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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.

****

Book Review: Tooth and Claw Tears Into Social Conventions

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Some spoilers.

I first read Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw for a graduate class in children’s literature entitled Men, Women, and Dragons: Gender and Identity in Fantasy Literature.  I raved about it then to anyone who would listen, including the professor’s wife.  This January I reread it I’m pretty sure for at least the second time.  It has safely wedged itself in among some of my favorite books.  It won’t ever offer me the thrill of Riordan’s books nor the fandom and life experiences of Rowling’s, but it might find very good company among Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series.

Jane Yolen describes Tooth and Claw as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, though I have been corrected to think of it as Trollope with dragons (in her author’s note Walton cites Framley Parsonage) and have, since being corrected, longed to settle down with an inexpensive and not too lengthy book of Trollope’s but have yet to have the pleasure.

So I can’t compare Tooth and Claw to Trollope, but I can compare it to Pride and Prejudice and odds are that more of you will understand that comparison better anyway, Austen being more often assigned and having been made into more mainstream movies than Trollope.  Tooth and Claw holds all of the romance of an Austen novel with quirky heroines who aim to find themselves a comfortable home with a man whom they love and who loves them back and run into difficulty because of their social statuses and the finicky framework of their society.  The heroines find heroes of a higher social class and excellent character.  They are exposed along the way to men of less excellent character, even an annoying parson very like Mr. Collins.  Like Austen, the story explores gender inequality, social convention and faux pas, and the differences between the upper echelons and the country estates and parsonages.  Where the story strays from Austen is in the exploration of the fixture of servitude and classism within the society, the theater of the court system, the fallibility of a church, and race relations, and in the inherent violence of dragons.  Victorian-like rules rein in the violence and supposedly give pomp and ritual to it, but Austen explored very few duels, murders, or ritual cannibalism and euthanasia.

The story ends “And there […] we shall leave them to take refuge in the comfort of gentle hypocrisy” (292).  [SPOILER] It ends with all who deserve to getting a happier ending than they could have foretold and the most villainous dragon being defeated. [END SPOILER]  It was exactly the type of novel I needed to restore me when my once romantic silliness is slipping towards cynicism (it may not have been able to rescue me entirely from reality, but it made a good case for chivalry and the existence true love and companionship).

The well-written and –composed book plays host to a complex world of politics, religion, and social conventions both mirroring and deviating from our own and accounting for the differing biologies of men and dragons (which Walton expands by creating a biological meaning to the coloration of dragon scales).  It is not a fast-paced adventure, and if the reader is seeking such, she might seek elsewhere, but it is does not read at a snail’s pace to me, the text being clipped enough and enough adventures puncturing through the tête-à-têtes to keep the story rolling pleasantly at least at the pace of Pride and Prejudice if not faster.

*****

Walton, Jo.  Tooth and Claw.  New York: Tor, 2003.

This review is not endorsed by Jo Walton or Tor Doherty Associates, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

The latest editions of the book are published by Orb Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers.

Book Reviews: December Picture Book Roundup

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As with November, several of these are books from story hours.  A lot are now on clearance at Barnes & Noble, being books we sell only for the Christmas season.

A Christmas Carol: A BabyLit Colors Primer by Jennifer Adams and illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2012.

Adams’ adaptation is a decent introduction to the characters of Dickens’ novel but does little to adapt the plot.  It also introduces more unusual colors.  There are few books that introduce children to “silver,” so I suppose it’s good to have some variation from other available primers; this along with BabyLit’s adaptation of literary classics sets Adam’s A Christmas Carol apart.

***

Bubble’s in Trouble! by Ag Jatkowska.  Caterpillar-Little Tiger, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is a book I’d laud much more for its construction than its plot.  It features a spinner-like Bubble the Blowfish on its final page.  Bubble can be moved on each page.  Bubble gets caught in a porthole (a hole left in the pages of the book to show the Bubble of the final page) of a sunken ship.  Various sea creatures come along and suggest that he try to escape in the way that they would.  These means do not work for Bubble.  Only a sneeze works to free Bubble.  I would have preferred if Bubble had somehow been able to escape in a way that was especially specific to blowfish or if Jatkowski had somehow made it seem as if the sneeze was something unique to blowfish.  Then the lesson could have been said to be that one must use one’s own particular talents instead of deferring to the advice of others in problem-solving.  As it is, the story is cute enough, the text rhymes, and the moveable book is interactive.  It should be said too that this was a book that came to my attention because the rotating Bubbles that peeps through each page had been torn off.  I don’t know what the book’s history on the shelf had been.  Maybe it was maliciously torn off, but the fact remains that it had been damaged.

**1/2

My First Batman Book: Touch and Feel by David Katz.  Downtown, 2011.  Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

The main draw of this book is Batman—for both parents, kids, and gift-givers.  It introduces kids to the character, to the main gadgets, and to the idea; the text itself is not particularly imaginative.  The moveable pieces are of a more unique nature than most interactive books, however, including moving a cardboard Batman along a Batrope and turning off the lights to see the Bat-Signal glow in the dark.  The final phrase “Who’s Batman’s little helper?” with a mirror face in Robin’s costume seems dare I say saccharine (not to mention patronizing to Robin)?  This book too, it should again be mentioned, was brought to my attention by a customer who would have bought it perhaps except that a cardboard piece depicting Batman and Robin in the Batmobile had been torn from the book.  Again, I don’t know how long it had sat on the shelf or what torments the book had endured, but it did not survive to find a happy home.

**1/2

A Very Crabby Christmas by Tish Rabe and illustrated by Dave Aikins.  Inspired by Dr. Seuss.  Golden-Random, 2012.

This was a request from one of my attendees to the How the Grinch Stole Christmas! story hour.  I don’t know that he’d heard the story before and had to leave midway through it, but I finished it for anyone who was still listening while coloring.  When did the Cat in the Hat become a helpful creature instead of a creature of chaos?  This is not the Cat that I remember from my childhood.  I believe it happened when PBS gave him his own cartoon show, but perhaps the change was sooner, and I missed it.  In this tale, the Cat and his human friends, Sally and Nick, have been invited to a Crab Christmas Ball on the beach.  The festivities are interrupted when one of the crabs goes missing, and the Cat, Sally, and Nick, find the missing crab and are the celebrated heroes of the tale.  But there’s no suspense, and there’s very little plot.  There’s no real explanation of the crab’s festivities, and there’s no real description of the search for or panic of discovering that Sandy is missing.  I missed all that.  I suppose it is pleasant to have a Christmas book that doesn’t involve a usual Christmas celebration and one that excludes snow or any winter theme.

**1/2

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss.  Random, 1957.

This was a story hour read aloud.

Dr. Seuss is always a classic.  It’s hard for me to really qualify How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (or any Seuss book).  The lesson that “Maybe Christmas […] doesn’t come from a store.  Maybe Christmas perhaps… means a little bit more” is still a fantastic and very pertinent lesson today.

—-

The Polar Express by Chris van Allsburg.  Houghton Mifflin, 1985.  Intended audience: Grades K-3 (Ages 4-8).

This is becoming a new classic, and like How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, it now has its own film adaptation.  The story itself is not one that thrills me.  I like Chris van Allsburg, but I don’t consider this his best—or anywhere near his best.  Even the illustrations are not as amazing as I’d hoped that they would be, especially for a Caldecott winner.

—-

That’s Not My Train by Fiona Watt and illustrated by Rachel Wells.  Usborne, 2008.  First published 2000.  Intended audience: Ages 6 months+

There are a lot of books in this touch-and-feel series.  Pick a noun, tack it on the end of the phrase, and there’s probably a book or there will be soon.  Of them, I’ve otherwise read That’s Not My Elephant, which I preferred to That’s Not My Train, but maybe that’s because I’m more interested in elephants than trains?  For a boy in love with trains, this book would probably be amazing.  That’s Not My Train does use a number of interesting textures.

**1/2

An Elephant and Piggie Book: Pigs Make Me Sneeze! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In a very usual childlike idea, Elephant Gerald sneezes while Piggie is nearby and decides that he must be allergic to Piggie, and he is terrified and terribly distraught.  He sees a cat doctor, sneezes near the cat, and decides he must be allergic to cats too.  The doctor tells Elephant Gerald that he is not allergic to cats or pigs; he has a cold, and Elephant Gerald rejoices.  He runs to tell Piggie the good news and finds Piggie sitting in a pile of tissues.

****