Review: Substitute Creacher

Substitute Creacher by Chris Gall. Little, Brown. 2011. Reviewed from F&G from publisher.

The Plot: Substitute teacher day! The children in Mrs. Jenkins’s class think they know what that means. Fun, games, pranks. They don’t expect… a Substitute Creacher instead of a Substitute Teacher.

The Good: I know, I concentrate on books for ages twelve and up here. But Substitute Creacher is so delightful, so fun, so smart, that I had to review it.

The story is told, well, as a story. The substitute teacher, Mr. Creacher is, as you can see from the cover, an actual creature. And when he speaks, he speaks in rhyme.

“”Good morning to all!

My name’s Mr. Creacher.

Ms Jenkins has asked me

to step in as teacher.

She claims that this class

has grown quite out of hand.

So, I’m here to warn you

we’re taking a stand.”

Amanda snickered at the way he spoke. Gavin opened a fresh box of tacks. The creature glared.”

Mr. Creacher proceeds to give them tales of warning, of what happens to children who misbehave.  “[Keith] ate so much glue — / no amount was too much — /that he started to stick / to all he would touch.” The stories get worse and worse. Draw during class? You may create a real fire burning dragon who sets the classroom on fire! It turns out the worst story of all is that of young Chris, who stole candy from a magical gnome. The gnome cursed Chris, turning Chris into a creature who was cursed to never go home and to teach children not to be wicked. Yep, you guessed it. Mr. Creacher is Chris, forty-nine years later.

What I loved about this book is that each of those mini-stories, as well as the wraparound story about Chris, is a mini Goosebumps episode. Bad things happen! The end. Plus, the pictures! The copyright page explains the artistic process: “the artwork was created using bat wings, toad juice, and the bundled whiskers of a black cat.” The front endpapers shows a street scene of Mr. Creacher going to work; the back endpapers shows the same scene, but when the creature was the boy Chris. In one picture, a satellite dish is on a house; in the other, an antenna. Little details like that show the years between the two. Also, remember that gnome? Sometimes, he appears in the illustrations, keeping an eye on Mr. Creacher.

Often, books for older kids, those who are “too old” for picture books, are non-fiction or serious books about serious subjects. I love that this is a book for older kids that is just flat-out fun. Well, if you consider a tale of what goes wrong when you bring a shark to school “fun.”

Review: It’s a Book

It’s a Book by Lane Smith. Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan. 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Three friends: a mouse, a jackass, a monkey. Jackass holds a laptop; monkey, a book. In dialogue, monkey tries to explain to jackass what a book is and how it is different from a laptop computer. Monkey patiently explains, and explains, that no, it doesn’t do what a computer does (blog, tweet, make noises) because “it’s a book.” Finally, mouse can take no more and says, “it’s a book, jackass.”

The Good: I love books. I also love my computer. As both a blogger and a reader, I got a chuckle out of Smith’s book. Computers and books are two different things.

Most of the reviews and comments about this book have been about what age group this book for, especially given the punch line. This is not an instructional book. I wouldn’t use it to explain what a book is. It doesn’t work if the reader is in the position of jackass, not knowing what a book is. It works if the reader, like monkey and mouse, know what a book is and isn’t and what a computer is and isn’t.

Ah, jackass. For the record, it’s not saved until the end of the book to surprise the reader. On the opening pages were the three animals are introduced, “jackass” is used. I proffer the following: that if a modern-day book uses the term jackass, at some point it’s going to be the subject of wordplay. Much like “dam” in The Titan’s Curse.

What age group is this for? Certainly, adults. I can understand why some bookstores would put this in a humor section. It’s a picture book, but it’s not for preschoolers. Not every picture book is. So, I wouldn’t put it there. I’d put it in the J section of the library, where the chapter books / middle grade books are. That said, I’ve heard (via Twitter) of librarians using this with preschoolers and substituting another word for “jackass”. Now, that type of editing of text aside, I still don’t see humor based on snark as being something that most preschoolers appreciate. While I see the tone as sarcastic and increasingly annoyed, I imagine that it could be read aloud in other ways. If you have used this book with the preschool set, please share in the comments how it worked and how you used it.

