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Book Reviews: September 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Astronauts, Bees, and Sillier Animals

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Astronauts

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

I Am Neil Armstrong by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos. Dial-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

My toddlers at story time are not the target audience for this book. For them is it too long—just too long. I suppose it could be best considered a graphic novel, but it’s really too short for a novel. A graphic novelette? But it’s not a picture book, despite the bright illustrations and round-faced depictions of the protagonists. I personally feel that it talks down to the middle school students that are generally the target audience for graphic novels.  So elementary students?

This biography of Neil Armstrong begins with Armstrong as a child climbing trees and ends with his space mission completed and a plug for the National Air and Space Museum in DC. There are many details about his life and his philosophy. It is intimate in a way that I did not expect. There are though too perhaps extraneous details, which I suppose sometimes add weight to Meltzer’s assertions (not a long checklist but “a 417-step checklist”), but more often added to the length of the story without really deepening my understanding of Armstrong or his mission.

Perhaps because I read so few biographies and don’t know what to expect or to want from them, I was less interested in the intimate details of Armstrong’s life. I don’t find it necessary to know that he was scared of Santa or fell out of a tree or read many books in a year. Any biographies I’ve read, I’ve read (and long ago) to be able to give a report or write a paper—a flaw in me not in the genre or in this book in particular—so I’ve never needed or particularly wanted more than the facts—just the straight up facts. What I read for pleasure—primarily fantasies but even realistic fiction that I read—are more often the span of an event—a significant event—and nonessential personal histories are left off or obliquely referenced if and only if they are effecting the character in the now.

I can tell that Meltzer wanted to include these details to illustrate the natural traits that allowed Armstrong  to succeed in his space mission, but the presentation felt extremely forced; it lacked finesse when compared to the arc of the fictions that I enjoy reading.

I frankly don’t feel qualified to rate this book, but I wanted to discuss it nonetheless because it wasn’t what I was expecting, and it might not be what you’re expecting either.

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

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington. HarperCollins, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I chose this book because Brad Meltzer’s I Am Neil Armstrong was too long for my usual story time audience, but I wanted to keep to something in theme with the story I had been assigned to read. Plus, it’s the true story of an African American woman achieving her dream, written by Somali woman living in Norway! Mae Jemison’s parents support her dream to see Earth from space. They tell her she’ll have to become an astronaut. But her teacher (a white woman), says that an astronaut is no job for a woman—wouldn’t she rather be a nurse? That’s a good job “for someone like” her. Jemison is heartbroken by her teacher’s pronouncement. But her parents continue to be wonderful and tell her that this time her teacher is wrong; she shouldn’t believe her. So Jemison continues “dreaming, believing, and working hard,” and she becomes an astronaut and waves to her parents from space. There is less about Jemison’s life here and more about following your dream and achieving your dream through hard work and a firm belief. Meltzer focuses on facts; Ahmed on story. Ahmed’s was much better for my young audience.

***

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

Are You Scared, Darth Vader? by Adam Rex. Lucasfilm-Disney, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

All right. I found this one funny as did the friend who pulled it off the shelves to show it to me. But it’s only funny if you’re already familiar with Darth Vader and the Star Wars films; the text is littered with allusions to quotes and to plot points from the films. I tried it out on some kids who didn’t know Darth Vader. They didn’t find it funny. It’s also funnier if you can imitate Darth Vader’s deep voice, which I can only do poorly. Really, this may even be a story more for adults than for children.

The authorial voice and Darth Vader dialogue throughout this story. The book tries to scare Darth Vader with a werewolf, a ghost, a witch, but he is unimpressed by any of these despite the authorial voice’s assertion that they can bite and hex him. So the authorial voice invites a posse of children in Halloween costumes and without to swarm all over Vader, to pester him with questions, as the authorial voices continues to tease, “Are you scared now, Darth Vader?”

But Vader is not scared so much as annoyed by the posse.

The children decide that he’s no fun, and they leave.

Well, it seems Darth Vader can’t be scared, so it’s time for the book to end.

But Darth Vader will not allow the book to end. He implores the child holding the book not to turn the page, not to close the book.

