Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tea Rex

It was a picture of a confused looking Tyrannosaurus Rex staring at the tea in his hat that sold me on this book. It was such a perfect image: the soft colors, the concerned look on his face, his tail holding the teapot and spilling it on the floor. It was absurd and gentile and wonderful. I don't know how else to describe this book. It's elegant and absurd and the most fun.

Tea Rex by Molly Idle is the story of how to behave at a tea party, as demonstrated by two very proper children and a towering Tyrannosaurus Rex. Rex hasn't mastered all of the fine motor skills needed to be a perfect guest but that doesn't stop Cordelia, our host. Her brother is a little more willing to be silly, a little less polished. By the end of the party the lovely table in the living room is in shambles. But everyone has had a wonderful time and the guest shows his appreciation. A mix of how-to ("Take turns making small talk") and chaos.

As I mentioned before it was Molly Idle's colored pencils drawings that brought me into the book. Molly is a master with color, as evidenced not just with Tea Rex but with her Flora books. These illustrations are guaranteed to make children giggle. Cordelia's giant hat is enough to make any child giggle, even if it wasn't for the impossibly large t. rex. The settings are lovely, even old-fashioned. But the action is all hilarious. The scene where they try to squeeze Mr. Rex through the front door sets the perfect pitch for the book. The door strains and the children are pulling with all their might. The image of T. Rex from behind, sitting on the tiniest of chairs is one of the funniest things I've seen in a while. All the characters are so expressive. The toothy grin of T. rex can show a full range of emotions. Cordelia and her brother are simply perfect.

Idle's wording is sparse and understated for the action happening in the pictures. "It's good to have extra cups and napkins on accidents can happen," are the quiet words that accompany a two page spread that shows us Mr. Rex experimenting with any sort of vessel he can find for tea, before settling on Cordelia's giant hat. It's a simple read-aloud but one that will have kids (and adults) giggling along. A wonderful book.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


I'm sure we all feel a little different sometimes. I know I was certainly a different child, in many of the same ways as Oliver, the hero of Birgitta Sif's picture book. I was a quiet kid who was happier playing in my imagination than with the kids down the block. I spent days making up elaborate stories and acting them out with my stuffed animals. There aren't a lot of books out there for children who are happy on their own. So it's refreshing for me to see Sif's titular character, as he is comfortably different.

The first two lines sum up this story beautifully. "Oliver felt a bit different. But it didn't matter. He lived in his own world, happy with his friends." Sif tells us about Oliver, about the games he plays and the way he makes his own little world. And he's happy there, mostly. Sometimes he feels a bit lonely but most of the time he's happy. One day he meets a little girl who is also happy on her own, and they end up playing together. It's a simple story but I was in love with this book from first read. And not just because I recognized myself in the character. I love the message. I love to see an introverted character in a picture book where the focus isn't on "fixing" the child.

Throughout the book we see Oliver go from perfectly happy to a bit discontented but he's not standing on the outside looking in like so many other books that feature quiet children. In most of the images, if you look carefully, there is a little girl who is also doing her own thing. That is Olivia. Yes Oliver and Olivia. They will meet by the end and start playing together. But even though the book ends with them as friends, I get the impression that they would also be okay playing on their own as well. But perhaps that's just me. Sif's prose is sparse but the mix between the words and the illustrations tells a very full story.

Sif's artwork is lovely. The mostly muted palette gives the book a nice warmth. In particular, Oliver is presented very warmly through color against some muted backgrounds, making him pop out to the reader in each photo. It's as if Sif used the color to show the boy's difference from the rest of the world. Similarly Olivia is always shown in red. Our eyes are drawn to the heros. Sif's presentation of people has a touch of eccentricity to it which is perfect for this book. Some of the illustrations are busy, leaving plenty for readers to discover on further readings. In fact in the images where Oliver is on his own most of the illustrations are sparse. In ones where he's surrounded by other people the images are busy, hectic even. In many cases Oliver (and Olivia) seem like little islands of calm in the very active, hectic world. I would assume that was intentional. Sif seems to have thought of everything in this beautiful book. This is a lovely story, both in art and in theme. It was a refreshing picture book for an introvert like me.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


I picked up the chapter book Clementine on a whim. I was standing in the bookstore when my eye fell on this bright orange book. It's not my normal type of book but I opened the cover, read the first page, and bought it on the spot. I was in love with this character from page one. I've read the whole series but I'll be talking about the first book here.

Clementine, written by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Marla Frazee, follows a little girl named (appropriately) Clementine as she tries to navigate third grade, her parent's apartment building, and staying out of trouble. One of these is a bit of a challenge for her. Clementine is a high spirited kid. In some circles I'm sure she'd be considered ADD but mostly she's just curious, and not always sure about the rules. In this first book in the series, Clementine gets in trouble for cutting her friend's hair off, cutting her own hair off (to even the score), trying to glue her own hair to her friend's head, and then painting both their heads with permanent marker to try to cover over the bald spot. When she overhears a conversation that makes her think that her parents are going to get rid of her, because she's "the bad kid", Clementine tries to clean up her act...and her room.

The summary I've just listed of this book doesn't do this character justice. Clementine is one of the best written characters I've ever read. She's so high spirited but so lovable. She's a good kid that's just a little confused. She calls her brother all sorts of vegetable names (rutabaga, turnip, lettuce...) because she shouldn't be the only one stuck with a food name. I still haven't found out his real name. She makes frequent visits to the principals office, where the interactions are so funny, I have to wipe away tears. Here's an example:

"All right now, Clementine," Principal Rice said in her I'm-trying-to-be-patient-but-it's-getting-harder voice. "Why did you cut off Margaret's hair?"
"I was helping,"
And then I told Prinicipal Rice about how I'd helped her too. "I answered the phone while you were gone. I ordered some new school pets, and I told the gym teacher we are never going to play dodgeball again, and I made two appointments for you. The phone kept going dead so I guess it's busted. But at least I helped you a little."
That's what I thought.
There is a look they teach a person to make in principal school that is not very nice. 
 And Clementine is only one of the characters I love in this series. Her parents are written with such heart and with such great voices. Both are unique and show their love for Clementine in different ways. I loved these parents as much or more than I loved the father in the Penderwick series, and I thought he was an amazing character. Margaret, Clementine's (now hairless) friend up on the 5th floor of the apartment building, is a classic Type A, rule-setting, germophobic foil to Clementine's high-spiritedness. While I never know what is going to come out of Clementine's mouth, "remember the rules" is more than likely to come out of Margaret's. Add in Margaret's older brother (who is not Clementine's boyfriend, as she insists), Principal Rice, Kumquat/Radish/Pea, and Clementine's kitten Moisturizer and you have a great cast.

Marla Frazee's ink illustrations help to bring the story to live. Clementine is almost always presented in action, or sporting an unusual posture. This is a kid who is always in motion, always questioning and Frazee lets us in on the action. My favorite illustration from the first book might be Clementine standing on the toilet while her father looks at her chocolate frosting beard. Or of course it could be Clementine with her head covered by her parent's blanket to hide the cut off hair. Each illustration is a delight. Each thought or line from Clementine makes me laugh, and then feel. I love this character. I don't remember the last time I was this charmed. A fantastic series.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

People who know I love children's books often ask me for recommendations. I love to tell them about the latest Peter Brown, Jon Klassen, or David Wiesner. There are some fantastic children's books being written right now and I want to spread the word about these modern masters. Eventually though, the conversation gets around to what was my favorite picture book as a child. And that's an easy one. I loved Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett with a passion. I read the heck out of that book. Even before I got back into reading children's books (gave myself permission), I owned a copy of Cloudy. It was the first children's masterpiece I ever read.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs starts with a grandfather making pancakes for his grandchildren. That night he tells them the story of the tiny town of Chewandswallow. The town is just your average small town except for the weather. The only thing that falls from the sky is food. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are forecast the same way rain and snow are in our world. And the people of the town eat whatever the weather provides: pancakes, hamburgers, soup, and even "brussel sprouts and peanut butter with mayonnaise". Over time though, the weather starts to get worse. The food becomes larger and more extreme. It starts to cause damage to buildings and even injure people. So the townspeople are finally forced to build boats of giant sandwiches and abandon the town of Chewandswallow to settle across the sea. It's a wonderful little tale.

The first thing that drew me into the book originally were Ron Barrett's illustrations. As you look at the pea soup fog, storm of hamburgers, the giant pickle, or the pancake flattening the elementary school, you realize how incredibly effective simple ink lines can be in creating something realistic. The food looks good. All of it. And all it takes was the use of black ink hatched lines and a touch of color. Ron Barrett made that city, and its meals, come alive for me. The people have a lovely caricature quality to them but all the food looked real. As things get worse in the town, the illustrations become more and more elaborate. The situations are wacky but somehow the illustrations never look over the top. The palette is muted except for one very bright tomato soup tornado. The illustrations have an almost old-fashioned feel, but in just the right way. I remember marveling over each page, finding new details I'd missed before. Tiny moments of humor, all surrounding tasty food. I may even have drooled a little on it.

But over the years I've realized that while the pictures drew me in initially, it's the tone of the book that has kept me coming back. It wasn't until Sony Pictures made their terrible movie that I understood completely what I love so much about this book. It's the tone. Judi Barrett offers such an understated narrative for this strange and wacky book. The story is meant to be a tale told to grandchildren but it never sounds like a tall tale. It sounds like it could really happen the way the narrator tells it. It's almost like a documentary. The situation is stated as fact, even as the story gets more and more wild. "By the time they woke up in the morning, breakfast was coming down. After a brief show of orange juice, low clouds of sunny-side eggs moved in followed by pieces of toast." It almost sounds like a weather report. Sometimes it's the quiet stories that have the greatest impact. For me, growing up, this book sounded like it was real. And for a child who wanted to believe in magical places, it was just the invitation I needed to dream. The movie went for wacky, but what I loved was the understated tone of the book. So subtle, so quiet, so perfect.

