Wednesday was a great day in our household: Maxwell got his first library card! I was nervous, not wanting to disappoint him, but sure that we would need to provide some form of ID and I’d forgotten to grab his passport or any piece of mail with his name on it. I needn’t have worried: We filled out one small card, he signed it, and voilà! He is the proud owner of TWO cards: one regular card for his wallet (signed!) and one keytag for his housekey (which was another huge moment he had been begging us for).
So, of course, since he had a spanking new card, I let him help pick out the picture books for my reviews this week and put them all an on his card. I normally try to review books from the past year, but that’s not always easy at the library. It’s a small town and although they have a phenomenal children’s room and do a great job keeping current, I relax my rule a bit there, so my library selections are all from the last 6 years (I thought they were all from the last 4, but “Ready to Dream” was given to the Library in 2012 but published in 2009). Still, pretty recent stuff all things considered! Enjoy!
Title: Rain Fish
Author/Illustrator: Lois Ehlert
Publisher/Date: Beach Lane Books (April 2016)
The “gist”: When it rains, you can see lots of “fish” in the items all around us, splashing in puddles on the sidewalk.
My favorite part: I loved examining the collages and identifying all the objects, reading the print on the tickets and receipts, etc. So clever!
My response as a reader: My children and I totally loved Lois Ehlert’s work in “Chicka Chicka, Boom! Boom!” – in fact, it is so worn I am afraid I’ll need to buy a new copy when they have kids. This one doesn’t captivate in quite the same way because the text is so short and not as bouncy, but it invites more contemplation and that’s fine, too. I think this would be great for an art teacher– I can definitely picture inviting children to create their own “rain fish”. (Might be a project for me and my kids, as well!)
My “take-away” as a writer: As always, I wish I were an illustrator…but while I lack skills for sketching and painting, I like to think I do have a creative eye, so maybe there’s hope for me yet. Not all artwork requires setting pen to paper. It’s also worth noting that the text in this book is extremely sparse– generally only one sentence per two page spread, meaning only about 14 sentences in the whole book. If that isn’t a daunting task, I’m not sure what is!
Title: Ready to Dream
Authors: Donna Jo Napoli and Elena Furrow
llustrator: Bronwyn Bancroft
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Children’s Books (January 2009)
The “gist”: Ally, who loves art, spends a month in Australia and creates art along the way, having different adventures and learning some life/art lessons from a woman she meets there who helps her to see the beauty even in things Ally thinks are imperfections.
My favorite part: I loved the play between the animals and the artwork: the tear in a corner of her picture of a crocodile comes to represent his bite and the curled bark on which she drew her koala represents how they curl up to sleep.
My response as a reader: My son’s art teacher loves to quote Bob Ross that “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” The mentor in this book could have been channeling Bob Ross. It’s a lovely lesson made even more impactful because the authors combine that sentiment with some neat education about the ecosystems and animals of Australia. I read in another review of this book that the Aboriginal natives frequently used dots to create their art (similar to the art style in the book)– It would have been a great addition to have a bit of educational back matter included in this work.
My “take-away” as a writer: At first, this screams “rule-breaker” to me! Just a series of quiet lessons in which the mentor is doing all the teaching? But in the end, the main character DOES have a conflict! Her frustration and perfectionism is keeping her from experiencing joy in her art. In the end she does change and is pronounced “ready to dream” by her mentor. I would like to have seen Ally take ownership of that lesson just a bit more strongly, but given the tight space for word counts, it works fine.
Authors: Donna Jo Napoli and Elena Furrow
llustrator: Bronwyn Bancroft
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Candlewick Press/Nosy Crow (February 2014)
The “gist”: Remember “Pinky & The Brain”? That’s how my wonderful children’s librarian Miss Kathleen compared “Weasels” for me. The weasels are set on world domination…but there are a few stumbling blocks.
My favorite part: The illustrations (with accompanying speech bubbles) is so intricate and hilarious you can stare at it a long time. It’s a little hard to read aloud for that reason, but tons of fun. My younger son sat staring at the book for a long time, reading the little extra bits to himself.
My response as a reader: If you don’t want to instantly read this book over again, there’s something wrong. It’s a page turn– you want to find out what made their plans go awry–but at the same time, there are so many side conversations that you need to go back and read them, too. I would love to see these little guys as a kids show (but then again, it’s been done to some extent with Pinky and the Brain as mentioned above as well as with “Penguins of Madagascar”).
My “take-away” as a writer: Talk about voice! There’s a definite “tone” in this book that keeps a sort of adult feel while being completely comprehensible to kids. It’s also notable that the plot hinges on problems with “The Machine,” and yet you never really find out what the machine does. It’s easy as a writer to go into too much detail. We don’t really care what the machine does. It’s broken, and that’s enough!
Title: Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths
Author: Marilyn Singer
Illustrator: Josée Masse
Publisher/Date: Dial BYR (February 2016)
The “gist”: A “reverso poem” is a poem that gives one interpretation when read top to bottom, and another one when read from bottom to top. The themes the author chose are all from various Greek myths such as Arachne vs. Athena or King Midas and his daughter.
My favorite part: My two favorites were “Arachne & Athena” and “Perseus & Medusa.” In both of them, the turnabout element worked very well. I also appreciated the fact that the author included a thumbnail of the myth in question so even if you aren’t up on Greek mythology, you can understand the poems.
My response as a reader: I enjoy Greek myths and I loved the wordplay in these poems. I’m anxious to read the other two reverso poety books by this author: “Follow, Follow” and “Mirror, Mirror.” To be honest, while the imagery and poetic phrasing in all of the poems is really excellent, I found that the “turnabout” element didn’t work in all of them for me. For example, there isn’t a lot of meaning difference in the following two phrases from the first poem: “When the world was young, such wonders! How else to explain these curious stories:” vs. “People turned to these curious stories. How else to explain such wonders when the world was young?” The best lines come when the two phrases are joined with “but” such as in this contrast of Pandora and the Box: “She didn’t collect them, but she let loose those evils.” has a much different meaning than “She let loose those evils, but she didn’t collect them.”
My “take-away” as a writer: I’ve never tried writing a reverso poem and I’ve always thought I should. Like sestinas and a few other complicated poetic forms, they take a lot of prior thought and planning. As you can see in my analysis above, you can learn a lot of writing lessons from these poems. I’m definitely inspired to try them.
Author/Illustrator: Emily Gravett
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster BYR (American Edition, April 2013)
The “gist”: A father dragon is reading his son a story about Cedric the dragon who never goes to bed. When he’s finished, baby dragon always shouts “Again!” so the father re-reads the book, adapting it to be shorter each time, until…
My favorite part: It’s not a “spoiler” to say that the book ends with a hole being fire-blasted through the back of the book– it’s literally visible on the (back) cover! It’s a fun little gimmick that my son loved.
My response as a reader: What parent hasn’t heard the familiar refrain of “Again, again!” over and over. The little dragon is extremely cute, but then so are my kids when they do that…doesn’t make the refrain any less frustrating! I was intrigued by the fact that the story about Cedric changes a bit each time– I am assuming the father is changing the story to make it shorter so he doesn’t have to read as much, but I did find that part a little confusing. I did really love the idea of the frame story, though, especially the really unique voice of the interior “Cedric” story.
My “take-away” as a writer: If you’re going to write a “kid won’t go to bed” story, you’ve got to find a way to do it differently. Burning a hole in the back of your book fits that bill. It also helps if you can draw an insanely cute dragon.