Monday, November 9, 2009

Kirkus Reviews: "Young readers will pore over this one again and again."

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August, 2009:
Following a retelling of the Aesop fable, Von Buhler embellishes the tale with a luxurious castle, a princess, some pampered cats and an inventive, brave mouse with a faithful bat friend. The poor mouse lives in a dark basement, cold and hungry, surviving on the crumbs that fall through the floorboards. He has grandiose schemes to bell the cats, involving elaborate costumes. Of course he is spotted each time and subjected to much humiliation by the cats. The Princess’s unexpected kindness inspires the mouse’s final, successful plan. It’s an upstairs-downstairs scenario carried through in every way, the spreads frequently split in two horizontally to show the contrast. The typeface is appropriate to the location, heavy and bright in the Princess’s rooms, while thin and pale in the mouse’s quarters. The action is richly illustrated in profusely detailed multimedia collage, framed in ornate gilt, which again emphasizes the differences in the lifestyles of the characters. The upstairs scenes glow in lavish, bright gold tones, and the downstairs scenes are dark and gloomy. Young readers will pore over this one again and again. (Picture book. 5-8) - Kirkus Reviews

A Fuse #8 Production: "My library’s secret weapon from here on in"..."Beautiful and haunting with the kinds of images kids will pore over."

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What’s wrong with a little gilt? A little jewelry, fanciness, lace, velvet, and champagne? Nothing, really. It just depends on how it’s done. I get these little girls in my library all the time requesting “princess” stories, and truth be told what they really want is something gorgeous to the eye. They’re the kinds of gals who drool over the Fancy Nancy books and sit hypnotized by the work of Kinuko Y Craft. Sometimes it’s enough to drive a good old-fashioned feminist up the wall. Not like I was any different when I was a tot, but wouldn’t it be nice to give a princess-obsessed child something gorgeous to the eye with a truly original concept, story, and look, but without the standard pretty pretty princess conceit? Is it wrong that I sometimes want to blow a four-year-old’s mind? I’ve come to the decision that Cynthia von Buhler’s But Who Will Bell the Cats? is going to be my library’s secret weapon from here on in. I’ve already got my explanation at the ready. “Oh! You want a princess story? Have you read the one about the princess who owns eight beautiful cats and the little mouse who lives in the basement below?” It’s the old one-two punch. Lure ‘em in with promises of princesses and kitties, then hit ‘em with good storytelling and stunning visuals. They’ll never see it coming.
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The book begins with a quickie two-page recap of the old Aesop fable in which the mice decide to bell the cat. A couple pages later we read the real story. For you see there once was a princess who owned eight beautiful cats and doted on them all. Down below in her cellar there lived a mouse and a brown bat. While the cats lived in luxury the mouse and bat dwelled in the dank. The mouse then determines that his only course of action is to bell the cats and live in the prettier parts of the castle with them. The first time he tries it he wears armor. He fails. The second time he dresses up like a dog. He fails. The third time he puts on a fashion show for the cats and almost ends up in a pie before the princess walks in and saves both him and the bat. Finally, the mouse determines the best way to bell the cats. One that will allow him to attend the princess’s birthday party and live in the lap of luxury once and for all. And it's all thanks to his crown-wearing partner in crime.
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From the title, a person might assume that this book was just going to be a longer interpretation of the old Aesop fable. After all, 2009 has seen several Aesop fables expanded into full-length picture books (The Lion and the Mouse, Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes, etc.). It actually came as a bit of a relief to find that von Buhler had gone a different route and just used the fable as a jumping off point. The story is original and suits the visual format quite well. As for the writing itself, the words play with descriptions nicely. The mouse inhabits a world filled with terms like “dark, dingy den” or “chilly chamber” or “drafty” or “damp”. The cats, in a nice contrast, bandy about with words like “elegant” or “perfumed”. If you were to read this book aloud to a room full of kids without showing them the pictures, they would have little difficulty envisioning where it takes place. I doubt that they’d imagine anything quite as visually stimulating as what von Buhler has conjured up here, though.

