My older son got to pick out the books for my last set of reviews, so I brought my younger son with me this time. It took him all of about 20 seconds to pick out the five books for me to read with him, so what you see today is the “gut instinct” of a 7 year old boy, for what that’s worth. As it happens, most of them are author-illustrated books which as I always say, is daunting for someone like me with little to no artistic talent, but still hugely important as examples of the craft itself. Enjoy!
Title: Rory the Dinosaur Wants a Pet
Author/Illustrator: Liz Climo
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown BYR (June 2016)
The “gist”: Rory is jealous of his friend’s pet Sheldon (a hermit crab) and searches all over looking for his own pet.
My favorite part: The movie Zootopia made everyone love sloths, so I loved that one of Rory’s best friends was a sloth. The simple illustrations of all the animals makes them completely endearing.
My response as a reader: I liked the fact that the bar for having a pet was not set too high. Instead of envying his friend’s dog which could play fetch, hide and seek, etc., we see Sheldon the hermit crab doing those things (which in itself is very funny). Thus, when Rory DOES find his own pet, it’s not too much of a stretch for him to be satisfied with it.
My “take-away” as a writer: Simple sentences and repetition are key to an endearing story for the very young set (Amazon sets it at ages 8-12, but I disagree — although my 7 year old liked it, I doubt he would ask for a re-read). You also don’t have to obsess about plot holes for that age: he looked on the beach and in the jungle yet he lived in a treehouse that didn’t seem to belong in either ecosystem! Oh the horrors! Yes, my brain works overtime on such trivialities (I also quibbled a bit that the coconut that falls from the tree resembled those in the stores as opposed to having that giant hull that “real” ones do…but no kid would notice that unless they were, say, from Hawaii). Keep the story engaging and the reader will follow you anywhere.
Title: Chicken in Space
Author: Adam Lehrhaupt
Illustrator: Shahar Kober
Publisher/Date: Harper Collins (May 2016)
The “gist”: Eccentric chicken Zoey wants to go to outer space and invites her farmyard friends to join her, but they all have excuses. Finally she does take off — and has amazing stories to tell afterward.
My favorite part: I totally identify with Zoey’s pig friend, Sam. As much as I’d love to be flying in space, my feet are often stuck on the ground. The running joke about pie is perfect. Who doesn’t love pie?
My response as a reader: There’s a bit of genius in the crafting of this book. Each animal gives her a different reason for not coming along and there’s some subtle wordplay involved as she interacts with them– things like the dog saying he has plenty of space, but she counters that she means “outer space.” I also love the way Zoey creates her own world, turning the kite into a comet and birds into alien attackers. Finally, Zoey doesn’t forget to thank her friend for coming with her — a really sweet touch.
My “take-away” as a writer: I frequently note books that start with a kernel of an idea that can become predictable. This one certainly starts that way: chicken has crazy idea, asks barnyard animals to come along. Yadda yadda. The key is dragging the readers along long enough to really enjoy the fun of the premise, and to do it well enough that you don’t roll your eyes thinking you could have written it yourself. I have to say that beyond the first couple interactions, I really didn’t predict the plot of this book. (I never try hard to, but it sometimes happens).
Title: Fred Forgets
Publisher/Date: Harper Collins (June 2016)
The “gist”: They may say that elephants never forget, but poor Fred does. Fortunately (?) his friend the monkey is there to jog his memory, telling him all the strange things he knew elephant was planning to do.
My favorite part: The ending. I won’t give it away, but it is satisfying.
My response as a reader: As I remind myself frequently, I am NOT the target audience for this book. My 7 year old LOVED this book (his 2nd favorite of the batch we read this morning). To be perfectly honest, I was completely annoyed by the little monkey, but my son loved him, so that’s the important part. As we walked out of the store, he turned to me and said “You were going to peel me 100 bananas…” and doubled with laughter when I said “Oh yes, I remember now.”
I don’t generally read other reviews before I write my own, but in looking up the publishing info for this review, I happened to glance at a School Library Journal review of this book which chastised it for making light of bullying. That helped me put my finger on it– the monkey was a bully. I felt sorry for Fred through the entire book, but somehow labeling the monkey as a bully just didn’t happen in my head. We often think of bullying as a physical violence or size issue, but not in this case. Still, it’s not enough to dismiss the book out of hand, especially considering how much my son enjoyed it. However, I think it’s worth noting that this element is there and it would be good to present the book in the context of discussion about bullying– in a classroom discussion afterwards, for example. Yes, the elephant is able to “get back at him” in the end, but that doesn’t make it all ok. I think I’ll be chatting with my son about the book again and seeing if he got any lessons from it. To be honest, he’s been known to act in a bullying way at times, but he’s also got a very tender heart and I know he’ll understand the lesson deep down.
My “take-away” as a writer: Repetition! This book is a great example of using repetition for effect since that’s essentially the whole plot: example after example of things the elephant supposedly forgot to do, then his complaint that he really didn’t want to do those things. An ideal read-aloud especially in the hands of a skilled librarian or teacher who can guide the kids to a little reality check afterwards. Making the monkey learn a lesson after he had to do the same things the elephant had to do would be too much for the scope of this story, but would be a great thing for kids to do on their own– maybe even acting out the story with a different ending/result.
Title: Don’t Touch This Book!
Author/Illustrator: Bill Cotter
Publisher/Date: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky (March 2016)
The “gist”: This book breaks the 4th wall as the purple monster narrator admonishes you not to touch the book…although eventually you are allowed to do certain things to certain pages, with interesting results.
My favorite part: The dinosaur. That’s all I’ll say there. (No spoilers).
My response as a reader: So evidently this is kind of a follow-up to “Don’t Touch this Button,” which I haven’t read and of course now need to read. My son liked playing along with this one and listening to me perform the voices and the actions. It’s definitely not a book you can read silently!
My “take-away” as a writer: Again, this is a concept book of course, so it’s another example where you could have given the basic idea to someone and had them run with it. In fact, I might have done this book a little differently, but in all I really like the way he has set it up. It’s got a clear beginning, middle and end– and the end is satisfying. The voice of the monster captures a child’s personality really well.
Title: A Boy, A Ball, and a Dog
Author/Illustrator: Gianna Marino
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press (June 2016)
The “gist”: To quote the first line: “There was never a ball the boy wouldn’t throw…or one his dog couldn’t catch.”
My favorite part: I loved my son’s reaction when the dog catches the “ball” at the end of the wharf. He audibly caught his breath- that’s what you want your writing/illustrating to do!
My response as a reader: This book has the feel of an instant classic. It is very sparsely written, telling the story largely through the illustrations, which, along with the typeface makes it feel like something from the 1970s. That’s hardly a bad thing, as I suspect the book will be around a while. It was actually my 7 year old’s top pic for the day which surprised me as I thought he’d favor one of the funnier books. He couldn’t put his finger on why he liked it– maybe because he loves dogs. In any case, it’s totally charming.
My “take-away” as a writer: Here’s yet another reminder to keep things simple! At its heart, it’s a story of separation and reconciliation without much real characterization or conflict. But that’s truly enough to keep the reader interested, largely because the story flows so gently and is carried by peaceful and detailed illustrations. I wouldn’t dare attempt something so sparse because I can’t illustrate, but Gianna Marino does it beautifully.