folk tales

Giants Beware

A truly superior graphic novel for kids

My daughter and I have read a lot of books together this year. A LOT. But, as the year winds down and I find myself looking back at our favorite books of 2012 – the instant classics, the bedtime staples, the required road-trip reading – I keep coming back to Giants Beware!, a fantastic, tour de force graphic novel by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, which stands as one of the best examples of comics for kids that I’ve ever read.

And, because due diligence is important, I did check with my daughter before bedtime last night and she did authorize me to, quote-unquote, “tell your blog, Dad, that Giants Beware is my favorite new book I read this year.” So, it’s unanimous – Giants Beware is Building a Library’s Best Book of 2012.

What’s so great about Giants Beware? It’s hard to know where to start. I’ve been trying to review it for most of the year, but there are times when I like a book so much that I almost find it impossible to write about it. I find myself tripping over my words, unable to express how much I enjoy the book in question, until I’m halfway tempted to just type “Book am good. Make me happy” and be done with it. But Giants Beware does so much right, it deserves better and, thus, here we are.

With Giants Beware, Aguirre and Rosado have created a blockbuster reading experience. What I mean by that is – this graphic novel is so smart, exciting, accessible, and entertaining that, if it was a movie, it would make $500 million dollars at the box office. The experience of reading Giants Beware is akin to watching a Pixar movie. (One of the best ones.) You just sit there amazed at being told a story with such obvious genius and craftsmanship and also at how you and your child are both able to appreciate it on multiple levels.

That is all to say, I really, really like Giants Beware and so does my kid.

The story revolves around Claudette, a headstrong tomboy who’s always clutching a wooden sword and who can’t wait to one day leave her provincial village and prove herself as a mighty giant slayer. Her father, the town blacksmith, used to be a renowned adventurer (and is now missing a few limbs due to those adventures), and Claudette is aching to follow in his phantom footsteps. She especially wants to set off on a quest to a local mountain range to hunt down a legendary local giant with a reputation for eating babies’ feet. (Aguirre and Rosado are able to make the alleged baby-feet-eating into something that’s really funny as opposed to downright chilling.)

Giants Beware

Don’t cross Claudette if you know what’s good for you…

Claudette is just a fantastic creation – she’s so singularly obsessed with killing monsters that she can barely see anything else in the world. She’s funny, clever, earnest, and loyal – her loyalty particularly shines through when it comes to her best friend Marie and her little brother Gaston. (One of my favorite Claudette lines comes after she dispatches some bullies who were picking on Gaston – “Violence is not just efficient. It feels good, too.”)

Giants Beware

Words to live by…

However, Claudette is so obsessed with slaying the feet-eating giant that she tricks Marie and Gaston into accompanying her on a giant-slaying quest – a quest that was expressly forbidden by both her father and the town’s ruling Marquis (who happens to be Marie’s father). As the kids set off across the countryside towards their date with a giant, pursued doggedly by their annoyed parents, they encounter witches, haunted trees, mad river kings, and a wide variety of fairy tale oddities, experiences that help them test their meddle, conquer their fears, and learn a lot more about the strange world around them.

Giants Beware is a very fun read that really connected with my daughter. It’s a longer graphic novel – around 200 pages – but, the first time I finished reading it to her, my daughter asked me to immediately re-read it, which has never happened before. But the re-read factor isn’t the only reason why I regard this as our favorite book of 2012. While, I’ll admit, there were books we read this year that packed a deeper emotional punch (a tear-jerker, this ain’t), Giants Beware is just an exceptionally accomplished piece of work, a work that shouldn’t be trivialized just because you could accurately describe it as “a fun adventure.”

