Book Reviews: July Picture Book Roundup

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Welcome to the second monthly roundup.

Moby Dick: A BabyLit Ocean Primer by Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2013.

The first BabyLit Primer that I read (Pride and Prejudice), I didn’t much enjoy.  This second, a more recent publication, I liked better, maybe because I was better prepared for what to expect, but also perhaps because it simply is more complex, better constructed, and makes better use of the source text.  This integrates quotes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as it introduces young readers to both the story of Moby Dick and some usual (captain, fish, whale, ship, stars, sailors) and more unusual (harpoons; if anyone is looking to get me a gift) ocean vocabulary.  It takes the basic primer a step farther not only with its quotes but also with its labels of the various types of fish (more specific knowledge than I at 24 know).  Confession 1:  I have not read Moby Dick, but I know it is lengthy, and I know the basic idea.  Whether BabyLit retells Moby Dick I cannot say, but it does capture the basic story of a whale hunt, though BabyLit does not specify what becomes of any of the characters, cutting it short of killing or injuring the whale.

****

Les Petits Fairytales: The Little Mermaid by Trixie Belle, Melissa Caruso-Scott, illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2013.

Les Petits Fairytales retell classic tales in the form of board book primers with only one or two words per page and bright illustrations of round, toddling characters in complete settings.

I really appreciate Les Petits Fairytales’ ability to tell an entire tale in such a simple form and their decision to distance themselves from the Disney representations of these classic fairy tales.  Ariel is not a redhead, though the illustrator, Oliver Lake, could easily have made her so.  Instead the young mermaid sports black locks.  Confession 2: I’ve never read Hans Christian Andersen’s original “Little Mermaid.”  I do not know how closely this book stays or how far it strays from the text.  I can only really compare it to Disney’s.  The mermaid regains her grandmother (Disney never can allow two parents to care for their protagonists—or not until recently).  Following closer to Andersen’s version than Disney’s, the prince and mermaid do not wed (Les Petits Fairytales calls them “friends”) and the mermaid returns to the sea, though Les Petits skips the bit about the mermaid refusing to kill the prince to save herself and the part where the mermaid becomes a spirit, losing her mortal and bodily form altogether for not winning the love of the prince.

****

Les Petits Fairytales: Snow White by Trixie Belle, Melissa Caruso-Scott, illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2012.

Again, Les Petits Fairytales distances itself from the Disney version of the tale and remains closer to the original Grimms Brothers’ version.  The witch uses an enchanted corset and poisoned comb before defeating Snow White with a poisoned apple.  Les Petits Fairytales remembers its audience and allows only a forehead kiss to wake the sleeping girl.

 ****

Baby ABC by Deborah Donenfeld.  Dial-Penguin, 2013.

Obviously, this is an alphabet book.  The illustrations each feature a black-and-white photograph of a baby wearing or bearing some object alone in the photograph left colorized.  The color of this object matches the letter that it represents.  It’s a simple concept, a simple design, but very tastefully done—and of course babies (humans) like looking at faces, are predisposed to recognize faces, and humans as a whole are drawn to faces that look more youthful, more babyish, so what better than a smiling baby’s face?  There’s no plot to report on here, but there’s not meant to be one.

***

In My Ocean by Sara Gillingham, illustrated by Lorena Simonovich.  Chronicle Books, 2011.

This is another book the draw of which is the design not the text.  The book is done with concentric cutaway pages of ocean landscapes, essentially oversimplifying a day in the life of a baby dolphin.  The baby dolphin, it should be noted, is a finger puppet, which is sure to delight, though I noticed that the puppet is quite small and quite shallow; I have small hands for my age and had a difficult time maneuvering the puppet.  The book ends with a reminder to come home to family.

**

No Matter What by Debi Gliori.  Houghton Mifflin, 2008.  First published 1999.

Small fears that Large doesn’t love him because he feels unlovable, “grumpy and grim.”  Large assures Small that there is nothing Small can do or be (a bear, bug, or crocodile) that will make Large love him less.  Small becomes surer of Large’s love through the story, the crocodile question being less fueled it seemed to me by fear than as a challenge given with a giggle.  Small asks about the qualities of love, and Large confesses her ignorance of whether it can bend or break.  Large assures Small however that, as the stars shine after they die, her love for Small will go on beyond her death.  This is a small book with a lot packed into its short, rhyming text.  The images nicely take the pair through the actions of getting ready for bed, giving the book a grounding and context that is rare in such picture books.

I love that the characters are Large and Small rather than a more boxed in Mother, Father, Grandma, Grandpa, Baby, etc.  I should mention too that I have arbitrarily assigned genders to these characters for the sake of the review and that they are never specified.

