Tag Archives: Barney Saltzberg

Book Reviews: April Picture Book Roundup: Part Two

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Beware, this lot got me to don my mover-and-shaker-concerned-citizen-of-the-world-britches.

Happy Easter, Mouse! by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2010. Intended audience: Ages 0-4.

This is a board book, Easter spinoff of Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. I thought that this book was surprisingly well handled as both a spinoff and a holiday spinoff at that. Numeroff was conscious of her audience and she built a book for them. This book is a color and number primer, a counting book, an interactive book, and it’s shorter than her others. I had fun counting the eggs in the pictures, and I had the kids at our story hour each count a page for me too.

***1/2

Tea with Grandpa by Barney Saltzberg. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades Pre-K-2.

This is one of the most moving books that I’ve read in a long while. A little girl enjoys a daily teatime with her grandpa. They laugh and enjoy one another’s company. It’s not till the end of the book that it is revealed that all of this has taken place via a video chat. I think this is an important book. It’s a tradition I’d have loved to grow up with (the technology wasn’t available), and I think it’s important to instill in all people the reminder of our need and desire for quality time. In an age where many of us do live far apart from family members, this has become difficult, but Saltzberg here suggests a possibility for the sort of communion we desire to be possible despite distance. I think it does hold the threat however of, if given as a gift from grandparent to child, extolling a paragon that the grandparent may find impossible, and as a gift of a child to a grandparent, coming across as condemnation for what is lacking. This is a book that ought to be given with a promise—and I’d like to see families doing so.

****

Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh Schneider. Clarion-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Seeing the title, I had high expectations of this book, and those expectations were not met. The Barbie-like Princess Sparkle is destroyed by the family dog, and Amelia and her mother set out to repair her and make her better than before. The end result is nearer to Lilo’s Scrump than Barbie, and Amelia declares her better than new, but an opportunity was sorely missed by Schneider. The only mention of transforming the princess into a strong or independent person was the protagonist’s demand to give Princess Sparkle-Heart extra stuffing as muscles to defend her from the dog. That’s a step towards the right direction. Girls should be strong, but they should not have to be strong because they need to defend themselves. They ought to be able to be strong for strength’s sake and not because of outside threats. I realize I’m searching for an ideal that may be impossible in our fallen and baggage-laden world, but I would like it to be a possibility, and I worry that this idea of women needing to be strong to protect themselves teeters towards proclaiming that a woman deserved to be raped (or Princess Sparkle-Heart deserved to be destroyed) because she wasn’t strong enough to defend herself, and if she had been strong enough, she wouldn’t have been raped (or destroyed)—an argument as stupid as that she shouldn’t have worn a skirt. Also, is the lesson here that a woman who looks like a typical princess cannot defend herself? That she has to look like a patchwork doll to be safe? I do enjoy as a reader the dog that lingers on each page growling at Princess Sparkle-Heart, but when I look at it with the more detached eyes of the feminist I see a dark, malevolent, and ever present threat rather than a jealous family dog, and that’s unsettling. Josh Schneider, what are you trying to tell me?

I recognize that I am seeing issues that Schneider did not and that his intention was to write a sweet story of a mother helping her daughter with the simple lesson that a girl need not look to the world’s ideal of beauty to be worthwhile. Maybe he should have asked these questions too, but how do you condense all of this into a picture storybook? If I could answer that question, maybe I wouldn’t need to ask the questions anymore.

**

Puppy and Friends: Touch and Feel by the staff of St. Martin’s Press. Sandy Creek-St. Martin’s, 2010.

This is a touch and feel book with puppies. I did like that instead of telling the child what the objects felt like, the text asked the child to describe what the objects felt like. That’s an interesting twist. It makes it less of a primer, but I think it makes it actually a more important book. Shouldn’t we be teaching our children to think and express themselves? Rather than illustrations, this book uses photographs—photographs of puppies. I like photographs of puppies.

***1/2

Ninja, Ninja, Never Stop! by Todd Tuell and illustrated by Tad Carpenter. Abrams Appleseed-Abrams, 2014.

Ninjas. Well, I had to see, didn’t I? (Have to keep up-to-date on the press being given my rivals and make sure that our books are better; so there you are, I might be biased, though I’ve loved ninja protagonists before). A rambunctious child dons a ninja outfit and proceeds to sneak and kick and karate chop his way through the pages. This ninja seems mostly to use his powers selfishly or cruelly, however, to sneak up on his dog or brother or to escape his grandmother’s kisses, and he faces no consequences for his actions, other than to be told once to stop by a brother. The book would sit better with me I think if there had been some sense that the ninja did heed his brother’s upset cry and changed because of it. Instead, the text continues with a very repetitive sentence pattern—“Ninja this. Ninja that”—without any break in the rhythm to indicate a change, and in the end the brother for some reason dons a black mask too—perhaps because there seems to be no consequences for the ninja and the ninja seems to be allowed to do whatever he wants and always get his way; that could be very appealing.

**

Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Claudia Rueda. Dial-Penguin, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I really enjoyed this book myself, but it seemed a bit long to hold the attention of the children I had at story hour. Cat, who does not speak but holds up pictorial signs to which the text responds, is upset that the Easter Bunny is getting so much attention and love. The reader explains to Cat that the Easter Bunny is loved because he leaves gifts for children. Cat decides he too will leave gifts for children to earn love. The Easter Bunny delivers a gift for Cat, and Cat who notices how tired the Easter Bunny is and is distraught by the idea the Easter Bunny has no time for naps, decides to help the Easter Bunny with his delivery. This is the second book (the other being Pete the Cat: Big Easter Adventure) that I read that expounds a new idea that Easter’s message is to help others. As I said, it’s not a bad message, but I don’t really know where this idea came from, though I suppose Jesus did help us, and we are called to imitate Him. The real draw is the back and forth of the reader and a very expressively illustrated Cat.

***1/2

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October April Picture Book Roundup

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Working mostly at the registers this past month, I didn’t get to read any new picture books for kids, and really, it’s quite upsetting, not least of all because I feared I’d have nothing to give you all for the month.  But I’ve found a way to rectify the misfortune–at least as far as the blog is concerned:  Instead of reviews for picture books that I read in October (as that would be a very boring post), I’m going to reprint some of the reviews that I wrote and posted on Goodreads back in April, which is the last month (prior to June when I began these roundup posts) in which I posted any picture book reviews.  So without further ado: April’s Picture Book Roundup in October:

Les Petits Fairytales: Cinderella by Trixie Belle and Melissa Caruso-Scott and illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Gibbs Smith-MacMillan, 2012.

[Note from the present-day Kathryn: This was/is my first review of a Les Petits Fairytales book.]

This is a supremely succinct retelling of the tale of Cinderella. Each of the main elements is captured in a single word or phrase, “Girl. Chores. Mean stepsisters. Fairy godmother,” being the text of the first few pages. Each idea is simply but completely and colorfully illustrated. Unlike the Favorite Words books attributed to Eric Carle, Belle, Caruso-Scott, and Lake manage to tell a complete story. Granted, some of this story I may have subconsciously filled in myself. The subject matter well lends itself to such a succinct retelling as it is a tale that children can grow into (which I know is the idea behind the Favorite Words books, but with Cinderella there is so much more growth to be had, not from nouns and matching pictures to a board book with a simple story, but phrases and matching illustrations to a modern English picture book, to an illustrated picture book of the original story with a cleaner ending, to a modern English short story, to the original short story with the original ending, to a modern retelling in novel format, to a comparison of Cinderella tale types from around the world).

Belle et al.’s book is a more standard board book size as compared to the very little size of Carle’s Favorite Words books, giving the illustrator (Oliver Lake) more room for illustration. Rather than being a complementary illustration of a noun as are Carle’s, the form leaves room for a complete picture with subject and background and secondary characters or plot points.

