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Oct/Nov 2007 Reviews & Interviews

Fall Picture Book Celebration

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! David Mack has been widely acclaimed for years for his original comic book, Kabuki. With his debut picture book, The Shy Creatures, he breaks new ground creating a Seussical bit of fantasy that is firmly set in the 21st century. This is one of those delightful and fun books that is also very smart and thus will appeal to anyone who can appreciate witty absurdity. At its heart though, it is about a shy little girl who believes that an awful lot of creatures out there are misunderstood. She imagines all the ways she could help them and those dreams fill the pages of Mack's book.

One of the interesting hooks here is "the shy girl" who hides behind a pile of books at her school desk. She has a very big imagination and clearly has not been afraid to research the topic that interests her so much. The creatures here are not of the common variety; there is Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and a unicorn, but also Phoenix, the Cyclops and Chupacabra. Mack reaches into literature for the Pushmi-pullyu and outer space for the "Grey Aliens."This is clearly a shy girl who lets nothing limit her dreams; or her kindness.

Quite simply, The Shy Creatures is the perfect sort of reading aloud book for boys and girls alike. The shy girl is plucky and endearing, the monsters are more confused than ferocious and Mack's artwork is the definition of whimsy. Consider this one impossible to resist and introduce your children to the latest in all the good that a story can be.

I am always impressed when I read a great historical picture book because I know how hard it must be to tell a significant story in so few pages. I also think that this particular genre of children's books is horribly unappreciated and deserving of a lot more attention. When I was reading Linda Oatman High's recent The Cemetery Keepers of Gettysburgh, I was more impressed as I turned each page by how she was able to encapsulate so much good and bad about the American Civil War in one short book and the lives of one small family. It's not easy to make big events small enough for a child to grasp, but High does it with this book. She makes the war real and in the process, shines a long overdue spotlight on some people who did a very good thing in Gettysburg and have never been really recognized for it. It's so perfect that the Thorn family should find their new life in a picture book because children can appreciate their loyalty and courage; children get how awesome it was that they did their job even when the war came home.

Told from the perspective of young Fred Thorn, the story is about the few days in Gettysburg when his family, who are the cemetery keepers of Evergreen Cemetery, find themselves surrounded by one of the bloodiest battles in American history. Fred's father has gone away to fight for the north and along with his little brothers, pregnant mother and grandparents, he continues to maintain the graves. And then, after the battle, there are so many more dead to care for; so many fresh graves that need to be dug. But they do it because they know it is important, and the author conveys that higher sense of duty, a duty that transcends uniform and country, with her short concise sentences and Laura Filippucci's carefully drawn and softly realistic illustrations. We see dead horses and injured soldiers and later, rows of fresh graves. The only constant is the Thorns, who stay through it all and do the right thing.

Cemetery Keepers is an understated book that tells an important story without hammering home any message or intent. The author's note at the end tells the pertinent information about the Thorns, making it clear that they were most certainly real people. It's all quite effective and I hope that it receives some attention from young readers who are seeking a quiet hero or two from history.

Mark Foster takes on a much bigger view of history with his fascinating look at the history of one town and how it developed over the centuries, in Whale Port. Based on the history of several New England towns, Foster has created the fictional village of Tuckanucket, founded in1683 by a group of English colonists. Over time it evolves into a whaling port and Foster carefully explains each change in the way the people live along the way. The text is easy to follow and full of fascinating bits of all sorts of cultural, social and maritime history. What really puts Whale Port over the top though is Gerald Foster's incredibly detailed illustrations. He provides cross sections of houses and ships that allow readers to see inside and further appreciate the topics discussed in the text. This is one of those occasions where the author and illustrator (a father and son team) were in perfect synergy and its shows on each and every page.

I'll be honest with you; this is the kind of history book that I really love. There is a lot of information here but Foster shares it in a personal way that is found in the best kind of adult historic fiction. Through storms and fires, slavery and abolition, the people of Tuckanucket change and grow in order to keep their town alive. The Fosters have done some truly excellent work here and this a book that should be considered a reference for anyone—of any age- interested in America's whaling history.

Acclaimed author Carole Boston Weatherford takes on one the Civil Rights Movement's greatest tragedies with her new work of historic fiction, Birmingham, 1963. Using the voice of a ten-year old girl, and heavily illustrated with black and white photographs, Birmingham, 1963 is an excellent way to introduce young readers to that seminal year in American history. Weatherford starts with an often overlooked event, when over nine hundred children were arrested in the "Children's March" protesting whites-only lunch counters in Birmingham:

Like a junior choir, we chanted "We Shall Overcome."
Then, police loosed snarling dogs and fire hoses on us,
And buses carted us, nine hundred strong, to jail.

In the following pages she recounts the March on Washington, and meetings in her church where "the grownups were making big plans."The book culminates with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the deaths of four young teenage girls. Weatherford devotes a full page to each of them, describing who they were to the people who loved them. These simple words, "Cynthia, who was always laughing" or "Carole Robertson, who loved books, earned straight A's/And took dance lessons every Saturday," lifts them from the pages of dusty history books and makes them children again; makes them girls that any reader could identify with and recognize.

It makes them easy to miss.

Through the book Weatherford does a great job of keeping the narrator's voice young ("And Daddy twirled me around the kitchen/In my patent-leather cha-cha heels"), which makes the final pages that much more powerful. "The year I turned ten," she writes, "There was no birthday cake with candles; Just cinders, ash and a wish I were still nine."

The book includes an Author's Note with detailed information on the bombing and all the historic photographs used in the text. I'm sure Birmingham, 1963 will be a standout during African American History Month but it should be integrated into any casual classroom discussion on American history as it illustrates so well how children can become innocent victims of adult hatreds.