This is a great, little-known alternative to Robert N. Munsch’s Love You Forever or Barbara Joosse’s Mama, Do You Love Me?, and one that deals additionally with the question of death not just misdeeds that children fear might diminish a parent’s love for them.  The rhyming text is enjoyable with a great message.

*****

My Little Pony: Friends Forever: Play-a-Sound.  Publications International, 2013.

This is a “meet the ponies” book.  Spike convinces Twilight Sparkle to leave her studies to go seek the company of her friends.  The book has little plot and consists primarily of the gathering of the friends together.  The book includes flaps to lift and reveal the friends and buttons to press to hear the character’s theme music.

**

Bizzy Bear: Pirate Adventure illustrated by Benji Davis.  Nosy Crow-Candlewick, 2013.

Pirates are all over the bookshelves lately.  I blame Jake (and the Neverland Pirates) but want to say that we at Hollins’ Children’s Literature program were ahead of this trend when we voted the 2012 Francelia Butler Conference’s theme to be Pirates and Treasure Seekers.  This is a board book, filed at Barnes & Noble as a “first concepts” book.  Within the rhyming text, there are examples of opposites (left/right, up/down) though the book markets itself as an adventure not a primer.  This is a board book with moveable pieces.  Readers can hoist the sails, steer the ship, dig for treasure, and open the chest.  Even the cover illustration allows readers to toss the ship on the waves.  The illustrations are quite detailed and colorful even aside from the captivating moveable bits.  The book is thankfully constructed of sturdier material than most other books with moveable pieces.  The plot is pretty simplistic, though, I suppose for its genre (first concepts), it’s actually quite complex.

***1/2

Ponyella by Laura Joffe Numeroff, Nate Evans, and illustrated by Lynn M. Munsinger. Hyperion-Disney, 2011.

As you can probably guess, this is a retelling of “Cinderella,” where all of the characters sans the prince and the stepmother are ponies or horses.  I actually thought that this was an extremely well done retelling.  Ponyella’s farm is bought and she along with it by a new owner (stepmother) who brings two of his own beloved horses with him (the stepsisters).  Ponyella is shoved aside so that the owner’s horses can have the nicest stalls.  She receives less love and attention.  He even put her to work pulling carts of heavy coal.  A horse show is arranged which it is rumored that the Princess Penelope will attend to look for a new pony.  Ponyella’s godmare arrives, cleans up Ponyella, gives her diamond horseshoes, and turns a friend of Ponyella’s, a mouse, into a rider.  Ponyella attends the horse show and shows off her ability to jump the higher than the other competitors.  When her glamour wears off, she loses one of her diamond horseshoes, and Princess Penelope uses it to search the land for the pony that it fits, ultimately finding Ponyella and taking her to live at the castle as her own pony, showering her with love and attention, putting her up in the largest, nicest stall, and feeding her carrot cake.

The retelling uses all the elements of the story and twists them just enough so that they fit the new cast.  It’s sure to delight young riders and horse-enthusiasts.

The story is beautifully and expressively illustrated by Munsinger in pastels and pinks.

****

Imagine by Bart Vivian.  Beyond Words-Aladdin, 2013.

The illustrations of this inspiring picture book are gorgeous.  Black and white images of kids in the now and the real are contrasted when the page is turned by bright, bold illustrations of what could be or what one could imagine the real to be (ex: a tree house is a castle or you could become a real life hero as a firefighter).  I hope kids don’t need the reminder to imagine, to dream.  It almost seems to me to be a book for older children (graduates).

***

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I Love My New Toy! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2008.

Piggie has a new toy.  Elephant Gerald plays with it, but it falls to the ground and snaps.  Piggie becomes very upset, upsetting Gerald.  Then a kindly squirrel happens by to explain that the toy is supposed to break, and Piggie becomes embarrassed for having gotten angry with her friend.  Gerald and Piggie realize that friends are more fun than toys, and the toy is forgotten.

****

An Elephant and Piggie Book: My Friend Is Sad by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2007.

Elephant Gerald is sad, Piggie notices.  Piggie tries to cheer him up by dressing in elaborate costumes as things that she knows Elephant enjoys (a cowboy, a robot), but Gerald only seems to become sadder each time Piggie tries.  Piggie finally approaches Gerald without a costume to apologize for not being able to cheer Gerald up, but Piggie’s appearance heralds Gerald’s happiness.  Gerald explains he was sad because he saw all these awesome things, but Piggie wasn’t there to see any of it.  Piggie reminds Gerald that she is here now, and Gerald explains that he needs his friends.  Piggie tells Gerald, who did not recognize Piggie in any of her disguises, that he needs new glasses.

Willems’ depictions of Gerald’s devastating sadness are particularly expressive, and this book contains such great gems of lines as “How can anyone be sad around a robot?”

****

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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