|Apr/May 2007 Reviews & Interviews|
First up is hands-down one of the most fun ABC books that I have seen in ages. As someone who grew up on the Space Coast of Florida, Chronicle Books' A is for Astronaut is just about the coolest thing I could have found for my little boy. Each page has period photos or retro illustrations of multiple items for individual letters. For example, G is for "Galaxy: a large group of stars and planets" and "Golf Balls: left on the Moon by astronaut Alan Shepard." There is a picture of Buzz Aldrin's footprint in moon dust for "F" and John Glenn for "J" as "...the first U.S. astronaut to pilot a spacecraft around the Earth." Laika is here (poor Laika!) and the Vomit Comet and Yuri Gagarin. There's also nifty things like astronaut ice cream, freeze dried food packets, several pictures from the 1960s of Kennedy Space Center, various rockets and Ham, "the first chimpanzee in space" (yea, Ham!). Lots of entries here will appeal to any space-loving kid but many objects or people (or animals) will also spark some science-minded conversations. It's a beautifully designed book from start to finish and a nice entry into the cadre of alphabet titles.
Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet was a 2006 Caldecott honor book and rightfully so. David McLimans uses bold black and white graphics to illustrate each letter picture as an animal (or with an animal wrapped around it). The black and white is complemented by small boxes in red that have drawings of the specific animal and basic information about it such as class, habitat and threats. McLimans has also included an illustrated index with more detailed drawings of the animals and further information about them and why they are endangered.
One of the many things I liked about this book is that the animals are not all cute and fuzzy: there's the Saint Helena Earwig, Naked Characin (that's a fish) and Black-Spotted Newt. Of course you also have your Snow Leopard, Bushman Hare and Grevy's Zebra, but it's nice to see someone pointing out that it's not just mammals but amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, and even insects that we are losing every day. The author also provides a list of books for more reading and the websites of organizations helping endangered animals.
Gone Wild is the kind of alphabet book that I think will turn up not just on nursery bookshelves but also in the libraries of more than one graphic designer. It's a very hip and modern look at the ABC book (interestingly, my son finds this title and the retro A is for Astronaut equally appealing) and I think it breaks a lot of barriers for the genre. You don't have to illustrate these books with full-color pictures of fuzzy animals—you can make them clean and almost stark in appearance and kids will still get the meaning. Honestly, I think this book would work just as well for older animal fanatics as it would for those learning their letters. Call it a one-two punch for the preschooler and third grader (or more) in any family.
While we are on the subject of animals, budding bird watchers should seek out a copy of Caroline Arnold's Birds: Nature's Magnificent Flying Machines. Nothing beats a great field guide, but Arnold is not trying to help her readers identify so much as explain what the whole being a bird thing is like. Accompanied by Patricia J. Wynne's realistically drawn and truly lovely colorful pictures, Arnold sets out to explain exactly how birds fly. From feather and wing design (and how it is not the same for each bird), to flapping, taking off and soaring, she takes apart just what it is that birds do and manage to make look so easy. It turns out that there's a lot more going up there than the average person thinks about.
Arnold does include some specific birds here (those that fly fast, slow or not at all) as well as other animals like bats and flying fish that glide but do not truly fly. All of the birds pictured throughout the text are replicated but not identified on the last double fold, providing a great opportunity for budding ornithologists to test those identifying skills by going back through the text. The real draw here though will be the way the author addresses more unusual topics like how lift is created and what molting and preening do for a bird. This would be a particularly great learning tool for homeschoolers, but for sure add it to a pair of binoculars for the best kind of bird watching gift.
As far as other nonfiction titles, a number of excellent picture book biographies have been recently released that really impressed me a lot. I know I must have come across some similar books when I was young but honestly, I don't remember them being this vibrant or covering such little known subjects. (There must have been a million books on George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the Pilgrims in my school library but once you stepped outside of those broadly accepted American history boxes to look for something else, well, there was not so much). Julia Morgan Built a Castle is the perfect sort of picture book for any creatively minded child. It is the story the woman, born in 1872 in California, who went on to become one of the leading American architects of the early 20th century. Her most famous project was William Randolph Hearst's 60,645 square foot home, La Casa Grande on his San Simeon estate. (The estate include another 30,000 square feet in outbuildings, etc). The fact that Morgan accomplished not only the Hearst Castle but dozens of other impressive buildings is amazing considering the time in which she lived. She was the only woman to graduate in her engineering class from Berkeley and the first woman in history to attend and receive a certificate in architecture from France's prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
And yeah, that was in 1902.
Author Celeste Davidson Mannis has done a great job of conveying the key points in Morgan's life while keeping the text both brief and interesting. Miles Hyman's big colorful pictures have a subdued feel which fits perfectly with the time period, but the pages are rich in purples, reds and greens. Together, they present a well-told and beautifully illustrated story about a young woman who never paused in her dream to design and build great structures. Julia Morgan will easily appeal to any early reader interested in learning about architechture. This is really a great book for block-(?) builders—the many different designs and styles shown in Hyman's pictures alone will be enough to keep them riveted and once they are old enough to read, I'm sure the talented Morgan will gain some new and richly deserved fans.
With Perfect Timing: How Isaac Murphy Became One of the World's Greatest Jockeys,author Patsi Trollinger has set out to resurrect the life and legacy of a truly amazing American athlete. Isaac Murphy was an African American and the grandson of slaves, who began his path on the way to horse-racing history when he was just 12 years old in 1873. It wasn't easy—Trollinger details how he had to attend jockey school for two years and learn the intricacies of "pace." Learning about pace meant studying each horse to determine the best mix of "speed, strategy and time." As the author explains, some horses like to race out in front and it is there that they will reach top speed; others like to come from behind to win. Murphy had to learn how to read every horse he rode and then come up with the best winning strategy. It wasn't easy—he lost his first professional race—but eventually Murphy would become a master at this and compile the highest winning percentage in jockey history—44%. That is a record that still stands, even though Murphy last raced in 1895.
As interesting as Trollinger's text is though, Jerome Lagarrigue's paintings really put this book over the top. The darkly impressionistic paintings fill each page and command attention from the reader. They also lift the book up to the level of art, making it the sort of title that could easily draw attention on any coffee table—it's that glorious to look at.
Consider Perfect Timing an excellent look at an American who has been horribly overlooked in U.S. history. This is a no-brainer for any Black History Month assignment, but really, don't think it's only useful in an academic setting. Murphy's story is well told here, and quite gripping. Anyone who wants to learn about horses and horse racing will find a lot of reasons to enjoy it.
From Lagarrigue's deeply felt paintings, it is almost a shock to open up the sweet confection that is Different Like Coco. As fits a biography of Coco Chanel, Elizabeth Matthews has illustrated her book with light colors and flowing lines that show her subject dressed in the modern looks she embraced from the very beginning of her career. The details in these pictures are just great—from Chanel sticking out her tongue as she works on a hat, to placing a dress on a rack with an arm that sports a delicate charm bracelet. It's all fashion here and the differences between what Chanel wore and designed and what everyone else was dressed in are staggering. Her rags-to-riches story (shades of Oliver Twist) makes for a most engaging read and young readers will quickly empathize with colorful Chanel's banishment to an orphanage where "All was clean and simple, black and white." According to Matthews this is where she learned to sew and "out of scraps of fabric, she made rag dolls and ribbons for her hair." In the age of Project Runway, Chanel comes across as someone who was far ahead of her time and quite the character to boot. ("She constantly rearranged and romanticized the facts of her life story. She would even tell lies in confession!")
Different Like Coco tells a great story of a true rebel—a woman who stood up to society on every level and attained enormous success through both hard work and creativity. For all the kids out there who hope to follow in her footsteps, Matthews' book will be a true inspiration and a charming little delight as well.
We are big dinosaur fans in my house and I've been very interested by how many people tell me that enjoying dinosaurs is just a phase that most little boys go through. I wonder if it really is "just a phase" for most of them—or becomes a passing fancy only because the adults in their lives treat it that way. What if we all let kids who are into dinosaurs really immerse themselves in the subject and read everything they can get their hands on (and watch TV specials like the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs)? A great place to start would be David Sheldon's biography Barnum Brown: Dinosaur Hunter. With huge colorful pictures and a very exciting story about a boy who was a born explorer, ("Barnum often found fossils of ancient sea creatures. But he always made it home in time for supper, usually carrying a new discovery...") this one will satisfy all dinosaur lovers and their burning need to know more about their favorite subject.
Brown was born in 1873 and grew up during "The Great Dinosaur Rush of 1877" which followed the race between dino hunters Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh. (Be sure to check out the graphic novel Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards by Jim Ottaviani for much more on Cope and Marsh). He was encouraged by his parents and went on study paleontology in school. Eventually he ended up working for Henry Osborn at the American Museum of Natural History, a very engaging fellow as drawn by Sheldon in the sort of animal-and-bone-filled office that will set any aspiring dinosaur hunter's heart aflutter.
Brown's big discovery was the first skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex (as named by Osborn) in 1902. From there he went on to discover many other dinosaurs and ended up working for the museum for 66 years. Sheldon documents all of Brown's big finds and does a good job of showing how fossils are found. Probably the coolest thing about this book though is that it will show kids how another kid from long ago grew up to be the greatest dinosaur hunter in history. It's a very engaging read, with awesome pictures, and makes it clear that you just have to love and study dinosaurs to end up with a lifelong career in discovering them. So forget about that whole "phase" business and get this book for your favorite budding paleontologists. Show them you think they are serious, which is one of the best things an adult can do for a child.
Rounding out the nonfiction is a new biography of an Olympic legend, Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive by Carole Boston Weatherford. The author tells Owens' story in brief verses, explaining how he grew up the grandson of slaves but ran faster and faster, culminating in an international historic moment in the 1936 Berlin Olympic games. The emphasis here is on the Olympics and particularly how Owens and his achievements were an affront to all Adolf Hitler had hoped to accomplish at Berlin. Weatherford also mentions the friendship that developed between Owens and German competitor Luz Long and how many Germans embraced Owens and his victories and cheered him on. The story ends with Owens receiving a ticker tape parade down Broadway with the rest of the Olympic team, although the author does explain in an Afterword that due to racial discrimination he was not able to get any endorsement deals and profit from his wins like white athletes.
Jesse Owens' story has been told many times (he is a national icon) but I think Weatherford does a unique job with her book both by using verse and by focusing on the games. She is able to fit in small aspects of the races, like the muddy track conditions or the starter's flinch in the 200-meter finals, which further illuminate the runner's experience. Illustrator Eric Velasquez used pastels for his illustrations, giving them a gentle feeling, almost reminiscent of sepia-toned photographs. He draws the athletes in motion, standing over other drawings and beside the text in a free-flowing manner that matches Weatherford's verse. The combination of author and illustrator is a perfect match here, and Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive is a unique way for children to meet a legend.
Some way-off-the-beaten-path historical fiction found its way to me over the past couple of months—stories that I just know are getting lost in the shuffle out there and need to be sought out and appreciated. Amy Lee-Tai has written a glorious book, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, to salute her artist grandparents and their commitment to hope and family while incarcerated in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. In my book, it is never too early to teach the lessons of this shameful part of U.S. history and Lee-Tai's small sweet story about Mari, a young girl based on her mother, and her struggle to find something beautiful at Camp Topaz in the Utah desert, (http://topazmuseum.org/contact.html) is both gripping and tender. Her story is wonderfully matched with Felicia Hoshino's delicate illustrations that capture the drab brown camp perfectly while emphasizing occasional bursts of color, like Mari's red bandana or green coat.
Written in English with the Japanese translation below, Sunflowers is like a book out of time; something from a time capsule that has been kept safe and precious for decades while waiting for a new generation to enjoy. It is about the importance of making art, growing beauty and holding onto hope, even when hope seems to have abandoned you. This one is sublime, folks, just a piece of wonder from beginning to end. Kudos to Lee-Tai and Hoshino for such impressive work!
Until I read Brian Floca's Lightship, I had no idea that there had once been ships used as floating beacons in places where lighthouses could not be built. With the sparest of prose, "Here is a ship that holds her place. She has a captain and a crew: helmsman, oiler, engineer, deckhand, fireman, radioman, messman, cook, and cat..." Floca manages to tell the story of one ship, the Ambrose and its dedicated crew. There's humor here (a bit of cartoon style cursing a la "#@*%&!" when another ship gets too close) and also examples of the dangers brought by inclement weather that try to force the ship from her "sure spot." Floca provides a nice cutaway of the ship on the inside covers and in the sparest of drawings, with just the right pale washes of color, he emphasizes the importance of the lightship's job. He writes:
Then other ships sail safely
because the lightship marks the way
through fog and night,
past rocks and shoals,
past reefs and wrecks,
Other ships sail home safe...
Because the lightship holds her place.
This is a deceptively simple story that looks easy to write, but is so compelling solely because of the talent of this author and illustrator. Any kid who loves boats will be drawn to Lightship and it's a great way to teach some fading history.
In the second book featuring Lakas and his neighborhood, Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel, our young hero finds himself befriending several unusual residents of the building. Tick A. Boom drums on buckets to collect cash for rent, Firefoot tap dances and Elvis Presley look-alike Fernando is the Karaoke King. All of them are brilliant eccentrics Lakas finds himself caring deeply about. One day, Lakas stops by and finds an impromptu karaoke party just starting to get into full swing when it gets quickly shut down by the building manager who is too sad to party. It turns out all the residents are being evicted because the landlord has decided to sell the building. Lakas feels horrible for his new friends and after meeting the landlord (who, yes, is out for the bucks) he rallies the troops and leads a protest march to landlord's house asking for the right to stay. It all ends well—you knew it was going to end well—and readers know that Lakas and his friends will get to have their parties and enjoy life.
I mean really, could you ask for a better ending than that?
The story in Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel, as explained in the Afterword, is loosely based on the 2002 protests to fight the demolition of the Trinity Plaza Apartments in San Francisco. The larger message of affordable housing for working-class people, artists, etc., is a huge one and most unusual to find in a children's book. Affordable housing is one of the biggest issues facing America today (look no further than the current chaos in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast) and to see an author tackle that in a way that is easily understood by children is really pretty damn cool. On top of that, this title, like its predecessor, is published in both English and Tagalog, reflecting the Filipino heritage of Lakas and many of his friends. Tagalog—how utterly outstanding is that?!
Another thing that really puts Lakas over the top is illustrator Carl Angel's bright and bombastic pictures. The colors almost literally jump off the page here (you can tell from the cover how the story will look) and they convey all the conflicting emotions that Lakas and his friends go through, from joy to sadness, as the story unfolds. The pictures are guaranteed to hold a younger child's interest—expect the story to impress them more and more as they get older.
Switching gears over to some lighthearted fiction now, Ruby Sings the Blues by Niki Daly is a story about one of those sweet but quirky little girls who doesn't fit in but really should be appreciated by everyone anyway. In Ruby's case, she has a big voice—A BIG VOICE!—and it drives her parents, her neighbors, her teacher and her classmates all a bit crazy. Ruby finds herself becoming silent in the face of their displeasure: "She had the blues." All is not lost though. Two of Ruby's neighbors have long enjoyed her big voice and have some ideas about just how she should be using it. In due time she is learning to sing the blues and finds a talent that is, "well, just AWESOME."
Daly also illustrated Ruby and does a lot of great things here with her pictures. She has created a warm multicultural neighborhood packed with people of many ages, races and sizes. Everyone wears colorful clothes in Ruby's world and her parents are really interesting with a house full of modern art and quirky designs. It all reminded me a bit of William Joyce in the best sort of way and it was clear that Ruby was in the perfect place to be appreciated—if only everyone could find a way to best accommodate her voice. When her saxophonist and jazz singer neighbors show her how to use that big voice, good things are going to happen, because everyone wants good things to happen. All in all, it's a very warmhearted title with a most endearing little heroine (and she sings the blues! How cool is that?).
Another title where music plays a big part is Karen Ehrhardt's This Jazz Man, a tribute to jazz that uses the beat of the old song "This Old Man" to sweep readers through a whole musical history. Satchmo is here, "This jazz man, he plays one/He plays rhythm with his thumb …" and so are Bojangles Robinson, Duke Ellington and Charlie "Bird" Parker. Ehrhardt doesn't bother naming each man in her count—she leaves the identifying to the end, where a colorful index reveals that the great Dizzy Gillespie plays No. 7 and legend Charlie Mingus plays No. 9. Under drawings of each musician with his instrument (or tap dancing or conducting) she provides concise highlights from his career in a very exuberant and appropriately joyful fashion. The book serves then as both a fun sing-along and also an early exploration of biography.
Ehrhardt's rewrite of "This Old Man" alone would make the book a winner but R.G. Roth's collage-like paintings with their watercolor washes put this one over the top. These guys are so happy looking as they make music and the colors and patterns of everything from clothing to instruments to backgrounds just looks jazzy. The book is just so utterly mod and cool that it's another one I want to keep for myself. "This jazz man, he plays five/He plays bebop, he plays jive!" That's Charlie Parker; excuse me while I put on some cds and learn all over again what made these men legends.
Me I Am is written by Jack Prelutsky so it is going to generate a certain amount of excitement based on his name alone. This is a fast-moving little tale of poetry and individuality that follows three little kids, one a rough-and-tumble tomboy, one a budding naturalist and one a future dancer (or fashion plate). Each kid celebrates the self to the tune of Prelutsky's short poems: "No other ME I AM can feel/the feelings I've within;/no other ME I AM can fit/precisely in my skin." Christine Davenier's illustrations give us ample opportunity to enjoy how different each child is as we see them in all their glory surrounded by the stuff they love most and doing what they love best. This is just a great big multicultural celebration of being your own person. Really, what's not to like about that? Best for the little ones, as the text is short and sweet.
Janet Wong's The Dumpster Diver is just a flat-out fun book to read. For all of you who worry that it glorifies the art of diving into Dumpsters, rest assured that it is an adult who does the plunging into garbage and he ends up getting a tad injured in the process by the end. So lessons are learned all around and everyone agrees to collect recycling door to door rather than waiting until it is trash. But that's at the end—now that you're okay with the book, I really need to tell you how creative it is at the beginning.
The story is set in a city, where some of the best excitement for a certain group of kids is when their neighbor Steve, the electrician, announces he is ready to "dive for buried treasure right smack here in our backstreet alley." Properly attired in patched jeans, raincoat, snorkeling gear and rubber gloves, Steve goes looking for the weird and the wonderful while his three companions get ready to help. Wong doesn't shy away from Dumpster truths—there are "beetles and roaches and spiders"—but it's all worth it for banged up and broken raw materials that Steve recovers and then uses to build wild and fun things with the kids' help. This is where David Roberts' exuberant illustrations really come into play as he shows the madcap creations and slightly (only slightly) controlled craziness that envelops the group as they make and enjoy lots of wild inventions.
When Steve hurts his leg and has to go to the hospital, the kids are determined to have a Steve-worthy wheelchair waiting when he gets back. They knock on doors to collect some "Special (?) Dumpster-Diver Useful Junk" and are ready when Steve returns. Ultimately they've learned a little lesson about safety but readers will get an even bigger one on creativity (not to mention recycling). Roberts puts the words down on the page in what looks like duct tape, paper or torn lace (keeping with the recycling theme) and draws his pages almost like they are in a graphic novel. I also thought it was great that not only is the group multicultural, but one of the kids sports a Mohawk. I mean really, you've gotta love an illustrator who is willing to embrace creativity even when it comes to hairstyles!
My son loved The Dumpster Diver and that's pretty much the highest recommendation I can give a book.
Tim Wynne-Jones is one of my favorite all-time writers (regardless of genre, age range or subject matter) so I was quite pleased to receive a copy of his new picture book The Boat in the Tree. With John Shelley's full page imaginative illustrations to accompany the story, readers learn about the narrator whose parents have just brought home a new adopted brother, Simon. Our hero is not excited about the arrival and builds a raft with plans to "set sail for Bongadongo." His visions of becoming a pirate are fully realized by Shelley's surrounding picture; the reality is a bit of a mess in the driveway. But still, his commitment to sailing remains undiminished and he resolutely builds a zillion models, tries to rebuild a very dilapidated rowboat (you know when he resorts to gum to fill in the cracks that it will not go well) and constantly dreams of Bongadongo. Finally, frustrated by not getting anywhere, and by Simon's constant attempts at joining in, he runs away and then finds himself lost in the mother of all windstorms. The wind sends all sorts of things flying including—wait for it—a boat that lands in a tree!!!