Giants Beware

This is a seriously funny and beautiful book…

And, personally, one of the main reasons why I think I’ve responded to Giants Beware so strongly is that it expertly plays with so many of the children’s literature themes and tropes that I keep obsessing about on this blog (to the point where it almost feels like it crawled out of my subconscious at times). For example, let me list FIVE areas where I think Giants Beware really, really excels:

1. It’s an Ideal Comic Book for Kids

Recurring readers know that I’m a big proponent of exposing kids to comic books and graphic novels, but, as I’ve complained about before, most comic books aren’t designed in a way to make them accessible to developing readers. The vast majority of so-called “kid’s comics” have miniscule font sizes, hectic layouts, and little-to-no concern with helping new readers follow their way throughout the story. Giants Beware, on the other hand, excels at making itself both accessible and appealing to younger readers. The text is extremely readable, the layouts are clean and clear, and the visual storytelling is top-notch. Even though it’s 200 pages long, Giants Beware is a very quick, readable work for kids. I’d almost equate it to a beginning chapter book, along the lines of a Mercy Watson book, and there just aren’t that many kid’s graphic novels out there that pay such careful attention to the needs of new readers. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Princess Bride

You love the movie, right? The book is even better. Well, most of it is…

I’m currently having a minor internal dilemma, dear readers, that I wanted to run past you. The dilemma revolves around my desire to share William Goldman‘s tremendous fairy tale, The Princess Bride, with my six-year-old daughter, and how exactly I should do that. Like a lot of people from my generation, I discovered The Princess Bride thanks to Rob Reiner’s 1987 film adaptation, an epic adaptation that has endured as one of the most rewatchable, quotable, and downright iconic movies of the past thirty years. While I’m still debating when my daughter will be old enough to see the movie, my primary concern is how and when I’m going to read Goldman’s original book to her.

And the operative word in that sentence is “how.” Because, at the moment, I don’t think I want to read her the entire book. I think I only want to read her the “good parts” of The Princess Bride, a statement that anyone who’s read the original book will find funny, ironic, or, at the very least, very, very “meta.”

Now, as a professed “book person”, the idea of selectively reading passages of a book to my daughter feels like a big cheat and a huge violation of the unspoken bond between author and reader – I hate playing backseat editor – but The Princess Bride is a special case. Let me give you some back story…

Even though I adored The Princess Bride movie the first time I saw it in 1987, it never really landed with me that I should seek out the original book that it was based on until I was in college. After a few weeks of hunting, I came across a tattered paperback copy of Goldman‘s The Princess Bride in a used bookstore and quickly devoured it. (It was originally published in 1973 with the eyebrow-raising tagline “A Hot Fairy Tale.”)

What Happens When the Most Beautiful Girl in the World Marries the Handsomest Prince in the World - And He Turns Out to Be a Son-of-a-Bitch?

This might be my favorite back cover copy of all time.

And the book didn’t disappoint. It’s wonderful. When reading the book, you really get an appreciation for how faithful and spot-on Rob Reiner’s adaptation was. Princess Bride the book is INCREDIBLY similar to Princess Bride the movie, right down to the priest mispronouncing “Mawidge” to the now-legendary “Hello, My Name is Inigo Montoya” showdown (which reaches its climax on page 276 of my paperback). While there are little variations in the details here and there, I can only recall two MAJOR differences that stood out when I first read the book. [read the rest of the post…]

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Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same

Just in case you were wondering, Grace Lin’s “Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same” is one of the best kids’ books about twins I’ve ever read

A few months ago, I found out that two of my best friends in the world were having a baby. And not just “a baby”, they were having twins – twin girls – after years of unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant. Needless to say, I was overjoyed, just completely over the moon for them. But then… all my OCD impulses kicked in and I immediately thought, “Oh man, I have to make sure those girls have a decent selection of reading material.” So, for the second time, I embarked on an attempt to “build a library” for a new baby (or babies, as it were).

I used the same methodology I used for my own daughter – I would buy one book a week during the pregnancy and I would try to stay away from books that they’d probably get as baby shower gifts. (Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny, anything that’s available at Target, etc.)

However, a few weeks into the pregnancy, my friends turned to me and said, “Hey, remember that whole one-book-a-week thing you did for Charley? We’re doing it too.” I laughed hysterically, said “Good to know!”, and pulled out the eight-or-so books that I’d already bought them. Fortunately, we hadn’t doubled up on any of the books – but they’re twins, so I feel doubling up is OK – and it just reaffirmed my long-held opinion that my friends are AWESOME.

