Tag Archives: children’s

Book Review: Ender’s Game Alive Springboards My Dive into the Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, behind the scenes videos, and full cast list.

Time for one more reader’s confession: I’ve never before read an Orson Scott Card novel (though I did once read a book of literary criticism about Severus Snape to which he contributed). I was only vaguely aware of the plot of Ender’s Game. The novel and Ender’s Shadow have been sitting on my bookcase for years, but they never seemed to be the books that I wanted to read. As I work through the Valley libraries’ collections of audiobooks, I am also working my way through the books and authors that I probably ought to have already read.

When I found this version of Ender’s Game, Ender’s Game Alive, rewritten by Card as an audioplay, I couldn’t resist. During my brief stint as a London resident, I became fond of radio dramas. My host mother sometimes left the radio on, and I would enjoy snippets from the lives of fictional characters while I cooked or ate. Where that was written to be enjoyed in snippets, to catch a listener up quickly if she’d missed a few episodes, Card wrote Ender’s Game Alive to be enjoyed as a collected whole (more what I expect from an audiobook than a radio drama). Had I skipped a few segments of Ender’s Game, I think I would have been wholly lost.

I was however able to follow and enjoy this dramatization without having read Ender’s Game or having had any other introduction to Ender’s world.

My roommate will tell you that I quite a few nights came home complaining about this dramatization. I was annoyed at the ickiness that the physical fights made me feel, the squeeze of my stomach at the groaning, squelching, cracking, grunting, ringing sound effects. I was distraught as I realized what was happening before Ender did. I was disconcerted by the similarities between Peter’s intentions for Locke and Demosthenes and the nationalism and demagoguery of today. All of that probably means that I really enjoyed this drama and disliked being away from it when I had to turn off the car.

For those who are unaware as I was of the plot Ender’s Game: After Earth’s first two wars with an alien species called the Formics, genius children from every country are monitored to determine their usefulness to the International Fleet (IF). Ender Wiggin is one of these geniuses, the third child in his family, allowed by the government despite a law limiting families to two children because his two siblings both showed such promise before being ruled unfit for combat. Because one officer, Colonel Graff, decides that the Ender is the One, he is taken to Battle School at a younger age than is average and proves himself again and again a creative and unbeatable commander of the other children in their mock battles against rival commanders and armies despite the odds being continually stacked against him by Graff and the other adults in order to speed his training. He rises very swiftly up the ranks, ultimately joining Commander’s School, where he is eventually reunited with some of his friends from Battle School, and they are tested with a string of rigorous battles, each commanding fleets, and Ender commanding the commanders.

By contrasting Ender with Mazer Rackham, an independent thinker who operates best alone and with all of the less successful commanders in Battle School and with his two siblings who were never given the chance to try, Card says an amazing amount about the type of commander that he believes is best. Ender is an independent thinker, but operates best with a team of loyal friends, whose trust he has earned, and with whom he spends time and maintains relationships.

At some point within the novel, Graff admits that it is Ender’s capacity for love (for his sister and for humanity) that make Ender the One leader that humanity has needed. He values friendship and values cooperation more so than many of the other leaders of Battle School. Soldiers become friends and become loyal to him instead of merely obeying his orders out of fear or duty. As often as he can, he will avoid conflict, but when he does fight, he is calculating and vicious, making sure that battle need only happen once and that he will be victorious.

The ending of the book reminds readers that war is always a tragedy, that diplomacy should always be attempted, that the defeated of any battle are not nameless nor faceless nor without their own victories and histories, that winners of wars are not left untainted and unscarred by their victory.

This version of the tale is largely “narrated” by Colonel Graff and Major Jayadi, a character who seems to have been created for this dramatization (again, this is my introduction to Ender’s world), and whose role seems mainly to be as a child psychologist. The two bicker over Ender’s care and dissect his thoughts and actions from videos from his feed and then from surveillance videos at Battle School. It’s an excellent way to get around not having any actual narration, a way to show both thoughts and action while the reader is allowed only dialogue and sound effects—although such a go-around is largely only possible within a science-fiction such as this. With a huge cast and no dialogue tags, that each character has a specific voice actor helps to keep the cast straight. The child voice actors don’t sound as young as the characters that they claim to be, but this is much as films and television series almost always cast characters in adaptations as older, particularly when these children are asked to take on adult problems. The different accents here help not only to keep the voices distinct but also to underline the I in the IF. I appreciate that Card’s wonderfully diverse cast, that he didn’t let the chance at international cooperation slide past (despite knowing that after this novel, the countries of the world descend again into chaos). One of Ender’s commanders is one of only a few girls in the IF. One of his commanders is a Muslim from North Africa who references Allah and uses Arabic within the text. Another is Jewish and Israeli. Another grew up as an urchin on the streets of Rotterdam. One of the first children in Battle School to be kind to Ender is Japanese. The values and histories of each character’s home nation are allowed to inform the character.

I was struck in this book by Card’s decision to give the kids of the novel power through language. Ender denies his given name, Andrew, in favor of the name that his sister called him before she could say Andrew. The adults of the novel recognize that Ender is the name that he calls himself and so use this name. It’s the children’s Battle School slang that gets adopted by the adults as they spend more time with Ender. His team, for example, is called a jeesh, a term first used and defined by Alai, an enemy of Ender’s who becomes one of his closest friends.

I think because of how this story echoes today’s politics, I can’t let it go. I continue thinking about it, two weeks later, and am drawn to Card’s newest book, Children of the Fleet, despite not having read any intervening novels. I’ve begun another of his audiobooks already.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game Alive: The Full-Cast Audioplay. Exec. Prod. Steve Feldberg and Wil Snape. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki, Gabrielle de Cuir, and Mike Charzuk. Dir. Gabrielle de Cuir. Skyboat-Brilliance with Audible, 2013. Audioplay, 7 CDs.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Skyboat Media, Brilliance Audio, Inc, Audible, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audioplay.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Reviews: October 2017: Picture Book Roundup: Celebrities, Halloween, Loving, and One Last Book About Trains

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Old Friends

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

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. HarperFestival-HarperCollins, 2001. First published 1947. Intended audience: Ages 0-4.

I can’t possibly review this book properly. I am biased. This is a classic, and Margaret Wise Brown is my alma mater’s perhaps most prestigious alumna. Who didn’t grow up on Goodnight Moon? It’s only really within the last decade (good Lord, that’s painful to write) that I’ve gone back and really paid much attention to the book. After graduating out of picture books, I didn’t return to Goodnight Moon until I began college, and I really did a deeper study of it when I wrote a parody as part of Hollins’ Margaret Wise Brown Festival of 2012. The text is deceptively simple. A small bunny says goodnight to everything in his room and everything he can see. And some that he can’t see. “Goodnight air” he says and “Goodnight nobody.”  As an adult, there’s less innocence to this book.  When you really question those lines, it’s a touch frightening.

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

Good Day, Good Night by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Loren Long. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

With a bunny and a bedroom that emulates but doesn’t entirely mimic Hurd’s illustrations from Goodnight Moon, this little bunny first greets the sun’s first light then his town and his friends. He then spends the second half of the book saying goodnight to them all. Some of the text of the second half echoed Goodnight Moon too. The two halves are split by a single line imploring the reader to seize the day (which Long illustrates with a game of soccer). Loren Long’s illustrations are maybe a little more muted but her color palette much broader than Hurd’s. The illustrations are detailed, complete, rather beautiful.

