Monday, November 30, 2009

The Old House

I apologize for the absence. Life got in the way and I haven't been reading or writing as much. But rest assured I'm back, with a ton of great new children's books to talk about.

I’m rapidly becoming a huge fan of Henry Cole’s artwork (and not just because his website has to be one of the best things I've ever seen). I wrote earlier about the beautiful book Honk here, a collaboration between Pamela Duncan Edwards and Henry Cole. Since then I’ve been picking up more and more of Cole’s books. The Old House is a collaboration again by the magnificent duo and is a cute and inspiring little story.

Like Honk, The Old House is a book about hope. But instead of Mimi with her eternal optimism, this story follows an old house that has been vacant for such a long time that it has given up hope. It’s a run down old house that is beginning to doubt it’s own worth. The price has been reduced and the house worries that no one will ever live in it again. Its friends (birds, an oak tree, and the wildflowers) try to give the house hope, reminding it of how useful and strong it still is. But as families come and go, it has given up. Until one family comes down the street and admire the house, even with its sagging sad face. But they claim they cannot afford it. They leave and the house is even more depressed. The friends keep trying to cheer up the house and when the family does come back a couple days later, the house does try to stand up straighter. But then they go away again and it really fears for its life. When a rumble shakes the street, the house is convinced that it is bulldozers coming to knock it down. But instead the family is back and ready to move in. And the house is fixed up and it (and its friends) live happily ever after with the new family.

It’s so rare when you find a story about a character that is simply not the happy type. The house in this book is very much an Eeyore character with a “nothing will ever go my way” mentality. But it is still a house that’s willing (sometimes) to try. Instead this story for me was more about friendship. About have people (or things) around you that are willing to build you up. The flowers, the birds, and the trees surrounding the house do just that and when the time comes everyone wins out. It is a sweet story about hope and redemption. Henry Cole’s illustration are wonderful as always. The house has been anthropomorphized with some sad eyes, a door for a mouth, and even a sagging chin of a porch. We visibly see the house straighten up when it finally decides to impress the family. And I’m a huge fan of anything being anthropomorphized. I know that people say not to do it but I think there is so many ways to make a story that much sweeter with a couple eyes and some facial expressions. We see the transformation of the house along with hearing the tone change. Edwards gives us verbal clues as well to the state of mind of the house. We can hear the hope finally return only to be dashed again. That makes the ending that much sweeter. I don’t normally cheer for a house. But in this case I’ll make an exception.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cowboy Ned and Andy

David Ezra Stein has a talent for taking the simplest stories and giving them lots of heart. I wanted to review his book Leaves but my copy is out on loan and the library's copy is out. It's the perfect book for this time of year and one of my regular Fall books. But while I was at the library I picked up a copy of Cowboy Ned and Andy which I hadn't read.

Cowboy Ned and his horse Andy are best friends. They are driving cows across the desert together when Ned mentions that the next day is his birthday and that he's missing his family. Andy decides that he wants to do something special for his friend and settles on a birthday cake. After the sun goes down and Ned goes to bed, Andy sets off to find a cake. He runs into numerous desert animals but none of them know where to find a cake. Andy keeps walking until almost the sun is up. He heads to a house on the edge of the desert and the man there offers the horse some advice. He recommends that rather than worry about a cake, that Andy just spend time with his friend. So Andy runs back as fast as he can and gets back just as the sun has risen on Ned's birthday. The friends hug and the cows sing Happy Birthday.

This sweet little story has a pretty quiet plot but a ton of heart. The character of Andy is just wonderful. He's such a good friend and he's so incredibly polite to the other animals. Even the scorpion who is a bit rude to him. He refers to everyone as sir and he asks about a cake in the nicest possibly way. He doesn't think about how tired he is, he only thinks about making things better for his friend. I was just loved the character. Ned is a bit of a background character in the book. I did love the names of his family members: Nedna, Nedrick, and Ma. The story was simple but so sweet.

David uses watercolor and ink to create the illustrations. The ink has been brushed on to give the images a rougher look which fits well with the western theme. Actually the rough look of the pictures really adds a sweet element to the book. David has imbued the book with energy and a childlike enthusiasm. The book's palette includes a lot of browns, blues, and yellows, mixed with the occasional orange or gray which works beautifully with the theme. We see the huge expanses of brown sand. I love the beautiful clear blue sky and the rough moon that hangs. My favorite spread had to be one where Andy has just left the scorpion and is heading toward the rancher's house. A majority of the page is sand with just a touch of sky at the top of the page. There are a couple clouds and we see Andy heading into the distance. It's not a pivotal scene but the colors work so well together with the rough mountains and clouds. It's just a gorgeous simple image. And that pretty much summed up the book for me. Gorgeous, simple and sweet. A great buddy story with a huge heart.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Adam Rex and Halloween

The leaves are falling fast now and the nights are getting pretty cold. I have pulled out my wool socks. All of this means that it's fall. And with fall comes Halloween. I'm actually in the mood for the season this year. Normally I dread fall because of what follows it. This year I'm really excited for the cool temperatures and the beautiful fall colors. And to celebrate the upcoming holiday I have purchased Adam Rex's books on monsters.

I make it no secret that I absolutely adore Adam Rex's work. I started by reading The True Meaning of Smekday and went out to buy everything he's illustrated or written. The next one that ended up in my home was Pssst, a cute little story about a little girl who's trip to the zoo turns into a shopping trip with an unusual ending. Rex tells the story through words and pictures but it is his fantastic illustration that keep you coming back for more. Everywhere you look on the page is a fun little detail. The humor is sometimes silly, sometimes dry but always fun.

But the real reason I'm posting this is that there are two Adam Rex books that are just perfect for Halloween. In his first book in the series, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, he gives us poems about how the Phantom of the Opera can't get familiar tunes out of his head. Poems about the invisible man getting a haircut, the creature from the black lagoon who goes swimming too early after eating. My favorite is a wonderful poem about how Dracula has spinach in his teeth and no one knows how to tell him. Adam uses different art styles with each poem to make this a visual feast as well as a poetic one.

The new book is Frankenstein Takes the Cake. This is possibly even better than the first. In this one we follow Frankenstein as he gets married to his bride. My favorite pages have the Headless Horseman as he writes a blog about people wanting to eat his head, and why he wants people to stop copying his look. Please take note that those are not illustrations but pictures. Adam made the head and photographed it. Adam writes a wonderful little poem about Medusa and her problems in school. Even the dust jacket and the inside pages have jokes. They are everywhere. The thing about Adam is you have to read everything: signs, copyright information....

So here are two books that are perfect for the upcoming holiday. I recommend them to both kids and adults. Kids will love the humorous rhymes, and adults will love all the cute references and inside jokes in the pictures. I don't often tell people that you have to buy books, but you really do need to buy these. If you do pick up his books and enjoy them, also check out Adam Rex's blog.

P.S. The actual titles of the books are
Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Other Stories You're Sure to Like Because They're All About Monsters and Some of Them Are Also About Food. You Like Food, Don't You? Well Alright Then.
Frankenstein Takes the Cake Which is Full of Funny Stuff Like Rotting Heads and Giant Gorillas and Zombies Dressed Like Little Girls and Edgar Allen Poe. The Book, We Mean--Not the Cake.

Yeah even those are hilarious. I love this man's work.

To see how he made the Headless Horseman's head, check out this amazing blog entry on the always wonderful 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Snow Day

I’ve been reading a lot of snow/winter books recently. I can only assume it comes with the season. As the leaves change and the temperatures fall, my thoughts turn to winter. Plus there are just so many beautiful books about winter. Komako Sakai’s The Snow Day is no different. This simple quiet book is more about mood than story. But the mood that it sets is just too perfect.

The story follows a little rabbit who wakes up to find out that snow has been falling all night and she doesn’t have to go to school. She wants to go out to play but her mother tells her to wait until the snow stops. Her father, who has been traveling, is stranded and they are not sure if he will come home that day. The little rabbit sneaks out onto the deck of the family’s apartment to make snow dumplings while her mother does dishes. They play cards together and do indoor activities. They stand out on the balcony and listen to the silence of the snow. Finally, that evening, the storm stops. Even though it is close to bedtime, they go out to play in the snow until it is time to go to sleep. Tomorrow, she remarks, Daddy will be home. Because the snow stopped.

