Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters by Oliver Jeffers
This unusual and equally marvelous alphabet book surprises and delights with its 26 short stories, one for each letter of the alphabet. From the very beginning at “A” readers will know they have entered a rather quirky and surreal world. A is for Astronaut, but Edmund is an astronaut whose afraid of heights. Even climbing the ladder to the rocket is a bit much for him. B comes right in afterwards with a tale of a burning bridge where Bob and Bernard cannot get along and so burn the bridge between their houses, but oops, one of them is on the wrong side when he does it. The book continues, one letter after another and one story after another each with funny, intriguing characters and situations that are snapshots of the oddities of this amazing world.
Jeffers has created some of my favorite picture books for children and this new alphabet book completely revolutionizes the sing-song of other alphabet books for children. It’s not exclusively for preschoolers, since elementary-aged children will adore these strange little stories and the quick journeys they take you on. Rather like potato chips, you can’t read just one but find yourself going on and on. Jeffers also ties in previous stories to later ones. You have to be watching, because he does it with subtlety, but it’s a lovely touch. I admit to cheering aloud when the Lumberjack for the Letter L appeared again.
Jeffers’ art has a loose feel that works well here. He also has a quirk to his art that matches the tone of the story very nicely. The line drawings combine with touches of color and watercolor. He also plays at times with the page itself, showing characters turning the page or popping out from behind.
A delight of an alphabet book, Jeffers has revolutionized the genre with his impressive, surprising and funny work. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel.
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
Having loved Rundell’s Rooftoppers, I looked forward to reading this book. I wasn’t expecting such a different read from her first novel. Will has grown up on her father’s farm in Zimbabwe. She plays with the boys on the farm, spending her days on horseback, hanging out with her best friend, and exploring the land. Her days are pure bliss, filled with golden sunshine, fresh air, and freedom. But that is not to last. When her father dies and their farm is sold, Will is reluctantly sent to England to boarding school by her grandfather in a plot devised by her new grandmother. But Will does not fit in with the girls in the school who torment Will because she is different, refuses to comb her hair, and can’t do the schoolwork. There is only one choice for Will and that is to run away and try to survive on her own in the wilds of London.
This book moved me over and over again. First the beauty and the freedom of Will’s life in Zimbabwe is so beautiful and written with a tension. It’s almost as if it is a bubble that must inevitably break, and it does. The father’s death scene is one of the most poignant deaths I have experienced in books for children. Will’s emotions are so strong on the page, that you literally ache for her and for the further changes to come that readers will see much earlier than Will does. Going from such beauty to such loss is wrenching and masterful.
Rundell grew up in Zimbabwe and London, so Will’s time in England is equally well drawn. From the bullying students to the kind teacher to the people she meets on the street, Will encounters all sorts of people. As her situation grows more dire and one thinks she can’t go on, Will draws from the years of golden sun and freedom and continues on. Through it all, that golden light continues to shine, hope glows even in the darkest of times.
Will is a strong, wild heroine, a girl that you want to ride bareback with across Africa and one that all readers will fall madly head over heels for. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.