Tag Archives: Allison Oppenheim

Book Reviews: September 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Astronauts, Bees, and Sillier Animals

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Astronauts

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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.

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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.

***

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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.”

*** 

Bees

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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.

***

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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

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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.

***

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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.

***

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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

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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.

****

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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.

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Book Reviews: September 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and sample pages.

Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt and illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. Scholastic, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I sort of already reviewed this book when I was reviewing bell hook’s Skin Again because I read within a month of each other these two books about diversity and seeing beyond outer appearance and skin color. Oops. Alko and Qualls’ use of primary characters and a grounding location (a city) in the illustrations help to make less abstract the ideas that Britt is portraying. It gave the book another focus—the characters and their questions—rather than the focus being solely on the reader and the reader’s perceptions. By posing questions that I think all of us—as adults, yes, but also as children—have wondered, the story has a universality that draws a reader to it—or it did so for me. Universality is certainly some of the lesson of Britt, Alko, and Quall’s book.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, activity sheets, and author's bio.

It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton and illustrated by Marla Frazee. Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Marla Frazee’s illustrations are definitely the true champion of this book by Hillary Clinton. The text of the book is simple—what is needed (a vision, teamwork, the proper tools, kindness, sharing, play, and rest) to create a community—but the illustrations make this the story of a community coming together to build a playground because of the vision and dream of a child or three.

***

Click to visit the series' page for links to order, summary, preview, and activity kit.

Pete the Cat and the New Guy by Kimberly and James Dean. HarperCollins, 2014.

A new kid moves into the neighborhood. Pete immediately notices that he and Gus the Platypus are not alike, but immediately accepts that being different is “cool,” which is wonderfully refreshing. Gus can’t do the things that Pete and his friends do. It makes Gus sad, but Pete keeps assuring him that there’s something everyone can do. Finally, they all bond over music.

***

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, sample pages, and interview.

Animal Homes ZXA: An Out of Order Alphabet Book by Barbara Gibbon. Mascot, 2017.

There’s so much to this book. This animal and alphabet primer groups the animals by their habitat, very basically defined in the text and illustrated, rather than alphabetizing them and highlights some more unusual animals rather than sticking only to the tried examples. By rearranging the letters, the book and the alphabet are less predictable, and those learning the alphabet can rely less on memorization of the sounds and have to put together more assuredly the shape of the letter and the sound it represents. Including unique animals (zebu, quokka) in the text helps to eliminate the same memorization technique. The illustrations include both lower and uppercase examples of the letters and beautiful animal portraits to associate with each letter. The endpapers are illustrated to show the animals and the letters that they represent reorganized alphabetically so as not to lose that element of instruction, which adds an element of familiarity and closure to the book.

*****

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Princesses Wear Pants by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim and illustrated by Eva Byrne. Abrams, 2017.

Told in rhyme, this princess Penny is known for her gowns and tiaras, but she prefers pants when she exercises, when she gardens, when she flies her plane, when she judges the science fair, and when she relaxes. A conservative lady, Lady Busyboots, is sure to be at the ball though, and Penny doesn’t want to be subject to her wagging finger. She decides she doesn’t want to go if she can’t wear pants, so she hides her swim trunks beneath her gown. When Penny’s cat, Miss Fussy, falls into the moat, Prince Phillip can’t save her because his suit will get wet; he’s not properly dressed. But Penny pulls off her dress, beneath which she’s wearing her swimming trunks, and hops into the moat to save the cat, winning the admiration of her subjects for her bravery and also Lady Busyboots’ approval of pants as a practical garment. Some of the text is a little heavy-handed in its message of female empowerment through fashion choices, but on the whole I approve. I liked that Penny’s royal duties extended to flying in the air force, judging science fairs, and helping to feed the hungry—duties that really are part of today’s expectations for royalty but which are rarely acknowledged in children’s books. It helped make this princess story feel more modern. The illustrations are bright and playful with many pineapples worked into the details. I’m giving it only four stars though because there were places where consistency seemed to be an issue. In the beginning, Penny doesn’t mind dresses, but she minds them when she should wear one to the ball? And she wanted to wear pants to the ball not swimming trunks.

****

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7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar and illustrated by Ross MacDonald. Hyperion-Disney, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is one of those times when I have to argue with the publisher’s listed intended audience. My toddlers didn’t get it. The audience member who laughed with me was nearer 7 if not older than that. This book is filled with wordplay and math puns, and most of that seemed to sail right over the heads of my toddlers. 7 Ate 9 is a noir detective story, where Private I, a garish pink letter I in a striped tie and a fedora, has to solve the mystery of 9’s disappearance when 6 comes into his office screaming that 7 ate 9. No numbers were actually eaten in the making of this picture book.

