Wednesday, April 25, 2012

DON’T FORGET TO COME BACK!

Written by Robie H. Harris

Illustrated by Harry Bliss
(Scholastic, 2004)

Some reading makes us think.  It loads us down with new ideas, transforms us.  This is not such a book.  Good thing, too.  Don’t Forget to Come Back! is a breezy read to make you smile.  Sometimes reading should solely be about the pleasure of being entertained. 

The story is easily relatable—Mom and Dad ready for a night out as their child (alternately referred as Pumpkin and Sugar) does everything in her power to convince them to stay or, at the very least, take her with them.  Logic (“I am NOT a baby”) doesn’t work.  Scare tactics (“if you go out tonight, the biggest baddest moose will walk into the kitchen—and eat me up”) also fail.  Through all the girl’s dramatic turns, Mom and Dad calmly continue to get ready.  And, yes, they actually do go out.

Sugar Pumpkin is left with Sarah the babysitter.  Thankfully, the story doesn’t drift into horror or some kind of cockamamie wild adventure.  Save that for movies.  The tale continues to quietly amuse.  Sarah reads The Bad Boyfriend:  A Novel as Sugar Pumpkin considers adding peanut butter and pickles to her slice of pizza.  They paint their nails, with SP incidentally creating a Jackson Pollock knockoff on her foot.  Turns out a night out for Mom and Dad isn’t so bad for anyone.

I pulled this book off a shelf after eying the cover.  I am a big Harry Bliss fan.  His illustrations need to be savored as he adds humorous touches.  In addition to the toenail splatter painting, he invents a new cereal (Cherry Glows), a Frankenstein lamp, and a memorable image of makeup abuse.  My favorite pictures, however, involve the menacing moose.  The speech bubbles, presumably by Robie Harris, contain just enough to enhance the narrative.

If you have a young one, Don’t Forget to Come Back! might be the perfect read before your next night on the town.  Just hide the nail polish.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

THE BOY FROM THE SUN

By Duncan Weller

(Simply Read Books, 2006)

This is another picture book recommendation for Earth Day.

Three boys sit idly on a sidewalk. A factory with a trio of spewing smokestacks stands behind them. The simple images are drawn in black, the remainder of the page sparsely white. It’s a desolate setting, sucking up any energy. Of the three boys, Weller writes, “They said nothing, and could only stare.”

The first splash of color comes on the third page flip as another boy appears, drifting downward from the sky. He has “a big yellow shining head”, glowing rays projecting outward. Yes, refer once more to the title. This is The Boy from the Sun. (I’ll call him Sunny.)

With each page turn, the smoke cloud emerging from the factory grows. The boys’ down-turned mouths remain the same. The boy with the yellow head asks what should be self-evident: “Why are you so sad?” The sidewalk sitters are nonresponsive.

And then Sunny announces, “Keep your eyes open!”

An exotic bird appears. Suddenly, a muted green field surrounds the sidewalk.

More people float in the sky. They wear colorful period costumes and traditional garb from other cultures. The grass becomes greener; the black cloud detaches from the smokestacks and floats away.

With smiles on their faces, the boys follow Sunny. They see and explore jungles with wild animals and people from other places. They leave the city behind. As they travel, the sidewalk erodes and the boys learn to play in an inviting outdoors. They begin to imagine. They come to realize there is more, including a “world without”. Sunny recites a poem, one verse quoted here:
For here, with everyone,
You are splinters of the sun,
You are worth celebrating,
You are worth elevating,
And when you take the time
To fill your worlds within
You will join the world without.


The Boy from the Sun is a thinking book. I love to let children note the changes from page to page and I encourage them to speculate about the author/illustrator’s message. Indeed, Sunny’s poem requires repeated reads. Let the audience ponder the meaning over a week’s time, revisiting it each day. The illustrations also require further discovery. Can viewers research to identify the cultural and historical backgrounds of the people? Can they Google to determine the plants and animals Weller depicts? Do the animals and plants exist in a common habitat or has Weller joined them together for a collage effect?

Students could also weigh in on the different artistic styles Weller applies. The book won the Canadian Governor General’s Award for its illustrations. Let the children be art critics. Is it a worthy award recipient?

Yes, this is a book that can inspire deeper learning and discussions. It’s worth tracking down.

Monday, April 16, 2012

WHERE ONCE THERE WAS A WOOD


By Denise Fleming

(Henry Holt and Company, 1996)

This book is a recommendation for Earth Day.

One of the song lyrics that I think of most is “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot” from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”. Where Once There Was a Wood is a variation on that lyric, with a wood, meadow and creek turning into a housing development. Yes, we all live in homes of one sort or another, but Denise Fleming’s lovely rhyming book gives one pause to consider what nature sacrificed to provide us comfort.

With the artwork originally created using cotton rag fiber, I kept running my hands across the pages, disappointed to feel the smoothness of the acid-free paper instead of the texture of the fibers. Still, the effect is beautiful to see. The writing creates an equally strong impact as Fleming highlights how the natural environment housed its own glorious ecosystem.

...where once the brown snake
slithered and slipped out of sight
where once the raccoons rambled
and rummaged in the night..


When the illustrations combine with Fleming’s poetic phrasing, love for the environment breathes on each page.

The last four pages of the book constitute a nonfiction addendum, advising readers about what they can do to “Welcome Wildlife to Your Backyard Habitat”. It’s well-intentioned, but it highlights the flaws of how factual information so often gets presented to young readers. Whereas the poetry portion of the book allows no more than two lines per double page spread, the nonfiction section crams facts into dense paragraphs. It will come across as information overload and many interested readers will skip over the section after reading a sentence or two at most. Moreover, the illustrations are few and one—a small drawing of purple cornflowers—does not even appear beside either of the references to this flower, mentioned on the following page. It’s all an unfortunate afterthought. If only the publisher suggested that Fleming create a nonfiction picture book entitled Welcome Wildlife as a companion to Where Once There Was a Wood...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

HOW TO BE A GOOD DOG

By Gail Page

(Bloomsbury, 2006)

Confession: I love dogs. When I gazed at the title of this book, I (correctly) assumed this had to be a tongue-in-cheek reading. All dogs are good. (Some owners...not so much.)

When I bought the book, I still had Lincoln, my behaviorally challenged but nonetheless wonderful pooch. Independent minded, he did not respond to training. He knew the treats would come eventually, whether he shook a paw (for no discernible purpose) or not. I was the one who had to adapt. He would just be a dog. Let Fido or Rex be the circus animal. I tried reading the book to Lincoln, but he lost interest and resumed barking enthusiastically at the bushes in the back yard.

I have read How to Be a Good Dog many times to young audiences and we always bond in laughter over Bobo, the goofy white dog whose exuberance makes his good intentions lead to disastrous results. His antics cause him to be banished to the doghouse by Mrs. Birdhead, his human companion. (“Owner” seems so improper; dogs are family members, not property.)

Cat, initially relieved to be rid of the canine, finds that life in the house just isn’t the same without Bobo. Thus, Cat teaches Bobo how to be good. Through Gail Page’s clever acrylic illustrations, we see how Cat teaches Bobo standard dog commands; their interpretations of heel and roll over will get an audience giggling. It’s all silly fun.

When you read a simple picture book many times, you can still pick up new details. I recall a student being perplexed by Mrs. Birdhead who, naturally, has a bird on her head. However, this is the first time I followed the bird from page to page to see the bird’s actions and reactions. More silliness. Normally, I’m too entertained by Bobo to bother with the other characters.

Before, during and after reading How to Be a Good Dog, children will share all sorts of personal stories about all sorts of pets. As they make connections about their dogs, frogs and pet rocks, you’ll connect more with the children. Be a Good Reader and track down Good Dog.