The Imaginary

by A.F. Harrold
with illustrations by Emily Gravett
ISBN: 9780802738110

I thought the premise of this book sounded interesting: trouble with imaginary friends.

The imaginaries are quite real to the children, not real to the adults (mostly) and — here’s the twist — quite real to themselves.

This is a chapter book with illustrations (some in color). At one point, I found myself wondering if the book wasn’t living up to its interesting premise or if I was being too hard on a book aimed at younger readers. Not that younger readers equals not well-written, rather a question of am I asking for more depth than is fair to expect?

There is some danger, and some sweeter notes that I think may be aimed more at parent who might be reading this book aloud. Overall it was not without charm, but not captivating.

Goodbye Stranger

by Rebecca Stead
ISBN: 9780385743174

I read Stead’s When You Reach Me last year and really liked it, so was happy to see this displayed on the new book shelf at the library.

These are young adult titles, if tracking that kind of thing is important to you. I find good stories are good stories wherever you find them. (Age levels can be helpful if you are actually trying to buy or recommend books for people in the intended range.)

The characters feel like real if unfinished people. By this I mean they are excellent portrayals of near teens and teens; we are all more or less unfinished people at that stage. That is what makes everything so intense — how will everyone turn out?

Here, you’ve got evolving friendships and the challenges of liking in the social media and cell photo age. To be honest, re-reading that last sentence makes me cringe a little. Junior high years are possibly the most miserable age in human development, so it is to Stead’s enormous credit that she writes characters in this age group that one wants to spend time with, see good things happen to (well, some of them; others you don’t exactly root for), and grow.

Moominpappa’s Memoirs

Moominpappa's Memoirs by Tove Jansson
ISBN: 9780312625436

My initial impression of Moominpappa was not favorable: he seemed a bit insufferable and full of himself.

Turns out Moominpappa is a bit insufferable and full of himself. Interestingly, he seems to know this. Moominmamma knows it too, as do the kids — it is a joke everyone is in on. So he’s prone to melodrama, and his recollections are not entirely trustworthy, but learning about Sniff and Snufkin’s parents and how the Moomins met was good.

It surprised me that Jansson chose to devote so much time to a not so likeable character. Not that he’s outright disagreeable; Moominpappa is aware of his faults, so while he is irritating you generally forgive him.

I’m still looking forward to the next Moomin book. Maybe there’ll be more Groke.

Finn Family Moomintroll

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
ISBN: 9780374350314

My introduction to all things Moomin continues with this, the second full-length book. More characters are introduced: tiny thieving Thingumy and Bob and the much anticipated (by me) Groke.

Then — they saw the Groke. Everybody saw her. She sat motionless on the sandy path at the bottom of the steps and stared at them with round, expressionless eyes.

She was not particularly big and didn’t look dangerous either, but you felt that she was terribly evil and would wait forever. And that was awful.

While there was not a lot of Groke in this book, I was not disappointed.

As compared to Comet, this book had less doom (no apocalypse) but still a relatively amount of, not quite gloom, I suppose, but uncertainty and sadness. There are strange adventures, and consequences, and the balancing of being a part of with needing time alone. (Snufkin is becoming another favorite character of mine.)

Jansson’s illustrations add to the quirkiness of the stories, while inviting you to imagine, even more deeply, the people and scenes in Moomin valley. I’m definitely hooked now, and will be looking to read more Moomin, and for more of Jannson’s drawing.

Comet in Moominland

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson
ISBN: 978-0312608880

I was vaguely aware of the Moomins before reading this book; if you have spent any time at all in either the illustrated children’s or comic book section, the Moomins can’t completely escape your notice.

The references to Moomins finally built up to the tipping point, so I decided check them out. Comet is one of the first Moomin books. It was not, as I had expected, an illustration-first story, but a young adult novel with some black and white line art.

I’m not sure how to describe Moominland to the uninitiated. I barely feel initiated myself. Perhaps the best way to sum up this book is to say that it is the most lighthearted take on the apocalypse I’ve ever read. (The comet in the title is hurtling toward Moominland and results are expected to be disastrous.) Yes, it’s a children’s book, but it is different and not the same predictable, formulaic story.

It has a little bit of everything: doom, philosophy, young love, devotion, exploration, discovery, obsession, self-interest, and catchphrases (“Well, strike me pink”). One of the more self-interested characters, Sniff, has this exchange with Moomin:

“Don’t disturb me,” said Sniff slowly.
“This is the biggest moment of my life so far, and it’s my first cave.”

Either you think this kind of thing is charming, or you don’t. I did. There was also an illustrated character list at the beginning of the book, and I found myself disappointed when all the characters didn’t show up. (This edition of the book is part of a series, so the character thumbnails must be intended for the whole series.) My disappointment will probably be short-lived, as I intend to read more Moomin.

How could I not want to meet Little My (“The family’s small, disrespectful, yet extremely positive friend”) or the Groke (“The terror of everyone, the unmentionable horror”)? I’ve just barely been introduced to the Moomins, to Jansson’s line art and storytelling. I want to get to know Moominland better.

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
ISBN: 978-1250012579

I decided to read this book after a friend of mind posted a comment to the effect it was the most romantic book she’d ever read.

