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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

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

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: 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: March 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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0763666483

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.

****

9780385389259

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: December 2014 Picture Book Roundup

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Romeo & Juliet: A BabyLit Counting Primer by Jennifer Adams and illustrated by Alison Oliver. Gibbs Smith, 2011.

I’d like this BabyLit primer better if the numbered items corresponded better to the story. Unless there actually are ten kisses (I found five in a cursory search of the text)? BabyLit counts eight love letters never sent by either Romeo or Juliet, and nine streets and bridges, which seems highly unlikely in a city the size of Verona (modern-day Verona certainly has more than nine bridges over the Adige). Oliver’s illustrations, however, are as cleverly detailed and whimsical as ever.

**

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Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner and illustrated by Mark Buehner. Dial-Penguin, 2002.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

The story provides a whimsical explanation for why snowmen might have crooked hats or arms in the morning, supposing that snowmen, in the style of Raymond Briggs, come alive and congregate to play in the snow at night after children have gone to bed. I was more taken with Mark’s illustrations than Caralyn’s story. The illustrations are clever, detailed, colorful, beautiful. The story just seems a little obvious and overdone, with no real surprises.

***

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The Dark Lord and the Seamstress by J. M. Frey and illustrated by Jennifer Vendrig. 2014.

I won a copy of this picture book via Goodreads‘ giveaways.  I was intrigued by the title and by the summary and, yes, the cover.  I was a bit let down to open the book and discover line drawings.  While I won’t vehemently protest black and white in a picture book as I heard one girl do this month, I admit that I expect color, especially from modern picture books, and I certainly at least appreciate shading.  This book allows for black and no other color, though it does use crosshatching to indicate shadow.  I and later my roommate consoled me by deciding that this will just have to become a coloring book as well as a picture book.  (I’ve taken no colored pencils or crayons to it yet.)  The illustrations show an anime style influence but manage to avoid seeming too cartoonish, and the characters are expressive.  The text is written in rhyming verse, which was really rather well executed though in places the rhyme slipped just a little.  I think it will be best read aloud because of that format.

On the whole, I appreciate the story as a clever adaptation of the old fairy tale type (perhaps AT425C: Beauty and the Beast or maybe AT 425J: The Heroine Serves in Hell for her Bridegroom).

The last few pages at first threw me. I balked at the idea of the angels wearing the badge of the devil’s love on their robes, but the more I thought about it, the less it bothered me, and the less I saw it as a marking angels as belonging to the devil, and the more I saw it as an idea that servants of the Judeo-Christian God would wear badges denoting the power of love over the darkest evils.

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Wait a minute!  First, the author found my blog post!  And that’s exciting!  But more exciting still is that this book was designed as a coloring book, and this means that this book is something new.  There are a few coloring books that will attempt to tell a story (usually these are movie adaptations), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture book meant to be a coloring book.  So let’s revise my opinion.  This is a purposefully interactive picture book, one that invites the reader to capture their imagination on the pages.  Kids love coloring books.  Or I did as a kid.  I also loved picture books.  But there are probably kids who enjoy one or the other.  This book might invite artists to enjoy a story.  It invites readers to become artists.  Interactive picture books (like Hervé Tullet’s) are on the way up, but I don’t think I’ve yet seen one this interactive.

****

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

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: September Picture Book Roundup

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You’ll have to all forgive me the tardiness of this post again.  Another month means another move for me, this time to an apartment with which I will share the lease with a friend, one that is new to us, and so required us to set up our Internet—and while I thought about going elsewhere to get this post up on time, I realized that I ought rather to worry about getting things out of boxes and making sure that we can get fixed all that needs fixing.

This month there are a lot of books that just made me think “ehn.”  Also, Halloween has come early to Nine Pages, Halloween books being what Barnes & Noble is promoting on its children’s octagon and up by the registers.  So, if you’re interested in books to give a young child for Halloween, you’ve found the right review blog.

Anna Karenina: A BabyLit Fashion Primer by Jennifer Adams and illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2013.

