Books by John Cech

PUSS IN BOOTS by John Cech
Released: April 6, 2010

The tale of the clever con artist who just happens to be a feline is retold with flair and a knowing wink. Puss devises a plot to empower and enrich his young master that concludes with a happy ending for all, with the possible exception of the ogre. The young master who becomes Lord Fortunato is as much a pawn in Puss's game as any of the others, but he is a willing one. There is no whitewash here: Puss remains the hero in spite of the fact that just about everything he says and does involves deceptions and tricks. Phooey on morals; children have loved this tale of trickery for centuries. Cech employs a mixture of traditional and modern syntax and sensibilities that keeps the action lively and light. Oberdieck's colorful and detailed illustrations perfectly complement the text's style. The settings, costumes and accoutrements evoke a general medieval atmosphere, while the characters' facial expressions often seem knowing and modern. Delicious, naughty fun. (Picture book/folktale. 4-9)Read full book review >
by E.T.A. Hoffman, adapted by John Cech, illustrated by Eric Puybaret
Released: Oct. 1, 2009

Cech's adaptation of the holiday classic is based on Hoffman's original rather than on the later ballet. Although the story has been shortened, it is still too lengthy for most children, and some spreads have just text and no illustrations. Puybaret's acrylic paintings show an art deco influence, and the muted colors, shadowy atmosphere and subdued expressions on the characters' faces (as well as the army of mice slinking out of the darkness) give the illustrations a nightmarish rather than dreamlike quality. The characters are like puppets: Marie is a sad blond girl who smiles only on the cover illustration, and the Nutcracker is still a wooden figure even after he has come to life. Shorter and more cheerful versions of the story are more appropriate for the season and for today's young readers. (Picture book. 6-9)Read full book review >
adapted by John Cech, illustrated by Martin Jarrie
Released: April 1, 2009

Taking pride of place, Jarrie's postmodern scenes of elegantly elongated animals and skinny-limbed humans comically grinning or grimacing over their various twists of fortune shoulder Cech's 36 amiable retellings to the outer margins of the pages. Writing with severe brevity, the reteller mixes simply related versions of the usual chestnuts with less common—and not always canonically Aesopian—fables such as one about a wig-wearing "Bald Knight" (losing, oddly enough, not only a toupee but a cowboy hat in the picture). His morals don't always make sense on their own—"Take just enough and you won't get stuck," concludes the tale of "The Mouse and the Weasel," in which the mouse finds himself jammed, Winnie-the-Pooh-like, into a hole after gorging himself on corn—but they are generally incorporated smoothly into their mini-episodes. Jerry Pinkney's collection (2000) is still the grandest of all, but readers who appreciate salutary lessons that are disbursed with a light touch may gravitate to this one. (afterword) (Folktales. 6-10) Read full book review >
adapted by John Cech, illustrated by Martin Hargreaves
Released: Oct. 1, 2008

A new picture-book version of the classic fairy tale falls flat. While faithful to the elements of the plot, the narrative fails to provide any psychological depth, with the result that all of the characters are unsympathetic, from the boastful miller to the clueless daughter, the greedy king and the strange Rumpelstiltskin. As a result, readers won't really care about any of them. The telling is straightforward and workmanlike, but lacks sparkle: "For the first time in days, the queen felt a ray of hope break through the clouds. She didn't have time to bask in its light, though, because the little man had suddenly appeared in the garden." Hargreaves's illustrations are serviceable but bland. An appended note tells of the origins of the tale, and various traditions about names and naming. Uninspired and Unexceptional, especially next to such rich versions as Paul O. Zelinsky's glorious Caldecott Honor retelling of 1986, still the gold (not straw) standard. (Picture book/fairy tale. 4-10)Read full book review >
Released: April 1, 2008

It's Jack again, in a somewhat lackluster retelling that includes a twist at the end. The basic story is familiar: Jack's mom throws the beans out in the yard and a beanstalk grows overnight. The giant's wife hides Jack when he arrives at the castle, and she distracts the giant from his Fee fi fo fums. Jack slips away with the goose that lays the golden eggs and returns to steal the sack that makes gold coins. Finally—here's where the story deviates—he takes both the harp that makes gorgeous music and the giant's wife, who decides to join him. She becomes his mom's best friend and they all chop down the beanstalk and feed it to the cows. The occasional rumbling from the heavens is supposedly the upset giant. The illustrations feature exaggerated forms and a green, brown and gold palette, but do not distinguish this retelling, which fails to spark a real rhythm or much energy: more ho hum than fo fum. (author's note) (Picture book/fairy tale. 5-8)Read full book review >
Released: Dec. 1, 1997

A winning, freshly voiced debut novel by the author of several children's stories (The Southernmost Cat, 1996, etc.), about one of the nation's odder celebrities, Joshua Norton, who declared himself Emperor of the United States in San Francisco in 1865—and became a beloved ornament of the city as a result. Cech's novel-within-a-novel purports to be Norton's biography, as compiled by a Boston man (at the urgings of Mark Twain), a printer's devil who has gone west with the forty-niners in quest of gold. The arduous journey includes a marvelously rendered rounding of the Cape of Good Hope; later, when the captain dies of cholera in Frisco Bay, his wife dismantles the ship's timbers and starts up a boardinghouse. While shilling for her, the narrator meets Norton, an ambitious, well-heeled, naive but pig-headed British Jew from North Africa. Norton buys and sells cargoes, and builds and rents buildings, doing well in those boomtown days. Meanwhile, a palm- reader confirms for Norton what his mother told him as a child, that he is the son of the Catholic Emperor of France, a pedigree that he takes with absolute seriousness. Then a failed investment in Peruvian rice wipes out his fortune. Verging on suicide, he attends a sÇance and is told to look for a lake of gold, so he and the ever-willing narrator set off, successfully finding the lake and a little gold but also facing a shootout with bandits. The bandits are, at any rate, too late: Norton has already invested his gold dust with a passing balloonist. Finally, broke and despairing, he goes mad, reinventing himself as Norton I, the Emperor. Festooned in a gaudy uniform, he spends the remainder of his life attending San Francisco's civic events, greeting visitors to the city, and becoming himself one of the great early tourist attractions. Richly imagined and extremely well written, a tale Twain would have loved. Read full book review >
Released: April 1, 1996

Off the coast of Key West, Florida, drifting on a sea of memories, floats Ernesto the cat, wetting his line in hopes of a meal. While he awaits a nibble, Ernesto ponders the meaning of his earlier eight lives, which included running with the bulls in Pamplona and eating 471 of Alice B.'s ``infamous brownies'' in Paris. Then his line snaps straight (``Carumba! It's a big one!'') and, towed by the unseen fish, he is taken on an extended tour of the Atlantic. When the fish does surface—an enormous white whale- -he offers Ernesto sage advice: ``Stay away from fishing. Try writing instead.'' Cech (First Snow, Magic Snow, 1992, etc.) acknowledges his homage to Hemingway in a note in the back; even so, children will find this plot governed more by caprice than by compelling story elements. Adults and other ``insiders'' (readers old enough to have passing familiarity with the references) will find this a clever piece, picaresque in its own right and possibly a springboard for exploring Hemingway's stories. Osborn's vibrant, evocative gouaches—in frames featuring cirrus, cumulus, and stratus clouds in a variety of configurations—sail right along with the narrative's fanciful tack. (Picture book. 7-9) Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 30, 1992

A richly illustrated and gracefully narrated version of a Russian tale, ``The Snow Maiden'': A snowbaby made by a childless woodsman comes to life and delights him and his wife all winter; then, coming too near a spring bonfire, ``Snowflake'' vanishes. Journeying to the north, the grieving couple begs Grandfather Frost to return their missing child and, moved by their love, he allows her to come back with the first snowfall. The vibrant illustrations, in shades of blue and violet with touches of gold and red, recall Russian folk art in their decorative motifs. A single panel may suggest different locations, the passage of time, or the stages of a journey; there are delicate borders—guardian angels with snowflake-framed faces in gorgeously patterned costumes, woodland details, and much more. More elaborate than Croll's The Little Snowgirl (1989), and for a slightly older audience. (Folklore/Picture book. 7-10) Read full book review >
Released: Aug. 30, 1991

Basing his narrative on the experiences of his wife's mother, who was born in Russia in 1907 and escaped westward in a harrowing journey during WW II, Cech tells a moving story as it might be told to a grandchild at bedtime. When Grandmother was a girl, a grateful gypsy cured her of terrible headaches; when she was newly married, a less friendly gypsy told her a time would come when she would ``pray to endure one more hour...when your every footstep will be pain.'' Indeed, the Revolution brings famine and death; during the war, carrying a baby whose innocence helps win them many kindnesses, she and her husband make their way to America. Much is left out, of course, but what remains is an authentic picture of tragedy endured by dint of perseverance and good will. The artist's decorative style, abundant with patterns and borders, recalls both folk art and the mannered, richly evocative paintings of Chagall. Without detracting from the story's somber dignity, the pervasive floral designs subtly lighten the mood and provide a reminder that joy may prevail—as it does here in a happy ending that goes beyond the gypsy's prophecy. A compelling, thoughtful blend of the light and the dark in human experience, skillfully shaped into a tale suitable for sharing with young children. (Picture book. 4-9) Read full book review >