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Book Reviews: August 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Science, Eating People–Or Not, and a Kitten Like Me

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Science!

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Two Problems for Sophia by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail. Margaret K. McElderry-Simon & Schuster, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

There was a lot to love in this story about Sophia, her pet giraffe Noodle, and the problems that Noodle causes for Sophia’s multi-generational, interracial family, in which each character has a pretty stunningly unique voice for characters in a picture book. It opens with Sophia being “happysad” which I love because it acknowledges an oft-felt but not oft-acknowledged emotion. Noodle snores, and Noodle’s kisses with his long, blue tongue are sloppy and wet and particularly irk Grand-mamá, whom Noodle seems particularly fond of—in the way that cats will always find the one person who doesn’t want to pet them. Sophia’s Mother, whom I suspect from the language that she uses and that the authors use to describe her actions works in the courtroom either as a lawyer or judge—probably a judge—“render[s] her verdict. Noodle is guilty” and she “order[s Sophia] to find a perdurable solution.” Several times in this book the adults drop some heavy words. ‘Perdurable’ is not a word that I knew when I read this book, and I’ve near 30 years of life experience, an English degree, and a penchant for books with lofty language. Sophia tries several ways to silence Noodle’s snores or to make them more palatable, consulting the Internet for ideas, building contraptions herself, and consulting experts in the field, including an acoustic-engineer who tells Sophia that Noodle’s “neck-to-lung-capacity ratio creates a giant echo chamber.”

Noodle’s sloppy kisses are always preceded by the same phrase, which was fun to repeat but also let the anticipation build before the blech! of usually poor Grand-mamá appearing covered in giraffe spittle. “His eyelashes danced a little fuzzle, then his nose swooped in for a nuzzle.”

This is apparently a sequel to a book called One Word for Sophia that I’d not heard of previously but now want to find.

****

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Cece Loves Science by Kimberly Derting and Shelli R. Johannes and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I was pleased to see a surprisingly honest comment from Derting on Goodreads admitting that her four-year-old grandchild struggled to make it through this book. My story time audience was a bit squirmy through this long story too—but they made it, and they made it through Two Problems for Sophia on the same sitting. Assigned to complete a research project, Cece with her friend and assigned research partner Isaac set out to experiment on Cece’s dog Einstein to see if dogs eat vegetables. They try offering Einstein vegetables in various forms, which he won’t eat, causing Cece to question her credentials as a scientist, but she persists, and eventually they do find a way to get Einstein to eat veggies. I’m not sure about the ethical implications of trying to get your family dog to eat foods outside of his normal diet without consulting a veterinarian first—I don’t recommend doing it at home—but I have known dogs who like carrots, so I’m fairly sure that this experiment won’t harm Einstein. The book ends with a glossary of science terms and scientists.

***

 

ABCs of Physics by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017. First published 2014.

General Relativity for Babies by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017. First published 2016.

Quantum Physics for Babies by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017. First published 2013.

My dad is a high school math and physics teacher, and I sent these along to him not long ago. The one on quantum physics, he says, peddles an already discredited model—which I sort of knew; I think Niels Bohr’s model was being phased out of classrooms when I was in high school around 2006/2007—but before it starts discussing where in rings an electron can be around a nucleus, I think it’s solid—though he would know far better than I. I particularly liked the ABCs of Physics. There was more to this book than there was to the for Babies titles. Not only is it an alphabet primer, but the words used to illustrate the letters are all related to physics, with three levels of information for growing toddlers: first the word, then a simple one sentence explanation, then a longer, more in-depth sentence or two at the bottom. I like the simplicity of these primers.  I like that Ferrie takes on such hard concepts and thinks he can impart some understanding of these topics to infants and toddlers.  They say if you can’t explain your subject in terms that a complete outsider to the field would understand, you don’t know your subject. Imagine explaining it in terms that a toddler could understand! I think general relativity was more clearly explained here than I’ve seen it elsewhere. I may not be a toddler, but I get it. Or I get the small part of it that Ferrie is discussing in these books.

****     ****     ***

That is Frowned Upon in Most Civilized Societies

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We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This book came out in June, and I’ve already read it three times—twice in story times. It keeps getting better. I really enjoyed reading it aloud this most recent time. I feel like I got the inflection right on the narration and the dialogue. This competes with Be Quiet! for me as a favorite Higgins book, but this is so much more accessible to my story time audience than is Be Quiet!. This is a back-to-school book with a female dinosaur protagonist and a multiracial classroom full of children, including a hijabi sitting beside a boy who appears to wear a yarmulke. Penelope Rex is your typical T-Rex. She’s excited and nervous to go to school, but she has a big lunch packed by her dad, and a new backpack with ponies on it (ponies are her favorite because ponies are delicious). She was not expecting to be part of a classroom full of children, and upon discovering this, she eats them all whole then spits them out at the behest of her teacher. That does not endear her to her classmates, and every time she tries to be nice, her appetite betrays her. She saves a seat for her classmate, Griffin Emery—but that seat is on her now empty plate. She tries to play with them on the slide—but waits at the bottom with an open mouth. Her parents spot the problem quickly when she complains that she hasn’t made any friends, and remind her not to eat her classmates. “Children are the same as us on the inside. Just tastier.” Penelope can’t control her appetite and keeps eating kids. Because all the children are afraid and won’t be her friend, she tries to befriend the class goldfish, Walter—who bites her finger. Knowing now how terrible it feels when someone tries to eat you, Penelope learns to control her own appetite. She stops eating her classmates, and she does make friends.

*****

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Eat Pete by Michael Rex. Nancy Paulsen-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

When a monster comes in through Pete’s window, Pete isn’t scared; he invites the monster to play with him. And though the monster came to eat Pete and wants to do so, the games that Pete suggests look fun, so he puts off his appetite for little boy and joins Pete in his games. Though he lasts through several games, the monster’s desire to eat Pete does win, and he gobbles up Pete whole. Without Pete, though, the games just aren’t much fun, and the monster relents and spits Pete back out. Pete tells him that wasn’t very nice, the monster apologizes, and Pete suggests that they play another game—a wonderfully forgiving child is Pete. The monster though doesn’t want to play. The book gives the impression that the monster is again struggling with his desire to eat Pete, but the anticipation dissipates not with a repetition of the phrase and the monster’s slathering look of hunger, but with a hug between the two protagonists; he wants to… hug Pete.

****

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People Don’t Bite People by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Molly Schaar Idle. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3

In singsong fashion, this book spells out the things that it is good to eat, but admonishes against biting people. “It’s good to bite a carrot. It’s good to bite a steak. It’s BAD to bite your sister! She’s not a piece of cake.” “People don’t bite people. It’s nasty and it’s rude! A friend will never bite a friend. BITING IS FOR FOOD!” It’s a kind of judgmental book. I mean, I know you shouldn’t bite your hair or your nails, and the book acknowledges that these are lesser sins than biting another human, but… all in all, I think this book was perhaps just too didactic a story for a general story time. It would be a fun addition to Martine Agassi and Elizabeth Verdick and Marieka Heinlen’s Best Behavior books (Teeth are Not for Biting, Hands are Not for Hitting, Feet are Not for Kicking, etc.)—and it is a fun text—but just… not fun, not silly enough—not for general reading without the express purpose of imparting a needed lesson.

***

And Look! I Found Me!

