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Book Reviews: March 2019 Picture Book Roundup: Growing Up and Getting Lucky

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St. Patrick’s Day

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Pete the Cat: The Great Leprechaun Chase by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I was impressed by this book; I went in expecting little.  Pete the Cat is trying to capture a leprechaun; he has started a business catching leprechauns for his classmates. Pete expected catching Clover the Leprechaun to be easy, but it is not. The leprechaun taunts Pete in limericks, which is a fun gimmick and fun to read aloud.

I was surprised by how many kids thought that we could actually catch a leprechaun, that I might have leprechauns running about the store, awaiting their traps. I was glad that in this book, the point is made that leprechauns can only be caught on St. Patrick’s Day. It saved me being the one to disappoint them on the Saturday before.

That Pete catches only one leprechaun for his three different customers, that Pete takes more orders without first fulfilling previous orders is not really addressed.

Clover teaches Pete that luck doesn’t come from catching a leprechaun. Having friends, Clover says, is what makes a person lucky. So Pete lets Clover go, and he help his friends prepare for their examinations, recitals, and matches. Hard work and practice, not luck, helps the friends succeed.  They are lucky to have a friend willing to help.  This was a great message and a surprising one to find in a book about leprechauns and St. Patrick’s Day.  What a hidden gem.  This will be one I will probably read every St. Patrick’s Day-themed story time from now on.

*****

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

How to Trap a Leprechaun by Sue Fliess and illustrated by Emma Randall. Sky Pony-Skyhorse, 2017.

This book has only one kind of trap that it suggests setting for a leprechaun who will grant wishes and give you his gold: a cardboard box with gold-painted rocks as a lure, a rainbow slide to mark the gold, and glue on the rocks to keep the leprechaun from escaping the lure. This leprechaun, Liam, tells the kids, a diverse group, not to fret that he escaped but to go enjoy St. Patrick’s Day and to try to catch a leprechaun again next year. The text is told in rhyme, but lacks Pete’s limericks.

***

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Ten Lucky Leprechauns by Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook and illustrated by Jay B. Johnson. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2013. First published 2012. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

The book counts up as redheaded male and female leprechauns are added to this group in a forest. The text is extremely formulaic:  One, two, three, etc. leprechauns see or otherwise become aware of a [adjective] “wee elf” who performs some action illustrated on the page that rhymes with his or her assigned number. “Feedle-di-fizz, ‘tis magic, it is! It’s leprechaun number…” TWO, THREE, etc.  I found it too formulaic, and I found the nonsense words awkward, an attempt at… what?  Sounding Irish I suppose but without using a lyric recognizable from any song.  Perhaps this text would work better sung?  The nonsense was maybe too near fiddle-de-dee, used as an expression of dismissal since the late 1700s, and colored my vocalization and sense of the nonsense.

**

Growing Strong and Smart

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I Will Be Fierce! by Bea Birdsong and illustrated by Nidhi Chanani. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

I read an advanced reader’s copy of this book.  Much—almost all—of this story is told in the illustrations. The text itself is affirmative, many “I will” statements. The protagonist, a young girl, a woman of color and likely Indian or perhaps Pakistani, sets off to what seems to be a first day of school. (The surnames on the mailboxes in the atrium of her apartment are Phag, Huang, Caimoi, Warren, Jain, Bers, Rao.  Rao and Jain are both of Indian origin according to Behindthename.com, and Phag is a surname most prevalent in Pakistan according to Forebears, and the illustrator is of Indian descent.) The girl imagines herself as an adventurer in a high fantasy, driving back dragons (dogs on the street) with bubbles, walking with giants (older students), and tricking the Guardian of Wisdom (the smiling librarian) into revealing her secrets while her steed is a trusty school bus. She stands up against bullies and makes friends with a rejected girl in glasses.  I also like that at the end of her day, the girl rests. The protagonist seems to live with a grandmother. Her armor is a comfortable-looking, rainbow-striped pullover.  Though a small detail, I like that the protagonist’s hair isn’t perfectly sculpted, strands escaping from the shape.

*****

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

When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree by Jamie L. B. Deenihan and illustrated by Lorraine Rocha. Sterling, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3+.

I loved this book so much that when I didn’t get the chance to read it for one story time I brought it out for a second weekend. A grandmother in the city brings her granddaughter a lemon tree sapling in a coffee tin as a birthday present. It’s not the high tech toy that the granddaughter wanted, and she at first tries to get rid of the tree, but ultimately, she becomes protective of the growing tree. When the tree produces its first crop, the grandmother returns and helps her granddaughter turn the lemons into lemonade and the lemonade into enough money for the high tech toy that she had originally hoped to receive for her birthday. But the tree has inspired a love of gardening that supersedes her desire for the toy, and she returns from the store with a wagon full of more plants to add to her garden and share with her neighborhood. There are so many wonderful lessons here: about hard work and perseverance and money earned, a practical recipe for lemonade, a love of gardening to engender in a new generation, especially one bound in the concrete of a skyscraper city, how to respond to unwanted gifts, the wisdom of our elders, and that sometimes something you first disliked may become beloved. The lessons and the expressive characters superseded my usual dislike for this type of text, which lists things that a universal “you” should and should not do as in books like Elise Parsley’s stories about Magnolia, the books in the How to Catch series by Adam Wallace, and the series of how-tos by Jean Reagan. Both grandmother and granddaughter are women of color.

*****

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Animalphabet by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Sharon King-Chai. Dial-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

There is a great deal to love in this book too. First, this is a lift the flap book the flaps of which extend the pages in different ways, at times doubling the page’s size outward or upward or downward.  Sometimes the flaps are large and sometimes they are small.  Simply interacting with the pages was fun and exciting, but the whole book too is a guessing game.  “Who can slither better than a rabbit? A snake! Who can growl better than a snake? A tiger!”  The animals are alphabetically mentioned. There are peep-through holes in many creative shapes in the pages that hint at the following page but rarely at the hidden animal. Often the question itself hints at the upcoming animal, mentioning some act associated with that animal, as snakes are known to slither and tigers are known for their growls. For a primer, this is a very delicate book, but what a wonderfully colorful, wonderfully creative book. I think its silliness, its beauty, and its creativity will shine for older readers too. I hope that they will.

