Friday, November 30, 2012

The Little Engine That Could

At the beginning of November's Picture Book Month, I posted several picture books that resonate with me. Now that the month is almost over, I'd like to write about one that leaves me, well, let's just say  underwhelmed. No, it's not The Giving Tree, a book that many parents either love or hate. While I don't care for that book's premise--a tree gives and gives of herself until nothing is left--it was never a book I read. No, my least favorite picture book is the much beloved The Little Engine That Could.

I know, I know. It's a classic and the illustrations, I agree, are charming. But I've never been a fan of its message. Oh, I guess I enjoyed the book as a kid--or was it the pictures of all that luscious candy?--but as an adult I find it way too didactic and its moral questionable. Yes, I realize that it's important to always try and that a positive mindset can get you over humps. But guess what? Sometimes you can give your all and still fail. As a child I practiced dance steps over and over, but no amount of positive thinking will ever make me a ballerina. So I resent being told that if you try really, really hard, you're bound to succeed.

Naturally, I never purchased the book for my daughter. When her aunts found out, they fretted that their niece would grow up  deprived and one of them gave her the book as a present. Once in her hands, I had no choice but to read it to her--again and again. Another thing--is that book long or what! Now--full confession--she did grow up to perservere in her chosen field, undertaking three grueling years in grad school and she's currently working at a very demanding job with an extremely long commute. Does she get through her day thinking, "I think I can. I think I can."? If so, then all those endless hours reading a book I didn't much like paid off.

Well, I'm glad I got that off my chest. Now it's your turn. What picture book sticks in your craw?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Spunky Tells All

How did I miss this one? Spunky Tells All, a beginning chapter book told from a dog's POV, was published in October 2011, yet somehow it slipped under my radar. I'm a sucker for dog books (as long as there is no chance of them dying. I have not and will not read Old Yeller.) and this one does not disappoint.

Readers familiar with Ann Cameron's previous books about Julian and Huey Bates (The Stories Julian Tells, among others) will rejoice to be reacquainted with the brothers, even though they aren't the focus. The book belongs to Spunky, the family's devoted dog whose snout gets out of joint when the Bates decide to adopt a cat. From his very first sniff, Spunky senses that Fiona reeks of Foolish. Fiona gets into one scrape after another, and Spunky, loyal dog that he is, bails her out of trouble, even if she does toss his kibbles on the floor and drink out of his water bowl. After a last, spectacular rescue, the two animals make peace and become friends.

Young readers will enjoy seeing the world from a dog's point of view. Like canines everywhere, the nose rules. When Spunky gets hold of one of Mr. Bates socks: "A sweet, ripe scent filled my nostrils. I opened my jaws. The sock went into my mouth. Thousands of tiny lights in my brain flashed in spangled colors." Spunky also has a unique way of describing things. The bathroom, for instance, is the White Pond Room.

Fair warning, for those who like fast-paced action, look elsewhere. The story takes a while to get underway and the first few chapters meander. But the wait is worth it. Once Fiona makes her appearance, Spunky has a worthy adversary and the story takes off.

Spunky Tells All
by Ann Cameron
illustrations by Lauren Castillo
Farrar Straus Giroux, 112 pages
Published: October 2011

Friday, November 16, 2012

Two More From Mo (Both CYBILS Nominees)

The amazing Mo Willems is back this year with two--count them two--more Elephant & Piggie stories. Of the pair I had a slight preference for Let's Go For a Drive, so I'll start with that.

Gerald has the bright idea to go for a drive and the friends set about preparing for their jaunt by procuring the necessary items--a map, sunglasses, umbrellas, and suitcases. Wise readers will see where this is going and won't be surprised when the pair realize they are missing one vital thing--a car. They will, however, be amused by Piggie's resourcefulness.

Piggie plays her new trumpet for Gerald, and her enthusiasm knows no bounds. Neither does her playing, which is all over the place. Gerald, when pressed to comment, tries hard not to state the obvious. At last, like good friends should, he tells the truth. "That was not music," he tells Piggie. But it wasn't supposed to be. Piggie was trying to speak Elephant in order to sound like her friend. Beginning readers will have a blast sounding out the noises issuing from Piggie's trumpet. KL-ACK! GR-ELP! GR-ICK!

Let's Go for a Drive!
by Mo Willems
Hyperion 64 pages
Published: October 2012

Listen to My Trumpet!
by Mo Willems
Hyperion 64 pages
Published: February 2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

Lost and Found

November is Picture Book Month--Yay! Thinking about some of my favorite picture books, I realized that many deal with the experience of being lost. The classic The Story About Ping, for instance, tells how a little duck winds up spending a scary night along on the Yangtze River before he is reunited with his family.  And then there's William Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble in which poor Sylvester the donkey turns himself into a rock and can't switch back. You can't get more lost than that!

No picture book explores this theme better than The Tub People by Pam Conrad and illustrated by Richard Egielski. When my daughter was in preschool I bought a copy at my local bookstore and had it with me when I went to pick her up. Seeing a new book peeking from its wrapper, she demanded to hear it there and then. Since we weren't in a hurry, I found a quiet spot and began to read. Around us four-year-olds and their parents milled about packing up and putting on coats. Slowly, one by one, kids drifted over, plopped down, and listened, spellbound, to the story of the little tub boy who is sucked down the drain. Until he was rescued and back safe and sound with his family you could have hear that proverbial pin drop.

As demonstrated, the power of the picture book is mighty. What are some of your favorites?