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Book Reviews: April 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Lessons, Playtime, and Older Stories Made New

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The Lessons Learnt

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

Raisin, the Littlest Cow by Miriam Busch and illustrated by Larry Day. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Raisin is the littlest cow in the herd and is nuzzled and cooed over by the other cows. She likes the color brown and movies and especially dislikes change. But change always comes. Her mother has another little cow, a little brother for Raisin, and Raisin does not like her little brother or that her little brother is now the one being cooed over and nuzzled and that the attention that he is garnering means that no one but Raisin remembers movie night, so no one is there to help her see over the fence. She helps herself, but the day keeps getting worse. There’s rain. There’s thunder. The movie is canceled, and her brother is wailing almost as loud as the thunder. Raisin and her brother bond over their mutual dislike of thunder and over his brown eyes, which are her favorite color. She makes him giggle by dripping on him then by showering him with a shaking her coat, calming him when no one else can do. I imagine this book would be helpful for a child dealing with jealousy of the attention given to a newborn sibling, to see their feelings validated, reflected. With humor snuck into the text and illustrations, the message, the promise that a new sibling can be a friend and not a reason to run away to Jupiter nevertheless seemed a little too prominent, a little heavy-handed. I’m not sure what made the message seem so heavy-handed, since Busch never stated her intention outright. Perhaps it’s simply that I’m not Busch’s target audience.

****

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Dad and the Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko and illustrated by Dan Santat. G. P. Putnam & Son’s-Penguin Random, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

Gennifer Choldenko is probably best known for her middle-grade historical fiction novels, most notably perhaps her series that begins with Al Capone Does My Shirts. This picture book is about an active, sports-involved boy who is bolder in the presence of his toy dinosaur—the dinosaur very wonderfully illustrated by Santat, his translucent image truly imposing. Overall I liked the writing, but I disliked that the husband brushes off his wife by saying they are going out for “guy stuff” as the book nears its end. As a woman I felt like I was being cut out of the story. It was something I didn’t and don’t expect from another woman—though I know we can be as guilty of sexism against women as men can be. This seems particularly jarring after the mother has been so physically present throughout the book and the boy’s father so obviously absent, hearing about his activities after the fact from the mom. That too is why, though, the dad’s compassion, his acceptance of his son’s coping mechanism is so particularly touching. The lesson could have been far more heavy-handed than it is. The father could have chosen to be the “adult” and deny the boy’s need for his dinosaur. I’m glad that he did not, even as I’m glad that he does state baldly that it’s okay to be scared and that he too gets scared sometimes. Normalizing fear and normalizing coping mechanisms for fear are needed. Normalizing sexism and strict adherence to gender roles and stereotypes are some things that I would like to see less.

***

Interactive Books

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Don’t Touch This Book! by Bill Cotter. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

I had the great pleasure of having this book read to me during one of my twice-weekly story times. It’s a wonderfully interactive book—and I like it so much more than the previous book by Cotter, Don’t Touch the Button! Don’t Touch the Button! and Hervé Tullet’s books too ask the reader to interact with the page of the book. Don’t Touch This Book! begins that way. Larry (the protagonist) tells the reader not to touch the book, then allows the reader to use just one finger, then to use all their fingers when he appreciates the reaction of the book to the reader’s action. Quickly though this book asks the reader to do all manner of ridiculous things that many readers at story times ask of their listeners anyways that are more physical than merely pressing a particular spot on a page or shaking the book: flap your arms like the wings of a flying bird, roar like a dinosaur, spin around…. The readers’ acts precipitate the responses of the book. Roaring like a dinosaur causes a T-rex to appear on the following page. Flapping your arms causes the monster protagonist to sprout wings to be able to escape the T-rex. This will almost certainly join the repertoire of story time books that I keep in mind when I need to wear out my too rowdy crowd. It may supersede some of the others. I’m very glad my story time visitor chose this book to read to me.

*****

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

Dinosaur Dance! by Sandra Boynton. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 1-5.

This book is a simple dance-along book featuring dinosaurs. Each dinosaur—named primarily by species—does a particular step of a dance. T-rex goes STOMP STOMP STOMP, The red Brontosaurus goes QUIVERY QUAKE. There’s a little dinosaur no one can identify who both cha-chas and goes DEEDLY DEE. I appreciate that there is an animal that no one can identify, especially in what could be considered a primer; too infrequently are toddlers told that it’s okay not to know. Of course all of the text rhymes. I was reminded of Van Fleet’s recent book Dance, which sets itself apart with its pull tabs, though I think that I prefer the text here. There’s more sense in this that the reader is a caller than there is in Tony Mitton’s Dinosaurumpus! but not as much as can be found in Boynton’s better-known Barnyard Dance; Barnyard Dance has very much a square dance rhythm to it. For its more imaginative and open-ended dance moves, I may like this one even better than Barnyard Dance. Plus, dinosaur primers are harder to find than a barnyard primers, and this book is able to do more with color than does Barnyard Dance.

****

Retellings

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We Are the Dinosaurs by Laurie Berkner and illustrated by Ben Clanton. Simon & Schuster 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book takes the text of Laurie Berkner’s song and adds more of a story to it with its illustrations and asides. I read the story before finding the song. The song talks about dinosaurs broadly. The picture book narrows the story a group of friends—different types of dinosaurs—who adventure towards the top of a volcano—and run away from the rumbling mountain and back to their parents to revel in their bravery and adventure. Ben Clanton’s bright, cartoony dinosaurs are memorable but I didn’t discern much personality from any of the dinosaurs, which was a bit disappointing.

***

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

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Adam Rex. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Drew Daywalt gained his fame with The Day the Crayons Quit and The Day the Crayons Came Home, both done in conjunction with Oliver Jeffers. His latest book continues to focus on art supplies and children’s play. He invents a story behind the popular Rock, Paper, Scissors game. There are three great warriors from three different kingdoms around a home. Each has fought the warriors that exist in their own kingdoms, and none are satisfied with their competition or their victories. They each go on a quest for fulfillment and a meaningful victory—and discover joy in fighting one another. This story wasn’t beloved, it didn’t seem, of my audience for story time (in the interest of full-disclosure, my audience was three girls, and they were older, maybe 6-9; I suspect this book would go over better with the boys who come in looking for books on WWE and the ones who build guns out of Legos at our events; the whole plot of the book is battles and fighting and the dialogue is primarily traded boasts of one’s own prowess and colorful insults). I perhaps could have hammed up the text a little more than I did, but I did ham it up some. It’s hard not to do so when I’m provided lines like

rovlta9

and pages like

Paper became my favorite warrior for his bemused reactions to the aggressions of the other two in their first three-way battle and his frightful “fighting words”: “Hi there.” I greatly enjoyed that Daywalt chose to make Scissors a master swordswoman with painted-red lips. This could easily and in another decade likely would have been a book without any female representation. I enjoyed the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets particularly too. What a nod to children’s play. But ultimately that I enjoyed it more than girls in the target age-range makes me like the book less.

***

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Beauty and the Beast adapted by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Meg Park. Hyperion-Disney, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I thought because this was marketed (at least by Barnes & Noble) with all of the books and merchandise for the new live-action Disney remake of its animated film by the same name that this story would follow the Disney story, but instead Rylant stayed nearer the Perrault version of the story and devoid of any talking furniture. Beauty (not Belle) is the youngest of three sisters and her father is a merchant whose fortune is lost at sea. Her older sisters when the father’s ships are recovered want emerald necklaces, but Beauty wants only a rose. On the way back to home from port, the father is caught in a storm and shelters in a castle that seems deserted except that a feast is laid out for him. On his way from the castle, he spots a rose in the garden and remembers his youngest’s wish. As payment for the rose, the Beast, master of the castle, demands the father’s enslavement but allows him to return first to his family to say goodbye. Beauty demands to go to the Beast in her father’s stead. The Beast gives Beauty endless days of leisure, fine clothes, wonderful food. He reads poetry to her by the fire at night. And every day he asks if she is happy. One day he asks her to marry him, and she refuses. The Beast accepts her answer. She returns to her father to care for him in illness, then returns when she dreams that the Beast is dying. Her realization that she loved the Beast restores him to his human form: a man with darker skin than Belle’s.

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Meg Park, who I’ve admired from a distance for some time for her softness, bright, jewel-like colors, and expressive characters, makes nods to the Disney cartoon in her illustrations: The Beast has the same basic shape, though he is perhaps more wolfish, Beauty’s design is close to Belle’s, though her hair is more auburn and her outfit more seafoam green than sky blue. Beauty’s horse is a palomino but not a Belgian Draft. In these ways and more she deliberately strays from the Disney retelling but harkens to it enough to highlight that both stories use Perrault as the basis for their tale.

I really enjoyed introducing young enthusiasts to a retelling nearer the Disney version.

*****

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.

Photos of the books’ interiors are all mine.  I borrowed the meme.

Book Reviews: December 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Mostly Wintertime. Was It Blue?

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Click to visit the book's webpage for links to order, summary, activity kit, educator's guide, and author's and illustrator's bios.

