Book Reviews: November 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Part 2: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…

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Brace Yourselves. Winter Is Coming

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Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. First published 1971.

Katie was one of my nicknames as a child, so I have some vague sense that this is one of the stories that was read to me with some regularity—enough regularity that when I was told that I had to read a story about a snowplow, I recalled that this story existed, even though it must have been years since I’d had any reason to consider it. Or maybe I remembered seeing it in the shelves when I was re-alphabetizing the picture books a month or two ago. Either way, Burton’s books are classics; this one is 44 years old and still being read, still in the bookstore. Katy is an unstoppable plow who likes hard work. She saves up her efforts for a big snow, something only she can handle. She drives around the town, clearing roads for policemen, firefighters, mailmen, ambulance drivers, electric and water company employees…. I have sort of mixed feelings about this story, honestly. Katy helps everyone. Helping everyone is good. But does Katy take care of herself? She gets a little tired, but she keeps working. There are no reinforcements, no offers by anyone to help Katy. The villain here is the snow, and Katy and her tirelessness and persistence are the solution, but Katy really doesn’t reap any benefits except… a job well done? a chance to rest when—and only when—the work is done? What sort of message is that? Help everyone and don’t expect to be thanked, don’t expect any sort of reward? I suppose that, yes, that is a laudable and important moral, but maybe not one I’m willing to instill in my children, not at this age. I’d rather that they know that they can speak up for themselves, that they have the right to say no. I do like that this is a boy book—a book about trucks, which get thrown more often at boys than at girls—but with a strong, female protagonist.

One of Burton’s books, The Little House, won the Caldecott medal in 1943. Burton’s illustrations in this book are detailed. Take a look at the margins. Take a look at the maps. Look at the use of white space. The illustrations I like better than I like the story. I think the illustrations bump the story past three or three and a half stars to

****

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The Little Snowplow by Lora Koehler and illustrated by Jake Parker. Candlewick, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.

I actually think that this is a better book about snowplows—if you’re ever asked to pick just one. The story here is better. The little snowplow is picked on by the larger trucks. He works hard to make himself strong. He exercises daily and pushes himself to lift and pull and push more and heavier weights. When the snows come, the little snowplow is sent out and the snow is too much for him, despite all that he’s done to strengthen himself. Help—a dump truck—has to be called in, and the dump truck complains about having to do work that it feels is the snowplow’s responsibility. But when an avalanche stops the dump truck, only the snowplow is small enough to get in to help the dump truck, so he stops clearing the roads to help this larger truck that has been mean to him, that has grumbled about having to help the snowplow. The snowplow proves himself not only useful but also compassionate, kind, and forgiving. The dump truck and snowplow finish clearing the streets and everyone cheers. They cheer not because the snowplow proved the big trucks wrong by clearing the streets himself—in fact the trucks are proved right and the snowplow does have to accept help—which he does with good grace—but the trucks cheer because he was kind.

This is a great boys’ book for that reason. The snowplow is not a macho, by-your-own-bootstraps plow; it cannot be, and that’s okay because not all men are macho.  It proves that not all men must be macho to have worth.

The kids in my audience picked up too on the moral of don’t be mean to little people and mentioned it themselves afterwards without being prompted.

There is mention of a big, female snowplow that retired to Florida, and I like to think that this is a reference to Burton’s Katy, but that was set in Geoppolis, and this is in Mighty Mountain.

This book more fully earns its

****

Gobble! Gobble!

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Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book, written in what I would dare to call verse goes through the motions of everyone’s tasks to prepare a Thanksgiving meal: Mama, fetch the pot; Daddy, stoke the fire; Sister, knead the dough for bread; Brother, baste the turkey; Grandpa, make the cranberries…. The meal and the celebration bring all the family together. Even the little baby gets a mention, told to hush and be quiet as a mouse, a refrain that I had to read quietly, giving the book an even more musical feel. The book is set in the 19th century according to Miller (this interview with Publisher’s Weekly includes a few pages not to be found elsewhere outside of the covers). There are too few historical fiction books in any genre, so this is one of which to make note—perhaps even outside of the Thanksgiving season. The family is clearly religious but the text is not particularly so, so it should avoid offense, I’d hope. This story really gets back to the root of Thanksgiving: thankful for food, family, warmth, and a place to be safe and together.

