Thursday, July 30, 2009


It's been a long time since I hid a book in my top desk drawer so that I could steal a couple minutes to read. But this morning I'm doing some work, and then opening the drawer to get my reading fix. I was late this morning because I was reading. I didn't even touch the computer last night so I could have some extra time with the book. Like I said, it's been a long time since I've had a book I couldn't stop reading.

I'm reading the first book in the Warrior series by Erin Hunter, called Into The Wild. Hunter is actually a pseudonym for three English women who write the books. The series follows several colonies of feral cats who have carefully divided hunting grounds. The book follows Rusty, a domestic cat, (or kittypet as the clans call him) who joins the group and learns the ways of the clan. This is complicated because the different clans are warring against each other for hunting territory. Somehow Rusty and an ostracized medicine cat will save the day and I'm dying to know how. I'm only halfway through the book but hope to be done with it tonight.

I picked up the book grudgingly because my nephew told me that I had to read it. I don't read series and thought it sounded kind of silly. I owe him an apology. Although I wouldn't put the book quite on par with Watership Down, it has that kind of feel to it. Each followed animal communities in their quest to survive. Each created elaborate customs and cultural orders in those communities. And each had just enough action to keep the reader turning pages fast to get to the resolution. I claim Watership Down as one of my favorite books. And the book had a number of strange influences on me. I still occasionally think silflay when I see a particularly nice dusk. I almost named a bunny sculpture Fiver. I'm not sure whether Warriors will have as much of an impact on me or even how many of the books (if any) that I read beyond this. But I'm definitely enjoying the ride.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Feathers For Lunch

I've become a bit of a birder in the last year so Lois Ehlert's Feathers for Lunch was a treasure to find. I again judged a book by its cover and picked it up based on the beautiful illustration on the front. And that was only the tip of the beauty that is this book.

Ehlert works in collage, creating brightly colored spreads filled with action and beauty. The book follows the adventures of a cat who slips out the front door and attempts to eat the birds in the yard. But the cat is wearing a bell and the birds fly off before he reaches them leaving just feathers behind. The book is told in simple rhyming phrases which would be easy for any child to read by themselves. The first time I read it, I took so much time gawking at the gorgeous art that I didn't even hear the rhyme. On the second time through I noticed the poem-like quality to the book. Ehlert mixes just enough white space in that we are not overwhelmed by action and color and there is a sense of peace to the book, even with its hunting theme.

The birds are what caught my attention in the book. Using bright colored paper Ehlert brings a number of different birds to life. There are warblers, cardinals, blue jays, and more. And each are stylized beautifully. These paper representations are better than some guide books I've seen. Ehlert includes the birds chirps and alarm calls and has a section at the back which gives information on each bird. This is a perfect book for a young child who is interested in birding. They will marvel at the beautiful illustration, enjoy the fun rhymes, and learn a bit about birds in the process. This would be a great book to use before going on a birding field trip with little children. They will get more from this than any field guide. Most pages include the cat and one or two of the birds he is hunting. I can't say enough about those illustrations. Gorgeous. Stunning. They pop off the page. I'm a huge fan of collage work and Ehlert is a master. I'll be checking out more of her work. A gorgeous find. And one that I will be on the lookout to purchase.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Science Verse

Last month I reviewed Cowboy and Octopus by the dynamic duo of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. I--to put it politely--disliked the book and said so. It was the first and hopefully only time in this blog that I will bash a book. I decided shortly after that review not to do anymore negative reviews. There is no reason for me to write about bad books when there are so many good ones to talk about.

So it is a totally different story when I talk about the duo's title Science Verse, which I finally bought and read this past weekend. I could not be more in love with this book. I picked up a number of books at the bookstore this weekend but I only had eyes for this one. I have read and reread these poems over and over since Saturday. They are just too wonderful.

For those of you who don't know Science Verse is a somewhat sequel to Math Curse (which I already own). The boy from Math Curse even makes a quick cameo in this book. Here is one instance where a sequel tops the original and that is saying a lot. I loved Math Curse but Science Verse is even better. The book is a series of poems all about science, which are done in the style of famous poems or songs. Evolution, is a silly little poem about (you guessed it) evolution, set to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Mary Had a Little Worm, a poem about parasites, is a direct takeoff on Mary Had a Little Lamb. And these are the shorter poems. My favorite had to be a poem about the scientific method told to the rhyme of Casey at the Bat. Or the hilarious Dino-Sore told in the same cadence as The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe.

