Reading Starts Here with Candlewick Press's New Website Dedicated to the Love of Picture Books

Almost two years ago, Julie Bosman wrote an article that appeared on the front page of the New York Times titled Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. I took issue with her reporting and interpretation of statistics and wrote this piece Picture Books: A Dying Breed or Just Misunderstood? in which I shared my picture book experiences as a bookseller and mother and asked my readers to share theirs as well and a great dialogue followed. Picture book authors also spoke out after this article appeared. A  Proclamation! created and signed by an impressive roster of picture book authors and illustrators proved to be a fantastic manifesto. Next, picture book author and illustrator Matthew Cordell sent out a Challenge! asking readers to "reawaken your love of picture books" and go to a BOOKSTORE and spend some time in the children's section and "find something incredible (it ain't hard.)"

Now, Candlewick Press, a publisher of consistently high quality picture books (as a bookseller and story time reader, Candlewick was one of the first publishers I took note of, long before I had a blog, and made a point of seeking out their titles because of their incomparable quality), from story to illustration to design and production values, is spearheading this movement with the launch - TODAY - of a website called Reading Starts Here. As a way of honoring the importance of picture books, Candlewick will feature a year long video celebration of picture books at this website. Candlewick will share 365 videos about picture books – a new one each day – from their authors, illustrators, staff, family, and friends. The videos will be short, engaging, informal, and personal as each contributor shares what picture books mean to them, recommends favorite stories, and more. Here is a bit more information about the campaign and this wonderful publishing house, in their own words:

About We Believe in Picture Books

Picture books — lovingly and collaboratively produced — go to the heart of who Candlewick Press is as a company, and we remain as committed to creating the best possible picture books today as we were when we first started, twenty years ago. To coincide with our twentieth anniversary, Candlewick has launched a yearlong We Believe in Picture Books initiative, celebrating in September 2012 and beyond.
Candlewick Press, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary in 2012, is an independent, employee-owned publisher based in Somerville, Massachusetts. Candlewick publishes outstanding children’s books for readers of all ages, including books by award-winning authors and illustrators such as M. T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Laura AmySchlitz, and David Ezra Stein; the widely acclaimed Judy Moody, Mercy Watson, and 'Ology series; and favorites such as Guess How Much I Love You, Where's Waldo, and Maisy. Candlewick is part of the Walker Books Group, together with Walker Books UK in London and Walker Books Australia, based in Sydney and Auckland. Visit Candlewick online at Candlewick Press.

And, here are just a few of the fantastic picture books that Candlewick has published over the years (and that I have reviewed...)

Libby of High Hopes, story and pictures by Elise Primavera, 185 pp, RL 3

Libby of High Hopes, written and illustrated by Elise Primavera, is a gem of a book. Besides being ideal for readers ready to move up from Magic Tree House and Junie B Jones but not quite ready for the 300+ page books that take up so much shelf space these days, Libby of High Hopes is a thoughtful story about an almost eleven-year-old girl trying to figure things out for herself after her teacher writes on her report card that she needs to "live up to her potential." I've given this book the label "short books - BIG IDEAS," which I usually reserve for books with older characters and more mature themes, but Libby of High Hopes, in spite of its gentle tone, presents some very profound philosophical questions in a way that is palatable and understandable for young readers and great for conversation between parents and kids or book group members. Libby of High Hopes can easily be compared to the fantastic The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall in which a contemporary setting and characters embody timeless ideas and experiences. 
 "Libby Thump wished for horses," is how Libby of High Hopes begins. A fantastic first line with one of the best character names I've heard in a while. Right out of the gate we know that Libby dreams of something that she doesn't have, and with the last name "Thump" we also know that Libby is probably going to have to overcome a few obstacles to get what she wants. If "Libby Darling" was wishing for horses, I would feel pretty certain that one would trot up to her from across a golden meadow and her wishes would be granted, but not for Libby Thump. Actually, Libby, who is almost eleven and has just finished fourth grade, does get her wish in a kind of magical way, but it also has all sorts of consequences that she does not anticipate. When Libby drags herself away from drawing horses to perform the chore of walking her dog Margaret, she lets her off leash (against orders) and meets Princess, one of the horses at High Hopes Horse Farm. Unfortunately, Margaret spooks Princess and ends up chasing her around the pasture until she finally makes a stunning jump over the fence and heads back to the barn where Sal, the owner of the farm, is none too happy. A quiet, dour man with a limp, Sal refuses to believe Libby when she tells him that Princess jumped the fence. He also refuses to give Libby riding lessons, no matter how she asks. Libby insists that she will return to the farm with her parents the next day and prove that she is serious.

