Tag Archives: Deborah Diesen

Book Reviews: June 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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I have to issue an apology to several authors and illustrators that I read in June. Having broken my arm and having been knocked off my game for several months afterward, some of these books, particularly some of these toddler books I just don’t remember well enough to do much justice to the reviews and I’m afraid I’ll have to skip reviewing one in this batch, Eric Hill’s Spot Loves Bedtime. For any that I can reconstruct my impressions from even reading others’ reviews and available previews I will do that. It’s possible that all of these reviews may not be as detailed as they have been for some other months.

Toddler Time

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

Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 0-2.

Reading reviews on Goodreads, there is one that I think really hits the nail on the head: With the wealth of board books tackling impossibly complicated concepts, like quantum physics and government, how is it that this is one of the first I’ve seen to openly tackle the misunderstood concept of feminism? Mostly this is a book about liking what you like and not being forced to present oneself in any particular way because of one’s gender. Feminist baby likes pink and blue. She’s messy and sometimes gross. She’s a person more than she is a gender. I hadn’t realized that this board book is born of a comic series by the artist, though I’d seen the comics before shared on social media sites. That helps a little, but I still wish there had been more of a call for intersectionality in this board book, though that may well be because I’m used to hearing that critique leveled at modern, white feminism; I maybe shouldn’t expect from a board book what modern feminist movements are themselves struggling to incorporate, though I want to push our definitions and the actions of feminism towards its ideal manifestation. The feminist label is going to turn some off; it already has done, but there again is that same misunderstanding of feminism, which is by definition a call for equality for all regardless of gender (or race, class, or any other categorization ideally). I’m thinking now about the board books that I’ve read. There are many that feature animals or anthropomorphized objects as protagonists. There are many that have no protagonist, that feature many children or babies of different genders and races. The few that I’m recalling with female protagonists are pinker and more princess-oriented than naught, books like Katz’ Princess Baby or Grandma Kisses. Both Caroline Jayne Church’s and Joanna Cole’s I’m a Big Sister (the two books have the same title) feature a child with pink bows in her hair, and both children wear pink plaid; how weird is that? I like this book, and I really like that this book exists, but we can do better.

***

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Hello, Lamb by Jane Cabrera. Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This is an animal and animal sounds primer. It begins with the sun, but quickly moves into baby farm animals, their forms only their round faces, and their greeting paired with their sound. “Hello, piglet. Oink Oink.” It ends on the image of a baby. The round-faced illustrations are bright and eye-catching without being overwhelmingly bright.

***

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A Letter to Daddy by Igloo Books-Bonnier-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I wanted to give a quick shout-out to this Barnes & Noble bargain book, because it’s difficult to find reference to it. This is a sweet story about a little bear who misses his dad when he has to go away, so he writes letters to his dad about all the things that he and his mother are doing while Daddy is away. The story is really sweet, and I like the illustration style.

****

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Buzzy Bee: A Slide-and-Seek Book by Emma Parrish. Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This book was a hit at story time. The bright illustrations are accompanied by sliding panels that extend up and sideways from the book and the backsides of the panels extend the illustrations on the following page. The book is a look and find where the bee is only on one of the last pages. The panels highlight characters in larger scenes, acting like a magnifying glass. The plot uses alliteration in describing those characters, making this a good book to work on sounds associated with letters.

*****

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Good Night, Little Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth-Simon & Schuster, 2017. First published 2012. Intended audience: Ages 1-4, Grades PreK-K.

I’m glad more books from the Rainbow Fish series are making their way to America. This is another book about a parent reassuring their little one of their eternal love, much like Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You because in this the Rainbow Fish does not doubt his mother’s love because of things that he will do, but doubts that she will be there for him when bad things happen. These are all very watery things: being carried away by the tide, being caught in the tentacles of a jellyfish, but all of these are translatable enough to the world above. The story is framed as a bedtime story, with Rainbow Fish being unable to sleep for his fears. The story features the same shining scales that I loved as a child, and this being a story of Rainbow Fish as a child, he still has all his shining scales so there’s a lot of shimmer on each page. Being a toddler book, this book is much shorter than its parent story, The Rainbow Fish.

