End of Summer Book Reviews

reviewssept2019It’s Labor Day Weekend which if you’re a teacher is a little like the long Sunday night before the start of a school week.  It’s that last minute chance to reflect on the summer and deal with the flash of panic about what is still not done. While I did get a lot done this summer, there are so many things I wished I’d accomplished– so many books I wish I’d had the time to read! To that end, the books I chose today are those I’ve been “meaning to get to” or just can’t let slip away before I get overwhelmed with school (which actually started last week).

51tmjwyq4pl._sy398_bo1204203200_Title:  Your First Day at Circus School
Author: Tara Lazar
Illustrator: Melissa Crowton
Publisher/Date: Tundra Books (June 4, 2019)
The “gist”: The title says it all– you might be a bit nervous to start circus school, but don’t worry! Your big brother will take you through all the big top fun step by step!
My favorite part: As fans of Tara Lazar know, she’s a master of the pun, and this book has lots of hidden wordplay!
My response as a reader: Probably due to the illustration style, this book feels incredibly timeless– it instantly evokes a retro feeling of the 50s/60s, like reading library books from my childhood. And the text feels timeless, too, with the important task of making the scary “first day of school” a fun adventure.
My “take-away” as a writer:  When I see a great picture book (or have a great idea for one), it frequently feels like this book has always been there– like the idea was so obvious it had surely already been written. Naturally you do have to check this, because sometimes you DO have an idea that’s already been done, but even that doesn’t mean you have to stop! There are at least 10 different picture book treatments of Little Red Riding Hood, including one by Tara Lazar, who also wrote Your First Day of Circus School. But it’s an amazing feeling when you feel like your work is filling a hole on the bookshelves that’s been waiting for it all along.

41saatsji2bl._sy365_bo1204203200_Title:  Spencer’s New Pet
Author & Illustrator: Jessie Sima
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster BYR (August 27, 2019)
The “gist”: This wordless picture book explores the relationship between a boy and his balloon dog, including navigating all sorts of “sharp” dangers.
My favorite part: I loved the “credits” at the end, set up like old fashioned silent movie title cards.
My response as a reader: Wordless picture books are so fascinating. I never had one as a little kid and only had one for my own kids (the charming “The Box” by Kevin O’Malley), so I am not sure what the reading experience is like for a child. They can be fun to read aloud because they’re slightly different every time, but I’ll admit that even as a writer, it can be intimidating because I always want to do the story justice!
My “take-away” as a writer: The real lesson for a writer who is examining a wordless picture book isn’t the quandry of how to read it aloud, but rather the mentorship of telling a story as concisely as possible. I’ll probably never be able to illustrate my own books, but I’m tempted to create some simple storyboards for them just to see how I am advancing the action and where the “page turns” are. When I see a wordless picture book, I’m tempted to think “Gee, they don’t even need me, the poor wordsmith,” but it’s really just a challenge to make every word count.

51jxfltkncl._sx496_bo1204203200_Title:  Allie all Along
Author & Illustrator: Sarah Lynne Reul
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books (August 7, 2018)
The “gist”: When Allie gets angry, she turns into a monster, but her brother shows her simple steps that help the big red monster inside to cool down.
My favorite part: I really loved the stress reduction techniques that we see in each scene (for example, hitting a pillow). Having a son who struggles with anxiety and anger, I’ve heard most of these, but they are presented in a very gentle way and it’s great to see them work! I also loved how Allie first became a red monster, then gradually worked her way through the colors. Schools and therapists often use color-coded “zones of regulation” to help students identify their emotions and this book would work beautifully with that.
My response as a reader: As I mentioned, I can relate to this story because of the struggles my son has with his own emotions.  It’s important to remember that not all strategies work with all kids, and most crucially, that most kids can’t just “snap out” of their anger, it’s going to take a while. That was another great lesson from this book. If you read and enjoy this book, by the way, I can highly recommend Breaking News, one of her other amazing picture books, which very deftly treats the idea of how kids and families can deal with traumatic events.
My “take-away” as a writer: One of my manuscripts is about my son’s struggle with sensory and social anxiety.  It’s good to see works like this one getting published, and this text inspires me to go back and edit my own to make sure the idea is coming through clearly and doesn’t get too wordy.

512bx1qbun3l._sx450_bo1204203200_Title:  Linus, The Little Yellow Pencil
Author & Illustrator: Scott Magoon
Publisher/Date: Disney-Hyperion (June 4, 2019)
The “gist”: Linus the pencil wants to win the family art show, but he’s anxious about how he can compete with the bright talents of the crayons, paints, etc.
My favorite part: My favorite scene is when Linus visits the wise “Smudge” (inside the pencil sharpener). Not only is it a visibly different scene, but he gives great advice.
My response as a reader: It was strange picking up this book after having reviewed When Pencil met Eraser (Karen Kilpatrick & Luis Ramos/German Blanco) last month– published on May 28, 2019, just one week before Linus.  The storyline is pretty similar: both outline (Haha! Get it!) the relationship between a pencil and an eraser and how beautiful art can come when they both work together.  They are both extremely adorable stories, but this one is special because of the “stakes”– Linus doesn’t just need to get along with the eraser because it’s the right thing to do, but because he desperately wants to win the family art show and show he has the most heart.
My “take-away” as a writer: Were Scott Magoon and the writers of When Pencil Met Eraser worried when they found out about each others’ existence? What about the producers of ANTS and A Bug’s Life? Like my previous comment about the many versions of the Red Riding Hood tale, there is room for YOUR story and only YOU can tell it.  If I find out tomorrow that there’s a book coming out about cookies fighting each other (please, no!), I’m sure I’ll be frantic, but if these works can survive on the same shelf, so can mine! (Shameless plug, keep your eyes open for THE GREAT HOLIDAY COOKIE FIGHT, coming October 2020!)

512b58fmspfl._sx400_bo1204203200_Title:  My Name is Wakawakaloch!
Author: Chana Stiefel
Illustrator: Mary Sullivan
Publisher/Date: HMH Books for Young Readers (August 27, 2019)
The “gist”: Poor Wakawakaloch is frustrated with everyone getting her name wrong and she might just want to ditch her name all together.
My favorite part: I adore the end papers which give unusual names and their pronunciations for a whole host of characters in the book.
My response as a reader: This book reminds me of Kevin Henkes Chrysanthemum in approaching the concept of unusual names, but it’s done in a completely different way. Both are fun books, but I really love the idea of using a caveman/cavewoman setting for the book. I read something recently about how it’s disrespectful to approach new names negatively like “Oh, I’m going to butcher this name,” or “I’ll never say this right,” instead of accepting that we can all learn new things and even if the name is new to our culture, it may be perfectly common in the student’s native culture. How much more supportive of a child is it to say “Wow, what a cool name! I can’t wait to learn how to say it!”?
My “take-away” as a writer: Author Chana Stiefel struggled with people mispronouncing her name and drew from that for this book. So, write what you know, right? Except she obviously didn’t grow up as a cave-girl. I have read lots of mediocre picture book manuscripts that are quite obviously the direct retelling of a personal experience. My best advice to those authors (and to myself) is to think about boiling the story down to what it really needs and reconsider everything else: setting, ages, order of events, etc.  Unless you’re writing pure nonfiction, everything is optional.  I once read a book introduction by Stephen King in which he said writing was like recounting a dream you had but internally realizing “Wait, this would be so much cooler if…” and then just changing it to be that because…you’re a writer, right? And you know what, I may be misquoting, and I am not sure if that was actually Stephen King or not, but you get the idea…and he’s probably not going to read this, right?

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