The Storybook Knight by Helen and Thomas Docherty. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

My manager and I were both won over by the illustrations and story and concept of this book. It’s all excellent. A little mouse is in training to be a knight, but he doesn’t want to fight as his parents insist that he must; instead he’d rather read and study. His parents see an advertisement for a dragon slayer and send their son to the aid of the village. Along the way, the young knight on his fat, shaggy, expressive pony meet several monsters, all of whom he subdues by appealing to their vanity and sharing with them stories about monsters like themselves—gifting the book to each before they part ways. He subdues the dragon the same way but adds that the dragon must help clean up the village that he terrorized before the little knight will read more to him. As the dragon cleans, the villagers lose their fear and eventually work beside the dragon and knight to right their town. The characters are all wonderfully expressive. The illustrations are filled with delightful and surprisingly realistic detail.

*****

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Peek-a Choo-Choo! by Nina Laden. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This little board book hasn’t got much of a plot. This might be considered a primer for transport methods. Peek-a choo-choo. Peek-a flew. Peek-a canoe. Peek-a shoe. Peek-a I see you. It all rhymes. But that’s the extent, really, of the text.

**

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A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P. D. Eastman. Random, 1989. First published 1961. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This was one of my favorite books as a child, and I really enjoyed introducing it to a young generation of readers who all crowded close around me on the stage. It was sort of a happy accident that I read it. I was supposed to read How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and I had a huge crowd, many of whom arrived early, so as I was sitting in front of them, I offered to grab a story to read to the early-birds, but by the time I got back to the stage and introduced myself properly, it seemed the last stragglers had arrived and it was time to begin story time-proper. So I read The Grinch. Then I gave them the activities that I had for them to do. Then a dedicated little huddle asked me to read the second story and crowded around me on the stage. It was precious. It was more precious because it was one of my favorite childhood stories. As an adult I was struck by the remarkable helpfulness of the police and firefighter. My kids wanted to know how Mr. Carp had gotten Otto small again. They weren’t satisfied it seemed particularly with my explanation that we don’t know and aren’t supposed to know.


Winter Wonderlands

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Waiting for Snow by Marsha Diane Arnold and illustrated by Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

This preciously illustrated book evoked a reminiscent smile from me as the friends discuss several foolproof ways to ensure a snow the following morning. Several of those methods I’d tried, and my audience and I enjoyed brainstorming other methods that the friends missed in the post-story time discussion. Hedgehog assures them all in what becomes a somewhat repetitive refrain that it will snow when it’s time, Hedgehog drawing on other examples of things that can’t be rushed but always come—like the flowers in spring and the dawn. Hedgehog seems oddly out-of-sync with the rest of the book, too deep for the lightheartedness that the rest of the book displays and maybe a little preachy. Also the snow is not nearly as universally dependable as Hedgehog’s other examples, so the advice falls a bit flat. While I understand Hedgehog was necessary for the book’s message of patience, I think I would have enjoyed this advice from another source, or for this message to be less veiled by poetic similes.

***1/2

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

Hap-Pea All Year by Keith Baker. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Grades PreK-3.

There… wasn’t much to this book either. Each month gets two or three sentences. “Happy January! Let’s get going, grab your mittens—hooray it’s snowing!” That’s… not even particularly good punctuation. The gimmick of this book is the pea characters, who have appeared in board book primers before: LMNO Peas, 1-2-3 Peas, and Little Green Peas. I think I would have liked this book better as a board book. As a picture book, I expected more from it. There are some creative details in the illustrations. For example what is once a sprout becomes a flower. I had to read it a second time for story time, and it was less objectionable the second time through—maybe because I was prepared for what was coming, maybe because I was less stressed. There may not be many books teaching the months, but there are definitely better: I loved Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice as a kid.

**

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

The Most Perfect Snowman by Chris Britt. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprisingly tender picture book. The snowman Drift is lonely, “built fast and then forgotten,” without any clothes, picked on by the other snowman and left out of snowman games. When several children (one a darker-skinned boy) gift Drift with clothes and his much-desired carrot nose, Drift is the happiest and the most beautiful snowman, the envy of the others, and included in all their fun. But these gifts prove ephemeral. A blizzard tears his hat and mittens from him. Drift despairs and searches for his torn away clothes, but finds a lost bunny with no shelter in sight, and gives that bunny his warm scarf, and though he recognizes it as a sacrifice, his carrot nose, returning him to his original imperfect form.  But because of his actions he becomes not just “the perfect snowman” but “the most perfect snowman of all.” This does not discuss the other snowmen’s reaction to him after his sacrificial act. Perhaps a little heavy-handed in its message, but so generously sweet that it is easily forgiven. This is a well-constructed story too; especially for a picture book, it follows well the rules of plot. Pair this with the Buehners’ Snowmen at Night perhaps.

****1/2

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

Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

The duck dresses up as Santa and uses a zip line to reach the roof to surprise an excited Farmer Brown but gets stuck in the chimney, so every animal one after the other—and getting progressively larger—comes to extract him from the chimney but gets stuck as well, and the real Santa flies closer and closer in his sleigh, his silhouette growing larger and larger on each successive page. But Santa’s magic. Where the animals failed, he succeeds. Everyone—Santa too—tumbles down the chimney, cinder-covered, into Farmer Brown’s living room, where they all have a laugh and celebrate Christmas. The “ho-ho-OH NO!” refrain is repetitive but could be a lot of fun.

***

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

Santa’s Sleigh Is on Its Way to Virginia: A Christmas Adventure by Eric James and illustrated by Robert Dunn. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2015.

There’s a book almost identical to this for every state in the U.S. We were a bit disappointed that our city was not among those chosen for the book. Children of many races grace the pages. Ultimately one character is groggily half-asleep wandering through the house, just barely missing Santa hiding around the corner, behind the drapes, behind the broom.

****

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

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert Lewis May and illustrated by Antonio Javier Caparo. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014. Text first published 1939. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I did not when I read this realize that this is the original Rudolph story. I enjoyed this version maybe even better than the Rankin/Bass story that most of us I’d guess know best. First Caparo’s illustrations are beautiful with deep hues, realistically rendered (is that Percy Jackson asleep in that bed?). In this version, Santa doesn’t know about Rudolph till Santa is trying to deliver presents to the reindeer and stumbles across a sleeping Rudolph, whose nose lights up his room and makes delivering presents easier. There’s so much detail in the text, which I enjoy but made the story really probably too long for my young audience; we got through about all but the last nine pages before the kids’ attention wavered and they began questioning everything to try to shorten or change or interact with the story—but those last pages are all after the climax and really add little to the story, so maybe be prepared to end with Rudolph’s first “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight” if your audience is getting antsy; they won’t miss much. It’s all written in rhyme, and uses some aged language and syntax—well it’s from 1939.

****

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If You Take a Mouse to the Movies by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. HarperCollins, 2000. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

The mouse forgot very quickly about the movies, distracted by popcorn, which he wanted to string together to hang on a Christmas tree, which they didn’t have, so they had to go buy a Christmas tree. It’s an excuse it seems to engage in Christmastime and wintertime activities, led by mouse and mouse’s demands. He’s such a demanding mouse. You try to do something nice, but he wants more and more, and you have to do more and more for him.

***

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

The Red Prince by Charlie Roscoe and by illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole. Templar-Penguin Random, 2016.   Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This book was intense! I liked the cover, and it looked wintery, so I put it up on display this month. I did not expect the story inside. While the king and queen are away, mysterious, uniformed foreigners attack and overcome the castle, locking the young prince in his red pajamas in the dungeon with his dog. Once I’d started, I worried a bit about my young audience, but the one who stayed to pay attention was probably 7, and I comforted myself thinking that it was just the prologue to a Disney film, like Frozen, where the parents go off on a boat, and the boat is caught in a storm, and the parents never come back. The prince escapes but is hunted by the invaders, his face posted on wanted posters. My audience enjoyed trying to spot the prince on each page and in each crowd. His subjects help him evade capture, ultimately all of them dressing in bright red too to confuse the invaders. Unfortunately he is still found and his people must come rescue him again. The people, perhaps united by their love of the prince and their group effort earlier, chase away the invaders. It really didn’t have as satisfying an ending as I’d hoped for. I’m not sure what I wanted though. The prince is safe, and the invaders are chased off—peaceably. While the ruling family is white, the kingdom is racially diverse. Cole’s illustrations are the reason to read this one. They incorporate creative angles and bright colors and contrasts.

****

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

Little Penguins by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

The kids in my audience wanted to assign genders and birth order to each of the penguin children, but both changed page to page. With blocky illustrations of arctic scenes the book chronicles an anthropomorphized penguin family’s snowy adventures first outside then inside to get warm. Minimal text done as almost exclusively dialogue, though lacking any quotation marks or speech bubbles to proclaim it so, begs for different voices for each penguin.

***

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/October 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Scientist, Mice, Dinosaurs, Cats

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adatwist-cover2Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Harry N. Abrams, 2016.

