Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl

This randomly appeared in my mailbox, and it was a perfectly lovely revisiting of some iconic features of one of my all-time favorite authors. We’re missing one familiar element, which is childhood–instead we root for the clever Mr. Fox, his loving wife Mrs. Fox, and four Small Foxes. Our antagonists are appropriately comical and ridiculous: Farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, whose farms respectively produce chickens, ducks and geese, and turkeys and apples. (Bean, the turkey-and-apple farmer, exists entirely on very strong cider.) The wealthy ruling class has too much but still begrudges Mr. Fox the odd poultry to feed his family. Mr. Fox’s wit is generally enough to keep him out of trouble, until the mean farmers band together and trap his family in their den under siege; then our hero will have to turn twice as crafty to save the day, not only for the Fox family but for the other digging critters of the neighborhood (the families Badger, Mole, Rabbit, and Weasel). There is tension and suspense and a final joyous comeuppance for the bad guys. There is a moral lesson: when Badger worries about stealing, Mr. Fox retorts, “My dear old furry frump… do you know anyone in the whole world who wouldn’t swipe a few chickens if his children were starving to death?” Who, indeed? There are also illustrations by Quentin Blake, whose visions of Dahl’s work have always defined my experience of this author, so that’s perfect.

Thanks, Pops. You were right. This was a treat.


Rating: 8 carrots.

rerun/reread: Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros, illus. by Ester Hernández

I’ll call this one in part a rerun post, since it started that way. But I did reread the book as well, and in a different format. We’ll start with the original review, which ran in 2014.

What a lovely, lovely book. Fans of Sandra Cisneros, don’t be put off by the sometimes-classification of this short fable as a children’s book. Cisneros says in an afterword that she certainly never thought of it that way; she intended it for adults, and I can confirm that it works that way, very well.

This is a short, dreamy, poetic tale of a woman, the narrator, who has just lost her mother; a visiting friend (“I was the only person Rosalind knew in all of Texas”) has lost her cat, Marie. Together, the two women go walking the streets of San Antonio, distributing fliers and asking folks the title question: Have you seen Marie?

The voice and rhythms and lyrical style that I remember from The House on Mango Street are vibrantly present here. The women ask dogs, cats and squirrels as well as people about the missing Marie, and their reactions are noted, and charmingly represented as being every bit as important as the people’s. On the surface, this is the story of searching for Marie; but it is also the story of Cisneros losing her beloved mother, feeling like an orphan in her own middle age, and gradually coming to understand that “love does not die.”

As I mentioned, Cisneros is careful to point out that this was not meant to be a story for children, but rather one for adults, with the idea of helping others like herself deal with experiences like hers: losing a parent, or a loved one. I am very (very) glad and relieved that I don’t seem to facing this experience now, or soon; but I imagine that this book would indeed help. I appreciate its soothing musical tone and gently loving, inspired advice and creative understanding of death, what it means, the grieving process. It is a tender tale. Cisneros is inventive and calming and this is a beautiful, moving story about family and friendship. I highly recommend it, for anyone.

This audio version is read by the author, and so beautifully; I love her lilt; it’s perfect. I want to very much recommend this version (in both English and Spanish in one edition – one cd of each). But then, the print copy is illustrated by Ester Hernández, and Cisneros is clearly very pleased with that aspect. Hearing her speak about their collaborative efforts on the illustrations (Hernandez came to visit & tour Cisneros’s San Antonio; she calls it documentary-style) made me regret missing the print. So there you are. Both, perhaps?? I think I will go out and get myself a copy of the book, too.


Rating: 10 trees along the San Antonio River.

I did indeed buy the print book, and what I had in mind, in part, was to have it on hand when a friend needed it. That’s taken some years, but I turned to it just recently here with a friend in mind who’d lost a parent, and whose children had therefore lost a grandparent. I picked it up to check it for age-appropriateness for those kids. My conclusion is that it is “safe” for young kids – nothing harrowing about the grief, in fact only gentle reminders that the narrator (the Cisneros character) has lost her mom. It behaves like a children’s picture book: the illustrations are as lovely as I’d imagined, and it relies on refrains and simple language. My only hesitation for kids would be that it’s longer than a typical bedtime story. I did pass it on to my friend with that caution. Maybe it takes a couple of nights to read; maybe it’s for the elder child and not the younger. I also hope my friend will try it on his own first, if only for his own, personal benefit.