**** 

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

The Poky Little Puppy’s Wonderful Winter Day by Jean Chandler and illustrated by Sue Dicicco. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 2017. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

The poky puppy lags behind all of his brothers and sisters as they wake up, eat up, go out to play, and come back home. The poky puppy lingers to play with children. This is a decent book about playing outside on a snowy day. I didn’t know about this sequel to The Poky Little Puppy and nor did the parents at my story time.

***

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

The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005. First published 1984.

This book reminded me of “The Rattlin’ Bog” and all of the camp songs like it. There’s a flea on the mouse and the mouse on the cat and the cat on a dog and the dog on the child and the child on the granny and the granny in the bed and the bed in the napping house where everyone is sleeping. There’s more to the rhythm than that, adjectives attached to each character: a cozy bed, a snoring granny, a dreaming child. The flea wakes the cat and one by one each character wakes the other until everyone is awake, the sun is up, and now it is a napping house where no one is sleeping. The illustrations are detailed both in the drapery and then in the subtle color change as the sun comes up and more and more characters awaken.

***

New Friends

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Little Penguin and the Lollipop by Tadgh Bentley. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Age 4-8.

The little penguin is back! And he has eaten Kenneth’s lollipop. Kenneth is pretty upset, and the little penguin wants to make it up to Kenneth, but nothing little penguin has tried has worked. This book like its predecessor calls for audience participation. The little penguin addresses his audience, and he asks for the audience’s help in making the funniest faces possible while saying “razzle dazzle lollipop.” Even that doesn’t work to cheer up Kenneth. In the end, the little penguin replaces Kenneth’s lollipop, but he’s still not good at looking before he takes, so while he may have learned how to make it up to a friend after you take something of his… he might still have some work and some more apologizing to do.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, trailer, educator's guide, and activities.

Bruce’s Big Move by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Bruce is back too! And he is fed up with the mice that have infested his house. He does the only logical thing there is to do to remedy the situation. Since he doesn’t seem able to kick the mice out of the house, he decides that he and his geese are moving house. He finally finds a good, rodent-free home, but his geese don’t seem themselves. They’re sad and upset. Until the mice arrive. And Bruce realizes that the house is not a home without these often-annoying members of his odd family. This is perhaps the shortest book of Higgins’ books yet. After the brilliance of Be Quiet! this story honestly fell a little flat to me, but I’m glad it’s better for my average story time attendee.

***

Click to visit the author's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, trailer, author reading, and reviews.

Max and Bird by Ed Vere. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

I have grown fond of Max the Brave, the little black kitten who knows that he is supposed to hunt mice, but doesn’t actually know what a mouse looks like. I’ve read it for a few different story times. Needing another quick story for a recent story time, I grabbed this, the most recent in the series. In this, Max knows that he’s supposed to chase and eat birds. This time he’s found a bird, and he wants to be friends with the bird. He tells his new friend the bird that first he will chase and then eat them, and Bird understandably complains that that is not what friends do. I was a bit put off by this discussion of violence in a picture book, though as Max says, it is a rule of nature that kittens chase birds. I knew though from the moment that I read it that it would end with the two as friends and neither being eaten. I’m glad I was not proved wrong in that supposition. The two make a deal: First Max will help the bird learn to fly then they’ll decide about the chasing and the eating. Since neither knows how to fly, they visit the library. They study for weeks. Nothing happens for days, but finally bird takes off. True to his word, Bird offers to be Max’s tasty snack now that Max has taught him to fly, but Max decides that he doesn’t want to eat his friend after all. This book betrays its British heritage with a few phrases that are odd for Americans, but completely comprehendible. Vere illustrates his books very simply, the characters comprising mostly of their shape and of overlarge eyes. He uses only a limited palette.

****

Real Life Celebrities

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The Little Grumpy Cat Who Wouldn’t illustrated by Steph Laberis. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

We all know Grumpy Cat? A happy butterfly, a cheerful ladybug, and a joyful bird want her to play, but Grumpy Cat doesn’t want to play with them. She ultimately tricks them into thinking that she will race them, and the other animals race off without her. “Good.” The book uses many of the lines from Grumpy Cat memes. The book did get some twitters of laughter from my audience.

***

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

A is for Awful: A Grumpy Cat ABC Book by Christy Webster and illustrated by Steph Laberis. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

This was the better of the two Grumpy Cat Little Golden Books that we read. This one is an alphabet book. It seems a relatively normal alphabet primer—A is for ants, B is for butterfly—but Grumpy Cat grumpily comments on the text of the alphabet book, her comments utilizing that letter as much as possible within the sentence, clearly fully aware of the book’s intention to cover the whole of the alphabet and drag her through each illustration up till Z. This too utilizes many lines from the Grumpy Cat memes. This one got giggles too.

****

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

A Night Out with Mama by Quvenzhané Wallis and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Annie, 12 Years a Slave, Trolls) writes about her night at the Academy Awards. It’s honestly a delightful, relatable story. A young girl in new shoes, tap, tap, tapping down the hall, excited for the day and waking her whole family to be excited with her. Because it’s such a big day, someone comes to help her get ready, a limousine comes for her and Mama, and though she doesn’t win, she still enjoys the night out. Vanessa Brantley-Newton does a fabulous job with these illustrations and Wallis writes with a poetry and musicality beyond some adult writers.

*****

Loving and Respecting Others and Yourself

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The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty and illustrated by Thomas Docherty. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 3+

This pair wowed me before with their book The Storybook Knight. Snatchabook was their first book together, but somehow I’d missed it. I think it was before I became one of the story time readers at any Barnes & Noble. This book tells in rhyming couplets of bookworm Eliza Brown’s real-life mystery. The books are all disappearing from Burrow Down, and Eliza lays out a trap to catch the thief. She catches a creature called a Snatchabook, who steals books because he has no one to read to him. Eliza convinces him to return all of the books, and gets all of the residents of Burrow Down to agree to let the Snatchabook join them from their bedtime stories whenever he likes. In this way, the residents of Burrow Down get their books back, and the Snatchabook gets someone to read to him. The illustrations use lots of colors for shading. Details make it fun to linger on the pages or revisit them.

****

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Skin Again by bell hooks and illustrated by Chris Raschka. Jump at the Sun-Hyperion-Disney, 2004.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I was reminded reading this of Paige Britt’s Why Am I Me?  Where Britt makes the similarity between different characters the very humanity and reasoning they have in thinking the same questions about themselves, hooks merely says look for the similarity inside.  That I think was where hooks lost me.  I got a call to action–great.  But I missed the second step, the guidance from the wise mentor if you will, if I can put a life’s journey into the steps of a hero’s journey.  And having only that call and no concrete direction left me wanting more.  The text of this book and the idea of the book were abstract, and the language hooks uses didn’t help to solidify the idea.  The idea is that we are not our skin but what is inside (and that’s the type of language that hooks uses, language that I think my usual toddler audience would not follow), that the skin is only a covering that cannot tell a story, for that you have to “come inside.”  I like the idea.  No, I love the idea.  We need more books about common humanity.  But I think I needed some more concrete language or more concrete illustrations maybe to help with the abstract language.  (I enjoyed too the illustrations of Britt’s book done by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls better than Raschka’s.)  There’s a poetry to the text, sure (in fact I thought at first that maybe this was an illustrated poem and I think maybe the text might have worked better alone as a poem than as an illustrated picture book with pages breaks and breaks in thought as one pauses to admire and dissect too the illustrations).  Maybe I need to read it again aloud.  Maybe the rhythm of the text means more aloud, and it becomes easier to see past the repetition and vagueness.  Whatever stumbling blocks this book has, though, it is still important.