First, let’s celebrate this little, dark-skinned scientist. Ada says nothing for three years, then asks so many questions: Why? What? How? When? And why again. Ada spends much of a book searching for the source of a terrible stink, which within the text she never discovers, though the illustrations hide the answer, I think, and asking kids what they think might be the cause of the stink might be a good way to engage an audience. Her parents become frustrated with all of her questions and experiments and the chaos that is “left in her wake”—messes in the kitchen and a stinky cat covered in perfumes and colognes. They send her to a thinking chair. Her parents calm down and come back to her to talk, and though she has scribbled all over the wall, they decide to help her instead of punish her—because these parents rock, and “that’s what you do when your kid has a passion and a heart that is true.” This is told with the same singsong and rhyme as Iggy Peck and Rosie Revere.

****

the-itsy-bitsy-pilgrim-9781481468527_hrThe Itsy Bitsy Pilgrim by Jeffrey Burton and illustrated by Sanja Rešček. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 2-4, Grade PreK.

This book was… disappointing, though perhaps no worse than I would expect of a board book written for 2-4-year-olds. The illustrations are cute… but racially insensitive and clinging to stereotypes. The text is sugar-coated, saccharine, and white-washed. It pretends to be factual by dropping the name Mayflower but then undercuts itself by pretending that everything was sunshine and shared feasts between friends and that winter was no big deal. The text mimics the old rhyme “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” so it seems even less original than it could do.

**

y648Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes by Kimberly and James Dean. HarperCollins, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This Pete the Cat returns to Eric Litwin’s original primer model. There’s counting and math to be done. Pete and Gus are making cupcakes for a party, but the cupcakes are disappearing two by two. Who could behind it? Whomever it is, he keeps leaving behind clues. The illustrations could have been better here. I had to point out the sprinkles to my audience, who didn’t immediately recognize the dots on the ground as such and one of the kids had to point out to me that the colorful circles were cupcake wrappers. The footprints left behind by the culprit don’t look as much like his as I could have liked.

When the culprit is discovered he fesses up, Pete’s friends want to exclude him from their fun as punishment, but Pete—bold Pete—stands up for him and decrees that he deserves a second chance. So that’s another good lesson if it’s a little heavy-handed.

There’re fewer instances of 80s slang, and I’m not sure that there’s a way to insert a song into this book.

***1/2

5dd375_db1139a503504a60b93b3c6bd0e960e7-1Pirasaurs! by Josh Funk and illustrated by Michael H. Slack. Scholastic, 2016.

One poor, small, klutzy dinosaur wants to prove himself to his new crew and especially to his female captain, Rex, who isn’t forced into gendered clothing nor gendered roles or gendered stereotypes of really any kind. Packed with pirate puns, vibrant color, and action, this little dinosaur joins his mates on a quest for treasure—only for them to be attacked by another gang of pirasaurs, who have the missing piece of their map. The little dinosaur suggests that they share the map and share the treasure—and to his surprise, no one disagrees. He proves himself to his crew—to both crews—and does so through the power of his heart, through his notion to share. I read this aloud and found the text has a sort of singsong, pirate sea shanty quality. I added a few yo-hos and yar-hars. (Oh goodness, there’s a book trailer proving that the text ought to be sung). In college I threw in my lot with a band of pirates, and this book speaks to my pirate soul.

****

9781484717981The Very Fluffy Kitty, Papillon by A. N. Kang. Hyperion-Disney, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Papillion is a very fluffy kitty, so fluffy that he floats away if he isn’t wearing something to hold him down. He doesn’t like the outfits that his loving Miss Tilly makes for him though. One day when he is free of his clothes, he follows a bright red bird out of the window, past a bear’s cave, over swamps filled with crocodiles, till he gets all tangled up in vines. Everything is quite hazy and pastel, just light washes of watercolor, except for that speck of bright red bird. The bird comes back to help Papillon, the bird finds a home, and Papillon finds an outfit that he doesn’t mind wearing, that also keeps him grounded. It’s a win-win-win. The illustrations were adorable, clever, and beautifully rendered. I would like a little more from the text, but I can’t find anything specifically in it about which I would complain.

***

52606004dbe3d4fb7db8aa93fe25537bTek: The Modern Cave Boy by Patrick McDonnell. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

After Tek’s dad invents the Internet, Tek can’t be pulled away from the screens of his many devices, and his friends miss playing with him. Everyone on up to the Grand Poo-Bah of their tribe and the great volcano, Big Poppa, try to help to get Tek away from the screens. Ultimately, he has to be blasted away by the volcano, and once he wakes without his screens, he is astonished by the sun and the grass, the flora and the fauna. The style of this book is clever, the cover looking like a tablet, the first page looking like a lock screen, the top of each page illustrating the battery level of the “tablet” which decreases until Tek is shot from the volcano and his tablet crashes (pun, I’m sure intended), and the text above a picture having words in blue that might be links on a tablet screen that one could click for more information. These would be fun to use especially in a classroom setting, perhaps as assignments for projects. This is definitely a book with plenty of humor for the adults—perhaps too much so; I was a little concerned I would hear about the Flying Idontgiveadactyl. The heavy-handedness of the message kept me from enjoying the book as much as I might otherwise have done, but I definitely had a few giggles at the jokes that the kids would probably miss, like the Dinosaurs for a Better Tomorrow, and enjoyed the puns and the layout.

****

28645670They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The text here while it has a sort of soothing rhythm that wasn’t keeping the attention of my audience: one less than a year and the other maybe 4 or 5. The pattern is essentially this: “The x saw A CAT. And the y saw A CAT. And the z saw A CAT. Yes, they all saw the cat. And the cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws.” I tried to get the older of the two to interact with and think about the illustrations. “Why might the fish be seeing the cat as sort of blurry and out of focus?” Reading now, I’m realizing I missed an opportunity to talk about perspective and assumptions and prejudice—albeit obliquely since these aren’t my kids and I can only step on so many toes. Next time though. This time I focused on the science of how each animal’s views of the cat. Perhaps my favorite illustration because it makes most clear what this book is doing is the illustration of the cat as seen by the snake, oranges, yellows, reds, and blues denoting heat signature, and it’s wonderful to see how cleverly Wenzel has illustrates echolocation and vibrations of the earth.

****

9780545829342_default_pdpHow Do Dinosaurs Stay Friends? By Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Some of the things that these dinosaurs consider are just awful, but then the things he does do are pretty wonderful. I worry that the take away from this book will more often be some wicked things that one could do if one is ever in a fight with a friend instead of what a person should do after a fight with a friend. I don’t know, that first half of the text just seems to have more imagination and vigor to it. But if the intended lesson is received, then it’s fabulous to give kids tools to make up after a fight. Mark Teague as usual is careful to include people of color in the illustrations behind the dinosaur protagonists.

***

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: July 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Part 2: Pets, Beaches, Bedtimes, Time, and an Italian witch

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Books About Pets

9781492609353Too Many Moose by Lisa Bakos and illustrated by Mark Chambers. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

The alliterations and rhyme scheme of this book make it. What a silly story. Martha wants a pet, but what pet to get? Ultimately she decides that she wants a moose, and she gets online, and orders one. Having one moose is so wonderful that she orders more and more and more. But when her moose run amok she decides that maybe one moose is just enough. The illustrations are funny and colorful—with expressive moose in every shade of brown.

****

it-came-in-the-mail-9781481403603_hrIt Came in the Mail by Ben Clanton. Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

A little boy who likes mail but never gets any writes a letter to his mailbox requesting something big, and the mailbox delivers a dragon! And then when he requests more, the mailbox delivers more—more than he can possibly use or enjoy or keep. So he uses the mailbox to send away most of what the mailbox has gifted him—but he keeps the dragon and he keeps a pegasus for his best friend, an African American boy named Jamel, so that they can fly together. This is a fairly simple story with a fairly simple message: that receiving is fun, but giving can feel better. There’s a lot to laugh at in the text and in the illustrations.

****

9780399161032This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I read and reviewed this book on Goodreads sometime in late 2012, but it never made it onto the blog here. It was then and remains the books that launched my love for Oliver Jeffers, who is a talented, talented man, whose picture books—or some of them—don’t shy away from the hard truths of life, which he always handles with the utmost tenderness and subtlety. This book of his is sillier. Wilfred meets a moose in a wonderfully detailed and soaring wilderness—something the Hudson River School would have applauded—and decides that this moose is his. He even makes it a little nametag so that everyone will know. The illustrations are all peppered with clever and humorous details that should clash with the grand landscape—and maybe do a little, but that’s part of the picture book’s charm. There are rules—all penned out in a childish hand—that the moose is very good at following, and ones that he needs to practice, but their friendship grows. Until an old woman comes along and insists that this is her moose. She even tempts Marcel—whom she calls Rodrigo—away with an apple. Deprived of his moose, Wilfred finds himself in trouble, tangled in string in the middle of nowhere with the dark and the monsters coming. But that’s when his moose returns, and proves himself still Wilfred’s friend. So Wilfred realizes that friendship is compromise and not ownership.