It’s also true that I’ve lost somebody close to me recently, too, and I was touched and moved all over again by Cisneros’s small, apparently simple book. Especially the author’s note caught me this time, because it offers a way of thinking about grief that I find charming and, I think, useful. I was also pleased by the cultural flavor of Cisneros’s San Antonio neighborhood. I love that taste of home. And since my original review, I’ve lived near San Antonio, and become a little familiar with its neighborhoods. This was an added bonus. There are a few Spanish-language words sprinkled in, but even with no knowledge of the language, I think any reader will be fine to follow along using context clues.

I am still recommending this book highly, for adults, and with some caution for children as well. I’m sticking with my original rating, and I’m glad I got such a timely chance to revisit.

The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers: And Other Gruesome Tales by Jen Campbell, illus. by Adam de Souza

This delightful book, I’m pretty sure, came from another Shelf review. Jen Campbell teases her reader, in a brief foreword, with a playfully sinister tone; she notes that “brilliant, horrible tales” once “known far and wide” have somehow been replaced with “‘happily ever afters’ where nothing really awful happened and, well, a lot of them became boring.” She wants to restore the gruesome; thus this book, which offers fourteen tales from around the world (each presented with its country of origin), adapted and tweaked by Campbell. They are indeed deliciously gruesome, and complemented by Adam de Souza’s illustrations, which nod to each story’s cultural origin. I really liked this intersection of fairy tales, traditional storytelling, modern twists, and horror. Campbell’s afterword neatly bookends the collection with a cozier tone, now that we’ve gotten to know each other and all.

The title story is Korean, and straight horrifying. “The House That Was Filled With Ghosts” (Japan) I enjoyed for its victorious ending (bit of a ‘happily ever after’ here, Campbell!). “The Adults Who Lost Their Organs” (Germany) reminds me of a story I knew as a child but cannot name now… “The Man Who Hunted Children” (South Africa) is I think the “Hansel and Gretel” reference. “The Wife Who Could Remove Her Head” (El Salvador) had a refreshing outcome for the rebellious wife; likewise a bit of justice in India’s “The Son of Seven Mothers.” But my absolute favorite was definitely the final story, from Spain: “The Woman and the Glass Mountain.” There are book lovers, adventures, a wedding in a library, triumphant women, and queer love. I am smitten with this story and this whole book, and will put it in the growing pile of fairy tales & folktales that are somewhat simultaneously creepy and weirdly comforting. What a treat. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys tracking storytelling in human history and across cultures, or fairy tales and their origins, or spookiness in general. Good times.


Rating: 8 fingers.

The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales told by Virginia Hamilton, illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon

I got this title from Well-Read Black Girl, although the cover was familiar enough that I wonder if I had it as a child at some point. (I definitely recognized some of the characters, like Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, if not these particular stories.) In a larger format, with a number of rich, grayscale illustrations, it offers a selection of folktales passed down as oral tradition from the Americas’ earliest Black residents: enslaved Africans and their descendants. Virginia Hamilton has done good work in compiling these stories, of course, but an equally important contribution is her brief notes about what each one represents and where it falls in the larger scheme of storytelling traditions in time and geography. (I really appreciated the occasional personal note, too.) She notes the families each story falls into and her choice to use more or less dialect, and the global traditions that contribute to each.

These stories appear in sections, headed by a title story and then grouped by type: animal stories, tales of the supernatural, tales of the real, extravagant, and fanciful, and slave stories of freedom. This last section finishes with the title story, “The People Could Fly,” and I think it’s the right note to end on. The illustrations really did add something – just look at that cover, where I find the facial expressions evocative; I feel like it conveys the movement and inspiration of the title story.

I love the animal stories, which perhaps felt most familiar – not only do I know Brer Rabbit, as mentioned, but these recall Aesop’s fables and many other storytelling traditions. I do love a tall tale, like “Papa John’s Tall Tale.” And I was pleased by the “grisly realism” of “The Two Johns” – just as a matter of personal taste, I suppose. There’s a general sense of rural settings close to nature, that I think comes of the enslaved experience (as Hamilton notes about the animal tales in particular); there’s a feeling common to all folktales and traditional storytelling, of trying to explain the world through stories. There’s something comforting about that effort, even when the resulting explanation is discomfiting.

I enjoyed the stories, but I think what makes this book special is Hamilton’s work, in her footnotes, to put them in context. I especially enjoyed the geography, or the references to global patterns in storytelling – that the opening story, “He Lion, Bruh Bear, and Bruh Rabbit,” for example, “ranges throughout North and South America, Europe, and Africa.” It’s pretty wild to think about how stories can encompass so much of the world: that they are that important and elemental.

