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Book Reviews: May 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Schooling, Mothers’ Love, Unicorns, and a Wedding

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

Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney. Viking-Penguin Random, 2009. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Llama Llama is going to school for the first time today, and he’s nervous after he gets there and meets all the new faces, after he is left by his mama. He spends the morning moping and refusing to play, but after he cries at lunch and is reassured by both his teacher and his classmates, his day takes a turn. He plays with his new friends till the end of the day when his mama returns. The he shows his mama around the school, and they play together. He decides that he loves school. This is an all-too-familiar feeling and scenario for parents and young students, teachers and students-to-be. For that, this is an important book, and Dewdney’s illustrations are as always endearing.

****

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

Llama Llama Loves to Read by Anna Dewdney and Reed Duncan and illustrated by J. T. Morrow. Viking-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Published posthumously and completed in her style by her long time partner Reed Duncan, this school time story teaches lessons about the alphabet and the words that they can spell and the sentences that are made by words, the songs, the books. This seemed a little longer, a little more didactic than some of the other Llama Llama books with its vocabulary words and its recitation of the alphabet. It’s more picture book than a primer though. Llama Llama is growing up, and he’s less in need of reassurance of his mother’s love. Now there are other lessons to be learned. The text still has the rhythm and rhyme of Dewdney’s earlier works. The illustrations seem somehow a little more cartoonish, though it is clear that J. T. Morrow tried to stay true to the character of Dewdney’s earlier works.

***

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

Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman. Penguin Random, 1988. First published 1960. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This is not the first time that I read this story. I don’t think it’ll be the last. But somehow I’ve never read and reviewed it or rated it on Goodreads. A baby bird hatches while his mother is away, and he knows that his mother should be there when he hatches, so he goes off to look for her—falling right out of the nest. He goes to a number of animals and objects, questioning each about being his mother, but always getting the negative answer, getting more and more desperate with each negative. He visits a kitten, a dog, a cow, a boat, a plane, and finally a Snort. The Snort is the only one to help him find his mother—although the baby bird finds the Snort very scary. The Snort picks him up in its claw and puts him back into his nest, where his mother is waiting, wondering where he has been. The story is told in rhyme with a lot of repetition.

You could probably read into this one; I’m sure it has been done. (Actually there are fewer scholarly articles readily available on Google Scholar than I would have expected, and most of those seem to be about adoption law and children’s rights and possibly only obscurely reference the book; I didn’t buy access to the articles to check.) The baby bird seeks family in all kinds of critters but cannot find it; none of them look like him. He doesn’t seem to believe that family necessarily needs to look alike, but the animals are all against interspecies families and the objects—except the Snort—all reject him with their silence. The only one that the baby bird does not believe can be his mother is a wheel-less, broken, junked car, seeming to suggest that he believes that what is necessary in a mother is locomotion, a certain spark of life—perhaps this is because his mother did leave so he knows that she was capable of self-transportation, but perhaps there is a comment there on the necessity of a mother to be alive. That the baby bird refuses to entertain the idea that his mother could be inanimate, no longer capable of locomotion, no longer possessing a lifespark is just heartrending—because some must accept that, and he is too young to even entertain the idea.

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

Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani. Abrams Appleseed-Harry N. Abrams, 2018.

I really enjoyed this story about cats and math. It’s counting, addition, division, and subtraction. Three cats stack, but four and five cats endanger the pile, so six cats become two stacks of three each. After ten cats become just too many, the cats begin to go away. The illustrated cats are delightfully round fluffs with small mouths and a wide variety of colors and patterns. There’s a sort of singsong rhythm to the simple text. The story ends with an invitation stack the cats creatively, to invent your own math solutions with the cats—of which by the last page there are more than ten—I count 21!

*****

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

My Mom is Magical by Hello!Lucky and Sabrina Moyle and illustrated by Eunice Moyle. Harry N. Abrams, 2018.

“Mom,” portrayed here as a rainbow-maned and –tailed and rainbow-speckled unicorn, is described in a set of creative comparisons that rely on alliteration: “sillier than a band of bananas,” “sweeter than a cloud of cotton candy.” There’s not a lot of story to it. Pages alternate between pages of text that pops from the page between a frame of illustrations like an affirmation poster and pages of the unicorn illustrated in silly poses and fun costumes. It would make a sweet gift, an alternate to a card for a mother.

***

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

I’ve Loved You Since Forever by Hoda Kotb and illustrated by Suzie Mason. HarperCollins, 2018.

The illustrations are the star of this short picture book about a parent’s and child’s love. “Before the moon lit up the night and elephants roamed free, there was you and there was me.” Via a bunch of nature-related forevers, Kotb implies the eternity of souls and suggests that a parent and a child await the time when their two “stars” become not separate “you and I” but “we.” I don’t know if she intended to put that much philosophy in the book, but it’s there. It’s a fine sentiment and statement, but there are many variations on this same theme out there, and frankly it’s a drop in a big puddle of sentiment. It takes a lot to stand out from that puddle.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, activities, and a teacher's guide.

Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century by Jane O’Connor and illustrated Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperCollins, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Bree has been to lots of weddings before, but Nancy has not. Bree and Nancy imagine and dream that the wedding will be very fancy, but Uncle Cal wants everything kept secret from the girls until right before the event, so even as the family packs up to go to meet Cal and Dawn, his bride-to-be, Nancy knows nothing of what they have planned for the wedding—not even whether or not she will be the flower girl, though she is almost certain that she will be. Nancy wakes up from her dream of a fancy hotel wedding to find that the family has arrived at a humble cabin the wilderness. Nancy is at first very disappointed, though no one else seems to be, but there’s a party beforehand, and Dawn is kind to Nancy and even borrows a crown from her for the wedding so that she will have something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. In the end, even Nancy agrees that this nontraditional wedding, without any of the frills that she expected, is the most “glorious.” As with most Nancy stories, this was a little long for a story time, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless, and it was a nice change to have a wedding tale about a wedding free from the traditional trappings. I had a group this week for story time too that could sit through the longer stories, so it worked out.

****

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

Today I’ll Be a Unicorn by Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This book uses characters from Dana Simpson’s graphic novel series, Heavenly Nostrils, but the story and the characters are fairly universal, really. A young girl wants to be a unicorn. She dons a tail and a headband with horse ears, a horn, and a crown of flowers. With her unicorn friend, she prances through the meadow and sits atop a rainbow. But unicorns don’t eat pizza. So maybe tomorrow she will be a unicorn. There’s perhaps not much original about this story; it’s been done before with other animals—and I think even with pizza. I’m not sure how much I care about the originality. The story remains cute, and Simpson’s illustrations are delightfully whimsical.

****

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: September/October 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Scientist, Mice, Dinosaurs, Cats

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adatwist-cover2Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Harry N. Abrams, 2016.

First, let’s celebrate this little, dark-skinned scientist. Ada says nothing for three years, then asks so many questions: Why? What? How? When? And why again. Ada spends much of a book searching for the source of a terrible stink, which within the text she never discovers, though the illustrations hide the answer, I think, and asking kids what they think might be the cause of the stink might be a good way to engage an audience. Her parents become frustrated with all of her questions and experiments and the chaos that is “left in her wake”—messes in the kitchen and a stinky cat covered in perfumes and colognes. They send her to a thinking chair. Her parents calm down and come back to her to talk, and though she has scribbled all over the wall, they decide to help her instead of punish her—because these parents rock, and “that’s what you do when your kid has a passion and a heart that is true.” This is told with the same singsong and rhyme as Iggy Peck and Rosie Revere.