*****

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Corduroy by Don Freeman. Penguin, 2014. First published 1968. Intended audience: Ages 0-5.

Here is a true classic. Corduroy the bear has sat on the shelf of the toy store a long while waiting for a child to bring him home. When a mother concerned with the expense when refusing to buy the bear that day for her girl comments that Corduroy doesn’t even look new, that he’s lost a button, Corduroy takes a nighttime quest around the department store to find his missing button. Corduroy is endearing in his innocence of the world. He mistakes an escalator for a mountain. He mistakes the furniture department for a palace. He has never slept in a bed. He has always wanted a home. I wonder how much longer a department store will be a relatable setting for young children. Corduroy makes a ruckus trying to retrieve a button for himself from one of the mattresses. Without having attained a button, his quest a failure, the night watchman returns Corduroy to the shelf, where the next morning he is discovered by the girl from before. Lisa has counted her own money, and she has enough to bring Corduroy home. Lisa likes Corduroy as he is, but she thinks that he will be more comfortable if she replaces his button, which she does herself. She is considerate of his comfort, she knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid to stand up for what she wants, but she respects her mother and is polite to the salesperson. She loves Corduroy through his external flaws. She is independent, purchasing Corduroy when her mother does not, and fixing his overalls herself. The two recognize one another as friends. Lisa and her mother are African American, notable and laudable especially for a book from ‘68.

*****

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We Are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines and illustrated by Julianna Swaney. Thomas Nelson-HarperCollins, 2019.

To read this one out loud, I cut sentences, I cut paragraphs, I cut pages. It was just long. Honestly, it was a chapter book trying to be a picture book. It would have benefited greatly from more editing.  I suspect that Gaines was able to rely a bit on her celebrity to get the book that she wanted instead of the book that this could have been.  I don’t need to know everything that happened in and to and before this garden to read a good story, nor do I need to know all of the science behind healthy gardens to enjoy a story. The family’s father brings home one fern. That fern dies from overwatering. Another fern is acquired. A watering schedule is established. More ferns are acquired. The ferns become a dream for a larger, outdoor space and more plant variety. The garden grows. It is enjoyed. Another child is born. Animals come and destroy the garden. The garden is regrown. There were lots of facts sprinkled into the text, definitions of terms, advice for growing, explanations of the garden ecosystem. The pastel illustrations were soothing though. The lessons of perseverance through adversity were good. Everything just felt overexplained. And too much seemed to happen, too much seemed to want to be said in the span of only 40 pages. The book is told from a plural first person, the kids collectively narrating.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, video of the author reading to her daughter, and printable activity.

You Are My Happy by Hoda Kotb and illustrated by Suzie Mason. HarperCollins, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

A family of bears (a parent and cub) reflect on the things that made them happy throughout the day as they are settling down for the day: marks of growing and friends and families that they observed and with whom they interact. I could have done without the refrain “that’s what made me happy.” The list rhymes. The story ends with “the one I’m thankful for you is you. You are my happy.” It’s sweet. It’s a nice ritual to establish with a little one, listing the things that made you happy before bed.

***

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

Little Blue Truck’s Springtime by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Houghton Mifflin, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4+.

This lift the flap, animal primer uses the Little Blue Truck character to introduce readers to farm animals and their offspring. More and more toads (that really look more like frogs to me) gather on the truck, and I made a game of counting the toads on each page. There are nine ducklings and ten piglets to count too and a passel of bunnies. The text is very simple, very short but rhymes. The flaps tend to hide the animals.

***

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 2019 Picture Book Roundup: Puppies and Love

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

Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer. Dial-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

This little, brightly colored, riotously detailed board book depicts families of various make-ups (two dads, two moms, biracial families, grandparents raising grandchildren) doing the little, everyday things that express love, mostly spending quality time together—waking up early to children’s music, baking a birthday cake, splashing in puddles, helping retrieve a lost teddy bear, knowing where to find everything, watching a play. The refrain “love is” begins each page. This is a good reminder that love doesn’t have to be grand gestures, that love does not have to come just from biological parents or even from biological relatives.

****

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

I Need a Hug by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2018. Originally published 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This porcupine wants a hug, but no one wants to risk its spines. In rhyming question and response, the porcupine asks various named animals for a hug, only for them to run away or to tell it to leave. But they all come running back towards then past the porcupine, followed by a snake who laments that “all [it] did was ask for a kiss.” The book ends with the porcupine and snake cuddling one another.

Others on Goodreads have already pointed out the somewhat problematic nature of this porcupine who responds to the animals’ refusals by lamenting to the reader that “no one will hug me. That’s not very kind.” While I fully support teaching that it is okay to admit your needs for touch (many are touch-starved in a culture that teaches that physical touch can only be romantic and never platonic) and to request consensual physical contact, it is equally as important to accept a refusal without question and without resentment. Yes, the animals could have refused the porcupine’s request more kindly, but the fact of their refusal is as necessary and important as is the porcupine’s request.

The story seems cute, seems silly, but I don’t know that Blabey thought much about the message—I almost hope that he did not.  What is the message?  Everyone needs hugs and kisses?  Even that I disagree with, though I know we are in the 1% and grossly underrepresented in fiction.  (Any other aces reading this?)

I am glad that the two animals find what they need in one another though. It’s a sweet ending.

**

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

Clifford the Firehouse Dog by Norman Bridwell. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2010. Originally published 1994. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

Emily Elizabeth and Clifford are visiting Clifford’s brother Nero (yes, Nero) at the firehouse, and a school group is visiting the firehouse. Nero demonstrates Stop Drop and Roll for the schoolchildren, and Clifford thinks that he can repeat the demonstration, but being so much larger, he rolls right on top of a street vendor’s cart. Clifford causes a little more trouble by clearing the streets for the fire truck when a siren calls the firemen away.  But he uses his unusual size and strength for good at the site of the fire, rescuing people from the upper floors of the building, helping to unreel the hose, and loosening the cap on the hydrant. This is an exciting and amusing way to teach the role of firefighters to children and the steps that firefighters need to take to put out a fire. In the back of the book is a list of fire safety tips.

****

 Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, awards list, reviews, and activity sheets.

