BOOK TRAILER for Chris Van Allsburg's NEW BOOK: Queen of the Falls, due out April 4, 2011

Chris Van Allsburg is the first picture book illustrator and author I discovered as an adult and he will always be a pillar of the craft for me, whether I like his newest book or not.  For me, my favorites of his books define all that is magical, wonderful, complex and profound in the world of picture books.  Everyone knows The Polar Express, but I urge you to seek out his other books and read them with your children if you are not already familiar with them.  A few of my favorites are The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (a great story-starter,) Two Bad Ants, The Wreck of the Zephyr, The Widow's Broom and The Stranger.   Queen of the Falls, the true story of the first person, a woman, to go over Niagra Falls in a barrel and survive, will be Van Allsburg's 17th picture book.

In 1989, Mark Helprin and Chris Van Allsburg published the first book in their trilogy, Swan Lake.   The Veil of Snows came out in 1993 and A City in Winter in 1996.  I don't know if anyone actually read these books when they were first released.  I could only find a meager handful of amateur reviews of the books and, while I bought books 2 and 3 and thoughtfully inscribed to my son in 1997 when he was 3 months old, I never got around to reading them to him or on my own.  The snippets of information I could find about the trilogy make it sound compelling - a retelling of Swan Lake in which a young girl, exiled from her kingdom, realizes that she is the child of Odette and the Prince.  There is actually a pretty good synopsis of A City in Winter at Wikipedia.  Now, almost twenty years later in a time when many adult authors are writing books for children and when the popularity of the fantasy genre has made stories filled with darkness the norm, I think that this trilogy will find a new audience - especially at a time when fairy tales and retellings are experiencing a renewed popularity in young reader and young adult fiction.  The three books in one, now called A Kingdom Far and Clear, is 320 pages long and contains 39 illustrations by Van Allsburg.

Here is a list of Chris Van Allsburg's book in order of publication date, newest to oldest.  I begin with Just a Dream, which actually came out in 1990, because it is the FIRST book by the author to be released in paperback, due in March, 2011.  Van Allsburg won a Caldecott Honor in 1979 for his first book, The Garden of Abdul Gazazi.  He won the Caldecott in 1981 for Jumanji and 1985 for Polar Express.  Van Allsburg is second only to David Wiesner who won the Caldecott in 1992 for Tuesday, 2002 for The  Three Pigs and 2007 for Floatsam. Wiesner won the Caldecott Honor in 2000 for Sector 7.

Just a Dream by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverProbuditi! by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverZathura by Chris Van Allsburg: Book Cover
Bad Day at Riverbend by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverThe Sweetest Fig by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverWidow's Broom by Chris Van Allsburg: Book Cover
The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverJust a Dream by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverTwo Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg: Book Cover
Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverThe Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg: Book Cover
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg: Book Cover
The Wreck of the Zephyr by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverBen's Dream by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverJumanji by Chris Van Allsburg: Book Cover
Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg: Book Cover

Elfbook: The Curious Journey - an Interactive Story by John Lechner

After I finished reading Sticky Burr:  Adventures in Burrwood Forest to my son (again), we decided to visit John Lechner's website to see if there was a new tale from Burrwood Forest on the horizon.  While there are no new Sticky Burr books in the near future, we were delighted to finds something new, very new!  John Lechner's  Elfbook:  The Curious Journey is an internet-only, interactive story that combines elements of a book, a film and a game.  And, it's a great story!

It takes about ten minutes to experience the whole story.  Like the chambered nautilus shell embossed on the cover of a book that begins this tale, the story spirals in on itself.  On top of a creamy background that is textured like the page of a book, the black and gray story unwinds.  When an image from the story glows red, that is the cue for the reader to click on it and move the story forward.

A flash of light from the top of a distant tower and the approach of a flying beast lead the Elf on a journey that takes him underground and into a secret library where he sees images of a kingdom that was once on the waterfront and a girl who could talk to the sea creatures.

The intermittent bursts of red on the neutral page are both exciting and entrancing as Elf goes on his journey and you wait to see what will happen next. 

The story has sound effects and a really wonderful, music, both referred to as sound design, by Tony Lechner, that adds to the drama of the story.

John Lechner is the art director at FableVision, an online children's media company started in 1996 by the picture book author and illustrator Peter H Reynolds that is worth taking the time to explore with your kids.  As he says on his website, Reynolds would rather be known for his mission "to use media to tell stories that matter and challenge us to reach our full potential" than anything else. Besides his work for FableVision and his picture books, Lechner has been making films for his own website.  Be sure to check out my reviews of John Lechner's books.


