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.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Children Make Terrible Pets, By Peter Brown (2010)

Children Make Terrible Pets
Peter Brown is, unlike the other author/illustrators we've been reading, fairly new to the picture book scene.  This is his sixth book, and it's both laugh-out-loud funny and unexpectedly resonant.

On the book jacket, Brown explains the incident that inspired his story: "When I was a child, I once found a frog in the woods and brought it home to be my pet.  My mom was not happy.  'Would you like it if a wild animal made YOU its pet?' she asked.  'To which I replied, 'Absolutely!"

Through whimsical images and all-too-familiar dialogue ("You can keep him on ONE condition.  Squeaker is YOUR responsibility. I will not take care of him for you," Brown tells the story of what happens when one (tutu-wearing) Lucille Beatrice Bear brings home a little boy named Squeaker.  The playfulness of both the story and the illustrations also drives the form.  Brown embraces an eclectic combination of media: "pencil on paper, with cut construction paper and wood and a wee bit of digital tweaking" (as he explains in the author's note).  Similarly, he blends more traditional picture book conventions with those of the graphic novel, putting the entire narrative in text boxes and hand-lettered word bubbles.  The result is a delightful volume that feels simultaneously nostalgic (most dramatically through its intentionally yellowed pages and sepia endpapers) and unmistakably 21st century.

Bonus:  The word bubbles invite adults and children reading together to each take a "part;" even pre-readers can manage Squeakers role since he can only say "Squeak!"

Miss E's Read: Her favorite page is the last one, where Lucy Bear meets her next "pet"; she couldn't stop giggling when she thought about the havoc-potential (which is admittedly significant!).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Your Toes: A Ballet ABC, by Rachel Isadora (2003)

On Your Toes: A Ballet ABCPrior to stumbling across this volume in our local library, I had associated Rachel Isadora primarily with her African-inspired picture book adaptations of fairy and folk tales.  As it turns out, though, Isadora's first career was as a professional ballet dancer who had studied with the School of American Ballet.  And fortunately for us, she has produced a number of ballet-themed picture books ranging from adaptations of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake to Max, her revolutionary 1976 story of a boy who joins his sister's ballet class, to her Lili series.  In the near future, Miss E and I will no doubt track these down, because Miss E loves ballet, we both admire Isadora's lovely paintings, and I've had my fill of gooey pink-tulle books.

Certainly the highlight of this book is Isadora's gorgeous pastels of child dancers (a multiracial cast of boys and girls).  But I also appreciate the difficulty of making an alphabet book on this theme.  While a few of her word choices initially seem too general and forced (like "Sleep"and "Yarn"), most of them work very well, and even the few that don't are convincingly accounted for in the glossary, which also offers phonetic spellings of French terms.   Many of the images depict costumes and set designs from real ballets, not only the more familiar Nutcracker and Swan Lake but also bolder choices like Firebird and A Midsummer Night's Dream; these, too, are explained in the glossary in an interesting and age-appropriate way.  Ultimately, this deceptively simple book is both enjoyable for young dancers and sophisticated enough to engage grownups.

Miss E's Read: Two enthusiastic thumbs up for the "X Marks the Spot" page, which features her favorite ballet character Clara.  Two fierce thumbs down for the "Pas de Chat" page.  Because you can't look at the picture and not want to try it.  But if you're a beginner trying it alone without a teacher, you are bound to land squarely on your butt.  Repeatedly.  On hardwood floors.  And even if you're four, this kind of hurts.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

First the Egg, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (2007)

First the Egg (Caldecott Honor Book and Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book (Awards))Laura Vaccaro Seeger is one of my very favorite millennial author-illustrators, and so I'm glad that First the Egg has been in heavy rotation, by Miss E's choice.  Her book fall into one of my favorite children's lit categories, the "deceptively simple," seeming basic, understated images and text that are both powerful and profound.  One of the greatest delights of Seeger's books---especially when read for the first time---is her ingenious use of die-cuts that not only surprise us on every page but make us see what we've just seen in a wholly different way.