The Duchess and Guy: A Rescue-to-Royalty Puppy Love Story by Nancy Furstinger and illustrated by Julia Bereciartu. Houghton Mifflin, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

There really are so many reasons to celebrate this marriage—and I do truly hope that it is a loving and fulfilling and lasting marriage for the two of them. I’m not immune to the excitement around this union that is shaking up the highest echelons of British monarchy. But this book focuses on the union from the point of view of Guy, the rescue beagle adopted by Meghan Mountbatten-Windsor, née Markle, now Duchess of Sussex, while she was living in the United States and is to told from Guy’s POV. Guy loves Meghan, but he isn’t fitting too well into the refined life of the family that she is planning to marry into—not with the children, not with the queen’s dogs, and certainly not with the queen. But on the wedding day, Guy catches the queen missing one of her own dogs and comforts her, earning him her acceptance at last and a spot in her limousine as they head off to the chapel to witness Meghan and Harry’s wedding. It’s a cute story about struggling to fit in, and I think its message could speak especially to kids joining new families or new social groups. Mostly though I think its appeal is in being based on a true rags-to-riches, Cinderella fairy tale, for both the duchess and her dog.

****

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Love, Z by Jessie Sima. Simon & Schuster, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Jessie Sima is becoming one of my favorites. With a rather unique color palette, this tells the story of a robot finding a damaged letter in a bottle, of which only the signature “Love, Beatrice” is legible. Z doesn’t know what love is, but Z thinks that it might be important. For the first time ever, the older robots aren’t able to answer Z’s question; love “does not compute” for them either. Thus begins Z’s quest to find Beatrice, the only creature that Z is sure can tell the robot what “love” means. Z meets a collection of fun characters, including a cat who captains a boat and a multitude of characters happy to share what love means to them, including a black woman who runs a bakery and a schoolyard full of diverse children, including one girl in a wheelchair. Just as Z is about to give up, Z and the cat stumble upon Beatrice on her island. Beatrice invites them in. Z asks her about love, but Beatrice rather than giving Z a quick answer, bakes cookies and plays and dances with Z, demonstrating love I think. When she does answer, she tells Z what love feels like to her: safe and cozy and warm. Z’s family arrives at the door, worried about Z. Z realizes that Z has known love all along. Z feels the way that Beatrice describes love when Z’s concerned family tucks the robot into Beatrice’s borrowed bed, safe and cozy and warm. Z and Z’s family just had never had a name for the feeling before. Now they all know it as love. Z writes Beatrice a letter in a bottle before taking the cat’s boat back to home; the cat stays with Beatrice. There are so many stories left untold in this text, hinted at and left to be finished by the reader. Why did Beatrice send her letter by bottle? For whom was it meant? Very likely, knowing Sima’s other works, Beatrice letter is meant for the young, darker-skinned woman illustrated with her in her memory of feeling safe. Is she by any chance the same woman in the bakery? (I don’t think that’s likely; they don’t look much alike, but it would make a good story.) Why does the one girl in the schoolyard think that lawn gnomes are love? In a picture book with few words and few illustrations, Sima has managed to create a host of intriguing characters that feel tantalizingly distinct and real, the heroes of their own stories. I get the feeling that Sima might have backstories for them all, in much the way that J. K. Rowling does for many of the most minor characters in Harry Potter (fans have made up backstories for the rest of them). I did not catch that Z is left as agender, but others on Goodreads pointed out that detail, and I’ve gone back to change my review accordingly. That makes me wonder if the name Z is not just marking Z the youngest of the robots who are named things like L, Y, and I but also a shout-out to the agender ze/zir pronoun usage (ze being pronounced usually like Z).

*****

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: February 2019 Picture Book Roundup: Living in Community

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Almost all of these books—and there are a lot of them this month—come back to the idea of community, living together with your fellow creatures, sharing resources, and showing kindness.  One exception is Another Monster at the End of This Book, where two friends argue over the course of action that they should take, one excited for the promised thrill and the other frightened of the promise.  The other exception is Hamilton’s The People Could Fly.

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

The Little Guys by Vera Brosgol. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

I read an advanced reader copy of this book, which comes out April 2. This is a story about sharing. The Little Guys are tiny creatures like acorns with stick person legs and arms and bulbous, orange noses that travel in a pack. The pack makes them mighty. They are unstoppable through the power of teamwork, able to cross dangerous terrains and “beat up” any animal that they encounter. On their quest to find breakfast, they steal and hoard the forest’s resources—“every… thing…”. But being too greedy results in the creatures tumbling into the forest stream. The animals that they have stolen from band together to help the Little Guys. The Little Guys realize that caring about only their own pack isn’t enough, that they are not as indomitable as they had thought, as the whole pack would have been lost if not for the care of others.  They learn that they need to work with the larger forest community, made up of all of the different creatures that inhabit the area. The text itself is fairly simplistic, told in the plural first, the boasts of the Little Guys. The illustrations tell the larger story.

***

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The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Knopf-Random, 2004.

I bought this book for a graduate class in 2007, and then found out that there is a collection of folktales edited by Virginia Hamilton and bearing the same name and that that was the book we were going to need for class. (The collection was published in 1985; this story is taken from that larger work.) I kept the picture book though. This story is a retelling by Virginia Hamilton of an old tale and beautifully, movingly illustrated by the Dillons. Told in a conversational vernacular style, it’s the story of a people from Africa whose beautiful, black wings shed under the cruelty of slavery and the Atlantic crossing, but whose power of flight is unearthed again with the help of an old man in the fields who comes to the hurting people and whispers the magic words to help them remember.  He can’t help all the people fly; not all of them can fly. In the note in the back, Hamilton explains that the power was often associated with the Gullah (Angolan) people. This is a tale of magic, of reawakening.  It’s a tale of the indomitable desire for freedom.  It’s a celebration of African American resilience and strength.

