Book review: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

Pullman, Philip. La Belle Sauvage. (The Book of Dust, volume 1). Knopf, 2017. $22.99. 449p. ISBN 978-0-375-81530-0. Ages 11-15. P7Q10

The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights), the first book in Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials is 22 years old, and the author is celebrating it with a companion “equel,” a trilogy that begins with Compass protagonist Lyra Belacqua as an infant hidden in a priory in the country. Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, an innkeeper’s son, takes on the responsibility of protecting Lyra while he learns about a secret Church society from Hannah Relf, a spy who is training herself to read the alethiometer, a method of communicating with Dust. The plot builds when Malcolm takes the baby away from her would-be evil capturers with the help of sour teenage kitchen worker, Alice. The book is replete with villains—disgraced theologian Gerard Bonneville, the children who follow a Church cult, the Consistorial Court of Discipline, and the children’s protective society. Much of the book is consumed with the children’s escape in Malcolm’s canoe, La Belle Sauvage, which was refurbished by Lyra’s father after Malcolm helped him escape early in the book. Joy, humor, and help for the humans come from their daemons, animal-like creatures that represent the subjects’ souls and cannot be separated from their humans while they are alive.

Verdict: As in his other books, the writing and the characters shine, and the world-building is fascinating. Woven into the plot are non-didactic discussions of physics and religion. The striving for free speech and thought against a totalitarian theocracy ring true in a way that readers can identify with the philosophical concepts. The next book in La Belle Sauvage, The Secret Commonwealth, begins ten years after The Golden Compass, making La Belle Sauvage a “surround” for His Dark Materials. The Book of Dust is highly recommended.

December 2017 review by Nel Ward

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Book review: The Golden Compass: the Graphic Novel, by Philip Pullman, adapted by Stephaine Melchior, translated by Annie Eaton

Pullman, Philip. Adapt. By Stephanie Melchior-Durand. Trans. By Annie Eaton. Art by Clément Oubrerie. The Golden Compass: the Graphic Novel. (His Dark Materials). Knopf, 2017. $21.99. 224p. ISBN 978-0-553-53516-7. Ages 11-14. P8Q9

Lyra Belacqua leaves the safety of her life among the scholars of Jordan College at Oxford to solve the mysteries of children stolen by the Gobblers and separated from their daemons in an adventure that leads her to the far North to rescue her father. Many pieces of the plot will entice young readers—the alethiometer that can portray the future, the animal daemons that all people have, and most of all the classic hero journey to save the world. Originally published in France in three parts, this edition combines all three in one volume.

Verdict: While staying true to the Pullman’s original novel, published in 1995, the artwork expands the understanding, for example the variety of positions that the witch assumes while flying through the night sky of the North. The darkness of much of the artwork clearly depicts the danger surrounding the characters, and the visuals of the huge and jagged northern landscape are superbly colored.

December 2017 review by Nel Ward

Book review: This Is Our Constitution: Discover America with a Gold Star Father, by Khizr Khan

Khan, Khizr. This Is Our Constitution: Discover America with a Gold Star Father. Knopf, 2017. $16.99. 224p. ISBN 978-1-5247-7091-4. Ages 11-15. P4Q9

Over a year ago, the father in a Gold Star family went on national television during the Democratic convention to talk about his son who died in Iraq. Since then the Pakistani immigrant, a lawyer, has talked about his love for the U.S. Constitution. He now has written a book for youth explaining the document that means so much to him. Never patronizing but always clear with explanations of difficult terms from the 18th century language, the book clarifies the freedoms that people have because of the rational approach to justice and liberty. Showing the need to change the original context, Khan explains the shameful reason behind classifying blacks at three-fifths of a white person in establishing the number of people in the United States until an amendment changed this guideline after the Civil War. The book begins with the five freedoms—speech, religion, press, petitioning, and assembly—with comparisons to the restrictions in Pakistan as Khan grew up there. As Khan wrote, “Your freedoms aren’t meant to be used as weapons.” The book includes the complete text of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as well as brief summaries of 13 landmark Supreme Court cases that gave people more liberty.

Verdict: This book should be required reading for everyone, both young people and adults, to explain the contents of a largely misunderstood basis for rights in the United States.

