Elephant and Piggie written and illustrated by Mo Willems, RL 1

In honor of the publication of the 20th book in the Elephant & Piggie series which debuted in 2007, I have updated this review from 11/09. Books are shown in order of publication. I definitely miss my days as a bookseller when I had the pleasure of reading these out loud over and over, to everyone from toddlers to visiting classes of sixth graders! **Update: 22 book series**

Ok. I'll be honest. I am jealous of Mo Willems' talent. And sense of humor. And his illustration skills. I tell you that now to preface anything negative I may blurt out at any point during this review. He has a HUGE following of devoted parents and children and, while I don't always share their level of devotion, I do get it and I do think that it is deserved. I jumped on board the Mo Willems bus when Knuffle Bunny:  A Cautionary Tale came out in 2004, the year my youngest son was born, and we loved (and love) that book to bits. I cheered when it won the Caldecott Honor, especially since Willems's illustrations are non-traditional when it comes to that award. I don't find the Pigeon books quite as funny as every child I know, mostly because these books are bit difficult to read out loud and require quite a lot of acting on the reader's part to really do them justice and I am not always up for that or for Pigeon's unique personality.

Possibly because of my luke-warm feelings for Pigeon, I did not immediately embrace the first few Elephant & Piggie books to hit the shelves in 2007. I read them at story time at the bookstore and to my son at home but was a bit underwhelmed by them overall. Also, I was put off by the price of the books - $8.99 for what essentially is a beginning reader book when most beginning reader books are published in paperback and cost $3.99 - except for the iconic Dr. Seuss. In the two years since their arrival, I have had the chance to read more Elephant & Piggie books, both at home and at work, and have come to appreciate them on many levels, although I still wish they would come out in paperback, thus making them more widely accessible to emerging readers, which is exactly who these books, vetted by an early learning specialist, are aimed at. For a really great discussion between three bloggers who also wear the hats of children's librarians and mothers, read the tri-review posted by Jules and Eisha at a sort of insider-kid-lit-blog that has tons of fascinating interviews with authors and illustrators, 7 Impossible Things, and Pam Coughlan at MotherReader. Two of the three reviewers discuss in detail what makes a beginning reader book good (repetition of words, picture cues) and how they have watched their children grow as readers while having these books read to them and reading them on their own. As Pam Coughlan writes, "The Elephant & Piggie books use simple words and repeat them to improve word recognition. They give clear picture cues to the reader with no distracting background. Prediction is another important component of learning to read. For example, when the two birds [in There is a Bird on Your Head] fly off and get some sticks, the child can predict that they will biuld a nest." Sure enough, the word "nest" appears on the following page. And, as all three point out, the Elephant & Piggie books are highly readable, for parents and children. I was lucky enough to nab 7 of the 10 current titles (I am Going will be published in January of 2010) during a visit to the library and watched as my husband and son worked their way through the whole pile in one sitting. Being such short books, this didn't take them long, but I did notice that my son frequently asked to have a book read twice in a row upon finishing and my husband was more than happy to do so.

And what, exactly, is so great about Gerald the elephant and Piggie? In terms of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad, which is my measure for all fictional beginning reader couples, Gerald and Piggie are definitely a more contemporary pair. You really can't compare Frog and Toad with Elephant & Piggie because Lobel's books are much longer and thus written at a higher reading level that allows for more depth of story and character development. This said, Willems manages to pack a lot of personality into his characters and books, most of which have fewer than 150 words total and usually only 60 - 75 different words in all. Of the two, Gerald seems to be slightly more knowing, stable and stoic and perhaps this is why he has a name. Piggie is a bit more manic, prone to joyous fits of exuberance and tearful bouts or sorrow. This reminds me precisely of every toddler I have had the pleasure of knowing intimately and is perhaps why these books appeal to young children.

