Oct/Nov 2005 Book Reviews

The Sisters Grimm Book 1, Totally Joe and Just So Stories

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor

Michael Buckley.
The Sisters Grimm Bk 1: The Fairy Tale Detectives.

Amulet Books. 2005.
Ages 10 & Up

Buy now from Amazon! This is so totally a book that needed to be written! Every now and again I read something and get incredibly jealous because the author has discovered a story that has literally been staring us all in the face for decades, but no one figured out how to write about it. That's exactly what Michael Buckley has done with his Sisters Grimm series, whose first book, The Fairy Tale Detectives is due out in October. Fairy tales are true! The Brothers Grimm were writing about people and creatures they actually knew! There is a Jack in the Beanstalk and Prince Charming and Big Bad Wolf!

Really, we've been waiting for this book for 100 years.

But having the idea is one thing, and writing a good story is a whole other deal. What Buckley does with his book is take the fairy tale world that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm made famous and bring it into the 21st century. He gives us the Grimm sisters, Sabrina and Daphne, who have been jolted from one horrible foster home to another in the wake of their parents' sudden and inexplicable disappearance. When Fairy Tale Detectives opens, the girls are en route to stay with their paternal grandmother, a woman they have never met and had no reason to believe even existed. What happens after they come to live with Grandmother Grimm and her friend Mr. Canis in Ferryport Landing, New York, is the sort of excellent (and dangerous) adventure that most young readers dream about. There is a serious mystery to solve involving giant-sized footprints and the nefarious town Mayor, William Charming. There is a fancy dress Ball, some beanstalk seeds and three pigs who are either good guys or not. And then there are the pixies in the woods and their leader, Puck, and a carpet that flies, and a mirror that talks, and a guy named Jack... well you know what Jack does.

Are you loving this yet?

I am a big fan of Vertigo Comics' title Fables, which follows fairy tale characters living in New York City after a horrible battle in their home world. The comic follows the more traditional fairy tale formula, with the healthy doses of sex and violence and mature themes that the original stories included. (I'm just going to say that Goldilocks has a thing for Baby Bear and leave it at that.) It is a beautifully written story though, and any adult fan of fairy tales should be reading it... in fact any adult fan of good adventure stories should be reading it. The Fairy Tale Detectives immediately brought Fables to mind when I started reading it, but only in the best comparative way possible. This book (and I hope the ongoing series) is a great way to update the fairy tale world for young readers and keep it both fresh and exciting. It has bold and scary moments, and Sabrina in particular has got to get her act together if she is going to save the day. There is no room for whining in Ferryport, something both girls realize early on. Buckley makes his characters smart and believable and demands that they rise to the occasion, something that is not so easy when a smelly giant is breathing down your neck! But the Grimm girls persevere and usher in a whole new era for the characters that so many of us have grown to love. This series should win a lot of fans over the next few years. I know that I'm eager to see what Buckley has cooking for the second book, The Usual Suspects. I have no doubt that I will be impressed by its original take on the classics and its inventive use of stories that once seemed worn and tired.

Did I mention that I loved this book? It rocked!


James Howe.
Totally Joe.

Athenum Books. 2005.
Ages 10 & Up

Buy now from Amazon!James Howe has done a really unique thing with his new book, Totally Joe. He has invented a new and original format to tell the story of one year in the life of a thirteen year old boy. By crafting the book as an English assignment, an "alphabiography," narrator Joe Bunch writes his teacher an A-Z description of his life over the course of his year in the seventh grade at Paintbrush Falls Middle School. It includes everything from "A is for Addie," his oldest friend, to "T is for Thirteen" about his birthday and "H is for Halloween," a holiday that started out well but took a very bad turn. The letter that everything else hinges on though is "C is for Colin" because Colin is the boy that Joe has a crush on and the rest of his story pales in comparison to that revelation. In fact all the other letters fall into place when Joe realizes and accepts just what liking Colin is going to mean to not only school but to the rest of his life as well.

Totally Joe is a companion book to Howe's earlier title, The Misfits. Joe and his friends, Addie, Bobby, and Skeezie, and all of their girlfriends, boyfriends, and everyone else are a big group of misfits. (I've often wondered how you manage not to "fit in" when you're in middle and high school but still manage to be part of a group. Do only some groups count? And who decides who counts and who doesn't? And who made all these stupid counting rules in the first place? Aaaaah!) Joe's decision to tell his friends he is gay and "dating" Colin (this is middle school remember, the dating means holding hands occasionally and talking on the telephone), does not affect his relationship with any of them at all. They are all different in one way or another, and Joe being gay is really the least of their worries. But this is middle school, and there are plenty of other kids who are more than happy to harass Joe for any number of things that he says or does or what people think he has done. This harassment ultimately becomes the central point in the book as Joe and his crew try to change their school and must enlist the help of some parents in order to do that.