***

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

May I Please Have a Cookie? by Jennifer E. Morris. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2005. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

This leveled reader leapt into my hand one rough night when I passed by the free library. The title perfectly captured my mood. What I found inside was less a story about cookies and more of a story about manners. Alfie tries several ways to get a cookie, but his mother insists that he think of a better way to get one. Ultimately after crying and Mommy gently reminding him by asking politely for one of the paper cookies that he has made, Alfie figures out what she means, asks politely, and receives a cookie, and a snuggle. It’s a sweet story with expressive, brightly colored alligators (crocodiles?). (But admittedly it was not the story that I needed when I first read it.) It would be a fun book for teaching manners with plenty of humor in the outlandish schemes Alfie hatches to try to get a cookie.

***

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

Sarabella’s Thinking Cap by Judy Schachner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

Though from the creator of Skippyjon Jones, this is a very different book: softer illustrations, a more inspiring than hilarious message. Sarabella is always thinking about the most extraordinary things (seriously, the illustrations are amazingly detailed and beautiful with text to match), but she doesn’t speak much. Her daydreaming gets her into trouble at school and at home. Her teacher assigns them to a project that allows Sarabella to express her thoughts and daydreams. She wows the class with her thinking hat and makes a friend. My toddlers had a hard time concentrating on this story. It was long and there wasn’t a lot of humor to engage them, but the adults in the audience (myself included) were enthralled. My kids’ attention wandered away before the last few pages, but I read quickly because the parents and I wanted to know how it ended, to see the last few pages of Schachner’s beautiful artwork.

****

Zombies, Frights, and Pumpkins

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

Peanut Butter & Aliens: A Zombie Culinary Tale by Joe McGee and illustrated by Charles Santoso. Harry N. Abrams, 2017.

In this sequel to Peanut Butter & Brains, the town of Quirkville, where zombies and humans have come together over a love of peanut butter and jelly, is invaded by aliens. The aliens speak another language. No one understands. Each establishment tries to offer them a different food, and each person who does so gets covered in cosmic grape jelly. Just as the aliens are getting ready to storm town hall, Reginald the Zombie and Abigail Zink, the smartest girl in town, realize that of course, aliens that squirt jelly must be after peanut butter. They assuage the aliens with a jar of peanut butter, and the aliens settle down to start a peanut butter and cosmic grape jelly sandwich restaurant. While the message about bonding over similarities despite obvious differences and even different languages is a good one, I wanted something more from this story. Maybe more to the story than episodes of different foods being refused by the aliens.

***

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

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. Simon & Schuster, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Jasper Rabbit is not a little bunny anymore. His mother may be perturbed by the ghoulish, greenish glow and toothy grin of the creepy underwear, but he’s not; he thinks they’re cool. So she agrees that they can buy one pair. And of course Jasper wears them first thing. But the ghoulish, greenish glow keeps him up at night. He tries to bury them in the hamper. He tries to bury them in the garbage. He tries to bury them deep underground. They keep showing up whatever he does. Even cutting them into confetti doesn’t stop the underwear from returning, whole.  He finally succeeds in keeping them gone. But the darkness is too overwhelming, so he relents, retrieves the underwear, and buys more pairs. His creepy underwear becomes a friend, keeping the dark at bay. This book makes good use of page breaks and good use of the different text layouts. The book has a message that even big rabbits can be scared of the dark and that first impressions aren’t always right. The ghoulish, greenish glow becomes a gentle, greenish glow when Jasper’s impression of the underwear changes.  I was surprised I enjoyed this one so much, and surprised that reading to kids about underwear with underwear on every page didn’t this time for this book feel awkward.

****

Click to visit Barnes & Noble's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, and reviews.

The Legend of Spookley the Square Pumpkin by Joe Troiano and illustrated by Susan Banta. Barnes & Noble, 2009. First published 2001. Intended audience: PreK-2.

The other pumpkins make fun of square Spookley, and Spookley wishes he was round too so he could roll with the other pumpkins in the patch. But one night in a storm, his squareness, what makes him different, saves nearly everyone in the patch. He volunteers to help the others because he knows that he can because of his difference. After that night, the pumpkins and the farmer recognize Spookley’s specialness. The next year, the farmer plants mostly Spookley’s seed, and the pumpkins that sprout are all different: different colors, some polka dotted, some square, some triangular, some flat. Visitors come to the farm for these unique pumpkins. This book too is told in rhyming couplets. The message is a little heavy handed, but because it’s such an important one, I’m not upset by it. I actually rather like the call at the end to tell friends Spookley’s message in the hopes that the world will become a little kinder.

****

Trains

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

Trains Don’t Sleep by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum and illustrated by Deirdre Gill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

This was the surprise winner of our story time, my favorite for that week (which included The Napping House and the two Margaret Wise Brown books reviewed here) and the favorite of one the little girls who is one of my regulars. The story is rhythmic, musical, rhyming. The illustrations are beautiful, reminiscent of an older style of travel poster, soft and pastel but with contrast and creative angles. The book mentions different types of trains and train cars without overtly drawing attention to its educational bent. In the back it has more information on each of the cars mentioned, a smaller copy of the page on which each appears with a paragraph beneath. The story ends with a goodnight for readers, for travelers on the rails, though one last page emphasizes that trains don’t sleep.  Seriously, I don’t love trains, but I’d like prints of these illustrations (coincidentally, they are available on Etsy).

*****

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: 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

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

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.

***

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

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.

**

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

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.

***

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

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.

***

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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.

***

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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.

*****

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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: July 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Was It Orange?

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I have to issue another apology to the authors whose books I read in July.  July is when I broke my arm.  July is when my head was fuzziest from pain and painkillers.  I may not be able to provide the detailed reviews that these books deserve, but I am reviewing them all nonetheless, and I hope my reviews will pique others’ interest in these books.

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Barnaby Never Forgets by Pierre Collet-Derby. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grades PreK-3.

Barnaby thinks he remembers the important things—and he does, though his follow-through needs a little work. While in his monologue Barnaby tells the reader all of the things that he remembers, the illustrations betray all the things that he forgets. He always feeds his grasshoppers, but he forgets to close the cage so there are now grasshoppers everywhere. He always remembers ice cream night, but he forgets to close the freezer door. Barnaby admits that he’s not perfect. He has overdue library books, and once he forgot to put the trash into the can, but overall, this bunny thinks that he’s responsible. The action of the book primarily takes place while Barnaby readies himself for school. When he arrives, no one is there. Why? (Highlight to reveal spoilers.)It’s Saturday! And Barnaby forgot his trousers. I really enjoyed the illustrations. I really enjoyed Barnaby as a character, his buoyant personality and his voice. Barnaby’s plight is relatable, though the ending is a little trite, even though it’s sure to get a laugh from the book’s intended audience.

