Wednesday, July 25, 2012

TRUCKS: GIANTS OF THE HIGHWAY

Written and photographed by Ken Robbins

(Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1999)

As an adult driver, trucks can be a menace.  Big clunkers to pass, obstacles to the view, even if the view is only a series of billboards telling you how far it is to the alien museum and the next McDonald’s. 

But, to kids, trucks are glorious road monsters.  What youngster hasn’t delighted over getting a truck driver to honk its horn?  The quick blasts are a welcome diversion from thoughts of “How much longer?”

Trucks:  Giants of the Highway presents a photographic essay of life on the road.  Robbins adds a little text to explain parts of the big rigs.  (I’m embarrassed to say I’d never done the math regarding eighteen wheelers.  Never cared to.)  Most of the writing is clear and simple, perfect for young children.  The best writing, however, comes on the first page as Robbins refers to the trucks “loaded up with who knows what…, rumbl(ing) past like thunder on the road.” 

My extremely worn, almost tattered, library copy of the book is a testament to the appeal of the topic.  Boys will, no doubt, stare open-mouthed at the photos of the tractor-trailers and the glimpse we get of life in the cab. 

If anything, I wanted more.  How about a shot showing a boxcar being loaded with some unique cargo?  What about another page or two of the transient community that thrives on all that truck stops have to offer?  There is room for more as Robbins fills many pages with photos and no text.

I am quibbling, of course.  Kids will be enthralled, imagining their lives as a trucker.  The job has a spot in kids’ dreams, right alongside professional football player and president.  No need to make any rash decisions.  It’s a long road to adulthood.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

HOOPS

Written by Robert Burleigh

Illustrated by Stephen T. Johnson

(Silver Whistle--Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997)

I am a vegetarian now, but when I was seven, vegetables were tolerated at best.  In the case of peas, they were wholly rejected.  I’d spread them all over my plate, trying to make it look like I’d consumed some of the original pea pile and then I’d profess to being full, willing to do without chocolate cake and ice cream just to be excused from the table to avoid another forkful of the unsavory green pellets.

Nowadays kids’ sports books are the equivalent to a pile of green peas.  I dread them.  It is a true challenge for a writer to take a high-action activity like a game of football and make it (nearly) as exciting on the page.  I cringe over bottom-of-the-ninth, bases loaded, two-out stories.  Can’t someone capture the essence of a regular day on the rink/field/court and make it memorable?
I’d say the picture book Hoops comes very close.  Robert Burleigh’s text is sparse.  It’s a game of pickup basketball, after all.  Enough talk; just play!  The first page is as follows:
Hoops.
The game.
Feel it.

And that is Burleigh’s intention for the entire book. 

On one page, he writes:

Feel the asphalt burning beneath your shoes.
The two-of-you rhythm.
The know-where-everyone-is without having to look.
So succinct and yet so vivid!
Stephen T. Johnson’s pastel illustrations are potent bursts of color, capturing a diverse group of young players caught up in the action of the game.  Any one of his illustrations would make a perfect poster to hang on the door of a boy who dreams of his future in the NBA.
I have come across many picture books transferred to YouTube videos but, alas, there is no such depiction for Hoops.  This exquisitely illustrated ode to pickup basketball deserves a new generation of viewers.  Rather than making a sport seem boring or turning it into a too technical manual, Hoops glorifies the variety of movement in the game and makes the reader yearn to get back out on the court.

Friday, July 20, 2012

IT'S NOT FAIR!

Written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

(HarperCollins, 2008)

I’m not sure children are the primary target of this picture book.  The inside cover is a faux legal complaint, filed in the Circuit Court of Fairness, alleging a “totally unfair cause of action” against Sibling No. 2 by Sibling No. 1.  The specifics?  A shared chocolate chip cookie halved by the defendant in a manner that showed a complete disregard for any common representation of one-half with the CLEARLY larger “half” consumed by defendant to the nutritional detriment of plaintiff.  

As a former lawyer, I loved this opening.  Children will pass it by and immediately yank another bedtime book off the shelf if a parent even attempts to read this humorous document aloud.

Further, what kid wants his oh-so-serious protestations of unfairness mocked with increasingly silly “Unfair!” whines in a work created by adults, the very sort of people who always—ALWAYS!—dismiss the aforementioned protestations?  Why would a reputable publisher like HarperCollins even publish such drivel?!  Let a child author chronicle common examples of unfairness without the smirky bias of older folks, beaten down by repeated “Too bad” dismissals of even older folks.

But, seriously, I do hope parents and teachers pick up a copy of this book,...maybe even forcing kids to pay attention, even as “unfair” allegations are made when the TV cord is unceremoniously unplugged.  Yes, it starts with a cookie, an aggrieved boy eyeing his teensy portion and saying, “Why’d I get the smaller half?”  We’ve all been there, haven’t we?  (I am compelled to add that life would be so much better if pizza makers learned how to cut equal slices!)

