Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke

Published by First Second 

Summary:  Jack’s summer is not looking too great: he’s expected to take care of his autistic sister Maddie while his single mom struggles to make ends meet with two jobs.  At a flea market, an unsavory vendor (with the help of Maddie, speaking for the first time) trades Jack a box of seeds for the keys to his mother’s car.  Needless to say, this doesn’t go over too well with Mom.  The next day, Maddie is outside at the crack of dawn, digging up the backyard to plant the seeds.  Before long, the two kids have created a garden of plants that come to life in more ways than one, and that attracts both the neighbor girl, Lilly, and a talking dragon.  After a gigantic snail almost crushes Maddie, Jack has had enough, and tries to burn the entire garden.  But complete destruction seems impossible, and by the end of this book, Maddie’s been carried off by a garden monster, and Lilly and Jack are arming themselves to go after her.  Readers will have to wait for the next installment to see if they will be successful.  208 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This graphic novel retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk has all the adventure, compelling characters, and fantastic artwork to make it irresistible to middle grade readers.

Cons:  The cliffhanger ending.

The Ninjabread Man by C. J. Leigh, pictures by Chris Gall

Published by Orchard Books

 

Summary:  As a reward to his hardworking ninja students, Sensei makes ninjabread, an age-old recipe that contains mysterious powers.  After making ninjabread swords and throwing stars, he makes a Ninjabread Man.  When Sensei checks to see how the cookies are baking, ka-pow!  The Ninjabread Man comes to life and runs off.  He taunts the other students, Bear, Snake, and Mouse, with different variations of the “You can’t catch me” rhyme.  Finally, he comes upon Fox, meditating by a waterfall.  Fox cleverly pretends he can’t hear the Ninjabread Man, luring him closer until the sly canine scarfs him up.  And in another dojo far away, another sensei begins the process of making ninjabread.  Includes recipe and brief glossary.  40 pages; ages 4-6.

Pros:  In this season of gingerbread men, kids will enjoy comparing the traditional tale with the ninja version.

Cons:  The ending was a bit of an anticlimax.

The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes by Duncan Tonatiuh

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers 

Summary:  Izta is a princess of the people, so when she falls in love, it isn’t with one of the wealthy suitors who travel from distant lands to court her.  The warrior Popoca can’t offer her riches, but he recognizes her kind heart and promises to always be faithful to her.  The king would prefer a more titled son-in-law, but he agrees to let the two marry if Popoca can defeat Jaguar Claw, a neighboring king who has caused trouble for years.  Popoca goes off to battle.  When Jaguar Claw realizes he is near defeat, he sends a messenger to tell Izta that her fiancé has been killed.  Grief-stricken, she drinks a potion that the messenger says will ease her sorrow.  Instead, it puts her into a deep sleep from which she never awakens.  When Popoca returns, he brings her outside to try to revive her, and there they stay, together, until they have turned into the two volcanoes, Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl.  An author’s note gives more history of this Aztec legend.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  A captivating retelling of a Mexican legend that explains the existence of two volcanoes visible from Mexico City.  Award-winning author-illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh brings his distinctive style to the art done in the traditional Aztec style.

Cons:  Even with the glossary and pronunciation guide at the end, pronouncing the Aztec words is a challenge.

Jason and the Argonauts: The First Great Quest in Greek Mythology by Robert Byrd

Published by Dial Books for Young Readers

 

Summary:  Robert Byrd retells and illustrates the Greek myths about Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece.  He begins with the tale of how the Golden Fleece came to be, then moves on to Jason’s task to go in search of it, the help he received from Hera, and how he gathered the Argonauts to be his crew (Orpheus, Atalanta, and Hercules were all Argonauts…who knew?).  The crew sets sail, and encounters many dangers and adventures before finally returning with the Fleece, after which everything pretty much goes straight downhill.  Each two-page spread is a separate story; many have sidebars describing a deity or other mythological character who appears in the tale.  The final two pages includes brief profiles of the twelve Olympians (actually, thirteen), an author’s note, and a bibliography. Endpapers show a map of Jason’s journey.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A fantastic first book of mythology.  The story is an exciting adventure, with plenty of interesting details, both in the text and the illustrations.  The sidebars expand on the pantheon to introduce readers to many characters from the Greek myths.

