Tag Archives: humor

Book Reviews: October 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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There are so many books this month that I had to rethink how I organize these books just to make some order out of the chaos of words on the screen. Luckily, there were a few books for each of a few categories this month.

The Books That Can’t Keep It Inside Their Spines

0763661635Open Very Carefully: A Book with Bite by Nick Bromley and illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne. Nosy Crow-Candlewick, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.

I first read this book in March 2013. I had complaints then: It reminded me of other books, it didn’t interact with the reader as fully as it could have done, nor did the characters interact with each other as much as they could have done. Those complaints are still valid, but I had a lot more fun with it this past month when I read it for story time. The book begins as an adaptation of “The Ugly Duckling,” but the s distracted by the sight of a green tail on one of the pages, which the duckling chases out of his book, discovering it to be a crocodile in the following pages. The crocodile starts to eat up the text, letter by letter, then whole sentences at a time while the duckling begs him to leave off as best he can without a few letters: “St p! Mr. Cr c dile!” To stop him, the duckling suggests the reader rock the crocodile to sleep and while the crocodile is asleep the duckling draws a pink tutu, ballet slippers, and bow on him to make him less scary, but this only, understandably, makes the crocodile angrier, and I don’t like the implication that it’s okay to mess with someone who’s asleep. The duckling is given the power of speech, but the crocodile remains silent and menacing, an animal stuck in an Animal’s world, as I put it in 2013. In the end, the crocodile chews his way out of the book, leaving a hole in the last pages and back cover. There’s no knowing where this loose crocodile could turn up again, and I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been a sequel. This book plays with space and format well, but while I understand that a rational discussion between two Animals would have made for a very different story, the taunting and harassment of the animal by an Animal does not sit well with me. I appreciate this book more than I did for its interactive elements and it’s creative illustrations, so I’m giving it three stars instead of the two I did in 2013.

***

9781627794510We’re in the Wrong Book! by Richard Byrne. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Bella, Ben, and Bella’s dog have appeared before in Byrne’s earlier book, This Book Just Ate My Dog. I hadn’t realized so until I was putting This Book Just Ate My Dog back on the shelves more than two weeks after reading We’re in the Wrong Book. In This Book Just Ate My Dog, characters disappear into the gutter of the book, unable to cross to the facing page. The kids to whom I read We’re in the Wrong Book! aloud really seemed to enjoy guessing the book styles that the protagonists fell into. I was less impressed by this book honestly. It’s an interesting concept, but I just didn’t get much enjoyment from it myself. In We’re in the Wrong Book, the book characters walk through some doorway or fall through some tear or sail off in a hot air balloon or take an origami boat onto the next page, each new page being a different style book: a comic book, a maze book, “Red Riding Hood,” an origami instruction book, etc. I would have liked to see more creative use of the book’s construction, knowing how Byrne has used the construction of the book previously. It was interesting to stop mid-book to try and make an origami sailboat, and it would have been fun to stop and solve the maze too. As an activity book with a plot, this book would get a much higher rating, but as a picture book, I felt that the activities slowed and interrupted the plot and the text. So take my reading with a grain of reader error. Aloud and on a schedule might not have been the best way to enjoy this book. At home, a page at a time, this might have been a lot more fun.

***

The Book For Adults

672077Wisecracks: Everyday Wit and Wisdom compiled by Tom Burns. Barron’s, 2005. First published in 2004 by Tangent-Axis.

This is a picture book for adults. The text is composed of the sort of snarky quips familiar from Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest (really, many of theses phrases I’ve read or heard before). The lines were sent to Burns by various, unnamed contributors. The format of quirky text beside black-and-white animal photographs that might illustrate the text is highly reminiscent of Bradley Trevor Greive’s books (Grieve’s first, The Blue Day Book, was published in 2000). Unlike Grieve’s, though, each page’s text in this book is independent rather than building towards a book-long message. This book had me snickering, more at its witticisms than its photography, and as I’ve said, this text was not written by Burns. I do still appreciate the book, however. It’ll be a good pick-me-up on a gray day.

***

Dinosaurs! 61608107906180LMy Dinosaur Is More Awesome! By Simon Coster. Sky Pony, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

Honestly, this one fell flat—even for my dinosaur-enthusiast. This is sibling rivalry and ridiculous fighting taking place over whose dinosaur (presumably imaginary) is better. The dinosaurs do some very un-dinosaur-like things, each more ridiculous than the last. The mother to settle the argument steps in with her enormous dinosaur, who also does ridiculous, un-dinosaur-like things, claiming hers to be the best. Honestly, it would be cute acted out, I think, but as a single person reading a story, it just didn’t do it—for anyone. And there was some unexpected bodily humor besides.

*

0f8a8cf55c472aeafdd04f5e07e169deWhat the Dinosaurs Did Last Night: A Very Messy Adventure by Refe Tuma and Susan Tuma. Little, Brown, 2015.

This is a picture book follows an Internet phenomenon and the publication of a book for adults that sounds as if it was fairly similar in concept and style, but had more text and more pages. A lot of sites—Amazon, Goodreads—seem to think that this and the other book, What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night with no colon, are the same book. I’m pretty sure, but not entirely sure, that they are wrong, because the author on his Tumblr was referring to this as a new book. The illustrations are photographs of dinosaur toys that appear to have wrecked or to be wrecking the house, creating huge messes in places they shouldn’t be and interacting with things that they shouldn’t. Then the messes stop, and you might, the text warns, start to think that the dinosaurs have gone away, but that’s what they want you to think. Meanwhile, they’ve built a rocket and launched themselves into space. This was pretty fun text to read aloud, but I think the pictures would have been better appreciated one-on-one than aloud story time-style. They’re busy and detailed, and wow, these parents/artists really went all-out with their tableaus. A messy book of good, clean fun. I think the parents enjoyed it more than my toddler audience, though.

***

The Sweet Stories of Best Friends

9780062379559Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

When I first saw this story on a shelf, I got excited, because this is a pretty awesome duo, one of my favorite picture book writer/illustrators and the writer of the Artemis Fowl series. At the same time, I got a flutter of nervousness in my stomach. When writers write outside of their usual age group, there’s always a chance that the book is an absolute train wreck that will nevertheless sell well because of a big name author. Opening the book for the first time, I was worried that Colfer had indeed been unable to narrow his story to suit his new target audience. The first page has a lot of text, but subsequent pages are more appropriate for a read-aloud picture book. I didn’t get to read it aloud to anyone, although I was supposed to do. I read it to myself in anticipation of reading it aloud and snickered to myself at some of the jokes. Overall, this is a sweet story with a happy ending, a story for writers and dreamers and artists I think especially. Imaginary friends exist even when they’re no longer needed or visible to the people that they befriended. As their friends find “real” friends, the imaginary ones fade away then float away and wait to be needed by someone else. Fred meets Sam and everything seems perfect, but then Sam meets Sammi, and Fred begins to fade and tries to warn Sam, who assures Fred that he will still need Fred even if he befriends Sammi and that Fred won’t fade away. Sammi has an imaginary friend too, and while Sam and Sammi become greater friends and move on to more adult pursuits, Fred and Freida grow closer too, so much so that they become more and more real. They never fade for Sam and Sammi and they never fade for one another. Both sets of friends support the other and both go on to achieve their dreams and goals—much to the bewilderment of those who cannot see or hear the imaginary pair, who at one point perform in Carnegie Hall while the audience wonders when the performance will start and Sam and Sammi compliment their friends. This is a great, quirky story about holding on to the wonder of childhood, and also about the evolution and growth of a proper friendship, an age-proof friendship, if you will. What’s more, this portrays two male-female friendships that never become romantic! (See my rant on the lack of portrayal of such friendships here.) The illustrations and text are both clever. Jeffers makes clever use of pointillism to illustrate the imaginary friends’ difference from the real friends and the imaginary friends substance or lack thereof, giving them always a hazy substance and never any clear outline. All this is done in only blue, white, and black hues, the overall images being fairly gentle and soothing to the eye despite Jeffers somewhat jagged lines. One Goodreads reviewer rightfully calls the text “touchingly lyrical and abruptly hilarious,” and I really can’t describe it any better than that, so I won’t try.

****

9780805098266Little Elliot, Big Family by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is the second Little Elliot book by Curato, the first being Little Elliot, Big City. I haven’t read Little Elliot, Big City, but I went looking for the illustrations after falling in love with the illustrations in Little Elliot, Big Family and I think that Curato’s art has improved even between these two books, so we should keep a close watch on this man, I think. The illustrations in this book are beautiful, saturated, poignant—oh so poignant. I think I enjoyed this story more than did my toddler audience, but I loved it. I am a homesick girl, too, away from her family and being taken in by others while mine are a twelve-hours-long drive away. That probably plays into my love of this book, over the course of which much the same thing happens to Eliott, who feels so alone in the Big City (clearly New York, by the way) when his friend Mouse announces that he will be busy with a family reunion with his hundreds of cousins. Mouse and Elliot, a polka-dotted white elephant, are animals in a human city. Curato shows such diversity of family and races and lifestyles over the course of a mere 40 pages, and does so casually without any fuss and without having to raise any issue, which I think is one of the best ways to undercut the whiteness of the canon. I like the text, I really like the story, but it is the illustrations that I’m in love with, and Mr. Curato, if in a few years, you feel like illustrating a teen fantasy cover, you let me know. The first three pieces in this gallery are from this book. The next three are from Little Elliot, Big City.

*****

The New Classic Series

cvr9780689832130_9780689832130_hrClick, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Simon & Schuster, 2000. First published in 1999. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I first read Click, Clack, Moo in March 2013. It sells very well and is often prominently displayed in Barnes & Noble, and it did not then live up to my expectation. I find it an odd little book for kids, its tale revolving around a lot of bureaucracy: demands, ultimatums, neutral parties, compromises, terms that I don’t expect kids to understand or relate to. Reading it aloud this past month, I had in my audience one particular fan of this book, who mouthed the words along with me, and that made a great deal of difference. If the kids enjoy it, who am I to suggest they might not. Now, she was on the older side of the book’s target audience, but nonetheless within the target. It’s a pretty fun book to read aloud anyway, and there’s something to be said for the early lesson of how to compromise.

***

cvr9781442465534_9781442465534_hrClick, Clack, Boo!: A Tricky Treat by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

In this Halloween spin-off of Click, Clack, Moo, Farmer Brown tries to lock himself inside his house Halloween night, but creepy noises and frightening shadows lure him to the door to investigate, where he finds a note inviting him to a Halloween party in the barn, hosted by his animals. The creepy noises are the highlight of this book, it always being fun to put on a spooky voice.

****

y648Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly Dean and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Would you believe that this was the first Pete the Cat book I’d ever read? I’ve read it twice now on two occasions within days of each other. That in itself gives it a good review. The first time, my one visitor to story hour requested Pete, and I had many copies of this book on the shelves. Somehow, this one escaped my notice when it was published; I don’t remember it coming out, though I know I was at Barnes & Noble at the time. Pete books use sometimes rhyming text, a lot of repetition of phrases, and somewhat dated slang to say “cool,” which I find an interesting choice, but I’m old enough to know how these phrases ought to be inflected, if the kids don’t understand why. In this one, Pete’s just feeling down, “blue,” he has the “blue cat blues.” Grumpy Toad gives him a pair of shades that improve Pete’s outlook, to “see things in a whole new way”: “The birds are singing. The sky is bright. The sun is shining. I’m feeling all right.” Pete shares these sunglasses with his friends, who are also having poor days; “nothing is going my way,” they all complain. The glasses work for them all too. But when the sunglasses break, Wise Owl is there to tell Pete that he never needed the sunglasses to feel “all right.” “Just remember to look for the good in every day.” That bit felt a bit dues ex machina; that was a hiccup in the text. How was Owl right where Pete needed him to be right when he looked up into the tree? But such is fiction. I appreciate that Pete stops and takes the time to talk to his friends, share with them, and give them what they need.

****

y648-1Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues by Kimberly Dean and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Pete invites his friends over for a sleepover, but none of them are quite sleepy when Pete wants them to be. One by one, Pete has to tell them to go to sleep, “this cool cat needs to go to bed.” Eventually, he reads them all a favorite story of his to help soothe their minds and put them to sleep. I wasn’t as pleased with this one as I was with His Magic Sunglasses, though I see this as a good story to read aloud at bedtime, especially at a sleepover, a sort of niche book—though bedtime books are a large niche. The rhyme is stronger in this text than in His Magic Sunglasses. The text was all over the page in different colors, fonts, and sizes. That made it a little difficult to read aloud. I missed lines because I didn’t see them till after I was turning the page. Missing lines broke the rhythm. Going back to read them would have broken the rhythm too. Be prepared if you try to read this book aloud. Prepare first perhaps.

***

The Spooky Standalones

1076322 The Tailypo: A Ghost Story adapted by Joanna C. Galdone and illustrated by Paul Galdone. Clarion-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1984. First published in 1977.

This is one of my friend’s favorite ghost stories—a local folktale—and before finding this book I’d heard her tell it a few times—very memorably—the first time while she was driving me down dark, twisty country roads at night when I couldn’t escape her story—and yes, we three adults all screamed when near the end we found a raccoon in the road with our headlights.  She calls it “Tailybone,” but it’s the same story.  Her storytelling is the unavoidable comparison to this picture book, which I read aloud to a story time audience, but not without her Appalachian accent slipping into a few of the phrases (though it’s not my natural accent). Galdone’s adaptation is less dark than my friend’s and used less repetition—the difference between the oral and written story—but was more descriptive for using less repetition, making more clear the terrain and describing in more detail the animal. I almost prefer both of these vague as in my friend’s telling because it leaves the story open for a broader interpretation and telling. Leaving out the setting avoids the “Oh, we’re not near a swamp. We’re fine,” that could follow Galdone’s. I think, though, that Galdone’s done a good job rendering an oral folktale into print, and if it’s not a folktale that you know, it is a fun one. Paul Galdone’s watercolor illustrations here helped I think to keep the story lighter than it could have been. The illustrations shy away from putting the readers in the old man’s position during any of the spooky parts, always keeping the reader an outsider observer, and the moments depicted are never the spookiest or most gruesome. Two of my audience members were young enough that I didn’t want it to be that spooky and worried it might be too much regardless, keeping particular watch on the youngest, but I think they all came out all right, and we finished on a lighter note with the next story and some crayons.

****

9780064431835The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams and illustrated by Megan Lloyd. HarperCollins, 2002. First published 1986. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This is one of those new classics, but it really only shows up in stores around this time of year. A little old lady who is not afraid of anything encounters several animated pieces of clothing that first impede her way before she tells them off then follow her home. She is finally spooked by a huge pumpkin head saying “Boo! Boo!” She shuts herself in her home, but there’s a “knock, knock” on the door, and deciding that after all she isn’t afraid of anything, she answers it to ask the pieces of clothing and pumpkin head what they want. They answer that they came to scare her, but she won’t be scared, so what are they to do now? The little old lady provides the answer and today’s pumpkins and ghostly clothes become tomorrow’s scarecrow. This text builds. At first it’s just a pair of boots going clomp, clomp, but later it’s a two boots going clomp, clomp, on pair of pants going wiggle, wiggle, one shirt going shake, shake, two gloves going clap, clap, one black hat going nod, nod, and one pumpkin head going boo, boo. There’s repetition and counting (though no higher than two). Reading it, I found myself—and some of the kids—stomping, clapping, nodding, wiggling, and shaking along with the text. It’s one I’ll have to remember for those times when we need to expel a little energy at story time. I have a soft spot for stories of strong, brave, clever women.

****

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

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Book Review: The Giggler Treatment’s Clever Absurdity Still Has Me Giggling

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I was introduced to this story and to Roddy Doyle by A. LaFaye in a History and Criticism of Children’s Literature class at Hollins University. I fell in love with it perhaps almost instantaneously, opening its package at the dinner table and promptly passing it around or reading the back cover’s blurb aloud (I forget which). I read it before class, then for class, and several times since term ended (two years ago, but it never feels that long ago).

The story, coming to us from Ireland, solicitously translates the Irish expressions for Americans so that we know that Mr. Mack, a biscuit tester, spends his day with cookies. Also we are ready to translate, “Quick! Quick! My cookie is bleeding! Give me a Band-Aid!” to “Quick! Quick! My biscuit is bleeding! Give me a plaster!” (7).

That’s just a taste of the absurd, tongue-in-cheek humor of Roddy Doyle’s book.

I have always been partial to this style of nonsense.

There’s a lot in this book that reminds me of some childhood favorites of mine: Louis Sachar’s Wayside School books particularly but also Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, all men who don’t underestimate children’s intelligence or their ability to pick up on absurdity and word play.

The chapter titles in particular are wonderful examples of the playfulness with which Doyle treats traditional fiction: “Chapter One,” “The Return of Chapter One,” “A Chapter That Isn’t Really a Chapter Because Nothing Really Happens in it But We’ll Call it Chapter Four,” “Chapter Something”…. Somewhere around “Chapter Sixteen” (which comes after “Chapter Two Million and Seven”), Doyle gives up on numbering the chapters and begins to use the questions that the chapters answer as headers: “How Many Inches Now?,” “Where in the World is Rover? {II}”….

Doyle’s is metafiction. It shatters the 4th wall to such an extent that there’s hardly any wall left.

He is a present narrator and acknowledges the fiction of his story. Doyle speaks directly to the audience about himself as a person and as a writer. He discusses his country and its language and references his grandmother (“I was tempted to put in a dinosaur in a leather jacket who bullies old people, but my grandmother wouldn’t lend me her leather jacket”) (7) and mother, after whom he names a chapter: “This Chapter Is Named After My Mother Because She Said I Could Stay Up Late if I Named it After Her: Chapter Mammy Doyle” (49).

The audience occasionally interjects with a question too, making them a presence within the text if not in the story.

Characters also sometimes interrupt the text to interact with the author.

Beyond the hilarity of this play with the traditional narrative style, Doyle’s story tells of a loving family (always a wonderful thing) able to do extraordinary things through their love, like understand the complex sentences of their youngest daughter, expressed using only the word “A-bah.” Well, that’s not perhaps the main focus of the story. The main focus of the story is the dog poo left by the Gigglers, invisible creatures bent on punishing adults for mistreating children. The Gigglers witness Mr. Mack losing his patience with his two sons but not the apology that he later gives them, and so they seek out a big squishy pile of poo and scoot it onto the sidewalk for Mr. Mack to step into on his way to work. The Mack children learning by chance of the Gigglers’ planned revenge set out with their mother and the dog Rover (who provided the poo) to save Mr. Mack from this misplaced punishment. Four steps of Mr. Mack’s encompass the whole of the 105-page story with all of its bunny trails and backstory.

*****

Doyle, Roddy.  The Giggler Treatment.  Illus. Brian Ajhar.  New York: Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2000.

This review is not endorsed by Roddy Doyle, Brian Ajhar, Arthur A. Levine Books or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle Cures Misbehavior with Laughter

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.

All right.  Now it’s April 2.  Here’s the blog post you were actually owed yesterday before I decided I’d rather post a prank.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is a name that strikes bells in the scattered memories of my childhood. A friend if not a favorite of my sister’s, I have vague recollections of invading her room to hear the tales or pieces of the tales. Until our recent reintroduction, I could not have told you much about the woman, however. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is an older woman who never could reconcile herself to the world or company of adults (a sentiment that I can relate to now in a way that I couldn’t have during any earlier encounter and would make me smile as a parent reading these tales to my children). She is eccentric, living in an upside down house with a menagerie of interesting pets. But the children love her, and she is friends with them all. Her house is a sanctuary for them. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle becomes known among the parents as a woman with a cure for every misbehavior. The series tells short tales of the successes of her cures. This first novel of Betty MacDonald’s series, called simply Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, tells of the cures for children who think that chores are a cruel personal punishment, who won’t pick up toys, who always answer back, who are selfishness, who won’t wash, who never want to go to bed, who will only take tiny bites, and who fight and quarrel.

The stories have an element of ridiculous humor. MacDonald relies heavily upon exaggeration and a stretching of the possible. It would take a very long time, for example, for a child who does not wash to acquire enough soil for radish seeds to begin to take root upon her skin. I know of very few parents who would be able to accept Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s advice as wholly as do these desperate parents, and though I think that some of the cures might work, some border upon cruelty themselves and child endangerment.

This is a very interesting tale because it pits child against parent without either being vilified (the children always being described by Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle as essentially good but behaving badly in this one way) and effects victories for the parents by letting the children do, often as not, exactly as they please. It is the sort of ultimate example of laissez-faire as a method of governing. Children I think will be attracted to this call to let children be children and do as they please as well as Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s kindness and oddity. Parents will be pleased with the lessons.

I should take a moment to note that this is a book from the 1940s, physical punishments such as spankings are looked upon more casually than I would consider them, and the dynamics between the two parents are not the examples to which we aspire today. Often, the mothers are women who stay at home to mind the children, cook, and keep house. The fathers are, if sometimes physically present and almost always attached to mothers, often emotionally and mentally absent. For that, MacDonald does a good job of making each nebulous father of a slightly different personality during his small amount of page time.

This was a quick and light read all in all.

***

MacDonald, Betty. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Illus. Hilary Knight. New York: HarperTrophy-Harper & Row, 1985. First published 1947.

This review is not endorsed by Betty MacDonald, her estate, Harper Trophy Books, Harper & Row Publishers (later bought by HarperCollins Publishers LLC).  It is an independent, honest review by a reader. Editions now available from HarperCollins are illustrated by Alexandra Boiger.

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.

****

Book Reviews: Books Without a 4th Wall

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Click to visit the Sesame Street Store, for links to purchase and reviews.

Click to visit the author's page, for links to purchase.

Rereading an old favorite picture book for the first time in a long time, I have realized that I have a type.  Two of my all-time favorite picture books are The Monster at the End of This Book, a Sesame Street book by Jon Stone, and We Are in a Book!, an Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems.  Both of these books break the 4th wall, the wall that ordinarily divides the fictional story and the real audience.

Grover, the protagonist of The Monster at the End of the Book, interacts with both the audience and the book itself, attempting to tie the pages together or build a brick wall to weigh barricade the next page while pleading with the reader not to turn the page because every turned page brings the reader and Grover nearer to the end of the book where a monster waits, and Grover has a terrible fear of monsters.

We Are in a Book! begins with Elephant Gerald’s realization that he and his friend Piggie are being watched, at which point Piggie investigates, coming to the “front” of the page that is their stage to peer out of the book at the audience.  They interact with the pages, turning the corners to see how many pages are left, noticing the text on the pages.  They play with the reader, making the reader say silly words like “Banana” because they realize that they can do so as characters being read.

