Digby O'Day: In the Fast Lane by Shirley Hughes & Clara Vuillamy, 96 pp, RL 2

Shirley Hughes is a Grande Dame of British children's literature, her 1977 picture book, Dogger, which she wrote and illustrated won the Kate Greenaway Award (the British Caldecott) that year and, in 2007 it won the public vote of best Greenaway every. Hughes has teamed up with her daughter, Clara Vuillamy, a fantastic picture book illustrator and author in her own right, to create a chapter book series that is utterly charming and out of the ordinary, in story, illustration and design. 

The first book in the series, Digby O'Day: In the Fast Lane, introduces us to the main characters and the world they live in. In fact, the first two pages of this heavily and wonderfully illustrated book look like the feature pages of a magazine where an interesting person is being interviewed. We find out Digby's favorite color, favorite biscuit (cookie), most prized possession and most extravagant purchase, which was "fifty-four bow ties! They were on sale, though." We also learn that his ideal evening is supper on a tray in front of the television with his best buddy Percy, watching a cooking show. Next, we are treated to a photo-album like page that introduces the "rest of the gang" and a two page map showing the villages of Dodsworth and Didsworth and the surrounding environs.

At this point, Hughes could have written a story in which Digby and Percy do just about anything and Vuillamy could have illustrated them doing this kind of anything and I would be completely enthralled. However, together they have created a character and story that will appeal to boys and girls and keep new readers tracking and turning pages.

The car-loving Digby has only one thorn in his side, his neighbor Lou Ella, who buys a new pink car every year. Digby and Percy toodle around in his old red sportster that breaks down with precise regularity. Despite this, Digby enters the All Day Race from Didsworth to Dodsworth, "By any route you choose." Breakdowns, cliffhangers and some not-very-nice behavior on the part of Lou Ella ensue, but the day ends happily. However, Digby O'Day: In the Fast Lane doesn't end there! Bonus pages share fun games to play in the car, ideas for crazy cars to draw, a "Digby O'Day Quiz," pages from Digby's family photo album, a very sweet introduction to the author and illustrator and the first chapter of the second book in the series, Digby O'Day and the Great Diamond Robbery!

As you may have noticed, the title of the above book is "Dixie O'Day," not Digby. Apparenetly the publisher decided to change the names of the characters to suit the country of publication. In the photo above, Clara Vuillamy shares (on her adorable blog, Sunny Side Up,)the Dutch, French and Turkish editions of the books in which Dixie becomes "Leon Klaxon" (French) and Percy becomes "Dinky,"(Dutch). 

And, finally, besides being a great artist, Clara is crafty as well. Enjoy these snaps of Digby & Percy enjoying a picnic on the beach in Brightsea, the setting of the next book!

And be sure to check out Clara's other adorable books featuring Martha & the Bunny Brothers!

And definitely don't miss her tutorial on how to make felt bunnies!


Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton

Shh! We Have a Plan is Chris Haughton's third picture book and the third book of his I have reviewed. The palette Haughton used in his first book, Little Owl Lost, caught my attention right away. Haughton's choice of potent colors, the kind you might be more likely to find in 1960s décor than a children's book drew me in. But it is his skill at story telling, both with words and pictures, along with a gift for creating likable characters, that completely charmed me. Haughton's second book, Oh No, George! did not disappoint, but I think that his newest, Shh! We Have a Plan, is my favorite of his three. And this is after 30+ readings! During the first weeks of school I read Shh! We Have a Plan to all the classes, grades K - 5, and, besides being totally entertaining and getting lots of laughs, the repetition in the story lent itself to a great lesson in making predictions. I also read A Piece of Cake, LeUyen Pham's newest picture book, which was an equally great lesson in making predictions in story telling, especially since Pham's book can be described as predictably unpredictable!

The title page of Shh! We Have a Plan almost hides a quote from Albert Einstein, "Peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding," that adds a wonderful layer to the story of four hunters trekking through the forest.

"Look! A Bird," one of the hunters exclaims as the book begins. "Hello, birdie," the littlest hunter (and the only one without a net) exclaims. "shh SHH! We have a plan," the others say, turning on him. This is followed by, "Tiptoe slowly, tiptoe slowly, now stop. SHH!" Of Haughton's three books, Shh! We Have a Plan has the perfect pairing of pictures and words, both of which are minimal but powerfully engaging. Read aloud, the story lends itself perfectly to hamming it up, if you are so inclined, which I am. And, the audience, the younger grades especially, love the anticipation that builds slowly with the repetition of the words and plot.

