Elbow Grease by John Cena and illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.
I was pleasantly surprised by this picture book. I know John Cena more for his philanthropic work than as a wrestler, but I still did not really expect a quality picture book from this celebrity (nor do I from most celebrities). This is the story of a family of monster trucks who each have a particular skill or trait that helps him dominate one aspect of the monster truck arena—all expect Elbow Grease, who is the smallest of his brothers and electric besides. His brothers make fun of him. He decides that he will prove them wrong and drives all night to enter a demolition derby. When he gets there, he’s already exhausted, but he goes to the starting line anyway. Despite the other trucks being bigger, having more experience, and better technique, he does not give up. In the middle of the race, his battery gives out. But when a lightning strike reenergizes his battery, Elbow Grease is able to make it across the finish line. The winner of the race declares that Elbow Grease has gumption, and the brothers’ (female) mechanic, Mel, tells them that if they only stick to what they are good at, they’ll never learn anything. The book closes with all the brothers being coached through new challenges by Elbow Grease. There are a lot of lessons and broken stereotypes crammed into this one brightly colored picture book. It was a little long, a little spasmodic, but neither excessively so.
Little Elliot, Fall Friends by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
I adore earlier Little Elliot books. This one, frankly, didn’t live up to my expectations. The illustrations were still beautiful and the story was clever and fun, but it lacked the message that I am used to seeing in this series. Perhaps if the reader was infrequently in the country, the message would be the delights of the country, but here, where everywhere we look is not too dissimilar from the landscapes depicted in the vibrant illustrations (though rarely do we get that much fall color), it’s not much of a lesson; we know the joys of pumpkin patches and watching clouds and picking apples and eating pies. In this, the two friends on their vacation decide to play hide-and-seek, but Elliot hides too well, and Mouse can’t find him—until Mouse bakes a pie and fishes Elliot out of the cornfield, Elliot following his nose to the source of the delicious aroma (which honestly feels a bit like cheating at hide-and-seek though it is clever and the reward is reunion and pie). This of the Elliot books seems to be the one aimed at the youngest audience. There are many farm animals in the final pages, and though few if any are explicitly named in this story, those pages could easily be turned into a testing of animal names and sounds when reading to a young child.
How to Scare a Ghost by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
This isn’t a format that I particularly enjoy. This story was basically a series of lists, and it seemed long. It seems like the sort of book that you ought to read page-by-page, stopping to decorate for Halloween, stopping to do some Halloween activities at school. Why one wants to scare a ghost is never addressed. The only thing that scares the ghost is a vacuum. That one scene is a page long. Scaring a ghost becomes comforting a ghost and playing with a ghost and taking a ghost trick-or-treating. The book’s ideas are quite clever, but the format just doesn’t help those ideas, I don’t think. I’d rather read a story about less-generic, better characterized kids making a ghost friend and taking it trick-or-treating than listicles with a vague “you” addressee. My little story time guests wanted to know why the ghost was incorporeal when the kids were playing with it on the playground, but it was able to be corporeal enough to wear a costume, and why wearing a Halloween costume made a ghost visible to adults. I couldn’t answer them.
Builder Brothers: Big Plans by Drew Scott and Jonathan Scott of Property Brothers, and illustrated by Kim Smith. Harper Collins, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
This was another celebrity picture book that surprised me with its quality. During a summer day the brothers, children in this story, are dreaming up plans for a tree house, which makes the grown-ups laugh, thinking their wild ideas impossible. (“There’s a hundred and four days of summer vacation.” ♫) The brothers set out to prove the adults wrong. They decide to build a luxury, two-story doghouse (a bit of a step down from their castle tree house with a catapult, but perhaps more manageable on a small budget). They draw up blueprints, go to the store to purchase all that they need, and build their house—only to find that they measured incorrectly, and the scale is not right for their dogs. They are at first upset, but realize that the scale is right for a birdhouse. It’s a cute tale of trying to prove adults wrong, trying to prove that young people can succeed, that they can brings their dreams to life. It’ll be a fun one to read before setting out to build a birdhouse of your own with your little—instructions are in the back of the book.
These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.