Since it’s school vacation week in Maine and I’m a teacher, I’ve got the week off. My husband and I dropped the kids at childcare and went off on a date this morning — first for breakfast, then to Barnes & Noble. I spent over an hour in the children’s section reading and people watching (both important tasks for a writer) while he browsed the science fiction section and drank coffee.
As a result, I have a handful of book reviews to share…
Author: Suzi Moore
Illustrator: Russell Ayto
Publisher/Date: Templar (February 2016)
The “gist”: Mouse, Cat and Dog don’t have voices, but a quest to an old lady gives them what they wished for…sort of.
My favorite part: The twist ending, of course! Actually, I also really loved the eyes. Since I’m not a great artist, I’m a sucker for illustrators who make it so easy– an oval and a dot is all it takes to give these characters some great expressions!
My response as a reader: Kids would love the repetition and the onomatopoeia of the “crash, bang clang”. There’s a bit of a “Gruffalo” feel in the rhyme and the quest.
My “take-away” as a writer: The story is proof that rhyming texts still can get published (even if the meter isn’t always consistent). To be honest, as a poet who tends to be ocd about getting the meter just right, the rhythm bugged me a bit, but I think there’s enough jerky action to justify the author’s poetic license here.
Title: Your Alien
Author: Tammi Sauer
Illustrator: Gero Fujita
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books (August 2015)
The “gist”: A boy befriends an alien with a problem.
My favorite part: The alien illustrations are adorable! My favorite image was the alien and his boy at the beach creating shadows together.
My response as a reader: Since it’s told in second person future tense (“You will be looking out your window…”), this story reminds me of the “If you give a mouse a cookie…” series and would probably be loved by the same audience.
My “take-away” as a writer: The use of the aforementioned “second person future tense” is really effective here– it heightens the drama of the story and almost makes me want to look to the sky to see when MY alien is going to visit. I also loved how the story circled around to its ending.
Title: Punk Skunks
Author: Trisha Speed Shaskan
Illustrator: Stephen Shaskan
Publisher/Date: Harper Collins (February 2016)
The “gist”: Kit and Buzz are best friends, but when they no longer want to rock out to the same music, they realize that rocking out alone also has its downsides.
My favorite part: I love how the main message here is totally sweet, but the illustrations and slangy language make it just a teensy bit “edgy.” It’s the kind of book that folks who really do like punk rock and tattoos and dark smoky bars (which is totally not me, but that’s completely fine) will buy for their fellow punkers’ new babies.
My response as a reader: I really want to find a kid to read this to. Also, what the heck is going on in the hopscotch scene? Is he “spraying” like I think he’s spraying? Cause he is a skunk and all, but…
My “take-away” as a writer: This story is hardly a new one, but it’s such an imaginative twist and just so “cute” (like I said, in an “edgy” way), the repetitive path to the ending is really satisfying.
Title: Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse
Author/Illustrator: Kevin Henkes
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books (January 2006)
The “gist”: Eccentric Lilly is totally passionate about her teacher Mr. Slinger until the day he has to reprimand her for misbehaving in class and she has to work through her crushed emotions.
My favorite part: As a teacher, I totally loved the way Mr. Slinger handled Lilly’s infraction, right down to the little note he put in her purse. I am constantly reminding myself that kids need a chance to start over and wipe the slate clean.
My response as a reader: This book is 10 years old, and I guess I probably haven’t read it up to now because I had boys instead of girls. My kids were huge fans of one of Henkes’ other books though: “Kitten’s First Full Moon” (really different illustration style!). I really related to Lilly in this book, not just because she so looked up to her teacher, but also because she was really bad at taking criticism. That’s not a great trait for a teacher and writer (note to teachers: reading “Rate your Teacher” websites is never a good idea…), but I also enjoyed the way Lilly finally came out the other side and managed to start over. The page on which that is illustrated is subtle, but it works. Lilly reminds me of “Olivia” from Ian Falconer’s series, or “Fancy Nancy” (Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser), so if you have kids who love those, you definitely need to read them about Lilly.
My “take-away” as a writer: As an author working on several stories in which the main characters exhibit quirks or “social issues,” I can definitely learn from Henkes spot-on characterization. Lilly has a bit of a flaw, but we love her for it and root for her.
Title: The Whisper
Author/Illustrator: Pamela Zagarenski
Publisher/Date: HMH Books for Young Readers (October 2015)
The “gist”: The main character acquires a book with no words and is frustrated until she realizes she can create amazing stories from the illustrations.
My favorite part: This totally perfect quote:
“Dear little girl, don’t be disappointed.
You can imagine the words.
You can imagine the stories.
Start with a few simple words and imagine from there.
Remember: beginnings, middles, and ends of stories can always be changed and imagined differently. There are never any rules, rights, or wrongs in imagining–
imagining just is.”
[Now if that isn’t the most phenomenal quote for a writer, I’m not sure what is.]
My response as a reader: I could look at those illustrations for hours, and it’s insanely clever to provide JUST the beginning of each story so the reader can continue them in his/er head.
My “take-away” as a writer: I’m totally putting that quote on my wall somewhere. Or at least in my blog. Wait, I just did. Agents are fond of saying that before they take on a project, they need to be so in love with it that they want to show it to everyone in their office. This is a text that makes me realize what they’re talking about. It’s got a bit more word count than most picture books do today (yes, even though it’s sort of about not having words…), but it’s timeless and magical and makes me want to show it to friends. Here’s to hoping one of my books sparks that in someone someday!
Author/Illustrator: Ryan Higgins
Publisher/Date: Dial Books (March 2013)
The “gist”: It’s sort of your traditional “unlikely friendship” story, but it digs a little deeper.
My favorite part: I adored the image of the little boy making giant mittens for Wilfred and sniffed just a bit at what happened to them. Another favorite part? The author is from southern Maine, so yay, Maine! He’s signing his books on the 28th at my local B&N –bring the kids!
My response as a reader: I seriously wanted to add something to the ending, but won’t say what because I don’t want to spoil things. Maybe you’ll come to the same conclusion. You can email me privately.
My “take-away” as a writer: This was a story told so much more through pictures than words. In fact, back home on the couch, I can’t really remember the language at all. That’s ok– the author was also the illustrator, so it’s probably a huge compliment that the story is what I remembered. That’s the goal, after all. So what I learn as a writer is that being flashy with language isn’t nearly as important as making sure people remember your story in the end.
Title: The Day the Crayons Quit
Author: Drew Daywalt
Illustrator: Oliver Jeffers
Publisher/Date: Penguin Group (June 2013)
The “gist”: Every color in the crayon box has a reason to complain (except green, for some reason. Green is doing fine.) They send their owner each a letter explaining their problems: black is only used for outlining, gray for huge elephants, etc.
My favorite part: A tough one! In the writing, I thought the characterizations were totally perfect, and the illustrations were such a great capture of kid’s writing (I would swear he got a kid to do his lettering).
My response as a reader: Now I want to read the sequel “The Day the Crayons Came Home”. Why oh why did I leave the bookstore without reading it!??
My “take-away” as a writer: Who says you need a story arc? Stakes? Yeah, there’s conflict, but there is no “child as main character who solves his own problem.” It’s just plain fun, and that’s great. Of course, if you’re going to do something like Daywalt and break all the rules, you have to make sure you’re as creative about it as he is…
Thanks for reading! Have you read any of these? Do your kids love them? Comments welcome!