I would be interested in parents’ reviews of the book. To me, Belle et al.’s book would seem to invite its own retelling by a child in time, for which I’d laud it. However, to me, the book seems to suffer the same flaw as the Favorite Words books: They cannot really be read aloud–or would be dull and extremely short to read aloud. These are books to give to young readers or would-be readers, essentially a set of flashcards in board book form attempting to tell a tale because of their arrangement.

***

Andrew Drew and Drew by Barney Saltzberg.  Harry N. Abrams, 2012.

A story of imagination and art, surprise is the key to this flap book. Andrew likes to doodle. The illustrations show the process of his doodling from a line to a full illustration, and the text closes with a reminder that there is always time for more fun tomorrow, making me think that its intention is to be a bedtime story. Akin to Harold and the Purple Crayon, though Drew’s illustrations are far more detailed and realistic if involving more subject and less landscape, there is something far more memorable about a purple crayon than a pencil.

This is another picture book where the illustrations and ingenuity of the design outshine the text.

***

The Dark by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen.  Little Brown Kids-Hachette, 2013.

I wanted to be more impressed than I was by this book, which I suppose is also how I feel about A Series of Unfortunate Events (of which I’ve only actually read A Bad Beginning, because I was not impressed enough to continue on with the series). Jon Klassen’s illustrations are as evocative and simple as ever and just the use of the name Laszlo speaks of the inclusion of Snicket’s refusal to tread towards the norm. But the plot relies heavily on personification (a common enough technique in picture books), and its use of personification is just a little unsettling, mostly in that by having the Dark show Laszlo where to find the fresh bulbs in the basement, the Dark seems almost suicidal or self-harming. Moreover, the solution is temporary and so the ending is not entirely fulfilling. Laszlo ventures into the Dark’s home to retrieve the weapon to use against it, led there by the Dark itself, but while that weapon pushes back the Dark, Laszlo’s fear of the Dark does not seem truly overcome. He is not but for a page or two left in true dark. Otherwise, he is armed with a flashlight.

The absence of parental involvement is a very Snicket-y and unique element, one of which I was glad because a parent should not necessarily have to be involved in a child’s development and sometimes cannot be and that is a good lesson to learn as well as that a parent can help.

I suppose, given Snicket’s publishing history, I should expect to be left a little unsettled by his picture books, but it is not really a sensation that I relish–not for this intended audience, not without a sequel.

I’d advise parental discretion on this one. Some kids will probably relish the unsettling air of this picture book.

**

A Long Way Away by Frank Viva.  Little, Brown Kids-Hachette, 2013.

For its unique style, this book will show up in Children’s Literature classrooms. I can almost guarantee that. Viva has written a book that can, should, and almost must be read two ways. By the second time reading the text (down-up instead of up-down), it was beginning to make sense. A third reading (up-down a second time) and I understood what he was doing and became excited.

The plot is that of an alien either traveling a long way away from his home, through space, to earth, and to the bottom of the ocean, or of an alien traveling from a long way away from his home, up from the bottom of the ocean, out into space, and back to his planet and parents.  The journey fiction genre of this story lends itself well to two-directional reading.

The text of the story is… loose. I’m not sure it needs to be as loose as it is, but I understand that it must be at least somewhat loose to be able to be read as a story from two directions. The pictures paired with the text, the vocabulary and sentence structure of which are simple and short, are evocative, and the story truly exists in the emotions that it elicits: either of the sadness of being ripped from one’s home and parents’ love or the joy of return to such delights.  The vocabulary, colors, and expressions of the characters are what draw those emotions from the reader–or from me.

It is an ageless story. It is one I would recommend to the very young, who will relate to the emotions expressed by the protagonist, and also as a gift from a parent to a child leaving for college or having otherwise flown the nest. I hope someone thinks to market it as the latter. I think it would do very well among books for graduates.

Reading this the first time, I think I all but squeed in the middle of the store and did share my effusive excitement with both a passing customer and our children’s department lead.

****