As for reading this out loud and being surprised by the ending, well, it’s always a good idea to read any book to yourself before reading it aloud to someone. “Surprises” aside,  it’s always best to know the whole book from the beginning to give the proper pacing and to read with the right tone and emphasis. Besides that, with this book, “jackass” appears in the beginning so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise at the end.

Other views:

MotherReader visits this topic in It’s a Book, Jackass (honestly admitting that the use of jackass gives her pause) and Thursday Three: Surprise Endings

What Adrienne Thinks About That in It’s a Book, Jackass. As someone a bit disturbed by the futuristic guesses the books will disappear, I agree with her that ” books matter. Words matter.”

In case you’re wondering about the author, What In The Heck Were You Thinking, Curious Pages asks and gets an answer. By amazing coincidence, this also happens to be Lane Smith’s blog!

I’m a fan of Sue Corbett’s book reviews; at the Miami Herald, she reviews this under A sly comment on modern times: “It made me think: What will happen to stories before bedtime?” It’s a question I also have, since some of the things I’ve read predicting the end of books seem also to assume the end of stories.

The book trailer:

Review: Presenting Tallulah

Presenting . . . Tallulah by Tori Spelling and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton. Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2010. Reviewed from copy from publisher.

The Plot: Poor little rich girl Tallulah finds a friend and asserts her own identity.

The Good: I know, I know. A picture book by a celebrity author.

But you know what? I LOVE Tori Spelling. From 90210 to Awake to Danger (based on a YA book by Joan Lowery Nixon) to Mother, May I Sleep With Danger to her reality shows with her husband, Dean.

What I enjoyed about this book:

Spelling says the story is loosely based on her childhood. She talks about reading with her children and wanting to write a book for them.

All the booksigning photographs from Brantley-Newton’s (the illustrator) blog.

The “rich girl” aspects of Tallulah’s life are from those great illustrations, not the text, which shows a union of pictures and text in illustrating Tallulah’s rich girl status. “Tallulah was not supposed to get dirty,” while a girl in fancy dress and many ribbons stares at a lawn with fountain, grass, and two gardeners.

Tallulah’s parents dress her up as a doll : “Tallulah was not allowed to wear jeans to school. Or keep her hair down the way she wanted. Or wear the sneakers that all the other kids wore.” An unhappy looking little girl, in an uncomfortable looking dress with more ribbons and fancy shoes. Better yet? The illustration is one at a store, with mother in high heels with long nails as behind Tallulah, all sorts of kids are having fun in comfortable clothes, shoes, and sometimes jeans. As I looked at the picture, I thought, “Tallulah’s mother is wearing awesome shoes.”

Tallulah (the stand-in for Tori) is white and blonde like Spelling, but her classmates are a range of colors. I like that Brantley-Newton has made Tallulah’s school and friendships diverse.

Max is a snazzy dresser. The text doesn’t tell us whether Max is different because, like Tallulah, he has parents who send him overdressed to school (he’s in a suit and tie) or because he is in a suit and tie because he wants to be.

Tallulah asserts her sense of identity and self by both saving a puppy and getting dirty and standing up to her mother and her father . . .  and the housekeeper.

Who is this book for? For people like me, who follow Tori on Twitter and laugh with her at the version of her life she presents on camera. And as such, with its illustrations of uniformed servants and stretch limos bringing a small child to school, and with an ending of Tallulah striving for what she sees as normalcy (much like Tori herself has done with her husband Dean and two children), it delivers. Bonus points in that Brantley-Newton shows Tallulah dressing up her new puppy in a skirt.

Review: 13 Words

13 Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman. Harper Collins. 2010. Reviewed from F&G from publisher.

