Creating the Most Magnificent Thing: A Review of Ashley Spires’ Picturebook

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

Kid Can Press 2014

The Story: A girl has a wonderful idea to make the most magnificent thing. She enlists the help of her best friend, who happens to be a dog, and gets to work trying to make her idea a reality. But translating her wonderful idea into what she pictured is hard, time consuming, and takes many trials and errors. Frustration builds until the girl explodes! Lucky her best friend has the perfect type of stress relief: taking him for a walk. The longer they walk, the more her frustration fades, until she’s refreshed and able to return to her project and finally produce her most magnificent thing.

What Wallace and I Think: This picturebook hit home for me. Whether it’s having an image in my mind that I struggle to put on paper just as I imagined, or translating an idea onto paper as eloquently as it seems in my head, turning an idea into a real thing is hard and rarely turns out just as I imagined it. This picturebook encourages perseverance, patience, and teaches the valuable lesson that creating something takes hard work.

What I found the most valuable piece of advice, something that has worked for me for years, is that sometimes you need to walk away from that idea for a while, gain perspective, and refresh your mind in order to come back stronger. This is a hard thing to do when you’re in the middle of something, and want to get it done (or at least if you’re like me and get a little obsessive about finishing something once you’ve started it).

Walking with Wallace

Walking with Wallace

Just like the unnamed girl, what usually works for me is taking Wallace for a walk, breathing in fresh air, playing in the dog parks, and just taking in nature. Then, without even trying, new ideas and thoughts float in. I have always figured out my best solutions and my greatest ideas when walking Wallace.

You’ve probably already guessed that one reason why I love this book is because it features a dog. And you would be right. The relationship between the girl and dog is great, and often times humorous. I also love how determined the girl is, and that her idea involves building something (girl power!) Especially powerful, are the models she makes before achieving her magnificent thing, the models she deems failures, are found to be useful to other people. Even “failures” have significance and a use. Mistakes are OK. Maybe even welcomed. And her final product is far from perfect, showing that being successful doesn’t mean perfection. Heavy stuff people. These lessons are not just valuable to children, but to us grown-ups too.

I recommend this magnificent book not only to be read to children, but to all my fellow perfectionists, creatives, builders, and dreamers. It would make a nice gift to someone starting out on any new venture, or to someone struggles to make their wonderful ideas into a reality.

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Review of Sweethearts

Sweethearts (2009)

By Sara Zarr

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Disclaimer: this novel contains some “implied” sexual encounters (though overall it’s pretty PG), as well as depicts physical and mental abuse. If you’re under 13, please check with your parents before reading.

The Story: During elementary school Jenna Vaughn’s childhood sweetheart, Cameron, disappears suddenly. Jenna hears rumours that Cameron has died, and finding no proof against these rumours, she believes them and mourns the loss of her best friend and only person who truly knew her. But Cameron mysteriously returns during Jenna’s senior year of high school, forcing her to confront a disturbing event they both shared, but have never spoken of, and compelling Jenna to determine who she really is.

What Wallace and I Think: I was largely underwhelmed by this novel. When Cameron does reappear, this results in a few page turning chapters because I was curious to find out what really happened to him, but otherwise the novel relies too heavy on shallow tensions that fail to add the urgency or drama the novel was striving for. Jenna is a difficult person to root for, for several reasons.

