Bunnies! Bears! A llama, a hamster, a couple of apes and holy crap I hope I am never face to face with a wolffish!
And in the end, a little girl who just wants a giraffe for her birthday. Enjoy!
Bunnies! Bears! A llama, a hamster, a couple of apes and holy crap I hope I am never face to face with a wolffish!
And in the end, a little girl who just wants a giraffe for her birthday. Enjoy!
Captain Cat is a crazy-eyed, cat-lovin', Santa-bearded old sailing man. After a lifetime as a sort of less-than mediocre trader (he tends to swap valuable goods for worthless felines), Captain Cat decides it's finally time to see the places on his bucket list. Blown way off course by a really nicely drawn storm, he and his crowd of cats fetch up at a sweet, wealthy, rat-infested remote island presided over by a skinny-legged wild-haired Queen. With her unhinged grin and mens' shoes, the Queen is kind of like a tropical Pippi.
MAN this is a great story. I'm not kidding.
If you read picture books to kids on any kind of regular basis - that is, if you are now or have ever been a parent, a teacher, or a librarian - chances are you have come across the books that you just can't sell. The words you can't wrap your tongue around, the insipid characters whose lines you just hate to hear yourself saying, the forced rhymes that refuse to bounce where you expect them to.
And then there will be that beautiful day when you crack open Your Book. The book that flows off your tongue, the book whose jokes you were born to sell. That book might be I Must Have Bobo! by the Rosenthals, or Banana! by Ed Vere. Could be you found your book long ago and it was Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Guarino, or Jamberry by Bruce Degen.
Come for the freaky pictures, stay for the entertaining text. Boy, if I could give aspiring nonfiction writers one piece of advice, it would be - try to make a book that I can recommend to kids using that sentence. Although I guess it doesn't work for like, presidential biographies. Freaky pictures of presidents are rarely appropriate for kids.
Anyway. Michael Hearst, the author of Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals, seems to have figured that magic sentence out all by himself in this, his first nonfiction book for kids.
This I love. The Amazing Hamweenie is the tragic story of a cat whose vast ambitions for fame and stardom are viciously thwarted by his mundane surroundings.
Viciously. Thwarted. "Don't you know who I am?" he cries, in the piteous tones of a diva plucked from her glittering dressing room and plunged into a life among peasants. He is forced to endure tea parties with stuffed animals, he is transported in a doll carriage, and while he can see the exciting world out the window, all he can do is lounge on the sill, suffering.
Oh David Small! For decades you and your wife gave us stories that we loved, populated by characters that, for all their exaggerated features, were wonderful, recognizable real people. Your landscapes and buildings always looked effortless but terrific. Then you wrote Stitches: A Memoir, and we all cried our eyes out. Amazing graphic novel memoir. And I don't know about other people in my industry, but I figured, given the acclaim Stitches garnered, David Small would then by and large quit illustrating picture books.
So pleased to be wrong!
Whew! Glad to be done with the Newbery post! That award is so loaded, so hard to talk about without hurting someone's feelings. On to the Caldecott!
From Ice by Arthur Geisert
Why is it that, while Newbery conversations feel like minefields, Caldecott conversations feel like wildflower-strewn Alpine pastures? Is it because every artist whose work even gets mentioned in the same breath as the C-word is by definition inarguably talented? Is it because you get to look at pretty things while you're looking for examples, rather than getting paper cuts leafing through novels trying to find that passage where the author really nails it?
From Me... Jane by Patrick McDonnell
I think it's because it's a lot easier to put your finger on what you find worthy in a particular book's illustration program than it is to pinpoint what you like about a big piece of prose. You can say, "Marla Frazee is a wizard of the color black," or "The fat contour lines that Kevin Henkes uses make his shapes so accessible to little kids." And I think that unfortunately, Newbery conversations often switch around to what you didn't like about an author's characters or style.
From If You Lived Here by Giles Laroche
But I've spent some time cross-referencing the Cybils picture book finalists (fiction and nonfiction - on which panel I served this year) with the few Mock Caldecott lists that people dream up, along with all the illustrated things I've read this year, and I came up with a list of some books that I think are among the items the 2011 Caldecott Committee spent time talking about on their way to conferring one Medal and up to four Honors.
Don't take my word for it though (really, DON'T) - motor on over to your library and check out a huge batch of picture books so you can play along yourself! I'll be running down some of these books on the radio January 13 at about 9:40 am, on WYPR's Maryland Morning program. 88.1 on your FM dial in Baltimore, and online at www.wypr.org.
It's been a very Dickensy week here at Ye Olde Crumbling House of Bookes. Not Dickensian, thank goodness - we've all been getting three square meals and wearing actual shoes most of the time. Admittedly, you might catch my children looking doe-eyed and pathetic when asking for a fourth bowl of cereal (four bowls the other morning! I might as well serve it in a trough!). And if you've been following the other blog to which I contribute, you might detect a scent of Scrooge in our posts about drinking one's way through the holidays.
