I have to confess: I read the books for this post over two weeks ago, but was so busy I didn’t get to write the reviews. I spent last week helping direct a professional development week for German teachers and before that have been busy working on my upcoming poetry exhibit at the local library, so I’ve had a lot on my plate. On the bright side, that means my reviews will truly reflect what is the most memorable about those books. Enjoy!
Title: World Pizza
Author: Cici Meng
Illustrator: Ellen Shi
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books (June 2017)
The “gist”: When mom’s wish for world peace is interrupted by a sneeze, everyone on earth gets free pizza. But in the end, both wishes basically come true.
My favorite part: I love the way all the cultures just simply embrace the pizza, proving it really is a food which surpasses all borders and brings people together.
My response as a reader: Books like this are right up my alley– bringing cultures together through food is actually a theme of one of my works in progress, so I loved the concept here. The illustrations provide a great springboard for talking with your kids about other cultures too– would be fun to locate them on a globe!
My “take-away” as a writer: This is another book that breaks rules (I love pointing those out because “they” will tell you you can’t get certain books published and that’s not always true! It just depends on the quality of the writing and the luck of finding the right agent/publisher!) What rules? Well, there’s no “problem,” for the main character to solve. There’s no real conflict other than what exists in our broken world already (hence the wish for world peace). All this makes it essentially what the business calls a “quiet book,” and plenty of agents and publishers avoid them. I’m glad they didn’t avoid this one though, because it’s charming. Who doesn’t love pizza?
Title: The Sheep who hatched an Egg
Author/Illustrator: Gemma Merino (Yes, Merino. How awesome is that name for a sheep book?)
Publisher/Date: Albert Whitman & Company (April 2017)
The “gist”: Lola is quite vain about her wool, but after she’s shorn and it comes back messy, she gets frustrated. Then her wild wool becomes home to an egg which changes her life.
My favorite part: Setting up the sheep shearing as if they were going to a hair salon (complete with magazines) was brilliant.
My response as a reader: Everyone has had a “bad hair day” or a bad experience with a haircut. Having Lola’s hair go from straight to curly was a little unusual, but other than that, it was great to see Lola gradually embrace herself and the final scene was super fun. I can see from my research that Gemma Merino has several other “The x who…” books, so now I’m anxious to read the others!
My “take-away” as a writer: Coincidentally, I also have a work in progress about sheep who get sheared (though it’s slightly more in the “non-fiction” vein), so I was intrigued by that scene and how traumatic it was for Lola. I love the use of animals as a vehicle for exploring children’s worries!
Title: I Need my Monster!
Author: Amanda Noll
Illustrator: Howard McWilliam
Publisher/Date: Flashlight Press (April 2009)
The “gist”: When the monster under Ethan’s bed goes on vacation, Ethan is annoyed. He needs his monster! But the monsters they send to fill-in just don’t cut it!
My favorite part: I loved Ethan’s confidence! He took ownership of this problem right away, avoiding telling his parents because “They have weird ideas about monsters under kids’ beds.”
My response as a reader: I try to review only books from the past year on this blog (unless I’m doing a library visit– they get a pass), but somehow I never caught this when it came out so I had to read it! This was such a creative spin on the monster trope– it could almost fit into the “Monsters Inc” universe from the Pixar film. I think my kids would have loved it and I would definitely recommend it.
My “take-away” as a writer: In addition to loving the creativity and playfulness of this story, I have to point out that there is quite a bit of text on each page of this book. In a world where picture books are becoming shorter and shorter, sometimes with less than a sentence on a page, this is refreshing! I don’t see us returning to the high word counts of long ago, this story needs a little extra explanation and the humor comes out through Noll’s great use of banter which just can’t happen without a few extra words.
Title: I don’t know what to call my cat
Author: Simon Philip
Illustrator: Ella Bailey
Publisher/Date: HMH BYR (May 2017)
The “gist”: A cat shows up and the main character is thrilled, but it is a huge task figuring out what to name the critter. A plot twist involving the cat’s disappearance and a naughty gorilla round out the adventure.
My favorite part: I’m one of those people who name everything: in college I even named my microwave (Sparky) and my refrigerator (Frosty). Getting the name just right is huge for me. So the concept of this book was endearing from the start. I also adored the illustrations which give people lots to look at on every page.
My response as a reader: Ok, again, I need to be completely honest– I couldn’t quite remember this book at first, so I had to go back and read a few reviews, which I almost never do as I review. I try hard to keep my opinion MINE and not be influenced by others. But I also don’t live in a vacuum, and I’m willing to be open minded about possible ways children’s books can be “problematic.” Several readers noticed that the book seems to confirm gender roles as the main character tossed aside a list of “girl names” when she found her cat was a boy. (And two of these names were Pat and Tracey which are long-standing unisex names anyway!) So, while that wasn’t something I noticed at first, it has definitely colored my impressions of the book. This stuff is important.
My “take-away” as a writer: Getting back to my reader response above, I realize that no matter what you write, someone somewhere is going to take offense. What I initially read as a simple cute story (though looking back, I do remember being a little surprised by the “girl names” thing), other reviewers found very off-putting. You can do two things about that as a writer. The first is to be sensitive. Don’t purposely offend people (that should be obvious, right?) Never stereotype. Avoid writing about cultures or identities you don’t know without the help of sensitivity readers. On the other hand, don’t let fear of offending paralyze you. You can’t please everyone. Don’t be afraid to tackle difficult issues if you can do so from a place of personal experience. We need diverse books, and kids need books which address difficult topics. If you have a story that needs telling, don’t be afraid to write it. Thoughtfully.
Title: Wherever You Go
Author: Pat Zietlow Miller
Illustrator: Eliza Wheeler
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown BYR (April 2015)
The “gist”: This is a love letter to Wanderlust: a cozy ode to traveling winding roads and exploring the world– then coming back home.
My favorite part: While Pat Zietlow Miller’s rhymes are lovely, I think the charming illustrations really make this book. You are on a bike ride with the rabbit up hill and down through cities and towns. Just look at the satisfied smile on the face of the rabbit on his bike on the cover: you’ll drink in that same joy on each page.
My response as a reader: Ok, yet another book I missed when it first came out– sorry these aren’t ALL from this year! But I’m so glad I finally got to this one– it’s lovely for kids, but would be equally lovely as a graduation gift or baby shower gift. I like “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” as much as the next person, but this one can easily stand beside it!
My “take-away” as a writer: I say this over and over: rhymed picture books are HARD to write! Agents and publishing houses advise against writing them not because they don’t get published, but because so many of the submissions they receive just don’t do the rhyming thing well. There are great tutorials out there, but as someone who has been writing poetry and rhymed manuscripts for over 40 years (yes, I started as a kid), I can tell you that if you don’t have that cadence in your blood, it can be terribly hard to learn. (Side story: iambic pentameter came so easily to me in high school that I committed one of my only instances of academic dishonesty by writing rhymed couplets for several in my English class. It was so much fun I forgot it was cheating). Pat Zietlow Miller knows what she’s doing– and rhyme works well here because it keeps the story moving along down the road– but she probably also worked very, very hard to make it sound this effortless.