He admits to his fear, but the book must end, and so he is trapped inside the book, “almost like [he’s] frozen in carbonite—or whatever.”

*** 

Bees

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

Princesses Save the World by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim and illustrated by Eva Byrne. Abrams, 2018.

This is not the story I expected. This is a story about the importance of bees to an agrarian economy and society. Princess Penelope Pineapple receives a distress call from her neighbor across the sea whose bees have all disappeared and whose fruit harvest has suffered because of it. Princess Penelope calls an assembly of princesses from a wealth of fruit-centric nations. Princess Sabrina Strawberry is not alone in her plight. Audrey Apple is having the same problem. She’s a pretty minor character, mentioned once by name then shown as trying to help the other princesses solve the problem, but that the two princesses whose kingdoms are in trouble are both dark-skinned and dark-haired women of color gives the story an unpleasant tinge of white savior complex that this world does not need.

The princesses decide it is their duty to help, and among Princess Penelope’s many other talents, she is a beekeeper; she knows that scents lure bees. She hops into her lab and with whatever perfumes and sweet-smelling treats the princesses happen to have in their luggage creates a perfume. The princesses engineer new hives to give to Princess Sabrina, and with her perfume in hand, Princess Penelope leads the bees across the sea to the Strawberry Kingdom, where the bees settle, and their industry the next year leads to a healthy harvest for the kingdom—celebrated with a tea party by the princesses.

If only solving the problem of the disappearing bees were so easy!

But I continue to like Princess Penelope and her more modern take on being a princess with a wealth of duties and talents not generally assigned feminine or princess-like. I like that she seeks outside help and opinions from other nations when she sees a nation in trouble. That kind of collaborative foreign diplomacy and policy is forward-thinking and positive too.

I appreciate that the authors saw a current environmental problem and wanted to raise awareness among a younger audience about the problem, and that they seek to show young activists taking steps to alleviate a problem.

***

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

Bee: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup. Doubleday-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-7. 

This is not the first of Teckentrup’s books that I’ve read. Her strength I feel is in lyrically romanticizing the ordinary—thus far her subjects have always been also natural. This like Tree is more nonfiction than fiction, depicting the day and job of a worker bee and bees as pollinators. Many animals, including a bee in a peek-hole through each page, hide among the illustrations, making a fun spot-the-critter game as you read through the book. Teckentrup uses lyrical language and specific detail to paint her text. This made for a good side book to Guthrie and co.’s Princesses Save the World. A bit more on level for my youngest listeners and certainly much shorter, there’s less—really no—problem here, certainly no talk of a global crisis, but it seemed a good way to introduce the concept of why bees are so important to an ecosystem.

**** 

New Twists on Old Tales

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Pig the Fibber by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2018. First published 2015.

I’ve reviewed others (almost all of the others) in the Pig the Pug series. It’s just not a model I love. In this addition to the series, Pig is blaming Trevor to avoid getting into trouble for things that he’s done. Having gotten Trevor out of his way, Pig concocts a scheme to get to the treats on the top shelf of the closet, but along with the treats, a bowling ball falls from the shelf, and Pig is again bandaged and laid up, again he gets his comeuppance for treating Trevor poorly, for behaving poorly. And he’s learnt another lesson—but again not well and not without serious bodily harm all portrayed in a singsong rhythm. Learning not to blame a sibling or bystander, not to scapegoat is a valuable lesson, but I’m still just not sure about this method of teaching; it’s so drastic, and the tone is at such odds with the harm caused to Pig.

***

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

Corduroy Takes a Bow by Viola Davis, based on characters by Don Freeman. Viking-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

What a special opportunity I expect this is for Viola Davis! Don Freeman was one of the first picture book illustrators to create a book with African American protagonists, and now fifty years later, Davis, the first African American to win a Tony, and Emmy, and an Oscar, has returned to his characters with a new story. She takes Corduroy and Lisa to the theater—a live stage performance. Both are excited and in Lisa’s attempts to see above a tall man who sits in front of her, she loses track of Corduroy, who too seeks a better seat, ending up in the pit, backstage, and then on stage. The picture book is unfortunately heavy with lessons about the language of the theater, the people behind a production, and those pieces weighed down the story somewhat.

