My New Favorite Subtle Slipstream Story for Kids | Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

A few weeks ago, I posted on the importance of the question “What if?” to Science Fiction, but really, that’s a question that pertains to all of Slipstream Fiction.

What is Slipstream? It’s a bit of an umbrella term that covers Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and everything in-between. If it isn’t quite possible in our world, it can be considered Slipstream.

As I think about the books that fit into that genre, I realize that probably half or more children’s books are built on a slipstream premise. What if animals could talk? What if toys came to life when you weren’t looking? What if there was a tree that everything got stuck in?

9780399257377It’s that last premise that is the subject of my new favorite children’s book, Stuck by Oliver Jeffers (I’ve reviewed another book by Jeffers over here).

It doesn’t start as a slipstream book.

“It all began when Floyd’s kite became stuck in a tree.”

But when, instead of using a ladder to retrieve the kite, Floyd tosses the ladder up and gets it stuck too, I started to think that this book offered more than initially met the eye.

I don’t want to give away any of the bits that make this book my new favorite, so I’ll just say that you need to pick it up for yourself. Oliver Jeffers is a gifted illustrator, story writer, and master of the absurd. It was published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, back in 2011.

Go buy your copy from a local indie bookseller today!

Book Review | Roger is Reading a Book by Koen Van Biesen

Shh! Quiet. Roger is reading. Roger is reading a book.

9780802854421If you have ever lived in an apartment or tried to read a book or attempted any task in the presence of small children, then you can relate to Roger is Reading a Book by Koen Van Biesen.

Published in English by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Van Biesen’s illustrated delight features the eponymous Roger trying to read while his neighbor, Emily, enjoys hobbies of her own–loud hobbies. The illustrations are simple and sumptuous, a combination of intricate line drawings and digital photography. The lines are repetitive but enjoyable and leave much of the action in the mind of the reader.

The message of the book is clear–in order to have a good neighbor, one must be a good neighbor. And that is a lesson that we can all stand to hear again, especially when it is expertly executed by a skillful wordsmith and illustrator.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Josh is reading a book.

Book Review | Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

I was visiting the library with a writing pal of mine when I saw this alphabet book. There were three things about it that made me want to bring it home, but we’ll get to those in a minute.

9780399167911Once Upon an Alphabet is a different type of alphabet book. Instead of the traditional “A is for Apple” book that gives each letter a page and employs a simple rhyming structure, Oliver Jeffers’ contribution to the genre is a book of flash fiction stories. Being a sucker for flash fiction, I’m predisposed to like this book.

Okay, the three reasons that made me want to bring it home are these:

  • It is a hefty book. It literally stands out among the other books on the shelf because of its size. Once Upon an Alphabet is noticeably larger and thicker than other books. Simply from an economic point of view, you’d get your money’s worth out of it.
  • It is gorgeously illustrated. Jeffers has a simple style that plays well with his short story format. You may recognize the illustration style due to his other, more popular book, The Day the Crayons Quit. Good stuff.
  • It is self-referential. Each story showcases a different letter of the alphabet and most of the stories stand alone, but not all of them. By referencing stories from the early letters in the later letters, Jeffers creates a feeling of being on the inside of an inside joke. Readers who skip ahead to the late letters won’t get it, and that’s the point.

So maybe the next time you are at the library or indie bookstore, you could ask them about Once Upon an Alphabet.

Nanoblock Review | The Micro Machines of the Lego World

Back in the days of my youth, I collected and played with Micro Machines. They are some of the few toys (aside from my Lego collection) that I retained into adulthood. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Micro Machines are miniaturized versions of popular vehicles about as big as your thumbnail, much smaller than Hot Wheels or Matchbox cars which are scale models about as big as your thumb.

But I’m not here to talk about Micro Machines. I’m going to talk about Nanoblocks. I was just setting up the comparison to say that Nanoblocks are to Micro Machines what Nanoblocks are to Lego.nanoblock_space_shuttle

Super teeny tiny.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago my dad called me up to ask for my opinion. He runs a hobby shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan and he was curious whether he should stock Nanoblocks or not. So he handed me this set and asked me to put it together.

On a side note, ever since seeing the film “Big” with Tom Hanks, I have harbored a dream of being a toy tester. I jumped at the opportunity. (Not literally; I’m not an attractive jumper.)

Here are my thoughts:

In comparing it to Lego sets of comparable box size and price, Nanoblock sets have about 10 times more pieces. That is both a blessing and a curse. It is awesome because the more pieces you have, the more options for customization you have. So once you’ve built the set once, you can take it apart and build a bunch of other stuff from your imagination from the same set of pieces.

The downside is that if you drop a piece, you may not find it. Never attempt to build a set on a thick carpet. You might as well just open the package and dump the little pieces into your vacuum cleaner.

