June 27, 2021

Review: Eric

Written and illustrated by Shaun Tan
Available now from Scholastic Press
Review copy

More than ten yeas ago, I reviewed Lost and Found by Shaun Tan. It is a joy to return to his work, although Eric is not new. This was originally one of the stories included in Tales from Outer Suburbia, published in 2009. This is disclosed in the book's legal matter, and I'm sure fans of that anthology would recognize Eric on the cover of this eponymous volume.

Eric is a short, sweet tale. The narrator tells of a strange exchange student who came to live with their family. (No gender is given for the narrator.) The narrator is excited to share their life with Eric, who is quiet and a little strange to them. The mom, of course, chalks it up to cultural differences. Nothing is ever said of the fact that Eric is a small, wispy figure.

Tan's art adds so much to the story. The art expounds upon the text, each giving us a bit of insight into the mysterious Eric. The art is whimsical, full of beautiful details and charming humor. When the art disappears with Eric, the emotional impact is felt. Then, for the first time, color is added to the black and white illustrations.

I can understand why Eric was reprinted as a standalone work. It is a timely story about the joy of sharing your culture with another person and the beauty of experiencing their cultural in return. It is a kind story, and a hopeful one, punctuated by bits of melancholy that make the happy ending that much better. I highly recommend this lovely book.

June 23, 2021

Review: The Hardest Hidden Pictures Book Ever

The Hardest Hidden Pictures Book Ever
Available now from Highlights Press
Review copy
I can remember Highlights magazine from my elementary-school days. Decades later, Highlights Press is still publishing books for children. The Hardest Hidden Pictures Book Ever is an activity book for ages eight through twelve, approximately. There are hidden-picture activities on every page, as well as an overall hidden picture activity for the whole book. In the back are the answers.
There is an appealing mix of puzzles in The Hardest Hidden Pictures Book Ever. Some art is in color, some black and white, some photographs. Some are small and fit four to a page, some fill a whole spread. In some the objects are identified for you. Others have clues and you have to identify the objects. This book might be mostly full of visual puzzles, but there are some verbal skills involved as well. The hard puzzle has no clues, except for stating how many objects are hidden.

I think a twelve-year-old could easily do these puzzles alone, but an eight-year-old might need a little help. Either way, with more than 80 puzzles, there's enough to keep kids occupied for a while and coming back for more. I also like that the pages are slightly thicker than a basic coloring book so there's less chance of a pencil poking through the page.

The Hardest Hidden Pictures Book ever is a good choice for the child who likes hidden pictures puzzles. This is a nicely made, thick activity book.

June 19, 2021

Review: Cells at Work! Baby Volume 1

Cells at Work! Baby
Written and illustrated by Yasuhiro FUKUDA
Based on Cells at Work! by Akane SHIMIZU
Translated by Dean Leininger
Available now from Kodansha Comics
Review copy

Cells at Work! Baby is one of many spinoffs from the original Cells at Work! In this manga by Yasuhiro FUKUDA, the main character is a red blood cell going about her work, when the body she resides in is born. From there, the cells have to learn how to do their jobs and keep the baby healthy now that it is no longer a fetus supported by the mother's body.

Fukuda's art is adorable. It is very in line with the established style for types of cells from Cells at Work!, but using a chibi style to suit the fact that these are all baby cells. The red blood cell and her best friend, a hemoglobin-F red blood cell, also have very sweet adventures as they look out for each other and their body. The stories are all based around biological fact, with extra informational asides to provide more in-depth facts. Pediatrician Naoyo HASHIMOTO did serve as a medical editor to ensure that the facts in Cells at Work! Baby are accurate to current medical knowledge.

If I have one complaint, it is that generally the female characters are less competent than the male characters. (With the large exception of the mother's grown-up cells, seen shortly before the baby is born.) It's such a small thing that would have been easy to fix.

But overall, Cells at Work! Baby is a charming read about the intricate biology behind a baby taking its first breath and  developing an immune response to antigens. There's plenty of action in a baby's first days!