As I mentioned before this book is more about mood than it is about plot. The story is simple with very little happening. Instead we get to feel the impatient waiting of a child who wants to go outside. We get to hear the silence that comes with a heavy snow when no one is outside. I loved the moment where the little rabbit sneaks out to the balcony to make a snow dumpling. We see the apartment building shrouded in white with the little rabbit on the balcony. We feel the silence and the cold and the magic of the moment. When she is finally allowed to go out and play, we feel that excitement as she rushes out into the field. There is a sense of freedom.

Sakai’s illustrations are muted and beautiful. She appears to mix paint and crayon to create these part sophisticated, part childlike images although there is no mention of the medium in the title page. The palette is very muted with a focus on whites, grays, and browns. The rabbit is cute and I was very taken with the clothes she wears (which is surprising because I don’t normally notice things like that). Each page is a silent little tribute to the frustration and beauty of a snow day. A quiet book but one packed with emotion and feeling. And a little bit of magic.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ella Takes the Cake

I’ve been a little lax in posting things lately. It’s not that I haven’t been reading some fantastic children’s books. It’s just that things have been unusually busy and I’ve had trouble finding time to write. I’ll try to get back into a much more regular schedule this week. I have a ton of great books to talk about.

The first of these was a wonderful little story called Ella Takes the Cake. You have to love a book that combines a spunky little elephant character, a bicycle adventure, and cakes. The book, written and illustrated by Carmela and Steven D’Amico, follows Ella, a little elephant who wants desperately to help at her mother’s bakery. But she’s too young to either bake or help customers and she’s bored of sweeping the floor. So when the deliveryman forgets one of the cakes that needs to be delivered, Ella offers to take it in a wagon attached to her bicycle. She sets off on her journey but is sidetracked by a friend who wants a ride. Her friend then offers to deliver some library books for a townsperson. When the road becomes too long the friend bails out. And that’s when Ella’s problems really begin. She delivers the books but the cart, parked on a hill, breaks and rolls down the hill. The cake and cart roll all the way through town until a drawbridge operator stops it. Finally Ella is able to get back on the road and delivers the cake on time. She arrives back at the bakery to have her mother ask her for help on baking a cake.

The character of Ella is what made this book a treat for me. She’s industrious, generous, and determined. As the last line states, “…because more than anything else, Ella loved to help.” We see how downcast she is when her mother tells her she can’t help. She wants to be doing things. Although she protests a bit when her friend wants a ride it is more because of the lack of room in the cart, not because of the extra work. The same with the library books. When the regular deliveryman catches up with Ella and offers to take the cake, she declines saying she would like to finish what she started. She is genuinely worried about doing a good job. Belinda (the friend), on the other hand, is portrayed as lazy. When Ella protests the lack of room in the cart, Belinda just climbs in. After Belinda offers to take the books to the library, she calls the library boring (the horror, the horror J) and backs out. She’s much more interested in playing than doing work. Ella on the other hand is just a perfect little lady.

The illustrations in this book are simply beautiful. Ella is adorable in her little blue jumper and her lucky red hat. But it is the surrounding landscapes and cityscapes that are done in lush detail. The bakery is warm and inviting, with morning light slanting through the windows at the beginning of the story. The ocean, which appears in many of the shots, is a vivid blue, which makes me want to live there. Although that could also be because of the cute buildings, stately library, and tropical palm trees. Steven D’Amico, the illustrator, uses bold colors to create images that draw readers in. We find Ella cute because of Steven’s cute little drawings, but we love her because of her winning personality. This book completely won me over. I understand that it is a series. I’ll be looking for more of these. A wonderful little girl in a beautiful world. Great book.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My Penguin Osbert

After I first saw the cover for My Penguin Osbert online, I knew I had to read this book. It was just so perfect. The little boy is wrapped up, covered in snow, and looking miserable. The penguin, on the other hand, is joyous. I loved the look of the boy and from that moment on I decided that I needed to find a copy. I picked up the book from the library and by coincidence it snowed this week. I was wrapped up and looking just as miserable as our hero. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I didn’t have a singing penguin by my side.

The story, written by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, follows Joe who asks Santa for a penguin for Christmas. Joe isn’t taking any chances this year. He’s been disappointed in the past when Santa brought him (almost) what he wanted. So this year he asks for a real penguin, about 1 foot tall, with a yellow beak, named Osbert. And he receives his gift. But immediately he starts to realize that his gift might not be perfect. Osbert wants to go outside rather than open the rest of the presents. So Joe takes him outside and spends most of the evening out there since it makes Osbert happy. The next morning Osbert wants cold creamed herring for breakfast so that is what they have. Osbert makes a mess of the living room trying to build a village out of freezer pops and Joe has to clean up the mess. Joe is still thankful for his present but he’s getting a little tired of dealing with Osbert. So he writes Santa another letter. In this one he says that he loves Osbert as a gift but if Santa thinks that he should have asked for a different gift, then that would be okay. Santa comes through again, this time with tickets to Antarctic World, an exhibit at the local zoo. The two walk there in the snow (Osbert doesn’t like the bus) and have a great time. When it comes time to leave, Osbert doesn’t want to go. He wants to stay with the other penguins and the cold ice, and the creamed herring that they get. So Joe gives up Osbert to the zoo with the promise to come visit. And he’s already thinking about what to ask for next Christmas.

I loved this little story for a number of different reasons. The characters were sweet, the situation was silly and fun, and the story just made me smile. But what I liked the most was the character of Joe and his responsible attitude throughout the whole book. He constantly talks about how he needs to do things for Osbert. One phrase is repeated almost on each page. “But I had asked for Osbert, and now I had him.” I’m impressed with the character for his willingness to make sacrifices to keep his present happy. When he wants chocolate chip waffles, and Osbert wants cold herring, they have cold herring. When Joe wants to go to bed, and Osbert wants to take a cold bath, they take a cold bath. Of all the characters I’ve read, this one is the most selfless. He starts the book talking about how he’s been disappointed by Santa but when he does finally get what he wants, he’s willing to work for him. The story in itself is just one of those adorable tales that I want to read every winter. I loved the simplicity and the selflessness of it.

And I love the illustrations by H.B. Lewis. I cannot imagine cuter illustrations. Lewis uses watercolor and pastels to create soft sweet images. Osbert is long and thin and a cute penguin but it is Joe that steals the show. This kid is just adorable. When he’s standing outside singing the old penguin songs, when he’s freezing in a cold bath, or when he’s hugging his little penguin goodbye you just want to pinch his cheeks and tell him how cute he is. Joe is often sad and somehow that sadness just makes the images that much sweeter. I love the image of Joe and Osbert trudging towards the zoo. It is a simple but beautiful scene with a lot of emotion. Lewis is wonderful at creating sweet scenes and expressive characters. I loved the story, the illustration, the characters, and the sweetness of this story. This would be a perfect read-aloud tale for a cold winter day or anytime you need an emotional boost. Cute and sweet, my favorite type of story. And one I intend to rush out and buy before the snow flies again.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

If I had to try to define an age level for The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, I would be stumped. I found it a parable for adults, a fairy tale for older children, and a perfect choice for an animated short. It is hard to characterize. This odd little story was written by George Saunders who somehow came up with Gappers and goats and, illustrated by Lane Smith who manages to bring the characters to life. This has to be one of the most unusual stories and illustrations I've seen in a while. And I mean that in the best possible way.

The story follows a little girl named Capable who lives in the tiny town of Frip. Frip is just three houses by the ocean but they have one gigantic problem. The town is besieged by gappers. Gappers are little orange creatures with tons of eyes and an intense love of goats. When a gapper sees a goat it will emit a very high pitch happy squeal and attach itself to the goat. This makes the goat incredibly nervous. In fact it will cause a goat to stop giving milk and collapse after some time. The issue of course is that the town of Frip makes its money selling goat's milk. So each day the children of the town go out and brush the gappers off the goats and throw them into the sea. This can happen several times a day. Until one day when the gappers realize that the house of Capable and her father are actually closer to the sea than the others. They decide to just focus on her house.