But, you know, I don't hate Dickens. No, nope, I don't. I hate fake Cockney accents, Barbie(™) in A Christmas Carol, I hate animatronic carolers and a hell of a lot of things that are inspired by Dickens, but I will give the man his due. Although a run like this past week is pushing it:
I swear to God, I thought the last thing I needed was One More Butterfly Book. And I also thought, when I saw that this book had been nominated for a Cybils Award in the Nonfiction Picture Book category, for which I am a first-round judge, that maybe I had finally outgrown my susceptibility to Sylvia Long's gorgeous watercolors and graceful calligraphy.
After all, I am well aware that A Seed Is Sleepy and An Egg Is Quiet - I have bought those books, I have gifted those books, and I have recommended those books. They make good baby shower gifts, among other things. I mean, as well as being informative and inspiring. I thought there was probably not one more serene natural subject worthy of Ms. Long's well-researched scrutiny and Dianna Hutts Aston's tranquil prose.
But holy crap, I could stare at this thing for hours. Lovely.
So if you have Waiting for Wings and Arabella Miller's Tiny Caterpillar and Laurence Pringle's An Extraordinary Life in your school or classroom library and you thought you were done, well, better make a little room on the shelf. And give your kids sketchbooks and some colored pencils - they're going to want to go outside and draw something.
Something like this owl butterfly, caligo memnon, with a 5-inch wingspan.
There is a giant, bulging slob of a penguin in the refrigerator on the front cover of this book. A giant bulging penguin who has apparently eaten everything in the refrigerator. A bear and a bunny confront the penguin. They are deadpan, silent - are they coming face to face with the consequences of a previous bad decision? Is the penguin a nightmarish symbol of some kind, a living, breathing reminder of our greedy id?
I don't know. I haven't read the book yet. I was just so struck by the cover that I had to sit and gaze at it for a little while. These colors are wonderfully sophisticated - the walls and floor are three different shades of khaki tan, the bear and bunny are two edible browns, and the interior of the fridge is light blue with a lot of gray in it. This is a cotton pencil skirt, a man-tailored ice blue silk shirt, and a very nice leather belt, perhaps from Façonnable. Ok, on my budget, maybe J. Crew.
It's a bittersweet day here on the Pink Me couch. The season's changing, the pool has closed. We recently made the not-difficult-at-all decision to finally ditch this bony old beast for a new couch, one with padding in all the right places, one with cushions that have yet to be vomited on. It's an exciting moment, but I can't help wondering if we will be as happy on the new couch as we have been on the - truly repulsive - Jennifer Convertibles sofa that I bought in New York so many years ago. The frog-printed slipcover will be going too.
Will our crazy pillows fit on it? Will we all fit on it? The boys are getting bigger, and nowadays much more likely to be buried in a D&D manual than in a Hardy Boys mystery.
Added to this seasonal introspection is a sliver of bad news that has hit our family unexpectedly hard: Charley, the World's Oldest Living Brine Shrimp, has died.
Well, I've been on something of a YA kick this summer, as all both of my regular readers could tell. I'm preparing to be a facilitator at Books for the Beast this fall, in the Horror/Suspense category (join us, won't you?), and so there have been a lot of cannibals and nail-biting (do cannibals bite their nails?) around my house lately.
Maybe that's why I responded so warmly to this dumpling of an ABC book that I found on the New Picture Books shelf. It has pie! A girl in ponytails! And an extremely winsome dog of the beagle-y terrier-y variety. WHAT could be more wholesome than that?
The beagle's name, I find out from the book's website, is Georgie. And the little girl in the blue jumper is Grace. A is for apple pie, and B C and D are the verbs Grace uses to bake it, cool it, and dish it out. After that, it's all Georgie, finding a crumb on the floor and then obsessing over that fat pie, plotting and pining in a realistically single-minded puppy way. Alison Murray's text is cool and simple and perky, getting around the tricky letters so smartly that I had to go back and look - what did she do about X?
The art features a subtly unusual palette of navy blue, blood red, burnt orange, and the slightly off pastels that are produced when those colors are watered down. This scheme results in contrasts that are graphically strong - the navy blue jumper against a watery blue background, for example - while maintaining color harmony.
This looks to me like good confident ink and brush drawing on top of chunky, forthright shapes done in some kind of print process - silk screen I guess, given the texture. The ink still looks sticky, which is an effect I love for children's books. After watching dozens of kids visually reverse-engineer the illustrations in dozens of picture books so that they can try to duplicate a style or effect, I am partial to art techniques that reveal process or bear the imprint of the materials used.
More of this Scotswoman's art is on her blog, called everything is pattern.
The Three Pandas by Valerie Mih and See Here Studios
Little Mei Mei goes walking in the forest and smells something yummy. Why, it's the three bowls of bamboo porridge that Mama, Papa, and Baby Panda left on their table while they took a walk! Mmm, that baby panda's porridge is 只是权 (just right)!