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Katie the Kitten by Kathryn and Byron Jackson and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 1976. First published 1949.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

I had to read this book—and I actually bought it—because I am a catlike Kathryn who once went by the nickname Katie. The illustrations and adventures of this little kitten are fairly realistic. She sleeps, wakes up, chases a fly, hisses at a scared dog, but is scared of a mouse, chases a toad, chases a bird, hops on a table, but falls off into a pail of water, drinks milk, eats a fish, and curls up to sleep again. She’s just cute. She’s a kitten. And she’s a playful, clumsy kitten. The text uses simple words, and some rhyming but overall the text does not rhyme; it reads less like a forced singsong and more like just the account of an hour or two of a kitten’s day.  I recommend this for people who like watching cat videos.  Which I think is not-so-secretly everyone.

***

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

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Book Reviews: April 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Nature’s Gifts, a Selfish Pig, and Geeky Vocab

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, sample illustration, and reviews. Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and sample illustration.Pig the Winner by Aaron Blabey.  Scholastic, 2017.  First published 2016.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

Pig the Star by Aaron Blabey.  Scholastic, 2018.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

I didn’t much enjoy the first of the Pig books. Though in it, the pug, Pig, is admittedly a greedy dog and his literal downfall is the consequence of his own actions, he perhaps does not deserve to fall out a window. These next two books in the series follow much the same pattern of bad behavior on Pig’s part leading to a dire consequence and injury of Pig’s own making. These rhyming stories are formulaic in text as well as content: Each injury of Pig’s is followed by “These days it’s different / I’m happy to say.” In Pig the Winner, Pig is a sore winner, bragging and rubbing his opponent’s defeat in his face (poor Trevor) no matter the contest—or whether the act is a contest at all. He is always the best. In a one-side eating contest, Pig swallows his bowl, but is saved from choking by Trevor, only to have the bowl ricochet and knock Pig into the (garbage) bin. This story makes it clear that this injury is not enough to completely rid Pig of his need to win. In Pig the Star, Pig hogs the attention when he and Trevor go to a fancy photo shoot. The costumes that Blabey illustrates are by far the best part of this book. In this, shoving Trevor, leads Trevor to bump a precarious rocket ship that falls on top of Pig. The kids at my story time didn’t seem to much mind either the horrific accidents or the formulaic composition of these stories. 

***     ***

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Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell.  Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

I am late to this Caldecott party. I had not read Wolf in the Snow before now to even have it in the running for the medal. The story is mostly pictures. A little girl who in her red coat against the white snow reminds me in style a bit of the protagonist of Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day is lost outside in a snowstorm and finds a wolf pup, also lost. Together they find the wolf pup’s family and then the wolves help the girl find her family. Stylistically, this isn’t really my thing (too sketchy) but it conveys a lot with just a little, and is deeply emotional despite lacking much text, so I can concede that the Caldecott is a well-deserved award.

****

100words

100 First Words of Little Geeks.  Familius Corporate, 2018

There’s very little organization of these 100 words (maybe a nod to an attempt to group some words together but nothing more). There is no plot. But these are fun words to teach your little ones, and its inclusion of some words dear to me for fandom reasons made me smile. Is your fandom here? Several of mine are. I am reminded of the small children (it’s been more than one) who identify any and all owls at the store as “Hedgwig.” Too adorable.

***

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Moon by Alison Oliver.  Clarion-Houghton Mifflin, 2018.

Over-scheduled, Moon wonders what freedom, what wildness would be like. She tries to find the answers in the only way that she has been taught—books, but books fail her. A shooting star lures her outdoors to the garden where a white wolf waits. Moon asks the wolf to teach her its “wolfy ways.” It brings her back to the pack. Moon having learnt the wolf’s wildness, its love of nature, brings play and wildness and freedom back to the classroom with her. The colors are dark with careful, gentle details. I’ve enjoyed Oliver’s illustrations in the BabyLit series for a long time. The juxtaposition of the domesticated, tortoiseshell house cat and the wild white wolf (a canine) is an interesting one. I expected this story to leave more of an impression than it has done. I like the art very much. I like the moral very much. But I have a difficult time recalling it emotionally several weeks on.

***

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The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  HarperCollins, 2014.  First published 1964.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I’m not sure that I had ever actually read this story, though I knew enough about it, that nothing about it was a surprise. The illustration style is familiar to me from Silverstein’s books of poetry, which I did read several times in childhood. The content was neither funny nor ridiculous however. There’s a lot to unpack in this small story. A boy grows into a man, being given everything he needs by an accommodating, female tree, who allows herself to be maimed to provide for the boy’s needs, but is happy to do so. In the end, the tree has nothing left to give and regrets this, but the old man needs very little, just a place to sit, and this her stump provides. It’s a very melancholy story. What exactly Silverstein was trying to say with this story, I’m not sure. Is it a metaphor for motherhood? Is it a warning against greedy, unsustainable deforestation and “progress”?  Both?  One has to be reminded of the Lorax who warns against cutting down all the Truffula trees, speaking for the trees when the trees cannot. The tree’s love for the boy seems unhealthy. I come at this story not as a virgin to it, not with innocent ears but having already heard whisper of the analysis that has been done on it. I know that skews my opinion of it some.

****

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The Forever Tree by Tereasa Surratt and Donna Lukas and illustrated by Nicola Slater. Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This I feel like this is a much more healthy relationship with a tree than is that between the tree and the boy in The Giving Tree. A girl’s grandfather hangs a swing for her in the tree’s branches, and the tree becomes a site for community gathering—both for humans and for animals.  When the tree is deemed “unsafe,” the community comes together to save what they can of the tree, giving it new life as the platform for a treehouse.  This story was a little long, but my kids made it through.  This tree is not anthropomorphized in the same way as the tree in The Giving Tree, but becomes special through the love that the community has for it.

****

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Tree: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup.  Penguin Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Teckentrup’s peek-through books are more nonfiction than fiction. This one takes us lyrically through the seasons of a tree, with animals brushing in and out of its pages, the leaves and the forest around it changing color. The poetry gives a little life to the text, but there’s not much in the way of a story. The recurrence of creatures from previous pages on the next adds another layer of play to a book that is already creatively laid out to give it a unique, eye-catching gimmick in a row of picture book covers.

****

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 & December 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Gift-Giving

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River Rose and the Magical Lullaby by Kelly Clarkson and illustrated by Laura Hughes. HarperCollins, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

River Rose is so excited to be going to the zoo the next day. Her mother tucks her in and sings her a lullaby. That night, magic balloons show up outside her bedroom window and transport her to the zoo, where she has a party with the animals, none of whom are confined to their compounds. I like that at some point in the night she asks her friend, Joplin the dog, what he wants to do. At the end of the night, when the polar bears tell her that they need sleep, she snuggles up with the bears and sings the lullaby that her mother sang to her to the bears. She ends up back in her bed, glad for her adventure, but glad too to be home.  Was it a dream?  Was it real?  Does she go again to the zoo the next day and is she disappointed when she sees the reality of the zoo in the daylight?  The book doesn’t say.

***

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

Everything Is Mama by Jimmy Fallon and illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 1-3.

Like with Fallon’s first book, there’s not a lot here. In this, presumably mostly maternal animals try to teach their children new words, only to have them reply “mama,” with a reversal at the end with the trite ending “but you are everything to mama” (expect to fit the rhyme, the sentiment is phrased more awkwardly than that). I think very little of it, but I caught a mother reading it to a young child at the store, and the child giggled at every page, so there is an audience for this, and maybe neither my story time toddlers nor I are not it. My audience lately has comprised of children 4 and older.