The Plot: Thirteen words. Bird, despondent, cake, dog…. Oh, just read the book.

The Good: It’s Lemony Snicket, so of course it is funny. The humor is directed to an older reader, which is why I’m reviewing it here.

13 Words showcases thirteen words. For bird, an illustration of a bird. Despondent (which, of course, is my favorite because how many children’s picture books use “despondent”)  is first used thusly: “The bird is despondent. In fact, she is so sad that she hops off the table to look for something to cheer her up.” Not only does the text tell us, indirectly, what the word means (“so sad“), the illustration by Kalman shows the bird under a rain cloud. What could be sadder?

It’s not just that Snicket uses an odd array of words for his words. Oh, no! It’s also how the story ties together, with one word leading to another. The story changes in unexpected ways (a goat? and a convertible?), the central character shifts (bird, dog, goat..), and the story ultimately circles back to the beginning. I hesitate to use “sophisticated” in reviews, because so often it’s code for “the smart kids.” Here, though, I use sophisticated because the humor is sophisticated.

People who think all picture books are for preschoolers and are tools to get a child reading will be puzzled by this one. So, think of it this way: it’s a clever short story for middle grade readers, that uses both an interesting narrative style and a dependency on pictures that requires the reader to use visual literacy skills. It’s also for those younger children who really are as smart as their parents believe.

There is a book trailer. What I particularly enjoy about this video is that it isn’t a recap of the book; and it isn’t quite a preview, either. It’s delightful Snicket humor that is unique for the video, making it an enjoyable experience on it’s own plus a reason to read the book. The video:

Review: The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle

The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed by Pat Rothfuss. Illustrated by Nate Taylor. Subterranean Press. 2010. Copy borrowed from Chasing Ray.

The Plot: Once upon a time, there was a Princess who lived in a marzipan castle.” So this fairy tale begins. End at one place, and you smile; end at another, and you are afraid; end at a third, and there is teeth. You are warned: “This is not a book for children.”

The Good: I read Colleen’s review at Chasing Ray and was terribly intrigued; I like picture books that are different, that have an edge, that are for older readers. The Princess delivers all of that, and more.

The Princess lives alone, except for her teddy bear, Mr. Whiffle. Cheery black and white illustrations show the Princess, alone making her own meals and playing with Mr. Whiffle and her other stuffed animals. She is happy, imaginative, alone, but alone with her toys, much like Christopher Robin. Pay attention, Reader. The black and white illustrations are the first clue that this book isn’t for children; it’s not the bright colors of a children’s book.

The only dark spot in The Princess’s life is the thing under the bed.

It’s something, isn’t it, how a story shifts depending on when you stop telling it? Oh, not just the end, but the message, also. The way you see the characters. Whether you walk away laughing — as you do if you stop reading The Princess at it’s first ending — or afraid –as you after the second ending — or resigned to truth, as you do after the third ending — well, it all depends on when you want the story to end. Do you want to live happy? Afraid? Or with the truth? That is the second clue that this book isn’t for children. A truthful ending is neither happy nor hopeful. It’s just true. And with teeth.

Once the truth is revealed, reread the book. Pay attention to the illustrations, the pictures that an adult reading would have skimmed, barely glanced at in their rush to read the words. A child reading along (reading along despite the warning not to) may have noticed, may have tried to point out — look at the walls. Look at what is on the poles. Look, look, look. And been shushed. Yes, the illustrations are the third clue.

This is not a book meant for children. Well, not unless your name is John Winchester and your children are Sam and Dean.

Is this a book for teens? Yes. And is it a book that will be a bit of a difficult purchase for libraries? Yes; but only because there will be people who look at it and shelve it in the wrong place, and it’ll be hard to get it to the “right” reader.

This is a book about story and how to tell it; it is a book to give nightmares; and it’s a book for any adult who likes their story in graphic format.