Sunday, May 25, 2014

Benny and Penny in Lights Out!

So if you are a regular reader of my blog (or even an occasional reader!), you know that I have two young girls - Frances, who just turned 7, and Gloria, who is 5 1/2.  I've talked before about their names here and how those aren't the names my girls were born with, just the names that I use on the blog so as not to identify them.  There are a lot of similarities between the Frances and Gloria Russell Hoban created and my girls.  They have similar personalities - my Frances can be way too  trusting, like in A Bargain for Frances; my Gloria likes to play with her sister, but on her own terms, like Gloria in Best Friends for Frances.  But lately I've seen a tendency towards sibling behavior like that of Benny and Penny in Benny and Penny in Lights Out!

This is the fourth book in the Benny and Penny series of easy-to-read comics from TOON Books.  From the very first panel, it is clearly bedtime.  Benny is peering at the moon outside the window.  Penny is trying to keep them on track with their bedtime routine.  Benny continues with his antics - "haunting" Penny with a flashlight, burping, basically acting up in that way that only children who should really be asleep do.  Then Benny realizes that he left his pirate hat...gulp! outside.  In the dark playhouse.  It is only his sister's bravery and their teamwork that rescues the needed pirate hat.

One of the parts of the Benny and Penny series that appeals most to me is the sibling relationship.  Benny and Penny aren't perfect and they don't always get along.  There is tons of sibling squabbling.  Penny announces imperiously "It's time to brush our teeth." (p. 6)  And Benny promptly ignores her mandate, like most siblings would.  He tells her he is busy.  Then Benny cooks up a plan to scare Penny when she's brushing her teeth.  He turns off the light and uses a flashlight to try and scare Penny with threats of the Boogey Mouse.  It's all very familiar to those of us with more than one child - our constant refereeing of fights over a blanket, an inch of floor space, a perceived fight.  And the also constant picking at each other - just like Benny does in this book.  He's really only teasing Penny with his prank about the Boogey Mouse.  But siblings can get under each other's skin unlike anyone I've ever seen.

But there is something equally redeeming about siblings and the way they can put aside their fighting when needed.  Benny realizes that the pirate hat he can't fall asleep without is still in the playhouse out in the backyard.  He sneaks out the window, and when it takes longer than Penny thinks it should, she is out the window after him.  She's scared, though Penny keeps reminding herself that "The Boogey Mouse is not really real.  It's just a story!" (p. 17)  Ultimately, even though he drives her crazy, Penny is there to support and lend a hand.  When she finally makes it to the playhouse, Benny is too scared to go in.  It takes both of them together to rescue the pirate hat.

Another thing I enjoy about this story is the "just-right" sized adventure.  There isn't anything really fancy about this adventure.  To a parent's eye, there isn't even anything dangerous about their trip out to the dark backyard.  But seen through the eyes of the two young mice, the story becomes perilous indeed.  The two mice are on their own - no parents in sight as the story progresses.  They feel real responsibility for what they must do to rescue Benny's hat.  They are at that age where they want to solve the problem themselves, without parental involvement.  And Benny and Penny take satisfaction from having saved the hat on their own.  It's only after Benny has  fallen asleep that Penny asks their mother for her help, but only with reading a story.

And that brings me to one of the best themes of this story - reading and storytelling.  It combines the best of Penny and Benny.  Both children like to read and tell stories, but of course their stories are very different.  Penny loves fairy tales - they combine princesses with a sense of storytelling structure that appeals to Penny, with her love of routine.  Benny, on the other hand, retells stories with drama, action and adventure.  Those stories appeal to his daydreaming, adventurous side.  He throws in some whimsy when he tells a story about a dinosaur that lives at the circus.  The two children have a shared love of reading and story.  They fight about story too.  Penny primly gets under the covers and informs Benny that she is trying to read.  He chimes in "You can't read." She says "Yes, I can." (p. 10)  You can hear this fight going on for an eternity, but thankfully Benny burps loudly and breaks it up.  Both mice can "read", but the stories they are "reading" really comes out of their imagination.  Hayes very naturally shows the connection between adventures, imagination and literacy.  Everyone loves the idea of a good story, and through reading, Benny and Penny have created their own adventure story.

As you know, TOON Books is one of my favorite publishers because of their innovative approach to literacy through comics.  On their website they have an online CarTOON maker which Gloria loved using.  It's a lot of creative fun.  Benny and Penny in Lights Out! is a Level Two comic, designed for readers in grades 1-2.  One of the descriptions of Level Two books in the back of this particular book says that Level Two books include "a story arc with few characters in a small world".  This is a perfect description of Benny and Penny.  It's intimate: Benny and Penny never go more than a few steps from their window, yet it seems a long, long way away.

