Monday, October 31, 2011

Scary (And Not So Scary) Scarecrows

Come October an elementary school in my neighborhood "plants" a scarecrow garden in front of the building. Each scarecrow is dressed in its own unique costume. Here are a few of my favorites. Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tune in to Toon Books

Toon Books puts out wonderful graphic books for beginning readers. This batch are all 2011 Cybils nominees in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category.*

Lilly isn't really all that silly. Like most kids, she's endlessly creative, able to entertain herself with just a few props. In Silly Lilly: What Will I Be Today?, Lilly sets off down another career path for each day of the week. On Monday, she's a cook discovering colorful vegetables, on Tuesday, a city planner for bugs, on Wednesday, a musician banging out tunes on a xylophone, and so on. But no matter who she's pretending to be, Lilly is always herself. Hooray!

Whew! Lots of things make Nina mad, many of which beginning readers (and their parents) are sure to relate. Here are just a few things that tick her off: "When you don't let me help." "When you let me pick and I pick the wrong thing." "When you promise and then you forget." Each complaint is accompanied with amusing graphics showing Nina in action, trying to help diaper her baby brother, choosing between the park or the museum, lusting after an ice-cream cone. The book ends with Nina acknowledging that she feels better when she can express how she feels. Hilary Knight of Eloise fame penned the illustrations, capturing Nina in all her spunk.

Patrick is a bear cub who goes on a picnic with his mother and has other adventures, including facing down a scary bully, in this charming story collection. Like the mother in the Little Bear series, Patrick's mom is unfailing reassuring as her cub gets into scrapes. When Patrick scares away birds from a fountain, his mother reminds him that the park is for birds too. "I don't want them pooping on my head," Patrick replies, a response that will set young readers giggling. Author/illustrator Geoffrey Hayes won the 2010 Theodore Seuss Geisel Award for his Benny and Penny in the Big No-No.

Another Toon book about a bear, but this one is no cub. The invention of Frenchman Philippe Coudray, Benjamin is a full-grown bear with a decidedly unique perspective on life. Each "chapter" is a page long and ends in a visual joke of some kind. In "Help Your Friends" a rabbit offers to help Benjamin as he washes dishes under a waterfall. Benjamin thanks him and picks up the rabbit, using his fur to dry the dishes. Or, my favorite, "Painting" in which Benjamin paints a portrait of a cow. After the cow laughs at the amateurish finished product, Benjamin bashes him with the painting with the result that the cow and painting now look exactly alike. With its more sophisticated, offbeat humor, this book would be a good choice for older kids who want meatier fare yet are still struggling with their reading.

*I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Grin and Bear It (Cybils Nominee)

"What do you get when a bear walks through you vegetable garden?"
"What is a bear's favorite baseball team?"
"Why do hummingbirds hum?"

Bear has some really great jokes. And he wants to tell them and hear his friends laugh. So he books a gig at the Woodland Stage. He invites all his friends, and when they show up on the big day, Bear step on stage and.... Bombs. Big time. Stricken by stage fright, Bear stumbles off into the night. Luckily, there is a solution to Bear's woes and by the end of this heartfelt and funny early chapter book, Bear sees his dream come true, although not in the way he--or the reader--might have predicted.

Author/illustrator Leo Landry has created an engaging character in Bear, a comedian better suited to writing the jokes than performing them. The seven chapters are sprinkled with jokes, the kind that kids in the early primary grades love to tell and which adults groan after hearing. The colorful illustrations are simple and spare, yet with enough details to help beginning readers with the text.

Oh, and the answers to the jokes? "Squash." "The Cubs." "Because they don't know the words." Groan!

Grin and Bear It
by Leo Landry
Charlesbridge, 48 pages
Published: July 2011

This book was nominated by Franki Sibberson for the 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Going to the Dogs

It used to be said in publishing circles that the way to ensure a book's success is to write about Lincoln, dogs, or doctors. Therefore, a book entitled Lincoln's Doctor's Dog would be a guaranteed bestseller. I don't know how true that is today, but I do know that books about our four-legged best friends are a sure hit for the learning-to-read crowd. Here are three beginning readers featuring dogs.

The text in this beginning reader, written and illustrated by Paul Meisel, might be simple, but the story is a lot of fun. A shaggy-haired mutt takes off running and a pack of dogs in all shapes, colors, and sizes, take chase. They romp over hill and dale, stopping to roll in mud, and then clean off in a river. Freshly washed, they begin to dig, uncovering a scary surprise that sends them off and running again. The illustrations show dogs in joyful abandon, enjoying the freedom of being off leash. Kids will have fun picking out their favorite breeds. I was happy to find a pug among the pack.

Dixie, an exuberant puppy, wants nothing more than to frolic with Emma, her young owner. That works out just fine until Emma lands the lead role in a school play production of the Wizard of Oz. Suddenly, Emma has no time for Dixie. She's too busy learning her lines. Told from the Dixie's POV, this beginning reader, written by Grace Gilman, demonstrates how feeling left out can cause a good dog to do bad things. Luckily all is resolved by opening night. The illustrations by Sarah McConnell are as energetic and playful as Dixie herself.

