Wednesday, May 21

Alistair and Kip's Great Adventure!

by John Segal!
McElderry Books! 2008!

"Let's build a boat and travel to distant lands," says Alistair. And so they do.

Alistair cat and Kip the dog build themselves a boat and sail down river, into the bay, onto the open seas. A storm comes up, the waves crash their boat into a whale who saves them and takes them home.

"Tomorrow, let's build a plane."

The end.

The journey is a time-honored device in literature, all literature, but usually there is something transformative in the process. The dangers and desires of a journey have to have a purpose, otherwise what's the point? The Bard of Manchester once provided one of the most succinct examples of the power of journey
I was looking for a job, and then I found a job,
And heaven knows I'm miserable now.
See, the main character sets out to do something, and then he accomplishes what he set out to do, and his life has been transformed as a result. No such enlightenment here for Alistair and Kip as they merely come home determined to do the next day what they did the day before. Might as well have a story about a turtle and a donkey who go to the grocery store, eat what they bought, then plan to go to the store the next day.

Let me look at this story again, maybe I'm missing something. Do they have a magical adventure, something beyond the pale? No, they do not. You might be tempted to believe that their interaction with the whale is something, but in order for that to be the case you would have to marvel at a cat and dog's ability to build a boat and sail the ocean. But when dealing with anthropomorphic animals that stand in for humans we aren't supposed to be surprised at their abilities any more than we would stare at stranger in public adjusting their socks. Talking animals would expect nothing less from another -- the whale in this case -- than sympathy and understanding, unless it had been established in advance that whales were something to fear on their grand journey.

Do they glean anything from their experience? That whales are nice, perhaps, but is that the sum of their adventure? No, I don't find a great adventure here. Some nice watercolor work, totally ruined by variable type sizes throughout. That's about it.

I guess my problem is that I'm seeing a lot of books this season that all seem as limp as this, a story that could have been concocted by a small child. Wait, I take that back, I've heard small children tell much more involved stories. These would be the same children a simple book like this would be aimed at. So if kids are capable of longer stories why are the shelves filled with so many empty calories?

Sometimes I wonder if picture books aren't going to cause the demise of picture books.

Tuesday, May 20

Lady Liberty: A Biography

by Doreen Rappaport
illustrated by Matt Tavares
Candlewick 2008

If ever there was a model for how to write the biography of an inanimate object, this is it. Is it too early to be suggesting a contender for a Sibert award?

Rappaport begins by imagining her grandfather's journey to Elllis Island, wondering what he must have thought and felt when he first saw the Statue of Liberty. She then jumps back to Edouard de Laboulaye's dream of giving America a gift of a grand monument to its independence. Then comes sculptor Auguste Bartholdi's work to capture the essence of this dream. Then comes Gustave Eiffel's work engineering the various components of this grand monument; and Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper accounts mocking the wealthy capitalists who refused to help fund the project while soliciting the donations of average Americans -- many recent immigrants themselves -- to see the project through; and Emma Lazarus's ruminations that led to the poem that adorns the base of Lady Liberty's foundation.

Rappaport gives each person involved their say, each getting a free-verse voice in their part of the process while Matt Tavares singles out a particular moment to represent their efforts across the spread of pages. Each voice, each part of the process, brings Lady Liberty one step closer to completion.

At it's core, Lady Liberty is as much a lesson on the birth of most collaborative arts. It's as complex as the planning and construction of a bridge, as complicated in its funding as an independent motion picture, and like most visionary works, difficult to imagine in the eyes of many who toiled toward a single visionary goal.

It also highlights how another of those things assumed to be quintessentially American didn't originate in America and was viewed with skepticism and derision before ultimately being accepted. We didn't invent hot dogs or hamburgers, or even the fireworks we set off on the Fourth of July. Our national anthem was based on a British drinking song. But were it not for a French visionary, a French artist, an pro-Zionist poet, a Hungarian-born journalist, and multi-national labor force we most likely wouldn't have this symbol of liberty, this internationally recognized beacon of all things most Americans hold dear.

For those who cannot visit Liberty Island and follow the Lady's journey in her presence this book is an excellent alternative. Even better in some respects, because it clearly shows the connections between the people from different backgrounds and nations, in the same way this nation was constructed as a collaborative effort. A lesson I feel we need to reinforce for children in these divisive times.

Monday, May 19

Sisters & Brothers

Sibling Relationships in the Animal World
by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
Houghton Mifflin 2008

I learn more from picture books than I probably did back in high school. Of course, I have a different perspective on what interests me than when I was younger, and kid books are pretty much all I read these days so I'm probably not learning as much as I could.


Did you know that armadillos give birth to four young, either all male or all female, each an exact clone of the other? I can't say I did, and that would make for an interesting relationship if you were raised along side three exact copies of yourself. More weirder than being identical twins.

Turkeys, on the other hand, hang around with mom for a year and then the ladies go off to mate while the brothers stay together in a band. Dudes, it's like some guys I went to school with! I guess they were turkeys of a sort.

Then there are the naked mole rats. Okay, they are practically blind and live in these huge burrows underground, that I knew. What I didn't know was that each colony has a single mom -- sort of like a queen bee -- and that when they meet each other in a narrow passage way they have to sniff one another to determine who has seniority, because the eldest gets to climb over the youngest.

And then finally, a puzzle piece I didn't realize was missing in a story I conceived long ago. New Mexico Whiptail Lizards are all female. There are no males. That just blows my mind.

I think this is the first time I can remember where the text upstaged Jenkins cut paper illustrations. Or perhaps I've just gotten so used to his work that it no longer surprises and delights the way it used to. That doesn't make it bad, it's just become as familiar as Eric Carle's style in it's sameness.

By using sibling relationships to explore these unique animal families, Page and Jenkins supply a lot of great information in a clean, easy to understand style that is obviously engaging enough for an adult but readily accessible to young readers.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some Whiptail Lizards to research.

Friday, May 16

The Beeman

by Laurie Krebs
illustrations by Valeria Cis
Barefoot Books 2008

This is a neat little picture book introduction to the art of beekeeping. Told in gently rhymed text (that didn't annoy the way a lot of rhymed text does these days) the story follows a boy and his grandfather the bee man as they dress, build a colony, study, care for, and harvest honey from man-made hives. Instead of the usual single page of back matter there are four pages all about bees, and a recipe for honey apple muffins that looks enticing.

Really, that's it. There's a load of great information that doesn't feel at all like it's teaching, or trying to be educational. A nice little book.

Oh. Huh. Look at that. This book was originally published in 2002 by National Geographic. Who knows what that's about? Different illustrator. Haven't seen the original to make comparisons, but there's a difference in page numbers for the two books, so perhaps the earlier version doesn't have the back matter? Whatevs. Doesn't change my opinion, I'm sticking with nice.


Thursday, May 15

Hen Hears Gossip

by Megan McDonald
illustrated by Joung Un Kim
Greenwillow 2008

I always understood a gossiping hen to hold negative connotations, not just about gossip but about a type of woman who get together with like and hold hen parties. Am I wrong, is this not considered a negative stereotype?

And I cannot be the only person with that song from The Music Man running through his head.

There. Now it's in your head too.

We start with hen, who overhears cow say something to pig. Gossip! She loves Gossip! And so she spreads the word.

From here the book turns into a game of telephone, where the message changes as each of the barnyard animals spreads the word. The messages are, of course, absurd, and as the animals track the original message back to the source it turns out that cow was telling pig that her baby calf was born.

I'm just "okay" with this book. I think if it had begun and been titled with another animal I wouldn't have that negative connotation rolling around inside my head, and then it would be a somewhat amusing story about some misheard information. I suppose one could extract the lesson that gossip is bad but in order for that to be the case here there would need to be some sort of consequence for the gossip. That's the missing component, the one that would give the story some depth.

I guess I expect too much story from what is, at heart, just a misheard rumor.

Wednesday, May 14

Physics: Why Matter Matters

created by Basher
written by Dan Green
Kingfisher 2008

From the people who brought you the Periodic Table...

Well, it's been a year since we last visited our friends the Elements, those hip cats who it turns out have their own personalities. Now Basher and Green have given us a companion volume explaining the world of Physics. The book opens with a quote from the the Big Guy on a bike:
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Albert Einstein
Yup, that just about sums up what's going on here, proving the Einstein's smaller theories were pretty solid as well. The physical world and its inhabitants are once again anthropomorphed and grouped by association. We get the Old School dudes (Mass, Weight, Density, &c.), the Hot Stuff (Energy, Entropy...), the Wave Gang (Sound, Frequency...), the Light Crew (Radio, Microwave...), and so on. It's all here, each aspect with its own spread, a first-person breakdown on the one side and a graffiti-like cartoon portrait on the other. There's also a "first discovered" box and a short historical list of how or when they were famously employed.

As with the Periodic Table: Elements With Style, I think this book works best in the classroom as a supplemental text (though used correctly they could be primary) with wide appeal. A great introduction for budding young scientists to the basics of physics, a playful refresher for older young scientists, and an easily digestible crash-course for adults who need the background to keep up with their budding young scientists.

In a semi-related note, check out what happens when the Periodic Table meets Art. Courtesy of Sara over at Read Write Believe.

Tuesday, May 13

Little Boy

by Alison McGhee
illustrated by Peter Reynolds
Atheneum / Simon 2008

This Father's Day, when a Hallmark just won't cut it but $20 seems like too much to spend, why not give this little gem?

Generously borrowing from William Carlos William's poem "The Red Wheelbarrow," each of the rhymed sections in this picture book begins with the phrase "Little Boy, so much depends on..." to inventory the innocent mischief, imaginative play, and rituals of what it means to be a boy. All that and a big cardboard box. Reynolds illustrations are as precious as McGhee's cadences are measured, which is to say they are calculated with great care.

This is the father-and-son companion to Someday, the book about the mother-daughter bond that reads like a snake eating its own tail. With both books I can't imagine what sort of child they are intended for. Grown children? Adults with children who want an American Greeting Card memory of a time that never really existed except in a post-martini haze? Seriously, with Little Boy I can see maybe half a reading of this before the little boy being read to wants to go find a cardboard box of his own to play with rather than finish this non-story.

