Tag Archives: Alyssa Satin Capucilli

Book Reviews: May 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Cute Animals, a Piano, a Problem, and a Chinese Folk Tale

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biscuitBiscuit by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories. HarperCollins, 2009. First published 1996.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

So here is a confession: I had never read the original Biscuit book. I read some of the sequels, and just… the covers… of course I love Biscuit, but I’d never read the original. I didn’t realize that it was a bedtime story. Two rambunctious little story time visitors asked me for a puppy story, and I wanted something fast because their attention wasn’t holding, and because they asked for it after we’d given up on the story that I had picked out for story time, I needed something pre-vetted, something I knew without looking long in the shelves. The story is adorable. The little puppy, whimsically drawn by Schories, does all that he can—all that kids do every night—to delay bedtime: he asks for a snack, he asks for a drink, he asks for story, he asks for a nightlight, he asks to be tucked in, he asks for hugs and kisses, and ultimately after his little girl has gone to bed in her own room for more hugs and kisses—which leads to him sleeping beside her bed on the floor on a blanket that he’s pawed off of the bed. It’s just precious. The interjection of “Woof! Woof!” after every sentence is… a bit much. While barking like a little puppy is fun, it’s a lot, and I admit I skipped a few lines. That’s really my one complaint about the book though.

****

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Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev and illustrated Taeeun Yoo. Simon & Schuster, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I sort of doomed this one all on my own. For months I’d wanted to read it for story time, and this month I was finally able to do so, but the hype that I’d built up around what I imagined this book could be from skimming it was greater than the book itself seemed to me to be. Yoo’s illustrations are still amazing, just the sort of illustrations you coo over with the little elephant in its red scarf, matching its boy’s, and being carried by the little boy over the cracks in the sidewalk. There’s a plethora of creative and colorful creatures on the last pages, and we took a few moments to point and name them: an armadillo, a giraffe, a bat, a hedgehog, a penguin, a narwhal…. There were POC. Though the primary protagonist is, of course, white, the secondary protagonist—his first friend and the only other person with a speaking role—is African American and female. POC and white children, boys and girls were in both the friendly and unfriendly—the accepting and the rejecting—groups. This was a simple introduction to exclusion and inclusion and racism and prejudice. It says a lot for a simple book with not a lot of text. What disappointed me, though, was the text—and again, I say that that is no one’s fault but my own. There were some gems to be sure—the little elephant afraid of cracks, then later never minding the cracks—but I didn’t like the blunt didacticism of the “that’s what friends do:” phrases. The ending felt lackluster to me as well, though I think I see what Mantchev was going for: an invitation to the reader to join in this accepting club. Mantchev’s written quite a few books, but I think this was her first for such a young audience.

****

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My Dog’s a Chicken by Susan McElroy Montanari and illustrated by Anne Wildorf. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This is a cute, atmospheric book. Lula Mae wants a dog, but her mother says no; they can’t afford a dog. But Lula Mae doesn’t get upset by her denied request or her poverty. Instead she chooses a spotted chicken and decides that that chicken will be her dog, Pookie. Pookie is not just any dog, though, she is a multi-talented dog: a show dog, herding dog, a watchdog, a search-and-rescue dog. It is only after Pookie proves herself in this last field—finding the missing Baby Berry, who has toddled off—that Lula Mae’s mother relents and allows Pookie to come inside the house—and even sleep at the foot of Lula Mae’s bed. This book was not at all what I expected, but it was a good story. It might be an avenue to talk about poverty with little kids too—a more realistic, more modern version of poverty—though there’s something ironic about a $16.99 hardcover about poverty—and I wish that that vision of poverty came without some of the Southern stereotypes; I’ve never once down here met anyone called Tater—but on the whole, I think Montanari did a decent job avoiding overly stereotyping the South or in any way demeaning her characters. Really this wasn’t so much a story about poverty as a story about creativity and imagination and a chicken with characters who just happen to be poor.

****

9780807530757_GrumpyPants-BD-512x512Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer. Albert Whitman, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This book caught my attention early in the month, but only late this month did I bring it out for story time. This penguin is grumpy, and he doesn’t know why. He strips off his clothes piece by piece, thinking that one less piece will make him feel less grumpy, but it’s no good, even when he’s down to just his underpants. So he takes off his underpants, takes a deep breath, counts to three, and dives into the bathtub, where at last he is able to wash off the last of his grumpiness by splashing and making a bubble beard. He puts on his favorite clothes and feels even better and goes to sleep.