I've loved a lot of picture books in my life. Some from when I was a child and some as an adult coming back to children's books. I'm constantly enchanted by new work. But so far, no book, not one, has taken the place of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs in my heart. When people ask me what my favorite picture book is, I hand them this quiet little gem and wait for them to fall in love.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dog Loves Books

I'm a sucker for stories about books. Most librarians I know are as well. Standing in my local library I spotted a title sticking out from the stack called Dog Loves Books by Louise Yates. I pulled out the book to see a smiling happy dog carting around a pile of books. I checked it out immediately. The very next day I stopped into my local bookstore to order the book. I couldn't imagine my own personal library without it.

Dog loves books. He loves how he can disappear into the stories and meet fun characters. So he decides to open a book shop. He does all the work of setting up shop, but after opening he's a bit short on customers. He waits and waits and waits. And he grows bored. Until he remembers...he's surrounded by books. He starts reading and suddenly the quiet bookshop is gone. He's playing with dinosaurs or in space. He's so busy he doesn't even notice that he has his first real customer. And he gets the joy of sharing the books he loves so much.

For a librarian this is about as wonderful of a book as you can get. Not only does Yates write a love letter to books, she writes a love letter to connecting people with books. This is about the transformative power of stories. About getting lost in the worlds in the pages. It's magical. The text is sparse. Yates lets her pictures tell much of the story. A two page spread just says "...a new adventure begins" as we see Dog bounding across the landscape in the pouch of a kangaroo.

Yates' pencil and watercolor illustrations were the highlight of the book for me. Dog is a wonderful character. He's noble and enthusiastic. He has a wonderful smile on his face for most of the book (other than his sad waiting scenes). His excitement for books is incredibly contagious. But at the same time he has a wonderful nobility about him. This is a dog who is proud of his store and proud of his books. The other characters have a great sweetness to them. The dinosaurs are more friendly than fierce. His first customer, a little girl, is rosy cheeked and excited. This is one of those magical books that will make you love reading and love books. Just as much as Dog loves them.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Stepped Away

To say that I stepped away from this blog for a bit is a gross understatement. For the last year and a half I haven't even thought to post. It's not that I wasn't reading picture books or keeping up with my favorite authors but I just stopped posting. And for that I'm sorry. I'm ready to review again. I'm ready to share my ideas about picture books. I'm ready to be a good blogger.

I apologize if you've commented or asked questions during the year and a half hiatus I've taken. I'll be back to posting reviews first. And then I'll be cleaning up my comments section. I'll try to respond if you've asked me a question or commented on a post. And I'll clean up all the spam. I see I have a ton of it. I guess that's what happens to anything when you step away for too long.

I have tons of things to talk about. I've read so many wonderful books recently. I'm excited about the upcoming Caldecott/Newbery awards. I'm excited to talk about keeping up with your favorite authors. I'm ready to get back to my passion. I hope you'll join me on the ride. And I'm sorry I've been away so long.

Monday, May 28, 2012


In my continuing effort to read all the books in the anthology 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, I took home Fox, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Ron Brooks. I'd never heard of the book before but minutes after reading it, I can't get it out of my mind. I'm haunted by this book.

The story is simple about a magpie with a burnt wing that can't fly and a one-eyed dog who has trouble seeing. The two are the best of friends and protect each other. Each day the magpie sits on the dogs back while he runs so she can feel like she's flying and the dog has a second pair of eyes to see. "Fly Dog Fly! I will be your missing eye, and you will be my wings." It's a sweet friendship based on need and tenderness. When a fox arrives, the magpie is worried. And it becomes even more worrisome when the Fox tells the magpie to ride on his back to really feel like she's flying. Magpie resists for a time. She's loyal to Dog. But finally she gives in. Fox takes her for a long fast ride until he reaches the desert. I won't give you the ending. It was not something I was expecting. It's the reason I'm haunted by this book. I can't stop thinking about where and how the author ends the book. I loved this tale of sweet friendship and betrayal. And I can't shake it.

Ron Brooks' illustrations are rough and haunting as well. He uses multiple wispy lines to create the characters and the setting. Brooks hand lettered the book to give it a very primative feel. In fact the whol books seems like a folklore tale. An Aesop's story in vivid color. The colors are lovely. Brooks uses multiple media to create both his characters and the worlds they live in. The cave and the desert and the woods are represented with the same wispy lines but look distinctly different.

I've read several books since reading Fox and although there are many that I've wanted to write about, this story pushed it's way to the top. It's not the kind of story that I typically like although the friendship is wonderfully rendered. I loved Dog, loyal Dog with his one white sightless eye. He is presented as quintessential dog. But this story would have been something that I'd read and considered done if it wasn't for the ending. I'm haunted by it. I can't stop thinking about Magpie and Dog. And for me that is why this book is powerful. It's one of the more powerful picture books I've read in a while.