Sunday, November 7, 2010

CHICKEN BIG



By Keith Graves


(Chronicle Books, 2010)


I have author envy. It arises whenever I see a book title like Chicken Big. Of course. How obvious. Take the classic Chicken Little and give it a twist. But it only became obvious after author/illustrator Keith Graves beat me to publication. And, I must admit, his goofy book is more amusing than anything I could have hatched.


The story begins when "a very small hen laid a big, humongous egg". The other chickens don't know what to make of the giant hatchling. The smallest chicken ("not the sharpest beak in the flock") determines that something so big must be an elephant. Then, when it rains and the big chick offers shelter under its wings, the smallest chicken realizes this is no elephant. Clearly it is an umbrella. And the case of mistaken identity continues.


This kind of silliness will entertain young readers (and older ones too). Chicken advocates, take no offense. Do not complain of perpetuating stereotypes. The sky isn't falling. Let the breezy text and zany pictures (with comic speech bubbles) bring a smile to your face and enjoy the chorus of giggles sure to surface during a bedtime or early primary read-aloud session.



Sunday, October 31, 2010

SURPRISING SHARKS



Written by Nicola Davies


Illustrated by James Croft


(Candlewick Press, 2003)


It is commonly stated that boys like nonfiction. They love trivia such as what appears in the annual editions of the Guinness Book of Records and Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. They will study sports stats and videogame manuals. And if it's the right topic, they will read a book cover to cover on a single subject. Dinosaurs, monster trucks, animal feces...almost irresistible. Same for sharks. But the typical shark book entices readers with an open-mouthed Great White on the cover or, at the very least, in a prominently displayed glossy spread. Sharks are ferocious, savage, purveyors of blood and guts.


Thankfully, there is Surprising Sharks to defuse the Peter Benchley/Steven Spielberg-spawned sensationalism. There isn't a drop of blood to be found on the pages. Instead, James Croft's colorful illustrations portray a Great White about to feast on a swirl of water and Basking Shark set to make a meal of plankton.


Humph. A boy might just return the book to the shelf and check out a book on hamsters instead. (They eat their young, don't they?) But wait! Nicola Davies hooks readers from the outset, playing off the classic Jaws scenario of danger lurking below the submerged feet of a swimmer. She refers to a "giant man-eating killer". "SHAAAAARRRKK!" Upon turning the page, the reader sees a swimmer with a mask coming face to face with the not-so-dreaded Dwarf Lantern Shark, described as "just bigger than a chocolate bar". It's the perfect way to reel in the reader.


Davies shares facts about a range of sharks and dispels the notion that these creatures are relentless human predators. While six humans per year are killed by sharks, people slaughter 100,000,000 sharks over the same span.


The trivia will fascinate readers, apt to absorb more information from repeated readings. Moreover the pages are bookended with double-spread drawings of different sharks drawn to scale. The illustrations, the humor, the facts to debunk sharks' bum rap and the info-bites that will interest both younger and older readers make Surprising Sharks the perfect information book.





Sunday, October 24, 2010

WAY HOME



Written by Libby Hathorn


Illustrated by Gregory Rogers


(Anderson Press, 1994)




Picture books cover more than ABCs and red fish versus blue fish. They are as varied as novels. Many titles are intended for older readers. Way Home is one such book. The story takes place during one night in the inner city and the illustrations vividly convey a sense of grit and darkness. The streets and alleys represent danger for a boy named Shane and a wary stray cat he encounters.


"Heeey, I like you, Spitfire, Kitten Number One!" Shane says. He tucks the cat into his jacket. "You're coming home with me to my place."


On the journey home, the duo walks past a pampered feline in a window. As Shane gazes in, he says, "[T]hat cat's a loser. Eats fancy mince, no kidding. Heaps of it....Disgusting. And get that collar. What a joke!" They see an auto showroom, lights shining brightly on red Jags. Wrong color, Shane claims as he fights off a sense of awe.


After staring at the unoccupied office towers, Shane and the cat finally reach home, a makeshift shack for just the two of them. End of story.


It's thought provoking tale about homelessness, preconceptions and society's priorities. I recommend this book for readers nine and older. A reader's world should involve more than sports stats, wizard schools and wimpy kids.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

FUNERAL FOR A PICTURE BOOK?

My school librarian passed on a link to a New York Times article about the decline of picture books. I've tried to move on to other things, but like an untreated abscess, the words keep hitting a nerve.

For years now, we've been hearing that the days of the published book are numbered. The future is all about e-publishing, apps and other techie gadgetry. I've tried to tune out the Chicken Little cries, but sometimes the Kindle/iPad/Kobo phenomenon seems overwhelming. Maybe I'm the proverbial ostrich having a bad day at the beach. After all, I steadfastly believed my scratchy vinyl Olivia Newton-John record collection was timeless.

But picture books...there must always be picture books. How can a screen image replace the glossy pages held in two hands, resting in a lap? Even if the sky is falling, picture books will be saved. Combining clever phrasing and glorious art, they will continue to championed by parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians and, yes, children.

Perhaps not, says the esteemed New York Times. At first glance, it is hard to refute the anecdotal evidence brought forth. Fewer picture books are being published and even established writers like Jon Scieszka are seeing sales declines. Yes, it must be time for writing the eulogy to picture books. It can remain in draft form, but best to be prepared. (Indeed, the wave of cassettes and CDs caught me by surprise. And don't even try to tell me that the iPod I received as a gift should come out of the closet.)

Eulogy, schmeulogy. I am clear-headed enough to realize that something is amiss with respect to picture book publishing, but it seems the major players are pointing fingers away from themselves and failing to realize/acknowledge how they are part of the problem.

It starts with the agents and publishers. More and more are saying, No picture books, please. (The "please" has perfunctory value; better that than spitting.) Picture books require too much time and money to develop. There is too much back and forth required with both the writer and the illustrator. And, hey, picture books don't sell.

Now YA,...that's hot.

The big box bookstores make matters worse. There's no time (or display space) to market the unknown. Rest assured, a casual browser can easily spot all things Seussian—well not all…it seems my beloved Butter Battle Book, an ode to the Cold War, has gone the way of the Berlin Wall. Shelves prominently feature proven bestsellers like Goodnight, Moon, Where the Wild Things Are and books about bus-riding pigeons, free-spirited pigs named Olivia and a dog with flatulence. Gosh, doesn't that about cover it? Oh, wait! To be fair, there's always room for something from the latest celebrity author. Other picture books don't sell.

We need to increase shelf space for YA. To be more specific, vampire infested YA.

If you don't publish them, there are fewer to try to market. If there are fewer to market, fewer titles end up in stores. If there are fewer in stores, there are fewer sales. By golly, picture books don't sell! Chicken Little is on to something!

The article puts much of the blame on parents who fail to see value in picture books. Words that make the reader. Big words, lots of words. Chapter books...yes, that's it! Get your four-year-old into Anne of Green Gables. When he's eight, let him (or make him) digest War and Peace. (Oh, that's not a tummy ache, Johnny. When you become a doctor after graduating with honors at Harvard, you'll know that. If you need a break, how about devouring some light reading from the New England Journal of Medicine?)

Crazy? Of course. Let the (overly) ambitious parent talk with the wallet, but teachers, other parents and, yes, book sellers should interrupt the monologue. If I see a mother buying her son with the chocolate milk mustache Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, I am obliged to speak up. WARNING: Premature reading of this classic can lead to irreversible aliteracy.

But let's be real. I cannot imagine that this type of overzealous (and delusional) parent is typical. I do not believe that this small contingency is to blame for The Imminent Extinction of Picture Books. No, I won't refute the comments in the article. Comments from people on the fringe stand out. We remember them vividly. But it is irresponsible to portray these attention-grabbing anecdotes as the new norm or even a significant trend.