Layered photo collage is the medium for the gorgeous but friendly illustrations. Not too flashy, with homey interiors featuring Chinese furnishings and decor, and lovely misty exteriors depicting a sunny clearing in the bamboo forest. Mei Mei is adorable, with a giant toothy smile, and the pandas are just the giant balls of fluffy fur that pandas always are. I like the unobtrusive music, all tinkly piano and clarinet notes, though I confess I might have wished for more Chinese instrumentation.
AND IT'S BILINGUAL. Why does not every single dang iPad app give the user multiple language options? (Note: IT'S EASY.) The Chinese narration is clear and expressive. My picture book app review buddy, four-year-old Baby A, got a big kick out of listening to the app in Chinese and telling me the story, as if she were translating.
If I weren't already fully developed, brain-wise (and probably on the downward slope, a likelihood that is difficult to deny, given how frequently I leave my phone at home and my inability to Tweet with any regularity), I would expect to be about fifteen points smarter by the time I closed this book.
There's a striped bee. On the head of a red bird. In a green-leaved tree. In the bed of a yellow truck. And then our perspective shifts so that the truck appears to be driving across a black and white landscape as the bird flies away. What was that?! Oh. We were looking at the truck across the back of a cow. Hi, cow. The cow is standing in a flat green field next to wavy blue water.
What's next for the bird? What will that big white thing turn out to be? And why would a bee ride on a bird's head?
Craig Frazier (Lots of Dots, the Stanley books) gives us a wordless picture book full of large shapes, bold patterns, clear colors, and a surprising amount of personality. Rather than leave his giant color fields plain and flat, often a subtle gradient will indicate contour or volume.
Wordless books are the most wonderful investments. The best ones allow the reader to conjure endless stories, like the protagonist of Still Life With Woodpecker, who meditates on a Camel pack for several years. Or like Jane Eyre, filling the blank endpapers of books with her own thoughts.
Maybe I am not all that far gone after all. I've been through Bee & Bird three or four times now and I'm still finding new things that tickle me. And my husband and I finished the diagramless New York Times crossword puzzle last Sunday. We should just keep exposing ourselves to patterns and shifting perspectives, and maybe watch Powers of Ten every couple months.
Put Bee & Bird on your short list of things that are mind-blowing and fun at the same time. Bubble wands, kaleidoscopes, wordless books.
Ants. Just the word, for me, cues up Sharkey's Day. You know, that dry, surreal, scritchy-scratchy Laurie Anderson song: "Sharkey says: All of life comes from some strange lagoon. It rises up, it bucks up to its full height from a boggy swamp on a foggy night. It creeps into your house. It's life!"
Ants are that kind of strange, that kind of miraculous.
Amos Latteier, a Toronto-based performing and installation artist, seems to see them this way too. Who would not? The facts about ants will blow your mind. 22,000 species! Biomass comparable to humans!
There are ants that function as soft-serve machines, ants that squeeze goo out of their larvae in order to stick leaves together, ants that farm, ants that herd, ants whose sting feels like getting shot (see "bullet ant," above). Ant queens can live decades. Ant sperm can live decades! Heck, the little black ants that live in your yard can dig nests five feet deep!
I could go on half the day about the weirdness of ants. Don't you wish I would? No?
I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. Most of my friends have gone through it already. Some of them have had to deal with it over and over. I'm just lucky I have boys, and I can shear 'em like sheep.
It's head lice.
My guest reviewer today - my very first guest reviewer, by the way, but I have a couple more lined up - is my colleague Christina, aka Dances With Chickens.
I give most of the real people in my life blogonyms when I mention them on the interpoops, partly because I love giving people nicknames and I'll use any excuse to do it, and partly because if they get pissed off at me I can say, "Er... whaddaya talking about? When I referred to 'my colleague Token Boy Librarian' I was talking about... uh... the other... boy librarian."
Maybe I should save this one for the hot weather that is to come. Because right now I have heard that it's going to snow one last time in our neck of the woods before Spring (and, immediately on its heels, Summer) shows up for good. Sigh. Quit, already!
Meanwhile, I have the sunny skies and sepia tones of a new Arthur Geisert book to keep me warm. Arthur Geisert is an etcher of pigs, a devotee of hot-air sailing ships, a contraptionist if there ever was one, and yes I just made up that word in his honor. Hogwash and Oops and Lights Out delight kids and adults who enjoy cause-and-effect, who dream of a better mousetrap, who can't see a stream of water in a gutter without building a tiny dam.
Let's just get this right out of the way: Emily Gravett earned my undying devotion long ago, with Monkey and Me, and she's never let me down since. So - no surprises - I am going to gush about this book. Get ready.
Chameleon, who is drawn using the most vibrant colored pencils on the roughest paper I've ever seen, is sad. All that throaty texture and voluptuous color is for nought - he is nothing but blue on the inside. So, gamely, he tries to make friends.
He turns himself yellow and curvy to try to fit in with his potential new friend Banana. No dice. Turns orangey sunset gold and blub-blub-blubs at his potential new friend Fish. That fish's expression is priceless, as is the green grasshopper's when Chameleon hops after him in pursuit of companionship.
Poor Chameleon. He has all but given up, faded whitely into the page, when a there's a tap on his tail.
Look! Someone who shares his appetite for fun, his bangin' dance moves, AND his fashion sense! The other chameleon, I mean - I'm sure it was just a coincidence that this book arrived the day I wore my new purple suede cape embroidered with multicolored flowers over a green and blue striped sweater.
This is your storytime: you read the book, then we all get to do our best imitations of bananas, snails, socks and rocks. And at the end, we strike our most fabulous pose! Have a wonderful weekend, everyone! And if you live in Baltimore, join us Sunday at The Chameleon Cafe to eat the amazing small plate creations of chef Jeff Smith (the man who taught me how to carve a pig head) in support of The Neighborhoods of Greater Lauraville! 4pm to 7pm, $40 prix fixe.
What does it take to suck a kid into a book of nonfiction? You can't use a drag net, or barbed hooks. Robotic arms cannot scoop a child into a lucite barrel, and very few children old enough to read are small enough to pick up with two fingers and stuff into a test tube.
But those are just a few of the methods that scientists use to collect marine specimens for study. Rebecca Johnson tagged along with the Census of Marine Life on several collection expeditions and had a chance to observe firsthand all the going and the getting and the looking and the recording. She does an amazing job describing the research activities - clearly, economically, accurately, using sensory details to extend the you-are-there impression that begins with her use of second person narration.
And the spectacular photos of fantastic-looking creatures that accompany these descriptions - those are the seine nets, the robotic arms, the probing fingers that snag the kid reader.
What do you want in a nonfiction picture book about an animal? I'll tell you what I want, and you see if that matches up.
The trouble with chickens, in the experience of J.J., the hard-boiled, seen-it-all world-weary hound living out his post-glory days in a country farmyard, is that they're flighty. Untrustworthy. Calculating, manipulative, and either a lot smarter than him, or very very dumb.
The trouble with chickens, in my experience, is that everything wants to eat them and they don't run fast. Still kind of mourning our backyard birds.
I think I need to be friends with Robert Weinstock and Pam Smallcomb. First of all, they're pals of James Proimos, who lives around here somewheres and is a lot of fun to run into at book festivals and the like. (And whose own books are great, not to mention the animation - NICE animation.)
Secondly, Pam Smallcomb and Robert Weinstock appear to know how to be good friends - if this book is any indication.
But I'm not reviewing this book, so I'm not going to explain that statement.
What god of publishing comes up with these illustrator pairings for Joyce Sidman's books? It's extraordinary. I honestly thought nothing could match the pair-up of Joyce's precise word choice and Beckie Prange's precise art in Ubiquitous. The work of both women managed to be scientifically accurate and lyrically lovely at the same time.
But in Dark Emperor, Rick Allen uses an old-fashioned medium - linoleum-block printing - to illustrate the mystery and fascinating life of the world at night, and the synergy between the images and the poems is just as perfect.
There's something about a woodcut. The organic texture of the printed ink and the shape of the gouged lines will always invoke early illustrated books. Compositionally, because the block of wood already has a shape, woodcuts almost always have their own frame, even if it is only implied, and even if that frame is broken, as it is in many of the prints in this book. This formal quality tends to lend the images a little extra authority.
Anyway, all that gallery talk jibber-jabber aside, these illustrations are just gorgeous. I can only guess how many layers of printing Rick Allen piled up to make such sophisticated color blends and juxtapositions. Each picture is a world one could sink into.
Isn't that amazing?
And the poetry, shouldn't I talk about the poetry? About the mushrooms:
they spread their damp
and loose their spores
with silent pops.
"Silent pops." Can't you just see it? And smell the musty damp earth? Aren't you just a kid, scrunched down close to the ground, examining the miraculous weird perfection of a mushroom?
Well I am.
And I always love Joyce Sidman for providing a paragraph or two of prose information about the subject of each poem.
Rick Allen has this to say, in part, about the process of making the illustrations for this book:
The prints for Dark Emperor were each printed from at least three blocks (and in some cases as many as six) and then hand-colored with a strongly pigmented watercolor called gouache. There are definitely faster methods of making a picture, but few more enjoyable in a backwards sort of way.
Hail. Hail to the artist/craftsman. And to the poet/scientist.
