Sunday, January 27, 2013


As all the children's literature people in America know, tomorrow is the announcement of the American Library Association's Youth Media Awards.  It's a magical time for those of us who love children's books.  I haven't attended in person for many years, but I usually watch the livestream of the announcements.  You can still cheer along with the crowd as the titles are called and authors' lives are changed forever.  I've read many accounts of the phone calls authors get early that Monday morning from the committees, telling them they've won, and the stories always bring tears to my eyes.

Of course, it would be very difficult for me to choose the book that I think will win these awards, so instead I wanted to honor a clever salute to a Caldecott Honor winner.  The Caldecott Honor winner is Madeline, and the book I'd like to bring to your attention is Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody (written by Ludworst Bemonster).  I wish I could remember where I first saw this mentioned this fall, but it made me want to get it.  Luckily our public library had it, and I am a little ashamed to admit that we have had it checked out ever since.  The girls love it, and keep asking to read it again.  It is funny, clever and is a sweet love letter to a classic story.

The comparison is evident from the front covers.  On the cover of Madeline, Miss Clavel walks towards the Eiffel Tower, trailing behind most of her twelve little charges clutching Madeline's hand.  On the cover of Frankenstein, there is a creepy castle instead of the Eiffel Tower and Frankenstein peeking back at the reader.  There is a clever seal on the cover as well which cites Frankenstein as a "Caldecott Horror book".  And the font for the title and author is the same as well.  All of it subtly sets up the reader for the experience they are about to have - familiar and yet a little creepy at the same time.

This is subtitled A Monstrous Parody, and it is indeed a perfect parody as it takes the well-known story of Madeline and turns it askew.  In this story, the doctor is called by Miss Devel because it is too quiet down in the dungeon.  There are twelve different monsters there, including all of the classic horror movie monsters.  Besides Frankenstein, there is a skeleton, a werewolf, a mummy, the creature from the black lagoon, and others.  But it is Frankenstein who attracts Miss Devel's attention.  His head is missing!  Frankenstein is trucked off to the laboratory, where he is given a new head, fastened on with those requisite screws.  He wreaks havoc, eating the medical staff and the ceiling before Miss Devel and the rest of the group come to visit.  And predictably, the night after the visit to the hospital, Miss Devel senses again that something is not right.  She rushes to the dungeon door, only to see that every monster has lost their head.  It is only in Miss Devel's hilarious response to this situation that the book deviates slightly, but it is great fun.

I think I should pause here to acknowledge that Ludworst Bemonster is a pseudonym for author Rick Walton and illustrator Nathan Hale.  Their work is almost flawless and there is just as much enjoyment to be had for adult readers as there is for children who are familiar with Madeline.  The rhyming text is almost perfect, and I am impressed with how well they created a story that had to both fit a pre-existing rhyme scheme and pay homage to the familiar plot.  And the illustrations!  The illustrations, too, pay homage to the original while also acknowledging the classic horror movies of our society.  And just like the text, they have a sense of tongue in cheek humor too.

Hale has turned all those classic movie monsters into young children, and as frightening as they might want to be, they are pretty darn cute.  On the front cover, Frankenstein turns to peek back at the reader, he does so with an adorable crooked grin that makes me want to scoop him up and kiss him.  Miss Devel looks like a hip, steampunk mad scientist as she races down the stairs to her charges.  And Dr. Bone wears a dapper suit and enormous voodoo mask with a large bone through its nose.  These are the details that make this book so (dare I say it?) charming.

Where Madeline visits the zoo, and shows her bravery by pooh-poohing the tiger, Frankenstein actually frightens the other animals.  The illustration shows Miss Devel frantically restraining some of the charges, while the rest run amok.  The creature from the black lagoon is diving into the hippopotamus pool, the vampire is astride the ostrich, biting his neck.  But the majority of the animals are watching Frankenstein, who stands calmly in the middle of the chaos.  When they visit Frankenstein in the laboratory, the monsters arrive in a hilarious motorcycle/open-air carriage combination that really has to be seen.  The looks of the drivers around them as Miss Devel steers determinedly are priceless.

This book is worth finding and comparing to Madeline.  But it is clever and hilarious in its own right too.  Enjoy the Youth Media Awards tomorrow, and find Frankenstein.

Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody.  Ludworst Bemonster.  Feiwel and Fiends, 2012.  borrowed from Lewis & Clark Public Library

Madeline.  Ludwig Bemelmans.  Scholastic, 1939, 1982. 
personal collection

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Maya Makes a Mess

When TOON Books originally asked me to advertise their Maya Makes a Mess contest in July, I asked for a copy of the book to review along with the contest.  I mentioned in the blog post how much I liked TOON Books, so I selfishly wanted the book for myself.  When we got the book in the mail, the girls wanted to read it right away.  Gloria ended up loving this book and reading it over and over.  In fact, I've had a hard time holding onto it for long enough to get a review written!  It's been a huge hit at our house.