**

Lessons in Sharing

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Clifford Shares by Norman Bridwell. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2012.

There’s not much to this little board book either, just a few pages and a few sentences in total, but Clifford is a familiar friend. Clifford shares his water. He shares a bench. And then everyone shares with Clifford at a picnic. There’s just not much here to rate. There’s nothing remarkable about this book, really, good or bad. There’s a vague idea of reciprocity: Clifford shares so others share with Clifford, but the book’s real draw is Clifford.

***

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The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks by Jan Berenstain and Mike Berenstain. Zonderkidz-Zondervan, 2009.

This was a long story time book, but one of my regulars showed up early, and I promised to read one book—whatever book she picked out. The prose in this book is prettier, more descriptive, the story more fleshed out with detail than what I usually read for story time, which was a nice change.

But this is a problematic book, relying too heavily on whitewashed history and doing little if anything to correct or clarify the narrative.  Papa trades some furniture for a turkey from Farmer Ben—a living turkey. Ben’s named the turkey Squanto after “a Native Bear who helped the Pilgrims plant their corn when they settled in their new home.” I mean, I guess, Ben. Sister Bear doesn’t like the idea of meeting her Thanksgiving dinner while he’s alive. She wants to keep Squanto as a pet. She visits him at the farm as the weather grows colder. To distract Sister from the idea of eating Squanto, Mama Bear proposes a costumed show of the legend of Thanksgiving. “We’ll need feathers for the Native Bears’ headdresses.” No you won’t, Mama Bear. Honey Bear represents Squanto the Native Bear with a full headdress of turkey feathers and speaking broken English: “Me, Squanto!” her only line. Admittedly, Honey Bear is not portrayed as speaking good English, and I suppose the cast is limited to the preexisting characters, but…. “He speaks English! What a miracle!” Miracle it is not, Cousin Fred, though maybe there is some miracle in Squanto finding his way back to his own land if not his own village after all his trials. The whole legend of Thanksgiving as told in this story is the whitewashed imagining that we hear “in school over and over again every November” (or we did when I was in public school; I hope today’s tellings are a little more nuanced, a little more accurate) with no discussion of the horrors visited on Native Americans by the European invaders.

That doesn’t even begin in on the problems of reminding children that our Thanksgiving feast features a once-living bird, and that it might be possible to persuade their parents to skip the bird and to keep the bird as a pet instead because Squanto the Turkey survives, is given a new pen in the Bears’ backyard. Parents should be prepared to answer questions that Sister Bear’s feeling for Squanto might stir.

It’s difficult to avoid religion when discussing the First Thanksgiving, and this book does not, the Bears’ prayer even included in the text.

**

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Plush by Louise Myers. Tiny Tales-Whitman, 1949.

A friend bought me this pocket-sized paperback because the pony Plush looks a quite a bit like my own pony. The animals of the farm (all anthropomorphized, though Plush less so than the others) take a pony cart, pulled by Plush, to the Fair to sell their goods and spend the money that they make. There’s an element of an animal sounds primer in the text, with the pony’s hooves clippety-clopping, the hen cackling, the duck quacking, the lamb baaing, and the pig oinking. The friends all buy gifts for Plush with their money. It’s a sweet story of gift-giving, expressing thanks, and retail.

****

Christmas and Wintertime

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River Rose and the Magical Christmas by Kelly Clarkson and illustrated by Lucy Fleming. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Of the two River Rose books, this one my audience unanimously liked better. Now admittedly, we read this story December 16, just 9 days from Christmas morning, so I’m sure that timing and the already swelling excitement for the holiday tinged their reactions to the story. I’m going to be recommending the other more frequently because it is far less seasonal and far more universal. Not every child is excited for Christmas (not all of them celebrating the holiday), but I think that most children are excited to visit a zoo—particularly a zoo without enclosures and with no supervision but a polar bear mama as is the one in the first River Rose book. In this River Rose sneaks down the stairs to hand-deliver her letter to Santa, but she’s missed him. Instead the magical balloons from the previous book are waiting in her living room. She and Joplin take the balloons to the North Pole where they are greeted by the elves and Mrs. Claus, who plies River Rose with a wealth of sweets, the book becoming a numbers primer. She is near sleep when Santa returns. Santa makes one last trip to bring River Rose home, and she hand-delivers her letter to him—which is not a list of requested gifts, but a simple thank you, which touches Santa. This new illustrator does a good job continuing in the tradition of the previous. I didn’t notice the difference, and don’t think I’d have noted it expect that I write these reviews and am always sure to credit the illustrator too. Fleming’s palette is maybe a little more muted and her lines a little crisper than Hughes’.

***

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Outside by Deirdre Gill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Deirde Gill illustrated Trains Don’t Sleep, which I read and loved in October. I went exploring to see what else she had done, and found this story, written and illustrated by Gill. A bored boy leaves the house and explores the snowy outside. His brother won’t join him outside, so he makes himself a friend—an enormous snowman, who comes to life to help him build a castle. And what do castles attract? Dragons of course! This one is thankfully friendly. His brother finally does come out to play, after the boy’s adventure in the snow is done, and together they make one last snowman. Because the brother stays inside staring at screens, he misses his younger brother’s adventures. There’s as much a lesson about leaving screens to play outside as there is a lesson about the wonders of the imagination and the outdoors and free play. These illustrations are everything I hoped for. The colors, the landscapes, the characters are amazing! There’s not a great deal of text, most pages comprising of only a sentence or two. Some have only a sentence fragment, and some have no words at all.

****

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A Loud Winter’s Nap by Katy Hudson. Picture Window-Capstone, 2017.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-1.

The friends from Too Many Carrots are back, this time with Turtle as the protagonist. I feel this turtle on a personal level. He doesn’t like winter. He just wants to hibernate through it. But his friends are having fun in the snow and being noisy nearby no matter where he makes his nest and despite his sign. Eventually he accidentally stumbles into some winter fun of his own, not realizing his newest napping spot is a sled primed at the top of the hill. He enjoys racing downhill, and in the end joins his friends on the iced-over pond where his sled stops, skating and drinking hot cocoa and generally enjoying the winter with his friends.

****

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Santa’s Magic Key by Eric James. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

I don’t think that I ever truly believed in Santa Claus, but I did grow up in a house without a chimney, and I wasn’t unaware of the myths surrounding the man. I think I questioned less how Santa would get into our house when we had no fireplace and more how we would communicate in J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world without a fireplace to connect to the Floo Network. How Santa did all that he was supposed to do were more for me questions of filling in gaps in the story than worries about whether or not I would receive any gifts.

The tagline for this book suggests starting a new family tradition—which makes it sound as though Eric James is hoping to appeal to the same audience as participate in the Elf on the Shelf tradition. As far as new holiday traditions go, I’d be far more willing to go along with James’. A) It requires action only one night out the year. B) It does not require me to suggest that an inanimate doll is 1) animate, 2) always watching and judging my child’s behavior and 3) reporting that behavior to a boss who will reward or punish a child based on that behavior. James’ story is less preparation for a police state and more assurance that your house can be visited by Santa despite your house lacking an element seemingly present in every Santa myth.

James’ book is long, but better written, and his illustrations are beautiful, hazily but realistically rendered full-page spreads rather than the cartoonish characters lacking much setting that accompany the Elf on the Shelf.

Despite all this, James is not likely to create the empire that Aebersold, Bell, and Steinwart have because he doesn’t self-publish and he didn’t create a character who can be dressed in different outfits, have pets, and have accessories, and whose pets can have accessories.

***

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Olaf’s Night Before Christmas by Jessica Julius and illustrated by Olga T. Mosqueda. Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

Frozen’s Olaf becomes the protagonist of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, and Julius rewrites Moore’s text for Olaf. Familiar lines of Moore’s are echoed in the new text. Anna and Elsa make guest appearances, Olaf mistakes the “eight tiny reindeer” for “eight little Svens,” and at first he thinks that Santa might be Kristoff. There’s a lot more humor in this new version, the language is more modern and simpler than Moore’s (“His boots were all black and his pants were all red. But where was the rest of him? Where was his head?”). Olaf, a simple snowman not familiar with Christmas traditions, makes a delightful new narrator for this twist on the classic tale. The illustrations are bright with nods to the film in the style and in the details, but plenty of familiar, traditional Christmas details in them to almost erase the fact that this is a Disney product. There’s tradition, there’s extra sweetness, there’s the familiarity of Disney characters.

*****

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 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt and illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. Scholastic, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I sort of already reviewed this book when I was reviewing bell hook’s Skin Again because I read within a month of each other these two books about diversity and seeing beyond outer appearance and skin color. Oops. Alko and Qualls’ use of primary characters and a grounding location (a city) in the illustrations help to make less abstract the ideas that Britt is portraying. It gave the book another focus—the characters and their questions—rather than the focus being solely on the reader and the reader’s perceptions. By posing questions that I think all of us—as adults, yes, but also as children—have wondered, the story has a universality that draws a reader to it—or it did so for me. Universality is certainly some of the lesson of Britt, Alko, and Quall’s book.

***

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

It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton and illustrated by Marla Frazee. Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Marla Frazee’s illustrations are definitely the true champion of this book by Hillary Clinton. The text of the book is simple—what is needed (a vision, teamwork, the proper tools, kindness, sharing, play, and rest) to create a community—but the illustrations make this the story of a community coming together to build a playground because of the vision and dream of a child or three.

***

Click to visit the series' page for links to order, summary, preview, and activity kit.

Pete the Cat and the New Guy by Kimberly and James Dean. HarperCollins, 2014.

A new kid moves into the neighborhood. Pete immediately notices that he and Gus the Platypus are not alike, but immediately accepts that being different is “cool,” which is wonderfully refreshing. Gus can’t do the things that Pete and his friends do. It makes Gus sad, but Pete keeps assuring him that there’s something everyone can do. Finally, they all bond over music.

***

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, sample pages, and interview.

Animal Homes ZXA: An Out of Order Alphabet Book by Barbara Gibbon. Mascot, 2017.

There’s so much to this book. This animal and alphabet primer groups the animals by their habitat, very basically defined in the text and illustrated, rather than alphabetizing them and highlights some more unusual animals rather than sticking only to the tried examples. By rearranging the letters, the book and the alphabet are less predictable, and those learning the alphabet can rely less on memorization of the sounds and have to put together more assuredly the shape of the letter and the sound it represents. Including unique animals (zebu, quokka) in the text helps to eliminate the same memorization technique. The illustrations include both lower and uppercase examples of the letters and beautiful animal portraits to associate with each letter. The endpapers are illustrated to show the animals and the letters that they represent reorganized alphabetically so as not to lose that element of instruction, which adds an element of familiarity and closure to the book.

*****

Click to visit the book's page for links to order, summary, activities, and authors' and illustrator's bios.

Princesses Wear Pants by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim and illustrated by Eva Byrne. Abrams, 2017.

Told in rhyme, this princess Penny is known for her gowns and tiaras, but she prefers pants when she exercises, when she gardens, when she flies her plane, when she judges the science fair, and when she relaxes. A conservative lady, Lady Busyboots, is sure to be at the ball though, and Penny doesn’t want to be subject to her wagging finger. She decides she doesn’t want to go if she can’t wear pants, so she hides her swim trunks beneath her gown. When Penny’s cat, Miss Fussy, falls into the moat, Prince Phillip can’t save her because his suit will get wet; he’s not properly dressed. But Penny pulls off her dress, beneath which she’s wearing her swimming trunks, and hops into the moat to save the cat, winning the admiration of her subjects for her bravery and also Lady Busyboots’ approval of pants as a practical garment. Some of the text is a little heavy-handed in its message of female empowerment through fashion choices, but on the whole I approve. I liked that Penny’s royal duties extended to flying in the air force, judging science fairs, and helping to feed the hungry—duties that really are part of today’s expectations for royalty but which are rarely acknowledged in children’s books. It helped make this princess story feel more modern. The illustrations are bright and playful with many pineapples worked into the details. I’m giving it only four stars though because there were places where consistency seemed to be an issue. In the beginning, Penny doesn’t mind dresses, but she minds them when she should wear one to the ball? And she wanted to wear pants to the ball not swimming trunks.

****

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7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar and illustrated by Ross MacDonald. Hyperion-Disney, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is one of those times when I have to argue with the publisher’s listed intended audience. My toddlers didn’t get it. The audience member who laughed with me was nearer 7 if not older than that. This book is filled with wordplay and math puns, and most of that seemed to sail right over the heads of my toddlers. 7 Ate 9 is a noir detective story, where Private I, a garish pink letter I in a striped tie and a fedora, has to solve the mystery of 9’s disappearance when 6 comes into his office screaming that 7 ate 9. No numbers were actually eaten in the making of this picture book.

***

Click to visit the book's page for links to order, summary, video of the author reading, news, and author's bio.

The Book with No Pictures by B. J. Novak. Dial-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this and how much my kids enjoyed this because I always enjoy and often judge a book by its pictures. Like Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Book! (one of my favorites), this book explains and then relies on the reader reading everything that the book says—no matter what. So where Gerald and Piggie laugh hysterically at the reader being forced to say “banana,” this book makes the reader say things like “My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named Boo Boo Butt” and “The kid I’m reading this book to is the best kid ever in the history of the entire world” and sing and read a whole page of ridiculous nonsense words. Asides—complaints about what’s coming, comments on the ridiculousness of what’s been said—are included in the text, and while the are fun to read aloud, in places—especially toward the beginning I feel—they are a bit too intrusive. And I want to read the book again, but I’ve just been made to say please don’t ever make me read this book again. Overall though, this was a lot of laughs.

****

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

Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperCollins, 2005. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Nancy likes fancy things and using fancy words, but her family doesn’t understand. She puts an ad on the fridge for fancy lessons, and the whole family obliges and comes. They dress up in a wealth of fancy accessories and decide to go for a fancy dinner. It’s all going very well till Nancy, carrying a tray of ice cream sundaes, trips and drops the tray, splattering the whole restaurant in ice cream and whipped topping. Nancy’s feeling upset.  They go home, get cleaned up, and have ice cream in their pajamas. She thanks her parents for being fancy, and they all exchange “I love you”s, which can be said no fancier or better way. Nancy’s parents are A+: showing up when they’re requested, showering her with love, appreciating and encouraging her interests. There’s some fancy vocabulary to give this book more of an educational feel. This is all around a good book.

