- Puzzles — also clues, ciphers, and mysteries to solve.
- Quirky public transportation options and elevators that go sideways.
- Kids out to save their world from an obnoxious developer.
Fun, fun, fun.
York: the shadow cipher by Laura Ruby
Fun, fun, fun.
York: the shadow cipher by Laura Ruby
I understand (I think) the beauty of Timmy Failure books. I have written before about the joy I find in reading the chapter titles, stunners like Unforgivable, That’s What You Are and Wasting Away Again in Marge and Rita-Ville.
And there is always Timmy, so fabulously clueless about absolutely everything that you begin to wonder if he is really an absurdist genius. Or maybe he’s an existentialist. (Merriam-Webster defines existentialism as “a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.”) I looked it up, just to be sure. It’s been a while since I studied philosophy.
Yes, yes, I know. The author of Timmy Failure: The Cat Stole My Pants is not writing for middle-aged white women who go off on philosophical tangents. And yet. There’s a certain genius about a character and a series of books which both make you laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of it all – something most definitely NOT to be sneered at in this troubled world – and then very quickly bring you back to the reality of a character’s life. How does any kid deal with an absent father, an imaginary and difficult polar bear sidekick, AND a confusing world which demands both doing what everyone else does and being an individual?
And those frog underwear are to die for, too.
Timmy Failure: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephan Pastis
Giraffe, Penguin, Seal and Pelican are all kind of bored. Pelican’s sign sets things in motion, and before you know it, animals from very different parts of the world are communicating and becoming friends. It’s a little silly, very sweet, and pretty short – just long enough to create a perfect picture of the characters and carry them to their predictable yet wonderful conclusion.
Letter-writing is something of a lost art these days. Taking the time to sit down with paper and a pen or maybe at a typewriter – who takes the time to do that now? There are not even that many emails; we seem to live by text and emoji.
I miss those days – the six page letters from a boyfriend about nothing important, the cards from my grandmother about the weather and her flowers, the musings my much-loved college friend wrote about her writing and her life, although I rarely knew what she was actually doing with her time. Because of this, I think, dipping into an epistolary novel is a delightful escape, especially if there are penguins and pelicans involved. I would have loved it for its form, but the characters are a joy, too. It’s perfect as a bedtime story read over a few nights or as a read-aloud for younger kids.
Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa and Jun Takabatake
“This group…it’s like a twisted version of The Breakfast Club.”
Hmmm. I was just thinking the exact same thing. And the author has now taken care of my whole intro to the book. Whew! That was hard work.
Petula’s art therapy group is an emotionally bruised group of kids which she would rather not be a part of. If only she hadn’t thrown that cup at the other counselor… They snipe at each other and make rude remarks, yet are somehow exactly the kind of people she needs. It’s only with Jacob’s arrival that they really begin to pull together and trust each other, however.
Adults are often making life miserable for Petula, but even the principal, her parents, and the goofy and well-meaning art therapist have their moments. I loved the way the author took these wounded and struggling people and made them real, bringing their joys and sorrows into the light. There is sadness galore, but there is also hope. And it is funny, at least in the way that people joke after death or screwing up their lives or alienating their families. Oh, and there are Canadians in it. That’s a bonus, too.
Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen
I can relate to Clayton Bird. I may be a middle-aged white woman living in Iowa, but I understand his pain. I might not have grown up with a blues-playing grandpa–mine was known to ride a banana seat bike now and then, but wouldn’t have known what to do with a guitar—but I know how important people other than parents can be when you’re growing up. I remember being angry about injustice when I was a kid, or at least what I saw as injustice in my own life. And I know grief, really crushing grief that hides out in unexpected places and hits you at all the wrong times.
Clayton is the kind of character everyone can relate to on some level, although he might not look like many of the kids I knew growing up. That’s what’s so wonderful about Rita Williams-Garcia’s work. Her characters are simultaneously universal and completely unique. The small details make you think of your Uncle Rich or that kid you went to school with who had a goofy nickname or your best friend’s mom or whoever. His story, like many of Williams-Garcia’s, celebrates an ordinary life with extraordinary moments—moments which reveal quite a bit about our society as a whole and how kids navigate it. Her characters’ experiences reach out to you, whoever you are, wherever you live. It’s a gift we are so, so lucky to be able to witness and enjoy.
And if all that weren’t enough, Ms. Williams-Garcia mentions Kathi Appelt in her note at the end of the book. We all know (or maybe we don’t) just how crazy I am about Kathi Appelt. I’ve practically thrown her books at the 5th graders I visit if I find out they have somehow managed to miss them. And I don’t stop at once a year – she comes up repeatedly. Actually, I’ve kind of done the same with Rita Williams-Garcia’s books (One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, Gone Crazy in Alabama) because they are a different and wonderful brand of fabulous. Clearly, I’m just going to get worse. Prepare. Beware.
