Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: Paris-Chien: Adventures of an Ex-Pat Dog, by Jackie Clark Mancuso (La Librairie Parisienne, 2013)

Recommended for ages 4 and up.

Picture books about dogs are a dime a dozen, but picture books about dogs in Paris--ooh, la, la, that's a smaller group.  I remember on my first trip to Paris, many many years ago, being flabbergasted that dogs were everywhere--including in restaurants, where they were treated with great respect.  But what would it be like to be an American dog in Paris?

In Paris-Chien (a pun on the French word parisien--OK, it took me a few minutes to get that one, and you have to pronounce Paris in French--par-ee--for it to work!), we meet Hudson, an adorable Norwich terrier who has recently moved to Paris with his American owner.  However, adjusting to a new culture is apparently as difficult for dogs as for people--Hudson didn't realize that French dogs spoke French rather than "dog"!  But no worries, his owner enrolls him in French language classes, taught by Madame Vera--a French poodle.  Soon Hudson is as happy as a clam--or maybe a baguette or croissant--in his new home, and even has a French girlfriend!

This is a delightful book that is sure to please dog lovers and Francophiles alike.  The book is peppered with French phrases, which are translated in a "petit dictionnaire" in the back (although there is no phonetic translation, so the author seems to assume that the readers will already know a little French).  Children and adults alike will enjoy the "fish out of water" story of Hudson adjusting to Paris, told with a gentle sense of humor.  The gouache artwork is particularly charming, and the color palette and flat, stylized technique evoke 20th century French artists such as Matisse.

Author Jackie Clark Mancuso was inspired to write this book by her own experiences as an ex-pat in Paris.  Hudson is a real dog, and you can learn more about him on his Facebook page.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Becoming Babe Ruth, by Matt Tavares (Candlewick, 2013)

Recommended for ages 5 and up.

I am not much of a sports fan, but I do enjoy books about baseball players of long ago.  Babe Ruth is such an epic figure in the history of sports, but one that I suspect kids today do not know that well.  When I was growing up, I remember well when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's lifetime home run record, which was a huge deal back in 1974.  Of course since then, the record has been broken again by the controversial Barry Bonds, and now Ruth ranks 3rd on the home run king list.  But given the much shorter seasons played in those days, being third doesn't really diminish Ruth's stature as one of the great home run kings!

Matt Tavares has written some wonderful baseball picture books, including Hank Aaron's Dream and There Goes Ted Williams.

Tavares' new picture book on Ruth is a wonderful addition to these prior books.  It concentrates on Ruth's early years, when he was just a kid in Baltimore who got into trouble a lot.  At the tender age of seven, he was left by his parents at a very strict reform school, St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys.  Although to contemporary kids this must seem like a fate worse than death, it's not so bad for George, because he gets to play baseball almost every day.  At school, he's taken under the wing of Brother Matthias, an excellent baseball player himself.  While still at St. Mary's, George is signed by the minor league Baltimore Orioles.  His teammates nickname him "Babe" since he is only sixteen and amazed by everything outside the gate of St. Mary's!  Starting out as a pitcher, Ruth is quickly traded to the major leagues, where he becomes a star pitcher for the Red Sox--at least until 1920, when he is sold to the Yankees for the huge sum of $125,000--the biggest fee ever paid at that time for a baseball player!

But Tavares shows us another side of Ruth--his compassion for orphans and kids from the wrong side of the tracks.  When his boyhood home, St. Mary's is destroyed by fire, Ruth invites the school band to tour with the Yankees to raise money to rebuild the school.  He even invites them to ride the train with him and treats them to ice cream sundaes in the dining car!

Tavares' oversized illustrations capture the jumbo personality of Babe Ruth, who became the biggest celebrity in America.  Tavares writes  "He wears fancy clothes, custom tailored just for him. He drives fast cars and throws wild parties.  He eats enormous amounts of food.  He does whatever he wants.  And he clobbers the baseball like nobody ever has."

