Children’s Fiction

By | April 28, 2013

(Also see the posts Children’s Classics and All Ages Manga.)

Jane Simmons

Quack, Daisy, QUACK! is a colorful picture book with two big bonuses: ducks quacking and the Monet-ish pond and garden backdrops.  (With the exception of the first and last pages, the book consists of two-page oil paintings.)  The ducks themselves (featuring yellow duckling Daisy and her younger brother Pip – okay, not a natural biological phenomena to have sibling ducklings of distinctly different ages) are sufficiently rendered in deceptively simple color blocks and Simmons gets a lot of expression out of simple black dot eyes and thin black line ‘lips’ (the demarcation between upper and lower bills); but it’s the layers of color – including streaks of red, lavender, and white in with the expected blues and greens in the pond water – and the nuances such as the ducks’ watery reflections which give the pictures depth and complexity.  I especially liked the picture with the text “Everything went quiet.” with Daisy and Pip tail feathers to tail feathers in the pond encircled by adult ducks regarding them with mild interest.  However, though the text in that picture is in a reasonably sized thin serif font and placed over a lighter patch on the water, it may be challenging for tired adult eyes to pick out on first reading; I recommend a quick read-through in good lighting before the first bedtime read-aloud.

Daisy and the Beastie is set on a verdant English farm with shades of emerald green and duckling yellow predominating.  Daisy and her younger brother Pip look for the ‘Beastie’ of the story told by their Grandpa, a mallard.  Recalling “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” Daisy and Pip encounter various barnyard animals and mimic their sounds.  The image with the lambs recalls the sheep in the Wallace & Grommit short A Close Shave.  My favorite image – with its Matisse-like colors was the two-page spread of Daisy and Pip in the meadow with the bees (and a ladybug).  Spoiler alert: my only complaint was that the story ends with Daisy and Pip playing with the “kitten beasties” – somehow I think that the main color on that last page would have been red not green if there had been three healthy kittens (obligate carnivores) in a field with two ducklings.

Come Along, Daisy! nicely recalls the quiet canals of England’s Garden District (such as those around Mottisfont) – violet notes in the water, slightly olive-green vegetation on the canal banks, and moss green and teal underwater.  Daisy, the duckling (Pip, her younger brother, hasn’t yet been introduced to the series), is distracted by the many amusements in her watery green world and wanders off from her mother.  When confronted by the real (hawk) and perhaps not so real (large fish) dangers lurking in her world she does the smart thing and hides until Mama Duck finds her.  My favorite images were Daisy using a lily pad as a trampoline, the little monograph of two dragonflies on the copyright page, the snails trekking up the greenery (not that I’m at all fond of snails in my garden!), Daisy madly motoring toward Mama Duck (Daisy is noticeably smaller and less developed in this volume as compared to later volumes), and Daisy playing with the slightly fuzzy looking white, ocher, and black butterflies.

Tim Egan

The Pink Refrigerator introduces readers to Dodsworth, an anthropomorphic mouse living an uneventful existence selling items at his Thrift Store that he’s found at the local junkyard (a tame, neat, and fairly orderly place resembling an unmanned flea market than any junkyard that I’ve ever seen – especially in this age of waste management and diversion based on the three R’s of reduce, reuse, and recycle) until he comes across a pink refrigerator.  The pink refrigerator gets Dodsworth to try a series of hobbies that culminate in a life-changing note that serves as the lead-in to the Dodsworth in… series.

Dodsworth in… series

Tim Egan’s Dodsworth in… series offers an amusing travelogue as seen through the eyes of Dodsworth and a duck, the stand-in for a naughty kid.  (While Dodsworth sallies forth fully clothed, shod, and hatted; the duck wears only a jaunty little beret (and white feathers).  The duck talks, though he’s not particularly chatty, and uses his wingtips as though he had fingers and an opposable thumb.

Dodsworth in New York

While the series does not need to be read in order, reading New York first is helpful as it sets up the relationship between Dodsworth and the duck: Dodsworth stopped for pancakes at his favorite diner before heading out to have adventures while seeing the world; the diner’s owner and chef (an elephant named Hodges) has a duck (with no name other than “Hodges’ duck”).  The duck overhears Dodsworth telling Hodges about his plans for adventure and, looking for excitement, stows away in Dodsworth’s suitcase.  Dodsworth is not happy about the situation but feels obligated to Hodges to ensure the duck’s safe return home.  In the process of chasing and searching for the completely unrepentant duck in scenes somewhat reminiscent of “Where’s Waldo?”, Dodsworth sees much more of the sites of New York City than he’d planned.  Eventually he catches the duck – who then maneuvers Dodsworth on to a boat to Paris as he (Dodsworth) had originally planned… but with the duck as a cabin mate.

Dodsworth in Paris

In this story we learn how the otherwise apparel-less duck acquires his jaunty chapeau, a beret-like cap, and more about the duck’s propensity to generate excitement.  We are also asked to ignore details such as restrictions on work visas, the difficulty of getting a job in Paris, and the inadvisability of carrying all your travel money in cash and in an externally worn backpack (or in a suitcase as in the Rome book); tctch – Dodsworth is setting such a bad example for young travelers.  Since this is Paris, food and dining is appropriately prominently featured (see the excellent Pixar movie Ratatouille for more on Paris and restaurant food) but I would have liked to have seen more of the sites and ambiance of Paris beyond the bells of Notre Dame, the view of and from the Eiffel Tower, and the Mona Lisa in the Louvre – particularly since the Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t French and didn’t paint in France.  The French Impressionist paintings in the Musee de l’Orangerie or the Musee d’Orsay would have been much better venues for Dodsworth and the duck to visit.

Dodsworth in London

Similar to New York, Dodsworth sees a lot more of London than he’d planned while searching for the duck – who in this story has not intentional gotten separated from Dodsworth… and I can vouch for the confusion in large train and bus stations in major cities such as London: even when the verbal and written language is familiar, it’s possible to get on a vehicle in the wrong direction.  Between the two of them, the duck and Dodsworth do manage to take in several London highlights – including those not generally accessible by visitors.  The relationship between the two is growing stronger – a nice evolution.

Dodsworth in Rome

It’s not clear if Dodsworth and the duck go to Rome after London and/or Tokyo – they arrive via train which means that unless they’ve taken the Chunnel train (a train through the Channel Tunnel) they’ve made a stop on the Continent after London.  Further, unlike in the first three books, this story ends with them expressing their desire to return to Rome (by tossing coins into the Trevi Fountain) rather than a mention of their next destination.  Food and dining again takes a good chunk of the story – though I question the focus on pizza and pasta, Southern Italian dishes.

Dodsworth in Tokyo

Dodsworth in Tokyo starts with Dodsworth concerned about his somewhat unruly duck companion causing trouble in restrained, proper, and densely populated Tokyo.  Interesting that Egan chose to use hippos, pigs, and cows to represent the bulk of Tokyo’s inhabitants.  I hope to someday use the included vocabulary and culture tidbits – such as ‘wagashi‘ and the ‘Sanja Festival‘ – in a visit to Tokyo.

Serious Farm

Hah – the cover of Serious Farm by Tim Egan Features Farmer Fred – mouth hidden by a walrus mustache and wearing a low-crowned bowler – surrounded by members of his farm family all of whom have similar horizontal, brown, (figuratively) fuzzy-caterpillar eyebrows.  Various farm animals have facial hair that in some contexts could be considered to be eyebrows but definitely not the ‘serious brows’ of this amusing story.  Subtle artwork, typeset text, and a gentle moral about the desirability of a little levity in the workplace – though at the end Farmer Fred “still doesn’t see anything funny about corn”.