Each page depicts another example of unfairness, the episodes grouped in sets of two or three rhymed wrongs, followed by the oh-so-familiar “It’s not fair.”  To help you get the gist, here are the opening lines:

Why’d I get the smaller half?
Why’d he get the bigger laugh?
Why can’t I have a pet giraffe?
It’s not fair.

Save for the giraffe, the early examples are true to life, with complaints about going to bed too early, being on a losing team and getting sick on one’s birthday.  Everyone join in now:  It’s not fair!

But Amy Krouse Rosenthal helps the reader change from frowns to smiles as her examples become more ridiculous.  Why, yes, the concept of unfairness begins in the maternity ward as infants compare baby blankets.  Three-legged stools look enviously at four-legged chairs.  Even ring-less planets grouse about Saturn’s gift.   By the book’s end, there may be no resolution to the totally unfair cause of action, but it won’t matter.  Sometimes we can’t control everything.  Sometimes unfairness happens.  And, yes, sometimes the best approach is to laugh and move on. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

DEMOLITION

Written By Sally Sutton

Illustrated by Brian Lovelock

(Candlewick Press, 2012)

Everyone knows you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover.  But, let’s face it, everyone does.  Publishers devote gobs of time, fretting over the design and the graphics that potential readers will see if the book is fortunate enough to have more than its spine displayed on shelves. 

The cover for Demolition succeeds in grabbing one’s attention.  A bright red and white candy-cane strip edges the top of the front and back cover and the title stretches tall in white block letters across a deep blue background.  But the illustration of a bright yellow excavator bashing against fallen concrete slabs is the clincher.  For a young boy, the message is, READ ME!

I think the copy I picked up at my local library may be a print error as the pages inside are upside down and the story begins inside the back cover.  If it is, in fact, intentional, this topsy-turvy effect of demolition is entirely unnecessary. 

Enough about covers and possible design defects.  On with the story!  There are things to destroy!  This is a rhyming picture book, one verse per double-page spread.  Each follows a formula, with a repeated statement on the first line and a trio of onomatopoeic zingers appearing on the fourth.  The opening verse provides a sample:

Grab your gear.  Grab your gear.
Buckle, tie, and strap.
Safety jackets, boots, and hats.
Zip!  STAMP!  SNAP!

It’s catchy until it feels monotonous.  I’m guessing five-year-old boys won’t mind though.  The real attraction is seeing a building come tumbling down.  The writer and illustrator do an admirable job, chronicling the destruction of a building and the transformation of its parts into a children’s playground on the same site.  The machinery (defined in the back of the book) is well drawn and will hold children’s focus.  On many pages, however, the images of workers appear simplistic, closer resembling Fisher Price figures than real people.  Intentional?  Perhaps, but I’d prefer more realism.  In fact, actual photographs might have been a bigger draw.

Of course, I am not the primary audience for this book.  There are many adults and children who pause to peek in holes kindly cut into large boards of plywood that otherwise keep us at bay at city construction projects.  Demolition will surely be a favorite among many children and I can imagine many parents won’t mind performing repeat reads.  It will allow them to polish there booming depictions of lines like, “Bang!  CLANG!  CLACK!”  This is not the soothing choice for a bedtime story, but it can serve as a warm-up to a busy afternoon with toy tractors conquering large heaps in the local sandbox.

Friday, July 13, 2012

THE CHICKEN THIEF


By Béatrice Rodriguez

(Enchanted Lion Books, 2010)

First, a quirky aside.  This book was originally released by a French publisher in 2005.  As it’s a wordless book (save for the title, an easily translatable Le voleur de poule), it amuses me that this is now an “American Edition.”  At any rate, I am so glad this tale made it across the Atlantic.

The story begins with an enchanted little cottage in a wooded area.  Rabbit greets the day by opening the shutters, Bear steps out for a yawn and Rooster prides himself on a fine “cock-a-doodle-doo”.  Yes, it’s a day like any other. 

But, if you look closely, something evil lurks, a fox in the bushes.  In a flash, he nabs a startled chicken and dashes off.  Yummy porridge must wait.  Rabbit, Bear and Rooster are in hot pursuit.

As darkness falls, the would-be rescuers are exhausted and distraught.  Fox sleeps in a tree, cradling the confiscated chicken in his paws. 

What’s that you say?  Foxes don’t climb trees?!  Just go with it.

Come morning, the chase resumes.  And the story becomes sillier as we see Fox and Chicken playing chess in an underground labyrinth.  The double-page spread at nightfall is precious, with Fox and Chicken resting in the glow of a fire in the foxhole while the other animals keep vigil by a campfire above.

And, like the Roadrunner-Coyote cartoons, daylight restarts the search.  The hunt eventually leads to a surprise ending, at least to Rabbit, Bear and Rooster.  This madcap delight serves as a reminder that things aren’t always what they seem.  In fairy tales, the fox, like the wolf, has been much maligned.  Unfairly so, according to the talented Madame Rodriguez.

