Everyone knows that books make great gifts, just like everyone knows that there is the right book for the right person out there somewhere. Over the last few months I have been accumulating a small pile of books that are not your typical picture or chapter book but definitely perfect for gift giving. I hope you find something special for all of your bibliophiles as I spend the next month reviewing books you will be happy to give or receive.
Before I say anything about the paperback edition of The Cat on the Mat is Flat, I need to thank Andy Griffiths, Terry Denton and, most of all, the geniuses at Square Fish an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, for this unique book. I have been waiting for a book like this for years now, and here it is! What kind of book is it? It is an easy-to-read, first grade level book that LOOKS like an higher level chapter book as opposed to the raft of large format beginning reader books that kids reading at this level are relegated to. As a book seller I have noticed that new readers, especially those who have older siblings, want to read a book that looks like what the big kids are reading. Until now, there was almost nothing that fit this bill. The Andy Shane series by Jennifer Richard Jacobsen, illustrations by Abby Carter, is the only representative (I have come across thus far) of a first grade reading level book that looks like a Magic Tree House or Junie B Jones book in presentation.
Although I gave this book a first grade reading level, I am confident that The Cat on the Mat is Flat can be read by a kindergardener by the end of the school year. In the tradition of Dr Seuss, this book is one long rhyme and is broken into 9 chapters. In each chapter, the majority of the words end with the same sound, such as og, at, ed, uck, il, and so on. As Pat Leach describes The Cat on the Mat is Flat in her review for the School Library Journal, "Imagine the outcome if Dr Seuss, Dav Pilkey and Lane Smith were locked in a room until they came up with a book for beginning or reluctant readers." The rhyming stories definitely have the antic feel of a book by any one of these authors and the rhymes themselves sometimes mimic those from Suess's books, though never resorting to the use of nonsense words to make a rhyme or sheer absurdity as Seuss often does. The stories are all very funny, as anyone familiar with any of Andy Griffith's other books for young readers will expect, and they all have a small amount of cartoon violence. The cat of the title story becomes flat because the rat, tired of being harassed, finds a baseball bat and gets revenge. The final story in the book, "Andy G, Terry D, the Brave Tea Lady and the Evil Bee," finds the author and illustrator (the initials of their last names conveniently rhyming with "tea" and "bee") as characters in their own book. This book is great fun, but, more than that, it will give any new reader, especially those who are competitive, a great sense of accomplishment along with a good laugh.
Dont' miss the dynamic duo's second book,
The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow!
Author Bonny Becker and illustrator Katy MacDonald Denton introduced us to grumpy a Bear and a persistent Mouse in A Visitor for Bear, a picture book published in 2008 and winner of many awards, including the prestigious E.B. White Award given by the Association of Booksellers for Children. Bear and Mouse are back, proving that picture books can often make great reading primers as well. A Birthday for Bear is part of the excellent new beginning to read series, Candlewick Sparks, which includes the wonderful foxes, Zelda & Ivy, as well as my cat and dog favorites, Houndsley and Catina.
In A Visitor for Bear, the stage is set for the give and take that plays out again in A Birthday for Bear. Bear is a solitary sort who does not want company. Mouse is cold and hungry and only wants a spot of tea. Popping up in the most surprising places, Mouse manages to wear Bear down, agreeing to leave as soon as he has had one cup. When Mouse keeps his promise, Bear finds himself unwilling to let his visitor leave so quickly and a friendship is born. However, this doesn't mean Bear is no longer a grump. In A Birthday for Bear Mouse is back and looking for a party. How he gets his way and how he makes Bear smile is guaranteed to make readers smile also. There is the repetition of words and visual clues familiar to beginning to read books, but all of the books in the Candlewick Sparks series feel like something more. The illustrations are rich and detailed, worthy of any picture book, unlike most beginning to read books which tend to have very basic illustrations. Although not done in a comic book format, visually A Birthday for Bear has everything the marvelous TOON Books have to offer.