****

9780374301859A Unicorn Named Sparkle by Amy Young. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux-Macmillan, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

A little girl buys a unicorn for 25¢ and anxiously awaits its arrival, dreaming of riding him along rainbows with a necklace of flowers on his blue neck. What arrives is a goat with a single horn. He’s smelly. He’s not blue. He has fleas! He eats his flower necklace and his tutu. Lucy tries to defend her unicorn at first from those who say he’s just a goat, but eventually she calls to return the unicorn, but once he’s in the truck and bleating for her, she changes her mind, and realizes that she has grown to love Sparkle even though he is not what she was expecting. Lucy appears to be African American, making me love her even more because there is never once any issue made of her race and we need more books about African Americans where race is not an issue. I like this protagonist so much more than the Barbie from Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Brigette Barrager’s Uni the Unicorn.

****

Nighttime Reads

9ff19e062c2560bf352a6e3fe2e4cc70The Dark by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen. Little Brown Kids-Hachette, 2013.

I reviewed The Dark in April 2013. I’d mostly avoided reading it again, having then not been impressed, and in fact been a bit disturbed by the book. This time around—when an engaged child at story time requested creepy stories—I was not immediately struck by that same unease (though in rereading my previous review, I did find myself agreeing with my younger self). Still, because I was so much less vehemently opposed to this book during this second reading, it seemed fair to give it a second review.

This time, I saw the Dark as more comforting, as empowering Laszlo to defeat his fear of the Dark by showing him that he—the Dark—is friendly, really, and not the frightening monster that Laszlo imagines. Maybe I saw the dark as more of a concept and less of a character. Taking away the Dark’s personhood makes this book much less disturbing.

So now I sit sort of on the fence about this book. Do I like the Dark? Am I worried for the Dark? Is his action more friendly or is it a dangerous depiction of self-harm and self-deprecation? I’m really not sure.

There are other, better books about overcoming a fear of the dark—Emma Yarlett’s Orion and the Dark is pretty wonderful and has the same message without any of the self-harm—and I think I will stick to recommending those, but perhaps I will not so actively avoid this one.

**

9780307976635Hush, Little Horsie by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. Penguin Random, 2010.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This was a sort of disappointing read from Yolen because there just wasn’t a lot of substance, but Sanderson, who has illustrated many horse stories before including the cover art for many of Walter Farley’s and the Horse Diaries series, didn’t disappoint. The lullaby of sorts involves four mares reassuring their foals that they will be watching them as they gallop, leap, and sleep. It ends with a human mother reassuring her daughter that she will be here as she sleeps with horses chasing themselves through her mind. As an adult as I suspect a horse-loving child, I do and would have prickled at the term “horsie” as I do at Marguerite Henry’s incorrect use of “colt,” but I think that puts me in a nitpicky minority.

**

Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey

y648Waiting by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was one of the Caldecott honorees for 2016. Several toys sit on a windowsill. All of them are waiting, waiting for different things—for rain to be able to use an umbrella, for snow to be able to use a sled, for wind for a kite, for the moon to rise. The beginning—the character set-up—is mostly simple, relaxing, beautifully illustrated, particularly in the four illustrations that don’t share the page with any text and which show the passage of time—though time doesn’t really seem to have much affect on the characters. Then there is an inciting incident, and it hits suddenly. A new character—a cat toy—is introduced. What is she waiting for? The implication is that she was waiting for kittens—she is herself a nesting doll, and the kittens appear from inside her. There are some weird illustrations of death in a fancy toy elephant that falls and shatters (“He stayed a while then he left and never returned”) and in the birth of kittens via nesting doll. That the death occurs with so little comment and so little conflict or emotion is… odd. I’m honestly not sure what to make of the text of this book. It’s nice to read, but I don’t quite know what I’ve done but passed the time. The illustrations are lovely; I concede that point for sure, but I’m not sure I would rank them among the most heavy-hitting and innovative and memorable of the year (where are Curato, Parra, Jeffers?).

Henkes you may know from Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse or Chrysanthemum.

***

29433570Are We There Yet? by Nina Laden and illustrated by Adam McCauley. Chronicle, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

This book has very little text, primarily being a repetition of “Are we there yet?” and “No,” but the illustrations are vibrant, detailed, carrying their own narrative with repeated characters across pages, and really carrying the narrative too. On a drive to visit grandparents, the characters start out traversing ordinary settings, which become increasingly extraordinary through the inclusion of extraordinary details. Their journey takes them even to extraterrestrial vistas. The journey ends with the greeting of grandparents who must themselves be pretty extraordinary if their decorating tastes illustrate anything and the assertion that the drive was “boring.” The parents and children at story time enjoyed as I did looking for the extraordinary details in the illustrations. This book earns almost all of its stars through its illustrations, which might be another Caldecott contender. Sadly for McCauley, Santat—already a Caldecott winner—wrote a very similar picture book with the same title this same year with less reliance on the illustrations to carry the tale but more innovative inclusion of illustrations, so I doubt that this story will get a nod.

****

Books for the Beach

9780448496399Llama Llama Sand and Sun by Anna Dewdney. Grosset & Dunlap-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I think this is the only board book that I read this whole month. Written with Dewdney’s charm and rhyme and meter, Llama Llama goes to enjoy the beach in this touch-and-feel book. The touch-and-feel elements are not guided, but still make the book more interactive than an ordinary picture book. The text of the story was really quite enjoyable, simple but, well, charming.

***

y648-1Hello, My Name is Octicorn by Kevin Diller and Justin Lowe with illustrations by Binny Talib. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2016. First published 2013.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprising success, possibly partially because the craft and costume were so fun (I turned party hats inside out and we made our own horns so Octi would feel less alone). Life is hard for an octicorn. He doesn’t fit in with either the unicorns or the octopi. Because Octi doesn’t fit in, he doesn’t get invited to a lot of parties, but there are a lot of things that Octi (and other octicorns) is good at: ring toss, dancing, watersports, juggling, hugging. “I know I look different than everyone else, but that’s okay because in the end, we all want the same things: cupcakes, friends, and a jet ski.” The one squirmy moment I had was when Octi is wondering how his parents met. (Was it a costume party? A personal ad?) I think the book actually gained a few points because it was a direct plea to the audience for friendship; the “aw” factor came into play, plus the book ends with a direct call for reaction. For a book born of a doodle, this was really quite wonderful.

****

0763655996This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen. Candlewick, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is another book that I first read and reviewed on Goodreads in 2013, but the review never migrated to this blog, so now I get a second go. My feelings toward this book, 2013’s Caldecott winner, really haven’t changed much since then.

This is a dark little book.  A tiny fish steals a hat from a BIG fish.  The little fish swims away with it.  He knows he’s done wrong, but he tries to convince himself otherwise.  The big fish will not find him.  He will not know who took the hat.  The big fish wakes up.  He is suspicious.  He tracks down the little fish.  He follows him into some kelp.  Only the big fish emerges, and he has the hat, and looks quite pleased with himself.  Most of the story is told through illustration more than it is through text.  The text is the little fish’s inner monologue.  It’s dark for a picture book but moralistic.  Almost… Grimm.  A very Grimm book in all dark colors with simple but expressive illustrations and an ambiguous end that possibly implies the death of the POV character.

***

Something Different

2976324Brava, Strega Nona! by Tomie dePaola and illustrated by Matthew Reinhart with pop-ups by Robert Sabuda. G. P. Putnam & Sons-Penguin, 2008.

Robert Sabuda is the king of pop-up, and I had never seen one of his books so well preserved (this one was in the library rather than in the bookstore) so that even the water in the fountain turns and the fountain is still attached to the page nor have I ever felt so free to really explore one of Sabuda’s masterpieces knowing that this copy was meant to be explored and not meant to be purchased. There’s not a whole lot of story here. There are a few Italian words—famiglia, amore, mangia, amici, celebrazione—translated and then their place in Strega Nona’s life explained just briefly: her family tree and her family history, her Grandma (Nonna) Concetta the strega who taught her magic; the love that is the secret to her recipes; the friends she sees all over town; the food she share with friends and family; the village celebrations of which she likes to be in the middle. This story means more to me as someone whose family is Italian; these are words that have peppered my life too. The value of this book is in the bit of Italian language that it teaches and in the pure wonder of Sabuda’s pop-ups.

****

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: Picture Book Roundup June 2016: Father’s Day, Animal Friends, and Books About Being a Protagonist

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Father’s Day Specials

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Grandpa Loves You by Helen Foster James and illustrated by Petra Brown. Sleeping Bear, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 0-6, Grade 1.

This is one of those saccharine picture books meant to read as a love letter from the adult reading to the child. The characters are adorable, fluffy bunnies. I liked the grandpa bunny’s big, bushy eyebrows. They add a touch of character and help to make the grandpa more expressive. The rhyming text relies maybe a little too heavily on pet names. This hardcover version includes a place for Grandpa to write a letter to his little honey-bunny.

