Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rainstorm, by Barbara Lehman (2007)

RainstormRainstorm is one of the many delicious fruits of yesterday's trip to our public library.  It is also one of five beautifully crafted wordless picture books by Barbara Lehman, a 2005 Caldecott honoree for The Red Book.  Like her other books (and like many of David Wiesner's wordless books), Rainstorm elicits wonderment by moving seamlessly between fantasy and reality in ways that evoke surprise and delight, that feel magical. 

The story opens with a "poor little rich boy" trying unsuccessfully to entertain himself in his large, empty house when a rainstorm keeps him indoors.  He accidentally stumbles upon a key, which opens a trunk, which leads to a secret passage and, eventually, a parallel world.  Lehman's paintings are seemingly simple and cartoonish (in contrast to, say, Wiesner's detailed realism).  But they are intensely evocative, revealing the emotional journey of a protagonist whose eyes are simple dots and whose mouth is a merely small curved line.  She also uses border, perspective, and other picture book conventions to bring her readers fully into the scene; we are most definitely along for the ride.  as with other well-designed wordless picture books, Rainstorm welcomes "readers" at all levels of language proficiency and offers them a truly interactive and creative "reading" experience; teachers might find it effective as a creative writing prompt for older children and/or in working with English Language Learners.

Like so many classic children's books, Rainstorm registers our desire to turn boredom into adventure---a desire that young people may express more explicitly but from which their elders, no matter how busy, are not immune.  It invites readers of all ages to revel in the possibility of finding something extraordinary beneath the veneer of our ordinary lives.  In the process, it promises, our loneliness will give way to companionship and connection as surely as the rainstorm gives way to sunshine.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ivy + Bean (Book One), written by Annie Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall (2006)

Ivy & Bean's Secret Treasure Box (Books 1-3)To date, Miss E hasn't been very interested in chapter books (which is perfectly fine with me, BTW).  But so far, she loves the Ivy and Bean books so much that she's been willing to forgo our usual 3-book nightly ritual in order to fit in as many chapters as we can before Light's Out.  She seriously can't get enough.

This series (8 books so far) by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall really does give young readers/listeners the best of both worlds: the textual detail of a chapter book and the high quality illustrations of a picture book.  Since each volume is around 120 pages, Barrows has ample time to fully develop both of her protagonists and meaningfully introduce a fairly large supporting cast.  Blackall's playful and expressive ink sketches adorn just about every two-page spread, sometimes occupying a whole page (and occasionally two), other times inhabiting strategic margins and corners.  Indeed they are substantial enough to offer a full visual telling of the story and perfectly matched with the tone and energy of the text.

Second-graders Ivy and Bean are yet another incarnation of the classic "unlikely BFFs" formula so central to children's literature, but they (and their adventures) still feel fresh and original.  Though Bean initially seems the typical "bold tomboy" and Ivy the demure "good girl," they are delighted to accidentally discover how much they actually have in common, above all, a love of adventures that marry physical and imaginative prowess.  In this first volume, this involves casting a spell on Bean's mean tween sister, Nancy.  Secret passageways, theatrical makeup, lots of fence climbing, an outgrown play house, and a whole mess of worms add to the fun.

Certainly, not all parents will love these books; Ivy and especially Bean revel in their own irreverence, rule-breaking, duping of unsympathetic elders, etc.  But I found them almost as charming and hilarious as my daughter.  And I'm not above admitting that their adventures were a satisfying fantasy---and vicarious delight---for both of us.

Oh yeah...and so far, we haven't run into any princesses, tutus, or assorted pink fluffiness.  And that's kind of refreshing.

Miss E's Read:  Did I mention that there is a "big, muddy worm pit"???  And two little girls with rather good aim??  Or that Bean wiggles her tush and sticks out her tongue when she is angry?

Worth Noting:  Scholarly types might enjoy my friend Jenny Miskec's essay on this series in the Children's Literature Assn. Quarterly.  You do need Project Muse to access it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Yes Day!! Written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld (2009)

Yes Day!
Yes Day! is another incredibly clever collaboration by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld, the pair who are also responsible for Duck! Rabbit! (among others).  The premise is simple but irresistible:  Imagine that for one whole day each year, you are the boss, and your parents have to honor your every request!!  The kid appeal is obvious; this may be the most blatant wish-fulfillment fantasy I've ever seen.  But adults will appreciate how smartly this book is crafted, enjoy its rich humor and its gentle warmth, and be reminded of how powerful simple pleasures can be.

On each pair of pages, the image on the right conveys the child's request, as well as its context; readers must flip the page to see the wish fulfilled, heightening our feeling of anticipation.  These wish-fulfillment scenes dominate the book, each one rendered far more boldly than the scene of request, typically as full-bleed images that often extend onto the facing page or take up two pages (the play of borders and white-space is, not coincidentally, reminiscent of Where the Wild Things Are).  Lichtenheld's cartoonish artwork enriches the book's natural humor and strikes exactly the right note.  The illustrations often contain details (subtle and not-so-subtle) of event and context that are barely hinted at in the understated text, catching us by surprise and deepening the comedic effects.  For example, while we know that "Can I Use Your Hair Gel" will not end well, we don't know until we turn the page that "Yes Day" also happens to be Formal Family Portrait Day and that a goofy beret-wearing box-camera aficionado will capture Junior's bow tie and a spiky mohawk combo for posterity.  Deceptively simple but profoundly expressive, the visual text effectively conveys the protagonist's high energy and great delight as well as the intimacy and joy of the parent-child relationship. 

Miss E's Read:  She absolutely adores the concept behind this book---what's not to love??? (assuming that you're a kid, that is).  Her favorite part, though, may be the endpapers, which depict a calendar full of "no" days---"You Gotta Be Kidding Me Day," "Over My Dead Body Day," When Pigs Fly Day"---that are genuinely funny to adults and laugh-out-loud hilarious to small children.  Adults should be warned, however, that this is a "can and will be used against you" page.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? (2006)

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? [Hardcover]In this unique volume from Dial Press, fourteen all-star illustrators offer delightful visual answers to an age-old question.  The collection showcases "signature style" pieces by such heavy hitters as Mo Willems (Knuffle Bunny), David Shannon (No, David!), Jerry Pinkney (The Lion and the Mouse), Tedd Arnold (Fly Guy), Mary Grandpre (Harry Potter), and others.  But what is most remarkable about it are the broad range---in terms of subject, tone, and medium---and the sheer inventiveness of the artists' responses to the World's Most Cliched Prompt.

Willems, for example, brings in his trademark Pigeon for a police interrogation, while Harry Bliss draws on a cast of mutated zombie chickens (who seem poised to begin the "Thriller" dance).  David Shannon imagines a cartoonish chicken chauffeuring around sundry other barnyard animals, while Jerry Pinkey's delicate and more realistic watercolor animals spread a tablecloth on the ground for a tea party.   Yet while all of the illustrations strike different notes, humor and whimsy dominate.  There are many pages that make my daughter laugh out loud---and without stopping---even though she is a little too young to fully appreciate the book's premise.  Moreover, many of the images are incredibly detailed, and some include rather sophisticated visual puns and allusions that appeal to adults without excluding or alienating children.

Miss E's Read:  This book was in heavy rotation in our house for several weeks.  She thinks it's hysterical.  Marla Frazee's contribution is one of her favorites, as is Bliss's zombie page.   Judy Schahner's (Skippyjon Jones) free-range/de-ranged chicken also makes her fall out of her seat.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Bink and Gollie, written by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee and illustrated by Tony Fucile (2010)

Bink and Gollie (Ala Notable Children's Books. Younger Readers (Awards))This 2011 Geisel Medal winner doesn't quite fit the traditional parameters of the early reader.  Like Grace Lin's Ling and Ting, it's divided into multiple chapters (in this case three), but unlike Lin's book, it doesn't play by the "rules" of the early reader with respect to vocabulary and sentence structure.  But it is a delightful read aloud and---even more importantly---a memorable and emotionally rich story.

Bink and Gollie is the brainchild of two authors who normally don't write collaboratively with anyone.  Kate Di Camillo has been a Newbery honoree for her middle-grade novels Because of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Despereux (and has previously been recognized by the Geisel folks for one of her Mercy Watson early chapter books).  Alison McGhee is less well-known in the world of children's books but is a prolifc, award-winning author in her own right.  And illustrator Tony Fucile is a veteran Disney/Pixar animator as well as the author/illustrator of the picture book Let's Do Nothing.

Like Frog and Toad, Elephant and Piggie, and so many other classic characters in children's literature, Bink and Gollie join a long line of unlikely BFFs whose loyal friendships and embrace of difference---along with their charming eccentricities---endear them to readers young and old.  The two girls live next door to each other---gloriously sans adults---in dwellings that tell us a great deal about who they are.  Older, taller, elegant Gollie lives in a postmodern treehouse whose decor can best be described as "mod" and whose kitchen produces perfect pancakes.  Younger, brasher Bink, with her wild, uncombed hair, garish rainbow socks, and relative disregard for public opinion, inhabits a scaled-down cottage at the foot of the tree, lined with shelves full of peanut butter, on which she largely subsists.  And in each of the three chapters, their differences temporarily---and most comically---drive them apart, leading them in each case to a deeper understanding of the other and then to a joyful (and equally comic) reunion.

Fucile's cartoonish illustrations reflect his background in animation.  Using largely a black and white palette (bold pen and ink paired with softer greys), he uses touches of color very sparingly but effectively through powerful visual contrast.  His expressive drawings perfectly capture the energy, personalities and the emotional journeys of both girls. They vividly bring the girls' whimsical homes to life on the page, leading us eagerly into the fantasy.  And they add a whole other layer of humor, both to the girls' actions and interactions and to his lively, witty streetscapes.

Notes:  You can preview the first 10 pages of the book here.  I've also included a link to Betsy Bird's exuberant and detailed School Library Journal review.

Miss E's Read:  She says she most loves "that there's an older one and a younger one," and thus resonates with many of her (and, I imagine, other children's) pretend play fantasies.  The pet-fish-roller-skating-oopsie incident in the last story hit a little too close to home (even though it turns out far better than any of our own fish crises have), and we do have to skip those pages ;)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Benny and Penny in The Big No-No, by Geoffrey Hayes (2009)

Benny and Penny in the Big No-No! (Toon)This 2010 Geisel medal winner (ALA award for early readers) is one of three Benny and Penny books published by TOON books.  And like the other Geisels I've looked at, it does not disappoint, despite the fact that early readers are such a tricky category, with many restrictions on vocabulary and sentence length.

TOON Books publishes high-quality comics at the standard three early-reading levels.  If you are a fan of graphic literature, you'll be hooked; if you're not, these books could change your mind.  The series editorial director is Francoise Mouly, and its advisor is her husband, New Yorker cartoonist Art Spiegelman.  Spiegelman wrote the Pulitzer-winning Maus books (yes, the comic books about the Holocaust), which were among the first to give graphic literature mainstream---and literary---respectability; he also produced one of TOON's early offerings, Jack and the Box. 

Benny and Penny are a brother and sister pair rendered in charming, dynamic colored pencil illustrations.  In this volume, they sneak into the new neighbors' yard to retrieve a pail, and both mystery and rather muddy adventures ensue when they meet the child who now lives there.  Part of the appeal of this story lies in the relationship between the siblings, who are eminently realistic both in their rivalries and in their loyalty.  They are also very energetic and fun-loving, and it's hard not to revel along with them in the glorious messes of children's outdoor exploration.  A gentle, playfully presented warning about making hasty assumptions lies beneath the more explicit lesson, and the children's mistakes are handled lightly and without judgment, reminding us these they are a natural part of a child's social education.  The story ends with some not-so-subtly physical comedy that will have young readers laughing aloud---and perhaps adults as well. 

Worth Noting:  Toon's online resources are wonderful; find them here.  Teachers will especially appreciate the file of thoughtful lesson plans.  The site also features a CarTOON maker that looks super fun.  Readers can also  access eleven TOON books online for free, with audio, through the TOON Book Reader---in five different languages (and intended partly to support ELL kids).  In fact, you can read The Big No-No for yourself here.

Miss E's Read:  She most loved the mud.  And it's abundant!!!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pilobolus: The Human Alphabet, with photographs by John Kane (2005)

The Human AlphabetThis was an accidental find during our last trip to the library.  It is also, hands down, the most original and stunning alphabet book I've come across yet.

Remember the old-school episodes of Sesame Street where several kids lay on the ground and used their bodies to form the "Letter of the Day"?  That's the basic concept here, except that the letters are executed by highly skilled professional dancers, exquisitely balanced upright and gracefully intertwined.  And that's just the beginning.  Each page of the book not only features a small "human alphabet" letter in one of its corners but is dominated by a second image (also formed by the dancers' bodies) signifying a word beginning with that letter.  This interactive dimension challenges the reader to guess the word being represented.  And many of these are somewhat abstract---at least at first---inviting us to think and see differently---and to look again and again.  Thus this book calls us---adults and children equally---into an experience of genuine wonder as we marvel at the wit and genius behind each creation, the beauty and skill of human bodies pushed to the limits of strength and flexibility, and the profound intimacy and collaboration such work requires.

Note: The Pilobolus Dance Company has been around for 40 years.  You can see samples of their work on their website or by searching for them on YouTube. 

Miss E's Read:  She loved guessing the images and later spent several evenings poring over its details in her darkened room, long after she was supposed to go to sleep.  She also, naturally, wanted to re-enact her favorite pages, which didn't exactly work so well... ;)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Red Shoes, written by Eleri Glass and illustrated by Ashley Spires (2008)

The Red ShoesFirst, I'd like to apologize for a few weeks' unannounced hiatus.  I got more than a little caught up in the whirlwind of final classes and exams, family visits, graduation, etc., and I'm afraid that my blog was one of the casualties.  But welcome back!

Fortunately, this quiet book has absolutely nothing in common with Hans Christian Andersen's more famous---but terribly dark and disturbing---fairy tale by the same name. Rather, it's the story of a young girl's shoe-shopping expedition with her mother, set in the 1960s.  Predictably, the mother advocates a sensible, boring pair of brown lace-ups...but the girl has her heart set on the one pair of spirited red shoes high on the shelf.

Author Eleri Glass, a Canadian storyteller about whom little information is available, presents the story in what is essentially a free verse poem.  Her lyrical, often spare stanzas are rich in metaphor and personification; the red shoes "giggle" and "whisper" to the girl, "happy apples, waiting to be picked." Ashley Spires, illustrator of Binky the Space Cat (among others), renders the story in a rather drab palette of predominantly browns and greys that set off the red shoes (and their metaphorical meanings) by contrast.  She makes powerful use of angle, perspective, and proportion to effectively convey the emotional nuances of the girl's experience, while vintage details add charm and gentle humor.

In addition to being beautifully crafted, The Red Shoes is highly relatable.  On a more obvious level, young Fashionistas will be all too familiar with At the same time, though, it speaks eloquently to one of the central tensions of adulthood.  It cries out to all of us who long---secretly or not so secretly---for what is bold, glamorous, distinctive, and whimsical against the forces of a daily life that too often demands conformity, dutifulness, practicality and expediency. 

Miss E's Read:  She loved it.  She wants red shoes too.  Only not the pair that are in her closet, naturally.

N.B.  Twelve enlargeable pages from the book are available here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Not a Box, by Antoinette Portis (2006)

Not a BoxIt is not surprising that Not a Box, Antoinette Portis's debut project, was both a critical and commercial success, receiving major awards from the American Library Association (Geisel Honor Book) as well as the New York Times (Best Illustrated Children's Book) and even spawning a sequel, Not a Stick.  For Not a Book shares much in common with the very best picture book produced for younger readers, it is deceptively simple, and---like so many of the classics---it is primarily "about" the power of children's imaginations.

Part of what is so smart and effective about this book is its tight, repetitive structure.  The first pair of facing pages includes, on the left, a tan background with a single line of text; an off-stage grownup inquires why the subject is sitting in/standing on/squirting a box.  On the right, we are presented with a minimalistic black bold-line drawing of a bunny positioned behind/above/next to a simple rectangle, against a white page.  Then, in the next set of facing pages, the pattern repeats with a twist; on the left, the words, "It's not a box" appear against an orange background, while on the right, the previous "bunny and rectangle" drawing is repeated, with the addition of bold orange lines turning the box into a race car/mountain/blazing building.  And this alternating structure repeats several times, inviting children to make predictions and to "read" the bunny's emphatic protests (This is also a very fun and accessible book for "taking parts.")  Moreover, when the pattern is finally disrupted, that rupture is all the more dramatic and memorable.

Though this noteworthy structure is part of the book's craft, one of the ways that it "works" on its reader, it's not what is most endearing and powerful about it.  Not a Book skillfully taps the memories of every reader---child and adult---who has ever loved a multifunctional cardboard box, who fondly remembers riding, pushing, tumbling, markering, and hiding in it until it needs to be duct-taped back together more than once.  It offers adults a momentary return to a simpler, less commercial childhood and children the pleasure of vicariously putting naysaying adults in their place.  Most of all, it celebrates the creativity, resourcefulness, and joy of a child's unfettered imagination---the very thing many of us spend our adult lives yearning to recapture.

Miss E's Read:  This book invites re-enactments.  Indefinitely.  'Nuf said.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan and illustrated by Brain Floca (2010)

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian SpringBallet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring came into our house with a stack of other ALA award winners ordered by our university library (It was one of the 2011 Sibert Honor Books, given for "the most distinguished informational books published in English" for young readers.)  It's not the kind of book I would have otherwise taken home to share with my four year old; recommended by its publisher for ages 9-12, both its concept and its research methods (Primary text sources! and Footnotes!!) seemed a bit too sophisticated for a preschooler.

But I'm glad that I did, and so is my daughter, who can easily sit through the whole book (just 48p, including notes, many with minimal text) without getting antsy.  She is captivated by the dancers' movements and does not seem bothered by vocabulary and concepts above her level (certainly the authors' short, crisp, measured prose helps).  Most importantly, she genuinely seems to connect with the idea (familiar from baby ballet class) of using your body's movement to tell a story. 

Ballet for Martha is the 10th collaboration by authors Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, whose previous---and award-winning---work together frequently deals with art and artists (as in Action Jackson and Vincent VanGogh: Portrait of an Artist).  Interestingly, Greenberg's body of work also includes two edited poetry anthologies (one a Printz award winner) that explore intersections between poetry and visual art.  Illustrator Brian Floca has won two previous Sibert honor awards, both for books that he both authored and illustrated (Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 and Lightship). 

This book introduces Appalachian Spring in a way that is vivid and highly accessible, even to those not very familiar with ballet.  It effectively captures both what is revolutionary and what is distinctly American about this production.   At the same time, Flora's muted palette and pairing of ink with watercolor not only shows us the beauty of Graham's radical, intense, and often uneasy choreography but expertly recreates the expression and movement of the dancers.  What makes this such a distinctive and profound book, though, goes beyond the ballet itself and into an exploration of the creative process.  The authors and illustrator show---with a light, understated hand---the challenges, conflicts, and even tantrums that are part of the truth of this story.  But the thread that dominates is the story of a magical collaboration between choreographer, composer, and set designed that emerges slowly, sometimes painfully, but in the end triumphantly. 

Worth Noting:  Googlebooks offers a few pages of text and Flora's lovely jacket illustrations here.  And School Library Journal blogger Betsy Bird (Fuse #8) offers a far more detailed review here, with links to an interview with Brian Flora and to YouTube clips of the ballet itself.  And yes, I feel vindicated that she too thought the book was fine for a younger audience, recommending it for ages 5-10.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thumbelina, retold and illustrated by Brian Pinkney (2003)

ThumbelinaIn many ways, "Thumbelina" is a strange tale to adapt for a picture book.  Certainly it is not nearly as dark as his more famous "The Little Mermaid" (the original mermaid suffers brutal pain every time she walks on her new legs, is called to murder her beloved prince in order to save herself, turns into seafoam when he marries another, and is finally granted the chance to earn an immortal soul through centuries of good deeds).  But while Thumbelina at least enjoys a far happier ending, rewarded for her goodness and stoic endurance with marriage to a handsome fairy king, it's not exactly preschool material, what with the initial kidnapping by an ugly toad and the three narrow escapes from potentially miserable forced marriages.

Still, the idea of a kind and lovely fairy, smaller than a human thumb and contently drifting on a tulip-petal boat when not resting in her walnut-shell bed, is inherently---and perennially---enchanting to many children as well as to adults.  And Pinkney's retelling---which mostly abbreviates the story, simplifies details, cuts Thumbelina's sad ruminations when she's dismissed as "ugly," and updates Andersen's prose---is vivid and capable.

The real attraction of this retelling, though, are the illustrations.  Brian Pinkney---the son of the legendary watercolorist Jerry Pinkney and Gloria Pinkney as well as the husband of Andrea Davis Pinkney, his frequent collaborator---is a master of his craft.  With almost fifty titles to his credit, along with two Caldecott and four Coretta Scott King honors, Pinkney is a major player in the children's book world and, more specifically, one of the key figures in the world of African American children's illustration.

Pinkney's signature style is a scratchboard technique; in this particular book, he uses colored inks on clayboard.  The result, in the case of Thumbelina, are dynamic, high-energy (lots of line and swirl!), delicate but playful illustrations that---at times bordering on the abstract---give a very contemporary feel to Andersen's 19th-century tale.  Moreover, though his style and medium are very different from those of his father Jerry, both Pinkney men are notable for taking the most European of fairy tales and re-imagining them with brown-skinned protagonists (often, as here, not specifically African American but resonant with a fairly broad group of readers who seldom see themselves represented in such tales). So while the tale itself is not one of my favorites, Pinkney's artwork is worth the price of admission.

Miss E's Read:  She loves to sit and examine the images without necessarily putting a story to them.  Her favorite pages are the spread where the butterfly pulls Thumbelina on a leaf (who doesn't love butterflies?); the pages where she comforts the (seemingly) dead sparrow; and (shocker!) the concluding pages where Thumbelina is given beautiful clothes and wings (which she finds far more interesting than the fairy-king bridegroom.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

And Tango Makes Three, written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole (2005)

And Tango Makes ThreeJust this morning, I read the ALA's April 11 press release announcing the ten most frequently banned and challenged books of 2010.  And for the fifth time in six years, Tango topped the list (in 2009, it briefly slipped to the number two spot, behind Lauren Myracle's ttfn series.)

Presumably, the story behind this most controversial book is familiar by now.  Authors Justin Richardson (a psychiatrist) and Peter Parnell (a playwright and Richardson's domestic partner) recount the true story of two male chinstrap penguins in the Central Park zoo who paired off during mating season and were subsequently given the opportunity to hatch an egg that needed care and nurture. Prolific illustrator Henry Cole, who has illustrated over 50 children's books---including Harvey Fierstein's The Sissy Duckling---lends his considerable talent to the project

What is most ironic about the controversy generated by Tango is that it is both visually and verbally an exceptionally gentle book.  Working with very unsaturated watercolor and pencil, Cole's palette is very coll and soft, dominated by light blues, greys, and browns (even the penguin's coloring is more charcoal than black).  The illustrations of Roy and Silo together are graceful and tender, and their courtship is...well...pretty darned courtly.  Likewise, the font feels "light" and almost delicate.  Verbally speaking, the authors use parallel sentence structures, repetitions, and short breath units to maintain slow, careful pacing and soothing, balanced sound qualities.  Even the most poignant part of the story---the part where Silo and Roy want an egg of their own so badly  that they patiently attempt to hatch a rock---derives its emotional force from understatement: "When Silo got sleepy, he slept.  And when Silo was done sleeping and sitting, he swam and Roy sat.  Day after day, Silo and Roy sat on the rock.  But nothing happened."  The authors frame the story by briefly referencing other families in the zoo, the human "families of all kinds" who visit and the various species of animals who "make families of their own."  Gone are the overt didacticism of early Leslea Newman (Heather Has Two Painfully Earnest, Birk-Wearing, Nuke-Hating Mommies), the sometimes sharp-edged satire of Johnny Valentine in the 90s.  This is a sweet and tender story, executed by light, skillful hands.  Heck, it even ends with an idyllic melon-colored sunset and the promise of a peaceful bedtime for penguins and people alike.

Miss E's Take:  She said that it was a "great" book for kids "because the baby penguin is soooooo cute.  Her favorite page, of course, is the one that shows Tango slowly hatching.

But sometimes she skips the bedtime page.

We did talk a little bit about what book banning means, and when I explained that some people don't think that families should have two daddies, she replied, "Well, daddies give you whatever you want, and that's why I want two."  Well, alright then...

Note:  Although Cole's illustration website is a little busy for my personal taste, I imagine that children will love his "Game Room," which features a memory game, three virtual jigsaw puzzles, and a virtual painting game.

Another Note:  Since the publication of Tango, Richardson and Parnell have teamed up to produce a second picture book involving a real-life animal story and a pair o'daddies.  Christian, the Hugging Lion, an account of a lion's remarkable and enduring relationship with the two human dads who had him reintegrated into the wild, is a finalist in the 2011 Lambda Literary Awards

Monday, April 11, 2011

It's a Book, by Lane Smith (2010)

It's a BookI chose Lane Smith's It's a Book to read and blog about tonight in honor of National Library Week (April 10-16, 2011).  Certainly, it's a book that above all else celebrates the joy of being absorbed in a book---even and perhaps especially in an era dominated by electronic media.  And it explicitly points readers to libraries---not bookstores---as the place where we go to obtain books.  However, this is also, I think, a fitting book for honoring librarians because of the critical role that they (and the American Library Association) play in defending intellectual freedom.  For while this book has not yet made the list of Frequently Challenged Books, it undoubtedly will soon, especially if incidents like these are any indication.

It's a Book is not a book with which all parents will be comfortable.  [Spoiler Alert!!]  Its cast of characters include a mouse, a monkey, and a (literal) jackass, the last of whom is the subject of the book's final punchline.  So if you're not comfortable saying "jackass" aloud at the end, this is probably not a book you'll enjoy sharing with your young companion/s.  (But please, please don't deprive other library users from the chance to make that decision for themselves.)

Smith, who has illustrated nearly 30 children's books (many of which he also authored) is no stranger to controversy or book banning.  His most frequent collaborator is Jon Scieszka, with whom he produced The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992); he also illustrated Eve Merriam's Halloween ABC and Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.  His signature style, much like Scieszka's, is always irreverent.

Like Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (1989), which he also created with Scieszka, It's a Book is a metafictive comedy about reading---and the very future of the book.  A jackass, working busily on his laptop, questions a monkey about the strange "device" in his hands, wondering why it doesn't need a password and whether it can tweet.  When he borrows the monkey's book and finds himself absorbed in its story for hours, he finally seems to understand...or maybe not.

The School Library Journal recommends this book for grades 3-5, readers older than the traditional picture book crowd to whom it is marketed.  Indeed, both critics and fans have commented on this book's crossover appeal.  As with the Mo Willems books I've discussed in previous posts, there are jokes that only older readers will understand, like the part where the jackass "translates" a page from Treasure Island into text-speak.  There are some technological terms that a five-year-old may not know, like "wi-fi," and the concept is rather sophisticated---I've used it with college students to talk about metafiction and postmodernism.  

Ultimately, though, Miss E has always enjoyed reading this book with me.  The dialogue between the two characters (distinguished by different font styles and colors)---and the repetitious quality of the monkey's responses---enables her to "read" the monkey's part, while I play (hahahaha!) the jackass.  The ideas that the jackass doesn't know what a book is---and doesn't seem to be listening to anything the monkey says--- both strike her as hilarious.  And Smith's deceptively simply drawings of the two animals, whose changing facial expressions essentially retell the story in images, elicit gales of laughter every time.

Bonus:  Smith discusses It's a Book at length on his blog.  And the Amazon catalog reproduces (legally) about 25% of the book's pages and offers several related videos.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

City Dog, Country Frog, written by Mo Willems and illustrated by Jon Muth (2010)

City Dog, Country FrogThis collaboration between two of the most gifted storytellers currently creating picture books  is, quite simply, one of the most exquisite books I've seen in a long time.   I dare you to read it without wiping your eyes.  I'm actually little disappointed that it was not a Caldecott medalist (though I can also see how it might be too subtle and too sad to gain broad appeal).  As much as I've enjoyed A Sick Day for Amos McGee, City Dog, Country Frog is that much more breathtaking, more moving, more profound.

