This morning we headed to Portsmouth with the boys to run pre-Easter shopping errands and spend some time at Barnes & Noble. I read a huge pile of picture books to the boys, and my husband browsed the aisles and drank coffee. I was excited to finally get the chance to read some books which have been getting real buzz on Twitter, especially those by Julie Falatko (Maine Author!), Ame Dyckman and Tara Lazar, all of whom I’ve been following on Twitter for a while. Tara is the brainchild behind “PiBoIdMo”– “Picture Book Idea Month”– which I participated in this past fall. The concept is to come up with ideas for 30 new picture books, one for each day in the month of November. It’s a great writer’s challenge, made even better by the support found on Tara’s blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. Tara has a few other books I’m also itching to read, but one will do for today.
I titled today’s post “Unexpected Behaviors,” because all the books I’m reviewing seem to subvert the expected idea of the book– either by breaking the 4th wall, or by having an unexpected plot twist. In my children’s school, they are taught about expected and unexpected behaviors (e.g. pushing vs. standing quietly) as part of the school’s “responsive classroom” behavior management philosophy. So my kids know all about what constitutes “unexpected behavior.” There’s plenty of it in these stories! Enjoy the reviews!
Title: We’re in the Wrong Book!
Author/Illustrator: Richard Byrne
Publisher/Date: Henry Holt & Co. (BYR) (September 2015)
The “gist”: Bella and Ben are innocently playing on a sidewalk in “their” book when they get bumped off the side straight into a counting book! In their adventures trying to get home, they wander through a variety of genres including a puzzle book and a history book.
My favorite part: I loved the way the illustration backgrounds in each two-page spread were unique, and the way the main characters interacted with that background, for example, knocking over the colored pencils on the page of the “counting book.”
My response as a reader: I love books that break the 4th wall! Many of those I read today do that, this one nearly physically! I have a talent for spotting books that are “sequels”– Richard Byrne also wrote “This book just ate my dog!” which seems to be similar, so now I need to hunt that down as well! So clever!
My “take-away” as a writer: Sometimes all you need is a really clever idea. Oh, and a bunch of artistic ability. Byrne has both in this book. I’ll probably never have the artistic ability, but I will keep working on the clever ideas. I have one or two of those now and then.
Title: Snappsy the Alligator Did Not Ask to Be in This Book!
Author: Julie Falatko (Note: Maine Author!)
Illustrator: Tim J. Miller
Publisher/Date: Viking Books for Young Readers(February 2016)
The “gist”: Remember those great Bert & Ernie sketches from Sesame Street where Bert is trying to sit and read quietly and Ernie keeps bothering him? Or the Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny cartoons where mischievous Bugs is the illustrator and making Daffy do strange things? That is the relationship between Snappsy and the narrator of this book. Poor Snappsy just wants to have a normal day, but the narrator keeps trying to turn it into something exciting.
My favorite part: I loved the middle of the story when Snappsy goes into his house and shuts the door and the narrator just waits for him: “You have to come out sometime!”
My response as a reader: Talk about “unexpected behaviors”! In addition to being reminded of Bert/Ernie and Daffy Duck/Bugs, I was also reminded of a more “literary” work, the play “Onkel, Onkel” by German novelist and playwright Günther Grass. I performed this play in German in college and although most people haven’t read it, it’s a pretty awesome play. It’s a comedy about a serial killer. Yep. That’s right. A serial killer is wandering through a German city looking for victims, but he keeps being thwarted by circumstance– a mother catches him in her sick child’s room and insists he leave before he also gets the flu, for instance. It’s the subversion of the expected behavior in all these cases that makes them so funny. Snappsy resents feeling he “has” to act a certain way for the benefit of the narrator/audience. It’s all a little surreal. And hilarious.
My “take-away” as a writer: If you’ve ever done any writing, you might have had that feeling that your characters were “fighting” you to do something you didn’t really intend for them to do. This book is an embodiment of that concept, in a way that makes you completely side with the character. Fortunately, the narrator and main character do make up in the end.
Title: Please Mr. Panda
Author/Illustrator: Steve Antony
Publisher/Date: Scholastic (December 2014)
The “gist”: Panda has a box of doughnuts and offers them to a variety of animals, always changing his mind and turning away until finally someone approaches him and asks “Please, Mr. Panda.”
My favorite part: I loved how grumpy the panda looks throughout and the smudgy look of the b/w illustrations for the animals.
My response as a reader: I wasn’t thrilled with this one at the first reading– it was a little simple for me. But it’s grown on me and it was my 7 year old’s favorite of all those we read today. Both my boys picked up on the “lesson” of saying please very quickly and little twist of the last page was pretty cute.
My “take-away” as a writer: Simplify, simplify. This is another book where every word counts. In fact, the word count of the whole thing is only 113 (I looked it up). I think I need to challenge myself to do a few books under 200 words.
Title: Wolfie the Bunny
Author: Ame Dyckman
Illustrator: Zachariah OHora
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown (BYR) (February 2015)
The “gist”: When the bunny family adopts a baby wolf, everyone finds it perfectly normal except for big sister Dot who is afraid the wolf will grow up to eat them.
My favorite part: Who doesn’t love bunny footed pajamas. Seriously? Now I have to go re-watch “A Christmas Story”!
My response as a reader: This is a much better “introduction to being a big sibling” book than most of them out there which focus on the jealous feelings older sibs sometimes have about no longer being the center of attention. Dot doesn’t care about not getting attention– she is seriously worried at the lack of judgement on her parents’ part by not realizing they are in grave danger from this little wolf baby. I have to say, even though the book ends with sibling harmony, I continued to feel a little worried for the poor bunnies– what will happen when/if the wolf realizes he actually is a wolf? Then again, maybe that’s a bit “species-ist” of me.
My “take-away” as a writer: I just realized that I have a picture book manuscript about a disgruntled older sibling who just happens to be a bunny, too. The baby isn’t a wolf, though, and there is no bear attack. Note to self: to increase chance of getting published, add a bear attack. (Just kidding).
Title: Normal Norman
Author: Tara Lazar
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books (March 2016)
The “gist”: The narrator, a budding scientist, is eager to explain “normal” to the reader with Norman as her model. Unfortunately (?) while some of his characteristics fit in her image of “normal,” in the end she realizes that normal is not so easy to define!
My favorite part: I adored the look on Norman’s face and his positive revulsion that the narrator would take the SKIN off the banana and orange!
My response as a reader: Thinking back on this book for my review, I’m suddenly hurtled back to the 1980’s and singing the theme song to “Different Strokes” in my head– “Now, the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum // what might be right for you, might not be right for some” (Yes, I typed that without looking it up. Child of the 80’s). Ahem. I love the way Norman is perfectly happy to help the narrator in the name of science, but he doesn’t really try to change for her: he lets her learn the lesson on her own. That final lesson– “Normal is impossible to define” — comes through clearly but is far from preachy.
My “take-away” as a writer: See what I mean about author and main character fighting each other? Snappsy and Norman are both so sweetly put-upon by well-meaning narrators who ultimately learn to let the characters be themselves. If you create a character with enough life and breath, it will tell you what it wants to do. As authors, we just have to listen and try not to fight…unless that fight will make a better story, like with Norman and Snappsy!