And, the bottom line is, Mo knows little kids. He can think like them and write and illustrate characters who act like them. And, Mo knows parents as well. In one of my favorites, I Will Surprise My Friend, Elephant and Piggie see a squirrel hide then jump out and surprise his friend and they decide to do the same, however they neglect to determine who will hide and who will be surprised. This makes for some funny tension as the two sit on either side of a large rock. When nothing happens Gerald begins to think the worst and imagines Piggie's sad fate. Who among us parents has not done this at one time or another?  Piggie, however, figures Gerald got hungry and went home for lunch. Who among the toddlers we know and love has not had food at the forefront of all thought? When they both decide to quit hiding at the exact same time they inadvertently surprise each other, which makes for lots of googly eyes and laughs. There are always laughs. Dr Seuss never makes me laugh. So, if I am going to invest almost $10 in a beginning to read book for my child, I want it to make him/her and maybe even me laugh, and the Elephant & Piggie books bring the laughs by the barrel. 

Are You Ready to Play Outside? and There is a Bird on Your Head won the relatively new Theodore Geisel Award that the Amercian Library Association began giving out in 2006. 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 Three-Ring Rascals Series, #1 : The Show Must Go On, by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise, 168 pp, RL 3

Three-Ring Rascals is the new series from Kate and Sarah Klise, authors of the brilliant 43 Cemetery Road Series of graphic epistolary novels that my nine-year-old (and I) adore. This new series from the Klise sisters is equally fantastic as well as being a debut title for the new Algonquin Young Readers imprint (check out my review of Amy Herrick's The Time Fetch for all the details about this exciting new publisher of quality kid's books)! The first book in the series,  Three-Ring Rascals : The Show Must Go On!, has all the great characters, kooky plot lines and wonderful illustrations found in 43 Cemetery Road Series, but a different, more traditional story-telling format. I was worried that this (and what looked like more words - my son is still at the age where some books have too many words) might deter my son, but he jumped right into this new series and read almost non-stop. The illustrations on every page supplement the text (and there are some of the great letters, signs, receipts and even smart phones with text messages that are part of the story) and even include speech bubbles that add to the story.

Three-Ring Rascals : The Show Must Go On! begins with a description of Sir Sidney, proprietor of Sir Sidney's Circus, which happens to be the "BEST circus in the whole wide world." Sir Sidney is a prince of a man and "NO one treats animals better than Sir Sidney does." Not only does Sir Sidney treat his animals (including non-performers like Bert and Gert, two helpful mice who eat spilled popcorn, make up new words and make costumes for the circus, and Old Coal, a crow who delivers letters) well, he built bunk beds for the Famous Flying Banana Brothers on his circus train and he admits children to his circus FREE OF CHARGE and gives them all the hot popcorn they can eat! But, traveling with his circus for so many years left Sir Sidney very tired and he puts an ad in the paper with the hopes of finding just the right person to run his circus while he had a much deserved rest. After interviewing many candidates, Sir Sidney settles on Barnabas Brambles, a certified lion tamer. Unfortunately, once Barnabas takes over and studies Sir Sidney's schedule, he makes a TO DO list. At the top of the list? "Make $$$ for me." Next? "Get rid of two mice and one crow."

Suffice it to say, Barnabas is as rotten as Sir Sidney is nice and his quest to make money takes the circus performers on a crazy, cross-country performance schedule that has the train, engineered by the Flying Banana Brothers, literally flying - and landing on the St. Louis Arch! This scene is definitely one of my favorite illustrations in the book with the solution to this dilemma proving even more amazing. The animals and Bert and Gert do their best to survive and thrive, but Barnabas makes it very tough. Just when things seem at their darkest, Sir Sidney returns and proves that he really is a prince of a man by seeing something good in Barnabas.

As silly as Three-Ring Rascals : The Show Must Go On! can get at times, Sir Sidney's decision to give Barnabas a second chance in the last chapter is really lovely and sets up the second book in the series, The Greatest Star on Earth, perfectly! My son and I can't wait to see where Sir Sidney and his circus go next and what adventures await them.

Source: Review Copy


43 Old Cemetery Road: Dying to Meet You, written by Kate Klise and illustrated by Sarah Klise, 147pp, RL 3

I've had my eye on Kate and Sarah Klise's 43 Cemetery Road series for years now. In fact, I started writing this review almost three years ago. It took summer vacation and a reading challenge (ie: bribery scheme) and my youngest being just the right age to enjoy these fantastic books for me to sit down and finish writing this review. Happily, in the intervening years, the Klise sisters have written three more books in the series with book 6, Greetings from the Graveyard, due out in April of 2014 and the first four books in the series are available in paperback! The 43 Cemetery Road are truly a unique treat. They are a great step up from chapter books like The Magic Tree House and Junie B Jones, and infinitely more creative and fun. While the titles and setting for this series are spooky and potentially creepy, the Klises aptly describe these books as a "giggly" ghost stories and they go above and beyond packing them to the brim with humor, starting with the hilarious names of the characters which MUST be read out loud. Seriously, insist that your kids read these names out loud at the start of each book (which conveniently begins with a character gallery) to make sure your kids get the joke. And for a good laugh. Ignatius B. Grumply, Olive C. Spence and Seymour Hope are the protagonists in the series, with supporting characters (who have names that match their jobs) like the realtor, Anita Sale and the publisher, Paige Turner, and other supporting characters with names that match their personalities, like my favorites, Noah Breth and his children Kitty and Kanine Breth. At one point in the story the Klises even manage to have them referred to as the bad Breths. Paige Turner describes Olive C. Spence's books as "graphic epistolary novels - or some such unmarketable nonsense," and this, (obviously minus the "unmarketable nonsense") describes the 43 Cemetery Road series! Kate writes and Sarah illustrates and together they tell their stories through letters, newspaper articles, advertisements and illustrations by Seymour, who is quite the artist.

The set up for the first book that gets the series rolling involves Seymour Hope, the eleven year old son of Les and Diane Hope prominent professors who study paranormal activity. The professors purchased the Spence Mansion, built in 1874 by Olive C. Spence, a woman who died without fulfilling her dream of becoming a published author fulfilled. In fact, Olive earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the person who received the most rejection slips. The Hopes hoped to interact with the ghost of Olive, who promised to haunt her house and the town of Ghastly for eternity or until one of her novels was published - whichever comes first. However, they find no success and instead go on a lecture tour around the world debunking the paranormal. Unfortunately, or, for readers, fortunately, Seymour Hope can see the ghost of Olive and they become fast friends. This makes him an embarrassment to his parents and they leave him behind, alone in the house with his cat Shadow, with a stipulation in the rental agreement for the mansion that the renter of the mansion care for Seymour and his cat and return them to the Hopes "if they so request." 

This sets up the perfect environment for some really great things and some really awful things to happen. Ignatius B. Grumply, author of the popular "Ghost Tamer" series of books for kids has some serious writer's block and a bad case of denial when he moves to Ghastly to live in the Spence Mansion and force himself to get his next book written. The deadline to hand it over to Paige Turner is fast approaching and Iggy has already spent his advance, making him even grumpier than usual. When he moves into Spence Mansion he is extremely annoyed to find Seymour and his cat Shadow living in the attic, just below Olive's room in the cupola. One of my favorite illustrations comes at the very end of the book and is titled, "HOUSE Your Knowledge of Victorian Architecture?" There are illustrations of the various things mentioned in the book, from a newel to a finial to a transom and a widow's walk along with definitions. Ignatius, Seymour and Olive get off to a very bad start, with Ignatius refusing to believe that Olive is truly a ghost. However, things change, the fate of the Spence Mansion seems bleak and Olive's vow to haunt the mansion seems about to be broken. But, when tempers cool off and the creative spirit shines through, Ignatius, Olive and Seymour do some truly remarkable things, from writing and illustrating a hugely popular book to creating a brand-new family with a very special bond. 

And, this new family makes for some really great, hilarious stories in the five books that follow! Seymour, Olive and Ignatius find themselves caught up in a campaign to abolish Halloween, a poetic treasure hunt left behind in the will of an eccentric old man (with a very cool dog named Secret), a bad case of the phantom flu and a trip to Hollywood for the filming of Olive's story...

The 43 Old Cemetery Road Series:

Source: Review Copies


Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, 128 p, RL 3

Fortunately, the Milk is the newest kid's book from Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Skottie Young, popular American comic book artist who has worked with various Marvel comic characters and illustrated the graphic novel adaptations of L Frank Baum's OZ books. Fortunately, the Milk is an absolute delight to read, perfect for bedtime and a really brilliant gift for any little person you know. In fact, reminds me very much of a starter version of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell's fantastic Far-Flung Adventures trilogy (see below). I have to confess, having only read Gaiman's kid's books and not his adult titles, and knowing a bit about his work for adults, I am used to his stories being a bit on the dark side, as with Coraline and The Graveyard Book

I was pleasantly surprised by the lighthearted absurdity that he brings to Fortunately, the Milk, which is a little bit like a kid's version of Douglas Adam's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I really need to review here. There is space travel, pirates, volcanoes, aliens and a plot to take over (in a way that might as well be destroying) earth. Really, though, Gaiman's letter to his readers that starts the book is better than any review I could write, so I have included it below, along with the few illustrations from the book I could find and a pretty cool book trailer. Scroll past the trailer for some interesting information about the UK edition of  Fortunately, the Milk in which the Dad of the story looks like Neil himself!

Dear Person Reading This Letter,

It probably all started almost twenty years ago, when I wrote a book called The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. It’s about a boy who swaps his dad for two goldfish. It is quite funny.

This is what the dad does in the book: He is swapped for things; he does not notice he has been swapped for things; he reads his newspaper. At one point, near the climax of the book, he eats a carrot. It’s not really a positive portrayal of fatherhood, is it?

And people have been giving that book to each other as Father’s Day gifts ever since.

I have felt guilty. As a father. As a human being. People were reading my book, and learning from it that fathers were oblivious, newspaper-reading, occasionally carrot-eating lumps of distraction.

I resolved to do something about it. I would write a book in which a father did all of the sorts of exciting things that fathers actually do, in the real world.

In this case, he would go and get the milk for his children’s breakfast cereal.

Also, he should do the other things that go along with going out to get the milk. Things like escaping from globby green aliens, being made to walk the plank in the eighteenth century by pirates, being rescued by a time-traveling professorial stegosaurus* in a hot air balloon, being nearly sacrificed to a volcano god, being attacked by wumpires, and, of course, saving the world.

And I haven’t even mentioned the ponies. Or the All-Dinosaur Space Police. Fortunately, the milk is with him. And it may even destroy the Universe, if he isn’t careful.

Fortunately, the Milk is the only book I have ever written that tackles the Big Questions. The questions nobody else dares to ask. Questions such as:

What happens when you open a door on a spaceship and let the space-time continuum in? 
Will evil aliens redecorate by replacing all of Earth’s trees with throw cushions, and replace Australia with an enormous decorative dinner plate with a picture of Australia on it?
Are we actually living in the present as we believe, or are we actually, as dinosaur Professor Steg claims, living in the far far future?
Also it has pictures. Lots and lots of pictures, all drawn by Skottie Young: a man who knows one end of a pen from another, and draws with the pointy bit; a man who has won awards for his drawing; a man who knows what a time- traveling stegosaurus in a hot-air balloon looks like; a man of bronze.

I did not mention that there are piranhas in the book, but there are. More or less.

Fortunately for the Universe, the book also has milk in it. Hurrah! It is also quite funny.

I am looking forward to receiving the gratitude of fathers internationally. When they’ve finished reading the newspaper, of course.

Yours faithfully, Neil Gaiman

*And inventor of the button

Check out the UK version of FORTUNATELY THE MILK!

The UK version of Fortunately, the Milk, illustrated by one of my favorites, Chris Riddell, illustrator of the UK editions of Coraline and The Graveyard Book, both of which were illustrated by longtime collaborator of Gaiman's, Dave McKean (click here for an essay Neil wrote about Dave). The picture book The Day I Swapped My Dad for a Goldfish, written by Neil and illustrated by Dave, which, as Neil explains in a letter at the start of Fortunately, the Milk, was the inspiration for this newest book and more positive, accurate representation of Dads. I love Skottie Young's illustrations for the US version, but when I saw Riddell's and realized that he made the Dad in the story look like the author, I just had to share that here...

Source: Review Copy