Archives for category: Reviews of Picture Books

Groundhog Day

DRAGNET’s detective Jack Webb was famous for supposedly asking for “Just the facts, ma’am.” While that may be advisable for police work, “nothing but the facts” rarely keeps readers engaged. One of the most satisfying developments in recent years has been authors’ ability to blend facts or nonfiction with humor. One of the best is perfect for sharing this time of year–GROUNDHOG WEATHER SCHOOL by Joan Holub. Attempting to impart information about weather, weather forecasting, and groundhogs might have easily induced hibernation amongst readers. But instead, Holub and illustrator Kristin Sorra created a lively, tongue-in-cheek graphic story that’s packed with facts and lots of play.

Find a copy soon. Share it with children, and see what new twists it inspires in your own writing.

GROUNDHOG WEATHER SCHOOL by Joan Holub. Illus. by Kristin Sorra. Putnam, 2009.

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Nitwits, Noodles and Pumpkins

Most stories for children feature a protagonist who is involved in solving his own dilemma. This makes the story more satisfying because we typically assume the role of the main character and enjoy the sense of achievement. Mouse, for example, in WHOSE MOUSE ARE YOU takes action. Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel succeed first by taking action and then by shifting perspective.

Noodlehead stories provide a similar sense of achievement for the reader, but in a very different way. Jan Thomas’ new PUMPKIN TROUBLE provides a wonderful hoot of an example. Duck, Cow and Mouse are all noodleheads. Duck falls into his carved out pumpkin. Runs for help. Duck and Mouse assume it is the pumpkin monster. Duck hears their screams and also begins to run from the monster (not realizing he is the supposed monster). The flight continues till Duck (unable to see with the pumpkin over his head) crashes into the side of the barn.

Cheers all around. All three are grateful for escaping the monster, and Duck gets credit for destroying the monster he never knew he was. The reader’s sense of achievement comes from knowing more that the characters. Noodlehead characters offer the child the opportunity to celebrate his developing sense of logic and reason. The chance to laugh is thick icing on the cake.

Picture Books Discussed

PUMPKIN TROUBLE by Jan Thomas. Harper, 2011.

Picture Books and Good Manners

YOU’RE FINALLY HERE!

Teaching manners and being taught manners are both tedious experiences. So, what to do? Take a cue from the fabulists stretching from Aesop to Melanie Watt. Humor and a bit of distance can work wonders. People of any age can learn from Aesop’s fable “The Dog and the Bone” because it allows them to chuckle at a foolish dog. Yet that dog’s behavior also registers as human behavior and, thanks to the relaxing nature of humor, may spark a new understanding within the reader.

Such is the case with Melanie Watt’s latest picture book, You’re Finally Here! Like Ferris Bueller in his namesake movie, Watt’s Rabbit protagonist speaks directly to the audience. And, as audience, we quickly realize we are each the second character in this story.

 Rabbit, like most young children and an increasing percentage of adults, is all ego. He’s been waiting, and demands an explanation for the reader’s tardiness. Doesn’t the reader know how he feels to be left waiting? Doesn’t the reader know how rude that is?  Rabbit makes attempts at being less demanding. Then…welcome to 2011…he gets a cell phone call while he is chastising the reader. He takes the call. Of course! Then he puts that caller on hold while he takes a second call and totally ignores the reader/me/you who is actually in the book with him. As this fun and pithy book ends, Rabbit is shocked that the reader is leaving even though he has ignored the reader/me/you for the last third of the book.

While the majority of children ages 4 to 8 do not yet have their own cell phones, they have certainly experienced the frustrations of waiting and feeling ignored. You’re Finally Here humorously introduces them to their own rude behavior of expecting everything to center on them. For the savvy, self-satisfied modern adult, Watt’s book may bring a humbling glance in the mirror. The cell phone has created a culture of egocentric rabbits. I’m needed. I’m important. I must be reachable. And, you can wait while I prove my importance again by taking this call.

With YOU’RE FINALLY HERE, Melanie Watts goes a step beyond “show not tell.” She engages readers of all ages in “experience not lecture.”

