Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cowboy and Octopus

I own almost all the books that combine the amazing talents of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. From the first collaborative work, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, to the enjoyably energetic Math Curse, I have loved all of them. They have a humor and a tone that is unusual for most children's books. The fantastic collaborations are infused with a bit of darkness and bit of satire. But more than anything they are fun. So it is a bit of a surprise for me to read Cowboy and Octopus. 

Perhaps I am simply not the target audience for this book but I didn't enjoy it. The short snippets could have been funny but somehow just didn't have that Scieszka spark. The illustrations, while inventive like all of Lane Smith's work is, didn't seem to fit with the theme of the book. The impression that I got from the book was that the two authors were trying to just come up with the silliest idea possible and just turned out whatever they thought of. Even worse, it seems like it was just published for the money. 

The book uses short scenes to show how Cowboy met Octopus. They learn how to seesaw together, eat dinner together (beans, beans, and more beans), tell each other jokes, and work on Halloween costumes together. The scenes jump from one to another (like The Stinky Cheese Man but without the fun) but most of the scenes seem so silly and pointless. Perhaps the duo were attempting to just create something that was so silly and odd it would be funny. 

The only other book from the duo that I have not had a chance to read is Squids Will be Squids. I am holding out higher hopes for that book. Again I have always loved the work they do. There are very few authors out there that are as funny as Jon Scieszka. And there are very few illustrators who are as inventive and memorable as Lane Smith. There is a reason these two have been so successful together. I'll keep my eyes open for future work from the two. But this one won't be sitting on my shelf. 

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Oliver Finds His Way

If I had to list one of my new favorite illustrators it would be Christopher Denise. This is somewhat surprising to me since I tend to like darker images and his work just brims with cuteness. I was introduced to him by Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and since then have been searching out all of his work. Last week I took out Oliver Finds His Way, written by Phyllis Root and illustrated by Christopher Denise. 

The story is simple. It follows Oliver, a little bear, who chases a yellow leaf and ends up getting lost in the forest. He cries for a bit and then realizes that it won't get him anywhere. So he decides to roar. He roars loudly and from back at home he hears Mom and Dad roaring back. He follows the sound all the way home to "tumble-down hugs" and safety. A cute story but Denise's illustrations make this book one of the most adorable I have ever seen. Oliver shows emotion on every page and each one of them is unbearably (hehe) cute. Even the spread of him crying is cute enough that I wanted to frame it. The story is set in the Northeast in the fall so each page is filled with color. The trees practically burst off the page with reds, yellows, and browns. But those are all overshadowed by a small bear who is just one of the most adorable things I have ever seen. 

This book is perfect for younger readers because of its story of lost and found. And Oliver seems so lovable that you can't help but want to protect him. This book has a wonderful story but the illustrations are what will make me purchase this book. A tiny incredibly adorable bear in a beautiful Fall woods. Perfect. 

Milo's Hat Trick

I wanted to start at the beginning of the alphabet. My idea was to read every children's book at the West Des Moines library who's author started with an A. I glanced through a few of the titles that were available and stumbled onto Jon Agee's book Milo's Hat Trick. (no it's not sports related) Again the cover drew me in and I picked it up to take home and read. 

The book follows Milo who is a terrible magician. His big shame is his hat trick. He doesn't have a rabbit so he can't pull one out of a hat. Normally he pulls a mouse which just isn't as good. He is constantly booed. So the manager informs Milo that he needs to get a rabbit. He sets off to trap one and manages to catch a bear instead. But the bear can also do the trick. He can fold himself up to fit in the hat and is willing to jump out at a whistle from Milo. They head back to the theater together but on the train Milo's hat gets switched with someone. He is panicked. His bear and hat are gone. The bear in the meantime is jumping out of the hat at the worst possible moment. A hunt is taken to find the bear who still has the hat. He finds his way to the theater to save the day at the last moment. He becomes part of the act. But after hundreds of shows the bear gets tired and Milo must find a new trick. And this one is a wonderful surprise.

The story in this book is clever but the illustrations are really what made it for me. The gawky looking Milo and the silly bear convey emotion easily. Agee uses pencil and watercolor to bring the scenes to life. One of my favorite images is Milo crouched down talking to the bear who is already tucked into the hat. Only his mouth protrudes from the hat. The silliness of the situation and Milo's odd posture (including pants riding up to show white socks) makes for a wonderful scene. The story is fun and we feel for the bear as he tries to get back to the show. Even with the blank eyes that the characters have we can see his fear and desperation. A clever book with fun illustrations. 

The Little Stone Lion

They say don't judge a book by its cover but that's the exact reason I picked up this book. I sadly have never heard anything about this book and don't know anything about the author Kim Xiong. The cover seemed sad and beautiful so I picked it up. That's why I love the library. I can randomly try any book that seems interesting. 

This book has the simplest story I've ever read. It is a small stone lion, a guardian for a village, who is telling the reader about his role. He's a tiny little statute, not much bigger than a house cat but he has a vital role in the village. He is a talisman for the people. The children see him and feel safe, the elderly can look at him as a reminder of youth. The simple words and beautiful illustrations remind me that objects often mean more than the material they are made of. This little lion is the backbone for the village. 

When I finished the book I was surprised by how peaceful I felt. This was similar to the feeling I got after reading Zen Shorts. Perhaps this too is a Zen story. The book uses simple lines to create something of a poem. The first two lines and the last two lines are the same, creating a circular story. Although this book was written for children I think it might have more of an impact on adults. It reminded me of the power of faith. The villagers have faith in the lion and he derives his power from them. The illustrations are muted colors with a distinctly Asian feel. I would have to guess mostly brush and ink. The pictures are sparse and all center around the little lion. It is his voice that narrates. This is a peaceful and beautiful book that I will have to purchase. 

New Blog

If you are coming over from Ancora Imparo, Welcome! Apparently I'm not content with just sharing my odd random thoughts. And so much of my posting lately has been about children's books that I thought I would just collect everything here. I've been heading to the library each week and picking up stacks of children's books. It's been amazing to see the variety and number of stories and pictures that are out there. So here is a place to write about all these beautiful books. I'll try to post somewhat regularly but this might be a three days a week in the beginning.