***

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

Goodnight Goon: A Petrifying Parody by Michael Rex.  G. P. Putnam-Penguin Random, 2008.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is yet another Goodnight Moon parody, this time with a spooky, B-horror, monster theme. The little goon spends the second half of the book avoiding bed and partying and playing with the creatures that infest his bedroom, perhaps trying to tire everyone out so that his bedroom will be quiet enough to sleep; everyone is sleeping or out of the bedroom when the happy goon is at last in his bed by the last page (“Goodnight monsters everywhere.”)—that’s a fun twist on the story.

***

And Silly Animals

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

The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley. Scholastic, 2010. First published 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Sometimes British picture books in particular, I’ve found, are just wonderfully weird. This one is wonderfully weird. It resurfaced in America because of a YouTube video of a Scottish grandmother reading the book aloud. The story reads like a camp song, a wonderful camp song where each verse adds another adjective to a long list of to remember, all rhyming, all silly. I remember the days (20 years ago) when Scholastic didn’t believe we would understand “Mum” in a middle grade novel. Now look at them! throwing our picture books readers words like “wonky” and making no changes to the British English “spunky” though it doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it does in American English; from this picture book in British English it seems to be a synonym for “good looking.” I really enjoyed this. I enjoyed the silliness of the plethora of adjectives attached to this donkey, and I enjoy saying it as fast as I can: “a spunky, hanky-panky, cranky, stinky dinky, lanky, honky-tonky, winky, wonky donkey.” I like the victory of being able to say it all really fast. I guess I’m still a camper at heart. If any Scottish grandmothers out there want to read Evil Weasel and make that something I can find in my country, I’d much appreciate it; I remember really enjoying that one when I read it while staying with a family in Edinburgh.

****

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

Chomp Goes the Alligator by Matthew Van Fleet. Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 2-99.

With lots of interactive elements—touch and feel, a pull-tab to make the alligator chomp up and down, and even a pop-up—this is a counting book and animal and color primer—all set in a swamp, which is not the most oft used of settings for a picture book. On the final pop-up page the animals not featured in the text are labeled in smaller print and the bugs in a bubble of dialogue ask to be counted in a later reading. The page spreads are labeled 1-10 in big text. Every animal miraculously lives though the text’s pretext is the alligator eating them and seems on the last page even to have enjoyed its experience on the alligator thrill ride. The illustrations are of cute, happy critters in pastel colors. There’s a burp to make the kids laugh, and a polite “excuse me” to appease the parents. This book has everything! Educational and fun and unusual.

*****

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: June 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Frustrated Fathers and Anxious Children, But I Promise Happy Endings

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Puzzle Pals: Kiki the Kitten by Egmont. Sandy Creek, 2014. Intended audience: Age 3.

This is an intriguing concept for a book. Pieces of the illustrations are removable and become puzzle pieces to form when put together a complete image of the title character, Kiki the Kitten. Kiki is never named except for in the title. She is not much of a character, but perhaps a fairly stereotypical cat. The story—call it that—is exceedingly short, having only four pages of text, and each page having only a sentence, maybe two. I found the cover sadly pink and “feminine.” In our gender polarized world, it’s hard to imagine most boys wanting such a book, though there is nothing inherently feminine about a cat, even if it is a female cat. While I am impressed by the ingenuity of the illustrations, that’s about all I can really give this book.

*

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Your Baby’s First Word Will Be DADA by Jimmy Fallon and illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 1-3, Grades PreK.

I knew very little about this book before its release. We had signs up at the store that displayed the cover, but gave no description. Honestly, I expected something very different—and I was glad to hear from a coworker that I wasn’t the only one. I thought not of the paternal pet name when seeing “DADA” but of the modernist art movement. I expected a book lauding Dadaism. Instead I was given a book of adult (presumably paternal) animals pleadingly or with frustration saying “dada” only to have their children blithely answer with their stereotypical animal sound (“moo” for a cow, for example). At the end all of the children look mischievously at one another and cry aloud, together “dada!” I can be impressed by Ordóñez’s expressive illustrations, though I’m not sure that I like the association with frustration (which expresses itself fairly like anger) and fathers, however accurate the emotion may be when trying to get a child to say a specific word. Ordóñez also uses good, pastel colors, which I believe are still recommended for the very young, especially as being soothing around bedtime. I may have liked this book better without the hype, without the chance to expect a book on Dadaism. On the whole though, it’s an animal sounds primer, and nothing much special beyond that. It’s hard to be outstanding with a primer.

