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.