Monday, November 28, 2011

Cybils Nominee: The No. 1 Car Spotter

The majority of early chapter books feature protagonists very much like their readers. Yes, Clementine might live in a basement apartment in Brooklyn and Stuey Lewis in a suburban house, but their day-to-day experiences are a reassuringly mix of  recognizable families, friends, and routines. The name of Oluwalase Babatunde Benson, the hero of Atinuke's latest chapter book, provides a strong clue that readers will be entering new territory.

Benson lives with his extended family in a compound in a rural village somewhere in Africa. There are many chores to be done, and he's kept busy fetching water for the cows, collecting firewood, and running errands for family members. His free time is spent not playing video games or watching TV or throwing a baseball, but spotting cars. Not many cars pass by the village, but of the one that do, Benson spots before seeing them, recognizing the different makes from the sounds of their engines. His prowess earns him the nickname, No. 1 Car Spotter, or No. 1, for short.

Atinuke, a Nigerian-born storyteller now living in the UK, shares several stories about No. 1. The first, my favorite, begins with a calamity. The family's cart breaks, and now there is no way to bring the produce and goods to market the next day. No. 1 gets a brilliant idea, one that features an old, dilapidated Toyota Corolla, and the whole community gets together to make his vision a reality.

The other stories in this collection take readers to the market place, where they see an embarrassed No. 1 attempt to buy lipstick for his busy aunt, and to stay with his best friend, 7 Up, where he so enjoys his friend's mother's cooking that he forgets to come home. The final story deals with the illness of the family's grandmother and the very real worry of not having enough money to get her the medicine and help she needs. Throughout this book, the humor of each situation shines through, as does the bond between the members of this large and boisterous family.

All four stories introduce young readers to a world way different from theirs. But although the setting and customs may be foreign, the way families unite to help one another in bad times and to rejoice in good will, hopefully, be very familiar indeed.  

This book was nominated 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.

The No. 1 Car Spotter
by Atinuke
illustrations by Warwick Johnson Cadwell
Kane/Miller, 112 pages
Published: 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Balloons Over Broadway

When my daughter was growing up, we lived a hop, skip, and a jump from the Museum of Natural History. That was great just in itself, but it also meant that every Thanksgiving we were at the starting point for the Macy's parade. My daughter was less than a week old when I bundled her up and took her to the parade. She spent the entire time gazing at my face, but still I felt like a real parent for the first time. As she grew, we usually skipped the parade. It was soooo crowded that we watched it on TV. But we still had our traditions. On Wednesday night we'd go to the museum grounds, where workers would be blowing up the balloons for the big day. It was fun to wander up and down the streets and see our favorites as they filled with helium and magically came to life. Of course, eventually word got out and that too became soooo crowded.

Balloons Over Broadway takes me back to those days. This amazing picture book tells the story of how Tony Sarg, a puppeteer, came to invent the gigantic balloons that are the hallmark of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Like many icons, the balloons just always seemed to exist, so kudos to Melissa Sweet for unearthing how they developed from blimp-like rubber balloons carried on wooden sticks to the soaring helium-filled wonders of today.

Melissa Sweet, a Caldecott Honor winner, obviously threw herself into this book. The artwork, a combination of watercolor illustrations and collages made from found objects, fabrics, and handmade puppets, exude the creativity and love of play that Sarg devoted his life to. In an authors note, Sweet tells us that she "played with all sorts of materials, not knowing exactly what the outcome would be." The end result shows that it was time well spent.

The book concludes with additional info about Tony Sarg, as well as a bibliography. The back end papers feature a 1933 advertisement from the New York Times, touting the upcoming parade. Among the "helium filled monsters" is one I would give anything to see: "The Colicky Kid: Listen to him squall!! He's mad. He's bad. He yowls bloody murder!"

And head on over to Sweet's website to view her Balloons Over Broadway activity kit. It has fun templates of puppets for kids (or anybody) to make.

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade
by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin, 40 pages
Published: November 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Elephant and Piggie Round-Up

Gerald's trunk is broken and Piggie is curious to find out how it happened. Her elephant friend launches into a long story about balancing a hippo on his trunk, then a rhino, then hippo's huge sister. With each new addition, Piggie thinks she will get her answer. The explanation for the twisted snozzle is not what she--or a beginning reader--expects. Like so many of Mo Willem's endings, it is hilarious, as is Piggie's reaction, giving the story a double whammy of an ending.

Gerald is a lot like Hamlet in this beginning reader, except instead of  obsessing over "To be or not to be?" he mulls the question: "Should I share my ice cream?" He goes back and forth debating the pros and cons, but time and ice cream wait for no pachyderm. Sharp-eyed children will spot the dripping cone and guess what's in store. Luckily for Gerald, Piggie appears with her own cone, and has so hesitation about sharing it.

It's Happy Pig Day and Piggie is ecstatic, celebrating with her pig friends. Gerald can't quite get into a festive mood, though. After all, he's grey, snoutless, and without hooves. In short, he's an elephant, not a pig, and feels as if doesn't belong. Piggie reassures him that Happy Pig Day is for everyone, and sure enough, her pig friends turn out to be other animals in pig costumes.