**

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 1996. First published 1967.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This is a classic to be sure, and as such, one I really feel incapable of fairly rating. This duo has had incredible staying power, most of their collaborations surviving today, being reprinted in numerous formats, still selling well, and being displayed prominently. This, I believe, was one of their earlier collaborations, maybe the first, and one that started a series of similar books that can serve as primers for animals. This one doubles as a color primer as well. Some of the animals are their natural colors. Some like the blue horse and purple cat are less so. Carle’s illustrations are fairly realistic, and yet his style is unique and recognizable. The story ends with the goldfish seeing the teacher and the teacher seeing the children and the children seeing all of the animals that had been previously mentioned, so there is the repetition of the lesson to help cement the words in the mind as well a crack in the fourth wall, of which I am always a fan. Carle includes children of many races, which was probably particularly radical in the 1960s, but we still need that diversity.

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It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr. Little Brown-Hachette, 2014.

I discovered this book—as honestly I do most of these books—by pure accident. Most of them I find while cleaning up after customers. This one was in a section that I know to be less frequented (the parenting section just outside of the children’s section), and I would if I could, move it to a more prominent location. I think I might even move it out of the children’s section altogether. Though marketed for the very young, I feel as if I have more insecurity as an adult about making the mistakes given as examples in this book than I ever did as a child—maybe because as an adult I feel the pressure to succeed and to conform more than I did as a child, and I know that my consequences may be more devastating in that they may result in losing a job and being unable to pay my rent or feed myself rather than being kicked off an extracurricular team or being called to talk to the teacher. How many children care if they put on mismatching socks? How many adults worry that a manager or potential employer will notice their mismatched socks and think less of them because of they grabbed the wrong clothes in the dark, rushing out the door to be on time? The other examples given in the book are more universal across the ages. It’s always important to know that you don’t have to know the answer. It’s always good to be reminded that you might discover something new by trying something different. Honestly, I think I would sell more copies of this during graduation season alongside Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! than during any other time or to any parents of smaller children. I actually think that this book would go nicely just beside Bradley Trevor Greive’s in my room—books to read when feeling discouraged.

I’ve read several of Todd Parr’s books, and I find him enchanting. His colors are beyond Crayola vibrant. His vibrant colors create a universality that leaps across racial barriers and his childlike drawings sometimes surpass gender barriers besides. Animal characters also help to create a universality of reader. Parr leans towards second person text, directly addressing the reader, again lending a more universal feel to the story.

The illustrations are fairly simple, his faces being noseless, little more than smiley or frowny faces. The characters, figures, and backgrounds are all fairly blocky with a few lines to illustrate movement when necessary.

Parr ends his books with a brief summary of his idea and his “Love, Todd” signature.

****

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Hector’s Shell by Thomas Radcliffe. Little Bee-Bonnier, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

Hector misplaces his shell while playing at the beach and goes in search of a new one, coming up with many creative solutions, including an origami shell, which turns mushy and leaves smudges of ink all over his body. It was enjoyable turning the page to see what new idea Hector would try and how it would inevitably go wrong. There was a lot of text in this book, making it better for an older reader. In Hector’s joy at finding his shell, there was a touch of a message about positive body image. After the fantastic build up, [SPOILER] it was a little bit anticlimactic for Hector to find his shell in the place that he’d left it. [END SPOILER]

*** 0763675954

Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett. Templar-Candlewick, 2015. First published 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.

