Book Reviews: August 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Be Yourself, Find a Friend, Mind the Books, and Have Some Science

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Books About Books and Stories

9781479591756Do Not Bring Your Dragon to the Library by Julie Gassman and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Capstone, 2016. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

The human patrons of the library are even more diverse than the dragons—both male and female—who clutter the aisles—and while we’re mentioning it, let’s applaud that the protagonist, the character on the cover, and not just some of the background patrons is non-white. These illustrations are vibrant—in every sense, and are probably the best thing about the book. The diversity of the cast is what propels this book for me a little farther above its peers. I suspect that a great deal of the appeal of books about libraries is the meta-ness of reading a book about story time and about libraries in a library and in a library story time. It doesn’t quiet work as well in a bookstore, as much as I’d like it to do, particularly as a number of our younger patrons have difficulty separating the concepts of bookstore and of library. I love dragons. I love books. I love the concept of libraries even if right now I spend very little time myself in any. I wish I was more enthralled with this story and with this text, but this doesn’t say much that is original about how to respect libraries or what a library is; it just does so with dragons.

***

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Let Me Finish! by Minh Lê and illustrated by Isabel Roxas. Hyperion-Disney, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This little boy just wants to read a book without having anyone spoil the ending for him—poor kid. He goes farther and farther into the wilderness but meets wonderfully well-read animals, eager to share their enthusiasm for the books that he’s chosen to read. The text is first person with the interruptions by others as speech bubbles. This is definitely a book that the older reader can appreciate. This is the first book for children I think that I’ve ever read that talks about spoilers. Lê began as a children’s book reviewer and critic.

***

9780803741409 The Not So Quiet Library by Zachariah Ohora. Dial-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

A quiet day at the library is interrupted by an angry monster who doesn’t realize that books are for reading and not for eating. Oskar and Theodore the bear must run from the monster, survive, and ultimately teach him that books are meant to be read, that he’s in a library not a restaurant.

***

9780803740679The Forgetful Knight by Michelle Robinson and illustrated by Fred Blunt. Dial-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book had a lot of potential, but it read awkwardly. The shifting story just didn’t handle well aloud. I think with the right storyteller it could. I think especially with a storyteller dressed as a knight it could do. I’d love to see this tale acted out. The illustrations shift as the narration does. “A knight in armor rode away. Then again… he had no horse. Did I say ‘rode’? He strode, of course. That’s right—he strode across the land with half a sandwich in his hand?” This could also be fun with the right audience, one who wants to correct the story, make it fit the knight-in-armor, knight-vs-dragon narrative. But then they couldn’t see the pictures without being given the answers. It would be interesting to use this too in a discussion about narrative—about cultural narrative and subversion. Like I said, a lot of potential, but the execution just doesn’t seem quite right, and I wish it did.

**

Be Your Best Self and Don’t Be Ashamed

y648 Teddy the Dog: Be Your Own Dog by Keri Claiborne Boyle and illustrated by Jonathan Sneider. HarperCollins, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Another book about an unlikely doodle, like Octicorn? One that began as a blog like the Tumas’ book about dinosaurs at night? Teddy the Dog has a line of clothing?

Told from the point of view of a cool pup—note the sunglasses—Teddy’s living the life—being a dog, wreaking havoc but never fetching—until a package arrives containing a cat—whom he nicknames and continues throughout the book to call Fishbreath. He tries to teach Fishbreath all that he knows, since it seems that the cat will now be his companion, but Fishbreath isn’t interested. Teddy tries to do the things that Fishbreath likes but doesn’t like them. Ultimately they bond over stealing cookies from the cookie jar, and Teddy decides that both of them are best when they are being their best selves, that each of them can contribute in their own way.

***

25489431Fritz and the Beautiful Horses by Jan Brett. G. P. Putnam’s Sons-Penguin Random, 2016. First published 1981. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This was one of my favorite stories as a child, and it has remained fairly influential in my life. Fritz sees all the tall, glamorous, finely bedecked horses, and he wants to do what they do and be loved as they are loved. He notices that the children seem frightened of the fine horses. He prances before the people, doing his best impression of the horses’ prance, but they laugh at him, and he goes away dejected, but when the bridge cracks stranding the nervous children on one side and the adults on their prideful mounts on the other, Fritz goes up and down the steep banks and across the river to rescue each child. Then he sees that he can do what the fine horses cannot, that his smallness and surefootedness are strengths not weaknesses. Moreover the people—children and adults—recognize it, and he is given a place of honor in the city’s walls.

I loved horse stories—and still do, if more of that is nostalgia than it once was, maybe—and I love stories of the strength of littleness. I think those stories resonant with children. They resonate with me still.

I’ve talked before about the amazing detail and realism and wonder of Jan Brett’s illustrations. This book is no exception.

I read this alongside I Wanna Be a Great Big Dinosaur and Teddy the Dog and am very pleased to report that this—this classic about a tiny pony that is bedecked by flowers and wears fine blankets was the favorite—even though my audience consisted of one maybe 5-7 year old boy. This was easily the most complex of those stories, the longest, the oldest, and the most muted—though Jan Brett’s details might help to compensate for the absence of bold, bright colors. Points made. Thanks, kid.

(rating this one seems unfair; I’d give it five stars for nostalgia)

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Little Elliot, Big Fun by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

There’s a new Little Elliot book! I did a little dance in the store when I found it and immediately rearranged things to be able to better display it. And when no one showed up for the story time where I intended to read it, I read it myself and showed coworkers my favorite pages; I final page evoked a spoken “aw,” and I had to explain myself. Little Elliot is truly one of my favorites. This book features a fold out page of a beautiful vista of the boardwalk seen from the top of the Ferris wheel during an orange sunset.

Little Elliot isn’t enjoying the amusement park that Mouse has brought him too. All of Mouse’s favorite rides are too scary, too dizzy, too fast. But Mouse knows the perfect ride—the Ferris wheel—that they can both enjoy, and though Elliot is at first scared, the payoff here is worth his fear. And afterwards they find activities at the boardwalk that they can both enjoy—ice cream, balloons, the beach. Can Elliot be my spirit animal? For real?

I still love Curato’s illustrations, his stories, and his inclusion of many races in his vivid backgrounds.

*****

9781492632993I Wanna Be a Great Big Dinosaur! by Heath McKenzie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

This is what I expect in books featuring dinosaurs: a chance to stomp and invite the kids to give me their best ROAR! A white boy in a cardboard costume proclaims his wish to be a dinosaur and a dinosaur shows up to show him his best dinosaur skills. The boy questions if dinosaurs can eat junk food and play soccer and video games and do the other things that he as a boy enjoys doing. The dinosaur cannot, and the dinosaur wishes to be a boy. And in the end the boy is dressed as a dinosaur and the dinosaur is dressed as a boy and both are stomping around and roaring. The endpage was pretty fun too: a more realistic painting of dinosaurs, one you might find in a nonfiction book, doing boy-things with the trapping of boyness added overtop in marker. I am reminded a touch of I Don’t Want to Be a Frog, but this is a much more enjoyable, less frightening way to get across the same message of being glad that you are what you are.