*****

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

The Bad Seed by John Jory and illustrated by Pete Oswald. HarperCollins, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

John Jory takes on the nature v nurture debate in this picture book. The Bad Seed had a rough life. He ended up in a bag of sunflower seeds, chewed upon by a human, and spit out, crash landing beneath the bleachers, and living for a while in these grubby surrounds. He becomes depressed, never smiling, without purpose. He breaks all the social mores and the rules. He hears the other seeds call him a “bad seed.” But he makes a decision to turn his life around. He decides that he is going to begin apologizing and saying please and thank you and holding doors, trying to be more pleasant in his interactions with others. He is going to try to change his mindset and his actions too. He’s not perfect, but he’s trying, and the other seeds are beginning to acknowledge that “he’s not so bad anymore.” It’s definitely an oversimplification of recovery from trauma and depression. It’s not that simple to turn a life around, I don’t think, and I hope no one takes it as a formula for healthy recovery. But it is nice that Jory acknowledges that the Bad Seed doesn’t need to be perfect to improve, that he is not bad if he fails, that his situation is improved by trying.

***

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

The Good Egg by John Jory and illustrated by Pete Oswald. HarperCollins, 2019.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book seemed to be written almost more for adults in the room—but then I was the kid who would have benefited from this lesson at a younger age too. This Good Egg does all the right things for the sake of being good, though he does not always excel at helping as when he paints the house with abstract stokes of multiple colors. But under the pressure of being good when all of his carton-mates are bad (when his carton-mates constantly misbehave) is causing the shell around his crown to crack from the pressure. He leaves his carton to find some peace, and to allow himself to heal, to escape the pressure caused by being at odds with his problematic friends, but he finds himself missing his carton-mates. He has to learn that he doesn’t always have to be good, doesn’t always have to follow every rule and all social mores, and that he doesn’t have to hold everyone to his own standard of excellence. He learns to relax a little bit, and that being good, doesn’t have to mean being perfect. He learns that breaking the rules doesn’t necessarily make you bad.  Now, there is some danger in this message too.  Not only that of caving to peer pressure, but returning to a toxic environment is not necessarily healthy even when one misses those familiar faces, and ignoring others’ toxic behaviors in order to be able to maintain one’s own peace is not always ethical or healthy.  This like the message of The Bad Seed I think needs to be taken with caution. John Jory’s text here follows the same formula that he used in The Bad Seed.

***

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Pirate Adventure by Karen King and illustrated Ben Mantle. Top That!, 2017.

I was actually truly delighted by this little tale. The pirate captain’s nephew Pete is coming aboard whether or not the crew likes it—and they don’t like it.  They see Pete as small and weak, the ship as no place for a boy. Pete does all the things that a ship’s boy is supposed to do, all the manual labor that is often glossed over in children’s picture books about pirates, which are often all about adventure and feature smiling pirates or ones who are grumpy and growly but in an endearing way to a rough-and-tumble child. When Captain Jim falls ill, Pete is put in charge of the crew and finishes the Jolly Roger’s treasure hunt. The pirates forget their dislike of Pete when they find the treasure chest. Here in the US, the book is available in Barnes & Noble’s bargain section. I did not (yet) buy the book to try to build the pop-out pirate ship.  It seems to have had multiple titles including Treasure Island and Pirate Pete’s Treasure.

*****

Sesame Street

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We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Kates and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Random, 1992.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This book highlights different body parts in illustrations meant to look like a collection of instant photos. This page talks about the differences between the features in each of these photos: old noses, baby noses, round noses, big noses, small noses. The next page reveals a busy tableau of diverse characters, human and Muppet, and talks about how each of these features that appear different perform the same functions (“our noses are the same. They breathe and sniff and sneeze and whiff”). Beyond that, the book confronts ableism. Some may need to wear helmets to protect their heads. Some need to take more time to form words with their mouths. Some won’t talk much. Some won’t talk at all. Some need glasses. Some are blind. One character is in a wheelchair but playing basketball with friends. It advocates asking for a break from a teacher if it’s needed.

The 90s fashion styles in these illustrations! I had to Google their names, but I recognize the old comedy sketch duo Laurel and Hardy in the illustrations. I don’t know why the pair appear in the pages of a book from the early 90s.

*****

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

Elmo’s Super-Duper Birthday Party by Naomi Kleinberg and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This book, though a little long, was wonderful. Elmo and his mother prepare for Elmo’s birthday celebration, shopping, making cupcakes, filling the piñata, and setting up games. The text is simple, perhaps at times a little too detailed, but that also serves to spark ideas for the would-be-party-planner/reader (I got some ideas for stuffing my next piñata). Elmo and his friends enjoy the party, but Elmo’s wish when he blows out the candles takes this book to the next level. Elmo wishes to share his birthday joy with others, so they move the party to the nursing home, and continue celebrating, including the seniors there in the festivities. It’s enough to melt my cold heart. Elmo is too good for this world, and I hope young readers learn from his example; the world would be a kinder, better place. The paperback includes stickers, a crown for the birthday child, and a game to play at a party. It’s a party in a book! Just add cake and friends.

****

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

Who’s Hiding? by Naomi Kleinberg. Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Play along as Elmo and other Sesame Street characters lead the reader through Sesame Street. Some of their friends are hiding, and the characters give you clues as to whom you’ll find (“His best friend is a worm.” “He’s green and grouchy.”), but to find out who is on each page, you’ll have to lift the flaps. The illustrations are photographs of the Muppets and actors on the Sesame Street set.

****

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Kindness Makes the World Go Round by Craig Manning and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2018. 

Elmo’s mother gives him the gift of a camera on World Kindness Day (November 13 if anyone wants to celebrate) and a quest to go and capture examples of kindness on Sesame Street. Elmo spends the day photographing his friends performing little kindnesses, and then turns around and performs a kindness for his mother. This story is wonderfully sweet, in much the way that is Naomi Kleinberg’s Elmo’s Super-Duper Birthday. This though is told in an enchanting rhyme.

*****

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Another Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone. SFI Readerlink Dist, 2018. First published in 1996.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5, Grades PreK-K.

Adding lift the flap elements to this story is an improvement on the first Monster at the End of This Book, but otherwise this book falls rather flat in comparison to the first. I would rather have The Monster at the End of This Book done in this format. In this, Grover and Elmo argue over whether or not to turn the page and come closer and closer to the promised monster at the end, and of course the monsters are just themselves as Grover was the monster in the first book.

***

Song Lyrics

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

All You Need is Love by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and illustrated by Marc Rosenthal. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is not the intended medium for this text. The repetition of the chorus, which itself is the word “love” repeated, just doesn’t read well. For a story time reading, I pulled out a tablet, and let YouTube provide the “reading” by finding a recording of the song by the Beatles. The book illustrates a bear who, woken by the singing of a bird, leaves his forest home, enters the city, and picking up a crowd along the way, interacts with the diverse people there, creating elaborate chalk drawings in the park. Some of the illustrations are bright and colorful certainly, but they would have just as much power I think separate from the book as overwritten with the song’s lyrics.

**

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

What a Wonderful World by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss and illustrated by Tim Hopgood. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

For this one, I also let Louis Armstrong via YouTube do the work of “reading.” This at least has more concrete images to illustrate. The cast is again diverse, with no real narrative this time to the illustrations beyond the text’s wonder of the world. This text at least works better as a narrative, as read aloud.

***

Click to visit Barnes & Noble's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, and reviews.,

Puff the Magic Dragon by Paul Yarrow and Lenny Lipton and illustrated by Éric Puybaret. Sterling, 2007.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Peter, Paul & Mary did the “reading” for this book via a YouTube video of the song recording. I can’t remember ever having heard the full song before; I’m sure I did do in my childhood, but I doubt then that its story really sank in for me. The text itself tells of a lonely dragon who meets and befriends a boy, who as time passes, stops coming (dies the song implies, though the illustrations suggest he just became a busy adult and parent), leaving the dragon lonely again. The illustrations portray a young girl (presumably Jackie’s daughter), unmentioned in the text, coming to the dragon on the final pages, giving the story at least some hope, though she too will die and the dragon’s loneliness return. I like that Puybaret added to the story, took that extra step beyond the text.

***

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: Best of the Best of 2018

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It’s January 2019, so that means that it is time to reflect back on 2018’s best books. I have been doing so since 2014. I have collected all this lists here so you can easily view all of my 5-star rated books. There are doubles. Some of this year’s have shown up on lists from other years. Last year I started using these lists as a chance to discuss award predictions, and this year I have one that I thought would be a very strong contender.

TODDLERS-KIDS (0-8) 

Possible candidates for this year’s awards:

Special mention needs to be made of Drawn Together by Minh Lê and illustrated by Dan Santat. I read this book in June, but never did get around yet to reviewing it (so we’re going to take care of that right now.)

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, sample pages, awards list, reviews, trailer, and articles.

Drawn Together by Minh Lê and illustrated by Dan Santat.  Hyperion-Disney, 2018.  Intended audience: Age 3-5.

I’ve been recommending and championing it since June. I’ve loved it since then. It left a really strong impression on me, stronger than most books for sure. A very personal story for both creators, it tells the story of a grandson who struggles to communicate to his Thai grandfather, who doesn’t speak English and whose culture the boy really doesn’t seem to share either. The book begins basically wordless, told through the illustrations of their disconnect, sitting in silence, awkward questions that can’t be answered, different food, television that one or the other can’t fully understand. But when the boy gives up on connecting and pulls out his drawing pad, the grandfather is intrigued, and he comes back with a sketchbook of his own. As the two draw their avatars, the text begins, reflecting the communication that has begun to happen between the two family members. The two bond over illustration in whimsical, clever, magical illustrations by Santat that mix a more classical, detailed, refined style inspired by Thai art, and a more childish, brighter style. Their two avatars adventure together and eventually need the skills and tools of the other to defeat the Big Bad—the distance between them, represented by a dragon that is only partially finished before it decides to fight them. The defeated dragon becomes a bridge over which the two race towards one another, finally “happily speechless.” The text is beautiful, elegant, just right. This book moved me to tears reading it in the store. It nearly did so again refreshing my memory with a video of it being read aloud. I think it a likely contender for the Caldecott—if not other awards besides.

Love has the chance of sparking a Caldecott nomination too. When it was first published, one illustration in particular sparked a flurry of online articles either declaiming or praising the inclusion of a soured marriage that leads to a toxic environment for the child in the illustration, who hides as his parents scream. I think I prefer Drawn Together over Love for the medal though. As much as I love Loren Long’s illustrations in this book, I think the mixed styles of Santat’s drawings in Drawn Together will be hard to top; it’s a mastery of two styles—almost three since the two eventually blend together, and the book shares a lesser-known (in the US) culture besides. 

None of the books that I read won the Caldecott—nor honors; awards were announced today.  The Caldecott medal went to Hello, Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall.  I remember admiring Blackall’s illustrations for this book, but I never did sit down to read it; I judged it too long for my toddler story time and too long to sneakily read while walking it to its shelf.  I will enjoy it when it returns to the store.

MIDDLE GRADE (8-12) 

Possible candidates for this year’s awards:

Honestly, the pool of important, relevant, well-written books that came out this year I think will keep this book from winning any awards—other than the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Middle Grade and Children’s 2018, which it already has won.

TEEN (13-19)

I didn’t read any teen books that earned 5 stars from me this year.

ADULTS (20+)

My 2018 in Books

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2018 was a strange reading and reviewing year for me.  I still owe you all three months of picture book reviews (March, June, and July).  I didn’t review all of the novels that I read either.  I still owe you a total of 49 reviews.  Yikes!  Sorry, friends.  9 of those are novels.  I may swing back and catch some of those reviews over 2019, but I doubt that I will catch them all, and it might be better for my mental health to begin 2019 with a clean, guiltless slate as far as reviewing goes.  If I haven’t got it in me to do complete reviews, would you be interested in really short ones for at least those 9 novels and maybe some of the best of the 40 picture books?

goodreads1

I read fewer books and fewer pages in 2018 than I have done in previous years—even accounting for the additional 1204+ pages of novels not in the above total that I began reading but haven’t yet or probably never will finish.  For the first time in a long while, I got most way through a book, but gave it up without finishing it; I had just gotten what I needed from it without finishing it.  That was a rare nonfiction, an autobiography in the form of an encyclopedia of thoughts on various topics from Amy Krouse Rosenthal (An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, which I was very much enjoying and would recommend but also warn you is sort of like an alphabetized Tumblr feed).  Right now I am in the middle of 8 novels.  I am actually enjoying most all of them (some more than others admittedly), so I am not rightly sure why I keep setting these aside except that other books keep presenting themselves and that there is comfort in the familiar.  I would like 2019 to be a year of finishing what I start—but I am making no promises and so far not making much headway in 7 of those 8.

goodreads2My average rating remained the same, actually matching my average rating of 2017 and 2016.

