August Picture Book Reviews: Making good choices…

5 Picture books for review this month

I’m getting in just under the wire with my reviews this month. I had every intent of writing them while we were in Canada on vacation last week, but exploring the local bookstores had to fall by the wayside for time with relatives we have not seen since well before Covid. So, I made a trip to the nearby Barnes & Noble yesterday and found a big picture book sale– 50% off many titles, even new ones! Don’t let that fool you that they are cast off titles, however! These are all amazing books you should definitely check out! My “theme” once again didn’t surface until I was writing the reviews, and it still doesn’t fit for one of the books (which one of these is not like the others?), but the rest fall into place fairly well even though I had no idea what that theme would be when I grabbed the books. I’m convinced fate is at work when I gather them up each month…

Title: Fred gets Dressed
Author/Illustrator: Peter Brown
Little, Brown BYR (May 4, 2021)
The “gist”:  Like many toddlers, Fred is happiest when he can run around naked, but he knows he ought to be wearing clothes, so he tries outfits from each parent’s closet, then his parents join him.
My favorite part:  I love that the whole family, including the dog, joins in and plays with the makeup and jewelry!
My response as a reader:
 I checked out a few reviews before writing this and as predicted, there were a bunch of one star reviews, aghast that the story is about a boy who dresses like his mom. I have two things to say about that: first, kids that young try out all kinds of things and it has little to do with their later identity/sexuality/gender expression. And secondly, so what if it did? I love that there’s a book out there showing kids it’s ok to play dressup and make your own clothing choices, whatever they may be.
My “take-away” as a writer:
 If you know my blog, you know I love to point out books that “break the rules.” Traditionally, the main character should solve their own problem, typically after several tries. Not Fred. He tries on his dad’s clothes, then his mom’s. But when he still doesn’t feel totally comfortable, he just stands there, and his parents end up “rescuing” him. It works, because ultimately, the “problem” is insecurity and a need for acceptance, which he gets, so here it’s perfectly ok to break the rules (fitting for the book topic, eh?)

Title: Judge Juliette
Author: Laura Gehl
Illustrator: Mari Lobo
Sterling Children’s Books (August 25, 2020)
The “gist”:  Juliette has been a judge at heart since she was a toddler, but when her parents are both trying to argue the case for which pet she should get, she might be overwhelmed.
My favorite part:  I love the twist here: usually it’s a kid petitioning their parents for a pet, but here the parents are pleading their cases for either a dog or a cat.
My response as a reader:
 Great backmatter! The story included about a dozen legal terms (like recuse and adjudicate) which are perfectly blended into the story.
My “take-away” as a writer:
 I loved the pacing and structure here– starting with showing Juliette as a baby in her mother’s black skirt (as judge’s robe) to the step by step choices around getting a pet, Laura Gehl did a great job keeping the story going with new vocabulary and new experiences.

Title: Chill CHOMP, Chill!
Author: Chris Ayala-Kronos
Illustrator: Paco Sordo
Clarion Books (August 17, 2021)
The “gist”:  When faced with frustrating situations, what should Chomp do? Chomp? Or…chill?
My favorite part:  Again, great backmatter in the form of a great poster-style illustration of a variety of strategies to help kids (and adults) chill when they are feeling upset such as deep breaths, counting, etc.
My response as a reader:
  In the vein of Ryan Higgins’ “We don’t eat our Classmates,” and Jane Yolen’s “How does a Dinosaur…” series, this book brilliantly uses a dinosaur to embody the fears and frustrations of a typical preschooler. Kids love dinosaurs. Dinos have problems too. Perfect.
My “take-away” as a writer:
 Another common picture book rule is to avoid writing books with “lessons” — but the fact is, there is plenty of room for “teachable moments” in books, they just have to be done in a way that kids don’t find preachy. Poor Chomp’s misadventures (especially when coupled with the cartoony illustrations) are effective because they are over the top and funny (kind of like those pantomimes where the audience is shouting at the characters on stage to look behind the curtains). Or maybe lessons just go down better when they come from a T-Rex! (See previous comments regarding Dino books…)

Title: The Mysterious Sea Bunny
Author/Illustrator: Peter Raymundo
Dial Books (July 20, 2021)
The “gist”:  So there’s this actual creature in the ocean called a “sea bunny” — except (spoiler alert), it’s not really a bunny, it’s a type of sea slug. But don’t let that stop you from reading! This is one fascinating bunny!
My favorite part:  The story is told as sort of a dialog between an unseen listener and a narrator. The interplay makes for great comedy as unusual facts about the sea bunny are revealed.
My response as a reader:
 Quite simply, this is what non fiction should be. I will remember more facts about the sea bunny than most marine documentaries or textbooks I have read.
My “take-away” as a writer:
 I love dialog-based books. They have an immediacy and charm that draws in the reader and even when they don’t officially break the fourth wall, they play with storytelling in a way traditional third person stories just can’t. This is a fun one.

Title: A New Day
Author: Brad Meltzer
Illustrator: Dan Santat
Dial Books (March 2, 2021)
The “gist”:  Sunday is feeling unappreciated and takes off, leaving an important vacancy…let the job interviews begin!
My favorite part:  There’s a lot of great wordplay here — it starts in rhyme, then somewhere along the line it falls out of rhyme, then back in again at the end. That’s pretty unusual in a picture book and as someone who writes in both, I can respect the style. The wordplay of the different days is also super fun (Caturday, Canday, or the ever popular “Unicorns with horns for horns day”). My musician friends need to look that one up just for the illustration.
My response as a reader:
 I really love the concept of this book, which reminds me of “The Day the Crayons Quit” in its personification of something ordinary (though in this case, more abstract than a crayon). Each day is given a great personality, both in words and in the illustrations, and the ultimate message is sweet and appropriate.
My “take-away” as a writer:
 My first big writer goal was to be published. Finally getting my first picture book published was amazing, of course, but there are a lot more goals on my bucket list. And much as I adore the phenomenal illustrations Joe Kulka produced for “The Great Holiday Cookie Swap,” one of those goals is getting a book illustrated by one of my dream illustrators. Dan Santat tops that list. (Others include Debbie Ridpath Ohi and Pete Oswald, just in case the universe is listening…)

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