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.