Tag Archives: Brendan Wenzel

Book Reviews: August 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Lessons Learned

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I’m catching up to myself, but I am still writing these reviews two months after having read the books, so some of these have less detail than I wish that they did. My apologies to the authors and illustrators and readers where they are necessary. 

Class is in Session

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Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003. First published 1977.

Because sometimes fate likes a laugh, my only story time participant this day was a homeschooled girl who’d never had to fear substitute teachers—who’d never had a substitute. The muted colors, simple palette, and the subject matter that is not as universally relatable as I—a Northern-born girl—might’ve thought didn’t endear her to the story. Nevertheless, I remembered this story from my childhood. Her parents remembered this story from their childhoods. That level of memorability should count for something.  Sweet Miss Nelson has an interesting way of dealing with the rowdy and disrespectful behavior of her class.  Miss Nelson disappears and is replaced by Miss Viola Swamp, who works the kids hard during lessons, assigns lots of homework, and cancels story hour.  All the children are grateful and more respectful of Miss Nelson when she finally returns.

***

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Goodnight Lab: A Scientific Parody by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

This is a parody of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon about a young, black, female scientist closing up her lab for the night. The illustrations mirror Goodnight Moon’s palette both on its color and its grayscale pages. I don’t think that this is a child’s book. This to me seems a niche book. This would be great for graduate and PhD students in scientific fields who will laugh at the “grumpy old professor (he’s white and male of course) shouting ‘publish.’” That joke and some of the lesser-known scientific instruments (I had to look up the use of one and have since forgotten its name since to me it was not more than a nonsense word) likely won’t stick with the average picture book’s audience.

**

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Do Not Take Your Dragon to Dinner by Julie Gassman and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Picture Window-Capstone, 2017. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

Strictly rhyming text goes over the ways that dragons can exhibit particularly poor table manners and what they should do to behave appropriately at dinner. The diversity in this series of brightly colored books is amazing, but I do wish there were more story to these.

***

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How to Get Your Teacher Ready by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This comes from the same team that brought us How to Babysit a Grandma and a Grandpa, How to Raise a Mom, How to Surprise a Dad, and How to Catch a Santa. The strange thing about this book to me is that the students seem to know more about the school and the classroom and the classes than the students do. Is this for classes that get a new teacher mid-school year? Is this for a whole class of student redoing the year? Are there schools where the class a) stays together and b) doesn’t change rooms but rather has a new teacher come to that classroom every year? It seems strange. That being said, in this book there’s a lot of great advice for classes and classroom management and school events. For that, it would be good for nervous kids on the first day of school. I like the diversity of this class.

***

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

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Winner of the 2017 Margaret Wise Brown Award in Children’s Literature, I read this one several times this month because I absolutely loved it. A new building doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t know what a school is. It develops a relationship with the janitor, an African American man. The building thinks maybe it is the janitor’s home. The school is nervous about school, nervous about being filled with children. The kids get everywhere. A few kids complain about school, one doesn’t want to come in at all. The school’s self-esteem sinks. In retaliation the school squirts one of them with a water fountain. The school feels badly about that. It accidentally sets off the fire alarms and feels worse about that. The school laughs with the kids at lunch, learns about shapes, and celebrates a girl’s portrait of him. It tells the janitor all about his day when he returns in the afternoon, and it asks the janitor to arrange for the kids to come back the next day. There’s clever word play in the text. There’s a clever way of rethinking about the world. The school is filled with a diverse cast (and a great number of Aidens), and the school itself is named after Frederick Douglass. An American flag flies outside the building, bright on the final page.

*****

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

Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex. Chronicle, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Nothing rhymes with orange, and Orange is feeling left out as every other fruit gets a sometimes outlandish line in this text. The illustrations look like motivational posters, mostly large text extolling the virtues of fruit, and then smaller fruits with drawn on, cartoonish expressions. Orange wanders into the book on page three or so and comments first that she’s here, she’s available, then more and more on the text itself and how outlandish its rhymes and messages are becoming. Why Nietzche is here I can’t explain either, Orange. The apple finally notices Orange’s despondence and comes to meet her with a rhyme, making up a word to fit her perfectly and rhyme perfectly with her name. Why the story turns into a still from a music video at the end I’m not sure either. In short, this was a strange book with a decent lesson about including everyone, even if you have to bend the rules to do so. But it is a very strange book. Some of the strangeness is endearing, and some of it is off-putting. I was on board with werewolf pears being saved be grapes in capes but Nietzche was just a strange choice even if it does rhyme with lychee and peachy. I had to look up pronunciations of some of the lesser-known fruits and ask a manager who to pronounce Zarathustra. The video I just finished watching mispronounced several words too. Pronunciation matters in this book because the whole point is rhyme. Beware aloud readers. On the other hand, because rhyme is so important here, this could be a good book on which to practice sounding out new words.

**

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

Life by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Grades PreK+.

I was excited to see a work by this pair, and the saturated blue of the cover definitely caught my eye. Life begins small, but it grows. Life is always changing, so even if it seems that everything is black, trust what every animal knows: that life is changing, that the blackness ends. The saturated illustrations, the stark contrasts on some pages, the animal portraits are all beautiful. I’m not sure that the toddlers in my audience quite understood the message that the story was trying to convey. This is one of those stories like Oh, the Places You’ll Go! that speaks perhaps more to adults and older children than to young ones, though thankfully this text does not take long to read (Oh, the Places You’ll Go! went on far too long for my audience), so the message itself is better packaged for young ears and shorter attention spans. The text may in fact be too short; it doesn’t give me as much time on each page as I’d maybe like to take. There is an implication that the book believes in evolution right at the very beginning, but it’s not explicit.

***

Trying New Things

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Black Belt Bunny by Jacky Davis and illustrated by Jay Fleck. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The text addresses the silent protagonist, Black Belt Bunny. Black Belt doesn’t want to learn how to make salad. He tries a lot to get out of it: hailing a cab, wearing a disguise…. He doesn’t want to learn new things. Finally Black Belt Bunny uses his karate skills to chop and shred and slice all kinds of vegetables. The bunny invites the reader to try his salad, but the lesson gets turned around on the reader. There’s arugula in the salad, and the reader doesn’t like arugula, but no, she’s never actually tried it. She does, and the salad is amazing. This is a clever way to present a lesson about trying new things and trying new foods, made exciting by front kicks, side kicks, karate chops, and punches.

****

Click to visit the series' site for links to order, summary, sample, trailer, and activity kit.

Peterrific by Victoria Kann. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

With Pinkalicious’ help, Peter builds a tower all the way to space. He wants to do it all by himself, but he allows Pinkalicious to visit all the neighborhood houses to borrow blocks. He will get a star for Mommy and one for Pinkalicious too because she asked. One problem. He’s not planned any way to get down from his tower. Innovation strikes in the nick of time, and he rescues himself by turning his blanket into a parachute.  His parents are impressed by his tower and encourage him to keep engineering better designs.

***

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

Quackers by Liz Wong. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Quackers is a duck, but he doesn’t like many of the same things that the other ducks do. He meets other ducks who tell him that they are cats, and Quackers finds that he has a lot in common with these cats. He enjoys his time with the cats but misses the duck pond, the duck food, and his duck friends. So he finds a way to be both a cat and a duck, to sometimes do cat things and sometimes do duck things. This to me seemed a lesser Not Quite Narwhal, not as adorably illustrated, not as funny, not as overtly a social commentary because Quackers avoids language that society has coded for coming out conversations. That last may endear some to Quackers more than Not Quite Narwhal. Being less coded does leave Quackers more open to broader interpretations: adoption maybe? I was glad to find one book like this. I’m more excited to find two. I like having options.

***

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

A New Friend for Sparkle by Amy Young. Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

I loved A Unicorn Named Sparkle, and was excited to see a sequel. In this, Lucy makes a new friend, and Sparkle feels rejected. The situation reverses when Sparkle and Cole bond. Sparkle and Cole find a way to include Lucy in their play, teaching her a new skill. This seems a good title to have in a family of two or more children, when play with new friends will often leave out siblings. I was not as enamored of this story as I was of the first, maybe because there was less humor, maybe because the lesson in the first seems less forced.