Cons:  Those gods and goddesses sure were a fickle bunch.

Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan

Publisher:  Candlewick Press 

Summary:  The story of Snow White is retold in a Depression-era New York City setting.  Samantha White’s mother often calls her Snow, but sadly she dies of what appears to be tuberculosis when Samantha is still quite young.  Enter the evil stepmother, queen of the Ziegfeld Follies, who dazzles Snow’s father into marriage, then sends her stepdaughter away to school.  Before long, the father is dead, and the stepmother sets her sights on Snow.  Running away, Snow meets up with seven young street urchins who hide her and protect her as best they can.  They’re no match for Snow’s evil foe, though, and before long, Snow has fallen into a deep sleep.  A handsome New York City detective holds the key to her awakening, the evil stepmother is disposed of in a fitting ending, and Snow, the detective, and their seven boys live happily ever after.  216 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  An amazingly well-done retelling of the classic tale in an unexpected setting.  It’s a story of few words, with much of it being told through the artwork, which perfectly captures the era.

Cons:  This evil stepmother goes beyond Disney…she’s a cold-blooded killer with at least two murders under her belt before she goes after Snow.

Rattlestiltskin by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Erin Camarca

Published by WestWinds Press 

Summary:  The classic fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin is given a Spanish twist.  Senora Gonzales brags that her daughter Rosalia can make tortillas light enough to float.  When wealthy Don Ignacio challenges her to come make some for him, Rosalia fears she’s in trouble.  She gets to work, hoping for the best, but her tortillas don’t float.  Just when she is about to despair, a strange little man dressed in rattlesnake skins pops out of the oven.  He gives her the secret for making floating tortillas in exchange for Rosalia’s promise that she’ll do anything he asks, then disappears back into his oven.  Don Ignnacio is impressed enough to invite her to come live on the hacienda and cook for him.  All is well for a while, but one day the little man reappears and demands that Rosalia comes to work as a maid for him and his friends.  Just like in Rumpelstiltskin, the deal will be off if she can guess his name, and after two sets of three guesses, she manages to learn that his real name is Rattlestiltskin.  She gets it in three the next day, Rattlestiltskin self-destructs, and Rosalia, Don Ignacio, and even Senora Gonzales live happily ever after.  Includes a recipe for homemade tortillas.  32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  A fun compare and contrast with a classic retelling like Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rumpelstiltkin.  The mood of this version is definitely lighter, and the Spanish setting , characters, and language add an interesting twist.

Cons:  I missed some of the ominous bizarreness that characterizes more tradition versions.

The Storyteller by Evan Turk

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers 

Summary:  Many years ago, in Morocco, people were sustained by the cool water of their fountains and the refreshing tales of their storytellers.  As life got easier, though, the storytellers began to die out; at the same time, the fountains started to dry up.  When a young boy goes in search of water, he finds a storyteller perched on the edge of a dried-up fountain.  After listening to the storyteller’s captivating tale, the boy finds his cup is full of water.  Each part of the story ends with a cliffhanger, and the boy returns each day until the fountain is full again.  When a djinn from the Sahara desert threatens to destroy the drought-stricken city, the boy becomes the storyteller, keeping the djinn at bay until the people of the town unite to fill all the fountains and save their city. An author’s note tells of Morocco’s storytellers, whose traditions have been being replaced by TV and the Internet, and a recent move to preserve their art. 40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A beautiful tale that explores the power of stories in humans’ lives.  The unique blue-and-gold themed illustrations may put this book on the Caldecott contenders’ list.

Cons:  A little difficult to classify the genre; while it has the feel of a folktale, it is not a traditional story.  The publisher calls it “an original folktale”.  .