Now Capable doesn't get any help from her father, who is going through something of a breakdown after the death of his wife. She becomes tired and finally asks her neighbors, who are annoying and self-centered, for help. They refuse to help telling Capable that it is all her problem. So Capable gives up, sells her goats and decides to fish for a living. And the gappers move on to the next house. The neighbors move their house away from the sea and the gappers move to the third house. And the third house moves farther away from the sea as well. The two continue to move farther away until both houses are in a swamp and are destitute. On the other hand Capable has finally learned to fish and doesn't even miss having the goats. When her now poor neighbors come to her for help she has a choice to make.

I won't tell you how the story ends although I'm sure you can guess. I read this chapter book in an afternoon and absolutely adored it. It is such a bizarre little story. I'm not sure if I should call it a small chapter book or a long picture book. What I can call it is funny and touching and unusual. I love Saunders' writing style and his willingness to make the bizarre funny. For example, this is one of my favorite writing sections. He is talking about why Capable's decision to fish is so odd. "The people of Frip did not fish. They had stopped fishing long ago when Sid Rosen's great-grandfather had acquired the town's first goat. Sid's great-grandfather had been the richest man in town, and once he got a goat, everyone wanted a goat, and fishing went out of style, and now fishing was considered something one did only if one was not bright enough to acquire a goat." I just love this section. Or the description of Capable's father's breakdown. The last thing Capable's mother had cooked before she died was rice, so now Capable's father requires everything he eats to be white. Capable must dye his food a white color. He also yells at the sun each day saying that it should always stay up. He's always disappointed when it doesn't work and goes down. It is these simple little ideas that make this story so odd and yet so wonderful. The idea of goats and gappers and corn painted white just made me laugh. And then it made me think. The moral behind this little tale is well told and the character of Capable is a great heroine.

Lane Smith's illustration are a perfect match for this odd story. As I've mentioned many times before I don't know if there is a more innovative illustrator out there. I am completely in love with his work. In this book he uses his regular style of painted collage pieces to create an eerie and unusual look for the town of Frip and its inhabitants. I'm not sure what I thought a Gapper would look like before I opened the book but his interpretation made sense to me. Capable is drawn wonderfully and we can see her emotions change throughout the course of the book. The neighbors have sharper edges and see see them as characatures of people. They are much more two dimensional which is part of the point. Some scenes in the book reminded me a bit of Dave McKean's work particularly the scene where the Romo House is moved for the first time. There is an odd angularness to the illustrations that reminds me of some of his animated work. In fact I spent most of my time reading this thinking that this story needs to be animated. It would be perfect.

This odd little parable has one of the most unusual premises for a chapter book but both Saunders and Smith pull it off. I hadn't heard of George Saunders before but now I will have to check into his short stories books. I picked it up solely because I wanted to see Lane Smith's work. But the character of Capable caught me, the colorful illustrations enchanted me, and the story made me want to tell people about it. For a book with such an unusual name and premise, it tells a simple story of neighborly help. A great find for me.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Mama for Owen

The moment I saw the cover of A Mama for Owen, I knew I had to read this book. Is there anything more adorable than this mismatched pair? Then I heard the premise of the story and I rushed right out to pick it up. Not only is this an incredibly sweet story written by Marion Dane Bauer, but it is matched with incredibly adorable illustrations by John Butler. Oh and did I mention it's based on a true story?

The story follows Owen, a young hippopotamus who lives with his mother and family on the Sabaki River in Africa. Owen follows his mother everywhere and they often play hide-and-seek. When he is tired, he snuggles with his mother to take a nap. But his easy life is short lived. A tsunami comes and Owen and his family are washed out to sea. Owen survives and is swept back into shore, but no where near his river. His family is lost. Owen is unsure what to do until he finds a shape on the beach that is the same color as his mother. He settles down next to the lump and tries to fall asleep. The object is none other than a tortoise named Mzee. Mzee lets the young hippo curl up and slowly becomes a substitute mother for Owen.

The story is a fictionalized account of a true story that occurred right after the 2004 tsunami. In the real story the young hippo, who was less than a year old, was washed out to sea by the wave and when he was found was brought to a wildlife preserve and there met Mzee. But I think the changes made were perfect for this story. The tale could be very sad but Bauer infuses humor in to lighten the story. She describes Owen's mother (and Mzee) as "grayish-brown--or was she brownish-gray?" She adds images like Owen following his mother's stubby tail or playing hide-and-seek with Mzee. One of my favorite pages was one of the later ones. I love the humor of these lines. "And whenever Mzee takes a nap, tucked away inside his brownish-gray--or is it grayish-brown?--shell, Owen waits and waits and waits until he can find Mzee once more. Bauer does a wonderful job of creating a soft gentle rhyme of lines along with some pretty wonderful characters.

But it was John Butler's illustrations that originally drew my eye, and give this book the softness and cuteness that made my heart melt. Owen is simply adorable with his large soft eyes and innocent expressions. Mzee is a warm and sweet character who readers will fall in love with. His smiles and easy-going-nature will make readers cheer for this unlikely pair. The illustrations are done in acrylic paint and colored pencils and have a perfect palette. The book is filled with gentle yellows and oranges and everything is blended to produce soft images. The backgrounds are often just bits of color but the characters are much sharper. Emotions are clearly distinguishable on ever page. I have to admit that I got a bit chocked up reading this book. And with good reason. This is an incredibly sweet story and that fact that it is true, only makes it that much more wonderful. A great read-aloud and a perfect find for any animal lover.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Chester the Worldly Pig

I’m sure I’ve mentioned how much I love the animal stories of Bill Peet. Like a potato chip, I can’t just limit myself to one. I have already done a review of Huge Harold but Chester the Worldly Pig is just too good to pass up doing a review of. Like Wilbur, in Charlotte’s Web, this pig had me cheering for him as he attempted to make his own luck.

Like Wilbur, Chester decides that he doesn’t want to become bacon. He decides he doesn’t want to end up on anyone’s table. But instead of finding a helpful spider, Chester decides to make his own luck. He sees a poster for the circus and decides to learn a trick. He practices and practices and finally teaches himself how to balance on his snout on a fencepost. He runs away and joins the circus only to find out that they want to make him do his trick surrounded by hungry tigers. When he faints, he becomes a clown’s sidekick. But that’s not what Chester wanted either. So he runs away from the circus only to run straight into a bear. He is saved from the bear by three hobos, but they decide to eat the little pig. They stuff Chester into a sack and take him on the trains with him. He escapes from the hobos into the city. But danger lurks everywhere in the form of butchers. He leaves the city defeated and gives himself up to the next farmer he sees. The farmer starts to fatten the pig up for eating; but Chester is saved in the end by a passing carnival promoter. Chester didn’t even need his trick, his spots form a map of the world.

As always, I am enchanted by the characters in Bill Peet’s books. Through both the story and the illustrations, Peet is able to tell an exciting story with some very memorable animal characters. Unlike so many books for children, these are not animal characters acting like people. These are animals, who act like animals, who also happen to have great adventures. Chester is a determined little pig who ends up in a series of bad positions. He is not willing to just sit and wait to become dinner. Chester decides that he will solve his problem on his own. He works hard to improve at his trick and even though it doesn’t pan out, his determination just shows how he’s not afraid of hard work or a couple bruises. Even when things reach the point where he is resigned to being dinner, he decides to do it on his own terms. He plans to grow to as big as possible. He’s a pig who takes charge of his own situation. And a great character.

This book is drawn with Bill Peet’s typical style. Using only colored pencils and ink, Peet is able to create tons of emotions for his characters. We see Chester’s pride, his heartbreak, his determination, and his joy. The rest of the cast of characters is well done but it is the little pig that steals the show. The backgrounds in Peet’s books, often set in the forest or the country, are detailed without being overpowering. A couple of pen lines somehow become a field of wheat. The circus tent is a sea of faces, all done with a bit of colored pencil and excellent shading. Peet is a master when it comes to colored pencil. At a distance, a circus elephant seems grey, but get a bit closer and you can see all the colors that have been used to create the exact shade of grey. The books are filled with great scenes. Peet’s work always seems like he’s grabbed stills from an animated film. There is so much movement and color. Perhaps it is his film background. Another Peet masterpiece and a wonderful character.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Inventor McGregor

I’ve started this review about ten times now and keep stopping. I picked the story up on a whim and loved it. But so far I’m having a hard time capturing exactly what I want to say about this wonderfully little story about following your happiness.