I don’t read romance as a genre (it’s not my thing) and generally don’t go for the sweeping romance — and neither does this friend, so her recommendation carried weight. It’s not that I’m anti-romance; I can appreciate when it is there, I just tend not to go looking for it. I am not unhappy to find it when done well (The Passion, The Night Circus).

Eleanor & Park is set back in the 80s, when mixed tapes ruled the day. Rowell has a keen sense for the complete awfulness of teenage years: the uncertainty within oneself, the ruthless behavior of everyone else at school, the pecularities of family, the sense of urgency growing with each heartbeat. It makes for engaging, some times difficult reading.

Why difficult? Because Eleanor’s circumstances are almost beyond words painful. Her mother has remarried, they are desperately poor, her stepfather is an abusive asshole, her biological father is tuned out, and she has several much younger siblings. (The tragedy almost plots itself, though Rowell wisely doesn’t follow the most expected path.) Park’s circumstances are great only in comparison, it would seem, with Eleanor’s. He loves comics, music, and despite himself, Eleanor.

It is the most romantic book I’ve ever read? No, but it was good. It was real, and it didn’t read like a movie script or after school tv special — territory it easily could have veered into. Instead Eleanor and Park remained real to each other, and so real to me as a reader.

I might check out other of Rowell’s books; she seems to be on a bit of a roll right now with Fangirl and now Landline. I think arguments about adults reading YA are ridiculous, we should all be reading good stories, no matter what marketing they are dressed up in. Rowell’s story is a good one.

When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead
ISBN: 9780385737425

Stead has written a Newbery Medal-winning love letter to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. That’s right, I read kid’s, err, “young adult” books. My theory is a good story is a good story.

Is this a good story? Yes. It even has some charm that will appeal only to adult readers of the book — who else will remember functional payphones or the $20,000 Pyramid with Dick Clark? (It is set in the 1970s, but not overbearingly so.) The central character is twelve year old Miranda, a smart kid on the threshold of deeper emotional understanding. The multiple story lines weave in her mom and mom’s boyfriend Richard; mix of friends or maybe not friends Sal, Collin, Annemarie, Julia, and Marcus; a group of neighborhood bullies; neighborhood crazy homeless guy “the laughing man” and a series of disturbing notes from a stranger who knows things there is no way to explain… or is there?

Miranda does manage to piece together what she needs to, though there isn’t an easy ending. When the mysterious note writer says “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own” you know there probably shouldn’t be.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van AllsburgFourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

by Chris Van Allsburg
ISBN: 9780547548104

I loved the idea of this book: the enigmatic Burdick tantalizes publisher with excerpts from illustrated stories, then vanishes. Different authors step forward to write the stories that match the images and snippets of text.

The authors include some major names inside (Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar, Lemony Snickett) and outside (Gregory Maguire, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King) the world of children’s literature. Allburg, of course, has provided all the illustrations and these are the most consistently high quality parts of the book.

As with most collections, the stories are a bit uneven. Not only are some more engaging that others, but they don’t seem to be aimed at a consistent age group. Not necessarily a problem, but something to be wary of — some stories may be too creepy (or too boring) for younger readers. I liked M.T. Anderson’s “Just Desert” the best, and would definitely put this in the creepy category.

I borrowed this book from a library. Given space constraints at home, we’ve reached the “book goes in, book goes out” stage. On that scale, I’d rate this as a borrow but not a keeper.

Noah Barleywater Runs Away

by John Boyne
ISBN: 9780385752466

It’s true you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it is also true that the cover is why I bought this one. More precisely, I noticed the book and got interested because Oliver Jeffers did some illustration for it, and I love him.

Turns out it wasn’t just the cover that was interesting. It’s a story about an eight year old boy who runs away. It reads a bit like a fairy tale (there’s a talking dog, and things seem magical, but it all makes perfect story sense) but doesn’t have a simplistic happily every after ending. I’m not saying it’s all doom and misery, either — it isn’t — it’s sad and not-sad and has a clever little bit at the end that will seem like more a twist to younger readers, but works for older readers, too.

I suppose I should mention that this book’s intended audience is kids. Chapter book reading kids who can keep going for two hundred pages, which, as the Harry Potter phenomenon demonstrated, is actually a remarkable number of the under-thirteen as well as over-thirty set.

It’s a Book

by Lane Smith
ISBN: 9781596436060

I enjoy Lane Smith’s illustrations (he illustrated The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, among others). His images have interesting textures, without seeming overwrought. For this book they are quite pared down, in a simple but still comfortable and not stark way.

The real message in this cute and clever story is that books are awesome. Even though you don’t need a screen name or password to use them. Even though they don’t tweet or text. Even though you can’t make the characters fight.

It’s an illustrated children’s book — an older monkey introduces a younger jackass to the concept of “book” with a little help from his (actual, not peripheral) mouse. As with many wonderful children’s books, the audience shouldn’t be limited to kids. A book person of any age, especially a geeky one, will enjoy it. It’s funny.

Apparently it is catching some flack for the very last line, which [no real need for a spoiler alert here, don’t worry] is: “It’s a book, Jackass.” Some people feel jackass (even when you are talking about an actual animal) is inappropriate for kids. Yes, Smith also means jackass in the not referencing the animal sense. So if you are terribly concerned that under-10s will learn the word jackass or the concept of word play from a book, I suppose you should keep this away from them.

I think that is ridiculous, and the people carrying on about it are being, well, jackasses.