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Book Reviews: January 2016 Picture Book Roundup

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Next Month’s Holidays:

February 2: Groundhog’s Day

9781619632899Groundhog’s Day Off by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Brett Helquist. Bloomsbury USA, 2015.

This is a book that won’t come out of its hole but once a year—and that’s sort of shame. It’s a clever, funny little book, about a groundhog who feels underappreciated so he leaves on an unplanned vacation right before his big day, leaving the town in a lurch and holding auditions for someone to replace him. He just wants the media to ask him about something other than the weather—really, he wants to be asked about himself, the personal questions, like what movies he likes and how he likes his pizza. There’s an African American female mayor and the potential for a sequel as the groundhog runs away with the Easter Bunny at the end. This is though I think the sort of picture book that gets a larger laugh from adults than it does from the kids.

***

9781580896009Groundhog’s Dilemma by Kristen Remenar and illustrated by Matt Faulkner. Charlesbridge-Penguin, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Groundhog can never please everyone with his annual weather report. His friends think that they can change his report by currying favor with groundhog. After several attempts to explain that he does not control the weather, he only reports it—all of which are ignored—Groundhog, enjoying the place on the baseball team and the homemade pies, lets his friends think that he will be able to please them all—even when their desires conflict. As the next Groundhog’s Day approaches, Groundhog realizes that he will upset people no matter what he says—he simply cannot please everyone—and he worries that he will lose the friends whom he disappoints. He decides to be honest, to tell them that he’s sorry that he let them think that he could fix the weather for them, but that he liked being liked. I liked that though this too is a book firmly affixed to a minor holiday, the lesson is universal and applicable anytime: though the attention from making false promises may feel good for a while, it’ll eventually sour; also, you should not bring gifts or do favors for a friend because you want him to do something for you, but rather should like him for who he is. The overly flirtatious female hare is an interesting character to include in a children’s book.

***

Next Month’s Holidays:

February 14: Let Me Count the Ways

y648Where Is Love, Biscuit? by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories. HarperFestival-HarperCollins, 2009. First published 2002. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprisingly everyday board book. I worried it would be too Valentine’s to be read anytime, but the story instead asks, “Where’s the love, Biscuit?” and love is found in a soft blanket, in baking cookies, in a knitted sweater. There are touch-and-feel elements on many if not all of the pages. There’s not a lot of story, really, but these were surprisingly refreshing examples on love—especially as it was on display with all of the Valentine’s Day books.

***

9780448489322Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar adapted from Eric Carle’s works. Grosset & Dunlap-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is another book made by hijacking Eric Carle’s works and piecing them together. But unlike the Favorite Words series, this one has… sentences. Sappy text like “you are the cherry to my cake” is accompanied by the caterpillar on the cherry atop a cake and “you make my heart flutter” by the caterpillar as a butterfly and “you are the bee’s knees” by a swarm of friendly bees. It’s a sweet book to read to a beloved child or maybe to give to a sweetheart, but there’s not a lot of substance there, and I really do feel a little queasy over these Frankensteined books made from Carle’s illustrations.

***

ILYM_jacket_Final:Layout 1I Love You More by Laura Duksta and illustrated by Karen Keesler. Sourcebooks, 2009. First published 2001.

This book features a pretty cool and inventive structure. One side reads as the mother’s response to her son’s question: “How much do you love me?” Flip it over and read the son’s response to his mother when she asks the same question. The middle page bridges the two responses. The text itself is pretty… gooey. Especially on the mother’s side it sounds like that old country song: “deeper than the holler, stronger than the rivers, higher the pine trees”: “I love you higher than the highest bird ever flew. I love you taller than the tallest tree ever grew.” The son’s response is a bit more inventive and includes all the things that boys stereotypically like best: “I love you further than the furthest frog ever leaped. […] I love you louder than the loudest rocket ship ever blasted.” If you’re looking for an ooey-gooey, I-love-you-so-much-book this is a great option.

*****

9781619639225I’ll Never Let You Go by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and illustrated by Alison Brown. Bloomsbury USA, 2015.

This is another mushy, gushy, read-to-your-child story. The illustrations are of different animals with their parents, and the style is whimsical, the creatures reminiscent of plushies with their soft lines and simple faces.  The parent promises to be with the child through all of its highs and lows: “When you are excited, the world joins with you, You bounce all about—and look! I’m bouncing, too!” (We won’t talk about those commas.) “When you are sad and troubled with fears, I hold you close and dry all your tears.” Reminiscent at once of Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Go, My Love Will Find You and Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, I think that this book personally lives up to neither, but is simpler than either, and might be a better book than either to read with a child rather than to one—that being said, the text is very much meant to be a parent speaking. There are really just so many books about a parent promising to always love a child that it’s difficult to be outstanding in that category.

***

Making New Friends

9780399167737 Peanut Butter & Cupcake by Terry Border. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

What bothered me most about this book was the title, so this should be a pretty positive review. I understand that a title like Peanut Butter and Jelly would be more likely to get lost in the noise, but Peanut Butter and Cupcake is misleading. Cupcake’s is only a two page spread and a mention, and she’s not very welcoming to Peanut Butter, inviting him to watch her play, but warning him not to play with her (what’s more, the cupcake on the cover is by far the tastiest-looking cupcake in the book). The premise is this: Peanut Butter, new to town, wants to play but knows no one and his mom is too busy to play with him, so she sends him out to wander the town and try to make a friend. Peanut Butter approaches various other foods and gives a speech about how he has a ball and wants to play “maybe now, maybe later—or even all day” (that I can remember three days later that repeated phrase says quite a bit for the memorability of the writing—and the number of times that I read this phrase aloud). The illustrations are at least as impressive as the text—and probably more so. Done as posed photographs with food and props (paper clips for feet and hands, for example), I can only imagine how long each illustration took to get right. Clever puns pepper the text and pictures alike: Hamburger walks a pair of wiener hot dogs. Soup spells out his responses to Peanut Butter’s pleas. Cupcake plays in a sandbox of sprinkles. French Fries has to catch up with Hamburger and his hot dogs (read the sentence aloud if you don’t see the pun). Jelly eventually finds Peanut Butter and the two of them play together. The other neighborhood foods see the two of them having fun and Peanut Butter and Jelly let them all join in, taking the high road, so that everyone is enjoying themselves and each others’ company.

****

9780805098259Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

In October I was besotted with Mike Curato’s sequel to this book, Little Elliot, Big Family. Then I’d done some digging and peeked at some of the illustrations from this book found on Curato’s website. I predicted that I would love Little Elliot, Big Family more than the original—and I think that that has proved true, though maybe it’s because Big Family was the first that I found. The problem in Big City is probably more relatable to most kids.  In Little Elliot, Big City, Elliot is small and can be lost in the crowds of New York and stand unseen at the counter at the cupcake shop. He is feeling dejected when he spots Mouse, smaller even than Elliot. Mouse is hungry—hungrier than Elliot—and cannot reach the pizza slice in the park garbage bin. Elliot helps Mouse, and the two of them become friends. Together they are tall enough, and Elliot is able to buy and share his cupcake. It seems trite in a way, that Elliot’s trouble revolves around and is ultimately resolved by the acquisition of a cupcake—even if I sort of understand that that cupcake is more the culmination and physical manifestation of a heap of other troubles resulting from being too little. The illustrations are still gorgeous: vibrant and smooth, though showing less of the diversity of the city that is so wonderfully captured in Little Elliot, Big Family (though the diversity is there).

