Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

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Warning: this book may induce wild dancing and self-acceptance!

Andreae, Giles. Giraffes Can’t Dance. Illus. Guy Parker-Rees. New York: Orchard Books, 1999. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: Gerald the giraffe wants to be like all the other animals and join the jungle dance, but his long legs make him too clumsy.

Critique: The illustrations are bright, colorful, and energetic. Parker-Rees makes the difficult seem easy by depicting a giraffe in graceful pirouettes, assertive disco spears, and acrobatic back flips!

Caution to parents or librarians reading this book aloud: the rhythm of Andreae’s rhyming text is likely to spur dancing.

Thematically, the text seems spot on, imparting to readers that you can’t dance to the beat of other creature’s drums. The best tune is the one already inside you. In other words, the real you is already inside and all you have to do is let it out.

I doubt Thich Nhat Hahn could argue with that!

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Happy With Me by Leo Timmers

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A comic strip artist employs a clever visual tactic to establish the perfect bedtime reading pace.

Timmers, Leo. Happy with Me. Los Angeles, CA: Smallfellow Press, 2002. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A wistful boy spends his bedtime fantasizing about being other animals. Elephants, penguins, octopi—each creature leads readers off on whimsical and silly adventures as the boy weighs the pros and cons of each transformation. Being big vs squashing everything. Swimming lots vs icy waters. Multitasking vs tangled arms.

Critique: Although the text is not written to rhyme, Timmers employs plenty of alliteration and consonance. As a result, the texture is soft, delicate, tender—perfect for bedtime reading.

The Belgian comic strip artist also employs a unique visual strategy, placing a small picture snippet beneath the text. This circle captures some small tidbit of the illustration on the neighboring page. It functions much like a periscope or porthole—a little window providing a limited view. Readers are invited to linger on each spread, spending extra moments locating exactly what the “periscope” sees. What a perfect pace for sleepy time storytelling!

Best of all, Timmers concludes his story with a very clever, very evocative image of the boy setting off to face a new day and a trail of feathers spilling from his pajamas. Readers rest easy knowing, at their core, they really are whatever they long to be.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Over three decades ago, she predicted America’s current tailspin. Now, she’s reconfigured Shakespeare’s The Tempest, setting it inside a prison where magic and revenge frolic. Margaret Atwood is a mischievous goddess.

Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. New York: Random House Audio, 2016. CD.

Genre: fiction

Summary: Felix Phillips dazzles audiences every year at the Makeshawig Theater Festival, staging experimental and cutting-edge renditions of Shakespeare’s masterworks. But when a trusted colleague ousts him to claim the spotlight, Felix finds himself marooned in a country shack. He teaches chess to his daughter’s ghost and he plots myriad revenge schemes. When a nearby prison needs a new teacher for their inmate literacy program, Felix applies and soon discovers exactly how to exact retribution.

Critique: Margaret Atwood first dazzled me with A Handmaid’s Tale. Published in 1985, that story anticipated the culture clash currently corroding the United States’ notions of democracy from the inside out. The book recently aired as a critically acclaimed series on Hulu. Viewers are warned not to binge watch it.

Hag-Seed is to Handmaid what Emma is Sense and Sensibility. It is lighter and brighter, but still promises Atwood’s signature wickedness and clever twists. The prologue opens in the future, inside the Fletcher Correctional Facility. Told in teleplay format, the text explains what is seen onscreen and heard off screen. The opening scene of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest unfolds, but with some modernized speeches added along with innovative costuming. Then, the power goes out. Voices from the audience express concern.

Outside the screening room, they hear shouting: Jail break!

Then gunfire. Then a voice inside the screening room commands the audience to keep still and quiet.

Electric tension whips the reader to attention in three short pages. Concluding with a cliffhanger, Atwood then backs up and shares how Felix Phillips made his way from lauded artistic director at a major theater festival to literacy instructor at a jail enacting an elaborate revenge plot on his old enemies.

As a villainous good-guy, Felix is truly sympathetic. Not only do we cheer on his plans to get revenge, but also, we adore his definitive skills as a teacher. Scenes in the classroom are among the novel’s most charming assets. For example, Felix allows inmates to swear all they want so long as they use Shakespearean curse-words. He truly inspires his students and transforms them into passionate actors.

Atwood unwinds the play within the novel,all the while echoing the two plot lines. The effect is dazzling, a bit like looking down on a stack of spiral galaxies. Corresponding swirls twist toward the same center. The more Felix’s students explore and understand the play, the more readers can anticipate what is going to happen next. And yet, the events are never predictable. Enough unexpected conflicts and curveballs enter the mix to keep us guessing and stressing. Will Felix’s plot succeed, or will the inmates rebel and exploit the performance to stage an actual jail break? Is the ghost of Felix’s daughter really there and really helping him or is it just a manifestation of his soured and maddened mind? And the ultimate question which the novel prods: is there really such a thing as happy endings?

