March 29, 2013

[Book Review] This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

This is Not My HatThis is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

Compared to the hilarity that was I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat was downright disappointing.

I Want My Hat Back was spectacular because I honestly didn't see the ending coming. I expected your typical kid's book. Main character has a problem, does a few random boring things to try to solve the problem, and then succeeds in solving the problem. But the way I Want My Hat Back ended was so wondrously unexpected and absurdly amusing that I couldn't help but love it.

This is not the case with This Is Not My Hat. In effect, This Is Not My Hat is the same plot as I Want My Hat Back except from a different perspective (a hat thief this time rather than a victim)... and it's boring. You know what's going to happen, and then when it does, it isn't funny. There's no absurdly endearing final line. No barely-hidden black comedy. No humorously detailed final scene. No surprise twist.

So this was a miss for me. Maybe next time, Klassen.

March 25, 2013

January First by Michael Schofield

January First: A Child's Descent into Madness and Her Father's Struggle to Save HerJanuary First: A Child's Descent into Madness and Her Father's Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield

My rating: ★★★☆☆

January First was tragic.
There's no other word for a child suffering undiagnosed schizophrenia than "tragic", and reading about a young couple struggling to not only manage their daughter's psychosis but also to get a diagnosis at all is equal parts stressful and heartbreaking.

January First was terrifying.
January First offers a paralyzing glimpse into the United States mental health industry and how it can (and does) go horribly, horribly wrong. If you, like me, have the tendency to involuntarily empathize with victims of tragedy--fictional or otherwise--the chapters dealing with Jani's periods of hospitalization are extremely difficult to read. Jani is treated like... there's no word for what Jani is treated like. She and many of her fellow sufferers are downright abused under the guise of medical care, and any attempts by her parents to intervene make it increasingly obvious that Jani isn't a patient so much as she's a prisoner. The passages about Jani's stays at these so-called mental health facilities, with only one exception, read like horror novel fare... or the introduction to a ghost story about the lost spirits of nineteenth-century asylums.

I can't possibly communicate how deeply these passages horrified me.

January First was frustrating.
Regardless of how terrible his situation is, Michael Schofield is a person with whom I never, under any circumstances, would want to interact. His obvious anger management issues and martyr complex make the passages about his relationship with his wife quite uncomfortable to read. His insistence that his daughter is not just a special needs child but a "genius" is insulting to the reader and equal parts understanding Jani's potential and self-deluding himself into thinking that she's not sick--she's just better than everyone else's children. But most of all, Michael Schofield always thinks he's right. From the way he tells it, Mr. Schofield is the only person on this earth who understands and can help Jani.

January First was harsher in hindsight.
Not knowing how to deal with one of the youngest, if not the youngest, diagnosed case of childhood-onset schizophrenia, the Schofields made a very large mistake: they hoped to pull Jani out of her undiagnosed psychosis by attempting to forge a bond between Jani and a hypothetical younger sibling. That younger sibling came into the world as Bodhi, a brother who immediately becomes the subject of Jani's wrath and exasperates her condition. But as the Schofields start to get a handle on how to manage their schizophrenic daughter through medication, therapy, and creative living arrangements, life starts to turn around. When the memoir ends, the Schofields still struggle to manage their very unfortunate circumstances but seem to have achieved quite a bit.

Unfortunately, if you've seen the Discovery Health special, Born Schizophrenic: Jani's Next Chapter, which was filmed quite a bit after this book was written but before it was published, you'll know that Bodhi is now also showing signs of psychosis and may also face a schizophrenia diagnosis. Wince-worthy doesn't cover that.

I definitely recommend January First to anyone with an interest in childhood schizophrenia. However, I recommend that anyone interested in reading this book sit down to watch the Born Schizophrenic documentary first; having seen both Schofield documentaries before even realizing this book existed, I'm sure my opinion of the book would have been vastly different had I not had prior experience with the Schofield family and their experience.

March 22, 2013

The Berenstain Bears Get Their Kicks by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears Get Their KicksThe Berenstain Bears Get Their Kicks by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★★☆☆

When I'm surprised by a Berenstain Bears book, it's rarely ever pleasant. This installment, luckily, was a refreshing divergence from the typical expectations of its series.

Rather than Mama Bear trying to get her kids to stop enjoying themselves and calmly "appreciate" things instead (as was the warped moral of the last BB book I read), here we have one of the stifling, old-fashioned parents learning to loosen up and enjoy life.

In The Berenstain Bears Get Their Kicks, Papa Bear is astounded by and disapproving of his children's decision to play soccer. The first half of the book focuses on his antics as he tries to persuade his children that the sport they and their mother so enjoy is ridiculous and pales in comparison to his "old-fashioned" sports like baseball. They aren't buying it, of course, and a sulking Papa Bear follows them to their team tryouts.

He's impressed by his children's obvious talent at the sport, which he even grows to enjoy himself. By the last page, he's learned that there's certainly enough room in his life for soccer and the "old-fashioned" sports the family also enjoys.

Frankly, it was wonderfully refreshing and incredibly astounding for one of the self-righteous Berenstain parents to learns lesson for a change. (And I found if oddly amusing that the Berenstains actually wrote a book speaking out against the odd anti-soccer vendetta some Americans seem to harbor.)

March 15, 2013

The Berenstain Bears on the Moon by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears on the MoonThe Berenstain Bears on the Moon by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

I'm not quite sure what the Berenstains were thinking with this one. It's a cute little story about children pretending to go to the moon... right up until you realize that there isn't a thing to imply that these two children didn't honestly build (buy?) a spaceship and take their dog to the moon.

Am I the only one vaguely annoyed by this? The Berenstain Bears are ridiculously wishy-washy when it comes to their genre. Are they anthropomorphic fiction, or are they straight SF/F? It's normally the former, but today it's the latter for some unexplained reason... and I'm sure that must be confusing to children of the target age group.

If your child wants to read something about going to the moon, give this a pass in favor of a book about real astronauts. And if your kid's set on reading this, be sure to at least try to explain the reality of space travel and how to become an astronaut.

March 13, 2013

The Birds, the Bees, and the Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Birds, the Bees, and the Berenstain BearsThe Birds, the Bees, and the Berenstain Bears by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★★☆☆

This was an acceptable effort toward introducing young children to the concept of birth. On the other hand, I found it disappointing; it doesn't address "the birds and the bees" at all, though the title implies otherwise. It only deals with pregnancy and delivery, not conception.

The reason is obvious: teaching children of any age about conception is in many places incredibly taboo. I don't agree with that, personally, and think it's far preferable to introduce children to the scientific idea of conception when they're old enough to start wondering about it, rather than trying to keep them in the dark and building up sex as some kind of massive, taboo secret they're not allowed to learn; I think presenting it honestly to a child--rather than keeping it a secret or teaching it as something shameful--would help cultivate a more mature understanding of human sexuality in these children's future adolescence and adulthood. But that's just me, and I recognize that even those parents who don't find sexuality to be some kind of damnable sin aren't often comfortable with the idea of their children learning the related concepts before puberty. (Though I would argue that dumping all that information on a child at once right when it's about to start effecting them--or even worse, after it has--can create a truly frightening and confusing experience for the child.) It's just that history has shown that taking away the taboo of sex and opening up communication about its function, its purpose, and its side effects has had the wonderful effect of decreasing teen/childhood pregnancy rates, which is always a good thing in a society with too many babies to begin with.

So I take this book, mediocre though it is, as a step in the right direction. I didn't teach as much as I felt it should, but it taught far more than it would have been allowed to just a few decades earlier.

March 8, 2013

Final Exam by A. Bates

Final ExamFinal Exam by A. Bates

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

When it comes to 80's and 90's YA horror, I have read a lot of Fear Street--I daresay I've read most of Fear Street--but only a few in the subgenre that weren't from Stine. One of those few is Final Exam, which I believe I originally read sometime between 2004 and 2006. I recently picked up a copy at a semi-local thrift store, and so here I am reading it again in 2012.

Final Exam is in most ways incredibly similar to the less supernaturally-inclined installments of the Fear Street franchise, and as most of my familiarity with the 80's and 90's teen-horror scene is through that franchise, the best way for me to express my opinion of Final Exam is to compare it to what I've been reading lately.

Imagine Final Exam as a Fear Street plot placed in the hands of a writer other than Stine. It's really an interesting study at its core; the plot of Final Exam is incredibly similar to one of Stine's plots. All the same elements are there:

1) the Everygirl protagonist
2) the gorgeous and popular sister
3) the gorgeous but possibly dangerous love interest
4) the loyal but increasingly suspicious best friend
5) the abusive ex-boyfriend with anger management issues and stalker tendencies
6) the "sixth ranger"--i.e., that other guy

The Everygirl Protagonist
In Fear Street installments, the main characters are almost entirely interchangeable. They are as devoid of personality as Bella Swan, and their taste in men is just as terrible (but more on that later). Final Exam suffers similarly; Kelly's personality is just "normal girl". It's Kelly's passion that sets her apart from Stine protagonists.

While Stine tried every once in a while to make his protagonists unique from one another, he opted for the physical or circumstantial. They might be exceptionally beautiful yet still unpopular. Others might be sporty or (referred to as) smart. Many were "the new girl". One was blind.

