Next Month’s Holidays:
February 2: Groundhog’s Day
This is a book that won’t come out of its hole but once a year—and that’s sort of shame. It’s a clever, funny little book, about a groundhog who feels underappreciated so he leaves on an unplanned vacation right before his big day, leaving the town in a lurch and holding auditions for someone to replace him. He just wants the media to ask him about something other than the weather—really, he wants to be asked about himself, the personal questions, like what movies he likes and how he likes his pizza. There’s an African American female mayor and the potential for a sequel as the groundhog runs away with the Easter Bunny at the end. This is though I think the sort of picture book that gets a larger laugh from adults than it does from the kids.
Groundhog can never please everyone with his annual weather report. His friends think that they can change his report by currying favor with groundhog. After several attempts to explain that he does not control the weather, he only reports it—all of which are ignored—Groundhog, enjoying the place on the baseball team and the homemade pies, lets his friends think that he will be able to please them all—even when their desires conflict. As the next Groundhog’s Day approaches, Groundhog realizes that he will upset people no matter what he says—he simply cannot please everyone—and he worries that he will lose the friends whom he disappoints. He decides to be honest, to tell them that he’s sorry that he let them think that he could fix the weather for them, but that he liked being liked. I liked that though this too is a book firmly affixed to a minor holiday, the lesson is universal and applicable anytime: though the attention from making false promises may feel good for a while, it’ll eventually sour; also, you should not bring gifts or do favors for a friend because you want him to do something for you, but rather should like him for who he is. The overly flirtatious female hare is an interesting character to include in a children’s book.
Next Month’s Holidays:
February 14: Let Me Count the Ways
This was a surprisingly everyday board book. I worried it would be too Valentine’s to be read anytime, but the story instead asks, “Where’s the love, Biscuit?” and love is found in a soft blanket, in baking cookies, in a knitted sweater. There are touch-and-feel elements on many if not all of the pages. There’s not a lot of story, really, but these were surprisingly refreshing examples on love—especially as it was on display with all of the Valentine’s Day books.
This is another book made by hijacking Eric Carle’s works and piecing them together. But unlike the Favorite Words series, this one has… sentences. Sappy text like “you are the cherry to my cake” is accompanied by the caterpillar on the cherry atop a cake and “you make my heart flutter” by the caterpillar as a butterfly and “you are the bee’s knees” by a swarm of friendly bees. It’s a sweet book to read to a beloved child or maybe to give to a sweetheart, but there’s not a lot of substance there, and I really do feel a little queasy over these Frankensteined books made from Carle’s illustrations.
This book features a pretty cool and inventive structure. One side reads as the mother’s response to her son’s question: “How much do you love me?” Flip it over and read the son’s response to his mother when she asks the same question. The middle page bridges the two responses. The text itself is pretty… gooey. Especially on the mother’s side it sounds like that old country song: “deeper than the holler, stronger than the rivers, higher the pine trees”: “I love you higher than the highest bird ever flew. I love you taller than the tallest tree ever grew.” The son’s response is a bit more inventive and includes all the things that boys stereotypically like best: “I love you further than the furthest frog ever leaped. […] I love you louder than the loudest rocket ship ever blasted.” If you’re looking for an ooey-gooey, I-love-you-so-much-book this is a great option.
This is another mushy, gushy, read-to-your-child story. The illustrations are of different animals with their parents, and the style is whimsical, the creatures reminiscent of plushies with their soft lines and simple faces. The parent promises to be with the child through all of its highs and lows: “When you are excited, the world joins with you, You bounce all about—and look! I’m bouncing, too!” (We won’t talk about those commas.) “When you are sad and troubled with fears, I hold you close and dry all your tears.” Reminiscent at once of Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Go, My Love Will Find You and Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, I think that this book personally lives up to neither, but is simpler than either, and might be a better book than either to read with a child rather than to one—that being said, the text is very much meant to be a parent speaking. There are really just so many books about a parent promising to always love a child that it’s difficult to be outstanding in that category.
Making New Friends
What bothered me most about this book was the title, so this should be a pretty positive review. I understand that a title like Peanut Butter and Jelly would be more likely to get lost in the noise, but Peanut Butter and Cupcake is misleading. Cupcake’s is only a two page spread and a mention, and she’s not very welcoming to Peanut Butter, inviting him to watch her play, but warning him not to play with her (what’s more, the cupcake on the cover is by far the tastiest-looking cupcake in the book). The premise is this: Peanut Butter, new to town, wants to play but knows no one and his mom is too busy to play with him, so she sends him out to wander the town and try to make a friend. Peanut Butter approaches various other foods and gives a speech about how he has a ball and wants to play “maybe now, maybe later—or even all day” (that I can remember three days later that repeated phrase says quite a bit for the memorability of the writing—and the number of times that I read this phrase aloud). The illustrations are at least as impressive as the text—and probably more so. Done as posed photographs with food and props (paper clips for feet and hands, for example), I can only imagine how long each illustration took to get right. Clever puns pepper the text and pictures alike: Hamburger walks a pair of wiener hot dogs. Soup spells out his responses to Peanut Butter’s pleas. Cupcake plays in a sandbox of sprinkles. French Fries has to catch up with Hamburger and his hot dogs (read the sentence aloud if you don’t see the pun). Jelly eventually finds Peanut Butter and the two of them play together. The other neighborhood foods see the two of them having fun and Peanut Butter and Jelly let them all join in, taking the high road, so that everyone is enjoying themselves and each others’ company.
In October I was besotted with Mike Curato’s sequel to this book, Little Elliot, Big Family. Then I’d done some digging and peeked at some of the illustrations from this book found on Curato’s website. I predicted that I would love Little Elliot, Big Family more than the original—and I think that that has proved true, though maybe it’s because Big Family was the first that I found. The problem in Big City is probably more relatable to most kids. In Little Elliot, Big City, Elliot is small and can be lost in the crowds of New York and stand unseen at the counter at the cupcake shop. He is feeling dejected when he spots Mouse, smaller even than Elliot. Mouse is hungry—hungrier than Elliot—and cannot reach the pizza slice in the park garbage bin. Elliot helps Mouse, and the two of them become friends. Together they are tall enough, and Elliot is able to buy and share his cupcake. It seems trite in a way, that Elliot’s trouble revolves around and is ultimately resolved by the acquisition of a cupcake—even if I sort of understand that that cupcake is more the culmination and physical manifestation of a heap of other troubles resulting from being too little. The illustrations are still gorgeous: vibrant and smooth, though showing less of the diversity of the city that is so wonderfully captured in Little Elliot, Big Family (though the diversity is there).
My two audience members were not yet one and not yet two. This story was really too long for them, but we read it the first Wednesday after the Caldecott and Newbery winners had been chosen, and I had this, Matt de la Peña’s The Last Stop on Market Street, and Kevin Henkes’ Waiting (a Caldecott honoree) in a pile beside me. My not-yet-two year old picked out this one, and we made a pretty valiant effort to get through it (I read maybe the last two or three pages to myself, but over the course of a half hour, we made our way through the rest of the story before the kids’ interest was entirely lost to the toys behind me). Finding Winnie tells the true tale of Winnie, an orphaned bear cub from Canada, who is saved from the trapper by a soldier and accompanies his brigade to England, where they will train to fight in World War II. Winnie stays with the soldiers until they are called away to the front, then she is left in the care of the London Zoo, where she is befriended by Christopher Robin Milne, whose father A. A. Milne was inspired by their friendship to introduce us all to our friend, Winnie-the-Pooh. The frame story is told by the soldier Harry Coleburn’s great-granddaughter, the author of the book, who tells the story to her little boy, Cole. As a Caldecott winner, I was supposed to be blown away by the illustrations, which are nice, but I was more taken by the photographs in the back of the book, proving the truth of the tale, and by the tale itself, which seems almost too perfect to be real.
You Can Be the Hero Too
I was given access through work to an unbound page proof of this book, which is due out on my birthday, actually: February 16 (Happy early birthday to me!). The illustrations are the obvious star of this book—by which I mean, I fell in love with the illustrations almost to the point that the text is irrelevant—not that the text was bad; it wasn’t, but it was overshadowed. The book tells the story of a boy who wakes to imaginative topiaries and wonders who is creating these masterpieces. He ultimately stumbles into an apprenticeship with the Night Gardener. But really, just do yourself a favor and go take a look at these whimsical, marvelous illustrations. Wonder like I do how the color palette can be at once so vibrant and so muted.
I really enjoyed this story and the parents really enjoyed this story, but it wasn’t holding the attention of my audience of three (two of whom admittedly were under one). I warned them and I will warn you that my Spanish is… pitiful. I studied in middle school, but it’s almost entirely washed away now. I don’t think that my poor presentation helped. I fudged my way through most of the Spanish and the Spanglish and probably pronounced a few of the words with more French or Italian than they ought to have done. Does the Spanish and Spanglish keep me from enjoying the story? In no way. Little Skippyjon is the only boy in a passel of girls, and he is outvoted when it’s time to choose a story. He storms away and invents his own tale of Snow What, where he is once again the famous swordfighter Skippito Friskito, is forced into tights by his friends the poochitos, and is forced to kiss the ice cube coffin of the princess to wake her from her cursed sleep. He cannot escape the tropes of the fairytale, but he can become the hero, can tell himself a story that focuses on the prince instead of the princess. I appreciated that this one had less stereotyping of Mexican culture than some in this series (the original tale) and I appreciated the, well, backlash to the backlash of the Disney Princess tale dominance. As important as it is for girls to see themselves as heroines, it’s just as important for boys to see themselves as heroes. This story also highlights the great power of imagination.
Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2012.
Sometimes, the best review really comes from the kids. I read these two (and Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses) to a crowd of kids, who knew the stories well-enough to read pages to me, who knew the songs, and sung them for me. When the kids love the stories that much, it’s really hard to dislike them—and honestly, there’s a lot to like. I hadn’t stopped to consider that these are primers for an older crowd with a semblance of plot not usually in primers. I Love My White Shoes is the first ever Pete the Cat story and a color primer, where Pete sings about his love for his white shoes, and when he squashes strawberries, his red shoes, and when he steps in a pile of blueberries, his blue shoes. The refrain “Did Pete cry? Goodness, no. He kept walking along and singing his song” is a wonderful lesson in Hakuna matata. But really, this silly cat really ought to watch out for piles of berries. Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons is a counting and math primer. He sings another song about how he loves his buttons. The song changes to reflect the number of buttons as one after another pops off and rolls away. Both books play with words to make a surprising ending. Pete’s shoes are wet, but does he cry? Goodness no. Pete’s coat has no more buttons, but there’s still the best button of all left—his belly button! I had somehow missed these books. I don’t know how. I actually prefer the text from Kimberly Dean’s later book, Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses, because the text and story is more complex, but the lesson and theme of positivity despite circumstances is still there, but Kimberly Dean’s story lacks the primer aspect, so really I can respect both, and cheer both, and marvel that this is a picture book series that can kids can grow with in the same way that they can later grow with, say, Harry Potter.
This book is part of a series that I think now covers all fifty states, some cities, some countries, some general locations, some general family members, some fire trucks and mermaids and dinosaurs. I’m a Nutmegger by birth and spent my childhood in the state. Much of the focus in this book is on tourist attractions more than on more general sights in the state, and many of those I’ve never visited, though I know of many of them. Most of the attractions have a short descriptor. While I haven’t seen everything listed in the book, the old stone walls, town green, beaches, and riding rings were a large part of my childhood environment. I bought this board book on a whim in a small store in Kent before leaving the state. Sometimes I just take it out to remind myself of home. This is not stellar writing, but it has nostalgia value, and it would have value as a primer for a vacation or to teach a child about her home state. It’s meant for young kids, kids who are still learning the sounds of turkeys and trains.
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.