Orion is scared of a lot of things—but especially of the dark. Fed up one night he yells at the dark, and the dark descends in a humanoid shape to show Orion why he shouldn’t be afraid of the dark and how much fun can be had in the dark. There’s even more text in this book than there is in Hector’s Shell. As with Hector’s Shell, a lot of the text is outside the story thread. For example, the sounds that Orion hears in the dark are written out. Examples of Orion’s fears and his ideas to escape the dark are also written into the illustrations. One of the cleverer aspects of the book is several pages where a flap is pressed towards the previous page to create a different image and reveal the text of the page. One page like this makes Dark shake Orion’s hand. A later page allows Dark to wrap his arm around Orion. It is a touching effect. The book is gentle and gently humorous, laughing at Dark’s fears of Dad’s snore and elbowing adults with references to the stars of Orion’s Belt. A Booklist review rightly compares the illustrations with Oliver Jeffers, who ranks among my favorite illustrator-authors. Emma Yarlett may become another illustrator for whom I watch when shelving new picture books.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Reviews: March 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light. Candlewick, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, PreK-K. I’m a sucker for dragons—particularly friendly dragons (you may have noticed)—and for the idea that magic could be a little more commonplace than we believe, so I naturally had to pick up and read a book with this jacket. Light’s Have You Seen My Dragon? is a counting book with imaginative and whimsical illustrations, primarily busy, detailed line drawings but with splashes of color that highlight the objects to be counted. The counting book is well hidden within a text that gives the counting book plot, where the narrator—a young child—tours the city looking for his missing dragon, querying various adults at work about him. There’s a lot of room for interaction in this book.  It could be expanded into a color primer as well, and a primer for professions.  The dragon hides among the intricately woven lines of each illustration, making a Where’s Waldo of him, though finding the dragon is thankfully not as difficult. The busyness of Light’s illustrations perfectly match the bustle of a city like New York City or London. I have to admit that I am more enamored of the illustrations of this book than the text, but the text does—as I’ve said—a good job supporting the mission of the counting book without losing plot—and that’s more than can be said for some.

****

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Richard Scarry’s Trucks by Richard Scarry. Golden-Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 0-3. This book is written in the manner of a primer with a noun and then the illustration of that noun, but there’s an element of silliness here, with the inclusion of several absurd examples. Beside the usual examples (bulldozer, dump truck, fire engine), there is also a pickle tanker and Mr. Frumble’s pickle car. Richard Scarry’s world is one where things don’t always go well: Fruit trucks spill their merchandise and Mr. Frumble drives his pickle car into the path of an emptying dump truck. I suspect but haven’t been able to prove that these illustrations were lifted from other stories, mashed here into a new product to sell—much as was done with the Favorite Words books based on Eric Carle’s works. This is probably a book best for fans—parents who are fans—of Richard Scarry’s work already, trying to induce their children to like the same books that they do—and why wouldn’t you? I too have fond memories of Richard Scarry (I think a lot of us do). I would, though, have liked to see more cohesion, more of a plot in this primer. Some of the illustrations tell their own mini story, but I found no story connecting the illustrations.

**1/2

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Princesses and Puppies by Jennifer Weinberg and illustrated by Francesco Legramandi and Gabriella Matta. Disney-Random, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 4-6. This book was something of a disappointment. Each princess gets a page or two only, and the story about each princess and puppy is the same and without much action: The princess receives or finds a puppy and interacts with the puppy in a banal way: Merida gives hers a bath. Tiana’s falls asleep on her lap. The only story that breaks this pattern involves a puppy that performs a trick for Jasmine—and the author wisely or unwisely remains silent about Jasmine giving its ragamuffin child owners money in return for the trick—which is the logical conclusion to such an interaction. The puppies receive at the hands of the text more personality than do the princesses. Perhaps the absence of plot and character development could be attributed to this book being a Level 1 reader, but I hope not. I hope there are Level 1 readers with more of a story.  It’s impossible for me to forget how much more impressed I was by the Level 2 Disney reader, A Pony for a Princess.

**

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Reviews: November 2014 Picture Book Roundup: It’s Blue… or Maybe Green?

