Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon

The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon

By Mini Grey

I have to admit that I’ve never had the change to read Mini Grey before. Somehow I managed to miss her numerous books. But after reading The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, I’ll be looking for more of her creative titles.

The book follows Dish and Spoon after their very famous running away. They start a career doing vaudeville and become incredibly popular. The money rolls in and the duo become used to the finer things in life. When the money runs out they turn to knife gangsters to borrow more. The gang soon want their money back and intimidate the pair. The couple turn to a life of crime to pay back the debt and end up on the lam. In their hurry to escape from the cops, Dish becomes broken and the Spoon allows himself to be captured when he finds that she can’t go on. He serves his time and is finally released. He gives himself to a crockery and silverware shop, only to run into the recovered Dish. They run away (again!) and live happily ever after.

I love reinventions of classic stories, and this one has to be one of the more inventive ones that I’ve seen. Grey tells a subversive tale, that takes a sweet and silly nursery rhyme and makes it into a darker tale about greed and crime. Grey does it very tongue in cheek, never taking the story too seriously. “Someone put a record on the new record player. It was playing our tune. How could we resist?” The words swoop out the window along with the dish and the spoon, as you see two cat paws putting Hey Diddle Diddle on the record player. In fact the cat, the fiddle, the cow, and the moon appear throughout the book, even showing up in the crockery shop at the end or the lost cow sign posted after Spoon gets out of prison. In fact not only does the whole story play around with the nursery rhyme, but Grey spends most of the book playing around with us. There are little jokes throughout the book.

Grey uses a mixture of collage and paint to create frenetic images. With the mad caper going on, these illustrations are simply perfect. There are tons of things to look at, to read, and to savor. I found myself going back through the book over and over to try to catch all the little visual jokes. And each time I saw something new. The running away image is the perfect example. The scene includes collage cows jumping over a painted silver dollar moon. The dish in the spoon float in a painted sea. On either side, there are panels that show the pair’s dive into the ocean and their arrival in New York. Most of the book is told in two or three panel spreads, showing how frantic and wild this story really is. Things feel crowded and rushed but at the same time wonderfully silly. You want to linger on these illustrations but the story forces you to move faster. I’ve reread this little book at least six times since I first picked it up. And I’m sure I’ll read it again and again. A wonderfully subversive tale, filled with humor and fantastic illustrations. I must find more of Mini Grey’s work.

Friday, August 27, 2010



Angelo is a plasterer. He has spent most of his life high above the city re-plastering buildings and cleaning up pigeon droppings from the facades. So when he finds an injured pigeon in one of the crevices of the buildings, he only agrees to take it home and nurse it back to health for a day or so. After all, he hates pigeons. The days turn into weeks and the two become friends. After the pigeon, named Sylvia, gets better she flies away but comes back to keep an eye on the old man. The two become inseparable, eating and working together. Sylvia notices that Angelo is slowing down on his work. He rests more often. And Angelo notices too. After he finally finishes his building job, he decides he needs to do something for Sylvia. Something that will last forever.

If I was looking for a book where I cried with both happiness and sadness, this would be it. I'm so in love with this book. I love Sylvia, I love Angelo, but most of all I loved the friendship between them. This is no simple story about a man rescuing a pigeon. Angelo is rescued just as much. The friendship between the two is well built, based on hard work and time spent together. We get to watch it develop from the moment Angelo builds a makeshift hospital bed for the bird until the very end. Angelo is hardworking and caring. He works to do a good job even as he gets too old to work. Sylvia is sweet and caring, and worried about the old man. The ending though, is what cements this book as a new found favorite. I cried at the end of this book, the story was so touching. I was happy and I was sad. In only a couple words Macaulay creates a final image that will stick with me for a very long time.

David Macaulay's illustrations are filled with rough lines and warm colors. In only a few simple pen strokes, he creates beautiful Mediterraneans buildings and expresses great character emotions. He uses terra-cottas, creams, browns, and light blues to bring out the Italian feel for the city and to make his unassuming character of Angelo come to life. Here is a plain man presented plainly. But we still get a feeling for the great love and tenderness he has. A beautiful book, both in story and in illustrations. And a new favorite of mine.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


When I think of children's book authors, Carl Hiaasen is not the first name that springs to mind. I've read a number of Hiaasen's books and never once did I think to myself, this man should write children's books. In fact, normally his zany and gritty tales of Florida are the exact opposite of a classic kids book. Hiaasen writes about crime and dirt and corruption. And when it comes to Hoot, a Newbery Award honor book, he does it perfectly for the young adult audience.

Hoot follows Roy (or Cowgirl as his not-quite friends call him), a young boy who's just moved to Florida from Montana. Roy has problems and he has them in spades. He's the new kid in school with all that implies, he's attracted the attention of the school bully who wants to beat him to a pulp, and he's just discovered a mysterious boy named Mullet Fingers who's involved in a personal crusade against a national pancake company. A huge pancake company has decided to open a restaurant in the small town that Roy lives in. That should be cause for excitement and is until Roy finds out that there are endangered burrowing owls who have made a home on the site that the restraunt will be built on. Roy, Mullet Fingers, and Mullet Finger's sister Beatrice decide to stop them, using some rather unusual means. If you have read Hiaasen before, you know what kinds of antics his characters can get into. If you haven't...well what are you doing. Why aren't you at the library picking up one of his books?

As an environmentalist and a believer in animal rights, I was completely in love with this book from the beginning. Hiassen's message of anti-development rings so true with me. Hiassen often talks about corporate greed and its impact on the environment. Here he offers us a couple of heros that are willing to stand up against corporate greed, even if it means no pancakes. The kids get their point across through a wonderful mixture of vandalism and law-abiding routes (Mullet Fingers on the vandalism side and Roy on the law abiding). This is a book about standing up for what you believe in no matter how unpopular it is.