*****

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

After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) by Dan Santat. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This whole of the book is narrated by Humpty in the past tense as though he is telling you the story while sitting in front of you.  Humpty loves sitting up high on the wall. He likes to be up near the birds. But he fell off that wall.  The kings’ men put him back together again—physically—but they can’t heal the emotional scars he carries from his accident. He’s scared of heights now, and he can’t enjoy the things that he used to. It affects everything, even his sleeping and eating habits. He settles at first for watching the birds from the ground, then creates a paper airplane, crafted to look like a bird, so that some part of him is with the birds.   But accidents always happen, and his plane lands atop the wall from which he once fell.  Instead of walking away this time, he climbs the wall to retrieve his plane.  Having conquered his fears, he cracks apart, and becomes a fully-fledged bird, finally able to fly with the birds that he loves—finally one of the birds that he loves. That first reading, there was something off-putting about the end for both me and for one of the parents who was there when I was reading it.  It seemed less off-putting a second time for me, maybe because I knew it was coming.  I’m not sure how much of the recovery from trauma my toddler audience understood.  The illustrations are amazing—as Santat’s always are—saturated with clever use of space and color with impressive attention to detail.  It’s the sense of off-ness I got the first time–and that was expressed by another at the reading–that prevents this from getting five stars.

****

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

Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2009. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Ed, Ned, Ted, and Bob rhyme all the time. Or Ed, Ned, and Ted do. Bob does not. Ed, Ned, and Ted take turns rhyming with one another, but Bob is too distracted by the end that’s coming towards them and doesn’t rhyme. Neither Ed, Ned, nor Ted realize that Bob is trying to warn them and is not playing their game, so they correct him, chastise him for his warnings not rhyming. This is a good lesson on paying attention to your friends, on listening, and on rhyming. The illustrations are simple, really just four fluffy monsters each a different color but surprisingly expressive and a few simple lines on a few pages for setting.

****

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

A Pirate’s Life by Salina Yoon. Price Stern Sloan-Penguin Random, 2007.

This is a super-cute lift-the-flap book about pirates with a surprising number of facts and tidbits of history. Pete prepares you—the reader—for your first voyage, making sure you’ve packed all the necessities, including sunscreen, fresh underwear, cured meat and fresh fruit and vegetables. There’s a list provided and a challenge to find everything on the list on the page. The second double-page spread tours the ship and establishes some pirate rules. The third spread is rhyming instructions to find the treasure and a map. Then, the treasure found, it’s time to party with another scavenger hunt. The last page declares you unanimously the new captain. There are stickers and a captain’s hat for you in your new quarters on the last page spread.

****

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 2017: Picture Book Roundup: Celebrities, Halloween, Loving, and One Last Book About Trains

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Old Friends

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Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. HarperFestival-HarperCollins, 2001. First published 1947. Intended audience: Ages 0-4.

I can’t possibly review this book properly. I am biased. This is a classic, and Margaret Wise Brown is my alma mater’s perhaps most prestigious alumna. Who didn’t grow up on Goodnight Moon? It’s only really within the last decade (good Lord, that’s painful to write) that I’ve gone back and really paid much attention to the book. After graduating out of picture books, I didn’t return to Goodnight Moon until I began college, and I really did a deeper study of it when I wrote a parody as part of Hollins’ Margaret Wise Brown Festival of 2012. The text is deceptively simple. A small bunny says goodnight to everything in his room and everything he can see. And some that he can’t see. “Goodnight air” he says and “Goodnight nobody.”  As an adult, there’s less innocence to this book.  When you really question those lines, it’s a touch frightening.

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

Good Day, Good Night by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Loren Long. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

With a bunny and a bedroom that emulates but doesn’t entirely mimic Hurd’s illustrations from Goodnight Moon, this little bunny first greets the sun’s first light then his town and his friends. He then spends the second half of the book saying goodnight to them all. Some of the text of the second half echoed Goodnight Moon too. The two halves are split by a single line imploring the reader to seize the day (which Long illustrates with a game of soccer). Loren Long’s illustrations are maybe a little more muted but her color palette much broader than Hurd’s. The illustrations are detailed, complete, rather beautiful.

**** 

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

The Poky Little Puppy’s Wonderful Winter Day by Jean Chandler and illustrated by Sue Dicicco. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 2017. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

The poky puppy lags behind all of his brothers and sisters as they wake up, eat up, go out to play, and come back home. The poky puppy lingers to play with children. This is a decent book about playing outside on a snowy day. I didn’t know about this sequel to The Poky Little Puppy and nor did the parents at my story time.

***

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

The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005. First published 1984.

This book reminded me of “The Rattlin’ Bog” and all of the camp songs like it. There’s a flea on the mouse and the mouse on the cat and the cat on a dog and the dog on the child and the child on the granny and the granny in the bed and the bed in the napping house where everyone is sleeping. There’s more to the rhythm than that, adjectives attached to each character: a cozy bed, a snoring granny, a dreaming child. The flea wakes the cat and one by one each character wakes the other until everyone is awake, the sun is up, and now it is a napping house where no one is sleeping. The illustrations are detailed both in the drapery and then in the subtle color change as the sun comes up and more and more characters awaken.

***

New Friends

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Little Penguin and the Lollipop by Tadgh Bentley. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Age 4-8.

The little penguin is back! And he has eaten Kenneth’s lollipop. Kenneth is pretty upset, and the little penguin wants to make it up to Kenneth, but nothing little penguin has tried has worked. This book like its predecessor calls for audience participation. The little penguin addresses his audience, and he asks for the audience’s help in making the funniest faces possible while saying “razzle dazzle lollipop.” Even that doesn’t work to cheer up Kenneth. In the end, the little penguin replaces Kenneth’s lollipop, but he’s still not good at looking before he takes, so while he may have learned how to make it up to a friend after you take something of his… he might still have some work and some more apologizing to do.

****

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

Bruce’s Big Move by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Bruce is back too! And he is fed up with the mice that have infested his house. He does the only logical thing there is to do to remedy the situation. Since he doesn’t seem able to kick the mice out of the house, he decides that he and his geese are moving house. He finally finds a good, rodent-free home, but his geese don’t seem themselves. They’re sad and upset. Until the mice arrive. And Bruce realizes that the house is not a home without these often-annoying members of his odd family. This is perhaps the shortest book of Higgins’ books yet. After the brilliance of Be Quiet! this story honestly fell a little flat to me, but I’m glad it’s better for my average story time attendee.

***

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

Max and Bird by Ed Vere. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

I have grown fond of Max the Brave, the little black kitten who knows that he is supposed to hunt mice, but doesn’t actually know what a mouse looks like. I’ve read it for a few different story times. Needing another quick story for a recent story time, I grabbed this, the most recent in the series. In this, Max knows that he’s supposed to chase and eat birds. This time he’s found a bird, and he wants to be friends with the bird. He tells his new friend the bird that first he will chase and then eat them, and Bird understandably complains that that is not what friends do. I was a bit put off by this discussion of violence in a picture book, though as Max says, it is a rule of nature that kittens chase birds. I knew though from the moment that I read it that it would end with the two as friends and neither being eaten. I’m glad I was not proved wrong in that supposition. The two make a deal: First Max will help the bird learn to fly then they’ll decide about the chasing and the eating. Since neither knows how to fly, they visit the library. They study for weeks. Nothing happens for days, but finally bird takes off. True to his word, Bird offers to be Max’s tasty snack now that Max has taught him to fly, but Max decides that he doesn’t want to eat his friend after all. This book betrays its British heritage with a few phrases that are odd for Americans, but completely comprehendible. Vere illustrates his books very simply, the characters comprising mostly of their shape and of overlarge eyes. He uses only a limited palette.

****

Real Life Celebrities

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The Little Grumpy Cat Who Wouldn’t illustrated by Steph Laberis. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

We all know Grumpy Cat? A happy butterfly, a cheerful ladybug, and a joyful bird want her to play, but Grumpy Cat doesn’t want to play with them. She ultimately tricks them into thinking that she will race them, and the other animals race off without her. “Good.” The book uses many of the lines from Grumpy Cat memes. The book did get some twitters of laughter from my audience.

***

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

A is for Awful: A Grumpy Cat ABC Book by Christy Webster and illustrated by Steph Laberis. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

This was the better of the two Grumpy Cat Little Golden Books that we read. This one is an alphabet book. It seems a relatively normal alphabet primer—A is for ants, B is for butterfly—but Grumpy Cat grumpily comments on the text of the alphabet book, her comments utilizing that letter as much as possible within the sentence, clearly fully aware of the book’s intention to cover the whole of the alphabet and drag her through each illustration up till Z. This too utilizes many lines from the Grumpy Cat memes. This one got giggles too.

****

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

A Night Out with Mama by Quvenzhané Wallis and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Annie, 12 Years a Slave, Trolls) writes about her night at the Academy Awards. It’s honestly a delightful, relatable story. A young girl in new shoes, tap, tap, tapping down the hall, excited for the day and waking her whole family to be excited with her. Because it’s such a big day, someone comes to help her get ready, a limousine comes for her and Mama, and though she doesn’t win, she still enjoys the night out. Vanessa Brantley-Newton does a fabulous job with these illustrations and Wallis writes with a poetry and musicality beyond some adult writers.

*****

Loving and Respecting Others and Yourself

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The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty and illustrated by Thomas Docherty. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 3+

This pair wowed me before with their book The Storybook Knight. Snatchabook was their first book together, but somehow I’d missed it. I think it was before I became one of the story time readers at any Barnes & Noble. This book tells in rhyming couplets of bookworm Eliza Brown’s real-life mystery. The books are all disappearing from Burrow Down, and Eliza lays out a trap to catch the thief. She catches a creature called a Snatchabook, who steals books because he has no one to read to him. Eliza convinces him to return all of the books, and gets all of the residents of Burrow Down to agree to let the Snatchabook join them from their bedtime stories whenever he likes. In this way, the residents of Burrow Down get their books back, and the Snatchabook gets someone to read to him. The illustrations use lots of colors for shading. Details make it fun to linger on the pages or revisit them.

****

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Skin Again by bell hooks and illustrated by Chris Raschka. Jump at the Sun-Hyperion-Disney, 2004.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I was reminded reading this of Paige Britt’s Why Am I Me?  Where Britt makes the similarity between different characters the very humanity and reasoning they have in thinking the same questions about themselves, hooks merely says look for the similarity inside.  That I think was where hooks lost me.  I got a call to action–great.  But I missed the second step, the guidance from the wise mentor if you will, if I can put a life’s journey into the steps of a hero’s journey.  And having only that call and no concrete direction left me wanting more.  The text of this book and the idea of the book were abstract, and the language hooks uses didn’t help to solidify the idea.  The idea is that we are not our skin but what is inside (and that’s the type of language that hooks uses, language that I think my usual toddler audience would not follow), that the skin is only a covering that cannot tell a story, for that you have to “come inside.”  I like the idea.  No, I love the idea.  We need more books about common humanity.  But I think I needed some more concrete language or more concrete illustrations maybe to help with the abstract language.  (I enjoyed too the illustrations of Britt’s book done by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls better than Raschka’s.)  There’s a poetry to the text, sure (in fact I thought at first that maybe this was an illustrated poem and I think maybe the text might have worked better alone as a poem than as an illustrated picture book with pages breaks and breaks in thought as one pauses to admire and dissect too the illustrations).  Maybe I need to read it again aloud.  Maybe the rhythm of the text means more aloud, and it becomes easier to see past the repetition and vagueness.  Whatever stumbling blocks this book has, though, it is still important.

***

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May I Please Have a Cookie? by Jennifer E. Morris. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2005. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

This leveled reader leapt into my hand one rough night when I passed by the free library. The title perfectly captured my mood. What I found inside was less a story about cookies and more of a story about manners. Alfie tries several ways to get a cookie, but his mother insists that he think of a better way to get one. Ultimately after crying and Mommy gently reminding him by asking politely for one of the paper cookies that he has made, Alfie figures out what she means, asks politely, and receives a cookie, and a snuggle. It’s a sweet story with expressive, brightly colored alligators (crocodiles?). (But admittedly it was not the story that I needed when I first read it.) It would be a fun book for teaching manners with plenty of humor in the outlandish schemes Alfie hatches to try to get a cookie.

***

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

Sarabella’s Thinking Cap by Judy Schachner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

Though from the creator of Skippyjon Jones, this is a very different book: softer illustrations, a more inspiring than hilarious message. Sarabella is always thinking about the most extraordinary things (seriously, the illustrations are amazingly detailed and beautiful with text to match), but she doesn’t speak much. Her daydreaming gets her into trouble at school and at home. Her teacher assigns them to a project that allows Sarabella to express her thoughts and daydreams. She wows the class with her thinking hat and makes a friend. My toddlers had a hard time concentrating on this story. It was long and there wasn’t a lot of humor to engage them, but the adults in the audience (myself included) were enthralled. My kids’ attention wandered away before the last few pages, but I read quickly because the parents and I wanted to know how it ended, to see the last few pages of Schachner’s beautiful artwork.

****

Zombies, Frights, and Pumpkins

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Peanut Butter & Aliens: A Zombie Culinary Tale by Joe McGee and illustrated by Charles Santoso. Harry N. Abrams, 2017.

In this sequel to Peanut Butter & Brains, the town of Quirkville, where zombies and humans have come together over a love of peanut butter and jelly, is invaded by aliens. The aliens speak another language. No one understands. Each establishment tries to offer them a different food, and each person who does so gets covered in cosmic grape jelly. Just as the aliens are getting ready to storm town hall, Reginald the Zombie and Abigail Zink, the smartest girl in town, realize that of course, aliens that squirt jelly must be after peanut butter. They assuage the aliens with a jar of peanut butter, and the aliens settle down to start a peanut butter and cosmic grape jelly sandwich restaurant. While the message about bonding over similarities despite obvious differences and even different languages is a good one, I wanted something more from this story. Maybe more to the story than episodes of different foods being refused by the aliens.

***

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

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. Simon & Schuster, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Jasper Rabbit is not a little bunny anymore. His mother may be perturbed by the ghoulish, greenish glow and toothy grin of the creepy underwear, but he’s not; he thinks they’re cool. So she agrees that they can buy one pair. And of course Jasper wears them first thing. But the ghoulish, greenish glow keeps him up at night. He tries to bury them in the hamper. He tries to bury them in the garbage. He tries to bury them deep underground. They keep showing up whatever he does. Even cutting them into confetti doesn’t stop the underwear from returning, whole.  He finally succeeds in keeping them gone. But the darkness is too overwhelming, so he relents, retrieves the underwear, and buys more pairs. His creepy underwear becomes a friend, keeping the dark at bay. This book makes good use of page breaks and good use of the different text layouts. The book has a message that even big rabbits can be scared of the dark and that first impressions aren’t always right. The ghoulish, greenish glow becomes a gentle, greenish glow when Jasper’s impression of the underwear changes.  I was surprised I enjoyed this one so much, and surprised that reading to kids about underwear with underwear on every page didn’t this time for this book feel awkward.

****

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

The Legend of Spookley the Square Pumpkin by Joe Troiano and illustrated by Susan Banta. Barnes & Noble, 2009. First published 2001. Intended audience: PreK-2.

The other pumpkins make fun of square Spookley, and Spookley wishes he was round too so he could roll with the other pumpkins in the patch. But one night in a storm, his squareness, what makes him different, saves nearly everyone in the patch. He volunteers to help the others because he knows that he can because of his difference. After that night, the pumpkins and the farmer recognize Spookley’s specialness. The next year, the farmer plants mostly Spookley’s seed, and the pumpkins that sprout are all different: different colors, some polka dotted, some square, some triangular, some flat. Visitors come to the farm for these unique pumpkins. This book too is told in rhyming couplets. The message is a little heavy handed, but because it’s such an important one, I’m not upset by it. I actually rather like the call at the end to tell friends Spookley’s message in the hopes that the world will become a little kinder.

****

Trains

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Trains Don’t Sleep by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum and illustrated by Deirdre Gill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

This was the surprise winner of our story time, my favorite for that week (which included The Napping House and the two Margaret Wise Brown books reviewed here) and the favorite of one the little girls who is one of my regulars. The story is rhythmic, musical, rhyming. The illustrations are beautiful, reminiscent of an older style of travel poster, soft and pastel but with contrast and creative angles. The book mentions different types of trains and train cars without overtly drawing attention to its educational bent. In the back it has more information on each of the cars mentioned, a smaller copy of the page on which each appears with a paragraph beneath. The story ends with a goodnight for readers, for travelers on the rails, though one last page emphasizes that trains don’t sleep.  Seriously, I don’t love trains, but I’d like prints of these illustrations (coincidentally, they are available on Etsy).

*****

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: June 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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I have to issue an apology to several authors and illustrators that I read in June. Having broken my arm and having been knocked off my game for several months afterward, some of these books, particularly some of these toddler books I just don’t remember well enough to do much justice to the reviews and I’m afraid I’ll have to skip reviewing one in this batch, Eric Hill’s Spot Loves Bedtime. For any that I can reconstruct my impressions from even reading others’ reviews and available previews I will do that. It’s possible that all of these reviews may not be as detailed as they have been for some other months.

Toddler Time

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Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 0-2.

Reading reviews on Goodreads, there is one that I think really hits the nail on the head: With the wealth of board books tackling impossibly complicated concepts, like quantum physics and government, how is it that this is one of the first I’ve seen to openly tackle the misunderstood concept of feminism? Mostly this is a book about liking what you like and not being forced to present oneself in any particular way because of one’s gender. Feminist baby likes pink and blue. She’s messy and sometimes gross. She’s a person more than she is a gender. I hadn’t realized that this board book is born of a comic series by the artist, though I’d seen the comics before shared on social media sites. That helps a little, but I still wish there had been more of a call for intersectionality in this board book, though that may well be because I’m used to hearing that critique leveled at modern, white feminism; I maybe shouldn’t expect from a board book what modern feminist movements are themselves struggling to incorporate, though I want to push our definitions and the actions of feminism towards its ideal manifestation. The feminist label is going to turn some off; it already has done, but there again is that same misunderstanding of feminism, which is by definition a call for equality for all regardless of gender (or race, class, or any other categorization ideally). I’m thinking now about the board books that I’ve read. There are many that feature animals or anthropomorphized objects as protagonists. There are many that have no protagonist, that feature many children or babies of different genders and races. The few that I’m recalling with female protagonists are pinker and more princess-oriented than naught, books like Katz’ Princess Baby or Grandma Kisses. Both Caroline Jayne Church’s and Joanna Cole’s I’m a Big Sister (the two books have the same title) feature a child with pink bows in her hair, and both children wear pink plaid; how weird is that? I like this book, and I really like that this book exists, but we can do better.

***

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

Hello, Lamb by Jane Cabrera. Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This is an animal and animal sounds primer. It begins with the sun, but quickly moves into baby farm animals, their forms only their round faces, and their greeting paired with their sound. “Hello, piglet. Oink Oink.” It ends on the image of a baby. The round-faced illustrations are bright and eye-catching without being overwhelmingly bright.

***

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

A Letter to Daddy by Igloo Books-Bonnier-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I wanted to give a quick shout-out to this Barnes & Noble bargain book, because it’s difficult to find reference to it. This is a sweet story about a little bear who misses his dad when he has to go away, so he writes letters to his dad about all the things that he and his mother are doing while Daddy is away. The story is really sweet, and I like the illustration style.

****

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

Buzzy Bee: A Slide-and-Seek Book by Emma Parrish. Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This book was a hit at story time. The bright illustrations are accompanied by sliding panels that extend up and sideways from the book and the backsides of the panels extend the illustrations on the following page. The book is a look and find where the bee is only on one of the last pages. The panels highlight characters in larger scenes, acting like a magnifying glass. The plot uses alliteration in describing those characters, making this a good book to work on sounds associated with letters.

*****

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

Good Night, Little Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth-Simon & Schuster, 2017. First published 2012. Intended audience: Ages 1-4, Grades PreK-K.

I’m glad more books from the Rainbow Fish series are making their way to America. This is another book about a parent reassuring their little one of their eternal love, much like Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You because in this the Rainbow Fish does not doubt his mother’s love because of things that he will do, but doubts that she will be there for him when bad things happen. These are all very watery things: being carried away by the tide, being caught in the tentacles of a jellyfish, but all of these are translatable enough to the world above. The story is framed as a bedtime story, with Rainbow Fish being unable to sleep for his fears. The story features the same shining scales that I loved as a child, and this being a story of Rainbow Fish as a child, he still has all his shining scales so there’s a lot of shimmer on each page. Being a toddler book, this book is much shorter than its parent story, The Rainbow Fish.

**** 

Older Audiences

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

Daddy Honk Honk! by Rosalinde Bonnet. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This was introduced to me as a good book for adoptive families. A male Arctic fox, Aput, becomes parent to a goose when the egg hatches. He brings the newborn around to other families in the Arctic but none of them have room for another, though they bestow gifts and wisdom on the traveling pair. Ultimately, Aput accepts his role as “Daddy” and the Arctic shows up to throw the new family a party in celebration. It is refreshing to see a book in an infrequently used environment with names appropriate to the area. There are some similarities to be made to Ryan T. HigginsMother Bruce franchise, but this book has more in the way of useful parenting advice and focuses more on the love that the fox develops for its adopted goose than on humorous situations that arise from the adoption.

****

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

The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-MacMillan, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The repetition of “I’m a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face so I spread the dreary-wearies all over the place. Blub, Blub, Blub” gets to be a little much pretty quickly, though it’s fun to see how glum you can make the refrain sound—and oh my! does it stick in your head! The whole of the book is told in rhyming lines. Fish of the sea approach the Pout-Pout Fish and tell him that he should smile, but it takes one fish from another part coming to him and kissing his face to cheer him up and to turn him into a “kiss-kiss fish” too. The two end up kissing one another on the lips at the end, though every other kiss, including the one that first cheers him up first, seem more platonic. There is some danger in normalizing kissing as a greeting in our society. Though I hate that it is so, it seems remiss not to point out the potential danger, the ways this book and that concept could be used nefariously.  All of the kissing is likely only meant create an excuse for a parent reading to kiss their child.  Maybe because I read to children not my own, I see the danger in extending these lessons beyond family.