A fashion primer is not something that it would ever occur to me to gift to a child.  A fashion primer seemed—upon my initial reading of the book—to be a tool of an overly consumeristic society and merely to give a child words to ask for extravagances.  Upon considering it more carefully, I recognize that there are advantages to a young child being prepared with the words to ask for the extravagances that she desires—and not all of the clothing types listed are unnecessary frou-frou (a word actually used within the illustrations) if most of them are.  This BabyLit primer includes brief quotes from the original work (all describing the characters’ clothing) and also is more interactive than any of the BabyLit primers that I’ve previously read, asking the reader to find elements within the pictures.  Asking the reader to find these other elements also allows BabyLit to include two vocabulary words per page rather than the usual one of the primer format.  I enjoyed Moby Dick more but concede that Anna Karenina is probably the better-constructed and more useful primer.  I do think that Moby Dick is the better illustrated as if the animal characters give Alison Oliver greater rein for her imagination; her animal characters seem warmer and more friendly and childish than her stiff human characters.

****

Goodnight, Mouse: A Peek-A-Boo Adventure by Anna Jones.  Parragon, 2012.

The construction and glitter of this book attracted me to it.  I frankly found the text disappointing for being banal and the pictures dark (in color palette), but I maintain that I do like the cutaway format and that I do like a little tasteful glitter.

***

Pop-up Surprise Haunted House by Roger Priddy.  Priddy-Macmillain, 2012.

Priddy rarely disappoints.  Other than that I’ve read a lot (two) Halloween-themed counting books about monsters arriving for a party, I liked this book of his.  Of those two, I thought that Priddy’s was the better written for being more creative with sentence structure.  Also it has the advantage of being a pop-up.  The page with the werewolf is even a tiny bit frightening for the height of the pop-up.

***

Curious George by H. A. Rey and illustrated by Margret Rey.  Houghton Mifflin, 1994.  First published 1939.  First published in English 1941.

This one I actually read twice this month, once to myself, and once aloud to a group of twelve kids, none probably older than eight and some as young as one and a few months.  In reading it to myself, I worried that I would have to answer questions such as why it’s okay for George to have “a good smoke” (that line and illustration more than any other really dated the book, first published 1939 in France) and why George’s phone looks so absurd (being rotary).

George gets into a lot more trouble than I remembered.  George looks thoroughly distressed when the Man in the Yellow Hat snatches him in his bag.  George nearly drowns when he tries to fly like a seagull.  He is taken to a dismal, dungeon-like jail cell by the firemen.

This last is another concept that I was not utterly comfortable disseminating to impressionable children.  A lot of work is done to ensure that children are comfortable around firefighters, firefighters being less able to help children who are terrified of them.  While it’s important for children to know that calling the fire station when there is no emergency is a crime and wrong, the dungeon prison into which George is thrown is truly miserable.

The kids seemed to enjoy the story.  I think I was more distressed by the situations in which George found himself than they were.  I also made it fairly interactive.  George—even in the overlarge paperback I was giving for Curiosity Day story time—was often small, so I had the kids come and point out George to me.  I had them tell me what animals they saw George sharing with at the zoo.

Curious George is a classic and George’s adventures are a good mix of relatable and whimsical, teaching consequences without endangering children and being exciting and fun enough to entertain.

****

 Gallop!: A Scanimation Picture Book by Rufus Butler Seder.  Workman, 2007.

This is the first scanimation book, scanimation being the patented way of creating a moving image.  It’s pretty much just as exciting now as it was when it was released in 2007, and though I’ve flipped the pages of this and other scanimation books before, I’m sad it took me this long to read Gallop!  It is a very interactive text, asking readers to if they can “gallop like a horse” or “swim like a fish,” “spring like a cat,” or “soar like an eagle.”  Readers could either answer the text’s questions or, if feeling active, try to imitate the pictures’ motions.  Nonsense words accompany the pictures and create a rhyme scheme for the book.  The final page commends the readers’ efforts and says, “take a bow and smile: you twinkle like a star.  Take a bow and shine: a star is what you are,” providing a positive message for readers, because compliments, even coming from an author that you’ve never met face to face, are nice to receive.