Tedd Arnold is the author and illustrator of two of my favorite bedtime books to read out loud, No More Water in the Tub and No More Jumping on the Bed. His plausible but ultimately fanciful stories (I know that I definitely thought there was a chance I could crash through to the downstairs when I jumped on my bed as a kid) colorful illustrations and great character names (Patty Fuzzle who was doing a puzzle) have made these books a staple in my house and at the bookstore when I do story time. Add to these the hilarious (maybe a bit more so for parent than kids) Parts, More Parts and Even More Parts in which an uninformed child thinks that belly button fluff is his stuffing coming out and boogers are his brain leaking out through his nose - really, these books are more funny than gross, I swear - and so on, and you have very respectable contribution to the world of picture books. To top it off, Arnold has a very unique illustration style that gives depth to his sometimes cartoonish characters. I always wondered how he achieved this detail which, for lack of a more eloquent word, can be described as scribbles. A visit to his website provided a step-by-step view of his intensive illustration process and an answer to the scribble question!
In 2005 Tedd Arnold began writing a series for beginning readers that has since become hugely popular. In 2006, Hi! Fly Guy, the first book in the series, was given the Theodore Geisel Award honor award the year that the Amercian Library Association first gave out the award. This award recognizes literary and artistic achievements that demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading and is sort of the Caldecott award for beginning reader books. The Fly Guy books are broken into chapters but are shorter and easier to read than than the Frog and Toad or Poppleton books. These are genuinely first grade reading level books that are interesting and funny.
The premise of the Fly Guy books is simple but bottomless when it comes to silly situations. In the first book, a boy named Buzz goes hunting for a pet to enter into the "Best Pet" competition. He inadvertently captures a fly and is about to release him because he is not a good pet when the fly says, "Buzz." Convinced that the fly can say his name and is therefore a very smart pet, Buzz takes him home. His parents try to convince Buzz that a fly is a PEST not a PET, but Fly Guy proves his intelligence once again. The same thing happens at the Pet Show where the judges must admit that Buzz is a pet, not a pest and he is awarded the "Smartest Pet" prize. Visual humor and a tiny bit of the "ick" factor abound in these books. One of my favorite pictures from the first book is when Buzz feeds Fly Guy. He takes a whole hot dog, bun, mustard and all, and shoves it into the jar where he has been keeping Fly Guy, who is ecstatic.
Other Fly Guy adventures include playing hide-and-seek in a garbage can, visiting the lunchroom at Buzz's school, going out for the football team, tagging along on a family road trip and, yes, being swallowed by an old lady - in this case, Buzz's grandma. Some of the books in this series are available in paperback, however, the hardcover Scholastic editions are a pretty reasonable $5.99.
New FLY GUY non-fiction books!!
I am happy to report that I have found a week's worth of beginning reader books that I really love and want to share with you. This seems to be the most under represented genre of kid's books when it comes to quality writing and illustration, but I think that all the books I reviewed meet my high standards and then some. Not all the books are new, I am new to them and I am sure that many of you out there are fans already.
I'll start the week on Sunday with a look at reading levels, the professionals who determine them and how you can figure them out on your own and move on to a review of a new book/series for the next five days.
Sorry to those of you who's readers are beyond this stage and to the rest of you, I hope there is something this week that will spark a love of reading for your new readers that will last a lifetime.
If you have read enough of my reviews, you know that I am always on the lookout for great books written at the 3rd grade reading level, since there seems to be a definite gap on the shelves in that general area. I am very happy to report that another great series has hit the shelves! The Bed & Biscuit books by Joan Carris, charmingly illustrated by Noah Z. Jones, are kind of a cross between James Herriot's stories of the country veterinarian and Dick King-Smith's wonderful stories with anthropomorphized animals as characters and often narrators. Grandpa Bender, a retired veterinarian, runs the Bed & Biscuit, an animal sitting service, at his farm. His own menagerie consists of Gabby, the mynah bird with the sharp tongue, Ernest, a mini-pig with a good heart and an even better head on his shoulders, and Milly, a persnickety tabby cat who, even though she is a year old, is the baby of the family and thinks she deserves to be treated accordingly.