Look! A Book! written and illustrated by Bob Staake

I saw first saw  Look!  A Book! by Bob Staake over at 100 Scope Notes back in early November and bookmarked it - in my mind.  Fortunately, I was working the day it arrived at the bookstore and I didn't have to rely on my sieve-like memory to prompt me to order it in.  Also fortunate - it was automatically shipped to the store! After checking out Staake's website, I seen why it was.  Those of you who read The New Yorker may recognize Staake's work and distinct, retro, playful style. From a kid's book perspective, his style feels a bit like a mixture of Lane Smith and William Joyce with a bit of j. otto siebold craziness thrown in.  After writing this review, with my six year old peeking over my shoulder to see the great illustrations as I did so, I broke my new rule (no more picture books...) and bought Look!  A Book! and I am so glad I did.  Having grown up with Richard Scarry as both my husband and I did, my son loves it, and so does my husband!

After the fabulous illustrations, the best part of Look!  A Book! is that it is the PERFECT look-and-find book for kids who are too young for the very popular I SPY and Where's Waldo series of books. And, nothing personal Walter Wick and Martin Hanford, but I think that Staake's artwork is phenomenal and highly preferable in a book that I am going to be poring over for hours with my child.  The book begins with this challenge which I am going to print in full because it really sums up the tone of the book:

With images of every kind!
So many objects,
big and small.
Let's see if you 
can find them
ALL . . . 

Grinning ghosts and pizza planes,
underwater  subway trains.
Not a lot of words to read-
the pictures here are all you need!

It's time now to explore this book.
Just turn the page 
and take a  . . . 

As you can see, after the introduction page, the text is short, sweet and rhyming. There's only ONE thing the author is asking you to find on each page. But, don't think that this makes it too simple - there is so much action going on in every picture that there is no end of things for you to have your little detective search for. Staake has a marvelous imagination and pages feature haunted houses, underwater worlds, tree-top towns.  Each page also features three die-cuts that reveal a bit of the upcoming scene or, after turning the page, items from the previous scene that might have been missed.  And, when you think you've reached the end of the book, there is a gatefold page that is a 12 item long list of 78 more things to find within the pages of Look!  A Book!

It was hard to find images from the Look!  A Book! to include here, but I wanted you to get as many eyefulls of Staake's artwork as possible, so the above is an illustration of his that is not from Look!  A Book! but is exemplary of the detailed scenes he creates.  As the review in Publisher's Weekly so aptly sums it up, "Kids will love the robots and the wacky machines, and adults will appreciate the asides: 'WAX FRUIT,' says a billboard, 'When you need a break from reality.' Likely to have a long stay in the bedtime pile."  Agreed!

These are just a few of the other picture books Bob Staake has written and illustrated or illustrated!

Beautiful Oops! written and illustrated by Barney Saltzberg

Every page of Beautiful Oops! is an art project waiting to happen! Beautiful Oops! just oozes inspiration, ideas and creativity of the most playful kind. Barney Saltzberg definitely has a gift for creating books of this nature and all of them are little gems. Filled with fantastic paper engineering, Beautiful Oops! is paean to imagination and tool kit for cheerfully, creatively approaching mistakes. Also, it's just a really fun book to read. Keep Beautiful Oops! in mind when graduation season rolls around, too! This may be sacrilege, but I think  Beautiful Oops! should take the place of Oh, The Places You'll Go! by Dr Seuss as the go-to book for grads. 

Saltzberg also makes excellent book trailers that practically do my job for me. The only think I have left to say is buy a copy of this book for yourself and another to give as a gift for kids of all ages. And be sure to check out Celebrate Oops!, a program to foster creativity. The website is a great place to get inspired and share ideas. 


Looky Here

Crinkled-Up Paper

Photos from Supermomoments


A Discussion of Shel Silverstein's THE GIVING TREE

I feel certain that most of you reading this right now own a copy of Shel Silverstein's 1964 book, The Giving Tree.  If you don't own it, I know you have read it or had it read to you at some point in your existence.  I still  have the copy that was given to me by my brother on my 11th birthday in 1979 and I have memories of reading it as a kid and watching the animated version made in 1973 and narrated by Shel himself and loving it very much. Recently while talking about this book with a customer, I had a very interesting experience that lead to a discovery about my true feelings about  The Giving Tree and how I currently interpret the text. This got me thinking. Many, many copies of this book are sold every year.  Many, many adults have fond memories of it. But do people still read it? And if so, what do they make of it? There are many different ways to interpret the story and many different emotions elicited after reading it.  However, in an interview (which he rarely gave) with Publisher's Weekly in 1975 when asked to explain the popularity of  The Giving Tree, Silverstein said, "Maybe it's that it presents just one idea."  But what idea?   Readers of mine, I want to know what place this book has in your lives? Do you own it? Do you read it to your kids? What do they think of it? What do you think of it? PLEASE COMMENT!