**

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Monster & Son by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Joey Chou. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

Each page features of a different monster and its offspring doing the things that monsters do but twisting the action to make it seem benign and akin to a daily activity that a father might do with his son: like tucking the little one into bed, playing ball, or piggybacking him while approaching a city. Upset humans pout as they are caught in the tempest of the monsters’ fun, but seem unhurt. I would actually have preferred following a single monster family rather than visiting a new one each page—but because I personally like following a character, not because its a structural flaw or in picture books, and because the text indicates no switch between characters as its written in a first person narration (the father) to a second person (you, the son). This story is saccharine too (and I think that’s going to be the word of the post), but it relies less on pet names to make it so; the rhymes and story seem less forced than in Grandpa Loves You.

***

9780803737174 When Dads Don’t Grow Up by Marjorie Blain Parker and illustrated by R. W. Alley. Dial-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Perhaps because I read this one right after reading the wonderfully rhymed and rhythmic Giraffes Can’t Dance I stumbled all over the rhyme-less, unmetered text that was broken too in odd places sometimes I thought. This one pokes fun at dads and at adults, even going so far as to point out the possibility of a bald father. It claims we’ll know a dad who never grew up by the things that he does or does not do. A dad who has never grown up knows has to have fun, can’t sit still, watches cartoons, remembers how scary basements can be and that shopping carts are for racing. I would suggest it only for dads who can live up to the standard demonstrated here, but the story could backfire on a bland, grown-up dad. The illustrations of dads having fun with their kids are pretty heartwarming and goofy but the soft pastels keep the story gentle rather than raucous.

**

9780385388955Dad School by Rebecca Van Slyke and illustrated by Priscilla Burris. Doubleday-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

There’s a lot of similarities between this and When Dads Don’t Grow Up in that they both poke fun lovingly at Dad (and I capitalize it here because in both stories it is the stereotyped idea of Dad rather than a character particularly). In this one, the child (presumably the white, brunet son from the cover and common in the first few illustrations, though his classmates and his dad’s classmates are of various races) hypothesizes that his dad must have gone to Dad School to learn how to be a dad—to make huge snacks, to throw you up high but never drop you, to fix and mend things, and multitask—but suggests that he must have skipped school on the days when they learnt to clean bathrooms and match clothes and brush hair. Comparing the two books—this and When Dads Don’t Grow Up­—actually gives you a fairly interesting study of the conceptual Dad. But I think I digress; I’m supposed to be reviewing a kids book not critique societal constructs. This book reads more easily than did When Dads Grow Up, but it also came before rather than after Giraffes Can’t Dance. It too could backfire on a dad who does not do these things or conversely who does do the things that it is suggested by the text that a dad should not do.

***

Animal Friends

9780439287197_default_pdpGiraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees. Orchard-Hachette, 2001. First published 1999. Intended audience: Ages 5-7, Grades PreK-2.

I first read this book in March 2013 and according to Goodreads I haven’t read it again since, though I’m not sure if I believe that and I know I’ve handed it to many customers since. I read this among a wealth of Father’s Day themed books. Perhaps it stood out because of that, but I think it was more than that. This is a good story, carefully metered and well-rhymed with a bit of poetry to the prose. There’s a lot of raw emotion from the giraffe, ridiculed and told that he can’t, and an important moral about being able and being different and being okay. I’d grabbed it that day when I was otherwise reading books about dads because the kids were getting antsy, and I thought that this might be a dance-along book, and I maybe could have made it so, but I got wrapped up in the story myself and we never danced. Parker-Rees’ illustrations are jewel-bright and just a delight, awash with detail and vibrancy.

*****

9780399163128

When Your Elephant Comes to Play by Ale Barba. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This story was a bit more lackluster than I’d hoped it might be. There’s a lot that you can’t do with an elephant and still have fun yourself—like going swimming in the pool or eating cake—but elephants are excellent huggers. There’s a lot of color and line in the illustrations—almost like a more concrete Kandinsky, and while that feels fresh, it’s also almost distracting; the illustrations take work to grasp and dissect and made it at times difficult to find the text.

***

extremely-cute-animals-operating-heavy-machinery-9781416924418_hrExtremely Cute Animals Operating Heavy Machinery by David Gordon. Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, PreK-3.

I had heard some so-so reviews of this book before I actually got around to reading it and so was rather pleased with the story. Karen—an extremely cute but unidentifiable animal (maybe a kangaroo?)—wants to build a sand castle, but the playground bullies won’t allow it. They destroy her castle, but she and a few friends build a new castle, bigger and better. That too is destroyed, and the friends rebuild, bigger and better. After a third time, the extremely cute animals get extremely mad, and they haul away the whole playground with a helicopter and come in with steel beams and welding guns and create a walled and gated theme park where no bullies are allowed. And I would have been upset if that had been the end, but Karen cracks open the door to invite the momentarily exiled bullies into the park, where they seem very contrite as they are led around the park and shown kindness by the extremely cute animals, who have not forgotten to build something for even those who like to destroy—a replica of Karen’s original castle this time meant to be destroyed (and presumably rebuilt and destroyed again). The cotton-candy quality of the illustrations and the title’s description of the protagonists as cute did not particularly bleed into the text itself, which was more realistic and hard-hitting than a lot of picture books that I’ve read recently. The bullies’ speeches seemed particularly realistic—not cleaned up, not made cute or trite, just down in the dirt mean. And I appreciated that kind of unmade-up depiction of bullies. I’ve not read a lot of picture books talking about how to deal with bullies. There’re Peanut Butter & Cupcake and I suppose Giraffes Can’t Dance too, where the characters who exclude Peanut Butter and Giraffe could be classified as bullies but never are, and there’s Llama Llama and the Bully Goat, where the rhyming text sort of diminishes the roughness and the ending makes it seem like Bully Goat is reformed by one time-out. I do dislike that extremely cute and good and kind seem to be equated and—while I understand it as part of the repetition of a picture book text—the part of me that writes novels and has been trained in school to write essays disliked that repetition of the weak word “extremely.” That these cute, good protagonists are allowed to get mad, and that their anger is siphoned constructively I do like.

****

9780312498603 Bright Baby Touch and Feel: Perfect Pets by Roger Priddy. Priddy-Macmillan, 2006. Intended audience: Ages 1-3, Grade PreK.

I was pleasantly surprised by this board book. Each spread takes a moment to name an animal—no, actually give the pet a name—and describe an action associated with that animal. The pages are touch-and-feel but the text does not always prompt the reader to describe the texture. A solid background color behind the photographed illustration could let this book be used as a color primer too. But there is more story here and certainly more characters than I’ve grown to expect from primers because of the names, because of the actions; I welcome that.

****

eleph_pig_party_cover_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: I Am Invited to a Party! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2007. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a new Elephant and Piggie story for me. Even though it is one of the older stories (the third written in the series), it had never been in my hands. I love it. Piggie is invited to a party, but doesn’t want to go alone. Gerald agrees to go with her, because he knows parties. Gerald prepares for every eventuality and their outfits become more and more ridiculous as they prepare for a fancy pool costume party. In the end, Gerald has worried just enough to make them prepared. Everyone looks ridiculous in their outfits for the fancy-pool-costume party. I had fun trying to pick out the costumes from the final illustration. Also, what a great time to break out paper dolls!

*****

elephants_cannot_dance_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: Elephants Cannot Dance! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Piggie is excited about dance class and wants to teach Gerald to dance, but Elephants cannot dance; it’s in the handbook. Trust Piggie to find the loophole. So Gerald tries to dance, but Willems takes a bit of time to play with opposites. When Piggie says up, Gerald goes down. When Piggie tells him to do the robot walk, he wiggles and waggles. Just when Gerald is ready to give up, along come two squirrels who want to learn the Elephant dance, teaching that just because you feel like you’re failing does not mean that you are failing and different is not wrong or bad.

****

e_and_p_should_i_share_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This Elephant and Piggie story I’d read before, but apparently never reviewed. Gerald buys an ice cream cone and in his excitement only realizes later that maybe he should have bought Piggie one too. Gerald talks himself into and out of sharing his ice cream with his best friend and while he waffles on what is right, the ice cream melts away, leaving neither of them with a tasty treat. Luckily, Piggie has his back, and appears with an ice cream cone of her own to share with Gerald and to cheer him up after Gerald has upset himself by wasting the ice cream cone that neither he nor Piggie enjoyed.

****

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An Elephant and Piggie Book: Let’s Go for a Drive! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a new Elephant and Piggie story for me! Gerald wants to go for a drive with Piggie, but in typical Gerald style, Gerald worries, and wants to be prepared for any type of weather and for everything that could go wrong on their drive. Piggie is a prepared pig. She has everything Gerald requests: a map, sunglasses, umbrellas, bags to pack it all in—everything except a car. That is when the pattern of the text breaks too. Piggie saves the day again though by coming up with an alternative idea. The two make a pirate ship out of all the things that they’ve collected for their drive, and have fun anyway. Willems uses a road map for his illustrations of the map, making this an example of mixed media illustration, if most of the illustrations adhere to his usual drawing style. This would be a story better told while standing, so that the reader can act out the celebratory dancing. While sitting, the celebratory singing just didn’t have the same effect. Now I know.

****

Hero of Your Own Story 9781454916086_jkt.inddWhose Story Is This, Anyway? by Mike Flaherty and illustrated by Oriol Vidal. Sterling, 2016.