****

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Dog on a Frog? by Kes and Claire Gray and illustrated by Jim Field. Scholastic, 2017.

This British trio originally named the book Oi, Dog! but here in the U.S., “Oi!” isn’t vernacular you expect children to know—not yet. Usually cats sit on mats, and frogs sit on logs, and dogs sit on frogs. That’s the rule. But Frog doesn’t like that rule at all, so he’s changing all the rules. His rhymes get more and more ridiculous. The humor of the book comes from that and the corresponding illustrations. The laughs come easily.

****

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Up and Down by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2010. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Paired with Jeffers’ ever-delightful illustrations, in this book, the penguin wants to learn to fly. The boy tries to help, but nothing is working. As they are seeking expert advice, the penguin believes he has found his answer, and rushes off without his friend, without a word to him. The two become separated and worry about each other. As the penguin begins to worry about flying—and more importantly about landing—the two reunite, just in time for the boy to catch the penguin. This book is gentler than most. There’s no dialogue. I think that takes away some of the immediacy of friendship books like Mo Willems’. This one probably makes a better bedtime story for that though.

****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order and sample illustrations.

Cheer Up, Ben Franklin! by Misti Kenison. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

While certainly marketed for toddlers, this book could be appealing and helpful to readers of all ages. In one sentence each, Kenison highlights some of the major players in the American Revolution, the ones that kids will hear more about later in school textbooks. Much if not all of the context is removed, but context is not the point, and for those who want to delve deeper, there’s a paragraph for each character in the back as well as a timeline showing the characters’ parts in the American Revolution. Instead of making this a story about a war, this is a story about Ben looking for a playmate. He wants to fly his kite, but everyone is busy. Betsy Ross is sewing a flag. Alexander Hamilton is counting money. Paul Revere is riding his horse. In the final pages, everyone meets back up, John Hancock signs his name, and they all celebrate with fireworks. I’ve fallen in love with these simple, bright illustrations and these simple illustrations of important figures. I like that women and people of color are included too.  Where’s Your Hat, Abe Lincoln? is the next in this series.  Watch for a review of that here.

*****

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An Elephant and Piggie Book: Watch Me Throw the Ball! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2009. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I’m sure I’ve read this one before, but I somehow never reviewed it. Gerald believes that throwing a ball takes skill and practice. But Piggie believes that the key to throwing a ball is having fun. Who’s right? Told with a lot of repetition and no contractions, the books in this series make great early readers, and they have plenty of humor in the illustrations and story to make the short story a good and fun one.

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

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I Broke My Trunk! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I broke my arm. And this seemed like the perfect book to read when I did my first story time after coming back to work. Because I love Elephant and Piggie books, and I could relate to Gerald’s story. Gerald’s story gets crazier and sillier as each page goes on. This book sort of downplays the seriousness and the pain and the fear of breaking a bone. It makes it seem almost a silly thing.  For some kids that might be helpful, but this may not be the book you need when trying to reassure a child who has broken a bone of her own.

(I’ve honestly gotten to the point where I can’t rate Elephant and Piggie books subjectively).

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: June 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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I have to issue an apology to several authors and illustrators that I read in June. Having broken my arm and having been knocked off my game for several months afterward, some of these books, particularly some of these toddler books I just don’t remember well enough to do much justice to the reviews and I’m afraid I’ll have to skip reviewing one in this batch, Eric Hill’s Spot Loves Bedtime. For any that I can reconstruct my impressions from even reading others’ reviews and available previews I will do that. It’s possible that all of these reviews may not be as detailed as they have been for some other months.

Toddler Time

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Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 0-2.

Reading reviews on Goodreads, there is one that I think really hits the nail on the head: With the wealth of board books tackling impossibly complicated concepts, like quantum physics and government, how is it that this is one of the first I’ve seen to openly tackle the misunderstood concept of feminism? Mostly this is a book about liking what you like and not being forced to present oneself in any particular way because of one’s gender. Feminist baby likes pink and blue. She’s messy and sometimes gross. She’s a person more than she is a gender. I hadn’t realized that this board book is born of a comic series by the artist, though I’d seen the comics before shared on social media sites. That helps a little, but I still wish there had been more of a call for intersectionality in this board book, though that may well be because I’m used to hearing that critique leveled at modern, white feminism; I maybe shouldn’t expect from a board book what modern feminist movements are themselves struggling to incorporate, though I want to push our definitions and the actions of feminism towards its ideal manifestation. The feminist label is going to turn some off; it already has done, but there again is that same misunderstanding of feminism, which is by definition a call for equality for all regardless of gender (or race, class, or any other categorization ideally). I’m thinking now about the board books that I’ve read. There are many that feature animals or anthropomorphized objects as protagonists. There are many that have no protagonist, that feature many children or babies of different genders and races. The few that I’m recalling with female protagonists are pinker and more princess-oriented than naught, books like Katz’ Princess Baby or Grandma Kisses. Both Caroline Jayne Church’s and Joanna Cole’s I’m a Big Sister (the two books have the same title) feature a child with pink bows in her hair, and both children wear pink plaid; how weird is that? I like this book, and I really like that this book exists, but we can do better.

***

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Hello, Lamb by Jane Cabrera. Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This is an animal and animal sounds primer. It begins with the sun, but quickly moves into baby farm animals, their forms only their round faces, and their greeting paired with their sound. “Hello, piglet. Oink Oink.” It ends on the image of a baby. The round-faced illustrations are bright and eye-catching without being overwhelmingly bright.

***

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A Letter to Daddy by Igloo Books-Bonnier-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I wanted to give a quick shout-out to this Barnes & Noble bargain book, because it’s difficult to find reference to it. This is a sweet story about a little bear who misses his dad when he has to go away, so he writes letters to his dad about all the things that he and his mother are doing while Daddy is away. The story is really sweet, and I like the illustration style.

****

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Buzzy Bee: A Slide-and-Seek Book by Emma Parrish. Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This book was a hit at story time. The bright illustrations are accompanied by sliding panels that extend up and sideways from the book and the backsides of the panels extend the illustrations on the following page. The book is a look and find where the bee is only on one of the last pages. The panels highlight characters in larger scenes, acting like a magnifying glass. The plot uses alliteration in describing those characters, making this a good book to work on sounds associated with letters.

*****

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Good Night, Little Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth-Simon & Schuster, 2017. First published 2012. Intended audience: Ages 1-4, Grades PreK-K.

I’m glad more books from the Rainbow Fish series are making their way to America. This is another book about a parent reassuring their little one of their eternal love, much like Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You because in this the Rainbow Fish does not doubt his mother’s love because of things that he will do, but doubts that she will be there for him when bad things happen. These are all very watery things: being carried away by the tide, being caught in the tentacles of a jellyfish, but all of these are translatable enough to the world above. The story is framed as a bedtime story, with Rainbow Fish being unable to sleep for his fears. The story features the same shining scales that I loved as a child, and this being a story of Rainbow Fish as a child, he still has all his shining scales so there’s a lot of shimmer on each page. Being a toddler book, this book is much shorter than its parent story, The Rainbow Fish.