***

Seeing Things in a New Way

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Elephant and Piggie Like Reading: The Good for Nothing Button by Charise Mericle Harper and Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

Mo Willems has started a new imprint. This book is introduced by Gerald and Piggie. Piggie is reading the book and Gerald comes up to ask what she is reading. Yellow Bird has a button. He claims it does nothing. But it surprises Blue Bird, and it makes Red Bird sad when it does not surprise him, so in both cases it doesn’t do nothing; it does something. Yellow Bird gets more and more upset with his friends’ optimism. Yellow Bird reminds me of Pigeon and Red Bird and Blue Bird have Piggie’s optimism. The whole of the story is told in short, often one-word sentences in speech bubbles in much the same way as Elephant and Piggie stories are. Gerald and Piggie close out the book too, so its almost as though the reader is reading a story about Gerald and Piggie reading a story, a story within a story.

***

Water Everywhere

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This Beautiful Day by Richard Jackson and illustrated by Suzy Lee. Caitlyn Dlouhy-Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This text is more musical and more poetic than most. The illustrations are beautiful, beginning almost grayscale, but adding a bit of blue, then more and more colors as the rain clears and the sun returns. This is the story of a family who doesn’t let a day of rain spoil their fun but dance inside and outside of the house. The neighborhood joins them as the sun clears, and it seems as if there may be some magically flying umbrellas involved.  The text is less about what is happening in the illustrations, though, than about dancing and enjoying a gray day turned sunny and spent with friends and family.

*****

Click to visit the series' page for links to order, summary, sample, trailer, and activity kit.

Aqualicious by Victoria Kann. HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Pinkalicious and Peter are at the beach. While there, Pinkalicious finds a small mermaid—a merminnie—inside of a shell. Peter and Pinkalicious keep delaying Aqua’s return home. They build her a sandcastle, invite her to lunch, invite her to miniature golf, and Aqua teaches Pinkalicious to surf after Pinkalicious accuses Aqua of cheating at mini golf and gets angry. Aqua is snatched away by a seagull and Peter and Pinkalicious must rescue her. Only after that do the kids even try to bring her home, but then they wrongly assume that the ocean is her home, and imperil her again.

The kids don’t listen to Aqua through the whole of the day. Finally as the day is finishing, the kids return with Aqua to their parents, and Daddy, finally awake, explains that Aqua lives in an aquarium on the beach.

I don’t like how little Aqua is listened to, how even when the kids finally ask her where she lives, it’s their dad who speaks over Aqua and answers for her. The kids’ behavior is almost pardonable for being really fairly realistic. The dad’s behavior is also realistic (men are always talking over women) but inexcusable because he should know better, and his behavior hurts because of its realism, because there was a teachable moment there that was missed. It would have been so easy for one parent or the other to express surprise that neither kid had asked Aqua where she lived, where she had come from. Aqua makes it at the end seem as though she was trying to keep herself away from the aquarium all day, saying that she snuck out to discover, that curiosity is good, that humans are fun, but all day she has been asking to go home, and no one has been heeding her request.

There’s a lot of plot crammed into this story. The story itself is good, with excitement and lots of beach activities to excite a child preparing for a visit. The illustrations are wonderfully detailed, from the music notes on Aqua’s shell to the sea critters in the shallow water where Peter drops her.

I just can’t get behind the the plot.  I can’t support it.

**

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

Cloudette by Tom Lichtenheld. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

This is a really sweet story of a smaller than average cloud who enjoys the advantages of being small, but who still wants to do the important things that clouds do. She can’t find a way to be useful until she gets blown far away by a storm. At first it’s strange in this new neighborhood, but then she begins to make friends. There she finally finds someone that she can help, impressing everyone. Occasionally there are dialogue asides. There are several creative page layouts. The illustrations are beautiful. The story is uplifting with a good message for little readers.

*****

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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