****

24819508Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

My two audience members were not yet one and not yet two. This story was really too long for them, but we read it the first Wednesday after the Caldecott and Newbery winners had been chosen, and I had this, Matt de la Peña’s The Last Stop on Market Street, and Kevin Henkes’ Waiting (a Caldecott honoree) in a pile beside me. My not-yet-two year old picked out this one, and we made a pretty valiant effort to get through it (I read maybe the last two or three pages to myself, but over the course of a half hour, we made our way through the rest of the story before the kids’ interest was entirely lost to the toys behind me). Finding Winnie tells the true tale of Winnie, an orphaned bear cub from Canada, who is saved from the trapper by a soldier and accompanies his brigade to England, where they will train to fight in World War II. Winnie stays with the soldiers until they are called away to the front, then she is left in the care of the London Zoo, where she is befriended by Christopher Robin Milne, whose father A. A. Milne was inspired by their friendship to introduce us all to our friend, Winnie-the-Pooh. The frame story is told by the soldier Harry Coleburn’s great-granddaughter, the author of the book, who tells the story to her little boy, Cole. As a Caldecott winner, I was supposed to be blown away by the illustrations, which are nice, but I was more taken by the photographs in the back of the book, proving the truth of the tale, and by the tale itself, which seems almost too perfect to be real.

****

You Can Be the Hero Too

the-night-gardener-9781481439787_lgThe Night Gardener by Terry Fan and Eric Fan (the Fan Brothers). Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I was given access through work to an unbound page proof of this book, which is due out on my birthday, actually: February 16 (Happy early birthday to me!). The illustrations are the obvious star of this book—by which I mean, I fell in love with the illustrations almost to the point that the text is irrelevant—not that the text was bad; it wasn’t, but it was overshadowed. The book tells the story of a boy who wakes to imaginative topiaries and wonders who is creating these masterpieces. He ultimately stumbles into an apprenticeship with the Night Gardener. But really, just do yourself a favor and go take a look at these whimsical, marvelous illustrations. Wonder like I do how the color palette can be at once so vibrant and so muted.

****

9780803737891Skippyjon Jones: Snow What by Judy Schachner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I really enjoyed this story and the parents really enjoyed this story, but it wasn’t holding the attention of my audience of three (two of whom admittedly were under one). I warned them and I will warn you that my Spanish is… pitiful. I studied in middle school, but it’s almost entirely washed away now. I don’t think that my poor presentation helped. I fudged my way through most of the Spanish and the Spanglish and probably pronounced a few of the words with more French or Italian than they ought to have done. Does the Spanish and Spanglish keep me from enjoying the story? In no way. Little Skippyjon is the only boy in a passel of girls, and he is outvoted when it’s time to choose a story. He storms away and invents his own tale of Snow What, where he is once again the famous swordfighter Skippito Friskito, is forced into tights by his friends the poochitos, and is forced to kiss the ice cube coffin of the princess to wake her from her cursed sleep. He cannot escape the tropes of the fairytale, but he can become the hero, can tell himself a story that focuses on the prince instead of the princess. I appreciated that this one had less stereotyping of Mexican culture than some in this series (the original tale) and I appreciated the, well, backlash to the backlash of the Disney Princess tale dominance. As important as it is for girls to see themselves as heroines, it’s just as important for boys to see themselves as heroes.  This story also highlights the great power of imagination.

****

Clever Primers

y648-19780062110589Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2010.

Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2012.

Sometimes, the best review really comes from the kids. I read these two (and Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses) to a crowd of kids, who knew the stories well-enough to read pages to me, who knew the songs, and sung them for me. When the kids love the stories that much, it’s really hard to dislike them—and honestly, there’s a lot to like. I hadn’t stopped to consider that these are primers for an older crowd with a semblance of plot not usually in primers. I Love My White Shoes is the first ever Pete the Cat story and a color primer, where Pete sings about his love for his white shoes, and when he squashes strawberries, his red shoes, and when he steps in a pile of blueberries, his blue shoes. The refrain “Did Pete cry? Goodness, no. He kept walking along and singing his song” is a wonderful lesson in Hakuna matata. But really, this silly cat really ought to watch out for piles of berries. Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons is a counting and math primer. He sings another song about how he loves his buttons. The song changes to reflect the number of buttons as one after another pops off and rolls away. Both books play with words to make a surprising ending. Pete’s shoes are wet, but does he cry? Goodness no. Pete’s coat has no more buttons, but there’s still the best button of all left—his belly button! I had somehow missed these books. I don’t know how. I actually prefer the text from Kimberly Dean’s later book, Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses, because the text and story is more complex, but the lesson and theme of positivity despite circumstances is still there, but Kimberly Dean’s story lacks the primer aspect, so really I can respect both, and cheer both, and marvel that this is a picture book series that can kids can grow with in the same way that they can later grow with, say, Harry Potter.