  1. First off, when Jenna knew Cameron in elementary school, she was unpopular and outcast with Cameron as her only friend. When Cameron disappears, and Jenna moves schools, she transforms herself into a popular girl, who by senior year has a close group of friends and a boyfriend. Jenna fears what will happen if her new friends discover what she was like in elementary school from Cameron. However, it is difficult to relate or believe this fear. I find it hard to believe that her friends of four years would stop hanging out with her, or think of her differently if they found out she didn’t have many friends, was teased, and was chubby in grade three. Why do I think this? BECAUSE IT HAPPENED IN GRADE THREE! I know it’s been a while since I was in high school, but if in grade twelve I found out my friend had been teased in elementary school and wasn’t very popular, I highly doubt I, or anyone for that matter, would respond with “What? You weren’t popular you’re whole life? Well, I can no longer be associated with you.” This fear of being “found out” by her friends is present through most of the text, and not much to my surprise, Jenna’s friends don’t care, at all, when they do find out, deflating whatever building tension there was.
  2. Jenna is very resentful of her mother. Until her mother remarried when Jenna was in Jr. High, it was just to two of them. Her mother put herself through nursing school while working a full-time job, leaving Jenna by herself a lot. I can understand that that would be tough on a kid, feeling like your mom isn’t around. But Jenna is now seventeen, and she is still angry at her now present mom for basically working hard to provide them with a different life. Jenna was alone a lot because her mom was putting herself through nursing school, so she could get a better job, and better provide for her daughter. You would think that a seventeen year old would at least be able to grasp this better than Jenna does, and cut her mom a little slack, and maybe even admire her for accomplishing so much as a single mother. Jenna’s inability to see beyond her own hurt undercuts her mom’s own accomplishment and struggle.
  3. When Cameron returns an unstable love triangle forms because Jenna has a boyfriend. The love triangle is unstable because Jenna is honest from the beginning that she doesn’t really have feelings for her boyfriend. So I continually found myself asking, as does one of Jenna’s girlfriends, WHY DON’T YOU JUST BREAK UP WITH YOUR BOYFRIEND (who Jenna doesn’t seem to like very much) AND JUST BE WITH CAMERON. Sorry for the all caps, but I found it very frustrating because, like my other two points, it seemed like a weak attempt to add drama to the novel.

Sweethearts wasn’t all deflated drama, and I will give props where they are due.

  1. Cameron’s personal story is much more heart wrenching than Jenna’s, and perhaps focusing more on him would have made for a better book. Cameron is a victim of child abuse, and the few scenes depicting his father are terrifying, and my heart did break for his and his siblings’ struggle. If you’re going to read this book, do it to meet Cameron.
  2. The depiction of Jenna’s stepfather is really beautiful and positive, which isn’t always the norm with step parents in children’s and YA literature. Alan, the stepfather, loves and supports Jenna, and is often the person Jenna chooses to go to first when she needs comfort. There’s a beautiful scene when Jenna finds herself unable to sleep at three am (I won’t spoil why), and wakes Alan with her crying. He comes into her room, and simply sits next to her with his hand on her ankle until her morning alarm goes off. Their relationship was one of the stronger points of the novel.

I would recommend the age range for this book to ages thirteen and older. I give Sweethearts a 3/5

Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Wolf

Virginia Wolf

Kyo Maclear (Author) and Isabelle Arsenault (illustrator)

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The Story: Vanessa and Virginia are sisters. Sometimes Virginia is in a “wolfish” mood: she growls and howls and acts very strange. Vanessa does everything she can think of to cure Virginia’s mood, but nothing works. One day Virginia tells Vanessa about an imaginary, happy place called Bloomsberry, which gives Vanessa a wonderful idea! With her paint brush in hand, Vanessa brings Bloomsberry to life by painting on the walls and transforming them into a beautiful garden. Virginia soon picks up her own paint brush and undergoes a transformation of her own.

What Wallace and I Think: I got to hear Kyo Maclear talk about this picturebook last year. She was kind enough to give a talk to my supervisor’s picturebook class. She was even kinder to talk to me one on one, and we had a great discussion about my research, and how she wants to start a PhD on a similar topic. She was soft-spoken, intelligent, and just, well, as I said, KIND. So, as you can tell, I’m now a Kyo fan for life.

She told us the picture book was born out of her desire to talk about mental health with children. There is still such a stigma attached to issues of mental health, and Maclear expressed that maybe a way to fight the stigma is to get people talking about mental health issues as early as possible. The result is a beautiful picture book that tells three profound stories:

  1. A story of friendship between siblings.

At the most basic level, this story is about the importance of family support, and the love shared between siblings. The images are beautiful, the text is lovely. It is simply a delight to read.