Illus. by Melanie Watts

YOU’RE FINALLY HERE! by Melanie Watt. Hyperion, 2011.

P.S. This book is also a fable for writers. If you want your reader to pay attention to you, you had better make sure you keep them engaged and attend to them.

POLKA DOT PENGUIN POTTERY

 The child narrator of this wise and truthful story about writing identifies herself by her “nom de plume”—Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee.  Her writing process is familiar, succinct, and nurturing to those of us who write. And, at the same time, encouraging to readers who don’t yet write

“First button on your writing jacket. Then stuff your pockets with seaweed crackers. Then sit very still and think. Last but not least, choose words and line them up—like a fruit seller who choosers her best mangoes and pomegranates and bananas and puts them on display. And when you’re done—yay!—a story.

Like most writers at one time or another, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee discovers that she’s lost the fun of writing. Ideas have become illusive and the joy is gone. The cliché’ term is “Writer’s Block” but the truth is closer to “Writer’s Self-Block.” One’s internal pressures and expectations of grandeur or success can put so much attention on the final product that the pleasure of the process goes missing.

Illus. by Yumi Heo

Aspen’s gently supportive grandparents lead her to a different art form, painting pottery. Initially, her fears or “block” follow Aspen into the pottery studio. But stepping outside her primary art form and into another allows her to rediscover the truth:

“You can only make a masterpiece if you’re willing to make a mess.”

In other words, you’ve got to relax, experiment, and remember that puzzle of choosing which words and lining them up in which order is the part of writing we love the most.

The next time you encounter a spell of “Writer’s Self-Block” take a cue from Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee. Paint, sculpt, dance, bake, build or anything activity that helps you relax and remember that process is messy but also the fun.

POLKA DOT PENGUIN POTTERY by Lenore Look. Illus. by Yumi Heo. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.

EVERYTHING OLD CAN BE NEW AGAIN!

Two of the first things children in North America learn are animals and the sounds they make. Having mastered which animal emits which sound; mixing them up provides preschoolers a chance to celebrate their mastery by laughing at the mix up. If you’ve seen one picture book about animal sounds and/or mixed up animal sounds, you’ve probably seen a dozen. So, why even touch the subject? You just might bring a fresh and refreshing twist like Emma Dodd with MEOW SAID THE COW.

Initially British and just published in the U.S. this book with wry, sly, and boisterous illustrations puts multiple new spins on farm animals and the sounds they make. Cat resents Rooster’s early morning crowing. What to do? Dodd’s storytelling takes such bold steps the reader has no choice but to believe and follow along. Cat, known for his magic powers, casts a spell.

The next morning Rooster, cries a quiet, “squeak, squeak, squeak.” Pig goes cluck. Chickens go oink etc. When the animals figure out the confusion is due to Cat’s magic they band together and demand Cat undue his spell.

Cat finally agrees, and all returns to normal. Well, almost everything. Even magic can go awry. Cat is now the one that wakes the farm each day with a noisy “Cock-a-doodle-doodle-do!”

Both fun and funny, MEOW SAID THE COW begs to be read aloud and savored by all you love writing picture books

P.S. Take note that there is a steady amount of rhyming, but it so rarely calls attention to itself the rhymes are felt rather than noticed.

MEOW SAID THE COW by Emma Dodd. Arthur A Levine Books, 2011 (2009).

Vessels of Story

Passing down family stories from generation to generation is a nourishing aspect of human nature. It simultaneously grounds our immediate world and connects us with a larger world and perspective. Common objects often serve as the vessel for the memories and stories lived by previous “owners.”  Within the clan, the object smiles as a reminder. To those outside the clan who look and wonder, it gives family members the chance to share their stories once more.

Dan Yaccarino’s newest picture book shares the beauty of family stories, and how any object can become family gold when it becomes the vessel of family history and tradition. Even a little shovel, as honored in ALL THE WAY TO AMERICA: THE STORY OF A BIG ITALIAN FAMILY AND A LITTLE SHOVEL.

Yaccarino’s text begins with his great-grandfather who was given a little shovel by his father so he could help in their garden. As a young man this great-grandfather sailed to America. But not without the little shovel and all the stories it held. In New York City the little shovel is used to measure flour and sugar in a bakery as new stories are added. Then used to measure nuts as the great-grandfather ventures out on his own with a peddlers cart. Generation after generation, the little shovel serves as a vital part of the young people’s lives and memories. In time, the little shovel is passed on to the author himself, Dan Yaccarino. Now its values are three-fold. It serves as the vessel for his family’s stories, provides the spark of this gem of a book, and is used as a little shovel by his son on their terrace garden.

Where do writers find their ideas? Often the simplest of family heirlooms.

 Children’s Books That Feature Objects as Vessels of Family Story

ALL THE WAY TO AMERICA: THE STORY OF A BIG ITALIAN FAMILY AND A LITTLE SHOVEL by Dan Yaccarino. Knopf, 2011.

BLUE WILLOW by Doris Gates. Viking, 1940.

MY NOAH’S ARK by M.B. Goffstein. Harper, 1978.

THE STONE BOOK by Alan Garner. Collins, 1978.

THIS IS THE BIRD by George Shannon. Illus. by David Soman. Houghton, 1997.

Picture Book Biographies:

98 Years in 32 Pages?

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 “People read biography for the same reason they read fiction; not to find out, simply, what happens next, but to figure out how people live their lives, how they solve their problems,”

Marnie Jones. THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR. Winter 1984-85

Each life is story of problems to solve. How one addresses these problems, or decides if it is even a genuine problem that needs to be solved is how people live their lives. In other words, the way one interacts with the world. The actions in their lives.

Though these four picture book biographies on Georgia O’Keeffe are different in many ways, they all share the primary chords of this painter’s life. They share a focus on how she lived in the world.

* A preference for and ease with solitude

* An uncommon child with an uncommon dream (for her time)

* An individual who followed that dream throughout her 98 years

* Her love of nature, shapes, flowers, sea shells and bones

* The three primary landscapes of her life and work: Wisconsin prairie, the New York skyline, and the wide-open spaces of the southwest.

* She was dedicated to her work and that work included how she lived in the world.

* And because of that, she continued to explore

Winter’s MY NAME IS GEORGIA is the only volume that makes a reference to O’Keeffe’s relationship with Alfred Stieglitz. And that is only a single, small image of a white haired man seen through a window of O’Keeffe’s Manhattan studio. Some might say an artist’s adult relationships have no place in a picture book biography. Other might say to leave out such information is a lesser or distorted representation.

I urge you to look again. O’Keeffe’s relationship with Stieglitz was based in how she lived with the world, and that is the rich distillation these four books offer to children.

 Picture Book Biographies Discussed

GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE by Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Farrar, 2009.

GEORGIA’S BONES by Jen Bryant. Illus. by Bethanne Andersen. Eerdmans, 2005.

MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeannette Winter. Harcourt, 1998.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriguez. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2006.

Mail Call

There are many ways to tell a story and share the interactions between two people. One way is reading the letters the two people write to one another. The letters between John and Abigail Adams share a vibrant story in American history. Collections of letters are regularly published, and read by those eager for an inside look at people’s lives.

Letters can also be a form of fiction. Because the primary audience for picture books has limited if any ability to write, it is not a common form in children’s books. Still, Karen Kaufman Orloff has now demonstrated twice how letters can be a vibrant and tongue-in-cheeky form of picture book fiction.

I WANNA IGUANA published in 2004 captures every child’s desire for a pet, and that child’s never-ending attempts to bargain. By making the story a cycle of notes from child to parent and parent back to child, Orloff is able to “cut to the chase” and focus on dialogue like a play. Choice of words, phrasing, and tone become even more significant. As readers, we discover the relationship between the boy and his parents through their letters.

It is a wonderful book to read aloud to children. As writers, we can also learn a lot from studying how Orloff develops character through dialogue. Not only what is said, but also how it is said. And in addition, the tone and the love beneath the words.

We can also learn a lot from Orloff’s dedication to the sequel I WANNA NEW ROOM published in 2010.

“For my editor, Susan Kochan, who guided me and waited patiently until I got it right.”