It is hard not to like Joe and his friends or identify with them as they navigate the changing world after elementary school. Joe's parents are funny, his older brother is a typical jock, and his Aunt Pam is too cool for words. All of these characters are fun to read about and root for. Because Joe is gay (and the book deals with him coming out of the closet while Colin needs to stay in) that makes this a "gay" book I suppose (whatever the hell that is), but I thought it was just a great coming of age story. I'm tired of labeling gay/straight/bi anyway. This is a book about a boy who is figuring out who he is and who he wants to be. It's about friends who stand by him, bullies who threaten him, and a family that knows what family is all about. It's funny and sad and very satisfying. It's a good book, no matter who you had a crush on in the seventh grade; it's just a flat-out good book.


Rudyard Kipling.
Just So Stories.

Illustrated by Christopher Corr, Cathie Felstead, Jeff Fisher, Satoshi Kitamura, Clare Melinsky, Jane Ray, Peter Sis & Louise Voce
Candlewick Press. 2004.
Ages 5 & Up

Buy now from Amazon!Rudyard Kipling published his collection of "Just So Stories" in 1902 after writing the tales to entertain a young niece. The collection has been reissued many times since then with different illustrations, no illustrations, and critical analysis. The new Candlewick publication caught my attention entirely because of the pictures, which sounds pretty shallow when I think about it, but as the stories have not changed, the pictures are the only true way to update the collection for new readers. After reading it and loving it and appreciating the way each artist put their own particular stamp on the stories they illustrated, I spent a little time researching previous editions of the book. I am surprised what reviewers have had to say in the past about the illustrations, about them not being "oriental enough" or "Asian enough" or "exotic enough" (how can one drawing of an elephant be less exotic than another?). I am inclined here to say that all of those comments are the biggest bunch of garbage that I have read in a long time. Regardless of how Clare Melinsky illustrated "How the Camel Got His Hump," the story was still going to include the magic of a Djinn, and isn't that exotic? And "The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo" takes place in Australia; as the text describes, the creatures in "Camel" live in a place called the "Howling Desert." "How the Leopard Got His Spots" is about an Ethiopian and a leopard, and the Parsee in "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin" lives on an island by the Red Sea, so clearly we are talking about an African or Middle Eastern locale in that story.

None of these stories are going to read like Peoria no matter what the illustrators draw.

By both description and definition then, the stories in Kipling's collection are distant and foreign to Western readers. I suppose if the illustrators had chosen to draw all of the human characters as white, it would have seemed odd, but it also would have been grossly inaccurate and silly when paired with the text. In other editions that I viewed online, it was mostly the animals that were drawn anyway, and I had a hard time figuring out if they looked like exotic creatures or tame ones from the zoo... and a hard time figuring out if that mattered anyway. Regardless, any child who reads the stories (or has them read to them) is going to be transported far, far away immediately by their very nature. The illustrations make the journey more fun, but it's going to happen anyway because that is what Kipling wrote.

For this particular edition, Candlewick has put together a great group of artists, all of whom clearly had a lot of fun drawing for their individual stories. Peter Sis uses mellow blues and browns to illustrate the story of a whale that swallows the wrong sailor, and then Melinsky and Corr follow with bold direct colors for the tales of the camel and rhinoceros. Louise Voce uses an almost cartoon-like technique (it's wrong to suggest the pictures are cartoony, but they call to mind cartoon images) for "The Elephant's Child," while Cathie Felstead relies on sharp geometrical images for "How the Leopard Got His Spots." The collection is rounded out by vivid browns and pinks for "The Kangaroo" by Jeff Fisher, strong blues and greens for "The Beginning of the Armadillos" by Jane Ray and the creation of a cat with eyes that match my son's burnt sienna crayon for Satoshi Kitamura's take on "The Cat That Walked by Himself." Each story is made even more unique by the different way the artists approached them, and each thus becomes more memorable.

In my research I also read some reviewers who felt that Kipling's language is too difficult for young children, but I think that argument is giving kids too little credit. These are lovely, rich, intense stories, the kind of thing that the world of Dick and Jane so successfully worked to destroy when I was going to elementary school. These are "dive-in and disappear" kind of stories, the sort that will lure even the most reluctant reader to their side. They are funny and smart and very sly; the humor is almost adult but most certainly aimed at bored children. In the Candlewick edition, Kipling's tales are coupled with some daring and darling illustrations, and altogether it is a first rate package. This book goes in my son's bedroom, so it will be handy when he starts asking those "why" questions. I can reach for this, and we can enjoy Kipling's answers (and the accompanying illustrations) together. It's a treat of a book and one that I am looking forward to reading many times.


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