****

The Goose Is Getting Fat

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Snowmen at Christmas by Caralyn Buehner and illustrated by Mark Buehner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2005. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I read and enjoyed the Buehners’ Snowmen at Night, so I thought that I’d enjoy this one too. The illustrations are just as stunning as were Mark Buehner’s in Snowmen at Night, and the text had a good lilt to it with its rhyming lines. I was at a Santa’s Breakfast when I read this—a clearly secular event—and I stumbled a bit at the unexpected reference to the religious celebration of Christmas (that’s really on me as I didn’t read but only skimmed the story before bringing it with me to the event)—with the snowmen singing carols about a King—but I think that reference is subtle enough as to not be too off-putting to all but the most radical—as whether or not one does oneself celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, one can’t really deny that some will sing about a King during the season—which is all that these snowmen do. Otherwise, the snowmen’s Christmas is about window displays, holiday noms, and playing with friends.

***

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The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore and illustrated by Charles Santore. Applesauce-Simon & Schuster, 2011. Text first published 1823. Intended audience: Grades PreK and up.

I won’t critique this text, but I’ll go ahead and make note of the illustrations, which reflect the period nature of the text, though not with its art style (which is more modern: realistic, bold, deep-hued, detailed) as much as with its depiction of the period itself (men in nightgowns and long nightcaps, nineteenth century decoration, architecture, toys, and tech). The Santa figure is very classically Santa. One of my audience commented on Santa having shrunk to fit down the chimney; he was small, then larger on the next page; I explained this as magic. I enjoy the gray tabby on most pages too. This is all beautifully done. A book like this, with text so classic, so often memorized, can really only be a chance for an illustrator to shine—and I think Santore does, but as I’m looking at illustrations and thinking back on all the versions of this book that I’ve seen, I’m wondering, is it time for someone to modernize the illustrations, to have Santa maybe putting away gadgets and gift cards instead of trumpets and china dolls?

The illustrations are beautiful but just not very original, so maybe overall, I’d give this version just sort of a meh

***

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Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas by Rubin Pingk. Simon & Schuster, 2015. First published 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is a wonderfully fun and unique Christmas book. A young ninja wants to have a snowball fight, but none of his friends will join him because they have to practice to be good ninjas to impress Santa. The first ninja, Yukio, blames Santa, and when he hears Santa arrive, he rings the alarm bell and calls “intruder!” The ninjas pour out of the dojo and drive-off the red-clad intruder, who at one point appears as a samurai with a snowman army. It is only after Samurai Santa has been driven away that Yukio realizes that because of his actions, his friends will have no presents from Santa, but presents are under the tree and there’s a note for Yukio from Santa, saying that he hopes that Yukio enjoyed the snowball fight that Santa arranged for him. The illustrations in this book are all brick red, black, white, and gray, but the colors somehow feel festive (like a red Starbucks cup). There are times to shout “Epic!” and “Banzai!” as you read this story aloud, which make for a bit of extra fun.

****

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How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2012. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

My audience for this book really got into it. The beginning of the book, the text is all questions: “Does he rip open presents under the tree?” and all of my kids said, “No!” They also enjoyed telling me what kind of dinosaur was on each page and stomping like dinosaurs. As I walked away to the next group, I felt a little like the babysitter who’s given the kids too many cookies and left them to their parents. In the end the text is all things that a good dinosaur would do, like eating all his dinner and clearing the dishes—one grandmother piped up her support for this idea. Mark Teague’s vibrant illustrations with realistic dinosaurs that nevertheless manage very human expressions and actions done with opposable thumbs are pretty fun, and there’s enough detail there that one could spend some time with each drawing.

****

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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