I am amused that the highest rated book of 2018 was a picture book written for adults by a late night comedy news show in response to a picture book written by the family of our vice president about their pet bunny rabbit, the White House, and the office of the vice president.

M. H. Bradford is a local, self-published author.  How his book came to be in our ARC pile at Barnes & Noble, I don’t know, but I took it home to review.  I am ashamed to admit that I have not yet.  So let’s do that here really quick, yeah?

This book takes the form of a set of questions posed to moon, wondering where it goes during the night. The book posits several theories from the moon descending into the ocean to seek treasure to it lighting the way for monsters in the darkest caves of the earth to it being protected by fireflies on the forest floor.

The illustrations use mostly a dark palette, contrasting sharply with the pale yellow orb of the moon, except for the furry monsters who are jewel-toned. The rhymes seemed a bit forced to me, sometimes repeating an idea to land on a rhyming syllable, sometimes using language above the reading level. I think that made the ending jar just a little. That and maybe the use of ellipses.

It’s a fun question to ask though.

***

Because I like to read more than one picture book for story time when possible, I often read multiple books by the same author.  I read 2 books from many writers—too many to list.  I read 3 picture books of Kobi Yamada‘s, 3 of Anna Dewdney‘s Llama Llama books, and 3 of Chris Ferrie‘s.  I read 4 books from when Dr. Seuss was going by Theo LeSieg and 4 of Aaron Blabey‘s Pig the Pug picture books.  I read 4 of the Pete the Cat books, all of them rereads for me.  I read 5 of Jane O’Connor‘s Fancy Nancy picture books.  I read 6 picture books of Mo Willems‘, all of them rereads, and 6 of Ryan T. Higgins‘.

I reread 2 novels of Maggie Stiefvater‘s The Raven Cycle and 2 of Sharon Shinn‘s The Twelve Houses.  I read 2 novels by Susan Cooper, 1 a reread and 1 new to me (and not yet reviewed).  I read 2 of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, both for the first time.  I read 5 novels of Rick Riordan‘s books; 3 of those were new to me.

To view the full infographic from Goodreads, follow the link.

Anything surprising in looking at your reads last year?

Book Reviews: December 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Insects, Romance, and a Snowman Gone Rogue

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

Never Touch a Spider by Rosie Greening. Make Believe Ideas, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

This came out as part of a series of similar books by Make Believe Ideas: Never Touch a Dragon, Never Touch a Monster, Never Touch a Dinosaur. These books are bright. The textures, made of rubber or some rubbery substance, are unique. I actually like that these are just fun; there’s not really any kind of educational element to these. They are silly. It makes a rare change in a touch-and-feel book—in touch-and-feel books. I admit that there’s not a lot of maybe value to this, but I enjoyed the laugh, and I enjoy the textures.

****

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

Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack and illustrated by Stevie Lewis. Little Bee-Bonnier, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Stevie Lewis has done an amazing job with these illustrations! They are so vibrant. My favorite by far is the page with the prince and his knight lounging together by the town fountain, watched by the joyful townspeople. Their pose says so much about the casual, comfortable love and trust that they have for one another. The kingdoms that the royal family travel to too are colorful. It’s difficult to tell but there seems to be some chance that the prince’s chosen knight is of a different racial background than the prince as well. The story is told in easy rhyme. The prince’s parents are supportive not only of his eventual choice but in his quest for the perfect partner, taking him abroad to meet princesses with whom he does not ultimately end up sharing a connection. The prince is often in stereotypical princess poses, for example leaning on a balcony railing, propping his head on one hand—or caught in the knight’s arms as he falls from the dragon. The story is good. The message is good. The characters are good—like, lawful good (chaotic good?). All around, I love this one.

*****

Click to visit BN.com for links to order, summary, and reviews.

How to Catch a Snowman by Adam Wallace & Andy Elkerton. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-10.

This story plays with modern, living snowman “lore,” specifically referencing without naming Frosty of Rankin and Bass’ movie and Olaf of Disney’s Frozen. That was almost my favorite and least favorite part of the book—the references to other snowmen. The midnight snow star is new. The flying is new too. Why the kids want to catch a snowman is never really addressed; though it says in Goodreads’ description that the kids have built him for entry into a contest, I did not pick up on that in reading through the text; maybe if I examined the illustrations more carefully I would have done, but I often read these upside down for the first or second time. The kids’ traps all fail. The snowman is never caught but he creates a larger than life, snow trophy for them—which makes more sense if the kids’ first ambition had been to win a trophy. Some of the rhyming seemed forced, and I’m not overly fond of the direct address to the audience format.

***

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: November 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Valuing Women and Two Holidays

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Women in History and Today

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

My First Book of Feminism (for Boys) by Julie Merberg and illustrated by Michéle Brummer-Everett. Downtown Bookworks-Simon & Schuster, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

Feminism for boys! Very young boys! Or boys of all ages. And women who need reminders about these same principles. This is about respecting women as people, allowing space for their voices and ideas, and about unlearning the toxic masculinity both that says that boys can take advantage of girls and that tries to define what men and women should and should not do. It suggests some simple acts one can do to express one’s respect for oneself and for the women in one’s life. The illustrations, though sparing in color, using only the primary three, green, black, and white, seem to represent a more inclusive feminism too than is too often practiced, which I appreciate.

****

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

Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes by Eva Chen and illustrated by Derek Desierto. Feiwel & Friends-MacMillan, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