I crush pretty hard on illustrators sometimes. I love the assured line of a Tom Lichtenheld. The expressive faces drawn by Emily Gravett. Mr. Dan Santat's mastery of movement and composition (which he wrote a post on recently). The deceptively old-fashioned-looking ink drawings of Nancy Carpenter. Patrick O'Brien, who actually paints, and who says his 3rd Captain Raptor book (with Kevin O'Malley) is in the works. David Small for his gestures. Marla Frazee of course. Sigh. Wish I could draw.
Two of my absolute all-time favorites are Jon Agee and Nathan Hale. Agee has this uncluttered, declarative style (lots of white space, authoritative lines) that harks back to Bill Peet or Syd Hoff. Not a bad thing - even after fifty years, Hoff's books still feel fresh and funny, as do Bill Peet's.
I am intensely irritated by this book. Yet I cannot keep myself from paging through its marvels. It's like the Anthropologie catalog - you just know the clothes are poorly made and ridiculously overpriced, but ooh! that skirt is cute!
Billed as "A landmark in reference publishing,' it is instead, like many DK books, useless as a guide in any practical sense. "Over 5000" species are pictured, with little captions, grouped in taxonomic order. But the taxa are only explained in the most rudimentary terms - "The plants in this order are genetically similar but physically different." Oh? In what way? Further, there is no indication of scale, no habitat context, and, while 5000 may sound like a lot? It's not.
Bird. Despondent. Cake, Convertible. Mezzo-soprano. And eight more. Write a story using these thirteen words. It doesn't have to make sense. Nope. In fact, it might be more fun if it didn't. (If you can wedge a song into your story, do it.)
I would read this book to a class and let them come up with guesses about how it came to be. I myself am guessing. For all I know, Lemony Snicket startled a pigeon one day and it flew up and hit him hard in the head and when he came to, he only knew thirteen words, so this story came about as therapy. Could be. You don't know that guy's life. Neither do I.
Maira Kalman is at her very best here, layering thick pasty paint in ultra-saturated colors, adding lots of interesting details that could be the result of her own random-word assignment. Tambourine. Porcupine. Pocket square. Nap.
I'm going to come right out and call this a classic. If it were published forty years ago, New York Review of Books would be republishing it right now. That kind of classic.
Aw, yeah... it's ON up here in the room we call the Homework Room... No fact families or sight word lists now, though, the kids are in school, and I've got Ted Leo on the iTunes, the willow tree out the window, and a stack of picture books I haven't had time to get to lately.
This is how I started all this review nonsense, actually - I would take a stack of like TWENTY picture books, read them through, and write two-sentence impressions of each, just so I could remember which ones I should recommend to my library customers.
So this is a ROOTS post:
Here is good news: My friend Cara has opened a shop! All the stompin' sweet Coney Island tattoo-inspired, graffitiesque baby and toddler clothes (plus a few toys, accessories and books) that she has been selling online at Urban Baby are now available for fondling in a bricks and mortar space. I stopped in last week and now I need all my (younger) friends to start having babies so that I can buy them Milkshake-inspired raggedy tutus and baby-sized Carhartts-like coveralls.
Anyway, Cara was talking about maybe doing a storytime in the shop, and wondered if I had any book suggestions. And you know? It's something I have always wanted to do - compile a list of picture books that are ALL hip and illustration-y and design-y. Picture books for art school graduates. Picture books for people who listen to college radio.
BUT. While it is not too difficult to quickly I.D. the books that make design consumers go "ooooh!" I want to be sure that Cara's storytimers have books that work out loud. Not too much text, art that reads from 6 to 10 feet away, and the opportunity to bust out funny voices or do some singing. There's a science to this stuff, you know.
So! Let's get down to it, boppers:
Here is a little song for Lemniscaat Books:
I don't know if people here buy your books
With their luscious touch and high-class looks
But please keep making them
Your European illustrators communicate like Turkish waiters
Wordlessly supplying me
With nuts and sweets and strong coffee
Ink, pastel, collage, and then
I turn it over
And start again.
ZOMG! Check it:
What is moister
Than an oyster?
Can be damper.
And that's not the worst of it! In three stories and a bunch of poems, Simpsons writer Mike Reiss deploys gleefully subversive wit to merrily bash the stuffin' out of cute fuzzy animals, exposing them for the gluttonous freeloading nonconformists that they really are. Hee-YEAAAH!!
Think https://www.fupenguin.com/ for the grade-school set, kind of.
I LOVE THIS. I mean, I do not mind funny middle-grade books that rely on farts and pratfalls, dumb insults and dumber adults - but it is a special kind of joy to find someone writing real wit for kids.
Johnny Yanok is a great choice to illustrate this festival of irreverence, adding detail and furbelows to already well-described scenes, pumping the page full of pattern and hot midtone colors. His style, a kind of modified mid-century geometric thing, will be familiar to Cartoon Network viewers and the kind of kid who watches the Pixar shorts that come as bonus features on the DVDs.
That's going to help get this book into the right hands - even though it's shaped like a picture book, this thing is clearly for middle grade readers, who sometimes balk at picking up anything that looks like it's for younger kids. So art that scans older is a plus.