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Away in a Manger illustrated by Lisa Reed and Randle Paul Bennett. Candy Cane-Ideals, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The text and audio of this book are the first two verses of “Away in a Manger,” sung by “Junior Asparagus,” who is unfortunately one of my least favorite musical talents among the VeggieTales cast. The illustrations are bright and colorful, and VeggieTales fans will appreciate seeing familiar faces in a probably equally familiar tableau. I witnessed one parent trying to read this book (or it might have been its sister book, Silent Night) to a child, and stumbling to an awkward halt when it turned out that the audio button was the text in its entirety. That rather detracts from the book’s ability to lead to interaction between a parent and child. A parent can turn the pages, but the time spent on each page is limited and the parent’s voice is lost amid Junior’s warble.

*

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Step Into Reading: Level 2: A Pony for a Princess by Andrea Posner-Sanchez and illustrated by Francesc Mateu. RH Disney-Random 2002.

I was drawn to the book by the promise of a pony but was a little worried by the book being a Disney spinoff. I was more impressed with this book than I expected to be. The plot is well formed. A deductive thinker could reason the plot from details. Belle sees a barrel of apples, and later decides to return to the barrel to sate her hunger, only to find the barrel empty, then logically she seeks to discover what happened to the apples. I do think it unlikely that a wild pony could be so easily caught by a trail of sugar cubes, but this is a Disney story, and Belle qualifies as a Disney princess, so I will forgive the implausibility and call it more of an inevitability.

****

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Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann. G.P Putnam & Sons-Penguin Putnam, 1996. First published 1994. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This was at least a second read. Good Night, Gorilla is something of a classic. I think the illustrations are what make this book. The zookeeper goes about saying goodnight to the animals (making it a plausible animal primer), but on the first page, the gorilla steals his keys and follows him through the zoo, unlocking cages. The whole of the zoo follows him home and into his bedroom. Too many responses to her “Good night, dear” alert the zookeeper’s wife of the trouble, and she calmly gets up out of bed, takes the gorilla’s hand, and leads all the animals back to their cages. The gorilla and the mouse escape even her watch and follow her once more back to the bed that she shares with the zookeeper. I appreciate the presentation of a more alert, more able wife.

***

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Peekaboo Barn by Nat Sims and illustrated by Nathan Tabor. Candlewick, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 0-3, PreK.

This lift-the-flap animal primer comes with a free app download code. This is the first of a few books I’ve since come across with app companions. Apparently, this book was an app first. The animals are cartoonish with bug eyes that are mildly disturbing. Sometimes there’s only one flap on a page, sometimes there are two. At first read, this was confusing, as I didn’t know to look for two flaps and would open the barn doors to discover only one of the animals whose sounds I’d just read. Then I noticed that the loft doors also occasionally opened. I’m not sure if as a toddler reader, this variation would be exciting or confusing. If I’m being finicky, the animals are not seen or entering the barn, but the scene never changes, the sun never moves across the sky. It would have been very simple to introduce more plot into this book.

*

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That’s Not My Snowman… by Fiona Watt. Usborne, 2014. First published 2006.

There’s not much exciting about this winter edition of a series of touch-and-feel primers that spans all manner of creature, machine, and… sculpture. I do puzzle what sort of squishy nose one could give a snowman. I prefer to have logical connections between the illustrations and text. The inclusion of the ever-present mouse in this series adds a nice element of continuity to the story and the series.

**

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An Elephant and Piggie Book: Waiting Is Not Easy! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I am a fan of Mo Willems and of Elephant and Piggie in particular. I was not expecting the mixed media illustrations in this book nor the subtle hint of the passage of time as the white space becomes darker. I think both the messages of patience and of the beauty of nature are valuable to today’s children, so used—as we all are—to instant gratification. I like it even better on a second reading, particularly I enjoy Piggie’s answers to Gerald’s questions Piggie about the surprise.

*****

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Baby Bear Sees Blue by Ashley Wolff. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014. First published 2012. Intended audience: Ages 2-6, Grades PreK-1.

