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.