A Reader Rescues a Bully’s Love

GibbsAuthor, B. S. Gibbs, summarizes this as a “chapter book for kids … illustrated with a dozen intricate, beautiful drawings.” True. The attorney/storyteller inspired by Jane Austen, light fantasy, “and all things medieval,” goes on to tout Janetta and the Book Thief  as a trove of positive pleas for reading, kindness, inclusiveness, and anti-bullying. Those things are apparent. What is not immediately evident, yet makes the 47-page story stand out, is its elegant plot, straightforward prose, and ability to be a great discussion-starter.

The story is largely uncomplicated. That makes the read ideal for third- to fifth-graders whose energy levels almost forbid them to focus on anything that moves slowly. Gibbs’ mystery tale about someone who takes the last chapters of books is easy to follow and grasp, which is the book’s strength and weakness.

Janetta, the main character, chases down the who and why behind the thefts, which first struck me as a weird story element. What is the value of the last chapter of a book?

I then looked at the work from some other angles. I considered what life might be if the last chapter of every story disappeared. The incompleteness hit me. I was able to connect with Janetta’s motivation. The character says, “I can’t imagine my life without reading!”

To that extent, Gibbs’ heroine might interest a reader, yet comes off as too perfect (apologies, but that is the only word that comes to mind) to square with reality. An average 8- to 12-year-old is not obsessed with reading, despite most parents’ wishes.

The fairies who invite Janetta to Eloria, the book-fairy land, Queen Esmeralda and the villain, Sir Grumpsalot, do not have enough edge to compete with the kinds of characters contemporary grade-schoolers find in other books and on television. Gibbs’ chapter book reminded me of plots and characters I have read in works from some Latin American writers. That is the book’s major shortfall.

A minor one is a slip in the digital layout. In the Kindle version I perused, several of artist Anca Gabriela Marginean’s illustrations slid into the lines above them. Sentences were obscured, which distracts the reader. The saving grace is that the story is pretty easy to grasp, so the gaffs do not cause a person to get lost.

Those elements aside, teachers and parents will find that the message about the effects of bullying in Janetta and the Book Thief  and the power of one kind act to change a person’s life overtakes most of the work’s weakness.

Janetta tells her fairy friend Violetta that Sir Grumpsalot, “rejects all of you so that you cannot reject him.” That defensive stance is at the heart of many rubs and scrapes, even in adult life. The line is a great place to launch a discussion with young people on a bully’s motivation, or offer them insight as to why they indulge in brusque acts.

Fear is powerful, as the story makes clear. “I believe he also tells himself that he doesn’t like any of you. But, I believe he desperately wants to be friends. He just doesn’t know how and he is scared to try.”

I won’t give away the end. Gibbs’ story is a saga about loves. Janetta loves books. Book fairies love to inspire writers. Grumpsalot loves to be mysterious. As those elements collide the reader comes to a happy conclusion. The path is worth a glance. Violetta and the other fairies learn that no one is beyond redemption. For youth today, that is a most important lesson.

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A Sip and aTrip Takes You into a Dream

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Travel Memoir

Many Americans have made their peace with the “gotta get ahead” pace of daily life. In fact, often urbanites and sophisticates in the United States wear the burden of their busyness or over commitment as a gold star. Yet, some dream about how life might be in a smaller place with a slower pace. The biggest dreamers imagine themselves abroad – Italy, France, Africa, or China. The speculation touches the part of the soul that whispers, “What is more?”

There is something innately romantic about the idea of going to Provence, a storied region in the southern France that makes most people sigh who yearn for wine, cheese and conviviality, combined with beautiful vistas, and a slower pace of life. Keith Van Sickle’s One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence responds to the hunger like a four course dinner. I had the same positive reaction to Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, and more ever more to former fashion editor Karen Wheeler’s Tout Sweet series.

The author, a tech consultant who made his bones in Silicon Valley, gets a taste of life outside the “run, run” daily pace in the United States during a work assignment in Europe. Van Sickle and wife Val went to Neuchatel in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. “We lived in a village so small that the streets did not have names and the cows outnumbered the people,” he offers. That is a sample of the wit, clarity, insight and personality in the prose that makes the work an even more attractive read.

One of the interesting dimensions of the work is the author’s spirit. He does not glamourize life in Provence, but rather lays out the ups and downs of the adventure in breezy snippets. Most of the chapters are short yet filled with insight. Readers will enjoy the challenge as he and  Val struggle to learn a new language, and find ways to let go of common U.S. practices. For example:

We were in St.-Remy and stopped at one of our favorite restaurants for lunch. I went to the restroom, a one-room affair used by both men and women, and had to wait in line behind four ladies.

