I Am Neil Armstrong by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos. Dial-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.
My toddlers at story time are not the target audience for this book. For them is it too long—just too long. I suppose it could be best considered a graphic novel, but it’s really too short for a novel. A graphic novelette? But it’s not a picture book, despite the bright illustrations and round-faced depictions of the protagonists. I personally feel that it talks down to the middle school students that are generally the target audience for graphic novels. So elementary students?
This biography of Neil Armstrong begins with Armstrong as a child climbing trees and ends with his space mission completed and a plug for the National Air and Space Museum in DC. There are many details about his life and his philosophy. It is intimate in a way that I did not expect. There are though too perhaps extraneous details, which I suppose sometimes add weight to Meltzer’s assertions (not a long checklist but “a 417-step checklist”), but more often added to the length of the story without really deepening my understanding of Armstrong or his mission.
Perhaps because I read so few biographies and don’t know what to expect or to want from them, I was less interested in the intimate details of Armstrong’s life. I don’t find it necessary to know that he was scared of Santa or fell out of a tree or read many books in a year. Any biographies I’ve read, I’ve read (and long ago) to be able to give a report or write a paper—a flaw in me not in the genre or in this book in particular—so I’ve never needed or particularly wanted more than the facts—just the straight up facts. What I read for pleasure—primarily fantasies but even realistic fiction that I read—are more often the span of an event—a significant event—and nonessential personal histories are left off or obliquely referenced if and only if they are effecting the character in the now.
I can tell that Meltzer wanted to include these details to illustrate the natural traits that allowed Armstrong to succeed in his space mission, but the presentation felt extremely forced; it lacked finesse when compared to the arc of the fictions that I enjoy reading.
I frankly don’t feel qualified to rate this book, but I wanted to discuss it nonetheless because it wasn’t what I was expecting, and it might not be what you’re expecting either.
Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington. HarperCollins, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
I chose this book because Brad Meltzer’s I Am Neil Armstrong was too long for my usual story time audience, but I wanted to keep to something in theme with the story I had been assigned to read. Plus, it’s the true story of an African American woman achieving her dream, written by Somali woman living in Norway! Mae Jemison’s parents support her dream to see Earth from space. They tell her she’ll have to become an astronaut. But her teacher (a white woman), says that an astronaut is no job for a woman—wouldn’t she rather be a nurse? That’s a good job “for someone like” her. Jemison is heartbroken by her teacher’s pronouncement. But her parents continue to be wonderful and tell her that this time her teacher is wrong; she shouldn’t believe her. So Jemison continues “dreaming, believing, and working hard,” and she becomes an astronaut and waves to her parents from space. There is less about Jemison’s life here and more about following your dream and achieving your dream through hard work and a firm belief. Meltzer focuses on facts; Ahmed on story. Ahmed’s was much better for my young audience.
Are You Scared, Darth Vader? by Adam Rex. Lucasfilm-Disney, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.
All right. I found this one funny as did the friend who pulled it off the shelves to show it to me. But it’s only funny if you’re already familiar with Darth Vader and the Star Wars films; the text is littered with allusions to quotes and to plot points from the films. I tried it out on some kids who didn’t know Darth Vader. They didn’t find it funny. It’s also funnier if you can imitate Darth Vader’s deep voice, which I can only do poorly. Really, this may even be a story more for adults than for children.
The authorial voice and Darth Vader dialogue throughout this story. The book tries to scare Darth Vader with a werewolf, a ghost, a witch, but he is unimpressed by any of these despite the authorial voice’s assertion that they can bite and hex him. So the authorial voice invites a posse of children in Halloween costumes and without to swarm all over Vader, to pester him with questions, as the authorial voices continues to tease, “Are you scared now, Darth Vader?”
But Vader is not scared so much as annoyed by the posse.
The children decide that he’s no fun, and they leave.
Well, it seems Darth Vader can’t be scared, so it’s time for the book to end.
But Darth Vader will not allow the book to end. He implores the child holding the book not to turn the page, not to close the book.
He admits to his fear, but the book must end, and so he is trapped inside the book, “almost like [he’s] frozen in carbonite—or whatever.”
Princesses Save the World by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim and illustrated by Eva Byrne. Abrams, 2018.
This is not the story I expected. This is a story about the importance of bees to an agrarian economy and society. Princess Penelope Pineapple receives a distress call from her neighbor across the sea whose bees have all disappeared and whose fruit harvest has suffered because of it. Princess Penelope calls an assembly of princesses from a wealth of fruit-centric nations. Princess Sabrina Strawberry is not alone in her plight. Audrey Apple is having the same problem. She’s a pretty minor character, mentioned once by name then shown as trying to help the other princesses solve the problem, but that the two princesses whose kingdoms are in trouble are both dark-skinned and dark-haired women of color gives the story an unpleasant tinge of white savior complex that this world does not need.
The princesses decide it is their duty to help, and among Princess Penelope’s many other talents, she is a beekeeper; she knows that scents lure bees. She hops into her lab and with whatever perfumes and sweet-smelling treats the princesses happen to have in their luggage creates a perfume. The princesses engineer new hives to give to Princess Sabrina, and with her perfume in hand, Princess Penelope leads the bees across the sea to the Strawberry Kingdom, where the bees settle, and their industry the next year leads to a healthy harvest for the kingdom—celebrated with a tea party by the princesses.
