Tag Archives: Lane Smith

Book Reviews: November 2016 Picture Book Round: Cold Weather, Turkeys, a Polynesian Princess, and a Spanish Bull

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Moana

9781484743607Moana and the Ocean by Heather Knowles and illustrated by Annette Marnat. Disney, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Marnat’s illustrations are just beautiful and make the book worth paging through, but the text is barely there; there are full page spreads with no text and what pages do have text have one, often very short sentence or fragment. That being said, the text is not inelegant. The story is told from the Ocean’s perspective, and I have not seen the film, but it seems from this story that the Ocean has been a parental figure to Moana. The text describes in very vague terms all of the things that the Ocean has witnessed Moana doing and been proud of: “I’ve watched you grow,” “I’ve watched you fall and get back up again.” That sort of thing. The sort of thing that, like the book Three Little Words published for Finding Dory, might make this a contender for an unexpected graduation gift. The last line for me sort of kills the chance this book had, though, to be a broadly reaching, parental love poem by stating, “She is my Moana.” I don’t know why that line takes the book so firmly for me from describing any parental relationship broadly to describing one particular instance of parental love, perhaps only for giving Moana the prominence of the final word, though Moana is mentioned by name earlier in the book too.

***1/2

9780736436465Quest for the Heart. RH Disney-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I’d very ardently avoided spoilers for this film, but was required to read Moana and the Ocean for a story time, and realized fast that that book would last only five minutes at most of the half hour I was supposed to fill. So I grabbed this. And yes, I was given some spoilers by it, probably more than I wanted, but I’m still interested in seeing the film.

So before I start this review: SPOILERS!

This gives a fairly bare-boned sketch of the story’s driving problem: that the island is missing its heart, and that that heart must be returned to the island by the demigod who stole it then lost it, but that there are other forces who would prevent the island’s heart from being returned. The illustrations seem fairly in the style of the film itself, which is to say what you’d expect from Disney animation. There were some words here to trip children up, the Polynesian gods’ names primarily. Those names they might know from the film, which would make it easier, but I feel fairly confident in my pronunciation without having seen the film, which means that a child reading this without having seen the film might too be able to sound out the names. (I could be far off on my pronunciation though; I won’t know till I see the film, but these are not names like Tanngnjóstr or Hlidskjalf, (And of course I’m saying all this as an English monolinguist who has studied only a few Romance languages in any kind of depth and has only a smattering of words that I know languages with other roots). There were a few pages that got a bit frightening, but my audience of one who was maybe 4 had no trouble with the lava god attacking our hero and heroine.

I can’t rate this book as an adaptation but as a story solo it really was fairly well-developed, especially for its length and reading level, and exciting. I could have done with some more character building, but the world building was pretty exquisite.

****

Holiday Spirit

9780545931908_default_pdpThere Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Turkey! by Lucille Colandro and illustrated by Jared D. Lee. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6, Grades PreK-1.

You know the pattern of this one. It echoes the old song: “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly.” “She swallowed the cat to catch the bird. She swallowed the bird to catch the fly. I don’t know why she swallowed the fly. Perhaps she’ll die.” I did notice that we lost the dying part in this parody. Instead we have: “I don’t know why she swallowed the turkey, but she’s always been quirky,” which is a fun line; it’s more fun to shrug off; I like the tone better. The version of the Thanksgiving season that this book describes is… fairly American (admittedly, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, but the idea of thanksgiving is not) and commercial. Football—American football—and a Thanksgiving parade float feature. Though all of these objects—seemingly connected only by their cultural association with an American Thanksgiving—all come together in the end to achieve an end goal and make some more sense of purpose for the old lady’s feast, in the original song there’s a definite pattern and even skewed logic to the things that she swallows, which here is lacking. The original song is about a food chain and perceived hunter-prey “enemies” among the animal kingdom. Here… the old lady swallows a football to throw with the turkey? Okay, so yes, you throw a football, but what does that have to do with a turkey? She swallows the hat to cover the ball? Why does she want to cover the ball that she wants to throw with the turkey? Tires? A boat? What do those even have to do with the season? All in all, this was a fun sort of read, but… not going to be a favorite of mine by any stretch. It misses fully the whole reason we celebrate Thanksgiving (the thanksgiving part and the historical aspect), which makes me like it less.

***

0763663069The Great Thanksgiving Escape by Mark Fearing. Candlewick, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grades K-3.