But it's not as preachy as that sounds. Instead Hiaasen uses humor to get his point across. From the opening scene, where Roy first sees Mullet Fingers while having his face smooshed against the glass by the school bully, you know you're in for a story that's both touching and humorous. Roy is not a violent kid and he goes about helping Mullet Fingers (and dealing with his bully), in funny ways. The pranks that Mullet Fingers pulls on the construction contractor are hilarious with just a slight touch of danger. The contractor and the police officer dealing with the case start off as charactures and become real people during the course of the book. But they are still the bumbling idiots of the tale. And in the end (after all the humor is done) you come away with a great environmental message. I have to take back my earlier words. Hiaasen can write children's books. And he'll do it with humor.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Auntie Claus

With nearly record high heat indexes and constant rain, I needed a reminder that there is something called winter. So when I was in the library last week, I stopped to check out the books on Christmas. The cover of Auntie Claus drew me in so I dropped it on my stack to check out. And I'm so glad I did. The rest of the book was just as sweet and enjoyable as the cover.

Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera tells the story of the Kringle family who live in New York City. Every year, Auntie Claus disappears on a "business trip" from October until Valentine's Day. One of the younger members of the family, Sophie, is curious about where her aunt goes each year. She's determined to find the secret. So when Auntie isn't looking, Sophie stows away. As most readers have already guessed by now, she finds herself deposited at the North Pole. One of the head elves mistakes Sophie for an elf and puts her to work. She starts in the mail room and finds herself unhappy sorting mail all day. When Santa needs someone to go get the naughty list from the basement (the worst job at the North Pole), Sophie volunteers. She finds her spoiled brother's name on the list, so Sophie makes a choice. She erases her brother's name, and replaces it with her own. The moment her name is signed, Sophie is summoned to Santa's side to help deliver packages. She falls asleep in the sleigh and wakes up Christmas Morning at home, with a very special gift.

Elise Primavera's story is sweet and fun, but with a moral. Adults will not be surprised by Auntie Claus's job, nor by the rest of the family's connection to Christmas, but children will be drawn into the world. Sophie is a great character, half rebel, half sweet caring girl. I loved her curiosity and her spunk. She is spoiled at the beginning of the story but we see her make sacrifices later in the book. We watch her grow. In a way we watch Sophie discover her more adult, mature self. Auntie Claus starts the story with the idiom "it is better to give than to receive" and that is displayed at the end in wonderful form. The moral is not pushed hard but readers will leave with it firmly in their mind. The subtle message fits beautifully with the idea of Sophie growing up. I was actually a bit surprised by the ending of the story but I found it much more satisfying than a more Hollywood-style ending. It is a mature, sensitive, and fitting ending. I left the book with a huge smile.

Primavera's illustration are simply gorgeous. Auntie Claus is elegant in a movie star type of way. Her home, along with Sophie's home, are luxuriously drawn. Everything is rich and elegant. Once Sophie leaves the house and heads to the North Pole, the colors become even more rich. Filled with reds and blues, these gouache and pastel illustrations wrap you in warmth. Sophie is presented very plain compared to her famous aunt and the beautiful world she inhabits and then visits. Primavera gives everything a soft focus, adding to the unreality of the situation. It was a world I loved visiting, with sweet characters and an even better moral. A great book for Christmas and one I'll be adding to my collection.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bill Peet

As an animation fan, a Disney fan, and a huge children's book fan, Bill Peet has got to be my hero. Not only did Bill work for Disney helping to create some of the most memorable animated films of all time, but he has created some of the most inspiring and emotive children's books out there. If you couldn't tell, I adore his work. I review one of his books here and here. So when I was in the bookstore just recently and noticed a copy of Bill Peet: An Autobiography on the shelf, I knew I had to own it.

Bill Peet tells his autobiography through words and images. Each page of this wonderful book is filled with a full color image that relates to a part of his story. Peet starts from his early childhood and tells his story through the publication of Chester the Worldly Pig. He tells stories of his early childhood drawing in his grandmother's attic. He describes his years in art school when he met his wife and his early start to his career. Not surprisingly, he spends a good part of the book on his years working for Disney doing storyboards. And then finishes with his stepping out on his own to focus on children's book writing.

Peet tells his story lightly, focusing on the positives of his life and career although he does mention the negatives. The book, which was designed for children, offers a wonderful overall picture of the artists life and influences. Peet describes his clashes with Disney in a sympathetic way, making the reader care about both characters. He discusses his dead-beat father in ways that make him seem more absentee than really an issue. And he discusses his excitement and frustrations of working to create the books and films that he made. Readers will be stunned at the number of both children's books that Peet has written and the number of Disney movies he has influenced. I wasn't aware of how involved he was in the creation of 101 Dalmatians (he wrote the screenplay and a did a good amount of storyboarding). Nor was I aware of his brief involvement in Snow White. This is a man who had a hand in some of my favorite Disney films, and then went on to create some of my favorite children's books.

Peet illustrates his book with images of animals (his favorite thing to draw) and scenes from his life. Some of his illustration cover his memories from childhood, some represent scenes from his books or movies, and some show scenes from inside Disney Studios. All are done in his distinctive colored pencil style. The illustrations take up a good portion of each page, making this book a light and easy read. I was fascinated and read through the book in two hours. His images are unique and emotive. His writing style is straightforward and interesting. This is a unique history of an interesting man. A wonderful new collection to my library.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Toot and Puddle

The first time I saw the name Holly Hobbie on the book Toot and Puddle, I thought it was a mistake. Actually what I thought was “I had a doll with that name when I was young” and “I remember greeting cards with that character”. I thought the author had borrowed the name. Instead the author is the one who created the namesake character. Holly has been in the business of creating memorable characters for quite a while. I loved my Holly Hobbie doll but Toot and Puddle, the pigs living at Woodcock Pocket, completely stole my heart.

Toot and Puddle is actually a series of books. There are 11 stories so far and Holly does seem to be stopping anytime soon. Toot and Puddle are adorable pigs who share a house in the woods. Puddle is a homebody, content to bake and cook in the kitchen, wallow in a good bath, and play in the snow. Toot is a traveler, constantly seeking out new places and friends. The book follows the adventures of each during the course of a year. Toot’s story is told in the postcards he sends home to Puddle along with full page illustration of his adventures. On the other side, we get to watch Puddle enjoying his favorite parts of the season. So when Toot is spending winter in Africa with the hippos, Puddle is ice-skating and playing in the snow at home. Both are having a wonderful time, doing the things they love.

