Sunday, February 16, 2014


By H.A. Rey

(Houghton Mifflin, 1941)

I’ve written about my fondness for the Curious George books before. But I recently checked out a copy of the original Curious George from my local library and I’m not sure I like the Man with the Yellow Hat anymore. It’s not because no one should wear an all-yellow outfit, even once let alone ALL the time. Primary colors for little ones,…I get it. My disillusionment comes because I simply don’t like discovering how George and Mr. Yellow met.

The story begins with George being a “good little monkey”, contentedly swinging from a vine while eating a banana in an African jungle. Through his binoculars, the yellow dude spots the monkey and thinks, “What a nice little monkey. I would like to take him home with me.” He then sets that infamous hat on the ground to lure the curious young primate.

The man picked him up quickly and popped him into a bag. George was caught.

George is not freed from the bag until he and Yellow are aboard a big ship.

I probably read this story as a child. This troublesome beginning wouldn’t have fazed me. What kid doesn’t want a monkey? Now this tale makes me sad. Call me curious, but I cannot help but wonder what George’s mother must have thought when her baby disappeared. I also wonder how stressed the monkey would have been. Later, when George prompts a false alarm fire truck emergency, seven firemen scramble to capture the monkey and toss him in jail. We see the brick walls and the window with bars on it. How traumatic. By story’s end, George is in another enclosure: a zoo, depicted with tiny fencing and happy animals like George playing with balloons. It’s supposed to warm our hearts.

Times have changed since this book was published in 1941. The Story of Ferdinand, another beloved picture book from that era (published in 1936), inanely tells us that bulls long to be selected to be butchered in bullfights in loud stadiums for the entertainment of humans. As long as these books remain on shelves, I think adults need to foster environments where children think critically about how animals are portrayed. Do animals merely exist for human musings and/or consumption? What thoughts and feelings might animals have?

I would read this book as part of a unit that would include Tree Ring Circus and Pssst! By Adam Rex along with Children Make Terrible Pets and Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown. Depending on the age group, I would bring in nonfiction articles about the healthy giraffe killed by Danish zookeepers and the revelation that other zoos similarly dispose of some of their animals. I would also search for articles about how some endangered animals are gaining in numbers due to measures taken in captivity. Children can be invited to weigh in on their thoughts about animal welfare and animals in zoos. Some children will want to advocate for better zoo care while others will question whether animals should be raised in captivity at all.

We can enjoy a picture book at face value as a piece of entertainment, but sometimes we are given the opportunity to consider the changes (if any) between the past and the present and to allow children to think about bigger issues.

Indeed, we should be raising curious children.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Written by Jodi Moore

Illustrated by Howard McWilliam

(Flashlight Press, 2011)

It’s easy to get lost in one’s imagination when building a sandcastle.  Some of us just get more blessedly lost than others. Indeed, the unnamed boy in When a Dragon Moves in would assert that imagination is not at play at all—his beach encounter is entirely real.

When the boy’s family arrives at the beach, he constructs a perfect sandcastle and, naturally, a dragon takes up quarters. [Dragons have good taste after all. And castles are so much more inviting when they are free of knights and distressed damsels.]

The boy and the dragon have a grand time playing together. Turns out that, in addition to their inherent marshmallow-toasting abilities, dragons make good rafts when it’s time to cool off in the water. Despite having the most awesome beach buddy ever, the boy eventually seeks his family’s attention. Shockingly, they are not the least bit interested in the dragon. They don’t even believe there’s a dragon. When the boy implores his mother to listen to the fierce creature, she doesn’t even look up from her beach read as she says, “I hear the roar of the ocean.”


Things get even worse when the boy gets blamed for the dragon’s deeds. Take, for instance, the fingerprints-on-all-the-brownies episode. Why those aren’t fingerprints at all! How can anyone be unaware that dragons LOVE brownies?! With the boy getting all the blame for every infraction, he must reconsider whether his perfect sandcastle, along with its new resident, is worth the trouble.

I picked up this book after a class at my school developed an interest in creating kingdoms and communities in a sand pit at our school. They delighted in this picture book and agreed to disagree by book’s end as to whether the dragon was indeed real or a product of the boy’s imagination.

McWilliam’s pencil drawn, digitally painted images perfectly portray the sights of summer and children will instantly befriend the highly expressive red dragon. (As much as McWilliam tries to make the boy an endearing character as well, the character is always overshadowed by the larger than life dragon.) Adults, in turn, will enjoy the realism depicted of a day at the beach and the family’s interactions.  

Like Mattland, When a Dragon Moves in is a celebration of the kind of imaginative play that arises from a small plot of sand or dirt. It’s worth a read.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


Written by Julie Fogliano

Illustrated by Erin e. Stead

(Roaring Brook Press, 2013)

Waiting for a particular animal to show itself in nature can test anyone’s patience. It can be even more challenging for a young child. Just recently, I reread Jane Yolen’s classic Owl Moon about a young girl who treks out to the woods in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse of a wise bird. This time around, it is a boy who goes whale watching (from his living room window) with his dog.

If you want to see a whale

you will need a not-so-comfy chair

and a not-too-cozy blanket

because sleeping eyes can’t watch for whales

and whales won’t wait for watching


Author Fogliano presents several distractions that might make the boy miss the elusive whale. For instance, who would have ever thought that a rose would compete with the massive mammal? The radical juxtaposition makes it all the more memorable.

This book celebrates all the unexpected sightings before the [SPOILER ALERT] ultimate appearance of the humpback whale. Part of me didn’t want a whale to surface. Why not appreciate all the other things one identifies when senses are on high alert? Why not appreciate the non-sighting? One could argue that Fogliano does that AND coughs up the whale to boot.

Erin Stead’s illustrations keep the focus on the boy, the dog and whatever is currently in sight. The backgrounds include large blocks of white space and nautical blues and greens. Stead’s interpretation highlights the relationship between a boy and his dog above and beyond anything else...even the whale. Through art, she provides another important voice in this book.

Despite my quibble, readers will be satisfied with the ending as well as the journey. This is a quiet, delightful book to make young boys more aware of their senses and surroundings. If you want to see a different side of a boy, then read If You Want to See a Whale.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Written by Chris Barton

Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

(Little, Brown and Company, 2010)

Preposterous, right? Under what circumstances would a shark compete against a train? You only have to spend an hour with a couple of boys and a box full of toys to see the possibilities. Indeed, that is where the standoff begins in this book. Even before the title page, two boys rush to the toy box, one selecting the toy shark (“GRRRRR”), the other choosing the choo-choo (“CHUGRRR-CHUG”). It’s a battle to the finish...or until the next distraction comes along.

I love this clever, absurd book. It celebrates boys’ imaginations and the shenanigans that can only come from free, unstructured play. Shark and train compete in a variety of situations. Some favor the shark—the hot-air balloon ride, for example. Unfortunately, train is deadweight.
My favorite of Tom Lichtenheld’s illustrations portrays advantage train as the two characters roast marshmallows. The locomotive smiles contentedly—perhaps a tad smugly—as it browns the treat with its engine. By contrast, poor shark can’t keep a fire going as he keeps dripping over the kindling. “Drat” indeed!

The situations get even sillier—sword fighting on a tightrope, space travel—just the way children’s play evolves. Younger children will be drawn to the illustrations and the expressions on the toys’ faces. Older children will appreciate the edgier humor such as when shark dons a party hat, goes trick-or-treating and says to the person with a bowl of candy at the door, “This clown is very hungry.” Oh, my!

I am a huge fan of Tom Lichtenheld’s work. (By golly, my last post just so happens to be another picture book that he illustrated.) He gives the viewer a little something extra as train’s distinct little red caboose doesn’t always chug along so well with the rest of the procession. The caboose reminds me of the tiny cloud in his delightful Cloudette. And, yes, I will be looking for more from author Chris Barton. For now, I cannot wait to take Shark vs. Train on a tour as a read-aloud in classrooms at school.

It does not matter who wins these goofy battles between the two toys. The true winner is the reader.

Monday, December 30, 2013


Written by Sherri Duskey Rinker

Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

(Chronicle Books, 2011)

If Goodnight Moon and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovelbore a picture book child, this would be it. This is a bedtime story for little ones who pass the day digging and building in sandboxes with tough trucks that create, demolish and rebound all to a soundtrack of animated whirrs and booms.

There is a time when construction workers, both young and old, must call it a day and when, as imagined by author Rinker, the powerful vehicles must shut down for the night.

The sun has set, the work is done;

It’s time for trucks to end their fun.

So one by one they’ll go to bed

To yawn and rest their sleepy heads


Her rhyming tale features the day’s end rituals of Crane Truck, Cement Mixer, Dump Truck, Bulldozer and Excavator. Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, each vehicle takes on a human quality as front windows or headlights become eyes and front hoods transform to mouths. When each engine shuts off, the reader says, Shh...goodnight, ________, goodnight.

My favorite illustration shows Crane Truck asleep while clutching a teddy bear as a shining star acts as a nightlight dangling from the boom hook. Having tossed and turned through a restless sleep last night, I feel complete envy for this endearingly sweet image.

No doubt, this will be a popular read night after night. I can envision parent and child whispering goodnight to each truck before the parent provides the final tucks and bids the child, “Shh...goodnight, _____, goodnight.” And,...lights out.

Who knows what construction projects await in the little one’s dreams?!

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Written by Stephen Krensky

Illustrated by S.D. Schindler

(Aladdin Paperbacks, 2002)

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never contemplated Santa’s employment history. I’ve never even thought of a pre-Santa Santa. Could it be that the guy was just a regular Nick? S.D. Schindler’s first illustration of Santa as a young man is indeed startling. He’s a red-headed, beardless, relatively trim guy, dressed in green pants and a brown jacket. (Yes, the red tie and red socks hint of things to come, but this is still radical imagery for a reader who has had only one view of Santa his entire life! It is nice to have things shaken up every half century or so.)

The story begins, as the title suggests, with a young Santa on the job hunt. It comes as yet another shock to discover that this affable, beloved icon couldn’t hold down a job in the early days.

Chimney sweep? Canned. Apparently, he was TOO skilled, shimmying into chimneys and cleaning ‘em up without a trace of soot on his clothes. Where was the proof that he’d done any work at all?!

As a postal delivery worker, he hated getting stuck in city traffic and chose to do his runs when streets were deserted in the middle of the night. Way back then, some people didn’t take kindly to signing for parcels at 3 a.m. Fired again. Humph.

As I read this story to forty children, they quickly picked up on the fact that Santa’s employment challenges could become assets in a career for which he was uniquely qualified. Why, of course, being Santa Claus was what the jolly old man was born to be!

Of all Stephen Krensky’s musings about Santa’s little known backstory, my favorite involves Santa’s circus days when he laughs too heartily being shot out of a cannon. Kids will love the entire tale. Adults can also take heart the next time they have to consider a career change. If it took Santa awhile to finally get it right, we can cut ourselves some slack, too!

Friday, June 7, 2013


Written by John Hegley

Illustrated by Neal Layton

(Hodder Children’s Books, 2011)

Often when I take my dog for a walk in the woods or along the beach, we’ll encounter another dog, trotting contentedly with a stick in its mouth. The dog’s expression conveys sheer joy. Such a simple toy. (My dog engages in stick play only fleetingly. It is an unworthy substitute for human interaction.)
When Legos and computer games are pushed aside, children can also find sticks to be amusing springboards for the imagination. Antoinette Portis captured this notion in the simply written and illustrated Not a Stick (a follow-up to Not a Box).

Stanley’s Stick by John Hegley and Neal Layton expands on this theme. It highlights the imaginative play of children, but adds an emotional attachment to toys, even to something as simple as a stick. Indeed, Stanley’s stick goes with him everywhere, joining him at the outset at Stockport Station as Stanley’s family readies to head to the seaside. Throughout the book, Hegley’s phrasing sings:

Stanley’s stick was once part of something tall and grand and it will never return.
But it can still be a stick as best as it can. 

The stick comes to life in not just Stanley’s mind, but in our own.

The stick is not just a toy; it’s a tool. Stanley and the stick do good things like rescuing slugs that slither onto the station platform. Such an act of heroism makes us emotionally attached, too. Thus, it becomes as surprising to us as it is to Stanley’s parents when Stanley finally wanders to the shoreline and tosses the stick out to sea. We need to read on.

Neil Layton’s illustrations complement the story perfectly. Layton starts with simple drawings reminiscent of Quentin Blake’s art in Roald Dahl books and then sprinkles them with sparkly touches like mixed media bits of fabric and photos of ocean waves. We want to imagine the illustrations extending beyond the page as well.

Stanley’s Stick is well-crafted in every way. It’s a story that will make you look at sticks (and slugs) anew.