****

the-itsy-bitsy-pilgrim-9781481468527_hrThe Itsy Bitsy Pilgrim by Jeffrey Burton and illustrated by Sanja Rešček. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 2-4, Grade PreK.

This book was… disappointing, though perhaps no worse than I would expect of a board book written for 2-4-year-olds. The illustrations are cute… but racially insensitive and clinging to stereotypes. The text is sugar-coated, saccharine, and white-washed. It pretends to be factual by dropping the name Mayflower but then undercuts itself by pretending that everything was sunshine and shared feasts between friends and that winter was no big deal. The text mimics the old rhyme “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” so it seems even less original than it could do.

**

y648Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes by Kimberly and James Dean. HarperCollins, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This Pete the Cat returns to Eric Litwin’s original primer model. There’s counting and math to be done. Pete and Gus are making cupcakes for a party, but the cupcakes are disappearing two by two. Who could behind it? Whomever it is, he keeps leaving behind clues. The illustrations could have been better here. I had to point out the sprinkles to my audience, who didn’t immediately recognize the dots on the ground as such and one of the kids had to point out to me that the colorful circles were cupcake wrappers. The footprints left behind by the culprit don’t look as much like his as I could have liked.

When the culprit is discovered he fesses up, Pete’s friends want to exclude him from their fun as punishment, but Pete—bold Pete—stands up for him and decrees that he deserves a second chance. So that’s another good lesson if it’s a little heavy-handed.

There’re fewer instances of 80s slang, and I’m not sure that there’s a way to insert a song into this book.

***1/2

5dd375_db1139a503504a60b93b3c6bd0e960e7-1Pirasaurs! by Josh Funk and illustrated by Michael H. Slack. Scholastic, 2016.

One poor, small, klutzy dinosaur wants to prove himself to his new crew and especially to his female captain, Rex, who isn’t forced into gendered clothing nor gendered roles or gendered stereotypes of really any kind. Packed with pirate puns, vibrant color, and action, this little dinosaur joins his mates on a quest for treasure—only for them to be attacked by another gang of pirasaurs, who have the missing piece of their map. The little dinosaur suggests that they share the map and share the treasure—and to his surprise, no one disagrees. He proves himself to his crew—to both crews—and does so through the power of his heart, through his notion to share. I read this aloud and found the text has a sort of singsong, pirate sea shanty quality. I added a few yo-hos and yar-hars. (Oh goodness, there’s a book trailer proving that the text ought to be sung). In college I threw in my lot with a band of pirates, and this book speaks to my pirate soul.

****

9781484717981The Very Fluffy Kitty, Papillon by A. N. Kang. Hyperion-Disney, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Papillion is a very fluffy kitty, so fluffy that he floats away if he isn’t wearing something to hold him down. He doesn’t like the outfits that his loving Miss Tilly makes for him though. One day when he is free of his clothes, he follows a bright red bird out of the window, past a bear’s cave, over swamps filled with crocodiles, till he gets all tangled up in vines. Everything is quite hazy and pastel, just light washes of watercolor, except for that speck of bright red bird. The bird comes back to help Papillon, the bird finds a home, and Papillon finds an outfit that he doesn’t mind wearing, that also keeps him grounded. It’s a win-win-win. The illustrations were adorable, clever, and beautifully rendered. I would like a little more from the text, but I can’t find anything specifically in it about which I would complain.

***

52606004dbe3d4fb7db8aa93fe25537bTek: The Modern Cave Boy by Patrick McDonnell. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