The story itself is very basic, often just telling what each character is doing. Toot’s story gives a bit more detail since his are told through postcards. The writing is wonderful on that account. The postcards sound like what people typically send on postcards. Puddle’s story is often told in little snippets. But you really don’t need the text for Puddle’s story. The images say it all. Holly’s watercolors are amazing! She manages to create lovable characters through her detailed illustrations. It’s the little things that make a difference in her art. Every part of the house is lovingly created and I was floored at how beautiful her images are. I want to live with Toot and Puddle. The house, the grounds, and Toot’s locations are created in adorable detail. There is a warmth to these places. Plus the characters themselves seem to radiate warmth and joy. We can see the obvious happiness on both of the character’s faces as they do the things they love. But we can also see the connection between the two friends. In only 32 pages we see two very different friends who have one of the strongest friendships I’ve ever seen in a children’s book. Whether it’s traveling to exotic destinations or just baking a soufflĂ©, these are some wonderful pigs.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Quiet Book

The first time I saw the cover for The Quiet Book I knew I had to own it. I skimmed through the book in the bookstore but didn't have the cash to buy it. It was a tense couple of days before I could get back to the store and pick up my own copy. I was worried they would be sold out. I'll freely admit that I judged this book by its cover. And it didn't let me down. If you don't own a copy of this quiet, gentle book, you need one.

There is no true plot to The Quiet Book, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska. You'll note that their names don't show up on the front cover. Another example of quiet. In some ways the story follows a group of woodland creatures (focusing on bunny) from morning until night as they experience all the different types of quiet. Starting with "First one awake quiet" and ending with "Sound asleep quiet", this book touches on every inventive moment for quiet you can imagine. Each phrase is only a fragment but the words, combined with the illustrations, speak volumes. One of my favorites was "Pretending you're invisible quiet" as we see a little bear covering his eyes, as he stands next to the nurse who is getting ready to give the bear a shot. That is immediately followed by "Lollipop quiet" as we see the creatures who had to get shots sucking contentedly on a lollipop. The mix of words and images is perfect.

Liwska's illustrations are sweet, enduring, and beautiful in their own way. She uses pencil to create the characters, who have a bit of an unfinished quality, and then colors them digitally. This slightly rough look give her creatures their fur and feathers. I loved looking at the tiny lines that make up these charming scenes. Each character is imbued with tons of emotion. I felt so bad for moose at the beginning of the book, as we see her sitting on the stairs with the words "Last one to get picked up from school quiet". There are happy quiets and sad quiets and sweet quiets. But each quiet is captured beautifully.

Each page seems to have one side that is very simple, with lots of white backgrounds and few words. The other side is filled with images and a bit of a longer phrase. I'm not sure if it was intentional but I like the juxtaposition. One scene has a barber shop with a very sad little porcupine getting his hair cut off. The whole picture is filled with color and the phrase at the bottom is "First look at your new hairstyle quiet". This is opposite the same porcupine at home with his mother's concern at the haircut. But the words at the bottom are "Sleeping sister quiet". I could just imagine the hushed comforting. Such a tender scene. In fact all the pages are tender and sweet and gentle and quiet. A beautiful book. So wonderful. For me it was a must have.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bringing Down the Moon

Another moon book made its way into my pile of books to review and I thought that it would be fun to have it side by side with Kitten's First Full Moon. Bringing Down the Moon, written by Jonathan Emmett and illustrated by Vanessa Cabban, is similar in some ways to Henkes' book but there are more than enough difference to make this one another book that would make a perfect bedtime story.

Bringing Down the Moon follows Mole who burrows out of the ground one night to find the full moon hanging in the sky. It is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen and he decides that he wants it. He tries to jump to bring it down until Rabbit who sagely tells him that it's "not as close as is looks". Then he finds a stick and tries to poke it down until he runs into Hedgehog and she tells him the same thing. Then he starts throwing stones at the moon but hits Squirrel instead who also tells him that it's not as close as it looks. When Mole finally climbs a tree to grab the moon, he goes to far until the branch and falls down into a puddle. When he looks into the puddle he sees the reflection of the moon and tries to grab it. It ripples and at that moment a cloud goes over the moon. Mole begins to cry thinking he's broken it, until the other animals, hearing his cries, come to let him know that the moon is always in the sky and he can always look at it there.

I loved the repeated "It's not as close as it looks" which each animals says to Mole. At the end, as they all stare up at the big beautiful moon, Mole finally agrees with the statement and the story comes full circle. Jonathan Emmett plays with the language throughout the book making this a wonderful read-aloud. As Mole is jumping for the moon we hear "thumpety bump" and the stones make a plinkety plink when thrown. I loved the moment when Mole is explaining the troubles he has with the other animals. "'I'm all right,' sobbed Mole. 'But the moon isn't! I pulled it down, and then I broke it, and it was SO beautiful...and now I'll never see it again." I can just see a child saying the same thing while crying. The dialogue is just perfect with Mole playing the child, learning as he goes, and the other woodland creatures acting as the sage teachers and comforters. And of course the sweet ending will make everyone smile.

Vanessa Cabban's illustrations are simply beautiful. They are done in watercolor which gives everything a softer tone. She stays mostly with browns and blues and greens but the colors are subtle, creating the impression of nighttime. Where Henkes used black and white, the use of color makes this seems more child-like and softer. Most of the animals are brown like the dirt so Mole who is a purply-blue stands out even more clearly. He is adorable with his little snout and cute little hands and feet. All the animals are adorable. The images where Mole is up the tree and venturing out onto the branch has to be one of my favorites. Cabban portrays his cautiousness with a simple body pose. Beautiful illustrations, a cute story, and a sweet ending. A perfect bedtime story.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Kitten's First Full Moon

Time for a classic, well at least a modern classic. And a Caldecott winner. I had never read Kevin Henkes' very popular book Kitten's First Full Moon until this week. The book has become an instant classic since its publication and I figured I simply had to read it. I've loved Henkes' other work and was fully prepared for a wonderful story.

