Book Review Wednesday

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I am thrilled to review fellow Maine illustrator, Chris Van Dusen’s, new book The Circus Ship. You may already know Chris from his illustrations of Kate DiCamillo’s, Mercy books. He is also the author of the rhyming Mr. Magee books, and If I Built a Car. I happen to know that Chris did some circus posters for Barnum early in his career. The story of The Circus Ship is based on a true story and is also told in rhyme. When the mean and selfish Mr. Paine, the circus owner, runs into bad weather while transporting the circus off the cost of Maine, he abandons the animals and saves himself. The animals, all bedraggled, end up on an island of Mainers not too thrilled with their new guests. A heroic act by the tiger endears the animals to the island residents who then cleverly fool Mr. Paine so the animals can safely stay with them.

The illustrations for this book are so lush and vibrant that you will be mesmerized by each spread. Incredible sunrises with gradients as smooth as silk will have you reaching for your sunglasses. This is one good reason to read this book with a child who will nudge you after a few minutes and remind you to turn the page. The other good reason is to share the intense emotions with some one you love. From Mr. Paine’s yellow toothed screams, to the weary and worried expressions on the animals’ faces, to the look of surprise and relief of the island folk when one of their own is saved, Chris Van Dusen connects with the core of the reader/viewer. Finally, you will need a small friend to help you find all the animals when Mr. Paine comes to town to claim them.

Chris is an expert of exaggerated angle and point of view. If you are a Van Dusen fan like me, you may remember the impossibly large waterfall in Camping Spree With Mr. Magee. In Circus Ship, when the ship carrying the animals crashes, Chris puts the viewer in the middle of the action. Mr. Paine and the circus animals are propelled overboard and right into the reader’s lap. (click to see this image on Chris’ blog) The reader is treated to this in-your-lap 3-D action in the image of the tiger leaping from the flames and when Mr. Paine strides into town to claim his animals. Both times, Chris uses elongation so that the subject of the illustration straddles the spread creating movement and tension for the reader.

As with many beautiful books that feel like a work of art, this one is published by Candlewick and includes many lovely design elements. The end papers are a lovely two-toned gold stripe that mimic the tents of the big top. The book starts right after the title page with a lush spread and the front matter is in the back. The back matter page contains an author’s note that let’s us know more about sadder true story that sparked The Circus Ship, the sinking of the the Royal Tar in 1836.

On the flap text, Chris says, "I’ve focused on light sources and textures in the artwork for this story– on details like paint peeling off the clapboards of the houses. This makes the book more complex and richer overall than my previous work." The reader is the richer for The Circus Ship. Congratulations, Chris!

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Colfer, Eoin. Half-Moon Investigations. New York, NY: Miramax Books/Hyperion Books for Children, 2006.

Doubtless, Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer does not need me to help him with marketing. However, I could not pass up a review of Half-Moon Investigations. Fletcher Moon is a kid with curiosity coursing through his veins and an eye for details. After graduating from FBI Detective Bob Berstein’s online investigators course, Fletcher has the know-how and a badge to prove it.

Colfer uses the old-time, hard-boiled detective as his mold for Fletcher Moon, but he makes it accessible to kids with a theft mystery that is completely believable to his readers. The language in this style is so fun to read but sometimes authors overdo it or use similes that don’t mean anything to kids. Colfer gets it right.

The book is filled with the usual cast of characters: bullies, princesses, and nerds, but Colfer manages to use the stereotypes to the advantage of the mystery– leading the reader and Fletcher down various paths of inquiry and surprising them with a twist of character. Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books are far from tame but the violence in this book is minimal and propels the plot.

If your reader enjoys connecting to other on-line resources connected to the books they read, this Puffin Publishing sponsored website has plenty to offer. There is a web comic version of some of the cases in the book as well as a newsletter with cases your young detective can crack.

Half-Moon Investigations is an engaging book to offer boys ages 10 and up but the book is great for any mystery or an adventure fan at home.

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