Sunday, September 26, 2010

FLOTSAM

By David Wiesner

(Clarion Books, 2006)

David Wiesner is a brilliant storyteller who requires the viewer/reader to actively interpret what is on the page. Flotsam is a wordless picture book that gives the message-in-a-bottle concept a fresh spin. The story opens with an inquisitive boy on the beach, ready to discover with magnifying glass, binoculars, microscope and shovels at his side. Initially, the exploration is rather standard, a couple of shell creatures temporarily captured for a closer examination. Then a rogue wave surprises the boy on impact. After he recovers on the shore, another surprise surfaces: an old underwater camera.

The boy rushes to a one-hour photo shop to develop the film in the camera. What the film reveals proves fantastical and startling.

Wiesner's watercolors shift from soft-palette realism to bright, bold surrealism. A seven-sequence depiction of the boy waiting out the hour to get the film developed beautifully captures anticipation and boredom. Flip the page and a windup, mechanical fish infiltrates a school of pink salmon. Wiesner masterfully infuses whimsy and wonder throughout this engaging book.

The book may serve as a springboard to back and forth discussion between two viewers as the pictures and story are pieced together. As well, Flotsam allows an individual to enjoy the journey himself again and again. (My first exploration lasted a full hour, my heart and brain racing as I admired and interpreted each delightful page.)

Wiesner's own imagination will stimulate the imagination and inquiry in others.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

SUPERDOG: THE HEART OF A HERO



Written by Caralyn Buehner


Illustrated by Mark Buehner


(Harper Collins Publishers, 2004)


This is the story of a much-ridiculed short and squatty Dachshund named Dex. The ringleader in making fun of Dex is Cleevis, a large tomcat who never tires of entertaining his peers with jokes that come at the tiny dog's expense. Poor Dex dreams of becoming a superhero. But he does more than dream; he trains. Dex does extra laps on the rug before finally lying down. He increases his leaping and running exercises. Yes, through determination, Dex makes the transformation. Ultimately, he proves his superhero status to Cleevis in a compelling way.


I was never much for superhero comics, but the genre generally appeals to boys. Superdog: The Heart of a Hero, by the husband-wife team of Mark and Caralyn Buehner, infuses comic book elements into the picture book format. In fact, the text boxes for the comic-styled cells are the most fun to read, especially using the deeper, dramatic voice of a radio announcer (e.g., "It was clearly a desperate situation....").


The illustrations are playful, my favorite being the series of cells showing Dex flexing and admiring his suddenly sinewy frame. As noted on the book jacket, Mark Buehner adds to the viewing pleasure by sneaking in images of rabbits, cats and T-Rex dinosaurs in many of the illustrations. (Look in windows, in the folds of Superdog's cape, in the trees and clouds. (I also found an uncredited whale, a witch and even a SuperDex representation playfully added to the background. Intentional? Could my eyes be playing tricks on me?) The bonus caricatures will encourage repeated viewings.


While Superman, Spiderman and Aquaman have devoted followings, Superdog is a treat worth yipping about.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

THE INCREDIBLE BOOK EATING BOY



By Oliver Jeffers


(Harper Collins, 2006)


There's a big difference between eating green eggs and ham and eating Green Eggs and Ham. In The Incredible Book Eating Boy, Henry opts for the latter, consuming books in a manner that fills the stomach as it feeds the brain. Henry begins with a word, then a sentence and builds up to downing an entire book in one sitting. It's the express way to becoming smart. Until things backfire.


I have read this book to many classes and it is always a hit. Jeffers's straightforward text is enhanced by simple pictures superimposed on maps and what appears to be faded print from old books. The result is marvelous, a book that can be read or simply leafed through dozens of times. The book's design even includes an extra delight on the back cover: a bite missing in the bottom corner. Even before I show the title, I act aghast as I stare at the bite mark and gaze at the attentive group of listeners. Who didn't have enough for lunch?! Who has been feasting on my precious book?! It's a startling hook and the audience remains intrigued until the book is finished.


The Incredible Book Eating Boy is a delectable treat!

Monday, September 13, 2010

OTIS



By Loren Long


(Philomel Books, 2009)


Set a toy tractor in a preschool or kindergarten room and many a boy will drop his plastic dinosaur to take the vehicle for a joyride.


BRRRRR! RRRRMMM, RRRRMMM. VROOOM!


A few collisions may ensue, but the tractor (and its casualties—a mix of dolls, Matchbox cars and, yes, plastic dinosaurs) quickly recover. Cats have nine lives. Tractors and plastic dinosaurs? Nine thousand.


Illustrator Loren Long (Mr. Peabody's Apples) has taken the driver's seat, handling the writing and the pictures in his endearing new book, Otis. The title refers to the farmer's hard working, trusty red tractor that spends its free time leaping over bales of hay, playing ring-around-the-rosy with the ducks and sitting on a hill, gazing down at the farm that is Otis's home.


Otis doesn't make the thunderous clanks and clunks of your average four-year-old boy's toy tractor. Instead, Otis chugs away with a putt puff puttedy chuff, the sound that calms a calf that misses its mother when placed in the barn one night alongside the tractor. The red machine and the brown calf immediately form a friendship, giving Otis a buddy to make the post-work antics all the more enjoyable.


Unfortunately, Otis falls out of favor with the farmer and the tractor falls into a funk. When the calf gets stuck in Mud Pond, it's up to Otis to save the day.


Otis conjures up memories of The Little Engine that Could (which Long updated in 2005), Are You My Mother? and The Island of Misfit Toys from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". This book is on equal footing with these classics as the unlikely friendship between a tiny tractor and a lonely calf makes an indelible imprint. Even Long's illustrations have a classic feel, his rolling gray landscapes making the restrained use of red, brown, denim blue and a jolt of yellow pop on the page. Loren Long is a master at capturing mood in his art, the varying expressions of Otis only making boys more eager to take toy tractors for yet another spin.


And perhaps there will be a boy or two who will lower the decibel reading, taking the tried and true RRRRMMM, RRRRMMM. VROOOM! down to a mellower putt puff puttedy chuff. What parent or teacher wouldn't want that?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

365 PENGUINS



By Jean-Luc Fromental and Joƫlle Jolivet


(Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2006)




The penguin craze may have faded, but what kid wouldn't think it (icy) cool to have a tuxedo waddler for a pet? There's something adorable about penguins until you think about their living habits. As the title makes clear, this book involves an awful lot more than a single penguin moving in.


On January 1st a box arrives at the host family's door, along with the unsigned note, "I'm number 1. Feed me when I'm hungry." Inside the box, a penguin. Each day another delivery, another penguin. The illustrations are simple yet expressive with a limited, cool color palette of blue, black, white and Creamsicle orange. (Initially, I found the color mix jarring, but when I consulted classes, they spoke favorably of the artistic decision. With only a few colors, the pictures are fresh.)


With the penguin population creating havoc in the household, the father strives to stop the madness. The fish loving residents are organized into pyramids and stored in cabinet drawers, but each new arrival changes order to disorder.


The book is as loaded with math as it is with penguins. (For example, on the 144th day, each of the twelve cabinets holds twelve penguins.) I have challenged classes with a simple question to guide their focus before I read the book: Where's the math? Students jot down math terms, operations, subjects and scenarios as I read. (Most memorably, the book became a huge hit with a grade seven boy who hated math and who worked well below grade level. He beamed as he presented me with a full page of math jottings after I finished the book. He proudly borrowed the oversized picture book and read it several times at home on his own and to his younger brother. Yes, penguins provided the first spark he'd felt regarding math—or reading—in a long time.)


Some of the math tie-ins are obvious, others more subtle, more incidental. Most importantly, the math adds to the fun of the goofy story. 365 Penguins could be enjoyed dozens of times , making home or class reading time exponentially more rewarding.

Monday, September 6, 2010

PSSST!



By Adam Rex


(Harcourt, Inc., 2007)


Boys like noise. It's a generalization, but when I hear loud tractor noises, block banging and Hot Wheels traffic jams coming from the kindergarten, it's more often Billy than Sally who is conducting the orchestral din. Walk by a construction site and survey who has stopped to watch the cranes and jackhammers disturbing the peaceful horn-honking urban landscape. Guys, I'll bet. (I wonder if anyone has studied horn honking. Wouldn't be surprised if there is a clear gender gap.)


So think of the word psst. This nifty interjection is supposed to subtly get someone's attention. Try to whisper it. The sound is greater than one might think. (Of course, that's how it gets attention.) It's a funny word—all noise, no vowels. Plop it repeatedly into a picture book and even the most distracted listener will keep coming back to the text and pictures. Genius, really.


Adam Rex has more than the frequent use of a noisy word in his favour in Pssst! (He adds an extra s, presumably inviting the reader to use more expression.) This engaging tale is about a youngster's trip to the zoo, during which animal after animal gets her attention. (The child is androgynously drawn and unnamed. There is a plain hair clip and a pinkish backpack, but the sporty attire and short hair may help both boys and girls readily identify with the main character.)


Pssst! "Could you get me a tire?" asks the gorilla. Gorillas like to swing, you know. The bats want flashlights. The odd requests continue. The book takes a surprising, delightful turn once the animals receive their desired items.


Boys and girls will be hooked on this book. Once they know how it ends, they'll want to hear or read the story again and again, switching from the mind of the zoo visitor to the thinking of each of the animals. It's a worthy addition to a children's book collection. Stop by your local bookstore and find it. Get the staff person to help you find (or order) it. You know how to get his/her attention. It's a fun word. Use it.



Sunday, September 5, 2010

IT’S A BOOK



By Lane Smith


(Roaring Book Press, 2010)


When I was growing up, there were years when books did not fall into my lap unless they were required reading. A book could not compete with TV, radio, soccer, hockey or the swimming pool. As much as we think things have changed, they are the same. There is a new generation of boys (and girls) who may look at a book as an alien device, something from a remote planet or, in today's context, from an ancient civilization.


Lane Smith's new picture book, It's a Book, is about exactly what the title states. With a monkey, a mouse and a jackass as the only characters, the donkey is the one who seems perplexed about the purpose of a book. Donkey is plugged in, a tech savvy creature who doesn't know what to do with something that lacks all the modern bells and whistles. "How do you scroll down?"


Monkey explains, "I don't. I turn the page. It's a book." The conversation doesn't evolve much from there. Donkey continues to ask about the handy features associated with computers while Monkey repeatedly states the title of the book. (Mouse hangs around for one obvious tech joke and to deliver the final punchline.)


We can laugh at the donkey who seems so out of his comfort zone in acquainting himself with a book. (Obviously, many of us would also relate to flipping things around to become a quizzical exploration of the function of a laptop.) Ultimately, author-illustrator Lane Smith uses humor to celebrate the continued value of books.


It's ironic that I first found out about It's a Book through a YouTube clip. (I wonder if the book is available for download as an eBook. Seems logical, but also goes against the underlying message in valuing the simplicity and intimacy that come with holding and reading an actual book.)


Adults and children will LOL when reading this—or at least it will elicit a :). I find it funny enough in referring to the tech-minded animal as a donkey. I'm not sure that jackass was necessary. But, in a world of farting dogs, Captain Underpants and endless jokes about Uranus, jackass will make the book's ending all the more appealing in a subversive way. Although I'd love to read the book aloud to students, as a principal at a new school, I'll have to go with donkey. Of course, I wouldn't stop students from later picking up the book and reading it on their own. My own word substitution can remain our little secret. Wink, wink. Sometimes that's all it takes to remind kids that reading books has its own rewards.

But what do others think? Am I being a fuddy-duddy for substituting donkey for jackass? (To clarify, Smith uses the word to refer to the animal and its human counterpart.) Am I wrongly applying a form of censorship or simply showing prudence in presenting a book in a public school setting? Would you read it as is if you were a classroom teacher? Would you read it as is if you shared it with your own child? Post a comment to offer your perspective.