Simon finds it, the two boys rescue it and by the end they are ready to float away, all sibling rivalry issues dealt with successfully (at least for now, anyway). So yes, there is a message but it's a good message and it's so much fun seeing this little kid try to float something and his new brother working that friendship angle to within an inch of his life that you really fall in love with these guys pretty quick. It's not the slightest bit mushy, but still, it touched my heart in the best kind of way. And really—how do you not fall for a boy with a ceiling full of hanging boats and dreams of Bongadongo? I expected great stuff from Wynne-Jones and wasn't disappointed; The Boat in the Tree is good for any kid who feels lost or frustrated, but will really succeed with little future sailors. (Heck, combine this one with Lightship and some kids are going to positively swoon).
Finally, honestly, I really didn't want to like Adventures of Cow (or its sequel, Adventures of Cow, Too), but damned if I couldn't stop happily laughing all the way through the two stories of this silly little plastic heifer.
I don't know how it happened, but I just couldn't help myself with these two!
Okay, strange way to positively review a book but Lori Korchek's hysterical look at the world of a plastic toy with a penguin doorstop for a father and porcelain hippo planter for a mother (and don't forget "the twins"—a set of salt and pepper shakers) is just so far out there that you have to embrace it. Basically photographer Marshall Taylor has placed Cow in all sorts of situations, from a barnyard in the first book to a supermarket in the second, and Korchek has written some deadpan captions for the pictures. There is a story here. In the first book Cow gets a little lost, misses her family and ends up writing a book about her adventure and in the second she goes grocery shopping, which is pure freaking genius as far as I'm concerned. The captions tell a very basic story but I can't stress enough how witty Korchek's writing is and how funny—not Dr. Seuss funny but more Steven Wright funny. You will laugh at these books, I promise, and if you're worried about wasting cash on funny for yourself, then I defy you to read Cow's adventures to any 3-6 year-old without hearing the sweet sound of little kid giggles almost immediately. My son loves these books—he looooooooves them and who am I to challenge their success with their target market? Korchek and Taylor know what they're doing and they do it well. I have a feeling that it was actually harder to put Cow's stories together than they look, which is actually a sign of how well done these books are.
Just—oh, just go find a copy and sit down and read it. You will smile—anyone would smile and that's a pretty good thing as far as I'm concerned. How often do we find books that just make us grin? Exactly. I am now an official fan of all things Cow; bring on book number 3!
A is for Astronaut
Chronicle Books 2006
By David McLimans
Walker Books 2006
Birds: Nature's Magnificent Flying Machines
By Caroline Arnold
Illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne
Julia Morgan Built a Castle
By Celeste Davison Mannis
Illustrated by Miles Hyman
By Patsi B. Trollinger
Paintings by Jerome Lagarrigue
Different Like Coco
By Elizabeth Matthews
Candlewick Press 2007
Barnum Brown: Dinosaur Hunter
By David Sheldon
Walker Books 2006
Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive
By Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrated by Eric Velasquez
Walker Books 2007
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow
By Amy Lee-Tai
Illustrated by Felicia Hoshino
Children's Book Press 2006
By Brian Floca
Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel
By Anthony D. Robles
Illustrated by Carl Angel
Translated by Eloisa D. de Jesus
Children's Book Press 2006
Ruby Sings the Blues
By Niki Daly
This Jazz Man
By Karen Ehrhardt
Illustrated by R.G Roth
ME I AM!
By Jack Prelutsky
Illustrated by Christine Davenier
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2007
By Janet S. Wong
Illustrated by David Roberts
Candlewick Press 2007
The Boat in the Tree
By Tim Wynne-Jones
Illustrated by John Shelley
Front Street 2007
Adventures of Cow Too
By Lori Korchek
Illustrated by Marshall Taylor
Tricycle Press 2007