This is the story of Hector McGregor who everyone calls Inventor McGregor. He is called that because of his amazing ability to invent whatever is needed. He invents barking mailbags so the postman won’t be attacked by a neighborhood dog. He invents an alarm clock that pushes people off their pillow (for those frequent snoozers). He invents things like robotic arms, trampoline shoes, floating bags, and peppermint pens. He can invent anything. When not inventing, he lives with his cheerful wife, five children, and a hen named Hattie. He goes for walks and paints and plays the fiddle and is very happy. One day he is discovered by the Society of Inventors and is given a laboratory in the city and a job. He reluctantly heads for the city to start inventing full time. But he can’t think of anything to invent. Days, weeks, months go by and he hasn’t invented anything. He sits in his empty room all day and can’t think of a single thing. People stop calling him Inventor McGregor. As the weeks go by he becomes more depressed until he sees two men painting outside the window. He rushes out and grabs two paintbrushes and he paints. He paints his wife, his children, and Hattie. He paints the sun and the meadow. And then he leaves the city, rushes home, and goes back to his days of singing, painting, walking, and…inventing.

I loved this book, which was written by Kathleen Pelley and illustrated by Michael Chesworth. I loved the character of Inventor McGregor with his bright red hair, glasses, and regular smile. He simply jumps off the page with enthusiasm and the reader is helpless to not get caught up in it. I found myself smiling through the whole first half of the book. The colors, which I believe are watercolor, make the early spreads bright and beautiful. We see the excitement of everyone in the village and the joy that seems to radiate out of the inventor’s house. The words practically bounce off the page in the first half. As an example, Pelley uses this line to describe Inventor McGregor’s day out in the field. “There he sang his snippet of a song, painted a picture, or twirled a whirl of a fling.”

This is all in the first half of the book though. On that very page that I referenced above we see darker clouds rolling in. Chesworth creates the transition in the book perfectly. When the Society of Inventors guys arrive it is raining. The trains into the city are dirty and depressing. We see one lonely red haired man peering out as he heads into the city. Where Hector used to be the epitome of energy, his arms now hang limp. He slumps more. There is a great two page spread that shows his frustration with trying to create. We see him in several different poses at his inventing desk, each a perfect character study of boredom. Pelley also makes the transition beautifully. Suddenly we go from wonderful descriptions of the fields to as few words as possible. And Pelley starts using words like shame, frown, and whispered. The words become slower and less descriptive. The pace of the book actually slows down…until he gets those paint brushes in his hands. Suddenly the colors are back, the descriptive words are back and the joy is back. We, along with Hector, feel the excitement of realizing what makes him happiest.

This was a fun book that made me so incredibly happy. I loved the transitions between the home and city environments. I loved the colors and the emotions that were so evident on our characters faces. I enjoyed the character of Inventor McGregor quite a bit. And more than anything I love how enthused I got after reading it. Like the inventor, I too wanted to paint and sing and create.

Friday, September 18, 2009

John Philip Duck

I don’t remember when I first heard the story of the ducks who live in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN. The story originally goes that the owner and a buddy, who had just returned from a duck hunting trip were staying in the hotel. They decided for a lark to release some of the live decoy ducks they had into the fountain. It was an immediate hit with the patrons. The current bellman at the hotel (who also happened to be a former animal trainer) taught the ducks to walk on command. And ever since, the lobby of the Peabody Hotel has always been graced with ducks.

Apparently the story was a bit hit with Patricia Polacco as well. Polacco created John Philip Duck as a fictionalized account of how the birds got their origin. The story follows Edward, the son of the bellman at the Peabody, who finds a lost duck one day. He adopts the duck and takes care of it but with one hitch. He also works at the Peabody during the week. So for weeks on end he smuggles the duck into the hotel during the week and takes it home to the family farm on weekend. The staff at the hotel fall in love with the little duck. And over time Edward teaches the young duck to walk on cue. When he turns on a march by John Philip Sousa the duck will follow wherever Edward tells him. One day the hotel manager finds the duck and threatens to throw both Edward and the duck out. But the patrons love the little swimming duck. The manager must be convinced that the duck can obey though. So Edward trains him and some other live decoy ducks that are given to him, to walk on cue into the fountain. They are then to stay until he again turns on the march and they are to walk out. He manages to pull it off, and becomes Duckmaster for the Peabody Hotel.

This is an adorable story that takes a real-life history and fills in some of the cracks in the story. There appears to be little information about the original Duckmaster so Polacco creates a warm and caring character to fill the position. I actually enjoyed her idea of a foundling duck more than the idea that this was something thought up by drunken duck hunters. In this story we see how much Edward cares for the birds and works hard to make sure they will be able to live in the hotel. Even the touch of adding the John Philip Sousa marches makes the story a little more human. In actuality the original ducks were named after the owners. (all ducks after the original group have not been named) That said Polacco tries to stay as true to the tradition as possible. The ducks are always mallards, and include one male and three females. That is how they are portrayed in the book. Every morning and evening a red carpet is rolled out and the ducks are led in by the Duckmaster. She even beautifully captures the little fountain that is their home during the day.

The artwork on this book is just fantastic. Polacco uses watercolors and pencil to bring the hotel and its staff to life. The book opens with a couple colorful spreads of Edward’s parents farm. With tons of different colors and careful shading she creates beautiful rural scenes. The hotel scenes are less colorful and much more sparse. Many of the hotel scenes are done with more pencil than watercolor. That said Polacco captures her cast well, ducks and humans. With just a couple lines she creates a unique and interesting patrons, a whole cast of staff, and a very passionate young man. The ducks are drawn with an emphasis on color. I loved the idea behind this book and how well Polacco was able to pull it off. I guarantee children reading this book will want to know more about the luxury hotel that offers live ducks in their lobby. I even spent some time learning more about the tradition after reading this book. (Like how duck is not allowed to be served in the hotel restaurant) This is a wonderful story that tells a mostly accurate history.

The actual ducks at the Peabody and the fountain they live in.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Puddle

I’ve already talked about David McPhail’s Edward in the Jungle, but this past week I picked up his book The Puddle. These two books could not be more different. Where Edward was action packed and full of adventure, The Puddle is a softer quieter book with a lot of silliness mixed in. It is the type of story that I grew up with and for some reason I was reminded of the Little Bear series by Else Holmelund Minarik while reading it. The books are not similar but the tone that they were written in is. This is a quiet book about a simple thing that becomes extraordinary.

The story follows our narrator who wants to go out in the rain to sail his little sailboat. His mother agrees but tells him not to get wet or muddy. So he dresses up in his raincoat and goes out to a big puddle to sail his boat. Shortly after launching his boat, a frog comes along and steals it. He hops into the boat and refuses to bring it back near the shore. (did I mention it was a big puddle). Since the little boy can’t get wet, he cannot follow. Luckily an alligator shows up and offers to bring the boat back. He reclaims it from the frog but returns the boat with a bit of damage. But it doesn’t matter because right then a pig shows up wanting to go for a swim in the puddle. He jumps in and splashes the boy. But then an elephant comes along and wants a drink. She drinks up the whole puddle, and when the other animals yell at her, she spits it back out, drenching the animals and the boy. She leaves and the rain stops. The puddle dries up and everyone leaves. The boy goes home and is told to take a bath, where he finally gets to sail his sailboat in peace.

I’m not sure why this book seemed like a quiet little story to me with all the silliness that goes on. But somehow McPhail presents the tone as no big deal. And elephant arriving at the puddle is treated pretty matter-of-factly. In fact the interactions with all the animals is done very quietly. Even the frog bumping into a turtle or the alligator grabbing the sailboat is done with a softness. Part of this might be the illustrations. With the rainy day theme, McPhail uses mostly watercolors. There are often two smaller pictures on each page and the border of each image is not clearly defined. All the edges are soft often rounded. This gives the book a soft muted look. McPhail paints our narrator as a rather cute little boy who spends most of his time in a tiny rain slicker and what looks like a fireman’s hat. He is a nostalgic looking character and makes me think of growing up. But the animals are what really made this book wonderful for me. Each seems to have it’s own personality. The elephant is timid, the turtle serene, the frog is a bully, and the alligator is a big softie. A wonderful little story that seemed a throwback to older days. This book made me nostalgic and ultimately made me happy. A quiet little book that is perfect for rainy afternoon.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Roald Dahl

I spent yesterday afternoon curled up on the couch reading Going Solo, Roald Dahl's account of his time in Northern Africa and as a RAF pilot during World War II. I've read almost every book that Dahl has ever read but hadn't touched on his autobiographies. It was a wonderful account although not a children's book.