At first glance, City Dog seems rather a departure for Mo Willems (whose work I briefly discuss in my recent Pigeon post).  It seems far more in line with Jon J. Muth's quiet, solemn, understated Zen trilogy (Zen Ties, Zen Shorts, and Zen Ghosts).  But truly, this volume is a perfect blend of both creators' signature styles.  In the case of Willems, this is most apparent in the skillful ways he addresses adult and child readers on different planes; Muth, too, achieves a similar effect through his delicate, suggestive, achingly poignant watercolors.  For young children, this is a story of the joy and power of friendship---especially with those very different from ourselves---as well as a journey through the seasons.  For adults (or older children), attuned to the symbolism of the changing seasons and able to fill in the Great Unspoken---why Country Frog, who is so tired in the Fall, disappears from his rock come Winter---it is a gentle, sensitively-drawn reflection on the cycle of life, on love, grief, renewal, and legacy.

Miss E's Read:  "I like Spring, Summer, and Fall, but not Winter, because it's too sad."  Interestingly, she did become suddenly uncomfortable---rushing me through the Winter pages---during the saddest pages of the book; she could articulate that it was sad but couldn't (or wouldn't?) articulate why it was so sad or what happened to Frog.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale, written by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Michael Austin (2007)

Martina the Beautiful CockroachCarmen Agra Deedy is not only an author but also a professional storyteller, and this partly explains her masterful retelling of this traditional folktale from her native Cuba.  Martina Josefina Catalina Cucaracha, is a 21-day old insect who is "ready to give her leg in marriage."  The first three suitors who flock to her balcony are entirely unsuitable: arrogant, hot-tempered, and interested primarily in her good looks.  But fortunately, Martina's wise grandmother is on hand to administer a rather creative litmus test guaranteed to bring their true character to life---and to celebrate when she finds her perfect match.

In 2008, Martina received the ALA's Pura Belpre Honor Book award given to work that "best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."  And indeed, this book is not only a celebration of Cuban folklore but introduces a few elements of Old Havana (like its distinctive small green cockroaches, streetscapes, and cafe cubano and skillfully incorporates Spanish words in context.  While part of the charm of the story comes from its sweet and playful ending, it also comes from the gentle humor of this retelling, including its physical comedy, absurdly exaggerated suitors, and bilingual word play.  Austin's acrylics similarly draw out the comic aspects of the tale while also making cockroaches endearing and, through carefully chosen color palettes, give the whole book an otherworldly feel.

Note:  This book is also available in a Spanish language edition.

Miss E's Read:  Her favorite part is the page where Martina "crossed her legs / and crossed her legs / and crossed her legs."  But she also giggles hysterically at the idea of spilling coffee on someone's shoes.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Officer Buckle and Gloria, by Peggy Rathmann (1995)

Officer Buckle & Gloria (Caldecott Medal Book)In her Caldecott acceptance speech for Office Buckle and Gloria, Peggy Rathmann explains that this classic story grew out of a course assignment, which was to create a picture book that could not be understood through the text alone.  That's exactly why I love using this book---along with Rathmann's Goodnight, Gorilla---to introduce the picture book to my Children's Literature students.  Whereas with a simple illustrated book, the text is primary and the images merely complementary, a true picture book derives much of its impact and meaning from the dynamic relationship between text and image.  Here, text and image may extend, complicate, or even undermine each other; neither one is primary, and one is incomplete without the other.

Certainly this is true of Officer Buckle and Gloria, the story of one well-intentioned but painfully boring police officer who enjoys collecting and lecturing about safety tips.  Officer Buckle's hundred-point lecture suddenly starts attracting a massive cult following once he is joined on stage by his canine friend Gloria.  But there's something important that Officer Buckle doesn't understand, and readers are only clued in by Rathmann's playful watercolor illustrations.  Certainly the gap between what we (as readers) know and what Officer Buckle knows is at the heart of the book's comic force.  Yet the many visual details---and Rathmann's especially skillful use of borders to contain (and fail to contain) the action---also contribute significantly to the story's humor. This is not only a very silly read, but a charming one as well, as we witness the unlikely friendship that develops between the staid officer and the goofy dog.

Miss E has loved this book for a long time, although she still hasn't internalized Safety Tip #77: Never Stand on a Swivel Chair.  She says that her favorite part is "what Gloria does," but she can also spend hours chuckling over the "safety tip" illustrations on the endpapers

Bonus:  If you have a Lackawanna County Library Card, you can download a charming audiobook version of this story narrated by Jon Lithgow.  And like so many of the good things that come out of public libraries, this one is free!!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Poetry Tag Time: 30 Poems by 30 Poets, compiled by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong (2011)

PoetryTagTimeThis project, released yesterday in celebration of National Poetry Month, is unique on many levels.  It's a high-quality game of poetry tag aimed at children 0-8 years old.  It's only available as an e-book (Kindle format but readable on various other devices with Kindle apps).  And it retails for just 99 cents!

This volume follows the usual "poetry tag" premise.  The first poet offers his/her contribution and then "tags" a fellow writer, who must then produce a poem that responds in some way to the first poem...and then tags someone else.  In this case, thirty poets---all  of whom have experience writing for children---each offer a poem as well as a short explanation of how they see that poem connecting to the previous one.  A list of poets and titles is available here.   It includes a nicely balanced mix of well-known poets and newer voices, silly and more serious themes, more and less conventional forms; Jack Prelutsky, Nikki Grimes, Jane Yolen, and Pat Mora are among those featured.  Poems addressing the natural world (and I include animal poems in this category) are the most strongly represented, and they offer a sensory feast for young and old.  Indeed, while these are poems that are appealing and accessible to young children, they are so beautifully rendered and universally themed that adult readers will enjoy them at least as much as the kids.

To be perfectly honest, Miss E didn't enjoy our selections from this book as much as I did, but I think that much of the fault lies in the way that I presented them.  In my eagerness to experience the whole range of poems offered here, I  tried to read the book straight through, and that is just not an ideal approach with a preschooler, especially since this book includes so few visuals (small, well-chosen graphics introduce each poem, but it's not a picture book or even an illustrated book).  Though she very much enjoyed the first three or four poems, I should have stopped there and saved the rest for another day.  (As it turns out, the editors actual describe the book as "a poem-a-day for a month of poetry reading, sharing, and exploring," clearly a much more effective approach.)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems (2003)

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!Tonight, I chose an old favorite,  Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, after reading on Mo Willems blog that today marks this Caldecott classic's eighth birthday. Willems---who has also won accolades for his Knuffle Bunny trilogy and Elephant and Piggie series of early readers, among others---may well be my favorite 21st century author-illustrator. Willems' books are incredibly clever and laugh-aloud funny, but they are also tender and endearing.  Part of what makes them so powerful is the brilliant fusion of cartoonish images with vividly real plots, themes, and characters.  At the same time, what Willems does better than almost everybody else is to craft books that are equally amusing and relatable---though on very different planes---to both children and adults, a skill he no doubt honed during his early-career stint on Sesame Street.

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is the first in a series of four Pigeon stories (Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late, The Pigeon Wants a Puppy, and The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog).  The plotline is simple; a bus driver, about to go on break, asks the reader to keep an eye on the bus and, in particular, to make sure that the pigeon doesn't drive it.  However, we soon learn, driving a bus is the pigeon's cherished, lifelong ambition.  And through a display of perseverance, cunning, creativity, and emotional manipulation of the sort all too familiar both to young children and their caregivers, he spends the rest of the book trying to make us cry "Uncle."  On every page, Willems gives us the same, one-step-ahead-of-stick-figure pigeon drawing against a solid background.  But remarkably, each incarnation of this very basic bird shows---to an incredibly nuanced degree---his distinctive emotional state and tone at that particular moment, conveyed through subtle but perfectly-pitched variations in posture, body language, and facial expression.

Worth Noting:  Willems' two websites are full of fun Pigeon resources.  My favorite, available through his primary page, teaches readers how to draw the pigeon.  Even a supremely untalented adult can draw a passable bird by following his instructions, and the creative possibilities are endless.  I also enjoyed the Teacher's Guide available through his Pigeon Presents page.

Fun Fact:  The pigeon has cameos in many of Willems other books.  Look for him in unexpected places, like, say, emblazoned on a jogger's t-shirt or tucked discreetly into the endpapers.

Miss E's Read:  "Crazy!  I'd let the pigeon drive the bus!"  Her favorite page is the last one, the final plot twist...but I won't spoil it for you.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Possum Magic, written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Julie Vivas (1983)

Possum Magic (Voyager Books)I have long been a fan of Australian picture book author and literacy scholar Mem Fox; Boo to a Goose (1996) is one of my all-time favorites, and Time for Bed (1993) was the one book I read to Miss E on a nightly basis when she was an infant and toddler.  But somehow I managed to miss her most famous book, Possum Magic, until I spied it at a library sale a few weeks ago.   I ended up paying 25 cents for it but would have happily paid 25 dollars.

The storyline is simple but glorious.  Grandma Poss has used her magic to make Hush invisible, and thus not vulnerable to snakes. When Hush gets older, she asks Grandma to reverse the spell, only Grandma can't remember how to do it, only recalling that "[i]t's something to do with food! People food---not possum food."  What's a pair of possums to do?  Set out on a bicycle tour of Australia, of course, stopping to taste signature dishes at different points along the way!  Fox's prose is well-balanced and lyrical, making for an exquisite read-aloud.  Illustrations by watercolorist Julie Vivas are delicate yet witty, her animal figures   a perfect blend of realism and whimsy.

This is a---if not the---quintessential Australian picture book.  According to Fox's website, it's Australia's "best-selling picture book ever."  It's still being published in hardcover after almost 30 years, and has been performed as a musical and has inspired an orchestral piece.  And honestly, sometimes this makes for some momentary discomfort for American adult readers.  Geographical, cultural, and wildlife references are unfamiliar, and Fox doesn't cater to American sensibilities by explicitly identifying them as she goes.  The bush animals are recognizable through inference but are not labeled; cities and culinary specialties are clarified on the final page, through a map and short glossary, but first-time readers won't know to look for them.  But this is something that I really appreciate about it.  I admire its authenticity.  I like that it doesn't change "Philosopher's Stone" to "Sorcerer's Stone" and assume that we are too dumb or too lazy to figure out that a "torch" is a flashlight.   And I love that it challenges us to be cultural travelers rather than cultural tourists, to accept some uncertainty and confusion as we take responsibility for the work of cultural interpretation ourselves rather than expecting "others" to translate for us. 

Bonus: Watch a video version, narrated by Fox herself, here.

Miss E's Read:  "I don't have a favorite part.  I like all of it."  And she was not the least bit flustered by the wombats and Lamington ;)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Scrambled States of America, by Laurie Keller (1998)

The Scrambled States of AmericaUnlike many of the other books I've been blogging about, this one is not one I selected for its aesthetic appeal or literary awards.  Miss E had been expressing curiosity about the 50 States, and we stumbled on this title in the library.  Though I am often skeptical about "concept" books---I hate it when a book's didacticism overpowers its story---I'm glad to have found this one.  And Miss E has put it into very heavy rotation, requesting back-to-back reads two nights in a row and giggling the whole way through.

The premise of the book is the fifty states, bored with sitting in the same place, overhearing the same neighbors, get together for a party and decide to try switching places.  Needless to say, the novelty quickly wears off and the experiment is short-lived, but the journey is supremely silly and at time truly witty.  Keller manages to render each state distinctively through the playful addition of simple but remarkably expressive facial features.  The text can appeal differently to younger and to somewhat older readers---younger children can enjoy the primary narrative while older ones (and adults) can also engage the more complex (though still joyfully absurd) humor of the marginalia and other textual detail (picture Colorado boasting of its ability to tap dance or Wisconsin inflicting cheese on lactose-intolerant California).  The last few pages of the book offer portraits of each individual state beaming proudly (accompanied by nickname, capital, size, and population) as well as a very funny two-page comic spread imagining some of the scrambled encounters (the Space Needle trying to imitate the Gateway Arch, a confrontation between gangs of Iowa corn and Idaho potatoes, Alabama peanuts hiking in the Rockies, etc.)