Jon Scieszka is at his marvelous best, combining familiar rhymes and cadences with new and delightful wordings. Kids may want to see what the original poems sound like but I guarantee they will enjoy the new wording so much more. Scieszka is just so witty and clever with the parodies that kids will be singing and reciting the poems over and over. These are funny, silly, wonderful poems. And they will be learning a little about science in the process. Scieszka gives credit where credit is due at the end, listing all the poems and songs that were parodied.

Not to be outdone, Lane Smith has created silly and interesting spreads for each of the poems. His illustrative work is always inventive but in this book he really creates characters that stand out. The poem Evolution has a wonderful spread with each of the evolutionary stages of our narrator. He goes from knuckle dragging monkey, to upright boy wearing his adorable little bow tie. The spreads for Dino-Sore are colorful and just plain beautiful. One of my favorite spreads is for a poem called Water Cycle which looks at the precipitation-evaporation cycle. Our narrator is held in tiny water droplets only to be pushed high in the air during evaporation. Silly, inventive, and always interesting, Smith has easily become one of my favorite illustrators.

Science Verse is hilarious, innovative, and actually educational. Kids won't understand that they are learning about parasites, the water cycle, or the scientific method, but they will want so many repeated readings that they will soak in the information. Kids will love the funny poems, adults will love recognizing the source poems and songs, and everyone will love this book. Both this and Math Curse should be required reading. I'm excited that both of them now grace my shelves.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

June 29, 1999

Every book by David Wiesner I read reminds me of how much of a genius the man is. Wiesner is the master at making the reader step outside the boundaries of normal. His settings are very real but the situations just seem beyond the norm. His Tuesday is one of my favorite wordless books ever and that is based on the simple premise of flying frogs. This book has a touch of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs meets Tuesday. There is strange and then there is the genius of Wiesner. 

The story starts with Holly Evans beginning a science experiment. She plants vegetables in boxes and then launches them into the air with weather balloons to see what effects heights and atmosphere have on their growth. It is her science experiment for class. A couple weeks later a hiker in the woods find a giant turnip. Suddenly massive vegetables are showing up all over the earth. Holly watches the giant vegetables with interest. Her experiment seems to have had some interesting consequences. That is until the Arugula is found. Holly didn't plant Arugula. She realizes that this is not the result of her experiment. Now the question becomes where the vegetables came from and where her seeds went. Well above the earth, the answer is found. I won't give away the surprising and strange ending. 

As always Wiesner's illustrations are what make this book the masterpiece that it is. His image of the broccoli that winds up in Holly's backyard is detailed and odd. He uses the juxtoposition between normal and strange well. All of his work is detailed and colorful and leads the reader into the world. We see the giant vegetables through Holly's eyes. We have the same confusion that her experiment could have produced such amazing food. In fact it is something of a let down to find that the experiment is not the cause. I wanted the oddity to continue. The ending stunned me. But the unusual story drew me in. I loved how the story starts realistically and slowly then becomes more and more unreal. 

My favorite page was the one with the red peppers, who apparently needed some help getting down to the ground. But the mix of images and words are perfect. Wiesner has such a great sense of the absurd. A wonderful book, and I'm not just saying that because it is filled with food. Silly and fun. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

You Can't Take a Balloon Into the Metropolitan Museum

Wordless picture books have a different kind of energy than other books. There is something magical about relying entirely on images to grasp the story. I am more of a writer than an illustrator but books like You Can't Take a Balloon Into the Metropolitan Museum, reminds me how pictures can be worth a thousand words. 

The book, designed and illustrated by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser, is a visual masterpiece. The story follows a little girl's visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a chase through the city of New York for a missing balloon. As the girl and her grandmother attempt to enter the museum with a yellow balloon, a security guard asks her to leave it outside. The girl is hesitant but accepts when the guard promises to watch it for her. The girl is introduced to the greatest art treasures the museum has to offer. The balloon escapes and the guard must chase it throughout the city with the help of various passersby. 

