Tag Archives: African American

Book Reviews: February 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Evocative is Today’s Word

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Click, Clack, Peep! By Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades: PreK-3.

Cronin’s Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type has been fairly successful, frequently being displayed in various places in Barnes & Noble. This latest edition to the series takes on a far more relatable and age-appropriate topic, I think, than did this first book of Cronin’s, which I found a little too bureaucratic in its subject. In this, a new duckling is born on the farm, and like a child sometimes, he will not be quiet and will not sleep, so the animals can’t sleep. With a plethora of onomatopoeia’s and creative text formatting, this is a visually pleasing story and visually evocative too. There’s one page with so many peeps that I’d have been irritated if I’d felt the need to read each one, just as the characters in the story are irritated by the constant peep of the duckling. On another page the tension of waiting for duckling’s egg to hatch is palpable, evoked by the text and illustrations alike. This funny book will make a great bedtime story.

****

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Walking Home to Rosie Lee by A. LaFaye and illustrated by Keith D. Shepherd. Cinco Puntos, 2011.

A. is a professor of mine. I was in her class when or shortly after this book was released. She read the book aloud to the class and several of us were unable to keep our eyes dry, and while I’m sure some of that is attributable to the emotion that A. as the author put into the characters through her reading, the story remains evocative without the author’s interpretation. Gabe’s is a perspective little covered in texts for any age: the struggle for African Americans, former slaves, after the Civil War. Gabe’s syntax adds life to Gabe’s voice. Heartbreaking and finally uplifting, this is a story I think needs to be told. Gabe’s search for his mother, for family, for love, for home is universal as well as historical. Shepherd’s illustrations are bright and bold. There’s enough detail in the story to illuminate the suffering of African American slaves, but not enough to make it inappropriate for most children, especially on the older end of picture books.

****

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Disney’s Frozen’s Melt My Heart: Share Hugs with Olaf by Reader’s Digest. 2014.   Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This book is a collection of lines of Olaf’s from Disney’s Frozen. The lines do not make a plot. I would love to see if this book makes any sense separate from the film, but I saw the film and so could add a little weight and meaning to the text and illustrations. I would have liked an original plot, a plot separate from the film, or even any connection beside the central character between pages. The board book does sport plush arms, but I have seen even this concept better handled. They are difficult to manipulate and still hold the book.

*

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The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2014.

This is the latest Caldecott Medal recipient, and this is a wonderful and wonderfully illustrated book. Santat’s imagination is, frankly, stunning. He built a world and culture here and peopled it with fantastical characters that might bear some resemblance to creatures and objects in this world, but are unique nonetheless. With equal prowess he captures our world, the “real world,” though in the absence of children and imagination, the world appears in grayscale. Beekle leaves the world where imaginary friends are born and wait to be chosen by a child in the real world. He sails alone to the real world and scours our world for his friend, finally finding her. Together they learn about friendship, and he helps her make other friends too.

****

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

Book Reviews: January Picture Book Roundup: Part One

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I read a lot of picture books this January, and so I’ve decided to break the roundup into two parts.

Big Snow by Jonathan Bean.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2013.  Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The illustrations in this one are pretty fantastic, so detailed, so realistic—not just in style, but also in not whitewashing the neighborhood or the surrounding town.  Speaking of whitewashing, a reader on Goodreads commented about how this is an African American family—and that was the first that I’d taken notice of it.  This is an African American in a book with no social message or message of equality.  Better still, Jonathan Bean himself is not African American.  The story is every child’s experience of watching snow fall (and though it’s not explicitly stated in the story) waiting to see if the snow will be deep enough for snowy play like sledding.  It’s a story with which any child can empathize.  The mother distracts her son with household chores and baking.  The father comes home to play with him.  The only thing I can really complain about in this story is that the mother was home, cooking and cleaning, while the father was out at work—but isn’t that the typical American experience.  It would have been a nice choice to break the gender stereotype since Bean so nicely broke the whitewashed vision of the American family.  I do appreciate though that this is a family with both mother and father present and active and interested in the child’s life.

****

The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle.  Philomel-Penguin, 2013.  First published 2011.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I think most people know Eric.  The Hungry Caterpillar left quite an imprint on my childhood, though not as great an imprint as did the illustrations of Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? et al.  I was sadly unimpressed by The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse.  The prose would have benefited from more zest, though I approve of Carle’s message that a good artist is not necessarily one who sticks to reality, promoting creative thinking and creativity, prompting children to put away enforced ideas of correct and incorrect.  At the same time that message seems self-aggrandizing even though the artist at the end of the book does not look like present-day Carle (it might be a boy Carle).

**1/2

The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle.  HarperCollins, 1996.  First published 1977.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In retrospect, this was not a story I ought to have chosen for story hour.  It begins with two ladybugs who want to eat the same leafful of aphids.  Now aphid is a strange word, so I thought I had better explain it.  And then I realized what was going to happen to the aphids, and I wished that I hadn’t called them “baby bugs.”  And this whole story is about a ladybug that wants to fight—not exactly a great role model.  I tuned my voice to make the ladybug sound at least like it wanted to pick a fight for fun, for the challenge, the way a kid might ask, “You wanna race?”  In retrospect, I may have learned my lesson at least about screening Carle books before I take them to story hour.  As a story hour book too, the clocks in the top corner of the pages were nearly invisible to the children.  I explained where the hands were on the clock faces, at least at first, and was able to work that explanation pretty easily into the prose, but I didn’t really think any of them were there to learn to tell time and stopped after the first few pages.  Also, analog clocks are disappearing, though I think they are still more often in classrooms than digital clocks, so maybe it will be something that they’ll need to learn.  Reading this book makes me feel old.  Not only because of the analog clocks but also because of the political correctness that makes me wonder if such a violent little ladybug would have made it past an editor today.  The kids did pick up on Carle’s lesson that you shouldn’t be mean and that you should share, but it seemed like there were few pages on that.  Most of the pages were devoted instead to the grouchy ladybug asking larger and larger animals if they wanted to fight then dismissing each as too small—and I think at least one my kids was frustrated by the ladybug’s idiocy (she kept commenting that she was pretty sure this or that animal was large enough).  It made a better bestiary than a story it seemed to me as I read the same few words over and over with a slight variation.  That being said, that repetition can be very lulling.  I found it very easy to read and to play instead with my inflection than focus on the words when I was caught up in the repetition.

*1/2

What’s Your Favorite Animal? edited by Eric Carle.  Contributed to be Eric Carle, Nick Bruel, Lucy Cousins, Susan Jeffers, Steven Kellogg, Jon Klassen, Tom Lichtenheld, Peter McCarty, Chris Raschka, Peter Sís, Lane Smith, Erin Stead, Rosemary Wells, and Mo Willems.  Henry Holt and Co.-Random, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8 (Grades Pre-K-3).

As a student and lover of children’s literature, I personally loved this book.  Some of the illustrations in this are amazing.  A lot of the memoirs are truly sweet and endear readers towards either the animal or the author.  Some of the poetry was humorous.  The book provided an interesting view into the minds and lives of some of my favorite illustrators.  The kids at my story hour were less enthralled.  I knew more of the illustrators than they did (many of them having not recently produced any bestsellers), and taken all together, this is a long book.  The eldest of my story hour friends was maybe eight.  Much beyond eight, it’s hard to see a child being thrilled with being read any picture book.  This book lacks the cohesion that can hold a younger child’s attention.  There’s not a story.  There’s no conflict.  The book includes flash memoirs, poetry, and cartoon panels of facts about octopi.  I think only the one (Nick Bruel’s) got a laugh out of any of my friends and that because of Bruel’s interaction with Bad Kitty, a familiar face for some of the kids, I’m sure, and the humor of Bruel’s entry.  Bruel’s didn’t read very well aloud, though, I thought.  There were so many individual panels and I don’t know how many of my friends were able to follow my eyes across the pages as I read.

****

Knight Time by Jane Clark and illustrated by Jane Massey.  Red Fox-Random House UK, 2009.

I loved this book, though I was biased towards it from the beginning as the cover was of an adorable towheaded young knight and a young dragon, each looking terrified into the dark forest.  Towheads and dragons, how could I not love this book?  It was cute in the way that I expected.  The knight fears dragons.  The dragon fears knights.  They meet and become friends after each seeing that the other is not so frightening.  I did not anticipate the inclusion of the knight’s and dragon’s fathers.  Both wander into the woods looking for their fathers and are each found by the other’s father.  The book is lift-a-flap.  If anything this made the book too interesting, too intriguing, too busy, but I loved that there was so much to look at and explore in this adventure.

****

Smile, Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 1-4 (Grade Pre-K).

I’ve never read the original Pout-Pout Fish so I think this book meant less to me than it is supposed to.  I think this would be fun to quote at young kids.  “Smile, Mr. Fish.  You look so down, with your glum-glum face and pout-pout frown.”  Followed immediately by, “Hey, Mr. Grumpy Gills.  When life gets you down do you know what you gotta do?”  I do dislike that the implication seems to be that a peck on the cheek by a strange should illicit a smile from someone who’s down.  I don’t really think that’s true, and I’m not sure it’s something that we should be teaching our children.

