls get in an altercation over a super-secret device, they find themselves switching places. Stuck in each other's shoes, they're forced to empathize with each other's struggles. The girls also find that they can learn from each other and be stronger together. The overall arc of the plot and character growth isn't surprising, but that doesn't mean it isn't appealing. (And there is one reveal that made me gasp!) Piper and Sloane are both great kids with wonderful families, and I loved spending time in their world.

I find it amazing that this is illustrator Maca Gil's first published work. The action is easy to follow and the character designs are fantastic. Piper is as bubbly as her personality, while Sloane is more sleek and as angular as her defensive personality. I could almost believe there are two artists as well as two writers. Sarah Stern's bright colors are the perfect compliment to Gil's art. Wes Abbott's lettering is easy to read and suits the feel of the book, too.

I think young readers will devour Anti/Hero and be eager to read more.

December 1, 2020

Review: The Bitterwine Oath

The Bitterwine Oath

By Hannah West
Available now from Holiday House
Review copy

I haven't been keeping up with new YA releases the way I used to just a few years ago, but I've paid attention to know that witches are one of the current hot trends. The Bitterwine Oath slots right in, as the story of a young woman in her last summer before college who learns that she has magic and falls in love.

I read the entirety of The Bitterwine Oath on a lazy Sunday morning, a milieu that suited it well. Natalie Colter lives in San Solano, Texas, the home to a century-old massacre and a copycat massacre enacted fifty years after the first. It being the second fifty-year anniversary, everyone in town is on edge that it might happen again. Nat has even more scrutiny to worry about than most, since one of her ancestors was the leader of the group that caused the original massacre. Of course, she's also worried about the return of Levi Langford, who kissed her and then left for college.

I loved the atmosphere of The Bitterwine Oath. It captures small-town Texas well. I could tell that author Hannah West lives in Texas by the way the characters spoke, and I appreciated that she didn't go overboard with the folksiness. I also liked how West portrayed the way the local church is woven through almost everything happens in the town, and that the witches balance their beliefs around their powers with their Christian beliefs. It felt realistic - aside from magic being real.

As is tradition in these stories, Nat is kept ignorant of her power until it is almost too late, and she is actually the most powerful witch of all. (At least, among those still alive.) But she was kept ignorant for a reason, one that makes her mistrust the other witches and try to seek out her own path. Of course, the clock is ticking, and twelve men's lives hang in the balance. Nat has to decide whether to bow to tradition or strike out.

There's nothing too unpredictable or unfamiliar in The Bitterwine Oath. I was entertained that the male love interest was the one always getting himself in danger when he tried to charge in to find answers. Still, I found it fun. I liked the setting, and I thought Nat and Levi were sweet together. I'm sure fans of witchy YA urban fantasy will enjoy The Bitterwine Oath.

November 27, 2020

Review: 30 Great Myths About Jane Austen

30 Great Myths About Jane Austen

By Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite
Available now from Wiley-Blackwell
Review copy

I appreciated that the introduction to 30 Great Myths About Jane Austen defined what a great myth is, because I was not sure. Myths are accepted beliefs about Austen, true or false, and great myths are those that affect how readers approach her work.

Each selected myth is covered in a short essay about five pages long. While both Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite are professors and write in an academic style (complete with thorough citations), the briefness of each part keeps this work approachable for the non-academic who is interested in learning more about Jane Austen.

I did find that there was some repetition between parts. Expect that famous first line of Pride & Prejudice to come up multiple times. Usually, these quotes that come up repeatedly are analyzed in a different way each time. This could be a result of the book having two authors, or another example of how complicated it can be to glean meaning from a playful sentence.

30 Great Myths About Jane Austen is filled not only with literary analysis, but facts from the latest scholarship about Jane Austen's life. I've studied Austen in an academic setting, but that was ten years ago. There's still new research being done into her life and work. Although one factoid I found interesting was from a much older article. Did you know Austen mention more than a hundred named servants (Lady Balfour, "The Servants in Jane Austen," 1929).

To me, 30 Great Myths About Jane Austen was an interesting read, although a bit slight since the book only has room to provide introductions to the 30 topics. Its true value, I think, is that it is an introduction to a world of deeper research. But even if a reader goes no farther than these 30 essays, I think they'll know more about Austen and her fiction than when they started.

November 23, 2020

Review: The Magical Unicorn Activity Book

The Magical Unicorn Activity BookBy Glenda Horne
Available now from Castle Point Books
Review copy

Unicorns are having a moment, and The Magical Unicorn Activity Book is a great choice for any young unicorn fan bored at home. (Can I say that author Glenda Horne has the perfect name for writing about unicorns?) This is a thick book with heavy paper and a wide range of activities.

In The Magical Unicorn Activity Book, there are images to color, paths to follow, dots to connect, shadows to match, crosswords to fill in, and more. Most of the activities are on the simpler side, since the age range of this book is four to eight, but some might cause an eight-year-old to stretch themself.

What I don't like is that there are several activities that require cutting and pasting. These can't be easily done on the go, and they destroy the activity on the opposite side of the page. I didn't like these sorts of activities as a kid, and I still think they're lower in appeal than the others included in the book.

