Friday, November 25, 2011


By Kevin O’Malley

(Walker & Company, 2003)

This is a wintertime favorite. It is for all of us who have experienced the dressing ordeal and restricted movement that arises from wearing an undershirt, sweatshirt, sweater, long underwear, pants, winter coat, snow pants, double socks, boots, mittens, scarf and toque.

It’s hard to even introduce the story without giving away too much. I can at least say that this is about a boy who, fully geared up, sets out on a dangerous trek through snow, wind and ice. It’s a classic conflict: boy versus nature (and snow gear). Be assured, however, that the story, told with sparing text, is highly amusing. This is the kind of character who would make any household or classroom extraordinarily entertaining. This is the kind of boy who would steal the scene in the class play...even when he plays the scenery.

As a read aloud, you will want to employ your own overacting skills. Draw things out. Take in the smiles and giggles of your audience. I have no doubt that after you finish this reading journey and the chatter likely to result from it, you will want to immediately reread it again to satisfy your eager audience...and yourself.

You really must track this book down. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


By Mélanie Watt

(Kids Can Press, 2009)

It’s a good thing I wasn’t a rich kid. I would have bought enough “Must-Have” toys and gadgets to create a mountain of abandoned playthings in the back yard. Unsightly in summer, a skiing attraction come winter. On Saturday mornings, I watched cartoons and paid as much attention to the commercials as I did to that always-“menacing” group of sleuths on “Scooby Doo.” Every ad made a compelling pitch, convincing me, This toy is the best ever! (Even better than the sea monkeys I sent away for in the summer and the miniature Spirograph kit I received the week before after saving box tops!) I was part of the key demographic group for every marketer: the gullible.

As the cover of Have I got a book for you! makes clear, popular children’s author Mélanie Watt has her own selling to do. This is a pitch I can still get excited about. Buy a book! To be very specific, but THIS book! Al Foxword, a plaid-jacketed, bow-tied salesman (sales-fox?) pours on the pressure tactics. You need this book! You REALLY do!

Young readers will enjoy the goofiness. Older students could use the book as a springboard to talk about consumerism and needs versus wants. Many classes participate in book order programs and I often shake my head as the orders come in, flimsy books that come with cereal box prizes outselling the genuinely compelling stories on the list. (Yes, they’re excited. They’re buying books—or plastic necklaces that come with books. But will the books they get turn them on to reading or turn them off?)

As a published author, I cannot help but find a dark side to Have I got a book for you! If Watt has to cheekily work so hard to shuck her book, what about us lesser known writers? And, more generally, isn’t it sad that we have to expend so much extra energy to promote books, to defend the importance of libraries and to argue against prominent newspapers that predict the death of the picture book? This title rings too true. Perhaps that is why I prefer Watt’s later book You’re Finally Here!, a celebration of books and reading without the business of bookselling in the forefront.

Monday, November 21, 2011


“Not drawn by” Pam Smallcomb

“Not written by” Robert Weinstock

(Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011)

This book is about opposites attracting. Mars, venus. Cats, dogs. Oscar, Felix.

As delightfully drawn as the two main characters are, I cannot tell what they are—just what they’re...not. Not humans. Not talking dogs. Not sponge creatures. I call them blobbies even though I am sure they are supposed to be some sort of animal. (My best guess would be dinosaurs or an alligator and a hippo. It really doesn’t matter.) One is green, the other brown. Again, I simply refer to them as Greenie and Brownie. Greenie is actually named Evelyn. Brownie is the first-person/blobby narrator.

Evelyn is the friend most of us wanted to have when we were young(er). She’s daring, artsy, imaginative and inappropriate. Brownie claims she herself is none of that. There is a clear pattern in the text: “Evelyn is up on all the latest fashion trends. I’m not.” The illustrations provide the amusement. In this example, Evelyn dresses herself in lampshades (“Lampshades are the new black!”), bandages (“Band-aids with me!”) and sweatbands. By contrast, Brownie dons a paper bag.

Evelyn is indeed a handful, perhaps too much for us adults who have learned to fit in, to follow rules and expectations. In truth, it is the Evelyns, Olivias and Davids of youth that attracted me to moving down from high school to elementary. Evelyn is sparkly minded, unpredictable and eminently entertaining.

Principal Milton, a stern-faced walrus represents spirit-sucking elements of society. Seems he objects to Evelyn’s bubble gum statue of him. Robert Weinstock adds humorous touches to the principal’s office, with framed pictures of a lemon and a soon-to-erupt volcano mounted on the wall. Ah, yes. Principals represent all that is sour. They keep the peace based on a fear of a possible explosion. Thanks for that, Mr. Weinstock!
This picture book represents a perfect merger of text and illustrations, each aspect making the other stronger. I am not sure to what extent author Pam Smallcomb had input as to the comic speech bubbles and drawings, but I assume that the editor was instrumental in ensuring that the words and pictures complement one another so seamlessly. This is a team I hope continues to work together.

A highlight for me is the two-page spread of Evelyn visiting Brownie’s house. Brownie informs us that “she changes my room.” And how! Paintbrush in hand (claw?), Evelyn states, “Your ceiling will look dreamy in orange!” My favorite page features Evelyn hanging upside down from the branch of an apple tree with the text, “She’s not one single bit ordinary.” It’s what Evelyn says in the comic bubble that gets me every time: “Look...I’m an apple!”

Like Brownie, I’m not Evelyn either. But there is a little bit of that wacky daringness locked in my mind. All of us can appreciate least as a creature of fiction. I’m Not is a must read...unless you’re too much of a fuddy-duddy. Thankfully, I’m not!

Friday, November 18, 2011


By Leonid Gore

(Scholastic, 2010)

Simple concept here. A book is discovered on the forest floor. Each animal that comes upon it finds a different purpose for it. As animals don’t read, the uses will amuse young readers.

Bear decides it will make a lovely hat. Fox naps between the sheets. When a boy sees the book, he opens it and begins reading as the animals gather around to enjoy the story told on the pages.

Gore’s art is watercolor and ink on textured paper. The grooves of the paper create wonderful patterns as brushstrokes cover them. Bear’s fur gains definition and the rabbit’s ears have more character. The effect is remarkable enough to warrant an extra reading/viewing.

The story is remarkably similar to Ben’s Book by Nanette Newman and Georgie Birkett. (It has wandered off from my personal collection, hopefully being put to its proper function in a classroom or household.) Though not as preposterous (or funny) as The Incredible Book-Eating Boy, The Wonderful Book reminds us of the true value of a good story.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Illustrated by Rob Gonsalves

Written by Sarah L. Thomson

(Atheneum Books for Young Children, 2008)

This is a picture book in which the illustrator deservedly takes top billing. With captivating, transformative acrylic paintings, the words are completely overshadowed. In fact, I am sure that many an excited viewer will not have the patience for Sarah Thomson’s thoughtful poetry. The discoveries within the pictures are too exhilarating and, while the words complement the pictures, they will only get in the way as children want to talk about the movement within each work of art.

Indeed, the paintings require double takes—okay, triple and quadruple takes. An image of the starlit night sky peeking through snow-covered pines changes as you gaze longer. Those stars become lanterns, held by skaters who traverse across a sky which at some point becomes a frozen river. The picture will lead the viewer to exclaim, “Aha!” while the words, though beautiful, will make many scratch their heads and say, “Huh?”

Imagine a place...
...where water is solid,
light is liquid,
sky a frozen river
flowing under your feet.

It’s hard to top the simple, yet awe-inspiring imagery of the title page. On the right side, skyscrapers edge a river on a cloudy night, a few offices with lights left on in the otherwise darkened buildings. As the eye scans toward the left side of the page, the buildings become the night sky appearing through the grand archways of a palace. The office lights change to stars, clouds transform to stonework, the river mutates into a tiled floor. In a single painting, the viewer is taken from urban to rural, outside to inside. It’s enough to make one imagine a mind—how did Rob Gonsalves ever conceive this work?

Each reader will have a different painting that becomes a favorite. With sixteen images to marvel at, the effect may lose its impact during a single viewing. I suggest that encore viewings begin and end in different places. Start at the back of the book or randomly open somewhere in the middle. Leave out the words and study the image.

After viewing this book at the beginning of the day, my drive to work changed. I saw clouds as snow-covered mountains, water as sky. And that’s the ultimate beauty of Imagine a Place. Gonsalves inspires all of us to perceive things in a different light. What a gift!

Monday, November 14, 2011


By Peter Brown

(Little, Brown and Company, 2010)

Some titles hook you; some don’t. Building, an amazing book, doesn’t reel you in. I’d Really Like to Eat a Child and Children Make Terrible Pets are more intriguingly named. Peter Brown’s cover image also entices. A goofy looking bear wearing a tutu and a ribbon atop her head projects heart-shaped thoughts as she lifts a bewildered boy from the ground. Huh? How can you pass up a read?

The story is just what the cover suggests. It begins with Lucy the bear “practicing her twirls” in the forest. She senses she is being watched. A squeak comes from behind a nearby bush. Why, it’s a child! How precious! “You are the cutest critter in the WHOLE forest!” exclaims Lucy.

Lucy must have this squeaky child for her pet. She lugs it home and begs Mama Bear to let her keep it. The pitch works! Lucy and Squeak Boy immediately bond. Oh, what a perfect pet!

Except pets never are truly perfect. In fact, pets that don’t want to be pets can be quite problematic. This pet proves to be all too human. And one day, Squeak Boy disappears.

Now that he’s gone, Lucy wants him more than ever. Why, oh, why would he leave? Where, oh where could he have gone?

Peter Brown’s book design is unique, illustrations laid atop wood grain backgrounds and text narration and speech bubbles printed on cut out construction paper. While I appreciate the thought that went into the visuals, the muted colors and brown or cream-colored backgrounds are unlikely to be as memorable as the story for young book browsers.

When reading the story, be sure to also read Brown’s comment on the back flap of the book jacket: “When I was a child, I once found a frog in the woods and brought it home to be my pet. My mom was not happy. ‘Would you like it if a wild animal made YOU its pet?’ she asked. To which I replied, ‘Absolutely!’” Yes, it’s a fanciful notion, but not so practical. As silly as the story is, readers should be able to make connections to their own lives. Lucy’s realization that “some critters just aren’t meant to be pets” should trigger ample discussion. Who hasn’t transformed a recyclable margarine tub into an insect biome, thoughtfully laying down a collection of leaves and twigs and poking plenty of holes in the plastic lid to ensure the captive bugs are living in what we consider to be comfort? Should we scoop up snails and ladybugs to satisfy our fleeting scientific minds? Why can’t nature be observed in nature? How many of us have delighted in gazing at pacing tigers and well-trained dolphins at zoos and sea parks? Are animals better off in the wild or in captivity? Oh, so much to think about, all stemming from a forest-dwelling bear that wears a tutu!

Peter Brown’s book leaves one lingering question: If children make terrible pets, what creatures make good pets?

Thursday, November 10, 2011


By Nikolai Popov

(North-South Books, 1995)

A frog sits on a rock, contentedly sniffing a flower he has picked as several uncut blooms surround him. Suddenly the tip of an umbrella pops up from underneath one of the plants. The umbrella belongs to a mouse. Frog and mouse stare at one another. Mouse lunges toward frog and grabs the flower. “MINE!”

Two other frogs leap onto the page, in hot pursuit of mouse. As mouse flees with the prized flower, he abandons his umbrella. The frogs claim the umbrella as theirs and dance about, collecting the remaining flowers.

Several mice reappear in an old boot on wheels. A canon-like weapon protrudes from the boot and fires at the frogs.

Frogs return in larger numbers to retaliate. More mice respond in more artillery-equipped boots. Each action leads to a stronger reaction.

Nikolai Popov’s picture book helps answer the “Why?” of war. This is a wordless book, a symbolic consideration as fighting begins when words have no effect. Children have to “read” the pictures to figure out the story. This is an excellent book for getting kids to make connections to their own sibling conflicts and playground battles. (Is the swing that important? Why must you have it right now?) But, of course, Why? is more obviously a teaching tool as children hear of world wars and civil wars that have killed millions and maimed even more. By the end of the book, the illustrations are bleak, the landscape singed, the prized flower and umbrella more suited for a landfill.

As I “read” this book to a grade six class recently, holding up each page, stopping at a few points to let them talk in groups, I heard one girl say, “I like this book. I have to do all the thinking!” She and her classmates were fully engaged.

In the Author’s Note, Popov recalls his own experiences as a child in a Russian town during World War II. He is clear about the purpose of Why? “I have created this book because it seems to me that if children can understand the senselessness of war, if they can see how easily one can be sucked into a cycle of violence, they may become a force for peace in the future.”

Why? is a prime example of how picture books can introduce children to complex subject matter. As we remember those who have been killed, wounded and harmed by war, it serves as the impetus for hope. This is a book that should be widely read...and gifted to world leaders.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Written by Nadine Brun-Cosme

Illustrated by Olivier Tallec

(Enchanted Lion Books, 2011)

This book would make a wonderful companion piece to A Visitor for Bear, my previous post. Like Bear, Big Wolf is accustomed to a life of solitude. He lives on his own under a tree on a hilltop. Then one day he spots a dot in the distance. The dot moves closer and gets bigger. Big Wolf worries. Will the dot, which now resembles another wolf, continue all the way to Big Wolf’s spot? And will the imposter turn out to be Bigger Wolf? The answers: yes and no. Apparently because New Wolf is, in fact, Little Wolf, Big Wolf allows the foreigner to hover under the tree on the hilltop.

“They didn’t say a word to one another, but they watched each other out of the corners of their eyes. Their looks were curious—not mean or suspicious at all.”

Little Wolf does not leave. Nightfall comes and the two settle in for a chilly slumber under the tree. Big Wolf, while peeved, shares “a teeny tiny corner of his leaf blanket”, reasoning, “‘That is certainly enough for such a little wolf.’”

Little Wolf is still there come morning. Little Wolf follows Big Wolf through the established routine. But then Big Wolf goes off on his own for a walk. Upon his return, he is surprised that Little Wolf is finally gone and even more surprised about how he feels.

This is a touching book, sure to make an adult reader choke up a tad upon getting to the final page. Children will enjoy the story, but won’t be quite as emotional. I suspect sentimentality comes with more experiences...or at least that is how I explain that a predictable yet satisfying ending leaves me with a lump in my throat.
Olivier Tallec’s illustrations have an abstract quality to them. The wolves are drawn simplistically, Big Wolf’s figure often roughly sketched in with white space remaining. My favorite consecutive illustrations depict the wolves under the tree at night and then in the same tree in the morning—different vantage points, while also going from wide angle to a closer shot. As well, the later close-up image of Big Wolf searching for the absent Little Wolf masterfully conveys a strong sense of emotion.

The text and illustrations within Big Wolf & Little Wolf combine to create a memorable story.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Written by Bonny Becker

Illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton

(Candlewick Press, 2008)

A stuffie named Winnie excepted, bears are not known for their social skills. I always suspected that the famous family of three, duly incensed by Goldilocks, would not have welcomed her under any circumstances. In A Visitor for Bear, author Bonny Becker solidifies the reputation of the bear as an inhospitable beast. The story begins with Bear living in a house with a “NO VISITORS ALLOWED” sign prominently posted on the front door. As Bear was, well, a bear, everyone obeyed.

Well, almost everyone. While bears have a reputation for being antisocial, mice are known to invite themselves into our dwellings (often bringing the whole extended family with them). Just as Bear begins to prepare his breakfast, he hears a “tap, tap tapping” on the door with the “NO VISITORS ALLOWED” sign. The nerve! Bear opens the door to find a mouse, “small and gray and bright-eyed.”

Grr! Bear tells the intruder to scat.

Bear goes back to the business of getting ready for breakfast with a place setting for one. The mouse reappears in the cupboard, asking the homeowner for “just a spot of tea.”

GRR! Scram, scoot, skedaddle, orders Bear.

But, of course, as everyone knows, once mice show up, it is hard to be rid of them. Mouse pops up again and again. Eventually, Bear becomes exasperated and breaks down. He caves. A bit of breakfast and then the mouse must be gone for good.

And just like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch, Bear discovers that a little companionship might actually have its rewards. Becker’s story is a heart-warming reminder that we all need a friend.

As I read the text, I enjoyed the formality with which the mouse speaks (e.g., “I do like a bit of cheese”; “Terribly sorry”) and I incorrectly surmised that Becker was from England. (In fact, she lives in Seattle.) The language makes the tale more whimsical. As well, Denton’s illustrations, done with soft watercolors, ink and gouache, add to the warmth of the story. Bear’s home resembles a manor one would imagine in the English countryside and the ursine homeowner’s expressions are priceless, worth a second perusal. There is one picture near the story’s end with Bear holding the teapot and eying the mouse that I especially adore. Not surprisingly, A Visitor for Bear is one of a series of Bear and Mouse books by Becker and Denton. The other titles are The Sniffles for Bear, A Bedtime for Bear and A Birthday for Bear. (Seems that, along with the notoriety, Bear’s friend gets a capital M in the subsequent books.)

A Visitor for Bear is a warm, fuzzy read that deserves many visits!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Written by Dan Harper

Illustrated by Cara Moser & Barry Moser

(Harcourt, 2001)

You’ve seen them. Big, slobbery dogs that stick their heads into everything and tune out their owners. You may even have one. I have a dog who thinks he’s big—same behaviours, except for the drooling (Thank goodness!). These pooches have a will of their own. I like to think of mine as independent or even hard of hearing instead of untrained or, well, not so bright.

You know Truman is one of these dogs just from reading the title, Sit, Truman! As the supposed master barks this first command, the cat sits obediently (albeit, on a counter) while looking off in the distance and Truman’s little dog buddy Oscar sits and looks up at the owner, awaiting the next command or, even better, a treat. Truman hopes for a treat as well, offering a massive paw for and handshake, but failing to heed the “sit”.

Each page features an expressive watercolor painting of Truman and a concise statement from the owner, trying to redirect the independent/hard of hearing/untrained/not so bright dog.

“Truman, stop drooling.” Wishful thinking. A wet toy rests beside the lounging beast, his eyes closed, front paws crossed, mouth open, tongue dangling, saliva oozing to the floor. The owner’s arm appears in the illustration, a rag in hand to sop up the slobber.

Truman pokes his head in the toilet for a thirst quencher and later investigates the inside of the mailbox. (I smell the mailman, but I don’t see the mailman. Drat!)

Truman does whatever comes to mind. He’s a challenge, but a big, drooling, lovable one. In his own way, he’s a mighty good dog.

Any dog owner, young or old, will enjoy this quick read. The expressive, realistic illustrations will have children making a renewed pitch for a dog...or a second (or a third) dog. Come, on! Just look! He’s so cute!

Why, yes, he is.