Tag Archives: trickster

Book Reviews: June Picture Book Roundup

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This June I read a lot of picture and board books and little else.  I seem to have a harder time reviewing in depth such books, but I don’t want to utterly ignore them either, so I’ve opted for a monthly roundup of such books, each with its own brief review, starting now.  I want to mention that the idea owes some to Rick Riordan, who posts monthly brief reviews of books that he’s read.

BabyLit: Little Miss Austen: Pride & Prejudice by Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2011.

I built this book up too much in my mind and didn’t realize it was a number primer/counting book.  This book counts 1 English village, 2 rich gentlemen, 3 houses, 4 marriage proposals, 5 sisters… up to 10 thousand pounds a year!  Round about the middle—maybe it was by 6—the numbered objects became more nonsensical—horses and soldiers—unless there were actually only that many horses and soldiers mentioned in the books (which I find unlikely), then it’s rather brilliant.  I expected Pride & Prejudice to be more like the Les Petits Fairytales, the illustrations for which I find more appealing, softer, more childish, and more complete.  Some counting books are masked in a plot, but this one, while it might use a plot as its basis, cannot claim to tell the story coherently through its pages.  I have a difficult time with stories without a plot—even when I know that plot is not the point.

*1/2

Les Petits Fairytales: Sleeping Beauty by Trixie Belle, Melissa Caruso-Scott, and illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Henry Holt-Macmillain, 2013.

I’ve been reading a lot of books in this series because they are quick and I can read them while I walk them back to their assigned shelf.  I have read Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel besides.  These are board books, meant to be the earliest introductions to the fairy tales.  These are the fairy tales reduced to their simplest ideas, nouns attached to illustrations, simple and complete illustrations, not like those that are attached to Eric Carle’s Favorite Words books. Belle et al.’s books seem to invite its own retelling by a child in time, for which I’d laud it.  They cannot really be read aloud—or would be dull and extremely short to read aloud.  These are books to give to young readers or would-be readers, essentially a set of flashcards in board book form attempting to tell a tale because of their arrangement.

***

Are You a Cow? by Sandra Boynton.  Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

A simple story in which the characters of Boyton’s books ask the reader if he or she is a cow, a dog, a duck, a frog, etc.  It ends with the affirmation, “You are YOU,” sure to get a giggle out of most young children, whom I’m sure will take it as a responsive, interactive book, sure to mean a little more to readers who return to it as more aware children, teens, or adults.

****

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.  Candlewick, 2011.

The illustrations say so much that the words do not.  The bear searches for his hat, asks a number of creatures whom he meets about his hat, always politely, always thanking them for their denial.  Young readers might spot the hat in the pages, might guess before the bear that the wearer’s fierce denial should be taken as an affirmative.  The bear gets the last laugh, squashing the thief and winning back his hat.  It’s a much darker book than I expected.

****

What Makes a Rainbow: A Magic Ribbon Book by Betty Ann Schwartz and illustrated by Dona Turner.  Piggy Toes, 2003.  First published 2000.

Magic ribbon is right!  If I at 23 am marveling over it, I can only imagine the wonder in the face of a child of the appropriate age.  This is meant for the very young, a concept book to teach colors, and given a loose plot to string the colors together—and what better way to string the colors together than in a rainbow?  The little rabbit asks his mother “what makes a rainbow?” and she sends him across the forest to query his friends, each of whom responds with a color needed to make up a rainbow that also happens to be their primary color. The pages are bright.  The text is nothing stellar but neither is it entirely forgettable.  With the turn of each page, the appropriate color is added via a ribbon to the rainbow growing at the top of the pages over the gutter.

***

Bluebird by Bob Staake.  Schwartz & Wade, 2013.

This is a powerful book.  I was left staring at it in my hands after I was done.  Bluebird is a wordless picture with lessons in moving past grief after a loss and death, anti-bullying, and true friendship and love.  A young boy befriends a bluebird that follows him on his way home from school through the city, even into a dark and twisted forest where they meet several bullies who throw sticks at the boy and bird.  One stick catches the bird and kills it in the air.  The bullies and the boy are appalled.  The bullies run away and the boy is left to mourn his dead friend.  Then they are descended upon by a flock of brightly colored birds that lift boy and bird into the sky where the bluebird undergoes some kind of resurrection and flies away.  I’m not entirely sure what Staake meant the ending to mean.  While the resurrection of the bird and the soaring boy give hope to children dealing with loss, I’m not sure that the ending doesn’t also give unrealistic expectations—of birds, of death, maybe even of friends, though I count myself extremely fortunate in my friends.  Yet, I cannot say that the nebulous and potentially overreaching ending much diminishes the power of the book.

****1/2

That Is Not a Good Idea! by Mo Willems.  Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2013.

