Tag Archives: secular

Book Reviews: December Picture Book Roundup

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As with November, several of these are books from story hours.  A lot are now on clearance at Barnes & Noble, being books we sell only for the Christmas season.

A Christmas Carol: A BabyLit Colors Primer by Jennifer Adams and illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2012.

Adams’ adaptation is a decent introduction to the characters of Dickens’ novel but does little to adapt the plot.  It also introduces more unusual colors.  There are few books that introduce children to “silver,” so I suppose it’s good to have some variation from other available primers; this along with BabyLit’s adaptation of literary classics sets Adam’s A Christmas Carol apart.

***

Bubble’s in Trouble! by Ag Jatkowska.  Caterpillar-Little Tiger, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is a book I’d laud much more for its construction than its plot.  It features a spinner-like Bubble the Blowfish on its final page.  Bubble can be moved on each page.  Bubble gets caught in a porthole (a hole left in the pages of the book to show the Bubble of the final page) of a sunken ship.  Various sea creatures come along and suggest that he try to escape in the way that they would.  These means do not work for Bubble.  Only a sneeze works to free Bubble.  I would have preferred if Bubble had somehow been able to escape in a way that was especially specific to blowfish or if Jatkowski had somehow made it seem as if the sneeze was something unique to blowfish.  Then the lesson could have been said to be that one must use one’s own particular talents instead of deferring to the advice of others in problem-solving.  As it is, the story is cute enough, the text rhymes, and the moveable book is interactive.  It should be said too that this was a book that came to my attention because the rotating Bubbles that peeps through each page had been torn off.  I don’t know what the book’s history on the shelf had been.  Maybe it was maliciously torn off, but the fact remains that it had been damaged.

**1/2

My First Batman Book: Touch and Feel by David Katz.  Downtown, 2011.  Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

The main draw of this book is Batman—for both parents, kids, and gift-givers.  It introduces kids to the character, to the main gadgets, and to the idea; the text itself is not particularly imaginative.  The moveable pieces are of a more unique nature than most interactive books, however, including moving a cardboard Batman along a Batrope and turning off the lights to see the Bat-Signal glow in the dark.  The final phrase “Who’s Batman’s little helper?” with a mirror face in Robin’s costume seems dare I say saccharine (not to mention patronizing to Robin)?  This book too, it should again be mentioned, was brought to my attention by a customer who would have bought it perhaps except that a cardboard piece depicting Batman and Robin in the Batmobile had been torn from the book.  Again, I don’t know how long it had sat on the shelf or what torments the book had endured, but it did not survive to find a happy home.

**1/2

A Very Crabby Christmas by Tish Rabe and illustrated by Dave Aikins.  Inspired by Dr. Seuss.  Golden-Random, 2012.

This was a request from one of my attendees to the How the Grinch Stole Christmas! story hour.  I don’t know that he’d heard the story before and had to leave midway through it, but I finished it for anyone who was still listening while coloring.  When did the Cat in the Hat become a helpful creature instead of a creature of chaos?  This is not the Cat that I remember from my childhood.  I believe it happened when PBS gave him his own cartoon show, but perhaps the change was sooner, and I missed it.  In this tale, the Cat and his human friends, Sally and Nick, have been invited to a Crab Christmas Ball on the beach.  The festivities are interrupted when one of the crabs goes missing, and the Cat, Sally, and Nick, find the missing crab and are the celebrated heroes of the tale.  But there’s no suspense, and there’s very little plot.  There’s no real explanation of the crab’s festivities, and there’s no real description of the search for or panic of discovering that Sandy is missing.  I missed all that.  I suppose it is pleasant to have a Christmas book that doesn’t involve a usual Christmas celebration and one that excludes snow or any winter theme.

**1/2

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss.  Random, 1957.

This was a story hour read aloud.

Dr. Seuss is always a classic.  It’s hard for me to really qualify How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (or any Seuss book).  The lesson that “Maybe Christmas […] doesn’t come from a store.  Maybe Christmas perhaps… means a little bit more” is still a fantastic and very pertinent lesson today.

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The Polar Express by Chris van Allsburg.  Houghton Mifflin, 1985.  Intended audience: Grades K-3 (Ages 4-8).