Here is my story of the story:

I do not read The Giving Tree to my kids. In fact, I think I have actually come to loathe this book. These feelings came to the surface the other day when I was helping a customer who was new to the book and did not know the name of it, only the plot, find it on the shelf. This tiny, older Asian woman was so enamored of the book that her grandson had read to her that she could not stop gushing about it. I shared with her that I had my copy from when I was a child. She asked me if I loved the book too. I paused then decided to tell the truth (since she asked.) I told her I hated the book. I hated how selfless the tree was and how selfish the boy was and how sad it was that they both ended the story old, broken and with nothing left except themselves. I was a bit surprised by my reaction, but I think I know where it was coming from. As a mother, on a bad day I sometimes feel like these life-sucking little beasts are draining me of my own self and turning me into nothing more than a function, much like the boy and the Tree (who is identified as a SHE) in the story. I think I have been over identifying with the Tree and been feeling a little too angry at the selfish boy. While discussing this book with the customer, it occurred to me that it is possible to read this book from a Buddhist perspective. One Buddhist concept, simply put in American terms, is the idea that you always have more to give, even when you feel like you have nothing left. You are always the least important person in the room.  Perhaps the Tree is exemplifying this quality? Perhaps she is selfless in the best way possible and not the doormat that she seems to be? As the customer pointed out to me, readers of the book can look at the behavior of the boy and make a conscious decision not to be like him, another positive reading of the text. Knowing that my interpretation of the book changed as a grew from a child to a mother, I became interested in other people's interpretations of the book.

I read it to my kids.  My seventeen year old, on the verge of starting her own adult life away from home, broke down in tears after reading the book.  My six year old said (when asked) that it was sad and when was his macaroni and cheese going to be ready?  My thirteen year old son believes that it is a message about how we keep taking and taking from nature, depleting her resources.  My husband, who had it read to him as a child, feels that it represents the bittersweet nature of love and the way that the people we love are sometimes unable to love us back or love us in the way that we want to be loved.  A friend of mine said she felt it should be called The Taking Boy instead of The Giving Tree.  Whatever you take away from the book, however you feel about it, clearly Silverstein wrote a timeless, powerful book that sticks in our memory, however we remember it.

I look forward to hearing how you interpret The Giving Tree, what you take away from it. and if you read it to your children.

Out of interest, I did a little poking around and found that The Giving Tree is pretty well entrenched in our cultural consciousness some three generations after publication.  Below are some of the ways that the images and ideas from this book are popping up...

As a dedicated Mac user, this is my favorite.

Naturally, there are many tattoos of images from the book.

Shirts and Clocks, of course.

The wedding ring has to be the most fascinating to me...  I want to say that it misses the point.  But does it?


Obviously, some people are upset by the book.

And, last but certainly not least, as a 30 Rock fan, there was no way I could leave out this picture of Tracy Morgan reading the book and sobbing.


The Rabbit Problem written and illustrated by Emily Gravett

I have mentioned Emily Gravett's picture books often on my blog (she's made my Best Picture Books list every year) but I have yet to feature her in her own post. While all of her books warrant their own reviews, The Rabbit Problem definitely leaps off the page.  Taking the Fibonacci sequence as a jumping off point, Gravett uses a rabbit  and a calendar (the book even has actual HOLES in the covers and pages, just like a real calendar) to demonstrate how the problem plays out. One rabbit in January turns into two rabbits in February, four rabbits in March, ten in May, and so on. Each calendar page illustrates a different dilemma faced by the rabbits.  From a lonely heart in January to a heat problem in August (met with delicious carrot popsicles, a nice use for an over abundance of carrots from an earlier month.) By October there are 55 pairs of rabbits and things in Fibonacci Field are getting pretty crazy.  

While there is not a traditional narrative to this story - it's more of a scrapbook version of a life story - there is plenty of information about these rabbits with each month featuring a different problem. Almost every page has some kind of booklet to peruse, whether it's a baby's first year book, a knitting guide, a cookbook or the Fibonacci's Field newspaper. As always, Gravett's illustrations are gorgeous. Every other book or so (Meerkat Mail, Little Mouse's Book of Fears, Spells) she employs some wonderful collages that give her books a layered, 3D feel which makes The Rabbit Problem even richer. Add to that notations on the calendar pages by Lonely and Chalk, the two original rabbits, and the book is more than anyone can consume in one sitting. Definitely different and very unique.  

Children with a bit of reading skill will get the most out of this book, although gentle readers who love pictures and details will be entranced by The Rabbit Problem as well, I'm sure. As the review at the British site Bookbag said, even if you have no plans to buy this book, it is worth a trip to the bookstore or library to page through it. If you can't make that trip or can't find it, enjoy the illustrations below!

Emily Gravett's other books...

Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett: Book CoverSpells by Emily Gravett: Book Cover

Dogs by Emily Gravett: Book CoverMeerkat Mail by Emily Gravett: Book CoverMonkey and Me by Emily Gravett: Book Cover
The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett: Book CoverOrange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett: Book CoverWolves by Emily Gravett: Book Cover

Sadly, Cave Baby, written by the wonderful Julia Donaldson (The Giants and the Joneses, Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo's Child) and illustrated by Emily Gravett, is not available in the US - yet!!!