  1. A story loosely based on the real life sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

The picture book also provides the opportunity to introduce children to important cultural figures: author Virginia Woolf, her sister and artist Vanessa Bell, and The Bloomsbury group. As I have said in other posts, intextuality is important in early children’s literature, for it can spark later curiosity. Maybe when your little one is a teenager they’ll be more inclined to pick up Mrs. Dalloway because they’ve already been introduced to Woolf. And hey, if you’re a parent that finds Virginia’s name familiar, but haven’t heard of Vanessa or the Bloomsbury group, maybe your own curiosity will be piqued

I had someone say to me: “this not a great way to talk about depression with children, because they can find out that Virginia Woolf committed suicide, and that could spark the idea to do the same if they’re depressed.” This kind of comment infuriates me. First, it depicts children as sponges that passively receive information. Children are not passive. Don’t make them passive! They have brains. Encourage them to use their brains! When they can talk, they want to talk to you about things that matter, like depression. This comment does an injustice to children. Second, as someone who has struggled with depression her whole life, I can tell you from personal experience that learning about people like Virginia Woolf (who I learned about when I was a young teenager and she meant a lot to me), who were brilliant and created beautiful things, made me stop believing that I was weak, and that I was alone. And I’m still here because I was inspired by Woolf’s life, not her death. Your child, hopefully when they’re much older, are going to learn about suicide. Don’t you want to give them a foundation, the mental fortitude to talk about such things, so they aren’t overwhelmed later?

  1. A story that can begin conversations with children about feeling “wolfish”

I’ve spoken to a few teachers about their experiences of reading this picture book to their classes, and they were blown away with the types of conversations the reading provoked. The students shared stories of when their own siblings, and parents, and friends have felt “wolfish.” They discussed things they did to help their loved ones, and how it felt to have a loved one struggle in this way. Others talked about feeling wolfish themselves, what helps them when they’re feeling this way, and what they wished their loved ones would do for them when they’re feeling this way. This is powerful! The picturebook gave these children the tools to talk about a subject that is insanely hard to talk about.

I would recommend reading this picturebook to even the youngest of children, as even if they’re too young to talk to you about feeling wolfish, the pictures are beautiful. It is a picturebook that children will understanding more deeply the older they get. And like I said, why not give children the tools to talk about something like depression as early as possible?

I give this picturebook a 5/5

Review of Dark Companion

Dark Companion

Marta Acosta

Published by Tor Teen in 2012

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Disclaimer: this novel involves sexual content, as well as drug use. Please consult with your parents before reading

I’ve been working on a project about the intertextuality of Jane Eyre in 21st Century children’s and YA lit, and yesterday I finally finished reading my primary sources (hurray). The last book I read for this project was Dark Companion by Marta Acosta. This YA book started as an online novel, and was so popular with readers that it was picked up by Tor Teen and published “officially” in print and ebook format. I spent yesterday reading all 350 pages, one because I had too, and two because it was a real page turner.

The Story: Jane was orphaned at eight, and has been hopping from foster home to foster home until finally landing in a group home run by the horrid Mrs. Prichard in the rough neighbourhood of Helmsdale (called Hellsdale by the residents). After working hard in school, Jane is accepted to the prestigious Birch Grove Academy on a full scholarship. Here Jane finds a new group of friends, enjoys her classes, loves her beautiful little cottage nestled in the woods, and even develops a serious crush on the headmistress’s son, Lucien. However, Birch Wood is too good to be true, and Jane begins to question the seemingly sinister activities taking place at the school: why did the school nurse, Mrs. Mason, kill herself? Why did the former scholarship student, whose place Jane has filled, abruptly leave? Why is Lucien so obsessed with Jane’s blood? As the back cover write-up states “As Jane begins to piece together the answers to the puzzle, she must find out why she was brought to Birch Grove—and what she would risk to stay there.”