I am biased towards Wolff’s books and this one in particular. Wolff is a professor at my alma mater. This book I saw as an unbound proof when she read it to us. I saw it later read at a local library story hour and witnessed the unbiased enjoyment of it from the children and the librarian. Wolff’s illustrations are jewel bright, and the text does not seem overly formulaic as many primers can seem, though Wolff does keep some repetition in the line “Baby Bear sees [color]” to give the story a familiar structure and rhythm. Wolff does not shy from poetic language within her text, but she keeps true too to the toddler understanding of the world with Baby Bear’s speech, as when Baby Bear asks who is waving at him, indicating an oak leaf stirred by a breeze. I had not considered till reading a particularly detailed review on Goodreads that the closing line makes the book fit appropriately too into the bedtime story mold.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Reviews: September 2014 Picture Book Roundup: I’m Feeling Generous–Or These Are Good Books

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I Spy With My Little Eye by Edward Gibbs. Templar-Random, 2014. First published 2011.

The illustrations in this board book are wonderful: brightly colored, realistic, and whimsical at once. The story that this primer tells is loose and little, but to be a primer that has any plot is to be of a higher quality than the majority of the genre. The text mimics the game’s pattern—“I spy with my little eye something [of a particular color]”—and a circular hole in the page allows readers to glimpse the color on the next page. The text also includes a hint about what is on the following page. “It has a long trunk” hints that an elephant is the gray something to be found. The page is turned to reveal an animal associated with that particular color: a yellow lion, a red fox, a green frog, making this an animal as well as a color primer. The frog is the one to turn the book around, break the fourth wall, and end with “I spy you!” As a read-aloud it would be easily interactive.

****1/2

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Mini Myths: Play Nice, Hercules! by Joan Holub and illustrated by Leslie Patricelli. Appleseed-Abrams, 2014.

This board book tells the Hercules myth with pictures and text that feature a toddler Hercules stomping about the house smashing “monsters” and then his sister’s block tower instead of killing his family. Upon her tears, he stoops to help rebuild it, rebuilding his relationship with his sister as well, instead of completing his twelve labors. Then the end summarizes in a paragraph with much exclusion and downplaying for the toddler audience the myth of Hercules. This is a book that children could grow with, reading the myth paragraph as a separate story when they’re older, though whether a beginning reader would want to read a paragraph at the end of a board book is another question.

In the paragraph “he accidentally hurt his family.” That understates the damage done by Hercules in the myth just a bit, but I suppose without going into an explanation of the horrible marriage of Hera and Zeus and the birth of Hercules, that’s not an unfair statement, and honestly, I think Holub did a pretty stellar job of translating the myth for a modern, toddler audience. Hopefully no toddler is spurred by a jealous goddess into a rage and kills his family, but sure, a toddler could for no reason other than for sport, destroy his younger sister’s block tower. That’s entirely relatable and still gets at the wanton, accidental destruction in the Hercules myth. I would waffle on whether Hercules was forgiven by everyone when he completed the twelve labors, but the young Hercules character within this board book, who destroys a block tower, might plausibly be forgiven entirely by everyone, and the concept of the omnipotence of the Greek gods and the promise of immortality are ones probably beyond the curriculum of the average toddler.

Holub already has a reputation as a reteller of myths with her middle grade series, Goddess Girls, which places the young goddesses and gods of Greek myths within a middle school setting; Grimmtastic Girls, in which heroines from Grimms’ fairy tales attend prep school and fight against the E.V.I.L. Society; Heroes in Training, which features young heroes of Greek myth on adventures; and picture books like Little Red Writing, which is a parody of “Little Red Riding Hood.” There are others, but this list gives you some idea of the time and energy that she has put into retelling stories for a young, modern audience.

Leslie Patricelli is an equally prolific and prominent board book illustrator, with such titles as Potty, Huggy Kissy, and Tickle.

I suspect this team to sell well. I hope that they do, but so far at my store the title isn’t flying off the shelves like it should.

*****

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Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? Sound Book by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Priddy-St. Martin’s, 2011. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 1-5, Grades PreK-K.

Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle have been a bestselling team for quite some time now with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and all of its sequels and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and all of its. This is a spinoff of a spinoff of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, a sound book version of Polar Bear, Polar Bear. Because this is a sound as well as an animal primer, the sound book is a logical and I think good choice. There’s something satisfying—there always is—about pushing buttons to make noise—even at my age, but as a toddler certainly.  The soundbites used for this book are of the actual animals too, as far as I can figure; certainly the peacock’s “yelp” is the wail of a peacock; that’s a very distinctive sound.  Carle was less creative with colors here—animals are more their natural color than say a blue horse (though the walrus is purple)—and in a way I appreciate that; it helps with the animal primer aspect of the book. There’s pleasantly and unobtrusively more diversity within the human characters here. There’s a suggestion at the end, as the zookeeper repeats the noises imitated by the children that he hears, for children being read the book to imitate the noises, making it a possibly interactive read.

****

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The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Annick Press Ltd, 1993. First published 1980.  Intended audience: Ages 4-7, Grades PreK-2.

This book. If you haven’t read, find it. A princess’ castle and wardrobe are destroyed and her prince carried off by a dragon. Instead of crying, she clothes herself in the one thing untouched by the dragon’s fire—a paper bag—and sets off to rescue her prince, outsmarting the dragon by using its own hubris against it. Her prince is upset about being rescued by a princess who doesn’t look like a princess with her singed and mussed hair and cleverly crafted paper bag dress and tells Elizabeth to come back when she looks like a real princess. Elizabeth recognizes that Rupert is in fact a “bum” and she leaves him, skipping happily into the sunset in her paper bag. Elizabeth is a princess who shows her emotions, most importantly anger. Few Disney princes get angry: Jasmine, Pocahontas, Tiana, Merida, Nala…. Well, the list is longer than I thought it would be, but noticeably absent are the original, the classic princesses: Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White—the Disney princesses pre-1980 when this book was first released. Little girls are often taught that anger is not a feminine emotion, and so it is repressed rather than felt or expressed—not a healthy thing. Boys and girls should be taught how to deal with anger rather than not to feel it or that to feel it is somehow wrong—I think. Elizabeth outsmarts the dragon by paying him compliments, not a weapon I particularly think of as masculine—though recent experiences make me question whether this is perhaps a weapon wielded too often by men. I was going to label the weapon of manipulation via compliment as feminine, but now I’m thinking that this weapon is not particularly feminine so much as it does not require the physical strength, the dragon-slaying that is stereotypically associated almost wholly with men and masculinity.

The feminist message remains, however. Elizabeth is a clever girl, who learns to see past appearances, who runs in contrast to the clothes make the princess lesson of Cinderella—and that is a lesson that bears learning.

***** 

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Kitten and Friends by Priddy Books. Sterling, 2009.  First published by St. Martin’s, 2001.

I reviewed this book’s sister book, Puppies and Friends in April, so I suspected when I picked it up that I would enjoy it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Like Puppies and Friends, this is a touch-and-feel book. It has rather unique feel elements, like strings of yarn, fibers meant to imitate a kitten’s stiff whiskers. Kitten and Friends poses questions to readers, like “can you feel my soft fur?”—not a very exciting question— and “Is the wool softer than my fur?”—a much better question that encourages comparative reasoning, which is what particularly loved about Puppies and Friends. This book I feel has more exciting feel elements than did Puppies and Friends, and I was distracted from the cleverness of the text by them—not a point of detraction, merely a score for the feel elements; it is still important that these are smart questions.

**** 

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You Are My Little Pumpkin Pie by Amy E. Sklansky and illustrated by Talitha Shipman. LB Kids-Hachette, 2013.

I did much like this book. Unless you already call your child “pumpkin pie” then the reasoning behind the pet name seems an odd choice for a story. As a book to encourage parent-child interaction it might have some merit, with lines like “Each time I kiss your yummy cheek, I have to kiss it twice”—but “yummy cheek”? Are you going to eat your baby? The text honestly makes the parents seem rather self-centered. The child is warm and cozy next to them, she is yummy, she lights up a room—what benefit does the child get from any of this? It’s as if the child is there to improve the life of the parent. Certainly children might improve parents’ lives, but a child’s no tool, and that should be a two-way street with agape love on both sides.

**

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Reviews: January Picture Book Roundup: Part One

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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).

**1/2

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.

*1/2

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.

***1/2

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.

****