This was an odd one for me. Juno is searching for her own favorite shoes, plain white Keds, when she discovers a magical portal to a magical closet filled with shoes from historical women which, when she puts them on, transform her into the women who owned the shoes. Or that’s how it seems. There’s not a whole lot of explanation about what is happening to Juno or about the women themselves. I would have liked to have this be a very long story about Juno overcoming with these women the trials that they faced both in their climb to greatness and then once that greatness had been achieved. What I got was a line each about one quality that helped each woman succeed. And I suppose in its way that that’s its own positive message, but it was not what I expected, and it wasn’t the story that I wanted—because it was really not much of a story. This was not about overcoming adversity but about possessing certain qualities—and shoes. This book supports in part the idea that clothes make the woman, and while I understand that Eva Chen is a fashion director, a former editor-in-chief of the fashion magazine Lucky, and a former beauty and health director for Teen Vogue, it’s not the message that I want to send to children who may not be able to afford or who may not be interested in owning the shoes that are chic for their chosen profession. It closes with Eva changing her own shoes to reflect her experiences in the shoes of and her present in the footsteps of these powerful women. In the back, there is a page with a bit more about each of the women, but the picture book itself really is the type of story that only works if you already know the figures. In short, I think the book, the idea had a lot of potential that it didn’t live up to because it didn’t go far enough. As an introduction to influential women of history, it is far from the best that I have seen, and right now, there are a lot of fish to choose from in that pond. There are better, more comprehensive books even for younger audiences. Had this been printed another year, several years earlier, I probably would have rated it more highly because it would have been filling a need. It does have a more creative plot than many of the other books about influential women for children that I can think of which are often written more as encyclopedias than stories, but it slides past those women’s experiences in favor of the protagonist’s to the point that only a foreknowledge of the women gives the women context.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.My First Little People, Big Dreams: Audrey Hepburn by María Isabel Sánchez Vegara and illustrated by Amaia Arrazola. Frances Lincoln-Quarto, 2018.

My First Little People, Big Dreams: Amelia Earhart by María Isabel Sánchez Vegara and illustrated by MARIADIAMANTES. Frances Lincoln-Quarto, 2018.

I learned a bit about both of these women from these board books. I pulled a copy of each of the available board books in this series for a story time and offered to read any in which the audience was interested. (Also available in board book form from this series are biographies of Coco Chanel, Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, and Maya Angelou; more are coming in February.) The kids didn’t voice any opinions, but two adults in the audience expressed interest. Vegara does a good job of keeping to the truth without going into either too much detail for her audience or too romanticizing the history. Hepburn’s war-torn childhood is not forgotten nor is Earhart’s disappearance left out. These books talk not just about the one act that these women are most famous for, but also their philanthropy, what influenced their lives, and their influence on others. Their lives are framed as models and lessons. I’m not 100% sure what the appropriate audience would be for these books. As with many nonfiction board books today, I’m just not sure if the interest is there for the 0-3 year olds that board books are marketed towards, but I had no trouble reading these to my story time audience which consisted that day of children probably up to age 7.

****

Seasonal Stories

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

Fangsgiving by Ethan Long. Bloomsbury, 2018.

I was truly pleased by this original Thanksgiving tale. A group of monsters (a vampire named Vladimir, a werewolf, a witch, a mummy named Mumford) every fourth Thursday in November get together to celebrate Thanksgiving, and they all cook a special dish. When Vladimir’s family drop in unexpectedly, they go about expressing their distaste for the dishes and improving them with their own ghastly twists (boogie butter, eyeballs, baboon farts), much to the chagrin of the monsters whose food and hard work they disparage. Because they are family and he loves them, Vladimir wants to make the best of it, but when their dog Spike eats the feast in its entirety, Vladimir cries that they have ruined Thanksgiving. To which his family responds that they were only trying to help, that he can’t be mad at them because they are family. Vladimir reminds them that families forgive one another and work together, and together with Vladimir’s friends, they set out to make a second feast that takes everyone’s tastes and ideas into account. Spike remains outside, and the monsters start a new tradition: Fangsgiving on the fourth Friday of every November. There are some important lessons that this book has to impart to the young and the old any time that they are about to embark on a day of getting together with family and friends (Thanksgiving, yes, but other holidays and events too). Family and friends don’t always have the same ideas or tastes as you or as each other. Though they are often acting with the best intentions, they may forget their boundaries and their manners. It’s okay to get angry. Sometimes you have to let them know that what they are doing is hurtful. Once you have done so, you can forgive one another and work towards a more perfect day. With lots of gross ingredients and several puns to get laughs, plus the spooky characters, this is a likely hit with most kids, despite its more narrow color palette.

*****

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

Bear Can’t Sleep by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman. Margaret K. McElderry, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Bear’s considerate friends stop into his cave to see that he is warm and comfortable when he should be hibernating. But Bear can’t sleep, despite his best intentions, earnest attempts, and his friends’ acts of kindness. The friends try building up the fire and turning down the lights. They make him warm milk to drink. They sing him a lullaby. But nothing is working. So Bear gives up and decides that since they are here and he is not asleep, he will tell them a story—a new story. And just before the end, he falls asleep, snoring. The friends will have to wait till Spring to hear the end. As with most of these stories, Chapman’s soft, warm, realistic illustrations are the star. This would make a good bedtime story.

****

Click to visit Barnes & Noble for links to order and summary.

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Goes Christmas Shopping by Annie North Bedford, Bob Moore, and Xavier Atencio. Little Golden-Golden-Penguin Random, 2018.  Originally published 1953.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

We read this book with the help of a Google Home Mini, which produced background music and sound effects cued to the words of the story as spoken by my voice—which was really neat when it worked. It once lost me very early in the story, but then found me again. It seemed to lose me again while the boys were on the space ride. It cut out entirely when the store closed—and it never did pick back up. I wonder if it works better when in private and not in a store on a Black Friday weekend. But that’s another review for another day. The story itself does not show Mickey or Minnie in the best light ever. They take their nephews shopping, but then each think that they’ve left the boys with the other, and end up leaving them unsupervised and then in the store altogether after it closes—which must mean that neither sought and found the rest of the family much before if at all before the store closed and neither was watching the boys or one another. This was about doing a chore and not about spending time with family as the boys had hoped. Of course, the boys too were distracted by the toys and the rides in the toy department. After realizing that they have fallen asleep in the enclosed pod of the ride and awoken in a closed store (no employee checked the ride?), the boys find the store’s Santa Claus, still in his suit, and Santa delivers them to the front door, where Mickey and Minnie are banging to be let in to find their renegade nephews. Perhaps because I know Mickey and Minnie and not Ferdie and Mortie, I judge as negligent and in need of correction the adults’ actions more than I do Ferdie’s and Mortie’s.