****            ****

good-night-ct-cover-535x535Good Night Connecticut by Christina Vrba and illustrated by Anne Rosen. Good Night Books, 2009.

This book is part of a series that I think now covers all fifty states, some cities, some countries, some general locations, some general family members, some fire trucks and mermaids and dinosaurs. I’m a Nutmegger by birth and spent my childhood in the state. Much of the focus in this book is on tourist attractions more than on more general sights in the state, and many of those I’ve never visited, though I know of many of them. Most of the attractions have a short descriptor. While I haven’t seen everything listed in the book, the old stone walls, town green, beaches, and riding rings were a large part of my childhood environment. I bought this board book on a whim in a small store in Kent before leaving the state. Sometimes I just take it out to remind myself of home. This is not stellar writing, but it has nostalgia value, and it would have value as a primer for a vacation or to teach a child about her home state. It’s meant for young kids, kids who are still learning the sounds of turkeys and trains.

**

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Book Reviews: April Picture Book Roundup: Part Two

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Beware, this lot got me to don my mover-and-shaker-concerned-citizen-of-the-world-britches.

Happy Easter, Mouse! by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2010. Intended audience: Ages 0-4.

This is a board book, Easter spinoff of Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. I thought that this book was surprisingly well handled as both a spinoff and a holiday spinoff at that. Numeroff was conscious of her audience and she built a book for them. This book is a color and number primer, a counting book, an interactive book, and it’s shorter than her others. I had fun counting the eggs in the pictures, and I had the kids at our story hour each count a page for me too.

***1/2

Tea with Grandpa by Barney Saltzberg. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades Pre-K-2.

This is one of the most moving books that I’ve read in a long while. A little girl enjoys a daily teatime with her grandpa. They laugh and enjoy one another’s company. It’s not till the end of the book that it is revealed that all of this has taken place via a video chat. I think this is an important book. It’s a tradition I’d have loved to grow up with (the technology wasn’t available), and I think it’s important to instill in all people the reminder of our need and desire for quality time. In an age where many of us do live far apart from family members, this has become difficult, but Saltzberg here suggests a possibility for the sort of communion we desire to be possible despite distance. I think it does hold the threat however of, if given as a gift from grandparent to child, extolling a paragon that the grandparent may find impossible, and as a gift of a child to a grandparent, coming across as condemnation for what is lacking. This is a book that ought to be given with a promise—and I’d like to see families doing so.

****

Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh Schneider. Clarion-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Seeing the title, I had high expectations of this book, and those expectations were not met. The Barbie-like Princess Sparkle is destroyed by the family dog, and Amelia and her mother set out to repair her and make her better than before. The end result is nearer to Lilo’s Scrump than Barbie, and Amelia declares her better than new, but an opportunity was sorely missed by Schneider. The only mention of transforming the princess into a strong or independent person was the protagonist’s demand to give Princess Sparkle-Heart extra stuffing as muscles to defend her from the dog. That’s a step towards the right direction. Girls should be strong, but they should not have to be strong because they need to defend themselves. They ought to be able to be strong for strength’s sake and not because of outside threats. I realize I’m searching for an ideal that may be impossible in our fallen and baggage-laden world, but I would like it to be a possibility, and I worry that this idea of women needing to be strong to protect themselves teeters towards proclaiming that a woman deserved to be raped (or Princess Sparkle-Heart deserved to be destroyed) because she wasn’t strong enough to defend herself, and if she had been strong enough, she wouldn’t have been raped (or destroyed)—an argument as stupid as that she shouldn’t have worn a skirt. Also, is the lesson here that a woman who looks like a typical princess cannot defend herself? That she has to look like a patchwork doll to be safe? I do enjoy as a reader the dog that lingers on each page growling at Princess Sparkle-Heart, but when I look at it with the more detached eyes of the feminist I see a dark, malevolent, and ever present threat rather than a jealous family dog, and that’s unsettling. Josh Schneider, what are you trying to tell me?