**** 

Older Audiences

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Daddy Honk Honk! by Rosalinde Bonnet. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This was introduced to me as a good book for adoptive families. A male Arctic fox, Aput, becomes parent to a goose when the egg hatches. He brings the newborn around to other families in the Arctic but none of them have room for another, though they bestow gifts and wisdom on the traveling pair. Ultimately, Aput accepts his role as “Daddy” and the Arctic shows up to throw the new family a party in celebration. It is refreshing to see a book in an infrequently used environment with names appropriate to the area. There are some similarities to be made to Ryan T. HigginsMother Bruce franchise, but this book has more in the way of useful parenting advice and focuses more on the love that the fox develops for its adopted goose than on humorous situations that arise from the adoption.

****

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

The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-MacMillan, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The repetition of “I’m a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face so I spread the dreary-wearies all over the place. Blub, Blub, Blub” gets to be a little much pretty quickly, though it’s fun to see how glum you can make the refrain sound—and oh my! does it stick in your head! The whole of the book is told in rhyming lines. Fish of the sea approach the Pout-Pout Fish and tell him that he should smile, but it takes one fish from another part coming to him and kissing his face to cheer him up and to turn him into a “kiss-kiss fish” too. The two end up kissing one another on the lips at the end, though every other kiss, including the one that first cheers him up first, seem more platonic. There is some danger in normalizing kissing as a greeting in our society. Though I hate that it is so, it seems remiss not to point out the potential danger, the ways this book and that concept could be used nefariously.  All of the kissing is likely only meant create an excuse for a parent reading to kiss their child.  Maybe because I read to children not my own, I see the danger in extending these lessons beyond family.

But I’m not sure that I can approve either of using the Pout-Pout Fish’s melancholy as a point of humor or a point of contention, a negative trait in the story, because the Pout-Pout Fish’s permanent frown and glum demeanor seem like symptoms of depression to me.  The whole book seem examples of people reacting poorly to a character with depression–until the Kiss-Kiss Fish arrives.  Her response to his depression while more understanding and compassionate, sets a precedent for believing that depression can be cured by a kiss, which is again dangerous in its inaccuracy.

Basically, I wish this book had far less kissing and far better reactions to a melancholic and likely depressed fish, that it didn’t use his depression as both the story’s problem and its humor.

**

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

The Pout-Pout Fish Far, Far from Home by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-MacMillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

Now cheered up, the Pout-Pout Fish is going on his first vacation. There’s a new mantra in this one: “I’m a fish who loves to travel. I’m a fish who loves to roam. And I’m having an adventure on my trip away from home!” The Pout-Pout Fish encounters several bumps on his trip but is always helped by locals who know the area. Despite its hiccups because of the help that he receives, that part of the adventure is fun. But he arrives at his destination to find that he forgot the creature (part-nightlight, part-stuffy, maybe a pet? Don’t look into that too carefully, I guess) that he sleeps with, and it seems that the vacation is ruined, but he decides to hold it “in his heart” though they’re apart and ends up having a fantastic vacation. And his creature is at home, waiting for him, when he gets back. This book covers several problems that a child could encounter while traveling—though some of the problems are more likely to be problems for adults than for children (detours, specifically)—and that makes it relevant. It fills a niche—two niches with the problem too of a missing sleep-buddy, which can happen while traveling but also at home.

****

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

Great, Now We’ve Got Barbarians! by Jason Carter Eaton and illustrated by Mark Fearing. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, PreK-3.

Mom’s upset because of the mess that her little boy leaves in the house, particularly food mess. She complains that they will get pests. But they don’t get ants or flies or mice. They get Vlad, a hulking, Viking-like man who demands an entire cupcake. Mom quickly puts him out, but then comes Torr, “seeking glory and cheese curls.” More and more barbarians invade the house. There is a page that shames men who wear make-up, which isn’t cool, Eaton. Otherwise, this is a funny story with funny illustrations and a good message about cleaning up after oneself. I wonder if this story was born of someone mentioning a pest invasion, and Eaton thinking about what else is known for invasion. Faced with having to move to escape the infestation (perhaps calling an exterminator was a little un-cool too, Eaton; the metaphor can only extend so far, and that might’ve been a step over the line; barbarians are human, and humans shouldn’t be exterminated), the little boy cleans the house, and the barbarians sulk away.

***

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

Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Divya Srinivasan. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I was really excited when I saw the beautiful cover of this book, harkening to Indian art and featuring Neil Gaiman’s name, guaranteeing it more press and a wider audience. This text was previously released in 2004 as an audio of a short story as part of The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection. That the text was not originally intended for a picture book unfortunately shows; it’s longer than your average picture book and seems to have been written for an older audience, both from the syntax and the content, which is at times grim (Grimm). Its phrases do some of the work of conjuring the image which is less necessary in text intended for a picture book.  The text is beautiful though with many excellent lines. It’s a Beauty and the Beast story in the end, with the young girl, who had nothing to say so never spoke, learning to speak and to love the speaking tiger that moves like a god, and going with him to the jungle to further her education. This is a beautiful story, the illustrations are beautiful, but it is a picture book for an older audience.

****

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Curious George Cleans Up / Jorge el curioso limpia el reguero by Stephen Krensky and adapted from the world of H. A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007. Intended audience: Grade PreK-3.

This is another bilingual book from which I read only the English to my story time audience. George and the Man with the Yellow Hat get a new rug. George spills a glass of grape juice on the rug, and he tries to clean it up with paper towels, then many types of soap and a garden hose. He does manage to clean up the spill then most of the water too. This is mostly a silly story. You could laud George for acting responsibly and trying to clean up his mess, but there’s a lesson here too to be made about knowing when to go to grown-up for help; I know few grown-ups who would be glad to walk into a waterlogged house, even if it did take care of a juice stain on a new rug.

***

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Rulers of the Playground by Joseph Kuefler. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Jonah proclaims himself king of the playground. His tendency to make demands and keep an unfair portion for himself makes Lennox angry, and she declares herself queen and claims the swings. She makes demands too and is impatient for her turn on the swings. The two monarchs compete against one another for more and more land. Their friends abandon the two rulers because of their competition. Realizing that they’ve chased everyone away, they give away their power and share the playground with everyone. With a diverse cast of characters, this story provides a good lesson about sharing and about making demands on others’ time and on public places, though it seems that Augustine and Sir Humphrey Hamilton Hildebrand III don’t learn the lesson well.

***

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Blue Sky White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

With little text, this is a visual stunner (as much of Kadir Nelson’s work is). The illustrations and text compare aspects of the American flag to moments in American history and places in the American imagination. The blue background and white stars become the night sky above the Statue of Liberty. The red and white stripes becomes maples in fall and lines of covered wagons heading West. Timely, needed, this book pays tribute to those who tried to make America great and the diversity and persistent striving towards equality that make America great now.

*****

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

If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2017.

