Book: Ali Baba: Fooling the Forty Thieves

Ali Baba: Fooling the Forty ThievesAli Baba: Fooling the Forty Thieves
Marie P. Croall
illustrated by Clint Hilinski
2008 (Graphic Universe/Lerner)

I wouldn’t have expected it, but the graphic novel format lends itself well to the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” from the Arabian Nights. The tale follows Ali Baba as he discovers the secret lair of a group of thieves and steals from it. Later his brother’s wife discovers that Ali Baba has money and urges her husband to find out the secret, which he does. After hearing it he, of course, goes to the lair as well. He does not fare as well as Ali Baba and is brutally murdered by the thieves. Ali Baba retrieves his brother’s body and the thieves come after him. Luckily, Ali Baba has a servant who is much more clever than him or than the thieves and through various observations and smart moves she repeatedly saves her master’s life.

Croall and Hilinski do a brilliant job telling this story with sequential art. I was particularly impressed at their use of panels without speech bubbles or much action to relay mood and moments of consideration and contemplation. Since this is actually a story without a whole lot of action (part of the story is almost more like a chess game being played between Morgiana and the thieves), those moments are extremely important. I was also impressed with the look of the world they created. I’m so used to illustrations for stories from the Arabian Nights where the girls all look like they just stepped out of a harem and the men are muscle-bound and always armed to the teeth that it was extremely refreshing to find that everyone in here looked like a real person. The women were wrapped up as women actually would have been! Everyone had extremely light skin (Ali Baba is almost as fair as I am), but I guess you can’t have everything. The only piece of art in the book that I actually thought didn’t fit at all was the cover art. It doesn’t represent either the character or the story well at all, and that’s a shame.

This telling of the story highlights one of the major oddnesses of it – the fact that Ali Baba gets all the credit. He really doesn’t do much of anything. Actually, he’s very dubiously moral in stealing from the thieves in the first place, so it’s hard to feel too bad for him when they start to cause him trouble. The real hero of this tale is Morgiana, the servant girl who manages to both outsmart everyone else and get to stick a knife into the bad guy, killing him without help. After reading this, I’m left wondering why she wasn’t on the cover of the book instead of ineffectual Ali Baba.

This was an excellent, dynamic telling of this story and I highly recommend it. Not only would it be great paired with more traditional versions of Arabian Nights stories, but it would be a great heroic story with some unusual twists as well. References from “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” so pervade our popular culture (it seems like every cartoon character ever has said “open sesame” at some point) but few people really seem to know the story anymore. This is such an approachable, well done version that I see no reason why that couldn’t be changed!

- Publisher’s Description

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Skater Girl

Skater GirlSkater Girl
Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
2007 (Random House)

Babymouse stares longingly at the trophies in the school trophy case, none of which bear her name, remembering all of her less-than-thrilling “honorable mentions” and wishing that she could get a trophy of her own. Chances for glory come in unexpected places, however. As Babymouse is skating with her friends on a pond one day a famous figure skating coach stops her and invites her to train at the ice rink after school. With dreams of being an ice princess, Babymouse joyfully shows up for practice after practice, only to find out that it isn’t quite what she expected.

Yet again Jennifer and Matthew Holm have woven a delightful Babymouse story. This one is not quite as sharp as some of their previous titles, but for readers who already love this character and her world it will be more than satisfying. The ending is predictable (we don’t actually expect Babymouse to go on to win Olympic gold medals, after all), but the way the story gets there is sometimes surprising.

It’s very nice to see a book for kids where it’s ok for the main character to quit something. So often we end up with book after book after book repeating “I think I can” and showing kids working hard for impossible dreams and succeeding, which is great, but not always realistic. Sometimes you just can’t, or you choose not to, and both of those circumstances are ok. For Babymouse, it was ok. Even her mom said so!

I’m constantly impressed with the art in this series. It never gets repetitive or dull. Every installment is fresh and exploding with energy. The spare color palette (black, white and pink) makes for easy visual transitions between what is real and what is happening in Babymouse’s imagination. Still, I’m not sure I’ve quite figured out how much is real about the weirdnesses in her locker and that’s just fine with me!

While this isn’t the best of the Babymouse books, it’s certainly still a wonderful book and I highly recommend it. Babymouse may not be a skating star, but she is still a blast to read about!