 **

Little Owl’s Orange Scarf by Tatyana Feeney.  Knopf-Random, 2013.

The trick is in the details with this one.  There’s a lot of humor from a careful inspection of Feeney’s illustrations, from the attempts of Little Owl to send his orange scarf to Peru to how he finally rids himself of the hated scarf.  While I sympathized with Little Owl’s plight and I really want to like this book even more than I do, I had a kid pipe up during story hour that he liked orange, and there’s was such sadness and hurt in his tone.  The scarf of course could be hated for being any color, and Feeney had to choose some color. There’s something so implicitly realistically childlike about Owl’s dislike of the scarf not only because it’s too long and scratchy but especially because it’s orange.  It reminds me of friends who hated and refused to wear anything pink simply for its color—and I’m glad that Feeney chose a color other than pink.  Pink would have seemed cliché.

***1/2

Buzz, Buzz, Baby!: A Karen Katz Lift-the-Flap Book by Karen Katz.  Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 1-4.

This lift-a-flap book is all about insects and bugs—perfect the adventurous and outdoorsy child in your family.  Katz’s protagonists are not strictly male even though the book is about bugs.  Katz’s illustrations and the use of flaps are what really appealed to me in this book.  The insects peek out from behind foliage making it easy to see where a child being read too could be prompted for an answer to the questions that the text poses.  The colors are bright—as are all of Katz’s.  Rhymes help with the rhythm of the text.

****

Film Review: Red Tails Offers a Thrilling Flight but Misses the True Target

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Red Tails had an amazing trailer, so much so that without having ever heard of the film, from the trailer alone, my Sherlockian friend and I decided to meet at the theater the following week to see the film.  The movie was not entirely what I was expecting.  Knowing little of WWII history, I would have appreciated more of the history being worked somehow into the plot and script of the film.  I think Red Tails assumed a little more era-specific knowledge.  Which, I admit, the majority of the audience, I saw when the lights were turned on, probably had.

My major complaint about the film was this:

For a movie the message of which is that race does not confer greatness or difference, it was horridly black-and-white.  I understand, of course, that WWII fighter pilots, possibly even by necessity, did in fact see the Germans as little more than targets, but I would have appreciated less demonization of the Germans, many of whom were following orders—bad orders, yes—but, too, the Germans in this film were not those who probably ever saw the atrocities of the concentration camps.  It seemed almost as if the African American characters were foisting their own problems onto another group of people; rather than recognizing that prejudice and the demonization of one race by another is bad, the African Americans dehumanized the Germans similarly to how they—the African Americans—had been dehumanized by the Caucasian Americans and Europeans.  I honestly would almost expect more gray from an executive producer whose best-known project has been detailing the fall into darkness and rise from it again of a young Ani.

Red Tails shone in the scenes between the aerial battles.  It did not represent army life as always one of rigidity and marching.  The scenes of guitar-playing, card games, football, mess hall, and celebrating victories made the characters seem more human than they would have without these scenes.  I can’t say I’ve ever been in a situation I could relate to aerial warfare, but I can relate to time spent hanging out with friends.

The camaraderie of army life (which I’d like to believe exists though, again, I don’t know first hand) was nicely illustrated in the interactions between the characters and even among extras.

There were some really pretty fantastic action sequences in this film and the filming and special effects are quite impressive, though I might be remembering the effects as better than they were.  The opening credits seemed so retro that I suspected a low-budget film, but Red Tails was actually made with $100 million of George Lucas’ fortune according to Entertainment Weekly.

I think I would have preferred fewer aerial battles—or at least more scenes between.  I wanted to linger with the characters and instead was thrust into dogfights where it was possible to glean something of the characters, but not perhaps as much as I was able to gain from their grounded scenes.

Overall, I wish the film had been more slowly paced.  I wish it had shown the African American fighter pilots as more sympathetic to the Germans, though I realize this historically might be impossible.  Red Tails is more of an action than a perception-altering film—enjoyable but not as important as it could have been.

Red Tails.  Dir. Anthony Hemingway.  Exec. Prod. George Lucas.  Twentieth Century Fox Films & LucasFilms.  2012.

This review is not endorsed by Twentieth Century Fox Films, LucasFilms, George Lucas, Anthony Hemingway, anyone in the cast, or anyone involved in making this film.  It is an independent, honest review by a viewer.