Magnolia’s back and this time she wants to hold a circus in the library, to the chagrin of the librarians. There’s a tongue and cheek reference to writing clear advertisements. A sign that says “You can do anything at the library!” doesn’t mean you can hold a circus there or cheer or clap or boo or hand out concessions; it means you can sit and read a book. This is a fun way to go over library rules.

***

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

You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This book is set after the original Rainbow Fish; every fish but Red Fin, a newcomer, has one of the shiny scales that were originally Rainbow Fish’s.  Rainbow Fish and his sparkling friends are playing hide-and-seek, but Rainbow Fish isn’t winning, and he decides to quit and sulk away. Red Fin comes to him, and with her help, Rainbow Fish realizes that his sore losing has spoiled the game for his friends. He apologizes and continues the game.  This is an important lesson for young ones.

***

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

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, 2012. First published 1963. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Believe it or not, this was my first time reading this story, at least that I remember. I was surprised that it went over so well with my young audience (newly three years old). It’s a short story, perfect for shorter attention spans. This is a dream (nightmare?) story. Sent to bed with no supper after causing mischief in the house and telling his mother that he’d eat her up, Max is having fun as the king of the Wild Things until he misses his mother and her love, and he goes home to find his supper waiting for him in his room. There’s some beautiful language in the prose, and while there’s some internal rhyme, it doesn’t rely on that rhyme to keep the story moving.

*****

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

Shorty & Clem by Michael Slack. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Like Elephant and Piggie, this is a story of two friends who know one another very well. A package arrives for Clem while Clem is away, and Shorty has to know what’s inside of it. Knowing that he shouldn’t open Clem’s mail, Shorty shakes and jumps and beats on the box until it opens. He thinks Clem will be upset, but when Clem gets back, he explains that it was a gift for Shorty and that he knew that Shorty would be unable to resist opening it. Reviewers on Goodreads are calling Clem’s behavior manipulative–and maybe I can see that view–but I know that I too try to guess what’s in a friend’s package when I see one arrive at the door.  Mostly I was pleased that Clem wasn’t upset with Shorty, that he accepted and expected his friend’s shortcoming.

****

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: May 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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Sequels and Series

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

The Berenstain Bears: Faith Gets Us Through by Stan, Jan, and Mike Berenstain. Zonderkidz-Zondervan, 2012. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

One day for story time, I had just the two kids, regulars of mine. We finished the stories that I’d picked out for them, but we still had time, and they were still interested, so I had them pick out stories. They picked two, we read those, there was still time, so I had them pick out one more. The younger sister let her older brother choose, and this is what he brought back. Reading an overtly religious story in a public setting to children that I don’t know all that well and that I’m not directly responsible for made me uncomfortable—even though I consider myself Christian and religious—but I wasn’t going to disappoint or disapprove of any story that they chose. One of the bear cubs in this story—a side character, Scout Fred, not one of the well-known Berenstain family members—quotes Bible verses about faith and fear and God’s constancy. Even though he begins his quotes with “As the Bible says,” not giving book and verse, those Bible verses were as clunky in text as they often are in real-world conversations. The story, though, is exciting. Papa Bear leads the bear cubs into a cave. It looks frightening, but Papa Bear knows all about caves and God will protect them (some of the facts about caves, about stalactites and stalagmites were also clunky). They all fall into an underground river, but are carried out a chute and safely fall into a pool outside of the cave, protected by God, of course. Honestly, if there weren’t such emphasis on the didactic aspects of this story, I think I would have really enjoyed it. Without its Biblical quotes, it’s a story of an overly confident adult who think that he knows it all and doesn’t listen to the misgivings of the children in his charge, putting everyone in danger, though ultimately it all turns out all right.

***

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

Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie by Kimberly and James Dean. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audiences: Ages 4-8.

Poor Pete just wants to dance, but his friends don’t think that he’s doing it right, and when they try to teach him, he steps on Squirrel’s toes and hits Gus on the nose. Pete is determined to get it right, so he keeps trying. Wise Old Owl swoops in as he has been doing lately in Pete books and saves the day: “It doesn’t matter how you move, as long as you are being you.” Those words solve every problem of the book. Each friend dances however they like to move. The whole story is told in rhyme and words like “groovy” sneak into the book to give it that ‘70s flair that is fairly unique to the Pete books. There is far less to this story, though, than there was to, say, His Four Groovy Buttons or I Love My White Shoes or the more recent Missing Cupcakes, a didactic message, yes, but not an educational one, not a primer’s lesson. Even so, adding another book to the repertoire of dance-along books is always valuable for rambunctious little ones.

***

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

Be Quiet! by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is one of my new favorites. I’ve spoken before several times about how much I love books that demolish the fourth wall and how much I love when anything plays with its form. This is one of those books. The business-savvy mice from Hotel Bruce return. Rupert, the most serious of the mice, is given his own book. He is going to make it a wordless picture book because they are “very artistic.” It goes all right when Rupert is alone. He can explain his premise, give the book its title, and say that it will have no words “starting NOW.” But his wordless book is quickly interrupted by his friends, Thistle then Nibbs, who want to help. Only, he has talk to explain to them why they can’t talk. They have to talk about not talking. And then Thistle and Nibbs have ideas about what type of illustrations and characters and plot this wordless book should have—and of course they have to talk to share their ideas. The illustrations change to keep up with their suggestions and their misinterpretations of each other’s ideas and Rupert’s erudite complaints, getting further and further away from Rupert’s original ideas, I’m sure. Those erudite complaints offer quick vocabulary lessons too. Poor Rupert spends a lot of this book telling the others to be quiet—until he is ultimately shushed when he complains that his book is ruined (this page reminded me very much of the clever format of Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales).

*****

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

Jorge el curioso huellas de dinosaurio / Curious George: Dinosaur Tracks by CGTV based on characters by H. A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Based on the new world of Curious George as established in the television series, while out in the country, George takes his camera and photographs wild animals and their tracks for his collection. While searching for a fawn seen by his friend Bill, he finds a strange set of tracks and decides that they were made by a dinosaur with big feet with pointed toes and a dragging tail. Though at first excited, he does some research and realizes that some dinosaurs are dangerous. It’s near Bill’s house. Bill could be in trouble! There’s a nice bit of information here too, some of which is delivered dryly in the form of an info dump but most of which is conveyed gently through the illustrations. There’s also a well-constructed story with foreshadowing and a mystery with clues that a careful reader could follow. For a level 1 reader, this is a fabulous story. I read only the English in this book. English and Spanish text were on the same page.