I read this alongside of Monster & Son, When Your Elephant Comes to Play, and Hoot and Peep, and this was declared the favorite by the little boy at story time whom I polled. This is the story of a boy who wants to tell a story about himself—with a cameo by his cat, Emperor Falafel—but the story keeps getting interrupted by pirates and knights and dinosaurs and aliens. He shouts them all away, but realizes that the audience for his story actually prefers a story with pirates and knights and dinosaurs and aliens and rewrites his story to include them all. The competing voices in the story are what I think make this so much fun: a deep growling voice of “arr” and “yar” and “ye” for the pirate, Salty Pete; a proper, clipped voice for Sir Knightly; a sort of dopey voice with lots of rounded tones that I gave the dinosaur; and a sort of shrill, nasal voice for the boy. Now, I’m not sure how I feel about the idea that a story about an ordinary boy and his cat is dull and yawn-inducing, but the idea that a story is better with friends and with characters I can get behind. I think it would be a fun story to use when talking about story writing.

****

9780679805274Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. Random, 1990.

I read this to a group that consisted primarily of kids under 7 and one that was maybe 10 at my best guess. It is Dr. Seuss. Everyone loves Seuss. I expected it to be fine. I expected them to like it. It was too long for all of them, and the 10 year old thought it was a bit too dark and depressing. This is of course a classic. I know it. You probably know it too. And we can probably both quote it. It’s a tale about life, that assures the reader that she is ready and able to take on the world, that she knows what she needs to know and has the gumption to get things done and to go to great places, but also warns that life doesn’t always go the way that it should, that there will be bad paths to avoid, dark places she’ll end up even if she’s done everything right, slumps and waiting. The message is inspiring, but apparently, it really is better for those high school and college graduates if they’re willing at that age to give it a read.

***

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: April 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Celebs from Children’s Literature and Beyond

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The Classics 9780394800271

Snow by Roy McKie and P. D. Eastman. Random, 1962.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This was a very simple story and it employed a lot of repetition—almost a Dick and Jane amount of repetition. Dr. Seuss recruited P. D. Eastman to children’s literature and the rhythm of this book bears a strong resemblance to Seuss’ works.  At times the rhyme seemed forced—by which I mean, that in order to rhyme, the sentence was made awkward or bordered on senseless. Some of this manifested in what seemed at the time an odd refusal to name certain common snow games: Making snow angels became “making pictures with your backs.” Cross-country skiing or skiing in general (this is not a sport I know well. In the absence of a ski lift, I suppose one walks to the top of a hill in skis even if it’s not cross-country skiing?) becomes “we put on long, long feet”; the word “skis” is never used but there are several mentions of skis as “feet.” “Snow man” is used once, but mostly the snowman is referred to only as a man, once as a man of snow, and the exclusion of “snow” as a modifier seems odd. Overall, it’s a book about playing in the snow told with a very young child’s vocabulary. As a book about playing in the snow, it’s cute. And the Seussian rhythm keeps the book rolling, so long as you don’t stumble too much on the forced rhyme and refusal to introduce new words or phrases.

***

9780394823379The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Random, 1971.  Intended audience: Ages 6-9.

This is a meaty book. It was a bit too much for story time, especially when my audience are toddlers. With an older audience, I think I would have enjoyed this reread more. With an audience of toddlers, and the kids not mine, I felt like I was filling their brains with images of the horrors of big business and greed that maybe didn’t need to be blackening their childhood bubbles yet. The story has a very clear business-bad, nature-good message that lacks the subtlety of reality but leaves little room for too in young minds. Now there are gems in this book: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Messages like that I don’t mind imparting to young ones.

****

9780399173875The Little Engine That Could by Piper Watty and illustrated by Loren Long. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2015. Full story first published 1930.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Who knows how many years it had been since I’d read this story? Many. Many, many. Enough that I didn’t really remember even the bones of the story—just the mantra that gets repeated: “I think I can. I think I can,” later replaced with the proud, “I thought I could. I thought I could.” This was an abridged board book, and there was still much more to this story than I remembered there being.

First: female trains. Yes, more female protagonists in male-marketed books. Because it is much easier right now to get a girl to read a “boys’ book” than a boy to read a “girls’ book,” so if there aren’t females in the boys’ books, boys might never encounter female characters. And I don’t think the world is in any danger yet of being oversaturated with female protagonists. (Just last night I saw another kids’ movie that failed the Bechdel test by never having two named females on screen at the same time, but it had at least seven named male characters, five protagonists and two villains.)

These are not the illustrations that I—so probably your parents and grandparents—grew up with, but I like them. They are softer but at least as colorful and maybe even more expressive for their rounded realness compared to George and Doris Hauman’s. This clown is also less creepy, maybe because it has less makeup, more hair, and a more realistic face beneath the makeup. I don’t know. He seems less frightening to me. It’s fairly clear though that Long intentionally harkened back to the Haumans’ while making the work her own.

****

And the Big Names in Children’s Literature

26030671Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

This is a fun twist on the classic “Are we there yet?” plot of a child complaining in a car ride to his parents with a good moral. Drifting off possibly and entering an alternate dreamscape where all the pages are upside down, the boy in this story goes hundreds, thousands of years backwards, encountering cowboys, pirates, and dinosaurs. His parents are appalled by all of these strange encounters, but the boy doesn’t notice the wonders they are passing in the car till he sees the T-rex. But when they can’t go back any further they somehow end up too far forward in time, and Grandma’s house is gone. How will they make it to the party? I’ve been told the QR codes in the illustrations of the future world are worth checking out, but I don’t have the app for that, so someone’s going to have to get back to me with reviews and insights on those. I think this might be the first time that an illustrator has incorporated QR codes. The story ends with an emphasis on the importance of family and celebrating family.

*****

26075973Let’s Play! by Hervé Tullet. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

A yellow dot with a lot of emotion and energy in its small frame narrates a traceable adventure through the pages of Tullet’s latest book. The yellow dot doesn’t confine itself to the pages either, at one point jumping onto the reader’s head, which was fun to play with. I expected this to be a bigger hit with my story time audience, but they weren’t really into it, even when I gave them each a book to play with. Granted, one at least was probably too young and two were ESL learners, so maybe some of the word play or instructions were lost in translation. I enjoyed playing with the book. I like the clever situations that the book character asks the readers to follow him into. I liked the potential to talk about bravery with the scary pages. But there were less educational elements to this than either Press Here or Mix It Up!

***

my-first-busy-book-9781481457910_hrMy First Busy Book inspired by Eric Carle’s works. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2015.

This clever primer has it all, each on its own page! There’re colors, numbers, shapes, first words, animal sounds, and a mirror. Each page asks a question of the readers. One page for example asks readers to trace the raised numbers, giving the book a touch-and-feel element too. Another page has flaps to lift. Because primer books are rarely meant to be read anyway, the idea of including a just a bit of everything seems smart of the publisher and cost-effective to parents too. This is a perfect go-to for the indecisive, thrifty, or low on funds. And besides that, it has elements of Carle’s famous illustrations, so it’s bright, inviting, familiar, and creative without sacrificing realism.

*****

The Celebrities from Outside

derek-jeter-presents-night-at-the-stadium-9781481426558_hr

Derek Jeter Presents: Night at the Stadium by Phil Bildner and illustrated by Tom Booth. Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

As a Red Sox supporter, it was difficult to be enthusiastic while reading the first line of this story: “The Yankees win!” I actually thought this a fairly successful celebrity sponsored picture book—if the self-insertion of Derek Jeter seems—though it makes some sense within the text—a bit… forced. I wasn’t too fond of the repetitive “Talking [noun]?” “Of course we talk.” “We all talk,” though I recognize that repetition is often a hallmark of texts for young audiences—maybe not for the audiences of this book, with its nine-year-old protagonist. Talking food is always a bit of a sticking point for me too. Why have to eat, so do we want to imagine our food as characters? I’m more okay with it in a world free of humans—as with Peanut Butter and Cupcake. This team—Jeter and Blinder and Booth—gets points for an interracial protagonist. Some of the illustrations are pretty stunning, just wonderfully vibrant. The book for its emphasis on baseball, and the Yankees in particular, and its jargon of the sport, has a limited appeal, but there are surprisingly not all that many picture books about baseball—and many of those are bios or histories, so such a book may be a welcome gift to many young fans of the game.

***

y648Charlie the Ranch Dog by Ree Drummond and illustrated by Diane deGroat. HarperCollins, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Charlie is magnanimous towards his silent friend Suzie. Suzie doesn’t have droopy eyes or dangly ears like Charlie, but he doesn’t hold that against her. She’s better at running and jumping. Charlie’s never been very good at jumping. Charlie has a lot of work to do with Suzie. He’s a morning dog, but she isn’t—except she’s up. She’s out the door. Charlie sometimes likes to let Suzie do things to feel important, but he knows his mama couldn’t get along without him. While he’s talking to the reader about all the things that he needs to do, Suzie has done or is doing them. Charlie keeps drifting off to sleep and waking with a “Huh? What’d I miss? Oh I must have accidentally closed my eyes for a few seconds.” Suzie and the humans go off without him during one of these naps, but because of that, he is home to scare the cows out of his mama’s beloved garden.

