47 Ronin: The Revelation by Marc Cerasini, Cole Sprouse and Dylan Sprouse (Simon Spotlight) 125 pages
I gotta get out more. Until a few months ago, I had never head of the Sprouse twins. And I guess that, if you’re reading this, a state of complete Sprouselessness might be incomprehensible. But, just in case: Cole and Dylan Sprouse are the Olsen Twins of the boy set except, of course, that the Olsens are, like, way, way, way older than the Sprouse boys. Mary-Kate and Ashley were born June 13, 1986, while Dylan Thomas Sprouse and Cole Mitchell Sprouse were born August 4th, 1992. This difference in their ages explains in part why you may have heard less about them than you have about Mary-Kate and Ashley: they’ve had less time to work on their empire. But step back and give them some room: they’re moving quickly on catching up. You’ve seen them on television and movies. They were Ross’ son Ben on Friends, they were Patrick Kelly on Grace Under Fire and they were Julian McGrath in Big Daddy. And lots of other things, mostly sharing roles, as young twins are often required to do. Their latest shared role is that of author in a series of action adventure books with a graphic novel feel (though they’re not actually graphic novels) starring twins named Tom and Mitch. If a television show is planned, I haven’t heard anything so far, but it seems a likely next step. There are currently four books in the Sprouse’s 47 Ronin series, with a fifth planned for February. The writing here is thin. The stories bordering on the facile. The plots little more than barely concealed excuses for action. Still, it appears that sales have been brisk and there will likely be still more 47 Ronin books and tie-in merchandise available. If the books get those hard to prod reluctant readers into the library, all will be forgiven. — Lincoln Cho
Babymouse: Skater Girl by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (Random House) 96 pages
Make no mistake: Babymouse is not a children’s picture book. It’s a graphic novel aimed at children aged six to 12 who — ironically enough — don’t have as many graphic novels as you’d think aimed at them. Babymouse: Skater Girl is the seventh installment in an involving and engaging series. Sister and brother team, Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm, respectively write and illustrate, which might explain why both visual and written elements are so splendidly in accord. This time out, Babymouse wants to win an ice skating trophy so badly she can taste it. Hilarity ensues. A great addition to an already charming series.
Burn: The Life Story of Fire by Tanya Lloyd Kyi (Annick Press) 144 pages
With only slightly different packaging Tanya Lloyd Kyi’s thoughtful biography of fire could have been one of those cool coffeetable books that adults of a certain age like to show off to their friends. Had that been the case, though, it would probably have had a more shallow audience and that would have been a shame. Burn: The Life Story of Fire is made all the more rewarding by the fact that it’s completely unexpected. You don’t think of fire as having a life or a story and, of course, strictly speaking, it does not. However, Lloyd Kyi in a sense makes it thus exploring, for instance, the place of fire in warmth, in love, in renewal. More. “It may not be a basic element of the human body,” Lloyd Kyi writes at one point, “but it’s certainly a vital part of human life.” Exactly.
Cover-Up: Mystery at the Super Bowl by John Feinstein (Knopf) 298 pages
I’ve often thought that if young men — boys — are reading less, it’s at least partly because so few authors are writing just for them: giving them contemporary stories that will intrigue and enchant the way authors of other eras enchanted young readers in their own times. If that’s at all true, and lack of appropriate reading material is the problem, then John Feinstein has the answer, and he’s been generous in sharing that answer with us the last three years. We were introduced to engaging teen reporters Steve Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson in 2005’s Last Shot with the action taking place around the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament. Last Shot was awarded the Edgar for Best Young Adult Mystery in 2006. Feinstein followed that up with 2006’s Vanishing Act, this time bringing us tennis action. And now Cover-Up, where our young reporters’ attention is focused on a Super Bowl steroid scandal. Feinstein, an NPR commentator and Washington Post reporter, is now about 23 books in to an amazing literary career, with a focus on — you guessed it — sports. After three successful outings, he can now add “mystery writer” to his resume.