The sets take a bit more desk space while building, but less when the set is finished. When you set out to build, it is a good idea to clear about two square feet for sorting little pieces. When you open the box, the pieces are contained within several bags. Sadly, the bags are not split in a logical way between steps or sections (e.g. the space shuttle, the booster rockets, the launch pad), so you end up opening all of the bags and then you have to keep track of 500 little pieces.

They take time to assemble, especially if you have fat, sausage fingers like me. To give you an idea of how long it can take to build one of these sets, I spent about an hour or so in building the shuttle, tank, and booster rockets over the course of three lunch hours. I haven’t even started on the launch pad yet. People with more nimble fingers than mine would probably have an easier time of it, however. If you aren’t able to finish a set in one sitting, be sure to invest in a resealable bag to store the pieces.

The instructions are less of a step-by-step guide and more of an exploded view of the different layers of each model part. This took me a while to figure out because I am used to the Lego instruction books that dedicate a page each to adding one or two pieces at a time. The Nanoblock instructions take up less room, and though it was an adjustment, it didn’t take long to figure out.

They make good desk art. Where Lego sets are primarily aimed at a younger audience (I recognize that in spite of my love for them, I am not their target), Nanoblocks seem to be aiming at an older crowd. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of these sets will end up on some professional’s desk instead of in a youngster’s toy box, that is, if they don’t end up in the vacuum cleaner first.

The overall score:

On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is stepping a Lego and 10 is completing the coolest Lego set ever, I’d rate the Nanoblock experience as a 7. It was a challenge and rewarding to build. I’m happy to have the completed set on my desk. And if I ever want to break down my set, I know that I could build a number of other things with the 500+ pieces (instead of limited number of things that you can build from a single Lego set).

This is part of the set I built in comparison to a penny.

This is part of the set I built in comparison to a penny.

Book Review | Sky Raiders by Brandon Mull

Imagine a world on the fringes of our own where imagination can create real things. Now allow me to tell you that such a world exists (possibly because you imagined it) between the covers of Brandon Mull‘s Five Kingdoms series.

sky_raidersIn Sky Raiders, the first of the series, Cole follows his kidnapped friends into the Outskirts, made up of five kingdoms and populated by mysterious powers and people. It isn’t long before Cole is marked as a slave and drafted into the dangerous service of the Sky Raiders, a cross between flying pirates and a salvaging crew. With flying castles, magical objects, and a mysterious power running rampant in the Outskirts, Mull knows how to create a captivating fantasy world.

This should come as no surprise to readers of his previous series, Fablehaven (reviewed here) and the Beyonders (which is next on my reading list). In Five Kingdoms, Brandon Mull seems to borrow some familiar fantasy elements (flying ships, pirates, and swords from Peter Pan, magical objects from the Brothers Grimm, and a ragtag group of misfits from every teen fantasy ever written), but he infuses them with new life and wonder.

Sky Raiders is a quick-paced adventure and a delightful read. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in teen fantasy in general and well-written teen fantasy in specific.

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts?

Book Review | You’re Not Doing It Right by Michael Ian Black

9781439167861I don’t remember when I first read Michael Ian Black’s essay “What I Would Be Thinking About If I Were Billy Joel Driving Toward a Holiday Party Where I Knew There Was Going to Be a Piano.” What I do remember is loving it. So when I happened upon Michael Ian Black’s book, You’re Not Doing It Right, I had to pick it up.

Michael Ian Black is a very famous actor, writer, husband and father. It doesn’t matter that you may not know who he is. In spite of his fame, Michael Ian Black’s experiences and humiliations are common to most men.

In fact, aside from being older, more famous, thinner, funnier, probably wealthier, and less religious, we could be twins. Well, also my parents didn’t divorce because my mom was a lesbian. They divorced for other reasons. But Michael Ian Black and I both experienced vertigo, so we’re essentially the same.

Black’s book, You’re Not Doing It Right, is a frank memoir of the actor’s life and failures. Imagine sneaking into your sibling’s bedroom and stealing their diary, that one labeled “Keep out!!! This means you!!” and taking into the bathroom (so you can lock the door behind you) and reading all of their secrets. If nothing else, you won’t be able to look at them in the same way thereafter. That’s what it is like to read this book, but in the best way possible.

Michael Ian Black’s book is nothing less than a sledgehammer for whatever pedestal you have put him on. It is an invitation to stop feeling crazy and know that there are people (even very famous people) who struggle with selfishness in marriage, frustrations in parenting, and relationships in general.

True, it was utterly unlike any memoir that might have passed my desk at a Christian publishing house, but that is one of the reasons that I read it. If you can get past some colorful language and a potentially sordid history (let’s be honest, none of us are proud of every part of our history), you can’t go wrong with You’re Not Doing It Right.

