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Book Reviews: November 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Valuing Women and Two Holidays

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Women in History and Today

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

My First Book of Feminism (for Boys) by Julie Merberg and illustrated by Michéle Brummer-Everett. Downtown Bookworks-Simon & Schuster, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

Feminism for boys! Very young boys! Or boys of all ages. And women who need reminders about these same principles. This is about respecting women as people, allowing space for their voices and ideas, and about unlearning the toxic masculinity both that says that boys can take advantage of girls and that tries to define what men and women should and should not do. It suggests some simple acts one can do to express one’s respect for oneself and for the women in one’s life. The illustrations, though sparing in color, using only the primary three, green, black, and white, seem to represent a more inclusive feminism too than is too often practiced, which I appreciate.

****

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

Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes by Eva Chen and illustrated by Derek Desierto. Feiwel & Friends-MacMillan, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

This was an odd one for me. Juno is searching for her own favorite shoes, plain white Keds, when she discovers a magical portal to a magical closet filled with shoes from historical women which, when she puts them on, transform her into the women who owned the shoes. Or that’s how it seems. There’s not a whole lot of explanation about what is happening to Juno or about the women themselves. I would have liked to have this be a very long story about Juno overcoming with these women the trials that they faced both in their climb to greatness and then once that greatness had been achieved. What I got was a line each about one quality that helped each woman succeed. And I suppose in its way that that’s its own positive message, but it was not what I expected, and it wasn’t the story that I wanted—because it was really not much of a story. This was not about overcoming adversity but about possessing certain qualities—and shoes. This book supports in part the idea that clothes make the woman, and while I understand that Eva Chen is a fashion director, a former editor-in-chief of the fashion magazine Lucky, and a former beauty and health director for Teen Vogue, it’s not the message that I want to send to children who may not be able to afford or who may not be interested in owning the shoes that are chic for their chosen profession. It closes with Eva changing her own shoes to reflect her experiences in the shoes of and her present in the footsteps of these powerful women. In the back, there is a page with a bit more about each of the women, but the picture book itself really is the type of story that only works if you already know the figures. In short, I think the book, the idea had a lot of potential that it didn’t live up to because it didn’t go far enough. As an introduction to influential women of history, it is far from the best that I have seen, and right now, there are a lot of fish to choose from in that pond. There are better, more comprehensive books even for younger audiences. Had this been printed another year, several years earlier, I probably would have rated it more highly because it would have been filling a need. It does have a more creative plot than many of the other books about influential women for children that I can think of which are often written more as encyclopedias than stories, but it slides past those women’s experiences in favor of the protagonist’s to the point that only a foreknowledge of the women gives the women context.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.My First Little People, Big Dreams: Audrey Hepburn by María Isabel Sánchez Vegara and illustrated by Amaia Arrazola. Frances Lincoln-Quarto, 2018.

My First Little People, Big Dreams: Amelia Earhart by María Isabel Sánchez Vegara and illustrated by MARIADIAMANTES. Frances Lincoln-Quarto, 2018.

I learned a bit about both of these women from these board books. I pulled a copy of each of the available board books in this series for a story time and offered to read any in which the audience was interested. (Also available in board book form from this series are biographies of Coco Chanel, Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, and Maya Angelou; more are coming in February.) The kids didn’t voice any opinions, but two adults in the audience expressed interest. Vegara does a good job of keeping to the truth without going into either too much detail for her audience or too romanticizing the history. Hepburn’s war-torn childhood is not forgotten nor is Earhart’s disappearance left out. These books talk not just about the one act that these women are most famous for, but also their philanthropy, what influenced their lives, and their influence on others. Their lives are framed as models and lessons. I’m not 100% sure what the appropriate audience would be for these books. As with many nonfiction board books today, I’m just not sure if the interest is there for the 0-3 year olds that board books are marketed towards, but I had no trouble reading these to my story time audience which consisted that day of children probably up to age 7.

****

Seasonal Stories

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

Fangsgiving by Ethan Long. Bloomsbury, 2018.

I was truly pleased by this original Thanksgiving tale. A group of monsters (a vampire named Vladimir, a werewolf, a witch, a mummy named Mumford) every fourth Thursday in November get together to celebrate Thanksgiving, and they all cook a special dish. When Vladimir’s family drop in unexpectedly, they go about expressing their distaste for the dishes and improving them with their own ghastly twists (boogie butter, eyeballs, baboon farts), much to the chagrin of the monsters whose food and hard work they disparage. Because they are family and he loves them, Vladimir wants to make the best of it, but when their dog Spike eats the feast in its entirety, Vladimir cries that they have ruined Thanksgiving. To which his family responds that they were only trying to help, that he can’t be mad at them because they are family. Vladimir reminds them that families forgive one another and work together, and together with Vladimir’s friends, they set out to make a second feast that takes everyone’s tastes and ideas into account. Spike remains outside, and the monsters start a new tradition: Fangsgiving on the fourth Friday of every November. There are some important lessons that this book has to impart to the young and the old any time that they are about to embark on a day of getting together with family and friends (Thanksgiving, yes, but other holidays and events too). Family and friends don’t always have the same ideas or tastes as you or as each other. Though they are often acting with the best intentions, they may forget their boundaries and their manners. It’s okay to get angry. Sometimes you have to let them know that what they are doing is hurtful. Once you have done so, you can forgive one another and work towards a more perfect day. With lots of gross ingredients and several puns to get laughs, plus the spooky characters, this is a likely hit with most kids, despite its more narrow color palette.

*****

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

Bear Can’t Sleep by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman. Margaret K. McElderry, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Bear’s considerate friends stop into his cave to see that he is warm and comfortable when he should be hibernating. But Bear can’t sleep, despite his best intentions, earnest attempts, and his friends’ acts of kindness. The friends try building up the fire and turning down the lights. They make him warm milk to drink. They sing him a lullaby. But nothing is working. So Bear gives up and decides that since they are here and he is not asleep, he will tell them a story—a new story. And just before the end, he falls asleep, snoring. The friends will have to wait till Spring to hear the end. As with most of these stories, Chapman’s soft, warm, realistic illustrations are the star. This would make a good bedtime story.

****

Click to visit Barnes & Noble for links to order and summary.