**** 

Older Audiences

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Daddy Honk Honk! by Rosalinde Bonnet. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This was introduced to me as a good book for adoptive families. A male Arctic fox, Aput, becomes parent to a goose when the egg hatches. He brings the newborn around to other families in the Arctic but none of them have room for another, though they bestow gifts and wisdom on the traveling pair. Ultimately, Aput accepts his role as “Daddy” and the Arctic shows up to throw the new family a party in celebration. It is refreshing to see a book in an infrequently used environment with names appropriate to the area. There are some similarities to be made to Ryan T. HigginsMother Bruce franchise, but this book has more in the way of useful parenting advice and focuses more on the love that the fox develops for its adopted goose than on humorous situations that arise from the adoption.

****

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

The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-MacMillan, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The repetition of “I’m a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face so I spread the dreary-wearies all over the place. Blub, Blub, Blub” gets to be a little much pretty quickly, though it’s fun to see how glum you can make the refrain sound—and oh my! does it stick in your head! The whole of the book is told in rhyming lines. Fish of the sea approach the Pout-Pout Fish and tell him that he should smile, but it takes one fish from another part coming to him and kissing his face to cheer him up and to turn him into a “kiss-kiss fish” too. The two end up kissing one another on the lips at the end, though every other kiss, including the one that first cheers him up first, seem more platonic. There is some danger in normalizing kissing as a greeting in our society. Though I hate that it is so, it seems remiss not to point out the potential danger, the ways this book and that concept could be used nefariously.  All of the kissing is likely only meant create an excuse for a parent reading to kiss their child.  Maybe because I read to children not my own, I see the danger in extending these lessons beyond family.

But I’m not sure that I can approve either of using the Pout-Pout Fish’s melancholy as a point of humor or a point of contention, a negative trait in the story, because the Pout-Pout Fish’s permanent frown and glum demeanor seem like symptoms of depression to me.  The whole book seem examples of people reacting poorly to a character with depression–until the Kiss-Kiss Fish arrives.  Her response to his depression while more understanding and compassionate, sets a precedent for believing that depression can be cured by a kiss, which is again dangerous in its inaccuracy.

Basically, I wish this book had far less kissing and far better reactions to a melancholic and likely depressed fish, that it didn’t use his depression as both the story’s problem and its humor.

**

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

The Pout-Pout Fish Far, Far from Home by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-MacMillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

Now cheered up, the Pout-Pout Fish is going on his first vacation. There’s a new mantra in this one: “I’m a fish who loves to travel. I’m a fish who loves to roam. And I’m having an adventure on my trip away from home!” The Pout-Pout Fish encounters several bumps on his trip but is always helped by locals who know the area. Despite its hiccups because of the help that he receives, that part of the adventure is fun. But he arrives at his destination to find that he forgot the creature (part-nightlight, part-stuffy, maybe a pet? Don’t look into that too carefully, I guess) that he sleeps with, and it seems that the vacation is ruined, but he decides to hold it “in his heart” though they’re apart and ends up having a fantastic vacation. And his creature is at home, waiting for him, when he gets back. This book covers several problems that a child could encounter while traveling—though some of the problems are more likely to be problems for adults than for children (detours, specifically)—and that makes it relevant. It fills a niche—two niches with the problem too of a missing sleep-buddy, which can happen while traveling but also at home.

****

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

Great, Now We’ve Got Barbarians! by Jason Carter Eaton and illustrated by Mark Fearing. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, PreK-3.

Mom’s upset because of the mess that her little boy leaves in the house, particularly food mess. She complains that they will get pests. But they don’t get ants or flies or mice. They get Vlad, a hulking, Viking-like man who demands an entire cupcake. Mom quickly puts him out, but then comes Torr, “seeking glory and cheese curls.” More and more barbarians invade the house. There is a page that shames men who wear make-up, which isn’t cool, Eaton. Otherwise, this is a funny story with funny illustrations and a good message about cleaning up after oneself. I wonder if this story was born of someone mentioning a pest invasion, and Eaton thinking about what else is known for invasion. Faced with having to move to escape the infestation (perhaps calling an exterminator was a little un-cool too, Eaton; the metaphor can only extend so far, and that might’ve been a step over the line; barbarians are human, and humans shouldn’t be exterminated), the little boy cleans the house, and the barbarians sulk away.

