Book Reviews: November Picture Book Roundup

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Most of this month’s picture books came into my hands for one story hour or another that I was expected to lead.

The Elf on the Shelf by Carol V. Aebersold and Chanda A. Bell.  Illustrated by Coë Steinwart.  CCA and B, 2007.

Let’s start with a little too early yet Christmas spirit.  This was a required book to be read for a particular story hour.  I found out about The Elf on the Shelf tradition last year when I joined the retail world for the holiday season.  I had never actually read the book, but the concept to me is more creepy than not.  The elf watches children during the holiday season and reports their deeds nightly to Santa.  The elf is known to leave the house because he is found in a different location or position each morning.  Some parents seem to use the elf as another pair of eyes to watch the children for good and behavior, and some parents have reported that the elf being in the house does affect the children’s behavior.  Some use the elf as a hide-and-seek game.  The book itself explains the game and the idea to kids in a rhyming fashion.  The writing itself I found honestly mediocre, but was pleasantly surprised by the rhyme.  It’s a quick read, and the children seemed engaged, though our turnout was small.  Half of the listeners were above the intended age for the reading or the book and while they were engaged they also poked some fun at the holes in the concept.  Parents should be warned that the elf does ask good boys and girls to say their prayers in case there are any who might find that offensive, though this book otherwise stays within the now secular traditions of Christmas.

**1/2

Barnyard Dance Lap Book by Sandra Boynton.  Workman, 2011.

Sandra Boynton is extremely popular, and though I’ve read only a few of her books, I’ve been pleased with all of them.  This classic of hers seemed a safe bet for a story hour, and it was a big hit.  The kids had been surprisingly riled by a reading of Mo Willems I’m a Frog! (see below), and at this point I went with it, and asked the audience to just join me in dancing, though I had surprisingly little audience participation for this one.  The book aloud actually reads like a square dance call.  It was a very quick read.  Too quick maybe, I wanted to flip it over and start again, and see if I couldn’t coax some of the kids to do-si-do with me.  But then, how does one, in an average setting for a read aloud or read alone “bow to the horse” or “stand with the donkey”?

****

Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter.  Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2013.

Like Hervé Tullet’s Press Here, the book shows a button, gives instructions, and demands interaction because the text implies that the illustration on the next page has been influenced by the actions done to the button on the previous page.  In retrospect, for the larger group that I had, this was not the story hour book to choose, because when, for example, in Don’t Push the Button, it says to press the button twice, having an audience of ten, none of whom wanted to be left out or passed over, the button was pushed really twenty times before its change was effected.  It was, though, a fun read aloud book and enjoyable to interact with and would be great for one-on-one read alouds (bedtime stories).  Structurally, I prefer Don’t Push the Button over Press Here because Don’t Push the Button gives readers a character to follow and with whom to sympathize.  Because the button affects him and not just the page, it seems more of a problem when unlikely things happen because the button is pressed.  In Don’t Push the Button, however, the effects of pushing the button are consequences of rule breaking where in Press Here the effects are caused by following instructions.  Readers of Don’t Push the Button are following the instructions of the monstrous protagonist, but it’s more like giving in to peer pressure than following directions—and I suppose that is a demerit in the pro/con battle between the two.  Regardless of which is better composed, all these poor books will go to an early grave from being prodded and shaken….

***1/2

The Meaning of Life by Bradley Trevor Greive.  Andrews McMeel, 2002.

Whoops.  This one’s not for kids.  But it is a picture book.  Barnes & Noble classifies it as a “gift book,” but it is still by technical definition a picture book, a book with pictures that enhance the text but are not necessarily integral to the text (versus a picture storybook in which the pictures are integral.  I consider that a subgenre of picture books, and many of the books in these roundups headed as “picture books” are actually “picture storybooks” (practically anything by Mo Willems, for example.))  Like all Bradley Trevor Greive books, The Meaning of Life features philosophical ponderings with a quirky, adult humor, topped with black-and-white photographs of animals.  This book asks a lot of questions about human existence and to the readers directly.  It suggests that the love of life is where our focus should be, and asks readers to think about what they are truly passionate about, and encourages them to chase that.  His are, again, books that I enjoy giving out as gifts.  They are enjoyable by most personalities, always fun, almost always leave me with a smile on my face, and good to share.

*****

The Turkey Train by Steve Metzger and illustrated by Jim Paillot.  Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2013. Intended audience: Grades 3-5 (ages 8-12).

I thought this would be a Thanksgiving themed book.  It’s promotionally shelved as a Thanksgiving book.  It is not.  It is about turkeys taking a day trip to a ski resort in Maine.  The turkeys amuse themselves and partake of the provided entertainment on the train then revel in winter sports and activities once they arrive in Maine.  It was a fun read aloud because it was very musically written with a solid rhyme scheme—up until the end when the rhyme scheme breaks, signaling the coming end of the book, a clever device.  The illustrations are colorful and clever with a few puns to amuse the adults (Fowl Play).  I puzzle how a train can travel from Fort Wayne (presumably Indiana?) to Maine in a day and back.  If I were reading the book as an editor, I’d call a logic foul, but I understand not having questioned it for the sake of the rhymes, and because the intended audience is not likely to do so.

****

Hello, Virginia! by Candice Ransom and illustrated by David Walker.  Sterling, 2010.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Candice Ransom is a professor at my alma mater, so yes, I’m likely to be a bit biased.  Hello, Virginia—and I would guess all the Hello, America! books—reads a great deal like one of the Good Night Our World series.  Which series began first I cannot say.  I read Good Night Connecticut before Hello, Virginia! thinking from its title that it would be a Goodnight Moon parody, and so it is Ransom’s book that reminds me of Vrba’s rather than the other way around.  The plot of neither is thrilling.  The plots essentially say hello or goodnight to various sights around each state.  Neither series gives much information about the sights so I would not use either as a teaching tool really.  The books may serve to remind adults about the things that they remember and miss about a state.  I can see a young child exclaiming “We were there!” when a familiar, particular location is illustrated (for example not over the stone walls of Connecticut, but perhaps over the Mystic Aquarium).  Overall, I cannot rate either book highly.

I do appreciate the Hello, America! series’ proper use of grammar in its titles.

***

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I’m a Frog! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion, 2013.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

This Elephant and Piggie book was a book that I did not expect to be interactive, but the children in my story hour disagreed.  Piggie was pretending to be a frog, and they all wanted to pretend to be frogs too, ribbeting and hopping around the stage.  I don’t know that I’d ever before read a Mo Willems book aloud.  I was inserting dialogue tags now and again, but it was also impossible to read without at least differentiating the two characters by inflection.  This was a good lesson: one about pretending, that you can pretend, that we can use our imagination, that even adults pretend.  Now of course, you could take the negative view that learning to pretend to be something that you’re not is a bad thing (teens+, see the movie Easy A), but you can also pretend to be unafraid, pretend to be a parent to a doll to learn empathy and responsibility, or pretend to be a frog.  I love Mo Willems’ humor, I’ve said before, I love the strength of his characters, and I love the twist that he puts into the end of this book.

*****

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