Tag Archives: Matthew Van Fleet

Book Reviews: September 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Astronauts, Bees, and Sillier Animals

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Astronauts

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

I Am Neil Armstrong by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos. Dial-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

My toddlers at story time are not the target audience for this book. For them is it too long—just too long. I suppose it could be best considered a graphic novel, but it’s really too short for a novel. A graphic novelette? But it’s not a picture book, despite the bright illustrations and round-faced depictions of the protagonists. I personally feel that it talks down to the middle school students that are generally the target audience for graphic novels.  So elementary students?

This biography of Neil Armstrong begins with Armstrong as a child climbing trees and ends with his space mission completed and a plug for the National Air and Space Museum in DC. There are many details about his life and his philosophy. It is intimate in a way that I did not expect. There are though too perhaps extraneous details, which I suppose sometimes add weight to Meltzer’s assertions (not a long checklist but “a 417-step checklist”), but more often added to the length of the story without really deepening my understanding of Armstrong or his mission.

Perhaps because I read so few biographies and don’t know what to expect or to want from them, I was less interested in the intimate details of Armstrong’s life. I don’t find it necessary to know that he was scared of Santa or fell out of a tree or read many books in a year. Any biographies I’ve read, I’ve read (and long ago) to be able to give a report or write a paper—a flaw in me not in the genre or in this book in particular—so I’ve never needed or particularly wanted more than the facts—just the straight up facts. What I read for pleasure—primarily fantasies but even realistic fiction that I read—are more often the span of an event—a significant event—and nonessential personal histories are left off or obliquely referenced if and only if they are effecting the character in the now.

I can tell that Meltzer wanted to include these details to illustrate the natural traits that allowed Armstrong  to succeed in his space mission, but the presentation felt extremely forced; it lacked finesse when compared to the arc of the fictions that I enjoy reading.

I frankly don’t feel qualified to rate this book, but I wanted to discuss it nonetheless because it wasn’t what I was expecting, and it might not be what you’re expecting either.

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Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington. HarperCollins, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I chose this book because Brad Meltzer’s I Am Neil Armstrong was too long for my usual story time audience, but I wanted to keep to something in theme with the story I had been assigned to read. Plus, it’s the true story of an African American woman achieving her dream, written by Somali woman living in Norway! Mae Jemison’s parents support her dream to see Earth from space. They tell her she’ll have to become an astronaut. But her teacher (a white woman), says that an astronaut is no job for a woman—wouldn’t she rather be a nurse? That’s a good job “for someone like” her. Jemison is heartbroken by her teacher’s pronouncement. But her parents continue to be wonderful and tell her that this time her teacher is wrong; she shouldn’t believe her. So Jemison continues “dreaming, believing, and working hard,” and she becomes an astronaut and waves to her parents from space. There is less about Jemison’s life here and more about following your dream and achieving your dream through hard work and a firm belief. Meltzer focuses on facts; Ahmed on story. Ahmed’s was much better for my young audience.

***

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Are You Scared, Darth Vader? by Adam Rex. Lucasfilm-Disney, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

All right. I found this one funny as did the friend who pulled it off the shelves to show it to me. But it’s only funny if you’re already familiar with Darth Vader and the Star Wars films; the text is littered with allusions to quotes and to plot points from the films. I tried it out on some kids who didn’t know Darth Vader. They didn’t find it funny. It’s also funnier if you can imitate Darth Vader’s deep voice, which I can only do poorly. Really, this may even be a story more for adults than for children.

The authorial voice and Darth Vader dialogue throughout this story. The book tries to scare Darth Vader with a werewolf, a ghost, a witch, but he is unimpressed by any of these despite the authorial voice’s assertion that they can bite and hex him. So the authorial voice invites a posse of children in Halloween costumes and without to swarm all over Vader, to pester him with questions, as the authorial voices continues to tease, “Are you scared now, Darth Vader?”

But Vader is not scared so much as annoyed by the posse.

The children decide that he’s no fun, and they leave.

Well, it seems Darth Vader can’t be scared, so it’s time for the book to end.

But Darth Vader will not allow the book to end. He implores the child holding the book not to turn the page, not to close the book.

He admits to his fear, but the book must end, and so he is trapped inside the book, “almost like [he’s] frozen in carbonite—or whatever.”

*** 

Bees

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, video, and activity kit.

Princesses Save the World by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim and illustrated by Eva Byrne. Abrams, 2018.

