Review of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011. 221 pages.
Starred Review
2011 Sonderbooks Standout: Children’s Fiction #5

One of the highlights of my year this year was when, on vacation, I was driving my son a couple hours in the State of Washington to visit a college, and I got him to read aloud to me from The Chronicles of Harris Burdick as I drove. He’s 17, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the stories.

But let me backtrack. Many years ago, when I was first married (so about 25 years ago, in fact), a friend of my husband and me gave us The Mysteries of Harris Burdick for Christmas. (Thanks, Len!) It maybe wasn’t a traditional gift to give a young couple, but we both loved it.

In the introduction to this new book, Lemony Snicket summarizes the premise behind the original book:

“The story of Harris Burdick is a story everybody knows, though there is hardly anything to be known about him. More than twenty-five years ago, a man named Peter Wenders was visited by a stranger who introduced himself as Harris Burdick and who left behind fourteen fascinating drawings with equally if not more fascinating captions, promising to return the next day with more illustrations and the stories to match. Mr. Wenders never saw him again, and for years readers have pored breathlessly over Mr. Burdick’s oeuvre, a phrase that here means ‘looked at the drawings, read the captions, and tried to think what the stories might be like.’ The result has been an enormous collection of stories, produced by readers all over the globe, imagining worlds of which Mr. Burdick gave us only a glimpse.”

The original pictures, especially combined with the captions and titles, all have something eerie or surreal about them. For example, there’s the picture that goes with the story “Under the Rug” that shows a lump under a rug, and a man with a bowtie holding a chair over his head about to swing it at the lump. The caption reads, “Two weeks passed and it happened again.”

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the picture that goes with “The Seven Chairs.” You see a grand cathedral, and two priests standing and looking at a nun who is sitting calmly on a chair that is floating into the cathedral. The caption reads, “The fifth one ended up in France.”

Chris Van Allsburg implied so much between the pictures, the titles, and the captions.

Back in 1993, Stephen King wrote a story to go with “The House on Maple Street” (the picture with the caption “It was perfect lift-off.”) For this volume, they asked fourteen distinguished authors (including Chris Van Allsburg) to write stories to go with the pictures.

At first, I thought it might be a shame to actually write down a story. But I’ve been thinking about these pictures too long. I don’t feel like these are the only possibilities. In fact, looking at the pictures still gets your mind spinning — but these offerings are still tremendous fun.

Some do a better job than others, and some used approaches I wouldn’t have ever taken, but I can honestly say that I enjoyed all the stories. In fact, this would be a fine collection of stories even if it didn’t have such an intriguing history. In fact, I hope the publishers will consider making this a tradition every decade or so, and get 14 more authors to write the stories!

My personal favorites, in order of appearance, were Jon Scieszka’s “Under the Rug”; Jules Feiffer’s “Uninvited Guests”; Kate DiCamillo’s “The Third-Floor Bedroom”; Chris Van Allsburg’s “Oscar and Alphonse”; Stephen King’s “The House on Maple Street”; and my very favorite, M. T. Anderson’s “Just Desert.”

These stories are eerie enough, they aren’t for the usual picture book crowd. Teens, like my son, will definitely enjoy them, and so will elementary age kids who can handle and enjoy some creepiness.

Like the years when we’d read our new Harry Potter book in England or Bavaria or wherever we were traveling on vacation, this book, in a smaller way, definitely enhanced my vacation. After all those years of reading to my boys, it’s a treat to find a book that my son is willing to read to me. We only finished half the book on vacation, but when I read M. T. Anderson’s story, I insisted that my son read it as well. I can confidently say this book spans many age ranges.

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Source: This review is based on an Advance Review Copy I got at ALA Annual Conference.

Review of Guys Read: Funny Business, edited by Jon Scieszka

Guys Read

Funny Business

edited by Jon Scieszka

Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2010. 268 pages.

I heard about this book at an ALA Annual Conference event in 2010, where Jon Scieszka gave a great talk on using audiobooks to reach reluctant readers. He talked about starting this series of books with stories that appeal to boys. The first book in the series is what it says: Funny.

