Wednesday, December 21, 2011

BEAR IN LONG UNDERWEAR



By Todd H. Doodler

(Blue Apple Books, 2011)

Say the word underwear and kids laugh. Every single time. Say long underwear and kids say, “Eww!” or “Gross!” Children just don’t like the longer version. They don’t buy into its practicality. It just looks funny...and not in the ha-ha sense.

Todd Doodler has created a book to make long underwear cool. On a “snow, blow-y winter day”, Bear and his animal friends decide to go outside to play in the snow. They put on all the sensible outerwear: mitts, hats, scarves and coats. Off they go to sled down a hill, throw snowballs and catch snowflakes on their tongues.

Bear decides to make a snowman, but his friends feel that the figure needs to be accessorized with more than sticks and a carrot. Bear dresses the snowman in his own winter gear until bear is left standing in the snow in long underwear. Soon all the animals want a pair. Yes, long underwear is the hot item for cold days.

Doodler’s illustrations are bright and appealing for young viewers. The animals’ appearance and simple movements make them look like they come from videogames. Kids can pick their favorite animal from Skunk to Hedgy to a large blob I presume is Bigfoot.

Simple book, simple concept. Long underwear is essential on cold days and nights. Perhaps after reading this book, your own preschoolers won’t complain when they have to put on a pair.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

CHANGING THE CHECKOUT RULES

I’m guilty.

I hold onto my library books for too long. I stop in every weekend to return a few and checkout more than a few. Yet for some reason, there are other books that sit at home. They are ones that I thought might be interesting, but I still haven’t opened. I conveniently renew them online. The initial three-week loan extends to six. Often, I take advantage of the second renewal, thus keeping a book for up to nine weeks.

I’m not talking so much about novels. The neglected stack is mostly picture books. I can’t explain my library-condoned book abuse. The best I can do is compare these books to mustard or mayonnaise. I do not know why, but in my family no one ever bothered to flit a knife way down into the bottom of the jar to scrape out the final product that might complement one, two, even three more hotdogs. If the jar sat on the fridge shelf for another week, it might as well sit there for another year. No one would touch it. We might open a new jar or simply go without. Double up on ketchup and relish.

The renewals don’t matter. The books won’t get read. Still, I hold onto them just in case. I am not completely callous. Occasionally, I feel a pang of guilt. If I keep Merry Christmas, Splat for the maximum term, no child will get to enjoy it during the Yuletide season. Abominable!

Just admitting this ghastly habit of mine helps. I have a stack of books due tomorrow. I can again renew them online, but instead I resolve to go sift through them tonight, read the ones that still pique my interest and load the rest in the car. I shall no longer be the library scrooge!

Why must every book have the same renewal period? I am one of the shrinking number of people who still rents DVDs. Some are one-night rentals, others can be had for three days and my tried and true favorites can be kept for a full week. I do follow the rules. If the newest books had shorter terms, I would get to them sooner. The shorter term ups the impression that they are must-reads. Give me no renewal option for the newbies to the collection. This is just the kind of nudge I need.

I have worked with my school librarian to launch a One-Night Reads program, a small-scale change to book checkouts. We selected ten newer, highly appealing picture books for which we wanted to create a greater buzz. This year, we are trying to get the books in fifty homes. Next year, we’ll select new titles and aim for one hundred home visits. Students are keen. They vote for which books they hope to have a chance to take home for a night. Names are announced each morning and as books are picked up or delivered, the student grin broadly as classmates say things like, “You won!” As an increasing number of students read these books, there are more common discussions about these particular stories and characters. These books have status. The love for reading increases.

Quicker returns will not work for all books. As a browser, I may shy away from 1Q84, Wonderstruck and other massive tomes. A librarian, of course, can determine which books require full reading terms even as a recent arrival. More work at a time when deep cuts are being made to library funding? Yes. Still, the result is a positive one. Shorter terms for newer titles will get books read more and bring us back to the library sooner to pick more books. No guarantee that the books will be read, but we do increase the chances. We have to stop treating each book the same.

I cannot be the only one who would welcome a rule change, can I? What do others think?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A MILLION DOTS



Written by Andrew Clements

Illustrated by Mike Reed

(Simon & Schuster, 2006)

For young children, waiting ten minutes for the cookies to bake can be agonizing. The forty candles on a birthday cake is unimaginable. Picking up fifty-two scattered playing cards after an abandoned game of Go Fish is an arduous task that may require a few breaks before completion. How do they make sense of bigger numbers? How do they understand one million?

Kids do like big numbers. They just need some support in making sense of them. (When I taught math, I often put a dollar sign in front of a larger calculation task. Suddenly, a task that seemed too hard became an exciting challenge for future bankers.)

Popular children’s book author Andrew Clements has decided to give more meaning to larger numbers in A Million Dots, a nonfiction picture book beautifully illustrated by Mike Reed. He starts with one dot, easily overlooked unless pointed out at the center of a page. “One dot is not very many. It’s only one, and that’s just one more than none.” After showing arrays of dots to represent 10, 100, 500 and 1,000, the book takes off on a journey to 1,000,000. Dot grids are superimposed on Reed’s digital illustrations. At the bottom of each page, Clements highlights a numbered dot on the page. With a splash of yellow surrounding a fact box for the number 1,860, he informs us that, “A person must climb 1,860 steps to walk to the top of the Empire State Building.” If you scan the picture, Dot Number 1,860 is circled in yellow.

The dots accumulate from page to page. Some facts are informative. “More than 265,000 different kinds of moths and butterflies live on Earth.” Others are seemingly randomly constructed, but the illustrations complement the contrived fact. “It would take 464,000 school-lunch cartons of chocolate milk to fill a 20-by-40 swimming pool. (Please pass the straws.)” Clements knows what topics will appeal to kids. In addition to chocolate milk, he imagines loading baseballs onto semitrailers, weighing a group of T-rex dinosaurs and hauling cars to junkyards.

As this is an American publication, there are no Metric figures but that is not a major issue. The book is intended to give children some sense of seemingly gigantic numbers. It is not a tool for teaching pounds or kilograms.

Since the facts are not connected to one another, children may lose interest unless supported while reading the book. I would suggest reading each fact aloud and having children try to visualize the fact topic on their own before repeating the statement while showing the illustration. Allow time to talk about each fact. Jot down each number on a pad or on a blackboard so the reader/listener can track how the numbers are growing.

As a teacher, I would bring out the book on another occasion during math class. Help students create number lines from 0 to 1,000,000, marking every hundred thousand. Assist them in estimating where each featured number falls on the line and then mark each line with a key word from the trivia fact (e.g., moths for 265,000; toothbrush for 839,500). This will help them get a better sense of scale while also allowing the facts to stick a little longer.

I also loved teaching pointillism in art classes. Sometimes students would feel overwhelmed in painting or drawing so many dots. (Tip: Snipping off the cotton end of a q-tip and dipping the remaining straw in paint had more appeal.) A Million Dots would be a wonderful resource to pull out when introducing pointillism and for “comforting” students with the assurance that their finished work needn’t have nearly as many dots.

In sum, A Million Dots is a great literature connection to mathematics and to random, yet interesting trivia.

Monday, December 5, 2011

17 THINGS I’M NOT ALLOWED TO DO ANYMORE

Written by Jenny Offill

Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

(Schwartz & Wade Books, 2007)

This is one of those dangerous books. In the wrong hands, it will bring new, sparkly ideas to any already sparkly minded boy or girl. Pity the younger brother, the mother or the teacher of that child. Fortunately, most readers will chuckle as they live vicariously through the curious mind of the protagonist (antagonist?).

At home, this girl wears her pink robe; at school, she is the only one who arrives in uniform: buttoned to the top yellow blouse and plaid skirt. But she is neither prim nor girly—at least, not in the stereotypical sense. What makes her really stand out are the black galoshes she clomps around in and the unkempt hair, complete with a tuft that intentionally sticks straight up with the help of a rubber band. This is a girl who, in her desire for sameness, will always be different.

The book is exactly what the title states, a list of intriguing ideas acted out but once. Jenny Offill’s text grabs us from the first page spread: “I had an idea to staple my brother’s hair to his pillow. I am not allowed to use the stapler anymore.” Naturally, she moves on to restricting her sibling with glue. This is a child who requires an ever-expanding set of site-specific rules.

Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations which combine pen-and-ink drawings with digital media are highly engaging. She perfectly captures the girl’s expressions such as her delight and concentration when trying to walk to school backwards. There are extras on the pages (e.g., the pen stain on the principal’s shirt; the cover page of a report on George Washington that somewhere along the way changed to an obviously more compelling assignment on beavers).

At times, the writing loses some zing through its too literal yin yang between the idea and the new rule. For instance, “I had an idea to walk backward all the way to school. I am not allowed to walk backward to school anymore.” The action and reaction are realistic. This seems to be a child who cannot generalize some of her learning. Still, the amusing ideas warrant more creativity in the writing.