***

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The Book with No Pictures by B. J. Novak. Dial-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this and how much my kids enjoyed this because I always enjoy and often judge a book by its pictures. Like Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Book! (one of my favorites), this book explains and then relies on the reader reading everything that the book says—no matter what. So where Gerald and Piggie laugh hysterically at the reader being forced to say “banana,” this book makes the reader say things like “My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named Boo Boo Butt” and “The kid I’m reading this book to is the best kid ever in the history of the entire world” and sing and read a whole page of ridiculous nonsense words. Asides—complaints about what’s coming, comments on the ridiculousness of what’s been said—are included in the text, and while the are fun to read aloud, in places—especially toward the beginning I feel—they are a bit too intrusive. And I want to read the book again, but I’ve just been made to say please don’t ever make me read this book again. Overall though, this was a lot of laughs.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperCollins, 2005. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Nancy likes fancy things and using fancy words, but her family doesn’t understand. She puts an ad on the fridge for fancy lessons, and the whole family obliges and comes. They dress up in a wealth of fancy accessories and decide to go for a fancy dinner. It’s all going very well till Nancy, carrying a tray of ice cream sundaes, trips and drops the tray, splattering the whole restaurant in ice cream and whipped topping. Nancy’s feeling upset.  They go home, get cleaned up, and have ice cream in their pajamas. She thanks her parents for being fancy, and they all exchange “I love you”s, which can be said no fancier or better way. Nancy’s parents are A+: showing up when they’re requested, showering her with love, appreciating and encouraging her interests. There’s some fancy vocabulary to give this book more of an educational feel. This is all around a good book.

*****

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After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) by Dan Santat. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This whole of the book is narrated by Humpty in the past tense as though he is telling you the story while sitting in front of you.  Humpty loves sitting up high on the wall. He likes to be up near the birds. But he fell off that wall.  The kings’ men put him back together again—physically—but they can’t heal the emotional scars he carries from his accident. He’s scared of heights now, and he can’t enjoy the things that he used to. It affects everything, even his sleeping and eating habits. He settles at first for watching the birds from the ground, then creates a paper airplane, crafted to look like a bird, so that some part of him is with the birds.   But accidents always happen, and his plane lands atop the wall from which he once fell.  Instead of walking away this time, he climbs the wall to retrieve his plane.  Having conquered his fears, he cracks apart, and becomes a fully-fledged bird, finally able to fly with the birds that he loves—finally one of the birds that he loves. That first reading, there was something off-putting about the end for both me and for one of the parents who was there when I was reading it.  It seemed less off-putting a second time for me, maybe because I knew it was coming.  I’m not sure how much of the recovery from trauma my toddler audience understood.  The illustrations are amazing—as Santat’s always are—saturated with clever use of space and color with impressive attention to detail.  It’s the sense of off-ness I got the first time–and that was expressed by another at the reading–that prevents this from getting five stars.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, awards list, activities, and author's bio.

Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2009. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Ed, Ned, Ted, and Bob rhyme all the time. Or Ed, Ned, and Ted do. Bob does not. Ed, Ned, and Ted take turns rhyming with one another, but Bob is too distracted by the end that’s coming towards them and doesn’t rhyme. Neither Ed, Ned, nor Ted realize that Bob is trying to warn them and is not playing their game, so they correct him, chastise him for his warnings not rhyming. This is a good lesson on paying attention to your friends, on listening, and on rhyming. The illustrations are simple, really just four fluffy monsters each a different color but surprisingly expressive and a few simple lines on a few pages for setting.

****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and sample pages. 

A Pirate’s Life by Salina Yoon. Price Stern Sloan-Penguin Random, 2007.

This is a super-cute lift-the-flap book about pirates with a surprising number of facts and tidbits of history. Pete prepares you—the reader—for your first voyage, making sure you’ve packed all the necessities, including sunscreen, fresh underwear, cured meat and fresh fruit and vegetables. There’s a list provided and a challenge to find everything on the list on the page. The second double-page spread tours the ship and establishes some pirate rules. The third spread is rhyming instructions to find the treasure and a map. Then, the treasure found, it’s time to party with another scavenger hunt. The last page declares you unanimously the new captain. There are stickers and a captain’s hat for you in your new quarters on the last page spread.

****

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.