There are two different paces in this book. The story of the girl and her grandmother is quiet, slow as they move between the works of art. The story of the guard and balloon is a madcap rush through the city, as he gathers helpers from each of the scenes he enters. Where the book is strongest is where these paces meet up in each of the different works of art. As the girl is looking at one of Degas' ballet dancers, the guard is running through an ice skating rink of pirouetting skaters. When the girl is looking at Washington Crossing the Delaware, the guard and his group of helpers is taking a small boat across the pond in Central Park. As the girl points out Seurat's Invitation to the Sideshow (a painting of musicians) the guard runs smack dab into a troupe of practicing musicians. These coincidences are well planned and children will enjoy spotting the similarities. 

The book presents artwork in a fun way for kids. The artwork is copied directly into the book and the authors do not attempt to recreate them, which I feel is a strength of the book. I have seen illustrators attempt to recreate traditional works of art with mixed results. The fact that the artwork stands out so well from the rest of the illustration make it simpler for children (and adults alike) to spot the museum pieces. This is a fun book with a message. Children can see these great works, which are referenced in the back, while enjoying the slapstick race of the guard. The happy ending is coincidental but the book is well planned. It is both a serious and a silly book at the same time. 

I was reminded of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's art based book called Seen Art?. They too used art to tell a clever story. These books would work well together since You Can't Take a Balloon... covers traditional and antique art (with the exception of the Jackson Pollack) and Seen Art? is very much about modern art. Both have separate stories going on that drives the characters from artwork to artwork. And both are just as much fun. While these books are not substitutes for actually visiting the museums, these books whet children's appetites for art and give a view of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Laugh and enjoy the stories, but the art lesson cannot be denied. 

Monday, July 6, 2009

Once Upon a Banana

Over the last year I have become a huge fan of David Small. Sometime early this year I picked up a copy of The Gardener that Small illustrated for his wife Sarah Stewart and fell in love with the look. His distinctive style just brings a smile to my face every time I see one of his books. So when looking through the A-author (I'm trying select a book from each bin at my local library) I stumbled upon Jennifer Armstrong's Once Upon a Banana, I knew I had to pick it up. The cover itself was fun with the multi-colored juggler and the bright marquee. 

Armstrong's role in the story is a bit odd (not a typical writer's story. More on that in a moment) but David Small makes this book a visual feast. The story begins on the front spread pages, where we see the juggler's monkey run off. The title page shows where he is heading, straight for a banana stand. We then follow both the monkey and the juggler on a madcap adventure through the city. Carts are toppled, people knocked over, bikes flattened, and general chaos ensues. The book has a incredible energy and every page is just filled with action. I spent a good long time with each page just trying to take in everything that was going on. 

It was a bit difficult to follow all the action until I realized that there were only a few words on each page (not in regular text form but in the form of signs). Signs like Four-Way Stop, One Way Only, No Parking at This Site, are wonderful clues to lead the reader towards where the action is. We only need to look for the sign to see what will happen on the next page. The foreshadowing is clever and my first reading I didn't really notice it. I'm not sure if Jennifer Armstrong wrote out the signs first and then sent them to David Small but I would assume this was a heavily collaborative work. Other than the small signs there are no words in the story. The plot though is obvious because of the inventive signals. 

The real beauty I found in this book was the uniqueness of the characters featured in the story. The juggler is a great character, wearing two different colored shoes, orange shorts, a jingle-bell adorned ruffle around his waist, and a strange multi-colored collared shirt. This is clearly a jester but a modern kind that I could see performing on the streets of New York. All the people are unique. We see a woman walking numerous dogs wearing a tutu, a man in a wrestling unitard pushing a cart of groceries, two leather clad bikers, an entirely pink-clad woman with a baby stroller, and so many others. Each disaster creates another, all started by one banana peel.

The story starts in front of a theater with the performing juggler and somehow manages to round the block and end in front of the same theater with a climax that is explosive. Small is excellent about building and building the energy until we reach the final conclusion. The end pages show the route of the story with a city map. The street signs on each page are cleverly marked out on the map, and even more fun they rhyme when read quickly. I was too slow on each page in order to pick that up the first time. Every inch of this book is covered in illustration. The story itself starts on the cover. I love the references to Laurel and Hardy as sign hangers. Their fate is listed on the back flap of the dust jacket. The book, like Laurel and Hardy, is pure slapstick. And with its bright colors and even more colorful characters, tons of fun. 