There are brilliant picture books—some of them even wordless—that must get in the hands of more readers, young and old(er). Agents, publishers and booksellers need to be more reflective, more creative in nurturing this essential domain of the book industry. That there is a slump in sales comes as no surprise. In tough economic times, it's a hard sell to get a single parent or underemployed family to shell out twenty-five bucks for a thin book that can be read in ten minutes. In a financial pinch, many overlook the gallery exhibit splashed across the pages. They fail to recognize the joy to come from repeated readings or the sparks of imagination ignited by the fusion of words and pictures. Thank goodness for libraries. Sales may be stalled, but there remains a way to access a treasure trove of picture books.

And when things look rosier again, let's hope that publishers and booksellers will begin to take chances again. There are Zetta Elliotts, Troy Wilsons and Nicolai Popovs waiting to be discovered. Let Chicken Little go back to worrying about the sky. The world needs picture books. At least that's the way it is in the world I know.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

ONCE UPON AN ORDINARY SCHOOL DAY




Written by Colin McNaughton


Illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura


(Anderson Press, 2004)


I post this book review in honor of World Teachers' Day which is October 5.


For many students—boys especially—school can seem humdrum, ho-hum, boring. In a word, ordinary. And so begins this tale. It's an ordinary day with an ordinary home routine and an ordinary trek to school. The boy (himself described as ordinary) settles into his ordinary classroom.


Then the extraordinary happens. A new teacher, Mister Gee, ambles in, carrying an old phonograph and some records. He plays "rumbling, rolling, thunderous music" and invites the children to make pictures in their heads of what they see. Is the man daft or could he be onto something?


While Billy Pearson falls asleep—a veritable dreamer—the other students, including the ordinary boy, use the music and their visualizations as newfound inspiration for the stories they write.


The illustrations begin as muted grays, with color only appearing after Mister Gee's entrance. The story itself reminds us that a dedicated teacher, with a tinge of quirkiness, can trigger children's imaginations and create the spark to make learning memorable. Indeed, the right teacher can make all the difference!



Sunday, September 26, 2010

FLOTSAM

By David Wiesner

(Clarion Books, 2006)

David Wiesner is a brilliant storyteller who requires the viewer/reader to actively interpret what is on the page. Flotsam is a wordless picture book that gives the message-in-a-bottle concept a fresh spin. The story opens with an inquisitive boy on the beach, ready to discover with magnifying glass, binoculars, microscope and shovels at his side. Initially, the exploration is rather standard, a couple of shell creatures temporarily captured for a closer examination. Then a rogue wave surprises the boy on impact. After he recovers on the shore, another surprise surfaces: an old underwater camera.

The boy rushes to a one-hour photo shop to develop the film in the camera. What the film reveals proves fantastical and startling.

Wiesner's watercolors shift from soft-palette realism to bright, bold surrealism. A seven-sequence depiction of the boy waiting out the hour to get the film developed beautifully captures anticipation and boredom. Flip the page and a windup, mechanical fish infiltrates a school of pink salmon. Wiesner masterfully infuses whimsy and wonder throughout this engaging book.

The book may serve as a springboard to back and forth discussion between two viewers as the pictures and story are pieced together. As well, Flotsam allows an individual to enjoy the journey himself again and again. (My first exploration lasted a full hour, my heart and brain racing as I admired and interpreted each delightful page.)

Wiesner's own imagination will stimulate the imagination and inquiry in others.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

SUPERDOG: THE HEART OF A HERO



Written by Caralyn Buehner


Illustrated by Mark Buehner


(Harper Collins Publishers, 2004)


This is the story of a much-ridiculed short and squatty Dachshund named Dex. The ringleader in making fun of Dex is Cleevis, a large tomcat who never tires of entertaining his peers with jokes that come at the tiny dog's expense. Poor Dex dreams of becoming a superhero. But he does more than dream; he trains. Dex does extra laps on the rug before finally lying down. He increases his leaping and running exercises. Yes, through determination, Dex makes the transformation. Ultimately, he proves his superhero status to Cleevis in a compelling way.