Clayton Bird Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
There’s something about a new Stuart Gibbs book that makes me set aside almost anything else on my to-be-read pile. (If Kathi Appelt, Kate DiCamillo and Stuart Gibbs all had books coming out the same week, I’d have to flip a coin, but how often does that happen?) They’re always full of action. They always make me laugh. The characters are quirky, difficult, and smart or vain, prone to accidents, and resourceful. Or maybe they’re all of these things at once. Throw in a polar bear exhibit or an air lock in space, and you can count on crazy things happening while you pick up some fun scientific information, too. They’re 100% fun.
Panda-monium is no different, and although you won’t actually see much of the main animal character, you will get more adventures and mystery at FunJungle with Teddy and his friends and foes. And you’ll learn some interesting panda facts and find out why you’ll never want to become too familiar with polar bear enclosures, too. Read on!
Panda-monium by Stuart Gibbs
One line on page 79 is what did it for me. Matthew is watching the neighbor’s grandchildren playing outside. Casey, the little girl, has drowned her doll in a wading pool.
“She is one scary kid,” I said to the Wallpaper Lion.
Matty talks to a scrap of wallpaper, but he’s judging Casey? Excellent.
To Matty, world outside is maddening. His Wallpaper Lion and obsessive hand-washing make sense. Others in the neighborhood also have their quirks – Old Nina leaves a light on all the time, Melody saves notes to the dead and so on. It turns out, Matty understands more about what’s really going on than most of the neighbors do.
There are more moments like this throughout the book, moments when Matty calls out the crazy in other people while clinging to his own as if his beliefs are rational and the others aren’t. It’s done so well that you find you’ve entered into Matty’s world completely, and it does make sense. Maybe he’s on to something?
Take a look.
The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson
Well, hmm, that’s not what I was expecting when I started this book. I was thinking I’d be getting something along the lines of realistic, middle grade, family, coming of age fiction. Estefania “Stef” Soto, definitely lives in that world – the world of her dad’s taco truck, Tía Perla, the world of Saint Scholastica School and a former friend who now calls her the Taco Queen. Friends and parents and school are the center of her life, and Stef is really trying to come into her own. Her parents are nervous about almost everything, and then the city announces possible changes to the rules for food truck, and her art teacher runs out of supplies. Well, you might not guess it, but it’s all going to be connected.
And into this drops Davy Jones. Actually, Davy Jones is Viviana Vega here. Stef pulls a Marcia Brady and sort of hints she can get Viviana Vega to come to the school dance. Will it work out? Let’s just say that Viviana is no Davy Jones. But Stef Soto is still pretty awesome. Fun, light, and a great story about real people and real families.
Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres.
Actually, it’s mostly just the gorilla. But while reading this book, I was reminded so strongly of two other great, complicated, similar stories that I’m including all three in my intro. This one’s just for me, people.
The Murderer’s Ape is shelved with the teen books in our public library, but I don’t remember any teens or children in it. (It’s kind of unusual to have a middle grade or teen novel populated almost entirely by adults.) The book is narrated by Sally Jones, a gorilla who understands human languages and is something of a mechanical genius. She also plays chess, reads and writes, types, and appreciates Portugese Fado music. She travels the world and solves tricky and dangerous mysteries. In 588 pages, there is a lot to keep track of – political intrigues, lost loves, the majaraja’s wives and mother, untended graves, how to build an accordion. I could feel the real world falling away as I read, leaving Sally Jones and her friends and the quest to free an innocent man.
It was a bit of a slow start, but once it got going, it reminded me of Timothée de Fombelle’s Vango series, which I happened across a few years ago and was just thinking of re-reading not long ago. Between Sky and Earth begins with Vango (a seminarian about to become a priest) escaping from the police just as he’s about to make his vows in Notre Dame de Paris. It’s an absolutely wonderful adventure, crossing oceans in zeppelins, avoiding Nazis, protecting the innocent, revealing corruption and honoring friendship. The story continues in A Prince Without a Kingdom. Find them if you’re looking for an epic escape.
And then there’s an even more obscure story, The Saxonian Affair. Some years ago, my husband told my son stories during the time they spent together commuting, always coming to a cliffhanger as they pulled into the garage. In it, a detective who isn’t really a detective finds out he looks exactly like Prince Ruprecht of Saxonia. Marco’s adventures take him across several continents at different points. We finally self-published the first group of stories just for us. Once in a while, I tell my husband he should really write down the rest of them, since the world (mostly me) is really missing out on the lesser known characters of Alice Dodds and General Tostito. But at least we’ve got Marco, Princess Marie, and all the others – it means I love the Vango stories and The Murderer’s Ape even more. So, I might be biased. No, really, I am biased, but I still think you’ll love this one.
The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius