I read just a ton of picture books this July—24 to be exact—21 of those new to me or not yet reviewed on this blog. I’m not going to subject you to a blog post that is 21 reviews long; I don’t want to read that in one sitting, and probably neither do you—and frankly, I just haven’t finished reviewing all 21, even though we are now into the second week of August. So, please, peruse part 1:
What three word phrase is perhaps the most memorable of the whole of Finding Nemo? “Just keep swimming.” So of course, those are the three little words of the title. This book is a book of advice on how to approach life, including “just keep swimming,” “look both ways” at a crossroads, and “if you ever lose your way just call out to your friends.” “When life gets you down do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do?” The illustrations in this are some of the best of book that I’ve seen come out in conjunction with the Finding Dory film. They are soft, gentle, seemingly watercolors (Kelly Knox reveals the pictures are actually made in Adobe Photoshop—wow!), and if I was unfamiliar with the films and the characters, I might suspect that this was an ordinary picture book—unaffiliated with any franchise. They look like they belong in a bedtime book. This is by far the book on the display of Finding Dory tie-ins to which I am most drawn. As a book of life advice, the text passes, but there’s really no story, so I’m going to mostly gloss over that—other than to say that I might try to get it back in as an alternate to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! next graduation season as I think its message is similar. This book went over far better at story time than did Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, being both shorter and less dark. Especially with the younger graduates (those moving up from preschool to elementary or elementary to middle school) I think it will find more resonance and love than does Seuss.
Finding Dory Big Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.
These two Golden Books are retellings of the plot of the film Finding Dory. The Little Golden Book as its name suggests is a shorter, smaller book, with less detail. Otherwise the two books are very similar. I was prepared to read the shorter of the books for story time, but the Big Golden Book actually held the attention too of my audience, which ranged in ages from I would guess five up. (Now, they were all there for a Dory-themed party, so they were, it must be said, prepared for the story—and in many cases, already knew the story. I was interrupted by many comments about their favorite characters and the details that they remembered that were not covered in the book.)
Big World Problems
Based on a story that he heard about a New Orleans street sweeper and on his later research into the man—which included correspondence with his mother—Phil Bildner attributes a folk hero quality to this recently departed man. Cornelius—the person and the character—wowed New Orleans citizens with his performances—tricks and dances accompanying his work as a garbage man. In the story, when Hurricane Katrina floods the city, it leaves behind piles of garbage as tall as church steeples, and Cornelius is at first overwhelmed but—to ironically borrow the British motto—he kept calm and carried on. He did his job, and others pitched in because he had brought them joy in the past and because they too loved their city. Even people from far away came to help Cornelius clean up New Orleans. Cornelius’ spirit lives on in New Orleans. I appreciate the glorification of this person: a working class African American man with a hoop earring and a job that is often seen as the lowest of low class. We need more books with heroes like this. Please. This month Phil Bildner was honored for this book with one of the first ever Margaret Wise Brown Prizes in Children’s Literature, a prize recognizing the best text in a children’s book published the previous year chosen from nominations by children’s book publishers.
Conveying an activist message like that of Seuss’ The Lorax, this book follows a beautifully illustrated black cat and a blue butterfly who wander from the house that Jack built to the next valley over where a rainbow-colored stream cuts through a dead meadow and flows past the place where the trees used to grow by the factory that Jack built. Jack is the villain here, living in beauty while creating horror and environmental terror. The text reverses itself, building from the house out to the valley then from the valley to the factory. There is repetition, but enough to seem lyrical more than annoying; there’s a camp song quality to the style for me because it reminds me of the bird in the egg in the nest on the branch on the tree with the roots in the hole and the hole in the ground and the green grass that grows all around. This story does a lot in and with just a little—and the illustrations are just stunning. The message—conveyed almost completely through the illustrations—is more simplified even than it is in The Lorax though, and it’s not as simple an issue as this book would make it seem, I don’t think. From the story itself, the evidence seems clear: factories bad. But a well-managed factory can do a great deal of a good for a community—and even a poorly managed might do some good for the community even if its short-sighted policies cause more harm than good ultimately.
First of all, I did a little digging on Cali, and I have to insert just this tidbit: The Italian-born Swiss who now lives in France has written many books in many languages: Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. Just… wow. He also writes under the names Taro Miyazawa and Daikon. With simple drawings with lots of white space, Cali and Bloch tell the story of two soldiers (we will call them the soldier and the enemy) in trench warfare. The soldier that is the POV character has never seen his enemy but believes that the enemy is inhuman and will butcher the soldier’s family and animals if the enemy is not killed. The soldier wants the war to end. He is tired and miserable and doesn’t like the rain, but he doesn’t believe that the war can end till the enemy is dead because the enemy is not a rational human, and he will not stop. One night the soldier sneaks into the enemy’s trench—which he finds abandoned (the enemy has slipped out disguised as a lion), but there are photographs of the enemy’s family and a manual that says that he—the POV soldier—is inhuman as he believes his enemy to be. The soldier believes that his enemy must have done as the soldier has done and that the enemy now occupies the soldier’s trench, so he stays in the enemy’s trench. At last he decides he must do something to end the war, and he writes a message to the enemy and lobs it in a bottle towards his trench. The story ends there. It does not show how the enemy—if the enemy actually is in the soldier’s trench—responds or how the soldier responds to his enemy’s silence if as I suspect the enemy is not there but has deserted the war already. This is subtitled “A Book About Peace,” but peace is never achieved within the story. This book well illustrates the mentality of war, the way that wars must be fought, how an enemy must be created in order to have war, how an enemy is too often created, dehumanized in order to “justify” a war and how much that dehumanized enemy is as much a false face as a lion skin concealing a human.
