Tag Archives: 4th wall

Book Reviews: October 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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There are so many books this month that I had to rethink how I organize these books just to make some order out of the chaos of words on the screen. Luckily, there were a few books for each of a few categories this month.

The Books That Can’t Keep It Inside Their Spines

0763661635Open Very Carefully: A Book with Bite by Nick Bromley and illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne. Nosy Crow-Candlewick, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.

I first read this book in March 2013. I had complaints then: It reminded me of other books, it didn’t interact with the reader as fully as it could have done, nor did the characters interact with each other as much as they could have done. Those complaints are still valid, but I had a lot more fun with it this past month when I read it for story time. The book begins as an adaptation of “The Ugly Duckling,” but the s distracted by the sight of a green tail on one of the pages, which the duckling chases out of his book, discovering it to be a crocodile in the following pages. The crocodile starts to eat up the text, letter by letter, then whole sentences at a time while the duckling begs him to leave off as best he can without a few letters: “St p! Mr. Cr c dile!” To stop him, the duckling suggests the reader rock the crocodile to sleep and while the crocodile is asleep the duckling draws a pink tutu, ballet slippers, and bow on him to make him less scary, but this only, understandably, makes the crocodile angrier, and I don’t like the implication that it’s okay to mess with someone who’s asleep. The duckling is given the power of speech, but the crocodile remains silent and menacing, an animal stuck in an Animal’s world, as I put it in 2013. In the end, the crocodile chews his way out of the book, leaving a hole in the last pages and back cover. There’s no knowing where this loose crocodile could turn up again, and I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been a sequel. This book plays with space and format well, but while I understand that a rational discussion between two Animals would have made for a very different story, the taunting and harassment of the animal by an Animal does not sit well with me. I appreciate this book more than I did for its interactive elements and it’s creative illustrations, so I’m giving it three stars instead of the two I did in 2013.

***

9781627794510We’re in the Wrong Book! by Richard Byrne. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Bella, Ben, and Bella’s dog have appeared before in Byrne’s earlier book, This Book Just Ate My Dog. I hadn’t realized so until I was putting This Book Just Ate My Dog back on the shelves more than two weeks after reading We’re in the Wrong Book. In This Book Just Ate My Dog, characters disappear into the gutter of the book, unable to cross to the facing page. The kids to whom I read We’re in the Wrong Book! aloud really seemed to enjoy guessing the book styles that the protagonists fell into. I was less impressed by this book honestly. It’s an interesting concept, but I just didn’t get much enjoyment from it myself. In We’re in the Wrong Book, the book characters walk through some doorway or fall through some tear or sail off in a hot air balloon or take an origami boat onto the next page, each new page being a different style book: a comic book, a maze book, “Red Riding Hood,” an origami instruction book, etc. I would have liked to see more creative use of the book’s construction, knowing how Byrne has used the construction of the book previously. It was interesting to stop mid-book to try and make an origami sailboat, and it would have been fun to stop and solve the maze too. As an activity book with a plot, this book would get a much higher rating, but as a picture book, I felt that the activities slowed and interrupted the plot and the text. So take my reading with a grain of reader error. Aloud and on a schedule might not have been the best way to enjoy this book. At home, a page at a time, this might have been a lot more fun.

***

The Book For Adults

672077Wisecracks: Everyday Wit and Wisdom compiled by Tom Burns. Barron’s, 2005. First published in 2004 by Tangent-Axis.

This is a picture book for adults. The text is composed of the sort of snarky quips familiar from Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest (really, many of theses phrases I’ve read or heard before). The lines were sent to Burns by various, unnamed contributors. The format of quirky text beside black-and-white animal photographs that might illustrate the text is highly reminiscent of Bradley Trevor Greive’s books (Grieve’s first, The Blue Day Book, was published in 2000). Unlike Grieve’s, though, each page’s text in this book is independent rather than building towards a book-long message. This book had me snickering, more at its witticisms than its photography, and as I’ve said, this text was not written by Burns. I do still appreciate the book, however. It’ll be a good pick-me-up on a gray day.

***

Dinosaurs! 61608107906180LMy Dinosaur Is More Awesome! By Simon Coster. Sky Pony, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

Honestly, this one fell flat—even for my dinosaur-enthusiast. This is sibling rivalry and ridiculous fighting taking place over whose dinosaur (presumably imaginary) is better. The dinosaurs do some very un-dinosaur-like things, each more ridiculous than the last. The mother to settle the argument steps in with her enormous dinosaur, who also does ridiculous, un-dinosaur-like things, claiming hers to be the best. Honestly, it would be cute acted out, I think, but as a single person reading a story, it just didn’t do it—for anyone. And there was some unexpected bodily humor besides.

*

0f8a8cf55c472aeafdd04f5e07e169deWhat the Dinosaurs Did Last Night: A Very Messy Adventure by Refe Tuma and Susan Tuma. Little, Brown, 2015.

