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.
The dynamic duo's second book, The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow is just out in hardcover!
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.
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
Written in 1951, Eleanor Estes' Newbery winning Ginger Pye is a marvelous book that, for parents, serves as a reminder of how much children's literature and children's lives have changed in the last 60 years. Jerry and Rachel Pye live in Cranbury, CT where their father is a highly regarded, although not famous, ornithologist, who travels often and their mother, some 17 years his junior, is a homemaker. Living in the same town as their mother's family, Jerry and Rachel spend a lot of time with their mother's young brother, Uncle Bennie, who is famous and "a hero because here he was, only three years old, and yet he was an uncle." The plot of the book centers on how the children acquire their dog Ginger, how he incorporates himself into the family and, at the climax of the book, how the family copes when their beloved dog disappears. This is a simple, gentle story full of amusing and thoughtful digressions that make each chapter feel like a self-contained short story.
Home is the happy base for Jerry and Rachel, who have the freedom to travel almost anywhere they choose within the town of Cranbury. In spite of this, the book opens with a wonderful scene in which the two children are sitting on the little upstairs veranda of their house reading. Rachel is reading The Secret Garden and Jerry is reading "one of the Altsheler* books, and neither one of these was an 'I' book." The "I" book, or book with a first person narrative, does not pass the Pye taste test unless it is really good, like Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island or Swiss Family Robinson. As the light fades the children just sat "quietly, thinking, and watching the bats and bugs hurl themselves against the streetlamp which had suddenly come on and was casting a purple glow." A year apart in age, Jerry and Rachel are true friends. They often have discussions about what is the "most important of anything - the most important, or the prettiest, or the best or the funniest." At night when they went to bed they had one long, continuous story about "Martin Boombernickles, a character who could change himself into a horse, a boy, a man, a dog, anything, whenever he felt like it. They almost never went to sleep without adding an episode." Although the lives of the Pye children were probably typical of middle class children in the 1950s, this book has an almost exotic feel when I think about the lives my children lead today.
Estes enhances the plot with frequent digressions. In the midst of an activity, Rachel or Jerry will recall a past event that is related to their whatever they are currently experiencing. One of my favorites is when Rachel, at Mrs. Speedy's barn with Jerry after they have earned the money to buy one of her puppies, remembers the last time she was at Speedy's farm. It had been "by accident, long ago, when she was about seven." All the children had gone to the Sunday school teacher, Miss Foote's house to sled down her "steep slippery hill" and have hot cocoa. Miss Foote had hung Japanese lanterns in the chestnut trees and they made "lovely colored reflections in the snow and ice." Towards the end of the party, Rachel got so much momentum on a slide that she went out of Miss Foote's yard and into the Speedy's field. In the dark, Rachel walked toward a red light and found Mrs Speedy in the barn with a red lantern, milking the cows. Stepping into the barn felt like "stepping into a painting that was dark, excepting where the red cows were, and Mrs. Speedy's ruddy face, the lantern, and the white milk that looked purple" to Rachel. She quickly realizes where she is and thinks it's "like waking from a dream to find herself this far from the party, like being in a surprising new world." Instead of making her way back to the party, Rachel runs all the way home, her sled trailing behind her. Jerry arrived home shortly after her, but she never told anyone about being in the Speedy's barn because "it was a hard thing to explain. But it was interesting to remember, as she was doing now." The validity that Estes gives to the thoughts and emotions of her child characters is so vividly real and straightforward. And, I think it is hugely important for readers to know that their memories matter, that they play a part in their present lives and that memories can be quiet, personal and wonderous even without sharing them. Rachel and Jerry are constantly making sense of their world and their lives with their memories, memories that reflect instances that shape them and affect their choices in the present. I don't want to keep using the word "simple" to describe Estes's writing or her story - the only thing simple in this book is the age in which it takes place. And that is simple mostly for the lack of gadgetry and distraction that we have in our lives today. Instead, her writing is best described as elegant, which for me is the embodiment beauty and simplicity in one.
The drama of the disappearance of Ginger, which takes up a little over half the book, is very low key. Mrs and Mr Pye, while concerned and wanting to help, are mostly on the sidelines for the whole story. The thoughts and actions that Jerry and Rachel pursue in their attempts to find Ginger are genuine and realistic within the setting of the story. Because the town is so small and everyone knows each other, they feel that Ginger must be somewhere nearby and if they can only visit every corner of town they will find her. Having seen a stranger with a yellow hat at many key moments, the children draw a comic strip every night trying to figure out who this villain is and what he has done with Ginger. They go house to house asking people if they have seen the dog. They get the police chief and the local newspaper editor involved. In the end, though, it isn't enough. The children keep their emotions in check very admirably, and they even refer to this in the book. When, and how, Ginger does return home, the children allow themselves to cry. I deeply admire then sense of propriety, independence and what is acceptable that Jerry and Rachel possess. I am sure that I am romanticizing these children who, after all, are just fictional characters, but I know that Estes used many biographical bits in her writing and, having been a children's librarian, I have no doubt that she had a good perspective on the characters of children during her writing lifetime.
This book is considered to be written at a sixth grade reading level. Despite the seeming simplicity of the story, Estes uses words like "unsavory," "mesmerize," "soliloquize" and "regicides." I have noticed, not scientifically by any means, that children's literature from 50+ years ago tends to have vocabulary words that are much higher than what is found in contemporary young adult novels. I'm not sure why this is. Maybe there are so many new words in our language and culture today that there just isn't enough room in our collective consciousness for words like "unsavory" and "regicide" to end up in print in children's books anymore.
Eleanor Estes won the Newbery Honor Award for The Hundred Dresses as well as The Middle Moffat and Rufus M. Based on her own family, Estes' Moffats get a brief nod in Ginger Pye. Readers who enjoyed Ginger Pye should not miss Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwicks books of which there are soon to be three or Mary Ann Hoberman's debut novel for young adults set during the Depression, Strawberry Hill. Another wonderful writer who was a contemporary of Estes's and threw a bit of magic into his sibling stories is Edward Eager, who's most well known book is Half-Magic about siblings who find a coin that grants them exactly half of what they wish for. And, an influence of Eager's who is not to be missed is the amazing E Nesbit, a British author writing in the early 1900s.