This one I’m sort of sad I missed last year. I remember having it in the store, but I never picked it up. Two cousins are told to stay and play with the other children—toddlers—of the family, but they’re really too old to be in the same playgroup with the others. They decide to sneak out to the swing set. They brave hallways of eye-level butts, cheek-pinching aunts, teenage zombies glued to screens, and vicious guard dogs all too find that it’s raining outside. With a nice echo of an early line and reversal of the roles, the kids don’t let the rain defeat them, and the lesson about making your own persists. I wish the title were otherwise, because I think this story applies to any family gathering at any time of the year, only its title and one mention of the holiday preventing it from being sellable outside of November. The story is short, but Fearing really does quite aptly capture a family gathering from a child’s perspective, and it’s a fun reminiscence and reminder for older readers and a nice sigh of solidarity for the younger ones—with advice on defeating the worse aspects of the holiday.

****

9780553513370Penguin Problems by Jory John and illustrated by Lane Smith. Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This book… I read right after November 9. I think the parents and I needed and understood it more than did the kids, whose heads it really seemed to sail over. The little penguin complains about a lot of things that he really can’t change: the time of morning, the weather, the people around him. Then a walrus comes up and lays down everything—in a full page of text and in lofty syntax—that I and some of my adult audience maybe needed to hear—that there is still good in the world if we choose to see it. His sage advice didn’t seem to effect the penguin at all and nor did it really help me, but I received the message, and maybe the penguin did too—maybe the children in the audience did too.

**

23719206Before Morning by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin, 2016.

This book! The illustrations in this book! The text in this book is… maybe a bit too above its intended child audience but it’s beautiful, unique, clever. It’s a prayer really, a very poetic and flowery prayer for a snow day, for snow to ground planes so that the protagonist’s mother, a pilot, can come home and spend the day with him or her (the gender is ambiguous). I enjoyed the reason behind this child’s wish for a snow day. It was unexpected and heartwarming.

****

And One More

1718866The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. Puffin-Penguin Random, 1977. First published 1936. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This was one of my favorites as a child, and I found it in the newly installed free library by my house and, well, fell into temptation. Reading it again, though, I was not as impressed as I once was. And I’m not entirely sure what fell flat. Maybe it seemed that Ferdinand was more dense than defiant when he refused to fight or to butt heads with the other bulls, but the more I think about it, the less I think that is so. Ferdinand is gentle and peaceful by nature, but he is pressured to act otherwise and does not cave to that pressure; that is a radical act—or non-act. And I think as a child that must have resonated with me, so I suspect and hope it will resonate with today’s children as well.  This definitely does though thankfully gloss over the violence of a bull fight.

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Book Reviews: February 2016 Picture Book Roundup

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9780374346904Love Monster and the Last Chocolate by Rachel Bright. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-Macmillan, 2015. First published 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 2-4, Grades PreK-K.

A sequel to Love Monster and less problematic I think than its predecessor, in this story Love Monster finds a box of chocolates on his doorstep upon returning home. He wants to eat the chocolate but realizes that he should share the chocolate. But if he shares the chocolate there may not be enough. His friends may take the piece of chocolate that he really wants. Ultimately, Love Monster decides to share and to confess his selfish thoughts to his friends—who laugh and explain that they left the chocolate; they ate all but one piece, which they wanted to save and share with him, and if he’d opened the box, he’d have seen the chocolate and the note saying that they had missed him.  Readers are reminded that honesty and generosity reward and that friendship and chocolate are better when shared.  The gut-wrenching guilt that Love Monster experiences over his selfish desires seems maybe a bit condemning but that guilt is not thrust on Love Monster; it is rather a byproduct of his own conscience, which for me makes the book less condemnable.

****

9780670013272Llama Llama Nighty-Night by Anna Dewdney. Viking-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

This simple board book takes Llama Llama through the routine of getting ready for bed with the same catchy rhymes and endearing illustrations that are used in the picture books for older children. The cardboard pages, shorter length, shorter sentences, and simpler ideas all show that Dewdney understands the younger audience as well as she can captivate kids just a little older. Llama Llama is one of my favorite modern series, so this book might get some extra brownie points for including one of my favorite characters. Dewdney is a powerful illustrator and good writer.

****

please-open-this-book-9781442450714_hrPlease, Open This Book! by Adam Lehrhaupt and illustrated by Matthew Forsythe.  Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I feel like I’ve been reading—and loving—a lot of books that break down the barriers between the characters and the reader, the fictional world and the real. In this one, the characters are relieved that someone has finally opened their book because the last person to read it closed the book with them still inside, injuring several of them. The characters complain about their lot, all the while trying to convince the current reader never to close the book, even bribing the reader. I am of two minds about this book: I can see the argument that this book will leave kids wracked with guilt about closing another book ever again, which will lead to a mess of open books on tables and on the floor. On the other hand, I giggled at its silliness and read it at a story time, and it is one of the only books that I have ever sold because of a story time to someone who was at that story time. The mother who was there thought that her child—the older one who was not present, but I suspect was a young elementary age child—would love it, and bought it out of my hand when I’d finished reading. So, really, if parents are okay with this book, I don’t see why I should worry about it.

****

407429The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith. Scholastic, 1992. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grades K-3.

This book is nearly as old as I am and has been in my possession for probably nigh twenty years now. It’s still funny. These extremely fractured fairy tales are narrated by Jack of “and the Beanstalk” fame and interrupted often by a very frustrated little red hen. Many of these stories lack the magic and the change that comes at the end of most fairy tales: The ugly duckling just becomes an ugly duck; the frog prince is just a frog lying about a curse; the stinky cheese man is chased by no one. The morals of the fairy tales are lost too. But it’s in the unexpectedness and refusal to adhere to the trope or tale type that these tales succeed. There is quite a bit of fourth wall breakage too: on the back cover, the hen complains, “Who is this ISBN guy?”; the giant wants to tell his story and does so in a hodgepodge of sentences cut and pasted from other tales; Jack accidentally tells the whole of “Little Red Running Shorts” in his introduction and Red and the wolf walk out on him, refusing to tell it again. The hen is my favorite character, but my favorite stories are “Chicken Licken” and “Jack’s Story.”  The mixed media illustrations often work in close tandem with the text, making this more picture book than picture storybook.

*****

24968109What Pet Should I Get? by Dr. Seuss. Random, 2015.

This is the first of Dr. Seuss’ posthumous books that I’ve read, and I really enjoyed it. It started out seeming a little too ordinary for what I expect from Seuss and a bit slow for that, the siblings debating between a puppy, a kitten, a goldfish, but it did devolve into the ridiculous and imaginative animals that are wonderfully Seussian (and yes, that is a word, in the Oxford Dictionary and all). The whole plot revolves around a brother and sister needing to choose just one pet, for which their father will pay. In the end, they decide on the perfect pet—but Seuss never tells us which pet that is—which I loved. This will never be a favorite Seuss book of mine—not with the mess of wonderful books of his out there, but this was lighthearted, nostalgic, silly fun.

****

576a1851142468e1c25a977f2dfa976fRaven’s Light: A Myth from the People of the Northwest Coast by Susan Hand Shetterly and illustrated by Robert Shetterly. Atheneum-Macmillan, 1991.

This is an old book of my roommate’s from which the dust jacket is missing and the binding on the pages has come undone, so I don’t actually know what the cover looks like. The cover that I found is someone’s Pinterest pin off of an image that has now been removed from Amazon, though it looks like the right style certainly, and I wanted to give you some idea of the illustrations. I am not familiar with this myth outside of the book. In this story, the raven flies over a dark, landless, unpopulated sea with a heavy sack and a pebble. The pebble when he drops it into the sea becomes land and from the sack he pulls out all of the creatures including people. A tear in the sky attracts his attention. Through that tear is the bright land of the sun. Raven turns himself into a leaf and is ingested by the beautiful daughter of a chieftain there. He is born again as her winged humanoid child. He grows up among the people there, protected by his mother. Eventually he steals the sun from the chieftain, his grandfather, and brings it to his own dark kingdom. A young girl accepts his gift and releases the moon and sun.

I am always interested to learn new myths so I enjoyed this story, and I enjoy knowing about these books to share with others who are interested. This story is different from most that I’ve heard too, most of which seem to involve humanoid gods/creators, usually either pitted against one another or in amorous relations with one another (sometimes both), who consciously or accidentally create land and create life but never because they are tired and overcome.  I’m familiar with the raven as a trickster in some American folklore and as a symbol of death and ruin in Anglo-Celtic folklore and mythology, but this I think is the first I’ve seen of a raven god/creator.

Susan Shetterly doesn’t explain so much as she reports. The text is colorful and descriptive with powerful words. Susan Shetterly relies on that and on the characters themselves more than she does on an authoritative narrator. Myths for adults can often be too bogged down by scholarly articles and footnotes. Myths for kids can be too pedagogic or too anxious about not undermining the storytellers’ own beliefs. This telling nicely avoids both types of heavy-handedness, and really comes together as a story.

****

9781627794046Hedgehugs by Steve Wilson and illustrated by Lucy Tapper. Henry, Holt-Macmillan, 2015. First published 2014.

This is a precious friendship story about two hedgehogs who just want to express their love for one another in the fashion of humans—with a hug. But hedgehogs are spiky, and hugs between them are uncomfortable. They try several types of seasonable armor to protect each other from their spikes (providing a teaching opportunity about the weather changes and seasons), but none is successful until they find a few socks fallen from the laundry, which when donned protect them from each other’s quills and look absolutely adorable besides. This book also claims an explanation for all those socks that seem to go missing in the wash.  Really, it’s just adorable.

****

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

Book Reviews: 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.

****