This is a picture book follows an Internet phenomenon and the publication of a book for adults that sounds as if it was fairly similar in concept and style, but had more text and more pages. A lot of sites—Amazon, Goodreads—seem to think that this and the other book, What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night with no colon, are the same book. I’m pretty sure, but not entirely sure, that they are wrong, because the author on his Tumblr was referring to this as a new book. The illustrations are photographs of dinosaur toys that appear to have wrecked or to be wrecking the house, creating huge messes in places they shouldn’t be and interacting with things that they shouldn’t. Then the messes stop, and you might, the text warns, start to think that the dinosaurs have gone away, but that’s what they want you to think. Meanwhile, they’ve built a rocket and launched themselves into space. This was pretty fun text to read aloud, but I think the pictures would have been better appreciated one-on-one than aloud story time-style. They’re busy and detailed, and wow, these parents/artists really went all-out with their tableaus. A messy book of good, clean fun. I think the parents enjoyed it more than my toddler audience, though.

***

The Sweet Stories of Best Friends

9780062379559Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

When I first saw this story on a shelf, I got excited, because this is a pretty awesome duo, one of my favorite picture book writer/illustrators and the writer of the Artemis Fowl series. At the same time, I got a flutter of nervousness in my stomach. When writers write outside of their usual age group, there’s always a chance that the book is an absolute train wreck that will nevertheless sell well because of a big name author. Opening the book for the first time, I was worried that Colfer had indeed been unable to narrow his story to suit his new target audience. The first page has a lot of text, but subsequent pages are more appropriate for a read-aloud picture book. I didn’t get to read it aloud to anyone, although I was supposed to do. I read it to myself in anticipation of reading it aloud and snickered to myself at some of the jokes. Overall, this is a sweet story with a happy ending, a story for writers and dreamers and artists I think especially. Imaginary friends exist even when they’re no longer needed or visible to the people that they befriended. As their friends find “real” friends, the imaginary ones fade away then float away and wait to be needed by someone else. Fred meets Sam and everything seems perfect, but then Sam meets Sammi, and Fred begins to fade and tries to warn Sam, who assures Fred that he will still need Fred even if he befriends Sammi and that Fred won’t fade away. Sammi has an imaginary friend too, and while Sam and Sammi become greater friends and move on to more adult pursuits, Fred and Freida grow closer too, so much so that they become more and more real. They never fade for Sam and Sammi and they never fade for one another. Both sets of friends support the other and both go on to achieve their dreams and goals—much to the bewilderment of those who cannot see or hear the imaginary pair, who at one point perform in Carnegie Hall while the audience wonders when the performance will start and Sam and Sammi compliment their friends. This is a great, quirky story about holding on to the wonder of childhood, and also about the evolution and growth of a proper friendship, an age-proof friendship, if you will. What’s more, this portrays two male-female friendships that never become romantic! (See my rant on the lack of portrayal of such friendships here.) The illustrations and text are both clever. Jeffers makes clever use of pointillism to illustrate the imaginary friends’ difference from the real friends and the imaginary friends substance or lack thereof, giving them always a hazy substance and never any clear outline. All this is done in only blue, white, and black hues, the overall images being fairly gentle and soothing to the eye despite Jeffers somewhat jagged lines. One Goodreads reviewer rightfully calls the text “touchingly lyrical and abruptly hilarious,” and I really can’t describe it any better than that, so I won’t try.

****

9780805098266Little Elliot, Big Family by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is the second Little Elliot book by Curato, the first being Little Elliot, Big City. I haven’t read Little Elliot, Big City, but I went looking for the illustrations after falling in love with the illustrations in Little Elliot, Big Family and I think that Curato’s art has improved even between these two books, so we should keep a close watch on this man, I think. The illustrations in this book are beautiful, saturated, poignant—oh so poignant. I think I enjoyed this story more than did my toddler audience, but I loved it. I am a homesick girl, too, away from her family and being taken in by others while mine are a twelve-hours-long drive away. That probably plays into my love of this book, over the course of which much the same thing happens to Eliott, who feels so alone in the Big City (clearly New York, by the way) when his friend Mouse announces that he will be busy with a family reunion with his hundreds of cousins. Mouse and Elliot, a polka-dotted white elephant, are animals in a human city. Curato shows such diversity of family and races and lifestyles over the course of a mere 40 pages, and does so casually without any fuss and without having to raise any issue, which I think is one of the best ways to undercut the whiteness of the canon. I like the text, I really like the story, but it is the illustrations that I’m in love with, and Mr. Curato, if in a few years, you feel like illustrating a teen fantasy cover, you let me know. The first three pieces in this gallery are from this book. The next three are from Little Elliot, Big City.

*****

The New Classic Series

cvr9780689832130_9780689832130_hrClick, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Simon & Schuster, 2000. First published in 1999. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I first read Click, Clack, Moo in March 2013. It sells very well and is often prominently displayed in Barnes & Noble, and it did not then live up to my expectation. I find it an odd little book for kids, its tale revolving around a lot of bureaucracy: demands, ultimatums, neutral parties, compromises, terms that I don’t expect kids to understand or relate to. Reading it aloud this past month, I had in my audience one particular fan of this book, who mouthed the words along with me, and that made a great deal of difference. If the kids enjoy it, who am I to suggest they might not. Now, she was on the older side of the book’s target audience, but nonetheless within the target. It’s a pretty fun book to read aloud anyway, and there’s something to be said for the early lesson of how to compromise.