I was never much for superhero comics, but the genre generally appeals to boys. Superdog: The Heart of a Hero, by the husband-wife team of Mark and Caralyn Buehner, infuses comic book elements into the picture book format. In fact, the text boxes for the comic-styled cells are the most fun to read, especially using the deeper, dramatic voice of a radio announcer (e.g., "It was clearly a desperate situation....").


The illustrations are playful, my favorite being the series of cells showing Dex flexing and admiring his suddenly sinewy frame. As noted on the book jacket, Mark Buehner adds to the viewing pleasure by sneaking in images of rabbits, cats and T-Rex dinosaurs in many of the illustrations. (Look in windows, in the folds of Superdog's cape, in the trees and clouds. (I also found an uncredited whale, a witch and even a SuperDex representation playfully added to the background. Intentional? Could my eyes be playing tricks on me?) The bonus caricatures will encourage repeated viewings.


While Superman, Spiderman and Aquaman have devoted followings, Superdog is a treat worth yipping about.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

THE INCREDIBLE BOOK EATING BOY



By Oliver Jeffers


(Harper Collins, 2006)


There's a big difference between eating green eggs and ham and eating Green Eggs and Ham. In The Incredible Book Eating Boy, Henry opts for the latter, consuming books in a manner that fills the stomach as it feeds the brain. Henry begins with a word, then a sentence and builds up to downing an entire book in one sitting. It's the express way to becoming smart. Until things backfire.


I have read this book to many classes and it is always a hit. Jeffers's straightforward text is enhanced by simple pictures superimposed on maps and what appears to be faded print from old books. The result is marvelous, a book that can be read or simply leafed through dozens of times. The book's design even includes an extra delight on the back cover: a bite missing in the bottom corner. Even before I show the title, I act aghast as I stare at the bite mark and gaze at the attentive group of listeners. Who didn't have enough for lunch?! Who has been feasting on my precious book?! It's a startling hook and the audience remains intrigued until the book is finished.


The Incredible Book Eating Boy is a delectable treat!

Monday, September 13, 2010

OTIS



By Loren Long


(Philomel Books, 2009)


Set a toy tractor in a preschool or kindergarten room and many a boy will drop his plastic dinosaur to take the vehicle for a joyride.


BRRRRR! RRRRMMM, RRRRMMM. VROOOM!


A few collisions may ensue, but the tractor (and its casualties—a mix of dolls, Matchbox cars and, yes, plastic dinosaurs) quickly recover. Cats have nine lives. Tractors and plastic dinosaurs? Nine thousand.


Illustrator Loren Long (Mr. Peabody's Apples) has taken the driver's seat, handling the writing and the pictures in his endearing new book, Otis. The title refers to the farmer's hard working, trusty red tractor that spends its free time leaping over bales of hay, playing ring-around-the-rosy with the ducks and sitting on a hill, gazing down at the farm that is Otis's home.


Otis doesn't make the thunderous clanks and clunks of your average four-year-old boy's toy tractor. Instead, Otis chugs away with a putt puff puttedy chuff, the sound that calms a calf that misses its mother when placed in the barn one night alongside the tractor. The red machine and the brown calf immediately form a friendship, giving Otis a buddy to make the post-work antics all the more enjoyable.


Unfortunately, Otis falls out of favor with the farmer and the tractor falls into a funk. When the calf gets stuck in Mud Pond, it's up to Otis to save the day.


Otis conjures up memories of The Little Engine that Could (which Long updated in 2005), Are You My Mother? and The Island of Misfit Toys from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". This book is on equal footing with these classics as the unlikely friendship between a tiny tractor and a lonely calf makes an indelible imprint. Even Long's illustrations have a classic feel, his rolling gray landscapes making the restrained use of red, brown, denim blue and a jolt of yellow pop on the page. Loren Long is a master at capturing mood in his art, the varying expressions of Otis only making boys more eager to take toy tractors for yet another spin.