The included stickers, however, are a great bonus. They're super cute, and there's some nice bigger ones as well as plenty of small ones.

The Magical Unicorn Activity Book includes several styles of unicorns, from very cartoony to looking more like a realistic horse with a horn. None of the designs copy My Little Pony, but I think young MLP fans would enjoy this book.

November 19, 2020

Review: My Video Game Ate My Homework

My Video Game Ate My HomeworkBy Dustin Hansen
Available now from DC Comics
Review copy

Dustin Hansen wrote and illustrated My Video Game Ate My Homework, a graphic novel from the DC Kids line meant to appeal to younger readers (about 8 to 12 years old). Hansen draws on his own experience to write protagonist Dewey Jenkins' dyslexia. I think his trouble with reading will ring true with reluctant readers, even if dyslexia isn't the cause of their difficulties.

My Video Game Ate My Homework is not long, and there isn't much text per page. The dialogue tends to be fairly short and direct. The pictures do a good job of helping to tell the story in combination with the text. I particularly love one shot of small spider monsters descending the stairs toward our heroes, where a larger spider can be seen lurking beneath the stairs.

In My Video Game Ate My Homework, Dewey is desperate to get a good grade on his science project to pass his class. He's a smart kid, but his troubles with reading make it difficult for him to do well on day-to-day assignments. Of course, he also wants the first-place prize of an early release VR platform. But his best friend Ferg (the principal's son) accidentally breaks the machine when he finds it in his dad's office. Soon Dewey, his sister Beatrice, her best friend Kat, and Ferg are journeying through the levels of the VR game to rescue Dewey's science project from the malfunctioning machine.

The plot in My Video Game Ate My Homework progresses like a game, with power-up items received and more dangerous monsters on each level and limited lives. The familiarity of this progression will help out readers who are better at games than reading.

I liked the gender balance of the cast, although all the characters are pretty thinly sketched given that it is a short book with lots of action. I disliked that Kat was given lots of good fighting equipment but died quickly in all the fights. The other fighter, Ferg, was given more to do. There are a few nice sibling moments between Dewey and Beatrice.

I don't think My Video Game Ate My Homework will keep more advanced readers occupied long, but I think it is an excellent choice for beginning readers and readers who struggle with denser texts. It is a fun, appealing read that isn't dumbed down but is approachable due to its structure and format. The art is bright and fun, too.

November 15, 2020

Review: What Can I Draw Today? Daily Drawing Prompts for Young Artists

What Can I Draw Today?By Andrea Mulder-Slater
Available now from Rockridge Press
Review copy

What Can I Draw Today? Daily Drawing Prompts for Young Artists contains a variety of drawing prompts printed on blank pages (except for finish this line prompts). Sometimes two prompts share a page. Sometimes an inspirational quote is added to a prompt. Each type of prompt (concrete, abstract, sensory, get thinking, finish a line) is color coded. If you prefer one kind of prompt, it is easy to flip to each of those.

Personally, I think having fewer prompts so that all of them could have a full page would be best. The half-pages are somewhat cramped, allowing for less free-flowing ideas. The paper is a nice bright white, but fairly thin. Designs do show through to the reverse page. I think the book is best for pencil and colored pencil, but crayons work well, too.

I think the prompts are suited to the full age range recommended on the cover. Eight-year-olds might prefer the concrete prompts (such as "a row of crooked, colorful houses"), but twelve-year-olds will be challenged by more advanced prompts like "design a set of musical instruments for a band of punk rock giraffes" or drawing what a cake that represents the sunset might look like. There are lots of fun starting points to help kids develop creativity and start drawing their own creations.

I think What Can I Draw Today? is a fun choice to keep kids busy. It is a little more free-flowing than a coloring or activity book, but still offers some structure so they aren't left adrift. It might be fun to pair with a sketchbook as a gift, for when the kids what to draw their own ideas with no guidance.

November 11, 2020

Review: Bet Your Life

Bet Your Life Second in the Jess Tennant mysteries
By Jane Casey
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

When I finished How to Fall, I was eager to find out what happened next in Port Sentinel. By the time Bet Your Life came out, I'd forgotten what happened in the first book but picked up the second anyway since I remembered liking the first. Then it sat on my shelf for ages.

In the first book, Jess Tennant sought out the truth of what happened to her cousin Freya. In Bet Your Life, the stakes are far less personal. Local cad Seb Dawson is attacked and left in a coma, and Jess searches for the truth because Seb's younger sister asks her to - even though all signs point to Seb getting what he deserved.

Meanwhile, in Jess's romantic life, she's hung up on Will even though they broke up (which I didn't remember why), and she might be interested in Ryan. Meanwhile, Will's shady father keeps involving himself because he wants them to stay broken up. (Will's father, of course, also being one of Jess's mother's exes and the guy who is supposed to investigate the attack on Seb.)

I find this series very readable but forgettable. They're disposable mysteries about the dark underbelly of a small town full of rich people.

There is a third and final book in the Jess Tennant series, Hide and Seek. I might pick it up if I see it on sale one day, but I'm not seeking it out.

November 7, 2020

Review: On the Train Activity Book

On the Train Activity BookBy Steve Martin
Illustrated by Putri Febriana
Available now from Ivy Kids
Review copy

If you know a kid who likes locomotives or other moving vehicles, this is a great choice of activity book. It's packed full of a range of activities suitable for early elementary school kids. The paper is thick and the pages are colorful, unlike cheaper options.

I like that information is integrated with the activities in fun ways. Some activities only require a little imagination. Others require some English grammar or simple math knowledge. Most of them help develop problem-solving skills.

There is definitely a variation in skill level among the activities, from spot the difference to pattern recognition to logic puzzles. I think that would make the On the Train Activity Book a good choice for siblings who could share or work together. A younger child also might get more than one year's use out of the book as they work up to the harder activities.

Overall, I recommend this activity book, especially since so many children do like trains. It has quite a lot of appeal and will keep them busy for a while.

November 3, 2020

Review: Crush and Color: Keanu Reeves

Crush and Color: Keanu ReevesIllustrated by Maurizio Campidelli
Available now from Castle Point Books
Review copy

I was unfamiliar with the Crush and Color coloring book series, but I have bought similar books before. I really enjoy Keanu Reeves films and he seems like an all-around decent person, so I assumed Crush and Color: Keanu Reeves: Colorful Fantasies with a Mysterious Hero would have several scenes that appealed to me.

The framing of the book is fairly silly, with short, two-sentence fantasies about each coloring picture appearing on the facing page. But it's all in good fun. From surfing to ironing to walking puppies to being a rock star, this Keanu does it all.

Maurizio Campidelli's art fills each page almost to the edge. The backgrounds are filled with details that help flesh out the scenes. Some have lots small areas, others bigger spaces to color. I do find the way Keanu's face is way more detailed than the rest of the image somewhat off-putting.

If I have one real gripe about Crush and Color: Keanu Reeves, it is that every page offers the same Keau Reeves - long hair, stubble, a few wrinkles. As the intro states, he's been acting since the 80's. That's four decades of Keanu to color! I think that some variety would've been nice.

Overall, this is a nice coloring book suitable for crayons or colored pencils. It would make a cute gag gift for the Keanu Reeves fan in your life.

October 30, 2020

Review: Where's Waldo? Spooky Spotlight Search

Where's Waldo? Spooky Spotlight Search

Part of the Where's Waldo? series
By Martin Handford
Available now from Candlewick
Review copy

Just in time for Halloween comes Where's Waldo? Spooky Spotlight Search, a new Where's Waldo book with a gimmick. You use a glow-in-the-dark wand that slides beneath a transparent image to find Waldo.

The slider isn't super bright, so I recommend using it in a dim room rather than a fully dark one. A flashlight can also be used to make the picture over the glowing star appear brighter.

In some ways, Where's Waldo? Spooky Spotlight Search is more difficult than a standard Waldo book. Since you can only see a small part of the image at a time, it is possible to accidentally skip over the bit Waldo is in. At the same time, the transparency only takes up part of one page instead of the image being a full bleed over two pages. There is much less space to look over. The hardest page had Waldo hidden at the very edge. But Martin Handford's art does always have so much fun packed into it that there is far more to look for than Waldo, the other characters, and even the bonuses listed on each page.

Buy Where's Waldo? Spooky Spotlight Search for the gimmick. It is also good for introducing younger kids to Where's Waldo? It doesn't have as many pages as most Waldo books and has a more limited search area, making it quicker to get through in addition to the glow-in-the-dark mechanic. Kids on the older end of the Where's Waldo? age range might be disappointed by this one.

October 27, 2020

Review: Little People, Big Dreams Coloring Book

Little People, Big Dreams Colorng BookCreated by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara
Available now from Frances Lincoln Children's Books
Review copy

The Little People, Big Dreams series created by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara now contains more than forty books, as well as various compilations, dolls, and other material - such as this coloring book. This coloring book takes material from 15 of the previous books, with each person's name, an identifying title, birth and death years, and a short bio opposite a page to color.

The biographies are cute and often make a thematic suggestion about how the page might be colored. Even after the pages are colored in, kids might want to reread their favorite bio (or have someone buy the full book for them).

The art has lots of nice, big spaces for young hands to fill in. The cartoonish styles from various artists are cute, but I think the majority don't look particularly similar to the people they are supposed to represent. They're most recognizable by the iconography around them. 

I think a nice range of figures are included. There are people famed for science, art, sports, activism, or some combination of notable work. There are men and women, white, Black, Hispanic, and Asian people. With only 15 people featured, I like that an effort was made to include such a variety of inspiring people.

I do think that at only 15 coloring pages (with the opportunity of the graphic borders on the facing pages), this coloring book is extremely slim for the price. The Little People, Big Dreams series easily has enough material to double the size of this coloring book.

October 23, 2020

Review: Search the Zoo, Find the Animals

Search the Zoo, Find the Animals
Illustrated by Sara Lynn Cramb
Available now from Rockridge Press
Review copy

Search the Zoo, Find the Animals is a the companion book to Search the Ocean, Find the Animals. Both are search-and-find activity books suitable for younger children. In Search the Zoo, Find the Animals, each spread features a zoo exhibit in which children can find ten animals accompanied by brief facts that will help them spot the animals.

Author Josh Hestermann is a terrestrial husbandry manager and co-author Bethanie Hestermann is a writer. Together, they write descriptions of the animals and environments that are fun and engaging for children while being factual and informative. There is a small moral lesson about conservation and what children can do to preserve animal habitats (including avoiding products that use palm oil).

There are several different types of habitats explored. Some are geographical, such as "The Green Heart of Africa." Others, like "Life on the Farm" showcase animals that live together due to human intervention. Other animals are grouped by type, such as "Creatures of the Night" and "Reptile House." I think this reflects the way zoos sort animals depending on their needs.

Sara Lynn Cramb's art is as colorful in Search the Zoo, Find the Animals as it is in Search the Ocean, Find the Animals. It isn't my favorite style, but it serves the purpose of the book well. The animals are even easier to find in this book, in my opinion, but there are still shown interacting with their environment and a few are partially hidden.

If you're looking for something for your child to do that is fun and educational, I think Search the Zoo, Find the Animals is a good choice. It is a good search-and-find book for younger children and full of interesting facts.

October 19, 2020

Review: The Cemetary Boys

The Cemetary Boys
Available now from HarperTeen
Review copy

I was a fan of Z Brewer's Vladimir Tod novels, so I eagerly picked up their first standalone novel. Then I let it sit around for ages. The copy compares it to Hitchcock and Hinton, but the movie it brings to my mind is The Wicker Man. (And now Midsommar, though the book predates that movie by some years.) Protagonist Stephen might have seen some horror movies, but there were some obvious gaps in his fandom that might have helped him.

Stephen is a city boy who has been forced to move to the small town his father grew up in - specifically, the home of his horrible grandmother. His mother had to be institutionalized, and with the bills piling up, his father couldn't afford to keep their house. Stephen hates his grandmother, the boring town of Spencer, and his father for getting them into this situation.

I felt so old reading The Cemetery Boys. All I had was sympathy for Stephen's father, who managed to get out of the regressive town he grew up in only to get forced back, all while trying to do the best by both his wife and child. What a horrible fate. Thus, I did appreciate that part of Stephen's journey is learning to appreciate his father.

The bulk of The Cemetery Boys focuses on Stephen's relationship with Devon and his twin sister Cara, who Stephen crushes on hard. To no one's surprise, the twins are bad news and keep getting Stephen deeper into trouble.

There aren't too many surprises in The Cemetery Boys, but there is a nice sense of place and a truly sad conclusion. It's a decent read for young horror fans.

October 15, 2020

Review: National Parks of the U.S.A. Activity Book

National Parks of the U.S.A. Activity Book
By Claire Grace
Illustrated by Chris Turnham
Available now from Wide Eyed Editions
Review copy

National Parks of the U.S.A. Activity Book is a companion to Kate Siber's National Parks of the U.S.A., but is perfectly enjoyable even without reading that informative book first. (Although some readers might be interested in seeking out more information after enjoying the activity book.)

I think this activity book is appropriate for elementary school children. Most of the activities are fairly simple, but some require strong reading skills. I do wish that the book hadn't been printed in cursive, since some schools don't even teach cursive any more and it is an upper-level skill for part of the age range. It might be best for siblings to share, especially since there is a game needing more than one player.

This is a shorter activity book (around 16 activities) and while a few will take longer - a game, designing your own park - most are fairly short. One is also a wildlife spotting activity, which can't really be done most places.

There are several facts included, especially in the true or false activity, but for there isn't much beyond a few tidbits per activity. Once the activities are done, National Parks of the U.S.A. Activity Book doesn't offer much further value.

However, I do still like this activity book because it is gorgeous. It is oversized compared to most, with a pearlized cover. Chris Turnham's art recalls classic travel posters for the national parks. It is showcased in borders, illustrations of animals, and a few human figures of multiple races. The best part of this activity book, to me, is the included fold-out poster and stickers. The poster is a map with little illustrations representing each park, and the stickers feature many plants and animals shown throughout the book. They're beautiful, and I think kids would have fun with both.

October 11, 2020

Review: Zendoodle Colorscapes: Outrageous Owls

Outrageous OwlsIllustrated by Deborah Muller
Available now from Castle Point Books
Review copy

My current enjoyment of coloring books continues. Zendoodle Colorscapes: Outrageous Owls: Wacky Birds to Color and Display features one of my absolute favorite animals. There are more than 60 owls to color in this fun coloring book.

Like many coloring books aimed at adults, the art is only printed on one side of the pages. I do appreciate that Outrageous Owls has perforated pages in case I do want to remove any from the book cleanly. Perhaps if my niece or nephew colors one while visiting.

Many of the scenes in Outrageous Owls are fairly typical: owls on a branch with hearts, mother owls with baby owls, an owl with a moon. But many live up to the subtitles promise of wackiness. There is an acrobat owl, a pirate owl, a hippie owl, a rockstar owl, and more. The combo of fantasy and realistic situations helps this coloring book from feeling to samey for me, given that it only has one subject. I particularly like the ballerina owl and the several owls pictured with books. (If I were going to display any, those would be it.)

The paper is a nice weight and works well with both crayons and colored pencils. Each illustration by Deborah Muller goes almost to the edge of the page and involves a nice mix of large and small areas to color.

I think Outrageous Owls is an excellent addition to my coloring book collection!

October 7, 2020

Review: A World Full of Dickens Stories

A World Full of Dickens Stories
Illustrated by Jannicke Hansen
Available now from Frances Lincoln Children's Books
Review copy

Of all the books I had to read for high school English, Charles Dickens' works were some of my favorites. Thus, I was quite intrigued by an anthology for younger readers that I could share with my relatives. A World Full of Dickens Stories: 8 Best-Loved Classic Tales Retold for Children includes versions of Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Hard Times, A Christmas Carol, Nicholas Nickleby, and A Tale of Two Cities.

I wasn't sure if this would be child-friendly excerpts or the whole enchilada. Angela McAllister does cover the entirety of each story in about fifteen pages. I quickly found that I preferred those told in first person, since they had more personality. The third-person stories read more like summaries. Personally, I adore Dickens' humor and found it entirely missing from these versions. A few of his most famous lines are preserved. There are also a few more difficult vocabulary words included, with an index of terms at the back of A World Full of Dickens Stories.

This is a beautiful volume, with a lovely cloth spine and foil on the cover. Jannicke Hansen's pictures add a lot of appeal, with a limited color palette and melancholy tone. There's a personality to them that I think is missing in the simplified text. I do understand the difficulties McAllister must have faced, as Dickens' long, twisty sentences aren't very child reader friendly.

I do think A World Full of Dickens Stories is a decent introduction to these tales, and could perhaps be followed with some of the better movie versions. I would note that although this is an illustrated children's book, it is not meant for toddlers. Dickens' stories involve quite a lot of deaths, many of them unfair, and that is not bowdlerized.

October 3, 2020

Review: The Farm That Feeds Us

The Farm That Feeds Us
Illustrated by Ginnie Hsu
Available now from words & pictures
Review copy

The Farm That Feeds Us: A year in the life of an organic farm is an 80-page nonfiction picture book. I feel that it has the most appeal to a narrow age group, probably first and second graders. The Farm That Feeds Us is too dense to appeal to younger children, but older children probably feel like they are beyond children's books.

Broken into sections by the four seasons, The Farm That Feeds Us covers various farming activities in no particular order other than the seasonal theme. Each spread covers one topic and then moves to the next. This is not a sun-up to sun-down description of activities, but covers everything from crop growing to animal husbandry to jam making. Every once in awhile there is some shorter, more poetic text to break up the larger informative paragraphs. Perhaps this text could be used by parents to make a shorter version for younger kids. I will admit, even I learned a few things from this book.

There are things to appreciate. The Farm That Feeds Us is very informative. It also has a focus on ethical consumerism and the advantages of patronizing smaller farms. It might also get kids interested in trying some new fruits and vegetables after they read about them. The art doesn't do much for me, but I think it has kid appeal and it is easy to tell what is happening on each page. I do like that a variety of people are shown throughout the book.

I think The Farm That Feeds Us has noble goals, but I wouldn't expect most kids to be all that interested.

September 29, 2020

Review: Princess Kevin

Princess Kevin
Illustrated by Roland Garrigue
Available now from Frances Lincoln Children's Books
Review copy

I was attracted to Princess Kevin due to the bright pink cover and the beautiful dress, which reminded me of 18th-century French court fashion. I noticed the incongruous title third and had to pick it up.

Princess Kevin is a very cute children's book in which Kevin wants to wear a princess costume to his school's fancy dress party. But he wants a knight to hold his hand to complete his costume, and none of the kids dressed as knights are willing to help. Meanwhile, Chloe (who is dressed to a dragon) is kind to him even though he thinks her dragon costume is sub-par and sock-like.

I appreciate that Princess Kevin tackles issues of gender roles that might be fraught for adults in a manner perfectly suited for children. There's nothing wrong with children playing around and being creative and imaginative. The important thing is to be kind to one another and have fun together. (And I love the touch that Kevin realizes wearing high heels all day is not fun!)

My favorite part might be the illustrations by Roland Garrigue. There's an old-fashioned nature to them and all the kids having messy hair reminds me of Hilary Knight's Eloise. The colors are lovely, too. I really love the choices for all the other children's costumes in the background.

The story is pretty slight, but it is nice to see a book tackles a fraught issue without making a big deal of it. There is some complicated vocabulary. Between that and the subject, I think Princess Kevin is a book best read to a child.

September 25, 2020

Review: Search the Ocean, Find the Animals

Search the Ocean, Find the Animals
Illustrated by Sara Lynn Cramb
Available now from Rockridge Press
Review copy

Search the Ocean, Find the Animals is a fun search-and-find activity book for younger children. Each spread features a different watery setting where children can find ten animals with included facts about them.