***

More Lessons to Learn

dinosaurs-love-underpants-9781416989387_hrDinosaurs Love Underpants by Claire Freedman and illustrated by Ben Cort. Simon & Schuster, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-7, Grades PreK-2.

This is one of those new classics that I feel I’m sort of expected to know, but it was my first time actually reading the story. I’m always a bit uncertain about potty humor in my picture books—mostly because I don’t know my audience and don’t want to be held accountable for corrupting young minds. I was wary of this one, but it was required one Saturday. This was… not the book I was expecting. There wasn’t a lot of potty humor, though there were lots of briefs and boxers. This was more a lesson book than anything else. This is a new answer to the age-old question of why there are no more dinosaurs: Dinosaurs loved underpants; I don’t really know why; they don’t seem to have fit or have made any dinosaur happy. The dinosaurs fought each other one night to extinction for the underpants that they hadn’t torn. Mankind is saved by the dinos love of underpants, so we should love and respect our undies too. I was honestly a bit thrown by the portrayal of dinosaurs as enemies of mankind but the glossing over of dinosaurs as predators and by the lesson to respect our underpants. It just all around was not what I was expecting, but I guess I’m glad I didn’t feel like I was going to get any angry, prudish parents. This would be a good read, I guess, for the potty training child who just keeps ripping their undies off. Be aware that you’ll have dinosaur names to trip over.

***

e_and_p_i_will_take_a_nap_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: I Will Take a Nap! by Mo Willems. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

I overheard a friend of mine reading this —another Barnes & Noble employee and an excellent story time reader. It just sounded so ridiculous—so ridiculous that I avoided it for just over a year. This was the first time that I read it fully myself. I missed when overhearing that reading the context of the illustrations, which make the weirdness seem less off-putting. In this story, Gerald is exhausted and needs to sleep. He dreams that Piggie has come to keep him from napping. Nearly the rest of the book is Gerald’s dream of Piggie interrupting his sleep, and dreaming Gerald does not realize till after Piggie’s head has morphed into a laughing turnip that this manifestation of Piggie is a dream. The illustrations actually make fairly clear that Gerald is napping. Piggie first appears in a green thought bubble above the napping Gerald and all subsequent pages are that minty green. This is not your average bedtime book with gentle rhymes and gentle pictures and lulling rhythms of peaceful sleep. This does not portray dreams of floating on cloud, but better portrays dreams as a reflection of daily worries and daily interactions and better portrays the absurdity of dream logic. I like the idea of the discussions this could open up, but I wasn’t able to get into any. For being a different kind of bedtime book, for portraying the necessity of sleep in a different way, I rate this one higher than I might otherwise.

****

Find Your Best Friend

d59d3e417c97efb7af8560a79f80eb07 Rory the Dinosaur Wants a Pet by Liz Climo. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

I was surprisingly pleased by this book. Rory has shown up in one other picture book: Me and My Dad. Liz Climo’s illustrations of cartoon animals however are familiar from her Tumblr, and I have seen them passed between friends on Facebook. Rory’s friends introduce him to a new pet hermit crab, and Rory decides that he too wants a pet. He tries to coax several animals into being his pet but they are too busy, not interested, and he almost gives up until a coconut (it’s never identified as a coconut in the text) rolls to his feet, and turns out to be the perfect pet, ready to do anything Rory wants without complaint. The story was fairly commonplace until the coconut came along. I’m reminded a little of Yoon’s Penguin and Pinecone. I loved this story—so did the mother at this story time. We both cooed over it when I was done.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: A Caution and Plea for Open-Mindedness: SPOILER-FREE

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9781338099133_default_pdpThe majority of the reviews that I’m seeing for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have been negative or underwhelmed—and I sort of want to echo these same feelings, but every time that I try to do so—well, I can moan along with the best, and I can parcel out what exactly didn’t work for me and why, but I feel badly doing so and here’s why: Can you imagine living up to our expectations? We—me, and the majority of the fans that I’ve seen react negatively—are the ones who never really left Hogwarts. We took J. K. Rowling at her word when she said that Hogwarts would always be there to welcome us home. We wept along with Trelawney when she moaned that Hogwarts was her home—because she was echoing our own feelings as we watched a monster destroy the place we loved—and because she is played by Emma Thompson, and that woman is a masterful actress. If we didn’t write fanfiction, we read it, and we had our favorites, and we had personal theories on every minor detail and pet theories on which we couldn’t be swayed and which we’d defend loudly and ardently to anyone (mine, for example, is that there is corruption at some level within St. Mungo’s, and Alice Longbottom is conscious enough to recognize it and has been trying to tell Neville for years through her bubble gum wrappers; I even got to write and publish the essay on it in a book of scholarly and not-so-scholarly articles by fans).

I think we remained more deeply entrenched in the world and engaged more fully with the characters these past nine years perhaps than has J. K. Rowling.

And J. K. Rowling approved but did not actually pen this script. I have to think that John Tiffany and Jack Thorne are fans themselves—the sort of fans that we are—and that they have pet theories too, ones that they won’t put aside despite evidence within the canon.

J. K. Rowling has never discouraged fanfiction.

In some ways the only thing that this play is truly guilty of is that we expect it to live up to the original canon when it is really a fan piece that happens to have been granted a nod by the author—and of not being our fan piece.

The story is and feels like fanfiction—canonized fanfiction—and because so many fan theories and fan ideas—even the ones we held onto only as jokes—were given the nod, it feels a bit like being pandered to—or stolen from when I think—I hope that J. K. Rowling’s idea was to validate some of our theories—though I wish she’d been more selective, and I wish that she had more carefully read over the work and seen that some of the ideas just don’t jive with the already established seven canon novels. But we’ve had more than nine years to mull over, tinker with, and hone these theories—and some of those ideas have been better handled or better written in other texts than this. And again, after all the effort we put into perfecting these ideas to see canon ideas that don’t match our own is off-putting.

So there’s that. But then, there are problems that I had, even as a fan piece, with plot elements and with the writing itself at times—things that have nothing to do with whether or not it was a good addition to the canon and more to do with whether I like the elements within the text, elements I would judge if this were a standalone and not a new piece in the Harry Potter world. There are already boundless articles online detailing some of the problems that this text has: that the badass Hermione Granger’s success seems so dependent upon the approval of one or any man (as written by Kadeen Griffiths for Bustle in “How Hermione Granger Is Portrayed in ‘Harry Potter & The Cursed Child’ Is Offensive to the Fans and the Character”), perhaps an attempt at inclusion of POC gone awry by mishandling in both Hermione (played by Noma Dumezweni) and Rose Weasley (played by Cherrelle Skeete) and the off-screen inclusion of Padma and Panju Weasley (“What The Hell Is A Panju?” And Other Questions I, A Brown Potterhead, Have For J.K. Rowling” published by Krupa Gohil on Buzzfeed). Without going into why it is difficult to reconcile this text with the canon or why I would have handled certain elements differently, these are perhaps its largest flaws.