I was also shocked to read today that yesterday was Roald Dahl Day. The coincidence was just too amazing. Here I had picked up the book at a booksale on Saturday, started it that night, and read the majority of it on September 13th, the day Dahl was born. I know that in recent years, Dahl's work has become somewhat controversial. Parents seem to object to his rather dark, and sometimes vicious stories of children who outsmart adults. I have heard many people tell me that they don't let their child read Dahl. Too revolting, they say. His characters are mean. Or too strange.

I had The BFG read to me when I was in second grade. I had the greatest second grade teacher who read us some amazing books. I still remember sitting on the floor listening to the story of Sophie and her Big Friendly Giant. I loved the made-up words, the bizarre situation, and the silliness of the characters. It was the first chapter book I remember loving. I've gone on to read so many of Roald Dahl's books and haven't found one I haven't enjoyed. For all those parents out there, looking for something fun to read in a chapter book, I would recommend Roald Dahl. Yes Dahl is strange, yes he can be revolting, yes he can be vicious. But I have never read anything that have enchanted me as much as these books. Pick up any of his books. For me, they are all must-reads. And Happy Belated Roald Dahl Day!!!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Harold and the Purple Crayon

Today I'm celebrating a classic. I haven't even started going through my collection of children's books yet and doing reviews of those but I will. But this past week I finally picked up a copy of Crockett Johnson's immortal classic, Harold and the Purple Crayon. I can't even begin to tell you how much I love this book.

For those of you that have somehow missed this book, and I've met a surprising number, the simple story follows Harold on his nighttime adventures with a purple crayon. Harold decides to go for a walk in the moonlight but there is no moon. So he draws one...and a path to walk along. When he grows hungry he draws a picnic, and when he falls into his own sea, he draws a boat. Over and over the purple crayon and Harold create the world. He draws mountains and then climbs them. He creates a hot air balloon to go sailing in. And finally, when he's good and tired, he draws his room and his bed and goes to sleep.

If I had to pick one book that shows the power of imagination in a child's world, this would be it. We would play for hours as children with sticks and stones, creating elaborate worlds and this story reminds me of those games. With a plain white background, Crockett Johnson brings his character's world to life. There is so much joy and humor in this book. For example, when Harold gets lost trying to find his way home, he remembers to ask a police officer for help. So he draws a policeman and asks. Other than Harold everything is simply done. The sea is a squiggly line that Harold draws while shaking and stepping backward. The balloon is just a circle at first until Harold draws a basket. But even with the simplicity, or perhaps because of it, we are reminded of how much fun drawing used to be. This book reminds me how an imagination is the best toy a person can have.

I read this book to my girls at knitting this past week. Several of them had never heard it so we had storytime in the coffeehouse. I read and turned the pages and we laughed and giggled and ohhed and awwed. It was so much fun. I'm not surprised that this story, simple as it is, has stood the test of time. It is just too much fun.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Last Badge

My nephews are both in Cub Scouts. They enjoy the activities and hanging out with friends but they love to get badges. They go camping and learn new skills and sew those badges on to their sashes. They've collected quite a few from what I know. Although unlike the narrator in George McClements, I'm not sure whether they will collect them all. But this was so much more than just a story about scouts. It was a wonderful story whose ending captured my heart.

The story foll0ws Samuel Moss, a scout who is looking to make his family proud by collecting all the merit badges available. All the men in his family have been scouts and each has contributed to the "Album of Scouting Greatness". Samuel wants to be in the album badly and he decided that he needs to perform a great feat to get in. That is when he learns about the toughest possible badge to get, the "Moon Frog Badge." In order to get the badge you have to find the Moon Frog a very rare amphibian. In fact, the Moon Frog only appears once a year, under special circumstances, in a very specific spot. And to make things worse, nobody knows where this spot is. But Samuel is not discouraged. He reads up, researches, and calculates. And finally after moths of work, he finds the location where the moon frog will appear. He and his father set out to find the frog but when he gets to the spot, Samuel is faced with a choice that will effect whether or not he gets his badge. I won't tell you the ending mostly because it is a wonderful surprise that I can't bring myself to spoil.

This was a surprisingly cute story for me, even though I have never been a scout and never been interested in merit badges. Samuel is such a great character, one that we really want to succeed. He works hard to achieve his goal and make his family proud. But it was the ending that made me happiest. It was not just the dedication that Samuel put into finding the frog but the decisions that he has to make. I love that McClements has created a good upstanding young citizen who makes responsible choices. And he does it without being pedagogical. This is a fun story that children, particularly boys will enjoy. But the end makes a larger point.

If I enjoyed the story, the illustrations were icing on the cake. Using collage, digital art, paint, and plenty of silliness, McClements creates an energetic book that keeps the eyes moving. I sped through the book the first time, and then went back through to look at the illustrations a bit more. I was just hooked the first time, and the pacing of the illustrations makes this a quick read. The colors are bright and energetic. The collage work stands out, making those images the most memorable. The character of Samuel, who I assume is done digitally and with collage, is realistic and cartoony at the same time. He dresses like a real child but his large round head and huge mouth remind us me of animated characters. The Moon Frog is an interesting mix of color, ugly and silly at the same time. The book is an odd mix of illustrated images but somehow the hodgepodge of styles makes sense for the book. Very inventive.

This was a book I picked up but wasn't sure what to expect. I was pleasant surprised by the story, which included some very grown-up themes along with some silly images. McClements creates a great character with Samuel and I practically wanted to stand up and cheer at the end. A fun story, interesting images, and a pace that kept me hopping. Good find.

Fantastical Art

Originally published on Ancora Imparo.

Have you ever been introduced to an artist over and over? And each time you see his work you are amazed and impressed but still don't retain the name. I have been introduced to Tony Diterlizzi in various forms several times in the last couple years. I'm always awed by his detailed art and his depth of character. His characters show such a huge range of emotions. He has a very beautiful style of art but for some reason I am shocked every time I see his name. I not sure why I can't recognize his work instantly but I can't.

A couple years ago while digging around in my parent's children's book library I stumbled upon a version of The Spider and the Fly, the cautionary poem by Mary Howitt. The poem itself is fun and dark but the illustration in the book took my breath away. They were amazing. Funny and dark and detailed in a way I hadn't seen before. The spider oozed charm and menace. The fly, in her little flapper dress and hat, was the picture of flighty innocence. The ghosts, who tried to warn the fly, practically shimmered on the page. It was a beautiful book. At the time I noticed that it was done by Tony Diterlizzi but then promptly forgot.

The same is true when I read the first of the Spiderwick Chronicles. My nephew again brought me a book and told me that I had to read it. I read the first in an afternoon. I enjoyed the first book immensely but never followed on with the series. Most of you already know my aversion to series. The artwork inside was fun, and strangely enough reminded me of my old D&D artwork. I would later find out that Tony has done work for them too. Tony co-wrote the books with Holly Black. But again the name escaped me.

So this weekend I ended up at the library picking up tons of books on illustration and some children's books. I picked up The Dangerous Alphabet which I'll have to talk about later. (that one needs its own post). But one the illustration books I picked up was "The Art of Reading", a book put out to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Reading is Fundamental program. In the book, well-loved authors and illustrators talk about the books that made them love reading. They also draw a picture from the book. It is a wonderful book that I have been reading through voraciously. But what really caught my eye was a picture of a little pig. It was the third or fourth page in and this little pig is picking flowers. Simple little illustration but the emotion on this little pig is both laughable and sad at the same time. It is such an incredibly cute creature. So I look at the artist signature and of course it is Tony Diterlizzi. Of course.