Beyond that, the book is a keepsake, a contemporary Norman Rockwell portrait of boyhood. Grandparents will love it, so might some parents, but it's not for children.

Monday, May 12

i love dirt

52 activities to help you & your kids discover the wonders of nature
by Jennifer Ward
foreword by Richard Louv
illustrations by Susie Ghahremani
Trumpeter / Shambhala / Random House 2008

galley provided by publisher

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this book, and everything wrong with it. It's a book for kids, but it's a book for parents. these are the best of times, these are the worst of times...

As a collection of outdoor activities for adults to do with children there's very little fault I can find in the premise of the execution. Most of what is included are simple outings, grouped by season, that allow parents and children to commune with nature of a manageable scale. There are bird watching activities, cloud watching games, backyard camping or a general nocturnal excursion. All with goals attainable in most parts of the country and with little investment. Each of the activities also includes a "Help Me Understand" box with select questions and answers that a child might ask.

But all in all, it's sad that it's come to this.

Going out into nature should be, well, natural. It shouldn't feel guided by a book that provides one activity a week - giving the air of a constitutional duty as opposed to enjoying the enterprise. In the introduction, Richard Louv talks about how when he was a child in the 1950s he would go out into the nearby woods every chance he got. But in half a century we have become a nation of people who must schedule their children's playdates, supervise their destinations with cell phones and text messages, and must budget time to shove our children into nature in order to learn (and hopefully respect) what the Earth Mother has to teach us.

Kids just don't "go out" the way they used to, the way I used to. Physically the neighborhoods haven't necessarily changed, but our relationship to them, and our priorities about this free time, has changed. We no longer trust our children to trundle off to places where they can explore on their own, nor do we allow the time for such behavior by preferring to over-program kids into structured, organized teams and activities. And so, to fill this deficit in our culture, we have books to help us attempt to round out the experiences of our children.

In books like this aimed at parents there is an unavoidable undercurrent that the parent in need of such a book either won't find the book, or will feel condescended to. The point where I feel this most is the little check box at the end of each chapter that summarizes the purpose and goal of the activity. "Encourages exercise and well-being," "Stimulates wonder, experimentation, and a feeling of exhilaration," phrases like these give the book it's pedantic feel and sours everything that proceeds it. It's one thing to have a book as a reference for what to do with kids in he great out-of-doors, it's another entirely to have to be told that the exercise will "Stimulate caring and stewardship for living things." And what if it doesn't, is the exercise a failure? Is there something wrong with parent or child? There's little a family can do with these exercises if they don't go as planned but turn around and go home.

Also, the problem with the "Help Me Understand" sections is the presumption that a child will only have one question per activity. If the exposure to, say, a spider's web or a bird's feather opens a child's imagination there is clearly an opportunity to explore further on line or at the library. As the review copy I received failed to include the Resources and Recommended Reading listed in the table of contents it is hard to judge whether this book is all that helpful in supplemental guidance. Still, to only address one bit of trivia per outing seems a bit shallow.

The publisher feels the activities will appeal to children from 4 to 9 but I can tell you most of what I saw wouldn't float with my girls beyond the age of 7 or so. So it's for the curious, the very young, and the parents who might not otherwise introduce their children to nature without a guide.

Thursday, May 8

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great

by Gerald Morris
illustrations by Aaron Renier
Houghton Mifflin 2008

It's been way too long since I read me some Arthurian legend. And while I should probably go back and remind myself of everything I've forgotten from T.H. White's The Once and Future King, or perhaps Roger Lance Green's King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (with it's spiffy new Puffin Classics edition), it was more fun to get Gerald Morris's take on the French knight aimed at the young reader crowd.

Fun is key here. Morris has neatly selected a series of tales from Lancelot's part in the legends and presented them as a series of adventures that begin with his inadvertently spectacular arrival at Arthur's court to his days where he has grown weary of the burden of being Sir Lancelot. Along the way he meets challengers to his title as unbeaten, ladies who hold him hostage until he chooses one for a wife, and in the end, defender of the innocence of the queen.

Ah, yes, Guinevere. There's no mention of Lancelot's secret affair here, and nothing else unsavory that might scare off young boys (and girls, to be fair) who might be getting their first introduction to the Arthurian legends. Guine isn't even mentioned by name, she's simply the queen. All in all there is a very sanitized, safe feeling about these adventures, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable.

The humorous illustrations, both inside and on the cover, are an appropriate indication of what the reader can expect. In some ways, the book's lineage feels closer to Monty Python than any of the traditional prose or poetry of legend. It's hard not to see the rampaging John Cleese at times as Lancelot goes through his paces, until you come across one of Renier's illustrations and are confronted with an entirely different, but equally humorous, character.

This is the first is what is promised as a series, the next up this fall being The Adventures of Sir Givret the Short. If I were a boy I'd be looking forward to these.

Wait a tick! I am a boy!