Finally, it’s Summer vacation time! Best time in the world for teachers! My older son is at cub scout camp for the week, and the younger one was sleeping in, so I got a solo Barnes & Noble visit today (and also scored a cool Doctor Who cup at %50 off!). Finally got the chance to read a couple bestselling picture books I’ve been anxious to read, and I actually read about twice as many as I’m including reviews for, so I’ve got only the best for you here today! Enjoy!
Title: Last Stop on Market Street.
Author: Matt de la Peña
Illustrator: Christian Robinson
Publisher/Date: G.P. Putnam and Sons BYR (January 2015)
The “gist”: C.J. and his Nana take the bus after church and C.J. does nothing but complain (why don’t we have a car?), but his Nana helps him to see the beauty in the people and places they travel.
My favorite part: How’s this for a great line? “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”
My response as a reader: The illustrations here have a very 70’s retro vibe– it’s like the whole book is a Sesame Street cartoon turned into a picture book. It’s urban, for sure, but without being alienating to a white girl like me who grew up in a tiny town hundreds of miles from big cities. After all, no matter where you go, you’ll find poor people, complaining kids, and wise grandmothers.
My “take-away” as a writer: I’m totally floored with the number of awards this book has won (Caldecott, Newbery NPR, Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, Horn Book…I could go on and on). I love the authentic language (One of the first things the boy says is “Why we gotta…”) and the way Nana’s deep laugh is described– and even more so when he notes the one time she doesn’t laugh. It’s kind of a quiet book– which makes it yet another “rule-breaker”– but it’s an important one. It’s the kind every writer really wants to have written.
Title: Jack’s Worry
Author/Illustrator: Sam Zuppardi
Publisher/Date: Candlewick (April 2016)
The “gist”: Jack is excited about playing his trumpet for his mother in his first concert…until the “Worry” sets in and gets bigger and bigger.
My favorite part: I love the fact that at the end of the book, he is so in control that he is teaching other kids how to get rid of THEIR worries.
My response as a reader: I was disappointed not to have my younger son with me today, as he deals with a lot of anxiety. I might have to pick this one up for him. To be honest, part of me feels like the solution was just too simple: I have tried to talk my own son out of anxiety over his school chorus concert with exactly the same arguments, but sometimes that just doesn’t help. It’s a great concept, and an adorable story, but I “worry” (see what I did there?) some kids might feel badly if their anxiety doesn’t go away as easily as Jack’s did.
My “take-away” as a writer: My criticism of “Jack’s Worry” is indicative of one of my own writing problems– walking the fine line between providing a satisfying resolution for the main character and making that resolution come “too easy.” This conflict is made even more difficult by the word count limitations forced on us picture book writers. When you’re trying to give a character exposition, conflict and resolution in an engaging way and stay around 600 words…it’s hard to find room for everything.
Title: How to Eat an Airplane
Author: Peter Pearson
Illustrator: Mircea Catusanu
Publisher/Date: Katherine Tegen Books (May 2016)
The “gist”: The title says it all– a girl explains how to serve and eat an airplane– wheels, ailerons, fuel and all. (But not the lavatory– eat around that).
My favorite part: At first glance this is just an absurdity of course– a bit of zany fun that kids will laugh about. But my favorite part is that in the end, they’re actually learning quite a bit about the parts of a real airplane, what it looks like inside, etc. There are also four pages of backmatter with cool airplane facts. Oh, and at least two “toasts” are featured, including this great one to those who are late (I think I ought to commit it to memory): “To friends, and clocks, and paradox. I’m usually on time. Oops!”
My response as a reader: This would be a great book to prep a kid on their first airplane flight or just for one of those mechanically minded kids who wants to take everything apart. Personally I loved the little touches like explaining how to pronounce certain words (fuselage rhymes with “blue garage,” for example) or the suggestion that French dressing was the best accompanyment for the aileron because it was a french loan word. This book is evidently the first in the “Bad Idea Book Club” series, so I’m curious to see what the author will come up with next!
My “take-away” as a writer: As I say over and over, sometimes it’s all about the idea! Of course you have to back it up with good writing, but this is definitely one of those books where someone thought in the middle of the night “Hmmm…how about a book on how to eat an airplane?” Of course, the best part is that the inspiration comes from a true story– there actually WAS a man who ate an airplane (in very tiny pieces, over the course of two years) and that makes the whole book even cooler.
Title: The Sword in the Stove
Author/Illustrator: Frank W. Dormer
Publisher/Date: Atheneum BYR (May 2016)
The “gist”: Harold has gone off to “go potty,” but his friends find various objects (like a sword) in the oven and wonder where they might have come from. One friend is very anxious thinking they might be from pirates or Vikings. It turns out the answer is even stranger…but I won’t give that away.
My favorite part: Worried “Eenie” jumps to outrageous conclusions about where the objects in the stove may have come from, and his exclamations (such as “Holy Haddock!”) are easily the best part of the book (made even better by the elaborate font in which they are printed).
My response as a reader: This book is similar in illustration to “Last stop on Market Street” – with a feel almost of a cut/torn construction paper collage. As such, it has a childlike quality which matches the story beautifully. In fact, the ending (which I will not reveal!) completely feels like it could have come straight from a child’s imagination– which might make it a little odd for adults but most certainly will incite joy from kids.
My “take-away” as a writer: There’s a lot of dialog in this book– probably enough to “break the rules” of picture book writing. But there isn’t any other way of telling this story, and that’s the biggest rule: you have to tell the story that needs telling the way it needs to be told.
Title: Rosie Revere, Engineer
Author: Andrea Beaty
Illustrator: David Roberts
Publisher/Date: Harry N. Abrams (September 2013)
The “gist”: Rosie loves taking bits of this and that to engineer her inventions, but after her uncle laughs at one of them, she refuses to show them to anyone…until her Aunt Rose convinces her to give it another try.
My favorite part: I loved “Iggy Peck, Architect,” so I’ve been anxious to read this one and like Iggy, the rhyming is fabulous. The lines don’t always scan 100% perfectly (at least to my ear), but they keep a beautiful balance between playing with language and keeping it natural sounding. As a writer of rhyme, this is such a joy to see done well!
My response as a reader: Books about empowered girls doing creative and inventive things (especially in predominantly “male” professions) always get a thumbs up from me. One thing that makes this even more attractive is the education Beaty sneaks in about early female pioneers in aviation and even “Rosie the Riveter.” The book is chock-full of teachable moments for both boys and girls.
My “take-away” as a writer: I write both rhyming and non-rhyming stories. With so many voices saying that rhymed work doesn’t sell, I often veer away from starting a new work in rhyme. It’s not easy, for sure, but it can definitely work. Time to get back to my own story about a non-traditional girl and make those lines behave!