Tag Archives: Ryan T. Higgins

Book Reviews: May 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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Sequels and Series

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

***

New Friends

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

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

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

***

Books That Aren’t So Much About a Character

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

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

****

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

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

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

***

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

Book Reviews: February 2017 Picture Book Rounds: Lessons Abound

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****      ****

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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Book Reviews: November 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Part 1: The Anytime Books

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Mmm, Mmm, Good

cvr9781442443372_9781442443372_hrCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. Antheneum-Simon & Schuster, 1982. First published 1978. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Would you believe this is the first time I’ve read this book, though I’ve loved the movie for six years? I was surprised how many elements of the story found their way into the film, though the film is vividly bright and focuses more on how and who than what. I had a difficult time dividing the picture book from the story in the film, so I won’t comment much on Grandpa’s tall tale about Chewandswallow. This book takes the form of a frame story. After a breakfast of pancakes, during which one pancake is flung too far and lands on a child’s head, Grandpa is reminded of a tall tale that he tells at bedtime. The illustrations differentiate reality and the story: Reality is black and white. The story is colored. Perhaps the best part of the story is the ending where the narrator remarks that in the real world the sun looks like a pat of butter atop the hill, marking the blur of reality and fiction and the ability of fiction to improve reality, particularly with the touch of bright yellow bleeding into the black and white illustration on that page. The tall tale shows great inspiration from oral tall tales, especially at the beginning where Grandpa is describing where to find Chewandswallow and describing how Chewandswallow is like other towns. This is a good, out-of-the-box wintertime story (the kids go sledding) and a good grandparents story.

****

l_9781585369133_fcThe Little Kids’ Table by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles. Sleeping Bear-Cherry Lake, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grade 1.

This book is marketed and displayed with the Thanksgiving books, but it’s really not specific to Thanksgiving. In fact, I don’t recall any mention of the holiday, and I know that I was relegated to the little kids’ table on holidays besides Thanksgiving—Christmas certainly, but sometimes July 4th, birthdays, really any holiday where families gather and share a meal. The adults’ table is dressed in all its finery: flowers on the table, matching place settings, and glasses made of glass or maybe even crystal. The kids’ table is a little rowdier—and more fun! They practice balancing spoons (and plates and flower vases) on their noses. The dog gets fed the broccoli casserole that the adults insist will help little kids grow strong even though it’s icky. The adults tell the kids to calm down, to be quiet, but the kids think that secretly the adults wish that they too could sit at the little kids’ table. Being sat at the little kids’ table can feel exclusionary, but this text helps to redeem the idea a little bit. For those families that deem a little kids’ table necessary and those kids who feel hurt by being sat away from the family, this book could be helpful. The text rhymes, but the rhymes are not too jarring. The illustrations are bright, and the family is multiracial without it being an issue.

****

9781484722626_3ed6dElephant and Piggie: I Really Like Slop! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

A new Elephant and Piggie book! What I really like about this book is that not only did Gerald try Piggie’s spicy, pungent cultural delicacy willingly after some hesitation but that it’s okay that he didn’t like it. That he tries the slop is touted as a mark of their friendship, as an act of love via shared culture, but Piggie is not upset that Gerald doesn’t like her slop, and their friendship continues, even stronger.

****

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Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman. Margaret K. McElderry-Simon & Schuster, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is another book marketed for Thanksgiving, but why should it be? Friends can share a meal at any time, and one should always thank those who share with them—and again I don’t think that the holiday was mentioned by name. The rhyming text here was actually less smooth than Riehle’s, mostly because of the forced repetition of the clunky “Bear says, ‘Thanks!’” The order of the words there is less natural, though I understand the desire to end the phrase and thereby put the emphasis on “Thanks!” particularly in a Thanksgiving spinoff. Bear wants to have his friends over for a meal, but his cupboards are bare (see what Wilson did there?). Perhaps they’re psychic because they start arriving all at once with food without being invited to do so within the text. Bear thanks each of them in turn, but he is distressed because he has nothing to offer them in return. They assure him that his company and his stories are enough, and they all share a woodland feast in bear’s lair (because “lair” rhymes with “bear”). Chapman’s illustrations are beautifully soft and gentle, helping to sort of smooth over some of the roughness I found in the text of this book.

***

Cats! y648If You Give a Cat a Cupcake by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. HarperCollins, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Following the circular, if/then style as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, this cat is given a cupcake, but spills the sprinkles, and gets hot cleaning up, so is brought to the beach, after which ultimately the sand in his swimming trunks remind him of sprinkles and of cupcakes. It’s a silly story, made sillier by the idea of a cat at the beach. When I was reading this, I really wanted a cat book, and I didn’t feel like that was what I got, but this remains a fun, silly story and well written.

****

24000733Pepper & Poe by Frann Preston-Gannon. Orchard-Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

A customer actually pointed this book out to me first. She had read a review and wanted to see the book for herself. The illustrations are pretty cute: black background with a white kitten with big orange eyes and a gray cat with big green eyes and a chestnut dog. Pepper, the gray cat, likes Sundays. He likes Mondays too and Tuesdays. These are lazy days, days when he can just enjoy the quiet house. But then a kitten arrives, and his days get worse and worse as the kitten causes chaos and Pepper is asked to share. Then Pepper and Poe create such a mess that they are about to get in trouble, but both simultaneously blame the dog. Scholastic describes this as a sibling story—but I’m not sure that blame your eldest sibling for trouble your fighting has caused is a good tactic to suggest to ease sibling tension. I don’t know that most kids will read this as a sibling story, though. The cats in the story are very catlike.

**

We Can Do It!

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Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2007.

Iggy begins building very early. His parents are impressed and fairly supportive (except when he uses dirty diapers). The rhymes are a bit forced, but the story still has a good rhythm. When his teacher, Miss Lila Greer, refuses to even talk about architecture in her classroom, Iggy’s interest in school is killed, a fate I think too many will relate to. On a class picnic, the class is stuck on an island when a bridge collapses behind them, and Miss Greer drops into a faint from fear—dare I say hysteria? While crossing over a bridge that her class has built out of whatever was on hand while she was in her faint, Miss Greer sees that “There are worse things to do when you’re in grade 2 than to spend your time building a dream,” and she sees the class’ pride in their creation, and so she has a change of heart on the subject of architecture, even allowing Iggy Peck to give weekly lectures to her second grade class on the subject. Miss Greer goes from being a terrible teacher, crushing her children’s dreams and ambitions and interests, to an excellent one, nurturing and encouraging them to explore their interests and to share their expertise and interest with others, even deferring to them. I feel like there are two audiences here: One lesson is for teachers like Miss Greer (or really any adult) and that is to let kids be interested in what interests them. The other is for children—and that is to not let adults and authority figures crush your interests. I’ve spotted Rosie Revere, protagonist of the sequel book, in the illustrations, which are spare but endearing. Bonus points to Roberts for children of many races in the classroom.

****

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Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2013.

Iggy Peck I think had the better story, but at another time, I’d love to read this one alongside a story about Rosie the Riveter, Rosie Revere’s great-great-aunt Rose, though the text does not make this explicitly clear (if anyone knows of a good picture book about Rosie the Riveter or women in WWII in general, please do share). Rosie’s inventions send one of her uncles (and his snakes) into peals of laughter, and while he says that he likes the invention, the laughter hurts Rosie’s confidence and she hides away her talent, building things in the attic of her house and hiding them under her bed, but never letting anyone see the inventions or see her inventing. But her great-great-aunt is an inspiring woman, and she longs to fly. Rosie thinks that maybe she could help her aunt, but her flying machine crashes, and her aunt laughs. Some of the rhymes felt a little forced, but the rhymes are still lilting and give the story a good rhythm. My favorite line may well be “But questions are tricky, and some hold on tight, and this one kept Rosie awake through the night,” because that, as a writer and not an engineer, I can relate to well. Great-great-aunt Rose tells Rosie the importance of never giving up and having confidence in yourself and your ideas. Failures to Rose are just first tries. I do like that we have here a young female protagonist with a passion for science and engineering. Busy illustrations filled with Rosie’s inventions and the creativity of her parts (and including Iggy Peck in classroom scenes) are drawn in pastels on a white background.

***

425818How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers. HarperCollins, 2006.