After Tek’s dad invents the Internet, Tek can’t be pulled away from the screens of his many devices, and his friends miss playing with him. Everyone on up to the Grand Poo-Bah of their tribe and the great volcano, Big Poppa, try to help to get Tek away from the screens. Ultimately, he has to be blasted away by the volcano, and once he wakes without his screens, he is astonished by the sun and the grass, the flora and the fauna. The style of this book is clever, the cover looking like a tablet, the first page looking like a lock screen, the top of each page illustrating the battery level of the “tablet” which decreases until Tek is shot from the volcano and his tablet crashes (pun, I’m sure intended), and the text above a picture having words in blue that might be links on a tablet screen that one could click for more information. These would be fun to use especially in a classroom setting, perhaps as assignments for projects. This is definitely a book with plenty of humor for the adults—perhaps too much so; I was a little concerned I would hear about the Flying Idontgiveadactyl. The heavy-handedness of the message kept me from enjoying the book as much as I might otherwise have done, but I definitely had a few giggles at the jokes that the kids would probably miss, like the Dinosaurs for a Better Tomorrow, and enjoyed the puns and the layout.

****

28645670They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The text here while it has a sort of soothing rhythm that wasn’t keeping the attention of my audience: one less than a year and the other maybe 4 or 5. The pattern is essentially this: “The x saw A CAT. And the y saw A CAT. And the z saw A CAT. Yes, they all saw the cat. And the cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws.” I tried to get the older of the two to interact with and think about the illustrations. “Why might the fish be seeing the cat as sort of blurry and out of focus?” Reading now, I’m realizing I missed an opportunity to talk about perspective and assumptions and prejudice—albeit obliquely since these aren’t my kids and I can only step on so many toes. Next time though. This time I focused on the science of how each animal’s views of the cat. Perhaps my favorite illustration because it makes most clear what this book is doing is the illustration of the cat as seen by the snake, oranges, yellows, reds, and blues denoting heat signature, and it’s wonderful to see how cleverly Wenzel has illustrates echolocation and vibrations of the earth.

****

9780545829342_default_pdpHow Do Dinosaurs Stay Friends? By Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Some of the things that these dinosaurs consider are just awful, but then the things he does do are pretty wonderful. I worry that the take away from this book will more often be some wicked things that one could do if one is ever in a fight with a friend instead of what a person should do after a fight with a friend. I don’t know, that first half of the text just seems to have more imagination and vigor to it. But if the intended lesson is received, then it’s fabulous to give kids tools to make up after a fight. Mark Teague as usual is careful to include people of color in the illustrations behind the dinosaur protagonists.

***

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: January 2016 Picture Book Roundup

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Next Month’s Holidays:

February 2: Groundhog’s Day

9781619632899Groundhog’s Day Off by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Brett Helquist. Bloomsbury USA, 2015.

This is a book that won’t come out of its hole but once a year—and that’s sort of shame. It’s a clever, funny little book, about a groundhog who feels underappreciated so he leaves on an unplanned vacation right before his big day, leaving the town in a lurch and holding auditions for someone to replace him. He just wants the media to ask him about something other than the weather—really, he wants to be asked about himself, the personal questions, like what movies he likes and how he likes his pizza. There’s an African American female mayor and the potential for a sequel as the groundhog runs away with the Easter Bunny at the end. This is though I think the sort of picture book that gets a larger laugh from adults than it does from the kids.

***

9781580896009Groundhog’s Dilemma by Kristen Remenar and illustrated by Matt Faulkner. Charlesbridge-Penguin, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Groundhog can never please everyone with his annual weather report. His friends think that they can change his report by currying favor with groundhog. After several attempts to explain that he does not control the weather, he only reports it—all of which are ignored—Groundhog, enjoying the place on the baseball team and the homemade pies, lets his friends think that he will be able to please them all—even when their desires conflict. As the next Groundhog’s Day approaches, Groundhog realizes that he will upset people no matter what he says—he simply cannot please everyone—and he worries that he will lose the friends whom he disappoints. He decides to be honest, to tell them that he’s sorry that he let them think that he could fix the weather for them, but that he liked being liked. I liked that though this too is a book firmly affixed to a minor holiday, the lesson is universal and applicable anytime: though the attention from making false promises may feel good for a while, it’ll eventually sour; also, you should not bring gifts or do favors for a friend because you want him to do something for you, but rather should like him for who he is. The overly flirtatious female hare is an interesting character to include in a children’s book.

***

Next Month’s Holidays:

February 14: Let Me Count the Ways

y648Where Is Love, Biscuit? by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories. HarperFestival-HarperCollins, 2009. First published 2002. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprisingly everyday board book. I worried it would be too Valentine’s to be read anytime, but the story instead asks, “Where’s the love, Biscuit?” and love is found in a soft blanket, in baking cookies, in a knitted sweater. There are touch-and-feel elements on many if not all of the pages. There’s not a lot of story, really, but these were surprisingly refreshing examples on love—especially as it was on display with all of the Valentine’s Day books.

***

9780448489322Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar adapted from Eric Carle’s works. Grosset & Dunlap-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is another book made by hijacking Eric Carle’s works and piecing them together. But unlike the Favorite Words series, this one has… sentences. Sappy text like “you are the cherry to my cake” is accompanied by the caterpillar on the cherry atop a cake and “you make my heart flutter” by the caterpillar as a butterfly and “you are the bee’s knees” by a swarm of friendly bees. It’s a sweet book to read to a beloved child or maybe to give to a sweetheart, but there’s not a lot of substance there, and I really do feel a little queasy over these Frankensteined books made from Carle’s illustrations.

***

ILYM_jacket_Final:Layout 1I Love You More by Laura Duksta and illustrated by Karen Keesler. Sourcebooks, 2009. First published 2001.

This book features a pretty cool and inventive structure. One side reads as the mother’s response to her son’s question: “How much do you love me?” Flip it over and read the son’s response to his mother when she asks the same question. The middle page bridges the two responses. The text itself is pretty… gooey. Especially on the mother’s side it sounds like that old country song: “deeper than the holler, stronger than the rivers, higher the pine trees”: “I love you higher than the highest bird ever flew. I love you taller than the tallest tree ever grew.” The son’s response is a bit more inventive and includes all the things that boys stereotypically like best: “I love you further than the furthest frog ever leaped. […] I love you louder than the loudest rocket ship ever blasted.” If you’re looking for an ooey-gooey, I-love-you-so-much-book this is a great option.

*****

9781619639225I’ll Never Let You Go by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and illustrated by Alison Brown. Bloomsbury USA, 2015.

This is another mushy, gushy, read-to-your-child story. The illustrations are of different animals with their parents, and the style is whimsical, the creatures reminiscent of plushies with their soft lines and simple faces.  The parent promises to be with the child through all of its highs and lows: “When you are excited, the world joins with you, You bounce all about—and look! I’m bouncing, too!” (We won’t talk about those commas.) “When you are sad and troubled with fears, I hold you close and dry all your tears.” Reminiscent at once of Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Go, My Love Will Find You and Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, I think that this book personally lives up to neither, but is simpler than either, and might be a better book than either to read with a child rather than to one—that being said, the text is very much meant to be a parent speaking. There are really just so many books about a parent promising to always love a child that it’s difficult to be outstanding in that category.

***

Making New Friends

9780399167737 Peanut Butter & Cupcake by Terry Border. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

What bothered me most about this book was the title, so this should be a pretty positive review. I understand that a title like Peanut Butter and Jelly would be more likely to get lost in the noise, but Peanut Butter and Cupcake is misleading. Cupcake’s is only a two page spread and a mention, and she’s not very welcoming to Peanut Butter, inviting him to watch her play, but warning him not to play with her (what’s more, the cupcake on the cover is by far the tastiest-looking cupcake in the book). The premise is this: Peanut Butter, new to town, wants to play but knows no one and his mom is too busy to play with him, so she sends him out to wander the town and try to make a friend. Peanut Butter approaches various other foods and gives a speech about how he has a ball and wants to play “maybe now, maybe later—or even all day” (that I can remember three days later that repeated phrase says quite a bit for the memorability of the writing—and the number of times that I read this phrase aloud). The illustrations are at least as impressive as the text—and probably more so. Done as posed photographs with food and props (paper clips for feet and hands, for example), I can only imagine how long each illustration took to get right. Clever puns pepper the text and pictures alike: Hamburger walks a pair of wiener hot dogs. Soup spells out his responses to Peanut Butter’s pleas. Cupcake plays in a sandbox of sprinkles. French Fries has to catch up with Hamburger and his hot dogs (read the sentence aloud if you don’t see the pun). Jelly eventually finds Peanut Butter and the two of them play together. The other neighborhood foods see the two of them having fun and Peanut Butter and Jelly let them all join in, taking the high road, so that everyone is enjoying themselves and each others’ company.