Libby convinces her parents to visit the farm and, to everyone's surprise, her older sister Laurel who seemed like all she was interested in was texting her friends, wants to tag along. When Laurel jumps at the chance to have riding lessons, the Thumps sign her up but can't afford to sign Libby up as well. But, this book isn't called Libby of High Hopes for nothing. Although she gets down, makes some minor bad decisions and does not want to make-up with her former best friend, Libby really does have high hopes and the drive to see them through. When she can't take lessons, Sal lets her ride a fat little pony named Cough Drop in the nearby ring. Libby listens closely to everything he tells Laurel and tries to do it herself. When Libby meets Emily, someone she assumes is a farm hand, she is excited to have Emily teach her how to muck out stalls, clean tack and brush the horses in the hopes of earning lessons that way. Libby does not give up, no matter what gets in her way.

But, by chapter 18 Libby is feeling pretty worn down by all that life has thrown at her. She asks, 

What do you do when everything in life seems unfair? When you want to take riding lessons and your stupid sister gets them instead - even though it was your idea in the first place? When you try to Live Up to Your Potential and then get punished for doing it? When your stupid sister gets riding boots and you're forced into going on the swim team even though you stink at swimming? When you are embarrassed by your mother at a Princess Spa Party that you never wanted to go to in the first place? When the only think you want to do you can't because of stupid Just Exactly Like Herself Brittany?

Libby goes on to wonder if her teacher lived up to her potential? Could she have been a "brain surgeon, or a scientist, or even president of the United States? Or had she taken the easy way out by teaching fourth grade? Had Mrs Williams lived up to her potential? For that matter, Libby wondered, had her mother? Her father? Was Laurel? The thing was, how did you know what your potential was?" This passage illustrates what I love most about Primavera's book. Libby tries to make things happen, even when she has to do it on her own. And, when things don't happen the way she wants, she "stews." But she doesn't just stew, she draws on her inner resources and, when it seems like everything else in her life has gone wrong or slipped through her fingers, she picks up her pencil and starts drawing horses again. Although her frustrations over losing out at High Hopes Horse Farm to her sister and Brittany keep her away, Libby's drawing bolsters her sense of self and desire to live up to her potential.

The final chapter in the book is titled, "Blue Skies," and, with some believable turns of events that made me cry just a little, Libby does get her blue skies, a pair of riding boots and a very special princess in the end.

Primavera, author and illustrator of the fantastic holiday picture books, Auntie Claus, Auntie Clause and the Key to Christmas and Auntie Claus Home for the Holidays, provides pitch perfect illustrations for her story that have an old fashioned, Robert McCloskey/Homer Price feel to them. Also, as the above picture from the jacket flap and her illustrations show, Elise must have wished for and drawn lots of horses at some point in her childhood, too.

Source:  Review Copy


Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by Dan Santat, 184 pp RL 3

Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies is now in paperback!!

Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by Dan Santat (author and illustrator images at left - you can't tell, but Andrea's eyes are all swirly and hypnotized, and, yes, that fanged bunny is Dan)is a comic book-horror show mash up, a little bit like if Goosebumps, Mystery Science Theater and Captain Underpants got thrown in a blender and poured out onto the page. Full of clever word play, funny names, a narrator who talks directly to the reader and all sorts of lists and asides, Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies will remind you of many things but is, ultimately, like nothing you've ever read before...

Chapter 1 begins, "Meanwhile, in space..." as a meteor hurtles through the darkness. Chapter 2 begins, "Meanwhile, to being our story..." and precedes a two page chart (taken from The Illustrated Guide to Fluffs and Other Space Creatures You Don't want to Meet by Professor Donald J Dewdy - see what I mean about the names?) outlining the main characteristics of a Fluff. Basically, Fluffs are enormous "fierce warrior rabbits whose long, floppy ears are for slapping. Whose long, floppy feet are for stomping. And who large eyes spin in opposite directions to hypnotize unsuspecting prey. Oh yeah, and they have fangs." The Fluffs live in hot-chocolate marshes on a series of planets in the Mallow Galaxy. The planets in this galaxy, a galaxy with a radiant energy source of "sweet candy goodness" that comes in the shape of a giant, square Starburst, have a "sucrose-based core" which the inhabitants naturally feed off of. When the meteor hits the Fluffs' giant marshmallow of a plant, you can imagine what happens.

The three remaining Fluffs, Floopsy, Moopsy and Commander Cottonswab, communicating through mind waves, board an aging rocket that had landed on their planet years earlier and attempt to escape the gooey inferno. They pile into the rocket where they find a big red button with this message underneath: PUSH IN CASE OF FLAMING METEOR ATTACK, TENNIS ELBOW, OR INVASION BY SWEDES. That is enough to entice them to push the button and begin their hurtling journey toward earth.

On earth, Joules and Kevin Rockman, horror movie loving twins who are the "highly unsupervised" (but remarkably responsible) children of SPAM loving scientists, are packed off to a questionable summer camp while their parents attend the annual SPAMathon in Cheekville, Pennsylvaniam where they hope to win the International Dessert Competition with their Cherry-Cheese SPAMcakes. Camp Whatsitooya, on the shores of Lake Whatsosmelly has a fascinating history but a less than enjoyable present. Run by Mrs Jones, a passionate believer in self-improvement through crafts, leads the campers in activities at Craftland each day while Counselor Jammer heads up water sports and Counlselor Blech (left) leads outdoor exploration activities. Whatsitooya has a small host of quirky campers. There is SmellyCat, actually three girls named Sam, Ellie and Cat, who all talk at the same time so that their names come out sounding like one, a language refered to as Gigglesnort.. There is Mitzy, also a dedicated, untidy crafter who Joules can only think of as Sparkletooth after finding herself distracted by all the glitter stuck to her person. There is also Nelson, a somewhat hapless bumbler who means well.

The Fluffs' rocket lands very close to Camp Whatsitooya and things begin to go wrong in a quietly mysterious horror-movie way. Candy and campers go missing, adults begin acting weird, a plastic container of SPAM sauce begins to change its chemical composition and an abandoned building is discovered. This building, once the home of the E.A.R.S. (Earth-Alien Radio Satellite). This project, run by Professor Dewdy, monitored the data sent back from a research rocket that was exploring alien life-forms on other planets. IT was shut down by the government decades ago, but left fairly well stocked. It is here that the final showdown between the kids and the Fluffs takes place. The MacGyver like contraption that the kids build to thwart the Fluffs is truly amazing. And, as the illustration to the left indicates, this is a book with a happy ending. For Joules and Kevin, anyway.

When I was preparing to write this review I thought to that it would be a quick and easy one since this book is relatively short and has several full page illustrations, charts and other special inserts that break up the text. When I actually started writing, I realized that Andrea Beaty has written a very rich and detailed story with many aspects worth sharing. I didn't even get around to telling you about how Joules and Kevin (who was supposed to be named Kelvin) got their names or their quirky personality traits. While Kevin is an organized list maker, Joules is "more likely to poke a situation with a stick to see what would happen." And she does, literally, more than once in the book. And there are more hilarious things done to, with and for SPAM than I can begin to recount here. At first glance, Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies is the fun, funny book that it appears to be. Once you, dig into the meat of it, however, (no pun intended?) what you find is a well written, highly descriptive, superbly illustrated entertaining book. And believe me, there are very few kid's books on the shelves that are chuckle worthy.

A Dog's Life by Ann M Martin, 182pp RL 4

I first reviewed A Dog's Life in 2008. While stories about animals are hard for me to read because they always involve some kind of injury or cruelty, I read A Dog's Life because I noticed so many kids looking for a good dog story to read. Squirrel's story still lingers in my memory four years after reading and A Dog's Life continues to be a bestselling book at the store where I work, and all others I'm sure!

To the best of my knowledge, A Dog's Life by Ann M Martin is the first children's book written from the point of view of a homeless dog with the dog as narrator. The Good Dog, by Avi, is told from the point of view of a malamute named McKinley, but he has a human "pup"named Jack. And, while McKinley is the tempted and changed by his encounter with a wolf, he remains a pet with loyalties to a human throughout the book. I'll be honest, I have never been a fan of animal/nature writing and movies and, since I had kids, I get weepy just looking at the book jackets and seeing the previews of animal stories. So, this is admittedly a genre I have very little familiarity with. I forced myself to read A Dog's Life because Ann M Martin, co-author of The Doll People, the Main Street Series and, yes, the Baby-Sitters Club Series, is a diverse, thoughtful, gentle, generous writer in the world of children's literature. I knew going into it that this is exactly the kind of book I avoid, especially since, in addition to the rest of the mini-menagerie that I tend to, I have been, as of four years ago, a first-time owner of a dog. An adopted dog. I do not know what the first seven months of her life were like. Of course this book set me wondering, worrying. And I do worry about her, as much as I worry about my own children. But, I am pleased to say that, I am very glad to have read A Dog's Life and it does have a happy ending - a very hard won happy ending.

The narrator of A Dog's Life is a dog, Squirrel, who beings the story with the day of her birth to a feral mother. While her life as a stray is initially idyllic, living in an abandoned shed with her mother and brother, Bone, they are soon separated and Squirrel is on her own. This book has fear, hunger, brutality, abuse, violence and death in it. It has human beings who do horrible things to dogs, like throw them out of a car window when they are still puppies and adopt them at the beginning of the summer knowing full well they will leave their vacation house and the adopted dog behind at the end of the summer. But, the book also has empathetic, compassionate people who feed and heal animals. The narrator, who is given many names throughout the story, carefully details the hardships of her existence, the connection to her brother, the companionship she shares with another stray and, finally, (this is a kid's book after all, and therefor the only reason I struggled through every page, sniffling by the end) the experience of being loved and, for the first time in her life, feeling love for a human.

Source: Purchased

I am glad that I read this book and can recommend it. I know there are kids out there who love animal stories. And, I know that kids have a disconnect that allows them to read stories like this and not burst out crying every other page and want to run over to the Humane Society and rescue a dog. So, it is with great pleasure that I suggest A Dog's Life, for it's interesting, intense portrayal of the life of a homeless dog and the people, dogs and animals she encounters. Everything for a Dog is the companion book to A Dog's Life. The story of Bone, Squirrel's brother, is narrated alternately by Bone and the two boys who enter his life.

A coworker who is also a substitute teacher introduced me to Valerie Hobb's SHEEP! a couple of years ago. I read it, loved it and recommend it all the time. A bit shorter than A Dog's Life, it is every bit as action packed, sometimes harrowing, and filled with interesting characters, including a man who lives in a caravan pulled by goats.

If your child enjoyed this book, I suggest The Good Dog, by Avi, another perennial bestseller. Also, Waggit's Tale by Peter Howe which came out in July 2008 seems to be a cross between The Good Dog and A Dog's Life. Waggit is an abandoned puppy who finds a home among with the mutts who live in the city park. Another pack of wild dogs and capture by the park ranger are constant dangers, and Wagggit's longing for human connection poses a dilemma for him as well.

Bill Wallace is another author who specializes in humorous dog stories, without so much tension and danger, written at the 3 - 5 grade reading levels.


The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, by Jennifer Tracton with art by Brett Helquist, 339 pp, RL 4

 If you read my review of Stephanie Tolan's Surviving the Applewhites and Applewhites at Wit's End, then you know that I will read anything with cover art by Brett Helquist. Visiting his website and looking at the cover art (and often interior art) Helquist does for novels (he writes and illustrates his own picture books and the occasional book for other authors) I recognized many books from my own shelves as well as two of my favorites - Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan and Fly By Night by the amazing Frances Hardinge. In fact, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton very much reminds me of a gentler, more playful, fairy tale-like version of Hardinge's fantastic book.

The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic begins with a prologue by the book's author, Professor Barnabas Quill, Historian of the Island at the Center of Everything (washed, dusted, translated, edited and greatly shortened for the rest of the world by Jennifer Trafton, as the title page informs us). Professor Barnabas writes "There is a very good possibility that you will not believe a word I say. Alas, it is the risk all historians take. The truest things are often the most unbelievable." Quill writes of an idyllic island inhabitants call "(rightly or wrongly) the Island at the Center of Everything" that, naturally also had its troubles. However, certain events change things on this island forever. Quill invites the reader to, "take off your cloak of doubt, empty your pockets of all suspicions and jests, sit down before the roaring fire of my tale, and believe."  Trafton is a magnificently imaginative writer and, as the passage above proves, she is also a lovely writer, if that doesn't sound too squishy. What I mean is that, not only does Trafton perfectly capture the fairy tale tone, from characters to setting to plot catalyst in The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic but she tells her story in a blithely intelligent, often poetic way that makes you stop and reread a line or passage, like the one quoted above, throughout the book. Add to this, Helquist's expressive, gentle, sometimes shadowy illustrations which are perfectly matched to Trafton's lovely writing and you have a book that should not be missed.
Mount Majestic, atop which the royal castle inhabited by the young King Lucas sits, rises and falls, very slowly, once a day. This is how it always has been and will be on the Island at the Center of Everything. That is, until Persimmony Smudge, a fatherless ten-year old with dreams heroism, throws a broom. The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic is very interested in seemingly meaningless actions that set off a potentially catastrophic chain of events, and the broom toss is just the first - and the last. In a lovely turn, Persimmony finds herself sweeping up, happily this time, at the end of the book. The flying broom results in Persimmony lost in the Willow Woods and hiding in a hollow log while running from a poison-tongued jumping tortoise. When two Leafeaters, Rhedgrave Rhinkle and his uncle, Rhueben Rhinkle (Trafton is fantastic when it comes to names of people, places and things and The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic is so gloriously full of her creation that there is a glossary at the end of the book) stop for a rest on that very hollow log (see illustration above) Persimmony gets an earful of intrigue that could mean the end of Mount Majestic and possibly the Island and all its inhabitants. While things don't go quite as planned, this information does lead Persimmony into the adventure she longed for.
To even begin to describe the plot of The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic would be taking on a mountainous task. Trafton has peopled (but not crowded) her story with so many interesting characters and places that, while I never felt like I needed it while reading the book, now that I am writing about it it is very nice to have the glossary to refer to. However, I can tell you that the Leafeater conversation  Persimmony overhears leads her to meet a new friend Worvil. Plagued by bad luck, Worvil is very frightened and very short and, as he says, he has "been getting shorter for years. If you shrink from danger often enough, then you start to - well, shrink." His baggy, rolled up pants and shirt and oversized shoes seem to be proof of this. Together, Worvil, Persimmony and Theodore the Wise, the elderly maker of Giving Pots, magical vessels that give the owner what he or she needs, which is not necessarily what he or she wants, make their way to the caste to tell King Lucas what Persimmony overheard.
However, King Lucas the Loftier can be quite unreasonable, despite having a philosopher, historian and archaeologist in his employ. Lucas is most concerned with is favorite dish, sweet potato soup with pepper on it. When he learns that his pepper shaker is empty and, in fact, will be for a few more weeks until the foreman of the pepper mill can get a new supply from the badly over worked employees. Concerned about having enough pepper for his upcoming birthday party, King Lucas gives orders to kidnap his subjects and force them to work at the mill. This results in Persimmony's sister and mother being carried off to the mill against their wishes. Persimmony's mother has "highly sensitive moral feelings and a storehouse of proverbs" she is not afraid to share. Objecting to almost everything from bathing to physical labor, she utters this line while engaged in argument with Mr Fulcrumb, the despicable foreman of the pepper mill, "it's 'Many hands make more baskets! You always twist everything for your purposes! This is what comes of edication. The more people think, the more they think up cruel things to do to other people.'" Amelia Smudge, while mildly infuriating, is also often mildly sensible and brings a curious sense of authority to this otherwise oddball bunch.

Speaking of a curious sense of authority, I can't finish this review without saying a bit more about my favorite characters in the book, the Leafeaters. The Leafeaters are a reclusive group that lives in the secret underground city of Willowroot. The Leafeaters are a very sensitive lot and cling fiercely to their traditions and ceremonies, so much so that the crude, rude, careless ways of non-Leafeaters (referred to as Sunspitters by the Leafeaters) drove them underground where they established their own community.  Existing on gourmet concoctions made exclusively from leaves, they are a noble, if somewhat rigid bunch who resemble their food source. Trafton describes the two main Leafeters in The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic in this way: Rhedgrave has a face that "might have been carved out of the bark of a tree - in this case, a very old coconut tree, rough and scarred by time, but without any of the sweetness. Rhueben, on the other hand, had a face like a white poplar, pale but smooth and strong and fresh. His dark green eyes shone like deep pools." Their underground city reveals walls painted majestically with scenes of the world they left behind, the ceiling blue like the sky.
I haven't revealed the source of the true drama at the heart of this story, the drama that shakes everyone out of their old ways, because it is so clever and exciting and how the islanders deal (or don't deal) with it is also a wonderful part of the story. Interestingly enough, in the end the big problem, for me anyway, became secondary to the captivating cast of characters, the imaginative settings and Trafton's enchanting writing. I can't wait to read what Jennifer Trafton writes next!

Source: Purchased