Sunday, January 26, 2014


Written by Jodi Moore

Illustrated by Howard McWilliam

(Flashlight Press, 2011)

It’s easy to get lost in one’s imagination when building a sandcastle.  Some of us just get more blessedly lost than others. Indeed, the unnamed boy in When a Dragon Moves in would assert that imagination is not at play at all—his beach encounter is entirely real.

When the boy’s family arrives at the beach, he constructs a perfect sandcastle and, naturally, a dragon takes up quarters. [Dragons have good taste after all. And castles are so much more inviting when they are free of knights and distressed damsels.]

The boy and the dragon have a grand time playing together. Turns out that, in addition to their inherent marshmallow-toasting abilities, dragons make good rafts when it’s time to cool off in the water. Despite having the most awesome beach buddy ever, the boy eventually seeks his family’s attention. Shockingly, they are not the least bit interested in the dragon. They don’t even believe there’s a dragon. When the boy implores his mother to listen to the fierce creature, she doesn’t even look up from her beach read as she says, “I hear the roar of the ocean.”


Things get even worse when the boy gets blamed for the dragon’s deeds. Take, for instance, the fingerprints-on-all-the-brownies episode. Why those aren’t fingerprints at all! How can anyone be unaware that dragons LOVE brownies?! With the boy getting all the blame for every infraction, he must reconsider whether his perfect sandcastle, along with its new resident, is worth the trouble.

I picked up this book after a class at my school developed an interest in creating kingdoms and communities in a sand pit at our school. They delighted in this picture book and agreed to disagree by book’s end as to whether the dragon was indeed real or a product of the boy’s imagination.

McWilliam’s pencil drawn, digitally painted images perfectly portray the sights of summer and children will instantly befriend the highly expressive red dragon. (As much as McWilliam tries to make the boy an endearing character as well, the character is always overshadowed by the larger than life dragon.) Adults, in turn, will enjoy the realism depicted of a day at the beach and the family’s interactions.  

Like Mattland, When a Dragon Moves in is a celebration of the kind of imaginative play that arises from a small plot of sand or dirt. It’s worth a read.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


Written by Julie Fogliano

Illustrated by Erin e. Stead

(Roaring Brook Press, 2013)

Waiting for a particular animal to show itself in nature can test anyone’s patience. It can be even more challenging for a young child. Just recently, I reread Jane Yolen’s classic Owl Moon about a young girl who treks out to the woods in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse of a wise bird. This time around, it is a boy who goes whale watching (from his living room window) with his dog.

If you want to see a whale

you will need a not-so-comfy chair

and a not-too-cozy blanket

because sleeping eyes can’t watch for whales

and whales won’t wait for watching


Author Fogliano presents several distractions that might make the boy miss the elusive whale. For instance, who would have ever thought that a rose would compete with the massive mammal? The radical juxtaposition makes it all the more memorable.

This book celebrates all the unexpected sightings before the [SPOILER ALERT] ultimate appearance of the humpback whale. Part of me didn’t want a whale to surface. Why not appreciate all the other things one identifies when senses are on high alert? Why not appreciate the non-sighting? One could argue that Fogliano does that AND coughs up the whale to boot.

Erin Stead’s illustrations keep the focus on the boy, the dog and whatever is currently in sight. The backgrounds include large blocks of white space and nautical blues and greens. Stead’s interpretation highlights the relationship between a boy and his dog above and beyond anything else...even the whale. Through art, she provides another important voice in this book.

Despite my quibble, readers will be satisfied with the ending as well as the journey. This is a quiet, delightful book to make young boys more aware of their senses and surroundings. If you want to see a different side of a boy, then read If You Want to See a Whale.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Written by Chris Barton

Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

(Little, Brown and Company, 2010)

Preposterous, right? Under what circumstances would a shark compete against a train? You only have to spend an hour with a couple of boys and a box full of toys to see the possibilities. Indeed, that is where the standoff begins in this book. Even before the title page, two boys rush to the toy box, one selecting the toy shark (“GRRRRR”), the other choosing the choo-choo (“CHUGRRR-CHUG”). It’s a battle to the finish...or until the next distraction comes along.

I love this clever, absurd book. It celebrates boys’ imaginations and the shenanigans that can only come from free, unstructured play. Shark and train compete in a variety of situations. Some favor the shark—the hot-air balloon ride, for example. Unfortunately, train is deadweight.
My favorite of Tom Lichtenheld’s illustrations portrays advantage train as the two characters roast marshmallows. The locomotive smiles contentedly—perhaps a tad smugly—as it browns the treat with its engine. By contrast, poor shark can’t keep a fire going as he keeps dripping over the kindling. “Drat” indeed!

The situations get even sillier—sword fighting on a tightrope, space travel—just the way children’s play evolves. Younger children will be drawn to the illustrations and the expressions on the toys’ faces. Older children will appreciate the edgier humor such as when shark dons a party hat, goes trick-or-treating and says to the person with a bowl of candy at the door, “This clown is very hungry.” Oh, my!

I am a huge fan of Tom Lichtenheld’s work. (By golly, my last post just so happens to be another picture book that he illustrated.) He gives the viewer a little something extra as train’s distinct little red caboose doesn’t always chug along so well with the rest of the procession. The caboose reminds me of the tiny cloud in his delightful Cloudette. And, yes, I will be looking for more from author Chris Barton. For now, I cannot wait to take Shark vs. Train on a tour as a read-aloud in classrooms at school.

It does not matter who wins these goofy battles between the two toys. The true winner is the reader.