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.