I went to his website and was completely bowled over. I've seen so much of this man's work and didn't realize it. I would seriously recommend heading over for a little bit. Not only is that little pig there (in the art section), but Tony offers a ton of nice downloads and wallpapers along with sketches and finished pages from his books. He's even recorded a couple little videos for each page. I think I clicked on each page a couple of times just to hear the different videos. Funny stuff. I own The Spider and Fly. Now I just have to buy the rest. Beautiful. And from now on, I'll remember this name.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Huge Harold

I hadn't reviewed any Bill Peet books for the blog and the absence was starting to get to me. Bill Peet is best known as a story man for the Disney company but during that time he also managed to write a ton of books for children. He worked on films like 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, Dumbo, and Alice in Wonderland. His children's stories are He has got to be one of my favorite authors and illustrators. I compare him with Gene Zion and Don Freeman, masters of stories with warm wonderful illustrations and likable characters.

Huge Harold is about a rabbit named Harold who grows up way too much. He becomes several times larger than any other rabbit. His parents are forced to send him away with the statement that he won't be safe with them. So Harold sets off but he quickly discovers that he's not safe in the woods after he is chased by foxes in weasels. He tries to stay in a garden but the farmer discovers him and starts chasing him. Harold eventually finds himself in an old abandoned house but even that won't work after he is discovered. He is chased by hunters all through the fall and eventually in the winter, decides to take shelter in a barn. The farmer who finds him does not chase him off. Instead he feeds Harold good food and takes care of him. Harold is suspicious that he is being fattened up for rabbit stew but the farmer has a different plan. He teaches Harold to pull a cart and wins horse races with him. From then on Harold is adored as the rabbit as big as a horse.

The story is wonderfully warm and I loved the character of Harold. He is a sweet rabbit that just can't seem to fit in. He is often sad and constantly tired and hungry but he is just so cute that I could look past even his flashes of pessimism. The text is rhyming with a simple couplet rhyme scheme. "So he spotted a hide-out and with a big hop, He came plopping down in a leafy treetop. This fooled the hunters and also their dogs, Who sniffed round the tree trunk and peeked into logs." The writing is silly in places and the rhyme actually does a lot to keep us from getting depressed. Harold is often despairing and regularly makes remarks about not being able to go on. Originally I was surprised about this but the sadness just makes the big rabbit an underdog and we root for him all the harder.

The illustration are classic Bill Peet. Using colored pencil and tons of shading Peet is able to created characters that spring to live. I love the goofy grin on the face of Harold as he is happily munching away on the lettuce in one farmer's garden (not the cover image though). It certainly makes up for the number of scared or sad poses that Harold has to take. One image, of Harold sitting by a pond, is enough to break your heart. There is so much emotion in every page of this book, most of it on the part of the giant rabbit. We see his excitement, his sadness, his exhaustion, and his pride. This illustrations, like most of Peet's work, is just filled to the brim with heart. This is one of my favorite Bill Peet's and truly one of my favorite books.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Peter and the Starcatchers

Years ago, I finally made the leap and read the original Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. I was going back to read all the classic children's books I had missed as a child. (Mary Poppins, Wizard of Oz) I was less than thrilled with Peter Pan even though I had loved the Disney film as a child. Peter was too cocky, too arrogant for me. I remember being annoyed by him more than anything. I found myself enjoying the character of Captain Hook quite a bit more, with his focus on manners and his evilness. It seems such a fun juxtoposition.

So when my brother mentioned that I should read Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's Peter and the Starcatchers I wasn't particularly excited. Although I've loved Dave Barry's writing for decades I wasn't sure that I wanted a re-write of the book. But from the moment I opened this chapter book, I was hooked.

The book tells the story of Peter Pan before he becomes Pan. In the beginning we see him as a young orphan, sold off into slavery, and placed on the ship the Never Land. Strange things are afoot on the boat though. There is a young girl (Molly) who is guarding a mysterious trunk. A trunk that makes everyone who touches it happy. The Never Land, the most worthless boat in the world, is carrying a fantastic treasure. And that treasure is being hunted by the ferocious pirate Black Stache (Hook with both hand intact). After mistakenly attacking the wrong ship, Black Stache and his crew finally take the Never Land but before they can grab the trunk, Peter and Molly toss it overboard. Just in time as the boat is destroyed on the rocks of a small island. Peter, Molly, the other orphan boys, Black Stache, and the captain of the Never Land all wash ashore on this small island. From then on it is a race to find the trunk with everyone, including the local natives, hunting for the treasure.

This book is non-stop action from the very beginning with a ton of laughs and some tender moments mixed in. The early chapters cover most of the boat journey which is at times exciting and at time hilarious. I particularly loved Black Stache's secret weapon, "the ladies". But what I really loved was the scenes that take place on the island. This island is what will become Neverland, named after the ship of course. There we get the chance to meet Mister Grin, the gigantic crocodile that will eventually become Hook's nemesis. We meet the mermaids, who are created from fish after having contact with the stuff in the trunk. That is where Peter finally gains immortality and the ability to fly. We see where the lost boys come from and the native tribe that Peter becomes friends with. This is prequel at it's best. We even discover the origins of Tinkerbell.

Barry and Pearson create a fun story but I loved how they tied the story so closely with the original Barrie tale. I mostly enjoyed realizing what part each character would play in the later book. This was a quick read and would make an excellent read-aloud. The writing is wonderful and the characters are interesting. I was impressed by the books treatment of Peter, making him incredibly likable and kind of lost. He is forced into leadership in many ways. Instead of the braggert of Barrie's book, we see a young man who is just trying to do what is best for his lost boys. A wonderful tale and a lot of fun.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jeremy Tankard is Awesome

This was posted both here, and on Ancora Imparo, my other blog, mostly because I was just that excited.

A couple weeks ago I did a review here of Jeremy Tankard's fantastic children's book, Grumpy Bird. I had loved the characters of this little story, enjoyed the dialogue, and absolutely adored Jeremy's art style. It is a wonderful book and I was happy to say some nice things about it.

Two days or so after the review was posted I got an email from Jeremy. He said how much he'd liked the review and asked if he could send me a poster and a sketch. Honestly I was just excited that he had read the review but I was thrilled that he wanted to send me something. He also linked to me on his blog.

So yesterday during work, Jeff called me to tell me that I had a big envelope in the mail. And that it came from Tankard illustration. That was about two. I could hardly wait the two and a half hours to head home and see what he had sent. And they were awesome. I got two posters, one primarily from Grumpy Bird (below, although the color is a bit off).

The second is an image from the poster of Boo Hoo Bird, Jeremy's newest. It had four panels and wouldn't fit in the frame for a picture so you get to see my favorite image, although not the one he signed.

But my favorite was this sketch (below) that he created for me. I went out today to buy frames and hope to have at least the sketch and the poster up on the wall in my studio this weekend. So this is a gigantic public thank you to Jeremy Tankard and an endorsement of his books (Grumpy Bird, Boo Hoo Bird, and Me Hungry!). Thanks Jeremy!!! You are too kind!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Watching Coraline

This was also posted on Ancora Imparo but I thought it would fit here as well.

I read Neil Gaiman’s creepy little story right after it came out. I remember sitting on the stairs after getting dressed that morning trying to finish the book before I had to go to work. I also remember taking it to work with me so that I could read the final conflict between Coraline and the other mother from my desk drawer. I simply had to find out what happened. I loved the story. As I have said repeatedly, here and to anyone else who will listen, Neil Gaiman has to be one of the most imaginative and fantastic writers out there. I’m constantly impressed by his work.

When Coraline came out in the theaters, I didn’t go, mostly because I hate the theaters. I also don’t normally like movies that are based off books I’ve loved. The book is almost always better. But curiosity got the better of me. And on Sunday I bought the movie (collector’s edition and all) sight unseen with the knowledge that even if I didn’t like the treatment I would love the animation. I wasn’t disappointed. The stop motion animation story of Coraline is a visual masterpiece. I’ve always been a huge fan of stop motion and Henry Selick carries it to its most beautiful and believable conclusion. There were times in the film last night where I was so caught up in the incredible colors and settings that I forgot that the film was stop motion. I am constantly in awe of the amount of thought and work that goes into making a film like this. That’s why I had to buy the collector’s edition. I wanted the “making of” features.