In 2008, First the Egg was selected as an Honor book by both the Caldecott and Theodore Geisel award committees (the latter given to exceptional emergent readers, a very tricky category to succeed in for many reasons).  Indeed, this book is perfect not only for "emergent" readers but for children old enough to "read" a book through memorization and visual cues, which is probably why Miss E chooses it so often.  It begins with the phrase, "First the EGG, then the CHICKEN," unfolding slowly over two double-page spreads, with key pictorial elements emerging through clever die-cuts.  The book---essentially a meditation on the wonder of transformation---continues in this pattern by showing other metamorphoses in the natural world (tadpoles into frogs, seeds into flowers) before progressing into the creative process itself (words into stories, paint into pictures) and finally coming full circle.  At each step along the way, the story invites us to move back and forth between "first" and "then" and to recognize and delight in the interconnectedness of these seemingly disparate elements.

Miss E's favorite page:  She returns again and again to the page that is, I think, the most profound in the book, one that reflects on the process by which we come to understand written language and to know the world.  Against a textured background of green paint on canvas appear 10 rows of what appears to be random letters and punctuation.  On closer inspection, though, "real" words are embedded in random "words," sense hidden in nonsense, inviting us to interact and to discover. 

P.S.  Vaccaro Seeger's website is wonderful.  In particular, see her "Educators/Kids" section for a creative process narrative about her recent What If? as well as for instructions for drawing Bear and Dog (among other goodies).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Odd Owls & Stout Pigs: A Book of Nonsense, by Arnold Lobel (2009)

Odd Owls & Stout Pigs: A Book of NonsenseIt's always a wonderful surprise to stumble across a new title by a beloved author who's been dead for some time (Thank you yet again, Lackawanna Children's Library!)  Lobel is the legendary creator of the Frog and Toad books, which have enchanted children and adults since the 1970s.  Primarily a watercolorist who both paints and writes with an enviably light hand, he illustrated nearly a hundred books over his career (many of which he also authored).

Odd Owls and Stout Pigs originated as two small, handmade volumes given as a Christmas gift to a friend.  They were later discovered in the Lobel archives and hand-colored by his daughter, Adrianne Lobel, prior to publication.  The finished product contains two sets of nonsense poems in the tradition of Edward Lear---the pig poems all in limerick form---accompanied by Lobel's playful, expressive illustrations.  We found them charming and very funny indeed.

Miss E's take:  Her favorite was a two-page spread in the owl section. On one side is a full-page, whimsical poem cataloging a crew of eccentric owls; on the other is a "group picture" of these same owls, inviting readers to move back and forth between text and image, searching for each owl's image as it is being described.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Goldilocks and the Three Martians, written by Stu Smith and illustrated by Michael Garland (2004)

Goldilocks and the Three MartiansI had never heard of this book prior to finding it in the stacks on Saturday morning.  But I'm always up for a fractured fairy tale, and Miss E enjoys them immensely.  I'm glad to have stumbled upon it.

Smith, a Rochester (NY) area teacher, gives Goldilocks a back-story; frustration with her mother's strictness leads her to build a rocket and blast off in search of a planet that is "just right" (with a cat, a dog, and three symbolic teddy bears in tow).  The story is told in rhyming quatrains, but these rarely feel forced and read aloud comfortably.  Moreover, the rhyme, in combination with Smith's witty diction, sets a playful tone that offsets---even creates dynamic tension with---the moral didacticism of the back-story.  Garland's humorous computer-generated illustrations---which seem reminiscent of David Shannon's---have a very similar effect,  ultimately making this a delightfully silly-smart book.

Though this book did not win any of the "big" ALA book awards, it did win the Children's Choice Award sponsored by the IRA (International Reading Association) in 2005, and it's easy to see why.  More intriguingly, this out-of-print book seems to have become a serious collectors' item, with new copies fetching $700-900 and used copies getting $40-200+, rare indeed for a picture book of such recent vintage.  My guess is that it's become a kind of cult favorite.

Miss E's take:  Her favorite part, she says, is the beginning, where Goldilocks feels oppressed by household chores.  Why?  "Because she's just like Cinderella!"  Duh, Mom.