Milk is confident, sure that she is special—la crème de la crème as her dad says—but her new classmates see her as spoiled. This book is full of puns—puns everywhere—in the text and in the illustrations themselves. The refrain of “spoiled” gets tired pretty quickly and for the most part it seemed to me that Milk’s behavior was wrongly classified as spoiled by a bullying Waffle—who does not waffle at all from his opinion of Milk—established because she says that her glittery backpack was given to her by her father who says that she’s “la crème de la crème.” How is that spoiled? I want to applaud Milk with her high self-esteem and detest Waffle for bullying her, but I’m not sure that my opinion is shared by Border. At the end of the book, Milk does see herself as somewhat spoilt, and she wants to change. Her classmates only change their opinion of Milk and begin to see her previous kindnesses after she has been tripped and has spilt herself and is crying. They help to put her back into her carton and treat her with more kindness, but I don’t see a genuine change from them, and tears and blood/milk shouldn’t have been necessary to curb their bullying. I liked—maybe even loved—Peanut Butter and Cupcake. I’m not sure I can like this one because I see it as portraying a negative, almost dangerous moral that I think was unintended. This is illustrated as Terry Border’s other books with photographed food with arms and legs of paperclip wire. The kids I read this too were an observant bunch. They were the ones who pointed out that Milk wears a different hair bow in each illustration; it gave them something to look for.
Duck has a new friend. Thistle is fast. She’s athletic. She’s good at math. Duck is very impressed. Goose tries to keep up, but Thistle keeps beating him in every contest that she starts. Goose doesn’t like to be made to feel like a loser. He’s tired, and he misses Duck, but Duck doesn’t seem to need him, so he slips away. Eventually, Duck misses Goose, and he goes looking for him despite Thistle’s disparagement of his friend. He finds Goose in one of their favorite spots. Goose admits to Duck that he’s tired and that Thistle makes him feel badly about himself. Duck admits that he’s getting annoyed by Thistle too. Thistle follows. The two friends trick Thistle into showing off as the world’s best napper and go off to play by themselves. That ending didn’t sit all that well with me; what the two friends do to Thistle is not very friendly nor is it at all likely to solve their problem long-term or help Thistle at all. I wanted the story to say that it is all right to have more than one friend; instead, it was sort of a lesson on how to ditch annoying show-offs. What? The beginning did some nice character set up with Goose sanding very still in order not to scare off a butterfly had landed on him and which he wanted to show Duck, but that set-up went on just a bit too long with the introduction of the bluebird and the discussion of which way was west. Reading the first pages, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, how long exactly this book was going to be and how long I could expect my audience to tolerate it.
Liking the You in the Mirror
A frog decides he’d rather be anything but, and his father calmly explains that he can’t be anything but a frog because that’s the way the world works. It takes a wolf coming along saying that he will eat anything but frogs because they are slimy and gross to convince the frog that being a frog is not so bad. What is this picture book? This is not what I was expecting. This teaches that you should be glad that you’re slimy and gross and that you can’t be anything but what you are born and it has the darkness of a villain that comes along to threaten to kill the protagonist. The awful thing is that I pulled it off the shelf, lured by its funny title and cute cover and echoes of Mo Willems’ much better and more wholesome I’m A Frog! and didn’t remember till halfway through the book that I’d already rejected this once as a story time read. Well, I’ve read it through all the way now. I can set it aside and not pick it up again, right? Goodreads reviewers are lauding this as a book about self-acceptance, and yes, self-acceptance can be good in certain circumstances, but I don’t like the presentation here nor that self-acceptance comes about because others are more likely to be killed by a predator; that to me is just not a good message and echoes too closely on too many hot-button, personal issues.
Ellie’s zoo is closing, and the animals are helping the zookeeper “spruce [the zoo] up a bit” in an attempt to save their home. Everyone seems to have something that they can do–everyone except the tiny elephant, Ellie. But the zookeeper leaves Ellie alone for a moment with a paintbrush, and she discovers a new talent—one that the zookeeper quickly encourages, and one that saves the zoo—albeit the zoo is now a gallery for Ellie’s artworks as well as the animals’ home. I warned the child that I had at story time that this story started sad but ended happily. He didn’t much like it, but I did. I know at times that I feel useless, and it’s good to be reminded that everyone has something they can do, that maybe I just haven’t yet found my talent or passion. I had fun with the illustrations, particularly the talented Ellie recreating the “Mona Lisa.” I like the brightness of Ellie’s artworks after the muted colors of the opening pages when the characters are sad.
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.