Back matter includes an author's note with additional biographical information on Ruth, as well as his pitching and hitting stats and a brief bibliography.  Highly recommended!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Blog Tour and Giveaway: In Search of Goliathus Hercules, by Jennifer Angus

I am delighted to be a stop on the blog tour for author Jennifer Angus, debut author of a delightful and innovative historical fantasy for middle grade readers, In Search of Goliathus Hercules. Set in 1890, this novel features an appealing young hero, ten-year old Henri, who discovers an incredible talent--he can communicate with insects!  This ability allows him to train an amazing flea circus and communicate with ordinary houseflies and butterflies.  But there is more afoot--with shades of Kafka, Henri discovers he is becoming more insect-like by the day!  And can he solve the mystery of his father's disappearance into a far-off jungle, never to be heard from again?

Her novel definitely channels the wry humor of British authors Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbotson and features the most charming insect characters I have encountered since James and the Giant Peach.  It's a real treat to read, with a quirky sense of humor and many endearing characters.  

In this guest post, I asked her if she would reflect on her lifetime interest in insects.
 Insects and Childhood

Jennifer Angus
Perhaps you have walked on a warm summer evening and seen fireflies dancing in the sky. There is something magical about the sight. I’ve often wished I could be part of the festivities and the mystery.  That desire might seem childish which brings up an observation that children’s literature is populated with wonderful six legged characters such as the insect companions in James and the Giant Peach or the fabulously glamorous cockroach in La Cuchuracha Martina. I was interested to discover that what is considered the first children’s story in the English language which was not a moral tale or fable is The Butterflies Ball and The Grasshoppers Feast by William Roscoe dating from 1808. In the Victorian era, both adults and children were introduced to the natural world through a large number of educational publications in which insects were anthropomorphized so as to have greater appeal to the general reading public. Voracious collecting of all manner of plant and wildlife was extremely popular at that time.

Through second to fifth grade my family lived in Niagara Falls, Canada. On a rainy Saturday or Sunday my parents would give my brother and me money to go to a museum. Our favorites were the Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the Houdini Wax Museum and the Niagara Falls Museum. The latter was an old Victorian style museum that was old, musty and near the end not even heated. On the top floor were the animal “oddities” – things like the 2-headed dog or the five-legged calf. On that floor I remember seeing insect collections that were put into words and patterns. These early experiences have very much informed both my art exhibitions and my writing.

I am best known for my “insect wallpapers” but as my thinking as progressed I have made my own cabinets of curiosity in which Victorian poems are etched on to the backs of metallic beetles, and shadow boxes containing insect samplers that spell out nursery rhymes.  For my exhibition “Insecta Fantasia” at the Newark Museum I created dioramas in which insects appear to enact scenes from famous fairytales such as Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel.

Typically a diorama creates a realistic scene however in mine the insects inhabited a monochromatic brown world of beeswax. The subdued landscape is both surreal and provocative. The dioramas inspired further works in which vintage style dollhouses were covered in wax along with the furniture too. Again insects appear to live and carry out activities in these spaces. The houses with their 6-legged occupants are reminiscent of the work of Walter Potter (1835-1918), the celebrated taxidermist whose Kitten Wedding included 20 felines taxidermied and dressed for the occasion. The Rabbit School saw 48 bunnies posed at desks and studiously note taking upon slates. 

Likewise in children’s literature animals are often anthropomorphized so that the reader can relate thus giving both insight and empathy. Author Beatrix Potter turned the tables so that despite the fact that Peter Rabbit naughtily gorged himself on Farmer McGregor’s crops the reader cheers for Peter rather than the aggrieved farmer. In the “Tale of Two Bad Mice,” the aforementioned rodents create mayhem and destruction in a dollhouse yet all is forgiven when they offer restitution of sixpence and a daily cleaning service.

Similarly I seek to rehabilitate the image of insects through my artwork and “In Search of Goliathus Hercules”.

Giveaway:  Albert Whitman & Co. has kindly made available a give-away for The Fourth Musketeer blog readers.  If you would like to win a copy of this unique novel, please leave a comment below with your e-mail address!  The winner will be chosen by June 15th through a random number generator.  

This title is available in e-book at the following:  It can also be ordered directly from the publisher, Albert Whitman & Co.  

The next stop on Jennifer's blog tour is at A Patchwork of Books tomorrow!