****

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

Dragons Love Taco 2: The Sequel by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This sequel to Dragons Love Tacos opens on the same white, male protagonist and his dog surrounded by weeping dragons. Why? Because The New York Times declares NO MORE TACOS.   And dragons love tacos. So the boy fires up the time machine in his garage and with his dog and a few dragon friends travels back in time to the taco party of the previous book—but before the dragons ate the tacos with the spicy salsa. Unfortunately the first few times, they are too late, and the time machine keeps getting burnt in the inferno resulting from the dragons’ encounter with spicy tacos. When trying to tune up the machine, the protagonist mistakes extra spicy salsa for engine oil because he still hasn’t learnt to read the label first. Time machines have a bit of different reaction than do dragons but equally negative reaction to salsa. The past gets strange. But finally, the boy and his dragons escape from the past with some tacos, and they are able to plant one to grow into a tree and replenish the world’s taco stores. This is a fun story: ridiculous but with a problem big enough to drive the plot with some force. This book relies on its prequel more so than most sequels. I can see that as negative in that it requires prior knowledge or access to the prequel; this book doesn’t work well as a standalone. My initial thought though was that this book could be used in a classroom setting to explain book series versus books in a series; fewer picture books are book in a series. In fact, I’m almost not sure that I can think of another example. Particularly in the first few pages, the illustrations are particularly clever. Be sure to read especially the The New York Times article “Congress Deadlocked on Taco Issue;” as an adult, that one I found particularly funny.

****

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

Ellie in Concert by Mike Wu. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The cacophony of the other animals’ noises is keeping Lucy the giraffe from being able to sleep. Ellie is concerned for her friend. Inspired by the bird’s lullaby to her chicks, Ellie conducts the animals’ noises so that they become a lullaby too. This is a great way to incorporate an animal primer into a book with plot, and like the first book celebrates art, this celebrates music. Included are two tunes, proving Mike Wu to be a talented Renaissance man.

***

New Friends

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

Samson: The Piranha Who Went to Dinner by Tadgh Bentley. Balzer + Bray-HaperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Tadgh Bentley won my heart with his book, Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups, and won another piece of it when a couple told me that he is a lovely man to talk to as well as having written a wonderful book. Samson is his second. Samson is a piranha with a refined palate. He may even be a foodie. He wants to go to fancy restaurants and try exquisite dishes, but the other piranhas are not interested, and the patrons and employees of those fine restaurants are off-put by his being a piranha with sharp teeth and a cannibalistic reputation. Samson’s disguises aren’t enough to get him service at any of those fine restaurants because they always slip enough to reveal him to be a piranha. At the last restaurant though, not every fish leaves; some are there in disguise too. Samson opens his own restaurant, to cater to those excluded from other establishments based on their appearance—and those with privilege who begin to come in disguise to his restaurant. Where Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups was a truly funny story, made more funny because the reader should fake hiccups through the whole of the text, this is a serious social commentary—masked in a funny tale of a fish. But a fish from whom others run and whom they stereotype, and who can’t get service at a restaurant because of his appearance is not a funny tale; this is a good introduction to how it feels to be discriminated against, how one shouldn’t judge a person—or fish—on their appearance or on the stories told about a group of which that individual is a part. Seeing it as social commentary, I’m not sure how I feel about the privileged fish masking themselves as underprivileged fish, but I’m choosing to perhaps not carry the metaphor as far as it could be taken; it probably isn’t meant to be taken that far, but I recognize where the metaphor could become problematic.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample audio, book trailer, pancake recipe and activity kit, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Little Ree by Ree Drummond and illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In what I assume is an autobiographical story, Little Ree moves with her family from the city to her grandparents’ farm. She’s really excited, but country life isn’t what she is expecting. She has to get up early. Her bedroom is plain. The night is dark, and there are scary sounds outside. She is given a horse, but the horse doesn’t do what she wants. The illustrations are precious, and the story is told with a very realistic child’s voice. The whole of her story is told from her monologue addressed both to the audience and to the characters without any dialogue tags or narration. Little Ree is talkative enough that the story remains even apart from the illustrations. Little Ree reminds me a bit of Fancy Nancy and Eloise with her precociousness and clothes horse-ish-ness.

****

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

A Trip to Busy Town by Sally Hopgood and illustrated by Steph Hinton. Pull-the-Tab-Top That, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3+.

This board book has some very fun, sturdy pull-tabs that creatively make use of the space with illustrations on both sides of the tab and answers to the text’s questions on the tab, revealed only when its extended. Be sure not to push the tab back in before turning the page as both sides are illustrated and the illustration on the back side of the tab extends the next page’s illustration. Told all in a rhyme, with text that asks questions of the reader, animal friends journey from the country, past various transport vehicles and machines, to arrive at the airport to pick up one more friend on the tarmac. I was really quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of this board book, the complexity of the text and illustrations. It can be found in Barnes & Noble’s bargain section.

****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, sample illustrations, reviews, trailer, teachers' resources, and activity kit.

Green Pants by Kenneth Kraegal. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2. 

Jameson feels invincible in his green pants. He can do anything in them. He is excited to be in his cousin’s wedding, but there is one caveat: He must wear a tuxedo—with black pants. It’s a wonderfully universal childhood problem: having to dress a certain way, to give up wearing what you want, to give up wearing your favorite piece of clothing to be able to do something that you want to do (arguably that’s an adult problem too). He has to choose between being in his cousin’s wedding and wearing his green pants. Ultimately, he decides to choose his cousin, but the moment that his duties are through, off come the black pants, and beneath he wears his green pants—so much better for cutting loose on the dance floor. The entirety of the cast is Black in a story that has nothing to do with race and everything to do with childhood, family, and societal expectations and mores.

****

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

Moo Moo in a Tutu by Tim Miller. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Moo Moo has a lot of ideas, but this is the best idea in the whole world! She’s going to be a ballerina. Moo Moo is ever optimistic and Mr. Quackers is forever supportive. They’re a wonderfully fun new set of friends. The whole of the story is told entirely in speech bubbles and illustrations. After a rocky start, Moo Moo quickly decides that she is ready to share her talent with the world, and she gets onto stage at the ballet. Her reception is not very warm from anyone but Mr. Quackers, and she as quickly as she decided to become a ballerina decides to retire while at the top of her game.

****

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

Danny McGee Drinks the Sea by Andy Stanton and illustrated by Neal Layton. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2017.

Boastful Danny McGee says that he can drink the sea, and in the way that siblings will, his sister disagrees, and Danny sets out to prove her wrong. And he does. And then he proceeds to eat everything in a stampede of quick rhymes in a Seussian lilt. At the end of the book, there’s nothing but himself and his sister on a blank, white page, and Danny McGee thinks that he’s proved his sister wrong, but there’s one thing that Danny hasn’t eaten—and she eats him. The combination of rhyme and rhythm and the sibling interaction that I think will seem very familiar to most siblings might make this a book popular with the children. Frankly, I was a little off-put by the lack of comeuppance for Frannie and that she seems to scheme to let Danny eat everything only so that she can show him up and eat him. I know I’m reading too deeply into the story that is meant probably just to make kids laugh, but it seems like her gluttony, her violence against her brother is pardoned because he’s a younger brother and because she is patient and because he did wrong first. I don’t know why her patience seems so conniving to me—maybe it’s the violence described in a singsong rhyme—but it does.

***

Books That Aren’t So Much About a Character

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

Books That Drive Kids CRAZY!: Did You Take the B from My _ook? by Beck and Matt Stanton. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This was an excellent book for those beginning to read. It was good for a small story time audience (I had only 2 children). The book’s text puts underscores in place of Bs and so the kids had the chance to sound out the words with the simple illustrations to prompt them. The mystery (and it was really only a mystery to the younger of my two audience members) of what the text said was more intriguing than the plot—the plot, such as it was. There was silliness, but maybe not much of a story. The plot is that the reader has caught some malady that prevents her from saying the letter B, so the reader comes up with a tongue twister filled with Bs to see if she can say the letter. And she can’t until the very end. That’s where the interaction with my story time audience came in: “It sounds wrong when I read this page. Can you still read this page like it should be read? Can you tell me what’s happening in the picture?”

****

Click to visit the illustrator's page for links to order and sample illustrations.

Baby’s Big World: Music by Rob Delgaudio and illustrated by Hilli Kushnir. BoriBoricha, 2017. 

This book is more a concept book than a story. It’s an informational board book that asks what music is and describes the way that notes stand for particular sounds that help to make music, and it asks what music you (the child listening to or reading the book) will make. The characters are all round-faced children and toddlers but those characters are of every gender and race, each handled with attention to detail, and each character unique.

***

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 Review: The Search: One Long-Awaited Answer Tangled in Many Threads

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This link will take you to the hardcover collection of all three parts of this trilogy.

Some minor spoilers ahead.

After the close of the television show, the team responsible for Avatar: The Last Airbender and a few fans (Gene Luen Yang of American Born Chinese among them) began a series of comics that follow Team Avatar beyond the television show and help to bridge the 70 year gap between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. There are currently five trilogies: The Promise, The Search, The Rift, Smoke and Shadow, and North and South. The television series ends with Zuko’s agonized and angry question “Where is my mother?” This second trilogy sets out to answer that question.

Finding graphic novels that appeal to and are appropriate for younger audiences can be difficult (though hopefully getting easier as we booksellers realize the demand and make concerted efforts to point out and to stock graphic novels for children). These are shelved with the adult graphic novels in Barnes & Noble, but there is nothing in these first two trilogies at least that is any more adult than what is in the television series, even though in The Search there are family dramas, madness, and politics. Often, I don’t think we give kids enough credit.  Really I think these stories have more appeal for the 7-17 age range than they do for most adults—at least than for those adults not already familiar with the television series and invested in the characters and the world.

This particular trilogy deals more with the personal stories of the characters than the larger world-building of The Promise.

Four years back now, I read the first part of this trilogy and was apparently impressed. It’s only now that I’ve gone back and read the three parts together (over the course of eight days).

The Search does quite a bit of bouncing backwards and forwards in time. The past plotlines are done in more of a monochrome (red for those that happen within the Fire Nation and blue for those that happen among the Water Tribe). Still, bouncing between the past and the present was distracting.

I see why doing so was if not necessary then certainly expedient, but I would have preferred I think to have one or several longer periods of backstory (some scenes in the present were 4 or so pages) than so many often abruptly interrupted storylines. I would have been quite happy spending two parts of this trilogy learning Ursa’s story and only one part having Zuko discover it and reconnect with his mother. I wonder if the creators underestimated the level of investment that fans would have in Ursa’s story separate from that of Team Avatar—which would frankly surprise me; they set us up for this level of interest, and surely this story was told partially in answer to scads of fans asking the same question that Zuko had done because Zuko had done.

I actually think that this story may suffer from too many storylines. Exciting as they all are individually, especially with the jumps between times, it was a lot to keep track of: Zuko’s quest with Team Avatar plus his sister, Azula’s madness, the letter given to Azula by Ozai that raises questions about the Fire Lord line of succession, then Ursa’s first lover and childhood home, her marriage and subterfuge and exile, her second marriage and new life, plus the story of Water Tribe siblings living in a haunted forest in the Fire Nation to try to find a spirit who can give new faces but tangling with its massive Wolf Spirit pet instead. The theme of reuniting families and restoring old lives runs through all, but in 228 pages of comic it’s all too much. In a 500 page novel, absolutely, but this isn’t a 500 page novel.

Now, all that said, I do want it noted that I read these online, and the format was a scrolling one rather than a facing page layout. That perhaps made some difference.

***

Yang, Gene Luen and Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search: Parts 1-3. Ed. Dave Marshall. Illus. Gurihiru. Dark Horse, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Gurihiru, Dark Horse Comics, or anyone involved with the graphic novel series or the television series. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: We Need to Talk About Alex Fierro and Magnus Chase

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

We need to talk about Alex. And we need to talk about the Magnus Chase fandom.

Having enjoyed the first audiobook in this series, I found the second too. This second book is narrated by Kieran Culkin. I didn’t love the voices that Culkin did for these characters as much as I loved Guetig’s, but I found his Magnus more palatable, so I was not displeased. Of the voices that Culkin does for the characters, Blitz’s is most memorable. He has a strong accent that actually sounded more like a Brooklyn accent than a Boston accent to me, but Boston is a diverse city, and Blitz is from Nidavellir, so really he can have any accent that the narrator fancies and who can tell him that he’s wrong.

I went running to find the audiobook after the announcement that this book had won a Stonewall for 2017. The Stonewall Book Award is given to books that best relate the LGBT experience. Usually this award ends up going to books that could be qualified as issue books, books that set out with the primary intention of relating the LGBT experience. I would argue that that is not The Hammer of Thor’s primary intention. This book remains—as all of Rick Riordan’s middle grade novels have been—an action/adventure story, a quest, and a fantasy adventure, but Alex Fierro is gender-fluid, sometimes using he/him/his and sometimes she/her/hers. Alex’s experience as a central and primary character in the novel is highly visible, but the story is not wholly his/hers nor is his/her story the focus; preventing Loki from starting Ragnarok is the focus. I was impressed that any book that isn’t an issue book could win a Stonewall. I was going to probably eventually read this story anyway because I do very much enjoy Riordan’s adventures and they are perennial bestsellers that are easier to discuss with customers after I’ve read them, but my pleasure at this surprising win did push me to search harder for a copy to listen to.

Alex says openly to Magnus that he/she does not want his/her story to be taken as the story of every trans, queer, or gender-fluid person. I highlight that because I think it important to recognize that there are different experiences within the LGBTQIA+ community. Riordan explicitly uses Alex to represent but not to define the LGBTQIA+ experience.

The primary characters of the novel are all fairly accepting of Alex’s gender fluidity. The einherjar at large and several of the gods are less so. Alex like Magnus comes from a well-off family but has spent time on the streets.

The more time I spend on Pinterest and the more pins about Magnus Chase that I find the more that I fall in love with Magnus. Other fans (particularly I credit Tumblr user magnusglows for these revelations) have noticed some of his more loveable quirks, like his tendency to refer to friends as “his.”  The series has made a point of discussing found family. Magnus is wonderfully supportive and respectful of his friends’ choices and feelings, and its wonderfully heartwarming to have a hero who is no less heroic for being so and no less heroic for being associated with healing and sunlight.

The more time I spend with this series the more disappointed I am by the first two Percy Jackson movies and particularly Riordan’s reaction to those movies. The representation in this series is so important, and I want this story to reach as many people as possible, but I know that Riordan will probably never allow another film to be made. He seems more supportive of the Percy Jackson musical, though, so maybe there’s hope for a filmed staged version.

*****

Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

Riordan, Rick.  Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor.  2016.  Narr.  Kieran Culkin. Listening Library-Penguin Random, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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.

****

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

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

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

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

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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.

***

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

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.

IMG_1107

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.