***

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

Merry Christmas, Little Elliot by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This cover does not do this book justice. I understand that the publishers were going for a more classic, more simplistic cover, but the cover it has would not make me pick the book up as readily as if a full-page illustration had been used. That’s probably personal preference and a small quibble though. The inside is every bit as vibrant and realistic and amazing as I remember Curato’s illustrations being. Mouse is really excited for Christmas, but Elliot just is not. When they go to see Santa, Elliot asks for Christmas spirit from Saint Nick, but Santa says Elliot will have to find that himself. Elliot and Mouse try lots of wintertime activities to try to find Elliot’s Christmas spirit, but to no avail; this elephant has no luck. Walking home, a letter blows into Elliot’s hands. It’s for Santa. They go back to the store to try to hand-deliver it, but they’ve missed him. So Elliot with Mouse decide that they need to fulfill the Christmas wish themselves. They take a cab outside of the city to become friends with the letter’s sender, a little Asian American girl named Noelle. And in granting her wish, Elliot finds his Christmas spirit too. This story is saccharine in the best way, a tale of Christmas spirit that isn’t commercial and is truly attainable magic.

****

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

Santa Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins. Disney-Hyperion, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The mice are overstepping again, this time making commitments for Bruce that Bruce does not want to keep. He is a grumpy bear, and wearing red long johns should not volunteer him to be Santa Claus despite one excited raccoon’s mistaking him for the jolly saint. Nevertheless, the mice invite excited animals into Bruce’s home not once but twice and say that Bruce will deliver presents overnight to the woodland creatures. Very, very reluctantly and because the mice have done all of the work and have promised to do in fact more work than they can actually do—forcing some of the onus onto Bruce once they are already out in the snow—Bruce agrees to their plot. Presents are delivered, a joyous feast is attended, and Bruce—Bruce is still grumpy, vowing to sleep through next year’s Christmas as he had hoped to do through this. I actually like that Bruce is not won over and filled with the holiday spirit. It’s a change from the Scrooge & Grinch narrative that so pervades Christmas stories. Though much Christmas cheer is spread here and everyone (except Bruce) is celebrating, there is no real miracle here, just a grumpy bear fulfilling promises made on his unwilling behalf because deep down he is a softie for kids—being mother himself to four nearly grown geese.

***** 

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: October 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Celebrity Writers and Fall Fun

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

Elbow Grease by John Cena and illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I was pleasantly surprised by this picture book. I know John Cena more for his philanthropic work than as a wrestler, but I still did not really expect a quality picture book from this celebrity (nor do I from most celebrities). This is the story of a family of monster trucks who each have a particular skill or trait that helps him dominate one aspect of the monster truck arena—all expect Elbow Grease, who is the smallest of his brothers and electric besides. His brothers make fun of him. He decides that he will prove them wrong and drives all night to enter a demolition derby. When he gets there, he’s already exhausted, but he goes to the starting line anyway. Despite the other trucks being bigger, having more experience, and better technique, he does not give up. In the middle of the race, his battery gives out. But when a lightning strike reenergizes his battery, Elbow Grease is able to make it across the finish line. The winner of the race declares that Elbow Grease has gumption, and the brothers’ (female) mechanic, Mel, tells them that if they only stick to what they are good at, they’ll never learn anything. The book closes with all the brothers being coached through new challenges by Elbow Grease. There are a lot of lessons and broken stereotypes crammed into this one brightly colored picture book. It was a little long, a little spasmodic, but neither excessively so.

****

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

Little Elliot, Fall Friends by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I adore earlier Little Elliot books. This one, frankly, didn’t live up to my expectations. The illustrations were still beautiful and the story was clever and fun, but it lacked the message that I am used to seeing in this series. Perhaps if the reader was infrequently in the country, the message would be the delights of the country, but here, where everywhere we look is not too dissimilar from the landscapes depicted in the vibrant illustrations (though rarely do we get that much fall color), it’s not much of a lesson; we know the joys of pumpkin patches and watching clouds and picking apples and eating pies. In this, the two friends on their vacation decide to play hide-and-seek, but Elliot hides too well, and Mouse can’t find him—until Mouse bakes a pie and fishes Elliot out of the cornfield, Elliot following his nose to the source of the delicious aroma (which honestly feels a bit like cheating at hide-and-seek though it is clever and the reward is reunion and pie). This of the Elliot books seems to be the one aimed at the youngest audience.  There are many farm animals in the final pages, and though few if any are explicitly named in this story, those pages could easily be turned into a testing of animal names and sounds when reading to a young child.

***

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

How to Scare a Ghost by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This isn’t a format that I particularly enjoy. This story was basically a series of lists, and it seemed long. It seems like the sort of book that you ought to read page-by-page, stopping to decorate for Halloween, stopping to do some Halloween activities at school. Why one wants to scare a ghost is never addressed. The only thing that scares the ghost is a vacuum. That one scene is a page long. Scaring a ghost becomes comforting a ghost and playing with a ghost and taking a ghost trick-or-treating. The book’s ideas are quite clever, but the format just doesn’t help those ideas, I don’t think. I’d rather read a story about less-generic, better characterized kids making a ghost friend and taking it trick-or-treating than listicles with a vague “you” addressee. My little story time guests wanted to know why the ghost was incorporeal when the kids were playing with it on the playground, but it was able to be corporeal enough to wear a costume, and why wearing a Halloween costume made a ghost visible to adults.  I couldn’t answer them.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, video, activity kit, and authors' and illustrator's bios..

Builder Brothers: Big Plans by Drew Scott and Jonathan Scott of Property Brothers, and illustrated by Kim Smith. Harper Collins, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was another celebrity picture book that surprised me with its quality. During a summer day the brothers, children in this story, are dreaming up plans for a tree house, which makes the grown-ups laugh, thinking their wild ideas impossible.  (“There’s a hundred and four days of summer vacation.” )  The brothers set out to prove the adults wrong. They decide to build a luxury, two-story doghouse (a bit of a step down from their castle tree house with a catapult, but perhaps more manageable on a small budget). They draw up blueprints, go to the store to purchase all that they need, and build their house—only to find that they measured incorrectly, and the scale is not right for their dogs. They are at first upset, but realize that the scale is right for a birdhouse. It’s a cute tale of trying to prove adults wrong, trying to prove that young people can succeed, that they can brings their dreams to life. It’ll be a fun one to read before setting out to build a birdhouse of your own with your little—instructions are in the back of the book.

***

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

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Astronauts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** 

Bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

**** 

New Twists on Old Tales

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

And Silly Animals

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

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

****

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

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

*****

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