As loyal readers know, I’m a teacher and my school year just ended a week ago (long school year + lots of snow days!). That combined with my dad’s passing meant that it’s been a while since I had time to dive back into my writing and it sure feels good! So without further ado, I bring you a new crop of picture book reviews. The books I chose represent five new works which I’ve been dying to read, mostly by authors I know through social media. They’re all pretty wonderful, so enjoy!
Title: Misunderstood Shark
Author: Amy Dykman
Illustrator: Scott Magoon
Publisher/Date: Orchard Books (April 24, 2018)
The “gist”: In an undersea news report, jellyfish fills in the audience on “myths” about sharks.
My favorite part: I love how the jellyfish admonishes the shark each time not to eat things “in front of the people.” There’s a great 4th wall nod to the fact that we all know sharks WILL do those things, but we’re willing to give him a break to explain.
My response as a reader: Amy Dykman is well known for her playful voice in picture books. In this case I love the way she is able to blend that playfulness with actual useful information about sharks (a topic many kids — and adults– love!)
My “take-away” as a writer: Sure, a couple reviews caught my eye in writing this which were upset that the story is a bit dark. Come on, it’s about sharks, people! They may be misunderstood, but they are still sharks! They are not vegetarians! So my take-away is not to be worried if you go a bit dark as a writer. For the most part, kids can handle it. (See my previous blog post about Grimm’s fairy tales…)
Title: Drawn Together
Author: Minh Lê
Illustrator: Dan Santat
Publisher/Date: Disney-Hyperion (June 5, 2018)
The “gist”: A boy spends the day with his grandfather and starts out bored and frustrated due to the language barrier. But, when he starts drawing (a superhero), his grandfather lights up and gets out his own traditional ink, brush and paper. Before long they have found a common language of art and storytelling.
My favorite part: I love that so much of this story is wordless. As such, my favorite part is the expressions on the grandfather’s and grandson’s faces as they realize what they can do together. (The play on words in the title is also pretty spectactular!)
My response as a reader: I first heard about this moving story at the NESCBWI conference this past April and the concept captivated me. I’m a German teacher, but for me, teaching language is more than just teaching nouns and verbs, it’s about teaching communication, specifically intercultural communication. The two characters in this book don’t learn a spoken language, but they communicate and learn from each other, most notably about the culture that makes them who they are. It’s really beautiful.
My “take-away” as a writer: My hat is off to Minh Lê for the concepts behind this book, but once again I’m floored by Dan Santat, who has illustrated many of my favorite recent books (Go read “After the Fall”!). How he transformed the sparse text into this masterpiece is quite simply artistic sorcery. As always, it’s hard to find a take-away from that as a writer, but what I have learned over the years is to cherish the interdependence of word and image– and also to feel blessed I’ve been able to meet and learn from such amazing individuals in the industry.
Title: I’m Sad
Author: Michael Ian Black
lllustrator: Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster BYR (June 5, 2018)
The “gist”: Flamingo is sad and his friends try to cheer him up as well as let him know that being sad sometimes is actually ok.
My favorite part: I love that one of the main characters is a potato. My father was a botanist specializing in potato research, so I have quite a soft spot for potatoes and this one is adorable!
My response as a reader: I haven’t yet had a chance to read the previous book in this series, “I’m bored,” but I adore the concept of these books. They’re like the old “Mr. Happy,” “Mr. Messy,” etc. series grew up and got a little more serious (but not TOO serious). And being a huge Debbie Ridpath Ohi fan it was great to see her work tied to text (seriously people, go google her “broken crayon” art series and you will be a fan, too!)
My “take-away” as a writer: Three characters, fairly sparse illustrations, a premise you can sum up in a single sentence? As a writer, it’s really great to see such a minimalist approach work so well. It’s a bit of a concept book as there’s not much plot, but there is still a clear story arc and even a little “sting” at the end. Great mentor text!
Title: Albie Newton
Author: Josh Funk
Illustrator: Ester Garay
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books (May 1, 2018)
The “gist”: Albie is brilliant — he speaks many languages, creates amazing inventions, etc. Unfortunately, he isn’t aware of his impact on the people around him.
My favorite part: What with Rosie Revere, Iggie Peck, Mira (forecasts the future) and now Albie, there are so many awesome books about getting excited to invent and learn. I can picture this book as part of a classroom activity “re-imagining” common items to make them better — strollers, shopping carts, umbrellas– think of the fun kids would have!
My response as a reader: Neither of my sons have very good social skills (one is on the Autism spectrum, the other has emotional-behavioral issues), so it’s great to see a book about a kid who finds his place in the world even though he’s different. My one quibble is that I would like to have seen him take a little ownership of his issues by the end. You can’t “cure” Autism, and one of the wonderful things about this book is that Albie’s new friends aren’t asking him to change. They are accepting him as he is, which is incredible. However, it’s still important to show kids that their actions do impact others. Albie’s genius is not a “free pass” to be insensitive. A quick line like “Oh! I didn’t think about that! Sorry!” would have solved that for me. But otherwise? Another winner for good ol’ Josh.
My “take-away” as a writer: If I had been a critique partner on this book, I likely would have given Josh the conventional wisdom ones sees from so many editors and agents: if it doesn’t have to be told in rhyme, why are you using rhyme? Rewrite this without rhyme and see what happens. But that’s really a shame, because you don’t always NEED a reason to rhyme. Sometimes it’s just fun. And when you can do it well (as Josh can), it doesn’t interfere with the story, it just keeps things moving. At its best, you can forget something is in rhyme entirely. (Good Shakespearean actors do this beautifully). So ultimately, if rhyme is your thing, don’t let “them” stop you.
Author/illustrator: Elizabeth Lilly
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press (June 26, 2018)
The “gist”: Geraldine is very upset about moving to a town where she’s the only giraffe. She hides and feels sorry for herself until she makes a friend who is also different and they both find a way to integrate in their new school.
My favorite part: The swoopy necks of the giraffes are so much fun — the illustrations have a great child-like quality (not that most children could hope to replicate them!) It allows the story to be so much more quirky and playful than a more realistic depiction. Seriously, check out the page where she’s sitting on the floor next to the box of Xmas decorations with her arms crossed defiantly and her neck curved around the words. Perfect!
My response as a reader: As I look on all the books I reviewed today, I see that they all have the shared thread of “being different,” and they all have pretty happy endings (with the possible exception of “Misunderstood Shark”– but no spoilers!). After reading a bunch of books in which misunderstood or different people end up finding friendship and feeling happy, part of me is all warm and fuzzy, and another part is a little cynical. It’s not always that easy. But it’s tough to be cynical reading about a giraffe like Geraldine. She has enough pathos for everyone and somehow she ends up making it all work out.
My “take-away” as a writer: Elizabeth Lilly has a great feel for kids’ emotions and this is a great lesson in child relationships. It reminds me of Kevin Henke’s “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” in the sort of well-meaning but misplaced temper tantrum it showcases. It’s ok to let your characters be irrationally angry once in a while!