Do whatever you have to in order to snatch a copy of The Chicken Thief.  You’ll “read” this wordless wonder over and over, smiling every time.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

MATTLAND

Written by Hazel Hutchins and Gail Herbert

Illustrated by Dušan Petričić

(Annick Press, 2008)

Moving can be hard on all of us.  For kids, the days of knowing no one in a new neighborhood can seem like an eternity.  Such is the case for Matt whose family moves to a house in what I presume is a new development (but could also be a rundown housing project).

There is nothing to do outside.  No parks, no grasslands.  “Everywhere was mud and water.  Across the wetness lay only scattered building scraps, a few rocks, and a stick.”

Thankfully, Matt has an imagination and, like most boys, a compulsion to pick up sticks and stones.  With one twig, he carves a line in the mud.  It instantly fills with water.  Matt dubs his creation Snake River.

He putters more and soon establishes Turtle Lake and Dog Tooth Mountains.   He arranges the scraps to form a new community—Mattland—amidst the barrens of his own new community.

The boy’s construction project draws tentative looks from other children, lured out of their own homes, shyly observing at a safe distance.  “An outsider” approaches and offers a Popsicle stick before walking away.  In time, Mattland brings together the group of strangers.

This book pays homage to the imaginative play of children who can turn a pathetic mudhole into something truly wondrous.

To actively involve children in the book, I would cover the text and scan the pages, first presenting the story in wordless format.  Let them interpret the boy’s construction project.  Allow them to discover how more than a mudhole is transformed.  Then pull out the book and read the text to provide another interpretation—not necessarily the “correct” one—for Petričić’s lovely watercolor paintings.

In addition, I would share Mattland during the same week I’d read the outstanding books Not a Box (and/or Not a Stick) and Building, inviting children to make connections.  A perfect extension would be a “field” trip to a nearby abandoned lot, presenting students with the challenge of working in groups to create such places as Hectorland, Tommyville and Suebob City.  The best books extend our thinking and validate our play.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

BIG BEAR HUG


By Nicholas Oldland

(Kids Can Press, 2009)

I chuckled several times reading this simple picture book.  As a writer, I often think about where other authors get their ideas and I have no trouble imagining that Nicholas Oldland’s creation arose from reflecting on the terms bear hugs and tree hugger.

Yes, why do we talk about bear hugs?  I’ve never seen grizzlies embrace on nature shows.  And, to my knowledge, bear hugs aren’t common features at petting zoos.  Oldland doesn’t question things; he just goes with it, introducing us to the ursine version of Leo Buscaglia. 

“Everywhere he wandered, the bear shared his love hug by hug.”

The photoshopped illustrations are priceless, as a bug-eyed rabbit, moose and skunk encounter the loving bear.  The story becomes more amusing when Oldland informs us that “what this bear loved to hug most were the trees.”  And there you have the merger:  quite literally, bear hugs from a tree hugger.

The tale takes another turn when the bear comes across a lumberjack, intent on chopping down the biggest tree in the forest.  What will be the bear’s natural reaction?

After reading Big Bear Hug, nature walks will never be the same.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

THE OBSTINATE PEN


By Frank W. Dormer

(Henry Holt and Company, 2012)

WARNING:  You must have just the right sense of humor to appreciate this book, the kind of mind that delighted when Roald Dahl sucked Augustus Gloop up a chocolate chute and inflated Violet Beauregarde into a human blueberry.  I refer to Dahl because Frank Dormer’s goofy humor will bring to mind the twisted wit of Dahl and his drawings bare a resemblance to Dahl’s partner in childhood amusement, Quentin Blake.

Not since Frindle has a writing instrument received such focus in a book.  The story begins with Horace’s Uncle Flood unwrapping the prized pen.  The dutiful pen stands at attention atop a desk before Uncle Flood shoos Horace away, screeching, “I MUST HAVE SILENCE WHEN I WRITE!”

Ah, yes.  Another temperamental artist.  And so Uncle Flood sets out to write something astounding, beginning with:  The following story is all true.  But the pen crafts its own message on the paper:  “You have a BIG nose.”  Uncle Flood is aghast.  He tries to write his opening sentence again and again, but the pen only sees fit to write more insults about the writer’s eyes and hair.  Uncle Flood has no choice but to chuck the bold—yes, obstinate—pen out the window. 

This must be the real reason so many people succumb to writer’s block.

The adventures continue when the pen continues to speak its own mind as it comes into contact with Officer Wonkle and Glenda Weeble, as well as driver Druthers and the delightful Mrs. Norkham Pigeon-Smythe and her easily affronted dinner guests.  Eventually, the pen finds its way back to Horace.  What will the pen write when it finally lands in his hands?

I have yet to debut this book as a class read-aloud, but I know it will become a memorable piece of fiction.  (Yes, I’ll have to preface the reading with a talk about putdowns.  Please remember, pupils,...pens are not people.)  I can imagine following the reading with a goofy writing period wherein students create funny anecdotes with their own obstinate pens and pencils.  Naturally, there will have to be clear parameters established.  Still, I must confess that, as I writer, I find inspiration in this sometimes poisoned pen.  Too often, I want to take care of my characters, protecting them from awkward situations and precarious fates.  I need to take more chances and, if readers object, then I shall of course blame the pen.