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Goes Christmas Shopping by Annie North Bedford, Bob Moore, and Xavier Atencio. Little Golden-Golden-Penguin Random, 2018.  Originally published 1953.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

We read this book with the help of a Google Home Mini, which produced background music and sound effects cued to the words of the story as spoken by my voice—which was really neat when it worked. It once lost me very early in the story, but then found me again. It seemed to lose me again while the boys were on the space ride. It cut out entirely when the store closed—and it never did pick back up. I wonder if it works better when in private and not in a store on a Black Friday weekend. But that’s another review for another day. The story itself does not show Mickey or Minnie in the best light ever. They take their nephews shopping, but then each think that they’ve left the boys with the other, and end up leaving them unsupervised and then in the store altogether after it closes—which must mean that neither sought and found the rest of the family much before if at all before the store closed and neither was watching the boys or one another. This was about doing a chore and not about spending time with family as the boys had hoped. Of course, the boys too were distracted by the toys and the rides in the toy department. After realizing that they have fallen asleep in the enclosed pod of the ride and awoken in a closed store (no employee checked the ride?), the boys find the store’s Santa Claus, still in his suit, and Santa delivers them to the front door, where Mickey and Minnie are banging to be let in to find their renegade nephews. Perhaps because I know Mickey and Minnie and not Ferdie and Mortie, I judge as negligent and in need of correction the adults’ actions more than I do Ferdie’s and Mortie’s.

***

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

Merry Christmas, Little Elliot by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This cover does not do this book justice. I understand that the publishers were going for a more classic, more simplistic cover, but the cover it has would not make me pick the book up as readily as if a full-page illustration had been used. That’s probably personal preference and a small quibble though. The inside is every bit as vibrant and realistic and amazing as I remember Curato’s illustrations being. Mouse is really excited for Christmas, but Elliot just is not. When they go to see Santa, Elliot asks for Christmas spirit from Saint Nick, but Santa says Elliot will have to find that himself. Elliot and Mouse try lots of wintertime activities to try to find Elliot’s Christmas spirit, but to no avail; this elephant has no luck. Walking home, a letter blows into Elliot’s hands. It’s for Santa. They go back to the store to try to hand-deliver it, but they’ve missed him. So Elliot with Mouse decide that they need to fulfill the Christmas wish themselves. They take a cab outside of the city to become friends with the letter’s sender, a little Asian American girl named Noelle. And in granting her wish, Elliot finds his Christmas spirit too. This story is saccharine in the best way, a tale of Christmas spirit that isn’t commercial and is truly attainable magic.

****

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

Santa Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins. Disney-Hyperion, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The mice are overstepping again, this time making commitments for Bruce that Bruce does not want to keep. He is a grumpy bear, and wearing red long johns should not volunteer him to be Santa Claus despite one excited raccoon’s mistaking him for the jolly saint. Nevertheless, the mice invite excited animals into Bruce’s home not once but twice and say that Bruce will deliver presents overnight to the woodland creatures. Very, very reluctantly and because the mice have done all of the work and have promised to do in fact more work than they can actually do—forcing some of the onus onto Bruce once they are already out in the snow—Bruce agrees to their plot. Presents are delivered, a joyous feast is attended, and Bruce—Bruce is still grumpy, vowing to sleep through next year’s Christmas as he had hoped to do through this. I actually like that Bruce is not won over and filled with the holiday spirit. It’s a change from the Scrooge & Grinch narrative that so pervades Christmas stories. Though much Christmas cheer is spread here and everyone (except Bruce) is celebrating, there is no real miracle here, just a grumpy bear fulfilling promises made on his unwilling behalf because deep down he is a softie for kids—being mother himself to four nearly grown geese.

***** 

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 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Part 1: Finding Dory and Facing Problems

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I read just a ton of picture books this July—24 to be exact—21 of those new to me or not yet reviewed on this blog. I’m not going to subject you to a blog post that is 21 reviews long; I don’t want to read that in one sitting, and probably neither do you—and frankly, I just haven’t finished reviewing all 21, even though we are now into the second week of August. So, please, peruse part 1:

Dory

26245967Three Little Words by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Grace Lee. Disney, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

What three word phrase is perhaps the most memorable of the whole of Finding Nemo? “Just keep swimming.” So of course, those are the three little words of the title. This book is a book of advice on how to approach life, including “just keep swimming,” “look both ways” at a crossroads, and “if you ever lose your way just call out to your friends.” “When life gets you down do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do?” The illustrations in this are some of the best of book that I’ve seen come out in conjunction with the Finding Dory film. They are soft, gentle, seemingly watercolors (Kelly Knox reveals the pictures are actually made in Adobe Photoshop—wow!), and if I was unfamiliar with the films and the characters, I might suspect that this was an ordinary picture book—unaffiliated with any franchise. They look like they belong in a bedtime book. This is by far the book on the display of Finding Dory tie-ins to which I am most drawn. As a book of life advice, the text passes, but there’s really no story, so I’m going to mostly gloss over that—other than to say that I might try to get it back in as an alternate to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! next graduation season as I think its message is similar. This book went over far better at story time than did Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, being both shorter and less dark. Especially with the younger graduates (those moving up from preschool to elementary or elementary to middle school) I think it will find more resonance and love than does Seuss.

***

97807364351169780736435062Finding Dory Little Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Finding Dory Big Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

These two Golden Books are retellings of the plot of the film Finding Dory. The Little Golden Book as its name suggests is a shorter, smaller book, with less detail. Otherwise the two books are very similar. I was prepared to read the shorter of the books for story time, but the Big Golden Book actually held the attention too of my audience, which ranged in ages from I would guess five up. (Now, they were all there for a Dory-themed party, so they were, it must be said, prepared for the story—and in many cases, already knew the story.  I was interrupted by many comments about their favorite characters and the details that they remembered that were not covered in the book.)

***                             ***

Big World Problems

MarvelousCornelius_JKT_FnCrx-page-0Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner and illustrated by John Parra. Chronicle, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

Based on a story that he heard about a New Orleans street sweeper and on his later research into the man—which included correspondence with his mother—Phil Bildner attributes a folk hero quality to this recently departed man. Cornelius—the person and the character—wowed New Orleans citizens with his performances—tricks and dances accompanying his work as a garbage man. In the story, when Hurricane Katrina floods the city, it leaves behind piles of garbage as tall as church steeples, and Cornelius is at first overwhelmed but—to ironically borrow the British motto—he kept calm and carried on. He did his job, and others pitched in because he had brought them joy in the past and because they too loved their city. Even people from far away came to help Cornelius clean up New Orleans. Cornelius’ spirit lives on in New Orleans. I appreciate the glorification of this person: a working class African American man with a hoop earring and a job that is often seen as the lowest of low class. We need more books with heroes like this. Please. This month Phil Bildner was honored for this book with one of the first ever Margaret Wise Brown Prizes in Children’s Literature, a prize recognizing the best text in a children’s book published the previous year chosen from nominations by children’s book publishers.