What Wallace and I think: Since the promotional quote from the Kirkus Review on the front cover says that this book “gives vampires and their victims a long-overdue makeover” (really, is it long-overdue?! Has this reviewer been living under a rock?) I am not ruining the surprise by saying the book does deal with vampires. Because of this I immediately started making comparisons to Twilight, as I’m sure anyone reading a YA book about vampires would do. Because I feel this trend is overused, I wasn’t overtly hopeful. As well, though Twilight is somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me, and I can understand why it has been so popular, I find the abusive undertones and Bella’s passive acceptance of her treatment and utter devotion to both boys highly disturbing. There is nothing about Bella’s relationship with Edward or Jacob that young readers should wish for in their own romantic lives.

So though I was cautious when starting Dark Companion I was quickly won over, and was convinced by the end that THIS is the vampire book I could get behind.

  1. I found the “modern” update of vampires in Twilight very cheesy (ie. They sparkle…what?!). Acosta’s reimaging of the vampire myth I think does a better job of bringing the legend into the modern world. Acosta’s “vampires” are not the undead, they don’t have fangs, they don’t hunt people, and they are not immortal. Instead they are humans who have an enzyme deficiency caused by a recessive genetic disorder that causes a biological desire to replace their damage DNA by drinking blood. They drink animal blood, will eat red foods and drinks to trick the cravings, and will drink human blood when available.
  2. Jane is a strong and realistic flawed character who says no. She is often confused by her feelings for Lucien (of course she is, otherwise there wouldn’t be any drama), and it at times boarders into dangerous Bella and Edward like territory. But Jane ultimately is in control of her body and decides what she wants. Jane understands pain is not love, and says no. Jane saying no, and whoever she says no too stopping whatever they are doing when she says it, is important.
  3. I remember feeling uncomfortable and sad when watching the third Twilight The night before Bella’s wedding she is alone in her room, with only a quick goodnight from her dad, and Edward is out for a “stag” with his friends. It made me think back to my own “night-before-the-wedding” surrounded by my family and my best girlfriends. I felt supported and loved. My wedding day didn’t feel like just a celebration of mine and my husband’s love for one another, but of the love we shared with our whole community of family and friends. Bella didn’t have that because she isolated herself from her family and friends through her complete obsession with Edward. Jane connects with three girls in the novel, and grows close to them, leans on them, and is still standing with them at the end. Along with Jane’s saying no, Jane’s having true friends and not letting herself become completely sidetracked by a boy, I found refreshing.
  4. Acosta’s novel patriciates in Victorian gothic conventions, which I think she does well. I love that she opens each chapter with a quote from the very best gothic writers and works of the Victorian era like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray; Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Bram Stokers’ Dracula (obviously); Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”; and John William Polidor “The Vampyre”. I appreciated this because it set the tone throughout the novel, and, as I always hope, could peak the interest of young readers to check out these texts for themselves. As well the novel is a reimagining of Jane Eyre in an imaginative and surprising way that I greatly enjoyed.

I give this novel a 4/5

Tom and Hetty’s School Stories

In the past week and a half I’ve read eight school stories from the Victorian and Edwardian eras for my comprehensive exam. Below are reviews of my favorite two.

Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes (1857)

This novel holds a special place in the history of children’s literature because it is the first boys’ school story written for children. After the publication of Tom Brown the genre of boys’ school stories was extremely popular from the Victorian period into the 1950s.

There was a revival of this genre, though not specially for boys, with the publication of Harry Potter. Many have argued that Harry Potter participates in Victorian boarding school story conventions. Proof of this argument can be found in Tom Brown as I noticed several similarities between the two. In many ways Tom Brown feels like the great-great-great grandfather of Harry Potter. The way the school is described reminded me of Hogwarts ( for example the School-house hall: “It is a great room thirty feet long and eigtheen high, with two great tables running the whole length, and two large fireplaces at the side, with blazing fires in them” [92]). The three best friends in Tom Brown was also familiar. Tom and Harry both share the spotlight in their respective stories, often put their heroism to the test, and are the centre of attention in their schools. The role of “best friend” are filled by East and Ron, and both are loyal best friends to Harry and Tom. East and Ron are fun and well-meaning, though not the smartest, and often get into trouble without meaning too. George Arthur is a prototype for Hermione as he is the smartest of his friends, often their conscience, and cares more about his grades then excelling in athletics.

Tom Brown’s School Days takes place at Rugby school, a real school which author Thomas Hughes attended, and that is still in existence today! While Hughes was a student at Rugby, Dr. Thomas Arnold was the headmaster. Dr. Arnold instituted many new practices that since have become common place in English boarding schools (and will be familiar to those who have read Harry Potter). Significant changes Dr. Arnold made include:

Dr. Arnold had his students study history, math, and modern languages (ie. German, Italian, French, not just Latin and Greek as had been the standard)

Dr. Arnold developed the Praeposter or Prefect system. The prefect system gave high achieving older boys from the upper classes power over the rest of the students, which was intended to keep order in the school. Prefects were placed in each dormitory to monitor the younger boys, were hall and class monitors, and could decide how boys who misbehaved were to be disciplined. Basically Percy Weasley was the ideal Prefect.

Dr. Arnold loved sports, and he allowed his students to take part in sports, like field hockey and football, as an alternative to hunting and fighting (yes fighting was allowed). School sporting events mark some of the biggest and most anticipated events for students in the novel, which again can be seen in Harry Potter in the excitement and emphasis that is placed on Quidditch matches between houses (competition between houses is also in Tom Brown).

Though the Rugby school environment may seem as foreign to contemporary readers as Hogwarts, there are timeless themes that run through the novel. For example, bullying is present throughout the novel. The edition that I read included in the preface a letter written to Thomas Hughes that draws attention to bullying within schools. The author of the letter tells Hughes:

A boy may have moral courage, and a finely-organized brain and nervous system. Such a boy is calculated, if judiciously educated, to be a great wise and useful man . . . but one nights bullying may produce such an injury . . . that this usefulness is spoiled for life (xxxvi)

Over 150 years later, the destructive effects of bullying on a child’s spirit is well known and still too common. Tom Brown is bullied by older boys when he first enters the school and Tom is only able to overcome his tormenters with the help of others. When other boys rally around Tom the bullying ceases. This is an important lesson, and I hope would inspire any young person to likewise not be a bystander to bullying in their schools.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Tom Brown’s School Days and how much I enjoyed Hughes writing (simply beautiful). I give it a 4/5

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Tom, Arthur, and East

A World of Girls: The Story of a School by L. T. Meade (1886)

L.T. Meade  started writing at 17 and wrote over 300 books during her life. A World of Girls is arguably Meade’s most famous. What I appreciated about this book, and what I found refreshing about it amidst the other Victorian school stories I was reading, is that the characters felt real. They weren’t perfect. Everyone is flawed. Even the head mistress (which is usually a pillar of perfection in these types of school stories) makes mistakes.

The novel follows Hester Thornton (called Hetty) who is sent to Lavender School shortly after the death of her mother. Hetty is stubborn, proud, unforgiving, and has a quick temper. She has trouble fitting into Lavender School because the other students find her extremely stand-offish and difficult to even strike up a conversation with. Hetty immediately and irrationally dislikes the school favorite Annie Forest. Most of the plot centres on the feud between Hetty and Annie, which is portrayed in an entertaining (in that it makes you want to see what happens next) and realistic way (in that you could probably relate to similar relationships in your own life).

The characters that surround Hetty and Annie are dynamic and interesting. There is Hetty’s first roommate Susan Drummond who is perpetually tired and impossible to wake up, and who always carries around lollipops. There is Dora Russell, a upper year girl who is spoiled and proud, and yet gets in trouble for reading Jane Eyre (its banned at the school!). There is Tiger, a gypsy dog who is so intelligent that he can actually understand what people say to him. Oh, and there’s gypsies, which are always a good time.

This book is arguably more accessible than Tom Brown’s School Days. Thomas Hughes devotes a lot of space to descriptions which I know some readers find tiresome, and he also makes very Victorian specific references that could confuse those not knowledgeable of the era. World of Girls has timeless themes like friendship and bullying that continue to make it relatable, and has exciting twists and turns that are entertaining (did I mention gyspys?!?!) and the characters are more vibrant which makes for a more pleasurable read. I give it a 5/5.

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Annie tries to win over Hetty

If either of these novels sound interesting to you, they can be read online for free at the Gutenberg Project.

And if you’re interested in the other books I read this week, but didn’t talk about, they are listed below and most can also be read on the Gutenberg Project.

James DeMille’s The B.O.W.C. (1869) 4.5/5 (I may post on this book at a later date, because it is excellent)

William Mayne’s A Swarm in May (1955) 4/5

Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School (1873) 4/5

Angela Brazil’s The Fortunes of Philippa (1907) 3.5/5

W. Farrar’s Eric; or Little by Little (1858) 3/5

Flora & Ulysses!

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K. G. Campbell

Published by Candlewick Press in 2013

I’m lucky to be studying children’s literature. When I’m asked what my favorite books are it’s impossible to narrow a list down because I LOVE so much of what I read. Usually I just name the most recent things I’ve read, because I’m weekly finding a new favorite.

However, if some cruel person forced me to actually put together a list, Flora and Ulysses would be on it. No question. It’s been nearly a year since I first read it, and after returning to it again this week, I was renewed with affection for it.

It was the winner of the 2014 Newbery Award, generally received raving reviews, and spent weeks on many bestsellers lists. So I’m not the only one who loves it. The narrative is told through both text and comics, which I argue makes for a broad potential reading audience.

Flora is “a natural born cynic” who loves to read comic books, especially The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto! and TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!

Ulysses is a squirrel. He starts out as an ordinary squirrel who mostly thinks and cares about food. But one fateful day the squirrel is sucked up by Mrs. Tickham’s Ulysses 2000x powered vacuum. Due to quick thinking on the part of Flora, who gives the seemingly dead squirrel mouth to mouth, the squirrel is reborn as Ulysses who can do things he’d never been able to do before. Like think about more than food. Like fly. Like . . . other things I won’t spoil.

Could Flora have possibly found a REAL LIFE SUPERHERO?

Ulysses is the most enchanting animal character I have read in years. I always appreciate a good animal character, as I am an animal lover (if you haven’t already noticed through my irrational love of my dog Wallace). Animal characters often pull the strongest on my heart strings, and I (confession) am often more attached to the animal than human characters.

Toto from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite animal characters. In gray Kansas, Toto is what brings Dorothy joy. Toto is also the driving force for most of the plot. Dorothy is transported to Oz because she runs into her house, instead of the storm shelter, to get Toto. Dorothy misses the air balloon ride back to Kansas with the Wizard because Toto jumps out and Dorothy jumps out after him. So basically, Toto is the most important character. My favorite quote from the whole book is: “Toto did not really care whether he was in Kansas or the Land of Oz so long as Dorothy was with him.” Wallace is 100% my Toto.

Another favorite is Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. I have read this book over and over, and watched the film version over and over. Each time I cry my eyes out over my love of Wilbur, and decide to give up bacon (which usually only lasts a few weeks). My favorite quote about Wilbur’s love for Fern is: “he planned to stand perfectly still and think of what it was like to be alive, and to wait for Fern.” Wallace is totally my Wilbur.

