School is finally out here in Maine — we’re a bit late to the party, but it sure is nice! This past Saturday, my husband and I also celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary with a dinner date which included a visit to a bookstore. So, naturally, I took the opportunity to catch up on my picture book reviews. Through sheer coincidence, I found several of them had a similar theme: birds and flying. So freedom fits naturally as a theme for today.
Title: Little Bot and Sparrow
Author/Illustrator: Jake Parker
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press (September 2016)
The “gist”: A robot who’s been tossed aside befriends a sparrow and learns what it’s like to be alive.
My favorite part: When little bot admits he doesn’t know what it feels like to dream, you just know that lesson is coming. And when it is resolved, it feels so sweet.
My response as a reader: This book reminds me a bit of Robot Dog by Mark Oliver, which is about a robot dog who is rejected and makes friends with other rejected robot dogs. Robot characters are endearing– whether it’s a picture book or Star Wars, we want to see their humanity. Little Bot is a great example of that endearing childlike quality.
My “take-away” as a writer: One of my biggest challenges lately has been making sure my picture book manuscripts are true picture books and not just “children’s stories.” This book is a good example of a story with clear characters, conflict, beginning, middle and end, but which works really well in the picture book format. It’s a “quiet” book, but the pacing makes that fit just right.
Title: Du Iz Tak?
Author/Illustrator: Carson Ellis
Publisher/Date: Candlewick (October 2016)
The “gist”: In a woodland setting, the insects gather around a sprout, build a treehouse, and pass through the seasons…all while conversing in a foreign language we soon come to understand.
My favorite part: This is part of the reason my blog “Schreibenfreude” was invented!! Talk about a love of language! Ellis writes in a completely invented language, but the reader is drawn into the world and easily follows along.
My response as a reader: As I tell my students, it’s good to be confused once in a while. I will admit I did get confused quite a bit reading it — since I’m fluent in German, I sometimes forget the struggles of my students when they get frustrated by not understanding every single line. So, it’s a great reminder of the importance of accepting ambiguity and just letting yourself go along with the story– and I suspect I’ll be bringing up this book with my German students next fall as we start the new school year.
My “take-away” as a writer: Could this story be told as a wordless picture book? Probably. But the words DO play an important role because they tell the reader where to focus. I would even call this a master class in dialog.The character interaction, through questions and exclamations, provides the dramatic tension needed to move the plot forward even if they are nonsense at first glance.
Title: Zoo Zen: A Yoga Story for Kids
Author: Kristen Fischer
Illustrator: Susi Schaefer
Publisher/Date: Sounds True (July 2017)
The “gist”: Lyla visits the zoo and practices yoga poses to match the animals (including simple instructions for kids).
My favorite part: “One balancing bear grabs onto his feet // Lyla grabs also and lifts from her seat.” I’ve done a small amount of yoga and I love that she’s included the phrase “lifts from her seat” — it makes the text feel very authentic.
My response as a reader: I would love to share this with young kids– I think they would really respond to it. Yoga can be intimidating, but the colorful illustrations and simple rhyming text make it gentle and joyful.
My “take-away” as a writer: It’s my suspicion this book will be very successful: yoga is trending, the book has great rhyming text, it’s about animals AND it’s a counting book! But I couldn’t have written it– it is not my story. As a writer I have to remember there are stories out there only I can tell– and hope they will touch something in the reader as well. But I can’t write a book about yoga or motorcycles or soccer…that’s someone else’s story.
Author/Illustrator: Daniel Duncan
Publisher/Date: Harry N. Abrams (May 2017)
The “gist”: A lonely fisherman finds a bird with an injured wing and they become friends.
My favorite part: This book had such a cinematic quality– like I was flipping through storyboards! I could completely see it as a Pixar short (and now I want to)– the kind that leave you smiling and crying at the same time.
My response as a reader: I swear I didn’t go into this batch of books intending to find a theme, but South and Little Bot and Sparrow are so similar! In both books a bird befriends a human/humanoid and must ultimately separate from them.
My “take-away” as a writer: Remember how I noted this would be a great Pixar short? That means the author did something right. Of course as usual I am jealous of a good author-illustrator since the pictures and text work together beautifully in their storytelling here.
Title: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Author: William Joyce
Illustrator: Joe Bluhm
Publisher/Date: Atheneum BYR (June 2012)
The “gist”: When Morris loses his beloved book collection to a storm, he finds a new set of books who take care of him as he writes his life story (literally and figuratively!).
My favorite part: Unlike South, this story evidently started off as an app and short film (which one an Academy Award!) and only afterward became an actual book. I can believe that– like South it’s a cinematic story of enduring friendship, and the heartwarming ending is my favorite part.
My response as a reader: What avid reader doesn’t love a book which is an homage to loving books? And come on, that library??
My “take-away” as a writer: Joyce has created a timeless world, immersed himself in it, and then fit his language beautifully to that world. I need to spend more time in my worlds!