The book follows Kitten who sees a big bowl of milk in the sky (aka the moon) and decides she wants to drink it. She leaps from the steps to try to catch it but only tumbles onto the sidewalk. Then she follows it farther and farther away from the house trying to catch it. When she tries to climb to the top of the tree to grab it, she only ends up stuck and scared. But then she sees a gigantic bowl of milk in the pond (moon's reflection) and jumps for it. And of course ends up soaking wet. She heads back home still hungry and finds a small bowl of milk (this time actually milk) waiting for her on the porch.

This is such a simple but cute story. I'm sure I've heard the premise before but I love the mistakes that Kitten makes when trying to grab the moon. When she first sees the moon she sticks out her tongue to lick it and catches a lightening bug. It is the sweet humor and the repeated phrase of "Still, there was the little bowl of milk, just waiting", that makes you want to turn the page to see what new adventure the kitten will get into. I loved the repeated "Poor Kitten" that gets changed at the end after Kitten finds the milk. The wording is short, making for a very nice quick read aloud, a great bedtime story.

The illustrations are done in black and white with various shades of grey bordering on purple. Henkes uses thick black outlines for everything to make them stand out wonderfully against the different greys. The images are created using gouache and colored pencil but the lack of color is what I find so intriguing. It is rare to see a book in black, white, and grey anymore. But in this case it gives the impression of what things look like in the moonlight. Only various shades appear in the dark and this book mirrors that well. Henkes uses the moon's reflection on the little white cat very effectively with some sections of the cat in shadow. The shapes are simple, the flowers just little circles on stalks, the pond just big circle swirls to represent waves. The images, like the words, are simple and sweet. I loved this little adventure tale. Well worth a read.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pete the Sheep-Sheep

I'm so excited to get a chance to talk about Pete the Sheep-Sheep, written by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whatley. I picked this book up from the library based entirely on the cover. Well that and the fact that I loved the duo's other book, Diary of a Wombat. So I knew I was in for a treat with this book. How can you not love a sheep in a fedora?

Everyone has heard of sheep-dogs, those helpful canines that keep a herd of sheep in line. And three Australian sheep-herders (Ratso, Big Bob, and Bungo) have typical sheep-dogs that do a great job keeping their herds in line. But the new guy is a bit different. Shaun doesn't have a sheep dog, he has a sheep-sheep. Pete the sheep-sheep to be exact. Pete herds the sheep by talking with them and being nice. And the sheep love him. After a while all the sheep are following Pete to Shaun to be sheared. Shaun does a wonderful job shearing and the animals become picky. The other sheep herders get angry and kick Shaun out of the group. So Shaun does what any other sheep shearer would do, he starts a sheep beauty salon. And after a while, all the sheep have left the herd and are going to the beauty salon for their cuts. And the herders are again out of a job. But Shaun is overworked and needs help. When the sheep-dogs head to the salon for a trim, the other herders realize where they need to be. Eventually they all end up giving haircuts to not just sheep but any animal interested in looking fabulous.

What I loved about this book is how it shows the values of politeness and hard work. Pete is such a fun character. His dialogue is polite and hilarious because of it. "'Baa Baa!' said Pete, which in sheep talk means, 'Thank you for waiting, sir. Shaun will be right with you.'" Sadly no one talks like that anymore, it seems like. That is compared with the other sheep-dogs which just bark and growl at the sheep. And Shaun is a wonderful shearer, willing to put in some extra work in order to make sure that the sheep are happy with their haircuts. And because of that politeness and the work that Shaun puts in, they quickly become the favorites. Shaun's Sheep Salon (and really the whole book) is such a wonderful silly story that children will be giggling all the way through it.

The illustrations are priceless. I love the little fedora on Pete and the funny expressions that the other sheep have. The image of the first customers in Shaun's Sheep Salon are hilarious, as are the haircuts. The story really plays with the idea of sheep shearing, making it something funny and silly rather than just a necessary function. All the sheep herders are wonderfully unique although I was getting flashbacks of the original illustrations from Fantastic Mr. Fox with the three farmers. The herders though are no where near as scary or mean. In fact everyone in the book, even the dogs, seem pretty amiable. Whatley uses soft colors and delicate lines to give this book a soft look. I love the mix of watercolors and colored pencils. This was such a cute story that I instantly fell in love. Each character is unique and the story is unlike anything I've ever read before. A wonderful tale.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Dog Who Belonged to No One

It is obvious from the cover alone that The Dog Who Belonged to No One, written by Amy Hest and illustrated by Amy Bates, is going to be adorable. Just the image of the smiling but scruffy looking dog tells you that this is one story that will tug at your heartstrings and make you go Awwww. The cover is not lying. This is one of the sweetest and cutest stories I've read in a while. I even got chocked up at the end.

The story alternates between the little dog that no one wanted and a little girl named Lia who makes deliveries for her baker parents. We see how the little dog tries to be helpful and friendly and how the girl works all day. Both the dog and the young girl are sweet and helpful but both are very lonely. The dog sleeps in the street and dreams of a warm porch. The little girl lays in bed and dreams of finding a friend. One night as a storm brews, the little girl races for home after her last delivery. At the same time a little dog is desperately trying to outrun the storm. And of course they both end up on the same porch, Lia's family's porch. After they both dry off, the girl and the dog become fast friends and they live happily ever after.

I'm sure that I've read this story before but I've never heard an adoption story told with such heart. The section about how the little dog tries to outrun the night because it doesn't want to be alone is just heartbreaking. The shared joy when they both, warm and dry, decide to adopt each other was enough to bring tears to my eyes. In fact, Hest manages to make us smile and cry numerous times in the book, which is impressive for a mere 32 pages. The story is told as alternating pages and it is only as we get close to the end that we see how the friends will finally meet up. There is a wonderful spread at the end where we can, through words and pictures, see how the two will come to the same spot and finally meet up. A sweet story, told well.

The illustration, by Amy Bates, are done with pencil and watercolor and are simply stunning. There is no other word to describe how beautiful and captivating the images are. I was completely in love with her depictions of the dog, which range from heartbreaking to cheery (a scene with the dog sleeping in an alley, made me tear up a little). It is the kind of depiction that would make anyone want to adopt this little dog. The setting, a small town in the late 1800s, is well captured. Little details like the storefronts and the costumes make it very believable. Bates uses a fall palette and mixes in some leaves to make it seem like winter is just around the corner for both of these characters. Bates manages to mix absolute adorableness with surprisingly detailed.

It is rare to find a book that tugs at the heartstrings quite as much as this one has done. I was in love with the dog and the girl from the beginning. And although I could see how it would end from the very start of the book, the beauty and the sweetness of the story made the journey more than worth it. One of my new favorite books. I'll be picking this one up immediately.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Storm in the Barn

I've long been a supporter of graphic novels and comics as a way to get children (and sometimes adults) to read. As a kid who grew up on Uncle Scrooge and Archie comics, I have no issue with the blending of pictures and words. In fact some stories need to be told in graphic novel form. They need the images to drive the point home. I would say that Matt Phelan's The Storm in the Barn is one of those stories.

The book follows Jack Clark, an 11 year old boy who is growing up during the dust bowl of the thirties. His life is terribly hard and Jack feels like there is nothing he can do. His family's farm is completely exhausted, his sister is dealing with dust pneumonia, and now people are starting to talk about Jack having dust dementia. But he knows what he saw. The light in the neighbors barn and the strange man were real. Jack sets out to solve the mystery and bring back rain to the parched community.

If this sounds like a fantasy, in some ways it is. But this book has so much more than just a fantasy story. This is a historical novel and Phelan does not pull any punches when showing us how tough life was in the dust bowl. Images are muted and colors are faded. Even the people themselves are faded, without smiles or cheer. The town is nearly dead and we see those few surviving people as they scrap for what little they have, all the while under threat of being swindled by hucksters who offer an end to their problems. Jack is tormented by a group of four or five boys who take out their frustrations on his poor body. The dust bowl was a cheerless time and Phelan manages to bring that despair to each page.

The only rays of sunlight for Jack are at home. His sister tells him the Oz stories (recently published at that time) and the family shares some wonderful moments by her bedside. But even those are overshadowed by her persistant coughing and Jack's grim and angry father. As I said, Phelan pulls no punches. The library had this book shelved for young children but I think this would work perfectly at the middle/high school level when learning about the dust bowl. I know that it was one of the best portrayals of that time period that I've ever seen. And it was a hard and hostile time.

Phelan uses his muted palette and spare words beautifully to create an incredibly moving story. Not much needs to be said to see the desperation on Jack's face or the rest of the townspeople. The scenes surrounding a jackrabbit round-up (you don't want to know) will stay with me for many many weeks. All done silently but effectively. It is only once you get to the ending that we can (like the townspeople) start to feel the relief of burden. The ending of the story is a wonderful fantasy that erases some of the sadness of the early part of the book. I won't tell you more, other than that it is incredbly beautiful. And touching. And powerful. But that pretty much sums up the rest of the book as well. A must read for adults and older children. Beautiful.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gator Gumbo

I’ve read tons of Little Red Hen variations but none with quite the enjoyable flair of Gator Gumbo, written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Sally Anne Lambert. The story follows Monsieur Gator, an alligator living down in the Bayou who can never find enough to eat. He’s gotten too old to hunt and because of that he is teased by the local critters. One day Monsieur Gator gets tired of the teasing. He decide to cook up some gumbo like his mother used to make. So he asks the critters who will help him gather water and no one will help. Then he asks about catching crawdads and again no one will help. The picking of okra, the grinding of spices, and the adding of rice is the same story. No one will help. But when Monsieur Gator asks who will help eat the gumbo all the critters rush towards the pot. But the gator sends them back saying that he cooked so he’ll be the one to eat. When they beg for one single taste he finally relents and they end up with far more than they bargained for.

This could have been a simple Little Red Hen story but Fleming decides to give the story a little more spice. First there is the obvious Southern dialect that Fleming uses. Monsieur Gator answer the critters after they say they won’t help, “Then I’ll be doin’ it myself”. This dialect is subtle but adds just the right amount of flavor to the story. I enjoyed how Fleming takes a character that we probably shouldn’t like (alligators tend to be villains in other stories) and makes him devious but lovable. We see the other critters (possum, skunk, and otter) as the more despicable characters. That makes the ending more bearable for young children. By that point we are rooting for Monsieur Gator and his tasty Gumbo. The book was a delight to read, mixing onomonepia words with each action. As Gator mixes in the rice that will thicken his gumbo we hear Pour! Scrape! Glop! And when he cuts up the okra to got into the pot it is Pluck! Slice! Pop! These added sound effects give the book just a little added flavor. This would be a wonderful read aloud.

Lambert creates beautiful watercolor illustrations that give the story emotion and highlight the action well. Monsieur Gator is portrayed with plenty of emotions. We see him at the beginning of the book as a sad and tormented creature, then angry, and finally the devious and determined reptile that will hatch a plan for his revenge. The other critters are presented as mean hooligans who think nothing of tossing eggs and rocks at our poor alligator. The backgrounds tend to be muted greens and browns and really capture the feeling of the swamp. The animals are dressed in bright colors and stand out nicely. In fact each critter wears a different color to make for some very colorful scenes when they are all together. I was particularly impressed with Lambert’s depiction of the cooking pot. The steam, the crawdads, the okra all sit at the top making for a very tasty looking meal. Finally when the animals beg for just a taste of the wonderful smelling stew, the look on their faces is of fake sincerity. And Monsieur Gator looks so sneaky when he finally gives in. The last line is a wonderful surprise. And be sure to read the cookbook lying on the ground next to the very happy alligator. A fun book, a great read aloud, and a spicy story.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tatty Ratty

The problem with having two blogs is that one of them is always falling behind. I'm sad to say that it has been this one. But my hope is to change that today. I'm going to plan to spend this wonderfully rainy weekend working up some reviews ahead of time. I figure if I have a bit of a cushion, I'll be more likely to post frequently. I'm going to start with a couple of the books that Jeff brought home for me during my ankle recovery.

