Tag Archives: Cynthia Rylant

Book Reviews: August 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Lessons Learned

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I’m catching up to myself, but I am still writing these reviews two months after having read the books, so some of these have less detail than I wish that they did. My apologies to the authors and illustrators and readers where they are necessary. 

Class is in Session

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

Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003. First published 1977.

Because sometimes fate likes a laugh, my only story time participant this day was a homeschooled girl who’d never had to fear substitute teachers—who’d never had a substitute. The muted colors, simple palette, and the subject matter that is not as universally relatable as I—a Northern-born girl—might’ve thought didn’t endear her to the story. Nevertheless, I remembered this story from my childhood. Her parents remembered this story from their childhoods. That level of memorability should count for something.  Sweet Miss Nelson has an interesting way of dealing with the rowdy and disrespectful behavior of her class.  Miss Nelson disappears and is replaced by Miss Viola Swamp, who works the kids hard during lessons, assigns lots of homework, and cancels story hour.  All the children are grateful and more respectful of Miss Nelson when she finally returns.

***

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Goodnight Lab: A Scientific Parody by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

This is a parody of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon about a young, black, female scientist closing up her lab for the night. The illustrations mirror Goodnight Moon’s palette both on its color and its grayscale pages. I don’t think that this is a child’s book. This to me seems a niche book. This would be great for graduate and PhD students in scientific fields who will laugh at the “grumpy old professor (he’s white and male of course) shouting ‘publish.’” That joke and some of the lesser-known scientific instruments (I had to look up the use of one and have since forgotten its name since to me it was not more than a nonsense word) likely won’t stick with the average picture book’s audience.

**

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Do Not Take Your Dragon to Dinner by Julie Gassman and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Picture Window-Capstone, 2017. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

Strictly rhyming text goes over the ways that dragons can exhibit particularly poor table manners and what they should do to behave appropriately at dinner. The diversity in this series of brightly colored books is amazing, but I do wish there were more story to these.

***

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

How to Get Your Teacher Ready by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This comes from the same team that brought us How to Babysit a Grandma and a Grandpa, How to Raise a Mom, How to Surprise a Dad, and How to Catch a Santa. The strange thing about this book to me is that the students seem to know more about the school and the classroom and the classes than the students do. Is this for classes that get a new teacher mid-school year? Is this for a whole class of student redoing the year? Are there schools where the class a) stays together and b) doesn’t change rooms but rather has a new teacher come to that classroom every year? It seems strange. That being said, in this book there’s a lot of great advice for classes and classroom management and school events. For that, it would be good for nervous kids on the first day of school. I like the diversity of this class.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, awards list, activity guide, and author's and illustrator's bios.

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Winner of the 2017 Margaret Wise Brown Award in Children’s Literature, I read this one several times this month because I absolutely loved it. A new building doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t know what a school is. It develops a relationship with the janitor, an African American man. The building thinks maybe it is the janitor’s home. The school is nervous about school, nervous about being filled with children. The kids get everywhere. A few kids complain about school, one doesn’t want to come in at all. The school’s self-esteem sinks. In retaliation the school squirts one of them with a water fountain. The school feels badly about that. It accidentally sets off the fire alarms and feels worse about that. The school laughs with the kids at lunch, learns about shapes, and celebrates a girl’s portrait of him. It tells the janitor all about his day when he returns in the afternoon, and it asks the janitor to arrange for the kids to come back the next day. There’s clever word play in the text. There’s a clever way of rethinking about the world. The school is filled with a diverse cast (and a great number of Aidens), and the school itself is named after Frederick Douglass. An American flag flies outside the building, bright on the final page.

*****

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Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex. Chronicle, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Nothing rhymes with orange, and Orange is feeling left out as every other fruit gets a sometimes outlandish line in this text. The illustrations look like motivational posters, mostly large text extolling the virtues of fruit, and then smaller fruits with drawn on, cartoonish expressions. Orange wanders into the book on page three or so and comments first that she’s here, she’s available, then more and more on the text itself and how outlandish its rhymes and messages are becoming. Why Nietzche is here I can’t explain either, Orange. The apple finally notices Orange’s despondence and comes to meet her with a rhyme, making up a word to fit her perfectly and rhyme perfectly with her name. Why the story turns into a still from a music video at the end I’m not sure either. In short, this was a strange book with a decent lesson about including everyone, even if you have to bend the rules to do so. But it is a very strange book. Some of the strangeness is endearing, and some of it is off-putting. I was on board with werewolf pears being saved be grapes in capes but Nietzche was just a strange choice even if it does rhyme with lychee and peachy. I had to look up pronunciations of some of the lesser-known fruits and ask a manager who to pronounce Zarathustra. The video I just finished watching mispronounced several words too. Pronunciation matters in this book because the whole point is rhyme. Beware aloud readers. On the other hand, because rhyme is so important here, this could be a good book on which to practice sounding out new words.

**

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

Life by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Grades PreK+.

I was excited to see a work by this pair, and the saturated blue of the cover definitely caught my eye. Life begins small, but it grows. Life is always changing, so even if it seems that everything is black, trust what every animal knows: that life is changing, that the blackness ends. The saturated illustrations, the stark contrasts on some pages, the animal portraits are all beautiful. I’m not sure that the toddlers in my audience quite understood the message that the story was trying to convey. This is one of those stories like Oh, the Places You’ll Go! that speaks perhaps more to adults and older children than to young ones, though thankfully this text does not take long to read (Oh, the Places You’ll Go! went on far too long for my audience), so the message itself is better packaged for young ears and shorter attention spans. The text may in fact be too short; it doesn’t give me as much time on each page as I’d maybe like to take. There is an implication that the book believes in evolution right at the very beginning, but it’s not explicit.

***

Trying New Things

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Black Belt Bunny by Jacky Davis and illustrated by Jay Fleck. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The text addresses the silent protagonist, Black Belt Bunny. Black Belt doesn’t want to learn how to make salad. He tries a lot to get out of it: hailing a cab, wearing a disguise…. He doesn’t want to learn new things. Finally Black Belt Bunny uses his karate skills to chop and shred and slice all kinds of vegetables. The bunny invites the reader to try his salad, but the lesson gets turned around on the reader. There’s arugula in the salad, and the reader doesn’t like arugula, but no, she’s never actually tried it. She does, and the salad is amazing. This is a clever way to present a lesson about trying new things and trying new foods, made exciting by front kicks, side kicks, karate chops, and punches.

****

Click to visit the series' site for links to order, summary, sample, trailer, and activity kit.

Peterrific by Victoria Kann. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

With Pinkalicious’ help, Peter builds a tower all the way to space. He wants to do it all by himself, but he allows Pinkalicious to visit all the neighborhood houses to borrow blocks. He will get a star for Mommy and one for Pinkalicious too because she asked. One problem. He’s not planned any way to get down from his tower. Innovation strikes in the nick of time, and he rescues himself by turning his blanket into a parachute.  His parents are impressed by his tower and encourage him to keep engineering better designs.

***

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Quackers by Liz Wong. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Quackers is a duck, but he doesn’t like many of the same things that the other ducks do. He meets other ducks who tell him that they are cats, and Quackers finds that he has a lot in common with these cats. He enjoys his time with the cats but misses the duck pond, the duck food, and his duck friends. So he finds a way to be both a cat and a duck, to sometimes do cat things and sometimes do duck things. This to me seemed a lesser Not Quite Narwhal, not as adorably illustrated, not as funny, not as overtly a social commentary because Quackers avoids language that society has coded for coming out conversations. That last may endear some to Quackers more than Not Quite Narwhal. Being less coded does leave Quackers more open to broader interpretations: adoption maybe? I was glad to find one book like this. I’m more excited to find two. I like having options.

***

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

A New Friend for Sparkle by Amy Young. Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

I loved A Unicorn Named Sparkle, and was excited to see a sequel. In this, Lucy makes a new friend, and Sparkle feels rejected. The situation reverses when Sparkle and Cole bond. Sparkle and Cole find a way to include Lucy in their play, teaching her a new skill. This seems a good title to have in a family of two or more children, when play with new friends will often leave out siblings. I was not as enamored of this story as I was of the first, maybe because there was less humor, maybe because the lesson in the first seems less forced.

