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Best Books of 2007

Each of these four titles takes a risk. A picture book that describes life behind the iron curtain, a graphic novel in which the images and emotion are so rich that no words are needed to describe the immigrants' experience. A fairy tale that is anything but sentimental and a novel that breathes life to science. The authors and illustrators have created books that provoke the reader to think and to feel. These books challenge readers to look at the world differently. All with elegance, wisdom and wit.

The Tinderbox The Tinderbox
Ages: 6 & Up
Author: Hans Christian Andersen   Illustrator: Bagram Ibatoulline   Told By: Stephen Mitchell  
Candlewick Press, $17.99 (Hard Cover)   

This violent tale, one of Andersen's more horrific narratives, is not as frequently rendered in picture book form as some of his (marginally) more benign offerings. Last illustrated and adapted by Barry Moser in 1990 (set in the American south) and before that by Warwick Hutton in 1988 (set in a fairytale world of castles and kings), The Tinderbox tells of a soldier who beheads a witch after she helps him acquire a fortune in gold, kidnaps a princess by night with the aid of three magical dogs, and tosses the king and queen (who rightfully object to his courting ways) "into the air so high that when they came down, their bones broke into many pieces and they all died." While modern sensibilities may quail at the injustice of it all, there is a certain grisly satisfaction in seeing the downtrodden - who must live by their wits and little else - not only triumph but assume the throne as well. Does today's political climate give added resonance to this tale? In any event, Ibatoulline's illustrations do it full justice: his witch comes equipped with snakes in her hair and a (human?) bone sticking out of her bag; his dogs are snaggle-toothed brutes; and his princess suitably lush. Detailed fine-line cross-hatched drawings, pales tints, and Rubenseque figures are reminiscent, at times, of Sendak, and at others seem to pay homage to the old masters of European art. This ideal melding of text and illustration will bring a whole new readership to this lesser known tale.

The Wall: Growing Up Behind The Iron Curtain The Wall: Growing Up Behind The Iron Curtain
Ages: 8 & Up
Author: Peter Sis  
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, $18.00 (Hard Cover)   

Despite the oversized picture book format, this graphic-style history/memoir which depicts life behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War era is best suited to upper elementary, middle and even high school students. While the single line of text across the bottom tells the author’s personal story, from birth through November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall came down, the majority of each page depicts the historical context in which the author grew up. Life in Czechoslovakia during the ‘50s and ‘60s seesawed from harsh Russian repression to Alexander Dubcek’s well-intentioned but ultimately doomed reform government. Through it all, the baby grows from toddler to teenager, always drawing, always painting and always dreaming of freedom. The illustrations, done mostly in fine-line black against white, are punctuated with splashes of compulsory red in the form of flags, stars, scythes and sickles, and contain a wealth of grotesque details and complex symbolism. When freedom sneaks into the political climate, the pinched dimensions and somber tone give way to bursts of vibrant color. Endpapers show a world map steeped in the same bloody red while an introduction and afterword add further context to the discreet information-bites provided by the text. It will take an astute reader to combine the visual and textual information in this complex presentation, but those who stick with it will be richly rewarded with a haunting sense of what life without freedom really means.

George's Secret Key to the Universe George's Secret Key to the Universe
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (Hard Cover)   

Written for young readers by Lucy and Stephen Hawking - a duo featuring the world-renowned physicist and his novelist daughter - the book follows the adventures of George, a curious boy who discovers some strange and interesting activity happening just next door. George's neighbor, Eric, is a scientist with a powerful computer that can open up windows onto the Universe and even enable people to step through doorways into the cold vastness of outer space. With a little push from Annie, Eric's headstrong daughter, George finds himself going through one of those doorways himself. Soon he is riding a comet, zooming past the planets in the Solar System, experiencing weightlessness and being pelted with asteroids. Back home, on Earth, life is getting more interesting too, as a villainous teacher named Mr. Reeper corrals a few school bullies to help him with a treacherous plan that puts Eric - and, to a certain extent, humanity - in real danger. George's Secret Key harnesses several mind-blowing, "no way!" moments of scientific discovery, puts them in easy-to-understand language, and then uses them to propel readers through the story.

The Arrival The Arrival
Ages: 10 & Up
Author: Arthur Levine   Author: Shaun Tan   Illustrator: Shaun Tan  
Scholastic, $19.99 (Hard Cover)   

Rarely has the immigrant experience been portrayed in such a visceral way: frightening, somber, thrilling, wondrous, dangerous and terribly, terribly lonely. In a wordless narrative, revealed through a magnificent sequence of surreal images in which even the slightest variation in tonality - from graphite grey to sepia - is fraught with meaning, readers follow the journey of an unnamed everyman as he packs his suitcase, walks to the station with wife and daughter (amid shadows of huge spiked tails curling across the walls of the town), and boards a train to who knows where. His arrival in his new home could be, for all intents, stepping ashore on an entirely different planet...albeit one whose underpinnings are just recognizable enough to be wholly unsettling. One single two-image sequence near the outset (there are almost 600 individual pictures in this cinematic 66 page, 6 chapter presentation) of clasped hands slowly drawing apart is enough to rend even the stoniest heart. Hands, in fact, are a central image in this merged landscape where dreams are concrete and reality is a mirage. Ultimately, however, it is the image of a paper bird, fragile as hope, that brings the tale full circle. From faux antique-journal covers to virtually stained, crumpled and foxed pages, this is not a graphic novel, it is a graphic triumph.

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