The Experiments of Doctor Vermin

In The Experiments of Doctor Vermin Tim Egan has once again included an anthropomorphic mouse – but as the villain (the Doctor Vermin of the title) rather than the protagonist.  Instead a recently unemployed, porcine, short-order cook with car trouble is the protagonist.  I wouldn’t think to wear my chef’s hat and kerchief for job interviews and definitely not while driving home in a little convertible.  That said, the story reads quickly and is sufficiently amusing to bear at least a few re-readings.

Ursula Vernon

Dragonbreath Series

To-date there are seven volumes in the Dragonbreath series written and illustrated by Ursula Vernon.  The volumes may be read in any order – later volumes make passing but not spoiling references to incidents documented in prior volumes… though the distinction between scientific fact and science-ish humor is not as clear in the early volumes.  This series classified as ‘Moving Up’, between the ‘Easy Reader’ and regular Juvenile fiction; the category is generally geared to first or second graders.  All of the art is in black and green with the addition of another color or two on the cover.  Somewhat unusually, the (hardback edition of the) series is printed in the USA.  One quirk is that the text is regularly interspersed with illustrations that include text balloons that need to be read in the flow of the text.  As someone who reads blocks of text that’s a little disconcerting but the  characters’ expressions – Vernon is especially adapt at using eyelids to convey disbelief and determination – more make up for it.  The main text is in a reasonably large sized subdued serif font (Stempel Schneidler); the text in the speech balloons is hand lettered and are fully capitalized in the style of a graphic novel.  I appreciate that both of Danny’s good friends – iguana Wendell and crested lizard Christiana – are STEM oriented.  For example, Christiana critiques how comic hero Super Skink breaks the laws of physics when he catches someone falling from a great height.  Mostly courtesy of Christiana and Wendell, the vocabulary is advanced – and courtesy of Danny’s questions most of the advanced words and concepts get explained.  For example, in book 6 Wendell, quoting Christiana, says “she says marriage is a bourgeois institution designed to oppress women.”  Danny responds “A bor… borjz… awuh?”

Dragonbreath

“ARR!”  The series opens with a Dave Barry-esque ‘Talk Like a Pirate’ sequence.  For the record, ‘avast’ is a nautical command to cease and desist.  I loved Mrs. Dragonbreath’s morning and afternoon personas and her immunity to Danny’s sense of humor, and her deadpan comment “It’s so hard to cook underwater.”  Danny is full of energy; not so full of forethought.  For example, “The people at the emergency room had been awfully sarcastic.  Sure, he’d been in three times that week, but it was for three completely unrelated incidents!”

Not Real References
  • Sea Serpent – Danny’s cousin Edward
  • An octopus who can generate complex color patterns
  • Kraken
Real References
  • Sargasso Sea – but it’s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean rather than directly accessible from a continental shoreline bus stop
  • Chameleons – but not in uniform driving a bus
  • The bends
  • Coral reefs, eels, puffer fish, sharks, jellyfish, mako sharks, sea cucumbers, angler fish (in all its fantastical glory in Wikipedia), vampire squid (another wild one), giant squid, whales

Dragonbreath Attack of the Ninja Frogs

Danny Dragonbreath and his best friend Wendell, an iguana, help Suki, a salamander and exchange student from Japan, with her ninja frog problem.  This volume deals very gently and naturally with cooties, bullies, and the isolation of being different – being a Japanese exchange student, for example.  All three kids have the opportunity to demonstrate courage (or in Danny’s case the fearlessness of the exuberant innocent).  I appreciate their respect for their elders and strong family ties.  For the purposes of the story Vernon has fudged ages a bit – I seriously doubt that a Japanese pre-teen girl would be participating in an exchange program and even a young teen would likely only be staying with a host family with at least one kid the same age as the exchange student… but those contradictions are readily overlooked or ignored in the flow of this most amusing adventure.

Notable Quotes

“‘Yes, Mr. Snaug,’ said Danny glumly, and resigned himself to the grip of education.”

“…it was up to Danny to provide the voice of reason.*”  “*Across the city, emergency crews, school nurses, and Danny’s parents got a sudden cold chill down their spines.”

“This did not faze Danny, who had been called much worse things, occasionally by the emergency room staff.  (Seriously, though, why would anyone make chocolate-flavored laxatives?  It was just asking for trouble.)”

“The gate was at least twenty feet tall and had big iron hinges and giant door knockers like steel chrysanthemums.  There were inset panels on the frame, showing stylized geckos.”  “Danny would have preferred something with rusted metal spikes, possibly dripping blood, and the bones of the geckos’ enemies lined up on top, but he had to admit that was more a matter of personal preference.”

Useful Terms
Not Real References
  • Ninja movies “Seven Fists of Carnage”, “Vengeance of the Thirteen Masters”, “Nine Nights of Ninjas”, and “Painted Shadows”.
Real References
  • Samurai movie Swords of Izumo could be a reference to a Japanese anime series the title of which translates to Izumo: Flash of a Brave Sword.
  • kung fu is a Chinese not Japanese martial art.
  • Alfred Wegener developed the theory of continental drift; he was also a pioneer of polar research and died on a Greenland expedition.

Dragonbreath Curse of the Were-wiener

Volume 3 in the series and we’ve progressed to another level of lunchroom humor at the Herpitax-Phibbias School for Reptiles and Amphibians with the aggressive potato salad from volume 1 making a reappearance along with lunchroom bully (and Komodo dragon – actually lizard) Big Eddy.  We learn that potato salad and hot dogs are ancient enemies – at least the industrially processed strains… or maybe the reference is to the battle that rages in the stomach of one who eats too many greasy, rubbery doggies and gluey, pasty tater salad.  ‘Weiner pox’ – a big government hush-up. Danny’s teacher regularly refers to Danny as “a fantasy-prone personality” – which is okay given that dragons aren’t real anyway.  “Other students in the hallway glanced over at the woldly flailing dragon, saw that it was Danny, and looked away again.”  Wendell: “Do you ever worry that your childhood is warping you in some fashion?”  Danny: “Are you kidding?  I’m counting on it.”  “Living with Danny had really sharpened her [Danny’s mother’s] hearing.”  Wendell, in reference to graffiti on the sewer walls: “How can you misspell that?  It’s only got four letters!”  In the potato salad’s reception hall “There were dustpans, dustbins, dust bunnies, and broken DustBusters.”  Were-wieners (or at least the alpha wurst) leave red trails of ketchup.  “Focus your chi.  Invoke the energy of fire” – advice for us all to live by.

Not Real References
  • Giant lava earwigs – earwigs are real and plenteous but there aren’t known to be ones the size of cows, subsisting on lava and hot rocks.
  • Posters in Wendall’s room refer to “Superskink” and “Single Cell Samurai”. Probably the comic book hero Super Amoeba in the Squish series comes closest.
  • Comic collection Empire of Feathers.
  • Phibbias
Real References
  • A poster in Danny’s locker refers to the very real “Free Comic Book Day” held the first Saturday in May… though the free comics are usually pretty abbreviated.
  • White (albino) peacocks do exist and are thought by some to portend eternal happiness.
  • Joseph Campbell, catchphrase “follow your bliss”, author primarily of non-fiction exploring the hero’s journey in mythology.

Dragonbreath Lair of the Bat Monster

In Volume 4, Dragonbreath Lair of the Bat Monster, Ursula Vernon addresses “Danny’s bizarre bus-ride-bending field” since a summer afternoon bus ride into the heart of Mexico’s bat country from an unspecified US suburb is even more of a stretch than a bus ride to the ocean (in Volume 1 to visit Danny’s cousin Edward, a Sea Serpent).  My favorite moment in this story was the introduction to Honduran white bats – which from the description they share white, fluffy cuteness traits with Birman kitties.  This is in contrast to the giant ‘death bat’ Camazotz of Mayan legend and the spectral bat (aka giant false vampire bat) which have a prominent place in the story.  The real life status of the latter is ‘nt’ (not threatened), their range extends from southern Mexico to northwestern Brazil, and their wingspan is up to 39″.  Pollinators such as bats and bees need all the good press that they can get these days.

Dragonbreath No Such Thing As Ghosts

Relatively speaking this was not my favorite in the Dragonbreath series – but I’d still much rather read Dragonbreath No Such Thing As Ghosts than most other (nominally designated) kids books.  Speaking as someone who crafted my own Halloween costumes, while I felt sympathy for Wendell in his hard-to-understand costume (a hydrogen atom based on pie plates), I was annoyed at the idea that the choices were between the mother sewing an outfit or buying one.  Where’s the creativity?  Wendell’s mom should be considered lame (but well-meaning) for deciding the theme of Wendell’s costume – rather than for her lack of crafting skills.  Indirectly this volume offers reasoning for discontinuing the custom of going door-to-door trick or treating – costume parties and/or trick or treating at the mall or in a quiet business district (after holding a costume parade) are much kinder to adults and kids alike.  Wendell’s sad parting with his candy is touching – Halloween is his annual antidote to his mom’s proclivity to only offer sugar-free or carob candy… but at least she doesn’t sequester his Halloween candy.

Danny compares the ghost to his annoying, whiny seven-year-old cousin.  Fortunately for his cousin (and for Danny’s soul), the cousin comes in to his own in the next volume, Dragonbreath Revenge of the Horned Bunnies.

Notable Quotes

Wendell: “I’m kind of counting on the pity candy.”  “That was the nice thing about being friends with Danny – your traumas never had time to settle in.”

Narrator: “The Dragonbreaths lived on a quiet street,*”  “*Well, quiet except for Danny.  The regular parade of ambulances, fire trucks, and emergency plumbers livened up the street substantially, and Danny could never figure out why the neighbors weren’t more grateful.”

Danny: “When Ms. Brown had them read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in class, Christiana had said it was a Victorian romanticization of an outmoded pagan belief system, and c’mon, that wasn’t normal.”

Danny’s Dad: “You guys know the drill.  I’ll stand back here and look uncool.”

Not Real References
  • Periodic table or countries of the world bandages.  (Each bandage in the latter set depicts facts such as GDP about a different country.)
  • enkimmu, a Babylonian ghost… probably a reference to edimmu.
Real References
  • Danny and not Christiana was correct: the plural of ‘mongoose’ is ‘mongooses’.  The word comes from ‘mangûs’, a word of Dravidian origin.  (Dravidian is the family of languages spoken in Sri Lanka and southern India including Tamil, Telugu, and Gondi.  Did Ghandi speak a little Gondi?)
  • Most kids don’t like Milk Duds
  • Salmonella bacterium (Christiana’s costume) have cilia and are not related to the fish (salmonella was named in honor of Daniel Elmer Salmon) but are not naturally purple in color.
  • bullroarer “an ancient ritual musical instrument”
  • Occam’s Razor – the fewer the assumptions the better
  • All Hallows’ Eve – though Vernon misplaced the apostrophe (All Hallow’s Eve).

Dragonbreath Revenge of the Horned Bunnies

Dragonbreath Revenge of the Horned Bunnies is the sixth volume in the series but my first, picked up for the jackalope featured on the cover.  What a hoot!  I’m not sure if a kid (or adult) who hadn’t attended summer camp would appreciate this book quite as much but I had several LOL moments while reading it.  For example, Danny Dragonbreath’s mom, arms folded in front and leaning against the door frame of Danny’s bedroom, gives Danny a sideways look with a (pale green) lid 1/3 down and says “I’d tell you not to do anything [at summer camp] worth tattling on, but I realize that’s asking too much.”  Oh, burn.  And, in case you usually skip the Copyright page, Vernon’s inscription reads “This one’s for my dad, who explained to me what a jackalope was, and then that they weren’t real, and then why anybody would make one in the first place, and then what “gullibility” and “profit motive” meant, back when I was younger than Danny.”  As a former camp counselor of a cabin of 3 – 8th graders, I howled at “campers had to spend a whole twenty minutes cleaning the cabin every morning and making sure the sleeping bags were neatly made.  As far as Danny was concerned, there was a lot you could do with twenty minutes, including sleeping late…”  (Many of the girls had never before had to clean toilets or sinks – or even sweep floors – so I had to provide basic training the first day or two of each camp session; some of the male counselors could probably have used some remedial training.)  The scene in which Danny makes “a very wrong turn” coming back from a middle of the night restroom trek reminded me of summers camping in Yosemite.  Wendell, shoulders sadly slumped, in response to having to interrupt a breakfast of “frosted cereal“, “Bran.  That’s all my mom buys.  Bran.  Endless… endless… bran.”  He has the same look later in the story when he misses out on s’mores.  “Wendell’s mother had made a health-food s’more once with carob and gluten-free graham crackers.  The iguana still had nightmares.”  Hah – reminded me of my brother’s grade school buddy who bought (at an exorbitant price) my brother’s lunch candy since his mom only bought healthy snacks.  We counselors had to keep campers from pouring sugar on their sugared cereal – ugh.  I wasn’t a huge fan of s’mores but I made them more palatable by bringing my own chocolate (extra dark) to the campfire.

Interesting how Vernon weaves in plugs against poaching and domesticating or otherwise capturing wild animals into what is otherwise a fairly lighthearted story.

Helpful definition: per Urban Dictionary in an online gamer context ‘gank’ is a contraction of ‘gang kill’; the older (British Colonial) definition means to steal or take something that doesn’t belong to you.

Dragonbreath When Fairies Go Bad

Dragonbreath When Fairies Go Bad is the seventh volume in the series.  Makes me want to take a bus trip just to see if the destinations are as magical as Danny’s.

Opens with a giant pumpkin dream – a la Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival.

Fairy ring of mushrooms

“He’d had an awful nightmare, a real brain-burner, but he was awake now.”

“- normally on Saturday mornings he [Wendell] was watching cartoons and trying to choke down his mother’s bran waffles.”  “Low-calorie organic sodium-free agave nectar syrup-alternative was congealing around the edges.  The bran waffles had the dubious distinction of weighing more than the waffle iron they were cooked on, and they sat in your stomach like a syrup-coated bowling ball.”

“Danny played his trump card.  ‘The coffeepot hasn’t been touched.'”…  “‘Right,’ said Wendell.  ‘This is an emergency.  I’ll be there in twenty minutes.'”

Amanita mushrooms

Wendell: “It’s true.  In some forms of Jungian philosophy, myths and fairy tales are believed to represent a culture’s dreams.”

The city bus transfer point for Faerie is on a road of dull gold brick with cornfields in the distance and an enormous field of scarlet poppies nearby.  “Far off in the distance, a house appeared high in the sky and fell to the ground.”  A flying monkey offers commentary in passing.  Christiana states that there aren’t any six-legged vertebrates (two wings counting as two legs).  Wendell comments about a panda’s thumb – actually a mutated wrist bone instead of a sixth digit.

Thomas the Rhymer, a mortal bard trapped in Faerie, and the Rhymer’s curse.  Non-rhyming words: orange, silver, month, and pint.

Per Wendell, “Some fairies vanish if you give them clothes, like brownies.”

Blackbirds with high, eerie giggles.  Birds wearing masks over their eyes and beaks.

Miniature houses each with six small insect legs marching across the path.  “…the final house – a trailer with a bent satellite dish – tromped past” – house-bugs.

A fox with a spell like a rope of thorns tangling its tail.

Ways to break a fairy spell: cold iron, salt, holy water, peeled rowan wand bathed in full moon’s light, and the tears of a maiden fair and true.  Fairy bargaining item: silver spoons – or the firstborn son of a prince or a footstool carved of unicorn hooves.  Ways to Faerie: dance in a fairy ring, enter through the ancient mound, or walk widdershins around the standing stones.

Vernon’s Cat Sidhe (kat shee) is definitely not as attractive as those in Seanan McGuire’s world.

“- a pudding cup wasn’t worth his friend’s [Wendell’s] life, although given the bran waffle situation, he could understand if the iguana felt differently”

Pitcher plants… and flies wearing little fezzes.  “tiny creatures like puffs of dandelion down with big eyes”

entreement.  Fairy oak come from acorns buried by magic squirrels – I must have some of them in my front yard.

tapir

In the lower right hand corner of a two-page spread, a snail is sheltered from the deluge under a little umbrella propped against its head and shell.

Animated twig-creatures – coming after Danny because the fairies know his name.

Not Real References
Real References

Sam Lloyd

Mr. Pusskins

Mr. Pusskins (not puss-i-kins – wonder if that’s an English vs. American thing?) is pictured on the cover as a big, orange furball with an exceedingly belligerent glower – complete with rather un-feline bushy black eyebrows.  Mr. Pusskins’s transformation in the story is nicely encapsulated in the inside cover pages: in the front two page spread we see Mr. Pusskins using the drag of his body weight to create parallel tracks of vertical gouges in bright yellow wallpaper (note that he has only three toes and claws on each paw instead of the usual four plus a dew claw); in the back Mr. Pusskins is regarding his earlier paw-work with an appalled and concerned expression.  This is not a good story for those who are still going through the loss of a pet – Mr. Pusskins’s ability to read the phone number on a ‘Lost’ poster and to then use a pay phone to call the number (including finding two crowns (English coins) to operate the phone) and Emily’s (Mr. Pusskins erstwhile adoring human companion) ability to recognize his ‘Meow’ and to know from where he’s calling raise too many unrealistic expectations.  Those little leaps (and pounces) of logic aside, this is a nice little story of a prodigal kitty with reasonably readable lettering, good vocabulary, good color blocking, and a very satisfying ending.

Maira Kalman

Next Stop Grand Central

Kalman’s tenth book, Next Stop Grand Central is a lovely homage to those passing through and working at Grand Central Terminal (yes, ‘Terminal’ not ‘Station’) in NYC.  She slips in wry references to her prior works, including a giant chicken blocking the tracks and Pete the dog.  The references to the Terminal’s beautiful astronomically-themed ceiling are impressive given that the restoration of the ceiling wasn’t completed until Fall of 1998 and the book was published in 1999.  The fun starts with the comment “Dogs ride free” at the top of the front flap of the book jacket, continues with a copyright notice hand-lettered as an outline of a train car riding on tracks with ties that read out “I have taken train trips in India and Egypt and Israel and I have never been bored because there was always some delicious character and mysterious object and lovely destination”, and concludes on the back flap of the book jacket with “She [Kalman] is currently applying for a job at Georgie’s Bakery, intent on becoming a jelly doughnut specialist.”  As she says in the profile of Terminal denizens in the late wee hours, “Great googamoogas!”  (To the despair of doughnut connoisseurs in NYC, Georgie and James Bryant retired in 1998.)  Kalman’s is well worth a look, the vocabulary and cultural references are geared for the literate who like alliteration, and the text (other than a small amount of handwritten) set in a fairly easy to read Bodoni font.

What Pete Ate From A – Z

Introduces or reminds the reader of some lovely words including xenophilous, Chinese Bulbul egg, and zaftig.  Read it for the entertaining text and colorful gouache (watercolor with chalk) illustrations – narrative art.  Be sure to pore through the inked line drawings of alphabet objects and Pete (the misguided omnivorous canine of the book’s title) poses on the inside front and back covers.  Pete’s voracious appetite for normally inedible objects (as well the usual range of purloined foodstuffs) is a little too much.  That said, I can’t blame him for the one item that he disdains: the dry dog chow in his food dish.  Most dogs are fine eating vegetables and a moderate amount of grain along with appropriate animal proteins but most dry kibble is a lot of empty calories bathed in additives and flavor enhancers – it’s very far removed nutritionally from the aforementioned whole foods served raw in a balance of at least 60% (raw) animal protein such as chicken.

Fireboat

Fireboat tells one of the many stories of heroism in the aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11 – but in a way that allows for a happy ending because the focus is on the John J. Harvey fireboat and its crew.  The first half of the story provides historical context – but for the initial launch of fireboats in New York City and for the contemporary restoration of the John J. Harvey fireboat rather than for terrorists and the geopolitical machinations.  It then presents the core events of 9/11 in a matter-of-fact, readable fashion followed by fireboat’s role in fighting fires after land-based water delivery systems were destroyed.  2014 naysayers of the City of Alameda’s launch of a fireboat would do well to remember the role of the John J. Harvey fireboat on 9/11 – and closer to (Alamedans’) home, the challenges fighting fires in the San Francisco Marina District after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

‘hot-cha’ (or ‘hotcha’) is an interjection from the early 1930s expressing approval or delight.

13 Words

13 Words written by Lemony Snicket (aka David Handler) and illustrated by Maira Kalman is delightfully random both in text and imagery.  The 13 words (a little nod to triskaidekaphobia?) are woven into a little story – which is recapped at the end by the last word, the mezzo-soprano – but the words have all the pattern of a Surrealist painting: ten nouns and three adjectives; seven simple three or four-letter words, three reasonably common 7 to 11 letter words, and three words that many adults would be hard-pressed to accurately define.  The mezzo-soprano (a female voice in classical music most comfortable in the register at the upper end of soprano and the lower end of contralto; mezzo-soprano Beyoncé’s voice is above soprano Mariah Carey’s and below contralto Lady Gaga’s) popped in at the haberdashery (used in the story to refer to a store selling apparently only hats for all ages and genders though technically in the US the word refers to a retail store selling men’s clothing and accessories (including hats) – i.e. ‘men’s furnishings’) to add a little panache (which as stated in the book means “a sense of style and excitement” as well as feathers (a feathered plume especially on a helmet)) to her attire.

Other than the 13 words (which are hand-printed), the text is typeset in a moderately large serif font printed in black on sometimes busy and/or less than ideally high-contrast backgrounds.  The sentences are generally far beyond simple reader territory in length but stick mostly to present tense, active voice.  Note that some of the repetition near the end is in quadruplets not the more usual triplets: “Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la,…”  Kalman’s artwork has the usual witty visual references to her other works and favorite touchstones: the Turkish fez, the man in the brown suit in a speed skating pose, the Cubist chair, the 15th century Belgian or Italian portraits, and the rotation of tabletop books from Kafka to Funny Jokes.

