Tag Archives: Eric James

Book Reviews: November & December 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Gift-Giving

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River Rose and the Magical Lullaby by Kelly Clarkson and illustrated by Laura Hughes. HarperCollins, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

River Rose is so excited to be going to the zoo the next day. Her mother tucks her in and sings her a lullaby. That night, magic balloons show up outside her bedroom window and transport her to the zoo, where she has a party with the animals, none of whom are confined to their compounds. I like that at some point in the night she asks her friend, Joplin the dog, what he wants to do. At the end of the night, when the polar bears tell her that they need sleep, she snuggles up with the bears and sings the lullaby that her mother sang to her to the bears. She ends up back in her bed, glad for her adventure, but glad too to be home.  Was it a dream?  Was it real?  Does she go again to the zoo the next day and is she disappointed when she sees the reality of the zoo in the daylight?  The book doesn’t say.

***

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Everything Is Mama by Jimmy Fallon and illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 1-3.

Like with Fallon’s first book, there’s not a lot here. In this, presumably mostly maternal animals try to teach their children new words, only to have them reply “mama,” with a reversal at the end with the trite ending “but you are everything to mama” (expect to fit the rhyme, the sentiment is phrased more awkwardly than that). I think very little of it, but I caught a mother reading it to a young child at the store, and the child giggled at every page, so there is an audience for this, and maybe neither my story time toddlers nor I are not it. My audience lately has comprised of children 4 and older.

**

Lessons in Sharing

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Clifford Shares by Norman Bridwell. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2012.

There’s not much to this little board book either, just a few pages and a few sentences in total, but Clifford is a familiar friend. Clifford shares his water. He shares a bench. And then everyone shares with Clifford at a picnic. There’s just not much here to rate. There’s nothing remarkable about this book, really, good or bad. There’s a vague idea of reciprocity: Clifford shares so others share with Clifford, but the book’s real draw is Clifford.

***

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The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks by Jan Berenstain and Mike Berenstain. Zonderkidz-Zondervan, 2009.

This was a long story time book, but one of my regulars showed up early, and I promised to read one book—whatever book she picked out. The prose in this book is prettier, more descriptive, the story more fleshed out with detail than what I usually read for story time, which was a nice change.

But this is a problematic book, relying too heavily on whitewashed history and doing little if anything to correct or clarify the narrative.  Papa trades some furniture for a turkey from Farmer Ben—a living turkey. Ben’s named the turkey Squanto after “a Native Bear who helped the Pilgrims plant their corn when they settled in their new home.” I mean, I guess, Ben. Sister Bear doesn’t like the idea of meeting her Thanksgiving dinner while he’s alive. She wants to keep Squanto as a pet. She visits him at the farm as the weather grows colder. To distract Sister from the idea of eating Squanto, Mama Bear proposes a costumed show of the legend of Thanksgiving. “We’ll need feathers for the Native Bears’ headdresses.” No you won’t, Mama Bear. Honey Bear represents Squanto the Native Bear with a full headdress of turkey feathers and speaking broken English: “Me, Squanto!” her only line. Admittedly, Honey Bear is not portrayed as speaking good English, and I suppose the cast is limited to the preexisting characters, but…. “He speaks English! What a miracle!” Miracle it is not, Cousin Fred, though maybe there is some miracle in Squanto finding his way back to his own land if not his own village after all his trials. The whole legend of Thanksgiving as told in this story is the whitewashed imagining that we hear “in school over and over again every November” (or we did when I was in public school; I hope today’s tellings are a little more nuanced, a little more accurate) with no discussion of the horrors visited on Native Americans by the European invaders.

That doesn’t even begin in on the problems of reminding children that our Thanksgiving feast features a once-living bird, and that it might be possible to persuade their parents to skip the bird and to keep the bird as a pet instead because Squanto the Turkey survives, is given a new pen in the Bears’ backyard. Parents should be prepared to answer questions that Sister Bear’s feeling for Squanto might stir.

It’s difficult to avoid religion when discussing the First Thanksgiving, and this book does not, the Bears’ prayer even included in the text.

**

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Plush by Louise Myers. Tiny Tales-Whitman, 1949.

A friend bought me this pocket-sized paperback because the pony Plush looks a quite a bit like my own pony. The animals of the farm (all anthropomorphized, though Plush less so than the others) take a pony cart, pulled by Plush, to the Fair to sell their goods and spend the money that they make. There’s an element of an animal sounds primer in the text, with the pony’s hooves clippety-clopping, the hen cackling, the duck quacking, the lamb baaing, and the pig oinking. The friends all buy gifts for Plush with their money. It’s a sweet story of gift-giving, expressing thanks, and retail.

****

Christmas and Wintertime

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River Rose and the Magical Christmas by Kelly Clarkson and illustrated by Lucy Fleming. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Of the two River Rose books, this one my audience unanimously liked better. Now admittedly, we read this story December 16, just 9 days from Christmas morning, so I’m sure that timing and the already swelling excitement for the holiday tinged their reactions to the story. I’m going to be recommending the other more frequently because it is far less seasonal and far more universal. Not every child is excited for Christmas (not all of them celebrating the holiday), but I think that most children are excited to visit a zoo—particularly a zoo without enclosures and with no supervision but a polar bear mama as is the one in the first River Rose book. In this River Rose sneaks down the stairs to hand-deliver her letter to Santa, but she’s missed him. Instead the magical balloons from the previous book are waiting in her living room. She and Joplin take the balloons to the North Pole where they are greeted by the elves and Mrs. Claus, who plies River Rose with a wealth of sweets, the book becoming a numbers primer. She is near sleep when Santa returns. Santa makes one last trip to bring River Rose home, and she hand-delivers her letter to him—which is not a list of requested gifts, but a simple thank you, which touches Santa. This new illustrator does a good job continuing in the tradition of the previous. I didn’t notice the difference, and don’t think I’d have noted it expect that I write these reviews and am always sure to credit the illustrator too. Fleming’s palette is maybe a little more muted and her lines a little crisper than Hughes’.

***

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Outside by Deirdre Gill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Deirde Gill illustrated Trains Don’t Sleep, which I read and loved in October. I went exploring to see what else she had done, and found this story, written and illustrated by Gill. A bored boy leaves the house and explores the snowy outside. His brother won’t join him outside, so he makes himself a friend—an enormous snowman, who comes to life to help him build a castle. And what do castles attract? Dragons of course! This one is thankfully friendly. His brother finally does come out to play, after the boy’s adventure in the snow is done, and together they make one last snowman. Because the brother stays inside staring at screens, he misses his younger brother’s adventures. There’s as much a lesson about leaving screens to play outside as there is a lesson about the wonders of the imagination and the outdoors and free play. These illustrations are everything I hoped for. The colors, the landscapes, the characters are amazing! There’s not a great deal of text, most pages comprising of only a sentence or two. Some have only a sentence fragment, and some have no words at all.

****

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A Loud Winter’s Nap by Katy Hudson. Picture Window-Capstone, 2017.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-1.

The friends from Too Many Carrots are back, this time with Turtle as the protagonist. I feel this turtle on a personal level. He doesn’t like winter. He just wants to hibernate through it. But his friends are having fun in the snow and being noisy nearby no matter where he makes his nest and despite his sign. Eventually he accidentally stumbles into some winter fun of his own, not realizing his newest napping spot is a sled primed at the top of the hill. He enjoys racing downhill, and in the end joins his friends on the iced-over pond where his sled stops, skating and drinking hot cocoa and generally enjoying the winter with his friends.

****

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Santa’s Magic Key by Eric James. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

I don’t think that I ever truly believed in Santa Claus, but I did grow up in a house without a chimney, and I wasn’t unaware of the myths surrounding the man. I think I questioned less how Santa would get into our house when we had no fireplace and more how we would communicate in J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world without a fireplace to connect to the Floo Network. How Santa did all that he was supposed to do were more for me questions of filling in gaps in the story than worries about whether or not I would receive any gifts.

The tagline for this book suggests starting a new family tradition—which makes it sound as though Eric James is hoping to appeal to the same audience as participate in the Elf on the Shelf tradition. As far as new holiday traditions go, I’d be far more willing to go along with James’. A) It requires action only one night out the year. B) It does not require me to suggest that an inanimate doll is 1) animate, 2) always watching and judging my child’s behavior and 3) reporting that behavior to a boss who will reward or punish a child based on that behavior. James’ story is less preparation for a police state and more assurance that your house can be visited by Santa despite your house lacking an element seemingly present in every Santa myth.

James’ book is long, but better written, and his illustrations are beautiful, hazily but realistically rendered full-page spreads rather than the cartoonish characters lacking much setting that accompany the Elf on the Shelf.

Despite all this, James is not likely to create the empire that Aebersold, Bell, and Steinwart have because he doesn’t self-publish and he didn’t create a character who can be dressed in different outfits, have pets, and have accessories, and whose pets can have accessories.

***

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Olaf’s Night Before Christmas by Jessica Julius and illustrated by Olga T. Mosqueda. Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

Frozen’s Olaf becomes the protagonist of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, and Julius rewrites Moore’s text for Olaf. Familiar lines of Moore’s are echoed in the new text. Anna and Elsa make guest appearances, Olaf mistakes the “eight tiny reindeer” for “eight little Svens,” and at first he thinks that Santa might be Kristoff. There’s a lot more humor in this new version, the language is more modern and simpler than Moore’s (“His boots were all black and his pants were all red. But where was the rest of him? Where was his head?”). Olaf, a simple snowman not familiar with Christmas traditions, makes a delightful new narrator for this twist on the classic tale. The illustrations are bright with nods to the film in the style and in the details, but plenty of familiar, traditional Christmas details in them to almost erase the fact that this is a Disney product. There’s tradition, there’s extra sweetness, there’s the familiarity of Disney characters.

*****

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

Book Reviews: December 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Mostly Wintertime. Was It Blue?

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The Storybook Knight by Helen and Thomas Docherty. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

My manager and I were both won over by the illustrations and story and concept of this book. It’s all excellent. A little mouse is in training to be a knight, but he doesn’t want to fight as his parents insist that he must; instead he’d rather read and study. His parents see an advertisement for a dragon slayer and send their son to the aid of the village. Along the way, the young knight on his fat, shaggy, expressive pony meet several monsters, all of whom he subdues by appealing to their vanity and sharing with them stories about monsters like themselves—gifting the book to each before they part ways. He subdues the dragon the same way but adds that the dragon must help clean up the village that he terrorized before the little knight will read more to him. As the dragon cleans, the villagers lose their fear and eventually work beside the dragon and knight to right their town. The characters are all wonderfully expressive. The illustrations are filled with delightful and surprisingly realistic detail.

*****

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Peek-a Choo-Choo! by Nina Laden. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This little board book hasn’t got much of a plot. This might be considered a primer for transport methods. Peek-a choo-choo. Peek-a flew. Peek-a canoe. Peek-a shoe. Peek-a I see you. It all rhymes. But that’s the extent, really, of the text.

**

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A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P. D. Eastman. Random, 1989. First published 1961. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This was one of my favorite books as a child, and I really enjoyed introducing it to a young generation of readers who all crowded close around me on the stage. It was sort of a happy accident that I read it. I was supposed to read How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and I had a huge crowd, many of whom arrived early, so as I was sitting in front of them, I offered to grab a story to read to the early-birds, but by the time I got back to the stage and introduced myself properly, it seemed the last stragglers had arrived and it was time to begin story time-proper. So I read The Grinch. Then I gave them the activities that I had for them to do. Then a dedicated little huddle asked me to read the second story and crowded around me on the stage. It was precious. It was more precious because it was one of my favorite childhood stories. As an adult I was struck by the remarkable helpfulness of the police and firefighter. My kids wanted to know how Mr. Carp had gotten Otto small again. They weren’t satisfied it seemed particularly with my explanation that we don’t know and aren’t supposed to know.


Winter Wonderlands

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Waiting for Snow by Marsha Diane Arnold and illustrated by Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

This preciously illustrated book evoked a reminiscent smile from me as the friends discuss several foolproof ways to ensure a snow the following morning. Several of those methods I’d tried, and my audience and I enjoyed brainstorming other methods that the friends missed in the post-story time discussion. Hedgehog assures them all in what becomes a somewhat repetitive refrain that it will snow when it’s time, Hedgehog drawing on other examples of things that can’t be rushed but always come—like the flowers in spring and the dawn. Hedgehog seems oddly out-of-sync with the rest of the book, too deep for the lightheartedness that the rest of the book displays and maybe a little preachy. Also the snow is not nearly as universally dependable as Hedgehog’s other examples, so the advice falls a bit flat. While I understand Hedgehog was necessary for the book’s message of patience, I think I would have enjoyed this advice from another source, or for this message to be less veiled by poetic similes.

***1/2

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Hap-Pea All Year by Keith Baker. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Grades PreK-3.

There… wasn’t much to this book either. Each month gets two or three sentences. “Happy January! Let’s get going, grab your mittens—hooray it’s snowing!” That’s… not even particularly good punctuation. The gimmick of this book is the pea characters, who have appeared in board book primers before: LMNO Peas, 1-2-3 Peas, and Little Green Peas. I think I would have liked this book better as a board book. As a picture book, I expected more from it. There are some creative details in the illustrations. For example what is once a sprout becomes a flower. I had to read it a second time for story time, and it was less objectionable the second time through—maybe because I was prepared for what was coming, maybe because I was less stressed. There may not be many books teaching the months, but there are definitely better: I loved Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice as a kid.

**

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The Most Perfect Snowman by Chris Britt. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprisingly tender picture book. The snowman Drift is lonely, “built fast and then forgotten,” without any clothes, picked on by the other snowman and left out of snowman games. When several children (one a darker-skinned boy) gift Drift with clothes and his much-desired carrot nose, Drift is the happiest and the most beautiful snowman, the envy of the others, and included in all their fun. But these gifts prove ephemeral. A blizzard tears his hat and mittens from him. Drift despairs and searches for his torn away clothes, but finds a lost bunny with no shelter in sight, and gives that bunny his warm scarf, and though he recognizes it as a sacrifice, his carrot nose, returning him to his original imperfect form.  But because of his actions he becomes not just “the perfect snowman” but “the most perfect snowman of all.” This does not discuss the other snowmen’s reaction to him after his sacrificial act. Perhaps a little heavy-handed in its message, but so generously sweet that it is easily forgiven. This is a well-constructed story too; especially for a picture book, it follows well the rules of plot. Pair this with the Buehners’ Snowmen at Night perhaps.

****1/2

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

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

The duck dresses up as Santa and uses a zip line to reach the roof to surprise an excited Farmer Brown but gets stuck in the chimney, so every animal one after the other—and getting progressively larger—comes to extract him from the chimney but gets stuck as well, and the real Santa flies closer and closer in his sleigh, his silhouette growing larger and larger on each successive page. But Santa’s magic. Where the animals failed, he succeeds. Everyone—Santa too—tumbles down the chimney, cinder-covered, into Farmer Brown’s living room, where they all have a laugh and celebrate Christmas. The “ho-ho-OH NO!” refrain is repetitive but could be a lot of fun.

***

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Santa’s Sleigh Is on Its Way to Virginia: A Christmas Adventure by Eric James and illustrated by Robert Dunn. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2015.

There’s a book almost identical to this for every state in the U.S. We were a bit disappointed that our city was not among those chosen for the book. Children of many races grace the pages. Ultimately one character is groggily half-asleep wandering through the house, just barely missing Santa hiding around the corner, behind the drapes, behind the broom.

****

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert Lewis May and illustrated by Antonio Javier Caparo. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014. Text first published 1939. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I did not when I read this realize that this is the original Rudolph story. I enjoyed this version maybe even better than the Rankin/Bass story that most of us I’d guess know best. First Caparo’s illustrations are beautiful with deep hues, realistically rendered (is that Percy Jackson asleep in that bed?). In this version, Santa doesn’t know about Rudolph till Santa is trying to deliver presents to the reindeer and stumbles across a sleeping Rudolph, whose nose lights up his room and makes delivering presents easier. There’s so much detail in the text, which I enjoy but made the story really probably too long for my young audience; we got through about all but the last nine pages before the kids’ attention wavered and they began questioning everything to try to shorten or change or interact with the story—but those last pages are all after the climax and really add little to the story, so maybe be prepared to end with Rudolph’s first “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight” if your audience is getting antsy; they won’t miss much. It’s all written in rhyme, and uses some aged language and syntax—well it’s from 1939.

****

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If You Take a Mouse to the Movies by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. HarperCollins, 2000. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

The mouse forgot very quickly about the movies, distracted by popcorn, which he wanted to string together to hang on a Christmas tree, which they didn’t have, so they had to go buy a Christmas tree. It’s an excuse it seems to engage in Christmastime and wintertime activities, led by mouse and mouse’s demands. He’s such a demanding mouse. You try to do something nice, but he wants more and more, and you have to do more and more for him.

***

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The Red Prince by Charlie Roscoe and by illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole. Templar-Penguin Random, 2016.   Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This book was intense! I liked the cover, and it looked wintery, so I put it up on display this month. I did not expect the story inside. While the king and queen are away, mysterious, uniformed foreigners attack and overcome the castle, locking the young prince in his red pajamas in the dungeon with his dog. Once I’d started, I worried a bit about my young audience, but the one who stayed to pay attention was probably 7, and I comforted myself thinking that it was just the prologue to a Disney film, like Frozen, where the parents go off on a boat, and the boat is caught in a storm, and the parents never come back. The prince escapes but is hunted by the invaders, his face posted on wanted posters. My audience enjoyed trying to spot the prince on each page and in each crowd. His subjects help him evade capture, ultimately all of them dressing in bright red too to confuse the invaders. Unfortunately he is still found and his people must come rescue him again. The people, perhaps united by their love of the prince and their group effort earlier, chase away the invaders. It really didn’t have as satisfying an ending as I’d hoped for. I’m not sure what I wanted though. The prince is safe, and the invaders are chased off—peaceably. While the ruling family is white, the kingdom is racially diverse. Cole’s illustrations are the reason to read this one. They incorporate creative angles and bright colors and contrasts.

****

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Little Penguins by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

The kids in my audience wanted to assign genders and birth order to each of the penguin children, but both changed page to page. With blocky illustrations of arctic scenes the book chronicles an anthropomorphized penguin family’s snowy adventures first outside then inside to get warm. Minimal text done as almost exclusively dialogue, though lacking any quotation marks or speech bubbles to proclaim it so, begs for different voices for each penguin.

***

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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