Charlie’s unique voice was what made this book stand out, though I’m not sure I like that Charlie’s is the only voice in the story.

***

naughty-mabel-9781481430227_hrNaughty Mabel by Nathan Lane and Devlin Elliott and illustrated by Dan Krall. Simon & Schuster, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I was kept from enjoying this book as much as I otherwise would have by the French-bashing and stereotyping, the worst being an oblique suggestion that the French don’t like to bathe. Who says things like that? Who thinks it’s okay to publish books that say that?

Mabel’s a pampered French bulldog who thinks she is and acts as if she is a spoilt human child to her rich human “parents.” Mabel doesn’t believe her parents’ description of her as naughty is fair. She believes she is and revels in being VERY naughty. Most of the story is backstory, really, for the main event, when Mabel is forced into a bath that she—with her cat friends—decides is a sure sign that her parents intend to throw a party. But Mabel’s not invited to the party. So she dons a pink tutu and pearls and claims that she will try to blend into the crowd—but the allure of a pile of pigs-in-blankets proves too alluring, and she becomes again a dog with a mouthful of stolen food, spoiling the party by running across the table and startling guests into spilling their drinks on their fancy clothes. Mabel stands out still more when those pigs-in-blankets come back in a big, noxious cloud of fart—and she clears out the party. She expects though that her parents are secretly glad that she ruined their party because it means more time for just the three of them.

That’s a dubious message for children. Misbehave and your parents will still love you? Sure. Absolutely. Please. But misbehave and your parents will be secretly glad? Mmm….

There are some funny moments in this—the fart is not one of them to me. The book had some potential. I like Mabel’s unique, posh voice, directly addressing the readers as “darlings.”

But Mabel knows nothing of being French.

**

9780736429702Rapunzel’s Wedding Day by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I never saw the Disney short about Rapunzel’s wedding, Tangled Ever After, but I expect that this story replicates that one almost exactly. The illustrations seem to me like screen captures. It was a cute story focusing on the animal “sidekicks” from Tangled trying not to ruin Rapunzel’s wedding when they accidentally drop the rings. Generally I’m not sure about the emphasis placed on weddings, particularly in media aimed at children. Weddings—heck—marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life, as many Disney movies seem to suggest. That being said, this is more about hijinks that ensue in two friends’ efforts to rectify their mistakes without their mistake going noticed. And Tangled already promised us a marriage.

***

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.

Book Reviews: March 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Spring Has Sprung

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Easter Exclusives 9780399252389

Easter Egg by Jan Brett. G. P. Putnam’s Sons-Penguin Random, 2010. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Hoppi the bunny is just old enough to participate in the bunnies’ annual Easter egg challenge where the best egg wins a chance to help the Easter Bunny with his deliveries. Hoppi wants to win, but he is discouraged when he sees all of the amazing eggs being made by the older bunnies: chocolate, wood, flower planters, engraved, with a painted portrait of the Easter Bunny…. Each of these adults kindly donates some of their tools to Hoppi’s egg efforts. Wandering through the woods, Hoppi witnesses a robin’s egg knocked from its nest. Unable to return the egg to its nest, the robin mother entrusts the egg to Hoppi who volunteers to protect it. He does so faithfully, a proper Horton. He is missed at the Easter celebration when the Easter Bunny pulls up in his carriage pulled by hens, but the Easter Bunny knows what he’s been up to: He goes into the woods and returns with Hoppi, the winner of his contest, and his newly hatched robin chick. Hoppi’s self-sacrifice and faithfulness are rewarded and recognized with the prize that he coveted most. This was a great opportunity for Jan Brett to show off her distinctive, lauded illustration style with its magical details and high realism matched with whimsy.

****

16033650Easter Surprise adapted from Beatrix Potter’s works. Warne-Penguin Random, 2013.

Mimicking if not outright borrowing illustrations from Beatrix Potter’s classic works, Peter Rabbit leads the reader past other classic characters of Potter’s to see—surprise!—the newly hatching ducklings of Jemima Puddle-Duck’s. I don’t generally like these books that hijack classic characters for new stories, but this was a cute concept. There is little to the story, really, but that leaves the focus on the illustrations, and because the illustrations are what of the story are most Potter’s that seems fitting.

**** 9780312510022

Easter Surprise by Roger Priddy. Priddy-Macmillan, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

The text on each page gives instructions to pull a tab, which separates two halves of an Easter egg to reveal a baby animal. The last page reveals a mirror. The tabs are of a sturdy cardboard that seems like it will be difficult to tear. This is a novel sort of interactive page and that I think gives the book merit. I especially like the inclusion of the mirror. I think this book is actually meant for younger than Macmillan believes; I would say it’s intended audience is children younger than 2.

***1/2

Any Day Books

2215398The Vicar of Nibbleswicke by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Trumpet-Scholastic, 1996. First published 1991.  Intended audience: Ages 11-13.

I’m not entirely sure whether or not to include to this book in this list. This is more of 31 page (23 pages of text and not all of those are full pages), illustrated novelette or short story, but I don’t have enough to say on it to write a full review, I don’t think. This was written for the benefit of the Dyslexia Institute. It reads as Dahl having fun with himself and with his characters and with language. He even makes a reference to another book of his, Esio Trot. The Reverend Lee suffers and has suffered since childhood from a strange back-to-front dyslexia, where he occasionally says a word backwards without realizing it. This manifestation of dyslexia does not exist, so this really does not promote understanding or acceptance of dyslexia so much as it borrows the name and invents a nonexistent symptom. It leaves me in a very strange position because on the one hand I want to applaud Dahl funding research for a disability and on the other I want to berate him for spouting lies about an illness. The words that Reverend Lee says backwards are of course mostly those that when said backwards become other words and those words are often insulting. Miss Prewt becomes Miss Twerp. Instead of happily exclaiming that all of the ladies knit, he says that each of them stinks. God is replaced with dog, which for a vicar is problematic. In a First Communion class the reverend tells his parishioners to pis from the Communion cup. Parishioners are also told not to krap along the narrow drive to the church. The misspelled cuss words are something to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to recommend this book to certain individuals. I giggled to myself as I read it silently and alone. There wasn’t a great deal of substance there, but there was word play, and I am a sucker for clever word play—though this is very mischievous word play.

***

26619447

Too Many Carrots by Katy Hudson. Picture Window-Capstone, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5, Grades PreK-1.

Rabbit’s carrot collection has outgrown his warren. He abandons his warren to his collection and goes to stay with friends, but he doesn’t want to be entirely without his carrots, and each time he moves into a new friend’s place, he brings just enough carrots to destroy his friend’s home and leave both of them without a place to stay. His friends are extraordinarily patient, continuing to take in Rabbit, his carrots, and the friends that he has made homeless with his hoarding and stubbornness. His friends as they move like refugees to each new home recognize Rabbit’s problem and politely suggest that he not bring that last carrot into their new refuge, but they don’t outright confront him. It is only when Rabbit has run out of friends and his friends have run out of homes that he recognizes the trouble that he has caused and seeks to fix it. He invites his friends back to his home: the last home that has not been destroyed and they eat their way through the carrots to make enough space for them all. Rabbit realizes that carrots are meant to be shared rather than hoarded. While there are some important lessons here about sharing and about hoarding and about selfishness, the story itself is problematic. These poor creatures have their houses destroyed—and some of them are injured—for being open and generous; they’re understanding is never addressed as a problem. This rabbit never really apologizes for what he has done. Sharing his home and his carrots become more reward than penance so where is the consequence to himself for his selfishness? The illustrations, it should be said, are adorable even as the poor turtle is bandaged and on crutches. Hudson mixes whimsy and realism and cartoonishness well and the colors are vibrant and inviting.

**1/2

9780525428374Hoot and Peep by Lita Judge. Dial-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The illustrations in this book are vibrant and beautiful. The story takes place in one of the older cities, Hoot and Peep’s home being in a Gothic cathedral, possibly in Paris or London. That I can make a guess should give you an idea of the detail that Judge lovingly puts into each drawing. The story is a cute story of sibling relationship and of acceptance of otherness and uniqueness, where the older owl Hoot believes that his sister Peep is singing wrong because she is singing differently than Hoot has been taught to do. Ultimately, Hoot realizes that he misses his sister’s unique voice and he goes to her to learn her ways. The book uses some very fun onomatopoeias. It’s definitely a book appropriate for a younger audience, but my audience was maybe six to nine and they really seemed to enjoy it as well.

*****

9780312517816Alphaprints: Tweet! Tweet! by Roger Priddy. Priddy-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 0-3, Grades PreK.

This is a touch-and-feel animal and animal sounds primer. The illustrations combine blocks of bright color, colored fingerprints, and photographs: sheep made of cauliflowers heads and hedgehogs made of bright dalias. These were creative illustrations, and I appreciated that. There weren’t really that many opportunities for touch-and-feel elements (there weren’t many pages) and what were there were pretty humdrum.