***

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

Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Divya Srinivasan. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I was really excited when I saw the beautiful cover of this book, harkening to Indian art and featuring Neil Gaiman’s name, guaranteeing it more press and a wider audience. This text was previously released in 2004 as an audio of a short story as part of The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection. That the text was not originally intended for a picture book unfortunately shows; it’s longer than your average picture book and seems to have been written for an older audience, both from the syntax and the content, which is at times grim (Grimm). Its phrases do some of the work of conjuring the image which is less necessary in text intended for a picture book.  The text is beautiful though with many excellent lines. It’s a Beauty and the Beast story in the end, with the young girl, who had nothing to say so never spoke, learning to speak and to love the speaking tiger that moves like a god, and going with him to the jungle to further her education. This is a beautiful story, the illustrations are beautiful, but it is a picture book for an older audience.

****

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

Curious George Cleans Up / Jorge el curioso limpia el reguero by Stephen Krensky and adapted from the world of H. A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007. Intended audience: Grade PreK-3.

This is another bilingual book from which I read only the English to my story time audience. George and the Man with the Yellow Hat get a new rug. George spills a glass of grape juice on the rug, and he tries to clean it up with paper towels, then many types of soap and a garden hose. He does manage to clean up the spill then most of the water too. This is mostly a silly story. You could laud George for acting responsibly and trying to clean up his mess, but there’s a lesson here too to be made about knowing when to go to grown-up for help; I know few grown-ups who would be glad to walk into a waterlogged house, even if it did take care of a juice stain on a new rug.

***

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

Rulers of the Playground by Joseph Kuefler. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Jonah proclaims himself king of the playground. His tendency to make demands and keep an unfair portion for himself makes Lennox angry, and she declares herself queen and claims the swings. She makes demands too and is impatient for her turn on the swings. The two monarchs compete against one another for more and more land. Their friends abandon the two rulers because of their competition. Realizing that they’ve chased everyone away, they give away their power and share the playground with everyone. With a diverse cast of characters, this story provides a good lesson about sharing and about making demands on others’ time and on public places, though it seems that Augustine and Sir Humphrey Hamilton Hildebrand III don’t learn the lesson well.

***

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

Blue Sky White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

With little text, this is a visual stunner (as much of Kadir Nelson’s work is). The illustrations and text compare aspects of the American flag to moments in American history and places in the American imagination. The blue background and white stars become the night sky above the Statue of Liberty. The red and white stripes becomes maples in fall and lines of covered wagons heading West. Timely, needed, this book pays tribute to those who tried to make America great and the diversity and persistent striving towards equality that make America great now.

*****

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

If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2017.

Magnolia’s back and this time she wants to hold a circus in the library, to the chagrin of the librarians. There’s a tongue and cheek reference to writing clear advertisements. A sign that says “You can do anything at the library!” doesn’t mean you can hold a circus there or cheer or clap or boo or hand out concessions; it means you can sit and read a book. This is a fun way to go over library rules.

***

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

You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This book is set after the original Rainbow Fish; every fish but Red Fin, a newcomer, has one of the shiny scales that were originally Rainbow Fish’s.  Rainbow Fish and his sparkling friends are playing hide-and-seek, but Rainbow Fish isn’t winning, and he decides to quit and sulk away. Red Fin comes to him, and with her help, Rainbow Fish realizes that his sore losing has spoiled the game for his friends. He apologizes and continues the game.  This is an important lesson for young ones.

***

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

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, 2012. First published 1963. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Believe it or not, this was my first time reading this story, at least that I remember. I was surprised that it went over so well with my young audience (newly three years old). It’s a short story, perfect for shorter attention spans. This is a dream (nightmare?) story. Sent to bed with no supper after causing mischief in the house and telling his mother that he’d eat her up, Max is having fun as the king of the Wild Things until he misses his mother and her love, and he goes home to find his supper waiting for him in his room. There’s some beautiful language in the prose, and while there’s some internal rhyme, it doesn’t rely on that rhyme to keep the story moving.

*****

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

Shorty & Clem by Michael Slack. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Like Elephant and Piggie, this is a story of two friends who know one another very well. A package arrives for Clem while Clem is away, and Shorty has to know what’s inside of it. Knowing that he shouldn’t open Clem’s mail, Shorty shakes and jumps and beats on the box until it opens. He thinks Clem will be upset, but when Clem gets back, he explains that it was a gift for Shorty and that he knew that Shorty would be unable to resist opening it. Reviewers on Goodreads are calling Clem’s behavior manipulative–and maybe I can see that view–but I know that I too try to guess what’s in a friend’s package when I see one arrive at the door.  Mostly I was pleased that Clem wasn’t upset with Shorty, that he accepted and expected his friend’s shortcoming.

****

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: January Picture Book Roundup: Part One

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I read a lot of picture books this January, and so I’ve decided to break the roundup into two parts.

Big Snow by Jonathan Bean.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2013.  Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The illustrations in this one are pretty fantastic, so detailed, so realistic—not just in style, but also in not whitewashing the neighborhood or the surrounding town.  Speaking of whitewashing, a reader on Goodreads commented about how this is an African American family—and that was the first that I’d taken notice of it.  This is an African American in a book with no social message or message of equality.  Better still, Jonathan Bean himself is not African American.  The story is every child’s experience of watching snow fall (and though it’s not explicitly stated in the story) waiting to see if the snow will be deep enough for snowy play like sledding.  It’s a story with which any child can empathize.  The mother distracts her son with household chores and baking.  The father comes home to play with him.  The only thing I can really complain about in this story is that the mother was home, cooking and cleaning, while the father was out at work—but isn’t that the typical American experience.  It would have been a nice choice to break the gender stereotype since Bean so nicely broke the whitewashed vision of the American family.  I do appreciate though that this is a family with both mother and father present and active and interested in the child’s life.

****

The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle.  Philomel-Penguin, 2013.  First published 2011.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I think most people know Eric.  The Hungry Caterpillar left quite an imprint on my childhood, though not as great an imprint as did the illustrations of Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? et al.  I was sadly unimpressed by The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse.  The prose would have benefited from more zest, though I approve of Carle’s message that a good artist is not necessarily one who sticks to reality, promoting creative thinking and creativity, prompting children to put away enforced ideas of correct and incorrect.  At the same time that message seems self-aggrandizing even though the artist at the end of the book does not look like present-day Carle (it might be a boy Carle).

**1/2

The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle.  HarperCollins, 1996.  First published 1977.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In retrospect, this was not a story I ought to have chosen for story hour.  It begins with two ladybugs who want to eat the same leafful of aphids.  Now aphid is a strange word, so I thought I had better explain it.  And then I realized what was going to happen to the aphids, and I wished that I hadn’t called them “baby bugs.”  And this whole story is about a ladybug that wants to fight—not exactly a great role model.  I tuned my voice to make the ladybug sound at least like it wanted to pick a fight for fun, for the challenge, the way a kid might ask, “You wanna race?”  In retrospect, I may have learned my lesson at least about screening Carle books before I take them to story hour.  As a story hour book too, the clocks in the top corner of the pages were nearly invisible to the children.  I explained where the hands were on the clock faces, at least at first, and was able to work that explanation pretty easily into the prose, but I didn’t really think any of them were there to learn to tell time and stopped after the first few pages.  Also, analog clocks are disappearing, though I think they are still more often in classrooms than digital clocks, so maybe it will be something that they’ll need to learn.  Reading this book makes me feel old.  Not only because of the analog clocks but also because of the political correctness that makes me wonder if such a violent little ladybug would have made it past an editor today.  The kids did pick up on Carle’s lesson that you shouldn’t be mean and that you should share, but it seemed like there were few pages on that.  Most of the pages were devoted instead to the grouchy ladybug asking larger and larger animals if they wanted to fight then dismissing each as too small—and I think at least one my kids was frustrated by the ladybug’s idiocy (she kept commenting that she was pretty sure this or that animal was large enough).  It made a better bestiary than a story it seemed to me as I read the same few words over and over with a slight variation.  That being said, that repetition can be very lulling.  I found it very easy to read and to play instead with my inflection than focus on the words when I was caught up in the repetition.

