Book review: Nonsense!: The Curious Story of Edwin Gorey, by Lori Mortensen, illustrated by Chloe Bristol

Mortensen, Lori. Nonsense!: The Curious Story of Edwin Gorey. Il. Chloe Bristol. Versity/Houghton Mifflin, 2020. $17.99. unp. ISBN 978-0-358-03368-4. Ages 8-11. P8 Q8

For readers who like pretty picture books, Gorey is not popular. Publishers rejected his books in the mid-1950s, and he had to publish them himself—over 100 of them. His grim humor can make him an acquired taste; for example, his alphabet tale begins, “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.” Yet he had a good life, growing up in a normal family and, as an adult, working in Doubleday Publishing’s art department. His work is the precursor to such classics as Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas, and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Digitally painted pencil drawings on cream-colored paper introduce this author to young people looking for the eccentric and dark or silly—perhaps both at the same time—works.

Verdict: The Victorian feel of the tall illustrations, sometimes in panels, give the feel of Gorey’s work as Bristol occasionally mimics his approach, such as the snake hanging from a branch over a clueless Gory, leaning against the tree trunk and reading a book. A thoroughly enjoyable read about an unusual person.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents, by Kate Messner, illustrated by Adam Rex

Messner, Kate. The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents. Il. Adam Rex. Chronicle, 2020. $18.99 41p. ISBN 978-1-4521-7488-4. Ages 8-11. P10 Q10

So much has been written for young people about the presidents of the United States that a new perspective is hard to find. Yet Messner and Rex succeeded. They not only feature presidents’ lives before their elections—many with brief highlights of these men as children—but also select four dates throughout the history of the United States—1789, 1841, 1897, and 1961—to discuss the president at the time along with future presidents already alive. For example, when George Washington took the office, another nine presidents were waiting in the wings; the year that John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, all ten of his successors had been born. Humorous drawings, for example Bill Clinton puffing on a saxophone and George W. Bush dressed in his cheerleader outfit, illustrate each president in either verbal “snapshots” or boxed notes which pack a great deal of information into a few words. One startling change in style is the full-page gray drawing of a grim Andrew Jackson walking away from the duel where he killed the man accusing him of cheating on a horse bet. Another breakout from tradition biographies of presidents comes in the final pages asking the reader to consider who the next president might be and what they are doing right now in two pages of young boys and girls of different races involved in diverse activities.

Verdict: Mixed among the portraits and drawings of the men in the White House are multiracial and multiethnic tourists of diverse ages viewing the gallery. The lightness of both narration and digital illustrations make this a fast, enjoyable read that can also be useful in history and art instruction. This is one book about presidents that should be in all libraries.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Alice across America: The Story of the First Women’s Cross-Country Road Trip, by Sarah Glenn Marsh, illustrations by Gilbert Ford

Marsh, Sarah Glenn. Alice across America: The Story of the First Women’s Cross-Country Road Trip. Il. Gilbert Ford. Christy Ottaviano/Holt, 2020. $18.99. unp. ISBN 978-1-250-29702-0. Ages 6-9. P7 Q8

In 1909, an automobile company hired 22-year-old Alice Ramsay to drive from New Jersey to San Francisco as an advertising gimmick to prove that even a “lady” could do it. Ramsey took her 16-year-old friend and her two timid sisters-in-law along for the trip over almost entirely unpaved roads, many of which were unmapped. The driver changed flat tires, faced bed bugs, and found farmers to help them when the car got stuck in the mud. Along the way, more and more people gathered to jeer or cheer the intrepid women who achieved their goal after 59 days. An “Author’s Note” incorporated photographs of the journey into a brief bio of Ramsay’s trip. Another brief essay relates the ways that cars influenced travel in the United States.

Verdict: Ford’s illustrations of digital mixed media with ink and watercolor feature humorous caricatures of the women and others’ reactions to them and displays vividly colored backgrounds to their long drive. Don Brown’s Alice Ramsey’s Grand Adventure is a better book for the topic, but the two books provide contrasting perspectives and styles.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Finding Narnia: The Story of C.S. Lewis and His Brother, by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Jessica Lanan

McAlister, Caroline. Finding Narnia: The Story of C.S. Lewis and His Brother. Il. Jessica Lanan. Roaring Brook, 2019. $19.99. 39p. ISBN 978-1-62672-658-1. Ages 6-9. P8 Q9

Both as children and as adults, Jack and his brother, Warnie, although three years apart in age, were extremely close. The siblings were different—Jack recreating a medieval world in his drawings and dreams and the older Warnie focusing on technology and travel methods such as ships and trains. Together, however, they explored during their childhood in the early twentieth century, finding the wardrobe that became a focus of Jack’s Narnia series, a piece of furniture that joined them later when they shared another house through most of their adulthood. A peaceful childhood was interrupted by their mother’s death and their being sent to a cruel boarding school and their joining the military during the first world war.

