May 6, 2009

Blueberry Girl and The Dangerous Alphabet

Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess is my new favourite picture book. I have been reading it every evening since the day I got it, which is something I hadn’t done since—I can’t even remember when. There are no children in my life at this point, so I’m not much in the habit of reading the same picture book over and over again. But books like this are a good reminder of how fun it can be to just do it on my own, with no witnesses but the cats.

Blueberry Girl began as a poem written for Tori Amos’ daughter Natashya when she was just “a bump and a due date”. It’s not a very long poem – only eighteen lines – but it’s so emotionally rich. Charles Vess’ gorgeous illustrations, which fit its tone perfectly, show a girl, or several girls, growing up, exploring the world, and having adventures.

I really like how Neil Gaiman depicts parenthood in his books. There’s always a lot of tenderness, and also a deep respect for each child as an independent person with a life of their own ahead of them. This kind of respect is easy to take for granted, but it’s important to remember it’s not a universal thing. We can find examples in the lovely poem “Locks”, in The Graveyard Book, and even in Anansi Boys, in some ways if not in others. And of course, the absence of this kind of respect is one of the things that makes Coraline’s Other Mother such a terrifying character.

Blueberry Girl is full of these feelings: love for the person this girl will become, and not merely for the role of “daughter” she'll fulfil; the wish that she'll live her life fully and independently, hopefully not making too many painful mistakes, but respecting whatever her choices might be – and also the knowledge that a life completely free of painful mistakes is not a life fully lived; the willingness to let her go when the time comes.

Another thing I loved were the fairy tale references (“keep her from spindles and sleeps at sixteen”), as well as the nods to other dangers and potential sorrows that only come later in life. Although I always feel uncomfortable saying “people of this age will/will not like this or that book”, Blueberry Girl seems to be the kind of book that will be read and enjoyed by both children and adults, but for different reasons and in different ways. And this tends to be the case with all my favourite children’s books.

My favourite lines are perhaps:
Let her go places that we’ve never been,
trust and delight in her youth.
Words can be worrisome,
people complex,
motives and manner unclear,
grant her the wisdom to choose her path right,
free from unkindness and fear.
I tear up every time. This is a beautiful and moving book, and I honestly couldn’t have loved it more. An extra reason to buy it: sales of book will benefit RAINN.

Other Opinions:
Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
A High and Hidden Place
The Bookbag
Great Kid Books

(Please let me know if I missed yours.)

The Dangerous Alphabeth, by Neil Gaiman and Gris Gimly, is a different sort of book altogether. I find that I have less to say about it, but this doesn’t mean I didn’t love it. I did, but in a completely different way.

Told in thirteen rhyming couplets, one line for each letter of the alphabet, The Dangerous Alphabet is the story of two children and their pet gazelle, who meet monsters and pirates under their city and have a deliciously creepy adventure.

Let me share the warning at the beginning of the book, as I believe it sets the tone for the story perfectly:
A piratical ghost story in thirteen ingenious by potentially disturbing rhyming couplets, originally conceived as a confection both to amuse and to entertain by Mr. Neil Gaiman, scrivener, and then doodled, elaborated upon, illustrated, and beaten soundly by Mr. Gris Grimly, etcher and illuminator, featuring two brave children, their diminutive but no less courageous gazelle, and a large number of extremely dangerous trolls, monsters, bugbears, creatures, and other such nastinesses, many of which have perfectly disgusting eating habits and ought not, under any circumstances, to be encouraged.

Please Note: The alphabet, as given in this publication, is not to be relied upon and has a dangerous flaw that an eagle-eyed reader may be able to discern.
Gris Grimly’s illustrations are wonderful, and the book is a lot of fun. Especially the language, which is a great fun to read aloud. (My cats seem to enjoy it when I read it. They do!) A few of my favourite couplets:
I am the author who scratches these rhymes.
J is the joke monsters make of its crimes.

M is for Mirrors you’ll stare in forever.
N is for Night and for Nothing and Never.

U are the reader who shivers with dread.
W’s Warnings went over your head.
I just love how he puts that “I” and “U” in there and gives a nod to the act of storytelling, all without even coming close to breaking the spell of the story.

Other Opinions
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Books & Other Thoughts
Rebecca Reads
Stella Matutina
Stainless Steel Droppings
filling my mind with geh
Writing and Ruminating
Girl Detective
Book Zombie

(Did I miss yours? Let me know.)


