There are so many books this month that I had to rethink how I organize these books just to make some order out of the chaos of words on the screen. Luckily, there were a few books for each of a few categories this month.
The Books That Can’t Keep It Inside Their Spines
Open Very Carefully: A Book with Bite by Nick Bromley and illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne. Nosy Crow-Candlewick, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.
I first read this book in March 2013. I had complaints then: It reminded me of other books, it didn’t interact with the reader as fully as it could have done, nor did the characters interact with each other as much as they could have done. Those complaints are still valid, but I had a lot more fun with it this past month when I read it for story time. The book begins as an adaptation of “The Ugly Duckling,” but the s distracted by the sight of a green tail on one of the pages, which the duckling chases out of his book, discovering it to be a crocodile in the following pages. The crocodile starts to eat up the text, letter by letter, then whole sentences at a time while the duckling begs him to leave off as best he can without a few letters: “St p! Mr. Cr c dile!” To stop him, the duckling suggests the reader rock the crocodile to sleep and while the crocodile is asleep the duckling draws a pink tutu, ballet slippers, and bow on him to make him less scary, but this only, understandably, makes the crocodile angrier, and I don’t like the implication that it’s okay to mess with someone who’s asleep. The duckling is given the power of speech, but the crocodile remains silent and menacing, an animal stuck in an Animal’s world, as I put it in 2013. In the end, the crocodile chews his way out of the book, leaving a hole in the last pages and back cover. There’s no knowing where this loose crocodile could turn up again, and I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been a sequel. This book plays with space and format well, but while I understand that a rational discussion between two Animals would have made for a very different story, the taunting and harassment of the animal by an Animal does not sit well with me. I appreciate this book more than I did for its interactive elements and it’s creative illustrations, so I’m giving it three stars instead of the two I did in 2013.
We’re in the Wrong Book! by Richard Byrne. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
Bella, Ben, and Bella’s dog have appeared before in Byrne’s earlier book, This Book Just Ate My Dog. I hadn’t realized so until I was putting This Book Just Ate My Dog back on the shelves more than two weeks after reading We’re in the Wrong Book. In This Book Just Ate My Dog, characters disappear into the gutter of the book, unable to cross to the facing page. The kids to whom I read We’re in the Wrong Book! aloud really seemed to enjoy guessing the book styles that the protagonists fell into. I was less impressed by this book honestly. It’s an interesting concept, but I just didn’t get much enjoyment from it myself. In We’re in the Wrong Book, the book characters walk through some doorway or fall through some tear or sail off in a hot air balloon or take an origami boat onto the next page, each new page being a different style book: a comic book, a maze book, “Red Riding Hood,” an origami instruction book, etc. I would have liked to see more creative use of the book’s construction, knowing how Byrne has used the construction of the book previously. It was interesting to stop mid-book to try and make an origami sailboat, and it would have been fun to stop and solve the maze too. As an activity book with a plot, this book would get a much higher rating, but as a picture book, I felt that the activities slowed and interrupted the plot and the text. So take my reading with a grain of reader error. Aloud and on a schedule might not have been the best way to enjoy this book. At home, a page at a time, this might have been a lot more fun.
The Book For Adults
Wisecracks: Everyday Wit and Wisdom compiled by Tom Burns. Barron’s, 2005. First published in 2004 by Tangent-Axis.
This is a picture book for adults. The text is composed of the sort of snarky quips familiar from Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest (really, many of theses phrases I’ve read or heard before). The lines were sent to Burns by various, unnamed contributors. The format of quirky text beside black-and-white animal photographs that might illustrate the text is highly reminiscent of Bradley Trevor Greive’s books (Grieve’s first, The Blue Day Book, was published in 2000). Unlike Grieve’s, though, each page’s text in this book is independent rather than building towards a book-long message. This book had me snickering, more at its witticisms than its photography, and as I’ve said, this text was not written by Burns. I do still appreciate the book, however. It’ll be a good pick-me-up on a gray day.