The film stays mostly true to the book with a couple notable changes. While I understand the addition of the character of Wybie, I was mostly just annoyed with him. In fact I, like Coraline, preferred the silent version in the other mother’s world. I loved the treatment of Bobinski and the actresses downstairs Misses Forcible and Spink. Coraline was a wonderful character and we really get a chance to see the depth of her emotion. I’m constantly amazed by how they can create such deep emotions with puppets. But I really thought the Other Mother stole the show. They created a character so cloyingly sweet at the beginning that she is almost smothering, and then a character so incredibly evil that I’m sure there were plenty of children who went home and had nightmares. The film seemed an interesting mix of childish and adult and I went away with the feeling that the movie was actually more geared towards adults than children. That is not a criticism. It is rare to find animated films that have an edge and this one delivered. There were wonderful moments of humor but there was also an edge of creepiness throughout the film.
After watching the film I sat down to watch the “making of” features. I am constantly in awe of any type of animation but stop motion in particular. The bonus features were interesting although I’ll be on the lookout for a book that covers it as well. I wanted more of the puppet building and less on the voicing of the characters. But I may be one of the few people who are interested in that kind of thing. Considering I spent the rest of the evening on the couch reading a “making of” book for Toy Story, I’m far more interested than the average joe. (by the way, did anyone else know that Joss Whedon helped write the script for Toy Story?) I sadly can’t watch Coraline in 3-D (I tried) but with only one real working eye, everything just looked green. But even without the 3-D, I was pulled into the film. I was impressed and awed by the movie, but a little disappointed with the bonus features.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gonna Roll the Bones

I wasn't sure if I was planning to review this book or not. I kept picking it up and putting it down. As my regular readers know, I love David Wiesner. But on the other hand this story, adapted from a story written by Fritz Leiber, is a bit darker than most of the stuff I have reviewed. This shouldn't be surprising since Leiber is a classic horror writer but I didn't really know what I was getting into with this unusual picture book.

For those who don't know, rolling the bones, refers to playing craps which in itself is an interesting idea of a picture book. But this isn't just an odd tale about gambling. This is a story about the devil and addiction and death. The tale follows Joe, a farmer who has an addiction to gambling. But he also has luck on his side and has never managed to lose a craps game. While walking one evening he comes upon a saloon and starts to play. Joe starts out winning but there are two people at the table who will be a huge challenge for him. The first is a high-roller named Mr. Bones. The second is a shadowy figure with deep-set eyes. Joe decides he wants to see the big gambler play but when Joe catches him cheating, the stakes go higher. Finally the high-roller (who is really the devil in disguise) bets Joe for his life. Joe accepts the bet, and loses. He attacks the devil who disappears and escapes but can't quite go home again.

Wiesner gives some information at the back of the book about why he chose to illustrate this story. Although this is an unusual picture book subject, the book did lead Wiesner to trying wordless picture books, and for that I owe it a debt of gratitude. The story is certainly not a regular children's book subject but the story did win a Hugo when it was originally published by Leiber. Wiesner says that he was attempting to introduce the story to a younger audience but I would be more likely to say that this book is probably geared more towards junior high students and above. The subject is dark, the story is sad and sometimes foreboding, and the imagery may leave some children with nightmares. The story seems to have a "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" feeling to it and will incite just as many bad dreams.

The illustrations are unique for a picture book. Wiesner uses pencil drawings on vellum to create a dark, old fashioned look. I would almost claim that the images are oppressive in a way. This is perfect for a horror story. The same way Joe feels closed in by his home and his family, we feel that same claustrophobic feeling. The saloon is brighter and lighter but filled with creepy characters. Even the dice seem menacing. For a horror story, Wiesner creates the perfect images. The pencil is very interesting and the first time I looked at it, the images seemed unfinished. There are lines that would have normally been removed in a more polished piece. But somehow that works to add just an element of eeriness to the story.

An interesting faustian tale of gambling and debts. I'm still not sure that this is a picture book for children. But for adults, it is a surprisingly creepy tale.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


My mother never read Eloise to us when we were children. It was only when I got older that I realized that this children's classic was missing. Considering the size of our library, this was a shocking omission. But after checking it out from the library, I think I may have figured out some reasons that my mother never bought the book. The story was wonderful but Eloise may not be my mother's idea of a good role model.

Kay Thompson's classic story starts with the simple line "I am Eloise. I am six." And from there our narrator takes off on her adventures. Eloise doesn't sit still, ever. If she's not tormenting the staff at the Plaza Hotel, where she lives, she's driving her nanny insane. This is a little girl whose idea of fun is pouring water down the mail shoot and drawing on the walls. She sneaks into weddings, crashes fancy parties, annoys her tutor, and tommy-knocks. She's a regular terror for parents. Sadly for the staff at the Plaza, hers aren't around.

My mother would have hated this character. Eloise is everything that my mother taught us not to be. She is wild and rude and free. And in that, lies her appeal. I've read tons of books with good sweet characters in them. Children who, although they don't always behave, are generally good. Eloise is not that. She's the unruly child that every child wants to be but doesn't get the chance to be. She lives a lifestyle that even now, seems desirable to me. I would love to be able to order room service for every meal and have a maid come in to clean up my house. Eloise has complete freedom and unlimited funds. How could any child not be envious? If I had read this story as a child I would have been entranced by her.

Reading the story as a grown-up makes a huge difference. I still envy some of Eloise's lifestyle but the adult in me bristles at her mischief. I feel sorry for the staff, the nanny, the tutor. I do love the rebellion of the character. The anti-hero of the children's world. I am fascinated and repulsed by this story. Perhaps it is because I was not that mischievous child. Perhaps it is because I've been an adult for too long and know the costs and frustrations involved. What I did love unabashedly about the book was the wonderful illustrations by Hilary Knight. Knight uses only a couple colors to create the world of the Plaza and its most famous resident. The entire story is told in black, white and pink. And somehow the images captures both the majesty of the hotel and the chaos that is Eloise.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the story. I like the characters, loved the hotel, envied the lifestyle, and enjoyed the madcap action. But a good part of me had my finger wagging and a tsk tsk on my lips. Love her or hate her, Eloise is a character all her own. And now I know why we never had this book at home.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Almost 50 years before Pixar introduced us to a tiny mouse who wanted to cook in Ratatouille, Eve Titus introduced the world to another culinary mouse named Anatole. Anatole, like his animated cousin lives in Paris and becomes unhappy with the idea of stealing food. The stories are similar which is not surprising. Eve Titus’ story of a mouse who wants to give back has stood the test of time and has just returned to print for its fiftieth anniversary edition.

The story starts with Anatole heading out for his nightly rounds of food stealing with his friend. The two go out every evening together to the take food from the houses of the people. One night Anatole overhears people talking about how terrible it the stealing is. He decides that he doesn’t want to steal food ever again. So the next night, Anatole leaves his friend behind and instead sneaks to a cheese factory in the city. He samples each of the cheeses and then heads home with an idea. He writes up little cards and then returns to the factory that night. He samples the cheeses and offers suggestions for how to improve them. The factory take his suggestions seriously and suddenly their sales start going up rapidly. The factory owner tries hard to meet Anatole to thank him for the new success. When Anatole refuses to meet them he gives the mouse a job as official taster with the perk of getting to bring home as much cheese as he wants. And Anatole never has to steal cheese again.

The story is such a quiet endearing little tale that I’m not surprised that it has stood the test of time. The character of Anatole, with his little beret and bicycle, is charming and grown-up in a way that is unusual as a children’s story. It seems such a grown-up story and theme. Titus is clearly not talking down to her audience. She uses language that is more adult than what we often see in children’s books. One of my favorite exchanges between Anatole and his friend Gaston illustrates this well. “It is horrible to feel scorned and unwanted! Where is my self-respect? My pride? My honor?” Gaston shrugged his shoulders indifferently. “Resign yourself, Anatole. Cest la vie!” Using this more advanced language, Titus creates characters that are intelligent and likable. Paul Galdrone, the illustrator, creates wonderful scenes really bringing the little mouse and his Paris to life. The illustrations are mix of black and white drawings, watercolor images, and full paint washes. The colors are deep and subdued (often blues) making this story sweet and quiet. In fact, this had to be one of the most quiet, thoughtful, and intelligent children’s stories I’ve read in a long time.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

While Mama Had a Quick Little Chat

I love finding fun little books that I wasn't expecting. I love picking up some random book at the library and being completely enchanted by it. That was definitely the case with While Mama Had a Quick Little Chat by Amy Reichert and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. I picked up the book on a whim and it has become my favorite read for the week. Not often do I find a story that mixes such a funny adorable story with elegant colorful illustrations. This book was wonderful, through and through.