****

Count, Dagmar! by J.otto Seibold.  Chronicle, 2011.

This is the second Halloween themed counting book, with which I was less impressed than with Priddy’s.  Also “Janner [and Kathryn] was as unsettled by the overuse of exclamation points as he was by the dreary countenance of the place” (176).  The exclamation in the title is entirely unnecessary, but that is a small quibble.  While I am quibbling with Seibold’s punctuation, let me congratulate him on the pun; I did not when reading the book notice that the title is a command, not Count Dagmar (like Count Dracula, Count Count, or Count Chocula) but “Count, Dagmar.”  I have just discovered that this is a spin off of another book that I have not read—Vunce Upon a Time—and as such may find its merit and its marketability in being a spin off, also in the popularity of Seibold’s Olive the Other Reindeer.

***

Sophie La Girafe: Peekaboo Sophie! by Dawn Sirett.  DK, 2013.

As a touch-and-feel book to accompany a teething toy, I hadn’t expected to find any quality to the book, but Sophie la Girafe has always been known for quality and the book was no exception.  Very interactive, this touch-and-feel book is also a flap book and the text invites reader interaction with questions.

**** 

Frankenstein by Rick Walton and illustrated by Nathan Hale. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillain, 2012.

This was a very cleverly and well-done parody of the classic picture book Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.  Walton keeps a similar rhythm and rhyme scheme to the original’s and, basically the same story, where a caretaker of twelve children awakes in the night knowing that something is not right to find that the smallest/ugliest of them all, Madeline/Frankenstein, has contracted a disease: appendicitis/headlessness.  The cure is sought and achieved, but then the other eleven children want to contract the same disease and in Walton’s succeed.  Walton throws in a twist where the caretaker does not care for the remaining eleven, her problems being greatly solved by their headlessness.

****

Cozy Classics: War and Peace by Jack and Holman Wang.  Simply Read, 2013.

Cozy Classics are, like BabyLit, are classics remade into board books for kids.  The stories seek to capture the basics of the plot in pages with a single word associated with a picture.  Cozy Classics does a good job creating full scenes with their felt dolls.  The dolls can also be surprisingly expressive.  This is a series I appreciate for its illustrations more than its text or concept.

I’ve not actually read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and am not overly familiar with the story other than to know that it follows several Russian families through several generations (I think), so I can’t attest to the Cozy Classics’ merit as an adaptation.  I have to think that there would have been some stronger illustration, however, than of a yellow dress—unless the yellow dress is highly symbolic in a way with which I am unfamiliar?

***

 Cozy Classics: Les Miserables by Jack and Holman Wang.  Simply Read, 2013.

This Cozy Classic also attempts to be an opposites primer but does not maintain the opposites throughout.  This Cozy Classic does a decent job of capturing the entirety of the tale (as I know it from the musical rather than the novel), though it glosses a lot of the reasons behind its illustrated nouns and the connections between pages are lost in translation.

***

Chuckling Ducklings and Baby Animal Friends by Aaron Zenz.  Walker Children’s-Bloomsbury, 2013.

This board book was another surprising find.  It’s a greatly factual book, and it feels that way but not oppressively so.  With a rhyming singsong rhythm, Zenz lists the different technical names that we have for baby animals, going into amazing specifics and digging up the more obscure names of which I was previously unaware.  There was nothing of a plot to the text, however, and it can really be lauded more as a reference with colorful and playful drawings than as a story.  The back also includes a pictorial guide so that, if there are animals the adult name of which the reader could not guess, the reader won’t have to search for the information.

***1/2

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

Book Reviews: June 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.

****

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

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.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Two-Zero (828 words)

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“My old eyes are tired.  Read to me, Darryn.  Start there.”

Darryn leaned over the book from his perch on Albert’s thigh, his eyes fastening on the word above Albert’s fingertip.  It was one of the less interesting books that Albert read to him from, but it would be easier.  The first word was really a number.  Darryn liked numbers.  There was less to learn about reading numbers.  “One-one-three,” he read.