Combining illustration and models to tell folk and fairytales isn’t a new concept (Lauren Child’s The Princess and the Pea being but one example) but von Buhler clearly takes the notion to a whole other level. Characters in each scene are illustrated two-dimensional figures placed in a three-dimensional world of models and objects. Shooting each scene with her Nikon D300, von Buhler manages to persuade the eyes of her readers that these creatures really have a kind of depth to them. Her choice of layouts also reveals the thought taken for each spread. Where folks like Child will fill entire pages in a book with a single scene, von Buhler likes to shake things up a little. In comparing the cats’ lives to the mouse’s, pages are split into two parts with the cats at the top and the mouse squished into the lower third. Views of individual scenes are sometimes shot from the front and sometimes from above (as when the bat has to distract some Ping-Pong playing cats with a straw hat and cane accessorized song and dance). And the lighting both above and below is remarkable. There’s a tangible warmth to the palace scenes, while you can practically smell the cold stone and musty wet walls where the mouse and bat are forced to reside.
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The attention to detail goes beyond the sets, of course. Clothing also plays a surprising role in the story. The very first two-page spread is a quickie encapsulation of the old Aesop tale this book takes its title from. In the scene, the mice are depicted as wearing clothing reminiscent of ancient Greece (albeit with fancy pearls). Then you fast forward in time and see the outfits of the mouse and the cats. Since the felines are living off the fat of the land they’re prone to sporting everything from top hats and crowns to preppy hockey wear. The mouse, on the other hand, tends to be garbed in drabber utilitarian fare. Patched sweaters and thick green scarves. And then there are the fonts. Nobody ever pays enough attention to fonts in picture books, but von Buhler sure does. When the text is in the light and airy castle it’s set in the extravagant and fancy Salmiak. Down below where the mouse and bat dwell, though, it suddenly becomes the almost handwritten First Grade.

Scale is a little difficult to determine here. The princess appears to be approximately the same size as the cats while the mouse and bat aren’t much shorter, though supposedly they should be small enough to be used as hockey pucks and ping pong balls by the cats. So that was a bit confusing. More sense could be made of the shadows in individual scenes. As a general rule, von Buhler pays close attention to the source of the light in any given scene. For example, when the mouse and bat are discussing various plans in the basement, their light comes from a single candle on a nearby workbench. In these scenes, shadows appear sharply on the dank stone walls. When scenes take place in the slightly more ambient light above in the palace, however, then the shadows dissipate with more frequency.

Once in a while a consumer needs a kick in the pants to remind them that picture books aren’t something “easy” than any old celebrity with a pen can write. Some of them take a backbreakingly long time to create and use up more blood, sweat, and tears than anyone might conceivably imagine. It’s only through true dedication on the part of the artist that you get something as visually inspiring as But Who Will Bell the Cats? Beautiful and haunting with the kinds of images kids will pore over, there ain’t nothing like it out there today. A new fable in an all-new style. - Elizabeth Bird, Children's Librarian, The New York Public Library, New York City and blogger for For A Fuse #8 Production, School Library Journal, and Publisher's Weekly.

Horn Book: "this story of an indefatigable mouse should find a welcome place on the shelves of any castle...or library."

September/October issue:
Von Buhler’s droll upstairs/downstairs tale is introduced by the Aesop’s fable on the value of belling a cat—and the danger to the mouse who dared do it. Here the mouse hero and his brown bat friend live in the cellar of a castle, while the princess and her eight pampered cats live a life of opulence upstairs. The cats have plenty to eat, safe places to sleep, books to read, and fancy parties to attend; Mouse and Brown Bat live on scraps, sleep in boxes, and bathe under a drainpipe. But Mouse is not without wiles. He is constantly scheming to put bells around the cats’ necks so they can be detected, leaving Mouse and Brown Bat free to enjoy the splendors of the castle. Mouse’s many plans fall flat until he finally figures out how to use the sweet princess to do his work. Dark, complicated mixed-media illustrations bring a humorously creepy feel to the tale. A fancy typeface for the upstairs story contrasts nicely with the pseudo-handwritten type accompanying Mouse’s story...this story of an indefatigable mouse should find a welcome place on the shelves of any castle...or library. - r.l.s. Horn Book

School Library Journal - "Children will find a lot to discover in the details, even after repeated readings".

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In solving the Aesop riddle, von Buhler creates a lavish castle complete with handmade rooms, highly decorated backgrounds, and characters formed as cutout paper dolls...The back jacket flap details von Buhler’s production of her illustrations. As the story begins, a two-tiered, upstairs-downstairs setting finds Princess and her eight spoiled cats enjoying luxurious lives in contrast to the humdrum basement surroundings of Mouse and his friend Brown Bat. Determined to share some of that good life, Mouse devises a number of schemes to bell the felines, only to be outwitted (and needing rescue from Brown Bat) at every turn. After learning that Princess is about to celebrate her birthday with a party, Mouse finally, and cleverly, concocts a way to accomplish his mission; with the cats belled, the final page finds the duo indulging in an array of gooey birthday treats. This tale will work well in conjunction with Aesop’s original fable, which conveniently prefaces the story. Children will find a lot to discover in the details, even after repeated readings.–Barbara Elleman, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, MA for School Library Journal

Kids Lit - "Great drama in a lovely theater of a book."