Good writing takes time. Sure, there is the occasional strike of lightning, but time and patience are a writer’s wise friends. I WANNA NEW ROOM is solid sequel about this family that writes notes to one another. A large part of the solidity is that it shares a fresh story,  acknowledges the passage of time, and takes the main character to a new level of maturity.

May we all be as fortunate in our lives and writing.

Books Discussed

I WANNA IGUANA by Karen Kaufman Orloff. Illustrated by David Catrow. Putnam, 2004.

I WANNA NEW ROOM by Karen Kaufman Orloff. Illustrated by David Catrow. Putnam, 2010.

LOOK AGAIN!

Why We Read…and Write

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As human beings we are plagued with the desire to create boundaries. This is this and only this. You are you and not one of us. In this spirit, we might ask what the former curator of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art could possibly have to do with picture books? Plenty, if we take the time to relax and look again. There is always more to see in what we think we’ve already explored.

I have long been intrigued and inspired by the following quote from THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE by John Szarkowski.

“If the photographer could not move his subject, he could move his camera. To see the subject clearly—often to see it at all—he had to abandon a normal vantage point, and shot his picture from above, or below, or from too close, or too far away, or from the back side, inverting the order of thing’s importance, or with the nominal subject of his picture half hidden. From his photographs, he learned that the appearance of the world was richer and less simple than his mind would have guessed. He discovered that his pictures could reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things, and that these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.”

"The Octopus" Alvin Langdon Coburn. 1912.

Even if one isn’t a photographer, who hasn’t spent time as a child leaning off the edge of the bed marveling at how the world looks upside down. Or, watched a giant tree move when you look first with just the right eye then the left.

A few days ago serendipity brought the discovery of a wonderful early reader / picture book that demonstrates Szarkowski’s quote in just as many words. GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz encapsulates the joys of looking at the world from a slightly different angle or distance. And, as Galen’s camera does that, it also inspires the world of simile and metaphor. In a (supposedly) mere 112 words spread through 24 pages, Kalz introduces her reader to a boundary-free world that is rich with overlapping realities.

GALEN'S CAMERA

Look again.

Books That Encourage One to “Look Again”

*THE ARCH by Joel Meyerowitz. Little, Brown & Co., 1988.

GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window Books, 2006.

*THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE by John Szarkowski. The Museum of Modern Art, 2007 (1966).

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Tana Hoban. Greenwillow, 1981.

THE TURN-AROUND, UPSIDE-DOWN ALPHABET BOOK by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

*WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL: VIEWS ON THE WRITER’S VOCATION by William Stafford. University of Michigan Press, 1978.

*Published for adults

The Alchemy of Ideas

People are forever asking writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Many assume they arrive like pearls dropped from above by a muse resembling Tinker Bell. Some writers believe they do. Others strap on pith helmets and go hunting. Still others announce they are blocked, locked in a box that lets nothing in or out.

Valeri Gorbachev’s picture book WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA, MOLLY? is wonderful to read and share with children. It also has a great deal to offer any writer in search of ideas. Primarily, that it is not so much a search for ideas, but rather an openness and receptivity to what arises in one’s life. And, an openness and receptivity to seeing what arises from different perspectives.

Molly loves words and loves to write poems, but she can’t find an idea. Friends arrive to discuss what they make for Turtle’s birthday gifts. When they all decide to draw Turtle a flower Molly says they can’t all give the same gift. “We need to think.”

Rabbit, Goose, Frog, Pig and Molly (mouse) all go to the spot where they do their best thinking. Fortunate are writers and artists who know their spot! All but Molly return with an idea. Unfortunately, all of them have the same idea. They’ll draw a tree for Turtle!

So, where do writers get their ideas? Molly discovers her idea in what appears to be a problem. There are differences to be found even within similarity. Problems may spark possibilities. Each friend draws a tree for Turtle, but a tree in a different season. And Molly writes a poem for each tree and season.

Gorbachev’s story concludes (and reopens?) with Molly wondering if “I will get another big idea tomorrow. I am ready for it.” Where do writers get their ideas? By being open and ready for them.

WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA, MOLLY? by Valeri Gorbachev. Philomel, 2010.

"What One Sees" by Richard Stine. 1995.