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Book Reviews: November Picture Book Roundup

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Most of this month’s picture books came into my hands for one story hour or another that I was expected to lead.

The Elf on the Shelf by Carol V. Aebersold and Chanda A. Bell.  Illustrated by Coë Steinwart.  CCA and B, 2007.

Let’s start with a little too early yet Christmas spirit.  This was a required book to be read for a particular story hour.  I found out about The Elf on the Shelf tradition last year when I joined the retail world for the holiday season.  I had never actually read the book, but the concept to me is more creepy than not.  The elf watches children during the holiday season and reports their deeds nightly to Santa.  The elf is known to leave the house because he is found in a different location or position each morning.  Some parents seem to use the elf as another pair of eyes to watch the children for good and behavior, and some parents have reported that the elf being in the house does affect the children’s behavior.  Some use the elf as a hide-and-seek game.  The book itself explains the game and the idea to kids in a rhyming fashion.  The writing itself I found honestly mediocre, but was pleasantly surprised by the rhyme.  It’s a quick read, and the children seemed engaged, though our turnout was small.  Half of the listeners were above the intended age for the reading or the book and while they were engaged they also poked some fun at the holes in the concept.  Parents should be warned that the elf does ask good boys and girls to say their prayers in case there are any who might find that offensive, though this book otherwise stays within the now secular traditions of Christmas.

**1/2

Barnyard Dance Lap Book by Sandra Boynton.  Workman, 2011.

Sandra Boynton is extremely popular, and though I’ve read only a few of her books, I’ve been pleased with all of them.  This classic of hers seemed a safe bet for a story hour, and it was a big hit.  The kids had been surprisingly riled by a reading of Mo Willems I’m a Frog! (see below), and at this point I went with it, and asked the audience to just join me in dancing, though I had surprisingly little audience participation for this one.  The book aloud actually reads like a square dance call.  It was a very quick read.  Too quick maybe, I wanted to flip it over and start again, and see if I couldn’t coax some of the kids to do-si-do with me.  But then, how does one, in an average setting for a read aloud or read alone “bow to the horse” or “stand with the donkey”?

****

Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter.  Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2013.

Like Hervé Tullet’s Press Here, the book shows a button, gives instructions, and demands interaction because the text implies that the illustration on the next page has been influenced by the actions done to the button on the previous page.  In retrospect, for the larger group that I had, this was not the story hour book to choose, because when, for example, in Don’t Push the Button, it says to press the button twice, having an audience of ten, none of whom wanted to be left out or passed over, the button was pushed really twenty times before its change was effected.  It was, though, a fun read aloud book and enjoyable to interact with and would be great for one-on-one read alouds (bedtime stories).  Structurally, I prefer Don’t Push the Button over Press Here because Don’t Push the Button gives readers a character to follow and with whom to sympathize.  Because the button affects him and not just the page, it seems more of a problem when unlikely things happen because the button is pressed.  In Don’t Push the Button, however, the effects of pushing the button are consequences of rule breaking where in Press Here the effects are caused by following instructions.  Readers of Don’t Push the Button are following the instructions of the monstrous protagonist, but it’s more like giving in to peer pressure than following directions—and I suppose that is a demerit in the pro/con battle between the two.  Regardless of which is better composed, all these poor books will go to an early grave from being prodded and shaken….

***1/2

The Meaning of Life by Bradley Trevor Greive.  Andrews McMeel, 2002.

Whoops.  This one’s not for kids.  But it is a picture book.  Barnes & Noble classifies it as a “gift book,” but it is still by technical definition a picture book, a book with pictures that enhance the text but are not necessarily integral to the text (versus a picture storybook in which the pictures are integral.  I consider that a subgenre of picture books, and many of the books in these roundups headed as “picture books” are actually “picture storybooks” (practically anything by Mo Willems, for example.))  Like all Bradley Trevor Greive books, The Meaning of Life features philosophical ponderings with a quirky, adult humor, topped with black-and-white photographs of animals.  This book asks a lot of questions about human existence and to the readers directly.  It suggests that the love of life is where our focus should be, and asks readers to think about what they are truly passionate about, and encourages them to chase that.  His are, again, books that I enjoy giving out as gifts.  They are enjoyable by most personalities, always fun, almost always leave me with a smile on my face, and good to share.

