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Book Reviews: May 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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Sequels and Series

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The Berenstain Bears: Faith Gets Us Through by Stan, Jan, and Mike Berenstain. Zonderkidz-Zondervan, 2012. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

One day for story time, I had just the two kids, regulars of mine. We finished the stories that I’d picked out for them, but we still had time, and they were still interested, so I had them pick out stories. They picked two, we read those, there was still time, so I had them pick out one more. The younger sister let her older brother choose, and this is what he brought back. Reading an overtly religious story in a public setting to children that I don’t know all that well and that I’m not directly responsible for made me uncomfortable—even though I consider myself Christian and religious—but I wasn’t going to disappoint or disapprove of any story that they chose. One of the bear cubs in this story—a side character, Scout Fred, not one of the well-known Berenstain family members—quotes Bible verses about faith and fear and God’s constancy. Even though he begins his quotes with “As the Bible says,” not giving book and verse, those Bible verses were as clunky in text as they often are in real-world conversations. The story, though, is exciting. Papa Bear leads the bear cubs into a cave. It looks frightening, but Papa Bear knows all about caves and God will protect them (some of the facts about caves, about stalactites and stalagmites were also clunky). They all fall into an underground river, but are carried out a chute and safely fall into a pool outside of the cave, protected by God, of course. Honestly, if there weren’t such emphasis on the didactic aspects of this story, I think I would have really enjoyed it. Without its Biblical quotes, it’s a story of an overly confident adult who think that he knows it all and doesn’t listen to the misgivings of the children in his charge, putting everyone in danger, though ultimately it all turns out all right.

***

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

Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie by Kimberly and James Dean. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audiences: Ages 4-8.

Poor Pete just wants to dance, but his friends don’t think that he’s doing it right, and when they try to teach him, he steps on Squirrel’s toes and hits Gus on the nose. Pete is determined to get it right, so he keeps trying. Wise Old Owl swoops in as he has been doing lately in Pete books and saves the day: “It doesn’t matter how you move, as long as you are being you.” Those words solve every problem of the book. Each friend dances however they like to move. The whole story is told in rhyme and words like “groovy” sneak into the book to give it that ‘70s flair that is fairly unique to the Pete books. There is far less to this story, though, than there was to, say, His Four Groovy Buttons or I Love My White Shoes or the more recent Missing Cupcakes, a didactic message, yes, but not an educational one, not a primer’s lesson. Even so, adding another book to the repertoire of dance-along books is always valuable for rambunctious little ones.

***

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

Be Quiet! by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is one of my new favorites. I’ve spoken before several times about how much I love books that demolish the fourth wall and how much I love when anything plays with its form. This is one of those books. The business-savvy mice from Hotel Bruce return. Rupert, the most serious of the mice, is given his own book. He is going to make it a wordless picture book because they are “very artistic.” It goes all right when Rupert is alone. He can explain his premise, give the book its title, and say that it will have no words “starting NOW.” But his wordless book is quickly interrupted by his friends, Thistle then Nibbs, who want to help. Only, he has talk to explain to them why they can’t talk. They have to talk about not talking. And then Thistle and Nibbs have ideas about what type of illustrations and characters and plot this wordless book should have—and of course they have to talk to share their ideas. The illustrations change to keep up with their suggestions and their misinterpretations of each other’s ideas and Rupert’s erudite complaints, getting further and further away from Rupert’s original ideas, I’m sure. Those erudite complaints offer quick vocabulary lessons too. Poor Rupert spends a lot of this book telling the others to be quiet—until he is ultimately shushed when he complains that his book is ruined (this page reminded me very much of the clever format of Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales).

*****

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

Jorge el curioso huellas de dinosaurio / Curious George: Dinosaur Tracks by CGTV based on characters by H. A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Based on the new world of Curious George as established in the television series, while out in the country, George takes his camera and photographs wild animals and their tracks for his collection. While searching for a fawn seen by his friend Bill, he finds a strange set of tracks and decides that they were made by a dinosaur with big feet with pointed toes and a dragging tail. Though at first excited, he does some research and realizes that some dinosaurs are dangerous. It’s near Bill’s house. Bill could be in trouble! There’s a nice bit of information here too, some of which is delivered dryly in the form of an info dump but most of which is conveyed gently through the illustrations. There’s also a well-constructed story with foreshadowing and a mystery with clues that a careful reader could follow. For a level 1 reader, this is a fabulous story. I read only the English in this book. English and Spanish text were on the same page.

****

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

Dragons Love Taco 2: The Sequel by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This sequel to Dragons Love Tacos opens on the same white, male protagonist and his dog surrounded by weeping dragons. Why? Because The New York Times declares NO MORE TACOS.   And dragons love tacos. So the boy fires up the time machine in his garage and with his dog and a few dragon friends travels back in time to the taco party of the previous book—but before the dragons ate the tacos with the spicy salsa. Unfortunately the first few times, they are too late, and the time machine keeps getting burnt in the inferno resulting from the dragons’ encounter with spicy tacos. When trying to tune up the machine, the protagonist mistakes extra spicy salsa for engine oil because he still hasn’t learnt to read the label first. Time machines have a bit of different reaction than do dragons but equally negative reaction to salsa. The past gets strange. But finally, the boy and his dragons escape from the past with some tacos, and they are able to plant one to grow into a tree and replenish the world’s taco stores. This is a fun story: ridiculous but with a problem big enough to drive the plot with some force. This book relies on its prequel more so than most sequels. I can see that as negative in that it requires prior knowledge or access to the prequel; this book doesn’t work well as a standalone. My initial thought though was that this book could be used in a classroom setting to explain book series versus books in a series; fewer picture books are book in a series. In fact, I’m almost not sure that I can think of another example. Particularly in the first few pages, the illustrations are particularly clever. Be sure to read especially the The New York Times article “Congress Deadlocked on Taco Issue;” as an adult, that one I found particularly funny.

****

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

Ellie in Concert by Mike Wu. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The cacophony of the other animals’ noises is keeping Lucy the giraffe from being able to sleep. Ellie is concerned for her friend. Inspired by the bird’s lullaby to her chicks, Ellie conducts the animals’ noises so that they become a lullaby too. This is a great way to incorporate an animal primer into a book with plot, and like the first book celebrates art, this celebrates music. Included are two tunes, proving Mike Wu to be a talented Renaissance man.

***

New Friends

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Samson: The Piranha Who Went to Dinner by Tadgh Bentley. Balzer + Bray-HaperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Tadgh Bentley won my heart with his book, Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups, and won another piece of it when a couple told me that he is a lovely man to talk to as well as having written a wonderful book. Samson is his second. Samson is a piranha with a refined palate. He may even be a foodie. He wants to go to fancy restaurants and try exquisite dishes, but the other piranhas are not interested, and the patrons and employees of those fine restaurants are off-put by his being a piranha with sharp teeth and a cannibalistic reputation. Samson’s disguises aren’t enough to get him service at any of those fine restaurants because they always slip enough to reveal him to be a piranha. At the last restaurant though, not every fish leaves; some are there in disguise too. Samson opens his own restaurant, to cater to those excluded from other establishments based on their appearance—and those with privilege who begin to come in disguise to his restaurant. Where Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups was a truly funny story, made more funny because the reader should fake hiccups through the whole of the text, this is a serious social commentary—masked in a funny tale of a fish. But a fish from whom others run and whom they stereotype, and who can’t get service at a restaurant because of his appearance is not a funny tale; this is a good introduction to how it feels to be discriminated against, how one shouldn’t judge a person—or fish—on their appearance or on the stories told about a group of which that individual is a part. Seeing it as social commentary, I’m not sure how I feel about the privileged fish masking themselves as underprivileged fish, but I’m choosing to perhaps not carry the metaphor as far as it could be taken; it probably isn’t meant to be taken that far, but I recognize where the metaphor could become problematic.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample audio, book trailer, pancake recipe and activity kit, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Little Ree by Ree Drummond and illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In what I assume is an autobiographical story, Little Ree moves with her family from the city to her grandparents’ farm. She’s really excited, but country life isn’t what she is expecting. She has to get up early. Her bedroom is plain. The night is dark, and there are scary sounds outside. She is given a horse, but the horse doesn’t do what she wants. The illustrations are precious, and the story is told with a very realistic child’s voice. The whole of her story is told from her monologue addressed both to the audience and to the characters without any dialogue tags or narration. Little Ree is talkative enough that the story remains even apart from the illustrations. Little Ree reminds me a bit of Fancy Nancy and Eloise with her precociousness and clothes horse-ish-ness.

****

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

A Trip to Busy Town by Sally Hopgood and illustrated by Steph Hinton. Pull-the-Tab-Top That, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3+.

This board book has some very fun, sturdy pull-tabs that creatively make use of the space with illustrations on both sides of the tab and answers to the text’s questions on the tab, revealed only when its extended. Be sure not to push the tab back in before turning the page as both sides are illustrated and the illustration on the back side of the tab extends the next page’s illustration. Told all in a rhyme, with text that asks questions of the reader, animal friends journey from the country, past various transport vehicles and machines, to arrive at the airport to pick up one more friend on the tarmac. I was really quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of this board book, the complexity of the text and illustrations. It can be found in Barnes & Noble’s bargain section.

****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, sample illustrations, reviews, trailer, teachers' resources, and activity kit.

Green Pants by Kenneth Kraegal. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2. 

Jameson feels invincible in his green pants. He can do anything in them. He is excited to be in his cousin’s wedding, but there is one caveat: He must wear a tuxedo—with black pants. It’s a wonderfully universal childhood problem: having to dress a certain way, to give up wearing what you want, to give up wearing your favorite piece of clothing to be able to do something that you want to do (arguably that’s an adult problem too). He has to choose between being in his cousin’s wedding and wearing his green pants. Ultimately, he decides to choose his cousin, but the moment that his duties are through, off come the black pants, and beneath he wears his green pants—so much better for cutting loose on the dance floor. The entirety of the cast is Black in a story that has nothing to do with race and everything to do with childhood, family, and societal expectations and mores.

****

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

Moo Moo in a Tutu by Tim Miller. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Moo Moo has a lot of ideas, but this is the best idea in the whole world! She’s going to be a ballerina. Moo Moo is ever optimistic and Mr. Quackers is forever supportive. They’re a wonderfully fun new set of friends. The whole of the story is told entirely in speech bubbles and illustrations. After a rocky start, Moo Moo quickly decides that she is ready to share her talent with the world, and she gets onto stage at the ballet. Her reception is not very warm from anyone but Mr. Quackers, and she as quickly as she decided to become a ballerina decides to retire while at the top of her game.

****

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

Danny McGee Drinks the Sea by Andy Stanton and illustrated by Neal Layton. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2017.

Boastful Danny McGee says that he can drink the sea, and in the way that siblings will, his sister disagrees, and Danny sets out to prove her wrong. And he does. And then he proceeds to eat everything in a stampede of quick rhymes in a Seussian lilt. At the end of the book, there’s nothing but himself and his sister on a blank, white page, and Danny McGee thinks that he’s proved his sister wrong, but there’s one thing that Danny hasn’t eaten—and she eats him. The combination of rhyme and rhythm and the sibling interaction that I think will seem very familiar to most siblings might make this a book popular with the children. Frankly, I was a little off-put by the lack of comeuppance for Frannie and that she seems to scheme to let Danny eat everything only so that she can show him up and eat him. I know I’m reading too deeply into the story that is meant probably just to make kids laugh, but it seems like her gluttony, her violence against her brother is pardoned because he’s a younger brother and because she is patient and because he did wrong first. I don’t know why her patience seems so conniving to me—maybe it’s the violence described in a singsong rhyme—but it does.

***

Books That Aren’t So Much About a Character

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Books That Drive Kids CRAZY!: Did You Take the B from My _ook? by Beck and Matt Stanton. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This was an excellent book for those beginning to read. It was good for a small story time audience (I had only 2 children). The book’s text puts underscores in place of Bs and so the kids had the chance to sound out the words with the simple illustrations to prompt them. The mystery (and it was really only a mystery to the younger of my two audience members) of what the text said was more intriguing than the plot—the plot, such as it was. There was silliness, but maybe not much of a story. The plot is that the reader has caught some malady that prevents her from saying the letter B, so the reader comes up with a tongue twister filled with Bs to see if she can say the letter. And she can’t until the very end. That’s where the interaction with my story time audience came in: “It sounds wrong when I read this page. Can you still read this page like it should be read? Can you tell me what’s happening in the picture?”