***

cvr9781442465534_9781442465534_hrClick, Clack, Boo!: A Tricky Treat by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

In this Halloween spin-off of Click, Clack, Moo, Farmer Brown tries to lock himself inside his house Halloween night, but creepy noises and frightening shadows lure him to the door to investigate, where he finds a note inviting him to a Halloween party in the barn, hosted by his animals. The creepy noises are the highlight of this book, it always being fun to put on a spooky voice.

****

y648Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly Dean and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Would you believe that this was the first Pete the Cat book I’d ever read? I’ve read it twice now on two occasions within days of each other. That in itself gives it a good review. The first time, my one visitor to story hour requested Pete, and I had many copies of this book on the shelves. Somehow, this one escaped my notice when it was published; I don’t remember it coming out, though I know I was at Barnes & Noble at the time. Pete books use sometimes rhyming text, a lot of repetition of phrases, and somewhat dated slang to say “cool,” which I find an interesting choice, but I’m old enough to know how these phrases ought to be inflected, if the kids don’t understand why. In this one, Pete’s just feeling down, “blue,” he has the “blue cat blues.” Grumpy Toad gives him a pair of shades that improve Pete’s outlook, to “see things in a whole new way”: “The birds are singing. The sky is bright. The sun is shining. I’m feeling all right.” Pete shares these sunglasses with his friends, who are also having poor days; “nothing is going my way,” they all complain. The glasses work for them all too. But when the sunglasses break, Wise Owl is there to tell Pete that he never needed the sunglasses to feel “all right.” “Just remember to look for the good in every day.” That bit felt a bit dues ex machina; that was a hiccup in the text. How was Owl right where Pete needed him to be right when he looked up into the tree? But such is fiction. I appreciate that Pete stops and takes the time to talk to his friends, share with them, and give them what they need.

****

y648-1Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues by Kimberly Dean and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Pete invites his friends over for a sleepover, but none of them are quite sleepy when Pete wants them to be. One by one, Pete has to tell them to go to sleep, “this cool cat needs to go to bed.” Eventually, he reads them all a favorite story of his to help soothe their minds and put them to sleep. I wasn’t as pleased with this one as I was with His Magic Sunglasses, though I see this as a good story to read aloud at bedtime, especially at a sleepover, a sort of niche book—though bedtime books are a large niche. The rhyme is stronger in this text than in His Magic Sunglasses. The text was all over the page in different colors, fonts, and sizes. That made it a little difficult to read aloud. I missed lines because I didn’t see them till after I was turning the page. Missing lines broke the rhythm. Going back to read them would have broken the rhythm too. Be prepared if you try to read this book aloud. Prepare first perhaps.

***

The Spooky Standalones

1076322 The Tailypo: A Ghost Story adapted by Joanna C. Galdone and illustrated by Paul Galdone. Clarion-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1984. First published in 1977.

This is one of my friend’s favorite ghost stories—a local folktale—and before finding this book I’d heard her tell it a few times—very memorably—the first time while she was driving me down dark, twisty country roads at night when I couldn’t escape her story—and yes, we three adults all screamed when near the end we found a raccoon in the road with our headlights.  She calls it “Tailybone,” but it’s the same story.  Her storytelling is the unavoidable comparison to this picture book, which I read aloud to a story time audience, but not without her Appalachian accent slipping into a few of the phrases (though it’s not my natural accent). Galdone’s adaptation is less dark than my friend’s and used less repetition—the difference between the oral and written story—but was more descriptive for using less repetition, making more clear the terrain and describing in more detail the animal. I almost prefer both of these vague as in my friend’s telling because it leaves the story open for a broader interpretation and telling. Leaving out the setting avoids the “Oh, we’re not near a swamp. We’re fine,” that could follow Galdone’s. I think, though, that Galdone’s done a good job rendering an oral folktale into print, and if it’s not a folktale that you know, it is a fun one. Paul Galdone’s watercolor illustrations here helped I think to keep the story lighter than it could have been. The illustrations shy away from putting the readers in the old man’s position during any of the spooky parts, always keeping the reader an outsider observer, and the moments depicted are never the spookiest or most gruesome. Two of my audience members were young enough that I didn’t want it to be that spooky and worried it might be too much regardless, keeping particular watch on the youngest, but I think they all came out all right, and we finished on a lighter note with the next story and some crayons.

****

9780064431835The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams and illustrated by Megan Lloyd. HarperCollins, 2002. First published 1986. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This is one of those new classics, but it really only shows up in stores around this time of year. A little old lady who is not afraid of anything encounters several animated pieces of clothing that first impede her way before she tells them off then follow her home. She is finally spooked by a huge pumpkin head saying “Boo! Boo!” She shuts herself in her home, but there’s a “knock, knock” on the door, and deciding that after all she isn’t afraid of anything, she answers it to ask the pieces of clothing and pumpkin head what they want. They answer that they came to scare her, but she won’t be scared, so what are they to do now? The little old lady provides the answer and today’s pumpkins and ghostly clothes become tomorrow’s scarecrow. This text builds. At first it’s just a pair of boots going clomp, clomp, but later it’s a two boots going clomp, clomp, on pair of pants going wiggle, wiggle, one shirt going shake, shake, two gloves going clap, clap, one black hat going nod, nod, and one pumpkin head going boo, boo. There’s repetition and counting (though no higher than two). Reading it, I found myself—and some of the kids—stomping, clapping, nodding, wiggling, and shaking along with the text. It’s one I’ll have to remember for those times when we need to expel a little energy at story time. I have a soft spot for stories of strong, brave, clever women.

****

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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Book Reviews: June 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Frustrated Fathers and Anxious Children, But I Promise Happy Endings

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Puzzle Pals: Kiki the Kitten by Egmont. Sandy Creek, 2014. Intended audience: Age 3.

This is an intriguing concept for a book. Pieces of the illustrations are removable and become puzzle pieces to form when put together a complete image of the title character, Kiki the Kitten. Kiki is never named except for in the title. She is not much of a character, but perhaps a fairly stereotypical cat. The story—call it that—is exceedingly short, having only four pages of text, and each page having only a sentence, maybe two. I found the cover sadly pink and “feminine.” In our gender polarized world, it’s hard to imagine most boys wanting such a book, though there is nothing inherently feminine about a cat, even if it is a female cat. While I am impressed by the ingenuity of the illustrations, that’s about all I can really give this book.

*

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Your Baby’s First Word Will Be DADA by Jimmy Fallon and illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 1-3, Grades PreK.

I knew very little about this book before its release. We had signs up at the store that displayed the cover, but gave no description. Honestly, I expected something very different—and I was glad to hear from a coworker that I wasn’t the only one. I thought not of the paternal pet name when seeing “DADA” but of the modernist art movement. I expected a book lauding Dadaism. Instead I was given a book of adult (presumably paternal) animals pleadingly or with frustration saying “dada” only to have their children blithely answer with their stereotypical animal sound (“moo” for a cow, for example). At the end all of the children look mischievously at one another and cry aloud, together “dada!” I can be impressed by Ordóñez’s expressive illustrations, though I’m not sure that I like the association with frustration (which expresses itself fairly like anger) and fathers, however accurate the emotion may be when trying to get a child to say a specific word. Ordóñez also uses good, pastel colors, which I believe are still recommended for the very young, especially as being soothing around bedtime. I may have liked this book better without the hype, without the chance to expect a book on Dadaism. On the whole though, it’s an animal sounds primer, and nothing much special beyond that. It’s hard to be outstanding with a primer.

**

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 1996. First published 1967.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This is a classic to be sure, and as such, one I really feel incapable of fairly rating. This duo has had incredible staying power, most of their collaborations surviving today, being reprinted in numerous formats, still selling well, and being displayed prominently. This, I believe, was one of their earlier collaborations, maybe the first, and one that started a series of similar books that can serve as primers for animals. This one doubles as a color primer as well. Some of the animals are their natural colors. Some like the blue horse and purple cat are less so. Carle’s illustrations are fairly realistic, and yet his style is unique and recognizable. The story ends with the goldfish seeing the teacher and the teacher seeing the children and the children seeing all of the animals that had been previously mentioned, so there is the repetition of the lesson to help cement the words in the mind as well a crack in the fourth wall, of which I am always a fan. Carle includes children of many races, which was probably particularly radical in the 1960s, but we still need that diversity.

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It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr. Little Brown-Hachette, 2014.

I discovered this book—as honestly I do most of these books—by pure accident. Most of them I find while cleaning up after customers. This one was in a section that I know to be less frequented (the parenting section just outside of the children’s section), and I would if I could, move it to a more prominent location. I think I might even move it out of the children’s section altogether. Though marketed for the very young, I feel as if I have more insecurity as an adult about making the mistakes given as examples in this book than I ever did as a child—maybe because as an adult I feel the pressure to succeed and to conform more than I did as a child, and I know that my consequences may be more devastating in that they may result in losing a job and being unable to pay my rent or feed myself rather than being kicked off an extracurricular team or being called to talk to the teacher. How many children care if they put on mismatching socks? How many adults worry that a manager or potential employer will notice their mismatched socks and think less of them because of they grabbed the wrong clothes in the dark, rushing out the door to be on time? The other examples given in the book are more universal across the ages. It’s always important to know that you don’t have to know the answer. It’s always good to be reminded that you might discover something new by trying something different. Honestly, I think I would sell more copies of this during graduation season alongside Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! than during any other time or to any parents of smaller children. I actually think that this book would go nicely just beside Bradley Trevor Greive’s in my room—books to read when feeling discouraged.

I’ve read several of Todd Parr’s books, and I find him enchanting. His colors are beyond Crayola vibrant. His vibrant colors create a universality that leaps across racial barriers and his childlike drawings sometimes surpass gender barriers besides. Animal characters also help to create a universality of reader. Parr leans towards second person text, directly addressing the reader, again lending a more universal feel to the story.

The illustrations are fairly simple, his faces being noseless, little more than smiley or frowny faces. The characters, figures, and backgrounds are all fairly blocky with a few lines to illustrate movement when necessary.

Parr ends his books with a brief summary of his idea and his “Love, Todd” signature.

****

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Hector’s Shell by Thomas Radcliffe. Little Bee-Bonnier, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

Hector misplaces his shell while playing at the beach and goes in search of a new one, coming up with many creative solutions, including an origami shell, which turns mushy and leaves smudges of ink all over his body. It was enjoyable turning the page to see what new idea Hector would try and how it would inevitably go wrong. There was a lot of text in this book, making it better for an older reader. In Hector’s joy at finding his shell, there was a touch of a message about positive body image. After the fantastic build up, [SPOILER] it was a little bit anticlimactic for Hector to find his shell in the place that he’d left it. [END SPOILER]

*** 0763675954

Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett. Templar-Candlewick, 2015. First published 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.

Orion is scared of a lot of things—but especially of the dark. Fed up one night he yells at the dark, and the dark descends in a humanoid shape to show Orion why he shouldn’t be afraid of the dark and how much fun can be had in the dark. There’s even more text in this book than there is in Hector’s Shell. As with Hector’s Shell, a lot of the text is outside the story thread. For example, the sounds that Orion hears in the dark are written out. Examples of Orion’s fears and his ideas to escape the dark are also written into the illustrations. One of the cleverer aspects of the book is several pages where a flap is pressed towards the previous page to create a different image and reveal the text of the page. One page like this makes Dark shake Orion’s hand. A later page allows Dark to wrap his arm around Orion. It is a touching effect. The book is gentle and gently humorous, laughing at Dark’s fears of Dad’s snore and elbowing adults with references to the stars of Orion’s Belt. A Booklist review rightly compares the illustrations with Oliver Jeffers, who ranks among my favorite illustrator-authors. Emma Yarlett may become another illustrator for whom I watch when shelving new picture books.

****

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

Book Review: The Giggler Treatment’s Clever Absurdity Still Has Me Giggling

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I was introduced to this story and to Roddy Doyle by A. LaFaye in a History and Criticism of Children’s Literature class at Hollins University. I fell in love with it perhaps almost instantaneously, opening its package at the dinner table and promptly passing it around or reading the back cover’s blurb aloud (I forget which). I read it before class, then for class, and several times since term ended (two years ago, but it never feels that long ago).

The story, coming to us from Ireland, solicitously translates the Irish expressions for Americans so that we know that Mr. Mack, a biscuit tester, spends his day with cookies. Also we are ready to translate, “Quick! Quick! My cookie is bleeding! Give me a Band-Aid!” to “Quick! Quick! My biscuit is bleeding! Give me a plaster!” (7).

That’s just a taste of the absurd, tongue-in-cheek humor of Roddy Doyle’s book.

I have always been partial to this style of nonsense.

There’s a lot in this book that reminds me of some childhood favorites of mine: Louis Sachar’s Wayside School books particularly but also Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, all men who don’t underestimate children’s intelligence or their ability to pick up on absurdity and word play.

The chapter titles in particular are wonderful examples of the playfulness with which Doyle treats traditional fiction: “Chapter One,” “The Return of Chapter One,” “A Chapter That Isn’t Really a Chapter Because Nothing Really Happens in it But We’ll Call it Chapter Four,” “Chapter Something”…. Somewhere around “Chapter Sixteen” (which comes after “Chapter Two Million and Seven”), Doyle gives up on numbering the chapters and begins to use the questions that the chapters answer as headers: “How Many Inches Now?,” “Where in the World is Rover? {II}”….

Doyle’s is metafiction. It shatters the 4th wall to such an extent that there’s hardly any wall left.

He is a present narrator and acknowledges the fiction of his story. Doyle speaks directly to the audience about himself as a person and as a writer. He discusses his country and its language and references his grandmother (“I was tempted to put in a dinosaur in a leather jacket who bullies old people, but my grandmother wouldn’t lend me her leather jacket”) (7) and mother, after whom he names a chapter: “This Chapter Is Named After My Mother Because She Said I Could Stay Up Late if I Named it After Her: Chapter Mammy Doyle” (49).

The audience occasionally interjects with a question too, making them a presence within the text if not in the story.

Characters also sometimes interrupt the text to interact with the author.

Beyond the hilarity of this play with the traditional narrative style, Doyle’s story tells of a loving family (always a wonderful thing) able to do extraordinary things through their love, like understand the complex sentences of their youngest daughter, expressed using only the word “A-bah.” Well, that’s not perhaps the main focus of the story. The main focus of the story is the dog poo left by the Gigglers, invisible creatures bent on punishing adults for mistreating children. The Gigglers witness Mr. Mack losing his patience with his two sons but not the apology that he later gives them, and so they seek out a big squishy pile of poo and scoot it onto the sidewalk for Mr. Mack to step into on his way to work. The Mack children learning by chance of the Gigglers’ planned revenge set out with their mother and the dog Rover (who provided the poo) to save Mr. Mack from this misplaced punishment. Four steps of Mr. Mack’s encompass the whole of the 105-page story with all of its bunny trails and backstory.

*****

Doyle, Roddy.  The Giggler Treatment.  Illus. Brian Ajhar.  New York: Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2000.

This review is not endorsed by Roddy Doyle, Brian Ajhar, Arthur A. Levine Books or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: September 2014 Picture Book Roundup: I’m Feeling Generous–Or These Are Good Books

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I Spy With My Little Eye by Edward Gibbs. Templar-Random, 2014. First published 2011.

