As I mentioned in my last post, I am a mentor for a new writing contest called “FicFest” — I recently read all 71 picture book entries and decided on one of them which I will be mentoring for the next 8 weeks in order to make it shine for the “agent round.” It’s already in pretty good shape and I’m excited to work with the author as I think we have a lot in common. It’s daunting to be a mentor when you’re not published yourself– it’s very easy to let the insecurities take over because, really, why should she listen to me, right? So, before I start my book reviews today, I remind all of you that I’m just one reader: you may love or hate anything I talk about today regardless of my opinion. However, after reading 71 picture books in three days, I can also tell you it gives you a Heck of an education! Some of it is humbling: there are amazing writers out there with some breadth of knowledge and depth of experience that is totally inspiring. And at the same time, some of it reminds me that in my 44 years on the planet I have actually accumulated some knowledge and experience myself: I’ve got skills in poetry, in pacing a story, in writing a good cover letter, whatever. It also reminds me that one of the best ways to become a good writer is to read more.
And as part of that goal, I bring you today’s 5 picture book reviews. I hope they help you– either to choose your next book to read, or to find some insight about your own writing.
Title: Peanut Butter and Cupcake
Author & Illustrator: Terry Border
Publisher/Date: Philomel Books (July 2014)
The “gist”: The slice of bread with peanut butter wants to play and find a friend, but everyone he asks is busy…until!
My favorite part: Though it was a little sad, I loved the encounter with the soup– and so did my son! I must say I’m also a sucker for the photographs used as illustrations– kind of like the
“Look and Find” that were popular a few years back. So creative.
My response as a reader: I checked Amazon to get some of the publishing information for this book and one of the first reviews on the page mentioned how great this book was to encourage kids who are rejected when they ask someone to play. I never though of that, but it’s definitely true. Poor little PB just keeps going– and eventually does find a friend.
My “take-away” as a writer: The author has written mostly in prose, but each encounter includes the same rhyme (with a slightly different ending each time) so there’s also some poetry. It’s a nice technique and one I can definitely incorporate. The rhyme gives the story some of the predictability and repetition it needs and it’s a little sing-songy but it works. While I thought the plot was predictable too, my son was insisting that peanut butter would eventually get together with cupcake, since that was the title, so we were both a little surprised by the ultimate ending.
Title: Naughty Mabel
Authors: Nathan Lane & Devlin Elliott
Illustrator: Dan Krall
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster BYR (October 2015)
The “gist”: Mabel is a very pampered French Bulldog who loves getting into trouble. She’s incensed when her owners throw a fancy party without inviting her and she decides to get even!
My favorite part: I really liked that at the end of the day, Mabel was a member of the family just like in any other (non-rich) home: snuggled with her owners in bed, the pampered part wasn’t really that important. It’s easy to think that the pets of the rich and famous are just accessories and not really loved, but it’s a little prejudiced to think just because they’re rich they don’t love their pets.
My response as a reader: I picked this up because I’d heard of it somewhere and it wasn’t until I sat down to read it that I realized I’d seen Nathan Lane interviewed about it on the Tonight Show. Oh no, not another one of those celebrity picture books! I have to say it’s cute, though, and while I wouldn’t run right out to buy it for all my friends, it probably deserves a spot on the shelf. There *is* a decent message at the end, and the illustrations are fabulous, so kids would probably really enjoy the doggie’s antics.
My “take-away” as a writer: If co-writer Devlin Elliott had tried to get this published without the weight of Nathan Lane’s name, would he have been successful? Tough call. The fact that it’s a celeb book (much as I do love Nathan Lane!) about a spoiled pooch in the Hamptons turns me off a bit, especially since I love supporting my writer friends, but what can I learn from it? Don’t be afraid of the occasional adult reference that will amuse the parents, and don’t make your characters too one dimensional. Mabel is naughty, but she does learn a little at the end, even if she doesn’t transform.
Title: Uni the Unicorn
Author: Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Illustrator: Brigitte Barrager
Publisher/Date: Random House BYR (August 2014)
The “gist”: Uni the Unicorn believes in her heart that there’s such a thing as little girls and somewhere out there she knows there’s a little girl who believes the same thing about unicorns.
My favorite part: To be honest, my favorite part was the look on my son’s face when I showed him the next book in my pile to read. He loves unicorns. And I’m great with that.
My response as a reader: I was horse crazy as a little kid, but I actually was never crazy about unicorns. I loved fantasy in some ways, but I wanted my horses real so I could pet them and ride them. However, as I mentioned, my son loves unicorns, so this was a lot of fun except for the fact that it was about a girl. I was also a little disappointed by the ending, which I won’t give away.
My “take-away” as a writer: I love most of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s work– she has an amazing sense of pacing and her language is quirky without being affected. This one uses parentheticals really masterfully.
Title: Mr. Particular
Author and Illustrator: Jason Kirschner
Publisher/Date: Stirling Children’s Books (May 2016)
The “gist”: Mr. Particular and his neighborhood friends are all superheroes, but soon his friends find that Mr. P is just too picky for their play scenarios. Can he overcome his aversions to rejoin their circle?
My favorite part: I loved that this was told basically as a graphic novel. The format was perfect for the content and I think little kids would just love that.
My response as a reader: Speaking as a parent with a very picky kid (something that’s probably pretty common), this is a great book. One thing it does well is acknowledge that getting over those aversions is actually tough– kids aren’t picky just to exert control over their environment (though I am sure that sometimes plays a role), they often have genuine sensory issues about things. Mr. P was upset about his situation and tried hard to overcome his difficulties so you cheered when he finally did make headway.
My “take-away” as a writer: As a writer? I wish I were also an illustrator. Kirschner did a great job with the retro illustrations and definitely knows his stuff with regards to comic book style layout. I also appreciated the “stakes” and the “payoff” as they say in the kid lit business: in other words, poor Mr. P had a lot riding on the outcome and the ending was satisfying without being too saccharine: like naughty Mabel in the story above, he didn’t do a 180 in personality, but he did learn something.
Title: Horrible Bear
Author: Ame Dyckman
Illustrator: Zachariah OHora
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown BYR (April 2016)
The “gist”: “Horrible” bear is minding his own business in his cave when a girl comes to retrieve her kite and it gets broken. The ensuing misunderstanding leads to a lesson for both girl and bear.
My favorite part: Would it be too shallow to say it was the girl’s hair? Look at it! It’s like a clown nose on top of one of the little Fisher Price little people I had as a kid. (Ok, I’m dating myself, they don’t come with round wooden heads anymore). My second favorite part is when the little girl has her “lightbulb moment.” Kudos to Ame for keeping that subtle. I probably would have over-explained it. She didn’t.
My response as a reader: I follow Ame on Twitter so I’ve been very excited to read this book. The thing is, I judged by its cover (and by the blurb that it had something to do with manners) and I had somehow convinced myself it was sort of a Pygmalion story about a girl teaching bear how to behave properly. I loved being wrong!
My “take-away” as a writer: It is truly all about story. I don’t remember how many words this was, but it was short. Very short. Hats off to you, Ame. Another brilliant example of making every word count.