Hipster aunties and uncles, take note. This is just the kind of thing you're going to really enjoy watching the nieces and nephews unwrap come holiday time. Thank me later.
Ok my kids may be only 7 and 9, but after reading this book I want them to get right on having some grandchildren! Barbara Joosse scripts a syncopated, swingy, stop-start love song for a granddaughter and her grandma. They have a tea party, they paint, they listen to a thunderstorm snuggled on the front porch. They know, "the very best way to fall asleep is inside a hug."
HOW long til my boys start dating, settle down, and give me a granddaughter?
Toothy, bold ink lines give the illustrations an almost woodcut quality, while the color palette, done up in watercolors, is jaunty and varied. It's the composition and details that I like best, though - penguins and other birds, many wearing hats, observe the action... the little girl's apartment is littered with some very suave midcentury modern, and Gramma's comfy little house is cheerfully eclectic. Dutch illustrator Jan Jutte also illustrated Barbara's Roawr! (see image below), and I am looking forward to see more from him on this side of the ocean. And of course, I am always happy to see anything from Barbara Joosse. Her sense of rhythm and her insight into what's fun about childhood make her books small daily treasures to share with little kids.
Since returning from our vacation (long, excellent, TROPICAL PARADISE did I mention?) (and if you accuse me of gloating, please allow me to mention that my last two vacations were to Lake Erie and DETROIT - we deserved this), I have been feverishly reading picture books, trying to catch up. I consider it a responsibility to try to clap eyes on just about every picture book we get at the library. They're short, you can get through a big stack in half an hour, and the difference between a truly extraordinary picture book and an average everyday picture book is immense.
Click through for my short stack of recent favorites...
Ever since the Christ-like Aslan, he of the foaming blonde mane and the deep wise sorrowful Christ-like insights about forgiveness and sacrifice, pulled a Christ-like resurrection, rising Christ-like from the dead in order to help the Pevensey children... win a war (cue needle-scratch sound effect), I have had a special smirking place in my heart for metaphors that just don't quite go the distance.
If I have just pissed you off beyond imagining by saying something critical about The Chronicles of Narnia, please have a nice weekend with my blessings and enjoy the weather. But if you are in an ornery Friday mood, by all means, click through to read the rest of this post.
Is it me? Am I finally warming up to Wallace Edwards? Or is he getting steadily more charming?
I read Alphabeasts, published in 2002, and, like many ABC books, I found the word choices to be a bit strained, a bit advanced for the audience. I think it's a common problem with ABC books - are they really for children who are just learning their letters? or is the alphabet framework just a fun thing to hang a clever concept onto?
And then I read Monkey Business, Edwards's book of illustrated idiomatic phrases, and while I marveled and oohed and ahhed at the art (ohh, that cover!), at the same time I kind of shook my head. I felt that the phrases illustrated in that book were likely to zoom over the heads of most young children. Experience bore me out on that one, by the way. It did not circulate in our library system very well, yet every adult that I handed it to loved looking at it.
But now, The Cat's Pajamas - same premise, same masterful artwork - charms me completely. Do his animal characters possess a smidge more expression? Are the compositions a titch less crowded? Are the idioms illustrated just a hair more commonplace? I don't know. I think so. What a treat. On a page captioned, "Wade had never driven a submarine before, so he couldn't wait to get his feet wet," a frog drives a Buck Rogers-y striped minisub past colorful reef fish and a skeptical-looking octopus. The submarine has holes for Wade's legs, so his feet, indeed, are wet. As Camilla the Camel waits for the Oasis Express, she "cools her heels," with each foot plunged into a luscious ice cream cone, a blissed-out expression on her face.
Oh yea, oh verily. If you like Wallace Edwards, you'll love this. If you are lukewarm on Wallace Edwards, this book will bring you up to a merrily rolling boil.
I had to check the copyright date on this suave wordless sliver of an epic tale over and over again. You see, like many French things (and it somehow seems important to point out that when I use the word "French" I always pronounce it "Fronsh" because of an ancient mocking nickname my friend Jaime and I once habitually applied to a perfectly nice person - the nickname now seems absurd and petty, but my inability to say the word "French" without sounding like a spastic drunk lives on, which only proves my point about French things), uhhh, like many French things - Fronsh things - The Chicken Thief, with its timeless one-joke story, well-crafted loosey-goosey pen and ink and watercolor art, and enigmatic title... could have come from any age.
A lot of French pen and ink illustration (and Belgian) has a gestural quality, a breezy confidence that works particularly well with energetic stories. Think Asterix. Spirou & Fantasio. Bob de Groot. And this story, being wordless, is told entirely through action and expression. The arc of a smile is just a tiny line, 5 millimeters, but in that 5-millimeter line, Beatrice Rodriguez tells us whether her character is smiling in triumph or embarrassment, with joy or with anticipation.
I love it when something so brief and easy is treated with respect, and this edition is printed on good paper, in a binding size that is fairly common in Europe but less so here. The Chicken Thief goes on my list of superior wordless books for a child to savor.
Oh, here's a picture book that was just WAITING to be written. Maria Sibylla Merian, 1647-1717, was a scientific illustrator who grew up in Germany but did her most famous work in Suriname.
Look at those dates. Then think, "Suriname?" Yes my skeptical friend. In 1693, at the age of 52, Maria Merian went to South America with her sister to draw animals. Just to give some context - what else happened in 1693? Well, Louis the XIV was king. The Amish split from the Anabaptists that year. The last dodo died. And two middle-aged German women hiked up their skirts and went to South America.
When she was a kid, a woman I used to know wrote a song about a lizard for a science report. I haven't seen this woman in 25 years, but that song sticks with me:
I don't wanna (clap clap) Be an iguana (clap clap)
They have long nails
And spiny tails.
I don't wanna (clap clap)
Be an iguana (clap clap).
I don't wanna be an iguana, by Amanda Bailey, submitted in partial fulfilment of the elementary science requirement at Little Red School House, Greenwich Village, NYC, sometime in the 1970's.
Amanda, wherever you are, I hope you get your hands on this new book of poetry by Joyce Sidman. You'll like it: there's a gecko on the cover, his tail curling around the spine of the book, crunching on some unfortunate winged insect. If you're like me, and you were in 1985, you approve of poetry with a body count. And check this out:
Believe it or not, sometimes I get a little tired of picture books. The tiny little morality plays, the brightly-colored cartoon children and their brightly-colored antics... I only read about twenty of these things a week, you'd get a bit jaded too.
But then Elisha Cooper comes out with a new book (or Marla Frazee or Oliver Jeffers or Linda Smith or Lane Smith or...) and I am starstruck again, savoring every word, staring deep into the witty detail of each drawing, and, in Cooper's case, kind of wondering how the heck he DOES that - that thing with his pencil, how a little wavery line is a cat, or a kid, or a cloud, or a tractor.
Let me back up. This book deserves a little perspective. Lord knows Elisha Cooper has employed it - about half the pages in this yearlong portrait of a family farm are long, lean landscapes, full of sky, with an inch of flat earth at the bottom of the page. Have you ever been out in the true Midwest? It is a marvel to me that such an astringent landscape can be so luxurious in color and texture, as if the sky has to put on a better show to compensate for the lack of earthly features. It suits Cooper's style - in books such as A Good Night Walk and Beach, his large, clean forms kept his little wiggly details from ever looking fussy, and the little wiggly details kept the large volumes from looking too austere.
Barn : bean as Big : little.
Not to slight the text. Cooper is
as talented almost as talented a writer as he is an artist, and his narrative choices reflect the same little/big aesthetic as his drawings do.
After a storm, the farm swells with sound. The corn rustles. The cattle bellow. A tractor echoes in and out. Birds quarrel. Bugs hum. Their hum is constant.
This language is plain and calm but never boring. There's too much going on for it to be boring: the boy throws tomatoes at birds, the cattle poop. The imagery - "The rows look like wet hair just after it's combed" - is beautifully apt, domestic and understated, and above all, authentic. Very authentic: the family loses a rooster in September, the farmer uses pesticide and fertilizer, and some of the chipmunks don't make it across the road. You almost expect a little sketch of the farmer meeting with a banker.
To sum up, here are some of the things that I love about this book:
Cute cute, but up-to-date and witty too. Four short chapters introduce us to Long Tail Kitty's home and friends, with lots of playing and silliness. Always domestic in scale, but suffused with little fabulousnesses like talking flowers that like cookies, and a tall mouse in a rasta hat. No surprises except for tiny surprises. Vocabulary perfectly suited to the early chapter book reader.
Lark Pien is an indie comic industry mainstay - prolific and imaginative. She self-publishes, she shows in galleries, she goes to shows. She works in Oakland, like my hero Jason Shiga (Meanwhile). Her unexpected, clear colors have given books like (also Oakland-based) Gene Yang's American Born Chinese a fresh look. Having teetered on the brink of non-obscurity for a while, Long Tail Kitty might actually push her over the edge.
Luxuriously produced by Blue Apple Books (from whom I'm going to look for more great things, but boy is that website hard to navigate), on toothy ivory paper that makes Pien's watercolor and ink drawings look freshly painted just for you. Yummy.
There is no reason any school or public library should be without these two books. Yeah, I said it. The beautifully textured and colored illustrations are of the highest quality, made in paint and pencil by artists who invest their work with detail and thought. The selected folktales and nursery rhymes - some new, some traditional - are interesting and unusual and have a lyrical quality in both languages, good for reading aloud. My hat is off to Harper Collins for putting this kind of investment into bilingual picture books this year.
