Book Reviews: April and May 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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Dear Zoo: A Lift-the-Flap Book by Rod Campbell. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2007. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 1-4, Grades PreK-K.

I missed this one, I think, in my childhood. A boy writes to the zoo for a pet, and the zoo obliges. A box arrives. Opening it reveals an elephant. He is too big, so the child sends him back. The zoo then sends a giraffe, but the giraffe is too tall. It continues like this, until the zoo thinks very hard and sends the child a perfect puppy. The animals are never actually named, so it’s a primer for a more advanced toddler, one who’s already learnt all the animals’ names. Or this can be a read-aloud book where the reader names the animals for the child. Precious. And a perfect use of lift-the-flaps.

****

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Follow the Little Fish by Olivier Latyk. Sandy Creek-Sterling, 2015. First published 2013 by Templar. Intended audience: 2 years.

This was a surprisingly fun bargain book. The foil fish on the cover caught my eye. The book is rife with onomatopoeias. The fish jumps from one unlikely body of water to another (a pool, a glass of water), and ultimately ends up in a drainage pipe, then in the ocean. The foil does not remain past the cover, but the colors are bright, maybe even a little too loud. With the onomatopoeias especially, this would be a lot of fun to read aloud.

***

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Hi! by Ethan Long. Appleseed-Abrams, 2015.

This is a board book primer of animal sounds (though some of these are less readily associated with their animals like “yak” and “slurp”) and two basic English words: “hi” and “good-bye.” The animals’ sounds are in rhyming pairs, so I suppose it makes sense to have the final pages be the human “hi” and “good-bye” but the switch to human seems abrupt after all the pages of nonsensical animal sounds. Had the book opened with the “hi,” the animals’ sounds would have seemed like responses. Pairing the animals with images of day and night might have implied a “hi” and “good-bye” meaning to the sounds. Most of the images are set during daytime with each animal in its natural setting. Each animal waves to the one on the opposing page. Perhaps they were all meant to be saying hello (that was my first assumption), or maybe they are paired hellos and goodbyes. Because there is a page with all the animals and the boy opposite and finally the boy’s “hi” and the mom’s “good-bye” to the reader, perhaps the context is meant to be the animals’ greeting one another training the boy to greet his mother in his own tongue, but that’s hazy at best. There’s just no way to know the meaning behind the sounds, and that disappoints me, but the colors are bright and the illustrations welcoming.

**

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Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. Chronicle, 2015.

The illustrator, Holly Clifton-Brown, deserves especial commendation for this book. I like to think that the author was in on the wonderful diversity that the illustrator slipped into the background of the story, but I have no proof. Diverse ethnicities and diverse family situations are slipped quietly rather than obtrusively into the story, making it a more enjoyable read, and making the diversity seem less of an issue to be dealt with, as can happen when an author is too “preachy,” and more “normal” and acceptable.  Though an issue book, this did not read as one.

The story focuses on Stella and her two fathers. Minor characters include a boy with two mothers of two races and a boy raised by his grandmother while his mother is away at war, as well as families of a mom and a dad. The students are all of varying ethnicities. I’m glad the publishing world was ready for this book.

Using the dilemma of whom a girl with two dads should invite to a class Mother’s Day party, Schiffer discusses the normality of a family of two dads, how there’s still someone to kiss boo-boos and read bedtime stories and pack lunches and all the rest. Stella does not feel badly for having no mother in her life. She realizes that she has a wide family who act as her mother. Her solution, suggested by a friend, is to invite her whole family to the party, since they all act as her mother.

The story leaves an opening for continuation with the mention of Father’s Day and in the background of Stella’s happiness the boy with two mothers beginning to wonder whom he will invite to that party.

*****

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Happy Birthday to You! by Dr. Seuss. Random, 2003. First published 1959.

I have found the source of that oft quoted, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Pop-ups add a spark of extra fun and excitement to this board book. This is a book really meant to be gifted and really only meant to be read once a year, and that is a sad thing, because it would be an inspiring anthem any day of the year. I appreciate this book more when separated from its title. The board book is abridged and less often mentions the festivities as birthday celebrations and makes it more universal; I actually prefer the abridged book over the original for its universality. Dr. Seuss’ rhymes always elicit a smile.

Maybe it’s not fair to rate Dr. Seuss (I couldn’t possibly give him a poor rating), but I feel as if this abridgement and pop-up deserves at least:

****

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Uh-Oh Octopus! by Elle van Lieshout and Erik van Os and illustrated by Mies van Hout. Lemniscaat USA, 2014.

The illustrations caught me on this one. Every page is beautiful and bright with rare realism. Every review I’ve read and even the descriptions posted on Amazon and Barnes & Noble highlight the illustrations over the story.

I happened to flip the book open first to the last page, which got my feminist hackles up. So then I naturally had to read the story to see if my rage would be justified. Was it? I wasn’t entirely soothed, but I think it more just an odd little story than divisive propaganda. The story is this: The little octopus has a sweet pad in the reef, but one day comes home to find a too-big invader, its powerful, scaled tail sticking out of the entrance and its head hidden inside of Octopus’ home. The octopus runs away and asks all of the sea creatures for advice on getting rid of the invader, but Octopus is not comfortable taking any of the advice that they give. Ultimately, after he hears a mysterious voice asking what he would do, he goes to politely ask the invader to leave his home. The invader explains that it’s been stuck in the octopus’ cave for some time and asks for help freeing itself. Octopus again begs the help of the other sea creatures, and they free the invader, who turns out to be a classically beautiful mermaid. “‘Oh,’ Octopus blushe[s]. ‘If I’d only known you were a lady!  That’s different!’”  I don’t think the author intends to say that women or that beautiful women or that anyone to whom you’re attracted ought to be treated differently–certainly that’s not the book’s primary moral–but those messages could be found in that line.  Interspecies relationships are less taboo in picture books, but it still struck me as an odd ending and poorly worded as it did elicit that spark of feminist fury when read out of context. As a Dutch import, I am a little more willing to be lenient as well, expecting the book to either have been translated from its original language (and so putting the fault on the translator) or having been written in the author’s second language.

The illustrations deserve at least four stars. The story itself… maybe two, so:

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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