*** 18225019

Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Brigette Barrager. Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Uni is an extraordinarily beautiful unicorn but she is nevertheless an outcast among unicorn society because she believes that little girls are real and that one day she will get to meet one, but she doesn’t let the other unicorns derision, even that of her parents, dissuade her from her belief. “Far, far away (but not too far)” there is a little girl who believes the same about unicorns and is equally ridiculed. The two never meet but they live in their separate realities each believing in the other. This is one of those books that I enjoyed subjectively as a girl who likes to believe in the existence of this sort of benign, escapist magic and who has been dismissed as dewy-eyed. Objectively, taking a step back, I see the faults here. I recognize that Barrager needed to choose just one little girl to be the character in Uni’s fantasies and the heroine of her own reality, but did she need to choose Barbie? She—almost impossibly long of lock, blonde, and blue eyed—has for too long been the ideal, the fantasy of little girls. We didn’t need another fairy tale lifting up this unrealistic ideal. I liked the writing—the technical skill of it—as I often do with Rosenthal, and I liked the story. Most of my complaint here is with Barrager.

***

18570357What Do You Do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom. Compendium, 2014.

This is one of the better metaphors for an idea and description of the growth of an idea that I have seen. The young egg appears—poof—and follows the boy around. Though the others don’t understand, and they reject the idea, and the boy tries to leave it behind, it persists till the boy becomes fond of the idea and nurtures it privately. Then one day the egg hatches, and the idea is set free into the world where it is now not just part of the boy but part of everything.

At the beginning of the book, the idea is the only thing with a spot of color. As the boy accepts the idea and begins to nurture it, he gains color too. The last page is bright.

Having had experiences with ideas very like this, though mine have never been yet set out into the wide world, I appreciate this book on a very personal level. I feel as if this might actually be a better picture book for adults and graduates and aspiring artists than for children. I read this alongside Hoot and Peep, and I don’t think my audience enjoyed it as much as Hoot and Peep, but they were engaged. They were the ones who noticed the plethora of new ideas on the final pages. They guessed that the pages would grow more and more colorful.

*****

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.

Book Reviews: February 2016 Picture Book Roundup

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9780374346904Love Monster and the Last Chocolate by Rachel Bright. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-Macmillan, 2015. First published 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 2-4, Grades PreK-K.

A sequel to Love Monster and less problematic I think than its predecessor, in this story Love Monster finds a box of chocolates on his doorstep upon returning home. He wants to eat the chocolate but realizes that he should share the chocolate. But if he shares the chocolate there may not be enough. His friends may take the piece of chocolate that he really wants. Ultimately, Love Monster decides to share and to confess his selfish thoughts to his friends—who laugh and explain that they left the chocolate; they ate all but one piece, which they wanted to save and share with him, and if he’d opened the box, he’d have seen the chocolate and the note saying that they had missed him.  Readers are reminded that honesty and generosity reward and that friendship and chocolate are better when shared.  The gut-wrenching guilt that Love Monster experiences over his selfish desires seems maybe a bit condemning but that guilt is not thrust on Love Monster; it is rather a byproduct of his own conscience, which for me makes the book less condemnable.

****

9780670013272Llama Llama Nighty-Night by Anna Dewdney. Viking-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

This simple board book takes Llama Llama through the routine of getting ready for bed with the same catchy rhymes and endearing illustrations that are used in the picture books for older children. The cardboard pages, shorter length, shorter sentences, and simpler ideas all show that Dewdney understands the younger audience as well as she can captivate kids just a little older. Llama Llama is one of my favorite modern series, so this book might get some extra brownie points for including one of my favorite characters. Dewdney is a powerful illustrator and good writer.

****

please-open-this-book-9781442450714_hrPlease, Open This Book! by Adam Lehrhaupt and illustrated by Matthew Forsythe.  Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I feel like I’ve been reading—and loving—a lot of books that break down the barriers between the characters and the reader, the fictional world and the real. In this one, the characters are relieved that someone has finally opened their book because the last person to read it closed the book with them still inside, injuring several of them. The characters complain about their lot, all the while trying to convince the current reader never to close the book, even bribing the reader. I am of two minds about this book: I can see the argument that this book will leave kids wracked with guilt about closing another book ever again, which will lead to a mess of open books on tables and on the floor. On the other hand, I giggled at its silliness and read it at a story time, and it is one of the only books that I have ever sold because of a story time to someone who was at that story time. The mother who was there thought that her child—the older one who was not present, but I suspect was a young elementary age child—would love it, and bought it out of my hand when I’d finished reading. So, really, if parents are okay with this book, I don’t see why I should worry about it.

****

407429The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith. Scholastic, 1992. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grades K-3.

This book is nearly as old as I am and has been in my possession for probably nigh twenty years now. It’s still funny. These extremely fractured fairy tales are narrated by Jack of “and the Beanstalk” fame and interrupted often by a very frustrated little red hen. Many of these stories lack the magic and the change that comes at the end of most fairy tales: The ugly duckling just becomes an ugly duck; the frog prince is just a frog lying about a curse; the stinky cheese man is chased by no one. The morals of the fairy tales are lost too. But it’s in the unexpectedness and refusal to adhere to the trope or tale type that these tales succeed. There is quite a bit of fourth wall breakage too: on the back cover, the hen complains, “Who is this ISBN guy?”; the giant wants to tell his story and does so in a hodgepodge of sentences cut and pasted from other tales; Jack accidentally tells the whole of “Little Red Running Shorts” in his introduction and Red and the wolf walk out on him, refusing to tell it again. The hen is my favorite character, but my favorite stories are “Chicken Licken” and “Jack’s Story.”  The mixed media illustrations often work in close tandem with the text, making this more picture book than picture storybook.

*****

24968109What Pet Should I Get? by Dr. Seuss. Random, 2015.

This is the first of Dr. Seuss’ posthumous books that I’ve read, and I really enjoyed it. It started out seeming a little too ordinary for what I expect from Seuss and a bit slow for that, the siblings debating between a puppy, a kitten, a goldfish, but it did devolve into the ridiculous and imaginative animals that are wonderfully Seussian (and yes, that is a word, in the Oxford Dictionary and all). The whole plot revolves around a brother and sister needing to choose just one pet, for which their father will pay. In the end, they decide on the perfect pet—but Seuss never tells us which pet that is—which I loved. This will never be a favorite Seuss book of mine—not with the mess of wonderful books of his out there, but this was lighthearted, nostalgic, silly fun.

****

576a1851142468e1c25a977f2dfa976fRaven’s Light: A Myth from the People of the Northwest Coast by Susan Hand Shetterly and illustrated by Robert Shetterly. Atheneum-Macmillan, 1991.

This is an old book of my roommate’s from which the dust jacket is missing and the binding on the pages has come undone, so I don’t actually know what the cover looks like. The cover that I found is someone’s Pinterest pin off of an image that has now been removed from Amazon, though it looks like the right style certainly, and I wanted to give you some idea of the illustrations. I am not familiar with this myth outside of the book. In this story, the raven flies over a dark, landless, unpopulated sea with a heavy sack and a pebble. The pebble when he drops it into the sea becomes land and from the sack he pulls out all of the creatures including people. A tear in the sky attracts his attention. Through that tear is the bright land of the sun. Raven turns himself into a leaf and is ingested by the beautiful daughter of a chieftain there. He is born again as her winged humanoid child. He grows up among the people there, protected by his mother. Eventually he steals the sun from the chieftain, his grandfather, and brings it to his own dark kingdom. A young girl accepts his gift and releases the moon and sun.

I am always interested to learn new myths so I enjoyed this story, and I enjoy knowing about these books to share with others who are interested. This story is different from most that I’ve heard too, most of which seem to involve humanoid gods/creators, usually either pitted against one another or in amorous relations with one another (sometimes both), who consciously or accidentally create land and create life but never because they are tired and overcome.  I’m familiar with the raven as a trickster in some American folklore and as a symbol of death and ruin in Anglo-Celtic folklore and mythology, but this I think is the first I’ve seen of a raven god/creator.

Susan Shetterly doesn’t explain so much as she reports. The text is colorful and descriptive with powerful words. Susan Shetterly relies on that and on the characters themselves more than she does on an authoritative narrator. Myths for adults can often be too bogged down by scholarly articles and footnotes. Myths for kids can be too pedagogic or too anxious about not undermining the storytellers’ own beliefs. This telling nicely avoids both types of heavy-handedness, and really comes together as a story.

****

9781627794046Hedgehugs by Steve Wilson and illustrated by Lucy Tapper. Henry, Holt-Macmillan, 2015. First published 2014.

This is a precious friendship story about two hedgehogs who just want to express their love for one another in the fashion of humans—with a hug. But hedgehogs are spiky, and hugs between them are uncomfortable. They try several types of seasonable armor to protect each other from their spikes (providing a teaching opportunity about the weather changes and seasons), but none is successful until they find a few socks fallen from the laundry, which when donned protect them from each other’s quills and look absolutely adorable besides. This book also claims an explanation for all those socks that seem to go missing in the wash.  Really, it’s just adorable.

****

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.

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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