***

Seeing Things in a New Way

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Elephant and Piggie Like Reading: The Good for Nothing Button by Charise Mericle Harper and Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

Mo Willems has started a new imprint. This book is introduced by Gerald and Piggie. Piggie is reading the book and Gerald comes up to ask what she is reading. Yellow Bird has a button. He claims it does nothing. But it surprises Blue Bird, and it makes Red Bird sad when it does not surprise him, so in both cases it doesn’t do nothing; it does something. Yellow Bird gets more and more upset with his friends’ optimism. Yellow Bird reminds me of Pigeon and Red Bird and Blue Bird have Piggie’s optimism. The whole of the story is told in short, often one-word sentences in speech bubbles in much the same way as Elephant and Piggie stories are. Gerald and Piggie close out the book too, so its almost as though the reader is reading a story about Gerald and Piggie reading a story, a story within a story.

***

Water Everywhere

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This Beautiful Day by Richard Jackson and illustrated by Suzy Lee. Caitlyn Dlouhy-Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This text is more musical and more poetic than most. The illustrations are beautiful, beginning almost grayscale, but adding a bit of blue, then more and more colors as the rain clears and the sun returns. This is the story of a family who doesn’t let a day of rain spoil their fun but dance inside and outside of the house. The neighborhood joins them as the sun clears, and it seems as if there may be some magically flying umbrellas involved.  The text is less about what is happening in the illustrations, though, than about dancing and enjoying a gray day turned sunny and spent with friends and family.

*****

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Aqualicious by Victoria Kann. HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Pinkalicious and Peter are at the beach. While there, Pinkalicious finds a small mermaid—a merminnie—inside of a shell. Peter and Pinkalicious keep delaying Aqua’s return home. They build her a sandcastle, invite her to lunch, invite her to miniature golf, and Aqua teaches Pinkalicious to surf after Pinkalicious accuses Aqua of cheating at mini golf and gets angry. Aqua is snatched away by a seagull and Peter and Pinkalicious must rescue her. Only after that do the kids even try to bring her home, but then they wrongly assume that the ocean is her home, and imperil her again.

The kids don’t listen to Aqua through the whole of the day. Finally as the day is finishing, the kids return with Aqua to their parents, and Daddy, finally awake, explains that Aqua lives in an aquarium on the beach.

I don’t like how little Aqua is listened to, how even when the kids finally ask her where she lives, it’s their dad who speaks over Aqua and answers for her. The kids’ behavior is almost pardonable for being really fairly realistic. The dad’s behavior is also realistic (men are always talking over women) but inexcusable because he should know better, and his behavior hurts because of its realism, because there was a teachable moment there that was missed. It would have been so easy for one parent or the other to express surprise that neither kid had asked Aqua where she lived, where she had come from. Aqua makes it at the end seem as though she was trying to keep herself away from the aquarium all day, saying that she snuck out to discover, that curiosity is good, that humans are fun, but all day she has been asking to go home, and no one has been heeding her request.

There’s a lot of plot crammed into this story. The story itself is good, with excitement and lots of beach activities to excite a child preparing for a visit. The illustrations are wonderfully detailed, from the music notes on Aqua’s shell to the sea critters in the shallow water where Peter drops her.

I just can’t get behind the the plot.  I can’t support it.

**

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

Cloudette by Tom Lichtenheld. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

This is a really sweet story of a smaller than average cloud who enjoys the advantages of being small, but who still wants to do the important things that clouds do. She can’t find a way to be useful until she gets blown far away by a storm. At first it’s strange in this new neighborhood, but then she begins to make friends. There she finally finds someone that she can help, impressing everyone. Occasionally there are dialogue asides. There are several creative page layouts. The illustrations are beautiful. The story is uplifting with a good message for little readers.