When Welcome to the Bed & Biscuit, the first book in the series, opens, Grandpa gets a call asking him is he has room for Frou-Frou, a Pekingese. He does, but the only spot open is next to Sherlock, a bluetick hound who does not want his peace disturbed by a yippy little dog. By the end of the first chapter, Grandpa has to cut Ernest's birthday party short so that he can rush to a neighboring farm to help put out a fire. When he finally returns home from McBroom's farm the next morning he is carrying a mystery box and all the animals are very curious to know what is inside. When they finally learn that the box holds a newly born puppy rescued from the fire, Milly immediately expresses her dislike, insisting, "We don't need another baby in this family!" She storms out of the house, her frustration growing as Grandpa Bender ignores her gifts (dead moles) in order to tend to the puppy. Ernest, a typical middle child, is a fixer. Worried about Milly and her increasingly long absences from the farm, he also wants to help his friend Sherlock and his irritation with his yappy neighbor Frou-Frou, all the while making sure Gabby doesn't make things worse by answering the phone and pretending to be Grandpa Bender. A mystery ensues, but the intrepid Ernest gets to the bottom of it and the animals and Grandpa all come together as one happy family again, especially happy since the health of the puppy improves enough for him to leave the incubator and earn a name.
In the second book in the series, out in hardcover this month, the puppy, a Scottish Terrier named Sir Walter, is being trained by Ernest, but it is proving difficult. Grandpa has also taken in a wounded Canada goose, a cranky old muskrat and two fox kits. Both books include excellent Author's Notes at the back of the book that give details on the animals in the story and what their natures and habits in the wild are. Carris's writing is gentle and thoughtful, her characterizations of the animals in the story are equally humane and evocative of the animals' true natures at once. And, on top of that, the difficulties and experiences that the animals have over the course of the books can easily be read as issues faced by real children. The sibling rivalry between Milly and the new puppy and the ways that Milly asks for attention and how she responds when she doesn't get it are so well written that readers should have no problem finding parallels in their own lives. The issues of appropriate behavior and learning restraint in Wild Times at the Bed & Biscuit are also handled deftly, while at the same time making important points about the difference between wild and domestic animals.
This series is perfect for children who are reading above their grade level. The stories are gentle and the plot climaxes are not too suspenseful. Also, Bed & Biscut series is a breath of fresh air in the fantasy dominated world of children's literature.
I know, the two amphibians REALLY worth knowing are Arnold Lobel's brilliant creations, Frog and Toad. However, I think there is enough room in the world of children's literature for a few more frogs on the shelf...
A Froggy Fable , John Lechner's first pictue book, tells the story of a frog who is frustrated by the changes going on all around him. Without giving the whole story away, I can say that, in the end, he discovers that some changes aren't so bad after all. Simply told and elegantly voiced, A Froggy Fable works on many levels without being didactic once. I have never been a fan of children's books that claim to teach a lesson, celebrity authored picture books and The Berenstain Bears being at the top of my list, but John Lechner's book, just like Arnold Lobel's, can be used to "teach a lesson" - if you want it to. And, if you don't want it to, it's a great read out loud and one you will never tire of sharing.
John Lechner is also the author of the excellent forest based kind-of comic book Sticky Burr series as well as his second picture book, also set in a forest, the magical Clever Stick which, like A Froggy Fable, has a subtle lesson woven into a wonderful story.
On the surface, Algy Craig Hall's marvelous Fine As We Are reads like another parable to help children cope with change - especially the change brought about by the arrival of a new sibling. But really, I think the same important ideas that John Lechner presents in A Froggy Fable are also in action in Fine As We Are. We are all capable of learning to accept changes and change can be a good thing. It seems simple, but for little people who see the world in concrete, black and white divisions (read: happy as a clam or pitching a major hissy fit) I think that this concept bears repeating in as many soothing ways as possible and Algy Hall's book, in addition to fitting in with my frog theme, does just that.