I have not read this book aloud to any class due to one of the pages (which, I suppose, I could easily skip). We see the girl doing a handstand along with the words, “I had an idea to show Joey Whipple my underpants.” Yes, this may be true to life, but it strikes me as creepy to have the school principal playing it for laughs with a young audience. I would love to know other people’s thoughts. Feel free to post a comment.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A FINE, FINE SCHOOL



Written by Sharon Creech

Illustrated by Harry Bliss

(Joanna Cotler Books, 2001)

Hard to believe I have waited so long to blog this book. This title should be prominently displayed in every school library and in every principal’s office.

Mr. Keene is the principal of Fine Elementary School. He marvels at all the wonderful things that happen there. The children learn amazing things. The teachers instruct in amazing ways. He cannot contain his excitement and his pride. He cheerily pronounces, “Aren’t these fine teachers? Aren’t these fine children? Isn’t this a fine, fine school?”

And how nice it is to hear a principal speak so positively!

Mr. Keene decides you can’t have too much of a good thing. Imagine, if students are thriving so much at school, then the only possible way for things to be better is—this is where I pause during a reading—to have MORE school. Hooray for school on Saturdays! And since I am a principal, I always comment on what a fine idea Mr. Keene has. I jump up and grab a pencil and paper to jot down this wonderful idea as some students are intrigued, others horrified.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. Since students learn even more with school on Saturdays, Mr. Keene takes the more is better principle to the next level...and then the next. Everything is fine!

My audience laughs and squirms as I continue to jot down all Mr. Keene’s fine ideas.

Thankfully for us all, author Sharon Creech prominently features another character in A Fine, Fine School. Tilly is a student at Fine Elementary. She has a younger brother and a dog named Beans who do not go to school. With all Tilly’s time spent in school, there is less time to be with her brother and Beans. It is up to Tilly to help Mr. Keene see things from another perspective.

This book always entertains students. They can all connect to the subject. They can all imagine being Tilly’s classmates. And, yes, they can easily imagine me implementing Mr. Keene’s ideas. After all, I do go on and on about the wonderful students and teachers at my school.

Sharon Creech has come up with a golden story. The illustrations by Harry Bliss add to the humor. Indeed, this picture book is a terrific example of how the pictures don’t just illustrate the words; they add to the story. Here, Bliss provides visual details, from the attention grabbing Post-its on Tilly’s backpack on the cover (e.g., “MASSIVE TEST ON YOUR BIRTHDAY”; “GYM TEST TODAY”) to the antics of children on the bus and in the classroom. The dog, Beans, is a scene stealer wherever he appears. Call attention to the extras in the first drawings and students will eagerly act as picture detectives for the rest of the book, eagerly pointing out and laughing at their discoveries.

I am sure every reviewer makes the obvious statement: This is a fine, fine book. However, that undersells it. This book is one of my personal treasures. The sentiment is one that I hope to honestly convey at every school where I work.

Friday, November 25, 2011

STRAIGHT TO THE POLE



By Kevin O’Malley

(Walker & Company, 2003)

This is a wintertime favorite. It is for all of us who have experienced the dressing ordeal and restricted movement that arises from wearing an undershirt, sweatshirt, sweater, long underwear, pants, winter coat, snow pants, double socks, boots, mittens, scarf and toque.

It’s hard to even introduce the story without giving away too much. I can at least say that this is about a boy who, fully geared up, sets out on a dangerous trek through snow, wind and ice. It’s a classic conflict: boy versus nature (and snow gear). Be assured, however, that the story, told with sparing text, is highly amusing. This is the kind of character who would make any household or classroom extraordinarily entertaining. This is the kind of boy who would steal the scene in the class play...even when he plays the scenery.

As a read aloud, you will want to employ your own overacting skills. Draw things out. Take in the smiles and giggles of your audience. I have no doubt that after you finish this reading journey and the chatter likely to result from it, you will want to immediately reread it again to satisfy your eager audience...and yourself.

You really must track this book down. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

HAVE I GOT A BOOK FOR YOU!



By Mélanie Watt

(Kids Can Press, 2009)

It’s a good thing I wasn’t a rich kid. I would have bought enough “Must-Have” toys and gadgets to create a mountain of abandoned playthings in the back yard. Unsightly in summer, a skiing attraction come winter. On Saturday mornings, I watched cartoons and paid as much attention to the commercials as I did to that always-“menacing” group of sleuths on “Scooby Doo.” Every ad made a compelling pitch, convincing me, This toy is the best ever! (Even better than the sea monkeys I sent away for in the summer and the miniature Spirograph kit I received the week before after saving box tops!) I was part of the key demographic group for every marketer: the gullible.

As the cover of Have I got a book for you! makes clear, popular children’s author Mélanie Watt has her own selling to do. This is a pitch I can still get excited about. Buy a book! To be very specific, but THIS book! Al Foxword, a plaid-jacketed, bow-tied salesman (sales-fox?) pours on the pressure tactics. You need this book! You REALLY do!

Young readers will enjoy the goofiness. Older students could use the book as a springboard to talk about consumerism and needs versus wants. Many classes participate in book order programs and I often shake my head as the orders come in, flimsy books that come with cereal box prizes outselling the genuinely compelling stories on the list. (Yes, they’re excited. They’re buying books—or plastic necklaces that come with books. But will the books they get turn them on to reading or turn them off?)

As a published author, I cannot help but find a dark side to Have I got a book for you! If Watt has to cheekily work so hard to shuck her book, what about us lesser known writers? And, more generally, isn’t it sad that we have to expend so much extra energy to promote books, to defend the importance of libraries and to argue against prominent newspapers that predict the death of the picture book? This title rings too true. Perhaps that is why I prefer Watt’s later book You’re Finally Here!, a celebration of books and reading without the business of bookselling in the forefront.

Monday, November 21, 2011

I'M NOT




“Not drawn by” Pam Smallcomb

“Not written by” Robert Weinstock

(Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011)

This book is about opposites attracting. Mars, venus. Cats, dogs. Oscar, Felix.

As delightfully drawn as the two main characters are, I cannot tell what they are—just what they’re...not. Not humans. Not talking dogs. Not sponge creatures. I call them blobbies even though I am sure they are supposed to be some sort of animal. (My best guess would be dinosaurs or an alligator and a hippo. It really doesn’t matter.) One is green, the other brown. Again, I simply refer to them as Greenie and Brownie. Greenie is actually named Evelyn. Brownie is the first-person/blobby narrator.

Evelyn is the friend most of us wanted to have when we were young(er). She’s daring, artsy, imaginative and inappropriate. Brownie claims she herself is none of that. There is a clear pattern in the text: “Evelyn is up on all the latest fashion trends. I’m not.” The illustrations provide the amusement. In this example, Evelyn dresses herself in lampshades (“Lampshades are the new black!”), bandages (“Band-aids with pearls...trust me!”) and sweatbands. By contrast, Brownie dons a paper bag.

Evelyn is indeed a handful, perhaps too much for us adults who have learned to fit in, to follow rules and expectations. In truth, it is the Evelyns, Olivias and Davids of youth that attracted me to moving down from high school to elementary. Evelyn is sparkly minded, unpredictable and eminently entertaining.

Principal Milton, a stern-faced walrus represents spirit-sucking elements of society. Seems he objects to Evelyn’s bubble gum statue of him. Robert Weinstock adds humorous touches to the principal’s office, with framed pictures of a lemon and a soon-to-erupt volcano mounted on the wall. Ah, yes. Principals represent all that is sour. They keep the peace based on a fear of a possible explosion. Thanks for that, Mr. Weinstock!
This picture book represents a perfect merger of text and illustrations, each aspect making the other stronger. I am not sure to what extent author Pam Smallcomb had input as to the comic speech bubbles and drawings, but I assume that the editor was instrumental in ensuring that the words and pictures complement one another so seamlessly. This is a team I hope continues to work together.

A highlight for me is the two-page spread of Evelyn visiting Brownie’s house. Brownie informs us that “she changes my room.” And how! Paintbrush in hand (claw?), Evelyn states, “Your ceiling will look dreamy in orange!” My favorite page features Evelyn hanging upside down from the branch of an apple tree with the text, “She’s not one single bit ordinary.” It’s what Evelyn says in the comic bubble that gets me every time: “Look...I’m an apple!”

Like Brownie, I’m not Evelyn either. But there is a little bit of that wacky daringness locked in my mind. All of us can appreciate Evelyn...at least as a creature of fiction. I’m Not is a must read...unless you’re too much of a fuddy-duddy. Thankfully, I’m not!

Friday, November 18, 2011

THE WONDERFUL BOOK



By Leonid Gore

(Scholastic, 2010)

Simple concept here. A book is discovered on the forest floor. Each animal that comes upon it finds a different purpose for it. As animals don’t read, the uses will amuse young readers.

Bear decides it will make a lovely hat. Fox naps between the sheets. When a boy sees the book, he opens it and begins reading as the animals gather around to enjoy the story told on the pages.

Gore’s art is watercolor and ink on textured paper. The grooves of the paper create wonderful patterns as brushstrokes cover them. Bear’s fur gains definition and the rabbit’s ears have more character. The effect is remarkable enough to warrant an extra reading/viewing.

The story is remarkably similar to Ben’s Book by Nanette Newman and Georgie Birkett. (It has wandered off from my personal collection, hopefully being put to its proper function in a classroom or household.) Though not as preposterous (or funny) as The Incredible Book-Eating Boy, The Wonderful Book reminds us of the true value of a good story.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

IMAGINE A PLACE



Illustrated by Rob Gonsalves

Written by Sarah L. Thomson

(Atheneum Books for Young Children, 2008)

This is a picture book in which the illustrator deservedly takes top billing. With captivating, transformative acrylic paintings, the words are completely overshadowed. In fact, I am sure that many an excited viewer will not have the patience for Sarah Thomson’s thoughtful poetry. The discoveries within the pictures are too exhilarating and, while the words complement the pictures, they will only get in the way as children want to talk about the movement within each work of art.

Indeed, the paintings require double takes—okay, triple and quadruple takes. An image of the starlit night sky peeking through snow-covered pines changes as you gaze longer. Those stars become lanterns, held by skaters who traverse across a sky which at some point becomes a frozen river. The picture will lead the viewer to exclaim, “Aha!” while the words, though beautiful, will make many scratch their heads and say, “Huh?”



Imagine a place...
...where water is solid,
light is liquid,
sky a frozen river
flowing under your feet.

It’s hard to top the simple, yet awe-inspiring imagery of the title page. On the right side, skyscrapers edge a river on a cloudy night, a few offices with lights left on in the otherwise darkened buildings. As the eye scans toward the left side of the page, the buildings become the night sky appearing through the grand archways of a palace. The office lights change to stars, clouds transform to stonework, the river mutates into a tiled floor. In a single painting, the viewer is taken from urban to rural, outside to inside. It’s enough to make one imagine a mind—how did Rob Gonsalves ever conceive this work?

Each reader will have a different painting that becomes a favorite. With sixteen images to marvel at, the effect may lose its impact during a single viewing. I suggest that encore viewings begin and end in different places. Start at the back of the book or randomly open somewhere in the middle. Leave out the words and study the image.

After viewing this book at the beginning of the day, my drive to work changed. I saw clouds as snow-covered mountains, water as sky. And that’s the ultimate beauty of Imagine a Place. Gonsalves inspires all of us to perceive things in a different light. What a gift!

Monday, November 14, 2011

CHILDREN MAKE TERRIBLE PETS

By Peter Brown

(Little, Brown and Company, 2010)

Some titles hook you; some don’t. Building, an amazing book, doesn’t reel you in. I’d Really Like to Eat a Child and Children Make Terrible Pets are more intriguingly named. Peter Brown’s cover image also entices. A goofy looking bear wearing a tutu and a ribbon atop her head projects heart-shaped thoughts as she lifts a bewildered boy from the ground. Huh? How can you pass up a read?

The story is just what the cover suggests. It begins with Lucy the bear “practicing her twirls” in the forest. She senses she is being watched. A squeak comes from behind a nearby bush. Why, it’s a child! How precious! “You are the cutest critter in the WHOLE forest!” exclaims Lucy.

Lucy must have this squeaky child for her pet. She lugs it home and begs Mama Bear to let her keep it. The pitch works! Lucy and Squeak Boy immediately bond. Oh, what a perfect pet!

Except pets never are truly perfect. In fact, pets that don’t want to be pets can be quite problematic. This pet proves to be all too human. And one day, Squeak Boy disappears.

Now that he’s gone, Lucy wants him more than ever. Why, oh, why would he leave? Where, oh where could he have gone?

Peter Brown’s book design is unique, illustrations laid atop wood grain backgrounds and text narration and speech bubbles printed on cut out construction paper. While I appreciate the thought that went into the visuals, the muted colors and brown or cream-colored backgrounds are unlikely to be as memorable as the story for young book browsers.

When reading the story, be sure to also read Brown’s comment on the back flap of the book jacket: “When I was a child, I once found a frog in the woods and brought it home to be my pet. My mom was not happy. ‘Would you like it if a wild animal made YOU its pet?’ she asked. To which I replied, ‘Absolutely!’” Yes, it’s a fanciful notion, but not so practical. As silly as the story is, readers should be able to make connections to their own lives. Lucy’s realization that “some critters just aren’t meant to be pets” should trigger ample discussion. Who hasn’t transformed a recyclable margarine tub into an insect biome, thoughtfully laying down a collection of leaves and twigs and poking plenty of holes in the plastic lid to ensure the captive bugs are living in what we consider to be comfort? Should we scoop up snails and ladybugs to satisfy our fleeting scientific minds? Why can’t nature be observed in nature? How many of us have delighted in gazing at pacing tigers and well-trained dolphins at zoos and sea parks? Are animals better off in the wild or in captivity? Oh, so much to think about, all stemming from a forest-dwelling bear that wears a tutu!

Peter Brown’s book leaves one lingering question: If children make terrible pets, what creatures make good pets?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

WHY?





By Nikolai Popov

(North-South Books, 1995)

A frog sits on a rock, contentedly sniffing a flower he has picked as several uncut blooms surround him. Suddenly the tip of an umbrella pops up from underneath one of the plants. The umbrella belongs to a mouse. Frog and mouse stare at one another. Mouse lunges toward frog and grabs the flower. “MINE!”

Two other frogs leap onto the page, in hot pursuit of mouse. As mouse flees with the prized flower, he abandons his umbrella. The frogs claim the umbrella as theirs and dance about, collecting the remaining flowers.

Several mice reappear in an old boot on wheels. A canon-like weapon protrudes from the boot and fires at the frogs.

Frogs return in larger numbers to retaliate. More mice respond in more artillery-equipped boots. Each action leads to a stronger reaction.

Nikolai Popov’s picture book helps answer the “Why?” of war. This is a wordless book, a symbolic consideration as fighting begins when words have no effect. Children have to “read” the pictures to figure out the story. This is an excellent book for getting kids to make connections to their own sibling conflicts and playground battles. (Is the swing that important? Why must you have it right now?) But, of course, Why? is more obviously a teaching tool as children hear of world wars and civil wars that have killed millions and maimed even more. By the end of the book, the illustrations are bleak, the landscape singed, the prized flower and umbrella more suited for a landfill.

As I “read” this book to a grade six class recently, holding up each page, stopping at a few points to let them talk in groups, I heard one girl say, “I like this book. I have to do all the thinking!” She and her classmates were fully engaged.

In the Author’s Note, Popov recalls his own experiences as a child in a Russian town during World War II. He is clear about the purpose of Why? “I have created this book because it seems to me that if children can understand the senselessness of war, if they can see how easily one can be sucked into a cycle of violence, they may become a force for peace in the future.”

Why? is a prime example of how picture books can introduce children to complex subject matter. As we remember those who have been killed, wounded and harmed by war, it serves as the impetus for hope. This is a book that should be widely read...and gifted to world leaders.

Monday, November 7, 2011

BIG WOLF & LITTLE WOLF





Written by Nadine Brun-Cosme

Illustrated by Olivier Tallec

(Enchanted Lion Books, 2011)

This book would make a wonderful companion piece to A Visitor for Bear, my previous post. Like Bear, Big Wolf is accustomed to a life of solitude. He lives on his own under a tree on a hilltop. Then one day he spots a dot in the distance. The dot moves closer and gets bigger. Big Wolf worries. Will the dot, which now resembles another wolf, continue all the way to Big Wolf’s spot? And will the imposter turn out to be Bigger Wolf? The answers: yes and no. Apparently because New Wolf is, in fact, Little Wolf, Big Wolf allows the foreigner to hover under the tree on the hilltop.

“They didn’t say a word to one another, but they watched each other out of the corners of their eyes. Their looks were curious—not mean or suspicious at all.”

Little Wolf does not leave. Nightfall comes and the two settle in for a chilly slumber under the tree. Big Wolf, while peeved, shares “a teeny tiny corner of his leaf blanket”, reasoning, “‘That is certainly enough for such a little wolf.’”

Little Wolf is still there come morning. Little Wolf follows Big Wolf through the established routine. But then Big Wolf goes off on his own for a walk. Upon his return, he is surprised that Little Wolf is finally gone and even more surprised about how he feels.

This is a touching book, sure to make an adult reader choke up a tad upon getting to the final page. Children will enjoy the story, but won’t be quite as emotional. I suspect sentimentality comes with more experiences...or at least that is how I explain that a predictable yet satisfying ending leaves me with a lump in my throat.
Olivier Tallec’s illustrations have an abstract quality to them. The wolves are drawn simplistically, Big Wolf’s figure often roughly sketched in with white space remaining. My favorite consecutive illustrations depict the wolves under the tree at night and then in the same tree in the morning—different vantage points, while also going from wide angle to a closer shot. As well, the later close-up image of Big Wolf searching for the absent Little Wolf masterfully conveys a strong sense of emotion.

The text and illustrations within Big Wolf & Little Wolf combine to create a memorable story.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A VISITOR FOR BEAR

Written by Bonny Becker

Illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton

(Candlewick Press, 2008)

A stuffie named Winnie excepted, bears are not known for their social skills. I always suspected that the famous family of three, duly incensed by Goldilocks, would not have welcomed her under any circumstances. In A Visitor for Bear, author Bonny Becker solidifies the reputation of the bear as an inhospitable beast. The story begins with Bear living in a house with a “NO VISITORS ALLOWED” sign prominently posted on the front door. As Bear was, well, a bear, everyone obeyed.

Well, almost everyone. While bears have a reputation for being antisocial, mice are known to invite themselves into our dwellings (often bringing the whole extended family with them). Just as Bear begins to prepare his breakfast, he hears a “tap, tap tapping” on the door with the “NO VISITORS ALLOWED” sign. The nerve! Bear opens the door to find a mouse, “small and gray and bright-eyed.”

Grr! Bear tells the intruder to scat.

Bear goes back to the business of getting ready for breakfast with a place setting for one. The mouse reappears in the cupboard, asking the homeowner for “just a spot of tea.”

GRR! Scram, scoot, skedaddle, orders Bear.

But, of course, as everyone knows, once mice show up, it is hard to be rid of them. Mouse pops up again and again. Eventually, Bear becomes exasperated and breaks down. He caves. A bit of breakfast and then the mouse must be gone for good.

And just like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch, Bear discovers that a little companionship might actually have its rewards. Becker’s story is a heart-warming reminder that we all need a friend.

As I read the text, I enjoyed the formality with which the mouse speaks (e.g., “I do like a bit of cheese”; “Terribly sorry”) and I incorrectly surmised that Becker was from England. (In fact, she lives in Seattle.) The language makes the tale more whimsical. As well, Denton’s illustrations, done with soft watercolors, ink and gouache, add to the warmth of the story. Bear’s home resembles a manor one would imagine in the English countryside and the ursine homeowner’s expressions are priceless, worth a second perusal. There is one picture near the story’s end with Bear holding the teapot and eying the mouse that I especially adore. Not surprisingly, A Visitor for Bear is one of a series of Bear and Mouse books by Becker and Denton. The other titles are The Sniffles for Bear, A Bedtime for Bear and A Birthday for Bear. (Seems that, along with the notoriety, Bear’s friend gets a capital M in the subsequent books.)

A Visitor for Bear is a warm, fuzzy read that deserves many visits!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

SIT, TRUMAN!



Written by Dan Harper

Illustrated by Cara Moser & Barry Moser

(Harcourt, 2001)

You’ve seen them. Big, slobbery dogs that stick their heads into everything and tune out their owners. You may even have one. I have a dog who thinks he’s big—same behaviours, except for the drooling (Thank goodness!). These pooches have a will of their own. I like to think of mine as independent or even hard of hearing instead of untrained or, well, not so bright.

You know Truman is one of these dogs just from reading the title, Sit, Truman! As the supposed master barks this first command, the cat sits obediently (albeit, on a counter) while looking off in the distance and Truman’s little dog buddy Oscar sits and looks up at the owner, awaiting the next command or, even better, a treat. Truman hopes for a treat as well, offering a massive paw for and handshake, but failing to heed the “sit”.

Each page features an expressive watercolor painting of Truman and a concise statement from the owner, trying to redirect the independent/hard of hearing/untrained/not so bright dog.

“Truman, stop drooling.” Wishful thinking. A wet toy rests beside the lounging beast, his eyes closed, front paws crossed, mouth open, tongue dangling, saliva oozing to the floor. The owner’s arm appears in the illustration, a rag in hand to sop up the slobber.

Truman pokes his head in the toilet for a thirst quencher and later investigates the inside of the mailbox. (I smell the mailman, but I don’t see the mailman. Drat!)

Truman does whatever comes to mind. He’s a challenge, but a big, drooling, lovable one. In his own way, he’s a mighty good dog.

Any dog owner, young or old, will enjoy this quick read. The expressive, realistic illustrations will have children making a renewed pitch for a dog...or a second (or a third) dog. Come, on! Just look! He’s so cute!

Why, yes, he is.

Friday, October 28, 2011

BONE SOUP


By Cambria Evans

(Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

Oh, to be nothing but skin and bones. Literally. Meet Finnigin, a nomadic skeleton who longs to put some meat on his bones. He roams the countryside, strapping his eating stool to his back, fastening an eating spoon to his cloak and longing for tasty bits to satisfy his “gigantic eating mouth.” There must be a feast somewhere.

He encounters a witch on Halloween and asks for directions to the nearest feast. The witch speeds away on her broom to warn the local monster, zombies and the mummy. Ghouls, after all, aren’t known for sharing. They all tell Finnigin to scoot and scram when he comes a-knocking. Undeterred, the skeleton boils a cauldron of water in the center of town, adding a raggedy old “magic” bone to whip up that delicacy everyone loves: bone soup. The townsfolk are intrigued and gather round. Ghouls, after all, are known to be gullible.

This is a simple tale, a passable read for Halloween. It will most likely entertain preschoolers and students up to grade one. Older readers, however, need to be spooked more and will want a more involved story line. The witch, the mummy and the zombies are indistinguishable and this will surely disappoint those who are more invested in creepy characters of Halloween lore. Still, for the younger ones, it’s a tame tale with appropriately simple, dark illustrations created with pen, watercolor and digital color.

Don’t be surprised if your reader proposes that everyone add toenail clippings to their bowls of chicken noodle soup. Mmm, mmm good.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

WE ARE IN A BOOK!





By Mo Willems

(Hyperion Books for Children, 2010)

I love books about books and have previously featured It’s a Book and The Incredible Book-Eating Boy. I also love books that break conventions such as Mélanie Watt’s Chester which chronicles a conflict between author/illustrator and a wannabe main character and Watt’s You’re Finally Here! wherein a hyper hare talks directly to the reader. It should come as no surprise then that I am completely taken by Mo Willems’ We Are in a Book!, a book about books with characters that discover a reader is eying them.

This is part of Willems’ easy reader series, following the classics of P.D. Eastman and Dr. Seuss. An elephant named Gerald and a pig referred to as Piggie are the main characters. As the book opens, the elephant suspects someone is watching them.

Piggie moves up for a closer look.

Why, yes, indeed! Someone is watching. It’s…it’s…it’s a reader! A reader is watching AND reading.

Well, this is astonishing to Gerald. Piggie and Gerald decide to have some fun with the reader and, no doubt, the fun will be a mutually shared experience.

Mo Willems draws the elephant and pig simplistically and yet these characters are tremendously expressive, particularly Gerald the elephant whose amusement will become infectious. While Willems does not engage in the playful, sometimes nonsensical rhymes of Dr. Seuss, he masterfully conveys a sense of humor using a limited number of simple words. In fact, I read this book to a group of high school volunteers who have signed up to participate in an after-school reading program at my school. I didn’t know this group of thirty adolescents who were polite, yet a tad weary after a full day of classes. As I read the book, they relaxed. Smiles evolved into laughs and, at the end, the teens applauded.

This is a book that is sure to amuse any reader. Yes, that’s a sweeping statement. Mo Willems is that talented. I am so envious!

Friday, October 21, 2011

THE SHY CREATURES





By David Mack

(Feiwel and Friends, 2007)

When I was young, I spent a lot of time wondering about Bigfoot. What if he snuck into the basement? What if he jumped out of the forested area behind our cottage? Would he come out of hiding if people let him be the punter on the football team?

I also thought about the Loch Ness Monster. How old must it be? Did it send invisible vibrations to make photos blurry? Who decided it was a monster in the first place?

I never shared my thoughts. I was shy. Pathologically so. I thought Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and other questionable creatures made the world a more interesting place. Please, let them be real. Expressing my opinions was too risky though. My pasty face reddened all too easily.

Thank you, David Mack, for creating The Shy Creatures! The book dignifies shy people and mythical creatures alike. A shy girl sits in class, listening to classmates eagerly shout out what they want to be when they grow up. “‘I want to be a doctor to the shy creatures,’ said the shy girl. Or she would have if she wasn’t so shy.’” The class may have laughed and the teacher may have dashed the girl’s imagination, explaining that Bigfoot is not real. Maybe. Maybe not. When you’re shy, the maybes keep you quiet.

As the shy girl considers all the things she would do as a doctor tending to the Abominable Snowman, the Cyclops and Grey Aliens, David Mack reveals a creative, considerate and funny little girl, a personality as unknown (and perhaps as misunderstood) as the true character of the evasive mythical (or real?) creatures. Maybe all these seldom seen beasts are simply shy. (That is, if shyness is ever simple.) Mack finally asks, “[W]hat if the shy creatures just needed a friend?”

In a classroom or during bedtime reading, this book could be used as a springboard to thinking about a particular child’s own shyness. Imagine sharing a trait with a mighty dragon or a unicorn! It could also lead to discussion about how to chat with and include quiet peers in fun activities.