****

9780805098259Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

In October I was besotted with Mike Curato’s sequel to this book, Little Elliot, Big Family. Then I’d done some digging and peeked at some of the illustrations from this book found on Curato’s website. I predicted that I would love Little Elliot, Big Family more than the original—and I think that that has proved true, though maybe it’s because Big Family was the first that I found. The problem in Big City is probably more relatable to most kids.  In Little Elliot, Big City, Elliot is small and can be lost in the crowds of New York and stand unseen at the counter at the cupcake shop. He is feeling dejected when he spots Mouse, smaller even than Elliot. Mouse is hungry—hungrier than Elliot—and cannot reach the pizza slice in the park garbage bin. Elliot helps Mouse, and the two of them become friends. Together they are tall enough, and Elliot is able to buy and share his cupcake. It seems trite in a way, that Elliot’s trouble revolves around and is ultimately resolved by the acquisition of a cupcake—even if I sort of understand that that cupcake is more the culmination and physical manifestation of a heap of other troubles resulting from being too little. The illustrations are still gorgeous: vibrant and smooth, though showing less of the diversity of the city that is so wonderfully captured in Little Elliot, Big Family (though the diversity is there).

****

24819508Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

My two audience members were not yet one and not yet two. This story was really too long for them, but we read it the first Wednesday after the Caldecott and Newbery winners had been chosen, and I had this, Matt de la Peña’s The Last Stop on Market Street, and Kevin Henkes’ Waiting (a Caldecott honoree) in a pile beside me. My not-yet-two year old picked out this one, and we made a pretty valiant effort to get through it (I read maybe the last two or three pages to myself, but over the course of a half hour, we made our way through the rest of the story before the kids’ interest was entirely lost to the toys behind me). Finding Winnie tells the true tale of Winnie, an orphaned bear cub from Canada, who is saved from the trapper by a soldier and accompanies his brigade to England, where they will train to fight in World War II. Winnie stays with the soldiers until they are called away to the front, then she is left in the care of the London Zoo, where she is befriended by Christopher Robin Milne, whose father A. A. Milne was inspired by their friendship to introduce us all to our friend, Winnie-the-Pooh. The frame story is told by the soldier Harry Coleburn’s great-granddaughter, the author of the book, who tells the story to her little boy, Cole. As a Caldecott winner, I was supposed to be blown away by the illustrations, which are nice, but I was more taken by the photographs in the back of the book, proving the truth of the tale, and by the tale itself, which seems almost too perfect to be real.

****

You Can Be the Hero Too

the-night-gardener-9781481439787_lgThe Night Gardener by Terry Fan and Eric Fan (the Fan Brothers). Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I was given access through work to an unbound page proof of this book, which is due out on my birthday, actually: February 16 (Happy early birthday to me!). The illustrations are the obvious star of this book—by which I mean, I fell in love with the illustrations almost to the point that the text is irrelevant—not that the text was bad; it wasn’t, but it was overshadowed. The book tells the story of a boy who wakes to imaginative topiaries and wonders who is creating these masterpieces. He ultimately stumbles into an apprenticeship with the Night Gardener. But really, just do yourself a favor and go take a look at these whimsical, marvelous illustrations. Wonder like I do how the color palette can be at once so vibrant and so muted.

****

9780803737891Skippyjon Jones: Snow What by Judy Schachner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I really enjoyed this story and the parents really enjoyed this story, but it wasn’t holding the attention of my audience of three (two of whom admittedly were under one). I warned them and I will warn you that my Spanish is… pitiful. I studied in middle school, but it’s almost entirely washed away now. I don’t think that my poor presentation helped. I fudged my way through most of the Spanish and the Spanglish and probably pronounced a few of the words with more French or Italian than they ought to have done. Does the Spanish and Spanglish keep me from enjoying the story? In no way. Little Skippyjon is the only boy in a passel of girls, and he is outvoted when it’s time to choose a story. He storms away and invents his own tale of Snow What, where he is once again the famous swordfighter Skippito Friskito, is forced into tights by his friends the poochitos, and is forced to kiss the ice cube coffin of the princess to wake her from her cursed sleep. He cannot escape the tropes of the fairytale, but he can become the hero, can tell himself a story that focuses on the prince instead of the princess. I appreciated that this one had less stereotyping of Mexican culture than some in this series (the original tale) and I appreciated the, well, backlash to the backlash of the Disney Princess tale dominance. As important as it is for girls to see themselves as heroines, it’s just as important for boys to see themselves as heroes.  This story also highlights the great power of imagination.

****

Clever Primers

y648-19780062110589Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2010.

Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2012.

Sometimes, the best review really comes from the kids. I read these two (and Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses) to a crowd of kids, who knew the stories well-enough to read pages to me, who knew the songs, and sung them for me. When the kids love the stories that much, it’s really hard to dislike them—and honestly, there’s a lot to like. I hadn’t stopped to consider that these are primers for an older crowd with a semblance of plot not usually in primers. I Love My White Shoes is the first ever Pete the Cat story and a color primer, where Pete sings about his love for his white shoes, and when he squashes strawberries, his red shoes, and when he steps in a pile of blueberries, his blue shoes. The refrain “Did Pete cry? Goodness, no. He kept walking along and singing his song” is a wonderful lesson in Hakuna matata. But really, this silly cat really ought to watch out for piles of berries. Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons is a counting and math primer. He sings another song about how he loves his buttons. The song changes to reflect the number of buttons as one after another pops off and rolls away. Both books play with words to make a surprising ending. Pete’s shoes are wet, but does he cry? Goodness no. Pete’s coat has no more buttons, but there’s still the best button of all left—his belly button! I had somehow missed these books. I don’t know how. I actually prefer the text from Kimberly Dean’s later book, Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses, because the text and story is more complex, but the lesson and theme of positivity despite circumstances is still there, but Kimberly Dean’s story lacks the primer aspect, so really I can respect both, and cheer both, and marvel that this is a picture book series that can kids can grow with in the same way that they can later grow with, say, Harry Potter.

****            ****

good-night-ct-cover-535x535Good Night Connecticut by Christina Vrba and illustrated by Anne Rosen. Good Night Books, 2009.

This book is part of a series that I think now covers all fifty states, some cities, some countries, some general locations, some general family members, some fire trucks and mermaids and dinosaurs. I’m a Nutmegger by birth and spent my childhood in the state. Much of the focus in this book is on tourist attractions more than on more general sights in the state, and many of those I’ve never visited, though I know of many of them. Most of the attractions have a short descriptor. While I haven’t seen everything listed in the book, the old stone walls, town green, beaches, and riding rings were a large part of my childhood environment. I bought this board book on a whim in a small store in Kent before leaving the state. Sometimes I just take it out to remind myself of home. This is not stellar writing, but it has nostalgia value, and it would have value as a primer for a vacation or to teach a child about her home state. It’s meant for young kids, kids who are still learning the sounds of turkeys and trains.

**

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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