 Author Josh Hestermann is a terrestrial husbandry manager and Bethanie Hestermann is a writer. They combine their expertise to write simple but entertaining blurbs about the environments and animals featured in Search the Ocean, Find the Animals. I like that they start on the beach, a potentially familiar setting for children, before moving farther out. 

One thing I loved on the beach spread was that one of the items to find is reef-safe sunscreen. It's a simple way to introduce kids to something they can use to help preserve our oceans. I also liked that some more unusual settings for a basic book, like a mangrove swamp, were included. The activity book also ends with a call to action, asking children to find ten pieces of trash that are polluting the ocean.

The art by Sara Lynn Cramb shows off the beautiful colors of the ocean. It isn't my favorite style, but it serves the purpose of the book well. I like that some of the animals are half hidden by other objects, such as a flounder partially buried in the sand. It helps show how these animals actually interact with their environment. (And the text up top gives clues to where each animal might choose to hide.)

If you're looking for a way to keep a child entertained, I think Search the Ocean, Find the Animals is a good choice. It is simple, as far as search-and-find books go, but it includes good information.

September 21, 2020

Review: A Wave of Stars

A Wave of Stars
By Dolores Brown
Illustrated by Sonja Wimmer
Available now from NubeOcho
Review copy

I was attracted to A Wave of Stars due to the arresting cover, with adorable turtle and a seal clutching a merman plush. I am glad I decided to pick it up, because the art is beautiful throughout.

 Sonja Wimmer's art has a softness to it that makes the characters look extra cute. The bright colors are well-suited to a story that partially takes place in the ocean. There are also lots of fun details for young readers to spot, like where the merman plush is on each page as it gets tossed through the waves with Mimbi and Kipo, the seal and turtle. There's also a really fun use of color and style where not only are some detail images done in black and white, but some images turn black and white when they cross a border.

The story by Dolores Brown is quite simple. Mimbi and Kipo are told a legend about the moonbow (a rainbow at night), and then they see one and are turned into human children against their will. With the help of a thankfully kind fisherman, they are able to turn back and go home. The flow of the text was somewhat choppy, in my opinion. Also, Mimbi and Kipo's distress at being turned into humans might be too much for more sensitive children.

I think A Wave of Stars is best used in a setting where a child can really linger over the illustrations instead of having to hurry on to the next page to finish the story.

September 17, 2020

Review: The College Vegetarian Cookbook: 150 Easy, Budget-Friendly Recipes

The College Vegetarian CookbookWritten and illustrated by Stephanie McKercher, MS, RDN
Available now from Rockridge Press
Review copy

Stephanie McKercher is a registered dietician as well as a food blogger. Her first cookbook, The College Vegetarian, focuses on dishes that are easy and quick and inexpensive to make, and that use few ingredients and tools. This focus means that the recipes are also handy for those of us who are well past our college years.

The first chapter of The College Vegetarian is a handy reference that covers  cooking techniques, how to store the ingredients and food, and other basics. It also introduces the main ingredients for a healthy, inexpensive vegetarian diet and discusses what nutrition each provides. (It also further convinced me I could never actually be vegetarian as I don't like beans, tomatoes, or mushrooms.)

The recipes contained within The College Vegetarian are quite simple. Most involve around five steps. Some in the drinks section only have two steps. There were a few recipes that struck me as perhaps too simple for even a basic cookbook. "Lemon-Blueberry Yogurt Bowls," for instance, is instructions on how to add things to yogurt to jazz it up and add additional ingredients. But I can acknowledge that parfaits are a dish.

There were also times I felt McKercher went too simple. The "Vegan Gumbo" uses only vegetable broth. Gumbo is a roux-based soup. Now, you would need to adjust roux to make it vegan instead of just vegetarian, but with single search, I found three-ingredient vegan rouxs. I don't think it would've added that much complexity, and making a roux is an excellent foundational skill to learn for making all sorts of soups. 

I made a few test recipes. In general, I found that the times took about twice as long if you needed to chop your vegetables or do other prep that was taken for granted. Every recipe I tried was also distinctly underseasoned. I would add extra salt and pepper to taste. The strangest issue I ran into was making the "Broccoli Cheddar Strata," which called for an 8-by-11 inch glass baking dish. I have an 8-by-8 dish and a 9-by-13 dish, and another search reassured me that those were the two standard glass baking dish sizes (along with a 9-by-9 square). It's just an odd thing to mess up.

But I do think that these recipes are quite nice and a good intro to vegetarian cooking on a budget. I certainly have plenty of ideas to try out.

September 13, 2020

Review: Looking for Ladybug in Ocean City

Looking for Ladybug in Ocean City
Written and illustrated by Katherina Manolessou
Available now from Frances Lincoln Children's Books
Review copy

This is the second Look for Ladybug picture books, but like many picture books of a similar type, you don't have to read them in any particular order. In this book, animal detectives Daisy and Bell lose their pet ladybug in Ocean City and look for her in all sorts of undersea landscapes.

Look for Ladybug in Ocean City is designed for younger children than Where's Waldo? or the I Spy books. The pages are less crowded, although there is still plenty to discover within the bright, inviting illustrations. There's five items to look for on every page, three items mentioned in the text on every page, and plenty of other things for children to spot on their own.

