Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Bad Kitty Makes Comics...And You Can Too!

As readers of this blog know, I'm a big time fan of Bad Kitty. I like a cat with attitude. In his latest foray with this bad-tempered feline, Nick Bruel goes the how-to route, much like he did with Drawn to Trouble. In a nifty idea, all the pages are sized to fit on photocopier paper so kids can print out the various exercises without having to mark up the book. Whether or not most kids will have the patience to do so is another story.

The premise behind the book is that Kitty is bored until Strange Kitty shows up to teach her how to make comics. This Strange Kitty proceeds to do, taking Kitty (and the reader) through all the steps: from tools to panel frames to writing captions and sound effects and more. Each lesson builds on the next, with a funny ongoing comic strip featuring Bad Kitty and an octopus that illustrates whatever lesson is being taught. Strange Kitty is a thorough instructor--and a clever one too. The lesson on drawing starts small--very small--with just a dot on the page (an ant standing by itself in the snow). From there, he adds another dot (two ants lying on their backs looking at the cloud). Then another dot (two ants playing catch). You get the idea. Any kid can make a dot and so, by extension, any kid can make cartoons. It's a wonderful and freeing realization, one that is bound to get kids hunting for a pencil to start scribbling.

Bad Kitty Makes Comics...And You Can Too!
By Nick Bruel
Neal Porter  144 pages
Published: 2015

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Story of Diva and Flea

It's been a little over six months since I visited Paris but this delightful chapter book sent me straight back to the City of Light. Each morning, Diva, a tiny pampered pooch, trots around the courtyard of a grand apartment building not far from the Eiffel Tower. She has never strayed from her post, and when she hears the click-clacking of feet, she scoots off back to the safety of her apartment, afraid of being squished. Into her life one day enters Flea, a large stray cat with no fixed address. Flea is a flaneur and has had many adventures.

After a bumpy start, Diva and Flea become fast friends. Flea regales Diva with stories of what he's seen and experienced, such as "The Piece of Salami and the Broom that Missed." When Flea invites Diva to join him in his flaneur-ing, Diva needs a night to mull it over but in the end agrees to accompany Flea around the corner. There she sees the Eiffel Tower for the first time.

If Flea has broadened Diva's horizons, she repays the favor, introducing him to something wonderful called Breck-Fest. But before he can tuck in, Flea must overcome his fear of humans, especially those wielding brooms. Luckily, Diva's owner is welcoming and Flea finds a home. Not to fear, cat and dog continue to flaneur to their heart's content.

The thirteen short chapters are generously illustrated with DiTerlizzi's charming, soft-colored artwork. The illustrations have a timeless quality to them, as does Willem's droll story. An Author's Note explains how Willems came to write about this unusual pair.

The Story of Diva and Flea
By Mo Willems
Illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi
Hyperion,  80 pages
Published: 2015

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What Pet Should I Get?

It's been awhile since I last posted. What can I say? The summer got away from me. It didn't help that we moved house in July. Almost two months later, we're finally settled. So, it's fitting to start posting again with a review of the latest book from Dr. Seuss.

Latest book, you say? Yes. The manuscript, mostly likely from the late 1950s or early 1960s, was completed with the help of Random House art director Cathy Goldsmith and published in August of this year. Starring the brother and sister team from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, this work is most likely an early version of that book. But a new Seuss story is still cause to rejoice, and What Pet Should I Get? has all the Doctor's signature bells and whistles.

The narrator and his sister have an opportunity most kids would give their eyeteeth for: Their father has allowed them to get any pet they want. (We know we are in Seussland since neither parent accompanies their offspring to the pet store!) However, with this privilege comes a dilemma. Of all the animals that fill the store, which one should they choose? A dog, a cat, a bird, a rabbit, a fish? The possibilities are endless. As the narrator says: "Oh, boy! It is something to make a mind up."  He goes on to imagine the fantastical creatures that are out there. But at some point reality reins him in and he realizes: "If we do not choose, we will end up with NONE."

So they choose.

The ending is an ambiguously modern one and confirms Seuss as the mischief maker he was.

The book contains a postscript from the publisher describing the genesis of the book as well as a homage to Seuss the dog lover. All in all, What Pet Should I Get? is one for the Seuss canon.

