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Book Reviews: November 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Valuing Women and Two Holidays

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Women in History and Today

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My First Book of Feminism (for Boys) by Julie Merberg and illustrated by Michéle Brummer-Everett. Downtown Bookworks-Simon & Schuster, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

Feminism for boys! Very young boys! Or boys of all ages. And women who need reminders about these same principles. This is about respecting women as people, allowing space for their voices and ideas, and about unlearning the toxic masculinity both that says that boys can take advantage of girls and that tries to define what men and women should and should not do. It suggests some simple acts one can do to express one’s respect for oneself and for the women in one’s life. The illustrations, though sparing in color, using only the primary three, green, black, and white, seem to represent a more inclusive feminism too than is too often practiced, which I appreciate.

****

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Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes by Eva Chen and illustrated by Derek Desierto. Feiwel & Friends-MacMillan, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

This was an odd one for me. Juno is searching for her own favorite shoes, plain white Keds, when she discovers a magical portal to a magical closet filled with shoes from historical women which, when she puts them on, transform her into the women who owned the shoes. Or that’s how it seems. There’s not a whole lot of explanation about what is happening to Juno or about the women themselves. I would have liked to have this be a very long story about Juno overcoming with these women the trials that they faced both in their climb to greatness and then once that greatness had been achieved. What I got was a line each about one quality that helped each woman succeed. And I suppose in its way that that’s its own positive message, but it was not what I expected, and it wasn’t the story that I wanted—because it was really not much of a story. This was not about overcoming adversity but about possessing certain qualities—and shoes. This book supports in part the idea that clothes make the woman, and while I understand that Eva Chen is a fashion director, a former editor-in-chief of the fashion magazine Lucky, and a former beauty and health director for Teen Vogue, it’s not the message that I want to send to children who may not be able to afford or who may not be interested in owning the shoes that are chic for their chosen profession. It closes with Eva changing her own shoes to reflect her experiences in the shoes of and her present in the footsteps of these powerful women. In the back, there is a page with a bit more about each of the women, but the picture book itself really is the type of story that only works if you already know the figures. In short, I think the book, the idea had a lot of potential that it didn’t live up to because it didn’t go far enough. As an introduction to influential women of history, it is far from the best that I have seen, and right now, there are a lot of fish to choose from in that pond. There are better, more comprehensive books even for younger audiences. Had this been printed another year, several years earlier, I probably would have rated it more highly because it would have been filling a need. It does have a more creative plot than many of the other books about influential women for children that I can think of which are often written more as encyclopedias than stories, but it slides past those women’s experiences in favor of the protagonist’s to the point that only a foreknowledge of the women gives the women context.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.My First Little People, Big Dreams: Audrey Hepburn by María Isabel Sánchez Vegara and illustrated by Amaia Arrazola. Frances Lincoln-Quarto, 2018.

My First Little People, Big Dreams: Amelia Earhart by María Isabel Sánchez Vegara and illustrated by MARIADIAMANTES. Frances Lincoln-Quarto, 2018.

I learned a bit about both of these women from these board books. I pulled a copy of each of the available board books in this series for a story time and offered to read any in which the audience was interested. (Also available in board book form from this series are biographies of Coco Chanel, Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, and Maya Angelou; more are coming in February.) The kids didn’t voice any opinions, but two adults in the audience expressed interest. Vegara does a good job of keeping to the truth without going into either too much detail for her audience or too romanticizing the history. Hepburn’s war-torn childhood is not forgotten nor is Earhart’s disappearance left out. These books talk not just about the one act that these women are most famous for, but also their philanthropy, what influenced their lives, and their influence on others. Their lives are framed as models and lessons. I’m not 100% sure what the appropriate audience would be for these books. As with many nonfiction board books today, I’m just not sure if the interest is there for the 0-3 year olds that board books are marketed towards, but I had no trouble reading these to my story time audience which consisted that day of children probably up to age 7.

****

Seasonal Stories

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Fangsgiving by Ethan Long. Bloomsbury, 2018.

I was truly pleased by this original Thanksgiving tale. A group of monsters (a vampire named Vladimir, a werewolf, a witch, a mummy named Mumford) every fourth Thursday in November get together to celebrate Thanksgiving, and they all cook a special dish. When Vladimir’s family drop in unexpectedly, they go about expressing their distaste for the dishes and improving them with their own ghastly twists (boogie butter, eyeballs, baboon farts), much to the chagrin of the monsters whose food and hard work they disparage. Because they are family and he loves them, Vladimir wants to make the best of it, but when their dog Spike eats the feast in its entirety, Vladimir cries that they have ruined Thanksgiving. To which his family responds that they were only trying to help, that he can’t be mad at them because they are family. Vladimir reminds them that families forgive one another and work together, and together with Vladimir’s friends, they set out to make a second feast that takes everyone’s tastes and ideas into account. Spike remains outside, and the monsters start a new tradition: Fangsgiving on the fourth Friday of every November. There are some important lessons that this book has to impart to the young and the old any time that they are about to embark on a day of getting together with family and friends (Thanksgiving, yes, but other holidays and events too). Family and friends don’t always have the same ideas or tastes as you or as each other. Though they are often acting with the best intentions, they may forget their boundaries and their manners. It’s okay to get angry. Sometimes you have to let them know that what they are doing is hurtful. Once you have done so, you can forgive one another and work towards a more perfect day. With lots of gross ingredients and several puns to get laughs, plus the spooky characters, this is a likely hit with most kids, despite its more narrow color palette.

*****

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Bear Can’t Sleep by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman. Margaret K. McElderry, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Bear’s considerate friends stop into his cave to see that he is warm and comfortable when he should be hibernating. But Bear can’t sleep, despite his best intentions, earnest attempts, and his friends’ acts of kindness. The friends try building up the fire and turning down the lights. They make him warm milk to drink. They sing him a lullaby. But nothing is working. So Bear gives up and decides that since they are here and he is not asleep, he will tell them a story—a new story. And just before the end, he falls asleep, snoring. The friends will have to wait till Spring to hear the end. As with most of these stories, Chapman’s soft, warm, realistic illustrations are the star. This would make a good bedtime story.

****

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Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Goes Christmas Shopping by Annie North Bedford, Bob Moore, and Xavier Atencio. Little Golden-Golden-Penguin Random, 2018.  Originally published 1953.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

We read this book with the help of a Google Home Mini, which produced background music and sound effects cued to the words of the story as spoken by my voice—which was really neat when it worked. It once lost me very early in the story, but then found me again. It seemed to lose me again while the boys were on the space ride. It cut out entirely when the store closed—and it never did pick back up. I wonder if it works better when in private and not in a store on a Black Friday weekend. But that’s another review for another day. The story itself does not show Mickey or Minnie in the best light ever. They take their nephews shopping, but then each think that they’ve left the boys with the other, and end up leaving them unsupervised and then in the store altogether after it closes—which must mean that neither sought and found the rest of the family much before if at all before the store closed and neither was watching the boys or one another. This was about doing a chore and not about spending time with family as the boys had hoped. Of course, the boys too were distracted by the toys and the rides in the toy department. After realizing that they have fallen asleep in the enclosed pod of the ride and awoken in a closed store (no employee checked the ride?), the boys find the store’s Santa Claus, still in his suit, and Santa delivers them to the front door, where Mickey and Minnie are banging to be let in to find their renegade nephews. Perhaps because I know Mickey and Minnie and not Ferdie and Mortie, I judge as negligent and in need of correction the adults’ actions more than I do Ferdie’s and Mortie’s.

***

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Merry Christmas, Little Elliot by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This cover does not do this book justice. I understand that the publishers were going for a more classic, more simplistic cover, but the cover it has would not make me pick the book up as readily as if a full-page illustration had been used. That’s probably personal preference and a small quibble though. The inside is every bit as vibrant and realistic and amazing as I remember Curato’s illustrations being. Mouse is really excited for Christmas, but Elliot just is not. When they go to see Santa, Elliot asks for Christmas spirit from Saint Nick, but Santa says Elliot will have to find that himself. Elliot and Mouse try lots of wintertime activities to try to find Elliot’s Christmas spirit, but to no avail; this elephant has no luck. Walking home, a letter blows into Elliot’s hands. It’s for Santa. They go back to the store to try to hand-deliver it, but they’ve missed him. So Elliot with Mouse decide that they need to fulfill the Christmas wish themselves. They take a cab outside of the city to become friends with the letter’s sender, a little Asian American girl named Noelle. And in granting her wish, Elliot finds his Christmas spirit too. This story is saccharine in the best way, a tale of Christmas spirit that isn’t commercial and is truly attainable magic.

****

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Santa Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins. Disney-Hyperion, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The mice are overstepping again, this time making commitments for Bruce that Bruce does not want to keep. He is a grumpy bear, and wearing red long johns should not volunteer him to be Santa Claus despite one excited raccoon’s mistaking him for the jolly saint. Nevertheless, the mice invite excited animals into Bruce’s home not once but twice and say that Bruce will deliver presents overnight to the woodland creatures. Very, very reluctantly and because the mice have done all of the work and have promised to do in fact more work than they can actually do—forcing some of the onus onto Bruce once they are already out in the snow—Bruce agrees to their plot. Presents are delivered, a joyous feast is attended, and Bruce—Bruce is still grumpy, vowing to sleep through next year’s Christmas as he had hoped to do through this. I actually like that Bruce is not won over and filled with the holiday spirit. It’s a change from the Scrooge & Grinch narrative that so pervades Christmas stories. Though much Christmas cheer is spread here and everyone (except Bruce) is celebrating, there is no real miracle here, just a grumpy bear fulfilling promises made on his unwilling behalf because deep down he is a softie for kids—being mother himself to four nearly grown geese.

***** 

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.

Book Reviews: November & December 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Gift-Giving

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River Rose and the Magical Lullaby by Kelly Clarkson and illustrated by Laura Hughes. HarperCollins, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

River Rose is so excited to be going to the zoo the next day. Her mother tucks her in and sings her a lullaby. That night, magic balloons show up outside her bedroom window and transport her to the zoo, where she has a party with the animals, none of whom are confined to their compounds. I like that at some point in the night she asks her friend, Joplin the dog, what he wants to do. At the end of the night, when the polar bears tell her that they need sleep, she snuggles up with the bears and sings the lullaby that her mother sang to her to the bears. She ends up back in her bed, glad for her adventure, but glad too to be home.  Was it a dream?  Was it real?  Does she go again to the zoo the next day and is she disappointed when she sees the reality of the zoo in the daylight?  The book doesn’t say.

***

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Everything Is Mama by Jimmy Fallon and illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 1-3.

Like with Fallon’s first book, there’s not a lot here. In this, presumably mostly maternal animals try to teach their children new words, only to have them reply “mama,” with a reversal at the end with the trite ending “but you are everything to mama” (expect to fit the rhyme, the sentiment is phrased more awkwardly than that). I think very little of it, but I caught a mother reading it to a young child at the store, and the child giggled at every page, so there is an audience for this, and maybe neither my story time toddlers nor I are not it. My audience lately has comprised of children 4 and older.

**

Lessons in Sharing

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Clifford Shares by Norman Bridwell. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2012.

There’s not much to this little board book either, just a few pages and a few sentences in total, but Clifford is a familiar friend. Clifford shares his water. He shares a bench. And then everyone shares with Clifford at a picnic. There’s just not much here to rate. There’s nothing remarkable about this book, really, good or bad. There’s a vague idea of reciprocity: Clifford shares so others share with Clifford, but the book’s real draw is Clifford.

***

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The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks by Jan Berenstain and Mike Berenstain. Zonderkidz-Zondervan, 2009.

This was a long story time book, but one of my regulars showed up early, and I promised to read one book—whatever book she picked out. The prose in this book is prettier, more descriptive, the story more fleshed out with detail than what I usually read for story time, which was a nice change.

But this is a problematic book, relying too heavily on whitewashed history and doing little if anything to correct or clarify the narrative.  Papa trades some furniture for a turkey from Farmer Ben—a living turkey. Ben’s named the turkey Squanto after “a Native Bear who helped the Pilgrims plant their corn when they settled in their new home.” I mean, I guess, Ben. Sister Bear doesn’t like the idea of meeting her Thanksgiving dinner while he’s alive. She wants to keep Squanto as a pet. She visits him at the farm as the weather grows colder. To distract Sister from the idea of eating Squanto, Mama Bear proposes a costumed show of the legend of Thanksgiving. “We’ll need feathers for the Native Bears’ headdresses.” No you won’t, Mama Bear. Honey Bear represents Squanto the Native Bear with a full headdress of turkey feathers and speaking broken English: “Me, Squanto!” her only line. Admittedly, Honey Bear is not portrayed as speaking good English, and I suppose the cast is limited to the preexisting characters, but…. “He speaks English! What a miracle!” Miracle it is not, Cousin Fred, though maybe there is some miracle in Squanto finding his way back to his own land if not his own village after all his trials. The whole legend of Thanksgiving as told in this story is the whitewashed imagining that we hear “in school over and over again every November” (or we did when I was in public school; I hope today’s tellings are a little more nuanced, a little more accurate) with no discussion of the horrors visited on Native Americans by the European invaders.

That doesn’t even begin in on the problems of reminding children that our Thanksgiving feast features a once-living bird, and that it might be possible to persuade their parents to skip the bird and to keep the bird as a pet instead because Squanto the Turkey survives, is given a new pen in the Bears’ backyard. Parents should be prepared to answer questions that Sister Bear’s feeling for Squanto might stir.

It’s difficult to avoid religion when discussing the First Thanksgiving, and this book does not, the Bears’ prayer even included in the text.

**

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Plush by Louise Myers. Tiny Tales-Whitman, 1949.

A friend bought me this pocket-sized paperback because the pony Plush looks a quite a bit like my own pony. The animals of the farm (all anthropomorphized, though Plush less so than the others) take a pony cart, pulled by Plush, to the Fair to sell their goods and spend the money that they make. There’s an element of an animal sounds primer in the text, with the pony’s hooves clippety-clopping, the hen cackling, the duck quacking, the lamb baaing, and the pig oinking. The friends all buy gifts for Plush with their money. It’s a sweet story of gift-giving, expressing thanks, and retail.

****

Christmas and Wintertime

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River Rose and the Magical Christmas by Kelly Clarkson and illustrated by Lucy Fleming. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Of the two River Rose books, this one my audience unanimously liked better. Now admittedly, we read this story December 16, just 9 days from Christmas morning, so I’m sure that timing and the already swelling excitement for the holiday tinged their reactions to the story. I’m going to be recommending the other more frequently because it is far less seasonal and far more universal. Not every child is excited for Christmas (not all of them celebrating the holiday), but I think that most children are excited to visit a zoo—particularly a zoo without enclosures and with no supervision but a polar bear mama as is the one in the first River Rose book. In this River Rose sneaks down the stairs to hand-deliver her letter to Santa, but she’s missed him. Instead the magical balloons from the previous book are waiting in her living room. She and Joplin take the balloons to the North Pole where they are greeted by the elves and Mrs. Claus, who plies River Rose with a wealth of sweets, the book becoming a numbers primer. She is near sleep when Santa returns. Santa makes one last trip to bring River Rose home, and she hand-delivers her letter to him—which is not a list of requested gifts, but a simple thank you, which touches Santa. This new illustrator does a good job continuing in the tradition of the previous. I didn’t notice the difference, and don’t think I’d have noted it expect that I write these reviews and am always sure to credit the illustrator too. Fleming’s palette is maybe a little more muted and her lines a little crisper than Hughes’.

***

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Outside by Deirdre Gill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Deirde Gill illustrated Trains Don’t Sleep, which I read and loved in October. I went exploring to see what else she had done, and found this story, written and illustrated by Gill. A bored boy leaves the house and explores the snowy outside. His brother won’t join him outside, so he makes himself a friend—an enormous snowman, who comes to life to help him build a castle. And what do castles attract? Dragons of course! This one is thankfully friendly. His brother finally does come out to play, after the boy’s adventure in the snow is done, and together they make one last snowman. Because the brother stays inside staring at screens, he misses his younger brother’s adventures. There’s as much a lesson about leaving screens to play outside as there is a lesson about the wonders of the imagination and the outdoors and free play. These illustrations are everything I hoped for. The colors, the landscapes, the characters are amazing! There’s not a great deal of text, most pages comprising of only a sentence or two. Some have only a sentence fragment, and some have no words at all.

****

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A Loud Winter’s Nap by Katy Hudson. Picture Window-Capstone, 2017.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-1.

The friends from Too Many Carrots are back, this time with Turtle as the protagonist. I feel this turtle on a personal level. He doesn’t like winter. He just wants to hibernate through it. But his friends are having fun in the snow and being noisy nearby no matter where he makes his nest and despite his sign. Eventually he accidentally stumbles into some winter fun of his own, not realizing his newest napping spot is a sled primed at the top of the hill. He enjoys racing downhill, and in the end joins his friends on the iced-over pond where his sled stops, skating and drinking hot cocoa and generally enjoying the winter with his friends.

****

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Santa’s Magic Key by Eric James. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

I don’t think that I ever truly believed in Santa Claus, but I did grow up in a house without a chimney, and I wasn’t unaware of the myths surrounding the man. I think I questioned less how Santa would get into our house when we had no fireplace and more how we would communicate in J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world without a fireplace to connect to the Floo Network. How Santa did all that he was supposed to do were more for me questions of filling in gaps in the story than worries about whether or not I would receive any gifts.

The tagline for this book suggests starting a new family tradition—which makes it sound as though Eric James is hoping to appeal to the same audience as participate in the Elf on the Shelf tradition. As far as new holiday traditions go, I’d be far more willing to go along with James’. A) It requires action only one night out the year. B) It does not require me to suggest that an inanimate doll is 1) animate, 2) always watching and judging my child’s behavior and 3) reporting that behavior to a boss who will reward or punish a child based on that behavior. James’ story is less preparation for a police state and more assurance that your house can be visited by Santa despite your house lacking an element seemingly present in every Santa myth.

James’ book is long, but better written, and his illustrations are beautiful, hazily but realistically rendered full-page spreads rather than the cartoonish characters lacking much setting that accompany the Elf on the Shelf.

Despite all this, James is not likely to create the empire that Aebersold, Bell, and Steinwart have because he doesn’t self-publish and he didn’t create a character who can be dressed in different outfits, have pets, and have accessories, and whose pets can have accessories.

***

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Olaf’s Night Before Christmas by Jessica Julius and illustrated by Olga T. Mosqueda. Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

Frozen’s Olaf becomes the protagonist of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, and Julius rewrites Moore’s text for Olaf. Familiar lines of Moore’s are echoed in the new text. Anna and Elsa make guest appearances, Olaf mistakes the “eight tiny reindeer” for “eight little Svens,” and at first he thinks that Santa might be Kristoff. There’s a lot more humor in this new version, the language is more modern and simpler than Moore’s (“His boots were all black and his pants were all red. But where was the rest of him? Where was his head?”). Olaf, a simple snowman not familiar with Christmas traditions, makes a delightful new narrator for this twist on the classic tale. The illustrations are bright with nods to the film in the style and in the details, but plenty of familiar, traditional Christmas details in them to almost erase the fact that this is a Disney product. There’s tradition, there’s extra sweetness, there’s the familiarity of Disney characters.

*****

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.

Book Reviews: November 2016 Picture Book Round: Cold Weather, Turkeys, a Polynesian Princess, and a Spanish Bull

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Moana

9781484743607Moana and the Ocean by Heather Knowles and illustrated by Annette Marnat. Disney, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Marnat’s illustrations are just beautiful and make the book worth paging through, but the text is barely there; there are full page spreads with no text and what pages do have text have one, often very short sentence or fragment. That being said, the text is not inelegant. The story is told from the Ocean’s perspective, and I have not seen the film, but it seems from this story that the Ocean has been a parental figure to Moana. The text describes in very vague terms all of the things that the Ocean has witnessed Moana doing and been proud of: “I’ve watched you grow,” “I’ve watched you fall and get back up again.” That sort of thing. The sort of thing that, like the book Three Little Words published for Finding Dory, might make this a contender for an unexpected graduation gift. The last line for me sort of kills the chance this book had, though, to be a broadly reaching, parental love poem by stating, “She is my Moana.” I don’t know why that line takes the book so firmly for me from describing any parental relationship broadly to describing one particular instance of parental love, perhaps only for giving Moana the prominence of the final word, though Moana is mentioned by name earlier in the book too.

***1/2

9780736436465Quest for the Heart. RH Disney-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I’d very ardently avoided spoilers for this film, but was required to read Moana and the Ocean for a story time, and realized fast that that book would last only five minutes at most of the half hour I was supposed to fill. So I grabbed this. And yes, I was given some spoilers by it, probably more than I wanted, but I’m still interested in seeing the film.

So before I start this review: SPOILERS!

This gives a fairly bare-boned sketch of the story’s driving problem: that the island is missing its heart, and that that heart must be returned to the island by the demigod who stole it then lost it, but that there are other forces who would prevent the island’s heart from being returned. The illustrations seem fairly in the style of the film itself, which is to say what you’d expect from Disney animation. There were some words here to trip children up, the Polynesian gods’ names primarily. Those names they might know from the film, which would make it easier, but I feel fairly confident in my pronunciation without having seen the film, which means that a child reading this without having seen the film might too be able to sound out the names. (I could be far off on my pronunciation though; I won’t know till I see the film, but these are not names like Tanngnjóstr or Hlidskjalf, (And of course I’m saying all this as an English monolinguist who has studied only a few Romance languages in any kind of depth and has only a smattering of words that I know languages with other roots). There were a few pages that got a bit frightening, but my audience of one who was maybe 4 had no trouble with the lava god attacking our hero and heroine.

I can’t rate this book as an adaptation but as a story solo it really was fairly well-developed, especially for its length and reading level, and exciting. I could have done with some more character building, but the world building was pretty exquisite.

****

Holiday Spirit

9780545931908_default_pdpThere Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Turkey! by Lucille Colandro and illustrated by Jared D. Lee. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6, Grades PreK-1.

You know the pattern of this one. It echoes the old song: “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly.” “She swallowed the cat to catch the bird. She swallowed the bird to catch the fly. I don’t know why she swallowed the fly. Perhaps she’ll die.” I did notice that we lost the dying part in this parody. Instead we have: “I don’t know why she swallowed the turkey, but she’s always been quirky,” which is a fun line; it’s more fun to shrug off; I like the tone better. The version of the Thanksgiving season that this book describes is… fairly American (admittedly, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, but the idea of thanksgiving is not) and commercial. Football—American football—and a Thanksgiving parade float feature. Though all of these objects—seemingly connected only by their cultural association with an American Thanksgiving—all come together in the end to achieve an end goal and make some more sense of purpose for the old lady’s feast, in the original song there’s a definite pattern and even skewed logic to the things that she swallows, which here is lacking. The original song is about a food chain and perceived hunter-prey “enemies” among the animal kingdom. Here… the old lady swallows a football to throw with the turkey? Okay, so yes, you throw a football, but what does that have to do with a turkey? She swallows the hat to cover the ball? Why does she want to cover the ball that she wants to throw with the turkey? Tires? A boat? What do those even have to do with the season? All in all, this was a fun sort of read, but… not going to be a favorite of mine by any stretch. It misses fully the whole reason we celebrate Thanksgiving (the thanksgiving part and the historical aspect), which makes me like it less.

***

0763663069The Great Thanksgiving Escape by Mark Fearing. Candlewick, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grades K-3.

This one I’m sort of sad I missed last year. I remember having it in the store, but I never picked it up. Two cousins are told to stay and play with the other children—toddlers—of the family, but they’re really too old to be in the same playgroup with the others. They decide to sneak out to the swing set. They brave hallways of eye-level butts, cheek-pinching aunts, teenage zombies glued to screens, and vicious guard dogs all too find that it’s raining outside. With a nice echo of an early line and reversal of the roles, the kids don’t let the rain defeat them, and the lesson about making your own persists. I wish the title were otherwise, because I think this story applies to any family gathering at any time of the year, only its title and one mention of the holiday preventing it from being sellable outside of November. The story is short, but Fearing really does quite aptly capture a family gathering from a child’s perspective, and it’s a fun reminiscence and reminder for older readers and a nice sigh of solidarity for the younger ones—with advice on defeating the worse aspects of the holiday.

****

9780553513370Penguin Problems by Jory John and illustrated by Lane Smith. Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This book… I read right after November 9. I think the parents and I needed and understood it more than did the kids, whose heads it really seemed to sail over. The little penguin complains about a lot of things that he really can’t change: the time of morning, the weather, the people around him. Then a walrus comes up and lays down everything—in a full page of text and in lofty syntax—that I and some of my adult audience maybe needed to hear—that there is still good in the world if we choose to see it. His sage advice didn’t seem to effect the penguin at all and nor did it really help me, but I received the message, and maybe the penguin did too—maybe the children in the audience did too.

**

23719206Before Morning by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin, 2016.

This book! The illustrations in this book! The text in this book is… maybe a bit too above its intended child audience but it’s beautiful, unique, clever. It’s a prayer really, a very poetic and flowery prayer for a snow day, for snow to ground planes so that the protagonist’s mother, a pilot, can come home and spend the day with him or her (the gender is ambiguous). I enjoyed the reason behind this child’s wish for a snow day. It was unexpected and heartwarming.

****

And One More

1718866The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. Puffin-Penguin Random, 1977. First published 1936. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This was one of my favorites as a child, and I found it in the newly installed free library by my house and, well, fell into temptation. Reading it again, though, I was not as impressed as I once was. And I’m not entirely sure what fell flat. Maybe it seemed that Ferdinand was more dense than defiant when he refused to fight or to butt heads with the other bulls, but the more I think about it, the less I think that is so. Ferdinand is gentle and peaceful by nature, but he is pressured to act otherwise and does not cave to that pressure; that is a radical act—or non-act. And I think as a child that must have resonated with me, so I suspect and hope it will resonate with today’s children as well.  This definitely does though thankfully gloss over the violence of a bull fight.

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Book Reviews: September/October 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Scientist, Mice, Dinosaurs, Cats

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adatwist-cover2Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Harry N. Abrams, 2016.

First, let’s celebrate this little, dark-skinned scientist. Ada says nothing for three years, then asks so many questions: Why? What? How? When? And why again. Ada spends much of a book searching for the source of a terrible stink, which within the text she never discovers, though the illustrations hide the answer, I think, and asking kids what they think might be the cause of the stink might be a good way to engage an audience. Her parents become frustrated with all of her questions and experiments and the chaos that is “left in her wake”—messes in the kitchen and a stinky cat covered in perfumes and colognes. They send her to a thinking chair. Her parents calm down and come back to her to talk, and though she has scribbled all over the wall, they decide to help her instead of punish her—because these parents rock, and “that’s what you do when your kid has a passion and a heart that is true.” This is told with the same singsong and rhyme as Iggy Peck and Rosie Revere.

****

the-itsy-bitsy-pilgrim-9781481468527_hrThe Itsy Bitsy Pilgrim by Jeffrey Burton and illustrated by Sanja Rešček. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 2-4, Grade PreK.

This book was… disappointing, though perhaps no worse than I would expect of a board book written for 2-4-year-olds. The illustrations are cute… but racially insensitive and clinging to stereotypes. The text is sugar-coated, saccharine, and white-washed. It pretends to be factual by dropping the name Mayflower but then undercuts itself by pretending that everything was sunshine and shared feasts between friends and that winter was no big deal. The text mimics the old rhyme “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” so it seems even less original than it could do.

**

y648Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes by Kimberly and James Dean. HarperCollins, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This Pete the Cat returns to Eric Litwin’s original primer model. There’s counting and math to be done. Pete and Gus are making cupcakes for a party, but the cupcakes are disappearing two by two. Who could behind it? Whomever it is, he keeps leaving behind clues. The illustrations could have been better here. I had to point out the sprinkles to my audience, who didn’t immediately recognize the dots on the ground as such and one of the kids had to point out to me that the colorful circles were cupcake wrappers. The footprints left behind by the culprit don’t look as much like his as I could have liked.

When the culprit is discovered he fesses up, Pete’s friends want to exclude him from their fun as punishment, but Pete—bold Pete—stands up for him and decrees that he deserves a second chance. So that’s another good lesson if it’s a little heavy-handed.

There’re fewer instances of 80s slang, and I’m not sure that there’s a way to insert a song into this book.

***1/2

5dd375_db1139a503504a60b93b3c6bd0e960e7-1Pirasaurs! by Josh Funk and illustrated by Michael H. Slack. Scholastic, 2016.

One poor, small, klutzy dinosaur wants to prove himself to his new crew and especially to his female captain, Rex, who isn’t forced into gendered clothing nor gendered roles or gendered stereotypes of really any kind. Packed with pirate puns, vibrant color, and action, this little dinosaur joins his mates on a quest for treasure—only for them to be attacked by another gang of pirasaurs, who have the missing piece of their map. The little dinosaur suggests that they share the map and share the treasure—and to his surprise, no one disagrees. He proves himself to his crew—to both crews—and does so through the power of his heart, through his notion to share. I read this aloud and found the text has a sort of singsong, pirate sea shanty quality. I added a few yo-hos and yar-hars. (Oh goodness, there’s a book trailer proving that the text ought to be sung). In college I threw in my lot with a band of pirates, and this book speaks to my pirate soul.

****

9781484717981The Very Fluffy Kitty, Papillon by A. N. Kang. Hyperion-Disney, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Papillion is a very fluffy kitty, so fluffy that he floats away if he isn’t wearing something to hold him down. He doesn’t like the outfits that his loving Miss Tilly makes for him though. One day when he is free of his clothes, he follows a bright red bird out of the window, past a bear’s cave, over swamps filled with crocodiles, till he gets all tangled up in vines. Everything is quite hazy and pastel, just light washes of watercolor, except for that speck of bright red bird. The bird comes back to help Papillon, the bird finds a home, and Papillon finds an outfit that he doesn’t mind wearing, that also keeps him grounded. It’s a win-win-win. The illustrations were adorable, clever, and beautifully rendered. I would like a little more from the text, but I can’t find anything specifically in it about which I would complain.

***

52606004dbe3d4fb7db8aa93fe25537bTek: The Modern Cave Boy by Patrick McDonnell. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

After Tek’s dad invents the Internet, Tek can’t be pulled away from the screens of his many devices, and his friends miss playing with him. Everyone on up to the Grand Poo-Bah of their tribe and the great volcano, Big Poppa, try to help to get Tek away from the screens. Ultimately, he has to be blasted away by the volcano, and once he wakes without his screens, he is astonished by the sun and the grass, the flora and the fauna. The style of this book is clever, the cover looking like a tablet, the first page looking like a lock screen, the top of each page illustrating the battery level of the “tablet” which decreases until Tek is shot from the volcano and his tablet crashes (pun, I’m sure intended), and the text above a picture having words in blue that might be links on a tablet screen that one could click for more information. These would be fun to use especially in a classroom setting, perhaps as assignments for projects. This is definitely a book with plenty of humor for the adults—perhaps too much so; I was a little concerned I would hear about the Flying Idontgiveadactyl. The heavy-handedness of the message kept me from enjoying the book as much as I might otherwise have done, but I definitely had a few giggles at the jokes that the kids would probably miss, like the Dinosaurs for a Better Tomorrow, and enjoyed the puns and the layout.

****

28645670They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The text here while it has a sort of soothing rhythm that wasn’t keeping the attention of my audience: one less than a year and the other maybe 4 or 5. The pattern is essentially this: “The x saw A CAT. And the y saw A CAT. And the z saw A CAT. Yes, they all saw the cat. And the cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws.” I tried to get the older of the two to interact with and think about the illustrations. “Why might the fish be seeing the cat as sort of blurry and out of focus?” Reading now, I’m realizing I missed an opportunity to talk about perspective and assumptions and prejudice—albeit obliquely since these aren’t my kids and I can only step on so many toes. Next time though. This time I focused on the science of how each animal’s views of the cat. Perhaps my favorite illustration because it makes most clear what this book is doing is the illustration of the cat as seen by the snake, oranges, yellows, reds, and blues denoting heat signature, and it’s wonderful to see how cleverly Wenzel has illustrates echolocation and vibrations of the earth.

****

9780545829342_default_pdpHow Do Dinosaurs Stay Friends? By Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Some of the things that these dinosaurs consider are just awful, but then the things he does do are pretty wonderful. I worry that the take away from this book will more often be some wicked things that one could do if one is ever in a fight with a friend instead of what a person should do after a fight with a friend. I don’t know, that first half of the text just seems to have more imagination and vigor to it. But if the intended lesson is received, then it’s fabulous to give kids tools to make up after a fight. Mark Teague as usual is careful to include people of color in the illustrations behind the dinosaur protagonists.

***

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.

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Book Reviews: November 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Part 2: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…

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Brace Yourselves. Winter Is Coming

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Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. First published 1971.

Katie was one of my nicknames as a child, so I have some vague sense that this is one of the stories that was read to me with some regularity—enough regularity that when I was told that I had to read a story about a snowplow, I recalled that this story existed, even though it must have been years since I’d had any reason to consider it. Or maybe I remembered seeing it in the shelves when I was re-alphabetizing the picture books a month or two ago. Either way, Burton’s books are classics; this one is 44 years old and still being read, still in the bookstore. Katy is an unstoppable plow who likes hard work. She saves up her efforts for a big snow, something only she can handle. She drives around the town, clearing roads for policemen, firefighters, mailmen, ambulance drivers, electric and water company employees…. I have sort of mixed feelings about this story, honestly. Katy helps everyone. Helping everyone is good. But does Katy take care of herself? She gets a little tired, but she keeps working. There are no reinforcements, no offers by anyone to help Katy. The villain here is the snow, and Katy and her tirelessness and persistence are the solution, but Katy really doesn’t reap any benefits except… a job well done? a chance to rest when—and only when—the work is done? What sort of message is that? Help everyone and don’t expect to be thanked, don’t expect any sort of reward? I suppose that, yes, that is a laudable and important moral, but maybe not one I’m willing to instill in my children, not at this age. I’d rather that they know that they can speak up for themselves, that they have the right to say no. I do like that this is a boy book—a book about trucks, which get thrown more often at boys than at girls—but with a strong, female protagonist.

One of Burton’s books, The Little House, won the Caldecott medal in 1943. Burton’s illustrations in this book are detailed. Take a look at the margins. Take a look at the maps. Look at the use of white space. The illustrations I like better than I like the story. I think the illustrations bump the story past three or three and a half stars to

****

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The Little Snowplow by Lora Koehler and illustrated by Jake Parker. Candlewick, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.

I actually think that this is a better book about snowplows—if you’re ever asked to pick just one. The story here is better. The little snowplow is picked on by the larger trucks. He works hard to make himself strong. He exercises daily and pushes himself to lift and pull and push more and heavier weights. When the snows come, the little snowplow is sent out and the snow is too much for him, despite all that he’s done to strengthen himself. Help—a dump truck—has to be called in, and the dump truck complains about having to do work that it feels is the snowplow’s responsibility. But when an avalanche stops the dump truck, only the snowplow is small enough to get in to help the dump truck, so he stops clearing the roads to help this larger truck that has been mean to him, that has grumbled about having to help the snowplow. The snowplow proves himself not only useful but also compassionate, kind, and forgiving. The dump truck and snowplow finish clearing the streets and everyone cheers. They cheer not because the snowplow proved the big trucks wrong by clearing the streets himself—in fact the trucks are proved right and the snowplow does have to accept help—which he does with good grace—but the trucks cheer because he was kind.

This is a great boys’ book for that reason. The snowplow is not a macho, by-your-own-bootstraps plow; it cannot be, and that’s okay because not all men are macho.  It proves that not all men must be macho to have worth.

The kids in my audience picked up too on the moral of don’t be mean to little people and mentioned it themselves afterwards without being prompted.

There is mention of a big, female snowplow that retired to Florida, and I like to think that this is a reference to Burton’s Katy, but that was set in Geoppolis, and this is in Mighty Mountain.

This book more fully earns its

****

Gobble! Gobble!

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Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book, written in what I would dare to call verse goes through the motions of everyone’s tasks to prepare a Thanksgiving meal: Mama, fetch the pot; Daddy, stoke the fire; Sister, knead the dough for bread; Brother, baste the turkey; Grandpa, make the cranberries…. The meal and the celebration bring all the family together. Even the little baby gets a mention, told to hush and be quiet as a mouse, a refrain that I had to read quietly, giving the book an even more musical feel. The book is set in the 19th century according to Miller (this interview with Publisher’s Weekly includes a few pages not to be found elsewhere outside of the covers). There are too few historical fiction books in any genre, so this is one of which to make note—perhaps even outside of the Thanksgiving season. The family is clearly religious but the text is not particularly so, so it should avoid offense, I’d hope. This story really gets back to the root of Thanksgiving: thankful for food, family, warmth, and a place to be safe and together.

****

The Goose Is Getting Fat

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Snowmen at Christmas by Caralyn Buehner and illustrated by Mark Buehner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2005. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I read and enjoyed the Buehners’ Snowmen at Night, so I thought that I’d enjoy this one too. The illustrations are just as stunning as were Mark Buehner’s in Snowmen at Night, and the text had a good lilt to it with its rhyming lines. I was at a Santa’s Breakfast when I read this—a clearly secular event—and I stumbled a bit at the unexpected reference to the religious celebration of Christmas (that’s really on me as I didn’t read but only skimmed the story before bringing it with me to the event)—with the snowmen singing carols about a King—but I think that reference is subtle enough as to not be too off-putting to all but the most radical—as whether or not one does oneself celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, one can’t really deny that some will sing about a King during the season—which is all that these snowmen do. Otherwise, the snowmen’s Christmas is about window displays, holiday noms, and playing with friends.

***

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The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore and illustrated by Charles Santore. Applesauce-Simon & Schuster, 2011. Text first published 1823. Intended audience: Grades PreK and up.

I won’t critique this text, but I’ll go ahead and make note of the illustrations, which reflect the period nature of the text, though not with its art style (which is more modern: realistic, bold, deep-hued, detailed) as much as with its depiction of the period itself (men in nightgowns and long nightcaps, nineteenth century decoration, architecture, toys, and tech). The Santa figure is very classically Santa. One of my audience commented on Santa having shrunk to fit down the chimney; he was small, then larger on the next page; I explained this as magic. I enjoy the gray tabby on most pages too. This is all beautifully done. A book like this, with text so classic, so often memorized, can really only be a chance for an illustrator to shine—and I think Santore does, but as I’m looking at illustrations and thinking back on all the versions of this book that I’ve seen, I’m wondering, is it time for someone to modernize the illustrations, to have Santa maybe putting away gadgets and gift cards instead of trumpets and china dolls?

The illustrations are beautiful but just not very original, so maybe overall, I’d give this version just sort of a meh

***

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Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas by Rubin Pingk. Simon & Schuster, 2015. First published 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is a wonderfully fun and unique Christmas book. A young ninja wants to have a snowball fight, but none of his friends will join him because they have to practice to be good ninjas to impress Santa. The first ninja, Yukio, blames Santa, and when he hears Santa arrive, he rings the alarm bell and calls “intruder!” The ninjas pour out of the dojo and drive-off the red-clad intruder, who at one point appears as a samurai with a snowman army. It is only after Samurai Santa has been driven away that Yukio realizes that because of his actions, his friends will have no presents from Santa, but presents are under the tree and there’s a note for Yukio from Santa, saying that he hopes that Yukio enjoyed the snowball fight that Santa arranged for him. The illustrations in this book are all brick red, black, white, and gray, but the colors somehow feel festive (like a red Starbucks cup). There are times to shout “Epic!” and “Banzai!” as you read this story aloud, which make for a bit of extra fun.

****

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How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2012. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

My audience for this book really got into it. The beginning of the book, the text is all questions: “Does he rip open presents under the tree?” and all of my kids said, “No!” They also enjoyed telling me what kind of dinosaur was on each page and stomping like dinosaurs. As I walked away to the next group, I felt a little like the babysitter who’s given the kids too many cookies and left them to their parents. In the end the text is all things that a good dinosaur would do, like eating all his dinner and clearing the dishes—one grandmother piped up her support for this idea. Mark Teague’s vibrant illustrations with realistic dinosaurs that nevertheless manage very human expressions and actions done with opposable thumbs are pretty fun, and there’s enough detail there that one could spend some time with each drawing.

****

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.

Book Reviews: November 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Part 1: The Anytime Books

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Mmm, Mmm, Good

cvr9781442443372_9781442443372_hrCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. Antheneum-Simon & Schuster, 1982. First published 1978. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Would you believe this is the first time I’ve read this book, though I’ve loved the movie for six years? I was surprised how many elements of the story found their way into the film, though the film is vividly bright and focuses more on how and who than what. I had a difficult time dividing the picture book from the story in the film, so I won’t comment much on Grandpa’s tall tale about Chewandswallow. This book takes the form of a frame story. After a breakfast of pancakes, during which one pancake is flung too far and lands on a child’s head, Grandpa is reminded of a tall tale that he tells at bedtime. The illustrations differentiate reality and the story: Reality is black and white. The story is colored. Perhaps the best part of the story is the ending where the narrator remarks that in the real world the sun looks like a pat of butter atop the hill, marking the blur of reality and fiction and the ability of fiction to improve reality, particularly with the touch of bright yellow bleeding into the black and white illustration on that page. The tall tale shows great inspiration from oral tall tales, especially at the beginning where Grandpa is describing where to find Chewandswallow and describing how Chewandswallow is like other towns. This is a good, out-of-the-box wintertime story (the kids go sledding) and a good grandparents story.