Happily, and somewhat expectedly, the hunters never catch their bird, not even after three attempts, all of which have laugh-out-loud slapstick moments. However, the littlest hunter, alone on the sidelines of the hunt, offers the bird breadcrumbs and finds himself in the middle of a flock. After the cool, dark blues of the forest, punctuated only by the small, brightly colored bird, the page turn that reveals the vibrant array of magenta, orange and lime green birds is breathtaking.

Haughton ends Shh! We Have a Plan on an open note, the hunters having given up on the bird, exclaiming, "LOOK! A squirrel. SHH! We have a plan." A perfect ending that has listeners laughing and speculating. Haughton, always with a great eye for detail, has birds on the front papers of Shh! We Have a Plan and squirrels on the end . . .

Little Owl Lost              Oh No, George!

Source: Review Copy

Go to Sleep, Little Farm by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

I became an instant fan of artist Christopher Silas Neal after reading Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animals' Lives, a fantastic non-fiction book, by Lola M. Schaefer. His newest book, Go to Sleep, Little Farm, writtenMary Lyn Ray, is another visual treat. While the illustrations, which often play nicely against the text, may be a bit stronger than the writing, there is much to enchant little listeners.

Go to Sleep, Little Farm begins, "Somewhere a bee makes a bed in a rose, because the bee knows day has come to a close."

Rhymes and almost rhymes drift across the pages while Neal's illustrations show the natural world shutting down for the night and the parallel story of a little girl getting ready for bed. The page that reads "Somewhere a bear," is followed by, "finds a bed in a log," while the page turn reveals the little girl reading a book under the covers of her bed, just like a bear in a log.

Ray does create some lovely lines, like when "a story goes to sleep in a book," and a "pocket sleeps in a skirt." She ends her story with a secret that, "curls in an ear, just as dreams flicker near . . ." and the little girl's dream-flight back over the events of the book, putting the animals to bed. It is Neal's twilight palette and detailed illustrations that have a retro feel that keep you turning the pages and feeling sleepy.

Christopher Silas Neal's  other books:

Source: Review Copy


Baby's First Book Blocks by Dan Stiles

It still surprises me how much pleasure I get from a really good board book. Something about the synthesis of form and function and the combination of concept and presentation, perfectly balanced for little hands, eyes and brains is exciting. I also find myself surprised, after 21 years of parenthood and 18 years of bookselling, that there are still exciting new board books being published. Baby's First Book Blocks by artist and designer Dan Stiles is a perfect example of this. Baby's First Book Blocks is published by Pow!, a new, independent publisher dedicated to publishing "visually driven, imagination-fuelled" books that combine an "offbeat or humorous sensibility with outstanding design that delight children and grown-ups equally." 

Baby's First Book Blocks incorporate the latest research about vision development in a series of board books designed to engage infants and develop visual acuity. When my daughter was born in 1993, high contrast black and white images were at the height of developing infant brains. We had a great set of books by Tana Hoban (strangely out of print) that we would line up along the changing table and a black and white mobile over the crib. By the time my first son was born almost five years later, black and white baby things were nowhere to be found. Happily, the first book in this set presents simple but interesting shapes that shift into more complex patterns, perfect for newborns who prefer high contrast.

Book 2 in Baby's First Book Blocks in features the primary colors, red, blue and yellow, with more complex shapes that move into real patterns with multiple colors. Book 3 introduces secondary colors and more advanced patterns while the fourth and final book presents subtle shading and complicated patterns. It's amazing to me that these tiny, chunky books have so much thought and attention to detail in this seemingly simple set up.

Big Whoop! by Maxine Lee

Big Whoop! is the second picture book by illustrator, graphic designer and author Maxine Lee. It's also another great kids book from Pow!, a new, independent publisher dedicated to publishing "visually driven, imagination-fuelled" books that combine an "offbeat or humorous sensibility with outstanding design that delight children and grown-ups equally." Big Whoop! is definitely filled with an offbeat and humorous sensibility from cover to cover as well as perfectly matched illustrations that combine elements of collage with a colorful palette and very charming characters bursting with energy and imagination.

Big Whoop!, which has awesome endpapers covered in an array of mustaches, features Mr. Fox, who never smiles, and his friends, Roman and Harrison, who think that this is not healthy. Harrison and Roman try to get a response out of Mr. Fox by telling him that they have been to the zoo, parading their alligator and tiger costumes as well as a giant "zoo lolly," all they get in return is a "Big Whoop." Mr. Fox doesn't even take his eyes off the book he is reading to take a look at them!

