Tag Archives: Steve Smallman

Book Reviews: July 2014 Picture Book Roundup

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First a quick acknowledgement: The first picture book roundup was posted July 1, 2013.  I have officially been doing this for over a year now; I just hadn’t realized it.  Since I’ve realized it, you might notice a small detail added to the title of this post.  I guess it’s time to start distinguishing by year as well as month.

Also, I ought to apologize.  This month’s is awfully late.  But never mind.  Here it is at last.

Waldo the Jumping Dragon

Waldo, The Jumping Dragon by Dave Detiege and illustrated by Kelly Oechsli. Whitman-Western, 1964.

This one I found in an antiques mall, drawn to it by the dragon on the cover. Waldo is a careless dragon who doesn’t look where he’s going, and because the characters warn the dragon that that heedlessness will get him into trouble, I’m tempted to think of this as a didactic story. He runs into a knight—literally—and the knight decides that he must slay the dragon. The knight chases him, eventually catching hold of the dragon’s neck after the dragon frightens a king and a queen. Waldo, however, just continues to jump from place to place with the knight clinging to him, until he runs into a tree, dislodging the knight, who runs away from the reckless dragon, deciding that he is too dangerous. But before dislodging the knight, Waldo admits that he is a lonely dragon, so his recklessness leads not only to danger for himself and others but also a lack of friends, making it truly unenviable to a young audience. Because he isn’t watching where he is going, Waldo breaks the 4th wall and jumps off of the page. I’ve always been a fan of books that break the 4th wall and acknowledge themselves a book. 

****

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Touch the Red Button by Alex A. Lluch. WS, 2014.

Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has spawned several copycats, including this book and Bill Cotter’s Don’t Press the Button. (There are more copycats than I’d realized. Here’s an online version intended for an older audience.) These books ask readers to interact with the illustrations, and the illustrations reflect the readers’ assumed interaction. It’s a pretty fun concept, and though I recognized pretty quickly that Lluch’s book was a Press Here copycat, I still read it all the way through, then held it out to a coworker for him to play with too. This more than any of the other books I’ve found—including the original—is more complimentary, praising the reader for following directions. But it’s also less original than Cotter’s book.

These will never be good story hour books but will always be good bedtime books. They’re educational. The interactive model makes them books of play for kids and adults too. The novelty of the concept is starting to wear off, but I think that the interactive and playful nature of the books will ensure that they keep selling.

***

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Can You Say It, Too? Moo! Moo! by Sebastien Braun. Nosy Crow-Candlewick-Random, 2014.

This flap book shows hints of the animal behind the flap. It is peppered with animal sounds paired the animal’s name. It’s actually been pretty highly praised, but I found nothing in it to disappoint and nothing in it to blow me away.

***

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Dragon Stew by Steve Smallman and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Good Books, 2010.

Now Smallman seems about as enthusiastic about dragons I am, and I understand that Vikings and dragons have a long history, but there are so many echoes of Cowell and of DreamWorks here that it seems nothing so much as a leech to the How To Train Your Dragon franchise’s fame (the movie was released about six months prior to Dragon Stew’s release). In Cowell the bathroom humor of middle-grade boys is age-appropriate. In a children’s picture book, it seems grotesque (though I do recognize that my disgust is also mixed with my outrage at the book so blatantly coasting on Cowell’s success without acknowledging it). For an older audience, I’d love it, and maybe for, say, ages 7-8 (ages which are within the realm of picture book marketing), it would be great. It’s an exciting adventure about bored Vikings who decide to go and hunt a dragon for their stew without knowing what a dragon looks like, battle their way past sea monsters, eat all of their teatime sardine sandwiches, land on a dragon’s island with the help of a killer whale, examine a pile of dragon poo, and then are confronted with the dragon itself, who rather than allowing himself to be chopped up for stew, sets their bums alight. It might be a delightful picture book, but it’s not one I’m likely to read to my children while they are young enough and incompetent enough readers for picture books—and by the time they’re ready for it, I hope we’ll be reading chapter books.

**

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The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.

A wordless picture book! A wordless picture book from the ‘70s! So it’s a much older concept than I’d thought. I stumbled across this book in a local used bookstore. I was at first attracted by the title and then because the illustrations reminded me Wesley Dennis’ artwork. Dennis illustrated all of Marguerite Henry’s books, so the style was familiar and warm as a childhood security blanket. When I realized after several pages that no text was forthcoming, I became more intellectually interested.

In this tale, a farm boy with his head in the clouds spies a Pegasus. The boy tries to tell his father, but his father doesn’t believe his wild tales, and the boy’s punishment for his perceived tale-telling is a spanking. The boy sees the Pegasus again, however, and this time befriends it rather than fleeing to tell his father. Once friends, he and the Pegasus travel the world, helping other children, delivering sunflowers to young, lonely girls—acts of kindness and bravery and chivalry, sure, but I can’t really cheer the depiction of children of other ethnicities and cultures, as they are shown to need the help or love of the superior white man and his flying horse. (I’m a product, aren’t I, of my generation, as much as this book is of its time?)

[SPOILER] Like so many good horse stories, the boy is hurt riding, and he thinks that he has lost the horse. The injury softens the father. The book ends with the boy receiving a pony who is the doppelganger for his lost Pegasus as a gift from his previously hard father. [END SPOILER]

But aside from that, these illustrations are pretty beautiful, particularly the landscape and animals. I could hope for a little more emotion from the human characters but not from the animals. The format delights me. There’s room for creativity but enough to have—I think—a fairly similar story and enough illustrations to make the story coherent as well so that it is a feat of storytelling in picture format.

****1/2

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Book Reviews: March Picture Book Roundup: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bathtub?

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I read only a very few picture books in March, but as I’ve promised short reviews for all of the picture books that I do read:

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

Too Hot to Hug! by Steve Smallman and illustrated by Cee Biscoe. Sandy Creek-Sterling, 2013. First published 2010.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is a book that I first spotted in a clearance bin at Barnes & Noble. That store sold out of its copies of the book before I brought one up to a register. When on vacation I discovered it accidentally in the bargain section of another Barnes & Noble, I snatched a copy and brought it to the register right away, even though it wasn’t clearance priced. I admit that I judged its worth almost solely on its cover when considering its purchase. Cee Biscoe’s illustrations are whimsically adorable. I’m intrigued by what the illustrations here do for the story. Biscoe’s illustrations evoke a more modern setting than I would have, I think, otherwise pictured for this text, and I like that. It introduces the idea of dragons still existing the wilds of the world. The more modern setting paired with the family’s desperate need for firewood that must be collected by young boys in a snowstorm suggests to me too a family of a lower socioeconomic bracket, though for that, they do not seem to be terribly ill off given the several books that the family reads throughout the story or the toast rack that seems such a frivolity to me in any socioeconomic bracket, though they seem to live without electricity, possess only a few clothes, and wash in a metal tub. The text by Smallman is delightful enough too with some wonderful similes that offer a sense of place and character to the text and many an onomatopoeia. His text tells of a young dragon scared of the water, who learns that the water is not only innocuous but that by bathing he is made more lovable to the family that adopts him and cannot stand the touch of his unwashed and too hot flesh. There may be a lesson there for the child unwilling to take a bath or afraid to learn to swim. More likely, though, the child will relate better to Ryan, the young boy who finds the dragon’s egg and brings it home. The dragon, Crumpet, is not particularly anthropomorphized, being given more the qualities of a dog than a human. Ryan’s is a story of wanting to keep a troublesome pet and discovering some way to make that pet more palatable to his family. That may be a relatable tale too, though one that I personally and thankfully have not experienced.

***1/2

Click to visit the author's site for links to order, summary, sample page, and video interview with Pigeon.

The Pigeon Needs a Bath! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is the latest of the Pigeon books by Mo Willems. I had the chance to read this and several of the other Pigeon books that I’ve already reviewed here to a group of children for a story hour. Willems books are wonderful to read aloud, the dialogue that composes the stories being wonderfully expressive and between it and the illustrations the tone and inflections that Willems desires being wonderfully clear. Being unable yet to give distinct voices to each character, I find myself still adding the occasional dialogue tag or description of the characters’ actions that doesn’t appear in the text. Willems’ books are interesting in that, through those additions, the books could easily be tailored to the audience and situation. I love Willems books for the accuracy of his characters’ voices, mimicking lines and tones that I’ve heard from children on many occasions before. The Pigeon Needs a Bath! is not excluded from this praise. Pigeon doesn’t wasn’t to bathe. He doesn’t believe that he needs to. In talking with a parent after the story hour, we discussed the intended age for the books, which does tend towards the elder level of picture book readers. These books are marketed for ages 3-5 (I would actually argue that this like Elephant and Piggie ought to be marketed for ages 4-8) and appeal strongly to the parents. The Pigeon and Willems don’t apologize for an occasional large and nuanced word. I cannot remember what word was the trigger for that particular comment. It might have been “considered;” it might have been “coincidental;” then there are phrases like “That is a matter of opinion.”

****