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Book Reviews: July 2014 Picture Book Roundup

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First a quick acknowledgement: The first picture book roundup was posted July 1, 2013.  I have officially been doing this for over a year now; I just hadn’t realized it.  Since I’ve realized it, you might notice a small detail added to the title of this post.  I guess it’s time to start distinguishing by year as well as month.

Also, I ought to apologize.  This month’s is awfully late.  But never mind.  Here it is at last.

Waldo the Jumping Dragon

Waldo, The Jumping Dragon by Dave Detiege and illustrated by Kelly Oechsli. Whitman-Western, 1964.

This one I found in an antiques mall, drawn to it by the dragon on the cover. Waldo is a careless dragon who doesn’t look where he’s going, and because the characters warn the dragon that that heedlessness will get him into trouble, I’m tempted to think of this as a didactic story. He runs into a knight—literally—and the knight decides that he must slay the dragon. The knight chases him, eventually catching hold of the dragon’s neck after the dragon frightens a king and a queen. Waldo, however, just continues to jump from place to place with the knight clinging to him, until he runs into a tree, dislodging the knight, who runs away from the reckless dragon, deciding that he is too dangerous. But before dislodging the knight, Waldo admits that he is a lonely dragon, so his recklessness leads not only to danger for himself and others but also a lack of friends, making it truly unenviable to a young audience. Because he isn’t watching where he is going, Waldo breaks the 4th wall and jumps off of the page. I’ve always been a fan of books that break the 4th wall and acknowledge themselves a book. 

****

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Touch the Red Button by Alex A. Lluch. WS, 2014.

Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has spawned several copycats, including this book and Bill Cotter’s Don’t Press the Button. (There are more copycats than I’d realized. Here’s an online version intended for an older audience.) These books ask readers to interact with the illustrations, and the illustrations reflect the readers’ assumed interaction. It’s a pretty fun concept, and though I recognized pretty quickly that Lluch’s book was a Press Here copycat, I still read it all the way through, then held it out to a coworker for him to play with too. This more than any of the other books I’ve found—including the original—is more complimentary, praising the reader for following directions. But it’s also less original than Cotter’s book.

These will never be good story hour books but will always be good bedtime books. They’re educational. The interactive model makes them books of play for kids and adults too. The novelty of the concept is starting to wear off, but I think that the interactive and playful nature of the books will ensure that they keep selling.

***

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Can You Say It, Too? Moo! Moo! by Sebastien Braun. Nosy Crow-Candlewick-Random, 2014.

This flap book shows hints of the animal behind the flap. It is peppered with animal sounds paired the animal’s name. It’s actually been pretty highly praised, but I found nothing in it to disappoint and nothing in it to blow me away.

***

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Dragon Stew by Steve Smallman and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Good Books, 2010.

Now Smallman seems about as enthusiastic about dragons I am, and I understand that Vikings and dragons have a long history, but there are so many echoes of Cowell and of DreamWorks here that it seems nothing so much as a leech to the How To Train Your Dragon franchise’s fame (the movie was released about six months prior to Dragon Stew’s release). In Cowell the bathroom humor of middle-grade boys is age-appropriate. In a children’s picture book, it seems grotesque (though I do recognize that my disgust is also mixed with my outrage at the book so blatantly coasting on Cowell’s success without acknowledging it). For an older audience, I’d love it, and maybe for, say, ages 7-8 (ages which are within the realm of picture book marketing), it would be great. It’s an exciting adventure about bored Vikings who decide to go and hunt a dragon for their stew without knowing what a dragon looks like, battle their way past sea monsters, eat all of their teatime sardine sandwiches, land on a dragon’s island with the help of a killer whale, examine a pile of dragon poo, and then are confronted with the dragon itself, who rather than allowing himself to be chopped up for stew, sets their bums alight. It might be a delightful picture book, but it’s not one I’m likely to read to my children while they are young enough and incompetent enough readers for picture books—and by the time they’re ready for it, I hope we’ll be reading chapter books.

**

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The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.

A wordless picture book! A wordless picture book from the ‘70s! So it’s a much older concept than I’d thought. I stumbled across this book in a local used bookstore. I was at first attracted by the title and then because the illustrations reminded me Wesley Dennis’ artwork. Dennis illustrated all of Marguerite Henry’s books, so the style was familiar and warm as a childhood security blanket. When I realized after several pages that no text was forthcoming, I became more intellectually interested.

In this tale, a farm boy with his head in the clouds spies a Pegasus. The boy tries to tell his father, but his father doesn’t believe his wild tales, and the boy’s punishment for his perceived tale-telling is a spanking. The boy sees the Pegasus again, however, and this time befriends it rather than fleeing to tell his father. Once friends, he and the Pegasus travel the world, helping other children, delivering sunflowers to young, lonely girls—acts of kindness and bravery and chivalry, sure, but I can’t really cheer the depiction of children of other ethnicities and cultures, as they are shown to need the help or love of the superior white man and his flying horse. (I’m a product, aren’t I, of my generation, as much as this book is of its time?)

[SPOILER] Like so many good horse stories, the boy is hurt riding, and he thinks that he has lost the horse. The injury softens the father. The book ends with the boy receiving a pony who is the doppelganger for his lost Pegasus as a gift from his previously hard father. [END SPOILER]

But aside from that, these illustrations are pretty beautiful, particularly the landscape and animals. I could hope for a little more emotion from the human characters but not from the animals. The format delights me. There’s room for creativity but enough to have—I think—a fairly similar story and enough illustrations to make the story coherent as well so that it is a feat of storytelling in picture format.

****1/2

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

Book Review: The Secret of Blackwatch Lacks Detail But Introduces Interesting Ideas

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Spoilers.

Amber Cavalier Spiler understands the deep bond that can form between human and horse.  In her new middle-grade series, Blackwatch Stables, the girls of Blackwatch can hear their horses’ voices in their heads.  The girls of Blackwatch are descendents of families that have unusually deep bonds with the spirits of particular horses.  The spirits of those horses always find their girls.  The girls of Blackwatch are one of several stables whose riders have this unique bond with their horses.  Then there is at least one rogue stable.  When the heart of a rider with this bond to his horse turns cruel and hard, so does the horse, and these horses become dragons.  I love the concept of horses with a connection to cruel riders becoming dragons.  It explains so much of dragon-rider literature.  First, that dragons can be ridden, also the nearness of many of these tales to “horse stories” (see Anne McCaffrey or Chris Paolini and compare to Walter Farley or Marguerite Henry, though admittedly the dragons in these tales can often be ridden for good), and last the question that I came across on the Internet: “Why are the bad guys’ horses always menacing and demonic too?”

The first book in the series, The Secret of Blackwatch, did not delve into the sort of depth that I would have liked either in creating rounded characters or explaining the magic with which the story is infused.

This book started a bit slowly.  The protagonist, Maggie, has lost her mother, and her dad, wanting to see his daughter smile again, decides to give her both lessons and a pony.  At auction, a dirty gray belligerently insists on Maggie’s attention in the pen.  This is the pony that Maggie sends to Blackwatch.  Maggie spends a lot of time learning the finicky rules of Ms. Cavalieri’s stable before the magic begins.  Ms. Cavalieri runs her stable as a military encampment at war rather than a stable—which thanks to the fantastical elements of this story, it is.  I attended a stable that was run more like summer camp year round except that we had fewer hands year round and were more responsible for mucking fields in the other seasons.  Helmets were insisted upon as they should always be, but while proper riding boots and pants or chaps were recommended, we could get away with jeans and sneakers on occasion.  Braids, jackets, shirts (not a uniform but just a button down with a high collar), and spotless ponies were for show days only.  Tall boots were never worn.  The girls of Blackwatch as consequence remind me of the girls who always looked down their noses at our stable, and so I think that I was prejudiced against them from the get-go, the girls didn’t really become rounded enough to earn reprieves.  I’m intrigued more by the adult riders, who seem now to have more secrets.  I fear Spiler fell victim as so many have done to the perils of school stories: a necessarily huge cast overwhelming of the author and making it difficult to give any character—let alone all of the characters—depth.

The dragon-riders who have retreated to a hollow mountain fortress are at war with the stables that still have horses instead of dragons.  The reasons for this war are not explained, though I suspect that they are personal and have more to do with jealousy and broken hearts than any gainful objective.  It is implied that Maggie’s mother and a parent of each of the girls in the stable have been killed in this war.  Maggie and her friend Katie discover the parents’ horses penned in the mountain.  Maggie is able to communicate with her mother’s horse, who presumably shares a soul with Maggie’s horse Bella.  How this soul is passed is not explained.  The horses are not of the same breed, but look similar, sharing markings and coloring.  I would have assumed the soul would pass on death and was very surprised when Maggie discovered her mother’s horse alive.

Stylistically, at times, it was evident that this is both Spiler’s first novel and one that was self-published.  The protagonist’s physical description and back-story were shoved mercilessly into the beginning and not worked into the text.  Physical details were often not mentioned a second time, making them forgettable, and unsurprisingly, the horses were better described than the people.  Spiler kept Maggie at a distance increased greatly by the use of Maggie’s father name, a detail that, though Maggie would obviously know, she would not likely use in thinking or speaking about him.  Though Maggie was very clearly the only POV character and it was supposed to be Maggie’s story, I felt as if I never got to know Maggie.  The narration seemed to brushed light fingers over “her gray matter but never took me into the squishy parts” as I just explained to a friend.

Through all of these rather common stumbles, I thought that the concepts of The Secret of Blackwatch were all good ones if I’d have liked them to be a bit better explained and executed.  I hope future books will expound upon and make clear the purposes of this war.  I hope we will learn more about the workings of this universe and magic.

***

Spiler, Amber Cavalier.  Blackwatch Stables, Book 1: The Secret of Blackwatch.  Alpharetta, GA: BookLogix, 2013

This review is not endorsed by Amber Cavalier Spiler or BookLogix.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

I won a copy of The Secret of Blackwatch thorough Goodreads‘ giveaways.

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 Reviews: January Picture Book Roundup: Part One

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

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

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

****

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

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

**1/2

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

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

*1/2

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

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

****

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

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

****

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

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

 **

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

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

***1/2

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

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

****