****

worldthatjackThe World That Jack Built by Ruth Brown. Dutton-Penguin, 1991. First published 1990.

Conveying an activist message like that of Seuss’ The Lorax, this book follows a beautifully illustrated black cat and a blue butterfly who wander from the house that Jack built to the next valley over where a rainbow-colored stream cuts through a dead meadow and flows past the place where the trees used to grow by the factory that Jack built. Jack is the villain here, living in beauty while creating horror and environmental terror. The text reverses itself, building from the house out to the valley then from the valley to the factory. There is repetition, but enough to seem lyrical more than annoying; there’s a camp song quality to the style for me because it reminds me of the bird in the egg in the nest on the branch on the tree with the roots in the hole and the hole in the ground and the green grass that grows all around. This story does a lot in and with just a little—and the illustrations are just stunning. The message—conveyed almost completely through the illustrations—is more simplified even than it is in The Lorax though, and it’s not as simple an issue as this book would make it seem, I don’t think. From the story itself, the evidence seems clear: factories bad. But a well-managed factory can do a great deal of a good for a community—and even a poorly managed might do some good for the community even if its short-sighted policies cause more harm than good ultimately.

****

6402385The Enemy by Davide Cali and illustrated by Serge Bloch. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2009. First published 2007.

First of all, I did a little digging on Cali, and I have to insert just this tidbit: The Italian-born Swiss who now lives in France has written many books in many languages: Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. Just… wow. He also writes under the names Taro Miyazawa and Daikon. With simple drawings with lots of white space, Cali and Bloch tell the story of two soldiers (we will call them the soldier and the enemy) in trench warfare. The soldier that is the POV character has never seen his enemy but believes that the enemy is inhuman and will butcher the soldier’s family and animals if the enemy is not killed. The soldier wants the war to end. He is tired and miserable and doesn’t like the rain, but he doesn’t believe that the war can end till the enemy is dead because the enemy is not a rational human, and he will not stop. One night the soldier sneaks into the enemy’s trench—which he finds abandoned (the enemy has slipped out disguised as a lion), but there are photographs of the enemy’s family and a manual that says that he—the POV soldier—is inhuman as he believes his enemy to be. The soldier believes that his enemy must have done as the soldier has done and that the enemy now occupies the soldier’s trench, so he stays in the enemy’s trench. At last he decides he must do something to end the war, and he writes a message to the enemy and lobs it in a bottle towards his trench. The story ends there. It does not show how the enemy—if the enemy actually is in the soldier’s trench—responds or how the soldier responds to his enemy’s silence if as I suspect the enemy is not there but has deserted the war already. This is subtitled “A Book About Peace,” but peace is never achieved within the story. This book well illustrates the mentality of war, the way that wars must be fought, how an enemy must be created in order to have war, how an enemy is too often created, dehumanized in order to “justify” a war and how much that dehumanized enemy is as much a false face as a lion skin concealing a human.

*****

Social Dramas

9780399176197Milk Goes to School by Terry Border. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Milk is confident, sure that she is special—la crème de la crème as her dad says—but her new classmates see her as spoiled. This book is full of puns—puns everywhere—in the text and in the illustrations themselves. The refrain of “spoiled” gets tired pretty quickly and for the most part it seemed to me that Milk’s behavior was wrongly classified as spoiled by a bullying Waffle—who does not waffle at all from his opinion of Milk—established because she says that her glittery backpack was given to her by her father who says that she’s “la crème de la crème.” How is that spoiled? I want to applaud Milk with her high self-esteem and detest Waffle for bullying her, but I’m not sure that my opinion is shared by Border. At the end of the book, Milk does see herself as somewhat spoilt, and she wants to change. Her classmates only change their opinion of Milk and begin to see her previous kindnesses after she has been tripped and has spilt herself and is crying. They help to put her back into her carton and treat her with more kindness, but I don’t see a genuine change from them, and tears and blood/milk shouldn’t have been necessary to curb their bullying. I liked—maybe even loved—Peanut Butter and Cupcake. I’m not sure I can like this one because I see it as portraying a negative, almost dangerous moral that I think was unintended. This is illustrated as Terry Border’s other books with photographed food with arms and legs of paperclip wire.  The kids I read this too were an observant bunch. They were the ones who pointed out that Milk wears a different hair bow in each illustration; it gave them something to look for.

**

9780375840685Duck, Duck, Goose by Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2007.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Duck has a new friend. Thistle is fast.  She’s athletic.  She’s good at math. Duck is very impressed. Goose tries to keep up, but Thistle keeps beating him in every contest that she starts. Goose doesn’t like to be made to feel like a loser. He’s tired, and he misses Duck, but Duck doesn’t seem to need him, so he slips away. Eventually, Duck misses Goose, and he goes looking for him despite Thistle’s disparagement of his friend. He finds Goose in one of their favorite spots. Goose admits to Duck that he’s tired and that Thistle makes him feel badly about himself. Duck admits that he’s getting annoyed by Thistle too. Thistle follows. The two friends trick Thistle into showing off as the world’s best napper and go off to play by themselves. That ending didn’t sit all that well with me; what the two friends do to Thistle is not very friendly nor is it at all likely to solve their problem long-term or help Thistle at all. I wanted the story to say that it is all right to have more than one friend; instead, it was sort of a lesson on how to ditch annoying show-offs. What? The beginning did some nice character set up with Goose sanding very still in order not to scare off a butterfly had landed on him and which he wanted to show Duck, but that set-up went on just a bit too long with the introduction of the bluebird and the discussion of which way was west. Reading the first pages, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, how long exactly this book was going to be and how long I could expect my audience to tolerate it.

