Tag Archives: Don Freeman

Book Reviews: March 2019 Picture Book Roundup: Growing Up and Getting Lucky

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St. Patrick’s Day

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Pete the Cat: The Great Leprechaun Chase by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I was impressed by this book; I went in expecting little.  Pete the Cat is trying to capture a leprechaun; he has started a business catching leprechauns for his classmates. Pete expected catching Clover the Leprechaun to be easy, but it is not. The leprechaun taunts Pete in limericks, which is a fun gimmick and fun to read aloud.

I was surprised by how many kids thought that we could actually catch a leprechaun, that I might have leprechauns running about the store, awaiting their traps. I was glad that in this book, the point is made that leprechauns can only be caught on St. Patrick’s Day. It saved me being the one to disappoint them on the Saturday before.

That Pete catches only one leprechaun for his three different customers, that Pete takes more orders without first fulfilling previous orders is not really addressed.

Clover teaches Pete that luck doesn’t come from catching a leprechaun. Having friends, Clover says, is what makes a person lucky. So Pete lets Clover go, and he help his friends prepare for their examinations, recitals, and matches. Hard work and practice, not luck, helps the friends succeed.  They are lucky to have a friend willing to help.  This was a great message and a surprising one to find in a book about leprechauns and St. Patrick’s Day.  What a hidden gem.  This will be one I will probably read every St. Patrick’s Day-themed story time from now on.

*****

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

How to Trap a Leprechaun by Sue Fliess and illustrated by Emma Randall. Sky Pony-Skyhorse, 2017.

This book has only one kind of trap that it suggests setting for a leprechaun who will grant wishes and give you his gold: a cardboard box with gold-painted rocks as a lure, a rainbow slide to mark the gold, and glue on the rocks to keep the leprechaun from escaping the lure. This leprechaun, Liam, tells the kids, a diverse group, not to fret that he escaped but to go enjoy St. Patrick’s Day and to try to catch a leprechaun again next year. The text is told in rhyme, but lacks Pete’s limericks.

***

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Ten Lucky Leprechauns by Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook and illustrated by Jay B. Johnson. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2013. First published 2012. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

The book counts up as redheaded male and female leprechauns are added to this group in a forest. The text is extremely formulaic:  One, two, three, etc. leprechauns see or otherwise become aware of a [adjective] “wee elf” who performs some action illustrated on the page that rhymes with his or her assigned number. “Feedle-di-fizz, ‘tis magic, it is! It’s leprechaun number…” TWO, THREE, etc.  I found it too formulaic, and I found the nonsense words awkward, an attempt at… what?  Sounding Irish I suppose but without using a lyric recognizable from any song.  Perhaps this text would work better sung?  The nonsense was maybe too near fiddle-de-dee, used as an expression of dismissal since the late 1700s, and colored my vocalization and sense of the nonsense.

**

Growing Strong and Smart

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I Will Be Fierce! by Bea Birdsong and illustrated by Nidhi Chanani. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

I read an advanced reader’s copy of this book.  Much—almost all—of this story is told in the illustrations. The text itself is affirmative, many “I will” statements. The protagonist, a young girl, a woman of color and likely Indian or perhaps Pakistani, sets off to what seems to be a first day of school. (The surnames on the mailboxes in the atrium of her apartment are Phag, Huang, Caimoi, Warren, Jain, Bers, Rao.  Rao and Jain are both of Indian origin according to Behindthename.com, and Phag is a surname most prevalent in Pakistan according to Forebears, and the illustrator is of Indian descent.) The girl imagines herself as an adventurer in a high fantasy, driving back dragons (dogs on the street) with bubbles, walking with giants (older students), and tricking the Guardian of Wisdom (the smiling librarian) into revealing her secrets while her steed is a trusty school bus. She stands up against bullies and makes friends with a rejected girl in glasses.  I also like that at the end of her day, the girl rests. The protagonist seems to live with a grandmother. Her armor is a comfortable-looking, rainbow-striped pullover.  Though a small detail, I like that the protagonist’s hair isn’t perfectly sculpted, strands escaping from the shape.