A boy in love with the stars wants one of his very own, to be his friend, to play hide-and-seek, and with which to take long walks on the beach. He decides to catch a star—not the best way to acquire a friend, it must be said—but his efforts are in vain, because of course you can’t catch a star. He can’t jump high enough, he can’t climb high enough, his rocket ship is made of paper and doesn’t fly well, and seagulls aren’t known for being helpful. Eventually the boy does get a star of his own, one that he’s found washed up on the beach, and they walk along the beach, just like he’d imagined. The colors in this book I think are its best part. They’re beautiful, bright colors. Particularly I enjoyed the sky and light at different times of the day and the particular attention to shadows. There are some beautiful lines of text in this book too: the star “just rippled through his fingers” and “He waited… and he waited… and ate lunch” and “Now the boy was sad. But in his heart, the wish just wouldn’t give up.” Oliver Jeffers is one of my favorites because he is able to be sweet and funny, and because his illustrations use whimsical and pay particular attention to shadow, even when they are spare, which they are not always.

****

Adventuresome Birds

1484730887Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

A grumpy bear who likes to eat eggs in fancy recipes that he finds at the Internet returns with all the other ingredients for his meal to find that his goose eggs have hatched into goslings, who now believe that Bruce is their mother. Honestly, the plot felt a bit overdone (Fly Away Home, anyone?) and the jokes were too adult to be caught, I think, by most of my very young audience (jokes about return policies and identity theft and shopping locally for free-range organic eggs). Mother Bruce raises the children well, but cannot get them to fly away South when it is time for them to migrate, so they all get on a bus and migrate together to Miami. Bear skips his winter hibernation—since it’s still summery in Miami—and spends time on the beach with his goslings—now geese. I as an adult enjoyed it, seeing the cute story of a bear who raises four goslings into geese and understanding the jokes about current human culture, but I don’t know that it played as well with the kids at my story time.

**

24880135Waddle! Waddle! by James Proimos. Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

The style of this book, the humorous dialogue, and the final punch all strongly reminded me of Mo WillemsElephant and Piggie books, though Proimos’ illustration style and his story were both different enough from any Willems book that I could cry no foul but could only cheer. I hope this expands into a series too. Waddle! Waddle! introduces us quickly to the problem: to find the penguin protagonist’s lost friend. The penguin meets two other penguins—one who sings and one who plays the horn (neither particularly well, but both loudly)—but neither is the friend that he met yesterday. He goes to a third character—but realizes too late that this is a polar bear, not a penguin at all, and definitely not the friend that he met yesterday. The polar bear is sorry for the penguin’s plight, but announces that he will eat the penguin now. The singing and the horn-playing penguins come to their new friend’s aid and stun the polar bear with their talents, causing him to drop the penguin protagonist. The penguin slides away and discovers his friend from yesterday! But let’s not tell him that his friend is only his reflection in the ice. The dancing penguin, the singing penguin, and the horn-playing penguin go off together wing-in-wing into the sunset. I did have one parent go wide-eyed at the polar bear’s casual announcement that he would now eat the protagonist, but the tone softens the blow, I think, enough to not frighten children—and anyway, our fairytales often include such threats.  “Waddle!  Waddle!  Belly slide!” is a lot of fun to repeat and read aloud.

***** 9780802738288

Penguin’s Big Adventure by Salina Yoon. Bloomsbury, 2015.

Yoon’s first, Penguin and Pinecone, delighted me, and I keep giving the series chances to live up to that high bar. Penguin decides to do something great, something no one else has done: He decides to become the first penguin to visit the North Pole. He sets off. His friends are doing wonderful things too. He visits old friends along the way (Pinecone and a crab from the beach). He reaches the North Pole, plants his flag, and celebrates, but he is not alone. A polar bear is there. Penguin has never seen a polar bear, and the polar bear has never seen a penguin, and both are afraid, but they smile awkwardly and both realize that neither is frightening and become friends. Penguin’s friends find him at the North Pole, having used their crafts to make a hot air balloon. Penguin says goodbye to the polar bear, and he leaves with his friends.

The inclusion of the friends’ craft-making seemed a little rough and unnecessary to me, but I suspect Yoon wanted to show that great things and new things need not be so extreme as crossing the globe and to be able to explain the hot air balloon at the end. Had the construction of the pieces of the hot air balloon have seemed with direction and intention rather than happening to come together at the end to make a balloon, I would have been more pleased. Or I could have suspended my disbelief long enough to do without an explanation for the balloon.

This is a timely book about seeing friends in people who look differently or unlike anyone that one has ever seen. I could have done with more time exploring Penguin and Polar Bear’s new friendship—though making new friends has already been explored in several other books of the series.
From the title, I expected more of an adventure, and more about the journey. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but it all seemed like a lot to put into a short book.

***

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