**1/2

Liking the You in the Mirror

22318389I Don’t Want to be a Frog by Dev Petty and illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday-Random, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

A frog decides he’d rather be anything but, and his father calmly explains that he can’t be anything but a frog because that’s the way the world works. It takes a wolf coming along saying that he will eat anything but frogs because they are slimy and gross to convince the frog that being a frog is not so bad. What is this picture book? This is not what I was expecting. This teaches that you should be glad that you’re slimy and gross and that you can’t be anything but what you are born and it has the darkness of a villain that comes along to threaten to kill the protagonist. The awful thing is that I pulled it off the shelf, lured by its funny title and cute cover and echoes of Mo Willems’ much better and more wholesome I’m A Frog! and didn’t remember till halfway through the book that I’d already rejected this once as a story time read. Well, I’ve read it through all the way now. I can set it aside and not pick it up again, right? Goodreads reviewers are lauding this as a book about self-acceptance, and yes, self-acceptance can be good in certain circumstances, but I don’t like the presentation here nor that self-acceptance comes about because others are more likely to be killed by a predator; that to me is just not a good message and echoes too closely on too many hot-button, personal issues.

*

9781484712399Ellie by Mike Wu. Hyperion-Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Ellie’s zoo is closing, and the animals are helping the zookeeper “spruce [the zoo] up a bit” in an attempt to save their home.  Everyone seems to have something that they can do–everyone except the tiny elephant, Ellie.  But the zookeeper leaves Ellie alone for a moment with a paintbrush, and she discovers a new talent—one that the zookeeper quickly encourages, and one that saves the zoo—albeit the zoo is now a gallery for Ellie’s artworks as well as the animals’ home.  I warned the child that I had at story time that this story started sad but ended happily.  He didn’t much like it, but I did.  I know at times that I feel useless, and it’s good to be reminded that everyone has something they can do, that maybe I just haven’t yet found my talent or passion.  I had fun with the illustrations, particularly the talented Ellie recreating the “Mona Lisa.”  I like the brightness of Ellie’s artworks after the muted colors of the opening pages when the characters are sad.

***

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 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Celebs from Children’s Literature and Beyond

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The Classics 9780394800271

Snow by Roy McKie and P. D. Eastman. Random, 1962.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This was a very simple story and it employed a lot of repetition—almost a Dick and Jane amount of repetition. Dr. Seuss recruited P. D. Eastman to children’s literature and the rhythm of this book bears a strong resemblance to Seuss’ works.  At times the rhyme seemed forced—by which I mean, that in order to rhyme, the sentence was made awkward or bordered on senseless. Some of this manifested in what seemed at the time an odd refusal to name certain common snow games: Making snow angels became “making pictures with your backs.” Cross-country skiing or skiing in general (this is not a sport I know well. In the absence of a ski lift, I suppose one walks to the top of a hill in skis even if it’s not cross-country skiing?) becomes “we put on long, long feet”; the word “skis” is never used but there are several mentions of skis as “feet.” “Snow man” is used once, but mostly the snowman is referred to only as a man, once as a man of snow, and the exclusion of “snow” as a modifier seems odd. Overall, it’s a book about playing in the snow told with a very young child’s vocabulary. As a book about playing in the snow, it’s cute. And the Seussian rhythm keeps the book rolling, so long as you don’t stumble too much on the forced rhyme and refusal to introduce new words or phrases.

***

9780394823379The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Random, 1971.  Intended audience: Ages 6-9.

This is a meaty book. It was a bit too much for story time, especially when my audience are toddlers. With an older audience, I think I would have enjoyed this reread more. With an audience of toddlers, and the kids not mine, I felt like I was filling their brains with images of the horrors of big business and greed that maybe didn’t need to be blackening their childhood bubbles yet. The story has a very clear business-bad, nature-good message that lacks the subtlety of reality but leaves little room for too in young minds. Now there are gems in this book: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Messages like that I don’t mind imparting to young ones.

****

9780399173875The Little Engine That Could by Piper Watty and illustrated by Loren Long. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2015. Full story first published 1930.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Who knows how many years it had been since I’d read this story? Many. Many, many. Enough that I didn’t really remember even the bones of the story—just the mantra that gets repeated: “I think I can. I think I can,” later replaced with the proud, “I thought I could. I thought I could.” This was an abridged board book, and there was still much more to this story than I remembered there being.

First: female trains. Yes, more female protagonists in male-marketed books. Because it is much easier right now to get a girl to read a “boys’ book” than a boy to read a “girls’ book,” so if there aren’t females in the boys’ books, boys might never encounter female characters. And I don’t think the world is in any danger yet of being oversaturated with female protagonists. (Just last night I saw another kids’ movie that failed the Bechdel test by never having two named females on screen at the same time, but it had at least seven named male characters, five protagonists and two villains.)

These are not the illustrations that I—so probably your parents and grandparents—grew up with, but I like them. They are softer but at least as colorful and maybe even more expressive for their rounded realness compared to George and Doris Hauman’s. This clown is also less creepy, maybe because it has less makeup, more hair, and a more realistic face beneath the makeup. I don’t know. He seems less frightening to me. It’s fairly clear though that Long intentionally harkened back to the Haumans’ while making the work her own.

****

And the Big Names in Children’s Literature

26030671Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

This is a fun twist on the classic “Are we there yet?” plot of a child complaining in a car ride to his parents with a good moral. Drifting off possibly and entering an alternate dreamscape where all the pages are upside down, the boy in this story goes hundreds, thousands of years backwards, encountering cowboys, pirates, and dinosaurs. His parents are appalled by all of these strange encounters, but the boy doesn’t notice the wonders they are passing in the car till he sees the T-rex. But when they can’t go back any further they somehow end up too far forward in time, and Grandma’s house is gone. How will they make it to the party? I’ve been told the QR codes in the illustrations of the future world are worth checking out, but I don’t have the app for that, so someone’s going to have to get back to me with reviews and insights on those. I think this might be the first time that an illustrator has incorporated QR codes. The story ends with an emphasis on the importance of family and celebrating family.

*****

26075973Let’s Play! by Hervé Tullet. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

A yellow dot with a lot of emotion and energy in its small frame narrates a traceable adventure through the pages of Tullet’s latest book. The yellow dot doesn’t confine itself to the pages either, at one point jumping onto the reader’s head, which was fun to play with. I expected this to be a bigger hit with my story time audience, but they weren’t really into it, even when I gave them each a book to play with. Granted, one at least was probably too young and two were ESL learners, so maybe some of the word play or instructions were lost in translation. I enjoyed playing with the book. I like the clever situations that the book character asks the readers to follow him into. I liked the potential to talk about bravery with the scary pages. But there were less educational elements to this than either Press Here or Mix It Up!