Why is Ulysses as loveable as Toto and Wilbur? Because he ADORES Flora. Like Toto, Ulysses doesn’t really care about the plans Flora makes, just that Flora is happy and that he gets to be with her. And like Wilbur, when Ulysses is separated from Flora, all he can think about is getting back to her. Again, I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises that make reading this book so fun, but the friendship between Flora and Ulysses is what makes this book so incredibly lovely.

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The narrative is also filled with hilariously odd characters that electrify the book. For example:

  • Eleven year old William Spiver is doing such a good job of pretending to be blind he actually believes he is, and says things like “Flora Belle? What a lovely, melodious name” and “Surely you jest!”
  • There’s old Dr. Meescham who listens to opera, misses her lately passed husband the other Dr. Meescham, talks about life as a girl in Blundermeecen.
  • Flora’s mother, and villain to the story for she cannot understand why Flora keeps sneaking a squirrel into the house, writes romance novels, irrationally loves her shepherdess lamp, and is struggling to navigate recently being divorced.

The whole cast of characters (including those I don’t mention) are vibrant, allowing DiCamillo to create a complex and exciting world.

The back cover suggests reading ages for Flora and Ulysses of 11 to 13 years old. I think this books can appeal to readers both under 11 and over 13. Being part comic, the images allows the book to be accessible to younger readers. The writing is straight forward enough that early elementary aged children could read it on their own, or it could read with parents. I imagine this would be a fun book for parents to read to their children (I would have LOVED for my mom to have read this to me. She would have done an awesome job with the voices).

The book ends with the possibility of there being more adventures of Flora and Ulysses. After reading (click here if I’ve inspired you), I’m sure you, like me will be wishing on every shooting star that this happens sooner rather than later.

Sam & Dave Don’t Just Dig A Hole

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Published by Candlewick Press in 2014

I bought this picture book because I LOVE Jon Klassen. He’s a Canadian illustrator living in the states. He has a unique style that is humorous, gorgeous, and yet gritty. Sometimes he acts as illustrator (like with Sam and Dave) and other times writes and illustrates (This is Not My Hat and my favourite I Want My Hat Back). This is my first experience with Mac Barnett, but I am now a fan (not to mention he took classes with David Foster Wallace which is really, really cool. As a English major I am currently turning green with envy).

Sam and Dave is not what we in the Children’s lit biz call a twice told story, meaning the text and images do not tell exactly the same story. The text tells readers of friends Dave and Sam who “dug a hole” and decide they won’t stop digging “until we find something spectacular” (npg). The images illustrate that text, and add to it, in that the boys continually decide to change the direction of their digging right when they’re about to stumble across a big diamond (which their dog companion appears to be able to smell. I wish Wallace had this super power. I would be living a much different life if Wallace could sniff out buried diamonds). This is an example of how the illustrations add to the narrative, for there is no mention of the diamonds which grow bigger and bigger the deeper they dig, in Barnett’s text.

As well, the boys dig themselves into a parallel universe (?) that is not mentioned in the text. The boys start digging in front of a house with a cat sitting on a porch and a growing apple tree in the yard. Sam and Dave dig right through the earth and they fall to what on first glance looks like the same house from the beginning. However, on closer inspection you see the cat is wearing a different coloured collar, the tree is now a pear tree, along with other changes. This is not mentioned in the text. Actually, Sam and Dave don’t seem to notice any difference. Once again, it is only the observant dog that notices they are not where they started (Wallace and I really like this dog).

These type of “yes, and” (term stolen from improv) picture books are awesome for readers as young as they can come. Even if they don’t know how to read the text, they can keep uncovering a more complex story through the illustrations when the text is read to them, or when looking at the book alone. This provides the opportunity for new interpretations to be discovered upon several readings.

This book is deceivingly simple (Sam and Dave dig a hole), but the interaction between Barnett’s text and Klassen’s illustrations makes for a changing reading experience, making this picture book one that can be read over, and over, and over again before discovering all the secrets.