That and some of the stage directions forget that they are stage directions. Yes, you could darken a character’s eyes with contacts but what I think the stage direction means is that the character is terrified and that—well, if your actor can widen his pupils, fantastic, but don’t command him to do so; let the actor, act. Moreover, unless the play is being filmed and filmed with an intense zoom lens, such a detail won’t be seen. Some stage directions are written as if they can tell the audience how to react too. Without magic you can’t force a whole audience to react in a certain way, certainly not by telling them to do so. Sometimes the novelist snuck into the play. And what sort of stage direction is “And time stops. And then it turns over, thinks a bit”?  What does that even mean?

Expect another more nitpicky review where I will pick apart the things I liked and disliked, but I wanted to answer all the negativity, and I liked the idea of a spoiler-free and a spoiler-filled review.

I’ve already begun a reread.

***

Thorne, Jack.  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  Based on a story by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne.  New York: Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the play or script.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Reviews: July 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Part 2: Pets, Beaches, Bedtimes, Time, and an Italian witch

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Books About Pets

9781492609353Too Many Moose by Lisa Bakos and illustrated by Mark Chambers. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

The alliterations and rhyme scheme of this book make it. What a silly story. Martha wants a pet, but what pet to get? Ultimately she decides that she wants a moose, and she gets online, and orders one. Having one moose is so wonderful that she orders more and more and more. But when her moose run amok she decides that maybe one moose is just enough. The illustrations are funny and colorful—with expressive moose in every shade of brown.

****

it-came-in-the-mail-9781481403603_hrIt Came in the Mail by Ben Clanton. Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

A little boy who likes mail but never gets any writes a letter to his mailbox requesting something big, and the mailbox delivers a dragon! And then when he requests more, the mailbox delivers more—more than he can possibly use or enjoy or keep. So he uses the mailbox to send away most of what the mailbox has gifted him—but he keeps the dragon and he keeps a pegasus for his best friend, an African American boy named Jamel, so that they can fly together. This is a fairly simple story with a fairly simple message: that receiving is fun, but giving can feel better. There’s a lot to laugh at in the text and in the illustrations.

****

9780399161032This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I read and reviewed this book on Goodreads sometime in late 2012, but it never made it onto the blog here. It was then and remains the books that launched my love for Oliver Jeffers, who is a talented, talented man, whose picture books—or some of them—don’t shy away from the hard truths of life, which he always handles with the utmost tenderness and subtlety. This book of his is sillier. Wilfred meets a moose in a wonderfully detailed and soaring wilderness—something the Hudson River School would have applauded—and decides that this moose is his. He even makes it a little nametag so that everyone will know. The illustrations are all peppered with clever and humorous details that should clash with the grand landscape—and maybe do a little, but that’s part of the picture book’s charm. There are rules—all penned out in a childish hand—that the moose is very good at following, and ones that he needs to practice, but their friendship grows. Until an old woman comes along and insists that this is her moose. She even tempts Marcel—whom she calls Rodrigo—away with an apple. Deprived of his moose, Wilfred finds himself in trouble, tangled in string in the middle of nowhere with the dark and the monsters coming. But that’s when his moose returns, and proves himself still Wilfred’s friend. So Wilfred realizes that friendship is compromise and not ownership.

****

9780374301859A Unicorn Named Sparkle by Amy Young. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux-Macmillan, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

A little girl buys a unicorn for 25¢ and anxiously awaits its arrival, dreaming of riding him along rainbows with a necklace of flowers on his blue neck. What arrives is a goat with a single horn. He’s smelly. He’s not blue. He has fleas! He eats his flower necklace and his tutu. Lucy tries to defend her unicorn at first from those who say he’s just a goat, but eventually she calls to return the unicorn, but once he’s in the truck and bleating for her, she changes her mind, and realizes that she has grown to love Sparkle even though he is not what she was expecting. Lucy appears to be African American, making me love her even more because there is never once any issue made of her race and we need more books about African Americans where race is not an issue. I like this protagonist so much more than the Barbie from Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Brigette Barrager’s Uni the Unicorn.

****

Nighttime Reads

9ff19e062c2560bf352a6e3fe2e4cc70The Dark by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen. Little Brown Kids-Hachette, 2013.

I reviewed The Dark in April 2013. I’d mostly avoided reading it again, having then not been impressed, and in fact been a bit disturbed by the book. This time around—when an engaged child at story time requested creepy stories—I was not immediately struck by that same unease (though in rereading my previous review, I did find myself agreeing with my younger self). Still, because I was so much less vehemently opposed to this book during this second reading, it seemed fair to give it a second review.

This time, I saw the Dark as more comforting, as empowering Laszlo to defeat his fear of the Dark by showing him that he—the Dark—is friendly, really, and not the frightening monster that Laszlo imagines. Maybe I saw the dark as more of a concept and less of a character. Taking away the Dark’s personhood makes this book much less disturbing.

So now I sit sort of on the fence about this book. Do I like the Dark? Am I worried for the Dark? Is his action more friendly or is it a dangerous depiction of self-harm and self-deprecation? I’m really not sure.

There are other, better books about overcoming a fear of the dark—Emma Yarlett’s Orion and the Dark is pretty wonderful and has the same message without any of the self-harm—and I think I will stick to recommending those, but perhaps I will not so actively avoid this one.

**

9780307976635Hush, Little Horsie by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. Penguin Random, 2010.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This was a sort of disappointing read from Yolen because there just wasn’t a lot of substance, but Sanderson, who has illustrated many horse stories before including the cover art for many of Walter Farley’s and the Horse Diaries series, didn’t disappoint. The lullaby of sorts involves four mares reassuring their foals that they will be watching them as they gallop, leap, and sleep. It ends with a human mother reassuring her daughter that she will be here as she sleeps with horses chasing themselves through her mind. As an adult as I suspect a horse-loving child, I do and would have prickled at the term “horsie” as I do at Marguerite Henry’s incorrect use of “colt,” but I think that puts me in a nitpicky minority.

**

Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey

y648Waiting by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was one of the Caldecott honorees for 2016. Several toys sit on a windowsill. All of them are waiting, waiting for different things—for rain to be able to use an umbrella, for snow to be able to use a sled, for wind for a kite, for the moon to rise. The beginning—the character set-up—is mostly simple, relaxing, beautifully illustrated, particularly in the four illustrations that don’t share the page with any text and which show the passage of time—though time doesn’t really seem to have much affect on the characters. Then there is an inciting incident, and it hits suddenly. A new character—a cat toy—is introduced. What is she waiting for? The implication is that she was waiting for kittens—she is herself a nesting doll, and the kittens appear from inside her. There are some weird illustrations of death in a fancy toy elephant that falls and shatters (“He stayed a while then he left and never returned”) and in the birth of kittens via nesting doll. That the death occurs with so little comment and so little conflict or emotion is… odd. I’m honestly not sure what to make of the text of this book. It’s nice to read, but I don’t quite know what I’ve done but passed the time. The illustrations are lovely; I concede that point for sure, but I’m not sure I would rank them among the most heavy-hitting and innovative and memorable of the year (where are Curato, Parra, Jeffers?).