Willems’ retells Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddle-Duck, itself arguably of the Red Riding Hood tale type.  I wish I’d realized before or while reading it that that was the premise of this book.  The tale stirred distant memories, but I thought it an old Aesop’s tale maybe.  Retelling Potter is better.  Jemima was foolish and had to be rescued.  Willems’ heroine can save herself.  Not only that, she can manipulate the situation from the beginning.  Women and tricksters win!  Illustrated to remind audiences (mostly the parents who will understand the reference while the kids, I’m almost sure, will not) of silent films, this tells a common story, a fox and a mother goose meet by chance the fox invites the duck back to his home for supper.  The audience of the film within the book—a flock of young goslings whom I assumed from the get-go were the geese’s children—yell at the screen that what the characters are doing is not a good idea, really, really not a good idea, don’t do it!  In a twist both in the age-old story and my imagination and understanding, the duck throws the fox as the last ingredient into his own stew, and the chicks, it is revealed, were warning him not her of the danger.  I enjoyed the surprise, I enjoyed the twist, I enjoy it all more that I realize its inspiration.

****

The Pigeon Loves Things That Go! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion, 2005.

This book starts out simply enough, listing a few basic modes of transportation: a bus, a train, an airplane, objects that seem to catch the interest of many young boys.  Following these is a twist.  “A hot dog?  What is that doing here?”  The duckling explains that a hot dog can go too—right down into his stomach.  It works as a board book, meant to have a simplistic “plot” and a few pages, but I don’t think it would work as a hardcover, where I expect a little more.  This is a book for the very young—and the parents tired of reading books that are solely lists and in need of a good laugh; call it a variation on a theme.

****

An Elephant and Piggie Book: A Big Guy Took My Ball! by Mo Willems.  Disney-Hyperion, 2013.

Elephant Gerald and his best friend Piggie are back, and a big guy has taken Piggie’s ball.  Elephant Gerald is big too.  He’s going to get the ball back for Piggie.  But the big guy is very, very BIG, and he says it’s his ball.  Gerald returns empty-handed, but he’s soon followed by the big guy, but like many other side characters in The Elephant and Piggie books, he seeks to share Gerald and Piggie’s friendship, and whale ball is invented.  Elephant and Piggie stories are often heartwarming and always funny.  Best friends like Elephant and Piggie are hard to find—in real life or fiction.

****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and event kit.

An Elephant and Piggie Book: Happy Pig Day! by Mo Willems.  Disney-Hyperion, 2011.

Elephant Gerald feels excluded because he’s not a pig and feels he can’t celebrate with his friend.  Gerald’s sadness makes Piggie sad too, but Happy Pig Day isn’t just for pigs.  This book shows kids how exclusion feels and reminds them to include everyone—a common theme in The Elephant and Piggie books.

***

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 Review: Reviving the Oldest Tales: The Hobbit

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Click to visit the publisher's site, for links to purchase, summary, excerpt, about the author, and reader's guide

In preparation for the first installment of Peter Jackson’s latest epics, I returned to The Hobbit, a book beloved in my childhood, reviled in high school (such that I wrote it a song to the tune a verse of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown’s “The Book Report”), and now…

The Hobbit is so clearly more suited to a younger audience than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It is not just the subject matter and length that define it as such, but the tone which Tolkien uses—one that seems to me to talk down to its readers, much as I do not think that that is Tolkien’s intention.  Tolkien intends, I think, for the tone of The Hobbit to resemble that of a fireside tale—but that is not a style to which modern readers—and especially modern teens and young adults—are accustomed.

It’s almost as if Tolkien is the grandfather of Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, cutting and inserting himself as he deems necessary: “She does not die at this time.  I’m telling you because you looked scared.”  “This is boring.  Skip to the good stuff.”  “You’re sick.  I’ll humor you.”  “But as that comes in at the end of this tale we will say no more about it just now.”  “I wish I had time to tell you even a few of the tales or one or two of the songs that they heard in that house.”  Where The Lord of the Rings is at times too poetic, the tone of The Hobbit is at times too conversational for my taste and gives too much away and keeps things too light which should be dark and ominous—because it reminds the reader that it is only a fireside tale, and if it is a fireside tale, then deemed appropriate by the elder Tolkien for younger ears.

And yet, The Hobbit is not a classic by chance.  Tolkien introduced the world to the sort of high fantasy epic that is today so common.  The story of The Hobbit itself is well-conceived, exciting, and there is no one I’ve yet found who quite rivals Tolkien’s appreciation for the time that a journey ought to take.  Tolkien introduces readers to well-conceived characters and races of which few in the modern world had dreamed and reawakened in modern men the ideas of goblins and trolls and creatures of mythology, giving them a new life that I imagine the Vikings never imagined for them.

Bilbo Baggins seems an interesting choice for a hero—even the novel’s characters agree.  He is hardly the typical hero of the old epics, burly warlords wielding magic swords and leading hoards of men or facing beasts alone armed with steel and courage.  Bilbo, a peace-loving hobbit of the green Shire, is hired for burglary, not for his strength but for his smallness, not to fight openly with steel but to sneak without engaging, a trickster of old—though he turns out to be much more than that, engage frequently, and like the tricksters, battle with words as often as steel.  Though even his steel involves a measure of sneak.  He does not cleave, hammer, or bite as his friends’ elf-blades; he merely stings.

So much of Tolkien is reviving of mythology; we forget that.

***

Tolkien, J. R. R.  The Hobbit.  New York: Del Rey-Ballantine-Random, 1996.

This review is not endorsed by J. R. R. Tolkien, any of his descendants, or Del Rey Book, Ballantine Publishing Group, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.