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]

Dear Baobab – Cheryl Foggo (author), Qin Leng (illustrator)

Dear Baobab CoverFirst Published: 1st September, 2011
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Maiko moves from Africa to North America to live with his aunt and uncle. He has trouble fitting in, and befriends a spruce tree which is seven years old (like him). It’s not as old as the giant baobab back home, but it still helps remind him of home. Then he finds out the tree might be cut down.

Maiko is going through a lot. His parents died, he has to move country, and he’s being bullied at school. Everything is different, from the kind of house he lives in, to the climate. It’s unusual to see all these themes in the same picture book, as such books are more likely to focus on one issue. But in real life, it’s not that uncommon to have everything go wrong at once. I liked that focus, as it shows children in similar situations that it can happen, and you can get through it. And for those who are luckier, the story makes it easy to empathise with the things Maiko is going through.

With everything going on, Maiko’s friendship with the tree gives him a point of security. He can tell the tree about his troubles, at a time when he’s not ready to tell his aunt and uncle. It’s no wonder that he’s upset at the idea of the tree being cut down. It’s good that once it does come out, his feelings are taken seriously by the adults around him.

The pictures are paintings with loose line work, capturing scenes from Maiko’s everyday life. There’s quite a bit of text on the pages. This would suit older picture book readers the best, as they’re moving on to books with short paragraphs, but will still appreciate pictures to help explain the story.

Some of the associated material says Maiko is from Tanzania and moves to Canada. The text hints at this (the landscape and eating ugali), but is not that specific. I’d have liked to see this somewhere in the book, even if it was a map showing where he’s moved from/to at the end. Given how many people think Africa is a country, I think it’s particularly important to be specific.

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

Camp Midnight – Steven T. Seagle (writer), Jason Adam Katzenstein (artist)

Camp Midnight CoverFirst Published: 3rd May, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Graphic Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Skye doesn’t want to spend the summer with her dad and step-mother. It turns out they don’t want her around either, and send her to summer camp. A confusion means she ends up at Camp Midnight, where everyone is a monster. Except for Skye and possibly her new friend Mia.

This is a fun graphic novel, dealing with some difficult issues in an accessible way. Skye has been hurt by her parent’s divorce. She reacts by lashing out at everyone, without considering how her rudeness and sarcastic responses might hurt people. Something she has to face at the camp is how throw-away comments can end up hurting people, no matter what the intent.

The story runs through the whole time at the camp, from getting her choice of bunk on arrival to taking part in special events. The main focus is her friendship with Mia, though she also has to deal with the popular girls and a crush on a cute boy. The latter two aspects are nothing new, but the friendship with Mia is great. I was rooting for them both to find their place at the camp and beyond.

I liked the handling of consent issues. Mia doesn’t like being touched. Though she might sometimes be okay with it, sometimes she doesn’t want to. Skye accepts this and finds a touchless alternative to shaking hands. It’s nice to see a clear statement that if someone says no to something, you respect that, no matter how snarky you are.

I’m rather lukewarm on depictions of witches as fantasy monsters, but I don’t have any specific criticism here. The witch in charge of the camp is shown as a person and obviously cares about the campers. It’s not bad as such depictions go.

Each page has a limited colour palette, apart from an occasional frame intended to stand out. For example, one page may be greens and blues, and another page may be in oranges. This adds to the spooky atmosphere. The composition hints at monsters, with backgrounds forming faces and monstrous shadows. It’s well spaced, with a few panels on each page, and writing at a comfortable reading size. The art is a perfect match for the story.

This book is on the borderline between upper middle grade and lower young adult. The main themes are friendship and dealing with family issues, but there is some early teen stuff like her crush. It’s ideal for readers in that middling area.

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

The Little Black Fish – Bizhan Khodabandeh (illustrator)

Little Black Fish CoverFirst Published: 15th March, 2016
Genre: Children’s Fiction / Graphic Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Rosarium

The little black fish is tired of swimming in circles all day, so she decides to leave and find out where the stream ends.

This comic is an adaptation of the children’s book “The Little Black Fish” by Samad Behrangi. There’s a note at the end discussing some of the changes from the original material, though none of them are that major. The main flow of the story is the same as the original text.

I loved the art style in this. It’s very colourful with a lot of detailed patterns. The panel layouts are varied, which helps provide visual interest. The balance of text to art worked to make it clear what was going on.

As to the story itself, its strengths and weaknesses are down to the source material. On the plus side, it’s a tale of how one person’s achievements can inspired others. The frame story is a fish telling her children and grandchildren (I liked the nod to biological accuracy, as there’s a huge number of them) about the black fish’s adventures. It’s a story about striving to achieve your dreams and ask questions, even if others are sure you’re wrong.

It’s also interesting in a political context, as it touches on issues like people being shunned or killed to maintain the status quo, and attempts to suppress knowledge. As someone born to a working class family, feeling like life is swimming in pointless circles, and wanting to escape that, is something I can relate to.

There are aspects I did not like as much, and would make me hesitant to read this to a younger child. Crying is treated harshly. To cry makes you a cry-baby and a disgrace. The old are criticised for whining about things. The black fish is called crazy, and calls others ignorant in response. Though being called crazy is portrayed as a bad thing, it is the black fish who is saying others must not complain about things and are ignorant for not agreeing with her. Those are all things people throw at others to shut them up (stop whining, stop crying, you’re just stupid), which rather goes against the central theme of the black fish wanting the freedom to speak her mind and achieve her dreams. It’s a selective freedom for her, and people who think like her.

It’s also a rather simplified metaphor when it comes to the poor. A lot of people aren’t caught swimming in circles because they don’t believe there’s anything else, but because they can’t escape their circumstances. There isn’t an opening in the stream for them to swim down. Or if there is one, they’re not able to fit through it. This is implied with the lizard, as he offers support for the fish without going himself, but it’s not directly stated.

For an older child or adult, the story can be considered in the context of when and where the original was written. For a younger child, that’s going to be a bit over their heads.

I think this would be a great book for any fans of the original, as well as people new to the story. The comic adaptation does add something extra. But it is very much a story where knowing the context is important, as some of the morals of the tale are a little uncomfortable in a modern context. I’m all for telling people to strive for their dreams and to be inspired by others, but not so much that it’s bad to complain or cry when something’s hurting you.

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