  1. These sounds like two very interesting children's books! I had no idea Gaiman even wrote books for children so young. I think I might send these two to my two year old sister. She can barely talk but you can't start them too early! =)

  2. Nymeth, thanks for stopping by my blog! I always enjoy reading your reviews and admiring the lovely bookmarks that you make. :o)

  3. Hi Nymeth - glad to see your back and sorry to have taken so long to come by and comment. As always, lovely reviews. I ♥ Neil Gaiman.

  4. These sound like a lot of fun. I don't have any kids in my life either but a friend just had a baby so I'm thinking these might be a nice gift. And I'll just have to sneak a read in before I give them. :)

  5. Oh, both of those look SO good!! Thanks for posting the video too, I loved it.

  6. Yes, Blueberry Girl is so lovely, isn't it? The only thing I could love about it more is to listen to Neil read it. That would probably make me swoon. lol

    I need to get my hands on The Dangerous Alphabet. It looks like a lot of fun too!

  7. I didn't realise that Neil Gaiman wrote books for younger children too. He is very versatile. These books sounds really beautiful

  8. I'm so tempted to get a copy of The Blueberry Girl! Vess' artwork looks just gorgeous! :D

  9. Wow, I really need to get a copy of The Dangerous Alphabet - it looks so clever! The illustrations are naturally gorgeous Grimley is a genius imo. For some reason after looking at the pictures you included in your review I have this mad desire to paint them as wall murals on our walls - and yes I do that weird sort of thing all the time :P

  10. I want to read both of these. I'll probably just get them from the library, though...

  11. These books look perfect for my friends seven and five year old. I will have to look into getting them a copy. Thanks for posting this, I always have a hard time finding good children's books

  12. I can't count how many times I've listened to that Blueberry Girl extract. I love it :)

  13. I read Blueberry Girl the moment I received it, and I loved it not only the illustrations are beautiful but the passages Neil wrote are so powerful and moving!! You bet I'll read this book to my daughters for many, many times!

    And I need to get a copy of The Dangerous Alphabeth soon!

  14. As you can guess, I absolutely loved these reviews Nymeth :) They were just perfect. I'm with you on Blueberry matter how many times I read it, it always chokes me up a little bit. Just beautiful. I'm thinking this post is eligible for another link from Neil ;)

  15. Oh, I really really really want these books now! They just got put on my wishlist yesterday :-D and now your review makes me want them very soon! Both, for different reasons, as you say, and i think my children (who am I kidding? they're for me! I'll share them with my kids!) will also like them for different reasons.

    Lovely reviews, Nymeth. :-D

  16. I guess began as a poem for Tori Amos's daughter written by Gaiman? Is there a connection between the two? I used to LOOOOOVE Tori Amos, but I haven't listened to anything new by her in years. I guess since To Venus and Back? Man, that can't be right. Love Little Earthquakes--my favorite of her albums. I'm rambling. I'll have to be on the look out for this one since I'll be in charge of reading material for my niece. :)

  17. I just LOVE the cover of Blueberry girl. I guess Natashya is very lucky to have Neil Gaiman write a poem on her.

    Now I need to get my hands on this.

    Thankfully I am able to comment on your blog today. For the last couple of days the comment section just didn't open.

  18. I have had The Blueberry Girl on my wishlist for some time but definitely want it now; I have listened to Neil reading it, whilst looking at the illustrations, over and over again.
    He has such a wonderful voice for reading and story-telling. I went to a UK preview of Coraline last night and he and Henry Selick did a Q&A session afterwards; as always Neil was thoroughly charming and amusing.

  19. J.S. Peyton: He has other picture books: The Day I Swapped My Father for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls, both illustrated by Dave McKean and both highly recommended :D And there's another one coming out soon: Crazy Hair.

    Bookgirlokc: Aww, thank you for the kind words! I've only now discovered your blog, but I'll be back for sure!

    Nely, no need to apologize! It's good to be back :)

    tanabata: Yes, these would make a fantastic gift for a new mother! And hehehe, no harm in reading them yourself before ;)

    Bethany: They really are! I just love the video. I've watched it countless times, but it still makes me smile and tear up each time.

    Heather: Because I''ve heard him read part of it in the video, every time I read it myself I imagine his voice and cadence in my head. He is such a great reader!

    Scrap Girl: He is! Like I was telling J.S. Peyton, he has other picture books out, and I also highly recommend them.