Losing one's pet can be devastating. I should know. As a child my  German shepherd went missing more than once. Each time the hollowness in my chest remained until he was brought safely back. Lori Ries captures the heartbreak in this latest installment of her Aggie and Ben series. Told in three short, easy-to-read chapters, the book begins with Ben and Aggie at the park playing a game of fetch. After one long throw Aggie takes off. And doesn't come back. Ben looks and looks for his pet, but eventually he must go home. With his parents' help, he makes and puts up posters. Yet Aggie remains lost and Ben spends an awful night alone, wondering what happened to her. The next day he encounters a blind man in the park, who encourages him to use all his senses to find his dog. Success! Frank W. Dormer's illustrations are inventive as always. A sure crowd pleaser.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Time Is Running Out! Get Those Nominations In!

The deadline for nominating books and apps for the Cybils ends on October 15th--that's tomorrow, folks! So head on over to the Cybils blog and nomination your favorites in kidlit. (You get to nominate only one in each category.) The form is here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

11 Experiments That Failed

I loved this picture book by the team that created 17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore! But I'd think twice before putting it in the hands of children. Why? They might be tempted to try one of these zany experiments on their own. I know I would have. When I was seven or so I learned that as a child my father stuck coins up his nose to see how many could fit. My grandparents couldn't extract them and a doctor was called. What did I do upon hearing this? You guessed it, I promptly shoved a dime up my little nose. If this book was available then, who knows what havoc I would have caused.

My experiment was nothing compared to the 11 ones here, which progressively get more outlandish. The format for each experiment is structured according to the scientific method--with hilarious results: a question, such as "Will a piece of bologna fly like a Frisbee?", a hypothesis--A piece of bologna will fly like a Frisbee.", the steps of what to do--"Take bologna off your sandwich. Aim at friend. Shout 'Catch!' Hurl bologna through air.", and what happened--"Teacher caught bologna with his head. No recess."

By the last experiment the girl protagonist has grown fungus in her brother's sneaker, sprinkled glitter on the dog, attempted to order a beaver, used up her mother's expensive bottle of perfume, broken all the family's dishes in the washing machine, and flooded the house. All in the name of science!

The illustrations are a fun mix of pen-and-ink drawings, notebook sketches, photos, and diagrams. Budding mad scientists will snatch this excellent picture books off the shelves. You may want to put it out of reach!

11 Experiments That Failed
by Jenny Offill
illustrations by Nancy Carpenter
Schwartz & Wade books, 40 pages
Published: September 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I Want My Hat Back

The premise of this easy-to-read picture book is simple. A bear has lost his hat. He wants it back. He proceeds through the forest asking the creatures he meets if they have seen it. Eventually, he locates his hat.

Hmmmm. War and Peace it ain't. How can such a plot-lite book be so hysterically funny? Trust me, it can. The answer lies in what isn't said in this minimalistic and clever romp. Keen-eyed viewers will spot the missing hat long before the bear does. His reaction when he finally realizes where he has seen it is priceless, and the ultimate outcome, in which justice is served, perhaps is a tad unsettling, although nothing a connoisseur of nursery tales would bat an eye at.

The simple text (the font in separate colors for each speaker) is understated and droll, as is the art. Klassen's bear protagonist looks steadily ahead, without expression, throughout most of the book. The exception comes at the story's climax, when his eyes open wide as the truth dawns. Kids will delight in finding the hat long before the bear and are sure to giggle when they decipher the punchline at the end. Highly recommended.

Other reviews at: Jen Robinson's Book Pagebooks4yourkids, A Fuse #8 Production

I Want My Hat Back
by Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press, 40 pages
Published: September 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Boy Who Bit Picasso

Ouch! Antony Penrose, the author of this kid-friendly memoir, is the boy in question, and he did indeed bite the world-famous artist in the middle of a playful romp. Picasso, not one to be outdone, bit him back, announcing that he was the first Englishman he'd ever bitten. What an honor!

This delightful book provides an intimate look at the unlikely friendship between a small boy and the one of the greatest artists of all times. Penrose writes conversationally to his young audience and lets them in on what it was like to know Picasso. Penrose, the child of Lee Miller, a photographer and renowned beauty, and Roland Penrose, an artist and writer, grew up on Farley Farm in East Sussex, England. Picasso, friends with both his parents, visited them at the farm. The Penrose family returned the favor and travelled to the south of France to stay with Picasso.    

Penrose shows readers a kid's-eye view of Picasso, describing his love of animals (his goat Esmeralda was allowed inside his home), his playfulness, and his love of disguises. Throughout, Picasso's art shines. We see how he constantly created art out of whatever was at hand, turning broken bits of pots into sculpture and using a discarded toy car as a monkey's face. The message--that creating art is a joyful act, one that is natural and accessible to anyone willing to think outside the box--comes through loud and clear. The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of Picasso, his family and friends, his studio, and most of all his amazing body of work. Young readers will want to revisit this book again and again. I know I do!

This portrait of Lee Miller, Antony Penrose's mother, was painted by Picasso in 1937.
The Boy Who Bit Picasso
by Antony Penrose
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 48 pages
Published: 2011

Nonfiction Monday is at Practically Paradise today.