*****

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

When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree by Jamie L. B. Deenihan and illustrated by Lorraine Rocha. Sterling, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3+.

I loved this book so much that when I didn’t get the chance to read it for one story time I brought it out for a second weekend. A grandmother in the city brings her granddaughter a lemon tree sapling in a coffee tin as a birthday present. It’s not the high tech toy that the granddaughter wanted, and she at first tries to get rid of the tree, but ultimately, she becomes protective of the growing tree. When the tree produces its first crop, the grandmother returns and helps her granddaughter turn the lemons into lemonade and the lemonade into enough money for the high tech toy that she had originally hoped to receive for her birthday. But the tree has inspired a love of gardening that supersedes her desire for the toy, and she returns from the store with a wagon full of more plants to add to her garden and share with her neighborhood. There are so many wonderful lessons here: about hard work and perseverance and money earned, a practical recipe for lemonade, a love of gardening to engender in a new generation, especially one bound in the concrete of a skyscraper city, how to respond to unwanted gifts, the wisdom of our elders, and that sometimes something you first disliked may become beloved. The lessons and the expressive characters superseded my usual dislike for this type of text, which lists things that a universal “you” should and should not do as in books like Elise Parsley’s stories about Magnolia, the books in the How to Catch series by Adam Wallace, and the series of how-tos by Jean Reagan. Both grandmother and granddaughter are women of color.

*****

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Animalphabet by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Sharon King-Chai. Dial-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

There is a great deal to love in this book too. First, this is a lift the flap book the flaps of which extend the pages in different ways, at times doubling the page’s size outward or upward or downward.  Sometimes the flaps are large and sometimes they are small.  Simply interacting with the pages was fun and exciting, but the whole book too is a guessing game.  “Who can slither better than a rabbit? A snake! Who can growl better than a snake? A tiger!”  The animals are alphabetically mentioned. There are peep-through holes in many creative shapes in the pages that hint at the following page but rarely at the hidden animal. Often the question itself hints at the upcoming animal, mentioning some act associated with that animal, as snakes are known to slither and tigers are known for their growls. For a primer, this is a very delicate book, but what a wonderfully colorful, wonderfully creative book. I think its silliness, its beauty, and its creativity will shine for older readers too. I hope that they will.

*****

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Corduroy by Don Freeman. Penguin, 2014. First published 1968. Intended audience: Ages 0-5.

Here is a true classic. Corduroy the bear has sat on the shelf of the toy store a long while waiting for a child to bring him home. When a mother concerned with the expense when refusing to buy the bear that day for her girl comments that Corduroy doesn’t even look new, that he’s lost a button, Corduroy takes a nighttime quest around the department store to find his missing button. Corduroy is endearing in his innocence of the world. He mistakes an escalator for a mountain. He mistakes the furniture department for a palace. He has never slept in a bed. He has always wanted a home. I wonder how much longer a department store will be a relatable setting for young children. Corduroy makes a ruckus trying to retrieve a button for himself from one of the mattresses. Without having attained a button, his quest a failure, the night watchman returns Corduroy to the shelf, where the next morning he is discovered by the girl from before. Lisa has counted her own money, and she has enough to bring Corduroy home. Lisa likes Corduroy as he is, but she thinks that he will be more comfortable if she replaces his button, which she does herself. She is considerate of his comfort, she knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid to stand up for what she wants, but she respects her mother and is polite to the salesperson. She loves Corduroy through his external flaws. She is independent, purchasing Corduroy when her mother does not, and fixing his overalls herself. The two recognize one another as friends. Lisa and her mother are African American, notable and laudable especially for a book from ‘68.

*****

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We Are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines and illustrated by Julianna Swaney. Thomas Nelson-HarperCollins, 2019.

To read this one out loud, I cut sentences, I cut paragraphs, I cut pages. It was just long. Honestly, it was a chapter book trying to be a picture book. It would have benefited greatly from more editing.  I suspect that Gaines was able to rely a bit on her celebrity to get the book that she wanted instead of the book that this could have been.  I don’t need to know everything that happened in and to and before this garden to read a good story, nor do I need to know all of the science behind healthy gardens to enjoy a story. The family’s father brings home one fern. That fern dies from overwatering. Another fern is acquired. A watering schedule is established. More ferns are acquired. The ferns become a dream for a larger, outdoor space and more plant variety. The garden grows. It is enjoyed. Another child is born. Animals come and destroy the garden. The garden is regrown. There were lots of facts sprinkled into the text, definitions of terms, advice for growing, explanations of the garden ecosystem. The pastel illustrations were soothing though. The lessons of perseverance through adversity were good. Everything just felt overexplained. And too much seemed to happen, too much seemed to want to be said in the span of only 40 pages. The book is told from a plural first person, the kids collectively narrating.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, video of the author reading to her daughter, and printable activity.

You Are My Happy by Hoda Kotb and illustrated by Suzie Mason. HarperCollins, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

A family of bears (a parent and cub) reflect on the things that made them happy throughout the day as they are settling down for the day: marks of growing and friends and families that they observed and with whom they interact. I could have done without the refrain “that’s what made me happy.” The list rhymes. The story ends with “the one I’m thankful for you is you. You are my happy.” It’s sweet. It’s a nice ritual to establish with a little one, listing the things that made you happy before bed.

***

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

Little Blue Truck’s Springtime by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Houghton Mifflin, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4+.

This lift the flap, animal primer uses the Little Blue Truck character to introduce readers to farm animals and their offspring. More and more toads (that really look more like frogs to me) gather on the truck, and I made a game of counting the toads on each page. There are nine ducklings and ten piglets to count too and a passel of bunnies. The text is very simple, very short but rhymes. The flaps tend to hide the animals.

***

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: September 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Astronauts, Bees, and Sillier Animals

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Astronauts

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I Am Neil Armstrong by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos. Dial-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

My toddlers at story time are not the target audience for this book. For them is it too long—just too long. I suppose it could be best considered a graphic novel, but it’s really too short for a novel. A graphic novelette? But it’s not a picture book, despite the bright illustrations and round-faced depictions of the protagonists. I personally feel that it talks down to the middle school students that are generally the target audience for graphic novels.  So elementary students?

This biography of Neil Armstrong begins with Armstrong as a child climbing trees and ends with his space mission completed and a plug for the National Air and Space Museum in DC. There are many details about his life and his philosophy. It is intimate in a way that I did not expect. There are though too perhaps extraneous details, which I suppose sometimes add weight to Meltzer’s assertions (not a long checklist but “a 417-step checklist”), but more often added to the length of the story without really deepening my understanding of Armstrong or his mission.

Perhaps because I read so few biographies and don’t know what to expect or to want from them, I was less interested in the intimate details of Armstrong’s life. I don’t find it necessary to know that he was scared of Santa or fell out of a tree or read many books in a year. Any biographies I’ve read, I’ve read (and long ago) to be able to give a report or write a paper—a flaw in me not in the genre or in this book in particular—so I’ve never needed or particularly wanted more than the facts—just the straight up facts. What I read for pleasure—primarily fantasies but even realistic fiction that I read—are more often the span of an event—a significant event—and nonessential personal histories are left off or obliquely referenced if and only if they are effecting the character in the now.

I can tell that Meltzer wanted to include these details to illustrate the natural traits that allowed Armstrong  to succeed in his space mission, but the presentation felt extremely forced; it lacked finesse when compared to the arc of the fictions that I enjoy reading.

I frankly don’t feel qualified to rate this book, but I wanted to discuss it nonetheless because it wasn’t what I was expecting, and it might not be what you’re expecting either.

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Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington. HarperCollins, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I chose this book because Brad Meltzer’s I Am Neil Armstrong was too long for my usual story time audience, but I wanted to keep to something in theme with the story I had been assigned to read. Plus, it’s the true story of an African American woman achieving her dream, written by Somali woman living in Norway! Mae Jemison’s parents support her dream to see Earth from space. They tell her she’ll have to become an astronaut. But her teacher (a white woman), says that an astronaut is no job for a woman—wouldn’t she rather be a nurse? That’s a good job “for someone like” her. Jemison is heartbroken by her teacher’s pronouncement. But her parents continue to be wonderful and tell her that this time her teacher is wrong; she shouldn’t believe her. So Jemison continues “dreaming, believing, and working hard,” and she becomes an astronaut and waves to her parents from space. There is less about Jemison’s life here and more about following your dream and achieving your dream through hard work and a firm belief. Meltzer focuses on facts; Ahmed on story. Ahmed’s was much better for my young audience.