Mack’s art is reminiscent of that of Dr. Seuss, so much so that I expected The Grinch and little Cindy Lou Who to make a special appearance. I think many kids will be able to connect the art, a wonderful early opportunity to compare art and to talk about how iconic artists influence others.

Don’t overlook the shy creatures. I can think of a little girl and a young boy at my school whose eyes twinkle every time I read a story to their classes. They never share their ideas and reactions. I will make an extra effort to touch base with them on Monday. As for coaxing Bigfoot out from his hiding place, well, I’ll leave that for someone with a video-camera and a yearning for YouTube notoriety. I’m still too shy for that!

Monday, October 17, 2011

MY LIFE AS A CHICKEN



Written by Ellen A. Kelley

Illustrated by Michael Slack

(Harcourt, 2007)

I am not a fan of rhyming picture books, but sometimes the story and the words are so amusing that I can escape the sing-song way I read most children’s rhymes. Maybe I just have a soft spot for goofy chicken tales.

Pauline Poulet is a hen that is all too aware of her surroundings. She lays egg after egg, only to have them snatched and stored in cartons. Worse, she cannot rest like her coop-mates:



But round my roost
I hear suspicious
words like
“Chicken pie,
delicious.”
Has Farmer hatched a crafty plan
to throw me in a frying pan?

Pauline flees the farm, beginning a harrowing adventure that finds her dumped in the sea.



Then pirates pull me
from the foam.
Why, oh why,
did I leave home?


As the frazzled fowl faces challenge after challenge, she finds courage in the words, “Pauline, prevail!” Yes, our little chicken is a comical character who nonetheless provides inspiration when facing fear and demonstrates resilience when things appear bleak.

Michael Slack’s digital mixed media illustrations add to the playfulness of the story. Poor Pauline is shown in a series of hapless circumstances befitting a cartoon character. Her foes appear sinister while simultaneously foolish.

Kids will enjoy joining in to yell, “Pauline, prevail!” They will root for her. Perhaps they can, in turn, come up with original phrases to help them through their own travails.

Friday, October 14, 2011

TALE OF A GREAT WHITE FISH [a sturgeon story]



Written by Maggie de Vries

Illustrated by Renné Benoit

(Greystone Books, 2006)

Here is a fish story that seems like a “fish story”: too exaggerated to be true. Yet, the facts are accurate. This book is another example of how to write an engaging nonfiction picture book. (See also, Surprising Sharks.) Most young readers will not be familiar with the great white sturgeon, but they will soon be in awe. Author de Vries begins with a once-upon-a-time equivalent: “Even before dinosaurs roamed the earth, sturgeon swam in its waters.” Older than dinosaurs? There’s an initial hook, but it gets better.

In telling the story of one sturgeon, readers will get more of a feel for the facts. Page entries begin with the time period in all capital letters and the initial writing is for Late Spring, 1828, a seemingly ancient date for the target audience. Before reading anything more, I ask students to figure out how long ago 1828 was. Some guess randomly, others try some creative mental math. Either way, the thinking establishes an investment in the story. An adult sturgeon spawns. Some eggs become larvae and then become small fry, including one named Little Fish. The story jumps to 1858. Little Fish is now Fish and basic stats (in metric and the American system of measurement) now follow the date for each entry. Here: 30 years old, 1.7 m (5.6 feet) long, 32 kg (71 pounds). This is another time to stop and make meaning of the numbers. Otherwise, the reader glosses over the key data. I grab a measuring stick and the reader(s) and I figure out the length. We talk about the mass (weight). When the facts are understood, the awe regarding the great white fish builds. Murky sand colors of a river bottom provide a unifying backdrop to Benoit’s understated art. Readers get just enough from the illustrations, but the story and the facts remain the central focus.

Eventually Fish becomes Big Fish, surviving challenges presented by man and nature. Big Fish ages to 52, then 69, then 85 and grows to 3.8 m (12.5 feet) and 364 kg (802 pounds). Each time, we stop and measure. We get a better sense of these figures. Readers mumble comparisons to sharks and whales.

In 1968, a boy sits on a dock and is wowed in seeing this 140 year-old, 17-foot long, 1,358-pound Goliath jump in the water. This unforgettable experience leads the boy to advocate for the sturgeon’s protection when he becomes an adult and a Canadian hero. The boy/hero’s identity is only revealed in a letter appearing after the glossary in the book, a thoughtful detail ensuring the man does not overshadow the fish.

I have read this book to many classes and small groups. It has always captivated the audience. When I first tested the story with a grade five class before the book was published, I did it as a favor, not thinking it would be a hit. But numbers, when understood, can play a significant part in engaging readers. With younger students, we move about and measure floor space in the room to better visualize the size of the sturgeon. Part of the appeal may be that the book is not a sit-still-and-listen tale. Active engagement makes the sturgeon story memorable.

Monday, October 10, 2011

DON'T CALL ME PRUNEFACE!

Written by Janet Reed Ahearn

Illustrated by Drazen Kozjan

(Disney Hyperion Books, 2010)

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.

Who came up with that lame expression? I’ve got a few names for him! Seriously, name calling, putdowns and taunts get under our skin, particularly when we’re young. My mother, my teachers and practically every adult I knew when I was a child offered the same advice: “Just ignore it.” I never found that effective. How can you ignore being called Maggot or Stupidhead or Bird Turd?! To most adults, the names seem trivial, even nonsensical, but kids like to be called by their name. Moreover, the tone in which “Stupidhead” is uttered and the witnesses hearing the offending remark make ignoring impossible.

As a principal, I deal with name calling incidents on a regular basis. By the time things get to me, “Stupidhead” has opted for a more problematic recourse. Thus, I picked up Don’t Call Me Pruneface! from the local library, hoping it would give kids some other useful, safe choices. I don’t think it does that, but it does open things up for discussion.

Paul is “a good boy.” In fact, his grandmother says he’s “as good as gold.” But then Prudence becomes his new neighbor. He immediately surmises she’s a lunatic since she walks her cat on a leash. On their first encounter, Prudence changes his name to Pill and offers another mild insult. Each day, she continues to act mean and spew putdowns. Paul doesn’t react, but thinks up responses. Not only is she a lunatic, she’s a creep and, yes, her name should be Pruneface. Ultimately, he is taunted enough and finally blurts his name for her. Things are resolved before matters escalate. The book’s primary purpose is to entertain, not to educate.

Still, I would take this book and ask a class what Paul’s options are. When he thinks but doesn’t say mean things, is that okay? What may have caused Prudence to come off as rude on the first encounter? Did he try to ignore her and did that work? Why didn’t he talk to his grandmother about his problem? Is the ending realistic? What other things could have happened after Paul called Prudence “Pruneface”? How have you reacted to name calling? What might you do next time (and, yes, there will be a next time)?

Sometimes a book can mark the beginning of an important conversation, an opportunity that should not be ignored.

Friday, October 7, 2011

SHIP AHOY!



By Peter Sis

(Greenwillow Books, 1999)

I had a professor in law school that I suspected dreamed of doing stand-up comedy. His lectures inevitably strayed to well-rehearsed monologues and I sat up front, willingly providing a contagious laughtrack. One time, he talked of growing up in a very poor household. His only toys were potatoes. Each night he’d have to surrender his toys, watch them get thrown in a pot of boiling water and, fifteen minutes later, he’d sit at the dinner table, forced to eat his beloved playthings. I have never looked at Yukon Golds the same.

We all know that almost anything can be a toy: stick, pot and spoon, bubble wrap, potato. Not a Box, reviewed here, captures the many alternative ways a young bunny views a cardboard box. Ship Ahoy! by Peter Sis is another book that celebrates a child’s imagination.

Ahh. That was my first reaction after “reading” Ship Ahoy!—total sense of calm as when floating on an air mattress in a pool or on a lake. This is a wordless book, its story told in a series of simple illustrations brought to life using gouache paint, watercolors, pen and ink. For the most part, Sis limits the palette to blues and white, perfect for the nautical setting.

A boy sits on a sofa with a few toys and gadgets by his side. An oval area rug rests on the living room floor. But then, the boy imagines a sea gull flying above and suddenly the room transforms to the sea. The rug expands into the vast ocean, the sofa becomes a dinghy. By changing his position on the sofa and shifting the other objects, the boat changes to a canoe, a pirate ship, a submarine. The left page of each spread depicts the boy playing on the couch; the right side reveals his imagined scene.

Eventually, mom’s vacuum appears—a sea monster?—and then she drifts into the scene. In the end, mother and son sit on the rug as she reads him a book—something about a boat, of course. This book reminds us of the power of books and simple household objects to inspire creative minds.

Monday, October 3, 2011

METROPOLITAN COW



By Tim Egan

(Houghton Mifflin, 1996)

I don’t know why, but boys like cows. They find them funny. Last year, I supported a grade four writing group and one boy insisted on adding at least one cow to every story. Before long, other boys were creating cow characters. They enjoyed making others laugh from their writing and one of the easiest gags was to think of a human action and make a cow do it instead. The Far Side’s Gary Larsen would approve.

