Last Saturday was the 7th birthday party for my youngest, so we didn’t get to the library. This morning he decided he wanted to be a “bump on a log,” so I took my 10 year old to the library just the two of us. I got him to help me look at the picture books, inspecting each for the copyright date. It is my goal to mostly review books from the last three years in order to have a good feel for what’s being published currently. While it’s not surprising that a small town public library wouldn’t necessarily be filled with current titles, what did sadden us a bit was how many of the books which LOOKED brand new were actually at least ten years old. Either they are being impeccably well cared for, or they haven’t been read much. Perhaps this summer I’ll go on a quest for “forgotten gems,” but for today’s reviews, everything is 2012 or newer. There are some really cute ones — enjoy!
Title: Magritte’s Marvelous Hat
Author/Illustrator: D.B. Johnson
Publisher/Date: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (2012)
The “gist”: Magritte the dog sees a hat in a shop window and the way it floats above his head inspires him to create surreal paintings, each better than the last…until he becomes so obsessed with painting he forgets about the hat and it leaves him.
My favorite part: D.B. Johnson includes allusions to many famous Magritte paintings. After I read this to my boys, I pulled up an image search of Magritte and we had fun spotting places where Johnson had used part of a Magritte painting, maybe in a different way, such as the levitating stone “island” or floating loaves of bread or the dove cutout.
My response as a reader: I sort of wish Johnson had made the allusions a little more direct so you could spot actual paintings re-created instead of just themes, but overall I love the way surrealist art is made accessible with a really cute story. Also, my best friend and roommate from college loved Magritte and reading this made me think of her and the posters we had in our dorm room. Really good times…
My “take-away” as a writer: Write what you know. Johnson’s love for art and art history comes through so clearly here, it reminds me that even though I sometimes have really great ideas, if I’m not already knowledgeable about the subject matter, I need to either be passionate about it enough to research it, or find something else I do know well. Another writer friend said that “Write what you know,” should really be “Write what you can research!” True, but you also have to love it. Johnson clearly does.
Title: Red: A Crayon’s Story
Author/Illustrator: Michael Hall
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books (February 2015)
The “gist”: “Red” crayon has trouble coloring things red. Despite all his efforts and encouragement from friends, things always come out blue. Finally, he is accepted for who he is and also comes to accept himself.
My favorite part: The heart-wrenching moment when berry asks him to draw a blue ocean and he says “I can’t. I’m red.” makes me tear up just thinking about it. Ditto the euphoria you sense as he does it and says “It was easy!”
My response as a reader: I’d heard about this book before as recommended to help explain the concept of transgender people to kids. Some folks might balk at the book because of that, which would be too bad for lots of reasons. While it certainly works in that way, it doesn’t need to be read as such. At its heart, it’s really about that crushing feeling of being stupid when you can’t do something you feel you’re “supposed” to be able to do– anything from snapping out of depression to losing weight. Calling it a “be yourself” story would be true, but it’s really so much more. I feel like I’ll be sharing this story with my friends for a long time. Even better, while you can read this and be deeply moved as an adult, I was so pleased to see both my boys pick this one as their favorite of all five books we read this morning completely on their own.
My “take-away” as a writer: The characterizations of “red” and the crayons who are trying to “help” are so simple but immediately identifiable. As they say in the world of children’s publishing: every word counts. I read a book like this and realize I have a lot of editing to do…
Title: Extra Yarn
Author: Mac Barnett
Illustrator: Jon Klassen
Publisher/Date: Balzer + Bray (January 2012)
The “gist”: In a snowy, barren, “black and white” town. Annabelle finds a neverending box of yarn and starts knitting. She knits a sweater for herself, her dog, and soon the whole town and still has “extra yarn,” until one day an archduke from a faraway land visits…
My favorite part: Random Mr. Crabtree, who doesn’t wear sweaters. He gets a hat.
My response as a reader: I just finished teaching a unit on fairy tales with my German students, and this story totally has the timeless feel of a fairy tale. The idea that Annabelle can just “whip up” a sweater for everyone (and everything! houses, mailboxes, etc.!) so quickly just screams magic. To be a true fairy tale, I’d like to see a tiny bit more moral lesson, but it’s a sweet tale all the same. My son said he had wished Annabelle would have offered to sell the archduke some of her sweaters which would have been another interesting twist.
My “take-away” as a writer: There is an excellent lilt to the writing here– the sentence length is varied and there is enough repetition to really keep children interested (mine were chiming in with “extra yarn” at all the right spots very quickly.
Title: Circle, Square, Moose
Author: Kelly Bingham
Illustrator: Paul O. Zelinsky
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books (September 2014)
The “gist”: The book starts as a perfectly normal book about shapes until moose keeps butting in…
My favorite part: I loved when moose finally saved zebra by producing a black “hole” for them both to escape through, effectively breaking through the “fourth wall” of the book. Genius!
My response as a reader: My kids are too old for this really, but they loved the subversiveness of it. I was a little less charmed, but hey, I’m not the target audience! Also, it’s a tricky read-aloud simply because the moose is getting in the way (lots of speech bubbles). I will say that I love books that break the “fourth wall” and argue with the reader or with the characters themselves.This is a sequel of sorts to the first book, “Z is for Moose,” so I guess I’m going to have to find that one next!
My “take-away” as a writer: I need to experiment with book ideas that start out thinking they will be one thing and end up being something else. Even if I don’t use the “arguing” concept, I really want to work to surprise the reader.
Title: Unicorn thinks he’s pretty great
Author/Illustrator: Bob Shea
Publisher/Date: Disney/Hyperion Books (June 2013)
The “gist”: Narrated by a goat, the book starts out complaining about how awesome unicorn thinks he is only to find that unicorn is actually jealous of him, too.
My favorite part: The goat’s “voice” here is great– so authentic and so easy to read aloud. You completely sense his frustration from the very first page.
My response as a reader: My boys and I both loved this book (the 7 year old listed it as his 2nd favorite after “Red.”). It’s simple, funny, and silly, but it does have a message of unlikely friendship and appreciating your strengths.
My “take-away” as a writer: Since I learned to read at a very young age and had siblings who were much older, I always preferred the company of adults and never had a lot of friends. As a result, I have a hard time writing kid voices authentically sometimes. This author gets it. I also love that it’s written in first person and need to try that approach with some of my own work.