Hall's book, his first for children, begins with a very happy Little Frog and his loving mother, and I have to tell you, the depictions of affection between Little Frog and his mother are very sweet. I don't know how Hall manages to convey such love with simple line drawings of frogs, but he does. One day, as mom and Little Frog sit on a rock by the pond she asks him (as most of us foolishly do at some point in our parenting careers), "Would you like a baby brother or a sister?" Little Frog responds, "No. We're just fine as we are." Mom begins to look worried, stricken even, and the reader notices the multitude of frog eggs floating gently at the surface of the water just beneath the rock upon which this conversation takes place. There is no turning back now, and the illustrations of the gaggle of joyously jumping froglets is enchantingly rendered, as are all the illustrations in this book, but these especially so. The pictures I could find do not do Hall's art justice at all.
Mom seems pleased with this hoard of newcomers, so Little Frog tries to adapt. However, they follow him everywhere, are really noisy and, worst of all, eat his breakfast before Little Frog has a chance to. "They only want to be like you," mom says, trying to get Little Frog to see the other side of the situation. "But it's not fair!" Little Frog responds. Mom can't hear him amidst the noise of the babies, though. Hall captures the reality of sibling rivalry and parenting more than one child sublimely. That he himself is a parent as well one of many siblings who grew up in a large family is evident in the precision with which he tells his tale. When Little Frog finally finds ways to love his siblings (playing Leap Frog, naturally) he says to his mom, "We are the biggest family in the world." She answers cautiously, "Do you think we are too big?" "No," says Little Frog, "We're just fine as we are." And this book is more than just fine as it is, it is worth buying and reading over and over again to each and every one of your children.
Stick is the first picture book by Steve Breen, the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist (in 1998 and in 2009), and author of the strip Grand Avenue. First of all, I have to tell you how gorgeous this book is - both painterly and expressive by turns. The layout of Stick is evocative of David Wiesner's books and, like his Caldecott winners Tuesday, Flotsam and The Three Pigs, it is largely without words and needs to be added to my list of books in my article How to Read a Book Without Words (Out Loud).
The book begins in an efflorescent swamp with two frogs on a lily pad and the words, "Stick liked to do things on his own..." From there we watch as he tries to snag his own lunch only to be snagged and dragged on a journey that is mapped out on the end papers of the book. A failed attempt to have a dragonfly for lunch takes Stick on the flight of his life, out of the swamp and through New Orleans, among other stops. The fun of the book is guessing what form of transportation will Stick be stuck on next as he goes from dragonfly to balloons to model airplane. The reactions of the people and animals he encounters on his journey are also a hoot. The author information at the back of the book reveals that Steve Breen has long been fascinated by the Deep South and was about to embark on his first trip there to do research for Stick when Hurricane Katrina struck. In honor of all those who lost their lives and homes, he is donating a portion of his royalties to a Katrina-related disaster-relief organization. That and the fact that this delightful book is now available in paperback make it a must-have!
I usually feel like I exist and read in an alternate world of children's books when I scan the pages of the intermittent children's section of the New York Times Book Review. However, this year, I am pleased to say that I have heard of all but two of the ten titles on the list of Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2009, read five at story time and even reviewed one! I am familiar with all but one of the winning illustrators, Komako Sakai, and have reviewed books by most of the others, including Lucy Cousins, Marla Frazee, Emily Gravett, and Shuan Tan. Anoitnette Portis, a relatively new author/illustrator on the scene, is the creator of two of my favorite story time books I am remiss in never mentioning before now:NOT A BOX and NOT A STICK. Rush out and read these to your 5 and unders immediately!!!
For a chance to read the rest of the section, in which many of the winning books are reviewed, as well as books for older children and teens, click here. Also, be sure to check out my Best Picture Books of 2009, which I think will not be quite as massive a review as my first ever "Best" list, Best Picture Books of 2008, in which I couldn't bear to leave any book out...
Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales by Lucy Cousins
All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon,
illustrated by Marla Frazee
The Snow Day by Komako Sakai
The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett
(Gravett is a favorite of mine, click her name for my reviews of all her books)
MOONSHOT: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca
White Noise by David A. Carter
A Penguin Story by Antoinette Portis
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
(winner of the 2010 Caldecott Medal)
Only A Witch Can Fly by Alison McGhee,
illustrated by Taeun Yoo
Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan