Whew, it’s been a busy last couple weeks, but yesterday kicked off a rare four day weekend here in the home of Schreibenfreude! On Friday evening I was able to start and mostly finish a new picture book manuscript, this morning I met up with a couple writer friends for an impromptu chat, and this afternoon I took my older son to Barnes & Noble to see what’s new in picture books. As always, the shelves are an embarrassment of brightly-colored riches and it was tough to decide what to read. Enjoy!
Title: Race Car Dreams
Author: Sharon Chriscoe
Illustrator: Dave Mottram
Publisher/Date: Running Press Kids (September 2016)
The “gist”: A race car finishes his day of racing and gradually quiets down with a wash up, food, and a favorite book before settling down to sweet race car dreams.
My favorite part: As you can see from the cover, the race car snuggles at night with his “favorite wrench.” How cute is that?
My response as a reader: When my boys were younger, they went through a phase where Disney’s “Cars” was about the only movie they would watch– and we watched it every. Single. Day. I have a feeling this book would have been on continuous loop as well. It is a quiet book with no real plot but a great pace and comforting rhyme scheme which make it perfect bedtime reading. (And how does the illustrator manage to make a race car cuddly, anyway?)
My “take-away” as a writer: This is one of those “Why didn’t I write that?” books. The premise is immediately relatable, the language is simple, and the rhymes are smooth. To be honest, the reason I picked this book up is because I’d first read about it when researching tips for writing query letters— the way writers submit their work to agents and editors. Sharon’s query for this book was only four sentences long (!!!), but it said everything it needed to say– and it got her an agent! (And not just any agent, but one of my favorites! One I’d be thrilled to work with!) I was beyond curious to see the book behind the query– and now I can see why it was picked up!
Title: Edward Gets Messy
Author: Rita Meade
Illustrator: Olga Stern
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster BYR (September 2016)
The “gist”: Edward is meticulously neat and avoids any situation which might get him messy…until he has a slight mishap with some paint.
My favorite part: As Edward began to enjoy taking part in messy activities, I worried the book would transform him completely. I was happy to see that in the end, he realized he could get messy BUT still clean up afterwards. I think that would be comforting for kids.
My response as a reader: Of the five books I read this morning, this was my 10 year old’s favorite. Perhaps that’s partly because he’s on the autism spectrum and can appreciate order and organization, or perhaps because he loves art. We both definitely appreciated the the beautiful rainbow hues and colored pencil look to the illustrations which have gorgeous shading, particularly in the sections with artwork or trees.
My “take-away” as a writer: The story-arc here is textbook: Edward is introduced and described, we walk through several scenes which establish his character and his conflict, then when the “incident” happens, we walk back through those same scenarios with Edward’s new perspective. Everything is tied together beautifully, leaving you cheering for Edward with a big smile.
Title: Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion
Author/Illustrator: Alex T. Smith
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press (July 2016)
The “gist”: This is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story, of course, but in addition to giving the story some wonderful African touches (including POC in the main roles), Little Red shows a presence of mind completely missing from the Grimm original.
My favorite part: Giving the hungry lion absurd looking stiff braids was a brilliant touch.
My response as a reader: This is a subversive book! (And I mean that in the most positive of terms!) I have read a LOT of Red Riding Hood retellings (graduate work in German literature will do that to you) The first deviance from the expected story is that Little Red isn’t even seeing her Grandma! She’s taking medicine to her aunt, who has developed strange spots. I think the fact that the reader takes a double-take from the very beginning just sets the stage for the changes to come. Then of course, the trip through “the forest” is hardly the dark Germanic woods you’d expect and instead an action filled safari from the elephants past the crocodiles until she reaches her aunt’s house. And then we have the final subversion– poor hungry lion doesn’t stand a chance against Little Red’s strong independent cleverness which takes immediate control of the situation (no huntsman needed!)
My “take-away” as a writer: I’m sure some agents and editors are sick of re-tellings at this point, but there’s something fun about tearing apart a familiar story and I just love how Alex T. Smith has made a ton of changes while still keeping the spirit of the original story. Gotta say I’m also envious of the art in the book which matches perfectly with the text.
Title: Dear Dragon
Author: Josh Funk
Illustrator: Rodolfo Montalvo
Publisher/Date: Viking BYR (September 2016)
The “gist”: George and Blaise are assigned to each other for their class pen-pal exchange but don’t realize until the end just to whom they are writing!
My favorite part: I’m torn between the fact that the illustrations so cleverly emphasize the misunderstanding on behalf of both parties and simply the names of the characters: Blaise Dragomir and George Slair. Come on, there’s such great meaning in those names! (Blaze? George and the dragon? Love it! And wait, did he intend for readers to be able to rearrange it as “George’s Lair”?)
My response as a reader: The “epistolary novel” is a genre all its own and thrives on the clever back-and-forth between the letters as well as the implication of what may happen in between. Even though this exchange happens within the very tight word-count constraint of a picture book, Josh has been hugely successful in creating tension and building the relationship through the letters. Furthermore, he does it in rhyme! I’m a fan of Josh Funk’s work ever since Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast, so there’s no question he knows how to make the rhyme and meter natural, but I was skeptical about adding that layer of difficulty into a letter format. It works! I have to say, I also love the beautiful way this story captures typical pen-pal exchanges. (For example, in essence: “I’m writing this because I have to for school”).
My “take-away” as a writer: Reading Josh’s work always encourages me not to leave behind my beginnings as a writer of poetry. My first manuscripts were rhymed ones and they represent probably a third of what I write. I think many agents and editors hesitate to look at rhymed work because it’s so difficult to do well. So, I have found myself gravitating to prose of late, even though writing in rhyme comes fairly easily to me and I have a good ear for it. (Believe me, there’s plenty about the writing process I’m NOT good at, don’t worry!) It’s great to see rhyme done well and in such an unusual premise. I’m so glad Josh’s agent didn’t say “Have you thought of rewriting this in prose???”
Title: Hungry Bird
Author/Illustrator: Jeremy Tankard
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press (September 2016)
The “gist”: Bird is off on a hike with his friends, all of whom are willing to share their snack with him, but he is still annoyed they didn’t bring something HE would like. He will truly faint dead away if he doesn’t have food this instant!
My favorite part: As I read this with my son, we suddenly noticed a worm on the ground at a crucial moment. We loved the suspense to see what would happen with it!
My response as a reader: Several years ago, my mother-in-law gave our children a copy of Grumpy Bird, which soon became one of our favorites. It’s got fantastic repetition and grumpy bird truly is grumpy. (Even as I sit here, I can recite the first few pages from memory). My son and I just had to pick this one up off the shelf and see if it lived up to the original. I can safely say if you liked Grumpy Bird, you’ll enjoy this one. Bird is a real drama queen! To be perfectly honest, I do like GB better, since I enjoyed the fact he went from one animal to the next and they each joined him along the way, whereas this story starts with the group all together, but if you’ve read the first (and maybe the second, Boo Boo Bird), these will be established characters you’re all too happy to revisit.
My “take-away” as a writer: It’s probably every writer’s dream to have a book so popular people want a sequel (up until that point when you’ve written all the sequels you want to write and wish people would let you write something else…) So reading this book makes me dream of the day I have a great story out there and get to take the characters to new places. It’s a challenge to make the story different while still re-creating the magic of the first, but I think I’m up to it!