Tag Archives: Phil Bildner

Book Reviews: July 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Part 1: Finding Dory and Facing Problems

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I read just a ton of picture books this July—24 to be exact—21 of those new to me or not yet reviewed on this blog. I’m not going to subject you to a blog post that is 21 reviews long; I don’t want to read that in one sitting, and probably neither do you—and frankly, I just haven’t finished reviewing all 21, even though we are now into the second week of August. So, please, peruse part 1:

Dory

26245967Three Little Words by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Grace Lee. Disney, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

What three word phrase is perhaps the most memorable of the whole of Finding Nemo? “Just keep swimming.” So of course, those are the three little words of the title. This book is a book of advice on how to approach life, including “just keep swimming,” “look both ways” at a crossroads, and “if you ever lose your way just call out to your friends.” “When life gets you down do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do?” The illustrations in this are some of the best of book that I’ve seen come out in conjunction with the Finding Dory film. They are soft, gentle, seemingly watercolors (Kelly Knox reveals the pictures are actually made in Adobe Photoshop—wow!), and if I was unfamiliar with the films and the characters, I might suspect that this was an ordinary picture book—unaffiliated with any franchise. They look like they belong in a bedtime book. This is by far the book on the display of Finding Dory tie-ins to which I am most drawn. As a book of life advice, the text passes, but there’s really no story, so I’m going to mostly gloss over that—other than to say that I might try to get it back in as an alternate to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! next graduation season as I think its message is similar. This book went over far better at story time than did Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, being both shorter and less dark. Especially with the younger graduates (those moving up from preschool to elementary or elementary to middle school) I think it will find more resonance and love than does Seuss.

***

97807364351169780736435062Finding Dory Little Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Finding Dory Big Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

These two Golden Books are retellings of the plot of the film Finding Dory. The Little Golden Book as its name suggests is a shorter, smaller book, with less detail. Otherwise the two books are very similar. I was prepared to read the shorter of the books for story time, but the Big Golden Book actually held the attention too of my audience, which ranged in ages from I would guess five up. (Now, they were all there for a Dory-themed party, so they were, it must be said, prepared for the story—and in many cases, already knew the story.  I was interrupted by many comments about their favorite characters and the details that they remembered that were not covered in the book.)

***                             ***

Big World Problems

MarvelousCornelius_JKT_FnCrx-page-0Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner and illustrated by John Parra. Chronicle, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

Based on a story that he heard about a New Orleans street sweeper and on his later research into the man—which included correspondence with his mother—Phil Bildner attributes a folk hero quality to this recently departed man. Cornelius—the person and the character—wowed New Orleans citizens with his performances—tricks and dances accompanying his work as a garbage man. In the story, when Hurricane Katrina floods the city, it leaves behind piles of garbage as tall as church steeples, and Cornelius is at first overwhelmed but—to ironically borrow the British motto—he kept calm and carried on. He did his job, and others pitched in because he had brought them joy in the past and because they too loved their city. Even people from far away came to help Cornelius clean up New Orleans. Cornelius’ spirit lives on in New Orleans. I appreciate the glorification of this person: a working class African American man with a hoop earring and a job that is often seen as the lowest of low class. We need more books with heroes like this. Please. This month Phil Bildner was honored for this book with one of the first ever Margaret Wise Brown Prizes in Children’s Literature, a prize recognizing the best text in a children’s book published the previous year chosen from nominations by children’s book publishers.

****

worldthatjackThe World That Jack Built by Ruth Brown. Dutton-Penguin, 1991. First published 1990.

Conveying an activist message like that of Seuss’ The Lorax, this book follows a beautifully illustrated black cat and a blue butterfly who wander from the house that Jack built to the next valley over where a rainbow-colored stream cuts through a dead meadow and flows past the place where the trees used to grow by the factory that Jack built. Jack is the villain here, living in beauty while creating horror and environmental terror. The text reverses itself, building from the house out to the valley then from the valley to the factory. There is repetition, but enough to seem lyrical more than annoying; there’s a camp song quality to the style for me because it reminds me of the bird in the egg in the nest on the branch on the tree with the roots in the hole and the hole in the ground and the green grass that grows all around. This story does a lot in and with just a little—and the illustrations are just stunning. The message—conveyed almost completely through the illustrations—is more simplified even than it is in The Lorax though, and it’s not as simple an issue as this book would make it seem, I don’t think. From the story itself, the evidence seems clear: factories bad. But a well-managed factory can do a great deal of a good for a community—and even a poorly managed might do some good for the community even if its short-sighted policies cause more harm than good ultimately.