***

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Are You Scared, Darth Vader? by Adam Rex. Lucasfilm-Disney, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

All right. I found this one funny as did the friend who pulled it off the shelves to show it to me. But it’s only funny if you’re already familiar with Darth Vader and the Star Wars films; the text is littered with allusions to quotes and to plot points from the films. I tried it out on some kids who didn’t know Darth Vader. They didn’t find it funny. It’s also funnier if you can imitate Darth Vader’s deep voice, which I can only do poorly. Really, this may even be a story more for adults than for children.

The authorial voice and Darth Vader dialogue throughout this story. The book tries to scare Darth Vader with a werewolf, a ghost, a witch, but he is unimpressed by any of these despite the authorial voice’s assertion that they can bite and hex him. So the authorial voice invites a posse of children in Halloween costumes and without to swarm all over Vader, to pester him with questions, as the authorial voices continues to tease, “Are you scared now, Darth Vader?”

But Vader is not scared so much as annoyed by the posse.

The children decide that he’s no fun, and they leave.

Well, it seems Darth Vader can’t be scared, so it’s time for the book to end.

But Darth Vader will not allow the book to end. He implores the child holding the book not to turn the page, not to close the book.

He admits to his fear, but the book must end, and so he is trapped inside the book, “almost like [he’s] frozen in carbonite—or whatever.”

*** 

Bees

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

Princesses Save the World by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim and illustrated by Eva Byrne. Abrams, 2018.

This is not the story I expected. This is a story about the importance of bees to an agrarian economy and society. Princess Penelope Pineapple receives a distress call from her neighbor across the sea whose bees have all disappeared and whose fruit harvest has suffered because of it. Princess Penelope calls an assembly of princesses from a wealth of fruit-centric nations. Princess Sabrina Strawberry is not alone in her plight. Audrey Apple is having the same problem. She’s a pretty minor character, mentioned once by name then shown as trying to help the other princesses solve the problem, but that the two princesses whose kingdoms are in trouble are both dark-skinned and dark-haired women of color gives the story an unpleasant tinge of white savior complex that this world does not need.

The princesses decide it is their duty to help, and among Princess Penelope’s many other talents, she is a beekeeper; she knows that scents lure bees. She hops into her lab and with whatever perfumes and sweet-smelling treats the princesses happen to have in their luggage creates a perfume. The princesses engineer new hives to give to Princess Sabrina, and with her perfume in hand, Princess Penelope leads the bees across the sea to the Strawberry Kingdom, where the bees settle, and their industry the next year leads to a healthy harvest for the kingdom—celebrated with a tea party by the princesses.

If only solving the problem of the disappearing bees were so easy!

But I continue to like Princess Penelope and her more modern take on being a princess with a wealth of duties and talents not generally assigned feminine or princess-like. I like that she seeks outside help and opinions from other nations when she sees a nation in trouble. That kind of collaborative foreign diplomacy and policy is forward-thinking and positive too.

I appreciate that the authors saw a current environmental problem and wanted to raise awareness among a younger audience about the problem, and that they seek to show young activists taking steps to alleviate a problem.

***

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Bee: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup. Doubleday-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-7. 

This is not the first of Teckentrup’s books that I’ve read. Her strength I feel is in lyrically romanticizing the ordinary—thus far her subjects have always been also natural. This like Tree is more nonfiction than fiction, depicting the day and job of a worker bee and bees as pollinators. Many animals, including a bee in a peek-hole through each page, hide among the illustrations, making a fun spot-the-critter game as you read through the book. Teckentrup uses lyrical language and specific detail to paint her text. This made for a good side book to Guthrie and co.’s Princesses Save the World. A bit more on level for my youngest listeners and certainly much shorter, there’s less—really no—problem here, certainly no talk of a global crisis, but it seemed a good way to introduce the concept of why bees are so important to an ecosystem.