*****

The Turkey Train by Steve Metzger and illustrated by Jim Paillot.  Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2013. Intended audience: Grades 3-5 (ages 8-12).

I thought this would be a Thanksgiving themed book.  It’s promotionally shelved as a Thanksgiving book.  It is not.  It is about turkeys taking a day trip to a ski resort in Maine.  The turkeys amuse themselves and partake of the provided entertainment on the train then revel in winter sports and activities once they arrive in Maine.  It was a fun read aloud because it was very musically written with a solid rhyme scheme—up until the end when the rhyme scheme breaks, signaling the coming end of the book, a clever device.  The illustrations are colorful and clever with a few puns to amuse the adults (Fowl Play).  I puzzle how a train can travel from Fort Wayne (presumably Indiana?) to Maine in a day and back.  If I were reading the book as an editor, I’d call a logic foul, but I understand not having questioned it for the sake of the rhymes, and because the intended audience is not likely to do so.

****

Hello, Virginia! by Candice Ransom and illustrated by David Walker.  Sterling, 2010.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Candice Ransom is a professor at my alma mater, so yes, I’m likely to be a bit biased.  Hello, Virginia—and I would guess all the Hello, America! books—reads a great deal like one of the Good Night Our World series.  Which series began first I cannot say.  I read Good Night Connecticut before Hello, Virginia! thinking from its title that it would be a Goodnight Moon parody, and so it is Ransom’s book that reminds me of Vrba’s rather than the other way around.  The plot of neither is thrilling.  The plots essentially say hello or goodnight to various sights around each state.  Neither series gives much information about the sights so I would not use either as a teaching tool really.  The books may serve to remind adults about the things that they remember and miss about a state.  I can see a young child exclaiming “We were there!” when a familiar, particular location is illustrated (for example not over the stone walls of Connecticut, but perhaps over the Mystic Aquarium).  Overall, I cannot rate either book highly.

I do appreciate the Hello, America! series’ proper use of grammar in its titles.

***

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I’m a Frog! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion, 2013.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

This Elephant and Piggie book was a book that I did not expect to be interactive, but the children in my story hour disagreed.  Piggie was pretending to be a frog, and they all wanted to pretend to be frogs too, ribbeting and hopping around the stage.  I don’t know that I’d ever before read a Mo Willems book aloud.  I was inserting dialogue tags now and again, but it was also impossible to read without at least differentiating the two characters by inflection.  This was a good lesson: one about pretending, that you can pretend, that we can use our imagination, that even adults pretend.  Now of course, you could take the negative view that learning to pretend to be something that you’re not is a bad thing (teens+, see the movie Easy A), but you can also pretend to be unafraid, pretend to be a parent to a doll to learn empathy and responsibility, or pretend to be a frog.  I love Mo Willems’ humor, I’ve said before, I love the strength of his characters, and I love the twist that he puts into the end of this book.

*****

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October April Picture Book Roundup

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Working mostly at the registers this past month, I didn’t get to read any new picture books for kids, and really, it’s quite upsetting, not least of all because I feared I’d have nothing to give you all for the month.  But I’ve found a way to rectify the misfortune–at least as far as the blog is concerned:  Instead of reviews for picture books that I read in October (as that would be a very boring post), I’m going to reprint some of the reviews that I wrote and posted on Goodreads back in April, which is the last month (prior to June when I began these roundup posts) in which I posted any picture book reviews.  So without further ado: April’s Picture Book Roundup in October:

Les Petits Fairytales: Cinderella by Trixie Belle and Melissa Caruso-Scott and illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Gibbs Smith-MacMillan, 2012.

[Note from the present-day Kathryn: This was/is my first review of a Les Petits Fairytales book.]

This is a supremely succinct retelling of the tale of Cinderella. Each of the main elements is captured in a single word or phrase, “Girl. Chores. Mean stepsisters. Fairy godmother,” being the text of the first few pages. Each idea is simply but completely and colorfully illustrated. Unlike the Favorite Words books attributed to Eric Carle, Belle, Caruso-Scott, and Lake manage to tell a complete story. Granted, some of this story I may have subconsciously filled in myself. The subject matter well lends itself to such a succinct retelling as it is a tale that children can grow into (which I know is the idea behind the Favorite Words books, but with Cinderella there is so much more growth to be had, not from nouns and matching pictures to a board book with a simple story, but phrases and matching illustrations to a modern English picture book, to an illustrated picture book of the original story with a cleaner ending, to a modern English short story, to the original short story with the original ending, to a modern retelling in novel format, to a comparison of Cinderella tale types from around the world).

Belle et al.’s book is a more standard board book size as compared to the very little size of Carle’s Favorite Words books, giving the illustrator (Oliver Lake) more room for illustration. Rather than being a complementary illustration of a noun as are Carle’s, the form leaves room for a complete picture with subject and background and secondary characters or plot points.

I would be interested in parents’ reviews of the book. To me, Belle et al.’s book would seem to invite its own retelling by a child in time, for which I’d laud it. However, to me, the book seems to suffer the same flaw as the Favorite Words books: They cannot really be read aloud–or would be dull and extremely short to read aloud. These are books to give to young readers or would-be readers, essentially a set of flashcards in board book form attempting to tell a tale because of their arrangement.

***

Andrew Drew and Drew by Barney Saltzberg.  Harry N. Abrams, 2012.

A story of imagination and art, surprise is the key to this flap book. Andrew likes to doodle. The illustrations show the process of his doodling from a line to a full illustration, and the text closes with a reminder that there is always time for more fun tomorrow, making me think that its intention is to be a bedtime story. Akin to Harold and the Purple Crayon, though Drew’s illustrations are far more detailed and realistic if involving more subject and less landscape, there is something far more memorable about a purple crayon than a pencil.

This is another picture book where the illustrations and ingenuity of the design outshine the text.

***

The Dark by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen.  Little Brown Kids-Hachette, 2013.

I wanted to be more impressed than I was by this book, which I suppose is also how I feel about A Series of Unfortunate Events (of which I’ve only actually read A Bad Beginning, because I was not impressed enough to continue on with the series). Jon Klassen’s illustrations are as evocative and simple as ever and just the use of the name Laszlo speaks of the inclusion of Snicket’s refusal to tread towards the norm. But the plot relies heavily on personification (a common enough technique in picture books), and its use of personification is just a little unsettling, mostly in that by having the Dark show Laszlo where to find the fresh bulbs in the basement, the Dark seems almost suicidal or self-harming. Moreover, the solution is temporary and so the ending is not entirely fulfilling. Laszlo ventures into the Dark’s home to retrieve the weapon to use against it, led there by the Dark itself, but while that weapon pushes back the Dark, Laszlo’s fear of the Dark does not seem truly overcome. He is not but for a page or two left in true dark. Otherwise, he is armed with a flashlight.

The absence of parental involvement is a very Snicket-y and unique element, one of which I was glad because a parent should not necessarily have to be involved in a child’s development and sometimes cannot be and that is a good lesson to learn as well as that a parent can help.

I suppose, given Snicket’s publishing history, I should expect to be left a little unsettled by his picture books, but it is not really a sensation that I relish–not for this intended audience, not without a sequel.

I’d advise parental discretion on this one. Some kids will probably relish the unsettling air of this picture book.

**

A Long Way Away by Frank Viva.  Little, Brown Kids-Hachette, 2013.

For its unique style, this book will show up in Children’s Literature classrooms. I can almost guarantee that. Viva has written a book that can, should, and almost must be read two ways. By the second time reading the text (down-up instead of up-down), it was beginning to make sense. A third reading (up-down a second time) and I understood what he was doing and became excited.

The plot is that of an alien either traveling a long way away from his home, through space, to earth, and to the bottom of the ocean, or of an alien traveling from a long way away from his home, up from the bottom of the ocean, out into space, and back to his planet and parents.  The journey fiction genre of this story lends itself well to two-directional reading.

The text of the story is… loose. I’m not sure it needs to be as loose as it is, but I understand that it must be at least somewhat loose to be able to be read as a story from two directions. The pictures paired with the text, the vocabulary and sentence structure of which are simple and short, are evocative, and the story truly exists in the emotions that it elicits: either of the sadness of being ripped from one’s home and parents’ love or the joy of return to such delights.  The vocabulary, colors, and expressions of the characters are what draw those emotions from the reader–or from me.

It is an ageless story. It is one I would recommend to the very young, who will relate to the emotions expressed by the protagonist, and also as a gift from a parent to a child leaving for college or having otherwise flown the nest. I hope someone thinks to market it as the latter. I think it would do very well among books for graduates.

Reading this the first time, I think I all but squeed in the middle of the store and did share my effusive excitement with both a passing customer and our children’s department lead.

****

Book Reviews: September Picture Book Roundup

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You’ll have to all forgive me the tardiness of this post again.  Another month means another move for me, this time to an apartment with which I will share the lease with a friend, one that is new to us, and so required us to set up our Internet—and while I thought about going elsewhere to get this post up on time, I realized that I ought rather to worry about getting things out of boxes and making sure that we can get fixed all that needs fixing.

This month there are a lot of books that just made me think “ehn.”  Also, Halloween has come early to Nine Pages, Halloween books being what Barnes & Noble is promoting on its children’s octagon and up by the registers.  So, if you’re interested in books to give a young child for Halloween, you’ve found the right review blog.

Anna Karenina: A BabyLit Fashion Primer by Jennifer Adams and illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2013.

A fashion primer is not something that it would ever occur to me to gift to a child.  A fashion primer seemed—upon my initial reading of the book—to be a tool of an overly consumeristic society and merely to give a child words to ask for extravagances.  Upon considering it more carefully, I recognize that there are advantages to a young child being prepared with the words to ask for the extravagances that she desires—and not all of the clothing types listed are unnecessary frou-frou (a word actually used within the illustrations) if most of them are.  This BabyLit primer includes brief quotes from the original work (all describing the characters’ clothing) and also is more interactive than any of the BabyLit primers that I’ve previously read, asking the reader to find elements within the pictures.  Asking the reader to find these other elements also allows BabyLit to include two vocabulary words per page rather than the usual one of the primer format.  I enjoyed Moby Dick more but concede that Anna Karenina is probably the better-constructed and more useful primer.  I do think that Moby Dick is the better illustrated as if the animal characters give Alison Oliver greater rein for her imagination; her animal characters seem warmer and more friendly and childish than her stiff human characters.

****

Goodnight, Mouse: A Peek-A-Boo Adventure by Anna Jones.  Parragon, 2012.

The construction and glitter of this book attracted me to it.  I frankly found the text disappointing for being banal and the pictures dark (in color palette), but I maintain that I do like the cutaway format and that I do like a little tasteful glitter.

***

Pop-up Surprise Haunted House by Roger Priddy.  Priddy-Macmillain, 2012.

Priddy rarely disappoints.  Other than that I’ve read a lot (two) Halloween-themed counting books about monsters arriving for a party, I liked this book of his.  Of those two, I thought that Priddy’s was the better written for being more creative with sentence structure.  Also it has the advantage of being a pop-up.  The page with the werewolf is even a tiny bit frightening for the height of the pop-up.

***

Curious George by H. A. Rey and illustrated by Margret Rey.  Houghton Mifflin, 1994.  First published 1939.  First published in English 1941.

This one I actually read twice this month, once to myself, and once aloud to a group of twelve kids, none probably older than eight and some as young as one and a few months.  In reading it to myself, I worried that I would have to answer questions such as why it’s okay for George to have “a good smoke” (that line and illustration more than any other really dated the book, first published 1939 in France) and why George’s phone looks so absurd (being rotary).

George gets into a lot more trouble than I remembered.  George looks thoroughly distressed when the Man in the Yellow Hat snatches him in his bag.  George nearly drowns when he tries to fly like a seagull.  He is taken to a dismal, dungeon-like jail cell by the firemen.

This last is another concept that I was not utterly comfortable disseminating to impressionable children.  A lot of work is done to ensure that children are comfortable around firefighters, firefighters being less able to help children who are terrified of them.  While it’s important for children to know that calling the fire station when there is no emergency is a crime and wrong, the dungeon prison into which George is thrown is truly miserable.

The kids seemed to enjoy the story.  I think I was more distressed by the situations in which George found himself than they were.  I also made it fairly interactive.  George—even in the overlarge paperback I was giving for Curiosity Day story time—was often small, so I had the kids come and point out George to me.  I had them tell me what animals they saw George sharing with at the zoo.

Curious George is a classic and George’s adventures are a good mix of relatable and whimsical, teaching consequences without endangering children and being exciting and fun enough to entertain.

****

 Gallop!: A Scanimation Picture Book by Rufus Butler Seder.  Workman, 2007.

This is the first scanimation book, scanimation being the patented way of creating a moving image.  It’s pretty much just as exciting now as it was when it was released in 2007, and though I’ve flipped the pages of this and other scanimation books before, I’m sad it took me this long to read Gallop!  It is a very interactive text, asking readers to if they can “gallop like a horse” or “swim like a fish,” “spring like a cat,” or “soar like an eagle.”  Readers could either answer the text’s questions or, if feeling active, try to imitate the pictures’ motions.  Nonsense words accompany the pictures and create a rhyme scheme for the book.  The final page commends the readers’ efforts and says, “take a bow and smile: you twinkle like a star.  Take a bow and shine: a star is what you are,” providing a positive message for readers, because compliments, even coming from an author that you’ve never met face to face, are nice to receive.

****

Count, Dagmar! by J.otto Seibold.  Chronicle, 2011.

This is the second Halloween themed counting book, with which I was less impressed than with Priddy’s.  Also “Janner [and Kathryn] was as unsettled by the overuse of exclamation points as he was by the dreary countenance of the place” (176).  The exclamation in the title is entirely unnecessary, but that is a small quibble.  While I am quibbling with Seibold’s punctuation, let me congratulate him on the pun; I did not when reading the book notice that the title is a command, not Count Dagmar (like Count Dracula, Count Count, or Count Chocula) but “Count, Dagmar.”  I have just discovered that this is a spin off of another book that I have not read—Vunce Upon a Time—and as such may find its merit and its marketability in being a spin off, also in the popularity of Seibold’s Olive the Other Reindeer.

***

Sophie La Girafe: Peekaboo Sophie! by Dawn Sirett.  DK, 2013.

As a touch-and-feel book to accompany a teething toy, I hadn’t expected to find any quality to the book, but Sophie la Girafe has always been known for quality and the book was no exception.  Very interactive, this touch-and-feel book is also a flap book and the text invites reader interaction with questions.

**** 

Frankenstein by Rick Walton and illustrated by Nathan Hale. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillain, 2012.

This was a very cleverly and well-done parody of the classic picture book Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.  Walton keeps a similar rhythm and rhyme scheme to the original’s and, basically the same story, where a caretaker of twelve children awakes in the night knowing that something is not right to find that the smallest/ugliest of them all, Madeline/Frankenstein, has contracted a disease: appendicitis/headlessness.  The cure is sought and achieved, but then the other eleven children want to contract the same disease and in Walton’s succeed.  Walton throws in a twist where the caretaker does not care for the remaining eleven, her problems being greatly solved by their headlessness.

****

Cozy Classics: War and Peace by Jack and Holman Wang.  Simply Read, 2013.

Cozy Classics are, like BabyLit, are classics remade into board books for kids.  The stories seek to capture the basics of the plot in pages with a single word associated with a picture.  Cozy Classics does a good job creating full scenes with their felt dolls.  The dolls can also be surprisingly expressive.  This is a series I appreciate for its illustrations more than its text or concept.

I’ve not actually read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and am not overly familiar with the story other than to know that it follows several Russian families through several generations (I think), so I can’t attest to the Cozy Classics’ merit as an adaptation.  I have to think that there would have been some stronger illustration, however, than of a yellow dress—unless the yellow dress is highly symbolic in a way with which I am unfamiliar?

***

 Cozy Classics: Les Miserables by Jack and Holman Wang.  Simply Read, 2013.

This Cozy Classic also attempts to be an opposites primer but does not maintain the opposites throughout.  This Cozy Classic does a decent job of capturing the entirety of the tale (as I know it from the musical rather than the novel), though it glosses a lot of the reasons behind its illustrated nouns and the connections between pages are lost in translation.

***

Chuckling Ducklings and Baby Animal Friends by Aaron Zenz.  Walker Children’s-Bloomsbury, 2013.

This board book was another surprising find.  It’s a greatly factual book, and it feels that way but not oppressively so.  With a rhyming singsong rhythm, Zenz lists the different technical names that we have for baby animals, going into amazing specifics and digging up the more obscure names of which I was previously unaware.  There was nothing of a plot to the text, however, and it can really be lauded more as a reference with colorful and playful drawings than as a story.  The back also includes a pictorial guide so that, if there are animals the adult name of which the reader could not guess, the reader won’t have to search for the information.

***1/2

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.