Friday, August 5, 2016

Junk Food for the Brain

Gabriel Roth has a thought-provoking article on Slate: "My Kids Read Only Subliterary Branded Commodities. Yours Probably Do, Too!" His premise, which I don't disagree with, is that left to their own devices, kids probably won't select the literary award-winners beloved by parents and librarians. Instead, they'll head straight for books with licensed characters.

This is especially true for beginning readers. For every Elephant and Piggie or Frog and Toad, there are thousands more Meet the Angry Birds (really?). Where I part with Mr. Roth is his fatalistic attitude that there is little to be done about this. He seems to throw up his hands when his young daughter requests yet another reading of Ariel's Royal Wedding/Aurora's Royal Wedding.

When my daughter was young, I often didn't solicit her preference on which books she'd like to read. I knew that left to her own devices, she'd be drawn to many of the slickly packaged mass market items of the day, just like when grocery shopping, she pined for sugary breakfast cereals. (Don't worry, she didn't get them either.) So instead of cramming her brain full of junk, I'd go to the library or bookstore and get the books I thought she'd enjoy--which she usually did. She became a huge fan of Kevin Henkes, Roald Dahl, Seuss (The Sneetches, in particular), and even Marjorie Flack's charming Angus books (courtesy of our local library).

Did that mean that she never got to read Disney's Little Mermaid or an American Girl or two? No. Just as she was allowed a Kit Kat every Friday afternoon and got to choose an assorted cereal fun pack during vacation, she occasionally read "subliterary branded commodities." But I didn't keep them in the house.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Sophie's Squash Go to School

Sophie is back and so are Bonnie and Baxter, the two gourds that became Sophie's friends at the end of Sophie's Squash. In her latest adventure, Sophie tests the social waters as she maneuvers the first days of school. Although her parents assure her that school will be fun, Sophie is certain that it won't be. And of course her prediction comes true, especially when some her classmates wonder if Bonnie and Baxter are edible.

Sophie's rough adjustment to school is made even harder by Steven Green. Cheerful Steven isn't a bully. He just wants to be Sophie's friend. But Sophie doesn't want friends and rebuffs his overtures. She already has friends, she tells Steven, and shows him her squash. Sophie fights the good fight against Steven's attempts to become her friend, but she finds the classroom especially lonely after she temporarily says goodbye to Bonnie and Baxter. Now friendless, stubborn Sophie still resists the ever eager Steven. Events come to a head when Steven inadvertently tears Sophie's drawing of Bonnie and Baxter. How Sophie and Steven work out their differences and become friends will delight young readers and show them that "sometimes growing a friend just takes time."

Zietlow Miller's charming story is sure to strike a chord with readers who will soon be facing their own first day of school and all the worries that big event can bring. And Wilsdorf's illustrations are crammed with whimsical details for readers to ponder. Sophie's messy yet creative bedroom alone provides valuable insight into her character.

Sophie's Squash Go to School
By Pat Zietlow
Illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
Schwartz & Wade  40 pages
Published: June 2016

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Two Picture Books Featuring Dogs

Today's post is about two picture books for dog lovers. Count me among the breed. My best friend--a pug--just turned 15. And according to The Perfect Dog, I didn't find Pablo, he found me. Perfectly true. Pablo was the only pup of the litter who kept coming over to make friends. It was love at first sniff.

The Perfect Dog is narrated by a girl who has just been given permission to get a dog--any child's dream come true. In the course of the book, she expounds on what that perfect dog should be and takes each trait to an amusing conclusion. For instance, when "the perfect dog should big...bigger...biggest," the illustrations show her with a chow, a German shepherd, and a Saint Bernard. Then there's the kicker: "Maybe not this big." And there she is with a Great Dane resting its giant paw on her. The pattern continues with other adjectives (small, long, etc.) and other breeds of dogs. The book concludes with the girl going to get her perfect dog only to have the perfect dog chose her. Pablo would approve.

The Perfect Dog
by Kevin O'Malley
Crown  40 pages
Published: May 2015

Next up is Wolf Camp, a picture book about an engaging mutt who is proud of his wolfish origins. Wondering what it would be like to live like a real wolf, he gets his chance to find out when he spots an advertisement for Wolf Camp in his bag of kibble. He spends a week at the sleep-away camp learning how to mark territory, howl, track, and hunt. Zuill's humorous illustrations capture the canine campers attempts at mastering these skills. (My favorite shows Homer taking a whiz on Fang, a wolf counselor.) Like human campers, Homer struggles with homesickness and the food (it has hair on it). But by week's end, he has earned his honorary wolf certificate and made friends. And that's something to howl about.

Wolf Camp
by Andrea Zuill
 Schwartz & Wade  40 pages
Published: May 2016

Thursday, March 24, 2016

When Andy Met Sandy

Finding engaging books for kids just learning to read is always a challenge. A new series by Tomie dePaola (cowritten with Jim Lewis) fits the bill. As with many beginning readers, the two friends are opposites in many ways. Andy is short and on the shy side. Sandy is tall and outgoing. At the start of the first book in the series, Andy and Sandy have not yet become friends. On alternate pages, each child notices and comments on the actions of the other. When Sandy enters the playground, Andy thinks: "She is new here." Sandy wonders: "Is this his playground?" The two children cautiously circle each other, all the while making assumptions about the other. Andy imagines that the new girl has lots of friends. Sandy thinks that the boy wants to play by himself. It isn't until the pair meet at the seesaw that they join forces and become friends, a fitting conclusion to this charming book.

The series continues with Andy & Sandy's Anything Adventure, in which the two friends have a playdate and try on costumes together. A third book, Andy & Sandy and the First Snow, is due out later this year.

When Andy Met Sandy
by Tomie dePaola and Jim Lewis
Illustrations by Tomie dePaola
Simon & Schuster  32 pages
Published: March 2016


Friday, March 11, 2016

Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet

It's often a challenge getting one of my cats to the vet (a broken lamp springs to mind) so it's easy to sympathize with Bad Kitty's owner in the latest addition to the Bad Kitty canon. Feeling under the weather, Kitty has been refusing her kibble, a sure sign of feline distress. Her strength rebounds, however, when it's time for her to go into her carrier. As always, Bruel has a sure hand with slapstick and readers will howl as Kitty and her owner battle it out. At last she's inside and it's off to the vet.

In perhaps one of the more unusual plot advances in a chapter book, Kitty is sedated to have a tooth extracted and travels to the cat version of the Pearly Gates. Refused entrance because of her past misdeeds to poor Puppy, Kitty is given 24 hours to redeem herself. All she has to do is perform one act of unconditional kindness to Puppy. This proves harder than expected and it comes down to the final seconds. Will Kitty gain admittance to Pussycat Paradise or will she land in Puppydog Paradise and be chased and bitten for all eternity? Or is her predicament just a dream?

Bruel keeps the action rolling and Kitty's fate up in the air till the end. Along with providing a rip roaring story, the book has several of Uncle Murray's fun fact sheets, which give tips such as how to tell if your cat is sick and explains what vets are and what they do.

Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet
by Nick Bruel
Roaring Book Press  144 pages
Published: January, 2016

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