    Bart: You know you want one :D

    Joanne: Grimly is awesome, isn't he? I love his stuff! I still remember how happy I was when his collaboration with Neil Gaiman was first announced. And lol! I LOVE the murals idea!

  20. Kailana: Sadly the library is not an option for me :( But ah least I can read it every day :P I hope you enjoy them!

    Zibilee: I hope they enjoy them! I'm completely new to the world of picture book so I don't know how these compare with others, but I can't imagine that it could get much better than this!

    Maree: Me too :)

    Melody: They really are! Being a mother of little girls yourself, I can imagine how much your connect with it :)

    Chris: Awww, thank you, Chris! But no :P The books have been out for a while and there are plenty of "proper" reviews out there :P

    Susan: Thank you :D You and your children will enjoy these for sure!

    Trish: They have been good friends for a long time - he's Tash's godfather, actually - and regularly reference each other in their work. The talking tree in Stardust was written for Tori, the Neil who says hi in Tear in Your Hand is Neil Gaiman, etc. You can read all about it here. You know, that was actually how I first discovered Neil Gaiman. Tori was (and still is) a favourite of mine, and Tear in Your Hand is my favourite song of hers. I read about the references somewhere and got the fist Sandman book, and quickly I knew I had discovered a new favourite author.

    Violet: She really is lucky! And wow, I had no idea that was happening! Thank you so much for letting me know. Hopefully it will work properly from now on.

    Paperback Reader: Oh, you're so lucky! I wish I could go to one of his signings or readings Q&A sessions. I can imagine how amazing it must have been!

  21. My girls and I enjoyed both of these books - and you're right, they are so different! Great illustrations, too, in such diffrent styles.

    Btw I started Good Omens today and am loving it! :-D

  22. Okay, you convinced me (although it wasn't that hard)...I requested both of them from the library.

  23. I WANT THIS SO BAD!! Does the capital letters emphasize how much??

  24. I absolutely love the excerpts you've posted from both of these books. I can't wait until I can get a copy of them! Blueberry Girl looks so beautiful.

    (I really like "N is for Night, and for Nothing and Never.")

  25. Thanks for the link, Nymeth! I spent much of my afternoon reading up on Tori (oh how I've missed her) and Neil, and I was a little sad to find that I don't have Tear In Your Hand on my ipod so I could listen at work. Currently uploading my old Little Earthquakes CD right now. :)

  26. Darla: I can't wait to see your review :D It's hard to go wrong with Neil Gaiman AND Terry Pratchett!

    Naida: For Blueberry Girl? I just love Charles Vess :)

    Jill, I hope you enjoy them :D

    Stephanie: lol! THEY DO!

    Jenny: The "N" line is a very Neil Gaiman line, don't you think?

    Trish: You're welcome! I often find myself returning to a musician or band and realizing how much I've missed them..or even that I'd forgotten how much I actually loved them. Little Earthquakes is probably my favourite album of hers too.

  27. I wrote a review of Dangerous Alphabet here:

    I really enjoyed it, as did my 5yo and 3yo boys. What I loved is that I could find something new every time I read it. There are so many things on the pages that start with the letter, and many of them are words that the kids might not even know, like maggots! Some of my favorite parts were how W and V were reversed, but the W couplet had the V pictures and vice versa. I also loved the end page, Z, where the person waiting for them, their dad I presume, is in the shape of a Z.

  28. cat witnesses, nastinesses, and alphabets - oh my!

  29. I thought this was a beautiful book, both in the images and the words. And of course Neil can paint pictures himself merely with his words. I've only borrowed a copy up to this point, but I want to snag one of my own soon.

    So glad you're back, by the way.

  30. I have The Blueberry Girl and am really looking forward to reading it. I love that it was for Tori's daughter! I must get The Dangerous Alphabet.

  31. I've GOT to get both of these! I just love his books for children and YAs.

  32. Girl Detective: Thanks for the link! I've just added it. It took me a few reads to notice the W and V thing! So many wonderful details.

    Care: Indeed :D

    Carl: It's definitely one to own and read again and again :)

    Rhinoa: I love it too! So neat.

    Ladytink, me too :)

  33. Thanks so much for linking to my review. And I am really looking forward to getting Dangerous Alphabets. I didn't know about it, and my 2nd grader will really enjoy the humor and rhyming in it. Thanks! Mary Ann, Great Kid Books


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.