BOOK REVIEW: The Gothamites by Eno Raud

The GothamitesThe Gothamites by Eno Raud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While the English translation of this children’s book just came out this summer, the original book (in Estonian) dates to 1962. I don’t point that out because it’s incomprehensibly dated, but because some readers may find the basis of the story to be misogynistic by today’s standards. There is a nation of people (the Gothamites) that is so known for their great wisdom and erudition that all of its men are hired abroad as counselors and advisers. The women find it untenable to have their men gone all the time, as well as finding their own nation is falling into shambles, and so they call all the men back home for a pow-wow. It’s decided that as long as their reputation for wisdom precedes them, the Gothamite men will always be called away to serve other nations, and so the only solution is to immediately give up their clever ways. Which they do.

The opening chapter lays out the backstory I discuss in the previous paragraph. Each chapter thereafter shows the Gothamites bumbling through a simple problem for which they are now unable to find solutions because they’ve given up being contemplative. It’s a bit like the movie “Idiocracy” but set in an ill-defined past instead of in the future, and geared toward children rather than adults. If it was meant as a jab at the Soviets for the bumbling ineptitude in which their system of governance resulted, it seems to have escaped the wrath of the USSR and – in fact – the author seems have done well for himself.

This is one of those children’s books, where I believe the age of the child matters greatly. Let’s consider just one of the stories from the book. Facing a salt shortage, the foolish Gothamites plant a field with little crystals of salt. When weeds begin to sprout, as will happen in a fallow field, the Gothamites are sure they are on the right track. There is an age at which this story is humorous and / or provides a teachable moment, but an older age at which the recipient of the story finds it boring and cringe-worthy. I think at the sweet-spot, the stories are funny and may offer ways to encourage judicious thinking. It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny for an adult reader, but it’s all about finding the right audience.

There are whimsical artworks throughout, depicting scenes from the various misadventures of the Gothamites. As far as how individuals are drawn, it reminded me of the old Popeye cartoons, but most of the plates show a chaotic scene with many silly things going on at once.

As l said, I think one has a limited window for an ideal readership, but within that window I think children will find the stories amusing and playful, and parents will find it to be wholesome humor. For that readership, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jabu and the Lion ed. by Tanya Munshi

Jabu and the lion (Folktales)Jabu and the lion by Tanya Munshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a simple children’s book about the virtues of keeping one’s word and the nature of karmic justice.

Jabu is a boy, a cowherd in Africa. One day he’s taking his cattle to the river to drink when he comes across a lion in a trap. The lion implores Jabu to let him go. While the boy doesn’t trust the lion at first, he ultimately agrees. The lion decides to renege, but Jabu reasons with the big cat that it would be wrong to go back on the promise not to make a meal of the young boy. Jabu, recognizing he’s not an unbiased party, asks two animals—a donkey and a jackal—to give their view. The sly jackal helps Jabu.

This is book for young children. It has colorful graphics, and the entire book is less than 30 pages. It has a simple story that conveys a moral.

If you’re teaching kids about being true to one’s word, this simple tale will help illustrate the point.
This folktale also nicely conveys something of life in Africa, which may be of value to students living elsewhere.

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BOOK REVIEW: The BFG by Roald Dahl

The BFGThe BFG by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an excellent, little story about a big, friendly Giant [hence, BFG.] The main characters are the BFG and an orphan named Sophie. The former abducts the later from her bed, which sounds terrible, but he’s conflicted about it. He snatches her because she saw him during his late-night work delivering good dreams to children, and he can’t have any witnesses lest the townspeople get pitch-forky with him. Sophie has no parents or siblings to miss her, and she doesn’t mind being away from the orphanage and making a Giant new friend, but she doesn’t wish to live out her life in Giant Country. While the BFG is a kind and delightful character, he’s the exception to the rule when it comes to Giants. Furthermore, because he lives off the snozzcumber [a repulsive vegetable] rather than dining on people, he’s a runt among his human-eating species. Therefore, he’s no match for his nine mischievous fellow residents of Giant Country. Sophie and the BFG work together to try to achieve an end that is pleasing for all parties concerned—well, except for the nine human-eating giants.

The story is clever, and the BFG character is well-developed and interesting. BFG is wise, but he has trouble with language owing to his lack of formal education and he often mixes it up in whimsical ways. He’s also conscientious about his work of catching dreams and delivering them into the bedrooms of sleeping children so they can have delightful dreams. He also takes bad dreams out of commission by catching them in a jar and keeping them on shelves in his cave. Sophie is smart and likable—if not as interesting than BFG.

The book is illustrated by Quentin Blake in the same style as the other Dahl books. The version I have has black-and-white line drawings, but there is color edition that may be more appealing to children.

This is a great story presented with humor, and I recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery

The Little PrinceThe Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A pilot crash lands in the middle of the desert and meets a little traveler who came from a tiny planet. As this “Little Prince” tells of his travels, he shares his child-like (not to be confused with “childish”) wisdom on friendship and how adults misunderstand what are “matters of consequence.” While the Little Prince takes a child’s perspective, one’s responsibility to others is an important theme. Of course, that may just be the theme intended for children. At the same time, the lesson for adults may be to reevaluate what one considers important. (The reader may be familiar with the controversy as to whether this is really a work of children’s literature.)

The book is humorous and light-hearted, but with some serious themes and moments. There are many though-provoking ideas in this classic. Some quotes that struck me as profound are:

“The thing that is important is the thing that is not seen.”

“One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets oneself be tamed.”

“’Then you shall judge yourself,’ the king answered. ‘That is the most difficult thing of all.’”

“For it is possible for a man to be faithful and lazy at the same time.”

It’s a tiny book—less than 100 pages, including the many color drawings that feature throughout the book.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who hasn’t read it at least once. (There may be a couple of you out there.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman

Fortunately, the MilkFortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It’s “The Usual Suspects” for kids, but with Gaiman’s humor and imagination. A father goes out to buy a carton of milk for his kids’ cereal. When he comes back after being long delinquent, he’s got a rather extraordinary explanation for why the short run to the corner c-store took so long.

I read in a Gaiman’s new nonfiction collection, “The View from the Cheap Seats,” (due out May 31, 2016) that even he got grief for writing a children’s book in which the lead isn’t a child. But, he’s Neil Gaiman; so they wisely published it anyway. While the book is aimed at the children’s market, there’s enough humor and absurd happenings to keep an adult reading. So the risky choice of protagonist may prove useful. It certainly helps Gaiman’s argument against narrow definitions of children’s versus adult books (also discussed in detail “The View from the Cheap Seats.”)

Apropos of a youth market book, it’s only about 140 pages, but that’s with extensive illustrations (on almost every page, and many are full-page) and large font. Chris Riddell’s black and white drawings match the whimsicality of the text well.

I’d recommend the book for anyone who reads kid’s books (whether they’re a kid or not.)

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