Creature Catchers by Lisa Smedman (Annick Press) 200 pages
It’s no surprise if you’ve heard this author’s name. Her publication list seems to grow longer every month. Quite naturally, her readership grows, as well. On the surface, Smedman’s novels are almost unthinkably different. She is perhaps best known for her contributions to Wizards of the Coast’s War of the Spider Queen series. But though Smedman’s novels seem to touch on — even create — a wide variety of worlds, there is in her work a consistently elegant sense of whimsey and wonder. Neither are lacking in Creature Catchers, a novel set in Victorian England… but not. And just in case you’re not sure, on page two we’re introduced to the possibility of meeting up with a hippogriff, a Japanese kirin and an African intulo (“something that looked half man, half lizard”). That’s really the charm and fascination of Creature Catchers, Smedman knows her history: she knows what it looks like. But it doesn’t look like this. Creature Catchers is like reading a historical novel, and more, all at once. — Lincoln Cho
Dizzy by Stacy A. Nyikos, illustrated by Kary Lee (Stonehorse Publishing) 32 pages
“’I’m flying, I’m flying!’ squealed Dizzy out loud, soaring up high, passing right through a cloud. He grinned as he tasted the salty sweet day, cooling his face ad lighting the bay.” Dizzy, the world’s fastest dolphin, is having an amazing time swimming and jumping and basking in the waters off the coast of Washington State. Though author Nyikos allows some spirited conversation with other creatures — exchanges with his sea otter pal Squealer are notable — she doesn’t actually color the dolphin with much undolphinlike behavior. As a result, young readers end up with a pretty good idea of what dolphions get up to in the wild, while being engaged by Nyikos’ snappy prose. Illustrations by Kary Lee are both cheerful and competent. As with Nyikos’ writing, Lee paints a real dolphin in Dizzy, the cheeriness she gives him just adds to his character. A page at the end of the book called “Dolphin Delights” gives kids the skinny on Dizzy’s real life brethren, completing what is already a super package for kids aged three to eight.
Kids Who Rule: The Remarkable Lives of Five Child Monarchs by Charis Cotter (Annick Press) 120 pages
I’ve often suspected that children — especially today — are well aware of their own power. If that’s true, they’re sure to love reading a book that absolutely confirms it. Kids Who Rule introduces us to five monarchs whose reign began when they were children: King Tutankhamun, who was crowned pharaoh of Egypt when he was nine; Mary Queen of Scots, who was named queen when she was six days old (talk about the pressures of the cradle!); Queen Christina of Sweden who succeeded her father at the age of six; Emperor Puyi of China who was just two and a half when power fell into his chubby wee fist and the current Dalai Lama, who was found when he was not quite two. (I love the title of that chapter the most: “Born (Again) to Rule (Again).” Kids Who Rule is engagingly organized. Each monarch with their own chapter and each of those chapters begins with a fictional episode from the child’s life. A great gift for kids age nine to 11. — Aaron Blanton
Leaving Simplicity by Claire Carmichael (Annick Press) 255 pages
It is the near future and advertising is unavoidable: clothing is on the sides of cars, on people’s clothing, everywhere. Barrett hasn’t been exposed to it. Raised by an uncle in an ecocult named Simplicity, when his uncle dies he’s forced to move to the city live with his cousin Taylor and her parents. It’s a huge change, but it turns out that culture shock is the least of his worries: his aunt and uncle are advertising executives and there’s a premium on his unsullied mind. Carmichael is the author of 15 books for young people including Ads R Us, Incognito and Fabricant. Technology’s impact on society is of huge interest and concern to the author, something that shows up often in her work and which in Leaving Simplicity provides a great examining point for her readers aged 11+.
No Talking by Andrew Clements (Simon & Schuster) 144 pages
The kids at Laketon Elementary School are a very noisy bunch. One boy has read about Mahatma Gandhi and his silent meditations in order to cleanse his mind. The boy decides to give the silent treatment a try and soon the whole school has challenged each other to a no talking contest. Really, that sounds like a set-up for “and hilarity ensued,” but, truly, No Talking is both a thoughtful and thought-provoking novel. Children aged eight to 12 won’t tell you that though: they’ll be more likely to comment on the fact that they couldn’t stop turning pages.