But I’m not sure that I can approve either of using the Pout-Pout Fish’s melancholy as a point of humor or a point of contention, a negative trait in the story, because the Pout-Pout Fish’s permanent frown and glum demeanor seem like symptoms of depression to me.  The whole book seem examples of people reacting poorly to a character with depression–until the Kiss-Kiss Fish arrives.  Her response to his depression while more understanding and compassionate, sets a precedent for believing that depression can be cured by a kiss, which is again dangerous in its inaccuracy.

Basically, I wish this book had far less kissing and far better reactions to a melancholic and likely depressed fish, that it didn’t use his depression as both the story’s problem and its humor.

**

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

The Pout-Pout Fish Far, Far from Home by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-MacMillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

Now cheered up, the Pout-Pout Fish is going on his first vacation. There’s a new mantra in this one: “I’m a fish who loves to travel. I’m a fish who loves to roam. And I’m having an adventure on my trip away from home!” The Pout-Pout Fish encounters several bumps on his trip but is always helped by locals who know the area. Despite its hiccups because of the help that he receives, that part of the adventure is fun. But he arrives at his destination to find that he forgot the creature (part-nightlight, part-stuffy, maybe a pet? Don’t look into that too carefully, I guess) that he sleeps with, and it seems that the vacation is ruined, but he decides to hold it “in his heart” though they’re apart and ends up having a fantastic vacation. And his creature is at home, waiting for him, when he gets back. This book covers several problems that a child could encounter while traveling—though some of the problems are more likely to be problems for adults than for children (detours, specifically)—and that makes it relevant. It fills a niche—two niches with the problem too of a missing sleep-buddy, which can happen while traveling but also at home.

****

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

Great, Now We’ve Got Barbarians! by Jason Carter Eaton and illustrated by Mark Fearing. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, PreK-3.

Mom’s upset because of the mess that her little boy leaves in the house, particularly food mess. She complains that they will get pests. But they don’t get ants or flies or mice. They get Vlad, a hulking, Viking-like man who demands an entire cupcake. Mom quickly puts him out, but then comes Torr, “seeking glory and cheese curls.” More and more barbarians invade the house. There is a page that shames men who wear make-up, which isn’t cool, Eaton. Otherwise, this is a funny story with funny illustrations and a good message about cleaning up after oneself. I wonder if this story was born of someone mentioning a pest invasion, and Eaton thinking about what else is known for invasion. Faced with having to move to escape the infestation (perhaps calling an exterminator was a little un-cool too, Eaton; the metaphor can only extend so far, and that might’ve been a step over the line; barbarians are human, and humans shouldn’t be exterminated), the little boy cleans the house, and the barbarians sulk away.

***

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

Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Divya Srinivasan. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I was really excited when I saw the beautiful cover of this book, harkening to Indian art and featuring Neil Gaiman’s name, guaranteeing it more press and a wider audience. This text was previously released in 2004 as an audio of a short story as part of The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection. That the text was not originally intended for a picture book unfortunately shows; it’s longer than your average picture book and seems to have been written for an older audience, both from the syntax and the content, which is at times grim (Grimm). Its phrases do some of the work of conjuring the image which is less necessary in text intended for a picture book.  The text is beautiful though with many excellent lines. It’s a Beauty and the Beast story in the end, with the young girl, who had nothing to say so never spoke, learning to speak and to love the speaking tiger that moves like a god, and going with him to the jungle to further her education. This is a beautiful story, the illustrations are beautiful, but it is a picture book for an older audience.

****

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

Curious George Cleans Up / Jorge el curioso limpia el reguero by Stephen Krensky and adapted from the world of H. A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007. Intended audience: Grade PreK-3.

This is another bilingual book from which I read only the English to my story time audience. George and the Man with the Yellow Hat get a new rug. George spills a glass of grape juice on the rug, and he tries to clean it up with paper towels, then many types of soap and a garden hose. He does manage to clean up the spill then most of the water too. This is mostly a silly story. You could laud George for acting responsibly and trying to clean up his mess, but there’s a lesson here too to be made about knowing when to go to grown-up for help; I know few grown-ups who would be glad to walk into a waterlogged house, even if it did take care of a juice stain on a new rug.

***

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

Rulers of the Playground by Joseph Kuefler. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Jonah proclaims himself king of the playground. His tendency to make demands and keep an unfair portion for himself makes Lennox angry, and she declares herself queen and claims the swings. She makes demands too and is impatient for her turn on the swings. The two monarchs compete against one another for more and more land. Their friends abandon the two rulers because of their competition. Realizing that they’ve chased everyone away, they give away their power and share the playground with everyone. With a diverse cast of characters, this story provides a good lesson about sharing and about making demands on others’ time and on public places, though it seems that Augustine and Sir Humphrey Hamilton Hildebrand III don’t learn the lesson well.

***

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

Blue Sky White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

With little text, this is a visual stunner (as much of Kadir Nelson’s work is). The illustrations and text compare aspects of the American flag to moments in American history and places in the American imagination. The blue background and white stars become the night sky above the Statue of Liberty. The red and white stripes becomes maples in fall and lines of covered wagons heading West. Timely, needed, this book pays tribute to those who tried to make America great and the diversity and persistent striving towards equality that make America great now.

*****

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

If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2017.

Magnolia’s back and this time she wants to hold a circus in the library, to the chagrin of the librarians. There’s a tongue and cheek reference to writing clear advertisements. A sign that says “You can do anything at the library!” doesn’t mean you can hold a circus there or cheer or clap or boo or hand out concessions; it means you can sit and read a book. This is a fun way to go over library rules.

***

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

You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This book is set after the original Rainbow Fish; every fish but Red Fin, a newcomer, has one of the shiny scales that were originally Rainbow Fish’s.  Rainbow Fish and his sparkling friends are playing hide-and-seek, but Rainbow Fish isn’t winning, and he decides to quit and sulk away. Red Fin comes to him, and with her help, Rainbow Fish realizes that his sore losing has spoiled the game for his friends. He apologizes and continues the game.  This is an important lesson for young ones.

***

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

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, 2012. First published 1963. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Believe it or not, this was my first time reading this story, at least that I remember. I was surprised that it went over so well with my young audience (newly three years old). It’s a short story, perfect for shorter attention spans. This is a dream (nightmare?) story. Sent to bed with no supper after causing mischief in the house and telling his mother that he’d eat her up, Max is having fun as the king of the Wild Things until he misses his mother and her love, and he goes home to find his supper waiting for him in his room. There’s some beautiful language in the prose, and while there’s some internal rhyme, it doesn’t rely on that rhyme to keep the story moving.

*****

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

Shorty & Clem by Michael Slack. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Like Elephant and Piggie, this is a story of two friends who know one another very well. A package arrives for Clem while Clem is away, and Shorty has to know what’s inside of it. Knowing that he shouldn’t open Clem’s mail, Shorty shakes and jumps and beats on the box until it opens. He thinks Clem will be upset, but when Clem gets back, he explains that it was a gift for Shorty and that he knew that Shorty would be unable to resist opening it. Reviewers on Goodreads are calling Clem’s behavior manipulative–and maybe I can see that view–but I know that I too try to guess what’s in a friend’s package when I see one arrive at the door.  Mostly I was pleased that Clem wasn’t upset with Shorty, that he accepted and expected his friend’s shortcoming.

****

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: 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

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

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

****

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

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

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

***1/2

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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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: 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.

****

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

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.

***

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

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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