I picked up Metropolitan Cow from the local library simply because of the title and the cover image of a cow family, each member standing on two legs and dressed as cows would before heading out for a night at the symphony. I am confident the cover will catch a young reader’s attention. The story, however, has an important message, though Tim Egan provides cheeky commentary to keep the reader smiling.

Bennett Gibbons is a young cow living a life of privilege. All is well except there is no one for him to play with near his urban abode. All the other cows are significantly older and mud-sloshing pigs are…well, they’re pigs. Cows play with cows, pigs play with pigs.

Things change when a pig family becomes the new neighbors. Bennett befriends Webster the pig who is roughly the same age and has the same interests. When the two are outside, Webster suggests they jump in the mud, but Bennett echoes his parents’ long-established directive. “I can’t. I’m too dignified.” Webster asks, “What does that mean?” to which Bennett replies, “I have no idea.”

The two continue to hang out while avoiding the temptation of frolicking in the mud. One day, however, with his parents watching, Bennett can resist no more. Who wouldn’t want to play in the mud? This, of course, causes grave concern. This is why cows don’t play with pigs.

Metropolitan Cow is a story of prejudice, opinions forming from lack of contact with groups deemed different. It may be skin color, religion, family structure (think Benny Has Two Bucks) or first language. Bennett and Webster are typical youngsters. They are open to acceptance, but susceptible to following inexplicable rules that continue to keep those who are different at bay. Sometimes, as in this story, the adults need to learn from the younger generation.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

THE FEET IN THE GYM



Written by Teri Daniels

Illustrated by Travis Foster

(Winslow Press, 1999)

When I went to elementary school, I feared the janitor. He yelled. He spoke openly and bitterly about how kids made his life messier. At recess, he’d hover around the boys’ washroom, give us the evil eye and tell us we’d better not leave spills of any kind. I learned to hold it all day. With his red hair and beard and his thick eyebrows at a permanent slant to convey anger, the janitor reminded of the lurking troll our librarian introduced me to in a picture book.

Imagine my surprise when I began teaching and noticed happy, bouncy groups of children flocking around the custodian as if he were the pied piper. I’ve been to many schools and, thankfully, the friendly, kid-focused custodian appears to be the norm.

The Feet in the Gym is an amusing rhyming picture book about an affable, conscientious custodian named Bob whose most challenging task is keeping the gym floor clean. With pride, he mops down the gym until the floor sparkles. Unfortunately, as anyone who works in a school knows, floors take a beating during the school day. The students and teachers of Lakeside School swarm the gym in waves, leaving behind flotsam from painting projects, crumbly cookie sales and muddy/grassy excursions to the school field. Whether it’s the small-footed kindergarteners or the clomping treads of the marching band, each group tarnishes the shine. Bob attempts damage control, but the stream of children is relentless. Thankfully, for Bob, there is a happy (temporary) ending, punctuated with a final amusing illustration by the talented Travis Foster.

Foster’s art reminds me of the animation in the movie The Incredibles. His shoeprints appear three-dimensional in many places, causing me to run my finger across the page, only to be surprised that the images are, in fact, flat.

This is a wonderful picture book for teachers to include in a theme about school community or the larger community. Too often, custodians are taken for granted and/or undervalued. For many children, however, the custodian may be the person in the school they connect with the most over the years. Parents and teachers can use this book as a discussion starter in building an appreciation for this vital worker in school buildings. Perhaps after a reading, children and adults may pause to wipe their feet on the mats set out at many school entrances. Custodians deserve a break.

Monday, September 26, 2011

THE SHORT AND INCREDIBLY HAPPY LIFE OF RILEY



By Colin Thompson & Amy Lissiat

(Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 2007)

This is one of those picture books I fret about. I like it. I like it a lot. I’m just not sure what to do with it.

A few of the illustrations may not be appropriate for younger audiences. These Photoshop-created drawings did not have to be the least bit questionable, but art often pushes us ever so slightly beyond our comfort level. The first drawing features a Baudelaire-inspired woman in a pink negligee, one strap falling from her shoulder. Tame, I suppose, but why is this necessary? Later, an obese man sits in a tank top and shorts (or boxers), hair sticking out everywhere including his upper back. Realistic? Sure, but why? (Perhaps from a rat’s vantage point, humans look as disgusting as we view the reviled rodent.) The final potentially offending picture portrays a naked cartoon-drawn man, looking with dismay at his image in the mirror. His butt shows while the man’s dog sits in front of the mirror to block any frontal exposure. None of the pictures is terribly risqué, but collectively they serve as a distraction. Without them, I could wholeheartedly recommend this book. With them, the book warrants a caveat, a PG rating perhaps. This is a shame because the story should precede any cautionary notes.

Riley is a rat, a happy rat. Born happy. His short, simple life is filled with happiness. As a rat, he lives in the moment and enjoys the simple things. He is not cursed like humans who often fall into wanting more, seeking different, wishing for another version of self. And that is the premise of the book. We may shriek at and scorn the lowly rat, but perhaps rats have it better. They have a healthier mindset.

Here is the rat’s take on possessions: “All Riley wanted was a little stick with a pointy end to scratch the bit of his back he couldn’t reach himself.” Contrast that with human desires: “They want microwave-video-dvd-sms-internet-big-car-cost-more-than-yours-gold-diamond-electronic-gigabyte-fastest-biggest-and-smallest machines.” Think you’re more like the rat? Really? Just yesterday I spent hours sorting and chucking loads of items piled up in the basement. Easy to toss the things after collecting dust for five years, but at one time, they were all wants...some even needs.

The rat’s got us beat.

This book is a wonderful discussion starter. Why do we want to keep up with the Joneses? Does money buy happiness? Why do people fall out of love? What will make us feel good about ourselves? Birthday wish lists aside, what do we need to feel content in life?

Maybe this book is more for adults after all.

Friday, September 23, 2011

SCAREDY SQUIRREL AT NIGHT



By Mélanie Watt

(Kids Can Press, 2009)

I am suspicious of picture book series. Can the brilliance of a first book and a charming, quirky character be repeated? Isn’t this just a case of an author/illustrator and a publisher milking something to death?

I am pleased to say that Mélanie Watt manages to make things familiar, yet fresh in Scaredy Squirrel at Night. Perhaps it was only natural that Scaredy Squirrel should become a series after his first eponymous book (reviewed earlier this week). After all, anyone afraid of tarantulas, poison ivy, green Martians, killer bees, germs and sharks is bound to have other worries. Imagine the creepy things that may terrorize in the dark, nightlight notwithstanding.

Turns out our beloved rodent does not sleep at all. The potential for bad dreams is too great. Closing one’s eyes could lead to visions of dragons, fairies, ghosts, unicorns, vampire bats and dreaded polka-dot monsters (which I’m guessing are at least ten times more frightening than ordinary striped or hairy monsters). When dreams are so fraught with fear, the sleep-deprived squirrel doesn’t react well when a horoscope says, “At midnight all your dreams will come true!”

Scaredy scrambles to put his action plan into effect and, once again, this does not go as planned.

While just a tad less fun than the original Scaredy Squirrel, this book remains a pleasure to read. It is interesting to see how Watt takes an established character and format and makes enough twists to cause the reader to think back to the original while enjoying the new adventure for its own clever merits. Despite referring to the dreaded polka-dot monsters, kids should sleep soundly even when this becomes a bedtime read.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

YOU'RE FINALLY HERE



By Mélanie Watt

(Disney-Hyperion Books, 2011)

In the rapid page-turner You’re Finally Here, talented author/illustrator Mélanie Watt breaks the barrier between book and reader. Her impatient, needy, mood-flipping rabbit character talks directly to the reader. In fact, it seems his primary function is sitting around waiting inside the picture book until someone opens the front cover.

Rabbit provides an exuberant welcome: “HOORAY! YOU’RE HERE! YOU’RE HERE! YOU’RE FINALLY HERE!” Of course, with all that waiting and waiting and waiting for the arrival of a reader, the excitement comes mixed with other feelings. Rabbit has been bored and annoyed and makes sure you know that, too. The tale moves two hops forward, one hop back as our character corrects his less than positive outbursts.

Rabbit is captivatingly illustrated, an artful cousin to Watt’s beloved Scaredy Squirrel, his round eyes as big as his ears. Watt adds simple slabs as eyebrows, all the better to maximize the character’s expressiveness as moods change. The color palette for the book is limited to oranges, yellows, browns, pinks and creamy whites. I crave cupcakes each time I read the book.
I’ve read this book to several groups and young audiences love the fact the rabbit is talking directly to them. No flies on the wall—rabbit pulls them right in. Kids find You’re Finally Here highly amusing. Rabbit is far from the perfect friend or host, but readers will want to come back for frequent visits, experiencing the entire cycle of rabbit’s reception over and over again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

CHESTER



By Mélanie Watt

(Kids Can Press, 2007)

Sometimes we battle our inner demons. Other times, we must spar with our imaginary cats. Well, at least, that is Mélanie Watt’s predicament. Chester is a story that, by its very design, never develops. That is because Watt’s efforts to tell a happy tale about a mouse are repeatedly interrupted and sabotaged by an arrogant, attention-seeking, bloated feline named Chester who has more advanced writing and drawing skills than your average cat. Throughout the book, Chester is armed with a red marker and he is not afraid to use it.