And a bonus, of course, is that girls, and adults, will laugh at these stories, too. They got some stellar authors to write the stories: Mac Barnett, Adam Rex, Eoin Colfer, David Lubar, David Yoo, Jeff Kinney, Christopher Paul Curtis, Paul Feig, and Jack Gantos. They even let one woman contribute: One piece is by Kate DiCamillo and Jon Scieszka.

The stories are indeed funny. I especially enjoyed “My Parents Give My Bedroom to a Biker,” by Paul Feig, where his parents do just that, which tips the kid off that they are being influenced by aliens. Then there’s “A Fistful of Feathers,” which is slightly similar, only this time it’s a turkey that wedges its way into the parents’ affections.

Another laugh-out-loud favorite was “Will,” by Adam Rex, where ALL the other kids in Will’s class turn out to have superpowers. Well, not necessarily superpowers. Barry found out over the weekend he’s a wizard and will be finishing the year at a wizards’ school. Aidan recently learned he’s the son of Thor, but he’s not bad for a demigod. In fact, the teacher is getting quite bitter about it.

“‘POP QUIZ!’ she hooted. The class groaned, as classes will, but it sounded feeble. There weren’t even enough kids to get a good groan going anymore. ‘An essay, in two hundred words or less! Explain what you think will happen to a teacher if all her students keep turning into flipping butterflies! Assume she has only two years’ experience and student loans. Show your work,’ she added, and went to hide behind her desk for a while. Usually a screaming teacher was like ice down your back, but Ms. Chadwick had been getting gradually louder since Labor Day.

“No one, strictly speaking, had actually turned into a butterfly. Hannah had sprouted wings from touching some sort of meteorite back in November, but everyone agreed they were really more dragonfly wings than anything else. She’d done a science fair project about it before leaving for St. Peppermint’s Fairy Academy over winter break.”

These stories would be fantastic choices for the Fourth Grade Reading competition they used to have at my sons’ school. Those who chose funny stories always did well, and these would be great crowd-pleasers. They’d also make great read-alouds. Read one story, and I bet you’d have a whole class clamoring to check out the book.

I’m not a guy, but I’m definitely looking forward to future books in this series.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Zombies vs. Unicorns

edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Margaret K. McElderry Books, New York, 2010. 415 pages.
Starred Review

When I met Diana Peterfreund, author of Rampant and Ascendant, at the 2009 Kidlit Bloggers’ Conference, she told me about this upcoming anthology, and I was waiting for it eagerly ever since. The premise is too fun! I will use the beginning of the Introduction to present it:

“Since the dawn of time one question has dominated all others:

“Zombies or Unicorns?

“Well, okay, maybe not since the dawn of time, but definitely since February 2007. That was the day Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier began the heated exchange about the creatures’ relative merits on Justine’s blog. Since then the question has become an unstoppable Internet meme, crowding comment threads and even making it to YouTube.

“Here in the real world Holly and Justine are often called upon to defend, respectively, unicorns and zombies. The whole thing has gotten so out of hand that the only remedy is . . .

Zombies vs. Unicorns. The anthology.”

Yes, Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier, defenders of the reputations of unicorns and zombies, respectively, have compiled an anthology of stories by stellar authors about unicorns and about zombies. Team Unicorn is represented by Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, Margo Lanagan, Diana Peterfreund, Meg Cabot, and Kathleen Duey. Team Zombie presents stories by Alaya Dawn Johnson, Carrie Ryan, Maureen Johnson, Scott Westerfeld, Cassandra Clare, and Libba Bray.

Now, to be right upfront with you, I am firmly and decidedly on Team Unicorn. My first unpublished and probably never-to-be published children’s novel is about a winged unicorn. I like them. And I don’t like zombies. If this anthology had only included the zombie stories, I would not have been even slightly tempted to pick it up.

However, as it was, I’m am forced to admit that some of the zombie stories were quite good. The one by Maureen Johnson I loved. It reminded me of my favorite vampire story ever with an oppressed wife caring for the adopted vampire children of her abusive husband. In Maureen Johnson’s story an unwitting teenager comes to an isolated house to babysit some toddlers who turn out to be zombies. It probably shouldn’t be read by a teen about to go on her first babysitting job, but I enjoyed it.

The unicorn stories, of course, were brilliant! My favorite was “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn,” by Diana Peterfreund, which tied in beautifully with her books. You would not have to have read her books to enjoy the story, and I hope it will win her some new readers. My second favorite was “Princess Prettypants,” by Meg Cabot. A girl’s crazy aunt gets her a unicorn for her birthday, and at first she’s horrified at such a baby present, but in the end she finds it quite useful.

I do highly recommend this anthology. Whichever fantastical creature you prefer, you’ll find brilliant stories that look at them in a new and interesting way. The banter between the editors before each story is amusing as well.

Go Team Unicorn!

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Review of Half-Minute Horrors, edited by Susan Rich

Half-Minute Horrors

edited by Susan Rich

Harper, 2009. 141 pages.

I read this book entirely waiting at traffic lights. Well, except the parts I read aloud to people when I first checked out the book. The many, many stories in here, by stellar children’s authors, are really short enough to be read in half a minute. It was perfect for reading at traffic lights, and would also be perfect for reading to a class of schoolchildren to get them interested in the library.

I have to admit, most of these stories would have scared me too much when I was a little girl with an overactive imagination. Now, they make me laugh with their delightful creepiness. Especially the first story, by Lemony Snicket, about the quiet man who watches you every time you sleep.

Since they are so short, the stories tend to be the sort of thing you’d find in The Twilight Zone, but they all tend toward the scary side, especially if you think about them too long!

Now, this isn’t for all kids. Not the ones like I was who scare easily. If I do ever get a chance to read some of these stories to a class of schoolchildren, I will have to be a little careful which ones I choose.

However, I know from working in public libraries that there are lots of kids who love scary stories and want more of them. This book is absolutely perfect for those kids. And if any such child is a reluctant reader, this book is exactly what’s needed to draw them in. The stories are so short, you can always read just one more.

A fun volume of scares in small doses.

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Review of Lips Touch: Three Times, by Laini Taylor

lips_touchLips Touch

Three Times

by Laini Taylor

with illustrations by Jim Di Bartolo

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2009. 265 pages.
National Book Award Finalist, 2009.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #8 Fantasy Teen Fiction

Laini Taylor is an amazing writer. Her imagination is extraordinary, as she here takes off from different mythologies to create three amazing worlds.

Lips Touch: Three Times is a collection of three stories, all of which involve a kiss in some way. All also involve something fantastic and haunting. Before each story is a sequence of pictures by Jim Di Bartolo showing something that happened before the story began.

The first story, “Goblin Fruit,” is about wanting. The beginning gives you a clue how entrancing these stories are:

“There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.


“The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.

“Like Kizzy.”

The second story, “Spicy Little Curses Such as These,” takes us into the depths of Hell, where an Englishwoman barters for lives. She’s allowed to save all the children in a village if she will curse a newborn little girl. The girl will have the most beautiful voice ever to slip from human lips, but anyone who hears it will immediately fall down dead.

Anamique gets along, not challenging the curse, until she falls in love. The consequences of her love and her first kiss are surprising, perhaps not what the demon expected.

The third story, “Hatchling,” also draws you in with the first paragraph:

“Six days before Esme’s fourteenth birthday, her left eye turned from brown to blue. It happened in the night. She went to sleep with brown eyes, and when she woke at dawn to the howling of wolves, her left eye was blue. She had just slipped out of bed when she noticed it. She was headed to the window to look for the wolves — wolves in London, of all impossible things! But she didn’t make it to the window. Her eye flashed at her in the mirror, pale as the wink of a ghost, and she forgot all about the wolves and just stared at herself.”

This story develops an intricate mythology, telling of the soulless Druj, who can take the shapes of animals or humans, but always have pale blue eyes. They like to inhabit humans, and Esme’s mother has a history with them, a history about which Esme is going to learn much more.

In this book, you’ll be drawn into three worlds, left thinking about them long after.

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Review of Fire, by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson


Tales of Elemental Spirits

by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009. 297 pages.
Starred Review

I found it amusing that the two books I was most eager to read as soon as I finished the assigned reading for my Newbery class were both titled Fire. I confess that even though Robin McKinley is one of my very favorite authors, I read Kristin Cashore’s Fire first, because I generally find complete novels more compelling than short stories.

This collection of five tales, with two by Robin McKinley and three by her husband Peter Dickinson, is truly wonderful. The theme is fire, and we have tales of a phoenix, a hellhound, a fireworm, a salamander, and, of course, a dragon.

I think my favorite was Robin McKinley’s story about a girl with a compassion for animals who takes on a scrawny dog even though he his eyes are rimmed with fire. Her compassion is rewarded when the uncanny dog takes on the hosts of hell for her.

None of the stories is weak. In “Phoenix,” by Peter Dickinson, Ellie learns what happens to someone who befriends a phoenix. In “First Flight,” Robin McKinley quickly develops a world where dragons fly through Firespace with their third eye. A boy and his humble Foogit help their brother’s dragon, who has been injured and has only two eyes.

Of course, my only complaint is that I’d enjoy spending more time in each of these worlds and with all of these characters. Each story contains the seed for a delightful book.

For a quick jaunt into five magical worlds, Fire delivers five memorable experiences. Definitely up to the standards of these two outstanding writers.

“I think that it’s the glitter of dragon eyes that’s the origin of all those stories about the beds of jewels that wild dragons are supposed to have made for themselves back in the days when dragons were wild, and used to eat children when they couldn’t find any sheep. Where all those jewels are supposed to have come from was always beyond me; even if you put all the kings and emperors and enchanters (good and evil) together and stripped them of everything they had, I still don’t think you’d get more than about one jewel-bed for one medium-large dragon out of it. But you see the glitter of the eyes and you do think of jewels. Nothing else comes close — not fire, not stars, not anything. Of course I, and most of the other listeners to fairy tales, have never seen more than the mayor’s beryl or topaz or whatever the local badge of office is, but we can all dream. When you see a dragon’s eyes up close — if you’re lucky enough to see a dragon’s eyes up close — you don’t have to dream.”

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Review of Firebirds Soaring, edited by Sharyn November

firebirds_soaringFirebirds Soaring

An Anthology of Original Speculative Fiction

edited by Sharyn November

Firebird (Penguin), 2009. 568 pages.

Here’s another outstanding collection of stories by authors who are associated with the Firebird imprint. Looking at my review of the first anthology Sharyn November edited, Firebirds, I’m reminded that it was the collection that introduced me to Sherwood Smith’s writing, including Crown Duel, one of my all-time favorite books. I found that amusing, since my reaction to finishing Firebirds Soaring was to go on a Sherwood Smith spree, beginning with rereading Crown Duel and then several other Sherwood Smith books I have bought since then, but didn’t get read because they were not library books and didn’t have a due date. (There’s a similar problem with the second Firebirds anthology, Firebirds Rising. I liked Firebirds so much, I bought my own copy of Firebirds Rising as soon as it came out — and then didn’t get it read because it didn’t have a due date. I plan to remedy that soon!)

Yes, Firebirds Soaring had another Sherwood Smith story, which was what got me started on my Sherwood Smith spree. Another story I liked was the first story, “Kingmaker,” by Nancy Springer, about a girl who can tell when someone is lying and the fate of a kingdom. I’m afraid I especially liked it when I read the Author’s Note after the story:

“The story developed from a fortunate fusion of a daydream I’d been having ever since my divorce — a fantasy about magically knowing whether people are telling the truth or lying; gee, I wonder where that came from — and my long-time interest in legend and mythology, particularly Celtic.”

I hasten to add that the story resonates far beyond that germ of an idea.

Another story I enjoyed was the science fiction offering “Flatland,” by Kara Dalkey, where a young professional lives in a high-tech “cubio” owned by the corporation. Another favorite was “Egg Magic,” by Louise Marley, with magic showing up in the eggs of the grumpy chicken left to a girl by her mysterious mother. I liked the every-day-ness of that story, with the magic mixed in. Nina Kiriki Hoffman had a novella in the middle of the book, “The Ghosts of Strangers,” which was particularly good, with dragons and a girl who can see and talk with ghosts.

Elizabeth Wein’s story, “Something Worth Doing,” isn’t even fantasy (as her novels aren’t), but is a wonderful story about a girl taking her brother’s place and training as a pilot during World War II. Another one I particularly liked was “Three Twilight Tales,” by Jo Walton.

A few of the stories were on the dark side for my taste, but mostly I found this anthology a treat to dip into and enjoy. It’s also a great way to find new authors I’m sure to like. I will definitely have to look for more of these writers’ books.

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