I recognize that I am seeing issues that Schneider did not and that his intention was to write a sweet story of a mother helping her daughter with the simple lesson that a girl need not look to the world’s ideal of beauty to be worthwhile. Maybe he should have asked these questions too, but how do you condense all of this into a picture storybook? If I could answer that question, maybe I wouldn’t need to ask the questions anymore.

**

Puppy and Friends: Touch and Feel by the staff of St. Martin’s Press. Sandy Creek-St. Martin’s, 2010.

This is a touch and feel book with puppies. I did like that instead of telling the child what the objects felt like, the text asked the child to describe what the objects felt like. That’s an interesting twist. It makes it less of a primer, but I think it makes it actually a more important book. Shouldn’t we be teaching our children to think and express themselves? Rather than illustrations, this book uses photographs—photographs of puppies. I like photographs of puppies.

***1/2

Ninja, Ninja, Never Stop! by Todd Tuell and illustrated by Tad Carpenter. Abrams Appleseed-Abrams, 2014.

Ninjas. Well, I had to see, didn’t I? (Have to keep up-to-date on the press being given my rivals and make sure that our books are better; so there you are, I might be biased, though I’ve loved ninja protagonists before). A rambunctious child dons a ninja outfit and proceeds to sneak and kick and karate chop his way through the pages. This ninja seems mostly to use his powers selfishly or cruelly, however, to sneak up on his dog or brother or to escape his grandmother’s kisses, and he faces no consequences for his actions, other than to be told once to stop by a brother. The book would sit better with me I think if there had been some sense that the ninja did heed his brother’s upset cry and changed because of it. Instead, the text continues with a very repetitive sentence pattern—“Ninja this. Ninja that”—without any break in the rhythm to indicate a change, and in the end the brother for some reason dons a black mask too—perhaps because there seems to be no consequences for the ninja and the ninja seems to be allowed to do whatever he wants and always get his way; that could be very appealing.

**

Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Claudia Rueda. Dial-Penguin, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I really enjoyed this book myself, but it seemed a bit long to hold the attention of the children I had at story hour. Cat, who does not speak but holds up pictorial signs to which the text responds, is upset that the Easter Bunny is getting so much attention and love. The reader explains to Cat that the Easter Bunny is loved because he leaves gifts for children. Cat decides he too will leave gifts for children to earn love. The Easter Bunny delivers a gift for Cat, and Cat who notices how tired the Easter Bunny is and is distraught by the idea the Easter Bunny has no time for naps, decides to help the Easter Bunny with his delivery. This is the second book (the other being Pete the Cat: Big Easter Adventure) that I read that expounds a new idea that Easter’s message is to help others. As I said, it’s not a bad message, but I don’t really know where this idea came from, though I suppose Jesus did help us, and we are called to imitate Him. The real draw is the back and forth of the reader and a very expressively illustrated Cat.

***1/2

Book Reviews: December Picture Book Roundup

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As with November, several of these are books from story hours.  A lot are now on clearance at Barnes & Noble, being books we sell only for the Christmas season.

A Christmas Carol: A BabyLit Colors Primer by Jennifer Adams and illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2012.

Adams’ adaptation is a decent introduction to the characters of Dickens’ novel but does little to adapt the plot.  It also introduces more unusual colors.  There are few books that introduce children to “silver,” so I suppose it’s good to have some variation from other available primers; this along with BabyLit’s adaptation of literary classics sets Adam’s A Christmas Carol apart.