***

my-first-busy-book-9781481457910_hrMy First Busy Book inspired by Eric Carle’s works. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2015.

This clever primer has it all, each on its own page! There’re colors, numbers, shapes, first words, animal sounds, and a mirror. Each page asks a question of the readers. One page for example asks readers to trace the raised numbers, giving the book a touch-and-feel element too. Another page has flaps to lift. Because primer books are rarely meant to be read anyway, the idea of including a just a bit of everything seems smart of the publisher and cost-effective to parents too. This is a perfect go-to for the indecisive, thrifty, or low on funds. And besides that, it has elements of Carle’s famous illustrations, so it’s bright, inviting, familiar, and creative without sacrificing realism.

*****

The Celebrities from Outside

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Derek Jeter Presents: Night at the Stadium by Phil Bildner and illustrated by Tom Booth. Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

As a Red Sox supporter, it was difficult to be enthusiastic while reading the first line of this story: “The Yankees win!” I actually thought this a fairly successful celebrity sponsored picture book—if the self-insertion of Derek Jeter seems—though it makes some sense within the text—a bit… forced. I wasn’t too fond of the repetitive “Talking [noun]?” “Of course we talk.” “We all talk,” though I recognize that repetition is often a hallmark of texts for young audiences—maybe not for the audiences of this book, with its nine-year-old protagonist. Talking food is always a bit of a sticking point for me too. Why have to eat, so do we want to imagine our food as characters? I’m more okay with it in a world free of humans—as with Peanut Butter and Cupcake. This team—Jeter and Blinder and Booth—gets points for an interracial protagonist. Some of the illustrations are pretty stunning, just wonderfully vibrant. The book for its emphasis on baseball, and the Yankees in particular, and its jargon of the sport, has a limited appeal, but there are surprisingly not all that many picture books about baseball—and many of those are bios or histories, so such a book may be a welcome gift to many young fans of the game.

***

y648Charlie the Ranch Dog by Ree Drummond and illustrated by Diane deGroat. HarperCollins, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Charlie is magnanimous towards his silent friend Suzie. Suzie doesn’t have droopy eyes or dangly ears like Charlie, but he doesn’t hold that against her. She’s better at running and jumping. Charlie’s never been very good at jumping. Charlie has a lot of work to do with Suzie. He’s a morning dog, but she isn’t—except she’s up. She’s out the door. Charlie sometimes likes to let Suzie do things to feel important, but he knows his mama couldn’t get along without him. While he’s talking to the reader about all the things that he needs to do, Suzie has done or is doing them. Charlie keeps drifting off to sleep and waking with a “Huh? What’d I miss? Oh I must have accidentally closed my eyes for a few seconds.” Suzie and the humans go off without him during one of these naps, but because of that, he is home to scare the cows out of his mama’s beloved garden.

Charlie’s unique voice was what made this book stand out, though I’m not sure I like that Charlie’s is the only voice in the story.

***

naughty-mabel-9781481430227_hrNaughty Mabel by Nathan Lane and Devlin Elliott and illustrated by Dan Krall. Simon & Schuster, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I was kept from enjoying this book as much as I otherwise would have by the French-bashing and stereotyping, the worst being an oblique suggestion that the French don’t like to bathe. Who says things like that? Who thinks it’s okay to publish books that say that?

Mabel’s a pampered French bulldog who thinks she is and acts as if she is a spoilt human child to her rich human “parents.” Mabel doesn’t believe her parents’ description of her as naughty is fair. She believes she is and revels in being VERY naughty. Most of the story is backstory, really, for the main event, when Mabel is forced into a bath that she—with her cat friends—decides is a sure sign that her parents intend to throw a party. But Mabel’s not invited to the party. So she dons a pink tutu and pearls and claims that she will try to blend into the crowd—but the allure of a pile of pigs-in-blankets proves too alluring, and she becomes again a dog with a mouthful of stolen food, spoiling the party by running across the table and startling guests into spilling their drinks on their fancy clothes. Mabel stands out still more when those pigs-in-blankets come back in a big, noxious cloud of fart—and she clears out the party. She expects though that her parents are secretly glad that she ruined their party because it means more time for just the three of them.

That’s a dubious message for children. Misbehave and your parents will still love you? Sure. Absolutely. Please. But misbehave and your parents will be secretly glad? Mmm….

There are some funny moments in this—the fart is not one of them to me. The book had some potential. I like Mabel’s unique, posh voice, directly addressing the readers as “darlings.”

But Mabel knows nothing of being French.

**

9780736429702Rapunzel’s Wedding Day by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I never saw the Disney short about Rapunzel’s wedding, Tangled Ever After, but I expect that this story replicates that one almost exactly. The illustrations seem to me like screen captures. It was a cute story focusing on the animal “sidekicks” from Tangled trying not to ruin Rapunzel’s wedding when they accidentally drop the rings. Generally I’m not sure about the emphasis placed on weddings, particularly in media aimed at children. Weddings—heck—marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life, as many Disney movies seem to suggest. That being said, this is more about hijinks that ensue in two friends’ efforts to rectify their mistakes without their mistake going noticed. And Tangled already promised us a marriage.

***

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: March 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light. Candlewick, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, PreK-K. I’m a sucker for dragons—particularly friendly dragons (you may have noticed)—and for the idea that magic could be a little more commonplace than we believe, so I naturally had to pick up and read a book with this jacket. Light’s Have You Seen My Dragon? is a counting book with imaginative and whimsical illustrations, primarily busy, detailed line drawings but with splashes of color that highlight the objects to be counted. The counting book is well hidden within a text that gives the counting book plot, where the narrator—a young child—tours the city looking for his missing dragon, querying various adults at work about him. There’s a lot of room for interaction in this book.  It could be expanded into a color primer as well, and a primer for professions.  The dragon hides among the intricately woven lines of each illustration, making a Where’s Waldo of him, though finding the dragon is thankfully not as difficult. The busyness of Light’s illustrations perfectly match the bustle of a city like New York City or London. I have to admit that I am more enamored of the illustrations of this book than the text, but the text does—as I’ve said—a good job supporting the mission of the counting book without losing plot—and that’s more than can be said for some.