*****

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

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Book Reviews: April 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Lessons, Playtime, and Older Stories Made New

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The Lessons Learnt

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Raisin, the Littlest Cow by Miriam Busch and illustrated by Larry Day. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Raisin is the littlest cow in the herd and is nuzzled and cooed over by the other cows. She likes the color brown and movies and especially dislikes change. But change always comes. Her mother has another little cow, a little brother for Raisin, and Raisin does not like her little brother or that her little brother is now the one being cooed over and nuzzled and that the attention that he is garnering means that no one but Raisin remembers movie night, so no one is there to help her see over the fence. She helps herself, but the day keeps getting worse. There’s rain. There’s thunder. The movie is canceled, and her brother is wailing almost as loud as the thunder. Raisin and her brother bond over their mutual dislike of thunder and over his brown eyes, which are her favorite color. She makes him giggle by dripping on him then by showering him with a shaking her coat, calming him when no one else can do. I imagine this book would be helpful for a child dealing with jealousy of the attention given to a newborn sibling, to see their feelings validated, reflected. With humor snuck into the text and illustrations, the message, the promise that a new sibling can be a friend and not a reason to run away to Jupiter nevertheless seemed a little too prominent, a little heavy-handed. I’m not sure what made the message seem so heavy-handed, since Busch never stated her intention outright. Perhaps it’s simply that I’m not Busch’s target audience.

****

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

Dad and the Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko and illustrated by Dan Santat. G. P. Putnam & Son’s-Penguin Random, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

Gennifer Choldenko is probably best known for her middle-grade historical fiction novels, most notably perhaps her series that begins with Al Capone Does My Shirts. This picture book is about an active, sports-involved boy who is bolder in the presence of his toy dinosaur—the dinosaur very wonderfully illustrated by Santat, his translucent image truly imposing. Overall I liked the writing, but I disliked that the husband brushes off his wife by saying they are going out for “guy stuff” as the book nears its end. As a woman I felt like I was being cut out of the story. It was something I didn’t and don’t expect from another woman—though I know we can be as guilty of sexism against women as men can be. This seems particularly jarring after the mother has been so physically present throughout the book and the boy’s father so obviously absent, hearing about his activities after the fact from the mom. That too is why, though, the dad’s compassion, his acceptance of his son’s coping mechanism is so particularly touching. The lesson could have been far more heavy-handed than it is. The father could have chosen to be the “adult” and deny the boy’s need for his dinosaur. I’m glad that he did not, even as I’m glad that he does state baldly that it’s okay to be scared and that he too gets scared sometimes. Normalizing fear and normalizing coping mechanisms for fear are needed. Normalizing sexism and strict adherence to gender roles and stereotypes are some things that I would like to see less.

***

Interactive Books

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Don’t Touch This Book! by Bill Cotter. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

I had the great pleasure of having this book read to me during one of my twice-weekly story times. It’s a wonderfully interactive book—and I like it so much more than the previous book by Cotter, Don’t Touch the Button! Don’t Touch the Button! and Hervé Tullet’s books too ask the reader to interact with the page of the book. Don’t Touch This Book! begins that way. Larry (the protagonist) tells the reader not to touch the book, then allows the reader to use just one finger, then to use all their fingers when he appreciates the reaction of the book to the reader’s action. Quickly though this book asks the reader to do all manner of ridiculous things that many readers at story times ask of their listeners anyways that are more physical than merely pressing a particular spot on a page or shaking the book: flap your arms like the wings of a flying bird, roar like a dinosaur, spin around…. The readers’ acts precipitate the responses of the book. Roaring like a dinosaur causes a T-rex to appear on the following page. Flapping your arms causes the monster protagonist to sprout wings to be able to escape the T-rex. This will almost certainly join the repertoire of story time books that I keep in mind when I need to wear out my too rowdy crowd. It may supersede some of the others. I’m very glad my story time visitor chose this book to read to me.

*****

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

Dinosaur Dance! by Sandra Boynton. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 1-5.