This is not the story I expected. This is a story about the importance of bees to an agrarian economy and society. Princess Penelope Pineapple receives a distress call from her neighbor across the sea whose bees have all disappeared and whose fruit harvest has suffered because of it. Princess Penelope calls an assembly of princesses from a wealth of fruit-centric nations. Princess Sabrina Strawberry is not alone in her plight. Audrey Apple is having the same problem. She’s a pretty minor character, mentioned once by name then shown as trying to help the other princesses solve the problem, but that the two princesses whose kingdoms are in trouble are both dark-skinned and dark-haired women of color gives the story an unpleasant tinge of white savior complex that this world does not need.

The princesses decide it is their duty to help, and among Princess Penelope’s many other talents, she is a beekeeper; she knows that scents lure bees. She hops into her lab and with whatever perfumes and sweet-smelling treats the princesses happen to have in their luggage creates a perfume. The princesses engineer new hives to give to Princess Sabrina, and with her perfume in hand, Princess Penelope leads the bees across the sea to the Strawberry Kingdom, where the bees settle, and their industry the next year leads to a healthy harvest for the kingdom—celebrated with a tea party by the princesses.

If only solving the problem of the disappearing bees were so easy!

But I continue to like Princess Penelope and her more modern take on being a princess with a wealth of duties and talents not generally assigned feminine or princess-like. I like that she seeks outside help and opinions from other nations when she sees a nation in trouble. That kind of collaborative foreign diplomacy and policy is forward-thinking and positive too.

I appreciate that the authors saw a current environmental problem and wanted to raise awareness among a younger audience about the problem, and that they seek to show young activists taking steps to alleviate a problem.

***

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

Bee: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup. Doubleday-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-7. 

This is not the first of Teckentrup’s books that I’ve read. Her strength I feel is in lyrically romanticizing the ordinary—thus far her subjects have always been also natural. This like Tree is more nonfiction than fiction, depicting the day and job of a worker bee and bees as pollinators. Many animals, including a bee in a peek-hole through each page, hide among the illustrations, making a fun spot-the-critter game as you read through the book. Teckentrup uses lyrical language and specific detail to paint her text. This made for a good side book to Guthrie and co.’s Princesses Save the World. A bit more on level for my youngest listeners and certainly much shorter, there’s less—really no—problem here, certainly no talk of a global crisis, but it seemed a good way to introduce the concept of why bees are so important to an ecosystem.

**** 

New Twists on Old Tales

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Pig the Fibber by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2018. First published 2015.

I’ve reviewed others (almost all of the others) in the Pig the Pug series. It’s just not a model I love. In this addition to the series, Pig is blaming Trevor to avoid getting into trouble for things that he’s done. Having gotten Trevor out of his way, Pig concocts a scheme to get to the treats on the top shelf of the closet, but along with the treats, a bowling ball falls from the shelf, and Pig is again bandaged and laid up, again he gets his comeuppance for treating Trevor poorly, for behaving poorly. And he’s learnt another lesson—but again not well and not without serious bodily harm all portrayed in a singsong rhythm. Learning not to blame a sibling or bystander, not to scapegoat is a valuable lesson, but I’m still just not sure about this method of teaching; it’s so drastic, and the tone is at such odds with the harm caused to Pig.

***

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

Corduroy Takes a Bow by Viola Davis, based on characters by Don Freeman. Viking-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

What a special opportunity I expect this is for Viola Davis! Don Freeman was one of the first picture book illustrators to create a book with African American protagonists, and now fifty years later, Davis, the first African American to win a Tony, and Emmy, and an Oscar, has returned to his characters with a new story. She takes Corduroy and Lisa to the theater—a live stage performance. Both are excited and in Lisa’s attempts to see above a tall man who sits in front of her, she loses track of Corduroy, who too seeks a better seat, ending up in the pit, backstage, and then on stage. The picture book is unfortunately heavy with lessons about the language of the theater, the people behind a production, and those pieces weighed down the story somewhat.

***

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Goodnight Goon: A Petrifying Parody by Michael Rex.  G. P. Putnam-Penguin Random, 2008.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is yet another Goodnight Moon parody, this time with a spooky, B-horror, monster theme. The little goon spends the second half of the book avoiding bed and partying and playing with the creatures that infest his bedroom, perhaps trying to tire everyone out so that his bedroom will be quiet enough to sleep; everyone is sleeping or out of the bedroom when the happy goon is at last in his bed by the last page (“Goodnight monsters everywhere.”)—that’s a fun twist on the story.

***

And Silly Animals

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

The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley. Scholastic, 2010. First published 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Sometimes British picture books in particular, I’ve found, are just wonderfully weird. This one is wonderfully weird. It resurfaced in America because of a YouTube video of a Scottish grandmother reading the book aloud. The story reads like a camp song, a wonderful camp song where each verse adds another adjective to a long list of to remember, all rhyming, all silly. I remember the days (20 years ago) when Scholastic didn’t believe we would understand “Mum” in a middle grade novel. Now look at them! throwing our picture books readers words like “wonky” and making no changes to the British English “spunky” though it doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it does in American English; from this picture book in British English it seems to be a synonym for “good looking.” I really enjoyed this. I enjoyed the silliness of the plethora of adjectives attached to this donkey, and I enjoy saying it as fast as I can: “a spunky, hanky-panky, cranky, stinky dinky, lanky, honky-tonky, winky, wonky donkey.” I like the victory of being able to say it all really fast. I guess I’m still a camper at heart. If any Scottish grandmothers out there want to read Evil Weasel and make that something I can find in my country, I’d much appreciate it; I remember really enjoying that one when I read it while staying with a family in Edinburgh.

****

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

Chomp Goes the Alligator by Matthew Van Fleet. Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 2-99.

With lots of interactive elements—touch and feel, a pull-tab to make the alligator chomp up and down, and even a pop-up—this is a counting book and animal and color primer—all set in a swamp, which is not the most oft used of settings for a picture book. On the final pop-up page the animals not featured in the text are labeled in smaller print and the bugs in a bubble of dialogue ask to be counted in a later reading. The page spreads are labeled 1-10 in big text. Every animal miraculously lives though the text’s pretext is the alligator eating them and seems on the last page even to have enjoyed its experience on the alligator thrill ride. The illustrations are of cute, happy critters in pastel colors. There’s a burp to make the kids laugh, and a polite “excuse me” to appease the parents. This book has everything! Educational and fun and unusual.

*****

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: March 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Springtime

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Toddler Reads

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, description, sample pages, and reviews.. 

Really Feely: Farm by DK Publishing-Penguin Random. 2017. Intended audience: Ages 0-2.

This is truly a really feely book. The full spread of every page incorporates touch-and-feel elements on almost every inch of the page—if it’s only raised markings to imitate the direction of an animal’s fur or feathers. Besides these raised markings, there are more standard touch-and-feel elements too: a cow’s short, coarse hair, a duckling’s feathered belly, a piglet’s squishy snout. Each illustration features two images of the animal, which is nice because it offers the child two perspectives, the creature’s name, and the animal’s tracks, as well as a few environmental elements. Each page of text asks two things of the child, either directing them to both touch-and-feel elements or asking them to find, for example, the cow’s “big, shiny nose.” This is a really well-imagined, very interactive board book primer.

*****

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Will You Be My Sunshine by Julia Lobo and illustrated by ­­­­Nicola Slater. Cottage Door, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 6 months+.

Using anthropomorphic mice as protagonists, this board book reinforces a parent’s perpetual love for her child. The illustrations are generally nostalgically vintage and cutesy, but there was something about smiling sun that I found more disturbing than cute.  I think the vintage quality of the illustrations will help this one get a little traction in this difficult genre.

****

Click to visit Christian Book Distributors for links to order, description, and sample pages.

Somebunny Loves You! by Melinda L. R. Rumbaugh and illustrated by Cee Biscoe. Worthy Kids/Ideals, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

The illustrations of the bunny protagonists are cute with soft pastels and bunnies that are sometimes more bunny than anthropomorphic with long fur that lends movement to the protagonist’s forms. As the story takes the bunnies through a day of play outdoors, each page spread ends with “Somebunny loves you!” The text does make one mention of “find[ing] God’s joy,” but is otherwise secular. I have did not pull the tab on the book to find out what tune the book plays.  It’s becoming very difficult for books on this theme–the eternal and unfailing love of a parent for a child–to stand out for me.  Not as many of these exist that are explicitly religious, but that is the what I remember most about this book for that being the most original thing about it.  Perhaps the music would have stood out more?

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, description, sample pages, video, reviews, activity sheet, and author bio.

Dance by Matthew Van Fleet. Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2+, Grades PreK+.

The movable pieces—all animated by pulling various tabs—were definitely the greatest part of this book, and the best of those was by far the clackety tapping toes of the tap dancing pig. A newborn chick somehow stumbles to the entrance of an animals’ dance hall and is greeted by a rhino—one of the band?—who invites him inside. The animals each show him a different dance and the chick incorporates all of them into his own routine on the final pages. There’s the Gator Mashed Potater and the Hippopota Hula. There’s a definite stereotyped jazz tone to the language, with phrases like “Crazy, Chickie Baby.” There’s a rhythmic pattern to the language too—“boom baba BOOM”—you can hear the beat, and it’s so easy to make the characters dance to that beat, hard to avoid pulling the tab in rhythm with the words. I read this story aloud while standing, hoping to get the kids and parents to dance with me. I got a little participation, interestingly mostly with the Gator Mashed Potater.

****

(Nearly) Wordless Books

 Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, video with rice krispie treat recipe, activity, educators' resources, reviews, and author's bio.

