Tag Archives: Vera Brosgol

Book Reviews: February 2019 Picture Book Roundup: Living in Community

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Almost all of these books—and there are a lot of them this month—come back to the idea of community, living together with your fellow creatures, sharing resources, and showing kindness.  One exception is Another Monster at the End of This Book, where two friends argue over the course of action that they should take, one excited for the promised thrill and the other frightened of the promise.  The other exception is Hamilton’s The People Could Fly.

Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

The Little Guys by Vera Brosgol. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

I read an advanced reader copy of this book, which comes out April 2. This is a story about sharing. The Little Guys are tiny creatures like acorns with stick person legs and arms and bulbous, orange noses that travel in a pack. The pack makes them mighty. They are unstoppable through the power of teamwork, able to cross dangerous terrains and “beat up” any animal that they encounter. On their quest to find breakfast, they steal and hoard the forest’s resources—“every… thing…”. But being too greedy results in the creatures tumbling into the forest stream. The animals that they have stolen from band together to help the Little Guys. The Little Guys realize that caring about only their own pack isn’t enough, that they are not as indomitable as they had thought, as the whole pack would have been lost if not for the care of others.  They learn that they need to work with the larger forest community, made up of all of the different creatures that inhabit the area. The text itself is fairly simplistic, told in the plural first, the boasts of the Little Guys. The illustrations tell the larger story.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and author's bio.

The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Knopf-Random, 2004.

I bought this book for a graduate class in 2007, and then found out that there is a collection of folktales edited by Virginia Hamilton and bearing the same name and that that was the book we were going to need for class. (The collection was published in 1985; this story is taken from that larger work.) I kept the picture book though. This story is a retelling by Virginia Hamilton of an old tale and beautifully, movingly illustrated by the Dillons. Told in a conversational vernacular style, it’s the story of a people from Africa whose beautiful, black wings shed under the cruelty of slavery and the Atlantic crossing, but whose power of flight is unearthed again with the help of an old man in the fields who comes to the hurting people and whispers the magic words to help them remember.  He can’t help all the people fly; not all of them can fly. In the note in the back, Hamilton explains that the power was often associated with the Gullah (Angolan) people. This is a tale of magic, of reawakening.  It’s a tale of the indomitable desire for freedom.  It’s a celebration of African American resilience and strength.

*****

 Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, trailer, sample, reviews, activity, and author's and illustrator's bios.

The Bad Seed by John Jory and illustrated by Pete Oswald. HarperCollins, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

John Jory takes on the nature v nurture debate in this picture book. The Bad Seed had a rough life. He ended up in a bag of sunflower seeds, chewed upon by a human, and spit out, crash landing beneath the bleachers, and living for a while in these grubby surrounds. He becomes depressed, never smiling, without purpose. He breaks all the social mores and the rules. He hears the other seeds call him a “bad seed.” But he makes a decision to turn his life around. He decides that he is going to begin apologizing and saying please and thank you and holding doors, trying to be more pleasant in his interactions with others. He is going to try to change his mindset and his actions too. He’s not perfect, but he’s trying, and the other seeds are beginning to acknowledge that “he’s not so bad anymore.” It’s definitely an oversimplification of recovery from trauma and depression. It’s not that simple to turn a life around, I don’t think, and I hope no one takes it as a formula for healthy recovery. But it is nice that Jory acknowledges that the Bad Seed doesn’t need to be perfect to improve, that he is not bad if he fails, that his situation is improved by trying.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, trailer, sample, reviews, activity, and author's and illustrator's bios.

The Good Egg by John Jory and illustrated by Pete Oswald. HarperCollins, 2019.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book seemed to be written almost more for adults in the room—but then I was the kid who would have benefited from this lesson at a younger age too. This Good Egg does all the right things for the sake of being good, though he does not always excel at helping as when he paints the house with abstract stokes of multiple colors. But under the pressure of being good when all of his carton-mates are bad (when his carton-mates constantly misbehave) is causing the shell around his crown to crack from the pressure. He leaves his carton to find some peace, and to allow himself to heal, to escape the pressure caused by being at odds with his problematic friends, but he finds himself missing his carton-mates. He has to learn that he doesn’t always have to be good, doesn’t always have to follow every rule and all social mores, and that he doesn’t have to hold everyone to his own standard of excellence. He learns to relax a little bit, and that being good, doesn’t have to mean being perfect. He learns that breaking the rules doesn’t necessarily make you bad.  Now, there is some danger in this message too.  Not only that of caving to peer pressure, but returning to a toxic environment is not necessarily healthy even when one misses those familiar faces, and ignoring others’ toxic behaviors in order to be able to maintain one’s own peace is not always ethical or healthy.  This like the message of The Bad Seed I think needs to be taken with caution. John Jory’s text here follows the same formula that he used in The Bad Seed.

***

Click to visit The Works page for links to order and sample pages.

Pirate Adventure by Karen King and illustrated Ben Mantle. Top That!, 2017.

I was actually truly delighted by this little tale. The pirate captain’s nephew Pete is coming aboard whether or not the crew likes it—and they don’t like it.  They see Pete as small and weak, the ship as no place for a boy. Pete does all the things that a ship’s boy is supposed to do, all the manual labor that is often glossed over in children’s picture books about pirates, which are often all about adventure and feature smiling pirates or ones who are grumpy and growly but in an endearing way to a rough-and-tumble child. When Captain Jim falls ill, Pete is put in charge of the crew and finishes the Jolly Roger’s treasure hunt. The pirates forget their dislike of Pete when they find the treasure chest. Here in the US, the book is available in Barnes & Noble’s bargain section. I did not (yet) buy the book to try to build the pop-out pirate ship.  It seems to have had multiple titles including Treasure Island and Pirate Pete’s Treasure.

*****

Sesame Street

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We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Kates and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Random, 1992.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This book highlights different body parts in illustrations meant to look like a collection of instant photos. This page talks about the differences between the features in each of these photos: old noses, baby noses, round noses, big noses, small noses. The next page reveals a busy tableau of diverse characters, human and Muppet, and talks about how each of these features that appear different perform the same functions (“our noses are the same. They breathe and sniff and sneeze and whiff”). Beyond that, the book confronts ableism. Some may need to wear helmets to protect their heads. Some need to take more time to form words with their mouths. Some won’t talk much. Some won’t talk at all. Some need glasses. Some are blind. One character is in a wheelchair but playing basketball with friends. It advocates asking for a break from a teacher if it’s needed.

The 90s fashion styles in these illustrations! I had to Google their names, but I recognize the old comedy sketch duo Laurel and Hardy in the illustrations. I don’t know why the pair appear in the pages of a book from the early 90s.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and author's bio.

Elmo’s Super-Duper Birthday Party by Naomi Kleinberg and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This book, though a little long, was wonderful. Elmo and his mother prepare for Elmo’s birthday celebration, shopping, making cupcakes, filling the piñata, and setting up games. The text is simple, perhaps at times a little too detailed, but that also serves to spark ideas for the would-be-party-planner/reader (I got some ideas for stuffing my next piñata). Elmo and his friends enjoy the party, but Elmo’s wish when he blows out the candles takes this book to the next level. Elmo wishes to share his birthday joy with others, so they move the party to the nursing home, and continue celebrating, including the seniors there in the festivities. It’s enough to melt my cold heart. Elmo is too good for this world, and I hope young readers learn from his example; the world would be a kinder, better place. The paperback includes stickers, a crown for the birthday child, and a game to play at a party. It’s a party in a book! Just add cake and friends.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and author's bio.

Who’s Hiding? by Naomi Kleinberg. Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Play along as Elmo and other Sesame Street characters lead the reader through Sesame Street. Some of their friends are hiding, and the characters give you clues as to whom you’ll find (“His best friend is a worm.” “He’s green and grouchy.”), but to find out who is on each page, you’ll have to lift the flaps. The illustrations are photographs of the Muppets and actors on the Sesame Street set.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

Kindness Makes the World Go Round by Craig Manning and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2018. 

Elmo’s mother gives him the gift of a camera on World Kindness Day (November 13 if anyone wants to celebrate) and a quest to go and capture examples of kindness on Sesame Street. Elmo spends the day photographing his friends performing little kindnesses, and then turns around and performs a kindness for his mother. This story is wonderfully sweet, in much the way that is Naomi Kleinberg’s Elmo’s Super-Duper Birthday. This though is told in an enchanting rhyme.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews,

Another Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone. SFI Readerlink Dist, 2018. First published in 1996.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5, Grades PreK-K.

Adding lift the flap elements to this story is an improvement on the first Monster at the End of This Book, but otherwise this book falls rather flat in comparison to the first. I would rather have The Monster at the End of This Book done in this format. In this, Grover and Elmo argue over whether or not to turn the page and come closer and closer to the promised monster at the end, and of course the monsters are just themselves as Grover was the monster in the first book.

***

Song Lyrics

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, and illustrator's bio.

All You Need is Love by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and illustrated by Marc Rosenthal. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is not the intended medium for this text. The repetition of the chorus, which itself is the word “love” repeated, just doesn’t read well. For a story time reading, I pulled out a tablet, and let YouTube provide the “reading” by finding a recording of the song by the Beatles. The book illustrates a bear who, woken by the singing of a bird, leaves his forest home, enters the city, and picking up a crowd along the way, interacts with the diverse people there, creating elaborate chalk drawings in the park. Some of the illustrations are bright and colorful certainly, but they would have just as much power I think separate from the book as overwritten with the song’s lyrics.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and illustrator's bio.

What a Wonderful World by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss and illustrated by Tim Hopgood. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

For this one, I also let Louis Armstrong via YouTube do the work of “reading.” This at least has more concrete images to illustrate. The cast is again diverse, with no real narrative this time to the illustrations beyond the text’s wonder of the world. This text at least works better as a narrative, as read aloud.

***

Click to visit Barnes & Noble's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, and reviews.,

Puff the Magic Dragon by Paul Yarrow and Lenny Lipton and illustrated by Éric Puybaret. Sterling, 2007.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Peter, Paul & Mary did the “reading” for this book via a YouTube video of the song recording. I can’t remember ever having heard the full song before; I’m sure I did do in my childhood, but I doubt then that its story really sank in for me. The text itself tells of a lonely dragon who meets and befriends a boy, who as time passes, stops coming (dies the song implies, though the illustrations suggest he just became a busy adult and parent), leaving the dragon lonely again. The illustrations portray a young girl (presumably Jackie’s daughter), unmentioned in the text, coming to the dragon on the final pages, giving the story at least some hope, though she too will die and the dragon’s loneliness return. I like that Puybaret added to the story, took that extra step beyond the text.

***

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: Be Prepared Reminisces on the Trials of Sleepaway Camp and Adolescence

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

Some spoilers.

I think it speaks very well of Vera Brosgol’s autobiographical graphic novel Be Prepared that I stayed up late to finish this ARC the same night that I brought it home from the store. I think it speaks even more highly of it that more than three months later (how did I leave it for so long?) in reminding myself of the plot for this review, I ended up pretty much rereading the whole of the text without it feeling tired, even though I knew its twists and turns.

The novel plunged me into a perspective to which I really hadn’t given much thought, that of the immigrant Russian American—though the plight of the immigrant is something I think about often—especially just now. I know only a very little about any of Russian history—and what I have learnt has been more from British and Australian period dramas and Disney’s Anastasia than from classes where truth outweighed drama. Most of what I’ve learnt has been from the point too of view of the exiled aristocracy than the average Russian citizen.

But some things are universal: the desire to fit in with peers, the desire to have the best birthday party, the drama of adolescence and the struggle of adolescent friendships, particularly as teens begin to experience romantic attraction, the fear of and longing for stay-away summer camp….

Vera is the odd one out among her more affluent peers in Albany, an immigrant to America, having been born in Russia but immigrated before she turned five. Her mother’s peers are primarily Russian immigrants, fellow parishioners of their Russian Orthodox Church. Vera tries to throw a birthday party to match her classmates’, but her mother relies on gifts and help from the Church, leaving Vera with a party that is more Russian than she’d like. Her classmates leave in the night before the sleepover ends. All of her classmates head to camp during the summer, but Vera has never been allowed to go, the cost being too great. Upon discovering a Russian camp in Connecticut, a place where she won’t be the odd one out, she convinces her mother to accept the Church’s help to get Vera and her younger brother there.

But Vera still feels like the odd one out among the other campers. She is divided from her brother, put with the older of the camp groups in a cabin with two girls, five years her seniors, who have not only been going to the camp for twelve years but have shared a cabin for the whole of that time. The camp requires them to speak Russian as much as is possible, which isn’t a problem for Vera, but she does not read the language well, and she doesn’t know the camp customs.

After two weeks, the only friends that Vera feels that she has made are the chipmunks that she’s fed despite the rules—and even one of them has betrayed her by biting her.

But a chance encounter with a runaway guinea pig wins her a friend at last in Kira, a younger girl from another group. They admire one another, help one another to grow, and encourage one another. Together the two of them set out to conquer camp, to best the boys at last in the weekly capture-the-flag game.

This is a novel about being comfortable in your own skin and in the connections that you make, and about not judging on first impressions. From Vera’s belief in the true friendship of her classmates who abandon her, to her initial exile of Kira because she is younger and always crying over her missing guinea pig, to her belief that her brother is enjoying camp, initial impressions prove wrong again and again.

I enjoyed the pacing of this novel. I think Brosgol used some great tricks to keep the story going through periods of stagnation. At one point, a couple weeks of camp activities are expressed in a letter to her mother below the text of which the panels more honestly express Vera’s experiences at the camp. Moments of quiet contemplation are overlaid once by the action of swinging on a play set to give the panel some action. At others her thoughts are related to moments in Russian history, which were informative as well as informing the character.

The graphic novel is such a popular genre right now for middle grade readers, and I think readers will find this at once a relatable and unique perspective on feelings we’ve all had and experiences many of us might have shared.

****

Brosgol, Vera. Be Prepared. Color by Alec Longstreth. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Vera Brosgol, Alec Longstreth, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.