I like to offer occasional reviews of children’s books – mostly picture, right now – partly because we just read a lot of them, so I might as well share, and also because I know many of my readers are always on the lookout for good ones.
Remember my biases, clearly stated. A la Seinfeld, “no lessons, no hugs” is a pretty solid rule. (“Lessons” being defined here as heavy-handed moralism. You can always tell books you want to stay away from, in my opinion, if the subtitle begins “A story about….” Fill in the blank: acceptance/being different/changing/growing/being scared/tolerance. Eating your peas.)
Humor, text that is concise and yet complex, and interesting but not weighty. Rhymes are good. Makes reading easier. My children’s section-grazing usually takes me (depending on how cooperative everyone is – whether they stay in one place or are overly tempted by the alluring yet forbidden Reading Tower (on left) – you have to be 7 to enter its sacred environs. Six more weeks!) –
Oh, as I was saying, my grazing takes me through the New Arrivals, through mythology, folktales and poetry, then to the sections dealing with machines – things that dig, fly or generally go fast – and finally to the general Early Readers and picture books.
As I said, how many of those areas I make it to depends totally on the cooperation of Other Parties.
Some recent good choices:
Yellow and Pink is a rather surprising, almost provocative book by William Steig. Two wooden men wake up, lying on a newspaper. One is yellow and one is pink. Pink is fairly sure someone must have put them there. Yellow can’t agree, and comes up with elaborate scenarios in which they could have accidentally, by pure chance, unguided by anything else, ended up exactly the way they are. They can’t agree. And then, a large man comes along, tests them for dryness, and walks away carrying Yellow and Pink, satisfied.
The book is actually a bit controversial, as you can probably tell. It’s been adopted by creationists and Intelligent Design adherents as a favorite and predictably vilified by their opposites. The Amazon reader reviews give you a clue. Does it violate the “no lessons” rule? Hmmm….maybe.
Speaking of science, these books by Robin Page are really great – textually simple, visually rich looks at various aspects of animal life – their body parts, flight, movement. They involve a bit of guessing (which is always good) Move! is a good one to start with.
I love discover new authors – well, authors new to us – because, well, after 25 years of this, I value novelty and variety. I can’t tell you how many children’s books I have essentially memorized. I could very easily dominate a kids’ book slam with Ferdinand, Madeleine, Peter Rabbit and Johnny Crow’s Garden (for starters) springing out of my head without any prompting at all.
So anyway, I ran across one John Prater the other day. He is wonderful. Simple books, good stories, affectionate illustrations, no tongue twisters (on my mind because tomorrow Joseph’s school is celebrating Dr. Seuss Day, and I confess Dr. Seuss is not one of my favorites basically because he’s a pain the neck to read aloud. Oh. Add Green Eggs and Ham to my Slam list) Some of his books are still in print in the US, others not, but most of them should be in your library. Unless your library has been taken over by Hannah Montana novellas and Nintendo DS games, in which case you’re out of luck. The first one we read was Once Upon a Time, a simple tale in which a boy is at home, bored, while fairy tales are running amok all around him, unnoticed. We love books that really use the power of illustration to broaden the text – or in other words, we love books that have pictures with jokes in them. Once Upon a Picnic is the exciting sequel to Once Upon a Time. If you have a little brother or sister in your life, you’ll really enjoy Along Came Tom – again, not for sale in the US anymore, but we found a copy at our library. Joseph and Michael loved it, with Michael shaking his head in despair at how much little Tom wrecks everything for his older siblings, with Joseph then looking at Michael in stunned disbelief at his failure to grasp reality.
Another clever book featuring illustrations to be searched for clues and jokes is Where is the Cake which has no text, only a story told in pictures of a cake stolen by some dastardly possums – but there’s a lot more going on as the various creatures throughout the landscape have their own problems ranging from a lost piglet to a lost hat and so on.
A really interesting series I’ve just discovered are Virginia Pilegard’s Warlord books in which two Chinese children essentially invent everything from a water clock to the abacus. Seriously, it’s a sharp concept – each book takes some ancient technology or mathematical concept used in Chinese culture and constructs a story around a child (or sometimes two) who invent these means of solving problems.
A genre (loosely speaking) of children’s picture books that I like are those that trace how something changes over time. Debbie Atwell has a few – Barn and River – which are nice but rather staid. A few weeks ago, we read a small book about the changing residents of one particular apartment over time, but for the life of me I can’t remember the name of it. But with this batch, we found a winner – Ignacio’s Chair. Yes, it’s the story of a chair – one lovingly carved by a monk in the late Middle Ages, which then journeys across time and the world until we see where it ends up in the present day. In each stage on the journey, the spirit Brother Ignacio stands by, observing the fate of his handiwork, until the end, when he can finally say goodbye to it. It’s really wonderful. Kind of moving.
And stop right there. No hugs – remember?