Book Reviews

A Little Humor, a Little Drama, and Some Nonfiction with a Little of Both

Paul H. Ricks


Paul H. Ricks, a self-­‐labeled "nerdy teacher," reviews a variety of new books for a variety of students—diverse in ages, personalities, tastes, needs, and interests. He introduces basic content without "spoilers," commenting on specific qualities and compatibilities of texts and illustrations.

Rockliff, Mara. (2015). Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France. Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

It is not easy to make the scientific method, the etymology of various words and well-known phrases, and the international politics involved in funding the American Revolution engaging, but that is exactly what Mara Rockliff and Iacopo Bruno have masterfully accomplished with this non-fiction picture book for elementary-aged students.

The story is simple enough: Benjamin Franklin is sent to France in an effort to convince King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to help fund the American Revolution. While there, he finds that Dr. Mesmer, a celebrity and hypnotist extraordinaire, is able to cure people of almost any malady, and it seems he is able to do so by controlling his patients with the power of his mind. The city of Paris is fascinated with Mesmer's abilities and claims, but Franklin questions Mesmer's ability to heal and control his patients. As Franklin observes and hypothesizes and tests, the truth behind Mesmer's methods surfaces, and because of his detection Franklin becomes a celebrity in Paris. The plot, intriguing as it is, is made exponentially more enjoyable through Bruno's illustrations. This book is a true symbiotic collaboration. The words of the text and the illustrations complement each other so well that it's hard to imagine that the story could be told in any other way.

This book tries to do a lot, and it succeeds on almost every level. It introduces academic vocabulary within context, it tells a nonfiction story that truly entertains, and it appeals to the detective in each of us, teaching adults as well as students how to become better problem solvers.

Janeckzko, Paul B. (Ed.). (2015). The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects. Illustrated by Chris Raschka. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Objects, inanimate and otherwise,are the subject of this fourth anthology collaboration from Paul B. Janeckzko and Chris Raschka. Swords, shields, grass, cocoa scum, stars, shadows, and manhole covers are all courteously represented in this collection of poetry that spans over 1500 years. 

With all the painstaking detail and judgment that one might assert in creating the definitive road trip mix tape, Janeckzo finds threads of poetic commonality that harmonize perfectly from the Middle Ages to the current day. Poems about places and things reveal the stories of the people who made them, and these stories weave together to express emotions and depth of thought that collectively represent facets of the human condition. Raschka allows the enigmatic nature of watercolor paintings to complement possible interpretations for each short verse. In a way that mirrors the poems themselves, the ethereal illustrations stand both as individual works of art and as parts of a greater whole.

Centuries worth of poetry can in no way be summarized by fifty short selections, but the poems chosen for this book serve as an appropriate introduction to young readers who are beginning to consider the poetic nature of this world and its component objects.

Child, Lauren. 2015. The New Small Person. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Every first child knows what it is like to be an only child, at least for a time, and many first children also know what it is like to have the polarity of their world change as a younger sibling comes into the mix. Such is the case for Elmore Green.

Elmore's new little brother gets all the attention, increases the amount of noise in the house, and breaks Elmore's toys, as we would expect. The written text is easy for young readers to follow, but it is also playful enough for adult readers to smile at the tongue-in-cheek humor. What makes this highly relatable story unique and able to move beyond the clichés of sibling rivalry, however, is the fresh view provided by the illustrations. Readers are given the Charlie Brown vantage point as the adults are drawn with nothing visible from the knees up, and the adept use of positive and negative space help the reader stay engaged in the story by taking in all of the visual clues that hint at the book's twist ending.

The purposefully simple story and illustrations will resonate with anyone who knows what it is like to undergo the painful shift from leading actor to supporting role in the genealogical drama that is childhood.

Myers, Christopher. (2015). My Pen. New York, NY: Hyperion.

The opening pages of this picture book show a young boy against a stark white background. He is deep in thought, considering his place within the cosmos. He seems to be almost swallowed up in the idea that he is just one small boy in a world of bigger and seemingly more important people. But then he remembers he has his pen. His pen can draw anything he can imagine, and suddenly his world is transformed from somber ideas and harrowing thoughts to a world with endless possibilities.

Though this is not a wordless text, for the most part Myers lets his pen do the talking. His black ink pen takes the reader on dinosaur rides, across seas to Africa, into forests with pen-shaped trees, and through mirrors that reflect more light, and sometimes more darkness, than many people will ever notice. Where a less talented artist and storyteller would feel the need to hide behind additional colors and words, this stripped-down approach is a confident expression with well composed black ink drawings that create the worlds that each child artist knows and that none of us should ever forget. 

Much more than an ode to an inanimate object, My Pen pays homage to the simplicity, the beauty, and the depth of feeling in the imagination of a child.

Barry, Dave. 2015. The Worst Class Trip Ever. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Wyatt Palmer is just an average eighth grader headed to Washington, D.C. who unexpectedly has to save the President of the United States from being assassinated by terrorists. If the previous sentence seems too ridiculous for you, feel free to skip to the next review.

Wyatt and his friends begin a long distance fieldtrip with all of the expectations of any other teens—they are excited to get away from their parents, and they hope that somehow love will be in the air. Their dreams of a fun-filled getaway are radically altered, however, as they begin to suspect two creepy old guys on their flight of wanting to blow up the White House. Wyatt, not the strongest, the smartest, or the bravest of his friends, becomes the central figure who has to overcome his own insecurities in an effort to save the day. Wyatt's friends serve as the supporting cast, with all of the necessary knowhow, brawn, and even romantic intrigue to keep things interesting.

Anyone familiar with Dave Barry will expect belly laughs and fart jokes. On both levels, he delivers. The pacing feels a little disjointed, the characters are not overly believable, and the plot gives the Three Stooges a run for their money as far as depth is concerned. That said, if one lowers the brow a little and accepts the story for what it is rather than condemning it for its obvious flaws, the rollercoaster of absurd situations and flatulent humor is actually a pretty fun little ride.

Paul Ricks is a sixth grade teacher at Emerson Elementary School in Salt Lake City, who recently completed a master's degree at Brigham Young University. When not on the clock as a full-time nerdy teacher, he fills his moments with equally nerdy hobbies such as numismatics, persistent whistling of film scores, and lesson planning while trail running.