Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bad Kitty: Drawn to Trouble

As a published author and someone who has taught creative writing, I have read many books on how to write. (And I do mean many. A quick count of the books on the shelves yields 45 books on the subject.) None, however, managed to crack me up--until, that is, I read Nick Bruel's latest. It must be the seven-year-old in me, but Bruel never fails to make me laugh. In Drawn to Trouble, Bruel inserts himself into the storyline, showing kids how to create their own stories. He begins by introducing himself as the author and illustrator of the Bad Kitty books, going so far as to draw a mirror so readers can see how handsome he is. (Bruel's definition of an author (found in the handy appendix) is: "An incredibly beautiful person who writes books and always smells like lavender, even in hot weather."

After Bruel has kids draw Bad Kitty, giving them step-by-step instructions, he tackles the various elements of fiction: character, setting, conflict, plot, etc.  He does it all humorously, putting poor Kitty in dangerous situations to illustrate his points. For instance, when discussing setting, Bruel dunks Kitty in the ocean, plops her down in the middle of a jungle, and then in a zombie-filled graveyard, before finally settling on Kitty's home. (Not that home is any safer. In one instance a giant octopus comes oozing through the door.) As usual, Uncle Murray chimes in in the series' Fun Facts spreads. In this book, he tackles the difference between plot an theme, the importance of using dictionaries, and ways to end stories. Inspired by the Looney Tunes short classics Duck Amuck and Rabbit Rampage (as well as Winsor McKay's 1914 short cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur), this wacky book is sure to have budding authors scribbling away.

Favorite line: "Like all children's book authors, I am extremely good-looking."

Bad Kitty: Drawn to Trouble
by Nick Bruel
Roaring Brook Press 128 pages
Published: January 2014

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Sleepwalkers

Viviane Schwarz's debut graphic novel is a strange book, but strange in a good way. Its inventive plot takes readers into a fantastical dreamworld populated with the oddly engaging characters of Schwartz's fecund imagination. I confess it took me a while to become invested. Initially it's difficult to figure out what's going on, and if I, an adult, find the plot a challenge, kids in the targeted age group--seven to ten years olds--are even more likely to give up. If they persevere, however, they will be rewarded with a story that offers a reassuring message of overcoming one's fears.

The premise revolves around nightmares. Kids who have recurring bad dreams or who are afraid to fall asleep can write a letter about their fears and put it under the pillow. The Sleepwalkers will then come and rescue them. Who are the Sleepwalkers? At the start they are three wooly sheep and a friendly dog traveling in a self-navigating nightmare-proof house. The sheep, alas, are getting on in years and need replacements. These they conjure up out of well-used objects: An old quilt becomes an insecure but good-hearted bear; a pair of sock turns into an enthusiastic monkey; and a quill pen is magicked into a crow with a nib for its head. All three apprentices must learn how to rescue children from their nightmares. The dreams they enter are truly horrifying, especially when illustrated with Schwartz's manic artwork. A girl dreams hordes of mice are chasing her through an all-cheese landscape; a boy is stuck in a nightmare in which he's trapped in a prehistoric pterodactyl-shaped plane; another child is lost in a jungle teeming with beasts made from hair. With help from the sheep and the dog, the apprentices manage to solve each case, but in doing so they must confront their own inadequacies. Bonno, the cuddly bear, is my favorite. Timid at first, he slowly finds his courage as his concern for the children overrides--but never vanquishes--his fears. With each nightmare, the kids learn a way to master their bad dreams, often literally. The boy trapped in the airplane, for instance, is shown how to navigate the machine and gleefully exclaims: "I am the prince of all pilots!"    

This gift of empowerment isn't all that Schwartz (There Are No Cats in This Book) gives to her readers. Studded throughout the book are fun extras, like instructions on how to make a sock monkey or a recipe for a banana milkshake. With a copy of The Sleepwalkers under the pillow, a child could face whatever terrors the night dreams up.

The Sleepwalkers
by Viviane Schwarz
Candlewick, 96 pages
Published: May 2013

Friday, February 28, 2014

Ball

It might seem odd that a picture book that repeats just one word is an Honor Book for this year's Geisel Award. Yet Ball offers beginning readers much more than the opportunity to really, really learn how to decode the word ball. It tells a fantastic story almost entirely in pictures. The long-snouted, rotund mutt--who could come straight from a New Yorker comic--is obsessed with his red ball. From the moment his redhead owner awakes he is after her to throw his toy, which she enthusiastically does--until it's time for her to leave for school. Dog then spends the agonizing hours until her return trying to get the other members of the household (a blissed-out yoga mom, a drooling infant, and the family cat) to play ball without success. Finally Dog stumbles into a restless sleep and dreams of--what else--chasing his ball. The dream sequence is sidesplittingly funny, especially the spread that leads him down a toilet and through a labyrinth of pipes. First-time author/illustrator does a bang-up job of creating a humorous homage to dogs and their love of balls.

Ball by Mary Sullivan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 40 pages
Published: 2013

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Urgency Emergency! Big Bad Wolf

Doctor Glenda has a tough case on her paws. A wolf has been rushed to the emergency room of City Hospital with something--or someone--stuck in his throat. And who is that little girl in the red coat looking for her grandmother? With the help of Nurse Percy--a chicken with a sensible fear of wolves--Doctor Glenda performs a successful Heimlich maneuver to extract Grandma from the wolf's gullet. Then Grandma and the red-coated girl go off together, none the worse for wear. The winner in the 2013 Cybils' Easy Reader category, this entertaining easy reader will have beginning readers chuckling as they recognize their old fairy tale friends in a new setting. And luckily for them, a companion book, Urgency Emergency!: Itsy Bitsy Spider, is available as well.

Favorite Line: "She was damp and a bit chewed around the edges, but otherwise OK."

Urgency Emergency!: Big Bad Wolf
By Dosh Archer
Albert Whitman
Published: 2013 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Cybils Winners Announced!

Happy Valentine's Day! For you lovers of children's books we have a special treat. The winners of the 2013 Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) were announced today, and there are sure to be books that escaped your radar on the list. As a second round judge for the Elementary and Middle-Grade Nonfiction category, I am, naturally, thrilled with our pick. It's Look Up!: Bird-watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate. Here is the blurb we wrote to go with it:

Budding ornithologists won’t be the only ones to delight in this jam-packed introduction to the joys of bird-watching. Annette LeBlanc Cate's enthusiasm for her subject shines through her humorous yet informative text and in her inviting pen-and-ink illustrations of birds, birds, and more birds. Cate recommends that you begin by looking for birds in your own backyard because “you don’t have to go anywhere fancy to watch birds, nor do you need to know their fancy Latin names." A useful list of bird-watching dos and don’ts, should-haves and don’t-needs (binoculars!) introduces the text. In subsequent chapters, Cate explains how to identify birds by color, shape, behavior, and other characteristics. Along with charts, sidebars, and a bibliography, the book features an engaging cast of cartoon bird characters. Sassy and opinionated, they help to spread Cate’s message: “Bird-watching is fun!” Look Up! isn’t just a title—it’s an invitation to a new way of looking at the avian world.

By happy coincidence, this weekend is The Great Backyard Bird Count, and it starts today. It's not too late to sign up and be part of a worldwide attempt to "create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance" of the feathered creatures we share the planet with.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Watermelon Seed

This year's winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for the most distinguished beginning reader is Greg Pizzoli's The Watermelon Seed. The book is Pizzoli's first and an impressive debut it is. A small crocodile whose favorite food is watermelon accidentally swallows a seed. This causes him undue anxiety as he imagines the seed growing inside him. He worries: "It's growing in my guts! Soon vines will come out of my ears!" Any child who's downed a wad of bubblegum or buzzing insect (it happens!) will relate to the little reptile's fears.

The book's brightly colored palette of pinks and greens reinforces the watermelon theme. Readers are sure to chuckle at the amusing ways Pizzoli portrays the crocodile's distress. My favorite illustration is the one where he imagines himself a watermelon morsel in a fruit salad. The text is simplicity itself, with just one or two simple sentences on most spreads. The story whizzes by to a hilarious conclusion that solves the crocodile's problem--though not for long. A definite win for the six and under set.

The Watermelon Seed
By Greg Pizzoli
Disney Hyperion Books
Published: 2013

Monday, January 27, 2014

Happy Birthday, Lewis Carroll!

One hundred and eight-two years ago, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) was born. Imagine if he hadn't been. Imagine a world without Alice, the Hatter, the Walrus and the Carpenter. Not to mention the White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or the Cheshire Cat.

For the past three months I have been steeped in all things Alice. I'm writing a book that encompasses the many adaptations of the Alice books--illustrations, stage productions, film, TV, games, and on and on and on. There are even operas and ballets set in Wonderland. In future posts I'll share some of what I've learned. In the meantime here are some illustrated books I especially like. For as Alice says, "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?"

For the Toddler Set:


Pop-Up:



For the Primary Grades:


Old School:


The Definitive Edition with Tenniel's Illustrations: