Tag Archives: Chris Raschka

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


Old Friends

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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.

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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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

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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.



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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: January Picture Book Roundup: Part One


I read a lot of picture books this January, and so I’ve decided to break the roundup into two parts.

Big Snow by Jonathan Bean.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2013.  Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The illustrations in this one are pretty fantastic, so detailed, so realistic—not just in style, but also in not whitewashing the neighborhood or the surrounding town.  Speaking of whitewashing, a reader on Goodreads commented about how this is an African American family—and that was the first that I’d taken notice of it.  This is an African American in a book with no social message or message of equality.  Better still, Jonathan Bean himself is not African American.  The story is every child’s experience of watching snow fall (and though it’s not explicitly stated in the story) waiting to see if the snow will be deep enough for snowy play like sledding.  It’s a story with which any child can empathize.  The mother distracts her son with household chores and baking.  The father comes home to play with him.  The only thing I can really complain about in this story is that the mother was home, cooking and cleaning, while the father was out at work—but isn’t that the typical American experience.  It would have been a nice choice to break the gender stereotype since Bean so nicely broke the whitewashed vision of the American family.  I do appreciate though that this is a family with both mother and father present and active and interested in the child’s life.


The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle.  Philomel-Penguin, 2013.  First published 2011.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I think most people know Eric.  The Hungry Caterpillar left quite an imprint on my childhood, though not as great an imprint as did the illustrations of Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? et al.  I was sadly unimpressed by The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse.  The prose would have benefited from more zest, though I approve of Carle’s message that a good artist is not necessarily one who sticks to reality, promoting creative thinking and creativity, prompting children to put away enforced ideas of correct and incorrect.  At the same time that message seems self-aggrandizing even though the artist at the end of the book does not look like present-day Carle (it might be a boy Carle).


The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle.  HarperCollins, 1996.  First published 1977.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In retrospect, this was not a story I ought to have chosen for story hour.  It begins with two ladybugs who want to eat the same leafful of aphids.  Now aphid is a strange word, so I thought I had better explain it.  And then I realized what was going to happen to the aphids, and I wished that I hadn’t called them “baby bugs.”  And this whole story is about a ladybug that wants to fight—not exactly a great role model.  I tuned my voice to make the ladybug sound at least like it wanted to pick a fight for fun, for the challenge, the way a kid might ask, “You wanna race?”  In retrospect, I may have learned my lesson at least about screening Carle books before I take them to story hour.  As a story hour book too, the clocks in the top corner of the pages were nearly invisible to the children.  I explained where the hands were on the clock faces, at least at first, and was able to work that explanation pretty easily into the prose, but I didn’t really think any of them were there to learn to tell time and stopped after the first few pages.  Also, analog clocks are disappearing, though I think they are still more often in classrooms than digital clocks, so maybe it will be something that they’ll need to learn.  Reading this book makes me feel old.  Not only because of the analog clocks but also because of the political correctness that makes me wonder if such a violent little ladybug would have made it past an editor today.  The kids did pick up on Carle’s lesson that you shouldn’t be mean and that you should share, but it seemed like there were few pages on that.  Most of the pages were devoted instead to the grouchy ladybug asking larger and larger animals if they wanted to fight then dismissing each as too small—and I think at least one my kids was frustrated by the ladybug’s idiocy (she kept commenting that she was pretty sure this or that animal was large enough).  It made a better bestiary than a story it seemed to me as I read the same few words over and over with a slight variation.  That being said, that repetition can be very lulling.  I found it very easy to read and to play instead with my inflection than focus on the words when I was caught up in the repetition.


What’s Your Favorite Animal? edited by Eric Carle.  Contributed to be Eric Carle, Nick Bruel, Lucy Cousins, Susan Jeffers, Steven Kellogg, Jon Klassen, Tom Lichtenheld, Peter McCarty, Chris Raschka, Peter Sís, Lane Smith, Erin Stead, Rosemary Wells, and Mo Willems.  Henry Holt and Co.-Random, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8 (Grades Pre-K-3).

