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.

books for children

There are no babies in the household or extended biological family of pagesofjulia, but when I considered getting rid of my own baby/children’s books years ago, upon some move, my friend Liz protested. She told me that one day I would know babies, and I would wish I had books for them. And she has been right, again. Thanks, Liz.

I’ve been visiting with a baby recently, a family friend, a sweet little brown-eyed three-year-old who mostly remains quiet when I’m around but I’m told asks about me when I’m not. For her, for a recent visit, I dug out these four books which had been mine when I was small.

Giant Treasury of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter


Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr


The Patchwork Cat by William Mayne, illus. by Nicola Bayley


The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog by Tomie dePaola

It sort of tickled me to observe that these were all about animals.

And for the coming holidays, I have these two in hand for the same little girl:


Claude the Dog: A Christmas Story, words and pictures by Dick Gackenbach


Madeline’s Christmas by Ludwig Bemelmans


Several years ago I passed on a few classics to a friend’s new son, who is now going on five years old.

The Legend of the Bluebonnet: An Old Tale of Texas retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola


The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola


And, I’ve just bought some board books for a baby friend for the holidays:

A Pocket for Corduroy by Don Freeman


Caldecott winner The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats


Baby Touch and Feel: Animals


The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter


Baby Faces


These all in board book format, because this baby with her sticking-up hair is barely nine months old. I also got her an autographed copy of Katie Fallon’s Look, See the Bird!, but I know she won’t be ready for that one for a while.

Look, See the Bird! by Bill Wilson and Katie Fallon, illus. by Leigh Anne Carter


All of this is out of my comfort zone as a book reviewer, as babies are themselves out of my comfort zone, but it feels good to make some effort to pass on what I love and to help these parents out.

I confess I’m charmed by looking for the books I myself enjoyed as a child, rather than the new stuff. But then I come across an article like this one and am excited all over again. Of course I must link here as well to Shelf Awareness’s children’s gift book issue, for those searching for more recent titles – my children’s book review colleagues at the Shelf do such a swell job. Maybe next year I’ll do a better job of taking their advice!

What have you learned, as parents or just friends of parents, about books and gift-giving outside of your own comfort zones? Have any books to recommend for babies or small people?

Other-Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely From Around the World by Yee-Lum Mak, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley

otherwordlyWhat a perfectly charming little book.

Other-Wordly is fewer than 60 pages long, and its spreads are adorned with appealing illustrations, so that it is easily flipped through in no time at all. It invites the reader, though, to pause and explore. Vocabulary words from a wide range of languages are offered to satisfy us when we say, I need a word for that thing, you know when… I was delighted to find a word that a friend of mine has more than once looked for. How gratifying, to pass that along!

The words are great fun, and some will be useful (others merely fun). For example, check out Tartle (verb, Scots): to hesitate while introducing or meeting someone because you have forgotten their name. Or Nunchi (noun, Korean): the subtle art of evaluating others’ moods from their unspoken communications and knowing what not to say in a certain social situation. The illustrations are lovely, filled with personality and feeling, and I loved how words are grouped together with a drawing that serves to illustrate each in turn. For example, Sturmfrei (German, obviously), Cwtch (Welsh, perhaps just as obviously) and Abditory (English) share a young girl just peeking out from a door under a staircase, looking pleased with her hiding place. Yes, there are English words in here, too, but only three had meaning to me before reading. (Those were offing, inglenook and scintilla, if you’re wondering.) Other languages featured run from the expected European ones through Bantu and Yaghan (what is Yaghan?). The Japanese language seems to have a special knack for that there’s-a-word-for-it thing.

Brief, informative, great fun, sweetly illustrated: a fine coffee table book and one I will pull out frequently. By all means. My only request now is more, please.


Rating: 8 Erlebnisse.
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