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.