Thursday, July 26, 2012

Two Eggs, Please (2003), written by Sarah Weeks and illustrated by Betsy Lewin

Though they are universally well-intentioned, I must confess that I generally find "under the skin, we're really all the same" children's books kind of annoying.  Too often, I think, they approach the critically important but uncomfortably complex theme of difference in ways that are facile, painfully didactic, and sometimes awkwardly preachy.  No, we can't just hold hands and sing "Kumbaya."

Two Eggs, Please, however, is one book in this category that I never tire of reading, even though its  "different...but the same" refrain is a little simplistic, at least from an adult point of view.  This is a beautifully crafted, charming, and  humorous book that engages a "dual audience" in playful and creative ways (think of Sesame Street's parodies or of Mo Willem's Knuffle Bunny). 

Not that I would expect otherwise from a collaboration between Sarah Weeks and Betsy Lewin.  The prolific Weeks has written picture books (most famously the hilarious Mrs. McNosh series), early readers (most notably the Mac and Cheese series), three early chapter book series (Oggie Cooder, Guy, and Boyd), and several novels (including the award-winning So B. It).  Lewin, who has been awarded both Caldecott and Geisel honors, has a similarly long list of books to her credit and is best known for the Click Clack Moo picture books (with Doreen Cronin) and the Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa early readers (with Erica Silverman).

The premise of the book is that a parade of eccentric animal characters stroll, one by one, into an all-night NYC diner, each ordering "two eggs" but prepared differently (scrambled, over-easy, etc.)   There is no narrative voice or frame, and this proves a very effective strategy for avoiding a didactic tone.  Instead, most of the minimalist text is conveyed through word balloons and thought bubbles, with each character's speech presented in a font befitting his or her personality.  Lewin's palette of mostly primary colors conveys the brightness and energy of the New York nightworld.  Her trademark impressionistic watercolors and heavy black lines are playful, a touch surreal, and just the tiniest bit eerie, as a late-night diner experience ought to be.

Children will love the eclectic cast of characters, the "repetition with a difference," and the predictable refrain.  Adults will especially enjoy the "inside humor" typical of the best dual audience texts, jokes that escape most children, such as the obstetrician stork, the police officers who order their eggs "hard-boiled" and "soft-boiled," and the real-life waitress named Lupita, depicted here as a wolf. 

Incidentally, this is a great book for challenging the popular notion that picture books are primarily verbal stories "supplemented" by illustration.  Try first reading the text to someone without showing the images, and then ask what the story was about.  The second reading (of text and image together) will be that much richer and more delightful.

Miss E's Read: One of her favorite characters is a snake who orders his eggs raw and swallows them whole, as I suppose, snakes are wont to do.  The other is the crying gorilla baby whose desperate mother comes in for eggs on a hard roll---she especially likes the way that the other characters, through their facial expressions, respond to the baby.

Llama Llama Mad at Mama (2007), by Annna Dewdney.

Although Dewdney's Llama Llama series---now with four board books and a sixth picture book due out in the fall.---is starting to feel uncomfortably like a franchise, I will always have a soft spot for this, the second volume.  This story about Llama and Mama's Saturday morning shopping trip to a big box store expertly captures the inevitable, daily dance of conflict and reconciliation between parent and young child (Well, except that Mama is a bit more patient than most real parents, though I suppose that this part of the wish-fulfillment the text offers to both parents and children).  But what I find most impressive about this book is Dewdney's skill in presenting an all-too-painfully-familiar image of a child's public tantrum---complete with "[F]lying pasta" and "spraying juice"---in a way that makes even adult readers feel empathy for the child.

Part of this is achieved through Dewdney's playful, shifting rhyme, which lightens the mood even when Llama is at his brattiest.  That effect is further enhanced by her cool, gentle palette and soft-edged, highly textured paintings.   At the same time, the llamas very expressive faces and careful positioning reinforce on every page that this is, above all, a story about the tenderness of that mother/child relationship---Little Llamas actions, however dramatic, are secondary.  Most importantly, though, Dewdney creates empathy for whiny, cart-crashing Little Llama by showing us what a big box store looks and feels like to a small child.  The endpapers, for example, offers a collage of so many overlaid "Sale!!" signs that they make even an adult's head spin.  The third spread depicts the experience of waiting on line from a child's visual perspective.  The four adult figures on the page are seen only from the waist down, and their bodies fill the borderless page, enough so as to crowd Little Llama out.

I have heard parents complain that this book "does not teach a good lesson" about proper behavior---because Little Llama isn't punished for his outburst and in fact gets a treat at the end---but it's not supposed to.   Instead, it not only invites adults to see this everyday experience through a child's eyes but reminds us all how good it feels to forgive and to be forgiven, to understand and to be understood, and to be loved when we are least lovable, over and over again.

Miss E's Read:  She says that her favorite page is the last one, where Llama and Mama walk hand in hand eating ice cream cones:  "Because it makes me hungry for ice cream.  Pleeeeeeease!!!"

Friday, July 13, 2012

Anna Hibiscus (2007), by Atinuke. With illustrations by Lauren Tobia

Atinuke's Anna Hibiscus series (with five titles to date) may be my new favorite in the world of early chapter books (though Ivy and Bean still run a close second!).  Atinuke, a Nigerian-born storyteller currently living in Wales, has created a high-spirited, empathetic protagonist and tells of her adventures---ordinary and extraordinary---with great warmth, gentle humor, and joy.  What most impresses me about these engaging books, though, is Atinuke's ability to sketch out of the complexities and nuances of Anna's world---of her large African extended family and her white Canadian mother, of their adherence to African tradition and their embrace of technology, of the families relative affluence and the desperate poverty that surrounds them---without compromising either cultural authenticity or accessibility.  I also love that Antinuke offers a very different kind of family story, one in which grandparents, uncles, aunties, and siblings are as influential as parents and siblings, inviting Western readers both to question our assumptions about family life and to share Anna's delight in those relationships.

Each volume in the series is comprised of four linked stories, each of which could stand alone but is made more meaningful by its relation to the others.  The stories are generously illustrated (on almost every page) by Lauren Tobia, whose lively pen and ink sketches effectively capture Anna's vivacity and deep curiosity, give personality and distinctiveness to an unusually large cast of characters, and use overlapping figures to reinforce the closeness of these relationships.  Atinuke's voice is always lyrical and rhythmic, reflecting her grounding in oral storytelling, and she moves seamlessly back and forth between "the Queen's English" and African-inflected variants.

The four stories in this first volume, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Title (2011), include "Anna Hibiscus on Holiday," "Auntie Comfort," "Anna Hibiscus Sells Oranges," and "Sweet Snow" all take on profound and sophisticated themes, but do so in a way that is still engaging and understandable to a first-grader. The first of these stories establishes the theme and contours of extended family life and of different cultural values.  Initially, Anna's Canadian mother desires a nuclear family vacation, but once they arrive at their destination, they quickly (and humorously) realize how much they miss and rely upon the interdependence of the extended clan.  The second story deals with the hybridity of both African and immigrant identity by focusing on the return visit of an aunt who has emigrated to the US.  The third story forces Anna to confront stark class differences---but does so with a delicate hand---as she inadvertently takes business away from children whose parents truly need their fruit-selling earnings.  Under the guidance of her grandfather, she realizes the terrible consequences of her action and must make amends.  And the final story sets the stage for the next volume, Anna's Christmas visit to Granny Canada.

Miss E's Read: 

Worth Noting:
You can hear Atinuke talk briefly about the experiences that shaped Anna Hibiscus and read from the book here.

The Anna Hibiscus series has been criticized for using a generic African setting ("Africa. Amazing Africa") rather than a specific African nation.  Many Western readers, the argument goes, already have trouble recognizing that Africa is not a country and tend to falsely lump all African cultures together.  Atinuke explains her difficult decision---driven largely by her desire to show Western readers that Africa is far more modern, urban, and economically diverse that they assume---both in this interview by the Playing By The Book blogger and in the embedded video interview with Jack Spicer.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Aliens Love Underpants (2007), written by Claire Freedman and illustrated by Ben Cort

 Miss E is at a point in her life (post-Kindergarten) when buttocks---and the things that either cover or come out of them---are the height of humor.  But even if this were not the case we would still both immensely enjoy this "pants-tastically" appealing and goofy book.

This collaboration between prolific UK creators Claire Freedman and Ben Cort has been so successful that it has been translated into multiple languages  (I counted 18 on Worldcat; Welsh and Gaelic editions are available directly through  It has also launched a series of four books, with a fifth title due out this fall (Pirates Love Underpants).

One of Freedman's contagiously comical quatrains appears on each two-page spread, moderating the pace of the text and inviting us to savor each illustration before turning the page.  Her upbeat ABCB rhyme propels the story forward, sets a playful tone, and invites children to anticipate the next word, but it never feels forced.  Cort's vibrant, inviting, textured paintings are simply hilarious.  His rounded, whimsical, bug-eyed aliens are of the "soft and silly" variety (like Sendak's Wild Things).  And both his skillful use of proportion and particularly his attention to detail (like the aliens interacting with the family dog and cat and the bumper stickers on the spaceships) make this a delightful read.  Aliens Love Underpants is enough of a "butt book" to make readers of a certain age laugh aloud, but it is gentle and tasteful enough to be enjoyed by those who prefer more subtle kinds of humor.

 Miss E's Read:  
She love*love*loves the endpapers, which are decorated---shockingly enough---with crazy underpants, and she enjoys picking her favorites.   

Worth Noting:
Aliens Love Underpants is included in the new Magic Town interactive website and app (I haven't had a chance to explore those yet, but you can read about them here.)

The series website includes downloads and games, though nothing earthshattering (mostly digital and printable coloring activities).

I'm Back!!

Back, I hope, to regular book blogging after a bit of a hiatus.  And looking forward to reading with you once again!