****

6402385The Enemy by Davide Cali and illustrated by Serge Bloch. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2009. First published 2007.

First of all, I did a little digging on Cali, and I have to insert just this tidbit: The Italian-born Swiss who now lives in France has written many books in many languages: Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. Just… wow. He also writes under the names Taro Miyazawa and Daikon. With simple drawings with lots of white space, Cali and Bloch tell the story of two soldiers (we will call them the soldier and the enemy) in trench warfare. The soldier that is the POV character has never seen his enemy but believes that the enemy is inhuman and will butcher the soldier’s family and animals if the enemy is not killed. The soldier wants the war to end. He is tired and miserable and doesn’t like the rain, but he doesn’t believe that the war can end till the enemy is dead because the enemy is not a rational human, and he will not stop. One night the soldier sneaks into the enemy’s trench—which he finds abandoned (the enemy has slipped out disguised as a lion), but there are photographs of the enemy’s family and a manual that says that he—the POV soldier—is inhuman as he believes his enemy to be. The soldier believes that his enemy must have done as the soldier has done and that the enemy now occupies the soldier’s trench, so he stays in the enemy’s trench. At last he decides he must do something to end the war, and he writes a message to the enemy and lobs it in a bottle towards his trench. The story ends there. It does not show how the enemy—if the enemy actually is in the soldier’s trench—responds or how the soldier responds to his enemy’s silence if as I suspect the enemy is not there but has deserted the war already. This is subtitled “A Book About Peace,” but peace is never achieved within the story. This book well illustrates the mentality of war, the way that wars must be fought, how an enemy must be created in order to have war, how an enemy is too often created, dehumanized in order to “justify” a war and how much that dehumanized enemy is as much a false face as a lion skin concealing a human.

*****

Social Dramas

9780399176197Milk Goes to School by Terry Border. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Milk is confident, sure that she is special—la crème de la crème as her dad says—but her new classmates see her as spoiled. This book is full of puns—puns everywhere—in the text and in the illustrations themselves. The refrain of “spoiled” gets tired pretty quickly and for the most part it seemed to me that Milk’s behavior was wrongly classified as spoiled by a bullying Waffle—who does not waffle at all from his opinion of Milk—established because she says that her glittery backpack was given to her by her father who says that she’s “la crème de la crème.” How is that spoiled? I want to applaud Milk with her high self-esteem and detest Waffle for bullying her, but I’m not sure that my opinion is shared by Border. At the end of the book, Milk does see herself as somewhat spoilt, and she wants to change. Her classmates only change their opinion of Milk and begin to see her previous kindnesses after she has been tripped and has spilt herself and is crying. They help to put her back into her carton and treat her with more kindness, but I don’t see a genuine change from them, and tears and blood/milk shouldn’t have been necessary to curb their bullying. I liked—maybe even loved—Peanut Butter and Cupcake. I’m not sure I can like this one because I see it as portraying a negative, almost dangerous moral that I think was unintended. This is illustrated as Terry Border’s other books with photographed food with arms and legs of paperclip wire.  The kids I read this too were an observant bunch. They were the ones who pointed out that Milk wears a different hair bow in each illustration; it gave them something to look for.

**

9780375840685Duck, Duck, Goose by Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2007.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Duck has a new friend. Thistle is fast.  She’s athletic.  She’s good at math. Duck is very impressed. Goose tries to keep up, but Thistle keeps beating him in every contest that she starts. Goose doesn’t like to be made to feel like a loser. He’s tired, and he misses Duck, but Duck doesn’t seem to need him, so he slips away. Eventually, Duck misses Goose, and he goes looking for him despite Thistle’s disparagement of his friend. He finds Goose in one of their favorite spots. Goose admits to Duck that he’s tired and that Thistle makes him feel badly about himself. Duck admits that he’s getting annoyed by Thistle too. Thistle follows. The two friends trick Thistle into showing off as the world’s best napper and go off to play by themselves. That ending didn’t sit all that well with me; what the two friends do to Thistle is not very friendly nor is it at all likely to solve their problem long-term or help Thistle at all. I wanted the story to say that it is all right to have more than one friend; instead, it was sort of a lesson on how to ditch annoying show-offs. What? The beginning did some nice character set up with Goose sanding very still in order not to scare off a butterfly had landed on him and which he wanted to show Duck, but that set-up went on just a bit too long with the introduction of the bluebird and the discussion of which way was west. Reading the first pages, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, how long exactly this book was going to be and how long I could expect my audience to tolerate it.

**1/2

Liking the You in the Mirror

22318389I Don’t Want to be a Frog by Dev Petty and illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday-Random, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

A frog decides he’d rather be anything but, and his father calmly explains that he can’t be anything but a frog because that’s the way the world works. It takes a wolf coming along saying that he will eat anything but frogs because they are slimy and gross to convince the frog that being a frog is not so bad. What is this picture book? This is not what I was expecting. This teaches that you should be glad that you’re slimy and gross and that you can’t be anything but what you are born and it has the darkness of a villain that comes along to threaten to kill the protagonist. The awful thing is that I pulled it off the shelf, lured by its funny title and cute cover and echoes of Mo Willems’ much better and more wholesome I’m A Frog! and didn’t remember till halfway through the book that I’d already rejected this once as a story time read. Well, I’ve read it through all the way now. I can set it aside and not pick it up again, right? Goodreads reviewers are lauding this as a book about self-acceptance, and yes, self-acceptance can be good in certain circumstances, but I don’t like the presentation here nor that self-acceptance comes about because others are more likely to be killed by a predator; that to me is just not a good message and echoes too closely on too many hot-button, personal issues.

*

9781484712399Ellie by Mike Wu. Hyperion-Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Ellie’s zoo is closing, and the animals are helping the zookeeper “spruce [the zoo] up a bit” in an attempt to save their home.  Everyone seems to have something that they can do–everyone except the tiny elephant, Ellie.  But the zookeeper leaves Ellie alone for a moment with a paintbrush, and she discovers a new talent—one that the zookeeper quickly encourages, and one that saves the zoo—albeit the zoo is now a gallery for Ellie’s artworks as well as the animals’ home.  I warned the child that I had at story time that this story started sad but ended happily.  He didn’t much like it, but I did.  I know at times that I feel useless, and it’s good to be reminded that everyone has something they can do, that maybe I just haven’t yet found my talent or passion.  I had fun with the illustrations, particularly the talented Ellie recreating the “Mona Lisa.”  I like the brightness of Ellie’s artworks after the muted colors of the opening pages when the characters are sad.

***

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: April 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Celebs from Children’s Literature and Beyond

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The Classics 9780394800271

Snow by Roy McKie and P. D. Eastman. Random, 1962.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This was a very simple story and it employed a lot of repetition—almost a Dick and Jane amount of repetition. Dr. Seuss recruited P. D. Eastman to children’s literature and the rhythm of this book bears a strong resemblance to Seuss’ works.  At times the rhyme seemed forced—by which I mean, that in order to rhyme, the sentence was made awkward or bordered on senseless. Some of this manifested in what seemed at the time an odd refusal to name certain common snow games: Making snow angels became “making pictures with your backs.” Cross-country skiing or skiing in general (this is not a sport I know well. In the absence of a ski lift, I suppose one walks to the top of a hill in skis even if it’s not cross-country skiing?) becomes “we put on long, long feet”; the word “skis” is never used but there are several mentions of skis as “feet.” “Snow man” is used once, but mostly the snowman is referred to only as a man, once as a man of snow, and the exclusion of “snow” as a modifier seems odd. Overall, it’s a book about playing in the snow told with a very young child’s vocabulary. As a book about playing in the snow, it’s cute. And the Seussian rhythm keeps the book rolling, so long as you don’t stumble too much on the forced rhyme and refusal to introduce new words or phrases.

***

9780394823379The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Random, 1971.  Intended audience: Ages 6-9.

This is a meaty book. It was a bit too much for story time, especially when my audience are toddlers. With an older audience, I think I would have enjoyed this reread more. With an audience of toddlers, and the kids not mine, I felt like I was filling their brains with images of the horrors of big business and greed that maybe didn’t need to be blackening their childhood bubbles yet. The story has a very clear business-bad, nature-good message that lacks the subtlety of reality but leaves little room for too in young minds. Now there are gems in this book: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Messages like that I don’t mind imparting to young ones.

****

9780399173875The Little Engine That Could by Piper Watty and illustrated by Loren Long. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2015. Full story first published 1930.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Who knows how many years it had been since I’d read this story? Many. Many, many. Enough that I didn’t really remember even the bones of the story—just the mantra that gets repeated: “I think I can. I think I can,” later replaced with the proud, “I thought I could. I thought I could.” This was an abridged board book, and there was still much more to this story than I remembered there being.

First: female trains. Yes, more female protagonists in male-marketed books. Because it is much easier right now to get a girl to read a “boys’ book” than a boy to read a “girls’ book,” so if there aren’t females in the boys’ books, boys might never encounter female characters. And I don’t think the world is in any danger yet of being oversaturated with female protagonists. (Just last night I saw another kids’ movie that failed the Bechdel test by never having two named females on screen at the same time, but it had at least seven named male characters, five protagonists and two villains.)

These are not the illustrations that I—so probably your parents and grandparents—grew up with, but I like them. They are softer but at least as colorful and maybe even more expressive for their rounded realness compared to George and Doris Hauman’s. This clown is also less creepy, maybe because it has less makeup, more hair, and a more realistic face beneath the makeup. I don’t know. He seems less frightening to me. It’s fairly clear though that Long intentionally harkened back to the Haumans’ while making the work her own.

****

And the Big Names in Children’s Literature

26030671Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

This is a fun twist on the classic “Are we there yet?” plot of a child complaining in a car ride to his parents with a good moral. Drifting off possibly and entering an alternate dreamscape where all the pages are upside down, the boy in this story goes hundreds, thousands of years backwards, encountering cowboys, pirates, and dinosaurs. His parents are appalled by all of these strange encounters, but the boy doesn’t notice the wonders they are passing in the car till he sees the T-rex. But when they can’t go back any further they somehow end up too far forward in time, and Grandma’s house is gone. How will they make it to the party? I’ve been told the QR codes in the illustrations of the future world are worth checking out, but I don’t have the app for that, so someone’s going to have to get back to me with reviews and insights on those. I think this might be the first time that an illustrator has incorporated QR codes. The story ends with an emphasis on the importance of family and celebrating family.

*****

26075973Let’s Play! by Hervé Tullet. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

A yellow dot with a lot of emotion and energy in its small frame narrates a traceable adventure through the pages of Tullet’s latest book. The yellow dot doesn’t confine itself to the pages either, at one point jumping onto the reader’s head, which was fun to play with. I expected this to be a bigger hit with my story time audience, but they weren’t really into it, even when I gave them each a book to play with. Granted, one at least was probably too young and two were ESL learners, so maybe some of the word play or instructions were lost in translation. I enjoyed playing with the book. I like the clever situations that the book character asks the readers to follow him into. I liked the potential to talk about bravery with the scary pages. But there were less educational elements to this than either Press Here or Mix It Up!

***

my-first-busy-book-9781481457910_hrMy First Busy Book inspired by Eric Carle’s works. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2015.

This clever primer has it all, each on its own page! There’re colors, numbers, shapes, first words, animal sounds, and a mirror. Each page asks a question of the readers. One page for example asks readers to trace the raised numbers, giving the book a touch-and-feel element too. Another page has flaps to lift. Because primer books are rarely meant to be read anyway, the idea of including a just a bit of everything seems smart of the publisher and cost-effective to parents too. This is a perfect go-to for the indecisive, thrifty, or low on funds. And besides that, it has elements of Carle’s famous illustrations, so it’s bright, inviting, familiar, and creative without sacrificing realism.

*****

The Celebrities from Outside

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Derek Jeter Presents: Night at the Stadium by Phil Bildner and illustrated by Tom Booth. Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

As a Red Sox supporter, it was difficult to be enthusiastic while reading the first line of this story: “The Yankees win!” I actually thought this a fairly successful celebrity sponsored picture book—if the self-insertion of Derek Jeter seems—though it makes some sense within the text—a bit… forced. I wasn’t too fond of the repetitive “Talking [noun]?” “Of course we talk.” “We all talk,” though I recognize that repetition is often a hallmark of texts for young audiences—maybe not for the audiences of this book, with its nine-year-old protagonist. Talking food is always a bit of a sticking point for me too. Why have to eat, so do we want to imagine our food as characters? I’m more okay with it in a world free of humans—as with Peanut Butter and Cupcake. This team—Jeter and Blinder and Booth—gets points for an interracial protagonist. Some of the illustrations are pretty stunning, just wonderfully vibrant. The book for its emphasis on baseball, and the Yankees in particular, and its jargon of the sport, has a limited appeal, but there are surprisingly not all that many picture books about baseball—and many of those are bios or histories, so such a book may be a welcome gift to many young fans of the game.

***

y648Charlie the Ranch Dog by Ree Drummond and illustrated by Diane deGroat. HarperCollins, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Charlie is magnanimous towards his silent friend Suzie. Suzie doesn’t have droopy eyes or dangly ears like Charlie, but he doesn’t hold that against her. She’s better at running and jumping. Charlie’s never been very good at jumping. Charlie has a lot of work to do with Suzie. He’s a morning dog, but she isn’t—except she’s up. She’s out the door. Charlie sometimes likes to let Suzie do things to feel important, but he knows his mama couldn’t get along without him. While he’s talking to the reader about all the things that he needs to do, Suzie has done or is doing them. Charlie keeps drifting off to sleep and waking with a “Huh? What’d I miss? Oh I must have accidentally closed my eyes for a few seconds.” Suzie and the humans go off without him during one of these naps, but because of that, he is home to scare the cows out of his mama’s beloved garden.

Charlie’s unique voice was what made this book stand out, though I’m not sure I like that Charlie’s is the only voice in the story.

***

naughty-mabel-9781481430227_hrNaughty Mabel by Nathan Lane and Devlin Elliott and illustrated by Dan Krall. Simon & Schuster, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I was kept from enjoying this book as much as I otherwise would have by the French-bashing and stereotyping, the worst being an oblique suggestion that the French don’t like to bathe. Who says things like that? Who thinks it’s okay to publish books that say that?

Mabel’s a pampered French bulldog who thinks she is and acts as if she is a spoilt human child to her rich human “parents.” Mabel doesn’t believe her parents’ description of her as naughty is fair. She believes she is and revels in being VERY naughty. Most of the story is backstory, really, for the main event, when Mabel is forced into a bath that she—with her cat friends—decides is a sure sign that her parents intend to throw a party. But Mabel’s not invited to the party. So she dons a pink tutu and pearls and claims that she will try to blend into the crowd—but the allure of a pile of pigs-in-blankets proves too alluring, and she becomes again a dog with a mouthful of stolen food, spoiling the party by running across the table and startling guests into spilling their drinks on their fancy clothes. Mabel stands out still more when those pigs-in-blankets come back in a big, noxious cloud of fart—and she clears out the party. She expects though that her parents are secretly glad that she ruined their party because it means more time for just the three of them.

That’s a dubious message for children. Misbehave and your parents will still love you? Sure. Absolutely. Please. But misbehave and your parents will be secretly glad? Mmm….

There are some funny moments in this—the fart is not one of them to me. The book had some potential. I like Mabel’s unique, posh voice, directly addressing the readers as “darlings.”

But Mabel knows nothing of being French.

**

9780736429702Rapunzel’s Wedding Day by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I never saw the Disney short about Rapunzel’s wedding, Tangled Ever After, but I expect that this story replicates that one almost exactly. The illustrations seem to me like screen captures. It was a cute story focusing on the animal “sidekicks” from Tangled trying not to ruin Rapunzel’s wedding when they accidentally drop the rings. Generally I’m not sure about the emphasis placed on weddings, particularly in media aimed at children. Weddings—heck—marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life, as many Disney movies seem to suggest. That being said, this is more about hijinks that ensue in two friends’ efforts to rectify their mistakes without their mistake going noticed. And Tangled already promised us a marriage.

***

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.