This would be a great book for little ones: bedtime, bath time, clothes primer, a reassurance that sometimes you get grumpy without any reason and that’s okay. Plus, it’s hard to feel grumpy while this penguin pulls off with his beak his very colorful clothes; this penguin dresses only a bit more conservatively than Dobby the house-elf.

I worried a little about showing the penguin sans clothes, but none of the parents said anything—and it’s more natural—isn’t it?—to see a penguin without clothes than in them, so I didn’t feel as if I was showing the kids anything too racy.

*****

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If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

This is a sequel to If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t! That first book was better. This one felt… well, like a sequel, piggybacking off of the success of the first but unable to capture the same uniqueness and unexpectedness that made the first book memorable. Magnolia brings a full-size upright piano to the beach. Her mother warns her not to lose it, “keep it neat and clean” and “push it to the beach.” Well, you just know, every one of those promises is going to be broken. They get broken in surprising, more and more outlandish ways. Brownie points for a multiracial family: white, Asian, and African American with potentially just a single mother. There’s a lesson here about our love affair with stuff: The piano is replaced in Magnolia’s heart and affections by a shell that she can use as a boat, a shovel, and a Frisbee.

***

e_and_p_thank_you_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: The Thank You Book by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 6-9.

This book fell flat for me too—and maybe because of the hype, maybe because of the awesomeness of all of its sequels—maybe simply because of what it was. The books problem is that Piggie wants to thank everyone—and that leads to a reunion with every minor character who has ever appeared in an Elephant and Piggie book—including the Pigeon. Gerald is sure that she will forget someone. Piggie is sure that she won’t. It seems as though Gerald thinks that she will forget him—and maybe that’s a reflection on me, making that assumption—but she’s only saving him for last because of course she’s not forgotten her best friend. The person she does forget is the reader, the audience. And she leans forward at the end to thank us, breaking the 4th wall in the same way that once won my heart. Though I think Piggie forgot one more person; I was really rooting for an appearance by Mo himself. There was no lesson here and I think that’s what threw me off, really—not that I think books need to be moralistic, but I think it’s hard for them to exist solely for the sake of existing as this one does. The whole purpose of the book is to thank the reader for reading the book(s), and that’s a bit meta even for me. I think it also suffered from saccharine sentimentality. Further, it does not really standalone. Really grasping the plot requires reading at least 9 other stories (I say at least because there are a few of the 26 I have not yet read and I did not recognize all of the characters thanked and because we were thanking even the flies who flew around the slop it’s possible I just forgot about some characters). Overall, I’m sad that this is the last Elephant and Piggie book because it’s the last Elephant and Piggie book, but it is not the book I wanted—and it’s not one that I will add to my collection, should I ever actually begin amassing these—and I’ve thought about doing so even in the absence of any foreseeable children.

***

28863341 What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom. Compendium, 2016.

This is a companion book to Yamada’s first picture book for kids, What Do You Do with an Idea? The same character returns. This time he has a problem, and it feels like it will never go away, and he can’t run away, and it seems to get bigger and bigger, until he confronts the problem head on and finds the yellow sunlight of opportunity that the cloud hides inside. Well timed for graduations, this book appeals to a broad audience. Marketed for children, it nevertheless speaks maybe even more to me as an adult, where my problems are bigger, and there are fewer “adultier adults” to turn to for help. Again it’s Besom’s illustrations that really make this book shine for me. The text itself is fairly and I believe intentionally nondescript so that the “problem” can be any problem a person faces and the person can be any reader.

****

1103447 The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale by Laurence Yep and illustrated by Kam Mak. HarperCollins, 1997.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Kam Mak’s illustrations for this Chinese Beauty and the Beast type story are stunning. This book is worth it for the photographic realism and vibrant jewel tones of the illustrations alone, but, well, I’m a sucker for folk tales, but I enjoy this one. I especially enjoy this one because Seven is not asked to fall in love with the Beast (or Dragon). She is asked to marry him, yes, but her kindness not her love—no true love’s kiss—gives him reason to choose to present as a handsome male prince. The prince here too is not some previously wicked and now cursed soul, but a man who makes his own choices and goes on his own quest for a wife. He is given agency—a lot of agency, so much more than de Beaumont’s or Disney’s Beasts. He searches for his wife when he begins to suspect that her wicked sister is not his beloved wife as she pretends; Seven believes her prince is unable to distinguish her from her sister and takes this as proof that he does not love her, so she has not sought him but rather found a new life for herself through her own skills. I’ve read this story several times—the first time in 2011 for a class taught by Brian Attebery on gender identity in fantasy and science-fiction. I still enjoy it.

*****

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: January 2016 Picture Book Roundup

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Next Month’s Holidays:

February 2: Groundhog’s Day

9781619632899Groundhog’s Day Off by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Brett Helquist. Bloomsbury USA, 2015.

This is a book that won’t come out of its hole but once a year—and that’s sort of shame. It’s a clever, funny little book, about a groundhog who feels underappreciated so he leaves on an unplanned vacation right before his big day, leaving the town in a lurch and holding auditions for someone to replace him. He just wants the media to ask him about something other than the weather—really, he wants to be asked about himself, the personal questions, like what movies he likes and how he likes his pizza. There’s an African American female mayor and the potential for a sequel as the groundhog runs away with the Easter Bunny at the end. This is though I think the sort of picture book that gets a larger laugh from adults than it does from the kids.

***

9781580896009Groundhog’s Dilemma by Kristen Remenar and illustrated by Matt Faulkner. Charlesbridge-Penguin, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Groundhog can never please everyone with his annual weather report. His friends think that they can change his report by currying favor with groundhog. After several attempts to explain that he does not control the weather, he only reports it—all of which are ignored—Groundhog, enjoying the place on the baseball team and the homemade pies, lets his friends think that he will be able to please them all—even when their desires conflict. As the next Groundhog’s Day approaches, Groundhog realizes that he will upset people no matter what he says—he simply cannot please everyone—and he worries that he will lose the friends whom he disappoints. He decides to be honest, to tell them that he’s sorry that he let them think that he could fix the weather for them, but that he liked being liked. I liked that though this too is a book firmly affixed to a minor holiday, the lesson is universal and applicable anytime: though the attention from making false promises may feel good for a while, it’ll eventually sour; also, you should not bring gifts or do favors for a friend because you want him to do something for you, but rather should like him for who he is. The overly flirtatious female hare is an interesting character to include in a children’s book.

***

Next Month’s Holidays:

February 14: Let Me Count the Ways

y648Where Is Love, Biscuit? by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories. HarperFestival-HarperCollins, 2009. First published 2002. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprisingly everyday board book. I worried it would be too Valentine’s to be read anytime, but the story instead asks, “Where’s the love, Biscuit?” and love is found in a soft blanket, in baking cookies, in a knitted sweater. There are touch-and-feel elements on many if not all of the pages. There’s not a lot of story, really, but these were surprisingly refreshing examples on love—especially as it was on display with all of the Valentine’s Day books.

***

9780448489322Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar adapted from Eric Carle’s works. Grosset & Dunlap-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is another book made by hijacking Eric Carle’s works and piecing them together. But unlike the Favorite Words series, this one has… sentences. Sappy text like “you are the cherry to my cake” is accompanied by the caterpillar on the cherry atop a cake and “you make my heart flutter” by the caterpillar as a butterfly and “you are the bee’s knees” by a swarm of friendly bees. It’s a sweet book to read to a beloved child or maybe to give to a sweetheart, but there’s not a lot of substance there, and I really do feel a little queasy over these Frankensteined books made from Carle’s illustrations.

***

ILYM_jacket_Final:Layout 1I Love You More by Laura Duksta and illustrated by Karen Keesler. Sourcebooks, 2009. First published 2001.

This book features a pretty cool and inventive structure. One side reads as the mother’s response to her son’s question: “How much do you love me?” Flip it over and read the son’s response to his mother when she asks the same question. The middle page bridges the two responses. The text itself is pretty… gooey. Especially on the mother’s side it sounds like that old country song: “deeper than the holler, stronger than the rivers, higher the pine trees”: “I love you higher than the highest bird ever flew. I love you taller than the tallest tree ever grew.” The son’s response is a bit more inventive and includes all the things that boys stereotypically like best: “I love you further than the furthest frog ever leaped. […] I love you louder than the loudest rocket ship ever blasted.” If you’re looking for an ooey-gooey, I-love-you-so-much-book this is a great option.

*****

9781619639225I’ll Never Let You Go by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and illustrated by Alison Brown. Bloomsbury USA, 2015.

This is another mushy, gushy, read-to-your-child story. The illustrations are of different animals with their parents, and the style is whimsical, the creatures reminiscent of plushies with their soft lines and simple faces.  The parent promises to be with the child through all of its highs and lows: “When you are excited, the world joins with you, You bounce all about—and look! I’m bouncing, too!” (We won’t talk about those commas.) “When you are sad and troubled with fears, I hold you close and dry all your tears.” Reminiscent at once of Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Go, My Love Will Find You and Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, I think that this book personally lives up to neither, but is simpler than either, and might be a better book than either to read with a child rather than to one—that being said, the text is very much meant to be a parent speaking. There are really just so many books about a parent promising to always love a child that it’s difficult to be outstanding in that category.

***

Making New Friends

9780399167737 Peanut Butter & Cupcake by Terry Border. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

What bothered me most about this book was the title, so this should be a pretty positive review. I understand that a title like Peanut Butter and Jelly would be more likely to get lost in the noise, but Peanut Butter and Cupcake is misleading. Cupcake’s is only a two page spread and a mention, and she’s not very welcoming to Peanut Butter, inviting him to watch her play, but warning him not to play with her (what’s more, the cupcake on the cover is by far the tastiest-looking cupcake in the book). The premise is this: Peanut Butter, new to town, wants to play but knows no one and his mom is too busy to play with him, so she sends him out to wander the town and try to make a friend. Peanut Butter approaches various other foods and gives a speech about how he has a ball and wants to play “maybe now, maybe later—or even all day” (that I can remember three days later that repeated phrase says quite a bit for the memorability of the writing—and the number of times that I read this phrase aloud). The illustrations are at least as impressive as the text—and probably more so. Done as posed photographs with food and props (paper clips for feet and hands, for example), I can only imagine how long each illustration took to get right. Clever puns pepper the text and pictures alike: Hamburger walks a pair of wiener hot dogs. Soup spells out his responses to Peanut Butter’s pleas. Cupcake plays in a sandbox of sprinkles. French Fries has to catch up with Hamburger and his hot dogs (read the sentence aloud if you don’t see the pun). Jelly eventually finds Peanut Butter and the two of them play together. The other neighborhood foods see the two of them having fun and Peanut Butter and Jelly let them all join in, taking the high road, so that everyone is enjoying themselves and each others’ company.

****

9780805098259Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

In October I was besotted with Mike Curato’s sequel to this book, Little Elliot, Big Family. Then I’d done some digging and peeked at some of the illustrations from this book found on Curato’s website. I predicted that I would love Little Elliot, Big Family more than the original—and I think that that has proved true, though maybe it’s because Big Family was the first that I found. The problem in Big City is probably more relatable to most kids.  In Little Elliot, Big City, Elliot is small and can be lost in the crowds of New York and stand unseen at the counter at the cupcake shop. He is feeling dejected when he spots Mouse, smaller even than Elliot. Mouse is hungry—hungrier than Elliot—and cannot reach the pizza slice in the park garbage bin. Elliot helps Mouse, and the two of them become friends. Together they are tall enough, and Elliot is able to buy and share his cupcake. It seems trite in a way, that Elliot’s trouble revolves around and is ultimately resolved by the acquisition of a cupcake—even if I sort of understand that that cupcake is more the culmination and physical manifestation of a heap of other troubles resulting from being too little. The illustrations are still gorgeous: vibrant and smooth, though showing less of the diversity of the city that is so wonderfully captured in Little Elliot, Big Family (though the diversity is there).

****

24819508Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

My two audience members were not yet one and not yet two. This story was really too long for them, but we read it the first Wednesday after the Caldecott and Newbery winners had been chosen, and I had this, Matt de la Peña’s The Last Stop on Market Street, and Kevin Henkes’ Waiting (a Caldecott honoree) in a pile beside me. My not-yet-two year old picked out this one, and we made a pretty valiant effort to get through it (I read maybe the last two or three pages to myself, but over the course of a half hour, we made our way through the rest of the story before the kids’ interest was entirely lost to the toys behind me). Finding Winnie tells the true tale of Winnie, an orphaned bear cub from Canada, who is saved from the trapper by a soldier and accompanies his brigade to England, where they will train to fight in World War II. Winnie stays with the soldiers until they are called away to the front, then she is left in the care of the London Zoo, where she is befriended by Christopher Robin Milne, whose father A. A. Milne was inspired by their friendship to introduce us all to our friend, Winnie-the-Pooh. The frame story is told by the soldier Harry Coleburn’s great-granddaughter, the author of the book, who tells the story to her little boy, Cole. As a Caldecott winner, I was supposed to be blown away by the illustrations, which are nice, but I was more taken by the photographs in the back of the book, proving the truth of the tale, and by the tale itself, which seems almost too perfect to be real.

****

You Can Be the Hero Too

the-night-gardener-9781481439787_lgThe Night Gardener by Terry Fan and Eric Fan (the Fan Brothers). Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I was given access through work to an unbound page proof of this book, which is due out on my birthday, actually: February 16 (Happy early birthday to me!). The illustrations are the obvious star of this book—by which I mean, I fell in love with the illustrations almost to the point that the text is irrelevant—not that the text was bad; it wasn’t, but it was overshadowed. The book tells the story of a boy who wakes to imaginative topiaries and wonders who is creating these masterpieces. He ultimately stumbles into an apprenticeship with the Night Gardener. But really, just do yourself a favor and go take a look at these whimsical, marvelous illustrations. Wonder like I do how the color palette can be at once so vibrant and so muted.

****

9780803737891Skippyjon Jones: Snow What by Judy Schachner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I really enjoyed this story and the parents really enjoyed this story, but it wasn’t holding the attention of my audience of three (two of whom admittedly were under one). I warned them and I will warn you that my Spanish is… pitiful. I studied in middle school, but it’s almost entirely washed away now. I don’t think that my poor presentation helped. I fudged my way through most of the Spanish and the Spanglish and probably pronounced a few of the words with more French or Italian than they ought to have done. Does the Spanish and Spanglish keep me from enjoying the story? In no way. Little Skippyjon is the only boy in a passel of girls, and he is outvoted when it’s time to choose a story. He storms away and invents his own tale of Snow What, where he is once again the famous swordfighter Skippito Friskito, is forced into tights by his friends the poochitos, and is forced to kiss the ice cube coffin of the princess to wake her from her cursed sleep. He cannot escape the tropes of the fairytale, but he can become the hero, can tell himself a story that focuses on the prince instead of the princess. I appreciated that this one had less stereotyping of Mexican culture than some in this series (the original tale) and I appreciated the, well, backlash to the backlash of the Disney Princess tale dominance. As important as it is for girls to see themselves as heroines, it’s just as important for boys to see themselves as heroes.  This story also highlights the great power of imagination.

****

Clever Primers

y648-19780062110589Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2010.

Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2012.

Sometimes, the best review really comes from the kids. I read these two (and Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses) to a crowd of kids, who knew the stories well-enough to read pages to me, who knew the songs, and sung them for me. When the kids love the stories that much, it’s really hard to dislike them—and honestly, there’s a lot to like. I hadn’t stopped to consider that these are primers for an older crowd with a semblance of plot not usually in primers. I Love My White Shoes is the first ever Pete the Cat story and a color primer, where Pete sings about his love for his white shoes, and when he squashes strawberries, his red shoes, and when he steps in a pile of blueberries, his blue shoes. The refrain “Did Pete cry? Goodness, no. He kept walking along and singing his song” is a wonderful lesson in Hakuna matata. But really, this silly cat really ought to watch out for piles of berries. Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons is a counting and math primer. He sings another song about how he loves his buttons. The song changes to reflect the number of buttons as one after another pops off and rolls away. Both books play with words to make a surprising ending. Pete’s shoes are wet, but does he cry? Goodness no. Pete’s coat has no more buttons, but there’s still the best button of all left—his belly button! I had somehow missed these books. I don’t know how. I actually prefer the text from Kimberly Dean’s later book, Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses, because the text and story is more complex, but the lesson and theme of positivity despite circumstances is still there, but Kimberly Dean’s story lacks the primer aspect, so really I can respect both, and cheer both, and marvel that this is a picture book series that can kids can grow with in the same way that they can later grow with, say, Harry Potter.

****            ****

good-night-ct-cover-535x535Good Night Connecticut by Christina Vrba and illustrated by Anne Rosen. Good Night Books, 2009.

This book is part of a series that I think now covers all fifty states, some cities, some countries, some general locations, some general family members, some fire trucks and mermaids and dinosaurs. I’m a Nutmegger by birth and spent my childhood in the state. Much of the focus in this book is on tourist attractions more than on more general sights in the state, and many of those I’ve never visited, though I know of many of them. Most of the attractions have a short descriptor. While I haven’t seen everything listed in the book, the old stone walls, town green, beaches, and riding rings were a large part of my childhood environment. I bought this board book on a whim in a small store in Kent before leaving the state. Sometimes I just take it out to remind myself of home. This is not stellar writing, but it has nostalgia value, and it would have value as a primer for a vacation or to teach a child about her home state. It’s meant for young kids, kids who are still learning the sounds of turkeys and trains.

**

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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