The illustrations in this board book are wonderful: brightly colored, realistic, and whimsical at once. The story that this primer tells is loose and little, but to be a primer that has any plot is to be of a higher quality than the majority of the genre. The text mimics the game’s pattern—“I spy with my little eye something [of a particular color]”—and a circular hole in the page allows readers to glimpse the color on the next page. The text also includes a hint about what is on the following page. “It has a long trunk” hints that an elephant is the gray something to be found. The page is turned to reveal an animal associated with that particular color: a yellow lion, a red fox, a green frog, making this an animal as well as a color primer. The frog is the one to turn the book around, break the fourth wall, and end with “I spy you!” As a read-aloud it would be easily interactive.

****1/2

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Mini Myths: Play Nice, Hercules! by Joan Holub and illustrated by Leslie Patricelli. Appleseed-Abrams, 2014.

This board book tells the Hercules myth with pictures and text that feature a toddler Hercules stomping about the house smashing “monsters” and then his sister’s block tower instead of killing his family. Upon her tears, he stoops to help rebuild it, rebuilding his relationship with his sister as well, instead of completing his twelve labors. Then the end summarizes in a paragraph with much exclusion and downplaying for the toddler audience the myth of Hercules. This is a book that children could grow with, reading the myth paragraph as a separate story when they’re older, though whether a beginning reader would want to read a paragraph at the end of a board book is another question.

In the paragraph “he accidentally hurt his family.” That understates the damage done by Hercules in the myth just a bit, but I suppose without going into an explanation of the horrible marriage of Hera and Zeus and the birth of Hercules, that’s not an unfair statement, and honestly, I think Holub did a pretty stellar job of translating the myth for a modern, toddler audience. Hopefully no toddler is spurred by a jealous goddess into a rage and kills his family, but sure, a toddler could for no reason other than for sport, destroy his younger sister’s block tower. That’s entirely relatable and still gets at the wanton, accidental destruction in the Hercules myth. I would waffle on whether Hercules was forgiven by everyone when he completed the twelve labors, but the young Hercules character within this board book, who destroys a block tower, might plausibly be forgiven entirely by everyone, and the concept of the omnipotence of the Greek gods and the promise of immortality are ones probably beyond the curriculum of the average toddler.

Holub already has a reputation as a reteller of myths with her middle grade series, Goddess Girls, which places the young goddesses and gods of Greek myths within a middle school setting; Grimmtastic Girls, in which heroines from Grimms’ fairy tales attend prep school and fight against the E.V.I.L. Society; Heroes in Training, which features young heroes of Greek myth on adventures; and picture books like Little Red Writing, which is a parody of “Little Red Riding Hood.” There are others, but this list gives you some idea of the time and energy that she has put into retelling stories for a young, modern audience.

Leslie Patricelli is an equally prolific and prominent board book illustrator, with such titles as Potty, Huggy Kissy, and Tickle.

I suspect this team to sell well. I hope that they do, but so far at my store the title isn’t flying off the shelves like it should.

*****

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Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? Sound Book by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Priddy-St. Martin’s, 2011. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 1-5, Grades PreK-K.

Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle have been a bestselling team for quite some time now with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and all of its sequels and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and all of its. This is a spinoff of a spinoff of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, a sound book version of Polar Bear, Polar Bear. Because this is a sound as well as an animal primer, the sound book is a logical and I think good choice. There’s something satisfying—there always is—about pushing buttons to make noise—even at my age, but as a toddler certainly.  The soundbites used for this book are of the actual animals too, as far as I can figure; certainly the peacock’s “yelp” is the wail of a peacock; that’s a very distinctive sound.  Carle was less creative with colors here—animals are more their natural color than say a blue horse (though the walrus is purple)—and in a way I appreciate that; it helps with the animal primer aspect of the book. There’s pleasantly and unobtrusively more diversity within the human characters here. There’s a suggestion at the end, as the zookeeper repeats the noises imitated by the children that he hears, for children being read the book to imitate the noises, making it a possibly interactive read.

****

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The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Annick Press Ltd, 1993. First published 1980.  Intended audience: Ages 4-7, Grades PreK-2.

This book. If you haven’t read, find it. A princess’ castle and wardrobe are destroyed and her prince carried off by a dragon. Instead of crying, she clothes herself in the one thing untouched by the dragon’s fire—a paper bag—and sets off to rescue her prince, outsmarting the dragon by using its own hubris against it. Her prince is upset about being rescued by a princess who doesn’t look like a princess with her singed and mussed hair and cleverly crafted paper bag dress and tells Elizabeth to come back when she looks like a real princess. Elizabeth recognizes that Rupert is in fact a “bum” and she leaves him, skipping happily into the sunset in her paper bag. Elizabeth is a princess who shows her emotions, most importantly anger. Few Disney princes get angry: Jasmine, Pocahontas, Tiana, Merida, Nala…. Well, the list is longer than I thought it would be, but noticeably absent are the original, the classic princesses: Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White—the Disney princesses pre-1980 when this book was first released. Little girls are often taught that anger is not a feminine emotion, and so it is repressed rather than felt or expressed—not a healthy thing. Boys and girls should be taught how to deal with anger rather than not to feel it or that to feel it is somehow wrong—I think. Elizabeth outsmarts the dragon by paying him compliments, not a weapon I particularly think of as masculine—though recent experiences make me question whether this is perhaps a weapon wielded too often by men. I was going to label the weapon of manipulation via compliment as feminine, but now I’m thinking that this weapon is not particularly feminine so much as it does not require the physical strength, the dragon-slaying that is stereotypically associated almost wholly with men and masculinity.

The feminist message remains, however. Elizabeth is a clever girl, who learns to see past appearances, who runs in contrast to the clothes make the princess lesson of Cinderella—and that is a lesson that bears learning.

***** 

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Kitten and Friends by Priddy Books. Sterling, 2009.  First published by St. Martin’s, 2001.

I reviewed this book’s sister book, Puppies and Friends in April, so I suspected when I picked it up that I would enjoy it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Like Puppies and Friends, this is a touch-and-feel book. It has rather unique feel elements, like strings of yarn, fibers meant to imitate a kitten’s stiff whiskers. Kitten and Friends poses questions to readers, like “can you feel my soft fur?”—not a very exciting question— and “Is the wool softer than my fur?”—a much better question that encourages comparative reasoning, which is what particularly loved about Puppies and Friends. This book I feel has more exciting feel elements than did Puppies and Friends, and I was distracted from the cleverness of the text by them—not a point of detraction, merely a score for the feel elements; it is still important that these are smart questions.

**** 

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You Are My Little Pumpkin Pie by Amy E. Sklansky and illustrated by Talitha Shipman. LB Kids-Hachette, 2013.

I did much like this book. Unless you already call your child “pumpkin pie” then the reasoning behind the pet name seems an odd choice for a story. As a book to encourage parent-child interaction it might have some merit, with lines like “Each time I kiss your yummy cheek, I have to kiss it twice”—but “yummy cheek”? Are you going to eat your baby? The text honestly makes the parents seem rather self-centered. The child is warm and cozy next to them, she is yummy, she lights up a room—what benefit does the child get from any of this? It’s as if the child is there to improve the life of the parent. Certainly children might improve parents’ lives, but a child’s no tool, and that should be a two-way street with agape love on both sides.

**

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

Book Reviews: July 2014 Picture Book Roundup

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First a quick acknowledgement: The first picture book roundup was posted July 1, 2013.  I have officially been doing this for over a year now; I just hadn’t realized it.  Since I’ve realized it, you might notice a small detail added to the title of this post.  I guess it’s time to start distinguishing by year as well as month.

Also, I ought to apologize.  This month’s is awfully late.  But never mind.  Here it is at last.

Waldo the Jumping Dragon

Waldo, The Jumping Dragon by Dave Detiege and illustrated by Kelly Oechsli. Whitman-Western, 1964.

This one I found in an antiques mall, drawn to it by the dragon on the cover. Waldo is a careless dragon who doesn’t look where he’s going, and because the characters warn the dragon that that heedlessness will get him into trouble, I’m tempted to think of this as a didactic story. He runs into a knight—literally—and the knight decides that he must slay the dragon. The knight chases him, eventually catching hold of the dragon’s neck after the dragon frightens a king and a queen. Waldo, however, just continues to jump from place to place with the knight clinging to him, until he runs into a tree, dislodging the knight, who runs away from the reckless dragon, deciding that he is too dangerous. But before dislodging the knight, Waldo admits that he is a lonely dragon, so his recklessness leads not only to danger for himself and others but also a lack of friends, making it truly unenviable to a young audience. Because he isn’t watching where he is going, Waldo breaks the 4th wall and jumps off of the page. I’ve always been a fan of books that break the 4th wall and acknowledge themselves a book. 

****

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Touch the Red Button by Alex A. Lluch. WS, 2014.

Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has spawned several copycats, including this book and Bill Cotter’s Don’t Press the Button. (There are more copycats than I’d realized. Here’s an online version intended for an older audience.) These books ask readers to interact with the illustrations, and the illustrations reflect the readers’ assumed interaction. It’s a pretty fun concept, and though I recognized pretty quickly that Lluch’s book was a Press Here copycat, I still read it all the way through, then held it out to a coworker for him to play with too. This more than any of the other books I’ve found—including the original—is more complimentary, praising the reader for following directions. But it’s also less original than Cotter’s book.

These will never be good story hour books but will always be good bedtime books. They’re educational. The interactive model makes them books of play for kids and adults too. The novelty of the concept is starting to wear off, but I think that the interactive and playful nature of the books will ensure that they keep selling.

***

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Can You Say It, Too? Moo! Moo! by Sebastien Braun. Nosy Crow-Candlewick-Random, 2014.

This flap book shows hints of the animal behind the flap. It is peppered with animal sounds paired the animal’s name. It’s actually been pretty highly praised, but I found nothing in it to disappoint and nothing in it to blow me away.

***

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Dragon Stew by Steve Smallman and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Good Books, 2010.

