Newer Series & Writers
Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.
I enjoyed this story of a round pony who wants to be a unicorn so badly that she fashions herself a horn from a carrot and who pulls off the costume so well that she so startles a truck driver that he loses his load—of pink paint and glitter—all over Thelma. Thelma as the world’s living unicorn rockets to fame. And she enjoys it for a time. But her fans are everywhere and never leave her alone, and some people ridicule and hurt her. And she misses her friend, a donkey from her pasture. So she ditches the costume and returns to her life as a pony; her fans don’t recognize her without her costume. The ultimate lessons are that fame is not all its cracked up to be and that it is better to be yourself than to pretend to be someone else for fame and fortune. The rhyme works well here.
The Return of Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.
The world is sad because Thelma the Unicorn has disappeared. Otis (the donkey) convinces Thelma that the world needs her and the smiles that she brought to everyone. He offers to be her backup, to go with her on the road. “The world needs unicorns” (it’s okay to stand out) is an excellent message alongside “There’s nothing wrong with make-believe […] as long as you remember what you love and who you are.”
Pig the Tourist by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2020. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.
Pig is a terrible tourist. Of course he is. That’s the pattern of these stories. Pig is insensitive to anyone else’s feelings. Here he makes fun of locals, disregards and mocks traditions, destroys monuments, and graffitis a polar bear. All of which I found particularly difficult, more so than any of Pig’s many bad behaviors across these five books. Perhaps because his behaviors hurt humans in this or perhaps because his behaviors hurt so many more than just Trevor. Perhaps because the behaviors are (some of them) reproducible and offensive to living peoples and cultures—on a cultural rather than a personal scale. I am wary of putting ideas into minds even if the text makes clear that Pig’s behaviors are reprehensible. For the most part, he seems to get away with it all. He is chased in the African savanna. He is bit by piranhas when he ignores a “No Swimming” sign, but no apologies are given and no consequences seem felt in the many other countries that he visits. For me that’s neither enough comeuppance or repentance. I need Pig to grow.
Grumpy Monkey: Party Time! by Suzanne Lang and illustrated by Max Lang. Penguin Random, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.
Jim Panzee is back in the classic story of a character who says that he doesn’t or can’t dance being taught by his friends how to do and realizing that he has to find his own beat—only Jim’s beat, is no beat. Jim learns how to dance from his friends, and his friends are all impressed and want to dance with Jim at Porcupine’s party. But after so long dancing, Jim can’t take it anymore. He decides to leave the party rather than dance anymore. And that’s when he discovers that there is party food—lots of delicious party food that Porcupine needs help eating. So Jim and the other animals that he emboldens to admit their dislike of dancing stay at the party, and they eat, and they even play a few games, but they don’t dance. As another individual who has found that dancing is not one of my favorite activities, I always appreciate parties that make plain that not dancing is socially acceptable. For that alone, I can enjoy this book. I wonder if its message gets to its targets audience as much as it does to the fed-up adult readers who have been conditioned to think that events like weddings or even proms require dancing. More parties with board games is what I’m advocating. I still like the inclusion of some lesser-known creatures though I find it odd that only Norman the gorilla from next-door and Jim Panzee have names separate from their species.
Don’t Feed the Coos! by Jonathan Stutzman and illustrated by Heather Fox. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2020. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
I was recently reading about how what we imagine as pigeon poo is actually a visible sign of pigeons’ distress because they are not native animals that thrive in the environments where they now live but rather unemployed and released livestock that can survive but not thrive in places like cities. But that is not the story that this book is telling. This is about the nuisance of pigeons—coos the narrator calls them—and of their poos—yes, the unhealthy, white, runny ones. The protagonist, a girl with darker skin, feeds one coo, and becomes adopted by a flock of them who follow her everywhere, much to the chagrin of… everyone. But after lamenting for several pages and trying to get the coos to leave, she accepts her fate. She makes the coos scarves and names them and leashes them to take them on walks through the park. And it is there that she finally finds a way to ditch her coos. The narrator is an unseen character who warns the protagonist, then narrates her through her trial, and then compliments her on discovering a way out of her dilemma. The joy of this book seems to be in the adorableness of both the name “coos” and the bulbous birds themselves as well as the emotive protagonist.
How to Catch a Dragon by Adam Wallace and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Wonderland-Sourcebooks, 2019.
This book from Wallace’s series celebrates Chinese New Year. This one is narrated not by the creature that is being hunted but by one of the hunters, a Chinese boy. His mother mentions that their celebration lacks a dragon to bring them health and fortune. And so the hunt begins. The town’s children are diverse though the setting seems like a very traditionally built Chinese town. China is one part of the world that I have yet to visit, so I can’t speak knowledgeably as to whether this architecture might be typically found in a city today, but something about it feels more like a UNESCO site than what I would expect to find on visiting the country. The children use some of the trappings of the holiday to try to capture the dragon—from noodles to a red envelope of gold coins, to drums and a dragon dance, but little to no explanation is given about the significance of these trappings to the holiday, why they might be on display or used or eaten during the celebration. The story ends after the children’s failure to capture the dragon with the boy returning to his mother, dejected, bringing her only a small, toy dragon, but she hugs him and tells him that he is her favorite dragon. The boy realizes that he is lucky to be with his family (a mother and grandmother). This has been by far the sweetest of the series that I have read. Wallace and Elkerton have included words in Chinese (both in phonetic English and in Chinese characters), some translated and some not. One Goodreads reviewer, Laura, notes that the English words highlighted in the text are displayed as Chinese characters somewhere in the illustrations on that page, and I will take her word for it, but as she points out, it is nowhere noted in the book that this is the case so the lesson falls by unlearned. I’m almost tempted to give this book another half point for feeling like more of a story with a beginning, middle, and end than many of the series, but that’s comparing it to the rest of its series and not to the world of books out there. The intentions for instruction seem good, but the framing seems strikingly Western and the lessons poorly explained.
Old Favorites Revisted
Five Little Ducks by Raffi Cavoukian and illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey. Penguin Random, 1999. Intended audience: Ages 0-3. Originally published 1988.
I grew up on Raffi. I never knew that Raffi had a last name, that Raffi wasn’t his last name, and that seems silly now. I never knew that Raffi was born in Egypt to Armenian parents before immigrating to Canada. I never knew he was Canadian.
I was impressed by the distressed emotion that the Aruego and Dewey were able to impart to the mother duck in their illustrations. The illustration of Mother Duck searching for her ducklings sans text as the seasons pass her was touching. I can’t possibly rate this text. This was a song for which I didn’t even have to look up the tune before the story time. I can rate the illustrations. And I rate them
Pete the Cat: Five Little Ducks by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
This is a spin-off of Raffi’s iconic children’s song “Five Little Ducks,” and it was a cleverer spin-off than I expected it to be. There was more variation in this text than there is in the song lyrics. Pete finds the ducklings and tempts them to play with him, but he tempts fewer and fewer ducklings as the ducklings get distracted. Mother Duck is absent. In the end all five ducklings return to play with Pete. The ducklings are differentiated by different articles of clothing that they wear, including a pair of red shoes that recall Pete’s in I Love My White Shoes.
Cultural Treats (I Saved the Best for Last)
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Malliard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.
Each page of text begins with “Fry bread is” and goes on to describe the bread in real and abstract ways, painting a remarkably clear and emotive image of this (for me) unfamiliar bread. The cast of characters who make the bread are diverse though the eldest does appear to be Native American. I appreciate that one of the adults—an adult woman—is tattooed too; that is rare in picture books. It is a story of unity and a story of unique identity too. A recipe is included in the back along with extensive notes on Native American culture, fry bread itself, and history. Fry Bread won the 2020 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award for most distinguished informational book for children as well as picking up an honor for 2020’s American Indian Youth Literature Picture Book. The text is just absolutely beautiful, and I fully recommend giving it a read.
Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang and illustrated by Charlene Chua. Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
This book I read for the Chinese New Year, but it isn’t so interested in informing the outsider about the holiday as it is about celebrating in a universal way the tradition—and can be read any time of the year (it’s not explicitly for any holiday!). Amy and her family make bao together, but she struggles to get her bao right. Until Amy realizes that the bao is cut for adult hands and not Amy’s small hands. So Amy asks her grandma to cut the dough for her—and Amy becomes a bao-making master! Each is perfect! Once they are all cooked, Amy enjoys the bao she has made. And the not-so-perfect bao taste just as good as the perfect ones. Amy’s insight and practical solutions, her acceptance of the less-than-perfect in shape, the inclusion of her adorable white kitten, all culminate to make this an utterly delightful and wholesome and precious read. Included is a recipe too!
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.