November 2017 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo: The Road to Epoli, by Ben Costa and James Parks

Costa, Ben & James Parks. Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo: The Road to Epoli. Knopf, 2017. $18.99. $14.99.  ISBN 978-0-399-55613-5. Ages 12-15. P9Q9

A skeleton bawdy bard is evicted from a dungeon and joins a blob that looks like a small shopping bag on a quest to Epoli in search of his human life seen in vague glimpses through his dreams, visualized in stark black and white mixed with full-color panels of the adventures. The creatures such as trolls, gnomes, and imps vary between assistance or hindrance on Rickety’s journey as he ignores advice from his sidekick to find even more danger through a frightening castle and scary woods. The hanging finish leads the reader waiting for the second book in the planned trilogy.

Verdict: Funny and sometimes lewd, the book will delight younger teens.

Summer 2017 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing, by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Lucy Knisley

Robbins, Dean. Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing. Illus. by Lucy Knisley. Knopf, 2017. $17.99. unp. ISBN 978-0-399-55185-7. Ages 6-9. P7Q8

Millions of people know the name of Neil Armstrong, the first man who walked on the moon in 1969, but far fewer know the name of the women who made his walk possible. Without her software, the Apollo mission could not have landed. Robbins begins the picture book biography with her love of solving problems and follows her career in science after her father’s encouragement. In the 1950s and 1960s, she experimented with writing code to predict weather and track airplanes before she worked for NASA, developing the steps on flying to the moon. Cartoonish ink illustrations colored in Adobe Photoshop accompany the minimal text that explains a complicated process in a simple fashion. Particularly delightful are the signature huge glasses that Hamilton wears. End papers include black and white photographs of the subject, including the almost six-foot tall stack of her documents of code for the project.

Verdict: The illustrations are inviting, but the text is set in all caps in a font simulating hand printing, making it harder to read. Yet the humor and information in the book make it a must read for young people that fills in missing information about the space program a half century ago, especially in its encouragement for girls to pursue careers in science.

May/June 2017 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: The New Ocean: The Fate of Life in a Changing Sea, by Bryn Barnard

Barnard, Bryn. The New Ocean: The Fate of Life in a Changing Sea. Knopf, 2017. $18.99. unp. ISBN 978-0-375-87049-1. Ages 9-12. P6 Q9

Pollution, global warming, overfishing—these are all problems that are creating a “new ocean,” more similar to the simplicity of the past with the loss of many of its 230,000 species. Four pages about each of six different species—jellyfish, orcas, sea turtles, tuna, coral, and blue-green algae—detail their history, characteristics, and problems they face from the carelessness of humans. The two-page conclusion briefly describes five extinctions of the past with ways that young people can help reverse the tragedy.

Verdict: Although heavy in text, the narration sometimes uses generalities, for example with no specific information about the extinctions, that make the book more accessible to younger people. The full-page oil illustrations cross the fold for a more magnificent image, and the two double-page maps in the end papers show the areas of garbage and the ocean acidification during the past two decades. A thought-provoking wake-up call to the world of the future.

May/June 2017 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals, by Jordan Stratford, art by Kelly Murphy

Stratford, Jordan. The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals. (The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, No. 3) Ill. Kelly Murphy. Knopf, 2017. $16.99. 193p. ISBN 978-0-385-75448-4. Ages 9-12. P8Q8  

stratford-counterfeit-criminalsLord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s future wife, Mary, reappear in the third installment of this series, joined by another historical figure, dinosaur fossil hunter Mary Anning. Although the people are real, their ages have been changed and their activities purely fictional as the two self-appointed detectives set out to solve the mystery of Anning’s missing dog. They discover that Anning is being blackmailed, but their task is made more difficult by the unexpected appearance of Ada’s grandmother who demands that Ada stay in bed to get well. Very nice pieces from the early 19th-century setting such as Ada’s being subjected to bleeding by leeches and the restrictions on women’s activities at that time. The plot is fun with abounding wit, and the protagonists clever in their critical analysis of situations. The relationship between Ada and Mary grows as they develop even more trust in each other. A great mystery addition to juvenile literature.

January 2017 review by Nel Ward.