Henkes you may know from Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse or Chrysanthemum.

***

29433570Are We There Yet? by Nina Laden and illustrated by Adam McCauley. Chronicle, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

This book has very little text, primarily being a repetition of “Are we there yet?” and “No,” but the illustrations are vibrant, detailed, carrying their own narrative with repeated characters across pages, and really carrying the narrative too. On a drive to visit grandparents, the characters start out traversing ordinary settings, which become increasingly extraordinary through the inclusion of extraordinary details. Their journey takes them even to extraterrestrial vistas. The journey ends with the greeting of grandparents who must themselves be pretty extraordinary if their decorating tastes illustrate anything and the assertion that the drive was “boring.” The parents and children at story time enjoyed as I did looking for the extraordinary details in the illustrations. This book earns almost all of its stars through its illustrations, which might be another Caldecott contender. Sadly for McCauley, Santat—already a Caldecott winner—wrote a very similar picture book with the same title this same year with less reliance on the illustrations to carry the tale but more innovative inclusion of illustrations, so I doubt that this story will get a nod.

****

Books for the Beach

9780448496399Llama Llama Sand and Sun by Anna Dewdney. Grosset & Dunlap-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I think this is the only board book that I read this whole month. Written with Dewdney’s charm and rhyme and meter, Llama Llama goes to enjoy the beach in this touch-and-feel book. The touch-and-feel elements are not guided, but still make the book more interactive than an ordinary picture book. The text of the story was really quite enjoyable, simple but, well, charming.

***

y648-1Hello, My Name is Octicorn by Kevin Diller and Justin Lowe with illustrations by Binny Talib. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2016. First published 2013.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprising success, possibly partially because the craft and costume were so fun (I turned party hats inside out and we made our own horns so Octi would feel less alone). Life is hard for an octicorn. He doesn’t fit in with either the unicorns or the octopi. Because Octi doesn’t fit in, he doesn’t get invited to a lot of parties, but there are a lot of things that Octi (and other octicorns) is good at: ring toss, dancing, watersports, juggling, hugging. “I know I look different than everyone else, but that’s okay because in the end, we all want the same things: cupcakes, friends, and a jet ski.” The one squirmy moment I had was when Octi is wondering how his parents met. (Was it a costume party? A personal ad?) I think the book actually gained a few points because it was a direct plea to the audience for friendship; the “aw” factor came into play, plus the book ends with a direct call for reaction. For a book born of a doodle, this was really quite wonderful.

****

0763655996This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen. Candlewick, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is another book that I first read and reviewed on Goodreads in 2013, but the review never migrated to this blog, so now I get a second go. My feelings toward this book, 2013’s Caldecott winner, really haven’t changed much since then.

This is a dark little book.  A tiny fish steals a hat from a BIG fish.  The little fish swims away with it.  He knows he’s done wrong, but he tries to convince himself otherwise.  The big fish will not find him.  He will not know who took the hat.  The big fish wakes up.  He is suspicious.  He tracks down the little fish.  He follows him into some kelp.  Only the big fish emerges, and he has the hat, and looks quite pleased with himself.  Most of the story is told through illustration more than it is through text.  The text is the little fish’s inner monologue.  It’s dark for a picture book but moralistic.  Almost… Grimm.  A very Grimm book in all dark colors with simple but expressive illustrations and an ambiguous end that possibly implies the death of the POV character.

***

Something Different

2976324Brava, Strega Nona! by Tomie dePaola and illustrated by Matthew Reinhart with pop-ups by Robert Sabuda. G. P. Putnam & Sons-Penguin, 2008.

Robert Sabuda is the king of pop-up, and I had never seen one of his books so well preserved (this one was in the library rather than in the bookstore) so that even the water in the fountain turns and the fountain is still attached to the page nor have I ever felt so free to really explore one of Sabuda’s masterpieces knowing that this copy was meant to be explored and not meant to be purchased. There’s not a whole lot of story here. There are a few Italian words—famiglia, amore, mangia, amici, celebrazione—translated and then their place in Strega Nona’s life explained just briefly: her family tree and her family history, her Grandma (Nonna) Concetta the strega who taught her magic; the love that is the secret to her recipes; the friends she sees all over town; the food she share with friends and family; the village celebrations of which she likes to be in the middle. This story means more to me as someone whose family is Italian; these are words that have peppered my life too. The value of this book is in the bit of Italian language that it teaches and in the pure wonder of Sabuda’s pop-ups.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Book Reviews: July 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Part 1: Finding Dory and Facing Problems

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I read just a ton of picture books this July—24 to be exact—21 of those new to me or not yet reviewed on this blog. I’m not going to subject you to a blog post that is 21 reviews long; I don’t want to read that in one sitting, and probably neither do you—and frankly, I just haven’t finished reviewing all 21, even though we are now into the second week of August. So, please, peruse part 1:

Dory

26245967Three Little Words by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Grace Lee. Disney, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

What three word phrase is perhaps the most memorable of the whole of Finding Nemo? “Just keep swimming.” So of course, those are the three little words of the title. This book is a book of advice on how to approach life, including “just keep swimming,” “look both ways” at a crossroads, and “if you ever lose your way just call out to your friends.” “When life gets you down do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do?” The illustrations in this are some of the best of book that I’ve seen come out in conjunction with the Finding Dory film. They are soft, gentle, seemingly watercolors (Kelly Knox reveals the pictures are actually made in Adobe Photoshop—wow!), and if I was unfamiliar with the films and the characters, I might suspect that this was an ordinary picture book—unaffiliated with any franchise. They look like they belong in a bedtime book. This is by far the book on the display of Finding Dory tie-ins to which I am most drawn. As a book of life advice, the text passes, but there’s really no story, so I’m going to mostly gloss over that—other than to say that I might try to get it back in as an alternate to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! next graduation season as I think its message is similar. This book went over far better at story time than did Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, being both shorter and less dark. Especially with the younger graduates (those moving up from preschool to elementary or elementary to middle school) I think it will find more resonance and love than does Seuss.

***

97807364351169780736435062Finding Dory Little Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Finding Dory Big Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

These two Golden Books are retellings of the plot of the film Finding Dory. The Little Golden Book as its name suggests is a shorter, smaller book, with less detail. Otherwise the two books are very similar. I was prepared to read the shorter of the books for story time, but the Big Golden Book actually held the attention too of my audience, which ranged in ages from I would guess five up. (Now, they were all there for a Dory-themed party, so they were, it must be said, prepared for the story—and in many cases, already knew the story.  I was interrupted by many comments about their favorite characters and the details that they remembered that were not covered in the book.)

