Monday, July 30, 2012

One COOL Friend

Friendship is a tricky thing - I think we'd all agree.  Sometimes you meet someone and instantly connect.  Sometimes in my life I have met someone who I long to have as my friend, and it takes time to develop that connection.  But sometimes you just know it's right.  I see the same routines happen with my girls - they have made friends with the children of my adult friends, because they are so often together.  Frances has recently become closer friends with a girl in her preschool class who she didn't like at all last fall.  And Gloria, as is typical of Gloria's personality, has one true-blue friend, and he's a boy.

Elliot doesn't seem to have any human friends.  At the beginning of the book, he appears, looking older than he is, surrounded by a circle of stuffed animals.  His father, whose green plaid suit contrasts sharply with Elliot's refined tuxedo, asks Elliot if he would like to go to Family Fun Day at the aquarium.  With an almost audible sigh, Elliot agrees, even though he knows that there will be a horde of noisy kids there.  As soon as they arrive, Elliot's father plops on a bench to read National Geographic.  Elliot roams on his own, steering clear of the crowds.  And then Elliot discovers...the penguins!  He identifies with their style and their posture.  He feels that connection to a true friend.  When he asks to take one home, his absorbed father agrees, thinking Elliot's buying one in the nearby gift shop.  But of course, that's not what Elliot had in mind.  The miscommunication between Elliot and his father (or is it willful misrepresentation?) continues after Elliot absconds with the penguin, who he names Magellan.  This ongoing miscommunication ends in a delightful, surprising clarification at the end, a twist that is unexpected and marvelous.

Buzzeo's text is crisp and stark.  Just like Elliot, it can be refined.  When the father is speaking, you can feel his attempts to find something to connect with his son.  Both Elliot and his father are self-contained fellows - the father pores over his journals, maps and diagrams.  Elliot putters away making his penguin comfortable.  They are both speaking English, but don't seem to be speaking the same language.

One of the nifty design elements in this book ties together Buzzeo's text with Small's illustrations.  Dialogue is entered in balloons, adding to this book's retro, graphic feel.  If there are multiple lines of dialogue, the balloons are stacked.  This is helpful for new readers, to indicate who is saying what on the page.  It also helps indicate the order of the conversation.  There is also a distinction between thought bubbles (more scalloped in shape) and dialogue balloons (smooth and oval) to guide readers.  It's very clever.
Buzzeo's text is pared down and sophisticated, although it isn't too sophisticated for young readers to get a sense of Elliot's isolation and loneliness.  As Elliot winds a garden hose through the house (making an ice rink for the penguin), he tells his father "Forgive the inconvenience."  But the text and illustrations work perfectly together - where Buzzeo is short and sweet, Small;s illustrations are grandiose - in a good way! - filling double-page spreads.  They are over the top, with Elliot's father's crazy colored suit, tufts of orange hair and eyes rolling wildly with excitement.

But while the text draws me into the story, I have to spend some time focusing on David Small's amazing illustrations.  First of all, the palette for the illustrations are cool tones - an icy blue, white, grey, and black.  Other colors are used, but these choices set the tone right from the cover.  The word "COOL" is icy blue, along with a tiled square motif along the spine, echoing the tiles in the aquarium.  The rest of the cover (Elliot and the penguin back to back) is sharply black and white.  And this continues throughout.

This book, after all, is about a penguin and you can almost see Magellan revel in the icy pages.  One of my favorite illustrations shows Elliot and Magellan whirling on a makeshift ice rink.  The focus of the page is Elliot, dressed in uncharacteristically bright colors, eyes closed with contentment.  He is happy.  But there are other details which make this page worth poring over - all of the stuffed animals are wearing scarves and earmuffs because the air conditioner is on full-blast.  Mobiles and globes drip icicles.  The details say just as much about the situation as the main picture does.

The illustrations remind of the matter-of-fact silliness of The Christmas Crocodile - one of my favorite Small-illustrated books.  In both books the wackiness of the core situation (in The Christmas Crocodile, a family receives a large package delivered to them - bet you can't guess what's inside!) is in sharp relief against the ordinariness of the setting.  But in One Cool Friend, once you read to the end, and discover the father's secret, you'll want to go back and re-read the book.  There are many clever indications of the father's secret embedded in the pages - another level of humor for readers to enjoy.

This book fits readers on so many levels - those readers who might long for a penguin, those who might long for the understanding of a perfect friend, those who are looking for a place to fit in.  Oh!  I can't believe I didn't mention it before, but there is also a cool librarian featured in these pages - one more thing to love about this book.  All in all, this is a surefire hit, and not to be missed!

One Cool Friend.  Toni Buzzeo; pictures by David Small.  Dial Books, 2012.
The Christmas Crocodile.  Bonny Becker and David Small.  Simon & Schuster, 2012.

