Tag Archives: Julie Gassman

Book Reviews: August 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Lessons Learned

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I’m catching up to myself, but I am still writing these reviews two months after having read the books, so some of these have less detail than I wish that they did. My apologies to the authors and illustrators and readers where they are necessary. 

Class is in Session

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Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003. First published 1977.

Because sometimes fate likes a laugh, my only story time participant this day was a homeschooled girl who’d never had to fear substitute teachers—who’d never had a substitute. The muted colors, simple palette, and the subject matter that is not as universally relatable as I—a Northern-born girl—might’ve thought didn’t endear her to the story. Nevertheless, I remembered this story from my childhood. Her parents remembered this story from their childhoods. That level of memorability should count for something.  Sweet Miss Nelson has an interesting way of dealing with the rowdy and disrespectful behavior of her class.  Miss Nelson disappears and is replaced by Miss Viola Swamp, who works the kids hard during lessons, assigns lots of homework, and cancels story hour.  All the children are grateful and more respectful of Miss Nelson when she finally returns.

***

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Goodnight Lab: A Scientific Parody by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

This is a parody of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon about a young, black, female scientist closing up her lab for the night. The illustrations mirror Goodnight Moon’s palette both on its color and its grayscale pages. I don’t think that this is a child’s book. This to me seems a niche book. This would be great for graduate and PhD students in scientific fields who will laugh at the “grumpy old professor (he’s white and male of course) shouting ‘publish.’” That joke and some of the lesser-known scientific instruments (I had to look up the use of one and have since forgotten its name since to me it was not more than a nonsense word) likely won’t stick with the average picture book’s audience.

**

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Do Not Take Your Dragon to Dinner by Julie Gassman and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Picture Window-Capstone, 2017. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

Strictly rhyming text goes over the ways that dragons can exhibit particularly poor table manners and what they should do to behave appropriately at dinner. The diversity in this series of brightly colored books is amazing, but I do wish there were more story to these.

***

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How to Get Your Teacher Ready by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This comes from the same team that brought us How to Babysit a Grandma and a Grandpa, How to Raise a Mom, How to Surprise a Dad, and How to Catch a Santa. The strange thing about this book to me is that the students seem to know more about the school and the classroom and the classes than the students do. Is this for classes that get a new teacher mid-school year? Is this for a whole class of student redoing the year? Are there schools where the class a) stays together and b) doesn’t change rooms but rather has a new teacher come to that classroom every year? It seems strange. That being said, in this book there’s a lot of great advice for classes and classroom management and school events. For that, it would be good for nervous kids on the first day of school. I like the diversity of this class.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, awards list, activity guide, and author's and illustrator's bios.

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Winner of the 2017 Margaret Wise Brown Award in Children’s Literature, I read this one several times this month because I absolutely loved it. A new building doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t know what a school is. It develops a relationship with the janitor, an African American man. The building thinks maybe it is the janitor’s home. The school is nervous about school, nervous about being filled with children. The kids get everywhere. A few kids complain about school, one doesn’t want to come in at all. The school’s self-esteem sinks. In retaliation the school squirts one of them with a water fountain. The school feels badly about that. It accidentally sets off the fire alarms and feels worse about that. The school laughs with the kids at lunch, learns about shapes, and celebrates a girl’s portrait of him. It tells the janitor all about his day when he returns in the afternoon, and it asks the janitor to arrange for the kids to come back the next day. There’s clever word play in the text. There’s a clever way of rethinking about the world. The school is filled with a diverse cast (and a great number of Aidens), and the school itself is named after Frederick Douglass. An American flag flies outside the building, bright on the final page.

*****

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Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex. Chronicle, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Nothing rhymes with orange, and Orange is feeling left out as every other fruit gets a sometimes outlandish line in this text. The illustrations look like motivational posters, mostly large text extolling the virtues of fruit, and then smaller fruits with drawn on, cartoonish expressions. Orange wanders into the book on page three or so and comments first that she’s here, she’s available, then more and more on the text itself and how outlandish its rhymes and messages are becoming. Why Nietzche is here I can’t explain either, Orange. The apple finally notices Orange’s despondence and comes to meet her with a rhyme, making up a word to fit her perfectly and rhyme perfectly with her name. Why the story turns into a still from a music video at the end I’m not sure either. In short, this was a strange book with a decent lesson about including everyone, even if you have to bend the rules to do so. But it is a very strange book. Some of the strangeness is endearing, and some of it is off-putting. I was on board with werewolf pears being saved be grapes in capes but Nietzche was just a strange choice even if it does rhyme with lychee and peachy. I had to look up pronunciations of some of the lesser-known fruits and ask a manager who to pronounce Zarathustra. The video I just finished watching mispronounced several words too. Pronunciation matters in this book because the whole point is rhyme. Beware aloud readers. On the other hand, because rhyme is so important here, this could be a good book on which to practice sounding out new words.

**

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Life by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Grades PreK+.

I was excited to see a work by this pair, and the saturated blue of the cover definitely caught my eye. Life begins small, but it grows. Life is always changing, so even if it seems that everything is black, trust what every animal knows: that life is changing, that the blackness ends. The saturated illustrations, the stark contrasts on some pages, the animal portraits are all beautiful. I’m not sure that the toddlers in my audience quite understood the message that the story was trying to convey. This is one of those stories like Oh, the Places You’ll Go! that speaks perhaps more to adults and older children than to young ones, though thankfully this text does not take long to read (Oh, the Places You’ll Go! went on far too long for my audience), so the message itself is better packaged for young ears and shorter attention spans. The text may in fact be too short; it doesn’t give me as much time on each page as I’d maybe like to take. There is an implication that the book believes in evolution right at the very beginning, but it’s not explicit.

***

Trying New Things

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Black Belt Bunny by Jacky Davis and illustrated by Jay Fleck. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The text addresses the silent protagonist, Black Belt Bunny. Black Belt doesn’t want to learn how to make salad. He tries a lot to get out of it: hailing a cab, wearing a disguise…. He doesn’t want to learn new things. Finally Black Belt Bunny uses his karate skills to chop and shred and slice all kinds of vegetables. The bunny invites the reader to try his salad, but the lesson gets turned around on the reader. There’s arugula in the salad, and the reader doesn’t like arugula, but no, she’s never actually tried it. She does, and the salad is amazing. This is a clever way to present a lesson about trying new things and trying new foods, made exciting by front kicks, side kicks, karate chops, and punches.

****

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Peterrific by Victoria Kann. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

With Pinkalicious’ help, Peter builds a tower all the way to space. He wants to do it all by himself, but he allows Pinkalicious to visit all the neighborhood houses to borrow blocks. He will get a star for Mommy and one for Pinkalicious too because she asked. One problem. He’s not planned any way to get down from his tower. Innovation strikes in the nick of time, and he rescues himself by turning his blanket into a parachute.  His parents are impressed by his tower and encourage him to keep engineering better designs.

***

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Quackers by Liz Wong. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Quackers is a duck, but he doesn’t like many of the same things that the other ducks do. He meets other ducks who tell him that they are cats, and Quackers finds that he has a lot in common with these cats. He enjoys his time with the cats but misses the duck pond, the duck food, and his duck friends. So he finds a way to be both a cat and a duck, to sometimes do cat things and sometimes do duck things. This to me seemed a lesser Not Quite Narwhal, not as adorably illustrated, not as funny, not as overtly a social commentary because Quackers avoids language that society has coded for coming out conversations. That last may endear some to Quackers more than Not Quite Narwhal. Being less coded does leave Quackers more open to broader interpretations: adoption maybe? I was glad to find one book like this. I’m more excited to find two. I like having options.

***

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A New Friend for Sparkle by Amy Young. Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

I loved A Unicorn Named Sparkle, and was excited to see a sequel. In this, Lucy makes a new friend, and Sparkle feels rejected. The situation reverses when Sparkle and Cole bond. Sparkle and Cole find a way to include Lucy in their play, teaching her a new skill. This seems a good title to have in a family of two or more children, when play with new friends will often leave out siblings. I was not as enamored of this story as I was of the first, maybe because there was less humor, maybe because the lesson in the first seems less forced.

***

Seeing Things in a New Way

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Elephant and Piggie Like Reading: The Good for Nothing Button by Charise Mericle Harper and Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

Mo Willems has started a new imprint. This book is introduced by Gerald and Piggie. Piggie is reading the book and Gerald comes up to ask what she is reading. Yellow Bird has a button. He claims it does nothing. But it surprises Blue Bird, and it makes Red Bird sad when it does not surprise him, so in both cases it doesn’t do nothing; it does something. Yellow Bird gets more and more upset with his friends’ optimism. Yellow Bird reminds me of Pigeon and Red Bird and Blue Bird have Piggie’s optimism. The whole of the story is told in short, often one-word sentences in speech bubbles in much the same way as Elephant and Piggie stories are. Gerald and Piggie close out the book too, so its almost as though the reader is reading a story about Gerald and Piggie reading a story, a story within a story.

***

Water Everywhere

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This Beautiful Day by Richard Jackson and illustrated by Suzy Lee. Caitlyn Dlouhy-Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This text is more musical and more poetic than most. The illustrations are beautiful, beginning almost grayscale, but adding a bit of blue, then more and more colors as the rain clears and the sun returns. This is the story of a family who doesn’t let a day of rain spoil their fun but dance inside and outside of the house. The neighborhood joins them as the sun clears, and it seems as if there may be some magically flying umbrellas involved.  The text is less about what is happening in the illustrations, though, than about dancing and enjoying a gray day turned sunny and spent with friends and family.

*****

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Aqualicious by Victoria Kann. HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Pinkalicious and Peter are at the beach. While there, Pinkalicious finds a small mermaid—a merminnie—inside of a shell. Peter and Pinkalicious keep delaying Aqua’s return home. They build her a sandcastle, invite her to lunch, invite her to miniature golf, and Aqua teaches Pinkalicious to surf after Pinkalicious accuses Aqua of cheating at mini golf and gets angry. Aqua is snatched away by a seagull and Peter and Pinkalicious must rescue her. Only after that do the kids even try to bring her home, but then they wrongly assume that the ocean is her home, and imperil her again.

The kids don’t listen to Aqua through the whole of the day. Finally as the day is finishing, the kids return with Aqua to their parents, and Daddy, finally awake, explains that Aqua lives in an aquarium on the beach.

I don’t like how little Aqua is listened to, how even when the kids finally ask her where she lives, it’s their dad who speaks over Aqua and answers for her. The kids’ behavior is almost pardonable for being really fairly realistic. The dad’s behavior is also realistic (men are always talking over women) but inexcusable because he should know better, and his behavior hurts because of its realism, because there was a teachable moment there that was missed. It would have been so easy for one parent or the other to express surprise that neither kid had asked Aqua where she lived, where she had come from. Aqua makes it at the end seem as though she was trying to keep herself away from the aquarium all day, saying that she snuck out to discover, that curiosity is good, that humans are fun, but all day she has been asking to go home, and no one has been heeding her request.

There’s a lot of plot crammed into this story. The story itself is good, with excitement and lots of beach activities to excite a child preparing for a visit. The illustrations are wonderfully detailed, from the music notes on Aqua’s shell to the sea critters in the shallow water where Peter drops her.

I just can’t get behind the the plot.  I can’t support it.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, awards list, reviews, and author's bio.

Cloudette by Tom Lichtenheld. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

This is a really sweet story of a smaller than average cloud who enjoys the advantages of being small, but who still wants to do the important things that clouds do. She can’t find a way to be useful until she gets blown far away by a storm. At first it’s strange in this new neighborhood, but then she begins to make friends. There she finally finds someone that she can help, impressing everyone. Occasionally there are dialogue asides. There are several creative page layouts. The illustrations are beautiful. The story is uplifting with a good message for little readers.

*****

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 Reviews: August 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Be Yourself, Find a Friend, Mind the Books, and Have Some Science

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Books About Books and Stories

9781479591756Do Not Bring Your Dragon to the Library by Julie Gassman and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Capstone, 2016. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

The human patrons of the library are even more diverse than the dragons—both male and female—who clutter the aisles—and while we’re mentioning it, let’s applaud that the protagonist, the character on the cover, and not just some of the background patrons is non-white. These illustrations are vibrant—in every sense, and are probably the best thing about the book. The diversity of the cast is what propels this book for me a little farther above its peers. I suspect that a great deal of the appeal of books about libraries is the meta-ness of reading a book about story time and about libraries in a library and in a library story time. It doesn’t quiet work as well in a bookstore, as much as I’d like it to do, particularly as a number of our younger patrons have difficulty separating the concepts of bookstore and of library. I love dragons. I love books. I love the concept of libraries even if right now I spend very little time myself in any. I wish I was more enthralled with this story and with this text, but this doesn’t say much that is original about how to respect libraries or what a library is; it just does so with dragons.

***

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Let Me Finish! by Minh Lê and illustrated by Isabel Roxas. Hyperion-Disney, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This little boy just wants to read a book without having anyone spoil the ending for him—poor kid. He goes farther and farther into the wilderness but meets wonderfully well-read animals, eager to share their enthusiasm for the books that he’s chosen to read. The text is first person with the interruptions by others as speech bubbles. This is definitely a book that the older reader can appreciate. This is the first book for children I think that I’ve ever read that talks about spoilers. Lê began as a children’s book reviewer and critic.