***                             ***

Big World Problems

MarvelousCornelius_JKT_FnCrx-page-0Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner and illustrated by John Parra. Chronicle, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

Based on a story that he heard about a New Orleans street sweeper and on his later research into the man—which included correspondence with his mother—Phil Bildner attributes a folk hero quality to this recently departed man. Cornelius—the person and the character—wowed New Orleans citizens with his performances—tricks and dances accompanying his work as a garbage man. In the story, when Hurricane Katrina floods the city, it leaves behind piles of garbage as tall as church steeples, and Cornelius is at first overwhelmed but—to ironically borrow the British motto—he kept calm and carried on. He did his job, and others pitched in because he had brought them joy in the past and because they too loved their city. Even people from far away came to help Cornelius clean up New Orleans. Cornelius’ spirit lives on in New Orleans. I appreciate the glorification of this person: a working class African American man with a hoop earring and a job that is often seen as the lowest of low class. We need more books with heroes like this. Please. This month Phil Bildner was honored for this book with one of the first ever Margaret Wise Brown Prizes in Children’s Literature, a prize recognizing the best text in a children’s book published the previous year chosen from nominations by children’s book publishers.

****

worldthatjackThe World That Jack Built by Ruth Brown. Dutton-Penguin, 1991. First published 1990.

Conveying an activist message like that of Seuss’ The Lorax, this book follows a beautifully illustrated black cat and a blue butterfly who wander from the house that Jack built to the next valley over where a rainbow-colored stream cuts through a dead meadow and flows past the place where the trees used to grow by the factory that Jack built. Jack is the villain here, living in beauty while creating horror and environmental terror. The text reverses itself, building from the house out to the valley then from the valley to the factory. There is repetition, but enough to seem lyrical more than annoying; there’s a camp song quality to the style for me because it reminds me of the bird in the egg in the nest on the branch on the tree with the roots in the hole and the hole in the ground and the green grass that grows all around. This story does a lot in and with just a little—and the illustrations are just stunning. The message—conveyed almost completely through the illustrations—is more simplified even than it is in The Lorax though, and it’s not as simple an issue as this book would make it seem, I don’t think. From the story itself, the evidence seems clear: factories bad. But a well-managed factory can do a great deal of a good for a community—and even a poorly managed might do some good for the community even if its short-sighted policies cause more harm than good ultimately.

****

6402385The Enemy by Davide Cali and illustrated by Serge Bloch. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2009. First published 2007.

First of all, I did a little digging on Cali, and I have to insert just this tidbit: The Italian-born Swiss who now lives in France has written many books in many languages: Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. Just… wow. He also writes under the names Taro Miyazawa and Daikon. With simple drawings with lots of white space, Cali and Bloch tell the story of two soldiers (we will call them the soldier and the enemy) in trench warfare. The soldier that is the POV character has never seen his enemy but believes that the enemy is inhuman and will butcher the soldier’s family and animals if the enemy is not killed. The soldier wants the war to end. He is tired and miserable and doesn’t like the rain, but he doesn’t believe that the war can end till the enemy is dead because the enemy is not a rational human, and he will not stop. One night the soldier sneaks into the enemy’s trench—which he finds abandoned (the enemy has slipped out disguised as a lion), but there are photographs of the enemy’s family and a manual that says that he—the POV soldier—is inhuman as he believes his enemy to be. The soldier believes that his enemy must have done as the soldier has done and that the enemy now occupies the soldier’s trench, so he stays in the enemy’s trench. At last he decides he must do something to end the war, and he writes a message to the enemy and lobs it in a bottle towards his trench. The story ends there. It does not show how the enemy—if the enemy actually is in the soldier’s trench—responds or how the soldier responds to his enemy’s silence if as I suspect the enemy is not there but has deserted the war already. This is subtitled “A Book About Peace,” but peace is never achieved within the story. This book well illustrates the mentality of war, the way that wars must be fought, how an enemy must be created in order to have war, how an enemy is too often created, dehumanized in order to “justify” a war and how much that dehumanized enemy is as much a false face as a lion skin concealing a human.

*****

Social Dramas

9780399176197Milk Goes to School by Terry Border. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Milk is confident, sure that she is special—la crème de la crème as her dad says—but her new classmates see her as spoiled. This book is full of puns—puns everywhere—in the text and in the illustrations themselves. The refrain of “spoiled” gets tired pretty quickly and for the most part it seemed to me that Milk’s behavior was wrongly classified as spoiled by a bullying Waffle—who does not waffle at all from his opinion of Milk—established because she says that her glittery backpack was given to her by her father who says that she’s “la crème de la crème.” How is that spoiled? I want to applaud Milk with her high self-esteem and detest Waffle for bullying her, but I’m not sure that my opinion is shared by Border. At the end of the book, Milk does see herself as somewhat spoilt, and she wants to change. Her classmates only change their opinion of Milk and begin to see her previous kindnesses after she has been tripped and has spilt herself and is crying. They help to put her back into her carton and treat her with more kindness, but I don’t see a genuine change from them, and tears and blood/milk shouldn’t have been necessary to curb their bullying. I liked—maybe even loved—Peanut Butter and Cupcake. I’m not sure I can like this one because I see it as portraying a negative, almost dangerous moral that I think was unintended. This is illustrated as Terry Border’s other books with photographed food with arms and legs of paperclip wire.  The kids I read this too were an observant bunch. They were the ones who pointed out that Milk wears a different hair bow in each illustration; it gave them something to look for.

**

9780375840685Duck, Duck, Goose by Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2007.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Duck has a new friend. Thistle is fast.  She’s athletic.  She’s good at math. Duck is very impressed. Goose tries to keep up, but Thistle keeps beating him in every contest that she starts. Goose doesn’t like to be made to feel like a loser. He’s tired, and he misses Duck, but Duck doesn’t seem to need him, so he slips away. Eventually, Duck misses Goose, and he goes looking for him despite Thistle’s disparagement of his friend. He finds Goose in one of their favorite spots. Goose admits to Duck that he’s tired and that Thistle makes him feel badly about himself. Duck admits that he’s getting annoyed by Thistle too. Thistle follows. The two friends trick Thistle into showing off as the world’s best napper and go off to play by themselves. That ending didn’t sit all that well with me; what the two friends do to Thistle is not very friendly nor is it at all likely to solve their problem long-term or help Thistle at all. I wanted the story to say that it is all right to have more than one friend; instead, it was sort of a lesson on how to ditch annoying show-offs. What? The beginning did some nice character set up with Goose sanding very still in order not to scare off a butterfly had landed on him and which he wanted to show Duck, but that set-up went on just a bit too long with the introduction of the bluebird and the discussion of which way was west. Reading the first pages, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, how long exactly this book was going to be and how long I could expect my audience to tolerate it.

**1/2

Liking the You in the Mirror

22318389I Don’t Want to be a Frog by Dev Petty and illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday-Random, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

A frog decides he’d rather be anything but, and his father calmly explains that he can’t be anything but a frog because that’s the way the world works. It takes a wolf coming along saying that he will eat anything but frogs because they are slimy and gross to convince the frog that being a frog is not so bad. What is this picture book? This is not what I was expecting. This teaches that you should be glad that you’re slimy and gross and that you can’t be anything but what you are born and it has the darkness of a villain that comes along to threaten to kill the protagonist. The awful thing is that I pulled it off the shelf, lured by its funny title and cute cover and echoes of Mo Willems’ much better and more wholesome I’m A Frog! and didn’t remember till halfway through the book that I’d already rejected this once as a story time read. Well, I’ve read it through all the way now. I can set it aside and not pick it up again, right? Goodreads reviewers are lauding this as a book about self-acceptance, and yes, self-acceptance can be good in certain circumstances, but I don’t like the presentation here nor that self-acceptance comes about because others are more likely to be killed by a predator; that to me is just not a good message and echoes too closely on too many hot-button, personal issues.