***

Bubble’s in Trouble! by Ag Jatkowska.  Caterpillar-Little Tiger, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is a book I’d laud much more for its construction than its plot.  It features a spinner-like Bubble the Blowfish on its final page.  Bubble can be moved on each page.  Bubble gets caught in a porthole (a hole left in the pages of the book to show the Bubble of the final page) of a sunken ship.  Various sea creatures come along and suggest that he try to escape in the way that they would.  These means do not work for Bubble.  Only a sneeze works to free Bubble.  I would have preferred if Bubble had somehow been able to escape in a way that was especially specific to blowfish or if Jatkowski had somehow made it seem as if the sneeze was something unique to blowfish.  Then the lesson could have been said to be that one must use one’s own particular talents instead of deferring to the advice of others in problem-solving.  As it is, the story is cute enough, the text rhymes, and the moveable book is interactive.  It should be said too that this was a book that came to my attention because the rotating Bubbles that peeps through each page had been torn off.  I don’t know what the book’s history on the shelf had been.  Maybe it was maliciously torn off, but the fact remains that it had been damaged.

**1/2

My First Batman Book: Touch and Feel by David Katz.  Downtown, 2011.  Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

The main draw of this book is Batman—for both parents, kids, and gift-givers.  It introduces kids to the character, to the main gadgets, and to the idea; the text itself is not particularly imaginative.  The moveable pieces are of a more unique nature than most interactive books, however, including moving a cardboard Batman along a Batrope and turning off the lights to see the Bat-Signal glow in the dark.  The final phrase “Who’s Batman’s little helper?” with a mirror face in Robin’s costume seems dare I say saccharine (not to mention patronizing to Robin)?  This book too, it should again be mentioned, was brought to my attention by a customer who would have bought it perhaps except that a cardboard piece depicting Batman and Robin in the Batmobile had been torn from the book.  Again, I don’t know how long it had sat on the shelf or what torments the book had endured, but it did not survive to find a happy home.

**1/2

A Very Crabby Christmas by Tish Rabe and illustrated by Dave Aikins.  Inspired by Dr. Seuss.  Golden-Random, 2012.

This was a request from one of my attendees to the How the Grinch Stole Christmas! story hour.  I don’t know that he’d heard the story before and had to leave midway through it, but I finished it for anyone who was still listening while coloring.  When did the Cat in the Hat become a helpful creature instead of a creature of chaos?  This is not the Cat that I remember from my childhood.  I believe it happened when PBS gave him his own cartoon show, but perhaps the change was sooner, and I missed it.  In this tale, the Cat and his human friends, Sally and Nick, have been invited to a Crab Christmas Ball on the beach.  The festivities are interrupted when one of the crabs goes missing, and the Cat, Sally, and Nick, find the missing crab and are the celebrated heroes of the tale.  But there’s no suspense, and there’s very little plot.  There’s no real explanation of the crab’s festivities, and there’s no real description of the search for or panic of discovering that Sandy is missing.  I missed all that.  I suppose it is pleasant to have a Christmas book that doesn’t involve a usual Christmas celebration and one that excludes snow or any winter theme.

**1/2

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss.  Random, 1957.

This was a story hour read aloud.

Dr. Seuss is always a classic.  It’s hard for me to really qualify How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (or any Seuss book).  The lesson that “Maybe Christmas […] doesn’t come from a store.  Maybe Christmas perhaps… means a little bit more” is still a fantastic and very pertinent lesson today.

—-

The Polar Express by Chris van Allsburg.  Houghton Mifflin, 1985.  Intended audience: Grades K-3 (Ages 4-8).

This is becoming a new classic, and like How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, it now has its own film adaptation.  The story itself is not one that thrills me.  I like Chris van Allsburg, but I don’t consider this his best—or anywhere near his best.  Even the illustrations are not as amazing as I’d hoped that they would be, especially for a Caldecott winner.

—-

That’s Not My Train by Fiona Watt and illustrated by Rachel Wells.  Usborne, 2008.  First published 2000.  Intended audience: Ages 6 months+

There are a lot of books in this touch-and-feel series.  Pick a noun, tack it on the end of the phrase, and there’s probably a book or there will be soon.  Of them, I’ve otherwise read That’s Not My Elephant, which I preferred to That’s Not My Train, but maybe that’s because I’m more interested in elephants than trains?  For a boy in love with trains, this book would probably be amazing.  That’s Not My Train does use a number of interesting textures.