And perhaps there will be a boy or two who will lower the decibel reading, taking the tried and true RRRRMMM, RRRRMMM. VROOOM! down to a mellower putt puff puttedy chuff. What parent or teacher wouldn't want that?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

365 PENGUINS



By Jean-Luc Fromental and Joƫlle Jolivet


(Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2006)




The penguin craze may have faded, but what kid wouldn't think it (icy) cool to have a tuxedo waddler for a pet? There's something adorable about penguins until you think about their living habits. As the title makes clear, this book involves an awful lot more than a single penguin moving in.


On January 1st a box arrives at the host family's door, along with the unsigned note, "I'm number 1. Feed me when I'm hungry." Inside the box, a penguin. Each day another delivery, another penguin. The illustrations are simple yet expressive with a limited, cool color palette of blue, black, white and Creamsicle orange. (Initially, I found the color mix jarring, but when I consulted classes, they spoke favorably of the artistic decision. With only a few colors, the pictures are fresh.)


With the penguin population creating havoc in the household, the father strives to stop the madness. The fish loving residents are organized into pyramids and stored in cabinet drawers, but each new arrival changes order to disorder.


The book is as loaded with math as it is with penguins. (For example, on the 144th day, each of the twelve cabinets holds twelve penguins.) I have challenged classes with a simple question to guide their focus before I read the book: Where's the math? Students jot down math terms, operations, subjects and scenarios as I read. (Most memorably, the book became a huge hit with a grade seven boy who hated math and who worked well below grade level. He beamed as he presented me with a full page of math jottings after I finished the book. He proudly borrowed the oversized picture book and read it several times at home on his own and to his younger brother. Yes, penguins provided the first spark he'd felt regarding math—or reading—in a long time.)


Some of the math tie-ins are obvious, others more subtle, more incidental. Most importantly, the math adds to the fun of the goofy story. 365 Penguins could be enjoyed dozens of times , making home or class reading time exponentially more rewarding.

Monday, September 6, 2010

PSSST!



By Adam Rex


(Harcourt, Inc., 2007)


Boys like noise. It's a generalization, but when I hear loud tractor noises, block banging and Hot Wheels traffic jams coming from the kindergarten, it's more often Billy than Sally who is conducting the orchestral din. Walk by a construction site and survey who has stopped to watch the cranes and jackhammers disturbing the peaceful horn-honking urban landscape. Guys, I'll bet. (I wonder if anyone has studied horn honking. Wouldn't be surprised if there is a clear gender gap.)


So think of the word psst. This nifty interjection is supposed to subtly get someone's attention. Try to whisper it. The sound is greater than one might think. (Of course, that's how it gets attention.) It's a funny word—all noise, no vowels. Plop it repeatedly into a picture book and even the most distracted listener will keep coming back to the text and pictures. Genius, really.


Adam Rex has more than the frequent use of a noisy word in his favour in Pssst! (He adds an extra s, presumably inviting the reader to use more expression.) This engaging tale is about a youngster's trip to the zoo, during which animal after animal gets her attention. (The child is androgynously drawn and unnamed. There is a plain hair clip and a pinkish backpack, but the sporty attire and short hair may help both boys and girls readily identify with the main character.)


Pssst! "Could you get me a tire?" asks the gorilla. Gorillas like to swing, you know. The bats want flashlights. The odd requests continue. The book takes a surprising, delightful turn once the animals receive their desired items.


Boys and girls will be hooked on this book. Once they know how it ends, they'll want to hear or read the story again and again, switching from the mind of the zoo visitor to the thinking of each of the animals. It's a worthy addition to a children's book collection. Stop by your local bookstore and find it. Get the staff person to help you find (or order) it. You know how to get his/her attention. It's a fun word. Use it.