As a student and lover of children’s literature, I personally loved this book.  Some of the illustrations in this are amazing.  A lot of the memoirs are truly sweet and endear readers towards either the animal or the author.  Some of the poetry was humorous.  The book provided an interesting view into the minds and lives of some of my favorite illustrators.  The kids at my story hour were less enthralled.  I knew more of the illustrators than they did (many of them having not recently produced any bestsellers), and taken all together, this is a long book.  The eldest of my story hour friends was maybe eight.  Much beyond eight, it’s hard to see a child being thrilled with being read any picture book.  This book lacks the cohesion that can hold a younger child’s attention.  There’s not a story.  There’s no conflict.  The book includes flash memoirs, poetry, and cartoon panels of facts about octopi.  I think only the one (Nick Bruel’s) got a laugh out of any of my friends and that because of Bruel’s interaction with Bad Kitty, a familiar face for some of the kids, I’m sure, and the humor of Bruel’s entry.  Bruel’s didn’t read very well aloud, though, I thought.  There were so many individual panels and I don’t know how many of my friends were able to follow my eyes across the pages as I read.


Knight Time by Jane Clark and illustrated by Jane Massey.  Red Fox-Random House UK, 2009.

I loved this book, though I was biased towards it from the beginning as the cover was of an adorable towheaded young knight and a young dragon, each looking terrified into the dark forest.  Towheads and dragons, how could I not love this book?  It was cute in the way that I expected.  The knight fears dragons.  The dragon fears knights.  They meet and become friends after each seeing that the other is not so frightening.  I did not anticipate the inclusion of the knight’s and dragon’s fathers.  Both wander into the woods looking for their fathers and are each found by the other’s father.  The book is lift-a-flap.  If anything this made the book too interesting, too intriguing, too busy, but I loved that there was so much to look at and explore in this adventure.


Smile, Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 1-4 (Grade Pre-K).

I’ve never read the original Pout-Pout Fish so I think this book meant less to me than it is supposed to.  I think this would be fun to quote at young kids.  “Smile, Mr. Fish.  You look so down, with your glum-glum face and pout-pout frown.”  Followed immediately by, “Hey, Mr. Grumpy Gills.  When life gets you down do you know what you gotta do?”  I do dislike that the implication seems to be that a peck on the cheek by a strange should illicit a smile from someone who’s down.  I don’t really think that’s true, and I’m not sure it’s something that we should be teaching our children.


Little Owl’s Orange Scarf by Tatyana Feeney.  Knopf-Random, 2013.

The trick is in the details with this one.  There’s a lot of humor from a careful inspection of Feeney’s illustrations, from the attempts of Little Owl to send his orange scarf to Peru to how he finally rids himself of the hated scarf.  While I sympathized with Little Owl’s plight and I really want to like this book even more than I do, I had a kid pipe up during story hour that he liked orange, and there’s was such sadness and hurt in his tone.  The scarf of course could be hated for being any color, and Feeney had to choose some color. There’s something so implicitly realistically childlike about Owl’s dislike of the scarf not only because it’s too long and scratchy but especially because it’s orange.  It reminds me of friends who hated and refused to wear anything pink simply for its color—and I’m glad that Feeney chose a color other than pink.  Pink would have seemed cliché.


Buzz, Buzz, Baby!: A Karen Katz Lift-the-Flap Book by Karen Katz.  Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 1-4.

This lift-a-flap book is all about insects and bugs—perfect the adventurous and outdoorsy child in your family.  Katz’s protagonists are not strictly male even though the book is about bugs.  Katz’s illustrations and the use of flaps are what really appealed to me in this book.  The insects peek out from behind foliage making it easy to see where a child being read too could be prompted for an answer to the questions that the text poses.  The colors are bright—as are all of Katz’s.  Rhymes help with the rhythm of the text.