Tag Archive: children’s books

Apr 28 2015

Review: Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman

As I was planning this column, I began thinking about the concept of fairy tales – not fairy tales in the Hollywood Disney sense, but rather fairy tales as a learning tool, an instruction that the good guys do not always win.  With that in mind, I chose two recent books by Neil Gaiman, whom I consider a master at telling modern fairy tales.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman is the third collection of the author’s short fiction.

The titular concept stems from the phrase which is often used to warn readers or viewers of potentially disturbing or graphic material.  Gaiman developed the idea after seeing numerous uses of the phrase online.  He wondered if at some point it would be applied to his own works and whether or not it should be.  Finally, he decided he should be the one to do it first.

Each story has appeared previously in various anthologies or collected works.  Trigger Warning, however, collects them all together for the first time into a single cohesive theme.

From the lightest to the most terrifying, Gaiman creates a world of unconventional and sometimes whimsical fairy tales for adults.  In keeping with his own theme, Gaiman cautions readers in the forward:  “Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them.  Consider yourself warned.”

Gaiman’s collection starts out simply enough in “Making a Chair”.  In the simple prose about struggling through a creative block, Gaiman muses as to whether or not building a book should come with the same sort of warnings a chair does.  “Do not use as a stool or stepladder.  Failure to follow these warnings can result in serious injury.”

In many ways, the story comes across as a mockery of the idea of trigger warnings.  Gaiman subscribes to the Aristotle way of thinking.  Aristotle believed that seeing horrors committed on stage would allow people to experience those horrors and the feelings they evoke in a safe environment and would keep them from acting out their urges on society.  Gaiman takes a similar approach.  He purports that the things which shock or disturb, are the things which most make us think and grow.  With that in mind, it does appear at times that Gaiman is making a particular effort to disturb the reader.  Such is the case in “Down to a Sunless Sea” in which an old woman wears a bone from her dead son as a necklace and in the end reveals a terrible secret.

“Orange”, written completely in questionnaire form, is a brilliant cautionary tale about becoming addicted to tanning lotion.  While many of the answers will illicit a chuckle, there is an underlying sinisterness to the tone, and readers will be longing for Gaiman to fill in the gaps.

“Click-Clack the Rattlebag” begins innocuously enough with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s little brother for the first time.  The little boy takes an immediate liking to the boyfriend and asks to be told a story.  Specifically, a click-clack the rattlebag story.  As the story unfolds the boyfriend learns all about the click-clack rattle bag and the reader is left with an ending that will leave even the adults checking under the bed at night.

Gaiman also lets loose his fanboy side.  “The Case of Death and Honey” follows Sherlock Holmes into retirement and reveals the true reason Holmes took up bee-keeping in his retirement.  “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” was written as a present for Bradbury’s 90th birthday.  It is a poignant tale of loss, and Gaiman writes it with such sadness and eloquence that one can’t help but mourn the loss of things forgotten.  Finally, “Nothing O’Clock” delves into the world of Doctor Who.  Gaiman is well known for having written two episodes of Doctor Who and one can see hints of those stories in “Nothing O’Clock.”

 

Rating: 


Hansel and Gretel, Gaiman’s most recent book for children, makes a fine companion piece to Trigger Warning.  A re-telling of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel takes a similar approach to Trigger Warning in that Gaiman thinks children should be exposed to dark things, stating “…if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”  He then adds “…it is really important to show dark things to kids—and in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back. Tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that.”

One notable change in Gaiman’s version from the more recent editions is that Gaiman takes care to preserve one of the more controversial elements of the Grimm Brother’s version:  the mother.  At some point in the mid 19th century, the female antagonist transitioned from biological mother to step-mother.  Gaiman restores the original version, allowing the story to take on a macabre overtone.

Gaiman’s witch is also a more sinister character than later tellings.  In the modern tellings the witch comes across as a deranged caricature – a demented hag who perhaps is not fully cognizant of the fact that she is eating children.  In Gaiman’s version, the witch is instead simply a bitter, dragged down old woman who happens to have a taste for human flesh.

Illustrations by Lorenzo Mattoti enhance the creep factor of the fairy tale. Initially the black and white ink sketches appear haphazard and non-cohesive.  Upon further inspection, however, the reader sees the subtle features of the main characters as they are lost in the forest or as Hansel sits in jail waiting his execution.  Rather than detract, these illustrations evoke a sense of heaviness and even dread in the reader.  Patches of white are used sparsely until the final Happily Ever After where the white fills nearly the entire page, deftly filling the reader with a sense of joy and victory.

Though perhaps not recommended bedtime reading, at least not for the easily frightened, Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel will easily become new favorites for fans, young and old, of Gaiman’s work.

 

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Mar 25 2014

Review: Books for Beginning Readers

Children’s books are an often overlooked genre.  There are so many on the market that it can be a struggle to know where to begin with your beginning reader.  With that in mind, here are six new children’s books geared towards pre-schoolers or other young children.

Love Monster is a clever little tale written by Rachel Bright about a “slightly hairy and a bit googly eyed” monster who lives in a town called Cutesville.  Cutesville is, as the name suggests, a town populated by cute and fluffy residents such as kittens, puppies and bunnies.  Unfortunately, there’s no one in Cutesville to love the monster, so he decides to go out into the “big wide world” in search of love.  The book follows his adventures as he looks all around for someone to love him just as he is.

Love Monster is a great way to teach kids that it’s okay to be different and that we shouldn’t judge based on looks because even a “slightly hairy and a bit googly eyed” monster deserves love.  Although written to be silly, Love Monster manages to find a nice balance of conveying a strong moral message while not falling into the ridiculous.  In addition, the storyline is interesting enough that parents will not mind reading it over and over.  – 


How to Babysit A Grandpa by Jean Reagan is a fun story about a little boy who babysits his grandfather one day while his parents are out.  Written in a how-to style, the book lists a variety of things kids can do with their grandparents while babysitting them for a day.  Some of these activities include giving him snacks such as ice cream topped with cookies, or cookies topped with ice cream (depending on your preference).  Other suggestions consist of taking him for a walk to look for lizards or to teach him the importance of jumping into puddles.

How to Babysit A Grandpa provides an excellent jumping off point for parents whose kids might be apprehensive about having a babysitter.  Told from the perspective of the child, the book immediately reassures the reader that “Mom and Dad always come back.” In addition, it gives many ideas for the child to use to have fun with their babysitter or grandparent.

How to Babysit a Grandpa goes a little overboard on the cute and might be a little juvenile for the 5 – 8 year old age range to which it is marketed, but might also be on the lengthy side for kids younger than 5 years old.    – 


Zombie In Love by Kelly DiPucchio tells about a zombie named Mortimer who is looking for a girlfriend.  Mortimer tries a number of different tactics to find love but is overwhelmingly unsuccessful.  He simply cannot find “the ghoul of his dreams.”  Mortimer tries several different tactics in his quest for love.  He tries giving one girl a diamond ring.  The next, he gives a heart.  He even tries to go to the gym, but unfortunately his arm keeps falling off.  Eventually, Mortimer decides to place an ad in the paper in the hopes that someone will meet him at the Sweethearts ball.

Targeted toward children aged 4 – 8, Zombie In Love is an entertaining read that will quickly become a regular in the bedtime reading rotation.  Kids who are in that “love of all things gross” stage will enjoy the zombie aspect, and the subtle visuals such as the diamond still being attached to a finger or an actual beating heart being given as a gift will keep parents entertained as they read this story to their child repeatedly.  


Dinosaurs Love Underpants by Claire Freedman sets out to tell the true story of how dinosaurs became extinct.  It turns out that cavemen realized they needed clothing and discovered the wonders of underpants.  The fiercest of all dinosaurs, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, sees the new underpants and immediately wants them.  What follows is both a literal and metaphorical tug of war between dinosaurs and cavemen over underwear.  Soon the Triceratops is wearing them on every horn, and the Stegosaurus discovers he is allergic to wooly mammoth underpants.  In addition, TRex keeps tripping on them, and Diploducus’ pinch uncomfortably.

Written entirely in rhyme, Dinosaurs Love Underpants is written for children ages 4 – 7.  Though not intended as such, Dinosaurs Love Underpants could be used as a tool for parents in toilet training.  Younger children who see how much the dinosaurs love underpants might be inspired to want to wear them as well.  Older kids will enjoy the brilliant and amusing illustrations but may otherwise find the storyline on the ridiculous side.  While a cute read, the ending was too sudden, and the rhyming theme lost it’s flow midway through the story.  –


Mousetronaut and Mousetronaut Goes to Mars are two educational books by Mark Kelly.  Based partially on a true story, these books tell about a mouse named Meteor who travels on the Space Shuttle and participates in events such as the Mars Rover landing.  Meteor is thought too small by the other mice to be picked for the Space Shuttle mission.  Determined to prove them wrong, Meteor works hard to prove that size isn’t always what’s important.

Written for children aged 4 – 8, both books present an opportunity for parents to teach their kids about NASA, the space program, and what it’s like to travel on the Space Shuttle.  Young children who are at the stage of dreaming of being an astronaut will enjoy following Meteor’s adventures.  Slightly older children may be bored and find the story over-simplified.  Parents will enjoy the teaching opportunities presented, but it is unlikely either book will become part of the nightly bedtime routine.