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.