Looking at Lincoln

Maira Kalman brings her idiosyncratic and whimsical text and illustrations to paint a rounded portrait of President Abraham Lincoln.  By including odd tidbits – Lincoln’s favorite cake (at least of those made by his wife) was vanilla almond cake – along with the very weighty (the ending of the Gettyburg Address and the almost one million people killed or wounded during the Civil War, for example), Kalman carries readers through one of the grimmer periods of American history.  I particularly liked the juxtaposition of the very somber black, grey, and midnight blue spread of the riderless horse at Lincoln’s funeral (see the end notes for an explanation) with the following pink and spring green spread of cherry blossoms near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Smartypants (Pete in School)

While the Math teacher, Mr. Spitzer, has anger management issues (“10×10 Furious (which is 100% FURIOUS)”), he does wear cool boxer shorts (red with a random pattern of white numbers and a ruler waistband) and a black suit blazer with a fine white sprinkled with numbers and variables taking the place of the usual plaid or check.  Boys as well as girls are shown bored by Math class – but the two math geeks are both boys.  All the women teachers use the title ‘Miss’ – including the principal Miss Honeybee on whose desk we see an open book which reads “not a P ink” (with the ‘P’ in a big, pink square) on the left and “hat” below an image of a green fedora on the right in an homage to Magritte.  While in Miss Honeybee’s office, Pete (the extraordinarily omnivorous hound introduced in What Pete Ate From A to Z) eats the 26-volume Encyclopedia About Everything by Zelda Peabody (presumably not Darlene Zelda Peabody who passed away on September 15, 2013 in Central Point, Oregon at the age of 74), pages of which included “Bowler Hat” in another wink at Magritte, “ALHAMBRA” from Kalman’s collection of historic Tunisian postcards, and “FAUCET” which corresponds in form to Kalman’s illustration in her book The Principles of Uncertainty of a sink in the ‘Corbusier House’ (Maison Jeanerret and Maison La Roche) in Paris.  The now very erudite Pete elucidates Poppy and Mookie on topics ranging from the gumdrop mountains in China to a shrew’s diet (which is not nearly as interesting as shrew venom).  But alas!  Once Pete fully digests the data it becomes useless to him.  At least readers still have the pleasure of all that lovely vocabulary and witty imagery – from cover to cover, both inside and out.  The sanserif text is hand printed in a reasonably large size; the occasionally long sentences and complex vocabulary, concepts, and references make this book best as a read-aloud / look-together.

Ooh-la-la (Max in Love)

Ooh-la-la (Max in Love) has more text (typeset in a sans serif font in a relatively small point size for a ‘picture book’) and busy illustrations with Kalman’s usual motifs.  Sections of the book put me in mind of David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day – especially the page with Charlotte Russ Max’s French tutor.  Kalman provides little segues.  For example, in a left-hand page depicting Max’s arrival at the airport arrival she includes Picasso in the list of Parisian things superimposed over Max’s hat and the companion page to the right shows Max’s hotel room which is all in shades of blue room except the rose sky visible through the blue window frame – a nod to Picasso’s Blue Period and subsequent Rose Period.  (Picasso was Spanish but lived most of his adult life in France.)  The text has an alliterative quality that kids might enjoy – more so if the reader has first done a private reading and is familiar with French pronunciation – but they aren’t likely to otherwise get much from the text.  The unusual (for a kid) images in the drawings should capture the interest of a kid not totally saturated with simple, solid color, sharply defined cartoon art.  They’ll get the gist of the story from the art but will totally miss references such as the Caucasian woman imitating Josephine Baker doing the Danse Banane.  Not my favorite Kalman.

Daniel Handler / Lemony Snicket

(Also see 13 Words under Maira Kalman.)  Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket (a distinctive name he originally coined to use for restaurant reservations), is an alum of the San Francisco Boys Chorus and Lowell High School.

The Composer is Dead

The Composer is Dead is a kid’s symphony in the same vein as Leonard Berstein’s production of Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals with the New York Philharmonic only the former is accompanied by an illustrated book.  This work started life as a stage performance; the CD is a recording of its global premier at the San Francisco Davies Symphony Hall with Handler providing the narration and the San Francisco Symphony playing the score written by Nathaniel Stookey.  As an adult I recommend starting by listening to the CD (or at least the narrated tracks, tracks 1 – 9) to get the full effect of the surprising and very apt resolution of the mystery of the composer’s murder.  The book hews pretty closely to the performance but Handler added some bits on stage – most notably the delightful tangent about the melon-coly French horn couple who cantaloupe.  Handler’s voice is distinctive and appropriately dramatic easily filling the space and holding his own with the voices of the instruments; I was unsurprised to read that his mother was an opera singer.  Listening to the work (especially to the instrumental tracks) while driving was suboptimal; I had to keep fiddling with the volume control to adjust for the soft introductions and loud crescendos.  The book’s serif font is in a reasonably easy to read point size; the watercolor illustrations have a lot of nice detail; and each interview is prefaced with a silhouette of the instrument/s being questioned.  You may want to do a private run-through before reading aloud sentences such as the percussion instruments’ statement “We employed xylophoniness and cymbalism.”  Ha!

David Wiesner

Mr. Wuffles

I highly recommend stopping by your favorite children’s book store and looking for a copy of Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner to flip through.  The only English text is a few cajoling words from a mostly unseen human trying to convince Mr. Wuffles, a tuxedo cat, to play with the latest expensive cat toy offering.  The rest of the text is hieroglyphics and ticks marks voiced, respectively, by the insect-like aliens and the ants under the radiator.  Mr. Wuffles has taken a liking to the aliens spacecraft and so the aliens must evade him and search out materials with which to make repairs.  Wiesner has obviously spent considerable time research the subject – I especially liked the panels in which Mr. Wuffles licks the spacecraft and the one in which he rubs his chin over the top of it marking his new toy; CNP particularly liked the panel near the end (spoiler alert) with Mr. Wuffles claws extended over the edge of the window sill, glowering out at the just-departed spacecraft.  Of course there’s also the next-to-last page showing a back view of Mr. Wuffles waiting outside the radiator, tail lashing from side to side.  On the back inside cover flap, instead of the usual author’s head shot there’s a photo captioned ‘Artist and Model’ showing just Wiesner’s legs from the knees down and the real Mr. Wuffles (an alias?) seated on the floor.

Tuesday

Weirdness abounds every Tuesday evening in a smallish American town teeming with wildlife and wild life.  The sight of frogs (toads?) caroming through the air on their buoyant magic carpet lily pads is not to be missed.  We’ve entered the Twilight Zone with the two-page illustration in shades of purple, blue, and green with silvery moonlight accents of frogs hovering outside and then in the egresses of a neat two-story Colonial.  This is not a read-aloud story but rather an opportunity to introduce science fiction through a discussion of Wiesner’s quirky images in Tuesday.  Did Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Wind in the Willows inspire this delightful tale?

The Loathsome Dragon

Having read the uncensored (i.e. adult) version of a lot of the fairy tales, I found The Loathsome Dragon by David Wiesner much less enjoyable than his contemporary tales.  Even the artwork was no where near as much fun as that in Mr. Wuffles – though in the scene with the wizard, I did enjoy counting the cats and looking for the magical touches.  With regards to the story, the male heir to the throne sails off and doesn’t return when his mother dies or when his father remarries?  You’d think that in several years of mourning he might stop in.  And why is the princess wearing the same outfit and appearing to be the same age in the first scene in which we presumably see her brother’s ship sailing off and in the second scene in which she’s shown welcoming her new stepmother – particularly since in the second scene she looks all of 12 and is physically much smaller than her father and new stepmother?  Then we have the stepmother, in her first meeting with the princess, deciding to turn the princess into a ‘loathsome dragon’; should we read something more into the king’s regard for his daughter?  Nothing says ‘incest’ like an old fairy tale.  Next we have the dragon indiscriminately devouring – and yet later in the tale we’re supposed to believe that the princess has control over her mind?  I felt cheated that the wizard so easily determined that the dragon was the princess and that her brother was the one to save her – but he didn’t reveal the perp.  When the prince arrives in the harbor he fails to recognize the dragon – bespelled to stop his ship from coming to shore – as his sister.  Just how many dragons are known to be hanging around the castle?  And it’s not like the dragon / princess was trying to kill him; she was just keeping the ship from docking.  Instead, with just hours to go before the transformation becomes permanent, the prince makes his way on to land up to the dragon’s perch – and still delays, uncertain if the dragon is really his sister.  Doh!  To avoid the incest squick I would have preferred a long hug to three kisses.