**1/2

An Elephant and Piggie Book: Pigs Make Me Sneeze! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In a very usual childlike idea, Elephant Gerald sneezes while Piggie is nearby and decides that he must be allergic to Piggie, and he is terrified and terribly distraught.  He sees a cat doctor, sneezes near the cat, and decides he must be allergic to cats too.  The doctor tells Elephant Gerald that he is not allergic to cats or pigs; he has a cold, and Elephant Gerald rejoices.  He runs to tell Piggie the good news and finds Piggie sitting in a pile of tissues.

****

Book Reviews: June Picture Book Roundup

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This June I read a lot of picture and board books and little else.  I seem to have a harder time reviewing in depth such books, but I don’t want to utterly ignore them either, so I’ve opted for a monthly roundup of such books, each with its own brief review, starting now.  I want to mention that the idea owes some to Rick Riordan, who posts monthly brief reviews of books that he’s read.

BabyLit: Little Miss Austen: Pride & Prejudice by Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2011.

I built this book up too much in my mind and didn’t realize it was a number primer/counting book.  This book counts 1 English village, 2 rich gentlemen, 3 houses, 4 marriage proposals, 5 sisters… up to 10 thousand pounds a year!  Round about the middle—maybe it was by 6—the numbered objects became more nonsensical—horses and soldiers—unless there were actually only that many horses and soldiers mentioned in the books (which I find unlikely), then it’s rather brilliant.  I expected Pride & Prejudice to be more like the Les Petits Fairytales, the illustrations for which I find more appealing, softer, more childish, and more complete.  Some counting books are masked in a plot, but this one, while it might use a plot as its basis, cannot claim to tell the story coherently through its pages.  I have a difficult time with stories without a plot—even when I know that plot is not the point.

*1/2

Les Petits Fairytales: Sleeping Beauty by Trixie Belle, Melissa Caruso-Scott, and illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Henry Holt-Macmillain, 2013.

I’ve been reading a lot of books in this series because they are quick and I can read them while I walk them back to their assigned shelf.  I have read Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel besides.  These are board books, meant to be the earliest introductions to the fairy tales.  These are the fairy tales reduced to their simplest ideas, nouns attached to illustrations, simple and complete illustrations, not like those that are attached to Eric Carle’s Favorite Words books. Belle et al.’s books seem to invite its own retelling by a child in time, for which I’d laud it.  They cannot really be read aloud—or would be dull and extremely short to read aloud.  These are books to give to young readers or would-be readers, essentially a set of flashcards in board book form attempting to tell a tale because of their arrangement.

***

Are You a Cow? by Sandra Boynton.  Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

A simple story in which the characters of Boyton’s books ask the reader if he or she is a cow, a dog, a duck, a frog, etc.  It ends with the affirmation, “You are YOU,” sure to get a giggle out of most young children, whom I’m sure will take it as a responsive, interactive book, sure to mean a little more to readers who return to it as more aware children, teens, or adults.

****

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.  Candlewick, 2011.

The illustrations say so much that the words do not.  The bear searches for his hat, asks a number of creatures whom he meets about his hat, always politely, always thanking them for their denial.  Young readers might spot the hat in the pages, might guess before the bear that the wearer’s fierce denial should be taken as an affirmative.  The bear gets the last laugh, squashing the thief and winning back his hat.  It’s a much darker book than I expected.

****

What Makes a Rainbow: A Magic Ribbon Book by Betty Ann Schwartz and illustrated by Dona Turner.  Piggy Toes, 2003.  First published 2000.

Magic ribbon is right!  If I at 23 am marveling over it, I can only imagine the wonder in the face of a child of the appropriate age.  This is meant for the very young, a concept book to teach colors, and given a loose plot to string the colors together—and what better way to string the colors together than in a rainbow?  The little rabbit asks his mother “what makes a rainbow?” and she sends him across the forest to query his friends, each of whom responds with a color needed to make up a rainbow that also happens to be their primary color. The pages are bright.  The text is nothing stellar but neither is it entirely forgettable.  With the turn of each page, the appropriate color is added via a ribbon to the rainbow growing at the top of the pages over the gutter.

***

Bluebird by Bob Staake.  Schwartz & Wade, 2013.

This is a powerful book.  I was left staring at it in my hands after I was done.  Bluebird is a wordless picture with lessons in moving past grief after a loss and death, anti-bullying, and true friendship and love.  A young boy befriends a bluebird that follows him on his way home from school through the city, even into a dark and twisted forest where they meet several bullies who throw sticks at the boy and bird.  One stick catches the bird and kills it in the air.  The bullies and the boy are appalled.  The bullies run away and the boy is left to mourn his dead friend.  Then they are descended upon by a flock of brightly colored birds that lift boy and bird into the sky where the bluebird undergoes some kind of resurrection and flies away.  I’m not entirely sure what Staake meant the ending to mean.  While the resurrection of the bird and the soaring boy give hope to children dealing with loss, I’m not sure that the ending doesn’t also give unrealistic expectations—of birds, of death, maybe even of friends, though I count myself extremely fortunate in my friends.  Yet, I cannot say that the nebulous and potentially overreaching ending much diminishes the power of the book.

****1/2

That Is Not a Good Idea! by Mo Willems.  Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2013.

Willems’ retells Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddle-Duck, itself arguably of the Red Riding Hood tale type.  I wish I’d realized before or while reading it that that was the premise of this book.  The tale stirred distant memories, but I thought it an old Aesop’s tale maybe.  Retelling Potter is better.  Jemima was foolish and had to be rescued.  Willems’ heroine can save herself.  Not only that, she can manipulate the situation from the beginning.  Women and tricksters win!  Illustrated to remind audiences (mostly the parents who will understand the reference while the kids, I’m almost sure, will not) of silent films, this tells a common story, a fox and a mother goose meet by chance the fox invites the duck back to his home for supper.  The audience of the film within the book—a flock of young goslings whom I assumed from the get-go were the geese’s children—yell at the screen that what the characters are doing is not a good idea, really, really not a good idea, don’t do it!  In a twist both in the age-old story and my imagination and understanding, the duck throws the fox as the last ingredient into his own stew, and the chicks, it is revealed, were warning him not her of the danger.  I enjoyed the surprise, I enjoyed the twist, I enjoy it all more that I realize its inspiration.

****

The Pigeon Loves Things That Go! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion, 2005.

This book starts out simply enough, listing a few basic modes of transportation: a bus, a train, an airplane, objects that seem to catch the interest of many young boys.  Following these is a twist.  “A hot dog?  What is that doing here?”  The duckling explains that a hot dog can go too—right down into his stomach.  It works as a board book, meant to have a simplistic “plot” and a few pages, but I don’t think it would work as a hardcover, where I expect a little more.  This is a book for the very young—and the parents tired of reading books that are solely lists and in need of a good laugh; call it a variation on a theme.

****

An Elephant and Piggie Book: A Big Guy Took My Ball! by Mo Willems.  Disney-Hyperion, 2013.

Elephant Gerald and his best friend Piggie are back, and a big guy has taken Piggie’s ball.  Elephant Gerald is big too.  He’s going to get the ball back for Piggie.  But the big guy is very, very BIG, and he says it’s his ball.  Gerald returns empty-handed, but he’s soon followed by the big guy, but like many other side characters in The Elephant and Piggie books, he seeks to share Gerald and Piggie’s friendship, and whale ball is invented.  Elephant and Piggie stories are often heartwarming and always funny.  Best friends like Elephant and Piggie are hard to find—in real life or fiction.

****

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An Elephant and Piggie Book: Happy Pig Day! by Mo Willems.  Disney-Hyperion, 2011.

Elephant Gerald feels excluded because he’s not a pig and feels he can’t celebrate with his friend.  Gerald’s sadness makes Piggie sad too, but Happy Pig Day isn’t just for pigs.  This book shows kids how exclusion feels and reminds them to include everyone—a common theme in The Elephant and Piggie books.

***

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.