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The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas by David Almond

The Water’s Fine:
The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas, (Candlewick Press, $15.99, Ages 8-12) by David Almond, is reviewed by Hilary Taber.

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The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas by David Almond with illustrations by Oliver Jeffers, Candlewick Press

I knew that when I saw the cover of this book that I would love it. After all, with Oliver Jeffers of The Day the Crayons Quit fame (among many others) how can you go wrong with the illustrations? Yet, this book was so much more than just fantastic illustrations. David Almond has written a wonderful story about families, dreams of greatness, gypsies, and so much more. When Stanley Potts decides that enough is enough when it comes to his financially struggling Uncle Ernie putting his beloved goldfish in a can to sell, he sets out on a course of adventure that will change his life forever.

He decides to join a traveling fair, and he becomes quite attached to the fair’s “Hook-a-duck” proprietor, Mr. Dostoyevsky. All of the people who work at the fair take on Stanley as a sort of second son, but none more than Mr. Dostoyevsky who puts Stanley in change of all goldfish related rewards for winning his booth prizes. Little does Stanley know that his true fate is ready to meet him in the form of Pancho Pirelli, the man who can swim with piranhas! Is Stanley ready to embrace this new path that he feels is right up his alley, or will his aunt and uncle find him at the fair before he is able to decide for himself what his choice will be?

This book was funny, and poignant all at the same time. I found myself charmed by the life of freedom at the fair, and was as pleased as punch when Stanley decides for himself what his life will be. As an added bonus, the villains of the piece are the dastardly DAFT (“Departmint for the Abolishun of Fishy Things”) organization that operates to abolish all things they deem to be suspect. How can Stanley, his uncle, his aunt, Mr. Dostoyevsky, and the Great Pancho Pirelli himself avoid such comically ignorant baddies especially concerned with fish? What really makes these bad guys so very funny is that, of course, their inherent evil nature is caused by ignorance which always leads to poor spelling. I think we all knew that was true, but it’s nice to be reminded to be on your guard when dealing with such folks. Beware the ignorant souls who take justice into their own hands while butchering the English language in the most comical way possible!

What I liked most about David Almond’s writing is that it is full of wonder, imagination and humor. However, Almond never shies away from Stanley’s dilemma of being torn between his family and his extraordinary life at the fair. Family and forgiveness are at the heart of this quirky middle grade novel. This book is perfect for Roald Dahl fans, fans of the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events, and The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch. Also, anyone who enjoys a book about the love of pets, particularly fish (I know you’re out there) will deeply identify with Stanley, goldfish aficionado! David Almond’s fantastic book earned starred reviews from both Kirkus and Booklist. And now, ditto from me.

 

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Blanket & Bear, A Remarkable Pair

Where Do Lost Stuffed Animals and Baby Blankets Go? Read on to find out!

by L.J.R. Kelly with illustrations by Yoko Tanaka

by L.J.R. Kelly with
illustrations by Yoko Tanaka

Blanket & Bear, A Remarkable Pair (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, $16.99, ages 3 and up), the debut picture book from L.J.R. Kelly (grandson of Roald Dahl) with illustrations by Yoko Tanaka, is an ideal parents’ go-to book when beloved toys get lost. Some parents buy two of everything just-in-case, others spend hours retracing their steps or making frantic phone calls in an attempt to locate a lost teddy or blanky. But here’s another option. Read this picture book to your distraught youngster and it’s likely they’ll find solace in this charming story with its muted artwork harkening back to a time when men wore hats, women wore dresses and people traveled abroad by steamship. Parents may find Tanaka’s illustrations a bit sombre in the beginning, but I found that as the story’s mood changed, so did the feeling conveyed in each picture. Stick with this story as it tugs at the heartstrings and is sure to start a meaningful conversation with your child.

With an original voice very different from that of his grandfather, Kelly is a terrific storyteller in his own right. The premise is quite a simple one in that when a young boy loses his beloved blanky and teddy, he carries on with his life. The focus is not on how he copes with the loss.  Quite the contrary. Kelly chooses to show how the boy’s cherished possessions, spend their time searching for the boy, hoping to be reunited. Instead, they arrive “at an island of lost blankets and bears, living in retirement without worries or cares. It’s here they sadly learn from the island’s king that they’ve likely been replaced. Unable to accept this possibility, they depart and resume their quest. When at last they find the boy, he’s a young lad more interested in sport and girls. No longer needed, they’re free to return to the island and join the other lost or abandoned blankets and bears.

Children hearing this story read to them or reading it with the help of a parent, will likely want to discuss this new take on “they all lived happily ever after,” because in this case the book’s characters did not end up living happily ever after together, but there’s no denying they were all happy in the end.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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The Exceptional Matilda Turns 25!

Long before I was a parent I got a taste of Roald Dahl’s humor in the early ’70s via the popular film Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Then, in London some thirty years later, I heard The Magic Finger audio book. Now that I’ve read an actual book and seen Quentin Blake’s spot-on illustrations for Matilda (Puffin, $6.99, ages 7 and up), I am eager to see the acclaimed Broadway musical. It seems that Dahl’s work is brilliantly entertaining in any form presented.

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Roald Dahl, also known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, had a wonderful and wild imagination with a wit to match.  And though celebrating its 25th anniversary, the book remains as popular with readers today as it was when first published.

Matilda put a smile on my face and introduced me to one of the most OTT characters I’ve seen in print in a long time. If the name Miss Trunchbull doesn’t conjure up images of a walking, talking mega-sized Medieval torture machine (AKA the Headmistress), I don’t know what will!! Matilda is a child prodigy. Yet, unlike the children whose parents gush over their real or perceived little Einsteins, Matilda’s parents do absolutely NOTHING to nurture their four-year-old daughter. In fact, they barely treat her with indifference being so caught up in their own lunacy.

Hungry for knowledge to feed her growing mind, Matilda makes her way to the local library. There the librarian, Mrs. Phelps helps the youngster find books she’d like. Eventually Matilda takes home books to travel the world from the comfort of her bedroom while avoiding the dishonesty and rudeness of her family. A second-hand car dealer, Matilda’s father, Mr. Wormwood, boasts of tricking his customers and profiting from his deviousness. Readers will thoroughly love all the practical jokes Matilda plays on her dad as a way of getting back at him for his misdeeds.  Blake’s pen and ink artwork perfectly captures all the hijinks in the book, especially those occurring at Crunchem Hall Primary School, and enhance what is already a rollicking good read.

Fortunately for Matilda, school takes her away from her unpleasant parents and there she finds compassion from her teacher, aptly named Miss Honey. Miss Honey is in awe of Matilda’s genius and provides the young girl with the attention and nurturing she’s missed at home. Unfortunately Miss Honey is so very poor and suffering due to the unfortunate loss of income and housing at the hands of a cruel aunt who just happens to be Miss Trunchbull. Now that Matilda has an ally in Miss Honey, she’s emboldened to fight back at the horrendous Headmistress and by doing so discovers a magical power that will help her achieve her goal. The pleasure kids get from Matilda’s success is why this book continues to be in demand. A happy ending that assures the Trunchbull’s comeuppance, restores Miss Honey’s inheritance and Matilda’s future well-being.

I realize that, having had children attend primary school in London,  I am partial to Dahl’s language and exaggerated style but there is simply no denying his gift for great storytelling. The book is certain to engage even the most reluctant of readers with its funny characters, crazy plot and satisfying finish.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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