Sunday, September 5, 2010

IT’S A BOOK



By Lane Smith


(Roaring Book Press, 2010)


When I was growing up, there were years when books did not fall into my lap unless they were required reading. A book could not compete with TV, radio, soccer, hockey or the swimming pool. As much as we think things have changed, they are the same. There is a new generation of boys (and girls) who may look at a book as an alien device, something from a remote planet or, in today's context, from an ancient civilization.


Lane Smith's new picture book, It's a Book, is about exactly what the title states. With a monkey, a mouse and a jackass as the only characters, the donkey is the one who seems perplexed about the purpose of a book. Donkey is plugged in, a tech savvy creature who doesn't know what to do with something that lacks all the modern bells and whistles. "How do you scroll down?"


Monkey explains, "I don't. I turn the page. It's a book." The conversation doesn't evolve much from there. Donkey continues to ask about the handy features associated with computers while Monkey repeatedly states the title of the book. (Mouse hangs around for one obvious tech joke and to deliver the final punchline.)


We can laugh at the donkey who seems so out of his comfort zone in acquainting himself with a book. (Obviously, many of us would also relate to flipping things around to become a quizzical exploration of the function of a laptop.) Ultimately, author-illustrator Lane Smith uses humor to celebrate the continued value of books.


It's ironic that I first found out about It's a Book through a YouTube clip. (I wonder if the book is available for download as an eBook. Seems logical, but also goes against the underlying message in valuing the simplicity and intimacy that come with holding and reading an actual book.)


Adults and children will LOL when reading this—or at least it will elicit a :). I find it funny enough in referring to the tech-minded animal as a donkey. I'm not sure that jackass was necessary. But, in a world of farting dogs, Captain Underpants and endless jokes about Uranus, jackass will make the book's ending all the more appealing in a subversive way. Although I'd love to read the book aloud to students, as a principal at a new school, I'll have to go with donkey. Of course, I wouldn't stop students from later picking up the book and reading it on their own. My own word substitution can remain our little secret. Wink, wink. Sometimes that's all it takes to remind kids that reading books has its own rewards.

But what do others think? Am I being a fuddy-duddy for substituting donkey for jackass? (To clarify, Smith uses the word to refer to the animal and its human counterpart.) Am I wrongly applying a form of censorship or simply showing prudence in presenting a book in a public school setting? Would you read it as is if you were a classroom teacher? Would you read it as is if you shared it with your own child? Post a comment to offer your perspective.









Tuesday, August 31, 2010

DAVID GOES TO SCHOOL



By David Shannon


(Blue Sky Press, 1999)


Thoughts of a new school year can make everyone nervous—students, parents, teachers, even principals. There are high hopes that things will be different, better. Yet sometimes hopes are dashed as soon as the rules are stated. Author and illustrator David Shannon explores this scenario in David Goes to School, his follow-up to No, David!


As a teacher and principal, I see David every day. There's one in every class, usually more. He's impulsive, excitable, a dreamer. Full of energy, he seems to be recognized more for his infractions than his contributions. David is the type of student who requires us to look at the classroom from a different vantage point. Shannon's David is looking for fun and, sadly, school can seem like anything but. He reminds us that students need regular physical activity, short body breaks that occur in addition to scheduled P.E. sessions. David's need to express himself must be channelled in a positive way so as not to squelch his eager mind.


In the author's note, Shannon nudges educators, saying, "[K]ids haven't changed much over the years, and neither have school rules, some of which date back even farther than the invention of sneakers." Ahem. That smarts a bit. It's a reminder that we need to think about why we do things in particular ways and what that means to learners who can be challenged, even labelled, by these rules. To be fair, Shannon does awknowledge that, while yes is a "wonderful word", there remains a place for no. He notes, "'[Y]es' doesn't stop kids from running in the halls."


Through Shannon's simple text and exuberant, endearing illustrations, he helps us see the earnest personality in David. It's a book worthy of review by all educators.