Albert frowned with his eyes shut.  “Three numbers,” he said, “but all right next to one another, so they’re one number.  When there are three numbers, what do we call it?”

When Darryn only frowned in response, Albert answered his own question.  “Hundred,” he said.  “One-zero-zero is one hundred.  If it were two-zero-zero you’d have two hundred.  So how do you read the first number, since it’s the first of three?”

“One hundred?” Darryn guessed.  “But it only says one.”

“Its place in the longer number gives it the hundred.  Do you count your stitches, Darryn?”

Darryn nodded.  “Up to ten.  Then I start again from one-one.”

“One-one is eleven.  You should count up to twenty from now on.”

“Twenty,” Darryn frowned.

“Two-zero.  Count to ten for me.”

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” Darryn rattled proudly.

“After ten comes?”

“One-one.  Or—el-evan.”  Darryn tested the word on his tongue.

“Eleven,” Albert smiled.  “Count to eleven.”

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven,” Darryn recited, grinning when he finished with the new word and Albert nodded at him.

“What’s next?”

“One-two?”

“One-two, which we call twelve.  Count to twelve,” Albert suggested.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.”

“Good.  Then thirteen.  One-three.”

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen—one-three.  One-four is next.”

“Fourteen,” Albert nodded.

“That one makes sense,” Darryn grinned.  “Then fiveteen?”

“Fifteen.”

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, five—I mean, fifteen.”

“Very good,” Albert laughed.  “From there it’s easier.  Guess.”

“Sixteen?”

Albert nodded.

“Seventeen?” Darryn continued, earning another nod from Albert.  “Eighteen?  Nineteen?”  Darryn hesitated.

“Then twenty,” Albert smiled.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty!” Darryn beamed.

“Can you write them for me?”

Darryn nodded.

“There’s some parchment at the end of that table there.  Pick out a quill and bring them here then bring me an inkpot.  Carry it carefully.  I’ll hold the pot for you while you settle the paper and yourself there on the floor.”

Darryn did as he was bidden, sliding off of Albert’s knee as the old man lifted the book from their laps.  He found a sheet of the thin parchment and from a jug beside the parchment stack chose a black crow’s feather.  He carried these to Albert and put them on the floor at his feet, before going to retrieve the inkpot.  He carried the ceramic pot in both hands and handed it carefully to Albert, who handed it back to Darryn only when Darryn sat at his feet with the paper in front of him and the quill on his lap.  Albert had taken off the top.

“You remember how to write?” he asked Darryn.

Darryn nodded and put the tip of the feather into the black ink.  It came out dripping.

“Dab it off on the edge of the pot,” Albert reminded him.

Darryn did so then carefully positioned the pen on the parchment.

“Start with one.”

That was a straight line down.

“Two,” Albert counted.

Darryn drew a curve like edge of half of a leaf and added a straight line along its bottom.  Three was two curves like the hills turned sideways.  Four was two lines: the first went down then sideways and the other crossed it, going down like a one.  Five started like four turned sideways, then he added a hump like the end of three.  Six looked a little like a tadpole.  Seven was a straight line on top and then it angled down not straight but like it was running away from Darryn.  Eight was two connecting circles.  Darryn liked eight.  Nine was a circle, but then its tail ran away like seven’s.  Ten was a straight line for one and an egg next to it for zero.  Eleven, he knew, was two ones, and twelve a one and a two.  He drew them all up to nineteen then looked to Albert.

“A two and a zero.”

Darryn completed the list.

“Now read those to me.”

Darryn did and looked up to see Albert grinning at him.  “We’ll make a reader of you yet, Darryn.  You keep that parchment.  You show your parents, and you read it to yourself when you get a spare moment.  We’ll work on counting to thirty—that’s three-zero next.”

“Thirty,” Darryn repeated, “three-zero.”

“Focus on twenty for now,” Albert advised, smiling.

The Gate In The Wood is a thief!  She stole the first line of this story and wrote one of her own.

For more legal theft pieces, follow this link to the thief lord’s catalog.