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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.

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Book Reviews: July Picture Book Roundup

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Welcome to the second monthly roundup.

Moby Dick: A BabyLit Ocean Primer by Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2013.

The first BabyLit Primer that I read (Pride and Prejudice), I didn’t much enjoy.  This second, a more recent publication, I liked better, maybe because I was better prepared for what to expect, but also perhaps because it simply is more complex, better constructed, and makes better use of the source text.  This integrates quotes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as it introduces young readers to both the story of Moby Dick and some usual (captain, fish, whale, ship, stars, sailors) and more unusual (harpoons; if anyone is looking to get me a gift) ocean vocabulary.  It takes the basic primer a step farther not only with its quotes but also with its labels of the various types of fish (more specific knowledge than I at 24 know).  Confession 1:  I have not read Moby Dick, but I know it is lengthy, and I know the basic idea.  Whether BabyLit retells Moby Dick I cannot say, but it does capture the basic story of a whale hunt, though BabyLit does not specify what becomes of any of the characters, cutting it short of killing or injuring the whale.

****

Les Petits Fairytales: The Little Mermaid by Trixie Belle, Melissa Caruso-Scott, illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2013.

Les Petits Fairytales retell classic tales in the form of board book primers with only one or two words per page and bright illustrations of round, toddling characters in complete settings.

I really appreciate Les Petits Fairytales’ ability to tell an entire tale in such a simple form and their decision to distance themselves from the Disney representations of these classic fairy tales.  Ariel is not a redhead, though the illustrator, Oliver Lake, could easily have made her so.  Instead the young mermaid sports black locks.  Confession 2: I’ve never read Hans Christian Andersen’s original “Little Mermaid.”  I do not know how closely this book stays or how far it strays from the text.  I can only really compare it to Disney’s.  The mermaid regains her grandmother (Disney never can allow two parents to care for their protagonists—or not until recently).  Following closer to Andersen’s version than Disney’s, the prince and mermaid do not wed (Les Petits Fairytales calls them “friends”) and the mermaid returns to the sea, though Les Petits skips the bit about the mermaid refusing to kill the prince to save herself and the part where the mermaid becomes a spirit, losing her mortal and bodily form altogether for not winning the love of the prince.

****

Les Petits Fairytales: Snow White by Trixie Belle, Melissa Caruso-Scott, illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2012.

Again, Les Petits Fairytales distances itself from the Disney version of the tale and remains closer to the original Grimms Brothers’ version.  The witch uses an enchanted corset and poisoned comb before defeating Snow White with a poisoned apple.  Les Petits Fairytales remembers its audience and allows only a forehead kiss to wake the sleeping girl.

 ****

Baby ABC by Deborah Donenfeld.  Dial-Penguin, 2013.

Obviously, this is an alphabet book.  The illustrations each feature a black-and-white photograph of a baby wearing or bearing some object alone in the photograph left colorized.  The color of this object matches the letter that it represents.  It’s a simple concept, a simple design, but very tastefully done—and of course babies (humans) like looking at faces, are predisposed to recognize faces, and humans as a whole are drawn to faces that look more youthful, more babyish, so what better than a smiling baby’s face?  There’s no plot to report on here, but there’s not meant to be one.

***

In My Ocean by Sara Gillingham, illustrated by Lorena Simonovich.  Chronicle Books, 2011.

This is another book the draw of which is the design not the text.  The book is done with concentric cutaway pages of ocean landscapes, essentially oversimplifying a day in the life of a baby dolphin.  The baby dolphin, it should be noted, is a finger puppet, which is sure to delight, though I noticed that the puppet is quite small and quite shallow; I have small hands for my age and had a difficult time maneuvering the puppet.  The book ends with a reminder to come home to family.

**

No Matter What by Debi Gliori.  Houghton Mifflin, 2008.  First published 1999.

Small fears that Large doesn’t love him because he feels unlovable, “grumpy and grim.”  Large assures Small that there is nothing Small can do or be (a bear, bug, or crocodile) that will make Large love him less.  Small becomes surer of Large’s love through the story, the crocodile question being less fueled it seemed to me by fear than as a challenge given with a giggle.  Small asks about the qualities of love, and Large confesses her ignorance of whether it can bend or break.  Large assures Small however that, as the stars shine after they die, her love for Small will go on beyond her death.  This is a small book with a lot packed into its short, rhyming text.  The images nicely take the pair through the actions of getting ready for bed, giving the book a grounding and context that is rare in such picture books.

I love that the characters are Large and Small rather than a more boxed in Mother, Father, Grandma, Grandpa, Baby, etc.  I should mention too that I have arbitrarily assigned genders to these characters for the sake of the review and that they are never specified.