(There is one time where Ladybug is hidden in a corner, so be careful where you rest your hand on the page!)

My favorite spread was that covering "The Museum." On the gallery walls were fish versions of famous artworks. I found them hilarious! There are several jokes in the design that are likely to amuse an older reader who is challenging a child to look for Ladybug.

This is a very beautiful search and find book for children.

September 9, 2020

Review: Ghostwriter

GhostwriterWritten and illustrated by Rayco Pulido
Available now from Fantagraphics
Review copy

In 96 pages, Rayco Pulio delivers a taut thriller that makes excellent use of the graphic novel format. I can see why Fantagraphics decided to translate Ghostwriter from the original Spanish.

Set in Barcelona, 1943, Ghostwriter follows Laia, a scriptwriter for a popular advice program on the radio, as she hounds the detective she hired to find her missing husband. Laia's advice is constrained by religious control and patriarchal oppression; she has to write that women should stay by their husbands and try to be better wives, no matter what horrors are in the letters sent to her. Laia's dead-eyed rage is a simple thing to understand.

I adore how the words and images work together to tell the story in Ghostwriter. Many things are shown before they become important, but since they were shown, the connections make sense and everything feels intentional. One of my favorite bits is when Laia throws a coin-like object in a jar in the first few pages. It gave me pause at first, trying to figure out this small object in black and white. Later, it became sinister.

For all the twists and turns it takes, Ghostwriter is not a very complicated story. Laia's motives are simple, no matter how convoluted her methods. There is a delightful economy to this dark little tale. Ghostwriter also isn't afraid to be a little silly or to include moments of juvenile behavior.

I quite enjoyed Ghostwriter and hope more of Pulido's work gets translated.

September 5, 2020

Review: A Smart Girl's Guide: Crushes

A Smart Girl's Guide: Crushes
Illustrated by Elisa Chavarri
Available now from American Girl
Review copy

The Smart Girl's Guide to Boys has been fully updated to become A Smart Girl's Guide: Crushes: Dating, Rejection, and Other Stuff. This book is a timely, relevant guide for young girls who are starting to become hormonal.

 The most obvious update to the material is the A Smart Girl's Guide: Crushes acknowledges that girls might have crushes on boys, girls, both, or neither (and that the same goes for boys). Most of the examples use boys and straight is generally assumed as the default, but there are nods to same-gender attraction throughout. (There is no trans inclusivity that I noticed, which is a lack.)

Elisa Chavarri's cartoons liven up the proceedings and also work to include all girls. There are boys and girls of many ethnicities shown, some variations in body types, and a very few disabled people. 

 I appreciate that the focus of A Smart Girl's Guide: Crushes is on how to handle crushes without losing sight of yourself and the things you value, such as schoolwork and friends. It covers many tricky situations, including how to say no clearly to someone who asks you out (without being mean) and how to dump someone (with signs of when it needs to be done).

The content is carefully targeted to the age group and doesn't go past kissing and hand holding. The book gets raciest when talking about things to watch out for. For instance, if a boy sends a girl a photo of  a woman in lingerie, that is harassment, not flirting. A Smart Girl's Guide: Crushes also covers tough situations like if a friend's boyfriend is being mean to her or if friends report to you that your boyfriend is mean to people when you aren't around. Though domestic abuse is a heavy topic, these red flags are handled at an entirely appropriate level with sensible advice.

I also appreciated how A Smart Girl's Guide: Crushes handled the role of social media and texts in modern-day flirting and dating, with reminders that texts and photos can be forever through screenshots and forwarding. The example shown is an embarrassing photo wearing a face mask, but teaching children to stop and think before sending even innocent photos is a good foundation. The book also emphasizes that selfies should also never be sent to people you only know through online games, but only to people you know in real life.

A Smart Girl's Guide: Crushes also doesn't give in to silly romcom logic. If someone starts dating someone they knew you were crushing on, that's fine. A crush isn't dibs. You can date someone a friend used to date and broke up with. There's also some handy gentle advice on how to avoid getting sucked into drama.

I think A Smart Girl's Guide: Crushes is a handy book to pass on to any young girl in your life. I suggest reading it first, so you know the jumping-off points for anything you might want to talk about in more depth.

September 1, 2020

Review: Stress Relief Dog Coloring Book

Stress Relief Dog Coloring Book
Illustrated by Pimlada Phuapradit
Available now from Rockridge Press
Review copy

I have never stopped enjoying coloring and I am quite happy that the trend of adult coloring books is still going strong. I've found that it makes it simple to find a coloring book with subject matter that I like. Since I'm inside most days, I am going through the books I already own, which meant this dog coloring book came at just the right time.

This Stress Relief Dog Coloring Book contains 35 designs by Thailand-based illustrator Pimlada Phuapradit. Like many adult coloring books, the designs are only printed on one side of the pages. I personally prefer the double-sided style of children's coloring books, but I accept that it is a lost battle.