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Traveling at speeds upwards of 80 mph, across one and a quarter states over 400 miles in a day, I was on a mission and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York was coming with me!

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2017. MP3.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Acting in part as a poet and as a five-star chef, Neil deGrasse Tyson serves up a condensed yet comprehensive portion of the incredibly dense and complex world of astrophysics.

Critique: I am no chef and, therefore, feel no obligation to serve my readers any kind of compliment sandwich. I must kick off this critique with my most salient complaint: this book was too short! I nabbed the CD version from the library, fed a disc to my car, then hit the road. It was only after the first disc concluded and I scavenged the passenger seat for the next that I realized I was already 1/3 of the way through the book.

Three discs. That’s it. Maybe 45 tracks in total. With over 300 miles to travel — to say nothing of the long drive back home!

But in those three discs, Mr. Tyson…er eh…Mr. deGrasse…urm…The-One-And-Only-Neil serves up an entire smorgasbord of rich and enticing information. His overview of the origins and ongoing goals of astrophysics is devastatingly concise. Get me talking about the field I love (writing/literature) and I’ll ramble on for days. Sheesh!

He also runs through all the startling, innovative ways scientists have learned/are still learning to do more than simply “see” the universe. How they managed to touch it, taste it, hear it, and yes, smell it without ever physically leaving the confines of Earth.

Most importantly, with his characteristic passion, Neil maps out the elements composing every human body and discloses their origins: straight from the blazing hearts of stars. That’s right. We all come from the intrepid fires that illuminate a mysterious, possibly limitless and multiversed cosmos — an ideal torch to light our way through the tragic shadows cast by Charlottesville’s recent banner headlines.

Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs

Gearing up to see Al Gore’s return in An Inconvenient Sequel? Be sure to add some good mental trail mix to your rucksack.

Childs, Craig. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of Earth. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Craig Childs travels around the world to showcase the impacts of climate change — those we can readily observe, as well as those more hidden in surprising chain reactions. Childs’ work won the Orion Award, presented only to those outstanding books which deepen a reader’s connection to the natural world. Childs is also the author of previous award-winning and thought-provoking books including The Animal Dialogues, Finders Keepers, and House of Rain.

Critique: With his usual devil-may-care penchant for bedlam, Childs takes readers — and anyone else crazy enough to tag along — to every deadly brink he can find on the planet which may (or may not) chart the course of our demise. He rafts an uncharted Himalayan river…with his stepdad…during flood season. He traverses the base of a glacier…while it is calving…at unprecedented speeds. He monitors the stormy, hostile waters around the Bering Straight…under gale-force winds hurtling stone-hard rain…with his mother.

From Greenland’s white water deserts to Mexico’s sandy no-man’s (and no-waters) lands; from Hawaiian lava flows to Iowan corn vistas, Childs presents a dazzling tour of destruction. Over and over, he covers the planet’s 4.6 billion years of cyclical renewl and collapse. Digestion and regurgitation of landmasses and species. He points out the research suggesting what we are going through now is perfectly normal…and yet perfectly exacerbated by our mode of modern life.

Sure, the earth will most likely survive any severe turnover — life always finds a way. But we homo sapiens might not be so lucky. We may have already triggered irreparable sequences; destructive dominoes already litter our path. Or do they? Only time will tell.

I’m not just being coy about the end of this book as a way of tempting you to read it. I am reflecting Child’s even greater penchant for sharing more tough questions than easy answers. Which is wise, considering how few complex issues are ever cut and dry. Not every debate has a right or wrong side. Sometimes both sides’ positions stink equally. In this case, Childs holds us accountable to answer the toughest questions. What will we do in the face of global demise — wait and see if we’re really boned, or act in every way possible to avert calamity?

We know what plays better at the movie theater when the clock on the nuclear bomb ticks down its final seconds before detonation. Rarely does the hero just sit and wait.

Because this is a critique and not a review, I am obligated to point out that this book’s greatest feature is also its most tragic flaw. It stems from a stylistic habit I share with Craig Childs, and thus, I comment with deepest respect and sympathy. Every page, every paragraph, is loaded with stunning similes and metaphors to evoke the settings.

Back in February, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of meeting Craig Childs several times during his week-long visit in town. Apocalyptic Planet was the common reading experience for the college freshmen (and the wider community). Often, he noted the goal of his writing was to bring readers out of their easy chairs and into the wilds, out on the trails where most cannot follow. To that end, he leaned heavily on figurative language. However, the text held so many of these descriptive gems, they eventually dulled into common minerals. I lost sight and sense of the place, or else lost the scope and stakes of the environmental issue under scrutiny. As a result, the pacing slackened and my desire to keep reading waned (the very thing my writing advisers and mentors always warned me about).

Perhaps if the earth generally benefits from gobbling up its most precious places, then Craig and I might also benefit from wiping away our more darling descriptions.