*1/2

What’s Your Favorite Animal? edited by Eric Carle.  Contributed to be Eric Carle, Nick Bruel, Lucy Cousins, Susan Jeffers, Steven Kellogg, Jon Klassen, Tom Lichtenheld, Peter McCarty, Chris Raschka, Peter Sís, Lane Smith, Erin Stead, Rosemary Wells, and Mo Willems.  Henry Holt and Co.-Random, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8 (Grades Pre-K-3).

As a student and lover of children’s literature, I personally loved this book.  Some of the illustrations in this are amazing.  A lot of the memoirs are truly sweet and endear readers towards either the animal or the author.  Some of the poetry was humorous.  The book provided an interesting view into the minds and lives of some of my favorite illustrators.  The kids at my story hour were less enthralled.  I knew more of the illustrators than they did (many of them having not recently produced any bestsellers), and taken all together, this is a long book.  The eldest of my story hour friends was maybe eight.  Much beyond eight, it’s hard to see a child being thrilled with being read any picture book.  This book lacks the cohesion that can hold a younger child’s attention.  There’s not a story.  There’s no conflict.  The book includes flash memoirs, poetry, and cartoon panels of facts about octopi.  I think only the one (Nick Bruel’s) got a laugh out of any of my friends and that because of Bruel’s interaction with Bad Kitty, a familiar face for some of the kids, I’m sure, and the humor of Bruel’s entry.  Bruel’s didn’t read very well aloud, though, I thought.  There were so many individual panels and I don’t know how many of my friends were able to follow my eyes across the pages as I read.

****

Knight Time by Jane Clark and illustrated by Jane Massey.  Red Fox-Random House UK, 2009.

I loved this book, though I was biased towards it from the beginning as the cover was of an adorable towheaded young knight and a young dragon, each looking terrified into the dark forest.  Towheads and dragons, how could I not love this book?  It was cute in the way that I expected.  The knight fears dragons.  The dragon fears knights.  They meet and become friends after each seeing that the other is not so frightening.  I did not anticipate the inclusion of the knight’s and dragon’s fathers.  Both wander into the woods looking for their fathers and are each found by the other’s father.  The book is lift-a-flap.  If anything this made the book too interesting, too intriguing, too busy, but I loved that there was so much to look at and explore in this adventure.

****

Smile, Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 1-4 (Grade Pre-K).

I’ve never read the original Pout-Pout Fish so I think this book meant less to me than it is supposed to.  I think this would be fun to quote at young kids.  “Smile, Mr. Fish.  You look so down, with your glum-glum face and pout-pout frown.”  Followed immediately by, “Hey, Mr. Grumpy Gills.  When life gets you down do you know what you gotta do?”  I do dislike that the implication seems to be that a peck on the cheek by a strange should illicit a smile from someone who’s down.  I don’t really think that’s true, and I’m not sure it’s something that we should be teaching our children.

 **

Little Owl’s Orange Scarf by Tatyana Feeney.  Knopf-Random, 2013.

The trick is in the details with this one.  There’s a lot of humor from a careful inspection of Feeney’s illustrations, from the attempts of Little Owl to send his orange scarf to Peru to how he finally rids himself of the hated scarf.  While I sympathized with Little Owl’s plight and I really want to like this book even more than I do, I had a kid pipe up during story hour that he liked orange, and there’s was such sadness and hurt in his tone.  The scarf of course could be hated for being any color, and Feeney had to choose some color. There’s something so implicitly realistically childlike about Owl’s dislike of the scarf not only because it’s too long and scratchy but especially because it’s orange.  It reminds me of friends who hated and refused to wear anything pink simply for its color—and I’m glad that Feeney chose a color other than pink.  Pink would have seemed cliché.

***1/2

Buzz, Buzz, Baby!: A Karen Katz Lift-the-Flap Book by Karen Katz.  Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 1-4.

This lift-a-flap book is all about insects and bugs—perfect the adventurous and outdoorsy child in your family.  Katz’s protagonists are not strictly male even though the book is about bugs.  Katz’s illustrations and the use of flaps are what really appealed to me in this book.  The insects peek out from behind foliage making it easy to see where a child being read too could be prompted for an answer to the questions that the text poses.  The colors are bright—as are all of Katz’s.  Rhymes help with the rhythm of the text.

****