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Three Pigs

The story of the three little pigs has been told to death. As children we hear it over and over so frequently that most children can recite the lines "not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin". We all know the story of the three brother pigs who build houses to see them knocked down. The original story had them eaten. The Disney version had the brothers surviving the attacks. And perhaps it is because we are so familiar with the tale that we are so comfortable parodying it. 

The first time I read The True Story of the Three Little Pigs I was amazed at how easy it was to deconstruct the story into something new. But not even that innovative story had prepared me for David Wiesner's The Three Pigs. I had heard that the book was revolutionary. I had heard that it turned the story on its head but when I finally sat down and read it I was blown away. (pun intended) Wiesner (whose work I adore) is a genius. This book might have to be the most unique I've read in a while. 

Warning: spoilers. If you have not read this book stop right here. Head to the library and pick up a copy. After you are done come back. Otherwise, I might just spoil the greatest children's literary surprise in years. 

The story starts out in the traditional fashion with the pigs and their houses. But when the pig in the straw house is blown out of the frame, the story becomes something entirely new. The three pigs manage to escape the wolf by stepping out of the story and adventuring on their own. I love how they use the dangerous wolf as a paper airplane to set out on their trip. They make a mess of the linear story panels, head butting them and scattering them. They wander into other tales, picking up stray characters on the way. I love the transitions they make between story character and outside characters. In one story, they become black and white illustrations while helping a dragon escape from the knight who intends to slaughter it. As they, and the dragon, leave the story panel they become colored again. 

I was enchanted with how Wiesner plays with the traditional story. The wolf is confused as the narration tells him that he eats the pig up, yet clearly there is no pig to be eaten. The knight is similarly unsure when the dragon he was sent to kill is gone. The narration continues as normal but the characters are simply missing. When the pigs, plus cat (from Hey Diddle Diddle) and dragon, decide to go home they simply rearrange the panels and arrive back at the house of bricks. And everyone, except the wolf, lives happily ever after. 

The visual work on this book is incredible. Wiesner creates different looks for the different tales and manages to slip his characters in. Children will love recognizing the pigs in each of their different versions. Once the characters slip out of the story frame they become more lifelike. What used to be a pig outline, is suddenly covered with fur and color. What used to be a black and white dragon, is now a multicolored scaly beast. We get the idea that these characters are much more themselves when not confined to their designated script. The place outside of the stories is all white, which for me symbolized the idea of a blank slate. That anything could happen. And certainly as we see the pigs say "lets explore this place" and take off in their wolf designed paper airplane, we feel the freedom that an unlimited adventure can contain. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Children and adults will both be enchanted with the unique story and the innovative drawings. Wiesner has outdone himself. It is no surprise to me that this book won the Caldecott. 

Friday, July 3, 2009


If I wasn't already in love with the pictures in Dogfish, I would have still fallen in love with the story. This has to be one of the cutest stories to be published in the last couple of years. The book, written by Gillian Shields and illustrated by Dan Taylor, is the wonderful story of a young boy who realized just how wonderful a pet can be. Even if it's just a goldfish. 

The full story is about our young narrator who wants a dog. He sees that everyone else has a dog and wants one. Instead he only has a goldfish. And the goldfish can't fetch a stick, go on walks, or play with him. But Mom gives the boy all kinds of reasons why he can't have a dog. The boy is sad, mom is sad, and the goldfish is sad. Until the mom suggests that the boy want what he has. The boy trains his goldfish to catch sticks. He takes him for walks. He plays games with him. And suddenly he realizes just how wonderful it is to have a goldfish for a pet. 

The story is cute and clever. When the mom questions how they would keep a dog, the boy always has a clever response. The author doesn't take the subject to seriously though. I love lines like, "These are our sad looks" showing the sad boy and the sad goldfish. There is sadness and happiness in this absolutely adorable book. Children will be cheering for the boy and the fish. Shields manages to capture the thoughts of a child well. 

The illustrations are rounded, simple, and adorable. Everything in the illustrations is soft and so cute you want to pinch their cheeks. The page spreads are colorful and filled with multiple illustrations. Taylor uses texture to create very tactile images. All the images are digital but Taylor is careful to make sure that we see them as almost hand-drawn. The boy's hair is made with what look like pencil marks that have been digitally created. But it is the roundness of the illustrations that make them so wonderful. Children and adults will absolutely love these pictures. This is Taylor's first book but I hope to see many more. His design work is modern, refreshing, and cute. This is an adorable book that any child would love.