If only solving the problem of the disappearing bees were so easy!
But I continue to like Princess Penelope and her more modern take on being a princess with a wealth of duties and talents not generally assigned feminine or princess-like. I like that she seeks outside help and opinions from other nations when she sees a nation in trouble. That kind of collaborative foreign diplomacy and policy is forward-thinking and positive too.
I appreciate that the authors saw a current environmental problem and wanted to raise awareness among a younger audience about the problem, and that they seek to show young activists taking steps to alleviate a problem.
Bee: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup. Doubleday-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.
This is not the first of Teckentrup’s books that I’ve read. Her strength I feel is in lyrically romanticizing the ordinary—thus far her subjects have always been also natural. This like Tree is more nonfiction than fiction, depicting the day and job of a worker bee and bees as pollinators. Many animals, including a bee in a peek-hole through each page, hide among the illustrations, making a fun spot-the-critter game as you read through the book. Teckentrup uses lyrical language and specific detail to paint her text. This made for a good side book to Guthrie and co.’s Princesses Save the World. A bit more on level for my youngest listeners and certainly much shorter, there’s less—really no—problem here, certainly no talk of a global crisis, but it seemed a good way to introduce the concept of why bees are so important to an ecosystem.
New Twists on Old Tales
Pig the Fibber by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2018. First published 2015.
I’ve reviewed others (almost all of the others) in the Pig the Pug series. It’s just not a model I love. In this addition to the series, Pig is blaming Trevor to avoid getting into trouble for things that he’s done. Having gotten Trevor out of his way, Pig concocts a scheme to get to the treats on the top shelf of the closet, but along with the treats, a bowling ball falls from the shelf, and Pig is again bandaged and laid up, again he gets his comeuppance for treating Trevor poorly, for behaving poorly. And he’s learnt another lesson—but again not well and not without serious bodily harm all portrayed in a singsong rhythm. Learning not to blame a sibling or bystander, not to scapegoat is a valuable lesson, but I’m still just not sure about this method of teaching; it’s so drastic, and the tone is at such odds with the harm caused to Pig.
Corduroy Takes a Bow by Viola Davis, based on characters by Don Freeman. Viking-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.
What a special opportunity I expect this is for Viola Davis! Don Freeman was one of the first picture book illustrators to create a book with African American protagonists, and now fifty years later, Davis, the first African American to win a Tony, and Emmy, and an Oscar, has returned to his characters with a new story. She takes Corduroy and Lisa to the theater—a live stage performance. Both are excited and in Lisa’s attempts to see above a tall man who sits in front of her, she loses track of Corduroy, who too seeks a better seat, ending up in the pit, backstage, and then on stage. The picture book is unfortunately heavy with lessons about the language of the theater, the people behind a production, and those pieces weighed down the story somewhat.
Goodnight Goon: A Petrifying Parody by Michael Rex. G. P. Putnam-Penguin Random, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.
This is yet another Goodnight Moon parody, this time with a spooky, B-horror, monster theme. The little goon spends the second half of the book avoiding bed and partying and playing with the creatures that infest his bedroom, perhaps trying to tire everyone out so that his bedroom will be quiet enough to sleep; everyone is sleeping or out of the bedroom when the happy goon is at last in his bed by the last page (“Goodnight monsters everywhere.”)—that’s a fun twist on the story.
And Silly Animals
The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley. Scholastic, 2010. First published 2009. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.
Sometimes British picture books in particular, I’ve found, are just wonderfully weird. This one is wonderfully weird. It resurfaced in America because of a YouTube video of a Scottish grandmother reading the book aloud. The story reads like a camp song, a wonderful camp song where each verse adds another adjective to a long list of to remember, all rhyming, all silly. I remember the days (20 years ago) when Scholastic didn’t believe we would understand “Mum” in a middle grade novel. Now look at them! throwing our picture books readers words like “wonky” and making no changes to the British English “spunky” though it doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it does in American English; from this picture book in British English it seems to be a synonym for “good looking.” I really enjoyed this. I enjoyed the silliness of the plethora of adjectives attached to this donkey, and I enjoy saying it as fast as I can: “a spunky, hanky-panky, cranky, stinky dinky, lanky, honky-tonky, winky, wonky donkey.” I like the victory of being able to say it all really fast. I guess I’m still a camper at heart. If any Scottish grandmothers out there want to read Evil Weasel and make that something I can find in my country, I’d much appreciate it; I remember really enjoying that one when I read it while staying with a family in Edinburgh.
Chomp Goes the Alligator by Matthew Van Fleet. Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 2-99.
With lots of interactive elements—touch and feel, a pull-tab to make the alligator chomp up and down, and even a pop-up—this is a counting book and animal and color primer—all set in a swamp, which is not the most oft used of settings for a picture book. On the final pop-up page the animals not featured in the text are labeled in smaller print and the bugs in a bubble of dialogue ask to be counted in a later reading. The page spreads are labeled 1-10 in big text. Every animal miraculously lives though the text’s pretext is the alligator eating them and seems on the last page even to have enjoyed its experience on the alligator thrill ride. The illustrations are of cute, happy critters in pastel colors. There’s a burp to make the kids laugh, and a polite “excuse me” to appease the parents. This book has everything! Educational and fun and unusual.
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.