As the title suggests, Bill Richardson's charming book picks up where Robert Browning's Pied Piper of Hamelin ended up. We hear the story from 101-year-old Penelope, a maker of harps, reflecting on her part in it all as she nears the end of her life. After Hamelin is inhabited with worlds and beings cooked up in Richardson's fertile mind. Aimed at 10 to 13-year-old readers, After Hamelin is warm, funny, at times pleasingly scary and -- finally -- very satisfying. One of the best books for children January has had the pleasure of reviewing this year.
The Brand New Kid
NBC news anchor Katie Couric says that she was inspired to write The Brand New Kid after covering several news events that recalled to her how nasty kids can be to one another. She has said that she hopes her book will be a jumping off point for families, "to discuss the importance of accepting and not ostracizing people who are different." The story of Lazlo S. Gazky, a young Hungarian immigrant, is brought to charming life by the whimsical illustrations of Marjorie Priceman, who has done illustrations for 16 books, written five others and has won many awards for her work. Though it's branded as juvenile fiction, The Brand New Kid would be most appropriate for the new reader.
As Fashion Fandango begins, 10-year-old Norah is determined to be selected as a peer mediator at her school. Though it gives a bit of the plot away, in chapter 5 (there are 12 in Fashion Fandango) and after a suspenseful build up, Norah is selected. Obviously, all sorts of plot twists are possible from the whole mediation thing, something author Sydor exploits intelligently in the balance of Fashion Fandango as well as a sequel -- released at the same time -- called Maxwell's Metamorphosis. Being a mediator puts Norah on the spot for all sorts of adventures involving the human condition at the grade six level in much the same way as a main character who is a judge or a lawyer will find themselves embroiled in all sorts of shenanigans due to their proximity to interesting things happening in court. Aimed at readers aged six to 10, both books are well plotted and well realized with interesting and sometimes suspenseful stories and satisfying conclusions.
The Little Book of Big Questions
Can people be invisible? Do animals play games? What were the first humans like? How did the universe begin? What happens when you die? Obviously, not everyone will agree with Jackie French's take on the world at large, but, for a lot of parents of children 8 to 12, The Little Book of Big Questions will be a good jumping off point for some interesting conversations. Nor are French's answers pat: in most cases, she offers a variety of theories and options and offers analogies that most children will understand. Her answers aren't really answers. Rather, she offers options that are based on philosophical, scientific, moral and ethical thinking. The last section of the book covers all of the bases: "Where to ask questions," should help children think about furthering their research on their own because, as the author advises, "If you are really interested in a question, it's worth asking as many people as possible, because they'll probably all give you different answers. There may be lots of ways of looking at that question." As the author of over 60 books, French has plenty of reason to know this to be true.
In Sky Sisters, two Ojibway sisters set off into the frozen north country night to the place where the SkySpirits dance. It's a pleasant, peaceful journey. We follow the sisters from their home, where they drink hot chocolate and say good-bye to their mother, out into the night, where they traipse across snow-covered hills, stop to suck on icicles and meet a rabbit and a deer on their way. The book continues in this peaceful way: the sisters bide their time waiting for the SkySpirits by dancing in the snow, making snow angels and otherwise having sisterly fun until the northern lights -- the SkySpirits -- light up the sky. It's a lovely, quiet tale utterly devoid of monsters, demons or other enemies to thwart our young heroine's quest. Author Jan Bourdeau Waboose is a Nishinawbe Ojibway and brings her own wintertime childhood experiences to Sky Sisters. The illustrations of Brian Deines are a perfect complement to the peaceful tone of this very warm book.
Sleepy Little Mouse
Just when you thought you'd seen every artistic medium possible in children's storybooks, along comes Kim Fernandes who works in, of all things, Fimo. Should the colorful illustrations capture your interest, Fimo is a clay-like plastic sculpting medium available in better art supply stores. Most commonly seen used in brightly colored jewelry, Fimo is soft while you're sculpting it, then takes on a permanently hard finish when baked in a garden variety household oven. Fernandes' Fimo work is amazing. When you leaf through the book, remember: each time a character or object recurs in the story, Fernandes has recreated it from scratch. The consistency of the details are awesome. The story, about a little mouse into serious nap avoidance, is amusing, as well.