Bonus:  In this book's tour of the solar system, Pluto is still a planet!!  Huzzah!

Another Bonus:  Smith's website has useful resources for teachers as well as a child-friendly slideshow on how children's books are published

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Madlenka, by Peter Sis (2000)

MadlenkaThis morning's trip to the public library yielded the usual bounty, including this title by Czech-born MacArthur Fellow Peter Sis.  Sis's genius is readily apparent in his 30-some publications; he has been a Caldecott Honoree several times (for Tibet Through the Red Box, Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, and The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain) as well as, most recently, a 2011 Pura Belpre for The Dreamer, a collaboration with Pam Munoz Ryan.

Sis's signature style involves richly detailed, rather dense pen and ink drawings touched by watercolor or colored pencil.  He juxtaposes black and white with color to powerful ends, sometimes a few spots of color on a black and white page; occasionally a richly colored page providing startling contrast to its more muted neighbors.  Whether writing about a little girl in his adopted city of New York or his own childhood in Prague, Sis's work is very often "about" the transformative power of imagination.

Madlenka is, quite simply, the story of a little girl who shares the good news of her first loose tooth with the neighbors on her vibrant, globally diverse NYC block.  They all greet her in their native language and, through clever use of cut outs, invite her into their inner worlds of memory and invention. Eventually she returns to her parents, declaring "I went around the world."

Is this a "perfect book"?  The academic in me can't help but notice the stereotypical---at times a little exoticized---images and artifacts associated with each culture as well as the questionable elision of regional cultures (Latin American and Asian).  Yet this is in every other way a delightful book, full of beautiful, multi-layered illustrations that reward re-reading.  It's a love letter to New York City, a tribute to Sis's own American-born daughter Madeleine, and an immigrant storyteller's reflection on his new home.  Most importantly, it is an exuberant celebration of growth, community, and imagination.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney (2009)

The Lion & the MouseJerry Pinkney is one of the most distinguished contemporary African-American illustrators working on children's books.  And with more than a hundred titles to his credit---both solo projects and collaborations with authors like Julius Lester---he is undoubtedly the most prolific.  Working primarily in watercolor, pencil, and colored pencil, his signature style is both gentle and incredibly detailed; while his thematic range is quite broad, folktales are among his favorite subjects.

The Lion and the Mouse is, visually speaking, one of the most stunning books in our personal collection.  Its title characters are both very realistic and amazingly expressive, and his representation of the African Serengeti they inhabit vivdly captures the "awesome yet fragile" (to quote the Artist's Note) qualities of that place.

One of the most unusual features of Pinkney's retelling of Aesop's fable is that it is nearly wordless, making it an endlessly interactive text.  Only six different "words"---all of them animal sounds---are used, and even these quite sparingly but with powerful effect.

Miss E's take:  This time around, her favorite part was the endpaper illustration of the two animal families together. In particular, she was delighted by a lion cub gnawing on its mother's tail.  "That's totally a first-born lion!" she exclaimed.  [As it turns out, she meant "newborn," but I thought her phrasing was amusing and probably more than a little apt.]

Addendum (completely unrelated to Lion and the Mouse):   A ginormous "Thank You" to web designer Josh Frank of Black Frame Media for resizing my obnoxiously large title image.  Without me even needing to ask.  It's awesome to have friends who are both talented and generous with their expertise.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


One of the best things about teaching Children's Lit and having a four-year old at home is the ongoing parade of marvelous picture books that make their way into our home---some of them visitors and others permanent residents, some time-honored classics and others hot off the presses. 

Every night my daughter and I choose three titles to read together, and it's often the best part of my day (and guaranteed to be the best part of bedtime, by a landslide).  But whenever we discover something new that delights us---or rediscover old favorites---I find myself wanting to share the experience with our faraway family and friends.  And thanks to the wonders of then blogosphere, I can (and without being limited to 420 characters).

My plan is to feature one of our bedtime books every night---and maybe throw in a few of the middle-grade and YA books I'm reading sans Little Girl.  See ya tomorrow!