The adventure plays out like a comedy improv scene. Watt draws Mouse’s house and shows the contented rodent perched in a comfy chair. Watt’s text appears in simple black font. Enter Chester. He adds text with his handy red marker, sending Mouse off on a permanent vacation (“Hasta la vista, Mousie!”). The house now belongs to Chester and he changes the decor with the same marker.

Watt recovers and inserts more black text. Mouse returns from a lovely Mexican vacation with a new pal: a monstrous looking dog! Chester, of course, must respond to this twist. This MUST go back to being all about the glorious (and safe) cat.

It’s a clever book, a scuffle between writer/illustrator and story book character. This is a very different kind of picture book, one that will greatly amuse young audiences. The story would be a good icebreaker before reading fractured fairy tales like Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. As well, Chester may be a springboard to looking at other stories and posing What If twists. What happens if another character enters a story?

With able readers, Chester makes an excellent buddy read. One person can read all of Watt’s text in black while the other read’s Chester’s parts in red. Back and forth, back and forth. Laughter is guaranteed. As an alternative Mom and Dad can each take a part or two teachers can take on the different personalities. This is classic comedy, one character reacting to the continued shenanigans of a zany, irrepressible sidekick.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

AUGUSTINE


By Mélanie Watt

(Kids Can Press, 2006)

This is a multipurpose book.
1) Use it as a springboard to talk with a child about moving.
2) Read and discuss it before a child goes to a new school.
3) Combine #1 and #2.
4) Consider a first “read” by omitting the text and interpreting the grid of
nine pictures on the left side of each spread. Kids will get the meaning
and then be more invested in the story when it is officially read aloud.
5) Build an art study around any one of the artists or paintings emulated in
the middle frame of each grid. (Artists and titles of the inspired works
appear at the back of the book.)
6) Create a more complete art study, spending a week on each of the thirteen
featured artists (e.g., van Gogh, Warhol, Munch, Matisse, Warhol). As a
Canadian, I am pleased that Group of Seven member Lawren Harris is included.

Sorry about all that, above. My mind races when I come across an inventive book such as this.

Augustine is a penguin, named after painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Her dad’s job requires that the family move from the familiar South Pole to the unknown North Pole. Augustine experiences packing, goodbyes, a first plane ride, a new home, a new class. Ultimately, through art, the little penguin discovers a new way to connect.

Mélanie Watt fans, accustomed to the humor of her Scaredy Squirrel and Chester books, may be disappointed with Augustine. This book is a different creative turn for Watt, one that I am glad she has taken. Overall, this book takes familiar themes and adds creative touches. The portrait of Augustine’s new teacher is reminiscent of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; naturally, the teacher’s name is Miss Lisa. When the penguin stands alone watching her new classmates play catch with a ball, Watt expresses Augustine’s feelings with a sketch of a ball and the Magritte-inspired caption “This is not a ball.”

Augustine is a pet project, its impetus being Watt’s own memories of moving from city to city while growing up in Canada. Like the penguin, she found art as an outlet for expressing herself and connecting with others. The book is now a vehicle for teachers to instill a love of art in many more youngsters.

Monday, September 19, 2011

SCAREDY SQUIRREL




Each day this week, I am featuring a picture book by Canadian writer and illustrator Mélanie Watt. Her books entertain readers in ways that make them laugh, deal with worries and think about differences. Moreover, her characters are truly memorable, from Leon the Chameleon and Scaredy Squirrel to Augustine and Chester. Watt even becomes a character in the Chester books and you the reader enter the fray in You’re Finally Here. It is exciting to follow Watt’s expanding book collection, with other fresh creations yet to come!



By Mélanie Watt


(Kids Can Press, 2006)


This book is always a crowd pleaser. I’ve read it one-on-one and to whole classes, from grade one to grade seven. It is no surprise that the goofily endearing, anxious, OCD-laden Scaredy Squirrel now stars in a series of books for kids.

We get a sense of the main character immediately upon opening the book. There, amid a pattern of acorns, is a sticker: “WARNING! Scaredy Squirrel insists that everyone wash their hands with antibacterial soap before reading this book.” I have actually declared, “Oops, I forgot” and then gotten up to scrub in the sink before carrying on. This instantly gets the audience’s attention. This story will be different. (I’m thinking of reading the book while donning a pair of surgical gloves next time. Scaredy will be most pleased.)

Scaredy Squirrel fears the unknown so he spends all his time in the same tree, following the same ho-hum routine every day. He has real fears of tarantulas, poison ivy, green Martians, killer bees, germs and sharks. These things lurk just beyond the tree, right?

Because the fears are so great and so imminent, Scaredy creates an emergency kit and several exit plans if, and only if, escape is absolutely necessary. Naturally, the day comes when kit and plans must be put into action. And, of course, nothing goes as planned.

Scaredy Squirrel is a clever, breezy read. Watt’s illustrations are the type of bright, cutesy figures that adorn fashionable clothing and nurseries for toddlers (and I mean that as a positive). The layout of pages is equally engaging. Watt presents Scaredy’s daily routine agenda style in a series of eight frames across two pages, little clocks drawn beside each event. She presents lists with visuals accompanying the words. As well, Watt draws Scaredy’s movement in the tree and beyond in lively images across two-page spreads.

I am certain that once you discover Scaredy Squirrel you will look for excuses to read this book to kids and adults, known and, although potentially scary, unknown.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

SHIN-CHI'S CANOE

Written by Nicola I. Campbell

Illustrated by Kim LaFave

(Groundwood Books, 2008)

The cover illustration for Shin-chi’s Canoe caught my eye as I browsed in my favorite children’s bookstore in Vancouver. I leafed through the book and felt that every page was a work of art, worthy of framing and display in a major exhibition. Artist Kim LaFave’s process begins with pencil sketches that are scanned to the computer and digitally colored with Corel Painter and Photoshop. The results are breathtaking.

But beyond the art, there is a tale to be told. This book tells the story of a school year, from getting ready for the first day to arriving home after the last. What is different for young readers is the learning occurs at a residential school, far from Shin-chi and sister Shi-shi-etko’s family. During the school year, the siblings are not allowed to speak to each other, they must adopt English names and they are forbidden from speaking their first language. English only. They are not allowed to go home on weekends or for holidays. The children go to school half the day and work the rest of the day. Shin-chi, by the way, is six years old.

Yes, as noted in author Nicola Campbell’s foreword, this is a story that touches on attempts to colonize Native populations, beginning in the late 1800s and continuing until late in the 20th century. It is a topic that could be explained in a heavy-handed manner, but Campbell takes a gentler approach, allowing the reader to make his or how own inferences and ask his or her own questions. (Campbell is Interior Salish and Métis. Many of her family members attended residential schools.)

Before the siblings leave their family, Shi-shi-etko recalls how her long braids were cut off and her head washed in kerosene when she arrived at school the previous year. This time, she asks her grandmother to cut her hair. Children must infer why. Afterwards, the goes “up the mountain to put (the children’s) braids away.” Again, it is left to the reader to imagine what that might look like.

At school, the children eat small portions of porridge and burnt toast while the teachers dine on bacon, eggs and potatoes. Later, Shi-chi and a new friend steal food. This provides another opportunity to stretch children’s thinking. Why would the boys steal? Are they bad? Is stealing ever okay?

This is yet another picture book that could be read by people of different ages with older readers getting more from the text. Learning about reality through story helps make history lessons memorable.

Monday, September 12, 2011

FLAWED DOGS



By Berkeley Breathed

(Little, Brown and Company, 2003)

Remember the infamous 1994 Westminster Best in Show where chief judge Heidy Strüdelberg caused a riot after recognizing a three-legged wiener dog who’d once been used for lab experiments? Well, I don’t either, but Berkeley Breathed says it happened and I’ll go with it.

Following the incident, Ms. Strüdelberg retreated to a grain elevator in Piddleton, Vermont, converting it into the Last Chance Dog Pound, a refuge for the most difficult to adopt pooches, ones that fail to meet the perfect breed images of typical pet perusers.

Flawed Dogs is the fictitious 2004 Leftovers Catalogue, featuring truly unique dogs and poems that explain how they fell out of favor. I have previously featured gifted cartoonist Breathed’s The Last Basselope here. Flawed Dogs will not be for everyone, but for some it will be a riotous read.

Case in point: A few years ago while I was principal, a young student at the school stopped attending. All of a sudden, he couldn’t separate from his mother. I was tasked with getting him back in school. It began with short visits in the family car in the school parking lot. In time, I convinced him to stop into my office each day. We checked the Vancouver Canucks’ website and chatted about the last game, the next game and key stats. And then he noticed Flawed Dogs which rested on an upper shelf since I felt one picture wasn’t necessarily appropriate for young readers. (Lulu, an unattractive dog, is accessorized to no avail with a bonnet, two pairs of red high heels and a low-cut sweater stuffed with a couple of tennis balls.) I skipped that page, but read the rest of the book. The boy roared with laughter at gassy Pete whose reaction to kibble sent building blocks and the baby a-tumblin’, iBoo the techno pup (complete with iPoo) and Jeeves the basset hound whose jowls sent him airborne on windy days. Boy humor, perfectly illustrated by Breathed. The student’s laughter got me a gigglin’ and it took half an hour to get through the book while also interrupting all office activity.

He begged me to read the book over and over. It became a key motivator in getting him back into the school and eventually back into class. Flawed Dogs is a fine example of the potency of a picture book when matched with the right reader.

Seek out the book, share it with a group, especially boys who like that kind of humor. I cannot quibble with the content when the reaction is one of utter joy.

Friday, September 9, 2011

DOGKU



By Andrew Clements

Illustrated by Tim Bowers

(Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Confession: Andrew Clements makes me jealous. He does everything right. He writes highly entertaining realistic middle grade fiction such as Frindle and The School Story and is the author of the popular Jake Drake early reader series. Lately, he has spread his talent into picture books, including A Million Dots. Not only is Dogku a picture book, but it belongs in the poetry genre as the story is told in haiku.

An awfully cute stray dog shows up at a family home. The first verse:
There on the back steps,
the eyes of a hungry dog.
Will she shut the door?

Of course, the dog is taken in bathed, fed and played with. He even gets to ride in the car. My favorite verse:
Nose out the window,
ears flapping, hair pushed straight back.
Adventures in smell.


All of this is lovely for the dog the family names Mooch. But how long will it last? Is this only a temporary respite from life on the streets? Mooch gets into trouble “exploring” some tempting places inside the home. He wonders if he has outworn his welcome. Clements sets things up to keep kids wondering as well.

The illustrations of Tim Bowers are well executed though conventional. Something about the portrayal of people comes off as drab and conservative, causing my eye to be more interesting in the backgrounds. Bowers does choose interesting vantage points for some of his art, particularly as the father leaves the house and as Mooch awaits the return of the school bus. While Mooch is adorable, I think it might have created richer discussion if the dog looked rattier on first sighting and remained less cutesy throughout. Visit an SPCA or dog pound. The dogs hoping for a home—at least the ones waiting and waiting—typically rank lower on the adorability scale. (Consider Berkeley Breathed’s Flawed Dogs, for comparison’s sake. I will feature that title in my next post.)

Many teachers will scoop up Dogku as a way to introduce haiku to students. More importantly, the story will capture youngsters’ attention.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL

By Virginia Lee Burton

(Houghton Mifflin, 1939)

If you read my last post, you know I am not particularly fond of The Story of Ferdinand. Sometimes a “classic” does not hold up due to changes in society over time. I thought it would be interesting to follow up that post by featuring another favorite from the same time period. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel celebrates a machine already passé at the time of publication. Ironically, this quirk helps the book remain relevant.

One might say Mike Mulligan is not a man who changes with the times. Despite rapid advances in industry, he fails to switch over to the bigger, better gasoline shovels, electric shovels and Diesel motor shovels. Mike remains devoted to Mary Anne, his trusty steam shovel which has a long record of serving man’s desire to alter the natural landscape, digging “as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week” (or so Mike believes).

Urban contractors have moved on, leaving Mike and Mary Anne with nothing to do. Still, Mike refuses to sell the steam shovel for scrap metal. Instead, he sets off in the machine in search of work outside the city, eventually coming upon a small town called Popperville whose citizens are about to begin digging the cellar for a new town hall. (Small town folks may be offended here. While the cities have progressed to the bigger and better machines, the people of Popperville seem to be stuck in the man-shovel era. A steam shovel can do the job in a day?! Preposterous!)

And so Mike and Mary Anne get the dig gig. The stakes are high: finish in a day or no pay. Boys who root for The Little Engine that Could will also rally behind Mary Anne as Mulligan and the steam shovel work “faster and better” when more of the townsfolk show up to watch. (Yes, no one in town—from the constable and the postman to the farmer and the teacher with the distracted pupils—has anything else to do. Not in Popperville and not in neighboring towns.)

The steam shovel chugs along as does the day. It’s a race against time. A predicament occurs at the end of the day, one that is ludicrous but will be accepted by young readers. Ultimately both man and machine are repurposed.

There is much that adults and children can discuss after reading the book. There are historical references to the way things were: old-fashioned cars, the milkman making deliveries in his horse-drawn cart, the firemen rushing to the scene led by horses as well. Planes and canals show changes in transportation as the small town continues to exist adhering to old ways.

Moreover, the push for bigger and better is just as strong today, from seeking the latest toys and designer clothes to the coveted new technological gadgetry we are told we cannot do without. If something still works, do we appreciate it any longer? How many bells and whistles are required? (Think of “Toy Story”, The Giving Tree or the previously reviewed Thing-Thing.) Just as in the industrial age, advances come rapidly in the technological age. What renders something obsolete? Is anything lost through our “gains”?

Discussion aside, Mike Mulligan is a story that will prompt boys to imagine their toy tractors and cars have personalities, maybe even names. Vroom! Bang! Smash! Time to save Mary Anne! The story still deserves a place on bookshelves today.

Monday, September 5, 2011

THE STORY OF FERDINAND



Written by Munro Leaf

Illustrated by Robert Lawson

(Viking, 1936)

I know that someone read this book to me as a child and I know I didn’t like it. That’s all I remember.

It was a classic then and remains so. Once a classic, always a classic?

Ferdinand himself is a lovable storybook character, a young bull that is perfectly happy spending his days sniffing flowers on his own under a cork tree. Ferdinand’s mother is an enlightened parent. She “saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.” (Am I the only one who finds the “even though she was a cow” aside to be offensive? It seems so unnecessary, but maybe one must adopt that mindset to continue with the story.) The other bulls do what we’re told bulls are supposed to do: “run and jump and butt their heads together.”

At this point, all is fine in the story. It is yet another tale of being special or different. Curiously, Ferdinand experiences no ridicule from his peers. He does his thing; they do theirs. How lovely.

Once the bulls mature, all of them are big and strong, including Ferdinand. We are told the bulls long to be picked for the Madrid bull fights. Really?! Some will say I am taking a picture book too seriously, but what bull would yearn to be agitated by “long sharp pins with ribbons”, long spears and a matador’s sword “to stick the bull last of all”? Utterly preposterous.

Even reading the book as an adult, I become uncomfortable from this point of the book onward. Sure, it is comical how Ferdinand gets picked for the fight and how he thumbs his nose at the whole affair, but I doubt things would have ended so happily for him in an actual bullfighting milieu. And what about the other bulls?

I will repeat, Ferdinand is an endearing character, but the story glorifies bullfighting while also poking fun at it. Bullfighting remains a “sport” in Spain and other countries. While the event has cultural and historical ties, some traditions may be remembered without being re-enacted. Sure, the book may generate discussion about animal abuse and sport involving animals, but I worry that many people presenting this book skip that part.

The favorite part for kids will no doubt be Ferdinand’s encounter with a bee (with priceless illustrations by Robert Lawson), but the backdrop of the story cannot be glossed over.

Friday, September 2, 2011

THE DOT

By Peter H. Reynolds

(Candlewick Press, 2003)

I love so many picture books, but I can say with confidence that The Dot by Peter Reynolds is solidly on my all-time top ten list. It’s a wonderful book to read at the beginning of a new school year.

For Vashti, art is a miserable subject. She faces a project with an I can’t mindset. By the end of the period, her paper remains blank. What’s the point? Whatever she does, it won’t be any good. Her teacher tries to encourage Vashti. “Just make a mark and see where it takes you.” A mark, huh? Fine. Vashti grabs a marker and angrily makes a single jab. A dot.

Her teacher requires nothing more, keeping her cool and saying, “Now sign it.” This puzzles young Vashti, but it’s a small price for her Get out of Jail Free card. The following week, the student is startled to return to class and see her paper in a gold frame, prominently displayed on the wall behind the teacher’s desk. Vashti knows she can do better and sets off on a surprising art journey.

We all have subjects or tasks that we greet with that I can’t attitude. For some, it’s art, but for others it may be writing or basketball or math. It may be cleaning out a closet, baking a decent pie or taming the weeds in the front garden. The Dot offers all of us new hope. Start small, celebrate that first step, continue on. Do things your own way. Embrace the imperfections. You may even inspire others. That is certainly what Vashti and Peter Reynolds have done.

When a roomful of grade seven students spontaneously applauds at the end of the story, you know the book is pure magic. It is worth reading as school starts and another read the next time you doubt yourself. The Dot is an instant pick-me-up. Yes, everything will be okay.