Kelly is a mechanic. That shouldn't be as mind-blowing as it is, but Bates actually bothered to give his character a passion and a skill, something she enjoys and does besides boys. After reading about the same guy-obsessed vapid Girl Next Door over and over again in Stine's books, it's refreshing to see a girl who at least has something to define her, if only a tiny something.

The Gorgeous and Popular Sister
Susan is Kelly's younger sister. She's got looks and friends, and she's a cheerleader. She's also clearly hopelessly jealous and more than a little spiteful. There were definitely a few Susans in the Fear Street series, and when they appeared, they were likely to be the stalker/killers.

The Gorgeous But Possibly Dangerous Love Interest
Tad is the cheerleader-chasing rich boy who takes an unexpected interest in Kelly. He's also the top of his class and a sports stars of the school, driven to succeed and exceptionally pressured by his father.

Tads are exceedingly common in Fear Street, especially as love interests. The town of Shadyside can be assumed to be brimming with rich guys dating poor girls, driven male valedictorians, and mash-ups of the two.

Lucky for Tad, however, he escaped the fate of many of them: being an abusive bastard and/or raving lunatic.

This character is quite often the stalker/killer, especially if the protagonist doesn't suspect him. (If she does, it's probably the rival love interest.)

The Loyal But Increasingly Suspicious Friend
Every Everygirl starts out with a best friend. An Everyfriend, if you will. (Or, if you're of the more obnoxious sort, an Everybestie.) At the beginning of the story, these two girls will invariably have been friends for years and seem as loyal to one another as can be.

This will almost invariably unravel over the course of the story, causing our Everygirl to suspect, if only vaguely, that the Everyfriend might be the stalker/killer. And if the Everygirl never suspects... well, in that case, the Everyfriend probably did it because UNEXPECTEDPLOTTWISTLIKEWHOA.

Kelly and Talia opt for the "vague suspicion" route.

The Abusive Ex-Boyfriend
This guy. Fuck this guy. This is the ex-boyfriend who threatens, stalks, and abuses the Everygirl until she can't take it anymore--if she's lucky.

If she's not lucky, this guy is ten times worse. He'll be instead the Abusive Current Boyfriend and will make the protagonist's life a living hell, all while she explains to the reader how his jealous and threats of violence make her feel special.

This is the character that makes me hate R.L. Stine books.

Danny is Final Exam's incarnation of this character, and thankfully he turns out better than most.

The Other Guy

Insert who or whatever you need here. No personality needed! Have a vacant boyfriend spot? Need an "outsider" friend? Slip him (and it's always a him) right in here, and he'll fit perfectly. He only needs to show up for a few lines, and he can even be the surprise killer if you want--as long as you mention him in the beginning!

Final Exam's Other Guy is Jeffrey, Talia the Everyfriend's boyfriend. He shows up for a chapter or two towards the end.

And that's just the characters. The plots are also exceptionally formulaic. The books open with teenagers doing normal teenage things; stressing about school, friends, and romance as they struggle with jobs, parents, and sometimes even the law.

And then shit starts to get real.

Well, sort of. There's nothing particularly "real"--that is, true to life--about the way the characters react most of the time. Villains lose their minds at the drop of a dime, teens stumble into (and back out of--alive!) multiple attempts on their lives, and no one--not the teens, the parents, or the teachers--bothers to call the police.

There's a distinct disconnect between these books and reality; the teens here are living in a silly, overly-dramatized version of the '80s and early '90s that lets them live ridiculously dangerous and exciting lives while facing none of the consequences. Grades don't suffer from the mental stress. Attacks and threats aren't reported. Parents, teachers, and police don't notice exceptionally obvious problems. Mental illness is an explanation for villainy and is rarely treated. Multiple life-threatening events never impact the victim's psyche. Animals exist only so they can die in grotesque threats (and dead animals shoved into school lockers are never noticed by staff). The list goes on and on.

And yet I can't pretend it doesn't work. These over-dramatic elements serve their purpose; they hold the attention of young teens, and they make for a fast-paced and easy read. There's a reason that so many of these were churned out by Stine, Cooney, Pike, and others--they sold. In spite of the formulaic plots, the cliche characters, and every other flaw inherent to the genre, even I have to admit... Final Exam and its brethren are more than a little addicting.

March 6, 2013

Inside, Outside, Upside Down by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Inside, Outside, Upside DownInside, Outside, Upside Down by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

Inside, Outside, Upside Down is a Bright and Early Book for Beginning Beginners, and that line could not be more aptly named. On the scale of picture books, Inside, Outside, Upside Down is at the very bottom. This isn't a Cat in the Hat; this isn't even a One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Any child who has been reading independently for more than a year will find this book to be below their reading level (though they may still enjoy the scant plot if they're young enough and/or enjoy the Berenstain Bears), and any parent reading this book to a child will likely find it insufferably dull and repetitive.