Wednesday, August 25, 2010

THING-THING






Written by Cary Fagan



Illustrations by Nicolas Debon



(Tundra Books, 2008)






Perhaps this book appeals to me due to my lifelong affinity for The Island of Misfit Toys from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". But that's only the beginning. Thing-Thing tells the story of what happens when a spoiled brat named Archibald Crimp (no doubt, a second cousin of Veruca Salt) unceremoniously rejects his father's latest desperate birthday gift, pitching it out a sixth floor window of the Excelsior Hotel.



That gift is Thing-Thing, a strange stuffed animal—"not quite a bunny, but not quite a dog either." The remainder of the book chronicles the rejected toy's adventure as it descends toward the busy city sidewalk below. Floor by floor, we see a variety of activities momentarily interrupted by Thing-Thing sightings. There's a distraught hockey player nursing an injury, a crazed businessman shucking a 17-battery must-have and then there's a love-struck Alex, nervously attempting to propose to the more assured Bethany.



The pages alternate from Thing-Thing's world en plein air to the simultaneous life moments inside the Excelsior. Nicolas Debon's illustrations match the text perfectly, mixing up the point of view. At times, the toy looks in; in other instances, the hotel patrons look out. Perhaps the most engaging pictures capture the fall, from aerial and side views. The book's design is also fresh, with curvy text and falling letters. One spread is a centerfold, requiring the reader to turn the book to read, as a nesting robin observes Thing-Thing's descent. As a bonus, the book jacket, when removed and reversed becomes a poster.



For the squeamish, rest assured, there is a happy ending, at least for Thing-Thing, if not Archibald.



I have read this book several times to primary and early intermediate classes and it is always a hit. Thing-Thing is instantly likable. The changing perspectives make for a lively read. While all the hotel characters attract interest, nothing catches kids' attention quite like the boy-girl scene with hearts dancing around their heads, topped by reference to a kiss. "EWWWW!" Yes, they love it.



And so do I. Not just one page, but the whole darned thing. For me, Thing-Thing is just the thing!



Tuesday, August 24, 2010

THE STUPIDS DIE


Written by Harry Allard


Illustrations by James Marshall


(Houghton Mifflin, 1981)


I may as well start with something stupid. Actually, four Stupids. This is not a literary picture book. There are no award stickers blocking the puffy cover images of Mr. and Mrs. Stupid and their dim children, Petunia and Buster. They gather in the living room to stare intently at the blank screen of an unplugged television. They sleep under the bed. Buster mows the rug while Petunia uses a sprinkler to water the house plants. It should come as no surprise that, when the power goes out, Mr. Stupid thinks they've died. And they mistake Cleveland for heaven. How stupid is that?!


It's the kind of book that may make adults groan, yet young readers will delight in picking up the absurdities in the text and in the illustrations. (One running gag by illustrator Marshall is the mislabelled art that hangs about the Stupids' house (e.g., a butterfly is identified as "COW"; "LAKE STUPID" is a bucket of water).


I did not know about this book until a speaker at the 2010 annual summer conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators cited it in his keynote. The pages he shared generated hearty laughter. I felt like the stupid one. How had I missed this? It's not only a book, but one of a series of four. "The Stupids" even became a feature film starring Tom Arnold in the 90s. (It bombed. I blame its star.) It took me twenty-nine years, but I am no longer ignorant.


If you're in the mood for Mr. Bean or Monty Python-lite, the Stupids may even produce the giggles. Sometimes we all need to lighten up.



Sunday, August 22, 2010

WHY ANOTHER BLOG?

As I tried to name this blog, I was reminded of the Blog Clog. The logical, desirable names were all taken. (Story of my life, but that's another blog.) It came down to dlfkrtnspaoi24 or BoyzRead. While "dlfkrtnspaoi" has a nice ring to it, I was a bit put off by having to share the moniker with twenty-three others. (I draw the line at nineteen.)