But it didn’t stop me from buying the books. All it did was add another variable to my selection process. So now I buy one book a week, try to stay away from books that they’d probably get as baby shower gifts, and try to stay away from books they’d buy themselves. (And I’m being a little more diligent about saving the gift receipts as well.)

They’re in around their 20th week of the pregnancy, so I haven’t finished my “40-week library for friends” yet, but I thought I’d share what I’d bought them so far to give you some ideas about buying books for expectant parents. (I’ll share the second half of my library list after the twins are born.)

If asked to “build a library” for the children of my very best friends, these are some of the books that would immediately rise to the top of my list. Yes, it’s subjective and selective and built around my own weird variables – there aren’t any Mo Willems books on the list yet because I wanted to see how many Pigeon books they’d get at their baby shower – but I think ANY of these books are great places to start.

If you’re building a library for a friend or even just looking for some great baby shower gifts, these books are definitely worth checking out. (Some of these books have been covered on the blog before, so I’ll provide links to the longer write-ups.)

1. My Friends by Taro Gomi

My FriendsLast September, I called My Friends “an ideal bedtime book. Truth be told, I literally read My Friends to my daughter at bedtime every single night I put her to bed from when she was five months old until she was about 15-months-old.” One of the best board books in history, in my humble opinion.

2. Press Here by Herve Tullet

Press HereLast November, I called Press Here “a fairly amazing book because it doesn’t wow its audience with a story or with particularly flashy illustrations, but rather it draws readers in with interactivity, with humor, and with that drive that comes with all printed books – the drive to see what happens next, to see what’s happening on the next page.”

3. Animalia by Graeme Base

AnimaliaWe actually don’t own a copy of Animalia ourselves – I don’t know if my daughter has ever read it – but it is simply one of the most expansive and beautiful alphabet books that I’ve ever encountered. Graeme Base has created this gorgeous tapestry of images, a collection of widescreen fantastical images of animal life, each accompanied by short alliterative phrases like “An Armoured Armadillo Avoiding an Angry Alligator.” I love the idea of taking the 70mm Cinemascope beauty of Base’s illustrations and plopping it in front of a young child. It will blow their minds. And they’ll think the alphabet is a million times more interesting than it actually is.

4. Jamberry by Bruce Degen

JamberryEasily one of our most read board books of all time. I don’t what makes Jamberry so appealing to young children, but my daughter loved it. The story follows a boy and his bear best friend berry-picking and wandering through a variety of berry-inspired landscapes. We start with “One berry, two berry, pick me a blueberry” and, as the boy and the bear head out “looking for berries / berries for jam”, the verses quickly pick up steam. The whole book is a crescendo, throwing the friends into one bigger situation after another, escalating to the point where their travels involve marching bands and elephants figure-skating on jam. And every page of Jamberry is just teeming with berries in every way, shape, or form. It’s a lovely, energizing book to read out loud and, in my experience, kids love Bruce Degen’s visuals of his odd little berry universe.

5. The Little Red Hen and The Three Little Pigs by Paul Galdone

Little Red HenLast November, I wrote an article about “The Difficult Task of Introducing Your Kid to Folk Tales and Fairy Tales” and one of my recommendations was to steer kids towards “anything in Paul Galdone’s Folk Tale Classics series.” Galdone is a tremendous author and illustrator and his “Folk Tale Classics” represent some of the best retellings of “classic” stories that I’ve ever seen. If you want your kid to grow up with a firm knowledge of everyone from The Gingerbread Man to Red Riding Hood, Galdone is your man. For this library project, I went with two of my daughter’s favorite editions of Galdone’s folk tales – The Little Red Hen and The Three Little Pigs.

6. Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile

Bink and GollieBack in September, I waxed rhapsodic over the second Bink & Gollie book, Two for One, but the original is just as good, if not better. With Bink & Gollie, the authors – Kate DiCamillo, Alison McGhee, and Tony Fucile – have created a George & Martha for a new age. It’s a beautiful, hysterically funny look at friendship. As I mentioned in my review of Two for One, “I’ve been meaning to write about the original Bink & Gollie for months now (and I still probably will one day), but it’s one of those books that is SO good that it’s actually intimidating to write a review of it. How can I possibly convey the depth of the warmth and humor in Bink & Gollie in a simple blog post?” That’s all still true. This is a home library essential.

7. Frederick by Leo Lionni

FrederickI have never, ever encountered a book that does a better job of explaining the importance and value of art and artists than Leo Lionni’s Frederick. It takes all of these abstract concepts like art and emotion and, through the travails of these brilliant little collage mice, makes them easily understandable for young readers. This is a STAGGERING book with an amazing message, and it’s fun to read too. My daughter loves it. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Scarecrow and Tin Man are babies compared to Baum - they're only 112 years old.

Today would’ve been the 156th birthday of L. Frank Baum, the visionary author best known for his landmark children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and everything else that spun off from that wild American fable about a young woman named Dorothy carried by a cyclone into the magical world of Oz. And, by “everything else,” I’m, of course, talking about more than just the 17 or so subsequent Oz books that were published both before and after Baum’s death. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a critical and commercial literary phenomenon, Baum adapted it himself into an acclaimed stage musical, The Wizard of Oz became one of the (if not THE) most famous movies of all time, Dorothy and her friends have become pop culture icons, there have been comic books, novels, musicals, video games, movies, mini-series, toys, clothing lines… all from that one little new-world fairy tale that L. Frank Baum and his illustrator W. W. Denslow published in 1900.

There’s a wonderful essay on the legacy and power of Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz at Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac today that can tell you far more about the Oz books that I can. I don’t own any of the Oz books, though I’ve come close to buying my daughter a copy on several occasions. Even though we haven’t read it yet, The Wizard of Oz is definitely on her radar – largely, I’ll admit, because of the movie. However, movie aside, I think that the story of Oz has evolved into one of those modern storytelling landmarks, the kind of story that just seeps into our collective unconscious without us really knowing how it got in there. My daughter has only watched about 60% of The Wizard of Oz movie – the witch and flying monkeys freak her out – but, even before that, she knew who Dorothy Gale was, she knew the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and she understood the “ignore the man behind the curtain!” reference. To me, when a story becomes that ubiquitous, it moves out of the realm of being a “really great kids’ book” and moves into the realm of folklore, myth, and legend.

And that might be exactly what Baum had hoped would happen. Let me explain…

If you want a really cool way to celebrate Baum‘s birthday today, I’d suggest going to the Library of Congress’ Read.gov. On this excellent site – which does a wonderful job promoting literary and the joy of reading – the Library of Congress has included some remarkable, high-quality digital scans of original editions of classic children’s titles, including L. Frank Baum and W. W. Denslow‘s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Thanks to the Library of Congress, you can page through the entire text of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (or download a PDF of the entire book) and experience it in the same way that a reader would’ve experienced it in 1900. (Denslow’s illustrations are a particular highlight.) You can click here for some basic information on the edition and you can CLICK HERE to go right to the digital version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Library of Congress has a fantastic digital version of "The Wizard of Oz" that you can download or read online for FREE

One of my favorite things about this edition of The Wizard of Oz is the original introduction that Baum wrote for the text. In his ambitious introduction – which is dripping with equal parts compassion and hubris – Baum states that he hopes that his story can be seen as a “modernized fairy tale” and makes an interesting argument for rejecting the “fearsome morals” of the earlier Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. Here’s what Baum wrote: [read the rest of the post…]

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John K King Books

Hopefully, your hunt for great used kids books will take you to amazing stores like this one.

Since I started Building a Library, I’ve probably gotten the most questions from friends and family about how to find great used books for their kids’ home library. Because finding new books is relatively easy. There are magazine reviews and display racks at Target and cartoon/toy tie-ins that can usually point you towards at least some new children’s titles and, often times, those titles might even be halfway decent. Bookstore employees and librarians, in particular, pride themselves on highlighting great new children’s titles that have recently landed on their radar, and they’re definitely amazing resources that parents need to take advantage of more often. Simply put, new books have a lot of advocates in their corner.