*

9781484712399Ellie by Mike Wu. Hyperion-Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Ellie’s zoo is closing, and the animals are helping the zookeeper “spruce [the zoo] up a bit” in an attempt to save their home.  Everyone seems to have something that they can do–everyone except the tiny elephant, Ellie.  But the zookeeper leaves Ellie alone for a moment with a paintbrush, and she discovers a new talent—one that the zookeeper quickly encourages, and one that saves the zoo—albeit the zoo is now a gallery for Ellie’s artworks as well as the animals’ home.  I warned the child that I had at story time that this story started sad but ended happily.  He didn’t much like it, but I did.  I know at times that I feel useless, and it’s good to be reminded that everyone has something they can do, that maybe I just haven’t yet found my talent or passion.  I had fun with the illustrations, particularly the talented Ellie recreating the “Mona Lisa.”  I like the brightness of Ellie’s artworks after the muted colors of the opening pages when the characters are sad.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Book Review: Fahrenheit 451: A Fiery Critique of Modern Entertainment

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16280156After having read a lot of light, modern, conversational Riordan, I was craving something with more depth and more flowery flare. I floundered for a while and asked everyone I knew for suggestions of writers who have a mastery of language to rival Patrick Rothfuss’. In the end, I picked up this old favorite: Fahrenheit 451.

I can’t tell you when I read Fahrenheit 451. It might’ve been almost a decade ago. I didn’t remember as much of the plot as I thought that I had, though I remembered a great bit of the sentiment.

Ray Bradbury’s writing (I’ve already mentioned) has left a deep scar on my heart and mind. His poetic prose and command of language and meter is something to which I aspire and which I greatly admire.

This book was especially impacting to read now—now in the wake of all that is happening in the world and all that I fear may soon happen in the world.

It’s amazing how prophetic some science-fictions/future dystopias can be.

Guy Montag is a firefighter in a future America. Instead of fighting fires, he sets them; he sets fires to books and to the homes of those who are found in possession of books. Books are a source of chaos. Books foment rebelliousness. Books are a toxin to the world that has been sedated and made happy by noise and glitter and flash and distraction. Interaction has been replaced by walls—television screens that are as large as a wall, and of which a person is intended to have four, so that they can be fully immersed in the programming, which also can be set to include a viewer’s name, to further the immersive escapism.

The world outside of the walls is about to go to war, but the newscasters are quick to gloss over the fact, and quick to dismiss the possibility of loss or hurt.

Montag’s been long curious about the nature of the oppression of which he is a part. He has been sneaking books home and hiding them. But it takes a series of encounters with a girl who seems more awake and more alive than anyone he’s ever met to convince him to act upon those secret curiosities and begin to read. A few lines and a desire for real conversation after that girl dies quickly spirals him into the world of secret bibliophiles and thinkers, concerned with preserving the knowledge of the ages and the culture of the past beyond themselves.

I sort of remembered this book ending hopefully, and I suppose in a way it does, but the city as been bombed, and the fringe society of scholars and bibliophiles and thinkers are heading back to the city to see if they can help.

Bradbury never says what becomes of the society, but leaves it with only those few heroes and a bombed ruin, death and loss and pain that most Americans didn’t see coming because they were too distracted by the escape and the light and the sound.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about where this love and fascination with distraction and noise is present today. If I say much else, I’m writing a very different blog post.

Suffice it to say, this is a book that I’m glad that I read in high school, and I’m glad that I read it now.

Bradbury’s vivid prose is escapism of a different kind because it makes me think instead of distracting me from thinking.

There were a few passages that I found significant enough to mark both in high school and again this past June—and this was I think the first book in 2016 to make me get a pencil to mark its passages.  Because they seemed so significant both times, I want to share them here:

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up. That way lies melancholy.” (61)

“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” (83)

“Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. […] Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.” (86)

This book has a special place in my heart too for the reverential way that it talks about writers and book; I am something of a bibliophile or I probably wouldn’t have this blog.

*****

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Rey-Random, 1953.

This review is not endorsed by Ray Bradbury, his estate, Del Rey Book, Random House Publishing Group, or Simon & Schuster, who seems to have acquired the current rights, because sometimes publishing is weird.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Travel Notes: Lake Norman State Park, Wet and Wild

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This time I’m traveling a little bit closer to home. To North Carolina. To Lake Norman State Park, a park built around the state’s largest man-made lake, and a point almost exactly halfway between my home and my sister’s new home. Not too far at all off of Route 77, the trip takes you through the town of Troutman, North Carolina, which has a downtown corner I wouldn’t mind stopping to admire one time.

A quick drive down State Park Road deadends at the park gate, but the road continues on and winds through the forest down to a welcome center, with information, facilities for those in need, an air-conditioned lobby, a shaded porch with rocking chairs overlooking the lake, and canoe and pedal boat rentals.

My sister and I had planned on a beach day. We piled into a car together and continued on down the road till we saw signs pointing us towards swimming. There’s plenty of parking behind the shelter—where are more bathrooms and outdoor showers to rinse off the sand. Five dollars would have gotten us all day access to the waters—and had we paid it or had rented a boat (also only five dollars per hour) those would have been the only fee the park asked of us—but we’d intended to lay on the sand.

Within maybe fifteen minutes of sitting down in the warm, yellow sand and admiring the view out over the lake waters to the far shore, we were all sent off of the beach and away from the roll of thunder.

IMG_0409We lay down in the grass at the top of the hill overlooking the lake for a bit, but with not sure how long the ban would last, we decided to head back to the welcome center and find some trails.

We did. We hiked around Park Lake, a little more pond-sized lake connected by channels and creeks to the larger body of water downstream.

We followed a sign for a heron shelter, which was really more of picnic area, then back into the woods, sort of chasing a small dam and viewing platform visible from the welcome center side of the lake. Then we struck out the other direction, setting our sights on a bridge visible from there. I’m not sure that the trail that we followed wasn’t a deer run, but we made it to the bridge, which turned out to be one we’d earlier driven over, much wider and a bit less picturesque than I’d thought, though the view over the lake on either side was a good one.

We went to the welcome center, and I asked what trail we should most enjoy before leaving. So armed with expert, local knowledge, we headed back towards the swimming area, turning just a bit before onto Shortleaf Drive, to find the trail hugging the edge of the lake.

IMG_0411We weren’t long on the trail before it started to rain, and not long after, the rain became torrential with wind howling for a while through the trees overhead, thunder booming in the sky, white caps on the lake, and waves crashing against the shore.

IMG_0414It was honestly kind of thrilling.