Now Smallman seems about as enthusiastic about dragons I am, and I understand that Vikings and dragons have a long history, but there are so many echoes of Cowell and of DreamWorks here that it seems nothing so much as a leech to the How To Train Your Dragon franchise’s fame (the movie was released about six months prior to Dragon Stew’s release). In Cowell the bathroom humor of middle-grade boys is age-appropriate. In a children’s picture book, it seems grotesque (though I do recognize that my disgust is also mixed with my outrage at the book so blatantly coasting on Cowell’s success without acknowledging it). For an older audience, I’d love it, and maybe for, say, ages 7-8 (ages which are within the realm of picture book marketing), it would be great. It’s an exciting adventure about bored Vikings who decide to go and hunt a dragon for their stew without knowing what a dragon looks like, battle their way past sea monsters, eat all of their teatime sardine sandwiches, land on a dragon’s island with the help of a killer whale, examine a pile of dragon poo, and then are confronted with the dragon itself, who rather than allowing himself to be chopped up for stew, sets their bums alight. It might be a delightful picture book, but it’s not one I’m likely to read to my children while they are young enough and incompetent enough readers for picture books—and by the time they’re ready for it, I hope we’ll be reading chapter books.

**

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The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.

A wordless picture book! A wordless picture book from the ‘70s! So it’s a much older concept than I’d thought. I stumbled across this book in a local used bookstore. I was at first attracted by the title and then because the illustrations reminded me Wesley Dennis’ artwork. Dennis illustrated all of Marguerite Henry’s books, so the style was familiar and warm as a childhood security blanket. When I realized after several pages that no text was forthcoming, I became more intellectually interested.

In this tale, a farm boy with his head in the clouds spies a Pegasus. The boy tries to tell his father, but his father doesn’t believe his wild tales, and the boy’s punishment for his perceived tale-telling is a spanking. The boy sees the Pegasus again, however, and this time befriends it rather than fleeing to tell his father. Once friends, he and the Pegasus travel the world, helping other children, delivering sunflowers to young, lonely girls—acts of kindness and bravery and chivalry, sure, but I can’t really cheer the depiction of children of other ethnicities and cultures, as they are shown to need the help or love of the superior white man and his flying horse. (I’m a product, aren’t I, of my generation, as much as this book is of its time?)

[SPOILER] Like so many good horse stories, the boy is hurt riding, and he thinks that he has lost the horse. The injury softens the father. The book ends with the boy receiving a pony who is the doppelganger for his lost Pegasus as a gift from his previously hard father. [END SPOILER]

But aside from that, these illustrations are pretty beautiful, particularly the landscape and animals. I could hope for a little more emotion from the human characters but not from the animals. The format delights me. There’s room for creativity but enough to have—I think—a fairly similar story and enough illustrations to make the story coherent as well so that it is a feat of storytelling in picture format.

****1/2

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

Book Reviews: Books Without a 4th Wall

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Click to visit the Sesame Street Store, for links to purchase and reviews.

Click to visit the author's page, for links to purchase.

Rereading an old favorite picture book for the first time in a long time, I have realized that I have a type.  Two of my all-time favorite picture books are The Monster at the End of This Book, a Sesame Street book by Jon Stone, and We Are in a Book!, an Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems.  Both of these books break the 4th wall, the wall that ordinarily divides the fictional story and the real audience.

Grover, the protagonist of The Monster at the End of the Book, interacts with both the audience and the book itself, attempting to tie the pages together or build a brick wall to weigh barricade the next page while pleading with the reader not to turn the page because every turned page brings the reader and Grover nearer to the end of the book where a monster waits, and Grover has a terrible fear of monsters.

We Are in a Book! begins with Elephant Gerald’s realization that he and his friend Piggie are being watched, at which point Piggie investigates, coming to the “front” of the page that is their stage to peer out of the book at the audience.  They interact with the pages, turning the corners to see how many pages are left, noticing the text on the pages.  They play with the reader, making the reader say silly words like “Banana” because they realize that they can do so as characters being read.

One of the advantages of this 4th wall breakage is that there is a direct interaction between character and reader, and a feeling of familiarity and casual conversation develops because of that that cannot be achieved when the 4th wall remains intact, however much a reader may empathize with a character.  There is a different skill in sympathizing with a character in conversation with you and empathizing with a character that is indifferent to you.  Both are skills that need to be acquired, but there are fewer books that help young readers with the first skill.  Stone’s and Willem’s books give readers a chance to practice at understanding another’s feelings in a conversation without the danger of human unpredictability.

These are both playful books with twist endings that turn horror into delight.  Both books deal with characters’ (and by extension the readers’) anxiety about what happens when the book ends.  Elephant Gerald and Piggie celebrate that a book can be turned over and begun again.  Grover celebrates twist endings and plays with the concept of fear built up by a novel’s plot.

These are books that make me laugh.  There’s an intelligence to them that makes them as fun for parents or babysitters reading to young children as to the young children themselves.  I was introduced to The Monster at the End of This Book by a toddler for whom I was babysitting.  He had me read it to him again and again, and I loved it each time, though the surprise was gone after the first time.  As far as I’m concerned, any book for any age that can be enjoyed again and again, even with consecutive readings must be fantastic.  I’ve read We Are in a Book! several times too, and show it to every friend that I can.

*****                                                                                    *****

Stone, Jon.  The Monster at the End of This Book.  New York: Golden-Random, 1971.

Willems, Mo.  Elephant and Piggie: We Are in a Book!  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Jon Stone or Mo Willems, Sesame Street, Golden Books or Random House, Inc, Hyperion or Disney Books.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.