This book is a simple dance-along book featuring dinosaurs. Each dinosaur—named primarily by species—does a particular step of a dance. T-rex goes STOMP STOMP STOMP, The red Brontosaurus goes QUIVERY QUAKE. There’s a little dinosaur no one can identify who both cha-chas and goes DEEDLY DEE. I appreciate that there is an animal that no one can identify, especially in what could be considered a primer; too infrequently are toddlers told that it’s okay not to know. Of course all of the text rhymes. I was reminded of Van Fleet’s recent book Dance, which sets itself apart with its pull tabs, though I think that I prefer the text here. There’s more sense in this that the reader is a caller than there is in Tony Mitton’s Dinosaurumpus! but not as much as can be found in Boynton’s better-known Barnyard Dance; Barnyard Dance has very much a square dance rhythm to it. For its more imaginative and open-ended dance moves, I may like this one even better than Barnyard Dance. Plus, dinosaur primers are harder to find than a barnyard primers, and this book is able to do more with color than does Barnyard Dance.

****

Retellings

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We Are the Dinosaurs by Laurie Berkner and illustrated by Ben Clanton. Simon & Schuster 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book takes the text of Laurie Berkner’s song and adds more of a story to it with its illustrations and asides. I read the story before finding the song. The song talks about dinosaurs broadly. The picture book narrows the story a group of friends—different types of dinosaurs—who adventure towards the top of a volcano—and run away from the rumbling mountain and back to their parents to revel in their bravery and adventure. Ben Clanton’s bright, cartoony dinosaurs are memorable but I didn’t discern much personality from any of the dinosaurs, which was a bit disappointing.

***

 Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, videos, educators' resources, and author's and illustrator's bios.

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Adam Rex. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Drew Daywalt gained his fame with The Day the Crayons Quit and The Day the Crayons Came Home, both done in conjunction with Oliver Jeffers. His latest book continues to focus on art supplies and children’s play. He invents a story behind the popular Rock, Paper, Scissors game. There are three great warriors from three different kingdoms around a home. Each has fought the warriors that exist in their own kingdoms, and none are satisfied with their competition or their victories. They each go on a quest for fulfillment and a meaningful victory—and discover joy in fighting one another. This story wasn’t beloved, it didn’t seem, of my audience for story time (in the interest of full-disclosure, my audience was three girls, and they were older, maybe 6-9; I suspect this book would go over better with the boys who come in looking for books on WWE and the ones who build guns out of Legos at our events; the whole plot of the book is battles and fighting and the dialogue is primarily traded boasts of one’s own prowess and colorful insults). I perhaps could have hammed up the text a little more than I did, but I did ham it up some. It’s hard not to do so when I’m provided lines like

rovlta9

and pages like

Paper became my favorite warrior for his bemused reactions to the aggressions of the other two in their first three-way battle and his frightful “fighting words”: “Hi there.” I greatly enjoyed that Daywalt chose to make Scissors a master swordswoman with painted-red lips. This could easily and in another decade likely would have been a book without any female representation. I enjoyed the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets particularly too. What a nod to children’s play. But ultimately that I enjoyed it more than girls in the target age-range makes me like the book less.

***

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Beauty and the Beast adapted by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Meg Park. Hyperion-Disney, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I thought because this was marketed (at least by Barnes & Noble) with all of the books and merchandise for the new live-action Disney remake of its animated film by the same name that this story would follow the Disney story, but instead Rylant stayed nearer the Perrault version of the story and devoid of any talking furniture. Beauty (not Belle) is the youngest of three sisters and her father is a merchant whose fortune is lost at sea. Her older sisters when the father’s ships are recovered want emerald necklaces, but Beauty wants only a rose. On the way back to home from port, the father is caught in a storm and shelters in a castle that seems deserted except that a feast is laid out for him. On his way from the castle, he spots a rose in the garden and remembers his youngest’s wish. As payment for the rose, the Beast, master of the castle, demands the father’s enslavement but allows him to return first to his family to say goodbye. Beauty demands to go to the Beast in her father’s stead. The Beast gives Beauty endless days of leisure, fine clothes, wonderful food. He reads poetry to her by the fire at night. And every day he asks if she is happy. One day he asks her to marry him, and she refuses. The Beast accepts her answer. She returns to her father to care for him in illness, then returns when she dreams that the Beast is dying. Her realization that she loved the Beast restores him to his human form: a man with darker skin than Belle’s.