****

Click to visit the illustrator's page for links to order and sample illustrations.

Baby’s Big World: Music by Rob Delgaudio and illustrated by Hilli Kushnir. BoriBoricha, 2017. 

This book is more a concept book than a story. It’s an informational board book that asks what music is and describes the way that notes stand for particular sounds that help to make music, and it asks what music you (the child listening to or reading the book) will make. The characters are all round-faced children and toddlers but those characters are of every gender and race, each handled with attention to detail, and each character unique.

***

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: April 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Lessons, Playtime, and Older Stories Made New

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The Lessons Learnt

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

Raisin, the Littlest Cow by Miriam Busch and illustrated by Larry Day. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Raisin is the littlest cow in the herd and is nuzzled and cooed over by the other cows. She likes the color brown and movies and especially dislikes change. But change always comes. Her mother has another little cow, a little brother for Raisin, and Raisin does not like her little brother or that her little brother is now the one being cooed over and nuzzled and that the attention that he is garnering means that no one but Raisin remembers movie night, so no one is there to help her see over the fence. She helps herself, but the day keeps getting worse. There’s rain. There’s thunder. The movie is canceled, and her brother is wailing almost as loud as the thunder. Raisin and her brother bond over their mutual dislike of thunder and over his brown eyes, which are her favorite color. She makes him giggle by dripping on him then by showering him with a shaking her coat, calming him when no one else can do. I imagine this book would be helpful for a child dealing with jealousy of the attention given to a newborn sibling, to see their feelings validated, reflected. With humor snuck into the text and illustrations, the message, the promise that a new sibling can be a friend and not a reason to run away to Jupiter nevertheless seemed a little too prominent, a little heavy-handed. I’m not sure what made the message seem so heavy-handed, since Busch never stated her intention outright. Perhaps it’s simply that I’m not Busch’s target audience.

****

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

Dad and the Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko and illustrated by Dan Santat. G. P. Putnam & Son’s-Penguin Random, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

Gennifer Choldenko is probably best known for her middle-grade historical fiction novels, most notably perhaps her series that begins with Al Capone Does My Shirts. This picture book is about an active, sports-involved boy who is bolder in the presence of his toy dinosaur—the dinosaur very wonderfully illustrated by Santat, his translucent image truly imposing. Overall I liked the writing, but I disliked that the husband brushes off his wife by saying they are going out for “guy stuff” as the book nears its end. As a woman I felt like I was being cut out of the story. It was something I didn’t and don’t expect from another woman—though I know we can be as guilty of sexism against women as men can be. This seems particularly jarring after the mother has been so physically present throughout the book and the boy’s father so obviously absent, hearing about his activities after the fact from the mom. That too is why, though, the dad’s compassion, his acceptance of his son’s coping mechanism is so particularly touching. The lesson could have been far more heavy-handed than it is. The father could have chosen to be the “adult” and deny the boy’s need for his dinosaur. I’m glad that he did not, even as I’m glad that he does state baldly that it’s okay to be scared and that he too gets scared sometimes. Normalizing fear and normalizing coping mechanisms for fear are needed. Normalizing sexism and strict adherence to gender roles and stereotypes are some things that I would like to see less.

***

Interactive Books

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Don’t Touch This Book! by Bill Cotter. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

I had the great pleasure of having this book read to me during one of my twice-weekly story times. It’s a wonderfully interactive book—and I like it so much more than the previous book by Cotter, Don’t Touch the Button! Don’t Touch the Button! and Hervé Tullet’s books too ask the reader to interact with the page of the book. Don’t Touch This Book! begins that way. Larry (the protagonist) tells the reader not to touch the book, then allows the reader to use just one finger, then to use all their fingers when he appreciates the reaction of the book to the reader’s action. Quickly though this book asks the reader to do all manner of ridiculous things that many readers at story times ask of their listeners anyways that are more physical than merely pressing a particular spot on a page or shaking the book: flap your arms like the wings of a flying bird, roar like a dinosaur, spin around…. The readers’ acts precipitate the responses of the book. Roaring like a dinosaur causes a T-rex to appear on the following page. Flapping your arms causes the monster protagonist to sprout wings to be able to escape the T-rex. This will almost certainly join the repertoire of story time books that I keep in mind when I need to wear out my too rowdy crowd. It may supersede some of the others. I’m very glad my story time visitor chose this book to read to me.

*****

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

Dinosaur Dance! by Sandra Boynton. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 1-5.

This book is a simple dance-along book featuring dinosaurs. Each dinosaur—named primarily by species—does a particular step of a dance. T-rex goes STOMP STOMP STOMP, The red Brontosaurus goes QUIVERY QUAKE. There’s a little dinosaur no one can identify who both cha-chas and goes DEEDLY DEE. I appreciate that there is an animal that no one can identify, especially in what could be considered a primer; too infrequently are toddlers told that it’s okay not to know. Of course all of the text rhymes. I was reminded of Van Fleet’s recent book Dance, which sets itself apart with its pull tabs, though I think that I prefer the text here. There’s more sense in this that the reader is a caller than there is in Tony Mitton’s Dinosaurumpus! but not as much as can be found in Boynton’s better-known Barnyard Dance; Barnyard Dance has very much a square dance rhythm to it. For its more imaginative and open-ended dance moves, I may like this one even better than Barnyard Dance. Plus, dinosaur primers are harder to find than a barnyard primers, and this book is able to do more with color than does Barnyard Dance.

****

Retellings

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We Are the Dinosaurs by Laurie Berkner and illustrated by Ben Clanton. Simon & Schuster 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book takes the text of Laurie Berkner’s song and adds more of a story to it with its illustrations and asides. I read the story before finding the song. The song talks about dinosaurs broadly. The picture book narrows the story a group of friends—different types of dinosaurs—who adventure towards the top of a volcano—and run away from the rumbling mountain and back to their parents to revel in their bravery and adventure. Ben Clanton’s bright, cartoony dinosaurs are memorable but I didn’t discern much personality from any of the dinosaurs, which was a bit disappointing.

***

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

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Adam Rex. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Drew Daywalt gained his fame with The Day the Crayons Quit and The Day the Crayons Came Home, both done in conjunction with Oliver Jeffers. His latest book continues to focus on art supplies and children’s play. He invents a story behind the popular Rock, Paper, Scissors game. There are three great warriors from three different kingdoms around a home. Each has fought the warriors that exist in their own kingdoms, and none are satisfied with their competition or their victories. They each go on a quest for fulfillment and a meaningful victory—and discover joy in fighting one another. This story wasn’t beloved, it didn’t seem, of my audience for story time (in the interest of full-disclosure, my audience was three girls, and they were older, maybe 6-9; I suspect this book would go over better with the boys who come in looking for books on WWE and the ones who build guns out of Legos at our events; the whole plot of the book is battles and fighting and the dialogue is primarily traded boasts of one’s own prowess and colorful insults). I perhaps could have hammed up the text a little more than I did, but I did ham it up some. It’s hard not to do so when I’m provided lines like

rovlta9

and pages like

Paper became my favorite warrior for his bemused reactions to the aggressions of the other two in their first three-way battle and his frightful “fighting words”: “Hi there.” I greatly enjoyed that Daywalt chose to make Scissors a master swordswoman with painted-red lips. This could easily and in another decade likely would have been a book without any female representation. I enjoyed the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets particularly too. What a nod to children’s play. But ultimately that I enjoyed it more than girls in the target age-range makes me like the book less.

***

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

Beauty and the Beast adapted by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Meg Park. Hyperion-Disney, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I thought because this was marketed (at least by Barnes & Noble) with all of the books and merchandise for the new live-action Disney remake of its animated film by the same name that this story would follow the Disney story, but instead Rylant stayed nearer the Perrault version of the story and devoid of any talking furniture. Beauty (not Belle) is the youngest of three sisters and her father is a merchant whose fortune is lost at sea. Her older sisters when the father’s ships are recovered want emerald necklaces, but Beauty wants only a rose. On the way back to home from port, the father is caught in a storm and shelters in a castle that seems deserted except that a feast is laid out for him. On his way from the castle, he spots a rose in the garden and remembers his youngest’s wish. As payment for the rose, the Beast, master of the castle, demands the father’s enslavement but allows him to return first to his family to say goodbye. Beauty demands to go to the Beast in her father’s stead. The Beast gives Beauty endless days of leisure, fine clothes, wonderful food. He reads poetry to her by the fire at night. And every day he asks if she is happy. One day he asks her to marry him, and she refuses. The Beast accepts her answer. She returns to her father to care for him in illness, then returns when she dreams that the Beast is dying. Her realization that she loved the Beast restores him to his human form: a man with darker skin than Belle’s.

IMG_1107

Meg Park, who I’ve admired from a distance for some time for her softness, bright, jewel-like colors, and expressive characters, makes nods to the Disney cartoon in her illustrations: The Beast has the same basic shape, though he is perhaps more wolfish, Beauty’s design is close to Belle’s, though her hair is more auburn and her outfit more seafoam green than sky blue. Beauty’s horse is a palomino but not a Belgian Draft. In these ways and more she deliberately strays from the Disney retelling but harkens to it enough to highlight that both stories use Perrault as the basis for their tale.

I really enjoyed introducing young enthusiasts to a retelling nearer the Disney version.

*****

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.

Photos of the books’ interiors are all mine.  I borrowed the meme.

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.

*****

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

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

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

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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Book Reviews: February 2017 Picture Book Rounds: Lessons Abound

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Sharing, showing mercy, being a friend, compromise, teamwork, hard work, trying new things, resisting oppression and tyranny, admiring nature truly, and accepting yourself–lessons abound in picture books this month.

Click to visit the author's page for links to purchase, sample page, reviews, and awards list.

Pig the Pug by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-5, PreK-K.

I was a bit… shocked by this book, mostly because a coworker had recommended it, so I didn’t screen it for story time. The bullying, greedy pug, Pig, in a very Disney-villain type of accident falls from his perch and out the window. He is next seen all wrapped in bandages while the Dachshund dog, the hero, “good” or “poor” Trevor, finally plays with a toy and with Pig. This was a hit with my story time audience though. A little boy, maybe… four? I saw that family again and was told that he told all his family and friends about it. The ending is a bit grim, but no more grim than most fairytales.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and description.

Hotel Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I loved this book more than the first in the series. Somehow this one seemed to better understand its audience, to play less to the parents, leaving more space for the kids (though there is still plenty for parents to laugh at, never fear). It begins with a quick recap and yet another migration South for the winter. The geese and Bruce return to Bruce’s cave to find that a group of mice have turned it into a hotel for all types of woodland creatures, with whom Bruce now has to share a bed and his kitchen, while the geese are pressed into service as bellhops. The grumpy bear as before finds he has a surprisingly soft heart, making him a laudable protagonist for children’s literature.

****

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

Dinosaurs Don’t Have Bedtimes by Timothy Knapman and illustrated by Nikki Dyson. Candlewick, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.

The redheaded protagonist, Mo, dressed in a dinosaur costume, imagines a dinosaur’s life is one of no rules, doing whatever he wants. To his mother’s argument that dinosaurs must get hungry with no dinnertime, he says they eat whenever they want. Dinosaurs of course are always messy.  In his imagination, Mo is a dinosaur, shown as such every few pages before flashing back to himself and his mother as they are.  Mo is a contrary child, but his mother obviously loves him. There don’t seem to be any real consequences to Mo’s contrariness, but he also seems to do all that his mom asks or tells him directly—at least eventually. The colorful illustrations—and particularly the creativity that allows the reader to see Mo and his Mom in their dinosaur-forms—are the biggest draw here.

***

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

Play with Me! by Michelle Lee. G. P. Putnam’s Sons-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Pip is eager to play with Nico, but Nico is focused on his own playing—of the cello. Pip offers activity after activity to do with Nico, and Nico just keeps saying he’s uninterested and keeps playing his instrument. Finally, Pip shouts, “I MEANT PLAY WITH ME!” and Nico realizes that he’s excluded his friend with his solo playing. So he finds a way to include her without giving up on his own activity. It’s a story of compromise, and it’s a story of listening and paying attention to the desires of others. Nico and Pip are primarily illustrated on a white background with little distraction from their characters and actions.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, trailer, educator's guide, and author's and illustrator's bios. Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, trailer, educator's guide, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 1-6.

Mighty, Mighty Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

It took six years for this team to write a sequel to the popular Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, and it took a required story time to get me to read either of the books. Let me preface by saying I have never much been fascinated at any age as some are with construction vehicles. I learned loads (pun intended) from this book—at least, I learned names of vehicles it had never occurred to me to wonder over. Or I learned that I have a fun resource available when someone asks me what that vehicle is called—it would take more than one or even two readings for me to memorize those names.

Both are bedtime stories in the end; each ends with the vehicles tucking themselves in for the night. In Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site that is the whole drive of the plot. Each vehicle gets a few pages, its actions humanized and its bedtime regimen tailored to reflect its daytime activities and function. Each vehicle’s section ends with “Shhh… goodnight, [vehicle], goodnight.”

Both texts emphasize the importance and fun of hard work, but the second underscores teamwork. A job too big for the team of the first book has arisen, so they call in a backup team. Here female vehicles are added to the cast, which I appreciate. And these female vehicles aren’t feminized; they are not pink or purple, are not given long lashes, and are just as eager to work hard as the male vehicles. This second book seems almost a prequel story. The first book has about two pages of daytime activity then the vehicles go to bed. This second book focuses on the daytime work, but ends with the vehicles going to bed—with a shorter bedtime routine than in the first. Both texts are told in rhyme.

Lichtenheld uses bright colors, cartoonish faces that use primarily the windshields and front ends of the vehicles, and some creative layouts. Little details like teddy bears and nightlights make the pages extra fun. Some of the illustrations from the first book are reflected in the second.

****      ****

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

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. Penguin Random, 1988. First published 1960. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I read first One Fish, Two Fish and then I tried Mr. Brown Can Moo. This book I read by popular request. I’d grabbed this too as a possibility, but it was a favorite of one family who told me they had been collecting the book in different languages, and a favorite with a few of the other members of my audience too. It’s a lot of fun to read aloud not only for the rhyming text but also for the emphatic tone that the protagonist uses in refusing to try green eggs and ham.  And of course, he does end up liking the new food after he tries it and ends up enthusiastic about eating it anytime, anywhere.

*****

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One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss. Penguin Random, 1988. First published 1960. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This story was so much longer than I remembered it being, and so much less of a story. It’s more like… snatches of poetry, some of it loosely connected, but most of it independent. Several of my favorite snatches of Seuss are in this collection, though: “One fish, two fish” of course but also “My hat is old, my tooth is gold.” Many of these poems are rhyming tongue twisters that would be good for helping kids laugh along while they learn to sound out words.

***

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

“Yertle the Turtle.”  Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss.  Penguin Random, 1958.  Intended audience: Ages 5-9.

I remembered “Yertle the Turtle” as one of my favorites of Seuss’.  It must have left a profound impression on me.  I did not realize till I was partway through the story at a story time this past month just how relevant it is to today’s politics.  Because of that, this story twisted my stomach more than I had thought that it would, the king’s boasts and poor Mack’s complaints and protests sounding both all too familiar.  It was not the distant fable that I remembered.  It is lived reality.  It is now.  It is protest fiction.  But it was, I think, a fable.  “I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”  Oppression, a kingship built on the backs and forced labor of others cannot last forever.  Protest will be rewarded.  One lowly turtle on the very bottom can have an impact and a voice.  That voice, that rebellious act, that existence may topple a king.  When I’d finished, I sort of took a deep breath, and the mother of the child who’d requested one last story (she was about seven; I don’t know if she saw the real-world parallels as clearly as her mother and I did) and I shared a look, and sort of danced for a moment around saying how relevant the story seemed to today.  I did not read either of the other stories in this collection.  Just “Yertle.”  The other two stories in this collection are “Gertrude McFuzz” and “The Big Brag.”  “Yertle” is in other collections as well, including Six by Seuss.

*****

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

Round by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Taeeun Yoo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Joyce Sidman wowed me before with her book Before Morning illustrated by Beth Krommes. She has a unique way of seeing and describing the world. She is one of those writers that you can just tell pays attention to every word and every meaning and emotion of every word.  This book focuses on all things round: seeds, the sun, the moon, eggs, mushrooms tops, oranges, raindrops, ripples…. As it was with Krommes’ cover, it was Yoo’s cover illustration that drew me to this book, and it was only later that I realized I’d read and enjoyed another of Sidman’s works. Yoo uses a small child and her dog and a goose and a parent or other adult to interact with the round things that the narrator—an “I”—describes. Yoo’s human characters seem to be Asian, but I wouldn’t swear to it (though Kirkus Reviews agrees with me), and they are never given names or described themselves within the text.  She adds extra circles into the illustrations. The two artists together make a game of the book and a game of the world. Once you start seeing round as they see round its hard to un-see. Definitely the focus here is on nature. The final pages of the book describe some of the reasons so many things in nature are round in fairly simple terms—these pages are definitely more for the older picture book audience though, maybe 7-8 with an adult to explain some of her more difficult words in these explanations.

****

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

Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima. Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is going to be one of my new favorite books, I’m fairly sure. Kelp is born and lives under the sea, but he isn’t like the narwhals—his horn isn’t as long, and he’s not as good a swimmer—but the other narwhals don’t seem to mind, so he tries not to mind either. But a current pulls him above the surface and far away he sees a creature that looks like himself. He learns how to walk, walks through a “strange and beautiful” land, and discovers unicorns—and that he himself is a unicorn. He learns all about being a unicorn, and loves it, but he misses his friends. He returns to them and in a conversation very much (it seemed to me) couched in the cultural script we have for “coming out” explains to his friends that he is not a narwhal but a unicorn. They all “t[ake] it very well” and knew he was not a narwhal but a unicorn all along. So Kelp begins to live as a unicorn who knows he’s a unicorn with the narwhals.  But Kelp soon begins to fret over whether he wants to be “a land narwhal with the unicorns or a sea unicorn with narwhals,” and finally finds a way to not have to choose between the two.