Flotsam

Flotsam contains a great picture-within-a-picture-within-a-picture… sequence that’s akin to a message in a bottle chain but with much more entertaining overtones (and without the implicit littering message of tossing bottles into the ocean).  The underwater settings are a nice mashup of real and mythical elements.  The only text is on objects in the pictures.  CNP liked this one second-best after Mr. Wuffles.

Sector 7

Sector 7 is another no-text story with such detailed pictures that no text is needed (though the proper names for different types of clouds is included in the pictures).  On a field trip to the Empire State Building an artistic preteen makes friends with a cloud and proceeds to wreak havoc with the standard cloud configurations – much to the delight of window-watching cats and kids alike.  Look for Mr. Wuffles making a cameo in the last picture.

June 29, 1999

June 29, 1999 may convince some kids to eat their vegetables – or at least inspire them to plant a few radish seeds.  Sharing center stage with giant veggies is Holly, a budding scientist, who puts a different spin on Peas in Space (a Harvey Mudd College clinic project geared to send a pea growing experiment on a Space Shuttle mission).  The pictures by themselves convey much of the story but the (moderately sized serif font) text definitely enhances the story with captions such as “Lima beans loom over Levittown” (a depiction of an armada of giant lima beans flying over a subdivision of tract homes in a style reminiscent of a cross between Peter Max Pop Art and Magritte Surrealism).  A later image showing Holly in a in a broccoli ‘tree’ tree house is in the style of Maxfield Parrish.  I loved the ending twist.

Art & Max

After Mr. Wuffles I think that Art & Max is my favorite Wiesner book (at least out of those that I’ve read).  To fully capture Max’s exuberant exploration of the possibilities of various types of painting and drawing, Wiesner expands beyond his usual watercolors to a paint box that includes acrylics, pastels, and inks.  At the story’s start, Art is a bit pompous and condescending but by the story’s exit he has excavated his own truth from Max’s unorthodox approach and is reapplying himself to a new creation bursting with excitement.  This story should be coupled with a look at works by Pointillists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollack – and works by Joan Miró inspired by Pollack.  I liked the messages of taking art outdoors and breaking free from conventions and the confines of the canvas.  I also liked the photo captioned “The artist in his studio, age 11” with Wiesner’s bio on the inside back cover.  Definitely a multi-read, multi-look book.

Free Fall

Not my favorite Wiesner book but this book without written words offers plenty of opportunity for reader conjecture regarding the story being depicted.  Some of the characters harken to other Wiesner books – most notably the pigs and the dragon – and others to classic tales such as Alice in Wonderland (awakening from a dream in a living chess game) and Gulliver’s Travels.  Be sure to start by reading the poem on the front cover flap.  (If your book covers tend to get destroyed, I recommend cutting and pasting the poem on to the fly page.)

The Three Pigs

The Three (Little) Pigs of nursery rhyme go outside the page, decide that “Hey diddle diddle” is too weird a world (taking along the Cat and the Fiddle), rescue the Loathsome Dragon, pass by references to other Wiesner stories, and return home with a creative solution to the Big Bad Wolf problem.  I particularly liked the depiction of the pigs – but I’ve read more creative and quirky retellings of “The Three Little Pigs”.

Hurricane

An early effort by Wiesner, I found the story and artwork to be less engaging than his books such as Mr. Wuffles and Art and Max; perhaps I would have better connected with the story if I’d grown up in the US Northeast with hurricanes and elm trees.  I did like the little details such as the tape-faces on the storm door and Hannibal, the family’s black and white cat companion, in a cameo role as a mighty leopard (calmly washing a front paw while being stalked).

Shannon and Dean Hale

Rapunzel’s Revenge is a fairly long and complex retelling (in graphic novel form) of the classic fairy tale ‘Rapunzel’ but set in a place and time akin to the American Old West.  Jack, from Jack and the Beanstalk is her male foil.  Birman cousin alert: the jackalope devouring the old witch’s gooseberry bus.  It’s a tight story well worth many readings.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Mr. Bliss is an odd little book.  As published (in 1983 by Houghton Mifflin Company), the right-hand pages reproduce Tolkien’s hand-lettered text and pencil and watercolor illustrations while the left-hand pages provide a typeset version of the text to the right.  Tolkien originally created the story based on his own misadventures driving for the private amusement of his family prior to 1933.  While the story is whimsical and doesn’t moralize (and yet is not amoral), I’m dubious that it would have been published if not for Tolkien’s fame.  Perhaps the somewhat random characters had meaning in the Tolkien family context – much as the characters in Mother Goose were the subjects of political satire recognizable to the tales original readers.

Doreen Cronin

Duck series

Artwork by Betsy Lewin

Worm series

Artwork by Harry Bliss

I like the ‘Duck’ series better but this series has it’s charms.

Diary of a Spider – While I’m all for combating speciesism, I just don’t think that having Spider’s best friend be a fly is realistic or appropriate.  Spiders are good in large part because they kill flies which are sometimes disease and/or parasite carriers.  We should encourage kids to look kindly on spiders – but not on flies.

Daniel Pinkwater

Dancing Larry

Dancing Larry is the continuing story of Larry, a polar bear living at the eponymous Hotel Larry in Bayonne, New Jersey.  The white polar bears are delineated in thin black lines; the humans are less defined but more colorful (produced in colored markers that offer a watercolor effect).  There’s a fair amount of text (including dialog) on most of the pages with a reasonable vocabulary.  The notable feature of the text is its rhythm – it’s designed to be read aloud.  The dance (ballet) content was disappointingly thin – Larry sits in on a class, learns the basic moves – mostly off the page, teaches them to the other bears (again, mostly off the page), and then, voila, the bears stage a ballet.  Ummm.

Andrea Beaty

Rosie Revere, Engineer

Colorful illustrations – and a very appropriate end-paper pattern taken from a lab notebook – make this story appealing.  I appreciated the messages of creating new out of scrounged parts, problem solving, converting ideas into reality, and success from failure… but that last one was a bit heavy-handed in its introduction and was not then well-supported.  The story jumps from Rosie’s first flying machine failure to a little history of the successes and firsts of women in (Earthbound) flight to Rosie and her Aunt Rose building a second machine to Rosie and her second-grade classmates celebrating “each perfect failure”.  What’s a “perfect failure”?  And which of the inventions pictured are failures, perfect or not?  The copyright page at the end of the story has a picture of Rosie waving to her Aunt Rose flying away in what is presumably their homemade helicopter – but I doubt that many kids will take note of that page even though it’s placed after instead of before the story.  All that said, a big hooray for introducing engineering to kids – especially those of the female persuasion.

Bobo

I Must Have Bobo! by Eileen & Marc Rosenthal centers on Willy, Bobo, and Earl.  Bobo, a monkey plush toy, is Willy’s security blanket doppelganger so when Willy, a blond toddler dressed in peacock spotted pink PJs, wakes up without Bobo at his side, he starts throwing a tizzy fit.  Earl is a big plushy cat (of the flesh and blood persuasion) who likes to kitty pile with Bobo and is found by Willy under the covers snuggling with the “missing” Bobo.  This sets up a continuing conflict between Willy and Earl over Bobo.  Personally I was rooting for Earl since I felt that Willy was a bit of an unpleasant twit – but I’m admittedly biased toward plushy grey cats named Earl.  The artwork and lettering are reasonable.  No real lessons to be learned from this story.