***

9780803741409 The Not So Quiet Library by Zachariah Ohora. Dial-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

A quiet day at the library is interrupted by an angry monster who doesn’t realize that books are for reading and not for eating. Oskar and Theodore the bear must run from the monster, survive, and ultimately teach him that books are meant to be read, that he’s in a library not a restaurant.

***

9780803740679The Forgetful Knight by Michelle Robinson and illustrated by Fred Blunt. Dial-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book had a lot of potential, but it read awkwardly. The shifting story just didn’t handle well aloud. I think with the right storyteller it could. I think especially with a storyteller dressed as a knight it could do. I’d love to see this tale acted out. The illustrations shift as the narration does. “A knight in armor rode away. Then again… he had no horse. Did I say ‘rode’? He strode, of course. That’s right—he strode across the land with half a sandwich in his hand?” This could also be fun with the right audience, one who wants to correct the story, make it fit the knight-in-armor, knight-vs-dragon narrative. But then they couldn’t see the pictures without being given the answers. It would be interesting to use this too in a discussion about narrative—about cultural narrative and subversion. Like I said, a lot of potential, but the execution just doesn’t seem quite right, and I wish it did.

**

Be Your Best Self and Don’t Be Ashamed

y648 Teddy the Dog: Be Your Own Dog by Keri Claiborne Boyle and illustrated by Jonathan Sneider. HarperCollins, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Another book about an unlikely doodle, like Octicorn? One that began as a blog like the Tumas’ book about dinosaurs at night? Teddy the Dog has a line of clothing?

Told from the point of view of a cool pup—note the sunglasses—Teddy’s living the life—being a dog, wreaking havoc but never fetching—until a package arrives containing a cat—whom he nicknames and continues throughout the book to call Fishbreath. He tries to teach Fishbreath all that he knows, since it seems that the cat will now be his companion, but Fishbreath isn’t interested. Teddy tries to do the things that Fishbreath likes but doesn’t like them. Ultimately they bond over stealing cookies from the cookie jar, and Teddy decides that both of them are best when they are being their best selves, that each of them can contribute in their own way.

***

25489431Fritz and the Beautiful Horses by Jan Brett. G. P. Putnam’s Sons-Penguin Random, 2016. First published 1981. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This was one of my favorite stories as a child, and it has remained fairly influential in my life. Fritz sees all the tall, glamorous, finely bedecked horses, and he wants to do what they do and be loved as they are loved. He notices that the children seem frightened of the fine horses. He prances before the people, doing his best impression of the horses’ prance, but they laugh at him, and he goes away dejected, but when the bridge cracks stranding the nervous children on one side and the adults on their prideful mounts on the other, Fritz goes up and down the steep banks and across the river to rescue each child. Then he sees that he can do what the fine horses cannot, that his smallness and surefootedness are strengths not weaknesses. Moreover the people—children and adults—recognize it, and he is given a place of honor in the city’s walls.

I loved horse stories—and still do, if more of that is nostalgia than it once was, maybe—and I love stories of the strength of littleness. I think those stories resonant with children. They resonate with me still.

I’ve talked before about the amazing detail and realism and wonder of Jan Brett’s illustrations. This book is no exception.

I read this alongside I Wanna Be a Great Big Dinosaur and Teddy the Dog and am very pleased to report that this—this classic about a tiny pony that is bedecked by flowers and wears fine blankets was the favorite—even though my audience consisted of one maybe 5-7 year old boy. This was easily the most complex of those stories, the longest, the oldest, and the most muted—though Jan Brett’s details might help to compensate for the absence of bold, bright colors. Points made. Thanks, kid.

(rating this one seems unfair; I’d give it five stars for nostalgia)

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Little Elliot, Big Fun by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

There’s a new Little Elliot book! I did a little dance in the store when I found it and immediately rearranged things to be able to better display it. And when no one showed up for the story time where I intended to read it, I read it myself and showed coworkers my favorite pages; I final page evoked a spoken “aw,” and I had to explain myself. Little Elliot is truly one of my favorites. This book features a fold out page of a beautiful vista of the boardwalk seen from the top of the Ferris wheel during an orange sunset.

Little Elliot isn’t enjoying the amusement park that Mouse has brought him too. All of Mouse’s favorite rides are too scary, too dizzy, too fast. But Mouse knows the perfect ride—the Ferris wheel—that they can both enjoy, and though Elliot is at first scared, the payoff here is worth his fear. And afterwards they find activities at the boardwalk that they can both enjoy—ice cream, balloons, the beach. Can Elliot be my spirit animal? For real?

I still love Curato’s illustrations, his stories, and his inclusion of many races in his vivid backgrounds.

*****

9781492632993I Wanna Be a Great Big Dinosaur! by Heath McKenzie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

This is what I expect in books featuring dinosaurs: a chance to stomp and invite the kids to give me their best ROAR! A white boy in a cardboard costume proclaims his wish to be a dinosaur and a dinosaur shows up to show him his best dinosaur skills. The boy questions if dinosaurs can eat junk food and play soccer and video games and do the other things that he as a boy enjoys doing. The dinosaur cannot, and the dinosaur wishes to be a boy. And in the end the boy is dressed as a dinosaur and the dinosaur is dressed as a boy and both are stomping around and roaring. The endpage was pretty fun too: a more realistic painting of dinosaurs, one you might find in a nonfiction book, doing boy-things with the trapping of boyness added overtop in marker. I am reminded a touch of I Don’t Want to Be a Frog, but this is a much more enjoyable, less frightening way to get across the same message of being glad that you are what you are.

***

More Lessons to Learn

dinosaurs-love-underpants-9781416989387_hrDinosaurs Love Underpants by Claire Freedman and illustrated by Ben Cort. Simon & Schuster, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-7, Grades PreK-2.

This is one of those new classics that I feel I’m sort of expected to know, but it was my first time actually reading the story. I’m always a bit uncertain about potty humor in my picture books—mostly because I don’t know my audience and don’t want to be held accountable for corrupting young minds. I was wary of this one, but it was required one Saturday. This was… not the book I was expecting. There wasn’t a lot of potty humor, though there were lots of briefs and boxers. This was more a lesson book than anything else. This is a new answer to the age-old question of why there are no more dinosaurs: Dinosaurs loved underpants; I don’t really know why; they don’t seem to have fit or have made any dinosaur happy. The dinosaurs fought each other one night to extinction for the underpants that they hadn’t torn. Mankind is saved by the dinos love of underpants, so we should love and respect our undies too. I was honestly a bit thrown by the portrayal of dinosaurs as enemies of mankind but the glossing over of dinosaurs as predators and by the lesson to respect our underpants. It just all around was not what I was expecting, but I guess I’m glad I didn’t feel like I was going to get any angry, prudish parents. This would be a good read, I guess, for the potty training child who just keeps ripping their undies off. Be aware that you’ll have dinosaur names to trip over.

***

e_and_p_i_will_take_a_nap_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: I Will Take a Nap! by Mo Willems. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

I overheard a friend of mine reading this —another Barnes & Noble employee and an excellent story time reader. It just sounded so ridiculous—so ridiculous that I avoided it for just over a year. This was the first time that I read it fully myself. I missed when overhearing that reading the context of the illustrations, which make the weirdness seem less off-putting. In this story, Gerald is exhausted and needs to sleep. He dreams that Piggie has come to keep him from napping. Nearly the rest of the book is Gerald’s dream of Piggie interrupting his sleep, and dreaming Gerald does not realize till after Piggie’s head has morphed into a laughing turnip that this manifestation of Piggie is a dream. The illustrations actually make fairly clear that Gerald is napping. Piggie first appears in a green thought bubble above the napping Gerald and all subsequent pages are that minty green. This is not your average bedtime book with gentle rhymes and gentle pictures and lulling rhythms of peaceful sleep. This does not portray dreams of floating on cloud, but better portrays dreams as a reflection of daily worries and daily interactions and better portrays the absurdity of dream logic. I like the idea of the discussions this could open up, but I wasn’t able to get into any. For being a different kind of bedtime book, for portraying the necessity of sleep in a different way, I rate this one higher than I might otherwise.

****

Find Your Best Friend

d59d3e417c97efb7af8560a79f80eb07 Rory the Dinosaur Wants a Pet by Liz Climo. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

I was surprisingly pleased by this book. Rory has shown up in one other picture book: Me and My Dad. Liz Climo’s illustrations of cartoon animals however are familiar from her Tumblr, and I have seen them passed between friends on Facebook. Rory’s friends introduce him to a new pet hermit crab, and Rory decides that he too wants a pet. He tries to coax several animals into being his pet but they are too busy, not interested, and he almost gives up until a coconut (it’s never identified as a coconut in the text) rolls to his feet, and turns out to be the perfect pet, ready to do anything Rory wants without complaint. The story was fairly commonplace until the coconut came along. I’m reminded a little of Yoon’s Penguin and Pinecone. I loved this story—so did the mother at this story time. We both cooed over it when I was done.

****

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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