Of the 35 designs, most are breed specific. At the end of the book there are several mandala-like designs with little dog silhouettes worked throughout. They're super cute! I felt the designs had a good mix of small and large areas and also liked that some dogs were more detailed, some less. I can choose whether I am in the mood to color something intricate, or if I want to do something simpler. The table of contents also reprints all the designs in thumbnail form, making them colorable by someone who wants to work on a really small design.

I liked the texture of the paper. My colored pencils moved across it smoothly and laid down a nice layer of color. It is suitable for both wax crayons and colored pencils. The book itself is a little bendy. I'll simply be careful where I store it.

I am very happy with this coloring book. I think the dog designs are super cute. I look forward to coloring in all of them!

August 28, 2020

Review: The Flapper Queens

The Flapper Queens
Edited by Trina Robbins
Available now from Fantagraphics
Review copy

The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age is a gorgeous volume that presents the 1920's art within as it was meant to be seen: oversized and in color. (Excepting the black & white strips, of course.) The art within is gorgeously reproduced, although sometimes the text is a little blurred or placed on a dark background, which I suspect is an artifact of the sources.

This anthology includes selections from Nell Brinkley, Eleanor Schorer, Edith Stevens, Ethel Hays (with Gladys Parker, who took over her Flapper Fanny strip), Fay King, and Virginia Huget. There's also brief coverage of the Annibelle strips by Dorothy Urfer and Virginia Krausmann, which isn't listed in the table of contents.

While I appreciate getting to see this art so beautifully presented, Trina Robbins has never been the best anthologist. Her introductions are brief (a paragraph to a few pages of text) and lack analysis. Some of the artists have five times the amount of work represented as others. I had no clue why until the write-up on Virginia Huget mentioned she was one of the three flapper queens. So Nell Brinkley, Ethel Hays, and Virginia Huget are the eponymous queens, based on my observations, but there's no indication why the other women artists were chosen for inclusion with them. 

Since Trina Robbins has published two previous volumes on Nell Brinkley, it is no surprise that Brinkley gets the most coverage. (Both as a singular artist and in the outro discussing the end of the flapper comics trend.) However, this was a chance for her to showcase other artists as well. Much of the Brinkley material was previously printed in her 2009 volume The Brinkley Girls. It is now out of print, to my knowledge, but still available in the way high-quality material for the other artists isn't.

Also, the comics are presented in a baffling order. I understand keeping each strip by an artist collected together, but the dates are printed on them and many are not presented chronologically. If there is a different significance to the order, it is not given and I cannot ascertain it. There's also no given reasoning for why the strips reproduced within The Flapper Queens were chosen to represent each of the artists. Are these strips considered their best? (By who?) Where they chosen randomly? Maybe.

(There is also one error where Fay Kings "Preserve Your Own Personality, Says Fay King" is printed on both page 110 and 113.)

I also felt that historical context could make this a more valuable volume for readers interested in these cartoonists. Some of the humor eluded me, especially that of Virginia Huget. There are also periodic appearances by racial caricatures and stereotypes, most often in Nell Brinkley's The Fortunes of Flossie strip, which could have been contextualized.

I appreciate the work Trina Robbins has done to preserve the history of women in comics and present their art to new audiences, but I am often disappointed by her work as an anthologist.

At the same time at all, I am not disappointed at all to see the work of these artists beautifully presented. The fashion! The cars! The pretty, wild girls! If you like comics history, or simply looking into the past, then this is a wonderful, beautiful volume.

August 22, 2020

Review: Still Life Las Vegas

Still Life Las Vegas
Illustrated by Sungyoon Choi
Available now from St. Martin's Press
Review copy

Voice actor James Sie's debut novel starts out strong, with a woman pushed to her limit, driving anywhere and lightening the car as she goes including tossing out a car seat. This woman is Emily Stahl, musician, mother, carer to her depressed husband. The child who normally would occupy that car seat is Walter Stahl.

Still Life Las Vegas alternates between their points of view (Walter in the past, Emily in the present) and Walter's father's point of view (also in the past) and comics (drawn by Walter) telling the story of Emily as told to him by his father. Walter lives in Las Vegas, where his father moved him while trying to find Emily. Now seventeen, Walter is driven to chase down the secrets of his mother's history. A chance meeting with a living statue in the Venetian hotel, Chrysto, also puts him on the path to discovering his sexuality.

I loved both narrators. They're both searching for direction, albeit in very different ways. The interstitial comics are great too, Sungyoon Choi's art a beautiful accompaniment to James Sie's words. It's also provides a clear division between what Walter has been told versus Emily's actual words.

However, I felt that Still Life Las Vegas didn't quite live up to the strength of its opening. I felt Emily had reason to run from the very beginning, but the story keeps adding new layers of sadness to her past and reveals a horror that I think was gratuitous, not adding to the plot or being explored with the weight it deserved. As the story goes on, Walter also has to deal with the unfortunate truth as well as a betrayal.

Still Life Las Vegas is an engrossing bildungsroman, but ultimately too depressing for me. Still, I'm a little sad that James Sie has yet to write a second novel. I think he has a knack for description and character and I'd like to see what he'd write with more polish.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...