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September 23, 2009:
Beginning with the fable from Aesop, Buhler creates an answer to the question of who will bell the cats. The story is one of two very different but very nearby worlds. One is the world of privilege and pampering of the princess and her eight cats. The other is the world below the floor of Mouse and his friend Bat who live on the crumbs and waste of the world above them. Mouse yearns to sleep on perfumed pillows, and eat gorgeous meals, so he makes plans to bell the cats so they will be warned of any approach by the cats. He creates a suit of armor and a sword, but the cats just play ping-pong with him. He dresses up as a dog to scare the cats, but they play floor hockey with him. They put on a fashion show for the cats, but end up in mouse and bat pies, and are rescued by the kind princess. Finally, Mouse has a great idea that answers the question of the entire book.

I must first comment on the illustrations of the book which caught my attention immediately. They are done as miniature sets that Von Buhler built by hand. The characters are flat paper against the 3-D sets, making for a very theatrical feel. Her sets are done in deep colors that make them atmospheric and dramatic. Each room has small touches that demonstrate the care she has taken with the entire book.

Against the elaborate illustrations, her writing is simple and will read aloud well. The book is paced nicely, aided by quite a bit of humor that helps carry the story along. There is tension with each new plan from Mouse and a real sense of danger. The drama of the storyline works well with the theatrical sets.

Great drama in a lovely theater of a book, this book will reach out to anyone who spots the cover. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Make sure to take a look at Cynthia von Buhler’s blog and get a glimpse of how she built the illustrations.

Reviewed from library copy.

-Tasha Saeker, Menasha Public Library, Kids Lit

Syndicated, appearing in newspapers all over the United States, "The Young Library: Two classic fables are cat's meow."

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Artist-author Cynthia von Buhler takes another cat-and-mouse tale from Aesop and makes it her own. In the original fable, the mice want a way to stop a house cat's sneak attacks. One suggests tying a bell around the cat's neck. Fine, except who will do it?

Von Buhler comes up with a clever solution in her fanciful picture book.

In addition, she sets the action in an exquisitely detailed castlelike dollhouse that she built and elaborately decorated. The story begins with a princess and her eight cats living in luxury. Mouse lives in the cellar, where he eats their crumbs and sleeps under a smelly old sock. He dreams up ways to bell the cats so he can go upstairs for a taste of cake, but nothing works until Mouse comes up with a plan. It works, but you'll have to read the book to find the answer.

For a taste, go to - Judy Green, Syndicated Review

Urban Baby- "Destined to earn the “classic” label."

Destined to earn the “classic” label down the road, But Who Will Bell the Cats? answers Aesop’s age-old question about the logistics involved in belling a feline foe. In Cynthia von Buhler’s tale, Mouse and BFF Brown Bat want out of their impoverished existence in the cold cellar and a piece of the action upstairs in the castle with the fancy library, bubble baths, grand ballroom and banquet hall. But first Mouse must bell the eight cats who live there with the princess. (Spoiler alert) Persistence pays off and this mouse with moxie is successful. Von Buhler created the standout visuals by designing 3-D sets, complete with floors with inlaid wood and mother-of-pearl. The characters were painted in oils on gessoed paper and then cut out and placed in the sets, which von Buhler then photographed. (Ages 4-8)

Check out a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how this book was created at

- Leigh Goldman Balber, October 19, 2009, Urban Baby

Horn Book Newsletter- "will charm dollhouse lovers."

Award-winning artist Cynthia von Buhler concocts a slightly spooky, shadowy setting for her story of a mouse and bat friend in But Who Will Bell the Cats? Mouse and Brown Bat live in the drafty cellar of a castle; in the castle live a princess and her eight cats. Mouse dreams of belling the cats so that he can venture upstairs safely. Spreads depicting cutaway views showcase the vast differences in life above, in the elegant castle, and below, in the dingy cellar. Von Buhler’s photos of her intricately built miniature scenes are the real draw here, offering pictures that will charm dollhouse lovers. (5–8 years) - Horn Book Newsletter, October 2009

Read Out Loud Review - "A great vehicle for family or classroom debate and discussion."

This talented author/illustrator definitively solves the problem first raised by Aesop of who will bell the cats so the mice know when they are approaching. In von Buhler's tale eight royal cats get belled through the efforts of one mouse, the strength of whose motivation is equaled only by his ingenuity. The readalouder can describe the Princess' cats in a smooth, fast-paced voice to contrast with the low-pitched, slowly told tale of the downstairs mouse. A great vehicle for family or classroom debate and discussion of whether the mouse is victim or victor. - Read Out Loud Review 2008-2009

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Winner of Our Bookstore Cat Contest Is "Lucky."

"Lucky" Wins The Bookstore Cat Contest! He will receive a handmade cat collar and a signed copy of the The Cat Who Wouldn't Come Inside (he already owns But Who Will Bell the Cats?)