Perhaps because of the national dialogue right now, I saw this as very much about either gender or sexual identity; I couldn’t quite ever decide which metaphor worked better (the rainbows made me wonder if the unicorns represented gay culture, but the question over whether he was a land narwhal or sea unicorn or both/neither made me think more about trans identity).

Beyond all of that, the pictures are adorable! They are colorful and they are playful and creative.  This book is just wonderful.

*****

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 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Almost a Red Carpet Affair

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Click to visit B&N for links to order and summary.

Begin Smart TM: What Does Baby Say? Sterling, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 9 months-2.

An action prompts the question, “What does baby say?” A lifted flap reveals the one word answer. It’s a sturdy-seeming book, and reviews corroborate my guess. The colors are bright. The pictures are simple. This book was originally published in 2008, and I’ve seen complaints about a baby in that book drinking juice from a bottle, which reviewers seem to find confusing and some claim is dangerous. “Juice” was my first word, so I wonder if the writer had such an experience in mind. The version of the book that I read, put out by Sterling in April 2016, has revised the text to say milk instead of juice. Babies of color were included in the illustrations.

***

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

Clifford the Big Red Dog: Vintage Hardcover Edition by Norman Bridwell. Scholastic, 2016.  First published 1963.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5, Grades PreK-K.

This vintage edition of the book uses only a few colors: black, red, pink, and the off-white of the pages themselves. In many ways, Clifford is an average dog: He plays fetch. He chases cats and cars. He likes shoes. He eats and drinks a lot. But Clifford’s problems are unique because of his size. Emily Elizabeth can’t take him to the zoo anymore because he chases the lions. Sometimes he catches a car and brings it back to her. He mistakes the policeman’s baton for the stick Emily Elizabeth throws and brings the policeman to her. His bathtub is a pool and his brush is a rake. Clifford’s size may be problematic, but Emily Elizabeth would never trade him for any dog.

***

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

Clifford the Small Red Puppy by Norman Bridwell. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 1985. First published 1972. Intended audience: Ages 4-6, Grades PreK-1.

Clifford began as the tiniest of puppies, a puppy as small as our four-six week old kitten—or smaller. Love and the prayer of a little girl make him grow larger than the largest dog in two days. I love the sass of Emily Elizabeth at the end: “Tell me again how you got your dog.”

I have vague memories of enjoying the books about Clifford the puppy more than the books about Clifford the dog but only I think at the time because he was a puppy and cuter by default. Plus, he was small like me.

Reading this and the original Clifford story back-to-back, I realize that there is much more story and much more personality here than there was in that first book. Whether that’s true of all of the books in the puppy series, I don’t now feel qualified to say.

****

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

I’m Going to Give You a Bear Hug! by Caroline B. Cooney and illustrated by Tim Warnes. Zonderkidz-Zondervan, 2016.

I am very pleased with this book. It is sweet without being cloying and poetic, creative, and clever without indulging in florid vocabulary. In the rhyming text, the narrator (or mother) insists that she is going to give the listener (or child) the hug of an animal and then describes the hug using phrases that are associated with that animal, making the incomprehensible hug suddenly vivid: example: “I’m going to give you a dog hug. A knock over chairs, Chase up the stairs, And sleep like a log hug.” The illustrations are fairly simple, but small details enliven the story. Each animal sports in some small way the yellow, red polka-dotted pattern of the mother’s dress. (I say mother, but it could be any older woman.) The child’s teddy bear is also in each illustration, alive and independently active.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and a behind-the-scenes video.

Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Willems loses points here for portraying as frogs his characters with French names on a quest for a baguette. That was unnecessary and not very nice, Mo. This book could otherwise have been perhaps a five-star book for me. I enjoyed the story of the young girl given a responsibility by her mother, but falling into temptation, fearing her mother’s wrath, that fear proving unfounded because her mother is understanding, and then her mother falling into the same temptation when she goes with the girl to complete the task. I like the tongue-twister nature of the text, which got kids and parents laughing. I liked the bright colors and creative layout.

****

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

How Do Dinosaurs Choose Their Pets? by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5, Grades PreK-K.

As always, I love that this team always includes male and female dinosaurs without attributing male and female characteristics to the dinosaurs and also always appreciate the inclusion of people of color. This is a fun animal primer too. The beginning of the book questions whether a dinosaur goes and picks out outlandish pets—tigers, elephants, dragons, sharks—but concludes that the dinosaur of course chooses something small and harmless and tractable from a shelter, store, or farm—a dog, kitten, bunny, hamster…. This would be a fun book to share for sure when a family is trying to decide whom or what to adopt. Pair this with Seuss’ What Pet Should I Get? The two are similar enough, but one includes dinosaurs, and one focuses on the difficulty of the decision. Both celebrate the wealth of good choices to be made. Teague’s illustrations are more colorful for sure, and more detailed.

***

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: Best of the Best of 2016

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It’s awards season again, and I’ve read next to none of the winners or honorees this year. The only book that won any medal that I have yet found postings for is Brendan Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat, one of this year’s Caldecott award honorees, which I gave four stars.

But I always believe in honoring the books that I’ve read and have awarded five stars.

Only the bolded books on this last were eligible for this year’s awards… and there are only five of them, all of them picture books.

Of the books that I rated five stars that were published in 2016, really, only Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? had any chance at any of the awards–I would have thought that a possible competitor for a Caldecott.

TODDLERS-KIDS (AGES 0-8)

MIDDLE GRADE-YOUNG READERS (AGES 8-12)

TEENS (AGES 13-19)

ADULTS (AGES 20+)

People of Color in My Books from 2016

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After last year’s jarring realization, this year I started a list of books with POC (people of color) and another list of books with a person explicitly not white in the role of a main protagonist in order to track my own reading and hopefully improve upon the lack of diversity of characters in 2015’s list of books.  This year I read 44 out of 168 books (26%) where any person of color is included, either as a protagonist or a background character, a sort of abysmal quarter but more than 2015’s 23% if only barely.  Only 16 of those 44 (36% of all books with any POC or 9% of the all the books I read) have a person of color in a starring role, less than half.  In some cases, as in Mike Cuarto’s Little Elliot books, the protagonist’s role is taken by an animal or usually inanimate object, but in most cases the POC play background characters to a white character’s story or share a stage where no one is given a spotlight within the pages (for the most part, the covers of such books feature white characters).

A coworker and I both realized recently that the majority of toddler books feature exclusively animal characters–or characters that are usually inanimate objects, like peas.  64 of 168 books (38%) that I read this year are in this category of books with no human or humanoid characters.  That means that in 2016 I read more books with completely non-human casts than ones that include even one POC.

Excluding these books that exclude humans and humanoid characters, the total percentage of books with POC rises to 42% but still does not hit even the half mark.

I have this year more actively sought out books with POC as protagonists, but I have not held–I’m sorry to say–to my November resolution to read books only about POC, women, or other marginalized groups.  (There’s a good new year’s resolution for me.)

This is the list of this year’s books that included POC.  Books where a POC is a protagonist are bolded.  Books where a POC is a secondary character, one with a speaking role, and more than a background character but still not a protagonist are underlined.  Books which arguably have no protagonist, where for example, a different character is featured on each page have a + sign beside them.  Books first published this year have an asterisk, because those are the ones that could be considered for the most recent round of awards, and because those are the books that were probably in some way effected by the current cultural climate.

Picture Books, Picture Storybooks, and Board Books (Ages 0-8)

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

Teen (Ages 13-19)

Riordan as always has done a great deal to bring up the number of books that I’ve read with POC protagonists and characters.  The surprise aid has come this year from Disney, which not only set a story in Polynesia with an entirely POC cast of characters, but also even in their story about fish in the Pacific, where few human characters were at all present, they were sure to include POC, and in the books mentioned above, I think POC accounted for at least half but maybe 100% of the human characters present.  Santat, Curato, and Beaty should get honorable mentions for always including POC among their casts, and Beaty a shout-out for having this year’s picture book feature an African American girl.  Bildner and Parsley both deserve shout-outs as well for multiple books with POC protagonists.  I want to give a shout-out to Gassman too for having an African American on the cover of a book with a quite diverse cast where it would have been possible, as several others chose to do, to feature the white characters on the cover.

I also want to give a mention to Maggie Stiefvater.  I’ve begun to suspect that in her Raven Cycle many if not all of the people in Blue’s house are African American, but I can’t yet swear to it.

I want to give another shout out here to Elizabeth Bird, who recently published a list of picture, easy, and early chapter books published in 2016 with diverse casts and diverse main characters on The School Library Journal‘s blog.  This is a fabulous list, and fabulously organized.  Check it out.

Have I misrepresented any books?  Feel free to discuss below.  Sometimes–particularly in picture books–it can be difficult to determine a character’s race (sometimes probably intentionally so, and I appreciate that too), and sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether a character’s role is large enough to merit a place as a secondary character rather than a supporting or background character.

Book Reviews: December 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Mostly Wintertime. Was It Blue?

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Click to visit the book's webpage for links to order, summary, activity kit, educator's guide, and author's and illustrator's bios.

The Storybook Knight by Helen and Thomas Docherty. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

My manager and I were both won over by the illustrations and story and concept of this book. It’s all excellent. A little mouse is in training to be a knight, but he doesn’t want to fight as his parents insist that he must; instead he’d rather read and study. His parents see an advertisement for a dragon slayer and send their son to the aid of the village. Along the way, the young knight on his fat, shaggy, expressive pony meet several monsters, all of whom he subdues by appealing to their vanity and sharing with them stories about monsters like themselves—gifting the book to each before they part ways. He subdues the dragon the same way but adds that the dragon must help clean up the village that he terrorized before the little knight will read more to him. As the dragon cleans, the villagers lose their fear and eventually work beside the dragon and knight to right their town. The characters are all wonderfully expressive. The illustrations are filled with delightful and surprisingly realistic detail.

*****

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Peek-a Choo-Choo! by Nina Laden. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This little board book hasn’t got much of a plot. This might be considered a primer for transport methods. Peek-a choo-choo. Peek-a flew. Peek-a canoe. Peek-a shoe. Peek-a I see you. It all rhymes. But that’s the extent, really, of the text.

**

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A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P. D. Eastman. Random, 1989. First published 1961. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This was one of my favorite books as a child, and I really enjoyed introducing it to a young generation of readers who all crowded close around me on the stage. It was sort of a happy accident that I read it. I was supposed to read How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and I had a huge crowd, many of whom arrived early, so as I was sitting in front of them, I offered to grab a story to read to the early-birds, but by the time I got back to the stage and introduced myself properly, it seemed the last stragglers had arrived and it was time to begin story time-proper. So I read The Grinch. Then I gave them the activities that I had for them to do. Then a dedicated little huddle asked me to read the second story and crowded around me on the stage. It was precious. It was more precious because it was one of my favorite childhood stories. As an adult I was struck by the remarkable helpfulness of the police and firefighter. My kids wanted to know how Mr. Carp had gotten Otto small again. They weren’t satisfied it seemed particularly with my explanation that we don’t know and aren’t supposed to know.


Winter Wonderlands

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Waiting for Snow by Marsha Diane Arnold and illustrated by Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

This preciously illustrated book evoked a reminiscent smile from me as the friends discuss several foolproof ways to ensure a snow the following morning. Several of those methods I’d tried, and my audience and I enjoyed brainstorming other methods that the friends missed in the post-story time discussion. Hedgehog assures them all in what becomes a somewhat repetitive refrain that it will snow when it’s time, Hedgehog drawing on other examples of things that can’t be rushed but always come—like the flowers in spring and the dawn. Hedgehog seems oddly out-of-sync with the rest of the book, too deep for the lightheartedness that the rest of the book displays and maybe a little preachy. Also the snow is not nearly as universally dependable as Hedgehog’s other examples, so the advice falls a bit flat. While I understand Hedgehog was necessary for the book’s message of patience, I think I would have enjoyed this advice from another source, or for this message to be less veiled by poetic similes.

***1/2

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

Hap-Pea All Year by Keith Baker. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Grades PreK-3.

There… wasn’t much to this book either. Each month gets two or three sentences. “Happy January! Let’s get going, grab your mittens—hooray it’s snowing!” That’s… not even particularly good punctuation. The gimmick of this book is the pea characters, who have appeared in board book primers before: LMNO Peas, 1-2-3 Peas, and Little Green Peas. I think I would have liked this book better as a board book. As a picture book, I expected more from it. There are some creative details in the illustrations. For example what is once a sprout becomes a flower. I had to read it a second time for story time, and it was less objectionable the second time through—maybe because I was prepared for what was coming, maybe because I was less stressed. There may not be many books teaching the months, but there are definitely better: I loved Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice as a kid.

**

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

The Most Perfect Snowman by Chris Britt. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprisingly tender picture book. The snowman Drift is lonely, “built fast and then forgotten,” without any clothes, picked on by the other snowman and left out of snowman games. When several children (one a darker-skinned boy) gift Drift with clothes and his much-desired carrot nose, Drift is the happiest and the most beautiful snowman, the envy of the others, and included in all their fun. But these gifts prove ephemeral. A blizzard tears his hat and mittens from him. Drift despairs and searches for his torn away clothes, but finds a lost bunny with no shelter in sight, and gives that bunny his warm scarf, and though he recognizes it as a sacrifice, his carrot nose, returning him to his original imperfect form.  But because of his actions he becomes not just “the perfect snowman” but “the most perfect snowman of all.” This does not discuss the other snowmen’s reaction to him after his sacrificial act. Perhaps a little heavy-handed in its message, but so generously sweet that it is easily forgiven. This is a well-constructed story too; especially for a picture book, it follows well the rules of plot. Pair this with the Buehners’ Snowmen at Night perhaps.

****1/2

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

Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

The duck dresses up as Santa and uses a zip line to reach the roof to surprise an excited Farmer Brown but gets stuck in the chimney, so every animal one after the other—and getting progressively larger—comes to extract him from the chimney but gets stuck as well, and the real Santa flies closer and closer in his sleigh, his silhouette growing larger and larger on each successive page. But Santa’s magic. Where the animals failed, he succeeds. Everyone—Santa too—tumbles down the chimney, cinder-covered, into Farmer Brown’s living room, where they all have a laugh and celebrate Christmas. The “ho-ho-OH NO!” refrain is repetitive but could be a lot of fun.

***

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Santa’s Sleigh Is on Its Way to Virginia: A Christmas Adventure by Eric James and illustrated by Robert Dunn. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2015.

There’s a book almost identical to this for every state in the U.S. We were a bit disappointed that our city was not among those chosen for the book. Children of many races grace the pages. Ultimately one character is groggily half-asleep wandering through the house, just barely missing Santa hiding around the corner, behind the drapes, behind the broom.

****

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert Lewis May and illustrated by Antonio Javier Caparo. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014. Text first published 1939. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I did not when I read this realize that this is the original Rudolph story. I enjoyed this version maybe even better than the Rankin/Bass story that most of us I’d guess know best. First Caparo’s illustrations are beautiful with deep hues, realistically rendered (is that Percy Jackson asleep in that bed?). In this version, Santa doesn’t know about Rudolph till Santa is trying to deliver presents to the reindeer and stumbles across a sleeping Rudolph, whose nose lights up his room and makes delivering presents easier. There’s so much detail in the text, which I enjoy but made the story really probably too long for my young audience; we got through about all but the last nine pages before the kids’ attention wavered and they began questioning everything to try to shorten or change or interact with the story—but those last pages are all after the climax and really add little to the story, so maybe be prepared to end with Rudolph’s first “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight” if your audience is getting antsy; they won’t miss much. It’s all written in rhyme, and uses some aged language and syntax—well it’s from 1939.

****

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If You Take a Mouse to the Movies by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. HarperCollins, 2000. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

The mouse forgot very quickly about the movies, distracted by popcorn, which he wanted to string together to hang on a Christmas tree, which they didn’t have, so they had to go buy a Christmas tree. It’s an excuse it seems to engage in Christmastime and wintertime activities, led by mouse and mouse’s demands. He’s such a demanding mouse. You try to do something nice, but he wants more and more, and you have to do more and more for him.

***

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The Red Prince by Charlie Roscoe and by illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole. Templar-Penguin Random, 2016.   Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This book was intense! I liked the cover, and it looked wintery, so I put it up on display this month. I did not expect the story inside. While the king and queen are away, mysterious, uniformed foreigners attack and overcome the castle, locking the young prince in his red pajamas in the dungeon with his dog. Once I’d started, I worried a bit about my young audience, but the one who stayed to pay attention was probably 7, and I comforted myself thinking that it was just the prologue to a Disney film, like Frozen, where the parents go off on a boat, and the boat is caught in a storm, and the parents never come back. The prince escapes but is hunted by the invaders, his face posted on wanted posters. My audience enjoyed trying to spot the prince on each page and in each crowd. His subjects help him evade capture, ultimately all of them dressing in bright red too to confuse the invaders. Unfortunately he is still found and his people must come rescue him again. The people, perhaps united by their love of the prince and their group effort earlier, chase away the invaders. It really didn’t have as satisfying an ending as I’d hoped for. I’m not sure what I wanted though. The prince is safe, and the invaders are chased off—peaceably. While the ruling family is white, the kingdom is racially diverse. Cole’s illustrations are the reason to read this one. They incorporate creative angles and bright colors and contrasts.

****

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

Little Penguins by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

The kids in my audience wanted to assign genders and birth order to each of the penguin children, but both changed page to page. With blocky illustrations of arctic scenes the book chronicles an anthropomorphized penguin family’s snowy adventures first outside then inside to get warm. Minimal text done as almost exclusively dialogue, though lacking any quotation marks or speech bubbles to proclaim it so, begs for different voices for each penguin.

***

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: 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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