IMG_0416IMG_0418And then we were wet. Very wet. And for a while the displeasure of sopping clothes clinging to me and the one cold trickle of rainwater running all the way along my spine won out, and story research was my mantra, but then we moved past being able to become any wetter, and the trails looked more like something that I’d expect to find in an Amazonian rainforest than central North Carolina, with deep puddles marking the trail, dense greenery keeping us from going too far to dodge the puddles, and the occasional trickle of water and mud coming down the hill along the trail. And we were never overheated, dehydrated, or sunburnt.

We met a doe on the lonesome trail who must have let us get within maybe three feet before she dashed away. For a while we kept back maybe four feet and watched her, but when it seemed clear that she didn’t intend to leave, and we didn’t intend to turn back the other way, we moved off to the other side of the trail and forward, and she did eventually bound a yard or so farther into the woods.

I like to think that she came back to the bush she had been stripping before we rounded the corner. She didn’t go all that far from us.

When we could—when we found it, my sister and I fully agreed to take the short cut path (which made the hike 3.2 miles instead of five) back to the car. I didn’t get at all out of breath till those last few yards of the hill to the parking lot.

We laid down towels on the seats, drove back to the welcome center to change and dry off a bit, then opened up the trunk of her car and ate our picnic dinner there. By the time we were done, the rain had abated and steam was curling off of the blacktop, we were a bit drier, the roads were hopefully a little safer (though I found some more torrential downpours on my trip north), and our bellies were full.

Pictures by me.  In the words of Patrick Rothfuss, “Click to embiggen.”

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Book Reviews: Picture Book Roundup June 2016: Father’s Day, Animal Friends, and Books About Being a Protagonist

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Father’s Day Specials

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Grandpa Loves You by Helen Foster James and illustrated by Petra Brown. Sleeping Bear, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 0-6, Grade 1.

This is one of those saccharine picture books meant to read as a love letter from the adult reading to the child. The characters are adorable, fluffy bunnies. I liked the grandpa bunny’s big, bushy eyebrows. They add a touch of character and help to make the grandpa more expressive. The rhyming text relies maybe a little too heavily on pet names. This hardcover version includes a place for Grandpa to write a letter to his little honey-bunny.

**

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Monster & Son by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Joey Chou. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

Each page features of a different monster and its offspring doing the things that monsters do but twisting the action to make it seem benign and akin to a daily activity that a father might do with his son: like tucking the little one into bed, playing ball, or piggybacking him while approaching a city. Upset humans pout as they are caught in the tempest of the monsters’ fun, but seem unhurt. I would actually have preferred following a single monster family rather than visiting a new one each page—but because I personally like following a character, not because its a structural flaw or in picture books, and because the text indicates no switch between characters as its written in a first person narration (the father) to a second person (you, the son). This story is saccharine too (and I think that’s going to be the word of the post), but it relies less on pet names to make it so; the rhymes and story seem less forced than in Grandpa Loves You.

***

9780803737174 When Dads Don’t Grow Up by Marjorie Blain Parker and illustrated by R. W. Alley. Dial-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Perhaps because I read this one right after reading the wonderfully rhymed and rhythmic Giraffes Can’t Dance I stumbled all over the rhyme-less, unmetered text that was broken too in odd places sometimes I thought. This one pokes fun at dads and at adults, even going so far as to point out the possibility of a bald father. It claims we’ll know a dad who never grew up by the things that he does or does not do. A dad who has never grown up knows has to have fun, can’t sit still, watches cartoons, remembers how scary basements can be and that shopping carts are for racing. I would suggest it only for dads who can live up to the standard demonstrated here, but the story could backfire on a bland, grown-up dad. The illustrations of dads having fun with their kids are pretty heartwarming and goofy but the soft pastels keep the story gentle rather than raucous.

**

9780385388955Dad School by Rebecca Van Slyke and illustrated by Priscilla Burris. Doubleday-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

There’s a lot of similarities between this and When Dads Don’t Grow Up in that they both poke fun lovingly at Dad (and I capitalize it here because in both stories it is the stereotyped idea of Dad rather than a character particularly). In this one, the child (presumably the white, brunet son from the cover and common in the first few illustrations, though his classmates and his dad’s classmates are of various races) hypothesizes that his dad must have gone to Dad School to learn how to be a dad—to make huge snacks, to throw you up high but never drop you, to fix and mend things, and multitask—but suggests that he must have skipped school on the days when they learnt to clean bathrooms and match clothes and brush hair. Comparing the two books—this and When Dads Don’t Grow Up­—actually gives you a fairly interesting study of the conceptual Dad. But I think I digress; I’m supposed to be reviewing a kids book not critique societal constructs. This book reads more easily than did When Dads Grow Up, but it also came before rather than after Giraffes Can’t Dance. It too could backfire on a dad who does not do these things or conversely who does do the things that it is suggested by the text that a dad should not do.

***

Animal Friends

9780439287197_default_pdpGiraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees. Orchard-Hachette, 2001. First published 1999. Intended audience: Ages 5-7, Grades PreK-2.

I first read this book in March 2013 and according to Goodreads I haven’t read it again since, though I’m not sure if I believe that and I know I’ve handed it to many customers since. I read this among a wealth of Father’s Day themed books. Perhaps it stood out because of that, but I think it was more than that. This is a good story, carefully metered and well-rhymed with a bit of poetry to the prose. There’s a lot of raw emotion from the giraffe, ridiculed and told that he can’t, and an important moral about being able and being different and being okay. I’d grabbed it that day when I was otherwise reading books about dads because the kids were getting antsy, and I thought that this might be a dance-along book, and I maybe could have made it so, but I got wrapped up in the story myself and we never danced. Parker-Rees’ illustrations are jewel-bright and just a delight, awash with detail and vibrancy.

*****

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When Your Elephant Comes to Play by Ale Barba. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This story was a bit more lackluster than I’d hoped it might be. There’s a lot that you can’t do with an elephant and still have fun yourself—like going swimming in the pool or eating cake—but elephants are excellent huggers. There’s a lot of color and line in the illustrations—almost like a more concrete Kandinsky, and while that feels fresh, it’s also almost distracting; the illustrations take work to grasp and dissect and made it at times difficult to find the text.

***

extremely-cute-animals-operating-heavy-machinery-9781416924418_hrExtremely Cute Animals Operating Heavy Machinery by David Gordon. Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, PreK-3.

