Monday, December 30, 2013

GOODNIGHT, GOODNIGHT, CONSTRUCTION SITE

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

HOW SANTA GOT HIS JOB

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

STANLEY'S STICK


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.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

HELLO MY NAME IS BOB

By Linas Alsenas

(Scholastic, 2009)

Nothing like a good laugh. There was a point midway through this book that I started to laugh at a ridiculous situation and the giggle fit took me through to the end. My dog was very concerned as was the couple parked beside me on the ferry. Why be embarrassed? Madness can be glorious.

This book takes on the familiar opposites attractfriendship theme. Bob is a straight and narrow bear. Nothing much happens to him. He confesses on the first page, “I should warn you, I’m very boring.” Risky move as a finicky seven-year-old might toss aside the book and return to his bubble wrap popping techno-gadget. (Okay, maybe that’s just my distraction of choice.)

As Bob falls asleep in a chair while reading a copy of Hello My Name Is Bob—risky, risky—a goofily grinning panda bear appears at the side of the page. Hmm. Perhaps Bob’s book won’t be a total snoozer.

Yes, Jack is a risk-taking panda who seeks adventure in every moment. Hot air balloon rides, rock band gigs, safaris...Jack goes for it. Meanwhile, Bob counts toothpicks and assumes his favorite pose—“Sitting’s great, isn’t it?”

After showcasing their differences on separate pages, author/illustrator Linas Alsenas brings the bears together. They are best friends despite their differences. Naturally, each bear has a different take on their shared experiences.

The page that started my giggle fit? The bears sit in a row boat on the bayou. Bob leans over the side, fascinated by a frog sitting—of course—on a lily pad. He is oblivious to Jack’s antics, using an oar to valiantly fend off a threatening crocodile. As implausible as the scene may be, it continues to amuse me.

Bob and Jack remind us there is a whole range of boys. For every player, there’s one who ponders. Whether you know a Bob or a Jack—or someone in between—Hello My Name Is Bob should captivate any young reader. I might suggest the reader/audience assume Bob’s favorite pastime (yes, sitting) at least for the duration of the reading. Even energized surfers need to take five after hanging ten.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

TOO MANY TOYS

By David Shannon

(The Blue Sky Press, 2008)

Whenever I think of toys, my mind wanders back to law school and a certain professor who pined to be a stand-up comedian. He talked of growing up on a farm with no real toys. His mother let him play with two potatoes...until it was time to make dinner. Toy trauma ensued on a daily basis. The scenario always makes me smile and, although I firmly believe he had a mighty pampered childhood, I think one could have oodles of fun with potato adventures. Yes, go ahead and play with your food.

Seeing the title Too Many Toys on a shelf in my school library, I had to scoop it up. A David Shannon creation? Even better!

Spencer is a boy with toys in abundance. You get an idea of just how many when Shannon says, “Spencer liked to make his toys into a parade that stretched from one corner of the house to the other and back again!” Apparently Toys “R” Us has set up shop in a private location.

Children, of course, outgrow their amusements. See “Toy Story”, listen to “Puff the Magic Dragon”, read “The Giving Tree. But there is that awkward moment in time when parents realize certain toys no longer serve a purpose and when a child strongly disagrees. Suddenly every toy destined for the discard pile becomes a beloved keepsake that must remain for all eternity...even if the head is missing, the windup mechanism busted or the dog (Fergus?) chewed the little green army into a grossly disfigured hospital unit.

D Day (Discard Day) finally comes. After one too many toy trippings, Spencer’s mom yells, “YOU HAVE TOO MANY TOYS!”

That’s impossible! thought Spencer.

Then she said, “We’re going to get rid of some of them.”

That’s a CATASTROPHE!

Battling, bickering and bargaining ensue, with an ending not unlike my law professor’s potato story.

As always, David Shannon’s illustrations bring the story to life. The toys will cause any reader, young or old(er), to stop and imagine all the potential fun before turning the page. Shannon skilfully honors a time in our lives when imaginative play was the order of the day while also showing children the parents’ perspective. Shannon throws in a few nuggets about different kinds of toys. Here’s a potent example: “He had...talking books that fueled his mind...and loud, jumpy, frenzied video games that didn’t.”

Too many toys will always seem like a preposterous concept to a child but it makes for an entertaining read.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

HUFF & PUFF

By Claudia Rueda

(Abrams Appleseed, 2012)

Okay, this is an “Ahhh” book. Very cute.

It’s a retelling of The Three Little Pigs with, quite literally, a SURPRISE ending.

Even before “Babe”, I’ve been charmed by pigs. Perhaps it goes back to Wilbur in E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” Maybe it’s a fondness for a certain Muppet. Whatever the case, I’ve always been entertainingly anxious whenever a certain wolf ventured into the piggy homeland. Twists on thetraditional tale are always welcome.

Claudia Rueda breaks the familiar story down into its simplest terms. 

First pig building a house.

First pig inside the house.

Thanks to Rueda’s endearing illustrations, the pigs are particularly delightful—and amusing—in the aftermath of the wolf’s visits.

This is such a quick read, I initially balked at paying a good chunk of change to buy the picture book. But then I realized I was still smiling and chuckling as I wandered into another aisle of my favorite children’s bookstore. I knew I had to backtrack and add the book to my cart.

A smile is most definitely worth it!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

REALLY AND TRULY

Written by Émilie Rivard

Illustrated by Anne-Claire Delisle

Translated by Sarah Quinn

(Owl Kids, 2011)

This is the story of an endearing relationship between a young boy named Charlie and his grandfather.  Grandpa entertains Charlie with far-fetched tales about witches and pirates and gnomes. Each story is punctuated by Grandpa’s assurance that what he says is true, “really and truly.” Charlie is enchanted each time.

But only a few years later, things change. Sadly, Grandpa is not his old self.

An awful disease has eaten up his memory and his words. It has even swallowed up his smile.

Charlie struggles to understand why his grandfather has changed.

When we walk in his room, he doesn’t even turn around. The cars driving by outside are more interesting than we are.

It is a heartbreaking reality that too many families must face. Young children don’t understand, just as I felt insulted when my great-grandmother called me Reggie. She got most of the letters right, just jumbled them up.

Due to the change in Grandpa, Charlie becomes the storyteller. He retells his grandfather’s stories about ninjas and hunters. He even makes up his own tales in an attempt to reach his grandfather. Grandpa responds by looking, by eating and, on one special occasion when Charlie pulls out every trick he can imagine, smiling.

Rivard’s story provides a starting point in helping children understand dementia and Alzheimer’s. Delisle’s illustrations, particularly her drawings of Grandpa, will increase empathy in kids. (My one quibble with the illustrations is that the tiny black ink doodles of toads, gnomes and ninjas distract from the main subject matter.)

Really and Truly is a touching story that will enlighten children and linger with adults.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

PENGUIN AND PINECONE: A Friendship Story

By Salina Yoon

(Walker Books for Young Readers, 2012)

Haven’t we all made fast friends with someone who happens to be at the same sandbox but actually lives in a distant land (like the suburbs)?  Haven’t we all begged to have the toad or the ladybug in the backyard garden become our newest, most beloved indoor pet?  Please, mom!  But why not?!  Sometimes staying connected just isn’t practical.

This book celebrates an unusual friendship, springing from an immediate bond when Penguin discovers “a curious object” on the ice:  Pinecone.  Immediately, Pinecone becomes more than a toy; Pinecone is a friend.  Penguin knits a scarf for his new friend and wraps it around Pinecone to keep him warm.

Still, something seems to be wrong with Pinecone.  Penguin’s grandfather has to explain what is literally the cold, hard truth:  “It’s too cold here.  Pinecone belongs in the forest far, far away.  He can’t grow big and strong on the ice.”

And so Penguin sets off to take Pinecone to a better home.  The image of Penguin finally leaving the scarf-clad Pinecone will touch even the most cold-blooded being, especially since Penguin goes to the trouble of leaving a special message on the ground.

When Penguin grows up, he still wonders about his friend so he makes the long trek back to the forest.  Once again, the image is precious, as is the book’s final message.

A few times I year, I discover a picture book that I can’t stop talking about.  I share it with everyone I see.  This is one of those instant treasures.  I keep it in my knapsack and pull it out at Starbucks, before the movie starts and after we’ve given the waiter our order.  (Today, I took it out while attending a conference and insisted that complete strangers give it a read.  Since they didn’t move to another table, I assume I didn’t alarm them too much!) 

With simple text and uncluttered illustrations, Salina Yoon’s message is clearly conveyed.  I have a good sense of when people are merely indulging me and when they are truly entertained.  This book has been a big hit with everyone.  You’ll look at pine cones in an entirely different way...maybe even name one Sally or Chuck.  As for me, I just might take up knitting.
Penguin and Pinecone is a pure pleasure!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

YOUR TIME WILL COME


Written by Dave Hammer

Illustrated by Alex M. Clark


Boys, dads and baseball. There’s a reason this is a common combination in children’s stories. So many boys have strong, positive memories of breaking in a baseball glove, playing catch with dad in the backyard. The associations continue at the baseball diamond.

In many ways, Your Time Will Come follows the typical baseball story structure:  a boy isn’t “good enough” and becomes a benchwarmer until the final inning of the final game of the season, score tied, two outs. Suddenly, all eyes are on the one boy who has been chronically overlooked. As familiar as the setup is, I still found myself routing for Chad at bat. The drama is always there.

The focus of this story is not Chad’s interactions with the coach or his teammates. Instead, author Dave Hammer sticks to the father-son relationship and their connection to baseball which begins to grow while Chad is still in the crib. All along, Chad’s desire to play baseball is palpable. It’s the execution that needs to be nurtured. For every setback Chad experiences, his father is there to offer encouragement:  “Your time will come.”

Hammer adds a clever backup supporter to echo and illuminate the father’s words. Indeed, this is the first book I’ve read in which the “@” key on a computer becomes a character. While boys will appreciate the technological tie-in, fathers will more fully understand the computer key’s own story.

The illustrations of Alex Clark are a true highlight of Your Time Will Come. They have a nostalgic feel, in part based on the style of the uniforms. As one views the illustrations, one thinks of a simpler time which still bore the pressures and yearnings to belong and to succeed. Moreover, parents will identify with the expressive, irrepressible look on the father’s face as he stands over infant Chad’s crib and dreams of his son’s future.

Your Time Will Come is as much a book for boys as it is a thank you gift to fathers from grown sons who look back fondly on precious moments spent with dad. Hallmark might not like the suggestion, but this book would be far more meaningful and memorable than a greeting card. Father’s Day is less than five months away.

Monday, January 14, 2013

NOT NORMAN: A GOLDFISH STORY

 
Written by Kelly Bennett
Illustrated by Noah Z. Jones

(Candlewick Press, 2005)

What do you do when your pet isn’t fun enough, cuddly enough or adorable enough? What’s the point?

That’s how the boy in this story feels. Norman, his pet goldfish, is just not enough. How can a goldfish compare to a puppy, a kitten, a gerbil or a lizard? The boy decides there is no comparison. He’s trading in Norman for a real pet.

If you are an animal lover, the premise will keep you invested throughout the story. Will the boy really give up the goldfish? And why is the fish all alone in a tiny fishbowl?

Poor Norman!

Other pets in the story get more attention. Austin has a dog with lick-everything puppies. And Emily has a snake that get’s EVERYONE’S attention. Norman? He just glug-glugs water and stares blankly from his bowl. Why would anyone notice him?

Thankfully, the boy does begin to notice little things, endearing things. Nonetheless, the boy doesn’t back down from taking the goldfish to the pet store. Oh, my! Surrounded by cats and birds and hamsters, how does Norman stand a chance?

The illustrations are digitally created and have the same strengths and weaknesses I see in so much digital art. While the main images are appealing—I particularly like the silhouette images of the other musicians during band practice—the backgrounds often seem like nondescript afterthoughts, reminding me of the old “Flintstones” cartoons as Fred and Barney would run on and on through a never-ending interior with the same plant and painting in the background. The lack of interest affects the overall impression of the illustrations. I am curious if other picture book fans have also noticed this as a trend. I encourage you to add your thoughts in the Comments section after the post.

This is a story that had me wholly invested from the start. Having volunteered at the SPCA, I was horrified by the concept, yet too aware of how realistic it is. People abandon their pets too easily. The pets get too big, too chewy, too whiny, too piddle-prone. It is all too easy. Drop off and drive away.

Not Norman should trigger a great deal of discussion about pet ownership and pet care.