****

l_9781585369133_fcThe Little Kids’ Table by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles. Sleeping Bear-Cherry Lake, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grade 1.

This book is marketed and displayed with the Thanksgiving books, but it’s really not specific to Thanksgiving. In fact, I don’t recall any mention of the holiday, and I know that I was relegated to the little kids’ table on holidays besides Thanksgiving—Christmas certainly, but sometimes July 4th, birthdays, really any holiday where families gather and share a meal. The adults’ table is dressed in all its finery: flowers on the table, matching place settings, and glasses made of glass or maybe even crystal. The kids’ table is a little rowdier—and more fun! They practice balancing spoons (and plates and flower vases) on their noses. The dog gets fed the broccoli casserole that the adults insist will help little kids grow strong even though it’s icky. The adults tell the kids to calm down, to be quiet, but the kids think that secretly the adults wish that they too could sit at the little kids’ table. Being sat at the little kids’ table can feel exclusionary, but this text helps to redeem the idea a little bit. For those families that deem a little kids’ table necessary and those kids who feel hurt by being sat away from the family, this book could be helpful. The text rhymes, but the rhymes are not too jarring. The illustrations are bright, and the family is multiracial without it being an issue.

****

9781484722626_3ed6dElephant and Piggie: I Really Like Slop! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

A new Elephant and Piggie book! What I really like about this book is that not only did Gerald try Piggie’s spicy, pungent cultural delicacy willingly after some hesitation but that it’s okay that he didn’t like it. That he tries the slop is touted as a mark of their friendship, as an act of love via shared culture, but Piggie is not upset that Gerald doesn’t like her slop, and their friendship continues, even stronger.

****

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Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman. Margaret K. McElderry-Simon & Schuster, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is another book marketed for Thanksgiving, but why should it be? Friends can share a meal at any time, and one should always thank those who share with them—and again I don’t think that the holiday was mentioned by name. The rhyming text here was actually less smooth than Riehle’s, mostly because of the forced repetition of the clunky “Bear says, ‘Thanks!’” The order of the words there is less natural, though I understand the desire to end the phrase and thereby put the emphasis on “Thanks!” particularly in a Thanksgiving spinoff. Bear wants to have his friends over for a meal, but his cupboards are bare (see what Wilson did there?). Perhaps they’re psychic because they start arriving all at once with food without being invited to do so within the text. Bear thanks each of them in turn, but he is distressed because he has nothing to offer them in return. They assure him that his company and his stories are enough, and they all share a woodland feast in bear’s lair (because “lair” rhymes with “bear”). Chapman’s illustrations are beautifully soft and gentle, helping to sort of smooth over some of the roughness I found in the text of this book.

***

Cats! y648If You Give a Cat a Cupcake by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. HarperCollins, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Following the circular, if/then style as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, this cat is given a cupcake, but spills the sprinkles, and gets hot cleaning up, so is brought to the beach, after which ultimately the sand in his swimming trunks remind him of sprinkles and of cupcakes. It’s a silly story, made sillier by the idea of a cat at the beach. When I was reading this, I really wanted a cat book, and I didn’t feel like that was what I got, but this remains a fun, silly story and well written.

****

24000733Pepper & Poe by Frann Preston-Gannon. Orchard-Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

A customer actually pointed this book out to me first. She had read a review and wanted to see the book for herself. The illustrations are pretty cute: black background with a white kitten with big orange eyes and a gray cat with big green eyes and a chestnut dog. Pepper, the gray cat, likes Sundays. He likes Mondays too and Tuesdays. These are lazy days, days when he can just enjoy the quiet house. But then a kitten arrives, and his days get worse and worse as the kitten causes chaos and Pepper is asked to share. Then Pepper and Poe create such a mess that they are about to get in trouble, but both simultaneously blame the dog. Scholastic describes this as a sibling story—but I’m not sure that blame your eldest sibling for trouble your fighting has caused is a good tactic to suggest to ease sibling tension. I don’t know that most kids will read this as a sibling story, though. The cats in the story are very catlike.

**

We Can Do It!

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Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2007.

Iggy begins building very early. His parents are impressed and fairly supportive (except when he uses dirty diapers). The rhymes are a bit forced, but the story still has a good rhythm. When his teacher, Miss Lila Greer, refuses to even talk about architecture in her classroom, Iggy’s interest in school is killed, a fate I think too many will relate to. On a class picnic, the class is stuck on an island when a bridge collapses behind them, and Miss Greer drops into a faint from fear—dare I say hysteria? While crossing over a bridge that her class has built out of whatever was on hand while she was in her faint, Miss Greer sees that “There are worse things to do when you’re in grade 2 than to spend your time building a dream,” and she sees the class’ pride in their creation, and so she has a change of heart on the subject of architecture, even allowing Iggy Peck to give weekly lectures to her second grade class on the subject. Miss Greer goes from being a terrible teacher, crushing her children’s dreams and ambitions and interests, to an excellent one, nurturing and encouraging them to explore their interests and to share their expertise and interest with others, even deferring to them. I feel like there are two audiences here: One lesson is for teachers like Miss Greer (or really any adult) and that is to let kids be interested in what interests them. The other is for children—and that is to not let adults and authority figures crush your interests. I’ve spotted Rosie Revere, protagonist of the sequel book, in the illustrations, which are spare but endearing. Bonus points to Roberts for children of many races in the classroom.

****

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Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2013.

Iggy Peck I think had the better story, but at another time, I’d love to read this one alongside a story about Rosie the Riveter, Rosie Revere’s great-great-aunt Rose, though the text does not make this explicitly clear (if anyone knows of a good picture book about Rosie the Riveter or women in WWII in general, please do share). Rosie’s inventions send one of her uncles (and his snakes) into peals of laughter, and while he says that he likes the invention, the laughter hurts Rosie’s confidence and she hides away her talent, building things in the attic of her house and hiding them under her bed, but never letting anyone see the inventions or see her inventing. But her great-great-aunt is an inspiring woman, and she longs to fly. Rosie thinks that maybe she could help her aunt, but her flying machine crashes, and her aunt laughs. Some of the rhymes felt a little forced, but the rhymes are still lilting and give the story a good rhythm. My favorite line may well be “But questions are tricky, and some hold on tight, and this one kept Rosie awake through the night,” because that, as a writer and not an engineer, I can relate to well. Great-great-aunt Rose tells Rosie the importance of never giving up and having confidence in yourself and your ideas. Failures to Rose are just first tries. I do like that we have here a young female protagonist with a passion for science and engineering. Busy illustrations filled with Rosie’s inventions and the creativity of her parts (and including Iggy Peck in classroom scenes) are drawn in pastels on a white background.

***

425818How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers. HarperCollins, 2006.