****

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Richard Scarry’s Trucks by Richard Scarry. Golden-Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 0-3. This book is written in the manner of a primer with a noun and then the illustration of that noun, but there’s an element of silliness here, with the inclusion of several absurd examples. Beside the usual examples (bulldozer, dump truck, fire engine), there is also a pickle tanker and Mr. Frumble’s pickle car. Richard Scarry’s world is one where things don’t always go well: Fruit trucks spill their merchandise and Mr. Frumble drives his pickle car into the path of an emptying dump truck. I suspect but haven’t been able to prove that these illustrations were lifted from other stories, mashed here into a new product to sell—much as was done with the Favorite Words books based on Eric Carle’s works. This is probably a book best for fans—parents who are fans—of Richard Scarry’s work already, trying to induce their children to like the same books that they do—and why wouldn’t you? I too have fond memories of Richard Scarry (I think a lot of us do). I would, though, have liked to see more cohesion, more of a plot in this primer. Some of the illustrations tell their own mini story, but I found no story connecting the illustrations.

**1/2

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Princesses and Puppies by Jennifer Weinberg and illustrated by Francesco Legramandi and Gabriella Matta. Disney-Random, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 4-6. This book was something of a disappointment. Each princess gets a page or two only, and the story about each princess and puppy is the same and without much action: The princess receives or finds a puppy and interacts with the puppy in a banal way: Merida gives hers a bath. Tiana’s falls asleep on her lap. The only story that breaks this pattern involves a puppy that performs a trick for Jasmine—and the author wisely or unwisely remains silent about Jasmine giving its ragamuffin child owners money in return for the trick—which is the logical conclusion to such an interaction. The puppies receive at the hands of the text more personality than do the princesses. Perhaps the absence of plot and character development could be attributed to this book being a Level 1 reader, but I hope not. I hope there are Level 1 readers with more of a story.  It’s impossible for me to forget how much more impressed I was by the Level 2 Disney reader, A Pony for a Princess.

**

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

Book Reviews: February 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Evocative is Today’s Word

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Click, Clack, Peep! By Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades: PreK-3.

Cronin’s Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type has been fairly successful, frequently being displayed in various places in Barnes & Noble. This latest edition to the series takes on a far more relatable and age-appropriate topic, I think, than did this first book of Cronin’s, which I found a little too bureaucratic in its subject. In this, a new duckling is born on the farm, and like a child sometimes, he will not be quiet and will not sleep, so the animals can’t sleep. With a plethora of onomatopoeia’s and creative text formatting, this is a visually pleasing story and visually evocative too. There’s one page with so many peeps that I’d have been irritated if I’d felt the need to read each one, just as the characters in the story are irritated by the constant peep of the duckling. On another page the tension of waiting for duckling’s egg to hatch is palpable, evoked by the text and illustrations alike. This funny book will make a great bedtime story.

****

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Walking Home to Rosie Lee by A. LaFaye and illustrated by Keith D. Shepherd. Cinco Puntos, 2011.

A. is a professor of mine. I was in her class when or shortly after this book was released. She read the book aloud to the class and several of us were unable to keep our eyes dry, and while I’m sure some of that is attributable to the emotion that A. as the author put into the characters through her reading, the story remains evocative without the author’s interpretation. Gabe’s is a perspective little covered in texts for any age: the struggle for African Americans, former slaves, after the Civil War. Gabe’s syntax adds life to Gabe’s voice. Heartbreaking and finally uplifting, this is a story I think needs to be told. Gabe’s search for his mother, for family, for love, for home is universal as well as historical. Shepherd’s illustrations are bright and bold. There’s enough detail in the story to illuminate the suffering of African American slaves, but not enough to make it inappropriate for most children, especially on the older end of picture books.

****

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Disney’s Frozen’s Melt My Heart: Share Hugs with Olaf by Reader’s Digest. 2014.   Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This book is a collection of lines of Olaf’s from Disney’s Frozen. The lines do not make a plot. I would love to see if this book makes any sense separate from the film, but I saw the film and so could add a little weight and meaning to the text and illustrations. I would have liked an original plot, a plot separate from the film, or even any connection beside the central character between pages. The board book does sport plush arms, but I have seen even this concept better handled. They are difficult to manipulate and still hold the book.

*

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The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2014.

This is the latest Caldecott Medal recipient, and this is a wonderful and wonderfully illustrated book. Santat’s imagination is, frankly, stunning. He built a world and culture here and peopled it with fantastical characters that might bear some resemblance to creatures and objects in this world, but are unique nonetheless. With equal prowess he captures our world, the “real world,” though in the absence of children and imagination, the world appears in grayscale. Beekle leaves the world where imaginary friends are born and wait to be chosen by a child in the real world. He sails alone to the real world and scours our world for his friend, finally finding her. Together they learn about friendship, and he helps her make other friends too.

****

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

Book Reviews: November 2014 Picture Book Roundup: It’s Blue… or Maybe Green?

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Away in a Manger illustrated by Lisa Reed and Randle Paul Bennett. Candy Cane-Ideals, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The text and audio of this book are the first two verses of “Away in a Manger,” sung by “Junior Asparagus,” who is unfortunately one of my least favorite musical talents among the VeggieTales cast. The illustrations are bright and colorful, and VeggieTales fans will appreciate seeing familiar faces in a probably equally familiar tableau. I witnessed one parent trying to read this book (or it might have been its sister book, Silent Night) to a child, and stumbling to an awkward halt when it turned out that the audio button was the text in its entirety. That rather detracts from the book’s ability to lead to interaction between a parent and child. A parent can turn the pages, but the time spent on each page is limited and the parent’s voice is lost amid Junior’s warble.

*

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Step Into Reading: Level 2: A Pony for a Princess by Andrea Posner-Sanchez and illustrated by Francesc Mateu. RH Disney-Random 2002.

I was drawn to the book by the promise of a pony but was a little worried by the book being a Disney spinoff. I was more impressed with this book than I expected to be. The plot is well formed. A deductive thinker could reason the plot from details. Belle sees a barrel of apples, and later decides to return to the barrel to sate her hunger, only to find the barrel empty, then logically she seeks to discover what happened to the apples. I do think it unlikely that a wild pony could be so easily caught by a trail of sugar cubes, but this is a Disney story, and Belle qualifies as a Disney princess, so I will forgive the implausibility and call it more of an inevitability.

****

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Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann. G.P Putnam & Sons-Penguin Putnam, 1996. First published 1994. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This was at least a second read. Good Night, Gorilla is something of a classic. I think the illustrations are what make this book. The zookeeper goes about saying goodnight to the animals (making it a plausible animal primer), but on the first page, the gorilla steals his keys and follows him through the zoo, unlocking cages. The whole of the zoo follows him home and into his bedroom. Too many responses to her “Good night, dear” alert the zookeeper’s wife of the trouble, and she calmly gets up out of bed, takes the gorilla’s hand, and leads all the animals back to their cages. The gorilla and the mouse escape even her watch and follow her once more back to the bed that she shares with the zookeeper. I appreciate the presentation of a more alert, more able wife.

***

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Peekaboo Barn by Nat Sims and illustrated by Nathan Tabor. Candlewick, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 0-3, PreK.

This lift-the-flap animal primer comes with a free app download code. This is the first of a few books I’ve since come across with app companions. Apparently, this book was an app first. The animals are cartoonish with bug eyes that are mildly disturbing. Sometimes there’s only one flap on a page, sometimes there are two. At first read, this was confusing, as I didn’t know to look for two flaps and would open the barn doors to discover only one of the animals whose sounds I’d just read. Then I noticed that the loft doors also occasionally opened. I’m not sure if as a toddler reader, this variation would be exciting or confusing. If I’m being finicky, the animals are not seen or entering the barn, but the scene never changes, the sun never moves across the sky. It would have been very simple to introduce more plot into this book.

*

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That’s Not My Snowman… by Fiona Watt. Usborne, 2014. First published 2006.

There’s not much exciting about this winter edition of a series of touch-and-feel primers that spans all manner of creature, machine, and… sculpture. I do puzzle what sort of squishy nose one could give a snowman. I prefer to have logical connections between the illustrations and text. The inclusion of the ever-present mouse in this series adds a nice element of continuity to the story and the series.

**

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An Elephant and Piggie Book: Waiting Is Not Easy! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I am a fan of Mo Willems and of Elephant and Piggie in particular. I was not expecting the mixed media illustrations in this book nor the subtle hint of the passage of time as the white space becomes darker. I think both the messages of patience and of the beauty of nature are valuable to today’s children, so used—as we all are—to instant gratification. I like it even better on a second reading, particularly I enjoy Piggie’s answers to Gerald’s questions Piggie about the surprise.

*****

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Baby Bear Sees Blue by Ashley Wolff. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014. First published 2012. Intended audience: Ages 2-6, Grades PreK-1.

I am biased towards Wolff’s books and this one in particular. Wolff is a professor at my alma mater. This book I saw as an unbound proof when she read it to us. I saw it later read at a local library story hour and witnessed the unbiased enjoyment of it from the children and the librarian. Wolff’s illustrations are jewel bright, and the text does not seem overly formulaic as many primers can seem, though Wolff does keep some repetition in the line “Baby Bear sees [color]” to give the story a familiar structure and rhythm. Wolff does not shy from poetic language within her text, but she keeps true too to the toddler understanding of the world with Baby Bear’s speech, as when Baby Bear asks who is waving at him, indicating an oak leaf stirred by a breeze. I had not considered till reading a particularly detailed review on Goodreads that the closing line makes the book fit appropriately too into the bedtime story mold.

****

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

Book Reviews: January Picture Book Roundup: Part Two

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Freddie & Gingersnap by Vincent X Kirsch.  Hyperion-Disney, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I wanted to be so much happier with this picture book than I was, partially because its art is amazing and vaguely reminiscent of the art from DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon, which predisposed me towards it, but also because coworkers of mine had been lauding it.  Despite its pink protagonist (and why does the female protagonist have to be pink?), it is a boys’ book filled with growling and snapping of teeth and clacking of claws.  Those bits would be a lot of fun to dramatize in a story time with one’s own kids.  In a story hour, I worried that they might be a bit too scary for some kids and a bit too violent for some parents.

Freddie wonders what it would be like to touch the clouds.  Gingersnap tries to fly but falls with style right on top of Freddie.  They chase one another—right off a cliff, but Gingersnap catches Freddie, and the two of them land gracefully enough.  And as J. K. Rowling has said, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).  Another, I think, is falling off of cliff.  Gingersnap helps Freddie to fly and feel the clouds as the other dinosaurs cannot.  Interesting to note here that, though pink, Gingersnap is the one that enables Freddie’s dream rather than it being the other way about.

There’s nothing particularly thrilling about the story, but I do love dragons, and while I wish she weren’t pink, I like that Gingersnap is the one to help Freddie.

***

Snuggle-Me Stories: Butterfly Kisses by Sandra Magasamen.  LB-Hachette, 2007.

This book comes with a finger puppet butterfly for the reader to wear.  The book describes the actions and sounds of various animals but reminds readers to stop and listen to the whisper of butterfly wings, a message I really like now and I think I’d like as a parent to impart to children even as a toddler if they might not understand the metaphor then and might think that it means a literal whisper of butterfly wings… which I guess with sonic hearing and a sterile environment it would be possible to hear.

***

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister.  North-South, 1992.

This is an old favorite of mine as I told my story hour friends.  Most of them knew it too.  This is a story about sharing and about how beauty is not merely physical.  I think even in the first grade or so when I read this first I understood that it did not mean that I should go about giving away locks of my hair.  I’m pretty sure that never crossed my mind or there would be some good stories from my parents.  Asked to share, the Rainbow Fish cruelly rejects the plea, and for doing so, he is shunned by the other fish.  After seeking the advice of a wise, FEMALE octopus, he decides to give sharing a try.  He gives away his unique, glittering scales.  In giving of himself, he becomes less uniquely beautiful but gains friends by making others as beautiful as himself.  If I wanted to do so, I could find the negative message in that: the Rainbow Fish must self-mutilate and change his appearance to gain friends.  I choose to accept the story as I understood it in my childlike naivety.  The pages of The Rainbow Fish have always been something to enjoy for their sparkle, which even now is still rather unique among picture books.

****

Santa!: A Scanimation Picture Book by Rufus Butler Seder.  Workman, 2013.

This scanimation book, while it is still novel to watch the illustrations move as you turn the pages, lacked the message of Gallop, Seder’s first scanimation book.  As such, I was underwhelmed.  Also it’s very much a book that is stuck within a particular season of the year.

**

Hold and Touch: Wake Up by Belinda Strong.  Hinkler, 2013.