One Cool Friend borrowed from Lewis & Clark library, The Christmas Crocodile is my personal copy.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Heirs of Prophecy

First of all, I apologize for the long silence.  This early summer has been a little bumpy for me, but I have lots of posts waiting to be written, so I promise more regular posts are on their way.  Thank you for being patient with me!  I was approached to participate in a blog tour for this book, Heirs of Prophecy.  I read some reviews that interested me, and I realized I hadn’t written any blog posts about chapter books in a long time, so I decided to give it a go.  And this was a fast-paced adventure that kept me reading!
The Riverton family is going on vacation.  Their father usually plans the vacations, and he chooses some…unusual places (their last vacation featured Japanese ruins and samurai sword making).  But their dad is letting them bring the family cat, Silver, so 14 year old Ryan and 12 year old Aaron figure it can’t be that bad.  Well, their vacation doesn’t go quite as planned.  The family ends up outside of Tucson, Arizona, exploring caves by canoe.  Suddenly, there is a loud rumble, and the cave collapses around them.
This is the Riverton family’s introduction to Trimoria, a world they could not have ever dreamed of.  And as they stumble through the forests, trying to find civilization, some unexplainable things begin to happen to them all.  Ryan, the oldest son, has what looks like lightning shoot out from his fingers.  Aaron, who had been previously described as “diminutive”, shows amazing strength – lifting rocks as if they were hollow.  And their mother and father, too, begin to exhibit powers they never had before.  As for Silver, well, Silver has grown enormous and even smarter than he was before.
They are incredibly lucky to find the Protector of the area, Throll, on their second day, and even luckier that he believes their story, even though it seems farfetched.  As Protector-General of the land, Throll is able to wield some power over the townspeople and gets them to believe that Jared Riverton (the boys’ father)is his old friend from another part of the land.  Oddly, Jared Riverton had been interested in blacksmithing back home in the United States, and had created a smithy in their backyard.  Here in Aubgherle, there is an urgent need for a blacksmith.
Magic is outlawed in Trimoria, and people who exhibit any type of magical powers (especially babies) mysteriously disappear.  So the odd skills that the Rivertons have gained need to be hidden from spies in the town of Aubgherle.  They practice these skills in secret, trying to gain control of their powers and learn how they function.  It becomes evident that while Ryan is the strongest wizard, his father is also a wizard of some power.  Aaron is freakishly strong, and begins to learn a variety of fighting skills and strategies.  And their mother, Aubrey, is an incredible healer.
But somehow the wizard who controls the country of Trimoria, Azazel, who is evil, becomes apprised of this unusual family and sets out to destroy them.  At the same time a “small” ogre (only seven feet tall at the start of the novel! And a vegetarian!) named Ohaobbok joins Throll’s family and the Rivertons, and he retells a strange prophecy, one that includes himself and the Riverton family.  The Rivertons’ inclusion in the prophecy makes sense.  Trimoria is nowhere near as technologically advanced as present-day United States, but the skills the Rivertons have honed in their American lives seem to translate well here.  For instance, the blacksmithing (along with the samurai sword making vacation) comes in very handy.  Jared can actually bring modern technology to creating swords in Trimoria, giving his swords an advantage.  Both Ryan and Aaron have studied martial arts for years, and that gives them an advantage as well.  All these things seem to point to their destiny – to fulfill the prophecy.
I don’t want to tell too much of the plot, because exploring the country along with the Rivertons and discovering where their destiny lies is part of the ride.  And it is definitely a ride.  The book is full of magic, elements of fantasy, and some crazy fights.  Everything is enthralling, and keeps you reading.   This book sped by – I would pick it up and find I had suddenly read 100 pages!  It is easy enough for a fifth grader to read, and perfectly suited for a middle grade audience, including plenty of adventure and danger.
The world-building Rothman does is easy to understand.  I hate fantasy books where I spend so much time figuring out how things work, or how the universe was created.  I often feel that that holds me back from really engaging with the plot, and I’ve been known to not finish fantasies that get overly complicated.  While it is a mystery how the Rivertons arrived in Trimoria (the back of the book calls it a ‘fluke of nature’, but could it be something or someone else?),  the country of Trimoria itself isn’t overly complicated.  It seems to be pretty squarely set in something resembling the Middle Ages, with an emphasis on iron, mining, and blacksmithing.  People fight with swords, daggers and bows and arrows, not guns and bombs.  And the types of creatures that populate the forests are also familiar – dwarves that mine ore, elves in an amazing magical forest glen, and ogres.  But the characterization helps keep these traditional types interesting .  I really loved the ogre, Ohaobbok – he is sweet, and yet fights for this family he has come to love.
This book includes many of the “big” fantasy themes – good v. evil, the power of magic, but adds in some new twists.  It felt fresh, and made me want to continue on to see how this series gets to the final war and an epic battle.  For there will be one – it has been foretold.  Generations of Trimorians have the same dream, and the Riverton family is front and center in that dream.
I do have a couple of minor quibbles with Rothman, though.  I have a cat of my own, and I would never take him on a family vacation.  Especially if I knew that vacation would involve canoeing along a river in addition to a plane ride.  I don’t know many cats who would agree to those conditions!  Also the Riverton family doesn’t seem to articulate any desire to return to the United States.  They seem perfectly happy in Trimoria, and while I’ve already said that they are destined to be there, I can’t help wondering if they will mention a longing for home at some point. 
Also, I would have liked a glossary or pronunciation guide for the names.  I see that book two (titled Tools of Prophecy) is already out in e-book and will be out in hardback next month, so maybe he will consider it for the prequel or book three, both of which are in the works.  I think it’s important to guide readers to the “correct” Trimorian pronunciation for names like Ohaobbok (oh, how I’d love to say that name!), Ealuanni, Azazel, and others.  The elven names are particularly tricky.  So, please, Mr. Rothman, help us out!
All in all, though, this is a fun, thrilling adventure.  I would love to know more about the Rivertons and their adventures in Trimoria, and I hope you’ll take time to explore along with them!
Rothman , Michael A.  Heirs of Prophecy.  M & S Publishing, 2012.
Sent by TLC Book Tours for review as part of a blog tour.