Eileen & Marc Rosenthal’s second book, I’ll Save You Bobo!, features a seemingly nice little towhead boy who for some reason feels compelled to keep apart Bobo, a floppy, stuffed monkey in a yellow and black striped shirt, from Earl, a big, loving, grey cat with a white nose.  Is the little boy’s snake fetish Freudian or a Biblical reference?  Justice is served in the end.

Bobo the Sailor Man! offers a sympathetic rendering of Earl, the big grey cat who’s quite fond of Bobo, the stuffed monkey who also has the focused attention of Willy, a increasingly less likeable twit of a boy.  Willy tromps through the wild mushrooms and excludes Earl from his games with Bobo.  At least Earl once again gets Bobo (once Willy falls asleep).  The vocabulary is nothing special and the font is okay to read – though brown on cream is not as high contrast as it could be.

Peter McCarty

Fabian Escapes written and illustrated by Peter McCarty is a whimsical story of the parallel adventures of Fabian, a softly rounded charcoal grey and white cat, and Hondo, an equally softly rounded Golden Retriever.  Each two-page spread is a full-page illustration coupled with one or two short sentences.  Though the vocabulary is not particularly difficult, it is not noticeably watered down for younger readers.  I really enjoyed the dry, sardonic humor and the very evident understanding of feline and canine behaviors.  For example, the coupling of:

“Fabian strolls through the garden.

He stops to smell the flowers

and eats them.”

“Hondo goes to the kitchen.

He stops to smell the butter

and eats it.”

And then there’s “The neighbors are happy to play chase with their new friend.”… as we see Fabian gently chased by three dogs.  This is a book that will withstand multiple readings.

Rosemary Wells

Yoko series

Yoko is an anthropomorphized cat in third-grade or so who moved with her parents from Hokkaido, Japan to “Main Street, Palm City, California” – probably a reference to one of the ocean-side districts of San Diego.  Unlike in series such as Babymouse, all of the ‘people’ in this series are cats (who walk on two legs and apparently have opposable thumbs).

Yoko’s Paper Cranes

A strength of the story in Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells is that it doesn’t have a lesson to impart beyond ‘if you have some art or craft skills then you can make appreciated gifts without spending any money… assuming that you have a compliant parent who will provide the necessary supplies’.  (The repeated border with visual instructions for making an origami crane don’t count since most adults – let alone the target early grade school audience – without prior origami experience would be unable to construct a crane from these instructions… and those with prior experience most likely already know the steps to fold a crane.)  Oddly this is also the major shortcoming of the story: the tale is very placid and static with no alliteration or wit to enliven a read-aloud.

Fortunately the art – primarily paint and cut washi and origami paper – surrounding the cats is full of delightful and colorful details; the cats themselves are unremarkable.  I particularly liked the scenes with big blue and white waves (in the Western Pacific; the California coastal waters are depicted as calm cyan and white ripples) in the style of Japanese woodblock prints and the Pacific Ocean map on the endpapers.  (The map is constructed of cut paper with a representative print for each region surrounding the Pacific Ocean: pink cherry blossoms on a red background for Japan, red rice bowls on a red background for China, red stars on a blue-grey wash for Russia, snowmen for the polar land masses, chartreuse sheep for Australia and New Zealand, a pineapple for Hawaii, gold and brown mugs of steaming coffee (or cocoa) for South America, a green palm tree for Central America, red-spined green cacti on a yellow background for Mexico, red-white-and-blue plaid for the USA, and green pines on a light sea green wash for Canada.)

A book suitable for reading together while looking at the pictures which can then be used as a starting point for conversations about the differences between Japanese and American cultures.

David Milgrim

Santa Duck

Santa bestows a cap and coat on Duck and, behold!, he becomes Santa Duck… a gift that becomes burden when Duck cannot move about without being accosted by kids of all ages and animal persuasions looking to Duck to relay their Christmas lists to Santa.  Duck tries to sidestep this gift once he realizes its burden but just in time he realizes the figurative and literal rewards to be derived from helping Santa – instead of pressing Santa with his own wish list.

Santa Duck and His Merry Helpers

Definitely need to read Santa Duck before this sequel to really understand what Duck and his siblings are doing for Santa.  Other than continued amusement of singing Christmas carols in ‘quack’ Santa Duck and His Merry Helpers is forgettable – at least it’s harmlessly short.

Jackie Urbanovic

Sitting Duck

Irene has quite the feathered and furred family headed by Max, a mallard duck, and Brody, a St. Bernard.  Fortunately for her, this anthropomorphized menagerie is more than comfortable conversing in English, walking upright on two legs, and behaving as though they have opposable thumbs.  Hence we only see Irene briefly at the end of the story when she appears to take home Brody’s niece Anabel.  I appreciated Anabel’s good behavior and cheerful nature: no tantrums, wilfulness, disobedience, or deliberate destructiveness – the chaos and disorder trailing her are the natural side effects of introducing an energetic youngster into a relatively staid household of adults.  Also appreciated was the absence of electronic entertainment devices; Max and Brody engage Anabel in imaginative play with re-purposed props and outdoors physical activity.  The artwork and vocabulary are middle-of-the-road and the plot is mildly amusing – though I didn’t understand Urbanovic’s decision to have most of the household decamp before Anabel’s arrival… fewer characters to draw? continuity with the other Max books? fewer people to share the entertainment burden?  From a visual standpoint I’d like more touches like the views of Max’s photo album in the front and back inside covers.  As an adult it’s not a book that bears frequent re-readings – Cronin’s Duck and Spires’s Binky the Space Cat series are much better candidates.

Lee Wardlaw

Won Ton : A Cat Tale Told in Haiku written by Lee Wardlaw and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin is a nice blend of poetry (senryu, short, three-line poems akin to haiku) from a feline POV and graphite and gouache drawings of said feline, an elongated slender Siamese.  To complement the Japanese poetry form and the cat breed, Yelchin adds lovely Japanese woodcut effects.  Some of my favorite lines were

Sorry about the

squishy in your shoe.  Must’ve

been something I ate.

and

Your tummy, soft as

warm dough.  I knead and knead, then

bake it with a nap.

The font is easy to read.  The text is fairly short but it may take some practice to get the cadence of senryu.  The vocabulary is mixed but mostly easy.  Poor Won Ton eats dry kibble – a big no-no!

Karma Wilson

From the perspective of a dancer I really enjoyed Hilda Must Be Dancing… but I found it a little sad and a lot troubling that Hilda’s weight (she’s your average kid’s book hippo) is presented as an issue – the graceless fat girl clomping around a la the bull in a china shop – and that her performances were (presumably not by choice) always solo.  She obviously put a lot of time, effort, and money into her fabulous outfits and routines – but what’s a dance like the tango without the physical conversation between leader and follower?  On the dance floor I’ve seen some painfully awkward skinny chicks and some very well-endowed women with a mesmerizing hip sway.  She is not only oblivious to the critiques of her dancing but also to the environmental destruction she’s causing – in the final scene of her disco period she holds aloft a purple daisy roots and all.  At least she’s very good-natured about accepting and acting on her friends’ suggestions for new (presumably less disruptive) hobbies.  In the context of hippopotamus behavior, Hilda’s adeptness at water ballet in the story’s closing segment seems natural; otherwise it has overtones of “fat floats”.  (Hippos live in water only going on land to graze.  That said, at a land speed of up to 19 mph they can easily outrun humans – Quickstep anyone?)  Suzanne Watts’ oil paintings are a fairly standard jungle and savannah mashup in cheerful colors with nuanced shadings.  The text ranges from scattered sound effects to two sentences spread over six, sometimes rhyming lines in a reasonably readable serif font.  The interesting vocabulary is dance-related: ‘boogied’, ‘disco pants’, and ‘rumbaed’.

Ruby Lu

Based on Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything by Lenore Look, I’d say that the series is okay for girls around the age of Ruby Lu (2nd going on 3rd grade) but not particularly engaging for other genders or ages.  Set in Seattle (the World Famous Olde Curiosity Shoppe reference followed by a multi-ethnic casualness particular to certain West Coast cities – including San Francisco, San Diego, Vancouver, and Seattle – were the big clues), Ruby and her family accommodate her cousin’s family newly immigrated from China.  The story has some cute moments but I found Ruby kind of tiresome and my SO quickly tossed the book in the reject pile.

Emma Dodd

I don’t want a cool cat! by Emma Dodd is a series of couplets about the kinds of cats that a young girl doesn’t want – including the aloof (cool) chocolate-point Siamese pictured on the cover.  Harmless and easy-to-read – but lacking in visual and verbal interest to warrant repeated readings.

Badness for Beginners

Badness for Beginners by Ian Whybrow and Tony Ross features Little Wolf and his younger brother Smellybreff getting badness lessons from their parents – supposedly Big Bad Wolf and all that.  I wasn’t crazy about the illustrations; they’re close to the newer editions of some of the Roald Dahl stories but without the winking charm.  (After writing this I note that Tony Ross has indeed illustrated various Roald Dahl stories; probably because I grew up with very different illustrations in an older edition of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory I never did really warm up to the newer illustrations.)  That said, the text is more at fault: naughtiness is one thing; lavishly praised, wanton destruction is another.  Not a pleasant bedtime story.

Splat the Cat

The Splat the Cat series is written by Rob Scotton with interior illustrations by Robert Eberz.  Splat the Cat is a fuzzy black cat with a mauve tummy, four skinny legs, and a sinewy tail.  Splat attends Cat School (first grade) in a class taught by Mrs. Wimpydimple.

The Beginning Reading adaptation of Splat into Splat the Cat and the Duck with No Quack in the I Can Read! series leaves a lot to be desired.  As stated in the introduction, Beginning Reading books have “Short sentences, familiar words, and simple concepts for children eager to read on their own”.  Unfortunately the resulting text in the case of this book is choppy and lacks the rhythm that makes for interesting reading (and re-reading).  Further I’m a believer in challenging kids with real vocabulary used appropriately in context.  How do words become “familiar”?  By hearing and seeing others using those words – and by asking or looking up definitions.  With the access that most 21st century kids have to online references such as Wikipedia and thefreedictionary.com, they should be provided with opportunities to look up unfamiliar terms and to go off on all sorts of interesting research tangents.

Miscellaneous Easy Readers

Lunch Lady series

Lunch Lady and the Author Visit Vendetta (volume 3) by Jarrett J. Krosoczka continues in the same vein as the first two volumes: a middle school lunch lady combats evil with her wits and the tools of her trade – albeit with James Bond-ian upgrades.  Personally I prefer a story a little more plausible – I mean why combine high tech gadgets with hypnosis, killer bunnies, and the convenience of coincidence?  And the gadgets aren’t very good: hamburger headphone listening devices (ooo, you’ll blend right in wearing a pair of those), catsup package laser beam cutter, and a grappling hook in a mustard bottle.  Inspector Gadget and Danger Mouse are much better.  The sense of balance is off: naughty, naughty author – kidnapping people to work as your (unpaid) servants for years… oh, and will you sign my copy of your book?  That said, the book is mildly amusing – though the best part (for personal, furry, four legged reasons) is the title of the bad author’s bestseller: Flippy Bunny.

Cock-a-Doodle Dance!

Cock-a-Doodle Dance! by Christine Tricarico and illustrated by Rich Deas is Animal Farm with a beat and a poultry twist.  The plotting is a little weak – readers are asked to jump from a corporate-management-drone Rooster standing on the back of a pickup truck ordering sleepy animals to work with a collapsed overworked pig getting carried off by medics on a stretcher to Rooster leading a wild swing dance in the barn – and I take issue with some of the dance definitions on the back inside cover.  I did enjoy the depiction of the dancing animals – though some of the fleshy pink pig parts were a bit much.  The belly dancing pigs, the chicken couple doing the cha-cha, and the elegant duck couple swimming a waltz (presumably) were the best ; the turkey couple doing the “tango wango” was a runner-up.

The Beckoning Cat

The Beckoning Cat, expands on the Japanese folktale behind the ubiquitous statue of a rounded, white cat with one paw raised seated in the entrance to many Asian shops and restaurants.  As written by Koko Nishizuka, the white cat repaid the kindness of a poor fishmonger by bringing buyers to the fishmonger’s house (the cat beckons to potential buyers and then leads the curious to the fishmonger).  Roxanne Litzinger’s illustrations – pencil, watercolor, and pastels on a softly textured drawing paper – nicely compliment the story with rounded figures and blocky shapes reminiscent of Benny Bufano’s sculptures and an earth tone color palette extending to persimmon, smoky blue, jade, and dusty rose.  Beyond the interest of the story’s connection to the statues, the text is kind of pedestrian; at least the vocabulary isn’t too dumbed down.

Cat Talk

The best parts about Cat Talk are the artwork by Barry Moser and the subject matter.  The text – a series of poems, each one about a different cat – is somewhat pedestrian.  Maybe I’m biased but I question how authors Patricia MacLachlan and Emily MacLachlan Charest can do the subject justice when, according to their bios, between their two families they have three canine companions but none of the feline purr-suasion.  Rather than 13 poems about 13 cats I would have preferred nine poems about one cat or perhaps nine about two to four cats with their purr-sonalities intertwined.  T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (with illustrations by Edward Gorey) is much more satisfying.

George and Martha – One Fine Day

James Marshall’s series of five short stories (3 – 5 pairs of picture and text pages with no more than ten lines of observation and/or dialog) about anthropomorphized hippos George and Martha were oddly random in their flow – the first has a moral, the second builds up to one but then abruptly chooses not to, and the last three are about tit for tat playing tricks on each other with no lesson beyond anticipation of a trick can have much greater psychological impact than the trick itself.  Also somewhat odd is statement on the title page of the first story that George and Martha are “two best friends” in the context of their co-habitation, exclusive mutual focus, and their ride in the Tunnel of Love in the last story; and the diary plot in the second story which is more of a sibling issue.  The vocabulary and sentence structure are neither noticeably dumbed down nor particularly challenging.  The illustrations are reminiscent of Sandra Boynton’s numerous greeting card hippos but with beadier eyes and lumpier figures – again, neither endearing nor off-putting… though I did like the perspective of and extra touches in the scene of George looking for Martha under the kitchen sink.  Okay for a library book but not a shelf-keeper.

Widget

Widget by Lyn Rossiter McFarland and pictures by Jim McFarland (C 2001, Farrar Straus Giroux) is a totally delightful tale of a stray Westie (Widget) making a home with a house of cats (and their human companion Mrs. Diggs).  The story works as a read-aloud but the illustrations shouldn’t be neglected – I particularly liked the depiction of Widget curled up with the six ‘girls’ (especially the cat on the lower left who’s bying on her back, paws in the air, tail draped over the edge of the cushion) and observed by the three mice.  (Satisfying numerically 1 – 3 – 6 and perhaps a nod to three blind mice?)  The story comes to a definite conclusion without overly mor


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