What Pet Should I Get?
By Dr. Seuss
Random House  48 pages
Published: August 2015

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Dory and the Real True Friend

Dory's back! The girl with a supersize imagination returns in another early chapter book that is sure to delight young readers as much as Dory Fantasmagory (2014) did. Dory starts a new school year and this time she leaves her imaginary monster friend, Mary, at home. Determined to make a "real true" friend Dory immediately latches on to Rosabella, the girl who sits next to her. At first Rosabella seems like everything Dory is not. She wears pouty dresses, drinks water from a little cup with her pinkie sticking out, and plays hopscotch with the other girls. Still, Dory is not one to give up without a fight, so she tries her best to make friends, taking to heart her sister's advice: "DON'T BE YOURSELF."

When that advice backfires, Dory decides (with some help from Mary) to be true to her nature and discovers that Rosabella has an imagination that rivals her own. The two friends join forces to engage in an epic battle of good versus evil, emerging victorious after vanquishing Dory's old foe, the witchy Mrs. Gobble Gracker.  

As with Hanlon's other book, the story is generously illustrated with cartoony black-and-white drawings of Dory's antics. Hanlon has a knack for getting into the mindset of a young child. Here's hoping that another book about this indefatigable heroine is in the works.

Dory and the Real True Friend
By Abby Hanlon
Dial, 160 pages
Published: July 2015

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I Yam a Donkey!

"I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam," said Poyeye the sailor man. But he'd better not say it around persnickety turnips. In Cece Bell's latest picture book, it's a donkey who seemingly makes an ass of himself as he butcher the English language. He proudly announces the book's title to a bespectacled turnip who then primly corrects his grammar: "The proper way to say that is "I am a donkey."" What follows is a hilarious version of the "Who's-on-First" routine as donkey and turnip go out of their way to misunderstand each other. Later a carrot and some other vegetables show up, allowing the turnip to conjugate the verb "to be" in its entirety. To no avail, however. The donkey remains as clueless as before, although he does cotton to one thing: Vegetables make a tasty lunch.

Bell's bold, graphic illustrations provide a visual punch to the pair's ongoing argument. While silliness prevails, the book does leave the reader with something to ponder: "If you is going to be eaten, good grammar don't matter."

I Yam a Donkey
By Cece Bell
Clarion Books, 32 pages
Publication: June 2015

Friday, June 26, 2015

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower

Most biographies for kids feature upstanding citizens and if they do have a fault or two, the writer quickly glosses over them. Tricky Vic is a rare example of a picture book bio that chooses for its subject an out-and-out scoundrel. And what a bad seed old Vic was. Born Robert Miller in 1890, the Czech showed his true colors at an early age, dropping out of the University of Paris to become a professional gambler. Soon he took to the high seas, donning the alias Count Victor Lustig as he conned wealthy passengers aboard ocean liners. Arriving in the United States after World War I ended, Vic pulled a successful con job on Al Capone, one that allowed him to work the Chicago area with Capone's blessing.

But Vic's greatest scheme was yet to come: selling the rights to demolish the Eiffel Tower to greedy scrap metal dealers. He worked this con not once but twice! But the adage "crime doesn't pay" proved all too true in Vic's case. He was arrested in 1935 and after escaping from prison was recaptured and sent to Alcatraz. He died of pneumonia twelve years later.

Vic's crime-filled life is a great story and Pizzoli (The Watermelon Seed, Number One Sam) does a fine job telling it. Sidebars on prohibition, Parisian landmarks, counterfeiting, and Alcatraz round out the tale and put historical events in perspective for young readers. What makes Tricky Vic really stand out from other picture book bios, though, is its graphic design and artwork. Pizzoli has done a masterful job of creating jaw-dropping illustrations using "pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silkscreen, Zipatone, and Photoshop." The effect is both retro and modern. His best creative decision by far was not to give Vic features. Instead his face is represented by a thumbprint, giving this consummate con artist an air of mystery. Readers will instinctively recognize that Vic's true identity and nature can never be pinned down. He remains an enigma.    

Tricky Vic
The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
By Greg Pizzoli
Viking, 39 pages
Published: March 2015

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig

And really what story couldn't be improved by a pig in a wig? This beginning reader, told in rhyme, is a fun romp that begins: "What this story needs is a pig." In the ensuing pages the plump pink porcine acquires a wig, a boat, a moat, and a succession of animals--all squished into the teeny pink ship. Eventually the pig calls a halt to the pile-up and orders her fellow passengers off. But she soon realizes that a boat ride by oneself can be lonesome. But never fear, what the story needs now--a bigger boat--provides a happy solution for all.

Virján illustrates her story in eye-popping colors. Her flat cartoon style works well with the simple yet outrageous story line. Beginning readers will enjoy all the amusing details in the art, such as the dog and frog holding up number ratings as the goat balances on the log. Short on text but long on fun, this book is a winner!

What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig
By Emma J. Virján
Harper, 40 pages
Published: May 2015