This touch-and-feel book didn’t excite me very much.  It’s touch-and-feel pages were not much more than a little bit of felt and this was not even on every page.  Its plot takes the reader through the routine of waking up.  Words are paired so that “wake up” is side by side with “sunshine” (one of its possible causes) and “breakfast” is paired with “yummy” (one of its possible reactions).  Some of the illustrations are of anthropomorphized animals acting as a young toddler might, with a colt in a high chair, for example, while some are of animals acting as animals.  Each page features a different animal, so the book could be used as a bestiary and will likely provoke exclamations of “horsey!” and “kitty!”

**

Disney’s It’s A Small World: Hello, World! by the Walt Disney Company and illustrated by Nancy Kubo.  Disney, 2011.  Intended audience: Ages 1-5.

This book has a page for greetings from each of ten languages with a simple illustration for each.  Each page includes the proper spelling as well as a phonetic pronunciation in parentheses.  That part of the book I enjoyed, but the illustrations propagate cultural stereotypes and that I find rather disheartening.  People in Brazil don’t generally go about bare-chested with a necklace of string about their necks.  Of this I’m quite sure.  Nor do all Irishmen wear green suits with clovers in their green top hats with buckles around the brim.

**

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I Am Going! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2010.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I always enjoy Elephant and Piggie books.  Elephant Gerald and Piggie remind me mercilessly of my protagonists in their childhood.  In this one, Piggie says he has to go, and Gerald freaks out.  Go?  Why?  He can’t go!  He can’t leave Gerald!  When Piggie can finally get a word in, he tells Gerald that he’s only going to lunch.  Gerald joins Piggie for lunch.  And it is “a good day.  Just like yesterday.”  Like many of Elephant’s and Piggie’s interactions, this one for me seems particularly realistic.  I’m pretty sure I’ve done just as Gerald does in this book when told before that a friend was moving—before I learned that it was only across town.  It’s also nice too to see two friends just enjoying one another’s company without having to do anything as they are at the beginning of the book when it is first declared to be “a good day.”

****

Penguin and Pinecone by Salina Yoon.  Walker, 2012.

This book is one in a series of books about Penguin by Yoon.  I read another of them in February.  In this series, Yoon features a penguin protagonist who loves to knit.  I know of several mothers who come to mind immediately as ones who would enjoy such a protagonist.  Penguin finds a pinecone.  The pinecone looks cold.  Penguin knits it a scarf and travels far to return the pinecone to its home where it can be happier.  Penguin has to leave Pinecone in the forest and return to his own home.  After some time has passed, Penguin returns to the forest to visit his friend and discovers that it has grown into a mighty pine tree.

The story and the illustrations are all very endearing.

Yoon uses speech bubble asides, which give the story an even more whimsical feel somehow.

The knitting in this story is used more effectively than it is in one of its sequels, Penguin in Love.  In this story it is used mostly to show the passage of time, though Penguin’s skills as a knitter allow him to knit his friend a gift.

*****

Book and Film Reviews: Of Ice Princesses in Disney’s and Martin’s Worlds: Frozen and The Ice Dragon

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I found George R. R. Martin’s The Ice Dragon at a shop called Too Many Books and had to take it home with me because I was having a difficult time deciding whether or not Martin would be able to write children’s literature.  This high fantasy novella is probably meant for middle-grade readers.  It gets into none of the depth that A Song of Ice and Fire does, but the story remains a wartime story, with the battle not coming to the protagonist’s doorstep till the climax, but always with the growing threat of approaching armies and increasing numbers of soldiers passing through the village where the protagonist lives.  Its protagonist is young, seven at the novel’s climax, and Martin as he does within A Song of Ice and Fire remains relatively true to the childlike perceptions of his protagonist.

Martin handles this children’s book with the same flowery and abstracted prose with which he writes A Song of Ice and Fire.

It was impossible to watch Disney’s Frozen without thinking about this book (which is a good way to give this review a jumpstart: turn it into a paired book and film review).  Like Adara, Elsa is winter’s child, though she seems to have been born in summer (seeming to come of age and have her coronation in summer), which I find an interesting choice.  Like Adara, she is cold to touch and can interact with ice and snow in ways that others cannot.  Yet, while Adara is cold and removed, Elsa feels too strongly.  This seems to me to be a difference in the writer’s visions of winter.  Martin seems to see—or at least to write about—the winter of the medieval farmland, when plows are stilled and harvests are no more and all that can be done is to huddle by a fire and hope to survive to the spring and the planting while consuming the year’s harvest.  Disney saw the blizzard and the biting wind.

Martin’s ideal reader seems to be a younger child who feels like an outsider among peers for being too into his or her books and too reserved.  Such children undoubtedly exist and need literature that caters to them, so yes, I guess I would say that this is successful children’s literature, but I’m not sure it’s what I expected.  It’s more message than it is adventure.  I think I wanted an adventure, especially as I am used to expecting A Song of Ice and Fire from Martin, and it is difficult to draw any moral direction from A Song of Ice and Fire.

Adara loses her power when she begins to feel love, but in losing her power, she gains the love and acceptance of her family and her village.  The Ice Dragon‘s message is that you can be loved despite your distance from the world and that that which makes you different from others can be used to save others but also that you will be better loved if you do interact with the world at large and lose the chill of your power.

With love, Elsa learns to control her power and gains the acceptance of her family and kingdom as well as a crown and power of another kind, making Elsa seem at first the more empowered heroine.  However, Elsa’s power must be curbed to make her safe, while Adara is never a danger to others, just a puzzle.  I still think Disney’s is the better message to send to young girls because Martin’s story says that you will be loved better if powerless and Disney’s allows a heroine to keep her power and to wield it openly so long as she wields it with prudence and control, and prudence and control really ought to be used with power regardless of gender.

Before I close, a few brief notes about the illustrations of Yvonne Gilbert’s in Martin’s The Ice Dragon:  At first I was miffed to see that each chapter with the same illustration of dragonback battle, but I grew to really like the repetition of that image as an illustration of the constant but distant war that pervades Adara’s life.  Otherwise her illustrations are wonderfully detailed and expressive.

***                                    ****

Martin, George R. R.  The Ice Dragon.  Illus. Yvonne Gilbert.  New York: Starscrape-Tom Doherty, 2007.  First published 1980.  Tom Doherty Associates, LLC is now an imprint of Macmillan.

Frozen.  Dir. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.  Walt Disney.  2013.

These reviews are not endorsed by George R. R. Martin, Yvonne Gilbert, Starscrape Books, Tor Doherty Associates, LLC, Macmillan Publishers, or Walt Disney Animation Studios.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader and viewer.

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.