This is a blog intended to promote boys' reading. There are others out there, but I hardly think the topic is overdone. Many guys out there still find reading as much fun as flossing. I should know. From sixth grade until I hit thirty, I was one of them.

Some of the items featured will be the high quality reads that everyone can identify by the embossed sticker on the cover. But only some. When I was a kid, I viewed that sticker as reading repellent in the same way a mosquito regards a tasty looking calf muscle that's been slimed by a liberal spray from the OFF! can. Ruins the feast. (As an aside, do calves have calf muscles? Since all their other muscles are calf muscles in that they are the muscles of the calf, is the anatomically correct calf muscle, then known as the calf-calf muscle? I won't even get into what happens when the calf dons a muumuu. Gary Larson, get out of my head! Excuse my while I take my Tylenol.)

I knew that award winning books made librarians all warm and fuzzy inside. But my school librarian (we had them back then) wore a butterfly brooch and walked around with her index finger glued to her lips. I couldn't see how my interests would in any way match someone who had such a need for tranquility. "If you're all really quiet, you can hear the robin singing outside," she'd say. It was December and snow was falling. That's when Mrs. Gordon lost all credibility.)

As I matured, I realized that sometimes stickers were a good thing. (Loved the scratch 'n' sniff era. Aah, root beer. Ketchup. Skunk!) But an enticing title, a cool cover design and, most of all, a thumbs-up from a best friend will get a guy to read more than any shiny (even smelly) sticker. It's the content that needs to be highlighted—quirky characters; a snort-inducing passage; a compelling plot; a fascinating info topic; an accessible, perhaps original, navigation system for nonfiction.

Boys' reading interests are broad. What I love or even what one's best friend loves might be as repugnant as The Bobbsey Twins to you or a boy you know. I'm just one guy trying to get other guys to identify their inner reader. I'll state my biases upfront. I'm not an action adventure reader. (After awhile, I just want the bad guys to kill the protagonist so we can all for a bike ride.) Wizards are fine once in a while. Dragons? Meh. Sci fi? I'd rather read about Bert and Nan, Flossie and Freddie.

Humor works for me. I prefer something slightly higher brow than farts and dog poo, but I can see how the base stuff makes some guys blow snot out their noses. A good thing as long as I am beyond projectile distance. More than anything, I enjoy books that portray guys who think and feel, rather than just act. (I think the importance of "show, don't tell" has been overstated.) I grew up with male characters that solved mysteries, trained and became the local team's sports hero or took the form of a sports car driving mouse or an ice cream loving monkey. At times, they were good reads. But I wanted to know that boys could be more than crime solvers, jocks and lovably anthropomorphic creatures.

That should give you insight as to my own bent. I will, however, stray from my comfortable path on a whim. At some point, I'll still feature that monkey and his ice cream parlor escapade, but I hope to celebrate more evolved characters and plots, too. (Perhaps a monkey that saves an ice cream business is indeed highly evolved.)

In this blog, I'll showcase books, websites and other reading sources that may be of particular interest to some boys. I'll also post entries about getting boys to read and I encourage blog visitors—and regulars (fingers crossed)—to engage in a discussion by leaving comments. Let me know if my word is gospel or if you think I should be thrown on a pyre with every Captain Underpants book ever printed.

By the way, the name of the blog didn't come just by default since all the good ones were taken. (Again, that's another blog.) I'm the kind of stickler who finds salvation (and great humor) in repeated readings of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The slangy (sloppy?) reference to Boyz instead of Boys is not an homage to overrated boy band Boyz II Men (although they hit a homer with "Water Runs Dry"); rather, it's a reminder that, when we consider ways to get boys hooked on reading, we have to shake off standard conventions. Like it or not, people talk at regular volume in the library, comics can be way cooler than Charlotte's Web (blasphemy?) and there is a place on the shelf for a dog with flatulence.

We may disagree on the content, but let's agree to read. And to get boys—yes, and girls—reading!