- Publisher’s Description
- The Official Babymouse Website

- Jennifer L. Holm’s Website
- Matthew Holm’s Blog

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Sisters of the Sword

Sisters of the SwordSisters of the Sword
Maya Snow
2008 (Working Partners/HarperCollins)

Sisters of the Sword is the first in a series about two sisters, the daughters of a great Samurai leader, who become great samurai themselves. The sisters, Kimi and Hana, watch as their father and older brothers are brutally murdered by their uncle and then the two flee for their lives. They end up at the school where new samurai warriors are trained and, disguised as boys, beg to join it as students. The master says that the school is full, but grants them positions as servants which would allow them to train and learn alongside the students as long as their work got done. In this way, the two girls train in secret forming plans for the future.

The story this book tells is incredibly intriguing. The plot is complicated and many threads are left for the author to pick up in later books. What makes it so interesting is the political intrigue, various codes (bushi, noble and and likely others that are less well defined for us as readers, at least at this point), and the deceptions being overlaid on top of each other in varying ways. While the crime of the murders itself seems fairly straightforward, the fallout from it is anything but. Kimi, our narrator, is focused on the internal goings on of the dojo (the samurai school), but the world outside is clearly still moving and Snow does a great job of making that clear. In the meantime, Kimi and Hana are trying hard to come to terms with what is, for them, a very personal loss and figure out what they are going to do next.

Kimi starts and ends the book with messages from the future, reminding us that she survived all of this. She lays on pretty thick, however, that much was lost along the way (it is unclear if even Hana is still with her). These messages may end up being very meaningful for the series as a whole, but in terms of this book by itself, they seem out of place. Not only do they not make much sense in the context of this book by itself, but they simply seem there to remind you that she is a good warrior. The story shows us that clearly so Snow had no need to tell it to us explicitly. I think that I would have enjoyed Kimi’s journey more if I hadn’t known that she would succeed in becoming a samurai from the outset. Some mystery is a good thing.

I would definitely read a sequel to this book because I did find the plot interesting and I liked Kimi as a character, however I found this book rather frustrating. It very much does not stand alone, which can be annoying. I want some resolution of something at the end of a book, even if this is clearly not the end of the story. This didn’t end in resolution, this ended in a leaping off point. I felt like there was a point about two-thirds of the way through the book that would have made an excellent ending, but obviously more happened after that.

Stories where girls disguise themselves as boys are always interesting to me. It presents a number of interesting issues, but is such a good storytelling technique (and so necessary from a historical point of view sometimes) that it is done frequently in fiction. I felt that this book actually glossed over that element a lot. I kept wondering how the girls looked like boys with their hair up but as soon as it fell out of the topknot it was bound in, they looked immediately liked girls again. Their faces should look the same and the boys, in theory, all had hair just as long. So why the sudden revelation? From a historical standpoint, it seemed odd. If all it took to look like boys was putting their hair up in a boys’ hairstyle, why would their hair falling out suddenly break that illusion? In terms of otherwise pretending to be boys, little else seemed to matter. Occasionally the girls’ deepened their voices when dealing with people who might recognize them, but this largely seemed irrelevant and no other changes or deceptions were mentioned.

For two noblewomen, Kimi and Hana seemed unnaturally comfortable in a school full of men and boys. Perhaps this was because the student politics of the school was surprisingly feminine. The school bully acts very much like a high school queen bee, not like a popular or powerful boy. He bullies by finding out people’s secrets and using them against them, practicing deception, making others look bad to those in authority, putting people down and puffing himself up, but rarely actually physical bullying. That’s a classic girl way of getting and maintaining social power in a school or other similar social environment, but not a typical boy one. The servants gossip and warn each other of potential dangers and risks (even simply risks to personal pride), a very standard female group behavior as well. It’s no wonder two girls fit in perfectly!

While I found a lot to like about this book, I can’t honestly say that I’d really recommend it. Perhaps when the series is completed it will stand as a wonderful set of books, but this one alone just isn’t enough. I’m glad that I got to read it, but I’m certainly not going to run out for the sequel when it comes out either (I might pick it up in paperback, but certainly not in hardcover).

Sisters of the Sword altA note on the cover: The cover shown in this post is the one on the book that I received. I’m hoping that it’s the final cover, as opposed to the one on the HarperCollins website (see small image to the right). The girl on mine is much more appropriate – she’s strong and confident, I could believe that she would disguise herself as a boy successfully and train as a warrior. The girl on the website image reminds me of the stereotypical willowy lotus-blossom girls. She’s too delicate and sweetly posed, I’d never believe that she’s Kimi. She doesn’t have the fire that made the character fun to read about. I’d never believe a girl like that could do the things Kimi and Hana did. I’d believe it from the cover I got (see the large image at the top of this post).

- Buy it from Amazon

New Pixel Dolls: Shackled City and Book Characters

I know that it’s been a really long time since I’ve posted any pixel dolls, but I have some new ones today. Some have been sitting on my computer waiting to be posted for a really long time while a few are pretty recent creations. Madam Mim is probably the oldest, but she was certainly fun to do. I always loved Madam Mim as she’s portrayed in the Disney version of “The Sword in the Stone” and I just couldn’t resist doing a doll of her! After that I did a few more American Girl dolls (Kaya, Elizabeth and Addy). They’re fun to do because of the historical costumes and cute details. I’m sure I’ll do more of them at some point! Superwoman there is Lois Lane from one of the many times that she got superpowers (I can’t believe how often that happened). I was mostly amused by the heart-shaped Super symbol on the costume! Lois is always fun to do, as well. The lovely lady in blue and green is Beauty from “Beauty and the Beast”. The dress came from a picture book version of the story that I have and I just kind of liked it, so I decided to try turning it into a doll. The colors presented more of a challenge than I anticipated and she’s rather brighter than I planned, but in general I like how she turned out.

The last two dolls here are by far my favorites. They represent my character from a past roleplaying game – check out the Shackled City wiki for details on this game and the characters from it – and one of the NPCs we interacted with regularly. In the blue is Verana, my rogue character. She was a great character and dear to my heart. I spent a lot of time on her and am extremely proud of how she turned out. The cleric in white is Jenya, who saved the party more times than I would care to remember! I’m not good at shading white, so she was challenging, but the mace was fun and I generally like how she turned out.

As always, if you click on the dolls they will send you to the sites of their basemakers and they will all be represented on the appropriate doll pages of my website from here on out.

Madam MimMeet ElizabethMeet AddySuperwoman Lois LaneBeautyVeranaJenya

Book: Just Listen

Just ListenJust Listen
Sarah Dessen
2006 (Viking/Penguin)

Annabel is the sort of girl who hates confrontation. She is quiet and generally keeps her head down. Her family is full of drama and her social life has fallen apart because her best friend has dropped her because of events from a few months back. At the beginning of the school year she feels incredibly alone. Enter Owen, a boy who is no stranger to confrontation and insists on always telling the truth. He is obsessed with music of all kinds and when he and Annabel begin to be friends, he quickly begins to share his love of music with her. Annabel is thrilled to have such a good friend, but she ultimately has to save herself.

This book is extremely character driven. Very little action occurs throughout the book, but a lot happens. I was initially very put off by the frequent long flashbacks that seemed to drive the book (it felt like the story hadn’t even started until the fifth chapter), but by the end I appreciated all the information. I think that all the flashbacks were necessary, but I think Dessen probably could have spaced them out differently and achieved a slightly more balanced feel to the book. The fact the characters in this book were so strong is really what made it work. I wanted to know more about Owen every time Annabel encountered him, but since the story was from Annabel’s point of view I was restricted to what she knew. Annabel herself was interesting. I can’t say that I always liked her, but I think that’s part of why she worked for this particular story. I would have had a hard time swallowing this story if the main character hadn’t been believable, which was tricky with this plot, but Dessen pulled it off beautifully. I may have been horrified by Annabel’s actions sometimes and just wanted to sit her down and lecture her about what she should have done, but I never disbelieved that she would have acted exactly the way she did.

It’s hard not to see the obvious parallel between the plot of this book and the plot of Speak, but they are fundamentally very different. Both looked at similar situations in believable ways where the characters acted very differently. I wouldn’t say that this is a book I wish every high schooler would read, although I’m tempted to say that about Speak sometimes, because the story here didn’t make it as necessary a story to have read. I do think that it was great, strong story and I could absolutely see it being one that some women find hauntingly close to home, the very fact of which is important for the rest of us to understand. This was well written and well presented, but it just didn’t have the timeless, necessary feel that a required read usually does. Nevertheless, I’m quite glad that someone wrote this story.

This is a powerful, enjoyable book. It deals with several tough topics in a really well-crafted story. I wish the structure had been a little different so that it was easier to get into, but that seems like a small complaint for such a good book. I would absolutely read other books by Sarah Dessen and I would unquestionably recommend this book. It was a good read and told a story that I think needs telling. I hope that it gets the readership that it deserves!

- Publisher’s Description

- Readergirlz issue 14 (March 2008)

- Sarah Dessen’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon