Out of work for almost the entirety of June and July, I didn’t read any picture books during those two months to review, so we’re leaping from May to August.
We’re All Wonders by R. J. Palacio. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
I have yet to read Palacio’s Wonder, so I can’t speak to how similar or dissimilar this picture book is to the novel. This picture book left me a bit unimpressed. It introduces us to an unnamed character depicted as having one eye and his dog, Daisy. He narrates from the first person, saying that he does things that other kids do but doesn’t look like other kids. I am pleased to see that the other kids are depicted in a range of colors and gender presentations including one wearing a hijab. When his and Daisy’s feelings are hurt by the mean things said by other kids, he puts space helmets on them both and imagines them traversing the galaxy and visiting Pluto where there is a race of one-eyed aliens. The narrator hopes that people will change the way that they see, since he can’t change the way that he looks, and that they will come to see him and themselves as wonders. This book offers one coping mechanism for kids who are bullied—imagining themselves away and the world different—and may help kids who are bullied to feel understood.
Be Loud, Be Proud, Be You
I Am Enough by Grace Byers and illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
There has recently been a wealth of picture books about particularly the worth of girls and the worth of girls of color. This one’s text does not particularly stand out among that crowd. It’s not a story so much as a series of affirmations, well intentioned and sweet but forgettable. I listened to a woman reading the book on YouTube, and it definitely rings better if read like a poem. But I would have to turn the pages so quickly to read it as she did that I feel I wouldn’t be appreciating enough the illustrations, which I find far more memorable than the text. The illustrations feature very realistically rendered girls of all colors and shapes, and include a girl in a wheelchair playing with a jump rope and a girl in a hijab. From the cover a young black girl with natural hair stares directly out at the world with a fairly neutral expression, wearing only a hint of a smile, and hers is certainly a memorable and eye-catching face amid the shelves. The characters mostly float in a white environment, the horizons and a few trees and pieces of playground and gym equipment sketched in with chalky lines.
Dear Boy, by Paris and Jason Rosenthal and illustrated by Holly Hatam. HarperCollins, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
These are written in the form of letters and advice on how to interact with oneself and with the larger world in more healthy and affirming ways. Hatam’s characters are simple, most without noses or any shading to the faces, but the settings when she decides to include them are detailed, including some mixed media art. The format and even some of the text is echoed between books. Occasionally these books take a moment to combat toxic masculinity. Reading aloud, I skipped some of the greetings, the “Dear Girl”s and “Dear Boy”s. The final lines of each read “Dear Boy/Girl whom I love,” but I did not find this as awkward to read to strangers in a story time environment as I do, say, Nancy Tillman’s books about parental love. These are a good length. I like the books’ suggestion to “whenever you need an encouraging boost, […] turn to any page in this book.”
Isabella: Artist Extraordinaire by Jennifer Fosberry and illustrated by Mike Litwin. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2018.
This is a book for artists and art-lovers more even I think than it is for kids. The text is full of allusions to and puns related to famous art pieces like Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans framed in a narrative about her family deciding what to do with a day off. All of the puns are marked in a different font style. In the end, Isabella proposes that they use the house as a museum to her artwork. This must have been a very fun book for Litwin to illustrate, incorporating Isabella and her family into famous pieces done in famous styles. The original art pieces are included with their attributions in the back. I don’t like that the characters are referred to as “the father,” “the mother,” and “the little girl”; that reads very awkwardly to me, but that is a very small critique. The educational value and the fun illustrations bump this story up a star. It’s a good classroom addition.
Elle the Entrepreneur by Andrea B. Newman. Petite, 2016. Intended audience: Grades 1-3.
I found this story heartwarming. Elle makes centerpieces for the family dinner table with flowers that she picks from the garden during the summertime. Her dad suggests making centerpieces for the neighbors, and with her parents’ help, Elle makes flyers and sets prices. She traverses the neighborhood with her flyers and is rebuffed at the first few houses but at the third house meets her first client. Her success leads to a dream of one day owning and decorating elegant restaurants. Her family is wonderfully supportive. Elle is very sweet towards her brother, deciding early on that she will save her earnings to buy him a new baseball for his birthday, and gently deflecting him when he wants to play and asking him to color with her instead. She’s the sort of businesswoman that I as a 30-year-old woman experimenting myself with business ideas can look up to. I don’t know that I would have found this a particularly exciting or engaging read though as a child—unless perhaps an adult had paired it with a business-like endeavor that I had initiated, a lemonade stand or yard sale or some such. I would remind writers that ending a story with “the end” is often awkward.
Search Your Feelings
Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang and illustrated by Max Lang. Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.
There are a lot of good lessons here: the physical manifestations of grumpiness and of happiness as Jim Panzee tries to mask his grumpiness so that his friends will stop calling him grumpy and stop trying to cheer him but also the vital lesson that sometimes grumpiness has no definite cause, sometimes it must be felt, but it will pass like the sting from a boo-boo. Jim Panzee’s friends’ prodding questions about his well-being just make him grumpier because he can’t answer them. They suggest things that make them happy, but Jim doesn’t want to do any of those things. I am reminded reading this story of a favorite that I have not seen for a while: Grumpy Pants. Grumpy Pants had a similar lesson about grumpiness not always having a reasonable cause and not always having an easy cure. I like that Grumpy Monkey proposes so many things to try to alleviate grumpiness even if none of them help Jim Panzee. The suggestions made by Jim’s friends are certainly more socially acceptable than the one used by the penguin in Grumpy Pants (at least to try in a public setting) and also more fun to act out during a story time. The bright red cover of grumpy monkey while certainly making it stand out among other books actually is too red and too glaring for me, inciting feelings of anger and danger, but the inside is hardly red at all and far more palatable to me; don’t let the cover turn you away.
The Color Monster: A Pop-Up Book of Feelings by Anna Llenas. Sterling, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.
This monster’s friend helps him sort out his confused feelings. She lays out jars for the monster’s feelings, and helps him identify each feeling. Each is a different color: happiness is yellow, blue is sadness, red is anger, black is fear, and green is calm. And there’s one more: an unnamed, pink feeling that surrounds the monster with hearts. There is a flat version of this book, but because the pop-up was available to me, I read that. One of the last pages in this pop up, allows the reader to put the sorted feeling into the bottles, a white bottle-shape covering and uncovering the colorful feelings with pull-tabs. I was reminded of Inside Out reading this book, with its emotions depicted as colors: yellow Joy, blue Sadness, red Anger, purple Fear, and green Disgust. The book was I think originally published in Spanish in 2012. This English pop-up version was published the same year that the film was released, 2015. The pop-ups were the great draw of this book. They are fairly delicate pop-ups, not suited for toddlers without adult supervision. My little at story time did well with I and his father there. We let him play with the tabs and run his fingertips along the blue, taut twine used for rain, the twine used to hang the hammock in the calm illustration.
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.