Worth Noting: 
  •   Some of the marginalia and smaller detail are presented in very small lettering, not such a good thing if your bedtime reading space is dimly lit or if...well...the things you liked in high school are now labeled "retro."
  • Keller's website includes a small but interesting selection of educator-support materials.
  • If you enjoy this book, there is a sequel:  The Scrambled States of America: Talent Show.

Miss E's Read:  LOVE LOVE LOVES the idea of a state scramble.  Also adores the picture of Vermont hugging a fiercely sunburned Minnesota, who youches loudly in response.  And the page where Tennessee keeps dropping its fork.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Big Wolf and Little Wolf: The Little Leaf That Wouldn't Fall, by Nadine Brun-Cosme and Olivier Tallec (2009)

Big Wolf and Little Wolf, The Little Leaf That Wouldn't FallThis is the second in a series of (so far) three "Big Wolf and Little Wolf" stories by the French team of Nadine Brun-Cosme (author) and Olivier Tallec (illustrator).  The first book, Big Wolf and Little Wolf, was a Batchelder Honor Book in 2010, Batchelder being the ALA award for foreign language children's books that have been translated into English). And it's one of the most gentle, understated, and magical books on our shelf.

The story opens by taking us through four seasons of waiting, as Little Wolf watches the most beautiful leaf he's ever seen go from "sweet and tender green" to "shiny deep green" to "soft brown" and finally to "the beautiful black of cinders."  Realizing that the leaf will not fall on its own---and knowing how badly Little Wolf wants to hold it, Big Wolf decides one winter morning to make the treacherous climb needed to retrieve it, something he does "for no reason at all.  Just to see Little Wolf's eyes sparkle."  What happens when he gets there reminds us of the exquisite beauty of the ephemeral, the power of nature to touch our souls in ways we can't explain, and the joy both giver and recipient derive from random, crazy acts of devotion. 

One of the really interesting---and ultimately really wonderful---aspects of The Leaf That Wouldn't Fall is that the nature of the relationship between the two wolves is ambiguously rendered, such that it can accommodate a range of readings and resonate on different levels.  Most reviewers of the first Big Wolf, Little Wolf book, which describes the first meetings of the two main characters, describe the two as friends, eliciting comparisons to Lobel's Frog and Toad.  But reading the books out of order also invites us to see their bond (at least in the second book) as a parent-child relationship, as Miss E and I both did.  Either way, the warmth of Brun-Cosme's deceptively simple tale, perfectly paired with (and set off against) Tallec's spare, muted, often lonely winter paintings makes this a very memorable book.

Miss E's Read:

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld (2009)

Duck! Rabbit!Duck! Rabbit! (which you can view on YouTube here) is another one of those deceptively simple books that is as fun---and as profound---for adults as it is for kids.  Heck, I've even brought it to my college lit classes both to talk about how a text might legitimately be interpreted in two contradictory ways and to illustrate the crucial role that context plays in shaping interpretation.

This book is one of four collaborations by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld (along with Yes Day!, The OK Book, and It's Not Fair).  In addition to making children's books, Krouse Rosenthal writes adult books (most famously her memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life) and makes films; Lichtenheld is an art director.

Each page of the book revisits the classic duck/rabbit image shown on the cover, with slightly different contextual details.  The text---comprised of two contradictory "voices"---repeatedly tries to direct the readers' interpretation of the image ("See, there's his bill." "What are you talking about? Those are ears, silly.")  The illustrations are skillfully rendered in thick black ink and watercolor.   Their clarity and simplicity, echoed in the crisp diction, perfectly balances the complex epistemological concept behind the book, making it accessible and fun (I'm totally serious) for all ages. 

Miss E's Read:  This book quacks her up every time.

P.S.  A Teacher's Guide and fun E-Postcards (among other things) are available here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same, by Grace Lin (2010)

Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same!Now that Miss E is becoming old enough to enjoy mixing a few early readers in with her nightly picture books, I have a new appreciation for the ALA's new-ish Theodor Seuss Geisel book award.  The Geisel award committee recognizes exceptional books in the "early reader" category.  And this is a category where, even as a kiddie lit prof, I often have trouble identifying books I want to bring home and share.  For though "early readers" include many wonderful, classic stories (Seuss, Frog and Toad, Amelia Bedelia, etc), it's also a far more restrictive category than the picture book.  Authors are very limited in terms of vocabulary, sentence length, and sentence structure, while illustrators must typically conform to a smaller page size, accommodate more text, and fill more pages.  Thus extraordinary titles---those that delight our eyes and ears and engage our imaginations---are seriously outnumbered by more strictly didactic titles, including a great number of cheaply produced "licensed character" books.

Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same, a 2011 Geisel Honor Book certainly did delight and engage us.  This is the first early reader from the very talented Grace Lin, who has previously authored and/or illustrated over twenty picture books as well as four novels (including the 2010 Newbery Honor book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon).  And I certainly hope it won't be the last.

The book is comprised of six stories, each about seven pages long and unified by a color palette, describing the everyday adventures of twins Ling and Ting, whose nearly identical appearance (and always identical dresses) means they are often declared "exactly the same" despite their very different personalities.  The first five stories and their accompanying paintings---which recount a haircut, a magic trick, dumpling making (and eating), and a trip to the library---showcase the girls' vitality and the author/illustrator's gentle humor while reinforcing the central theme.  The sixth story brings together the previous five in clever and surprising ways.  Throughout, the girls accept each others' differences with patience and understanding but also rejoice in their special bond as twins, inviting us to do the same.  Moreover, in developing this universal theme, Lin also succeeds in subtly challenging a persistent (and specific) Asian American stereotype (something she raises in her author's note).

Miss E's Read:  She especially likes the "Making Dumplings" chapter, both because "dumpling" is a fun word to say and because the dumplings are stuffed with meat, which her mostly-vegetarian mom eschews.