I think this is an adorable spinoff that is sure to appeal to fans of the original.

June 16, 2021

Review: Cute Little Lenormand

Cute Little LenormandBy Sara M. Lyons
Available now from St. Martin's Essentials
Review copy

A few years ago, a friend turned me on to tarot as a writing tool. From there, I learned techniques to use tarot to help myself make decisions. Lenormand is not tarot, but it is a similar fortune-telling card game. Cute Little Lenormand has been my introduction to this type of cards, and I think it has served well in that capacity.

Author and illustrator Sara M. Lyons endeavored to make a modern Lenormand, with gender-neutral cards and depictions that would be intuitive to modern life. The guide book covers the history of Lenormand, techniques to learn the cards and spreads, and detailed information about ways to interpret each card. There's also recommended further reading. One thing I liked throughout the guide book is that Lyons is very clear that she has her own biases and preferred way to read the cards and her deck is based on her preferences. 

There were very few things I didn't like. I did pick up that Lyons calls card 30, the Lily, "the feminine consort to the Whip's masculine energy. If the Whip is bondage and black leather, then think of the Lily as rose petals, satin sheets, and pink champagne." Lyons went through a great deal of effort to approach the deck in a gender-neutral manner, so throwing in that one random instance of gendering objects threw me. I also found Lyons' approach to card 14, the Fox, slightly odd. She focuses on it entirely as a career card throughout the book, with only a small mention in its write-up that it can refer to a person. This does tie back to her open preferences (she likes to read it as a job significator), but as someone new to reading Lenormand, I could have used more guidance in using it in other situations. Lyons usually provides more information on cards with multiple readings.

I found Lenormand easy to pick up based on this deck and had fun doing simple practice readings and working up to bigger ones. This is an extremely intuitive deck for me. Plus, the art is just cute.

As a physical object, the cards are well made and the mostly pastel pink and blue palette fits the cute theme. I do wish the deck came with a tuck box instead of an envelope in the back of the book. It would be more portable, and I don't like how the envelope looks pushing on the pages.

I think Cute Little Lenormand is a great choice for beginners. It's definitely easy for me to turn to when I'm having trouble making decisions.

June 9, 2021

Review: What Big Teeth

What Big TeethBy Rose Szabo
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review copy

A boy runs through the forest, pursued by monsters. He has no chance of escaping; they're toying with him, having fun. I know how fun it is because the narrator is telling me so. In fact, she thinks he looks rather delicious. So begins What Big Teeth. It's an electric, perverse opening, and the book struggles to regain that feel.

After that fateful night, Eleanor Zarrin was sent away from her wild family. Years later she returns from boarding school, fleeing the consequences of an incident with a schoolmate. She returns home a total stick in the mud. She's forgotten her family in those years away and struggles to handle their monstrous nature. She wants them to be polite and mannered and fit in, like she spent so long doing.

For quite a while, What Big Teeth builds mystery after mystery. There are the mysterious incidents that drove Eleanor away from her family and then back. There are questions about Eleanor's nature, who she truly is inside. There's her grandmother's mysterious accountant, who all the Zarrin's are mysteriously in love with (including Eleanor's father, cousin, sister, and self). So much is kept mysterious for so long that I'd find myself startled by facts, like Eleanor's sister Lucy being about five years older than her. 

What Big Teeth is not short on atmosphere. Rose Szabo has a way with creepy imagery and haunting emotions. But this is Szabo's debut novel, and it very much feels like it. The ending of the novel is filled with several chunks of exposition, some of which Eleanor could have figured out much earlier to get the plot moving a little more quickly. When characters are horribly maimed I had little reaction, because outside of Eleanor and Arthur the characters are extremely flat. This is the kind of debut novel that makes me want to read what the author writes next, even if I don't want to read this book again.

What Big Teeth is a defiantly strange novel. It is often deliberately off-putting, which is what makes it appealing to weirdos like me. I'd recommend it to fans of Hannah Moskowitz. A faster pace and more characters to be invested in would have served the story well, but Szabo has shown a strong sense of style.


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