Book Review | Edda by Adam Auerbach

Have you ever had an idea for something, and then you go to the store and find that thing on the shelf, even though you’ve never seen that thing available before? I had a very similar experience recently at my local library.

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing books for kids featuring the legendary characters of Norse mythology for a little while now. I just love the tales. As they inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create Middle Earth, and C.S. Lewis to dig into his spirituality, they inspire me with their depth and insight into the human condition (even though they focus primarily on gods and goddesses).

9780805097030And then Adam Auerbach beat me to it. And worse, he did it in a really cute and fun way.

Edda tells the tale of a young Valkyrie from Asgard and her decision to attend school on Earth. But things couldn’t be more different between the life that she is used to among the gods and the rules that she has to follow in the classroom. Using the imagery of Norse legend, Auerbach expertly captures the struggle of all children to adapt to the differences between home life and school life.

This is a perfect book for parents of children who are about to enter school. It is also the perfect book for people who appreciate Norse mythology. Edda is slightly less than the perfect book for people who cannot yet read, but it is still really good because the illustrations are quite endearing.

So instead of pouting about the fact that Auerbach wrote a great book using my beloved characters, I’m going to be encouraged and say that there’s a market for the type of books that I want to write.

Now I just need to learn how to illustrate.

Book Review | Resurrection Year by Sheridan Voysey

9780849964800I was given this book (among others) by my old pal and new co-worker, Andrew Rogers, when I showed up at Discovery House to drop off some new hire paperwork. Andrew mentioned that Sheridan Voysey has done work with Our Daily Bread Ministries before and thought it would be a good idea for me to be familiar with his writing.

Now, I’m usually not big on non-fiction stuff, but memoirs hit me close to home. After all, what is my blog if not some unholy mix of non-fiction and personal storytelling. So I started to read Resurrection Year.

At first glance, Resurrection Year is a book about life after the broken dream of parenthood. Sheridan and his wife, Merryn, went through round after round of IVF in an effort to have kids. And after so many cycles of expectation, hope, and disappointment, they needed to move on. But moving on meant giving up an influential job in broadcasting and taking new jobs on the other side of the world.

But upon reading it, this book is about more than difficulties in getting pregnant and starting families. This is a book about what to do when God says no to your dream. This is a book about dreaming new dreams and being open-handed with our wants and our fears. After all, we serve a God who is larger than our fears who is capable of giving us more than we think we want.

Sheridan and Merryn’s journey didn’t just take them into new situations across the globe. They went on a pilgrimage through some of Europe’s landmarks as well as L’Abri, a spiritual retreat center started by Francis and Edith Schaeffer in the 1950’s. And as God revealed himself to them, they reveal God to us, the reader.

I’m excited to see what’s next for Sheridan, because it’ll definitely be on my reading list.

5 Reasons to Read Wonder by R. J. Palacio

9780375869020I just finished reading Wonder by R. J. Palacio and it has all the hallmarks of a modern classic. This will be a book that will be taught in schools for many years to come. As To Kill a Mockingbird talks about racism, Wonder talks about being bullied, all with the same childhood innocence.

August Pullman introduces himself thus:

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

Wonder tells the story of August’s first year in a public school. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. And because my wife loves lists, I’m going to give you five reasons to read it.

  1. August Pullman is not easy on the eyes. I can name on one hand the books that feature an ugly protagonist, but I can name hundreds of real people who don’t fit into the “attractive” category (No, not you dear blog reader. Other people, obviously). That sets this book apart and encourages the reader to see life from the viewpoint of undesirability.
  2. We see August’s story unfold from multiple characters in order to understand him even more than he understands himself. When books provide multiple points of view, they usually do so to include subplots and adventures in which not all of the characters are involved. Wonder moves the plot between characters, but it is the same adventure. We get to see the feelings of each character as they interact with August.
  3. Though the message of the book is clear, it does not preach. If I feel that a book is written with an agenda in mind, I will probably not finish the book. Most books that have a message are unreadable because the author will give more importance to the message than to the characters or the plot. With Wonder, R. J. Palacio makes us fall in love with the characters, and out of this love is borne the message.
  4. By the end of the first chapter, you are rooting for August. Though the majority of the world will never have to experience the rejection and loathing that Auggie does, we can all relate in some way to his struggle. August feels real. Maybe because we’re all lending him a bit of our own self-loathing and we want to see him overcome it. Because if he can overcome his messed up face, maybe we can overcome our struggles.
  5. I honestly couldn’t guess how it was going to end. It was either going to be beautifully hopeful or beautifully tragic, and either one would have been good with me. But I’m not going to tell you how it ends, because you really need to read it for yourself.