This is a great, little-known alternative to Robert N. Munsch’s Love You Forever or Barbara Joosse’s Mama, Do You Love Me?, and one that deals additionally with the question of death not just misdeeds that children fear might diminish a parent’s love for them.  The rhyming text is enjoyable with a great message.

*****

My Little Pony: Friends Forever: Play-a-Sound.  Publications International, 2013.

This is a “meet the ponies” book.  Spike convinces Twilight Sparkle to leave her studies to go seek the company of her friends.  The book has little plot and consists primarily of the gathering of the friends together.  The book includes flaps to lift and reveal the friends and buttons to press to hear the character’s theme music.

**

Bizzy Bear: Pirate Adventure illustrated by Benji Davis.  Nosy Crow-Candlewick, 2013.

Pirates are all over the bookshelves lately.  I blame Jake (and the Neverland Pirates) but want to say that we at Hollins’ Children’s Literature program were ahead of this trend when we voted the 2012 Francelia Butler Conference’s theme to be Pirates and Treasure Seekers.  This is a board book, filed at Barnes & Noble as a “first concepts” book.  Within the rhyming text, there are examples of opposites (left/right, up/down) though the book markets itself as an adventure not a primer.  This is a board book with moveable pieces.  Readers can hoist the sails, steer the ship, dig for treasure, and open the chest.  Even the cover illustration allows readers to toss the ship on the waves.  The illustrations are quite detailed and colorful even aside from the captivating moveable bits.  The book is thankfully constructed of sturdier material than most other books with moveable pieces.  The plot is pretty simplistic, though, I suppose for its genre (first concepts), it’s actually quite complex.

***1/2

Ponyella by Laura Joffe Numeroff, Nate Evans, and illustrated by Lynn M. Munsinger. Hyperion-Disney, 2011.

As you can probably guess, this is a retelling of “Cinderella,” where all of the characters sans the prince and the stepmother are ponies or horses.  I actually thought that this was an extremely well done retelling.  Ponyella’s farm is bought and she along with it by a new owner (stepmother) who brings two of his own beloved horses with him (the stepsisters).  Ponyella is shoved aside so that the owner’s horses can have the nicest stalls.  She receives less love and attention.  He even put her to work pulling carts of heavy coal.  A horse show is arranged which it is rumored that the Princess Penelope will attend to look for a new pony.  Ponyella’s godmare arrives, cleans up Ponyella, gives her diamond horseshoes, and turns a friend of Ponyella’s, a mouse, into a rider.  Ponyella attends the horse show and shows off her ability to jump the higher than the other competitors.  When her glamour wears off, she loses one of her diamond horseshoes, and Princess Penelope uses it to search the land for the pony that it fits, ultimately finding Ponyella and taking her to live at the castle as her own pony, showering her with love and attention, putting her up in the largest, nicest stall, and feeding her carrot cake.

The retelling uses all the elements of the story and twists them just enough so that they fit the new cast.  It’s sure to delight young riders and horse-enthusiasts.

The story is beautifully and expressively illustrated by Munsinger in pastels and pinks.

****

Imagine by Bart Vivian.  Beyond Words-Aladdin, 2013.

The illustrations of this inspiring picture book are gorgeous.  Black and white images of kids in the now and the real are contrasted when the page is turned by bright, bold illustrations of what could be or what one could imagine the real to be (ex: a tree house is a castle or you could become a real life hero as a firefighter).  I hope kids don’t need the reminder to imagine, to dream.  It almost seems to me to be a book for older children (graduates).

***

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I Love My New Toy! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2008.

Piggie has a new toy.  Elephant Gerald plays with it, but it falls to the ground and snaps.  Piggie becomes very upset, upsetting Gerald.  Then a kindly squirrel happens by to explain that the toy is supposed to break, and Piggie becomes embarrassed for having gotten angry with her friend.  Gerald and Piggie realize that friends are more fun than toys, and the toy is forgotten.

****

An Elephant and Piggie Book: My Friend Is Sad by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2007.

Elephant Gerald is sad, Piggie notices.  Piggie tries to cheer him up by dressing in elaborate costumes as things that she knows Elephant enjoys (a cowboy, a robot), but Gerald only seems to become sadder each time Piggie tries.  Piggie finally approaches Gerald without a costume to apologize for not being able to cheer Gerald up, but Piggie’s appearance heralds Gerald’s happiness.  Gerald explains he was sad because he saw all these awesome things, but Piggie wasn’t there to see any of it.  Piggie reminds Gerald that she is here now, and Gerald explains that he needs his friends.  Piggie tells Gerald, who did not recognize Piggie in any of her disguises, that he needs new glasses.

Willems’ depictions of Gerald’s devastating sadness are particularly expressive, and this book contains such great gems of lines as “How can anyone be sad around a robot?”

****

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.