Egg by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Egg was a pretty cute story, but it was a poor choice to read aloud. How does one read aloud a story that uses so few words and that relies so heavily on page spreads with no text at all? What text there is serves almost more as a part of the illustration than as text for reading. The repetition of words and the absence of repetition serve to say more than do the actual words. There are four eggs. Three hatch into birds (“Crack. Crack. Crack. Egg. Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! Egg.”). The last does not hatch. (“Waiting. Waiting” ad nauseam.) The birds return and peck at the remaining egg to help stimulate its hatching, but the “surprise!” is a bit more than they were expecting. It becomes a story about accepting those who seem different at first glance and perhaps at beginning to accept and expect the unexpected. (Did that bird hatch from the sun?) There may be more of a message that could be read into it, more of a metaphor in the different-ness of the crocodile/alligator (I’m not cool enough to remember how to tell the two apart, and I doubt he drew for scientific accuracy). Could this perhaps be a beginning reader book? I feel like this book presents opportunities for learning, maybe for therapy, helping kids understand their feelings as much as recognize the sounds that letters form, though I cannot vouch for either.

****

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

Nope! by Drew Sheneman. Viking-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is an almost wordless picture book. It’s only words I think are “nope,” “yep,” and some onomatopoeias: “boop” and “flap.” A baby bird is reluctant to leave the nest on his first flight. He imagines terrible things waiting on the forest floor—cats, wolves, gators—all creatively illustrated as his imagination through a thought bubble and lighter coloration from the rest of the page but otherwise seamless with the “real” forest floor.  It occurred to me that this could be another fun alternative graduation gift, if a little more tongue-in-cheek than other graduation gift books.

***

Picture Books

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You Don’t Want a Unicorn! by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Liz Climo. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

A little, brown-haired boy who loves unicorns—his shirt proclaims it so—uses a magic fountain and coin to wish for a unicorn—and it works! It’s “awesome” at first. The unicorn flies, and there are rainbows, but the unicorn ultimately proves to be a troublesome pet or houseguest. He sheds glitter—and we all know how impossible it is to get rid of glitter. He scratches up the couch. Worst of all, unicorns get lonely, and they can magically summon friends, and soon you’re hosting a party, and the house is completely destroyed. Luckily, unicorns can be wished away as easily as they can be wished for. The open ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel or a reader’s imagination to expand into another story. The text is told as if advising the character. It’s playful and imaginative—its imagination and playfulness only heightened by the illustrations, which really add the details to the unicorn’s destructiveness.  Did I mention how awesome it is that the human protagonist of this story is a dark-haired boy?

****

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

When Spring Comes by Kevin Henkes and illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book takes the world through the end of winter into the wonder of spring and to the longing for summer, drawing on the melting of the snow and the reawakening of the plants, the blossoming flowers, the hatching of the birds, the “more rain and more rain.” There’s much about the necessity of waiting. Alliteration and repetition lend a poetic quality to a text that relies pretty heavily on simple words and simple sentence structures. Distinct reference is made to the senses, which was a good opportunity to include my audience in the storytelling (What does spring smell like? What does it hear like?). None of the human characters are recognizably people of color, but many are noticeably white.

***1/2

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

Plant the Tiny Seed by Christie Matheson. Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I’m sort of on the fence about this book, written in the style made popular by Hervé Tullet. The book reads a bit like an interactive app, really, like a tamigochi, a game to grow and keep alive a plant by following the instructions and going through the steps and providing for the plant what it needs to be healthy and strong, Farmville on a single-plant scale. On the one hand, it’s not an app, so it gets the kids away from a screen, even if they are still interacting with the book as if it were a screen. On the other, it would make a cooler app because the illustrations could be animated to respond to the reader’s interaction with the page/screen. The pages are bright and colorful, and it’s a fun way to explain the various things that a plant needs to grow, but there’s really no plot other than the plant growing because it is getting x, y, and z from its environment because of the reader’s interaction with the page.

***

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

Steam Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

Having recently read Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site and Mighty, Mighty Construction Site, it made sense to finish up this pair’s repertoire and read this book. This book has a team of animal railway workers packing up a steam train for an overnight journey. This explains the different types of train cars and parts—again, a primer for me. Each type of car is bolded, so it’s obvious that the pair’s intention was to make a primer. Several of the pages make a point of mentioning how many of an object there are—giving this a chance to be a numbers primer too, though there does not seem to be an order to the numbers. I didn’t see as much of a lesson or as much of a story in this book of theirs than the others. Like the others, the text rhymes. There are a lot of onomatopoeias. I did like the end where the unlikely crew makes more realistic sense when revealed to be a child’s toy, and the story presumably a work of his imagination or dream.

***

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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