The Flower – John Light (author), Lisa Evans (illustrator)

The Flower CoverFirst Published: 1st April, 2006
Genre: Children’s Dystopian / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Child’s Play

Brigg is a child living in a grey city. He works at the library, where he finds a book he isn’t supposed to read. It’s filled with pictures of flowers, which he hasn’t seen before. If only he could find a flower in the city.

Dystopian futures are tricky to condense for picture books, as there’s not a lot of space to explain what’s going on, and early readers may not be familiar with the tropes of the genre. This book does a good job of tackling that issue. There are many small details, like Brigg having a job and living alone rather than with parents. Brigg has never seen flowers before, and doesn’t recognise a seed packet or understand how plants grow.

It focuses on a personal act of revolution, rather than trying to overthrow the system. Brigg can’t change how the city runs, but he can try to grow a flower. The theme of finding a point of happiness when the world seems bleak will resonate with children going through tough times.

There’s also a suggestion of post-apocalyptic themes, with the environment changing so there aren’t any plants in the city. It takes something pretty major to kill off all the weeds.

The art reinforces the story, by showing the city as a dull grey place. Brigg is shown walking the other way to everyone else, or sitting apart from other children, highlighting how out-of-place he feels. His room is very plain, with few personal items. Once the flower appears, it’s a point of colour and life in an otherwise dull environment.

I wasn’t sure whether Brigg was intended to be mixed race. The art style has everyone with very lightly shaded skin, making it rather ambiguous. He also has somewhat European facial features. But his hair texture suggests black ancestry. So, I personally saw him as mixed race when I read it, whether or not that was intended.

This is an enjoyable book that packs a lot into very few words. It touches on things like feeling alone, environmental issues and book censorship. It’s an accessible introduction to dystopian fiction for younger children, with darkly whimsical artwork.

Cyborg Vol. 1: Unplugged – David F. Walker

Cyborg CoverFirst Published: 29th March, 2016
Genre: Superhero / Graphic Novel
Contributors: David F. Walker (writer); Ivan Reis (penciller); Joe Prado (artist); Adriano Lucas (colourist); Rob Leigh (letterer)
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Attackers from another dimension kill Cyborg and steal his arms. But Cyborg doesn’t stay dead and his arms regenerate. He heads to S.T.A.R. Labs to find out what’s going on with his technology. Meanwhile, in another dimension, a war against alien cyborgs rages.

This graphic novel includes the first six issues of Cyborg’s comic. It tells a complete story, though does leave some plot threads open for future stories. The opening introduces what’s been happening in Detroit while Cyborg was off being a superhero, as well as providing space for Cyborg to reflect on his life and relationships. This part interested me the most, as it means finding out about the man behind the snarky superhero.

Inevitably, the two storylines come together, and there’s some alien cyborg action. The highlight of that part was the art. The aliens are detailed, and there’s a certain organic messiness to the cybernetics. The battle scenes are a place where this really gets to shine. My only complaint with the artwork was the cat who Cyborg talks to before and after. The cat didn’t seem as detailed or expressive as the other characters. Though he wasn’t in a lot of frames, it stuck with me.

Cyborg’s backstory is having most of his body destroyed and replaced by machines, including a replacement eye and arms. Disability issues often aren’t addressed in stories like this. When prosthetics give someone superhuman abilities, it’s usually handled as though there aren’t any issues at all. That isn’t the case here, though the way it was handled wasn’t perfect. I liked that the cybernetic technology is treated as the untested equipment that it is, with the concerns that raises for Cyborg about what’s happening to his body. He also faces being treated like a science experiment by the scientists, including his own father. The struggle against feeling dehumanised is linked back to how he felt just after the accident, when he was hesitant to go outside due to reactions from other people. Even after becoming a superhero, he faces people asking him invasive personal questions, from how he goes to the toilet to his sex life. Superhuman prosthetics don’t make these social consequences go away.

Other social concerns are touched on in the early part of the story, such as differing access to medical care. A man with a missing eye and crude prosthetic arm is one of the protesters outside the labs. Detroit is suffering financially, and access to the best medical care is not something everyone has. This leads to body shops, where people can have untested cybernetics attached. It’s an option that can be within reach for people failed by the medical system, but it means surgery in shady back alley establishments and uncertainty about what the cybernetics will do.

It was a great setup… but it gets lost once the action starts, and is wrapped up neatly in a simplistic cure narrative. This highlights an issue with the aftermath in general. I’d expect a lot more devastation left behind, rather than things going back to normal so quickly. The way everything wraps up feels rushed.

I also would have liked to see more of Sarah. She’s shown as a supportive friend, and possible love interest, but doesn’t get to do a whole lot. I couldn’t say much about her. I want to see them as friends before I can really buy them as a possible romance.

I don’t think this is a bad introduction to Cyborg’s solo adventures. It has some time to develop him as a character, as well as some action. There’s more to explore when it comes to how his cybernetics are changing. The ending was the weakest part, though there is the potential to address those themes in more detail in future stories.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Tea Party in the Woods – Akiko Miyakoshi

Tea Party CoverFirst Published: 1st August, 2015
Genre: Children’s Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Kikko is taking a pie to Grandma, after her father forgets to take it. She ends up lost in the snow, but stumbles across an unusual tea party.

This is a whimsical adventure, about finding animals wearing clothes who are having a tea party. There are some creepier moments, such as Kikko getting lost in the woods, and the uncertainty of how the animals will react when they first see her. However, the overall tone is one of warmth and strangers helping each other out.

The artwork is charcoal and pencil on textured paper. Most pages have some splashes of yellow and red ink, such as Kikko’s yellow hair and red clothing. The tea party scenes are especially good, as they have a lot of detail. There’s more to find on subsequent reads of the book.

I enjoyed the theme of magic as part of the world. It’s easy to imagine it’s waiting there in the woods, if only you go the right way. This book was written after The Storm, but was the first one translated into English. Being a later book shows, as the story is much better paced. Kikko is off on her adventure within a couple of pages, and plenty of time is spent hanging out with the animals.

It’s a great book, and is sure to capture the imagination. It would also link in well to activities like teddy bears’ picnics.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Storm – Akiko Miyakoshi

The Storm CoverFirst Published: 5th April, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A boy plans to go to the beach with his parents the next day, but a storm is approaching. As he sleeps through the storm, he dreams of a giant airship blowing it away… but will the storm still be there when he wakes up?

The art is what makes this book. It has detailed charcoal pictures filling the pages. Most of the art is black and white, apart from a hint of blue near the end. The feeling of the characters is captured perfectly. I especially liked the boy’s cat, who appears in many of the scenes (including joining him in his airship dream).

In terms of story, it’s a very simple one. I felt the balance wasn’t quite there, as a lot of time is spent on storm preparations. The airship dream is the standout part, but it feels like it’s over before it really gets going.

This is a gentle story about the power of imagination, and aspects like the airship and the cat are appealing. I’m not convinced about how well it’ll hold interest after a first read, but it’s certainly a very beautiful book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi – Cindy Neuschwander (author), Wayne Geehan (illustrator)

Dragon of Pi CoverSeries: Sir Cumference Series, #2
First Published: 1st February, 1999
Genre: Children’s Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Charlesbridge

Radius accidently turns his father, Sir Cumference, into a dragon. As the other knights get ready to vanquish the dragon, Radius needs to solve a mathematical riddle to figure out how to de-dragon Sir Cumference.

This is part of a series of maths adventures, intended to introduce mathematical concepts to children. In this case, it’s all about pi (and dragons).

The book does a good job of making maths more interesting. Radius learns about circles and pi through practical things, such as seeing spokes on a wheel, decorating pies, and measuring round everyday objects. It makes it clear how pi is relevant to real things, as well as reinforcing what it is and how it’s calculated.

I appreciated the geometry puns (other characters include Lady Di of Ameter, and brothers Geo and Sym of Metry), though the medieval fantasy theme is the real lure for the target audience. It means the story can be fun for children who don’t really understand the maths. In terms of reading level, it requires being able to handle short paragraphs, though would also be a good one for adults to read aloud.

For those who do understand the maths, there are some problems they can solve themselves and a recap of what pi is at the end. My main issue with it is that pi as a decimal is only introduced as a very brief mention in the end summary. It’s described as three and about one seventh throughout the main story. This could create the impression that pi is exactly three and one seventh, as well as not being clear that the part after the decimal point continues on.

The artwork is an old-fashioned painting style. This works with the general medieval theme. There’s a little black cat in a lot of the images, which gives something else to find. It’s a decent book for introducing pi to young fantasy lovers. It can also be a bit of fun on pi day, as it ends with a pi celebration.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]