Mmm, Mmm, Good
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. Antheneum-Simon & Schuster, 1982. First published 1978. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
Would you believe this is the first time I’ve read this book, though I’ve loved the movie for six years? I was surprised how many elements of the story found their way into the film, though the film is vividly bright and focuses more on how and who than what. I had a difficult time dividing the picture book from the story in the film, so I won’t comment much on Grandpa’s tall tale about Chewandswallow. This book takes the form of a frame story. After a breakfast of pancakes, during which one pancake is flung too far and lands on a child’s head, Grandpa is reminded of a tall tale that he tells at bedtime. The illustrations differentiate reality and the story: Reality is black and white. The story is colored. Perhaps the best part of the story is the ending where the narrator remarks that in the real world the sun looks like a pat of butter atop the hill, marking the blur of reality and fiction and the ability of fiction to improve reality, particularly with the touch of bright yellow bleeding into the black and white illustration on that page. The tall tale shows great inspiration from oral tall tales, especially at the beginning where Grandpa is describing where to find Chewandswallow and describing how Chewandswallow is like other towns. This is a good, out-of-the-box wintertime story (the kids go sledding) and a good grandparents story.
The Little Kids’ Table by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles. Sleeping Bear-Cherry Lake, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grade 1.
This book is marketed and displayed with the Thanksgiving books, but it’s really not specific to Thanksgiving. In fact, I don’t recall any mention of the holiday, and I know that I was relegated to the little kids’ table on holidays besides Thanksgiving—Christmas certainly, but sometimes July 4th, birthdays, really any holiday where families gather and share a meal. The adults’ table is dressed in all its finery: flowers on the table, matching place settings, and glasses made of glass or maybe even crystal. The kids’ table is a little rowdier—and more fun! They practice balancing spoons (and plates and flower vases) on their noses. The dog gets fed the broccoli casserole that the adults insist will help little kids grow strong even though it’s icky. The adults tell the kids to calm down, to be quiet, but the kids think that secretly the adults wish that they too could sit at the little kids’ table. Being sat at the little kids’ table can feel exclusionary, but this text helps to redeem the idea a little bit. For those families that deem a little kids’ table necessary and those kids who feel hurt by being sat away from the family, this book could be helpful. The text rhymes, but the rhymes are not too jarring. The illustrations are bright, and the family is multiracial without it being an issue.
Elephant and Piggie: I Really Like Slop! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.
A new Elephant and Piggie book! What I really like about this book is that not only did Gerald try Piggie’s spicy, pungent cultural delicacy willingly after some hesitation but that it’s okay that he didn’t like it. That he tries the slop is touted as a mark of their friendship, as an act of love via shared culture, but Piggie is not upset that Gerald doesn’t like her slop, and their friendship continues, even stronger.
Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman. Margaret K. McElderry-Simon & Schuster, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
This is another book marketed for Thanksgiving, but why should it be? Friends can share a meal at any time, and one should always thank those who share with them—and again I don’t think that the holiday was mentioned by name. The rhyming text here was actually less smooth than Riehle’s, mostly because of the forced repetition of the clunky “Bear says, ‘Thanks!’” The order of the words there is less natural, though I understand the desire to end the phrase and thereby put the emphasis on “Thanks!” particularly in a Thanksgiving spinoff. Bear wants to have his friends over for a meal, but his cupboards are bare (see what Wilson did there?). Perhaps they’re psychic because they start arriving all at once with food without being invited to do so within the text. Bear thanks each of them in turn, but he is distressed because he has nothing to offer them in return. They assure him that his company and his stories are enough, and they all share a woodland feast in bear’s lair (because “lair” rhymes with “bear”). Chapman’s illustrations are beautifully soft and gentle, helping to sort of smooth over some of the roughness I found in the text of this book.
Cats! If You Give a Cat a Cupcake by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. HarperCollins, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
Following the circular, if/then style as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, this cat is given a cupcake, but spills the sprinkles, and gets hot cleaning up, so is brought to the beach, after which ultimately the sand in his swimming trunks remind him of sprinkles and of cupcakes. It’s a silly story, made sillier by the idea of a cat at the beach. When I was reading this, I really wanted a cat book, and I didn’t feel like that was what I got, but this remains a fun, silly story and well written.
Pepper & Poe by Frann Preston-Gannon. Orchard-Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.
A customer actually pointed this book out to me first. She had read a review and wanted to see the book for herself. The illustrations are pretty cute: black background with a white kitten with big orange eyes and a gray cat with big green eyes and a chestnut dog. Pepper, the gray cat, likes Sundays. He likes Mondays too and Tuesdays. These are lazy days, days when he can just enjoy the quiet house. But then a kitten arrives, and his days get worse and worse as the kitten causes chaos and Pepper is asked to share. Then Pepper and Poe create such a mess that they are about to get in trouble, but both simultaneously blame the dog. Scholastic describes this as a sibling story—but I’m not sure that blame your eldest sibling for trouble your fighting has caused is a good tactic to suggest to ease sibling tension. I don’t know that most kids will read this as a sibling story, though. The cats in the story are very catlike.
We Can Do It!
Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2007.
Iggy begins building very early. His parents are impressed and fairly supportive (except when he uses dirty diapers). The rhymes are a bit forced, but the story still has a good rhythm. When his teacher, Miss Lila Greer, refuses to even talk about architecture in her classroom, Iggy’s interest in school is killed, a fate I think too many will relate to. On a class picnic, the class is stuck on an island when a bridge collapses behind them, and Miss Greer drops into a faint from fear—dare I say hysteria? While crossing over a bridge that her class has built out of whatever was on hand while she was in her faint, Miss Greer sees that “There are worse things to do when you’re in grade 2 than to spend your time building a dream,” and she sees the class’ pride in their creation, and so she has a change of heart on the subject of architecture, even allowing Iggy Peck to give weekly lectures to her second grade class on the subject. Miss Greer goes from being a terrible teacher, crushing her children’s dreams and ambitions and interests, to an excellent one, nurturing and encouraging them to explore their interests and to share their expertise and interest with others, even deferring to them. I feel like there are two audiences here: One lesson is for teachers like Miss Greer (or really any adult) and that is to let kids be interested in what interests them. The other is for children—and that is to not let adults and authority figures crush your interests. I’ve spotted Rosie Revere, protagonist of the sequel book, in the illustrations, which are spare but endearing. Bonus points to Roberts for children of many races in the classroom.
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2013.
Iggy Peck I think had the better story, but at another time, I’d love to read this one alongside a story about Rosie the Riveter, Rosie Revere’s great-great-aunt Rose, though the text does not make this explicitly clear (if anyone knows of a good picture book about Rosie the Riveter or women in WWII in general, please do share). Rosie’s inventions send one of her uncles (and his snakes) into peals of laughter, and while he says that he likes the invention, the laughter hurts Rosie’s confidence and she hides away her talent, building things in the attic of her house and hiding them under her bed, but never letting anyone see the inventions or see her inventing. But her great-great-aunt is an inspiring woman, and she longs to fly. Rosie thinks that maybe she could help her aunt, but her flying machine crashes, and her aunt laughs. Some of the rhymes felt a little forced, but the rhymes are still lilting and give the story a good rhythm. My favorite line may well be “But questions are tricky, and some hold on tight, and this one kept Rosie awake through the night,” because that, as a writer and not an engineer, I can relate to well. Great-great-aunt Rose tells Rosie the importance of never giving up and having confidence in yourself and your ideas. Failures to Rose are just first tries. I do like that we have here a young female protagonist with a passion for science and engineering. Busy illustrations filled with Rosie’s inventions and the creativity of her parts (and including Iggy Peck in classroom scenes) are drawn in pastels on a white background.
How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers. HarperCollins, 2006.
A boy in love with the stars wants one of his very own, to be his friend, to play hide-and-seek, and with which to take long walks on the beach. He decides to catch a star—not the best way to acquire a friend, it must be said—but his efforts are in vain, because of course you can’t catch a star. He can’t jump high enough, he can’t climb high enough, his rocket ship is made of paper and doesn’t fly well, and seagulls aren’t known for being helpful. Eventually the boy does get a star of his own, one that he’s found washed up on the beach, and they walk along the beach, just like he’d imagined. The colors in this book I think are its best part. They’re beautiful, bright colors. Particularly I enjoyed the sky and light at different times of the day and the particular attention to shadows. There are some beautiful lines of text in this book too: the star “just rippled through his fingers” and “He waited… and he waited… and ate lunch” and “Now the boy was sad. But in his heart, the wish just wouldn’t give up.” Oliver Jeffers is one of my favorites because he is able to be sweet and funny, and because his illustrations use whimsical and pay particular attention to shadow, even when they are spare, which they are not always.
Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.
A grumpy bear who likes to eat eggs in fancy recipes that he finds at the Internet returns with all the other ingredients for his meal to find that his goose eggs have hatched into goslings, who now believe that Bruce is their mother. Honestly, the plot felt a bit overdone (Fly Away Home, anyone?) and the jokes were too adult to be caught, I think, by most of my very young audience (jokes about return policies and identity theft and shopping locally for free-range organic eggs). Mother Bruce raises the children well, but cannot get them to fly away South when it is time for them to migrate, so they all get on a bus and migrate together to Miami. Bear skips his winter hibernation—since it’s still summery in Miami—and spends time on the beach with his goslings—now geese. I as an adult enjoyed it, seeing the cute story of a bear who raises four goslings into geese and understanding the jokes about current human culture, but I don’t know that it played as well with the kids at my story time.
Waddle! Waddle! by James Proimos. Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.
The style of this book, the humorous dialogue, and the final punch all strongly reminded me of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books, though Proimos’ illustration style and his story were both different enough from any Willems book that I could cry no foul but could only cheer. I hope this expands into a series too. Waddle! Waddle! introduces us quickly to the problem: to find the penguin protagonist’s lost friend. The penguin meets two other penguins—one who sings and one who plays the horn (neither particularly well, but both loudly)—but neither is the friend that he met yesterday. He goes to a third character—but realizes too late that this is a polar bear, not a penguin at all, and definitely not the friend that he met yesterday. The polar bear is sorry for the penguin’s plight, but announces that he will eat the penguin now. The singing and the horn-playing penguins come to their new friend’s aid and stun the polar bear with their talents, causing him to drop the penguin protagonist. The penguin slides away and discovers his friend from yesterday! But let’s not tell him that his friend is only his reflection in the ice. The dancing penguin, the singing penguin, and the horn-playing penguin go off together wing-in-wing into the sunset. I did have one parent go wide-eyed at the polar bear’s casual announcement that he would now eat the protagonist, but the tone softens the blow, I think, enough to not frighten children—and anyway, our fairytales often include such threats. “Waddle! Waddle! Belly slide!” is a lot of fun to repeat and read aloud.
Penguin’s Big Adventure by Salina Yoon. Bloomsbury, 2015.
Yoon’s first, Penguin and Pinecone, delighted me, and I keep giving the series chances to live up to that high bar. Penguin decides to do something great, something no one else has done: He decides to become the first penguin to visit the North Pole. He sets off. His friends are doing wonderful things too. He visits old friends along the way (Pinecone and a crab from the beach). He reaches the North Pole, plants his flag, and celebrates, but he is not alone. A polar bear is there. Penguin has never seen a polar bear, and the polar bear has never seen a penguin, and both are afraid, but they smile awkwardly and both realize that neither is frightening and become friends. Penguin’s friends find him at the North Pole, having used their crafts to make a hot air balloon. Penguin says goodbye to the polar bear, and he leaves with his friends.
The inclusion of the friends’ craft-making seemed a little rough and unnecessary to me, but I suspect Yoon wanted to show that great things and new things need not be so extreme as crossing the globe and to be able to explain the hot air balloon at the end. Had the construction of the pieces of the hot air balloon have seemed with direction and intention rather than happening to come together at the end to make a balloon, I would have been more pleased. Or I could have suspended my disbelief long enough to do without an explanation for the balloon.
This is a timely book about seeing friends in people who look differently or unlike anyone that one has ever seen. I could have done with more time exploring Penguin and Polar Bear’s new friendship—though making new friends has already been explored in several other books of the series.
From the title, I expected more of an adventure, and more about the journey. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but it all seemed like a lot to put into a short book.
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.