With its moving illustrations, excellent and concise footnoting, and its range of fine stories, I think this is an essential book for any home library – for children and adults. Glad I came across it.


Rating: 7 clever rabbits.

The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell, illustrated by Steven Tabbutt

A council of animals decides the post-Calamity fate of humans in this wise, witty, perfectly compelling tale of adventure and survival.

In the witty and compelling The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell (Twelve), humans are nearly extinct following an unspecified disaster (“The Calamity”) of their own making. The animals, also sorely suffering in a changed world, gather to debate and vote on the next steps: to allow the humans to live, or to kill and eat them all. This council includes a grizzled, arthritic bulldog; a not-so-bright horse; an underfed grizzly bear; a religious crow; an aloof and possibly turncoat cat; and a bully of a baboon. The belated seventh council member is the source of some trepidation and mystery. When the humans (who mostly remain offscreen) appear doomed, a motley alliance must form, swelling the ranks of animal characters to encompass a trio of moles, a giant lizard that thinks it’s a bat, a small but important scorpion and more. To save humanity, these intrepid creatures will travel and adventure together, learning interspecies trust and new animal facts, and finding hilarity and danger along the way.

This story contains both whimsy and life-or-death consequences, charmingly related with humor and sagacity by a narrator, “a humble historian (or animal contextographer),” who conceals their own identity until the very end. The details of this animal-centered world are endlessly entertaining, as reference is made to “the wallaby who taught Elvis how to sing. The lobsters who elevated Salvador Dalí’s conceptual practice. The raccoon who, quite disastrously, advised Calvin Coolidge.” Steven Tabbutt’s deceptively simple illustrations reinforce the storybook impression and advance character development, as when the bear classically addresses a human skull during an existential crisis. While frequently playful, this narrative is not all fun and games: the dog might have PTSD, the baboon has disturbingly dictatorial tendencies and the stakes couldn’t be higher. McDonell’s clever, lively prose and snappy pacing propels readers onward.

The Council of Animals has the feel of a fable, both a romp with sweetly goofy animal characters and a serious and clear-eyed story about the real world and its dangers. “It is the duty of the historian to face the hideous facts, and violence is one.” Ultimately, this is a tale about community and cooperation. Humans may have something to learn from the animals about communication and mutual responsibility: “Even bony zompompers at the bottom of the Marianas Trench like to chat with blue whales now and then.” Thought-provoking, captivating, funny, instructive: this is a book for readers who have ever yearned for a little extrahuman wisdom and cheer.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 crustacean colonial novels.

Honeycomb by Joanne M. Harris, illus. by Charles Vess

Fairy tales for grown-ups, allegories, visions and horrors: these gorgeously illustrated linked stories are guaranteed to transport.

With Honeycomb, the prolific Joanne M. Harris (Chocolat; Peaches for Father Francis), who has written fantasy, historical fiction, suspense, cookbooks and more, offers an enchanting collection of darkly delightful, imaginative fairy tales and parables of the modern world. (These stories began as a series on Twitter.) Illustrator Charles Vess (Stardust; Sandman) brings to life Harris’s Silken Folk, “weavers of glamours, spinners of tales… whom some call the Faërie, and some the First, and some the Keepers of Stories,” in richly detailed images.

In the world of Honeycomb, the Sightless Folk (regular humans) unwittingly often share space with the numerous and diverse Silken. “There are many doors between the worlds of the Faërie and the Folk. Some look like doors; or windows; or books. Some are in Dream; others, in Death.” These 100 stories form a whole that is magical, fanciful, enchanting and occasionally nightmarish. Some center on single-appearance characters, and some characters are revisited, but all belong to the same universe. “Dream is a river that runs through Nine Worlds, and Death is only one of them.” In special moments, “all Worlds were linked, like the cells of an intricate honeycomb, making a pattern that stretched beyond even Death; even Dream,” and the stories are likewise linked cells.

Some act as allegories, as in “The Wolves and the Dogs,” in which the Sheep elect a Wolf to protect them because at least he is honest. In “The Traveller,” the titular character passes quickly by many delights in pursuit of his destination, which turns out less impressive than he’d hoped. “Clockwork” is a horrifying tale in which a husband rebuilds his wife piece by piece. “The Bookworm Princess,” on the other hand, ends with deep satisfaction. There is the Clockwork Princess and the watchmaker’s boy; a girl who travels with a clockwork tiger; and a mistrustful puppeteer who manifests what he fears. A recurring farmyard is packed with colorful animal characters–a troublesome piglet, a petulant pullet–and allegory, Orwellian and otherwise. The connecting character is the Lacewing King, whom readers meet at his birth in “The Midwife” and follow for hundreds of years, as the fate of Worlds hangs in the balance. “There are many different ways to reach the River Dream. One is Sleep; one is Desire; but the greatest of all is Story….”

Completely engrossing, exquisitely inventive, brilliantly illustrated and thought-provoking, Honeycomb is a world, or Worlds, to get lost in. “Some of these tales have stings attached. But then, of course, that’s bees for you.”


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 candied cockroaches.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, adapted and illus. by Kristina Gehrmann

A little preface to say that I first read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as a young person – before high school, certainly – off my parents’ shelf, and it made a serious impression; I’ve read it several times over the years, and I still marvel at it. I know it has a reputation in some quarters for being dry and polemical, and that perspective is valid, but I find it a gripping and affecting novel. I treasure my parents’ copy (and here as well is the painting I did from it, in case it’s not clear that I’m a fan).

So, you understand that I was excited to see a new graphic adaptation offered and positively reviewed at the Shelf.

I think The Jungle was probably an excellent candidate for this treatment. It is a dense and extremely grim story, well-served by the visual form. Kristina Gehrmann’s illustrations are chiefly done in black and white, with occasional red ink for emphasis: the meat-packing industry offers lots of possibilities for red ink, but it is used sparingly and in perhaps unexpected ways here. The narrative is pared down and reduced mostly to dialog. The most surprising changes for me shouldn’t have been, because my colleague at the Shelf did warn me, but I’d forgotten: the story is somewhat gentled, with (as the reviewer says) a lowered body count, but please note that The Jungle gentled is still a hard, hard ride. More shockingly, the story ends much earlier, at about the novel’s halfway point. This was harder for me to swallow. The novel’s second half gets more didactic, it’s true, but I remain riveted, and I think it’s terribly important stuff. A lowered body count still allows for plenty of horrors in this version, but there are one or two (avoiding spoilers here) whose lack really felt like they changed things for me. It feels like this is not the book I love and admire, but volume one of its adaptation. I am unsettled by this amendment.

That said, I think it is a very fine volume one, and far more approachable than the original. I guess if this is what it takes to enter into this jungle’s horrors, then it’s a service. I just really hope readers continue from here – and I would love to see Gehrmann’s volume two.

When we love a book, its adaptations (usually to film, but the principle applies) will inevitably disappoint us, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. And I did appreciate this graphic novel: it is affecting and stark and true to the original in feeling and much of its content. But The Jungle it is not. This just makes me want to reread Sinclair!


Rating: with some effort I award this book 7 boot soles.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, illustrated by Fumi Nakamura

World of Wonders is a lovely, thoughtful series of meditations, charmingly illustrated, with love and awe on every page but never shying away from the prickliness of life.

Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Oceanic) stuns with her nonfiction debut, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, delightfully illustrated by Fumi Nakamura. These essays explore the natural world and the human experience, finding parallels, meaning and beauty in the intersections.

“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun,” Nezhukumatathil begins. This is an apt and representative line: place-specific, beautifully phrased, with reference to some of the identities these essays will explore. They are mostly titled for the plants and creatures they center–peacock, comb jelly, narwhal, dancing frog–with a few exceptions, such as the expressively named “Questions While Searching for Birds with My Half-White Sons, Aged Six and Nine, National Audubon Bird Count Day in Oxford, MS.” The red-spotted newt and dragon fruit that title their respective essays receive Nezhukumatathil’s attentive study and yes, wonder, but the author’s own experience is always a second thread. She brings a poet’s ear for language and an eye for commonality and metaphor, both reverent of the natural world and specific in her personal story.

Fireflies, touch-me-nots and flamingoes offer her a way to talk about being a brown girl in a white man’s world, growing up in the era of Stranger Danger and feeling disjointed between continents. A young Aimee is asked to draw an animal for a class assignment in Phoenix, Ariz. She responds with a resplendent peacock, India’s national bird, but is chastised and asked for an American bird. Her bald eagle wins a prize but causes her shame. Fumi Nakamura’s accompanying illustrations are whimsical and warm–who doesn’t love an axolotl’s smile?–and sweetly complement Nezhukumatathil’s prose.

World of Wonders offers a series of brief naturalist lessons, but is perhaps at its best in drawing connections, as between the axolotl’s smile and what to do “if a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup.” When it goes boom, “the cassowary is still trying to tell us something.” “And just like the potoo, who is rewarded for her stillness by having her lunch practically fly right to her mouth–perhaps you could try a little tranquility, find a little tenderness in your quiet. Who knows what feathered gifts await?” Wisdom, wonder and beauty make this slim collection one to treasure.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 pale berries growing in spite of the dark.

What It Is by Lynda Barry

This is an interesting piece. Coffee-table-sized, all done in graphic format, and for a number of pages I wasn’t sure there was anything like a narrative here. Four pages of the first 24 involve narrative storytelling; the rest are collage, often with text in comic-style boxes, but not necessarily linear or related text.

None of this is un-fun, but it’s not what I was expecting. The drawing style is fun and quirky and consistent enough throughout that I gradually got to know the artist; and the collage, which involves materials other than Barry’s own creations, is an interesting way to look at the world and her vision, too. There are nearly limitless possibilities to interpret text that’s been all jumbled up together. I kind of enjoyed that. But my narrative-driven, literal, logical-progression-type mind–the mind that struggles with poetry–missed having a thread to grab onto.

There is a narrative, as it turns out. It starts in earnest on page 25. It comes and goes, interspersed with the collage-pages, which come to hold together a bit more as the narrative and themes become clearer.

Lynda Barry tells the story of her childhood, with its devotion to imagination and play, and her childhood delight in stories and pictures, and then the adolescence that stole these delights, chiefly when two questions came to her that refused to leave again. The questions are, is this good? and does this suck? She continues on, to show us how a certain art teacher in college helped her find her own way, release those outside considerations (at least temporarily; they do creep back in) and find the joy and the imagination and the inspiration again.

The latter third of the book is more craft book or how-to (although keeping the graphic format; this is my first graphic craft book!), with plenty of exercises, and a few whimsical characters to help us along. Whimsy does not mean the tone is light, however. Barry is serious about the difficulties of artistic work (writing, drawing, or otherwise), those two questions always threatening to intrude again.

It’s a different take than I’m used to; and I am not personally big on exercises. But it was visually very interesting, and good practice for the brain to take on something different. I respect Barry’s multiple talents, and I appreciate her view on what it takes to make art, and her idea that we tap into something a bit unconscious, or a different consciousness, to do it. I’m intrigued.


Rating: 6 sea monsters.

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, illus. by Al Momaday

I was first told these stories by my father when I was a child. I do not know how long they had existed before I heard them. They seem to proceed from a place of origin as old as the earth.

A short book, recommended to me by Kim Dana Kupperman as a way of considering an oral tradition. N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, born in Oklahoma but raised on reservations in the southwest. He travels home to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma to visit his grandmother’s grave, and this book reflects his journey as well as the original one the Kiowas made, from Yellowstone through the Black Hills, and south to the Wichita Mountains. This book is a record of the legends, the orally passed-down traditional narrative of a tribe and a culture now passed on. It is told in three voices. The first is the ancestral voice of the oral tradition (“the voice of my father,” Al Momaday, who also illustrates the book); the second, a historical commentary; and the third, Momaday’s own voice “of personal reminiscence.” Each short section separates these voices from each other visually:

It is a spare, slim book, under 100 pages and with lots of white space as in the spread above, and with illustrations to space things out further. It is therefore just a sketching (no pun intended) of a history, and somehow this feels right, since as Momaday points out, “the golden age of the Kiowas had been short-lived, ninety or a hundred years, say, from about 1740. The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone…” His ability to piece these stories together is a rare one, and the record is necessarily scanty. But the scraps that we do have here are wise and hold a certain dignity.

They also hold a sense of place. I loved lines like, “Houses are like sentinels in the plain, old keepers of the weather watch.” It somehow makes sense to me that Momaday would have so much to say about a place he feels tied to without actually inhabiting; that it’s an ancestral belonging.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

In terms of the oral tradition, I noticed that the storytelling style in those parts was simple, and often involved shifts that we are unaccustomed to in the written stories; but when read aloud, they sound more like the way we still tell stories today. “Bad women are thrown away. Once there was a handsome young man…”

Simply told, easy to read, but thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a way into stories that we don’t have much access to. As Momaday writes himself in the preface to this edition, twenty-five years after the first: “One should not be surprised, I suppose, that it has remained vital, and immediate, for that is the nature of story. And this is particularly true of the oral tradition, which exists in a dimension of timelessness.”


Rating: 7 black-eared horses.
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