This sends Roman and Harrison off on an ever escalating attempt to get a reaction out of Mr. Fox about something, anything. At this point, in less gifted hands, the mounting silliness could have gone off the rails, making the book feel more like a list than a story. But Lee truly does have a great sense of storytelling and a way with imagination and silliness and she brings it all together for a really great ending.

Roman and Harrison try to impress Mr. Fox by growing mustaches with bees living in them. Harrison operates a crane while wearing underpants on his head and Roman tames a dragon with only his mind and a broken chair. They walk to the moon with stilts made out of cheese, play chess with a slice of bacon (and lose) and time travel and invite a dinosaur to dinner. Failing to get even a tiny grin, the two take a break and make a sandwich, which they call a "sanglewich," for Mr. Fox. Midway through yet another "Big whoop," Mr. Fox is stopped in his tracks and left speechless by this act of generosity and thoughtfulness, to which Roman and Harrison reply, turning the tables and the tone, "Big whoop!" and "Great big whoop!"

Don't miss Maxine Lee's debut picture book, Pi-Rat!, in which swashbuckling adventures are had aboard the Soapy Dodger by a crew of swashbuckling rodents!

Source: Review Copy

Oh, Baby! by Chad Geran

As a parent and bookseller, one thing I learned more than 20 years ago is that babies love to look at pictures of other babies. Yet, as a bookseller I was continually perplexed by the scarcity of board books featuring babies - human babies, not cute animals. This alone could have me excited about Chad Geran's new board book, Oh, Baby!, published by Pow!, a new, independent publisher dedicated to publishing "visually driven, imagination-fuelled" books that combine an "offbeat or humorous sensibility with outstanding design that delight children and grown-ups equally." 

Geran definitely fulfills the promise of visually driven with an offbeat or humorous sensibility. But, almost better than that, Geran clearly has spent time around babies. In fact, he is the father of two little boys and understandably lists himself as a "former sleeper." 

 Geran's big-eyed babies will definitely capture the attention of the intended audience, and the round, chunky shape of the book is easy for pudgy little fingers to hold and manipulate. This is definitely important, but, as a parent, what I appreciate are the funny and messy moments that Geran captures that parents can commiserate with and laugh about, as seen below.


We've all been peed on and worse, and that's definitely good for a chuckle, but my favorite page in the book can be seen below. I know it's pretty awful, but that look for frozen fear that one or two of my kids got in their eyes when tossed in the air as infants still makes me laugh...

Source: Review Copy


Quest, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker

Journey by Aaron Becker was definitely one of the most exciting picture books of 2013 and I was thrilled when it won a Caldecott Honor in January of this year. As someone who has read books out loud professionally and parentally for over 20 years and as someone who holds a deep appreciation for picture book illustrations, wordless picture books have always held a special place in my heart. And head - it takes more than a little thinking and planning before reading a wordless picture book to a group of little listeners. One of the first articles I wrote for this blog was How to Read a Picture Book Without Words (Out Loud). While there is much to be gained from the quiet fascination that comes with "reading" a wordless picture book on one's own, there is also much to be gained from the communal experience of "reading" a wordless picture book with a group, interpreting and enhancing the story together. Aaron Becker's books have so much to offer to a singular reader devouring Journey and the sequel, Quest, alone, and even more when experienced together.

The protagonist from Journey, a lonely girl who discovers a red crayon with magical capacities and a friend along the way, returns in Quest. As does their travel companion, an exotic purple bird. While getting out of the rain under a bridge, a king bursts through a door pleading, silently, for their help before he is dragged away by a band of soldiers. He leaves them with an orange crayon to add to their collection and a strange map.

 The friends soon realize what their mission is and they are off again across sweeping landscapes with stunning vistas. In the interest of building stamina in the students who visit my library, I have been reading up on this subject and learned of something referred to as the "reading zone." This space is entered when, while reading a book, the reader falls into the story and becomes part of that world so intensely that the real world goes silent. Becker, and all the best creators of wordless picture books (see below) entice readers to this state, this "reading zone," with pictures alone! And, while there may not be words, there is definitely a visual language that must be interpreted and internalized by the reader in order to follow the story and slip into the world. Sometimes this is achieved with familiar and iconic images, sometimes the characters are so compelling that the reader follows them and understands their plight implicitly, through their actions only. Becker definitely accomplishes this with Journey and now with Quest!

Find more reviews of my favorite wordless picture books HERE or visit my Pinterest board of Wordless Picture books!

Source: Review Copy