Tag Archives: Anne Rosen

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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Book Reviews: November Picture Book Roundup

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Most of this month’s picture books came into my hands for one story hour or another that I was expected to lead.

The Elf on the Shelf by Carol V. Aebersold and Chanda A. Bell.  Illustrated by Coë Steinwart.  CCA and B, 2007.

Let’s start with a little too early yet Christmas spirit.  This was a required book to be read for a particular story hour.  I found out about The Elf on the Shelf tradition last year when I joined the retail world for the holiday season.  I had never actually read the book, but the concept to me is more creepy than not.  The elf watches children during the holiday season and reports their deeds nightly to Santa.  The elf is known to leave the house because he is found in a different location or position each morning.  Some parents seem to use the elf as another pair of eyes to watch the children for good and behavior, and some parents have reported that the elf being in the house does affect the children’s behavior.  Some use the elf as a hide-and-seek game.  The book itself explains the game and the idea to kids in a rhyming fashion.  The writing itself I found honestly mediocre, but was pleasantly surprised by the rhyme.  It’s a quick read, and the children seemed engaged, though our turnout was small.  Half of the listeners were above the intended age for the reading or the book and while they were engaged they also poked some fun at the holes in the concept.  Parents should be warned that the elf does ask good boys and girls to say their prayers in case there are any who might find that offensive, though this book otherwise stays within the now secular traditions of Christmas.

**1/2

Barnyard Dance Lap Book by Sandra Boynton.  Workman, 2011.

Sandra Boynton is extremely popular, and though I’ve read only a few of her books, I’ve been pleased with all of them.  This classic of hers seemed a safe bet for a story hour, and it was a big hit.  The kids had been surprisingly riled by a reading of Mo Willems I’m a Frog! (see below), and at this point I went with it, and asked the audience to just join me in dancing, though I had surprisingly little audience participation for this one.  The book aloud actually reads like a square dance call.  It was a very quick read.  Too quick maybe, I wanted to flip it over and start again, and see if I couldn’t coax some of the kids to do-si-do with me.  But then, how does one, in an average setting for a read aloud or read alone “bow to the horse” or “stand with the donkey”?

****

Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter.  Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2013.

Like Hervé Tullet’s Press Here, the book shows a button, gives instructions, and demands interaction because the text implies that the illustration on the next page has been influenced by the actions done to the button on the previous page.  In retrospect, for the larger group that I had, this was not the story hour book to choose, because when, for example, in Don’t Push the Button, it says to press the button twice, having an audience of ten, none of whom wanted to be left out or passed over, the button was pushed really twenty times before its change was effected.  It was, though, a fun read aloud book and enjoyable to interact with and would be great for one-on-one read alouds (bedtime stories).  Structurally, I prefer Don’t Push the Button over Press Here because Don’t Push the Button gives readers a character to follow and with whom to sympathize.  Because the button affects him and not just the page, it seems more of a problem when unlikely things happen because the button is pressed.  In Don’t Push the Button, however, the effects of pushing the button are consequences of rule breaking where in Press Here the effects are caused by following instructions.  Readers of Don’t Push the Button are following the instructions of the monstrous protagonist, but it’s more like giving in to peer pressure than following directions—and I suppose that is a demerit in the pro/con battle between the two.  Regardless of which is better composed, all these poor books will go to an early grave from being prodded and shaken….

***1/2

The Meaning of Life by Bradley Trevor Greive.  Andrews McMeel, 2002.

Whoops.  This one’s not for kids.  But it is a picture book.  Barnes & Noble classifies it as a “gift book,” but it is still by technical definition a picture book, a book with pictures that enhance the text but are not necessarily integral to the text (versus a picture storybook in which the pictures are integral.  I consider that a subgenre of picture books, and many of the books in these roundups headed as “picture books” are actually “picture storybooks” (practically anything by Mo Willems, for example.))  Like all Bradley Trevor Greive books, The Meaning of Life features philosophical ponderings with a quirky, adult humor, topped with black-and-white photographs of animals.  This book asks a lot of questions about human existence and to the readers directly.  It suggests that the love of life is where our focus should be, and asks readers to think about what they are truly passionate about, and encourages them to chase that.  His are, again, books that I enjoy giving out as gifts.  They are enjoyable by most personalities, always fun, almost always leave me with a smile on my face, and good to share.

*****

The Turkey Train by Steve Metzger and illustrated by Jim Paillot.  Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2013. Intended audience: Grades 3-5 (ages 8-12).

I thought this would be a Thanksgiving themed book.  It’s promotionally shelved as a Thanksgiving book.  It is not.  It is about turkeys taking a day trip to a ski resort in Maine.  The turkeys amuse themselves and partake of the provided entertainment on the train then revel in winter sports and activities once they arrive in Maine.  It was a fun read aloud because it was very musically written with a solid rhyme scheme—up until the end when the rhyme scheme breaks, signaling the coming end of the book, a clever device.  The illustrations are colorful and clever with a few puns to amuse the adults (Fowl Play).  I puzzle how a train can travel from Fort Wayne (presumably Indiana?) to Maine in a day and back.  If I were reading the book as an editor, I’d call a logic foul, but I understand not having questioned it for the sake of the rhymes, and because the intended audience is not likely to do so.

****

Hello, Virginia! by Candice Ransom and illustrated by David Walker.  Sterling, 2010.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Candice Ransom is a professor at my alma mater, so yes, I’m likely to be a bit biased.  Hello, Virginia—and I would guess all the Hello, America! books—reads a great deal like one of the Good Night Our World series.  Which series began first I cannot say.  I read Good Night Connecticut before Hello, Virginia! thinking from its title that it would be a Goodnight Moon parody, and so it is Ransom’s book that reminds me of Vrba’s rather than the other way around.  The plot of neither is thrilling.  The plots essentially say hello or goodnight to various sights around each state.  Neither series gives much information about the sights so I would not use either as a teaching tool really.  The books may serve to remind adults about the things that they remember and miss about a state.  I can see a young child exclaiming “We were there!” when a familiar, particular location is illustrated (for example not over the stone walls of Connecticut, but perhaps over the Mystic Aquarium).  Overall, I cannot rate either book highly.

I do appreciate the Hello, America! series’ proper use of grammar in its titles.

***

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I’m a Frog! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion, 2013.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

This Elephant and Piggie book was a book that I did not expect to be interactive, but the children in my story hour disagreed.  Piggie was pretending to be a frog, and they all wanted to pretend to be frogs too, ribbeting and hopping around the stage.  I don’t know that I’d ever before read a Mo Willems book aloud.  I was inserting dialogue tags now and again, but it was also impossible to read without at least differentiating the two characters by inflection.  This was a good lesson: one about pretending, that you can pretend, that we can use our imagination, that even adults pretend.  Now of course, you could take the negative view that learning to pretend to be something that you’re not is a bad thing (teens+, see the movie Easy A), but you can also pretend to be unafraid, pretend to be a parent to a doll to learn empathy and responsibility, or pretend to be a frog.  I love Mo Willems’ humor, I’ve said before, I love the strength of his characters, and I love the twist that he puts into the end of this book.

*****