One of the advantages of this 4th wall breakage is that there is a direct interaction between character and reader, and a feeling of familiarity and casual conversation develops because of that that cannot be achieved when the 4th wall remains intact, however much a reader may empathize with a character.  There is a different skill in sympathizing with a character in conversation with you and empathizing with a character that is indifferent to you.  Both are skills that need to be acquired, but there are fewer books that help young readers with the first skill.  Stone’s and Willem’s books give readers a chance to practice at understanding another’s feelings in a conversation without the danger of human unpredictability.

These are both playful books with twist endings that turn horror into delight.  Both books deal with characters’ (and by extension the readers’) anxiety about what happens when the book ends.  Elephant Gerald and Piggie celebrate that a book can be turned over and begun again.  Grover celebrates twist endings and plays with the concept of fear built up by a novel’s plot.

These are books that make me laugh.  There’s an intelligence to them that makes them as fun for parents or babysitters reading to young children as to the young children themselves.  I was introduced to The Monster at the End of This Book by a toddler for whom I was babysitting.  He had me read it to him again and again, and I loved it each time, though the surprise was gone after the first time.  As far as I’m concerned, any book for any age that can be enjoyed again and again, even with consecutive readings must be fantastic.  I’ve read We Are in a Book! several times too, and show it to every friend that I can.

*****                                                                                    *****

Stone, Jon.  The Monster at the End of This Book.  New York: Golden-Random, 1971.

Willems, Mo.  Elephant and Piggie: We Are in a Book!  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Jon Stone or Mo Willems, Sesame Street, Golden Books or Random House, Inc, Hyperion or Disney Books.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: The Pigeon Finds a Fan!

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Mo Willems, one of my favorite authors, has written a series of seven picture books thus far featuring the Pigeon and occasionally guest starring the Duckling.  I have read five of those seven and cherish every one for the Pigeon’s very realistically childlike voice—albeit that the Pigeon’s is frequently a very sulky or a very angry child’s voice—and the equally realistic youngest sibling craftiness of the Duckling, who always seems to get what he wants from the Pigeon and the world in general.

In the majority of these books—those in which the Duckling is absent—the Pigeon directly speaks to the reader.  In those that feature the Duckling, the Pigeon interacts primarily with the Duckling, though the Pigeon will turn aside to comment to the reader, “Can you believe this guy?”

Both the lifelike voices and the Pigeon’s outlandish desires and stories make the stories scintillate with humor.

The illustrations are cartoonish.  The characters are boldly outlined—if I had to guess, using the side of a pencil’s lead—and speak mostly in speech bubbles.  The Pigeon’s anger is expressed by a dark pall that hangs over his head, and grows larger the angrier he becomes.  The color palette is soft, which actually tends to contradict rather than compliment the Pigeon’s excitement but would be soothing to a child at bedtime.

The books tend to follow a simple storyline.  The Pigeon wants something—to do something, to have something.  He tells the reader why he wishes this.  He complains about how unfair it is that he cannot or does not have it or is not allowed to do it.

[SPOILERS] In The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, the Duckling comes to inquire all about the taste of a hot dog, which he claims to never have tasted before.  He takes notes.  The Pigeon sees through his ploy to acquire the hot dog, but eventually caves to the Duckling’s request to split the hot dog in half.  There might be a lesson here about sharing.

In The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?, the Duckling offers his cookie, after the Pigeon’s railing and ranting, to the Pigeon, then asks for the kind of cookie that he prefers.

In The Pigeon Wants a Puppy! the Pigeon tells the reader about his newest desire, only to be confronted by the reality of a puppy and decide he doesn’t want one after all.  He ends by desiring a more outlandish creature.

In Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! the reader is asked to put the Pigeon to bed by an adult who wanders away in the first few pages.  The Pigeon lists all the reasons he should be allowed to stay up, but ultimately falls asleep before the adult returns.

In Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! much the same happens, although this time the bus driver who forbade the Pigeon from driving the bus and asked for the reader’s help in enforcing the rule returns and drives away before the Pigeon can get on the bus.  A semi then drives past. [END SPOILERS]

Are these books particularly educational?  Perhaps not, but they are fun, and I think that they are books that children—and perhaps even more so adults—will enjoy for their lifelike voices.

Overall, I give the series

****

Willems, Mo.  Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!  New York: Hyperion, 2003.

Willems, Mo.  The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!  New York: Hyperion, 2004.

Willems, Mo.  Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!  New York: Hyperion, 2006.

Willems, Mo.  The Pigeon Wants a Puppy!  New York: Hyperion, 2008.

Willems, Mo.  The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?  New York: Hyperion, 2012.

 Also in this series:

Willems, Mo.  The Pigeon Has Feelings, Too!  New York: Hyperion, 2005.

Willems, Mo.  The Pigeon Loves Things That Go!  New York: Hyperion, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Mo Willems or Hyperion Books for Children.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Arctic Bears Chase Discussions Ever Finer

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I won a copy of Arctic Bears Chase, written by Steve Fiffer and illustrated by Keiler Roberts, on the site Goodreads.  This being my first, quite unexpected, and unlooked for prize, I may be disposed to view Arctic Bears Chase a little less impartially than I have some of the other books that I’ve reviewed here.

Arctic Bears Chase is a book consisting of a single, alphabetically building sentence with corresponding illustrations.  The concept intrigued me, and so I entered my name for the drawing.

Intriguing though I still find the concept, I feel as if it might have been executed with more finesse, while recognizing how difficult such a book, such a sentence is to craft, particularly while making it appropriate for the young target audience.

In 10 minutes or less—so please cut me some slack for not trying too terribly hard—I created this sentence using the same concept:

“Aspens bend carelessly down earthward for great, huffing, icy jets; kamikaze, lacerating monsoons; nearly opaque rain; streaming, torpedoing, ubiquitous, violent water—Xandu, your zealot.”

There are several flaws with this quickly dashed sentence:

In terms of its ability to be turned into a picture book of the same form as Arctic Bears Chase, there are words in this sentence that no child reading a picture book would comprehend.

It would not be as simple to illustrate as Arctic Bears Chase, which uses primarily a noun participle pattern (i.e. “watering xylophonists yodeling zeroes”).  Each of Arctic Bears Chase’s pairs can be illustrated, if some take some creativity to pull off; each includes a subject that does an action.  I would think it much more difficult to illustrate my string of adjectives, especially as 11 of the adjectives describe one object: rain.

My sentence does not have the rhythm that Arctic Bears Chase’s noun participle pattern lends it and so is not as pleasant a read.

Both my and Fiffer’s sentences are a bit grammatically awkward, but I think mine might be a tad more awkward.

I hope, though, that Fiffer spent much more time crafting and tweaking his sentence to get it just right and ready for publication, and I do wonder what I could do with more than a cursory try at this form.

What really rubs me about this book is how quickly the novelty of the nonsensical wears off and how quickly the illustrations cease building into a full story but instead dissolve into creative drawings that do not connect to one another except by the inclusion of the previous character.  Arctic bears disappeared from the illustrations by the letter ‘I,’ and the illustrations ceased to build coherently after ‘F,’ when the frog is suddenly no longer in the tree.

I am 23.  I am not the intended audience for this book nor have I been able yet to interact with a child who is the target age to watch his reaction.  Perhaps a toddler would be more able to enjoy the rhythm and nonsense of the story.

I am a harsh judge of children’s literature.  So, I’m sorry, Mr. Fiffer and Miss Roberts: it’s enjoyable to a point, I thank you for the book, I will try to get it read by toddlers when they cross my path, but overall, I’m not in love.

**1/2

Fiffer, Steve & Keiler Roberts.  Arctic Bears Chase.  CreateSpace, 2012.

This review is not endorsed by Steve Fiffer or Keiler Roberts.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.