Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Written by Lori Degman 

Illustrated by Colin Jack 

(Simon & Schuster, 2010) 

Who originated the expression “party animal”? During all the years I watched “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”, I don’t recall a scene with flamingos frolicking by a watering hole, greeting a herd of wildebeests who decided to crash the party. And yet the term sticks. 

Rather than question it, Lori Degman’s 1 Zany Zoo decides to just go with it. 

When kids go to the zoo, they want to stay until closing. “But we haven’t seen the penguins! Or the blue-dotted moth!” If a meltdown doesn’t ensue, a family may indeed stay for the duration. 

1 Zany Zoo does to zoos what the movie “Night at the Museum” does to museums: it imagines the frivolity that goes on after the patrons go home. Degman sets her rhyming tale early in the morning as an eager crowd lines up outside the zoo entrance. One boy can’t wait; he sneaks in through a gate. 

Oh, what he sees! It’s a circus inside that zoo! 

All starts off unremarkably. Animals sleeping, zookeeper sweeping. 

But then: 1 fearless fox grabbed the zookeeper’s keys. He used them to set all the animals free. Yep, get the party started. The antics go up, notch after notch, as the reader counts to ten. 2 sporty zebras,...3 fussy beavers,... 

My favorite verse pertains to the number six: 6 groovy ‘roos tapped the beat with their shoes, and laughing hyenas sang rhythm and blues. A lizard in sunglasses wailed on the sax, while monkeys kept time on the box turtles’ backs. That I’d like to have seen on “Wild Kingdom”—could’ve replaced the lion-noshing-on zebra footage, thank you very much. 

There is great humor in this book. It’s worth tracking down to find out what changes the fickle leopards wish to see and what makes the zoo elephants anxious. 

Colin Jack’s digital illustrations add to the amusement. He has a distinct drawing style, using jarring angles and slopes to help create the characters. The pictures also invite the viewer to linger to take in the extras. The chimps try to steal a few scenes, but it’s a totally into it koala bear that wins my heart on the page featuring the number 10. 

Is this what really happens behind locked gates at zoos? The boy in the book swears it’s a true story. Who am I to question? 1 Zany Zoo is a celebration of authentic party animals.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Written by Frieda Wishinsky

Illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay

(Groundwood Books, 2007)

There is nothing worse than a little sister. Except perhaps a little brother. Or an older brother. Or an older sister.

To be sure, it is a challenge growing up with one or more siblings. When you and best bud Billy disagree over whether Superman or Spiderman rules, you (or Billy) can stomp away and retreat to your own home. But with a sister or brother, there is no escape. Even if you are lucky enough to have your own room, a KEEP OUT sign and a barricaded door aren’t enough (especially when bean bags and pillows are the only things you can lug over to block entry).

In Please, Louise!, Jake cannot escape his lively little sister, Louise. It makes no difference whether he begs or orders her to go away. Nope, she’s here to stay.

Reasoning does not work:
“I’ll move and you’ll never find me,” said Jake.
“I’ll find you,” said Louise. “I know your name.”
“I’ll change my name,” said Jake.
“I’ll always know your face,” said Louise.
“I’ll wear a disguise,” said Jake.
“You can’t change your voice,” said Louise.
“Yes, I can,” growled Jake.
“You’re my brother,” said Louise. “You can’t change that.”

Ugh! Takes me back to my own childhood (although my siblings today would unite and say I was the pesky Louise). Yes, the story is relatable to all of us who’ve ever craved downtime. But then what happens when there is finally a moment of solitude? (Yes, Jake finally gets what he wants.) Can we savor the silence or, instead, do we finally come to appreciate the Louise in our life?

Marie-Louise Gay’s illustrations bring out the personalities of Jake and Louise to make Frieda Wishinsky’s story even stronger. In somewhat of a gender role reversal, Jake is the one craving quiet time to read a book while Louise is the imp who bounces about with a party horn and soccer ball—inside the house (GASP!). She literally swings from the light fixture. Thankfully, Jake is not stereotyped as a fusspot. His hair is almost as unruly as Louise’s. (Wild hair is a Marie-Louise Gay trademark. See Yuck, a Love Story.) He packs a suitcase in such a way that half the contents will not make it from Point A to Point B. Most amusingly, when he searches the shed, he leaves a messy trail in his wake.

Give Please, Louise! a read. I’m not sure that it will create more tolerance amongst siblings, but it might allow those of us who survived childhood an opportunity to appreciate the fact we have our own place while still being nostalgic over all our attempts to ward off (or bother) our beloved brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


By Peter Holwitz (Philomel Books, 2005) Oh, how I love this book! Every time I read it, I need a moment. I need to savor the awe I feel toward Peter Holwitz’ work. I need to ponder how he created such a glorious picture book, one that addresses differences, prejudice and societal change in a common sense manner, so easy to grasp. As the story begins, Scribbleville is a pleasant little community where everyone has a certain sameness. Everything in their little world is comprised of swirly black doodles, from the houses to the bicycles to the actual people and their clothes. And then something disturbs the peace. A truck pulls into town. It is quite the sight: all straight lines and curved lines. There are no swirls whatsoever, not even spewing from the exhaust pipe. But it gets worse. The driver of the straight truck also lacks any scribbles to define him. Like the truck, he’s created by straight and curved lines, too. How utterly different. Of course, this makes the townsfolk very uncomfortable. Why would a man so straight and so slim Want to live in a town where no one’s like him? The Scribblers shun the newcomer with the newly erected straight house and straight picket fence. But then someone visits Mr. Straight’s house. [A] woman walked up. Her hair was a mess. She wore a big smile and a red scribbled dress. And, as if it were the perfectly normal thing to do, the straight man and scribbly woman begin a conversation. Perhaps as a nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the red-dressed woman is the first character to appear in color. To be sure, she stands out from the rest of the Scribble People. That single encounter changes everything. While the townsfolk judge her, she straightens much of her scribbly hair. He, in turn, buys “a new shirt he might not have before”, one comprised of blue and yellow scribbles. Scribble People respond with hysteria. This won’t be the last of The Straights! They’ll invade! “There’ll be more of them than there are of us!” As with many changes, the children prove most ready to accept. One boy mixes scribbles and straight lines in a drawing and his peers see how both styles combine to make something better. And then there is no turning back. It’s tough to say—to pick one day. Things never change overnight. But before too long, what once felt wrong, started to feel a bit right. Yes, everything about Scribbleville feels right. I love many picture books, but this is one of my all-time favorites. For teachers, there are so many instances when this book can be used. I have used it in grade one classes and the children are dazzled by the style of drawing. After I read it, they excitedly draw scribble pictures, straight pics and scenes that include a bit of both. The less confident artists find the scribble style quite freeing. (Include me in that “less confident” cluster!) I would love to use this book as a tie-in to discussions on immigration, racism, prejudice, mixed families and homophobia. Like The Dot, it’s a title can be pulled from the shelf for repeated readings. I don’t see how anyone would tire of it! A special thank you to school librarian Lisa Strong who heard me rave about Scribbleville a year and a half ago and kept looking for a copy. The fact this book went out of print offends me. Scribbleville should become a classic for both its entertainment value and its potent message.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Written by Eve Bunting 

Illustrated by David Frampton (Clarion Books, 2001)

While I adore picture books that make me laugh, I am awed by picture books that address complex subject matter deeply and memorably in a mere thirty-two pages. Riding the Tiger is a meaningful book deserving an annual read in families beginning when a child is about eight years old and continuing through adolescence. 

The direct topic involves gang membership, but the story is written broadly enough to generate discussions about drug culture and the dangers of peer pressure. Complex matter, indeed. Danny is alone. His particular circumstance is that he has just moved to a new area, but other vulnerable children may be socially isolated for other reasons. A tiger approaches. A tiger! How cool, how fierce, how flattering. 

The tiger offers, “Why don’t you hop on my back and we’ll take a ride.” 

Irresistible, right? 

If cavorting with a tiger doesn’t seem dangerous enough, red flags are raised when Danny says, “I’ll have to tell my mom where I’m going” and the tiger responds, “If you do, she won’t let you.” 

Initially, riding the tiger is exhilarating. Danny and the tiger get noticed. But the people who notice don’t seem happy to see the tiger on the prowl. People clear the way whenever the tiger approaches. Danny is impressed. The tiger explains, “I always get respect. And whoever is with me gets respect, too.” 

An older teen playing basketball invites Danny to get off the tiger’s back and join in the game. The tiger disdainfully says that guy is always going on about options. What could be better than hanging with an all-powerful tiger? 

Oh, and, getting off is NOT an option at all. And that is Danny’s dilemma. He’s been swept up by the tiger’s power. The awe wanes. Caution, even fear, emerge. But how can he break free from the claws of the beast? 

Many young readers will not understand the symbolism on the initial reading. Some parents or teachers may wish to keep the discussion to a strangely literal story about a boy swept under the rule of a tiger in an urban environment. A subsequent read—the next day or perhaps the next year—may lead to more insight from the listener. I would prod the audience. Is that all there is to the story? How does this make sense? Talking tigers on the loose in the city? What is the author’s message? Who is the tiger supposed to be? Help the audience come up with some ideas. Symbolism can be difficult for younger children. 

Once the story is explained, I would read the story again to allow the audience to see how the symbolism fits on every page. The a-ha moments can be shared and discussed. 

This book needs to be revisited. Use it to discuss peer pressure as well as to talk about the dangers posed by drug dealers and gang members. Scary stuff? Absolutely! That is why Eve Bunting chose as tiger as the alluring antagonist. David Frampton’s dark woodcut illustrations perfectly complement the text to create a dangerous tone. 

Riding the Tiger is an important book that should not be overlooked.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Written by Dr. Seuss

Pictures adapted by Mel Crawford

(Random House, 1950)

When I think of Dr. Seuss books that have a prominent message, The Lorax, The Butter Battle Book and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! come to mind. I don’t believe Dr. Seuss penned the story for the Oscar-winning animated short “Gerald McBoing Boing” with any serious intent, but I do find something deeper behind the fun, particularly in the context of today’s education system.

On a surface level, this story is about a misunderstood boy who, like that reindeer Rudolph, is too different to be accepted by playmates, teachers and even his father. It’s not Gerald’s nose; rather, it’s his voice. As a baby, his first clear utterance isn’t “Mama”; no, it’s “BOING BOING!” Little Gerald doesn’t speak words. He makes sound effects.


When his parents send him to school, Gerald is sent home with a note from his teacher:

You little son Gerald’s
a most hopeless boy.
We cannot accept him,
for we have a rule
That pupils must not go
Cuckoo in our school.
Your boy will go HONK
all his life, I’m afraid,
Sincerely yours, Fanny Schultz,
Teacher, First Grade.

Subjected to ridicule and rejection, Gerald runs away. Fortunately, he meets the owner of a radio station who sees Gerald’s quirk as an employable asset. And just like Rudolph, Gerald is warmly accepted (even revered) by those who’d once viewed him as hopelessly flawed.

Sixty-two years ago, many children were outright denied access to the school system. Many educators like the fictitious Fanny Schultz deemed some kids uneducable. While I am sure Dr. Seuss meant for this story to be about accepting, even appreciating, differences in people, I doubt he wrote it as an indictment of the state of special education. Still, I can’t read this adapted version of the film without thinking of children who have used communication boards and assistive technology to better express themselves in regular classrooms. I also think of parents who struggle to come to terms with the reality that their child has special needs. Gerald’s father, Mr. Cloy, reacts with despair, shame, even anger. For many parents, there is a grief process that precedes understanding and acceptance.

This is yet another book to add to a class library collection on bullying and putdowns. But it is also a valuable discussion starter for identifying each child’s strengths and celebrating these gifts.

The illustrations in Gerald McBoing Boing may disappoint. They are not the work of Dr. Seuss, but have been adapted by Mel Crawford from the animated work of Bill Melendez, Rudy Larriva, Pat Matthew, Willis Pyle and Frank Smith. If the book is used at home or in school, I suggest following up with a viewing of the six-minute animated short. The film supplants words like boing and cuckoo with the conventional sound effects, making it clearer that Gerald does indeed have something truly special to offer.

Friday, March 2, 2012


By Dr. Seuss

(Random House, 1978)

In honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday, this post focuses on one of the master’s lesser known works, a book I believe deserves more attention.

When I pull out I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!, not many children or adults recognize it. The book is not a Dr. Seuss classic and, heavens, it will never become a movie starring the hot comedian du jour. This despite the fact that the Cat in the Hat is the main character.

Still, I like to use this book as one of my first read-alouds at the beginning of the year. In fact, I often read it two or three times. I challenge the audience to think critically about the message. Is there even a message other than that crocodiles look silly in pants and knees on trees are even sillier?

At its core, this book goes beyond helping beginning readers. It is a springboard for thinking about how we read and why we read. One part rubs me the wrong way: “You have to be a speedy reader ‘cause there’s so, so much to read!” The last thing I want is for young readers to race through the pages of a book the way they whiz through math facts or run to the sycamore tree to avoid being the rotten egg. Reading goes deeper. (Yes, so does math.) Reading is an interactive experience between an author’s words, an illustrator’s pictures (when they exist) and a reader’s own thoughts and images. Speed reading compromises all components, but may wholly eliminate the reader’s own contribution to the process of understanding and appreciating. I have always been a slow reader. I like to ponder the word choice, the message and my own thoughts and reactions. I can’t imagine short-changing my experience for the sake of speed.

Thankfully, one of Seuss’s most quoted statements also appears in the book:
The more that you read,
the more things you will know.
The more that you learn,
the more places you’ll go.

That is something the good Doctor and I can agree on!