All three books are up for 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category, but the strongest is I Broke My Trunk with its two-for-one surprise ending. Mo Willems nailed this one. Right on the nose.

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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nursery Rhyme Comics

I'm a big fan of nursery rhyme collections. Some of my favorites include My Very First Mother Goose, Tail Feathers from Mother Goose, and I Saw Esau. Now I have a new favorite, Nursery Rhyme Comics, a compilation of 50 rhymes illustrated by 50 top cartoonists, including Patrick McDonnell, Jules Feiffer, Gahan Wilson, and Roz Chast.

Nursery rhymes and comics are such a natural pairing, it's surprising no one thought of putting together such a collection before. With their nonsense verses and fantastical subjects, nursery rhymes provide an ideal canvas for cartoonists to subdivide into panels. Each artist in this collection illustrates his or her rhyme in a idiosyncratic way. Patrick McDonnell, who starts the collection with "The Donkey," uses a subtle palette and spare style that perfectly matches the rhyme's brevity. Cyril Pedrosa's "This Little Piggy," by contrast, is full of details to pour over and delight in.

So who is this collection meant for? I venture to say everyone. Very young children can listen to the rhymes while nestled on a parent's lap, beginning readers can use the many visual cue to help them decode the text, and older kids won't be embarrassed to be caught reading nursery rhymes when they are presented so wittily. As for me, I'm putting this book on my Christmas list.

Here's a sampling:

Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 Timeless Rhymes by 50 Celebrated Cartoonists
Edited by Chris Duffy
Introduction by Leonard S. Marcus
First Second 128 pages
Published: October 2011

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Frog and Friends (Cybils Nominee)

Plenty of contemporary books for beginning readers are hip and cutting edge. I'm thinking specifically of Jon Klassens's I Want My Hat Back with its sly humor and muted, understated illustrations. I love I Want My Hat Back, but I also love Frog and Friends, a more traditional, dare I say, old-fashioned beginning reader.

Eve Bunting has crafted three charming stories all featuring Frog, a laid-back amphibian who enjoys hanging out with his friends Rabbit, Possum, Raccoon, and Squirrel. In the opening tale--my favorite of the three--Frog wakes to discover a round orange THING with a long tail floating in his pond. He calls to his friends and they in turn are mystified as well. When THING (a balloon) tragically bursts, the remorseful group believe they have killed it and hold a funeral (hilarious). What I especially like is that the story ends with them never figuring out what THING is.

The second story is about a blue scarf Raccoon knits for Frog, suffering with a cold. Not able to wear it, Frog re-gifts, and the scarf makes the rounds before returning full circle to Frog, who thanks to Possum, is able to secure the scarf and wear it. In "Frog and Hippo," the final story, Frog shares his pond with an escapee hippo from a nearby zoo and tries to convince him to return home.

Readers who enjoy Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books are sure to become fans of Frog and Friends. Eve Bunting has perfect pitch when it comes to beginning readers. The action is briskly paced, the dialog snappy, and the humor is never forced but comes naturally out of the situation. Josee Masse did a terrific job with illustrations that compliment, not take over the text.  

Also reviewed at Secrets and Sharing Soda.

Frog and Friends
by Eve Bunting
illustrated by Josee Masse
Sleeping Bear Press  40 pages
Published: July 2011

This book was nominated 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.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tribute to Florence Parry Heide

One of my all-time favorite children's book authors, Florence Parry Heide, died recently at age 92. Read her New York Times obit here.

Heide's most famous book, The Shrinking of Treehorn, is a well deserved classic, especially with the wonderfully understated illustrations by Edward Gorey. In an interview with Curious Pages, she shared that it had originally been titled, The Shrinking of Harold. More recently, she wrote the picture books Dillweed's Revenge, illustrated by Carson Ellis, and  Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of the Girl Who Floated," illustrated by Lane Smith.

In all her works, Heide was a champion for children, an advocate who presented kids as they really are and not how adults prefer to see them. And she did so with a large serving of humor.

My favorite Heide book is--surprise, surprise--ideal for beginning readers. Tales for the Perfect Child is a collection of seven short, easy-to-read stories featuring furry beasties drolly illustrated by Victoria Chess. Like all Heide's tales, the stories are subversive. In "Ruby" big sister Ruby wants to visit a friend. Her mother wants her to mind her little brother. Ruby does. She watches him take the clothes out of all the drawers. She watches him spill rice, flour, salt, and sugar on the kitchen floor. She watches him pull off the tablecloth, sending the bananas flying. Her mother, surveying the destruction, says, "I told you to watch Clyde." "I was watching him," said Ruby truthfully. "I was watching him the whole time."

The other story characters are similarly passive aggressive. In "Gertrude and Gloria" Gertrude is the careful sister. She carries the supper dishes without dropping them. She puts the dried ones back in their proper place. Gloria is not careful. She breaks dishes and put them back any old way. Their mother, seeing the results, won't let Gloria help any more. But Gertrude, because she did such a good job, gets to help with the dishes every day. As Heide ends her tale, "Good for Gertrude." Like Gorey, Chess is an excellent match for Heide's deadpan style. Her detailed pen and ink drawings capture each monster's smirk or gleeful look as they manage to get their way.