Dinosaurs! My Dinosaur Is More Awesome! By Simon Coster. Sky Pony, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.
Honestly, this one fell flat—even for my dinosaur-enthusiast. This is sibling rivalry and ridiculous fighting taking place over whose dinosaur (presumably imaginary) is better. The dinosaurs do some very un-dinosaur-like things, each more ridiculous than the last. The mother to settle the argument steps in with her enormous dinosaur, who also does ridiculous, un-dinosaur-like things, claiming hers to be the best. Honestly, it would be cute acted out, I think, but as a single person reading a story, it just didn’t do it—for anyone. And there was some unexpected bodily humor besides.
What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night: A Very Messy Adventure by Refe Tuma and Susan Tuma. Little, Brown, 2015.
This is a picture book follows an Internet phenomenon and the publication of a book for adults that sounds as if it was fairly similar in concept and style, but had more text and more pages. A lot of sites—Amazon, Goodreads—seem to think that this and the other book, What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night with no colon, are the same book. I’m pretty sure, but not entirely sure, that they are wrong, because the author on his Tumblr was referring to this as a new book. The illustrations are photographs of dinosaur toys that appear to have wrecked or to be wrecking the house, creating huge messes in places they shouldn’t be and interacting with things that they shouldn’t. Then the messes stop, and you might, the text warns, start to think that the dinosaurs have gone away, but that’s what they want you to think. Meanwhile, they’ve built a rocket and launched themselves into space. This was pretty fun text to read aloud, but I think the pictures would have been better appreciated one-on-one than aloud story time-style. They’re busy and detailed, and wow, these parents/artists really went all-out with their tableaus. A messy book of good, clean fun. I think the parents enjoyed it more than my toddler audience, though.
The Sweet Stories of Best Friends
Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
When I first saw this story on a shelf, I got excited, because this is a pretty awesome duo, one of my favorite picture book writer/illustrators and the writer of the Artemis Fowl series. At the same time, I got a flutter of nervousness in my stomach. When writers write outside of their usual age group, there’s always a chance that the book is an absolute train wreck that will nevertheless sell well because of a big name author. Opening the book for the first time, I was worried that Colfer had indeed been unable to narrow his story to suit his new target audience. The first page has a lot of text, but subsequent pages are more appropriate for a read-aloud picture book. I didn’t get to read it aloud to anyone, although I was supposed to do. I read it to myself in anticipation of reading it aloud and snickered to myself at some of the jokes. Overall, this is a sweet story with a happy ending, a story for writers and dreamers and artists I think especially. Imaginary friends exist even when they’re no longer needed or visible to the people that they befriended. As their friends find “real” friends, the imaginary ones fade away then float away and wait to be needed by someone else. Fred meets Sam and everything seems perfect, but then Sam meets Sammi, and Fred begins to fade and tries to warn Sam, who assures Fred that he will still need Fred even if he befriends Sammi and that Fred won’t fade away. Sammi has an imaginary friend too, and while Sam and Sammi become greater friends and move on to more adult pursuits, Fred and Freida grow closer too, so much so that they become more and more real. They never fade for Sam and Sammi and they never fade for one another. Both sets of friends support the other and both go on to achieve their dreams and goals—much to the bewilderment of those who cannot see or hear the imaginary pair, who at one point perform in Carnegie Hall while the audience wonders when the performance will start and Sam and Sammi compliment their friends. This is a great, quirky story about holding on to the wonder of childhood, and also about the evolution and growth of a proper friendship, an age-proof friendship, if you will. What’s more, this portrays two male-female friendships that never become romantic! (See my rant on the lack of portrayal of such friendships here.) The illustrations and text are both clever. Jeffers makes clever use of pointillism to illustrate the imaginary friends’ difference from the real friends and the imaginary friends substance or lack thereof, giving them always a hazy substance and never any clear outline. All this is done in only blue, white, and black hues, the overall images being fairly gentle and soothing to the eye despite Jeffers somewhat jagged lines. One Goodreads reviewer rightfully calls the text “touchingly lyrical and abruptly hilarious,” and I really can’t describe it any better than that, so I won’t try.
Little Elliot, Big Family by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
This is the second Little Elliot book by Curato, the first being Little Elliot, Big City. I haven’t read Little Elliot, Big City, but I went looking for the illustrations after falling in love with the illustrations in Little Elliot, Big Family and I think that Curato’s art has improved even between these two books, so we should keep a close watch on this man, I think. The illustrations in this book are beautiful, saturated, poignant—oh so poignant. I think I enjoyed this story more than did my toddler audience, but I loved it. I am a homesick girl, too, away from her family and being taken in by others while mine are a twelve-hours-long drive away. That probably plays into my love of this book, over the course of which much the same thing happens to Eliott, who feels so alone in the Big City (clearly New York, by the way) when his friend Mouse announces that he will be busy with a family reunion with his hundreds of cousins. Mouse and Elliot, a polka-dotted white elephant, are animals in a human city. Curato shows such diversity of family and races and lifestyles over the course of a mere 40 pages, and does so casually without any fuss and without having to raise any issue, which I think is one of the best ways to undercut the whiteness of the canon. I like the text, I really like the story, but it is the illustrations that I’m in love with, and Mr. Curato, if in a few years, you feel like illustrating a teen fantasy cover, you let me know. The first three pieces in this gallery are from this book. The next three are from Little Elliot, Big City.
The New Classic Series
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Simon & Schuster, 2000. First published in 1999. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
I first read Click, Clack, Moo in March 2013. It sells very well and is often prominently displayed in Barnes & Noble, and it did not then live up to my expectation. I find it an odd little book for kids, its tale revolving around a lot of bureaucracy: demands, ultimatums, neutral parties, compromises, terms that I don’t expect kids to understand or relate to. Reading it aloud this past month, I had in my audience one particular fan of this book, who mouthed the words along with me, and that made a great deal of difference. If the kids enjoy it, who am I to suggest they might not. Now, she was on the older side of the book’s target audience, but nonetheless within the target. It’s a pretty fun book to read aloud anyway, and there’s something to be said for the early lesson of how to compromise.
Click, Clack, Boo!: A Tricky Treat by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
In this Halloween spin-off of Click, Clack, Moo, Farmer Brown tries to lock himself inside his house Halloween night, but creepy noises and frightening shadows lure him to the door to investigate, where he finds a note inviting him to a Halloween party in the barn, hosted by his animals. The creepy noises are the highlight of this book, it always being fun to put on a spooky voice.
Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly Dean and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
Would you believe that this was the first Pete the Cat book I’d ever read? I’ve read it twice now on two occasions within days of each other. That in itself gives it a good review. The first time, my one visitor to story hour requested Pete, and I had many copies of this book on the shelves. Somehow, this one escaped my notice when it was published; I don’t remember it coming out, though I know I was at Barnes & Noble at the time. Pete books use sometimes rhyming text, a lot of repetition of phrases, and somewhat dated slang to say “cool,” which I find an interesting choice, but I’m old enough to know how these phrases ought to be inflected, if the kids don’t understand why. In this one, Pete’s just feeling down, “blue,” he has the “blue cat blues.” Grumpy Toad gives him a pair of shades that improve Pete’s outlook, to “see things in a whole new way”: “The birds are singing. The sky is bright. The sun is shining. I’m feeling all right.” Pete shares these sunglasses with his friends, who are also having poor days; “nothing is going my way,” they all complain. The glasses work for them all too. But when the sunglasses break, Wise Owl is there to tell Pete that he never needed the sunglasses to feel “all right.” “Just remember to look for the good in every day.” That bit felt a bit dues ex machina; that was a hiccup in the text. How was Owl right where Pete needed him to be right when he looked up into the tree? But such is fiction. I appreciate that Pete stops and takes the time to talk to his friends, share with them, and give them what they need.
Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues by Kimberly Dean and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
Pete invites his friends over for a sleepover, but none of them are quite sleepy when Pete wants them to be. One by one, Pete has to tell them to go to sleep, “this cool cat needs to go to bed.” Eventually, he reads them all a favorite story of his to help soothe their minds and put them to sleep. I wasn’t as pleased with this one as I was with His Magic Sunglasses, though I see this as a good story to read aloud at bedtime, especially at a sleepover, a sort of niche book—though bedtime books are a large niche. The rhyme is stronger in this text than in His Magic Sunglasses. The text was all over the page in different colors, fonts, and sizes. That made it a little difficult to read aloud. I missed lines because I didn’t see them till after I was turning the page. Missing lines broke the rhythm. Going back to read them would have broken the rhythm too. Be prepared if you try to read this book aloud. Prepare first perhaps.
The Spooky Standalones
The Tailypo: A Ghost Story adapted by Joanna C. Galdone and illustrated by Paul Galdone. Clarion-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1984. First published in 1977.
This is one of my friend’s favorite ghost stories—a local folktale—and before finding this book I’d heard her tell it a few times—very memorably—the first time while she was driving me down dark, twisty country roads at night when I couldn’t escape her story—and yes, we three adults all screamed when near the end we found a raccoon in the road with our headlights. She calls it “Tailybone,” but it’s the same story. Her storytelling is the unavoidable comparison to this picture book, which I read aloud to a story time audience, but not without her Appalachian accent slipping into a few of the phrases (though it’s not my natural accent). Galdone’s adaptation is less dark than my friend’s and used less repetition—the difference between the oral and written story—but was more descriptive for using less repetition, making more clear the terrain and describing in more detail the animal. I almost prefer both of these vague as in my friend’s telling because it leaves the story open for a broader interpretation and telling. Leaving out the setting avoids the “Oh, we’re not near a swamp. We’re fine,” that could follow Galdone’s. I think, though, that Galdone’s done a good job rendering an oral folktale into print, and if it’s not a folktale that you know, it is a fun one. Paul Galdone’s watercolor illustrations here helped I think to keep the story lighter than it could have been. The illustrations shy away from putting the readers in the old man’s position during any of the spooky parts, always keeping the reader an outsider observer, and the moments depicted are never the spookiest or most gruesome. Two of my audience members were young enough that I didn’t want it to be that spooky and worried it might be too much regardless, keeping particular watch on the youngest, but I think they all came out all right, and we finished on a lighter note with the next story and some crayons.
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams and illustrated by Megan Lloyd. HarperCollins, 2002. First published 1986. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
This is one of those new classics, but it really only shows up in stores around this time of year. A little old lady who is not afraid of anything encounters several animated pieces of clothing that first impede her way before she tells them off then follow her home. She is finally spooked by a huge pumpkin head saying “Boo! Boo!” She shuts herself in her home, but there’s a “knock, knock” on the door, and deciding that after all she isn’t afraid of anything, she answers it to ask the pieces of clothing and pumpkin head what they want. They answer that they came to scare her, but she won’t be scared, so what are they to do now? The little old lady provides the answer and today’s pumpkins and ghostly clothes become tomorrow’s scarecrow. This text builds. At first it’s just a pair of boots going clomp, clomp, but later it’s a two boots going clomp, clomp, on pair of pants going wiggle, wiggle, one shirt going shake, shake, two gloves going clap, clap, one black hat going nod, nod, and one pumpkin head going boo, boo. There’s repetition and counting (though no higher than two). Reading it, I found myself—and some of the kids—stomping, clapping, nodding, wiggling, and shaking along with the text. It’s one I’ll have to remember for those times when we need to expel a little energy at story time. I have a soft spot for stories of strong, brave, clever women.
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.