The book opens with Maya and her parents eating dinner at the table.  Her parents are scolding her for eating with her hands (something I am very familiar with!).  The scolding continues: "'Sit down!' 'Sit up!'... 'Use a spoon!'. (p.6)  Frustrated, Maya asks why she has to follow all these rules.  Her father tells her "You need manners! What if you were eating dinner with the QUEEN?!" (p. 7).  And then the doorbell promptly rings.  Of course, it is the Queen's courtier.  Maya is whisked off to court for a dinner party.  She does point out htat she has already eaten, but that doesn't matter.  When the royal dinner is served, it is made up of all the things a child does NOT like to eat - goose livers, snail salad, spinach juice and broccoli broth.  So Maya pulls out her manners to request pasta with ketchup.  She pats herself on the back for good manners, and when she isn't sure which fork is the pasta fork, she digs in to the pasta the way she always has.  There are slurps, long noodles jammed into Maya's mouth, slipping through her teeth.  Suddenly, Maya becomes aware that while she's enjoying herself, everyone in the room is staring at her.

Maya's total lack of manners is at first horrifying to the party guests.  The Queen is shocked and disgusted.  But when she asks Maya why she eats that way, Maya tells the Queeen that it makes food taste better.  This then intrigues the Queen, who decides she (and everyone else at court) should try eating Maya's way.  There is a huge free-for-all, with people eating messily, but enjoying every moment of it.  And lest you parents worry that your children will want to eat like Maya all the time, the Queen declares that this has been so much fun that they will all eat like this again.  But only on holidays. 

In my first blog post on this book, I mentioned that I was a little leery of it.  I, along with most parents, work hard to instill good manners and behavior in my daughters.  I was afraid that this book would indulge bad manners, messy eating and ignoring the polite way to do things.  I was especially afraid when Gloria kept reading it - poring over it again and again in her bed, on the couch, wherever she could find it.  I was sure there was going to be a manners revolution in my house.

But I was so focused on the bad manners that I didn't realize Modan's subtle way of putting those manners into perspective.  Maya's bad manners aren't applauded by the Queen at first.  As I said previously, the Queen stops the entire dinner party in disgust.  But it's the way Maya describes her way of eating that appeals to the Queen.  When the Queen asks, repulsed, "...why, for heaven's sake, do you eat that way?"  Maya tells her "It makes food taste better." and adds "much better!" (p. 25).  It's Maya's total enjoyment that makes the Queen curious.  The double page spread that follows is hilarious and gross at the same time.  People are cramming lettuce in their mouths with their hands, slurping soup out of a ladle, feeding each other and spilling.  But here is the best part - the Queen's dinner party has gone from being a stuffy affair, with too many forks and food no one wants to eat, to a fun party where the guests are relaxed, smiling, and enjoying themselves.  That's what Modan is really emphasizing here.  There is a time and a place for manners and fun.  Maya may have mixed the two up slightly, but she has brought fresh air into the palace.  And the Queen is wise enough to mandatethat this sort of fun should only take place on holidays.  This isn't an everyday free-for-all - it's reserved only for special occasions.

For me, one of the best things about this book are the illustrative details.  Modan gets the life of a young girl just right.  From the very first panel, Maya is a total charming mess.  As she leaves on the plane to the palace, she stands on the cabin stairway, waving cheerfully.  She wears mismatched socks, scrunched around her feet, with no shoes and unkempt hair.  Her parents fruitlessly wave a dress and a toothbrush at Maya while the ambassador mutters "'No time, no time!'" (p. 11).  The Queen is much younger than Queen Elizabeth, but does have corgis that follow her every move.  And the illustration of her at the wild feast, pouring ketchup into her mouth straight from the bottle, is simply perfect.  There is nothing better.  Oh, except for the long, loopy strand of spaghetti that meanders along the bottom of all the pages.  It begins on the back of the title page, with a pot filled with boiled noodles.  And it ends, on the last page, in a final perfectly fitting detail.  Just perfect.

You may also remember from my blog post that I love how TOON Books has created these titles for easy readers.  This book lists its reading level as Grades 1-2, and I would say for the most part that is exactly right.  Many words are repeated throughout so if a child doesn't know it the first time they encounter it, they'll have plenty of opportunities to review it.  The only place I thought an emerging reader might have trouble was with the food labels at the dinner party.  I don't know many first graders who would recognize the words broth, livers or souffle, but that could just be nitpicking on my part.  Otherwise this book is easy for a child to pick up and get great enjoyment from.

The visual literacy aspect is also strong.  There are at the most six panels per page.  Modan is careful to indicate movement from panel to panel, so the new reader can easily decode which panel they should look at next.  And text and illustrations work together harmoniously.  Maya is very expressive, and Modan includes lots of emphasis in the text through bold fonts and italics.  It's easy to see how the text should be read.  All in all, Maya is a fun book to share with young readers.  It might make them not just a voracious reader, but a polite eater too.

Maya Makes a Mess.  Rutu Modan.  TOON Books, 2012.

sent by publisher for review