**** 

New Twists on Old Tales

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Pig the Fibber by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2018. First published 2015.

I’ve reviewed others (almost all of the others) in the Pig the Pug series. It’s just not a model I love. In this addition to the series, Pig is blaming Trevor to avoid getting into trouble for things that he’s done. Having gotten Trevor out of his way, Pig concocts a scheme to get to the treats on the top shelf of the closet, but along with the treats, a bowling ball falls from the shelf, and Pig is again bandaged and laid up, again he gets his comeuppance for treating Trevor poorly, for behaving poorly. And he’s learnt another lesson—but again not well and not without serious bodily harm all portrayed in a singsong rhythm. Learning not to blame a sibling or bystander, not to scapegoat is a valuable lesson, but I’m still just not sure about this method of teaching; it’s so drastic, and the tone is at such odds with the harm caused to Pig.

***

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Corduroy Takes a Bow by Viola Davis, based on characters by Don Freeman. Viking-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

What a special opportunity I expect this is for Viola Davis! Don Freeman was one of the first picture book illustrators to create a book with African American protagonists, and now fifty years later, Davis, the first African American to win a Tony, and Emmy, and an Oscar, has returned to his characters with a new story. She takes Corduroy and Lisa to the theater—a live stage performance. Both are excited and in Lisa’s attempts to see above a tall man who sits in front of her, she loses track of Corduroy, who too seeks a better seat, ending up in the pit, backstage, and then on stage. The picture book is unfortunately heavy with lessons about the language of the theater, the people behind a production, and those pieces weighed down the story somewhat.

***

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Goodnight Goon: A Petrifying Parody by Michael Rex.  G. P. Putnam-Penguin Random, 2008.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is yet another Goodnight Moon parody, this time with a spooky, B-horror, monster theme. The little goon spends the second half of the book avoiding bed and partying and playing with the creatures that infest his bedroom, perhaps trying to tire everyone out so that his bedroom will be quiet enough to sleep; everyone is sleeping or out of the bedroom when the happy goon is at last in his bed by the last page (“Goodnight monsters everywhere.”)—that’s a fun twist on the story.

***

And Silly Animals

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The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley. Scholastic, 2010. First published 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Sometimes British picture books in particular, I’ve found, are just wonderfully weird. This one is wonderfully weird. It resurfaced in America because of a YouTube video of a Scottish grandmother reading the book aloud. The story reads like a camp song, a wonderful camp song where each verse adds another adjective to a long list of to remember, all rhyming, all silly. I remember the days (20 years ago) when Scholastic didn’t believe we would understand “Mum” in a middle grade novel. Now look at them! throwing our picture books readers words like “wonky” and making no changes to the British English “spunky” though it doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it does in American English; from this picture book in British English it seems to be a synonym for “good looking.” I really enjoyed this. I enjoyed the silliness of the plethora of adjectives attached to this donkey, and I enjoy saying it as fast as I can: “a spunky, hanky-panky, cranky, stinky dinky, lanky, honky-tonky, winky, wonky donkey.” I like the victory of being able to say it all really fast. I guess I’m still a camper at heart. If any Scottish grandmothers out there want to read Evil Weasel and make that something I can find in my country, I’d much appreciate it; I remember really enjoying that one when I read it while staying with a family in Edinburgh.

****

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Chomp Goes the Alligator by Matthew Van Fleet. Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 2-99.

With lots of interactive elements—touch and feel, a pull-tab to make the alligator chomp up and down, and even a pop-up—this is a counting book and animal and color primer—all set in a swamp, which is not the most oft used of settings for a picture book. On the final pop-up page the animals not featured in the text are labeled in smaller print and the bugs in a bubble of dialogue ask to be counted in a later reading. The page spreads are labeled 1-10 in big text. Every animal miraculously lives though the text’s pretext is the alligator eating them and seems on the last page even to have enjoyed its experience on the alligator thrill ride. The illustrations are of cute, happy critters in pastel colors. There’s a burp to make the kids laugh, and a polite “excuse me” to appease the parents. This book has everything! Educational and fun and unusual.

*****

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