Book Reviews: May 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Cute Animals, a Piano, a Problem, and a Chinese Folk Tale

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biscuitBiscuit by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories. HarperCollins, 2009. First published 1996.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

So here is a confession: I had never read the original Biscuit book. I read some of the sequels, and just… the covers… of course I love Biscuit, but I’d never read the original. I didn’t realize that it was a bedtime story. Two rambunctious little story time visitors asked me for a puppy story, and I wanted something fast because their attention wasn’t holding, and because they asked for it after we’d given up on the story that I had picked out for story time, I needed something pre-vetted, something I knew without looking long in the shelves. The story is adorable. The little puppy, whimsically drawn by Schories, does all that he can—all that kids do every night—to delay bedtime: he asks for a snack, he asks for a drink, he asks for story, he asks for a nightlight, he asks to be tucked in, he asks for hugs and kisses, and ultimately after his little girl has gone to bed in her own room for more hugs and kisses—which leads to him sleeping beside her bed on the floor on a blanket that he’s pawed off of the bed. It’s just precious. The interjection of “Woof! Woof!” after every sentence is… a bit much. While barking like a little puppy is fun, it’s a lot, and I admit I skipped a few lines. That’s really my one complaint about the book though.

****

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Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev and illustrated Taeeun Yoo. Simon & Schuster, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I sort of doomed this one all on my own. For months I’d wanted to read it for story time, and this month I was finally able to do so, but the hype that I’d built up around what I imagined this book could be from skimming it was greater than the book itself seemed to me to be. Yoo’s illustrations are still amazing, just the sort of illustrations you coo over with the little elephant in its red scarf, matching its boy’s, and being carried by the little boy over the cracks in the sidewalk. There’s a plethora of creative and colorful creatures on the last pages, and we took a few moments to point and name them: an armadillo, a giraffe, a bat, a hedgehog, a penguin, a narwhal…. There were POC. Though the primary protagonist is, of course, white, the secondary protagonist—his first friend and the only other person with a speaking role—is African American and female. POC and white children, boys and girls were in both the friendly and unfriendly—the accepting and the rejecting—groups. This was a simple introduction to exclusion and inclusion and racism and prejudice. It says a lot for a simple book with not a lot of text. What disappointed me, though, was the text—and again, I say that that is no one’s fault but my own. There were some gems to be sure—the little elephant afraid of cracks, then later never minding the cracks—but I didn’t like the blunt didacticism of the “that’s what friends do:” phrases. The ending felt lackluster to me as well, though I think I see what Mantchev was going for: an invitation to the reader to join in this accepting club. Mantchev’s written quite a few books, but I think this was her first for such a young audience.

****

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My Dog’s a Chicken by Susan McElroy Montanari and illustrated by Anne Wildorf. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This is a cute, atmospheric book. Lula Mae wants a dog, but her mother says no; they can’t afford a dog. But Lula Mae doesn’t get upset by her denied request or her poverty. Instead she chooses a spotted chicken and decides that that chicken will be her dog, Pookie. Pookie is not just any dog, though, she is a multi-talented dog: a show dog, herding dog, a watchdog, a search-and-rescue dog. It is only after Pookie proves herself in this last field—finding the missing Baby Berry, who has toddled off—that Lula Mae’s mother relents and allows Pookie to come inside the house—and even sleep at the foot of Lula Mae’s bed. This book was not at all what I expected, but it was a good story. It might be an avenue to talk about poverty with little kids too—a more realistic, more modern version of poverty—though there’s something ironic about a $16.99 hardcover about poverty—and I wish that that vision of poverty came without some of the Southern stereotypes; I’ve never once down here met anyone called Tater—but on the whole, I think Montanari did a decent job avoiding overly stereotyping the South or in any way demeaning her characters. Really this wasn’t so much a story about poverty as a story about creativity and imagination and a chicken with characters who just happen to be poor.

****

9780807530757_GrumpyPants-BD-512x512Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer. Albert Whitman, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This book caught my attention early in the month, but only late this month did I bring it out for story time. This penguin is grumpy, and he doesn’t know why. He strips off his clothes piece by piece, thinking that one less piece will make him feel less grumpy, but it’s no good, even when he’s down to just his underpants. So he takes off his underpants, takes a deep breath, counts to three, and dives into the bathtub, where at last he is able to wash off the last of his grumpiness by splashing and making a bubble beard. He puts on his favorite clothes and feels even better and goes to sleep.