Punk Farm on Tour by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Knopf) 40 pages
What happens when kids who dream of being rock stars grow up to write and illustrate children’s books? If the wannabe rocker in question happens to be Jarrett J. Krosoczka, you “people” a farm with musically ambitious animals… and let the fun find its own way. Punk farm on Tour follows up Krosoczka’s wildly successful Punk Farm from 2005. How successful, you ask? This successful: DreamWorks Animation currently has an animated film adaptation in production. In a perhaps not so weird example of art imitating life, as Punk Farm on Tour opens, the talented cow, sheep, pig, goat and chicken who make up the band are gearing up for their first big tour. But there are challenges: first, Chicken points out that they “don’t even have a killer song yet!” but Sheep points out they have still bigger problems: their broken down tour van is going to make things difficult. And, clearly, when you get a cow, a sheep, a pig, a goat and a chicken touring in a band together, all sorts of situations will crop up. Punk Farm on Tour is pure, goofy fun. Guitar Hero fans aged five to eight will love it.
The Secret of Grim Hill by Linda DeMeulemeester (Lobster Press) 187 pages
“People always say, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ But from that first moment, I didn’t care. I wished I could be anywhere but in my new school, Darkmont High.” So begins The Secret of Grim Hill and before very long, our wishing narrator, Cat Peters, will be sorry she wasn’t careful, after all. Of course. Most of us will recognize ourselves at some time in Cat’s single-minded determination to get what she wants, only to discover it’s not all it was cracked up to be. Cat’s feelings of isolation and separation are very normal for kids at a new school. What isn’t so normal is when she realizes that not all is what it seems at Grimoire, the school she like to be attending. The Secret of Grim Hill is just enjoyable all the way through: Cat is an engaging heroine, and Grimoire has just the right amount of evil for readers aged nine to 12.
Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner (Random House) 287 pages
Spanking Shakespeare is smart, skillfull, desperately funny… and definitely for sophisticated readers. In fact, aside from the main character’s age — he’s entering his senior high school year — there’s very little that would separate this from a great and entertaining read for adults, especially the kind of book that is now occasionally being called Lad Lit — as in Chick Lit, only for boys. Spanking Shakespeare is the fictional memoir of Shakespeare Shapiro, who is ostensibly writing the memoir — and doing it to the best of his ability — in order to win friends, influence people and get a girl. Not necessarily in that order. There are no off notes in Wizner’s engaging — and sometimes goodnaturedly risqué — prose. You never see the author — the real author — pulling at the strings behind the curtain. Instead we become completely involved in the life of one awkward young man as he determines to make a difference, like his namesake, by the strength of his pen.
Stray by Stacey Goldblatt (Delacorte) 277 pages
Most teenage girls love thinking about love, but if they also love thinking about dogs, they may well enjoy debut novelist Stacey Goldblatt’s Stray. Sixteen-year-old Natalie Kaplan is a seriously good girl: she helps out at her mother’s vet clinic, doesn’t act out and always calls her mom to let her know where she is. All of that changes when hot stuff Carver Reed shows up on the scene (and you gotta know it, with a handle like that). A summer romance blossoms between them and her mother puts her foot down… which only makes matters worse. Natalie feels like a dog that her mother is trying to train and restrain. Will she ever be allowed to… (wait for it)… stray? Stray is sweet, enjoyable fun. Recommended for people ages 12 and up.
Travel With Chirp by Bob Kain (Owl Kids) 24 pages
Everyone knows that traveling with kids can be a challenge. Some people are even adding DVD players and various game machines to their vehicles in an effort to keep the peace while on the road. A better, probably healthier, more enriching — for everyone — and certainly less expensive option is an activity book. Travel with Chirp is designed for travel. Filled with jokes, comics, games and other “travelling fun,” it’s intended to keep children happily occupied and even learning while you make your way to gramma’s house for a holiday dinner, or whatever other fun you might have planned. Chirp is a fairly silly looking yellow bird who follows the adventure from one end of the book to the other, guiding minds ages three to seven on their way while you get going on yours.
Looking for the rest of the January Magazine gift guide? It’s here: