Inkling by Kenneth Oppel

Featured

Cheating thuds from this book’s heart. A father and son must confront the question: what exactly counts as cheating on work projects or school assignments? And, how much are they cheating themselves by not facing their fears, which are really their sorrows?

Oppel, Kenneth. Inkling. Illus. Sydney Smith. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. Print.

Genre: middle grade, graphic novel hybrid

Summary: One night, for reasons unknown and unclear, ink lines, scribbles, and splotches on a sketchbook page congeal into a sentient blot that jumps off the page. The little blot, Inkling, is on a quest to find something…something that summons and beckons with a steady pull. Amidst this quest, Inkling befriends Ethan Rylance, son of Peter Rylance, the famous comic book artist! Both father and son are struggling to produce the artwork required at school and work. Inkling lends his own tremendous talents to their projects, and in the process, discovers the grief holding them back and tearing apart their familial bond.

Critique: Inkling is one of those rarest of literary characters. That one-of-a-kind charmer which only comes along once in a generation, if we readers are lucky. He is earnest and noble. He is kind and generous. He is rambunctious, meddlesome, and curious. He is Mr. Toad and Winnie the Pooh and Stewart Little and Ramona Quimby and Calvin (plus Hobbs).

After a long day spent drawing for Ethan or Peter, Inkling needs to refuel by gobbling the ink off books or newspapers. Each meal imparts its unique voice to Inkling. For instance, after he devours Anne of Green Gables, he is a dreamy, wordy chatterbox who sees kindred spirits in everyone he meets. Or, when he eats an Earnest Hemingway novel, he communicates only in short phrases. And the short phrases were simple. The simple phrases were repetitive. And they were good.

Inkling also has a serious sweet tooth for colorful comics, but those send him literally bouncing off the walls, leaving BLAMMO CRASH BOOM murals everywhere.

No small wonder that Ethan and Peter have a hard time keeping Inkling a secret. Once word gets out, everyone wants to borrow or steal little Inkling.

All the while, the ink blot senses something summoning him, pulling him to a box hidden in the back of Peter Rylance’s closet. If he can only sneak past Richman the cat (and his painful claws), he can maybe see why the contents of that box have halted the Rylances’ creative powers along with their ability to laugh with and love each other.

The book’s ending is a heart-twisting tear-jerker, but you need not drain the entire Kleenx box just yet. Thanks to some unresolved subplots, I suspect a sequel or three in the works.

Young Fredle by Cynthia Voigt

Featured

In this delightful, subversive novel, Voigt gives young readers everything they usually aren’t supposed to get: strangers, dangers, and unanswered questions.

Voigt, Cynthia. Young Fredle. Illus. Louise Yates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Genre: middle grade

Summary: Separated from his home and family in the walls of the house, Fredle the young mouse must make his own way in the outside world. Deadly barn cats, owls, scamming field mice, snakes, and raccoons are just some of the hazards he encounters. When Fredle finally does find the way back home, he is not sure he can give up stargazing, flowers, and all his new friends.

Critique: One night, while scouring the dark kitchen floors for food, Fredle finds an unknown object. Flat and round and with a ridged edge, the thing tasted of metal. It was not food, but he still wanted to know what it was. His family and all the other mice warn him not to wonder. Wondering is how good mice get “went.”

Readers remain actively engaged throughout this novel because Voigt is a master of crafting inference moments. Fredle may not know what a coin is, but we do and we can infer it from the description provided. Fredle also does not know about stars, flowers, rain, chickens, owls, raccoons, snakes, grass, dirt, and so many other things. For each encounter with a new thing or creature, Voigt takes her time relaying all the clues readers need to solve the riddle.

As a result, young readers accumulate a sense of mastery, feeling clever and knowledgeable. By providing these inference moments, the author cunningly mirrors and echoes Fredle’s feelings and experiences as he learns more and more about the world. He too feels increasingly knowledgeable, clever, and adroit.

Fredle also encounters strangers: Bardo and Neldo, the field mice; Angus and Sadie, the dogs; Tarnu, Ellnu, and all the cellar mice. He learns skepticism and trust. Not everyone is as altruistic as they seem, and not everyone is as dangerous as we might like to assume.

Like a good teacher, Voigt’s narration is very patient. When a trap snaps, all the mice flee. Readers wait a long time before discovering which mouse just got “went.” When a band of raccoons thieves from the trash the ice cream carton with young Fredle inside, readers again wait a good while before Fredle is discovered. Will they crunch him as a snack, will he escape, or will they induct him into their gang? The answer unfolds gradually.

Other times, answers do not unfold at all because Voigt is unafraid to ask potentially unanswerable questions. For instance, should we honor tradition and remain close with our family and community, or should we change and adapt with life’s waxing, waning rhythms even though those changes lead us far away from the home and family we love? What should we love more: family or self?

Failing to supply a ready answer is simultaneously a great taboo and mighty treasure. Too often, we adults rush in with answers for all the queries young people have. We tend to believe danger lurks in the dark, blank spaces. But a dark, blank space can also be home to trillions of stars. A gap can be gain, such as when space makes way for growth.

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

Imagine a children’s book that combines The Truman Show with The Tale of Desperaux.

Peck, Richard. The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail. Illus. Kelly Murhpy. New York: Puffin Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: middle grade historical fiction

Summary: Days before Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a nameless mouse runs away from the bullies at school. From then on, he is swept into a misadventure maelstrom. The book jacket will tell you he has a plan to speak with the Queen and that he goes on an epic adventure, but do not believe it…

Critique: At first, I thought I’d adore the nameless mouse whose tail kinked into a question mark shape. He was cheeky, mouthing off to bullies and overly disciplinarian adults. But as the narrative continued, I could not fathom how such a mouse could lack so much gumption. Once the catalyst shoots him out of his A-world and into the B-world, the little mouse does next to nothing unless another character tells him to. He either whines about his miserable circumstances or he watches the world pass by.

According to the text, his observant nature stems from that tail. He’s curious. He’s full of questions, like why doesn’t he have a name and who were his parents and wouldn’t Queen Victoria know the answers because wise monarchs who have sat on the thrown for 60 years ought to know everything?

The mouse formulates this last notion in chapter 3 and the book jacket would have you believe that his yearning to see the Queen is what sparks an “epic adventure.” But as I warned you, don’t believe it. The ensuing larks around and in Buckingham Palace are not the result of his deliberate actions or choices to fulfill the desire. Instead, he travels about like a staticky sock, clinging to whatever (or whomever) happens to be closest. He attaches to a cat in the stables, then a horse out for a ride, then palace guard mice capture him and enlist him in service, then bats capture him, and then andthenandthen…

He remembers his “desire” to see the queen on page 88 and not again until somewhere around page 146. He is what screenwriter Blake Snyder calls a Johnny Entropy. A lead character with no lead.

Writers, beware this protagonist. You’ll know when one has snuck into your story because all the other characters will have to luggage him around or tell him what to do, when he ought to know, with a bottle rocket’s urgency, what he wants.

Not wishing to be disingenuous, I should also point out that the nameless mouse could not have exerted much agency or autonomy even if he tried because he lives like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. Everyone watches him always. Everyone is in on a secret and, thus, allows no harm to come to the mouse. They keep him on their chosen path and prevent any and all goings astray. Why? No spoilers here. They just do.

And its that cloistering the smallest individual from independence that makes me wonder how young readers respond to this book. Their entire lives resemble a sort of Truman Show. Always watched and passed from one to the next adult sentinel. They follow a predetermined script. Do they resonate with the nameless mouse or do they wish he’d rebel, elude his keepers and truly strike out on his own, as Truman does.

Which leads us back to the opening prompt: imagine a children’s book that combines The Truman Show with The Tale of Desperaux for it is one worth writing.

What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

What-Came-From-The-Stars

In this edition of my holiday gift guide for book geeks and rabid readers, I bring you the perfect book for the young Tolkien fan, the Beowulf-to-be (boy or girl) who loves an epic tale with a teary twist woven in.

Schmidt, Gary. What Came from the Stars. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2013. MP3.

Genre: middle grade speculative fiction

Summary: Tommy Pepper is your average sixth grader dealing with your not-so-average sixth grader stuff. Tommy’s mom died in a car wreck he’s pretty sure he caused. The shock and the grief caused his little sister Patty to stop talking and his dad stopped painting. Now they might lose their house to a beach front condo project. To top it all off, Tommy finds a strange necklace that gives him some amazing powers. Little does he know someone from another planet is tracking the necklace — someone with malicious, deadly intentions.

Critique: Tommy’s story intersperses with the tribulations of Young Waeglim, who lives on a planet in another galaxy far far away. The evil Lord Mondus wants to steal the Art (akin to pure creative magic) of Waeglim’s people, the Valorim. Waeglim forges the Art into a necklace and hurls it out into space, where it eventually crash lands in Tommy Pepper’s lunchbox.

I know I know: all that technically falls under summary, but summarizing this book is complicated. Reading it, however, is NOT!

Tommy’s sections are written in a familiar, contemporary voice (except when the necklace influences Tommy’s perceptions, occasionally causing him to speak the language of the Valorim). Waeglim’s sections, however, are in an old epic saga style à la Beowulf, Njal’s SagaThe Song of Roland, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By mingling these two, very different “lingos,” Gary Schmidt opens up exciting, new literary territory for upper middle grade and younger YA readers! If parents are frothing-at-the-mouth Tolkien fans (and by extension, frothing fans of old Germanic cultures and literature) who desperately want their kids to become frothing Tolkien fans, this is the book to start’em on!

One of the great but unexpected benefits of this approach is how it teaches a younger reader to infer the meanings of unfamiliar words. Orulo. Honora. Resid. Words from another planet that mingle with English and enough contextual clues to allow for interpretation. The reader is continually challenged to participate with the text.

(For the more reluctant readers, I highly recommend the recorded version! Graham Winton is an excellent reader who aptly renders all the drama and nail-biting action out of the epic segments.)

 

What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

What-Came-From-The-StarsSchmidt, Gary. What Came from the Stars. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2013. MP3.

Genre: middle grade speculative fiction

Summary: Tommy Pepper is your average sixth grader dealing with your not-so-average sixth grader stuff. Tommy’s mom died in a car wreck he’s pretty sure he caused. The shock and the grief caused his little sister Patty to stop talking and his dad stopped painting. Now they might lose their house to a beach front condo project. To top it all off, Tommy finds a strange necklace that gives him some amazing powers. Little does he know someone from another planet is tracking the necklace — someone with malicious, deadly intentions.

Critique: Tommy’s story intersperses with the tribulations of Young Waeglim, who lives on a planet in another galaxy far far away. The evil Lord Mondus wants to steal the Art (akin to pure creative magic) of Waeglim’s people, the Valorim. Waeglim forges the Art into a necklace and hurls it out into space, where it eventually crash lands in Tommy Pepper’s lunchbox.

I know I know: all that technically falls under summary, but summarizing this book is complicated. Reading it, however, is NOT!

Tommy’s sections are written in a familiar, contemporary voice (except when the necklace influences Tommy’s perceptions, occasionally causing him to speak the language of the Valorim). Waeglim’s sections, however, are in an old epic saga style à la Beowulf, Njal’s SagaThe Song of Roland, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By mingling these two, very different “lingos,” Gary Schmidt opens up exciting, new literary territory for upper middle grade and younger YA readers! If parents are frothing-at-the-mouth Tolkien fans (and by extension, frothing fans of old Germanic cultures and literature) who desperately want their kids to become frothing Tolkien fans, this is the book to start’em on!

One of the great but unexpected benefits of this approach is how it teaches a younger reader to infer the meanings of unfamiliar words. Orulo. Honora. Resid. Words from another planet that mingle with English and enough contextual clues to allow for interpretation. The reader is continually challenged to participate with the text.

(For the more reluctant readers, I highly recommend the recorded version! Graham Winton is an excellent reader who aptly renders all the drama and nail-biting action out of the epic segments.)