When I finally made it to the restroom I was surprised to find the toilet seat up. Even after four ladies! I told Val about this and she said it was common, that even when there was a separate ladies room, women would often leave the seat up after they were done. Apparently it’s a French custom.

Readers will be quickly impressed by the way Van Sickle gives wings to words. His sentences tend to be tight, which allows him to pack a lot of detail, meaning and humor into a small space. Rather than a “and the next day” narrative, the 192-page book is more about “and then there was the time,” which helps to quickly carry the reader through the story. For example, I loved a tale he told from his first days in France in a three-paragraph chapter:

Soon after we arrived, we went for a hike around the Etang de Berre, a bay so large that it’s almost an inland sea. We sat on a bench to eat our lunch and a poodle came up to me, looking for a handout.

I had finished my sandwich and was eating an apple. I figured that since Lucca liked apples this poodle would too, so I tossed him a piece.

Obviously, I had not counted on the refined palates of French dogs. He sniffed the apple and gave me a withering look. Then he turned his back, heisted his leg over the apple, and trotted away.

Van Sickle rolls out the adventure of his adjustment to Provence with a similar candor, which in the end develops a voice that bids the reader to relate to the author more as a friend than an adventurer. Most readers will read the last word in the book and wish they could hear one more tale. One Sip at a Time ends, yet the author offers Francophones, dreamers, travel-lovers, as well as those who might want to try a similar adventure, a chance to continue the relationship through a blog where he share insights into France and the adventure that is life.

One Sip at a Time reminds readers of when travel memoirs were a major entertainment source, and the urge to travel was more tightly tied to discovery. The reader gains insight into how one struggles to fit into another culture. At the same time, Keith and Val show readers that an effort can capture a dream. Readers who might want to move to the French countryside can make it, One Sip at a Time.

Find More than You Think in Fink

A one-eyed, brown cat. and rhyme so tight a reader is roped into fanciful beliefs, or memories of a past when life and fear seemed huge, simple and quick. I  am sorry regret it took me so long to discover Rick Felty’s writing. The three-book, early reader series about TabCat_Ninjaitha Fink yielded a book each year since 2015. I am overjoyed, now to be caught up. The stories filled me with admiration as a children’s author, and as a reader let me see the world again like a wide-eyed kid. The most recent work, Tabitha Fink: Ninja at Night, proves that a story told well in rhyme can bring a smile and even anticipation to adults. Readers will see the author’s progress through the narratives.

His first book, Tabitha Fink The Cat With One Eye, is less clever in its prose and scenario. In the dedication of his third book, Felty talks about his stories as a “journey of discovery.” That is the most apt description of the way the word play appears in the 45-page work.  

“I am Tabitha Fink, somewhat hard to ignore,” he writes. “with only one eye where some others have more. I’ve still got one tail and four paws on the floor. I am still Tabitha Fink as I have mentioned before.”

The 39-page second book, Tabitha Fink on a Mission to Mars, spins a taleCat_Mars that is more playful. “I am Tabitha Fink on a mission to Mars,” the book says, “where they don’t fly blue planes, and they don’t drive red cars. But I know they do something to travel about so I’m going to Mars , to figure it out.” The adventurous makes the trip in a “cat rocket ship.” She discovers a Martian family and says, “And it turns out they do things like all of us do, with a few minor changes. I
will show them to you.”

I imagined youngsters’ fascinations with those simple unadorned sentences. The words have a blunt feel that hit the mind with a clarity that offers a moment-to-moment I get it! There is a completeness in the main character’s description that ushers listeners and readers into familiarity with the feelings and a desire to almost reach out and pet the furry hero.

Felty, who is an Emmy-winning television producer, writes prose so lyrical that the smooth word play pulls a reader into the tale. At some points wildly alliterative in the Cat_Eyeways of a Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, Tabitha Fink The Ninja at Night has a conflict that appears so trivial. Tabitha’s mouse playmate Bartholomew Blink is stalked by a slew of night terrors – a big furry monster, an evil witch, a dragon, some blue bears, and a smelly troll.  Yes, the problem is simple, but Tabitha’s struggle tugs at the memory. The unique character modeled after his family pet is pushed into the eerie situations that seemed a big deal when I was a kid. I began to recall what it felt like to face fear of the dark. – in the lack of light, and Felty’s cyclops hero confronts her friend’s fright as a ninja with a flashlight.