Benny and Penny in Lights Out! Geoffrey Hayes.  TOON Books, 2012.

sent by the publisher for review

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Dyerville Tales

I have been waiting to share this book with you for a long time.  I read it almost three months ago - I was lucky enough to win a copy in a Walden Pond Press giveaway (side note: Walden Pond Press is a super-cool publisher with lots of other great books too!).  But I don't like to blog about books that I love until you are able to read them too - it doesn't feel fair to tempt you like that!  So now The Dyerville Tales has been out for a few weeks, and I'm ready to talk about it!

You might recognize the author's name from Juniper Berry, which I loved, here in this post.  I was surprised at how much I loved Juniper Berry and again at how much I loved The Dyerville Tales.  Both of Kozlowsky's books have a mood in common - one of building uncertainty and fear.  They also both look at the mysteries of the adult world with a steely, clear-eyed gaze.  Very few adults escape these books whole.  The building tension, combined with the look at how adults compromise themselves, is one of the things I love best about Kozlowsky.  But his books can also keep me up at night, worrying about what might happen next.

The Dyerville Tales begins with Vince Elgin.  He lives in an orphanage, because his mother died in a house fire when he was ten years old.  Vince believes that his father escaped the fire, somehow, and is still alive.  He believes this because while Vince's mother died in the hospital room next to his, after getting Vince and herself out of the house.  Vince knows that "the authorities never discovered a single trace of him in the ashes of their home.  No bones, no teeth, not even the gold ring Vince had been promised.  And for Vince, this changed everything.  This was where he found his hope." (p. 11)

Vince isn't sure exactly why there was a fire, nor is he really sure about the events leading up to the fire.  He remembers how scared his parents were the night before but has lots of questions about what actually happened.  But the younger children in the orphanage love to hear most of the tale of Vince's arrival at the orphanage, and so he retells it (and relives it) over and over again.  It is full of magic to the other children, because it has parents in it, parents who care about Vince's safety, who want to protect him from the evil that surrounds them.

When Vince goes to the orphanage, after his mother's death and his father's disappearance it's because the only relative he has left is his grandfather.  His grandfather was believed to be crazy and was living in a nursing home.  When this story begins, it is with a package that arrives from Dyerville, the town where his grandfather lived, addressed to Vince.  In the package, a letter informs Vince that his grandfather has passed away, and that the funeral will be in a week.  Enclosed in the package is a book - a collection of tales his grandfather told in his nursing home, much as Vince has told stories in the orphanage.  Vince knows he must get to the funeral.  After all, it is his father's father.  And if Vince has any chance of seeing his own father again, it will be there, at the funeral.

The director of the orphanage tells Vince that there is no possible way he can go to the funeral - the orphanage doesn't have the money or the resources to get him to Dyerville, which is a long way from the town where the orphanage is located.  Vince is determined, though.  He escapes from the orphanage with the help of a friend, Anthony.  "Vince heard the commotion but told himself not to look back.  He had to concentrate on climbing.  He thought of what would be waiting for him at the end of this journey.  In Dyerville he would find his father.  A new life would be waiting; all he had to do was make it to the other side of the gate.  Suddenly it didn't seem so impossible." (p. 52)  And he makes it.  It's just one little step in what could be a very long journey.  But as he clears the fence around the orphanage, "somewhere deep within his mind there was now a spark glowing.  It was small, but it wanted to grow." (p. 53) I don't want to ruin the suspense of the well-plotted story.  You just need to pick it up.

But here's what I will talk about.  This book isn't just about stories and telling them (although clearly that is a major focus, considering what I've already told you about Vince and his grandfather).  It feels just like a fairy tale set in real life.  After all, there are not one but two epic journeys written about here.  Each time Vince opens his grandfather's book, there is a picture that helps add to the drama of Vincent's journey.  Both stories have fairy tale elements in them - things that are almost too incredible to be true.  And yet they are.  There are also some elements of reality that are fairy tale scary, too.  Here is one of those moments: "Her breath was colder than the wind.  With her lips touching his skin, and in a childish voice, she began to sing: 'Oh, I have the moon in me.  And everything beyond.  I am a black hole, you see.  And I'll eat me some vagabond.'" (p. 144)  Just writing that quote totally out of context made the hair on my arms stand up!

There are, of course, lots of parallels between both journeys -both Vince and his grandfather are 12 when their journeys start.  When the director of the orphanage brings Vince the package, she asks Vince "' You were named after him.  Am I right?'  Vince nodded.  'My parents said I looked just like him too.  Almost identical.  I don't know.  I didn't see it.'" (p. 24)  Both boys are on their own, trying to solve a mystery of their own lives.  And of course, when the book begins, they are both stranded in places (the orphanage or the nursing home) without any family connection.  There are so many magical things that happen in this book to tie the two together, over and over.

I was truly spellbound by this book, as you should be by any true fairy tale.  It has adventure, magic and leaves you questioning  Please pick it up - you'll dive right in.

The Dyerville Tales.  M.P. Kozlowsky.  Walden Pond Press, 2014.

I won this ARC in a giveaway, without expectation of a review.