I had heard some so-so reviews of this book before I actually got around to reading it and so was rather pleased with the story. Karen—an extremely cute but unidentifiable animal (maybe a kangaroo?)—wants to build a sand castle, but the playground bullies won’t allow it. They destroy her castle, but she and a few friends build a new castle, bigger and better. That too is destroyed, and the friends rebuild, bigger and better. After a third time, the extremely cute animals get extremely mad, and they haul away the whole playground with a helicopter and come in with steel beams and welding guns and create a walled and gated theme park where no bullies are allowed. And I would have been upset if that had been the end, but Karen cracks open the door to invite the momentarily exiled bullies into the park, where they seem very contrite as they are led around the park and shown kindness by the extremely cute animals, who have not forgotten to build something for even those who like to destroy—a replica of Karen’s original castle this time meant to be destroyed (and presumably rebuilt and destroyed again). The cotton-candy quality of the illustrations and the title’s description of the protagonists as cute did not particularly bleed into the text itself, which was more realistic and hard-hitting than a lot of picture books that I’ve read recently. The bullies’ speeches seemed particularly realistic—not cleaned up, not made cute or trite, just down in the dirt mean. And I appreciated that kind of unmade-up depiction of bullies. I’ve not read a lot of picture books talking about how to deal with bullies. There’re Peanut Butter & Cupcake and I suppose Giraffes Can’t Dance too, where the characters who exclude Peanut Butter and Giraffe could be classified as bullies but never are, and there’s Llama Llama and the Bully Goat, where the rhyming text sort of diminishes the roughness and the ending makes it seem like Bully Goat is reformed by one time-out. I do dislike that extremely cute and good and kind seem to be equated and—while I understand it as part of the repetition of a picture book text—the part of me that writes novels and has been trained in school to write essays disliked that repetition of the weak word “extremely.” That these cute, good protagonists are allowed to get mad, and that their anger is siphoned constructively I do like.

****

9780312498603 Bright Baby Touch and Feel: Perfect Pets by Roger Priddy. Priddy-Macmillan, 2006. Intended audience: Ages 1-3, Grade PreK.

I was pleasantly surprised by this board book. Each spread takes a moment to name an animal—no, actually give the pet a name—and describe an action associated with that animal. The pages are touch-and-feel but the text does not always prompt the reader to describe the texture. A solid background color behind the photographed illustration could let this book be used as a color primer too. But there is more story here and certainly more characters than I’ve grown to expect from primers because of the names, because of the actions; I welcome that.

****

eleph_pig_party_cover_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: I Am Invited to a Party! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2007. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a new Elephant and Piggie story for me. Even though it is one of the older stories (the third written in the series), it had never been in my hands. I love it. Piggie is invited to a party, but doesn’t want to go alone. Gerald agrees to go with her, because he knows parties. Gerald prepares for every eventuality and their outfits become more and more ridiculous as they prepare for a fancy pool costume party. In the end, Gerald has worried just enough to make them prepared. Everyone looks ridiculous in their outfits for the fancy-pool-costume party. I had fun trying to pick out the costumes from the final illustration. Also, what a great time to break out paper dolls!

*****

elephants_cannot_dance_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: Elephants Cannot Dance! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Piggie is excited about dance class and wants to teach Gerald to dance, but Elephants cannot dance; it’s in the handbook. Trust Piggie to find the loophole. So Gerald tries to dance, but Willems takes a bit of time to play with opposites. When Piggie says up, Gerald goes down. When Piggie tells him to do the robot walk, he wiggles and waggles. Just when Gerald is ready to give up, along come two squirrels who want to learn the Elephant dance, teaching that just because you feel like you’re failing does not mean that you are failing and different is not wrong or bad.

****

e_and_p_should_i_share_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This Elephant and Piggie story I’d read before, but apparently never reviewed. Gerald buys an ice cream cone and in his excitement only realizes later that maybe he should have bought Piggie one too. Gerald talks himself into and out of sharing his ice cream with his best friend and while he waffles on what is right, the ice cream melts away, leaving neither of them with a tasty treat. Luckily, Piggie has his back, and appears with an ice cream cone of her own to share with Gerald and to cheer him up after Gerald has upset himself by wasting the ice cream cone that neither he nor Piggie enjoyed.

****

e_and_p_drive_lg_

An Elephant and Piggie Book: Let’s Go for a Drive! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a new Elephant and Piggie story for me! Gerald wants to go for a drive with Piggie, but in typical Gerald style, Gerald worries, and wants to be prepared for any type of weather and for everything that could go wrong on their drive. Piggie is a prepared pig. She has everything Gerald requests: a map, sunglasses, umbrellas, bags to pack it all in—everything except a car. That is when the pattern of the text breaks too. Piggie saves the day again though by coming up with an alternative idea. The two make a pirate ship out of all the things that they’ve collected for their drive, and have fun anyway. Willems uses a road map for his illustrations of the map, making this an example of mixed media illustration, if most of the illustrations adhere to his usual drawing style. This would be a story better told while standing, so that the reader can act out the celebratory dancing. While sitting, the celebratory singing just didn’t have the same effect. Now I know.

****

Hero of Your Own Story 9781454916086_jkt.inddWhose Story Is This, Anyway? by Mike Flaherty and illustrated by Oriol Vidal. Sterling, 2016.

I read this alongside of Monster & Son, When Your Elephant Comes to Play, and Hoot and Peep, and this was declared the favorite by the little boy at story time whom I polled. This is the story of a boy who wants to tell a story about himself—with a cameo by his cat, Emperor Falafel—but the story keeps getting interrupted by pirates and knights and dinosaurs and aliens. He shouts them all away, but realizes that the audience for his story actually prefers a story with pirates and knights and dinosaurs and aliens and rewrites his story to include them all. The competing voices in the story are what I think make this so much fun: a deep growling voice of “arr” and “yar” and “ye” for the pirate, Salty Pete; a proper, clipped voice for Sir Knightly; a sort of dopey voice with lots of rounded tones that I gave the dinosaur; and a sort of shrill, nasal voice for the boy. Now, I’m not sure how I feel about the idea that a story about an ordinary boy and his cat is dull and yawn-inducing, but the idea that a story is better with friends and with characters I can get behind. I think it would be a fun story to use when talking about story writing.

****

9780679805274Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. Random, 1990.

I read this to a group that consisted primarily of kids under 7 and one that was maybe 10 at my best guess. It is Dr. Seuss. Everyone loves Seuss. I expected it to be fine. I expected them to like it. It was too long for all of them, and the 10 year old thought it was a bit too dark and depressing. This is of course a classic. I know it. You probably know it too. And we can probably both quote it. It’s a tale about life, that assures the reader that she is ready and able to take on the world, that she knows what she needs to know and has the gumption to get things done and to go to great places, but also warns that life doesn’t always go the way that it should, that there will be bad paths to avoid, dark places she’ll end up even if she’s done everything right, slumps and waiting. The message is inspiring, but apparently, it really is better for those high school and college graduates if they’re willing at that age to give it a read.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Shelfie with Cat

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IMG_0423While I don’t generally approve of my cat making her way onto this second shelf–from which I fear she can reach the things that we’ve moved to the third shelf to keep them out of her reach–I had to admit that she looked too classy and too photo-worthy sitting there, so I snapped a picture or two (in the first she was looking at the camera but blurrier than she and the books are here).  This photo just deserved to be shared here.  So here’s a shelfie.  Enjoy perusing the titles.

This photo has me thinking of perhaps adding a new feature to this blog.  Who would enjoy a Shelfie Saturday maybe that is just a post with a pretty picture of books–my books or the books that I work with or maybe even the book that I am writing?  There might be occasional cameos from my cat, but I’d never promise them every week.  What do you think, loyal readers?  Like the post if you think I should do the thing?

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