The story, which is told in rhyme, starts when Mama gets a call from Uncle Fred and asks Rose to get herself ready for bed. Rose is just set to comply when the doorbell rings. It is some men with party supplies. Rose insists that there is no party at her house but lets them in anyway. They decorate the hall, much to Rose's protests. She tries to get her mother off the phone to help but she continues to tell her, just a couple more minutes. Then the party guests arrive. Rose is unsure what to do but greets all of the guests and tries to make them welcome after her mother tells her to try her best (thinking she's getting ready for bed). Then the band starts to play and a wizard does party tricks until Mama finally says that she's getting off the phone. Rose hurries the guests out and manages to get herself tucked into bed just in time. The book, just like each other page, ends with the line. "It's hard to believe, but Rose did ALL that, before Mama finished her quick little chat."

The story and wording of this book are silly and funny and make a wonderful read-aloud. The character of Rose is sweet, trying so hard to be obedient, but still playing a good hostess. She wants so much to make her mother proud and be ready for bed, even with all the distractions. She's not like other characters I've seen who revel in the chaos. Rose does the best she can. Her mother is shown regularly in different positions as she talks on the phone. She is constantly telling Rose to leave her alone as Rose tries to turn her attention to the party in the foyer. The rhymes are not simply descriptive but mix great dialogue into instruction. I loved her use of rhyme in dialogue. This was one of my favorites:

Then waiters rushed in with trays of hors d'oeuvres.
They handed Rose one and said "Please help us serve"
"There's no party!" cried Rose. "There's no need for food!"
"Feed your guests," they insisted. "You mustn't be rude!"

The rhymes were so much fun that I ended up reading the book several times to pick up on all the wording nuances. Reichert's story is full of wonderful dialogue, enjoyable rhymes, and great miscommunications.

Boiger's pictures are beautifully colored with a hint of sophistication. There is something very dressed up about the characters which makes me think of the early 20s. The fashions of the party guests are elegant, furs and hats and fringes. The images go from a simple house and our introduction to both mother and daughter, to a chaotic ballroom with color everywhere. There is an interesting mix between pages. Spreads with only mother and daughter are filled with white space and very simple. The spreads with the party are often full pages of color and detail. We see the difference between the simple tasks that Rose is expected to do (and her mother's never-ending call) and the chaos that is going on throughout the rest of the house. There is a touch of cartoon to the images but with tons of details. Rose is well captured with her red hair and her white dress. She's a model of innocent while her mother is a picture of flighty and distraction. Boiger makes each character shine with little touches for all. Visually simple but elegant.

This was my favorite story of the ones I picked out this week and I was so shocked since I checked it out on a whim. The story is lighthearted and funny and children will love it as a bedtime read. The illustrations are glamorous and overall I was charmed by this story. I'll be picking this one up for sure.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Punk Farm

About a year ago, I somehow landed on Jarrett Krosoczka's website, liked his art style, and started reading his blog regularly. This was before I had read any of the books he had out. Over the last year I've been slowly collecting his work, from Max For President to Bubble Bath Pirates to Baghead. He has two new graphic novels coming out right now (the Lunch Lady series) and I'm so excited to get my hands on those. But somehow, through all of my adoration of his work, I've managed to not read his most popular story, Punk Farm. So when I was at the library this week, I noticed it was checked in (finally!!) and picked it up.

Punk Farm starts out like any other farm story. We see the hardworking farmer toiling happily amid his farm animals. But when the day is done, the story changes. Farmer Joe goes to his home, and the farm animals whip out guitars, drums, and microphones to put on a great concert. Farm animals from all over come in to see their favorite band play. And of course what song do they play? Old McDonald of course. Pig is on guitar, Cow is on drums, Goat is on bass, Chicken is on keyboards, and Sheep does vocals. These guys are the coolest animals in the barnyard.

It is impossible for me to describe this book without words like high-energy and excitement. Like any good punk song, this book is really high energy with a bit of an edge thrown in. Krosoczka uses a bright palette that makes each illustration pop of the page. The illustrations, which are painted, seem to go from very defined and somewhat subdued, when the farmer is around, to chaotic and blurred during the concert. I love how Krosoczka treats the book as almost a documentary about the band. We see them getting ready for the show and watch the crowd streaming in. The first time I read it, the book seemed almost like an animal homage to "This is Spinal Tap". Cleverly done.

Krosoczka seems to have a ton of fun with the story. The lyrics are creatively changed so that the moos and clucks of the standard song are replaced by keyboard and drum sounds. He throws in a ton of fun little side jokes like the sheep waiting to buy tickets with a hat that says "Obey". I loved the "Thank You Wisconsin" thrown out at the end of the set which just reminds me of "In the Street". Even the little thank you note from the band at the end is a clever dedication from Jarrett.

This would be a great read aloud book for kids, who will particularly like the song. Adults will enjoy the little inside jokes and the general energy of the book. This is one of the more high-octane books I've read in a while. The animals have a celebrity status that adults will chuckle at. Kids will just find the band cool. The band's number one song can be downloaded from Jarrett's website and the book has been optioned as a possible film. I can see why it's so popular. This book was quirky and fun and energizing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Rules for Nonreaders

This was originally posted in January 2009 on Ancora Imparo but I figured it fit better over here.

The previous library I worked in subscribed to the Horn Book. The Horn Book is a children's literature review magazine. It covers hundreds of children's books in each edition giving out stars to the best enjoyed titles. When we would weed out the collection I would go through each issue looking for books that looked interested or good articles. It was in the March/April 2001 issue that I found the "Rules for Raising a Nonreader" and I knew I had to pull out that list. My parents had raised me (and all my brothers and sisters) as readers and I'm happy to say they never did any of the things on this list.

I've been something of a nonreader recently in that I haven't been working on a book every night. I read every couple of days and for me that seems almost scandelous. But I have friends who don't have books in their house. (unfathomable for me) Whose kids never pick up a book for fun. Last year a U.S.A. Today poll found that one in four people had not read a single book in the previous year. I get testy if it's been more than five days since I last read for fun.

So without further ado, here is the way to make sure your child grows up as a non-reader. Remember people, that TV's not going to watch itself.

1. Never read where your children see you
2. Put a TV or a computer in every room. Don't neglect kitchen or bathrooms.
3. Correct your child every time he or she mispronounces a word.
4. Schedule activites every day after school so your child will never be bored.
5. Once your child can read independently, toss out the picture books. They're for babies.
6. Don't play board games together. Too dull.
7. Give little rewards for reading. Stickers and plastic toys are nice. Money is better.
8. Don't expect your child to enjoy reading. Kid's books are for teaching vocabulary, proper study skills, and good morals.
9. Buy only 40 watt bulbs for your lamps.
10. Under no circumstances read your child the same book over and over. He or she heard it once and should remember it.
11. Never allow your child to listen to books on tape; that's cheating.
12. Make sure your kids only read books that are "challenging". Easy books are a complete waste of time. That goes double for comic books and Mad magazine.
13. Absolutely, positively, no reading in bed.

Unlucky Arithmetic: Thirteen Ways to Raise a Nonreader. Dean Schneider and Robin Smith. The Horn Book, March/April 2001.

I can remember whole days spent lounging on some sofa reading. My parents encouraged us to read and read to us (normally the same books over and over) from the time we were very small. Mom would read picture books to us so many times we would easily have them memorized. Dad read the chapter books to us in the evenings. And once we were old enough to read for ourselves, we devoured every book we could get our hands on. I continue to read picture books (no they're not for babies) and young adult chapter books. I read fiction and nonfiction and almost any genre out there. I will pick up whatever book is handy if I'm waiting somewhere with nothing to do. Reading for me is like breathing. I can't go too long without it. I'm a librarian because I love to read. And I love to read because my parents raised us as readers. Thanks.