Monday, February 1, 2016

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

This year is Beatrix Potter's 150th birthday, and so it's fitting that she has been in the news. A long-lost story featuring a black cat will soon be published with illustrations by the delightful Quentin Blake. Can't wait!

Another reason to rejoice is a newly released picture book about Potter the animal lover written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Charlotte Voake. Hopkinson sets young Beatrix in Victorian London and introduces readers to her many animals. There are the rabbits she takes for walks, assorted birds, reptiles, amphibians, and hedgehogs. Hopkinson is also upfront about the misfortunes that befell some of the critters. These sad events are told in Potter's own words, from the many journals the naturalist kept. Despite the horrors, it's hard not to smile when reading Potter's entries. Here is her account of what happened to a bat left dozing in a wooden box:

The very next morning that horrid old jay, being left alone to bathe in a wash basin, opened the box and destroyed the poor creature. I fancy he found it ill-favored, but he pulled out its arms and legs in a disgusting fashion.

These sad anecdotes, though, are but mere appetizers to the main story--the guinea pig. As the title  foreshadows, there will be no happy ending. Wanting to sketch a guinea pig and having none at hand, Beatrix borrows the squeaking rodent from her neighbor, a Miss Paget. And not just any guinea pig. She borrows Queen Elizabeth, a descendant from "a long line of distinguished guinea pigs." But when Beatrix is called away from her sketching to attend a dinner party, Queen Elizabeth devours a good deal of the art supplies, including paste, and that night succumbs to a case of extreme indigestion.

The next day Beatrix has no recourse but to tell Miss Paget what happened to her beloved guinea pig. Miss Paget does not take the news well, not even when Beatrix gives her a watercolor of her late pet.

Hopkinson's tongue-in-cheek recounting of the tale is similar to Potter's droll style in her journals. And Voake's soft watercolors evoke her illustrations. My one quibble with the book comes in the entertaining postscript. Hopkinson admits that she made up some parts to her story and changed others, including that Potter was actually twenty-six when she borrowed Queen Elizabeth and not a young girl as portrayed in the book. This strikes me as not playing fair with the reader and casts an entirely different light on the incident. You can forgive a child for being careless with another's pet; you judge an adult more harshly.

Still, all in all, this well-told story will entertain and inform young readers, many of whom no doubt have their own "unfortunate tales" regarding pets. (I know I do.)

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig
by Deborah Hopkinson
illustrated by Charlotte Voake
Schwartz & Wade    44 pages
Published: February, 2016



Friday, January 15, 2016

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras

Anyone who has been to my home knows that I display calaveras, Mexican Day-of-the-Dead skeletons that symbolically give Death the finger. In my many years collecting, I never knew the history behind these grinning, sardonic figures. Tonatiuh's latest book, Funny Bones, tells their story.

Aimed at children ages six and up, the book introduces readers to Jose Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist, cartoonist, and master printer who brought these ghoulish figures to the public's attention, popularizing them in the broadsides he published. Tonatiuh tells his story well,  but the most striking aspect of his book are the illustrations. In his signature flat style, Tonatiuth graphically represents Posada's life in 19th century Mexico. Sharing the limelight are some of Posada's original calaveras, which seamlessly complement Tonatiuh's art. The result is a multifaceted nonfiction work about a much neglected historical figure.

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras
By Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams  40 pages
Published: August 2015


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