A boy in love with the stars wants one of his very own, to be his friend, to play hide-and-seek, and with which to take long walks on the beach. He decides to catch a star—not the best way to acquire a friend, it must be said—but his efforts are in vain, because of course you can’t catch a star. He can’t jump high enough, he can’t climb high enough, his rocket ship is made of paper and doesn’t fly well, and seagulls aren’t known for being helpful. Eventually the boy does get a star of his own, one that he’s found washed up on the beach, and they walk along the beach, just like he’d imagined. The colors in this book I think are its best part. They’re beautiful, bright colors. Particularly I enjoyed the sky and light at different times of the day and the particular attention to shadows. There are some beautiful lines of text in this book too: the star “just rippled through his fingers” and “He waited… and he waited… and ate lunch” and “Now the boy was sad. But in his heart, the wish just wouldn’t give up.” Oliver Jeffers is one of my favorites because he is able to be sweet and funny, and because his illustrations use whimsical and pay particular attention to shadow, even when they are spare, which they are not always.

****

Adventuresome Birds

1484730887Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

A grumpy bear who likes to eat eggs in fancy recipes that he finds at the Internet returns with all the other ingredients for his meal to find that his goose eggs have hatched into goslings, who now believe that Bruce is their mother. Honestly, the plot felt a bit overdone (Fly Away Home, anyone?) and the jokes were too adult to be caught, I think, by most of my very young audience (jokes about return policies and identity theft and shopping locally for free-range organic eggs). Mother Bruce raises the children well, but cannot get them to fly away South when it is time for them to migrate, so they all get on a bus and migrate together to Miami. Bear skips his winter hibernation—since it’s still summery in Miami—and spends time on the beach with his goslings—now geese. I as an adult enjoyed it, seeing the cute story of a bear who raises four goslings into geese and understanding the jokes about current human culture, but I don’t know that it played as well with the kids at my story time.

**

24880135Waddle! Waddle! by James Proimos. Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

The style of this book, the humorous dialogue, and the final punch all strongly reminded me of Mo WillemsElephant and Piggie books, though Proimos’ illustration style and his story were both different enough from any Willems book that I could cry no foul but could only cheer. I hope this expands into a series too. Waddle! Waddle! introduces us quickly to the problem: to find the penguin protagonist’s lost friend. The penguin meets two other penguins—one who sings and one who plays the horn (neither particularly well, but both loudly)—but neither is the friend that he met yesterday. He goes to a third character—but realizes too late that this is a polar bear, not a penguin at all, and definitely not the friend that he met yesterday. The polar bear is sorry for the penguin’s plight, but announces that he will eat the penguin now. The singing and the horn-playing penguins come to their new friend’s aid and stun the polar bear with their talents, causing him to drop the penguin protagonist. The penguin slides away and discovers his friend from yesterday! But let’s not tell him that his friend is only his reflection in the ice. The dancing penguin, the singing penguin, and the horn-playing penguin go off together wing-in-wing into the sunset. I did have one parent go wide-eyed at the polar bear’s casual announcement that he would now eat the protagonist, but the tone softens the blow, I think, enough to not frighten children—and anyway, our fairytales often include such threats.  “Waddle!  Waddle!  Belly slide!” is a lot of fun to repeat and read aloud.

***** 9780802738288

Penguin’s Big Adventure by Salina Yoon. Bloomsbury, 2015.

Yoon’s first, Penguin and Pinecone, delighted me, and I keep giving the series chances to live up to that high bar. Penguin decides to do something great, something no one else has done: He decides to become the first penguin to visit the North Pole. He sets off. His friends are doing wonderful things too. He visits old friends along the way (Pinecone and a crab from the beach). He reaches the North Pole, plants his flag, and celebrates, but he is not alone. A polar bear is there. Penguin has never seen a polar bear, and the polar bear has never seen a penguin, and both are afraid, but they smile awkwardly and both realize that neither is frightening and become friends. Penguin’s friends find him at the North Pole, having used their crafts to make a hot air balloon. Penguin says goodbye to the polar bear, and he leaves with his friends.

The inclusion of the friends’ craft-making seemed a little rough and unnecessary to me, but I suspect Yoon wanted to show that great things and new things need not be so extreme as crossing the globe and to be able to explain the hot air balloon at the end. Had the construction of the pieces of the hot air balloon have seemed with direction and intention rather than happening to come together at the end to make a balloon, I would have been more pleased. Or I could have suspended my disbelief long enough to do without an explanation for the balloon.

This is a timely book about seeing friends in people who look differently or unlike anyone that one has ever seen. I could have done with more time exploring Penguin and Polar Bear’s new friendship—though making new friends has already been explored in several other books of the series.
From the title, I expected more of an adventure, and more about the journey. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but it all seemed like a lot to put into a short book.

***

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.

An Untimely Post About Leftovers

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Well, one of these recipes is untimely. It’s very difficult to hold or attend a Thanksgiving meal without receiving leftovers. Turkey is not my favorite, but I recognize that it is traditional, and I would frankly miss it if I were to attend a Thanksgiving meal without it. The sides are what I love best. This year I discovered a wonderful remedy that helps me eat up all of the Thanksgiving leftovers without becoming tired of turkey or of any of the leftovers either:  I wrapped it all up in a tortilla. This year’s leftovers included turkey, stuffing, cranberry chutney, and Brussels sprouts (the last not shown here, but they were actually pretty tasty in this tortilla recipe; I had it several times in the weeks following the holiday).

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I never did quite figure out how long to microwave these tortillas for. The easiest thing seemed to be to microwave the fixings without the tortilla and then spoon all that onto the tortilla.

This next recipe is less seasonal, though perhaps it is more fitting for winter. One of my first roommates post-college used to buy roast chickens and from the leftover bones make some really excellent chicken soup. I got into the habit then of not tossing away the bones, knowing they could have some use. I don’t have her chicken soup recipe, but I found a recipe on 100 Days of Real Food for Crockpot chicken stock.

We had maybe two and half sandwich sized Ziploc bags worth of frozen chicken bones from various meals, fried and roasted, in the freezer. I used baby carrots because they are simpler to snack on and so more likely to get used in our household. The onion we had.  I bought a whole celery from the grocery store, but retrospectively, I wish I’d bought a more expensive but less wasteful carton of celery sticks.

I used what spices we already had: a bay leaf, thyme, and salt. I didn’t have parsley.

The recipe was simple—beyond simple. I minced the carrots and celery and tossed it all in the Crockpot without bothering to defrost the chicken.

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Then I filled the Crockpot with water to within about an inch and a half from its lip, and I turned the Crockpot on low.

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Because I’m still nervous about using a Crockpot and leaving it be, I did this all during the day instead of overnight as the recipe suggests, though my roommate did convince me to leave it on overnight to make more flavorful stock. (We tasted it before bed.)

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In the end, we had four full Tupperware containers of thick yellow stock, ladled from the Crockpot into a wire mesh strainer held over the Tupperware. (The remaining bones, overcooked celery and carrots, and all we had to toss in the trash, which seemed a sad waste. Maybe the carrots could have been edible if I’d been able to detangle them from the bones.)

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We kept one container in the refrigerator and froze the rest to be used later. Since then we’ve used it to cook chicken noodle soup, to add some flavor to rice and to pastas, and mostly to add to soup cans to make a can of soup last a little longer. I mixed it with both chicken soups and beef soups, and both were delicious.

There’s still some in the freezer.

All photos are mine.  Click to view them larger.