Verdict: Lush watercolors matching the brothers’ dreams and approaches follow their experiences; Lanan chronicles her sources for most of these illustrations. McAlister provides interesting touches about their lives such as Warnie typing up Jack’s writings. The book stands alone if the reader has not experienced the Narnia series or provides an inviting companion for older children who have already read the seven books published in the 1950s.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: The Fabled Life of Aesop, by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Lendler, Ian. The Fabled Life of Aesop. Il. Pamela Zagarenski. Houghton Mifflin, 2020. $18.99. 64p. ISBN 978-1-328-58552-3. Ages 7-11. P9 Q10

Many people know the fables of Aesop, stories about animals that depict a moral, but far fewer know about his life—at least, the biography passed down 2,500 years since his birth as a slave. According to Lendler, Aesop was so intelligent that he communicated ideas that his owners might not like through these stories so that he stayed out of trouble with them. With his savvy, practical view on life, he even gained his freedom. An Afterward explains the way that fables became an art form from the oldest stories in Sumeria (contemporary Iraq) and attempts of historical scholars to determine the truth of Aesop’s life. Almost two-third of the book are versions of 13 fables such as “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and “The Goose and the Egg.”

Verdict: Vivid watercolors with mixed-media collage are even sometimes more superb than the flowing narrative of Aesop’s biography, and the clarity and brevity of the stories make them suitable for short readings. A fantastic addition to a library or a gift for a young person.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Lost Cities, by Giles Laroche

Laroche, Giles. Lost Cities. Houghton Mifflin, 2020. $17.99. unp. ISBN 978-1-328-75364-9. Ages 7-10. P8 Q9

Two-page spreads, each with illustrations across the page breaks, highlight 13 settlements, most of them cities with a brief explanation of their locations, inhabitants, reasons for their disappearances, discoveries of their existence, and mysterious facts. Another two-page spread gives the timeline when the mysterious place was created and a map of the world showing the 13 locations. Only one location, Jamestown, is not indigenous; it was the first permanent English settlement in North America, built in 1607. Another, Easter Island, concentrated on the massive stone figures mysteriously created.

Verdict: The organization of the book seems somewhat chaotic; a table of contents would have been useful. The flyleaf promises “ancient cities,” which doesn’t fit either Jamestown or Easter Island. On the other hand, the illustrations are magnificent. In six panels at the end of the book, Laroche explains how he made each illustration with cutting, painting, and gluing up to eight layers of paper to create shadows for a dimensional quality and photographed with special lighting effects. These cut-outs, from the tiny blue cat to the large stone figures, moai, on Easter Island are placed against painted backgrounds.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Women Artists A to Z, by Melanie LaBarge, illustrated by Caroline Corrigan

LaBarge, Melanie. Women Artists A to Z. Il. Caroline Corrigan. Dial, 2020. $19.99. unp. ISBN 978-0-593-10872-7. Ages 6-11. P7 Q8

Use of the alphabet highlights racially and culturally diverse women artists, primarily from the past century, along with the variety of media, techniques, subject matter, and themes used by each artist. For example, Maya Lin is the subject of “N Is for Nature,” and Maria Martinez’s clay pieces are the subject of “P Is for Pottery.” All the letters are about subjects except for “Q Is for Quilt,” featuring the Gees Bend Collective. Each double-spread uses the same format with large font for the alphabet statement, a brief paragraph about the artist, and a depiction of the artist’s work. The short biographical sketches at the end of the book give additional information.

Verdict: Because all the artwork in the book comes from bold blocky digital images, the reader has no feeling of the actual product of different artists, and the some of the subjects’ accomplishments are omitted in a superficial description, for example, Maya Lin’s design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when she was only 21. Yet the book introduces some lesser known female artists to younger readers.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.