This is becoming a new classic, and like How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, it now has its own film adaptation.  The story itself is not one that thrills me.  I like Chris van Allsburg, but I don’t consider this his best—or anywhere near his best.  Even the illustrations are not as amazing as I’d hoped that they would be, especially for a Caldecott winner.

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That’s Not My Train by Fiona Watt and illustrated by Rachel Wells.  Usborne, 2008.  First published 2000.  Intended audience: Ages 6 months+

There are a lot of books in this touch-and-feel series.  Pick a noun, tack it on the end of the phrase, and there’s probably a book or there will be soon.  Of them, I’ve otherwise read That’s Not My Elephant, which I preferred to That’s Not My Train, but maybe that’s because I’m more interested in elephants than trains?  For a boy in love with trains, this book would probably be amazing.  That’s Not My Train does use a number of interesting textures.

**1/2

An Elephant and Piggie Book: Pigs Make Me Sneeze! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In a very usual childlike idea, Elephant Gerald sneezes while Piggie is nearby and decides that he must be allergic to Piggie, and he is terrified and terribly distraught.  He sees a cat doctor, sneezes near the cat, and decides he must be allergic to cats too.  The doctor tells Elephant Gerald that he is not allergic to cats or pigs; he has a cold, and Elephant Gerald rejoices.  He runs to tell Piggie the good news and finds Piggie sitting in a pile of tissues.

****

Book Reviews: November Picture Book Roundup

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Most of this month’s picture books came into my hands for one story hour or another that I was expected to lead.

The Elf on the Shelf by Carol V. Aebersold and Chanda A. Bell.  Illustrated by Coë Steinwart.  CCA and B, 2007.

Let’s start with a little too early yet Christmas spirit.  This was a required book to be read for a particular story hour.  I found out about The Elf on the Shelf tradition last year when I joined the retail world for the holiday season.  I had never actually read the book, but the concept to me is more creepy than not.  The elf watches children during the holiday season and reports their deeds nightly to Santa.  The elf is known to leave the house because he is found in a different location or position each morning.  Some parents seem to use the elf as another pair of eyes to watch the children for good and behavior, and some parents have reported that the elf being in the house does affect the children’s behavior.  Some use the elf as a hide-and-seek game.  The book itself explains the game and the idea to kids in a rhyming fashion.  The writing itself I found honestly mediocre, but was pleasantly surprised by the rhyme.  It’s a quick read, and the children seemed engaged, though our turnout was small.  Half of the listeners were above the intended age for the reading or the book and while they were engaged they also poked some fun at the holes in the concept.  Parents should be warned that the elf does ask good boys and girls to say their prayers in case there are any who might find that offensive, though this book otherwise stays within the now secular traditions of Christmas.

**1/2

Barnyard Dance Lap Book by Sandra Boynton.  Workman, 2011.

Sandra Boynton is extremely popular, and though I’ve read only a few of her books, I’ve been pleased with all of them.  This classic of hers seemed a safe bet for a story hour, and it was a big hit.  The kids had been surprisingly riled by a reading of Mo Willems I’m a Frog! (see below), and at this point I went with it, and asked the audience to just join me in dancing, though I had surprisingly little audience participation for this one.  The book aloud actually reads like a square dance call.  It was a very quick read.  Too quick maybe, I wanted to flip it over and start again, and see if I couldn’t coax some of the kids to do-si-do with me.  But then, how does one, in an average setting for a read aloud or read alone “bow to the horse” or “stand with the donkey”?

****

Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter.  Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2013.

Like Hervé Tullet’s Press Here, the book shows a button, gives instructions, and demands interaction because the text implies that the illustration on the next page has been influenced by the actions done to the button on the previous page.  In retrospect, for the larger group that I had, this was not the story hour book to choose, because when, for example, in Don’t Push the Button, it says to press the button twice, having an audience of ten, none of whom wanted to be left out or passed over, the button was pushed really twenty times before its change was effected.  It was, though, a fun read aloud book and enjoyable to interact with and would be great for one-on-one read alouds (bedtime stories).  Structurally, I prefer Don’t Push the Button over Press Here because Don’t Push the Button gives readers a character to follow and with whom to sympathize.  Because the button affects him and not just the page, it seems more of a problem when unlikely things happen because the button is pressed.  In Don’t Push the Button, however, the effects of pushing the button are consequences of rule breaking where in Press Here the effects are caused by following instructions.  Readers of Don’t Push the Button are following the instructions of the monstrous protagonist, but it’s more like giving in to peer pressure than following directions—and I suppose that is a demerit in the pro/con battle between the two.  Regardless of which is better composed, all these poor books will go to an early grave from being prodded and shaken….

***1/2

The Meaning of Life by Bradley Trevor Greive.  Andrews McMeel, 2002.

Whoops.  This one’s not for kids.  But it is a picture book.  Barnes & Noble classifies it as a “gift book,” but it is still by technical definition a picture book, a book with pictures that enhance the text but are not necessarily integral to the text (versus a picture storybook in which the pictures are integral.  I consider that a subgenre of picture books, and many of the books in these roundups headed as “picture books” are actually “picture storybooks” (practically anything by Mo Willems, for example.))  Like all Bradley Trevor Greive books, The Meaning of Life features philosophical ponderings with a quirky, adult humor, topped with black-and-white photographs of animals.  This book asks a lot of questions about human existence and to the readers directly.  It suggests that the love of life is where our focus should be, and asks readers to think about what they are truly passionate about, and encourages them to chase that.  His are, again, books that I enjoy giving out as gifts.  They are enjoyable by most personalities, always fun, almost always leave me with a smile on my face, and good to share.

*****

The Turkey Train by Steve Metzger and illustrated by Jim Paillot.  Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2013. Intended audience: Grades 3-5 (ages 8-12).

I thought this would be a Thanksgiving themed book.  It’s promotionally shelved as a Thanksgiving book.  It is not.  It is about turkeys taking a day trip to a ski resort in Maine.  The turkeys amuse themselves and partake of the provided entertainment on the train then revel in winter sports and activities once they arrive in Maine.  It was a fun read aloud because it was very musically written with a solid rhyme scheme—up until the end when the rhyme scheme breaks, signaling the coming end of the book, a clever device.  The illustrations are colorful and clever with a few puns to amuse the adults (Fowl Play).  I puzzle how a train can travel from Fort Wayne (presumably Indiana?) to Maine in a day and back.  If I were reading the book as an editor, I’d call a logic foul, but I understand not having questioned it for the sake of the rhymes, and because the intended audience is not likely to do so.

****

Hello, Virginia! by Candice Ransom and illustrated by David Walker.  Sterling, 2010.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Candice Ransom is a professor at my alma mater, so yes, I’m likely to be a bit biased.  Hello, Virginia—and I would guess all the Hello, America! books—reads a great deal like one of the Good Night Our World series.  Which series began first I cannot say.  I read Good Night Connecticut before Hello, Virginia! thinking from its title that it would be a Goodnight Moon parody, and so it is Ransom’s book that reminds me of Vrba’s rather than the other way around.  The plot of neither is thrilling.  The plots essentially say hello or goodnight to various sights around each state.  Neither series gives much information about the sights so I would not use either as a teaching tool really.  The books may serve to remind adults about the things that they remember and miss about a state.  I can see a young child exclaiming “We were there!” when a familiar, particular location is illustrated (for example not over the stone walls of Connecticut, but perhaps over the Mystic Aquarium).  Overall, I cannot rate either book highly.

I do appreciate the Hello, America! series’ proper use of grammar in its titles.

***

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I’m a Frog! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion, 2013.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

This Elephant and Piggie book was a book that I did not expect to be interactive, but the children in my story hour disagreed.  Piggie was pretending to be a frog, and they all wanted to pretend to be frogs too, ribbeting and hopping around the stage.  I don’t know that I’d ever before read a Mo Willems book aloud.  I was inserting dialogue tags now and again, but it was also impossible to read without at least differentiating the two characters by inflection.  This was a good lesson: one about pretending, that you can pretend, that we can use our imagination, that even adults pretend.  Now of course, you could take the negative view that learning to pretend to be something that you’re not is a bad thing (teens+, see the movie Easy A), but you can also pretend to be unafraid, pretend to be a parent to a doll to learn empathy and responsibility, or pretend to be a frog.  I love Mo Willems’ humor, I’ve said before, I love the strength of his characters, and I love the twist that he puts into the end of this book.

*****