I do, however, recommend this to parents looking to read to their infants/toddlers for the first few times, or parents whose children are just about ready to start reading independently but aren't ready to handle a picture book of average complexity.

March 4, 2013

Pocahontas: An Unlikely Pair by Lisa Ann Marsoli

Pocahontas: An Unlikely Pair (Disney's Storytime Treasures Library, #10)Pocahontas: An Unlikely Pair by Lisa Ann Marsoli

My rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Back at the village, Pocahontas and Nakoma told everyone of Meeko and Percy's adventure. No one could believe that the spoiled, helpless dog had survived one of nature's most fearsome creatures.

...fucking duh no one could believe that shit. Because out here in reality, Percy would've been dead even before the bear showed up.

In Pocahontas: An Unlikely Pair, the spoiled dog from the movie, Percy, gets on the villagers' nerves, and so they throw him out of the village to live in the wilderness. Let me repeat that: they threw out a teensy, tiny, absolutely defenseless dog because he howled. They left a dog to wolves, bears, weather, and starvation because they were mildly annoyed. Awesome!

Seriously, that's the moral of this story: that Percy shouldn't act like a spoiled freeloader. Except, you know, he's a dog. Worse yet, he's a dog specifically bred to act like a spoiled freeloader. So, uh... forgive me if I don't take your advice to heart, Disney.

March 1, 2013

The Berenstain Bears Think Of Those In Need by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears Think Of Those In NeedThe Berenstain Bears Think Of Those In Need by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

What’s hilarious about this book is that, at certain moments, it seems to misunderstand its own moral. And that’s a shame, because it is a great lesson for children--that is, to appreciate what you have and to give to those less fortunate when you can--and there’s certainly an abundance of adults who could stand to learn it, too. All in all, this book might help children to grasp the concept and function of charity, but there's a few details that an observant reader will notice detract from the intended lesson.

When Mama Bear starts to feel that there’s too much clutter in the Bear family’s home, she connects that thought with her latent middle-class guilt. The solution is simple--donate the clutter. Recycle toys the children don't play with anymore, furniture they don’t want, clothes that don’t fit, and other such unnecessary items by giving them to those individuals who actually will use them. And that’s a great idea; everyone should aim to do that as much as they can, especially if they’re well-off financially.

But there’s some weirdness mixed in. Papa Bear wants go get rid of toys the children still enjoy and play with; the children fight back by pointing out Papa Bear’s collection of effectively "useless" fishing rods and magazines; Papa protests Mama’s collection of cookbooks and sewing scraps.

That’s just getting silly. A) The worst thing a parent can do when trying to instill a pro-charity sentiment in their children is try to pressure the child into giving up things they don’t want to. This one has personally affected me in the past; my Dad thinks of his stuff as priceless collectibles to be eternally cherished. My library of books and VHS tapes from my childhood, on the other hand, are worthless, silly, and immature. And where I will stand up for myself when he acts that way, my younger brother often won’t, and even I sometimes didn’t when I was younger. And that cost me a lot of childhood memories; my Dad gave a way a lot of stuff I wish I still had because I didn’t use to have the confidence to stand up to him. It’s only a relief that I didn’t lose my charitable nature.

B) Mamas things--old cookbooks and scraps of cloth--are not immediately useful, I'll admit. If she really does not ever plan to use the recipes in the cookbooks, sure, donate those. But the scraps? The book never mentions what becomes of them, so they are presumably either still lying around the house or in the trashcan. One of these is significantly more irresponsible than the other, but neither optimizes the items’ worth. My suggestions? Mama Bear loves to sow/knit/etcetera, and she’s on a charity kick. So why not make something out of the scraps? Blankets, maybe. Scrunchies. Napkins. Whatever. Keep what you like, donate the rest. Alternately, sell what you make and donate the proceeds. It gets rid of the clutter and accomplishes a good deed in one hit. And if Mama Bear doesn’t want to do it herself, there’s always the hope of finding someone else who is interested in doing that themselves.

But it makes up for those shortcomings in other ways; instead of simply dumping their old board games and whatnot at the “Old Bears Home”, they actually donate their time, too, endeavoring to help brighten up the residents’ day.

So it aims for a good moral--one of the best morals I’ve seen in a Berenstain Bears book, as a matter of fact. It gets a bit muddled now and then, but overall, it’s a nice little story with a positive intent and hopefully a positive effect in most cases.