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Meg Park, who I’ve admired from a distance for some time for her softness, bright, jewel-like colors, and expressive characters, makes nods to the Disney cartoon in her illustrations: The Beast has the same basic shape, though he is perhaps more wolfish, Beauty’s design is close to Belle’s, though her hair is more auburn and her outfit more seafoam green than sky blue. Beauty’s horse is a palomino but not a Belgian Draft. In these ways and more she deliberately strays from the Disney retelling but harkens to it enough to highlight that both stories use Perrault as the basis for their tale.

I really enjoyed introducing young enthusiasts to a retelling nearer the Disney version.

*****

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.

Photos of the books’ interiors are all mine.  I borrowed the meme.

Book Reviews: December 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Mostly Wintertime. Was It Blue?

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Click to visit the book's webpage for links to order, summary, activity kit, educator's guide, and author's and illustrator's bios.

The Storybook Knight by Helen and Thomas Docherty. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

My manager and I were both won over by the illustrations and story and concept of this book. It’s all excellent. A little mouse is in training to be a knight, but he doesn’t want to fight as his parents insist that he must; instead he’d rather read and study. His parents see an advertisement for a dragon slayer and send their son to the aid of the village. Along the way, the young knight on his fat, shaggy, expressive pony meet several monsters, all of whom he subdues by appealing to their vanity and sharing with them stories about monsters like themselves—gifting the book to each before they part ways. He subdues the dragon the same way but adds that the dragon must help clean up the village that he terrorized before the little knight will read more to him. As the dragon cleans, the villagers lose their fear and eventually work beside the dragon and knight to right their town. The characters are all wonderfully expressive. The illustrations are filled with delightful and surprisingly realistic detail.

*****

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

Peek-a Choo-Choo! by Nina Laden. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This little board book hasn’t got much of a plot. This might be considered a primer for transport methods. Peek-a choo-choo. Peek-a flew. Peek-a canoe. Peek-a shoe. Peek-a I see you. It all rhymes. But that’s the extent, really, of the text.

**

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A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P. D. Eastman. Random, 1989. First published 1961. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This was one of my favorite books as a child, and I really enjoyed introducing it to a young generation of readers who all crowded close around me on the stage. It was sort of a happy accident that I read it. I was supposed to read How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and I had a huge crowd, many of whom arrived early, so as I was sitting in front of them, I offered to grab a story to read to the early-birds, but by the time I got back to the stage and introduced myself properly, it seemed the last stragglers had arrived and it was time to begin story time-proper. So I read The Grinch. Then I gave them the activities that I had for them to do. Then a dedicated little huddle asked me to read the second story and crowded around me on the stage. It was precious. It was more precious because it was one of my favorite childhood stories. As an adult I was struck by the remarkable helpfulness of the police and firefighter. My kids wanted to know how Mr. Carp had gotten Otto small again. They weren’t satisfied it seemed particularly with my explanation that we don’t know and aren’t supposed to know.


Winter Wonderlands

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Waiting for Snow by Marsha Diane Arnold and illustrated by Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

This preciously illustrated book evoked a reminiscent smile from me as the friends discuss several foolproof ways to ensure a snow the following morning. Several of those methods I’d tried, and my audience and I enjoyed brainstorming other methods that the friends missed in the post-story time discussion. Hedgehog assures them all in what becomes a somewhat repetitive refrain that it will snow when it’s time, Hedgehog drawing on other examples of things that can’t be rushed but always come—like the flowers in spring and the dawn. Hedgehog seems oddly out-of-sync with the rest of the book, too deep for the lightheartedness that the rest of the book displays and maybe a little preachy. Also the snow is not nearly as universally dependable as Hedgehog’s other examples, so the advice falls a bit flat. While I understand Hedgehog was necessary for the book’s message of patience, I think I would have enjoyed this advice from another source, or for this message to be less veiled by poetic similes.

***1/2

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Hap-Pea All Year by Keith Baker. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Grades PreK-3.

There… wasn’t much to this book either. Each month gets two or three sentences. “Happy January! Let’s get going, grab your mittens—hooray it’s snowing!” That’s… not even particularly good punctuation. The gimmick of this book is the pea characters, who have appeared in board book primers before: LMNO Peas, 1-2-3 Peas, and Little Green Peas. I think I would have liked this book better as a board book. As a picture book, I expected more from it. There are some creative details in the illustrations. For example what is once a sprout becomes a flower. I had to read it a second time for story time, and it was less objectionable the second time through—maybe because I was prepared for what was coming, maybe because I was less stressed. There may not be many books teaching the months, but there are definitely better: I loved Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice as a kid.

**

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

The Most Perfect Snowman by Chris Britt. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprisingly tender picture book. The snowman Drift is lonely, “built fast and then forgotten,” without any clothes, picked on by the other snowman and left out of snowman games. When several children (one a darker-skinned boy) gift Drift with clothes and his much-desired carrot nose, Drift is the happiest and the most beautiful snowman, the envy of the others, and included in all their fun. But these gifts prove ephemeral. A blizzard tears his hat and mittens from him. Drift despairs and searches for his torn away clothes, but finds a lost bunny with no shelter in sight, and gives that bunny his warm scarf, and though he recognizes it as a sacrifice, his carrot nose, returning him to his original imperfect form.  But because of his actions he becomes not just “the perfect snowman” but “the most perfect snowman of all.” This does not discuss the other snowmen’s reaction to him after his sacrificial act. Perhaps a little heavy-handed in its message, but so generously sweet that it is easily forgiven. This is a well-constructed story too; especially for a picture book, it follows well the rules of plot. Pair this with the Buehners’ Snowmen at Night perhaps.

****1/2

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

Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

The duck dresses up as Santa and uses a zip line to reach the roof to surprise an excited Farmer Brown but gets stuck in the chimney, so every animal one after the other—and getting progressively larger—comes to extract him from the chimney but gets stuck as well, and the real Santa flies closer and closer in his sleigh, his silhouette growing larger and larger on each successive page. But Santa’s magic. Where the animals failed, he succeeds. Everyone—Santa too—tumbles down the chimney, cinder-covered, into Farmer Brown’s living room, where they all have a laugh and celebrate Christmas. The “ho-ho-OH NO!” refrain is repetitive but could be a lot of fun.

***

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Santa’s Sleigh Is on Its Way to Virginia: A Christmas Adventure by Eric James and illustrated by Robert Dunn. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2015.

There’s a book almost identical to this for every state in the U.S. We were a bit disappointed that our city was not among those chosen for the book. Children of many races grace the pages. Ultimately one character is groggily half-asleep wandering through the house, just barely missing Santa hiding around the corner, behind the drapes, behind the broom.

****

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert Lewis May and illustrated by Antonio Javier Caparo. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014. Text first published 1939. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I did not when I read this realize that this is the original Rudolph story. I enjoyed this version maybe even better than the Rankin/Bass story that most of us I’d guess know best. First Caparo’s illustrations are beautiful with deep hues, realistically rendered (is that Percy Jackson asleep in that bed?). In this version, Santa doesn’t know about Rudolph till Santa is trying to deliver presents to the reindeer and stumbles across a sleeping Rudolph, whose nose lights up his room and makes delivering presents easier. There’s so much detail in the text, which I enjoy but made the story really probably too long for my young audience; we got through about all but the last nine pages before the kids’ attention wavered and they began questioning everything to try to shorten or change or interact with the story—but those last pages are all after the climax and really add little to the story, so maybe be prepared to end with Rudolph’s first “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight” if your audience is getting antsy; they won’t miss much. It’s all written in rhyme, and uses some aged language and syntax—well it’s from 1939.

****

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

If You Take a Mouse to the Movies by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. HarperCollins, 2000. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

The mouse forgot very quickly about the movies, distracted by popcorn, which he wanted to string together to hang on a Christmas tree, which they didn’t have, so they had to go buy a Christmas tree. It’s an excuse it seems to engage in Christmastime and wintertime activities, led by mouse and mouse’s demands. He’s such a demanding mouse. You try to do something nice, but he wants more and more, and you have to do more and more for him.

***

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The Red Prince by Charlie Roscoe and by illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole. Templar-Penguin Random, 2016.   Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This book was intense! I liked the cover, and it looked wintery, so I put it up on display this month. I did not expect the story inside. While the king and queen are away, mysterious, uniformed foreigners attack and overcome the castle, locking the young prince in his red pajamas in the dungeon with his dog. Once I’d started, I worried a bit about my young audience, but the one who stayed to pay attention was probably 7, and I comforted myself thinking that it was just the prologue to a Disney film, like Frozen, where the parents go off on a boat, and the boat is caught in a storm, and the parents never come back. The prince escapes but is hunted by the invaders, his face posted on wanted posters. My audience enjoyed trying to spot the prince on each page and in each crowd. His subjects help him evade capture, ultimately all of them dressing in bright red too to confuse the invaders. Unfortunately he is still found and his people must come rescue him again. The people, perhaps united by their love of the prince and their group effort earlier, chase away the invaders. It really didn’t have as satisfying an ending as I’d hoped for. I’m not sure what I wanted though. The prince is safe, and the invaders are chased off—peaceably. While the ruling family is white, the kingdom is racially diverse. Cole’s illustrations are the reason to read this one. They incorporate creative angles and bright colors and contrasts.

****

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

Little Penguins by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

The kids in my audience wanted to assign genders and birth order to each of the penguin children, but both changed page to page. With blocky illustrations of arctic scenes the book chronicles an anthropomorphized penguin family’s snowy adventures first outside then inside to get warm. Minimal text done as almost exclusively dialogue, though lacking any quotation marks or speech bubbles to proclaim it so, begs for different voices for each penguin.

***

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 Review: Quick and Light Romp in Gooseberry Park Hides a Shadowy Theme

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I first read Cynthia Rylant’s Gooseberry Park as part of my local library’s Nutmeg Book Award group in 2000.  Looking over the list of nominees, I am either amazed that this book left such a lasting impression upon me—or certain that I missed several weeks of the program (both are possible, but the latter actually more likely as I know that Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted is on my to-read and not my read list).

I had of late been itching to reread Gooseberry Park and snatched the first copy that I found on the shelves of my local used bookstore.

Gooseberry Park is a quick story of friendship, the coming together of unlikely friends in acts of heroism against nature and disaster, using manmade comforts to combat the cold and the ice and to find one another again after natural disaster has separated them—and wow, that just got a whole lot deeper and darker than I ever gave the book credit for being.  Generally, a man over nature plot is not one to which I ascribe.

The story is fun and easy (apparently hiding some deeper, darker themes).  Humor peppers the story, often through the animal characters’ fascination with human inventions, primarily through Murray, a bold and scatterbrained bat.

Arthur Howard’s memorable, expressive, and realistically rendered illustrations are much to be praised I think for the book’s memorability.

Fans of Rylant’s Mr. Putter and Tabby series for younger readers will find some familiarity in Gooseberry Park, though Mr. Putter is the protagonist of that series and here Professor Albert is more of a background figure while the animals take a more prominent role.  This, like that, is children’s literature with adult protagonists, a rarer thing among children’s literature, and something I would not expect to work well, except that I have heard young children say how much they enjoy the Mr. Putter and Tabby series and Pixar’s movies, almost all of which I have felt were fantastic and many of which have been major blockbusters, have honored almost exclusively adult protagonists.  Somehow, though, it is easy to forget that Stumpy, Kona, and Murray are adults, though Stumpy’s motherhood is central to the plot; only wise Gwendolyn the hermit crab reads unmistakably like an adult, and she is the senior of the other three main animal characters.

In rereading, I was honestly a bit disappointed with Gooseberry Park, but I had also held it high in my mind and had been eager to reread it.  As I said, it was fun and it was quick, and apparently there were themes that I hadn’t expected to find and didn’t recognize till I sat down to analyze the light read, but I’m also unsure why I remembered it with such fondness unless it was for its illustrations and readability—both of which I have to praise.

***

Rylant, Cynthia.  Gooseberry Park.  New York: Apple-Scholastic, 1998.  First published in 1995.

This review is not endorsed by Cynthia Rylant, Apple Paperbacks, Scholastic, Inc, or the Nutmeg Book Award committee of 2000 or any other year.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.