This would be a great book for little ones: bedtime, bath time, clothes primer, a reassurance that sometimes you get grumpy without any reason and that’s okay. Plus, it’s hard to feel grumpy while this penguin pulls off with his beak his very colorful clothes; this penguin dresses only a bit more conservatively than Dobby the house-elf.

I worried a little about showing the penguin sans clothes, but none of the parents said anything—and it’s more natural—isn’t it?—to see a penguin without clothes than in them, so I didn’t feel as if I was showing the kids anything too racy.

*****

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If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

This is a sequel to If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t! That first book was better. This one felt… well, like a sequel, piggybacking off of the success of the first but unable to capture the same uniqueness and unexpectedness that made the first book memorable. Magnolia brings a full-size upright piano to the beach. Her mother warns her not to lose it, “keep it neat and clean” and “push it to the beach.” Well, you just know, every one of those promises is going to be broken. They get broken in surprising, more and more outlandish ways. Brownie points for a multiracial family: white, Asian, and African American with potentially just a single mother. There’s a lesson here about our love affair with stuff: The piano is replaced in Magnolia’s heart and affections by a shell that she can use as a boat, a shovel, and a Frisbee.

***

e_and_p_thank_you_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: The Thank You Book by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 6-9.

This book fell flat for me too—and maybe because of the hype, maybe because of the awesomeness of all of its sequels—maybe simply because of what it was. The books problem is that Piggie wants to thank everyone—and that leads to a reunion with every minor character who has ever appeared in an Elephant and Piggie book—including the Pigeon. Gerald is sure that she will forget someone. Piggie is sure that she won’t. It seems as though Gerald thinks that she will forget him—and maybe that’s a reflection on me, making that assumption—but she’s only saving him for last because of course she’s not forgotten her best friend. The person she does forget is the reader, the audience. And she leans forward at the end to thank us, breaking the 4th wall in the same way that once won my heart. Though I think Piggie forgot one more person; I was really rooting for an appearance by Mo himself. There was no lesson here and I think that’s what threw me off, really—not that I think books need to be moralistic, but I think it’s hard for them to exist solely for the sake of existing as this one does. The whole purpose of the book is to thank the reader for reading the book(s), and that’s a bit meta even for me. I think it also suffered from saccharine sentimentality. Further, it does not really standalone. Really grasping the plot requires reading at least 9 other stories (I say at least because there are a few of the 26 I have not yet read and I did not recognize all of the characters thanked and because we were thanking even the flies who flew around the slop it’s possible I just forgot about some characters). Overall, I’m sad that this is the last Elephant and Piggie book because it’s the last Elephant and Piggie book, but it is not the book I wanted—and it’s not one that I will add to my collection, should I ever actually begin amassing these—and I’ve thought about doing so even in the absence of any foreseeable children.

***

28863341 What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom. Compendium, 2016.

This is a companion book to Yamada’s first picture book for kids, What Do You Do with an Idea? The same character returns. This time he has a problem, and it feels like it will never go away, and he can’t run away, and it seems to get bigger and bigger, until he confronts the problem head on and finds the yellow sunlight of opportunity that the cloud hides inside. Well timed for graduations, this book appeals to a broad audience. Marketed for children, it nevertheless speaks maybe even more to me as an adult, where my problems are bigger, and there are fewer “adultier adults” to turn to for help. Again it’s Besom’s illustrations that really make this book shine for me. The text itself is fairly and I believe intentionally nondescript so that the “problem” can be any problem a person faces and the person can be any reader.

****

1103447 The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale by Laurence Yep and illustrated by Kam Mak. HarperCollins, 1997.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Kam Mak’s illustrations for this Chinese Beauty and the Beast type story are stunning. This book is worth it for the photographic realism and vibrant jewel tones of the illustrations alone, but, well, I’m a sucker for folk tales, but I enjoy this one. I especially enjoy this one because Seven is not asked to fall in love with the Beast (or Dragon). She is asked to marry him, yes, but her kindness not her love—no true love’s kiss—gives him reason to choose to present as a handsome male prince. The prince here too is not some previously wicked and now cursed soul, but a man who makes his own choices and goes on his own quest for a wife. He is given agency—a lot of agency, so much more than de Beaumont’s or Disney’s Beasts. He searches for his wife when he begins to suspect that her wicked sister is not his beloved wife as she pretends; Seven believes her prince is unable to distinguish her from her sister and takes this as proof that he does not love her, so she has not sought him but rather found a new life for herself through her own skills. I’ve read this story several times—the first time in 2011 for a class taught by Brian Attebery on gender identity in fantasy and science-fiction. I still enjoy it.

*****

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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