Finding advocates for used books, on the other hand, is a trickier issue all together. Because the definition of used books can be pretty broad. When you say “used books”, are you just talking finding already-read versions of popular titles that you can buy for cheaper-than-sticker-price? That’s a valid definition, but, usually, when I’m looking for “used books”, I’m looking for books that I can’t find new. Books that are out-of-print, unheralded classics, or even just weird little titles that you would never see at a Barnes & Noble. A good example of this is my well-documented love for the Sesame Street Book Club titles, books that you can only now find via eBay, flea markets, or used bookstores. [read the rest of the post…]

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Little Red Hen

Hey, have you guys read a version of "The Little Red Hen" that was better than Paul Galdone's?

As I mentioned yesterday, if you’re looking for excellent editions of classic folk tales to share with your kids, you can’t do better than the works of Paul Galdone and James Marshall. Both are prolific author-illustrators who have published multiple retellings of some of the most famous stories in the world, but they’ve always found ways to present those stories in really compelling and clever ways.

Trust me. These books will very clearly show you the difference that a skilled author brings to retelling a “classic” tale, even something as familiar as Little Red Riding Hood or The Billy Goats Gruff. Since most folktales are in the public domain, you can find a lot of really cheap, poorly executed picture books of these stories all over the place. (Your local dollar store is probably full of them.)  Take any of those PD versions and hold them against the works of Galdone and Marshall and the difference will be as glaring as the difference between a potato and an iPod.

As a brief sample of the amazing folktale awesomeness that these authors so consistently deliver, sit back and enjoy these animated presentations of Marshall’s The Three Little Pigs and Galdone’s Little Red Hen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPFPWFjY_kE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zr-yQGD9eAA

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Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales

Strangely enough, this is NOT a great gift idea for a baby.

One of the most daunting tasks I’ve found in building a home library is figuring out some sort of comprehensive way to introduce fairy tales and folk tales to your child. Because I’m a completist. If I start a series of novels, I have to read ALL OF THEM, even if I start hating the series after volume three.  The same goes for TV shows, movie series, and comic books. And, if I do eventually abandon whatever series I’m reading or watching, I spend lazy afternoons on the internet keeping up with spoilers, so I know what’s going on, even if… you know, I now profess to hate it. (So many hours I’ve spent on Wikipedia reading Uncanny X-Men spoilers and I haven’t bought an issue since the 1990s.) It’s just how I’m wired.

So, as a completist, when I started buying books for my daughter before she was born, I was very cognizant of the fact that it was up to me, as her father, to introduce her to the world of folklore and I didn’t want to leave any gaps in her education. One of the THE first books I ever bought her was a copy of The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, illustrated by Josef Scharl, which was NUTS – literally nuts. That was an insane purchase for an unborn child. Because, while the volume is complete, it is also dense, dark, and academic, with teeny tiny text and annotations galore. It makes for a beautiful reference book, but, c’mon, a kid isn’t going to touch that book until they’re either a). an adult or b). a very, very lonely teenager.

Realizing my folly, I started searching for more accessible versions of classic folk and fairy tales to share with her. I had a checklist – do I have a Red Riding Hood for her? Check. Three Little Pigs? Check. Goldilocks? Check. And I thought I’d assembled a few very decent introductions to the world of folklore for our library. I was pleased.

Red Riding Hood

On the other hand, kids will love this one.

However, after she was born and we started reading books aloud more often, I realized that there were SO many holes in our collection. This became particularly apparent when reading the more modern fractured fairy tales – fractured fairy tales are the more meta, ironic takes on classic folklore. Many of these books – ranging from The Stinky Cheese Man to Each Peach Pear Plum to The Princess and the Pizza – have a lot of fun alluding to and referencing classic folklore, which is normally, in turn, great fun for the parents and kids reading at home. I’m a big, big child of the pop culture generation, so recognizing references is something deeply, deeply ingrained in my DNA. [read the rest of the post…]

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