In Tatty Ratty by Helen Cooper, the story follows a young girl who leaves her beloved stuffed rabbit on the bus. After initially being crushed by the loss her parents encourage her to imagine all the adventures that her bunny can get into by himself. First he hops off the bus, then finds a train to drive home. After having breakfast with the three bears and riding with Cinderella in her pumpkin coach, he sails off into the sunset with pirates (during her bath-time of course). But a dragon picks him up from the pirate ship and sails him up to the moon. There he is cleaned up and his fur which has been cleaned and renewed, is dusted with moon dust until it glows white. After his cleaning and primping, a spaceship takes the new looking bunny and delivers him home. Well, not quite home, but close enough that the little girl can find him at the local store.

I loved how this book took a very typical situation, a lost toy, and created a number of little stories based around it. The mixing in of familiar nursery rhyme characters is wonderful since they are figures that children have been exposed to all their lives. They will get a kick out of recognizing the stories. This is a great story to tell any child dealing with a missing favorite toy and may get them using their imagination to think about what their toy is doing. The story mixes the routine of the household along with the adventures of the bunny, so that we see what the girl is doing to inspire each story change. Each story is really there to show how the bunny gets cleaned up for the ending. When driving the train he gets his buttons back. During breakfast with the three bears he gains enough weight to fill out. The encounter with the pirates includes a dunking in the sea which washes his fur. And then of course the scene with the man in the moon makes that fur again. The subtle foreshadowing leads to the wonderful ending in the store. I loved the ending where the little girl feels that she's found her bunny all cleaned up and fresh at the store the next day. A sweet story that reminds me of the stories I told about my toys when growing up.

The artwork is beautiful, soft, and colorful. The sections will Molly are realistic and although they are colorful, are scenes that we've seen every day. But once the story switches to Tatty Ratty's adventures the rules of perspective and realism are tossed away. The images become more colorful and cartoonish. The scene where Tatty Ratty returns to earth from the spaceship, using a big red umbrella is one of the more beautiful images I've seen in a while. You can see a bit of it on the cover above. It was wonderful to watch the bunny go from his ratty self at the beginning to the cleaned and soft looking bunny at the end. I'm not sure what media Cooper uses but the colors and the soft edges makes the artwork even sweeter. A wonderful book for a child who's lost a toy, or anyone who likes a little imagination along with their toys.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Since I'm still on the crutches I haven't had a chance to get to the library recently. That means that I'm pulling the older classics off my bookshelf to review. I have so many favorite books that it's often hard to pick from them all. I'll try to get to most of them. Mostly I'll just try to pick up the pace on my reviews.

In Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, our protagonist Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair. His day starts out terrible and in his own mind just keeps getting worse. Alexander goes through the day listing the injustices against him or accidents that befall him. He doesn't get a toy in his cereal even though his brothers do. He has to sit in the middle during his morning drive to school. He gets a cavity. He doesn't get to buy the shoes he wanted. And there were lima beans for dinner and kissing on TV. As Alexander keeps reminding us, "It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I think I'll move to Australia."

I've been a huge fan of most of Judith Viorst's work but this has to be my favorite. Alexander is the classic underdog, at least in his own mind. His troubles aren't really all that big but Viorst captures a child's mentality so well that we are reminded of how HUGE everything seemed at that age. A small slight from a friend was the end of the world. A dropped ice cream cone enough to ruin the day. Viorst captures Alexander's mood so well, creating a grumpy character that you can't help but love. Even the wording is perfect for a small child who is in whining mode. Viorst makes the sentences either choppy and short or run-on sentences like the first one in the book. "I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there's gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day." I can hear the classic whine in his voice. I can picture this little boy standing in front of his mother yelling out his litany of complaints. But although Alexander whines throughout the entire book, we can't help but love him.

Part of that is how easily we identify with the character. His woes were ours at one point. But part of it is the wonderful illustrations by Ray Cruz. Cruz uses ink and crosshatch to bring to life Alexander's world. We see him as a slightly rumpled, awkward kid that most of us remember seeing whenever we looked into the mirror. His face is almost always frowning and his forlorn rumpled nature makes him easily likable. Cruz adds just enough details to create very realistic images, even with only ink as a medium. There is a seventies look to the illustrations that should date the book but doesn't. The images and the words are timeless and children today will enjoy it just as much as they did when it first came out in 1972. Alexander is a lovable grouch who eventually realizes that Australia isn't going to solve his problems. A great story and one that kids will easily see themselves in.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

20th Century Children's Book Treasury

I'm not a huge fan of children's book treasuries in general. I'm often disappointed if a larger story is condensed. I'm never quite sure of the selection. But the biggest reason is almost always that I miss those big full page illustrations that come with any sort of picture books. Even if a treasury includes all the artwork it is normally too small to make out details. So when my mother bought me The 20th Century Children's Book Treasury, selected by Janet Schulman, I smiled politely and accepted it but figured I'd end up giving it away. This was many years ago. It still graces my library shelves. I still pull it down to read from occasionally. It's just that good of a collection.

All the greats are here. Maurice Sendak rubs shoulders with Dr. Seuss. Robert McCloskey shares a binding with Ezra Jack Keats. Leo Lionni and Mercer Meyer take their places. And Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka are neighbors to Jean de Brunhoff. Name a famous classical children's author and they are probably here. But there are some less known faces as well. I read through this treasury and knew only about 3/4th of the stories, and for me that's saying a lot. I had never read the story of The Tub People, written by Pam Conrad with wonderful drawings by Richard Egielski. I read it eagerly, hungry for fresh stories. And the treasury has plenty of stories. I was impressed with the selection and the sheer number. There are 44 stories in this one treasury, each by a different author and each a wonderful story. I will admit that there are two stories that are not complete. The author took only a section from both Amelia Bedelia and Petunia. But with only two stories out of 44 as abridged, I didn't feel like I was missing too much.

And I definitely wasn't missing any artwork. I knew from the moment I read Madeline (the first story) that the book had included as much of the artwork as possible. Each page spread before me with the full illustration and most of them were not all that tiny. The Spooky Old Tree by Stan and Jan Berenstain had most of its seven pages covered with illustration. Even H.A. Rey's Curious George had all the playful and beautiful illustrations from the original book. Of course the illustrations are smaller than they normally would be but the color and quality of the book make up for that. This really is a beautiful book. Each story offers a different style of illustration and that makes flipping each page a bit of an adventure.

Many of the stories included are ones I don't own yet. For a child with a small collection, this book is priceless. One book and tons of stories to read aloud over and over. I find myself pulling the book down regularly to reread classics from my childhood or rediscover some of the ones that I'm just getting to know. For reference the book was published in 1998 so parents looking for newer authors won't find any of the new up and coming authors that seem to be coming out of the woodwork. What they will find is some of their own favorite stories from childhood. Children without much exposure to the classics will find a treasure trove of material. And parents and children will find a wonderful collection that will allow them to sit and read night after night and still have plenty of fresh stories for the next night. A wonderful treasury. A nice complement to any good sized library (perfect for lending out) and a must have for any small library.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Since I've been laid up with a broken ankle I haven't had a chance to get to the library. That means that I haven't been reading any new children's books. And although I want to go through my collection and start reviewing those classic titles, there has already been a lot said about so many of those books. I mean, what hasn't been said about Sylvester and the Magic Pebble or Where the Wild Things Are? I do plan to go through my library but like any reader, I crave the new books.

So one afternoon my husband did the sweetest thing for me. He went to the library and although he doesn't know anything about children's books or children's book authors, he picked up some titles for me. He randomly grabbed a stack out of the B's and brought them home for me. One of those titles was Jan Brett's beautiful book "Honey...Honey...Lion!".

Honey...Honey...Lion! tells the story of the symbiotic relationships between the Honeyguide bird and the Honey Badger. The honeyguide will find honey and then lead the honey badger to the spot. The badger uses its sharp claws and strong arms to open the hive up. Then they both feast. That is until one day when honey badger gets greedy. He decides to keep all the honey for himself and not give honeyguide a single bite. And honeyguide gets angry. She hates to be tricked. So the next day she decides to get even. She calls out that she has found honey and then leads the badger through grass filled plains, over logs, and into water holes. And finally she leads him right into a lion. The lion is startled, the badger is startled, and badger just barely manages to get away. The inhabitants of the plains spread the moral of the story to always share.

The story is such a wonderful blend of fact and fiction that I was fascinated by it along with being entertained by it. Honeyguide birds and honey badgers are real creatures living in Africa and do have a very successful partnership when it comes to getting honey. After reading the book I decided to read up a little more on these creatures. I'm sure any children reading would do the same. They are such beautiful and interesting creatures, that I'm sure they will inspire curiosity. I'm not sure if the rest of the story is true, about what happens when the partners don't share. Like Aesop's fables the story is told with a moral in mind. And in many ways the book felt like an Aesop's fable. But the wording choices and sound effects made for a much more exciting story than any that Aesop ever came up with. Brett uses sound effect to create a great book for read alouds. Children will love to hear how the badger boomed over the log, or clickey-clicked through the papyrus reeds. They will love the repeated call of the honeyguide (honey, honey, honey) and how it is turned into Lion, Lion, Lion!!. This book is such a wonderful read but I was equally impressed with the images.

Like all Jan Brett's books, this story is visually beautiful. Brett uses watercolor and gouache to create images that are vibrant and realistic. One of my favorite things about Jan Brett's books are the beauty and realism of her animals. The African setting is perfect for showing off this talent. Each page is filled with animals, beautiful settings, and action. The layout of the book is unique. Brett divides many of the pages into three sections. The main action takes place in the center of the page with beautiful portraits of the participants, landscape scenes, or African artwork on either side. It gives the book the impression of being nonfiction. And in many way it is. This is a wonderful read aloud book that will get kids interested in animals and tells a great story. The book may have a moral but it is never preachy. The beauty of the illustrations and the great word choices makes it far too entertaining to be preachy. A fantastic book.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse

The first time I ever really recognized a children’s book illustration as art was when looking at Leo Lionni’s work. Before that, I had always loved the images in my books but never really seen the full beauty of them. Never seen them as anything more than just illustrations. But Lionni’s collage work was and still is some of the more inventive and beautiful illustrations out there. I am constantly drawn into the images to see the textures and types of papers that he uses in his artwork. From a felt mouse to a wallpaper background, there is a variety of colors and textures that combine beautifully. Lionni is a master of taking torn scraps and making memorable scenes. The Caldecott honor book, Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse is a perfect example of these fantastic spreads.

Alexander is a regular mouse. He scrounges for food and lives in a hole in the wall. The people in the house chase him away every time they see him and he is sad that no one seems to love him. Then he meets Willy, a wind-up mouse who is a favorite toy of the girl in the house. She takes Willy everywhere and loves him. Alexander wants to be a wind-up mouse and be loved too. One day Willy tells him of a magic lizard that can turn one creature into another. The lizard tells Alexander he will need a purple pebble to work the magic. When he can’t find the pebble, he returns to Willy who has been thrown into a box. The family is getting rid of some toys including the wind-up mouse. Just then, Alexander finds the pebble. He rushes to the lizard and asks to change Willy into a real mouse. When he goes to find the box, it is empty. Alexander is crestfallen until he returns home and finds a familiar friend in his hole in the wall.

The story, like a Prince and the Pauper tale, is based on the idea of wanting to be something you are not. Like many of the mouse books I’ve read, Alexander is tired of being hated. He wants to be loved. And although Willy cannot move without being wound, Alexander sees that a wind-up mouse’s life would offer him love. But like all toys, children lose interest in them. Suddenly Willy’s life doesn’t seem so grand. Alexander sacrifices his own interests to help a friend. This is a sweet story about friendship but also about being happy with what you have. Lionni keeps the story and wording pretty simple, but the concepts are much deeper. I have to wonder how much of that I gathered when reading it as a child.

What I remember from my childhood was the images. I remember the matryoshka doll on the cover made from different types of wallpaper. I remember the two mice, one with its smooth gray finish and the other made from felt. I remember the night scene when Alexander makes the wish to change his friend into a real mouse. The sky is covered with tissue paper leaves and the strange gravel path. When I found the book for purchase, these were the things that I flipped to immediately. I didn’t remember the story, but I knew the images. I've stated many times before how much I love collage work for illustration. Successfully done collage can be far more interesting to me than painting. And Lionni is an artist. He takes various materials and creates images that can stay with me from my early childhood until adulthood. They remind me that illustration work doesn’t have to be painted. Like Ezra Jack Keats, Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert, and others, Lionni uses the materials at hand to bring some of the most memorable and lovable characters to life.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Curious Garden

I’ve wanted to pick up Peter Brown’s book The Curious Garden for quite a while now. From everything I had heard it had all the things I love: beautiful illustrations, a sweet story, and an environmental message that I can stand behind. So when I got a Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas, I knew what I was going to buy. The book was far more beautiful than I was expecting, and much more poignant.

The story follows a little boy named Liam who lives in a grey city. Most of the people in town never leave their houses and the city is filled with concrete and buildings. But Liam likes to explore. And one day he discovers a small untidy garden up on an abandoned elevated railway platform. Liam tends the little garden and it begins to spread along the railway platform. When winter comes, the garden falls dormant and Liam prepares for the spring. This time he is prepared with new tools and knowledge. The garden flourishes under his care and begins to spread again. It is no longer content to be just on the railway platform. Now it spreads throughout the city. And as the garden spreads, the number of gardeners increases. Suddenly the city is filled with gardens and gardeners. All because of one little boy tending an untidy garden.

Like The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and David Small, Peter Brown has created a fantastic book about how just a little dirt and seeds can bring happiness to people. I’m a huge believer that we need green things to be happy. And this book just goes to show how those green spaces can transform a city. At the beginning, the city is filled with browns and greys and smoke. And the city appears deserted. No one is outdoors except Liam. As the book continues we see more and more colors creeping in. Browns are replaced with greens and even the sky turns from grey to blue. But the biggest change is the people. By the end of the book everyone is outdoors. Neighbors are getting to know neighbors. This city has come alive in many ways. The text is simple and pretty sparse. Brown lets his illustrations tell most of the story. There are many pages that have no words at all, just pictures. And what pictures they are.

Peter Brown’s acrylic and gouache images are filled with rounded shapes, beautiful colors, and a cuteness all their own. Even from the beginning there is a sweetness to all his images that just becomes more beautiful and magical as the book goes on. Everything has a softness to it, possibly from the fact that many of the edges of things are blurred. Like his use of rounded figures and plants, the blurring makes the images look safer and sweeter. Liam is adorable with his shock of red hair and slightly large head. He is a warm character and I instantly liked him (perhaps it was his constantly sweet smile). The garden appears to have a life of its own. The book talks about the garden being restless and wanting to explore. It becomes an additional character in the book. Brown captures the spread of the plants very well. There are some beautiful full page illustrations that show the old train tracks covered in plants. I found it interesting to see what the old buildings became as the plants grew up and around them.

I have to admit that I originally wanted to find the book because of its cover. A beautiful setting, a young boy, and a book, what more is there to love? But once I got into the story I found that it was more than just a simple story about a young boy tending a garden. The mix of cute, simple, and rounded images will make any child want to read and reread this book. They will enjoy even the pages without words because of the beautiful illustrations. But although the story and the images may be cute and simple but there is a message there that is very powerful. It is a story about why we need green things. About the power that living things have. I would not be surprised to see this book recommended by many environmental organizations. This is a wonderful book and I would recommend it to everyone.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up

I'm normally not a huge fan of best of lists. Anytime you create a list of ten best, hundred best, or even 1001 best, you're going to have to leave some great books out. No list is perfect. But if I was looking for a pretty good canon of classic children's books, this would at least be a place to start. It has its missing titles, at least according to me, but it still has most of the books that I would consider must reads. I was fascinated by the width and breadth of the selection. And now have tons of new books to read.

The book, 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, covers children's books for every age group and from around the world. The book is broken up into something of age groups: 0-3, 3+, 5+, 8+, and 12+. Some of these are a little arbitrary with books like The Jungle Book appearing in the under 5+ section, the same section that housed Are You My Mother? and Blueberries for Sal. But then again I'm not a huge fan of age categorization of books anyway. I know that when I was young I was interested in books that were well above my age level. I'm sure there are kids in the same situation. Each title is reviewed with a plot summary and some information about either the history of the book or what made it great. There are a number of guest reviewers including authors like Margaret Atwood, Nick Butterworth, Judy Blume, and Lois Lowry. Contributors range from educational authors, librarians, journalists, and critics. The book itself is edited overall by Julia Eccleshare

In each age section, titles are presented chronologically. I was shocked at how old some of the classic titles are. We all know that Aesop's Fables are very old but I had no idea that The Swiss Family Robinson was actually written in 1812. The books continue up until mostly modern day with the newest title being the 2008 release of The Graveyard Book. Unlike other canons of children's literature, this list contains books from around the world and many that are not written in English. I went through the book several times and was amazed by the number of German and French titles that appeared. These are books that I'd never heard of. Yet in their own countries they are classics.

I consider myself somewhat well read when it comes to children's books but I have to admit that I probably have read less than half of the titles. I have read many of the 3+ and 5+ but many of the 12+ have escaped my notice. I'm not sure if I simply bypassed that age group or that that there were far more foreign titles in that section and I rarely expanded my reading beyond primarily English titles. I will be curious to see how many of the foreign titles I will be able to get my hands on. My plan is to attempt to read all 1001.

As I mentioned before I'm not a huge fan of lists. As I went through the book I could think of a few titles that had been excluded that I would consider classics. The list is a little light on the modern side. But one of the strengths of the book is that the editor is aware that she cannot include all the books that would be considered classics. This is solved by including additional titles at the base of some of the reviews. At the bottom of the review of Seuss's The Cat in the Hat is a listing of other books by Seuss. Similarly at the bottom of the review of The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde is a list of other stories about princes. This book may well be one of the most well defined canons for the children's literature genre. I guarantee that readers will find old familiar favorites and exciting new books to check out.