Posted on Thursday, April 22, 2010 in age: Grade 1 and up, animals, cultures around the world, diversity: race, religion, ability, gender, folk and fairytales, funny, picture books, poetry, Review copy supplied by publisher, storytime, superstar books | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
| | | | |
Now I know what the Evil Hate Monkey (some photos not particularly appropriate for work) did when he was but a young, not-quite-evil-more-like-just-an-Impish Smartass Monkey. I need to buy this book for all my friends RIGHT NOW.
One joke (one funny funny joke). Peter Brown's clear, delicious colors. Might look nice in a basket next to something made of chocolate and a few Jordan almonds, don't you think?
Here's the video Michael Ian Black and Peter Brown made about making this book, and you know what? The Evil Hate Monkey thing is not as far off as one might think. Hard to believe anyone ever meets Michael Ian Black and then decides to let him write children's books. But then again, I am wearing a Boy Scout uniform shirt and a chainsaw earring right now and people beg me to do library service to children, so I guess...? standards are really low? Whatever keeps us in Pop-Tarts, right?
I admit, it can be easy to not read Doug Florian. I buy his books, I put them on the shelf, I pull them out when we're doing something birdy, beasty, spacey, swimmy, and I am always happy to have them. But, as with other items that I trust and rely upon (), I don't always pick them up to read and enjoy them.
We are weevils.
We are evil.
Since time primeval.
(excerpt from "The Weevils" by Douglas Florian)
That is funny. They are all funny! Clearly, I should open these books more often. And the paintings are prime too - collaged, sometimes gloopy, accessible. A kid could mimic Florian's technique and get pretty good results, and I like that.
Think of the blue dog - those stupid paintings from the Clinton era, which I think that guy is still doing - and then make them cool, not creepy, and of a self-assured cat rather than a freaked-out dog, and you have a starting point for visualizing the powder-coated apehanger handlebar simple authentic genius of Pete The Cat.
DO I HYPERBOLIZE? NO I DO NOT.
Pete (the cat) is a lean blue cat with a full set of white high-tops. Out for a walk, he steps in various fruit, also mud, turning his white shoes various colors, including brown. But he doesn't let it get him down - he loves his shoes no matter what color they are. He is one laid-back kitty.
Listen, y'all - there is even a song. You can sing it any way you want to, or you can download the mp3 from Harper and sing it their way. The text is simple, repetitive, and visually cued - which are the things you really look for when you're doing a storytime. Those same characteristics are amazingly useful for reading-readiness books. After the briefest introduction, any 3- or 4-year-old will be able to page through this book and "read" it - and be proud to do so.
As if all that weren't enough, you should see the art. It is big, saturated, and accessibly sloppy, and Pete the cat is looking at you on every page with his wise, amused, sleepy eyes. I have so far storytimed this to my kids and to a couple of adults, and I plan to take it to a kindergarten class tomorrow. I am going to KILL with this fun book.
Such an excellent little hide-and-seek semi-pop-up book - not too fragile, with lots of slidy flat window-y things, a couple of flaps, a squeaky, and even a scratch 'n' sniff. It's all about prepositions as Gossie the goose looks for all her goslings - in, under, through, on, etc. Olivier Dunrea draws with a light touch and a delicacy that makes these little goslings extremely endearing.My one complaint is the board game at the end of the book. It's meant to further reinforce the directional words used in the narrative, but it is a snakes-and-ladders type game, with spaces that will send a player back to the start, or jet him or her ahead. I find these kind of games very difficult to manage with little kids. Those setbacks, unavoidable and unrelated to any ability or achievement, can be heartbreaking to a little kid who doesn't yet get the concept of blind luck, good or bad.
This book is absolutely a must-have, no-discussion, gimme-gimme purchase for the school library, the public library, or for any animal-loving kid. The story of U.S. and Iraqi military and civilian volunteers rescuing and caring for zoo animals in post-invasion Baghdad, it is full of wondrous moments: peril, as when a convoy transporting animals on an hour-long journey across town encounters sniper fire; tragedy, when a soldier ventures too close to the tiger cage; nobility, bravery, and humor.
Sidebars give information on the animal species, background about the war, and first-person reminiscences by Major William Sumner, the civilian affairs officer assigned the duty of "doing something about" the zoo. An archaeologist by training, Major Sumner had expected to be assigned to the Baghdad Museum. Surprise!
Not only did Sumner and his team find and care for the animals in the Baghdad Zoo, they gathered abandoned exotic animals from all over the large city, from private petting zoos and palace menageries. In a chaotic six-hour fracas, they rescued sixteen of Saddam Hussein's priceless Arabian horses from a racetrack in the most dangerous part of town. They assisted in the birth of six lion cubs even as fighting continued in the city.
This team worked hard, improvised, begged, went undercover, did research, going far beyond the call of duty to feed and care for these creatures. It's a fascinating story, a terrific discussion starter, an inspiration.