Tabitha Fink books are the kind of imaginative and fanciful explorations that children scream for at bedtime or story time in school. Felty’s clever use of language and plot sets a pleasant diversion for adults, too. Before I was aware, page after page flipped as I rushed to see the ninja’s deeds. At the last of 68 pages, like Bartholomew the mouse, I was satisfied by the charming conclusion of the darkness dilemma. As many readers, I was only disappointed that I might have to wait another year for more.

 

Legend of Galactic Heroes is a Trek Beyond the Familiar

Now, for a little something different – an audio excerpt. As a picture is worth a thousand words, at times a brief reading of a narrative is even more valuable. That is why audiobooks are on the rise.

Yoshiki Tanaka’s Legend of the Galactic Heroes, narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds displays the science babble of Star Trek with the pacing and detail of an Orson Scott Card. Fans of science fiction and those who love a great use of language and imagery will be riveted by the combination.

New Comic Book Highlights the Vital Role of a Single Parent

There is nothing handier than to be able to catch a trend on the fly. The recent emergence of Marvel and DC comics characters as hits in graphic novels, television and the big screen was not lost on collaborators Jason Piperberg and Dennis Liu when they gave life to Raising Dion, a new independent comic book. The superhero’s origin reminded me of a cross between Superman and Green Lantern. The twist is that the super child and his guardian are black.

Liu, who writes the story, told Fusion.net that the concept came from life experience and a broad knowledge of super sagas. The first key for me was the element of seclusion which is often evident before classic superheros place themselves on the scene. The story lines tend to take a nobody and turn him or her into a somebody who wants to hide from the public. Raising Dion is not exactly like that. For example, Superman, who creators Jerome Seigel and Joseph Schuster have  baby Kalel arrive from the doomed planet Krypton in a hardworking, hard scrabble Midwestern town ten minutes from nowhere called Smallville. It is hard to begin in a more obscure fashion. Yet, as those who read Raising Dion #1, will see, the creators found a way. No spoilers here,

Raising Dion #1 front cover

Dion starts out in a cabin in the woods of Hamilton, New York with his mom Nicole, whom Liu describes as, “equal parts Martha Kent and Alfred Pennyworth.” The hero is important, yet she is a character to watch. “Parents install a value system, the author insisted to Fusion. That small thought won my heart and pushed me to look beyond the hype about African American characters and the lack of diversity in U.S. comics to see what he and Piperbrg did with the role of the single parent.

I admit, at first take, I found the idea a little cliche, worse stereotypical. Gee, a black child with a single mother. It’s not like readers have ever heard that before. Then, I read the e-book. Never judge a story by reportage.

Liu samples those iconic caregivers to shape her character, and taps into his own experience as uncle to five nieces with single mothers. “If these key parental figures did not raise these superheroes correctly,” he told Fusion, “then who knows what Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne would have become?” More than that the setting and overall plot that shows promise to grapple with hot topics such as the environment, science for profit, child-rearing, and racism yields a tale as au courant as selfies. 
I would like to have seen Dion with a more traditional family – mother, father and child – yet that is not here…exactly. As I, after you read the 22-page first issue, you might be cool with that. The final call is to see how the series develops.

I heartily endorse the debut manuscript I read, yet plan to watch before I hang five starts on the work. That said, Liu is an insightful and sensitive storyteller whom I am pleased to discover. Anyone that makes people more mindful of the monumental sacrifices, struggles and responsibilities shouldered by most single moms (and dads) deserves the eyes of as wide a readership (13 to 99) as possible. I often ask myself, but for someone who steps up to parent, what might have happened to the last two generations of  American youth?

 Liu captures the flavor of the story in a statement by Nicole in a trailer that advertised the book, “The most important thing about raising a superhero is learning to become one first.” Sound advice to all adults,

I won’t say a lot more about the story in the first issue, except that those who have read classic Superman will note many parallels in Dion’s emergence.The only difference is the burden of being different, which for the hero of Liu and Piperberg’s saga means to have powers beyond those of most people on the planet and being black in America. The author told Fusion that he deals with the issue of what he describes as The Talk most African American parents are forced to have with their children head on. The accuracy of his assessment is left to the reader. Otherwise, in the 22-page readers will find mostly back story and great potential. Like Superman, Dion’s deepest struggle is to learn that who he is in much more than what he can do. 

Interested readers can order a print copy for $4. Those who want to take advantage of the sample to make up their minds can check out the free first issue in e-book from Liu’s personal website. As an option, explore that book and others on  IndyPlanet.com, an amazing Orlando-based resource for fresh new voices in the medium. NOTE: The IndyPlanet site was crashed on Sunday, when I checked on the availability. I don’t know why. There is a notice that says the trouble is under repair. Check them later in the week.