In A Nickel, a Trolley, a Treasure House Sharon Reiss Baker tells a fictionalized account of her grandfather, artist Lionel Reiss, and his childhood at the turn of the 20th century in New York City's Lower East Side. Lionel loves to draw but he feels there is no use for drawing, so although he enjoys it he doesn't show his drawings to anyone (other than his sister Rose). His teacher sees his pictures one day however and is so impressed that she invites him on a special trip on the trolley into the city. When they arrive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Lionel is stunned by the grandeur of the building and then becomes even more impressed by the fact that it exists solely for people to look at art. He studies five different pictures forming opinions about each and learning some from his teacher. (Baker provides more info on these specific pictures at the end.) His epiphany comes though when he learns why people come to look at the pictures:

"But we can always come here to see him as he was back then, as Manet saw him. That is why people come to the museum, Lionel, to see the world through the artists' eyes."

Lionel is galvanized by his field trip and by the story's end he is sitting on the stoop in front of his apartment building drawing his friends as they play; no longer hiding his talent and now determined to record all that he sees.

A Nickle, a Trolley, a Treasure House is a lovely historical picture book both in its story of self discovery and also in the powerful illustrations of the period. Beth Peck has painted grand sweeping pictures that could be found in Lionel's museum; they are deeply impressionistic and capture the time and place perfectly. You couldn't ask for better artwork to accompany a story of this type. Baker has also done a good job of taking one moment in a young artist's life and presenting it in a way that young children can identify with and appreciate; my own son very much enjoyed hearing about Lionel and was curious at the story's end to know what happened to him as he grew up. That, as it turns out, is my only complaint. Baker does not include any information on her grandfather's career or a thumbnail picture or two of his work. She does state he was an artist but that's all—the rest of her author's note is devoted to explaining more about the genesis of the story and her research toward making the book historically accurate. All of this is great but what I wanted to know about was what happened to Lionel Reiss. I ended up looking him up on the internet so my son and I could see a couple of his paintings. I wish that Viking had thought to include this sort of information; I think it would have contributed to the book's overall power.

For an altogether different take on art and creativity, Barry Varela has written a very funny story about Professor Ludwig von Glink and his pursuit of a perpetual motion machinein Gizmo. Right off the bat I was reminded of Dick van Dyke's portrayal of Professor Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang while reading this book. Varela's Glink is every inch a madcap inventor who surrounded by his patient wife and five children slowly transforms their home in pursuit of his vision. Early on the motion machine does not work ("He was wrong," deadpans Varela), but Glink merely shifts tactics and decides to make the machine more complex and thus "...add to the merriment."Before long the machine fills every corner of their home, even overflowing into the yard. This draws the ire of the City Buildings and Permits Inspector who is none too pleased with one glaring problem, "...the gizmo of Prof. L. von G. had no function, utility or practical purpose he could see." The "gizmo" and thus the house it fills, are condemned, posthaste. It falls on the people in the surrounding area who love it, including the mayor, to prove that something does not have to have an obvious use to be important. "It was a case of art for art's sake" that saves the gizmo and everybody is deliriously happy.

There are lots of reasons to love Gizmo starting with the very quirky family of von Glinks who are presented in all their winning tolerant weirdness by illustrator Ed Briant. The detail for the gizmo is all here and will entrance little ones who will see something new each time they return to a favorite page. One extraordinarily fanciful spread shows people coming from "far and near" and includes a man on a flying carpet, a pilot in a biplane, a double-decker bus and men riding camels, horses and an elephant. (Oh—and also an alien in a flying saucer!) It's all fun in Gizmo but Varela also gets his message across just as Baker did: sometimes art is just for art's sake and its importance to individuals and the world should never be forgotten.

Dinosaur fanatics are always looking for new books and movies to feed their prehistoric passion and Taylor Morrison's Mastodon Mystery is a unique gem that might have been overlooked in hardcover. Written for the seven and up set (or precocious younger would-be paleontologists) Morrison's book tells the story of the first discovery of a large scale mastodon skeleton in the early 19th century. It was a massive undertaking combining men and technology to get the bones out of a peat bog. The whole endeavor was further complicated by the fact that they did not really know what the creature should like or, or what they would find. By placing bones together from several skeletons found in the same area, Charles Willson Peale of the Philadelphia Natural History Museum, who spearheaded the project, was able to rebuild an animal he had never seen before. In 1806, the creature was officially named "mastodon."Peale's creature became the first mastodon skeleton ever displayed and the second fossil skeleton in the world.

Morrison tells a good story, carefully explaining what happened in each picture and how the bones were discovered and removed. The engineering feats to remove the bones could easily be dull, but he makes each detail interesting to read. The illustrations are especially appealing; big engaging portraits full of deep rich color that bring the people and places of the Hudson Valley alive. The payoff for the story is turning the page and seeing that skeleton fairly leap out of the book. It is a fiercely painted depiction of an enormous beast and the way Morrison brings home just how amazing this discovery was makes for very informative reading.

Another really unique dinosaur-era title is Timothy Bradley's Paleo Sharks. Opening with an easy to understand explanation of geologic time and definition of just what is a shark, Bradley then goes on to introduce readers to a lot of deeply weird ancestors of the sharks we know. Following the timeline he uses at the book's opening, he writes about the oldest sharks first (stethacanthus) and progressively moves forward. Pictures are carefully labeled so readers know which shark is which and sidebars with pictures of humans and modern sharks show size differences. There are a ton of really cool and freaky creatures in this book and shark fans will find a lot to be intrigued by. Bradley gives us just enough to grasp what each fish is like ("The group is called ‘xenacanths', which means ‘strange spine', and the first xenacanths had a long spine, or spike, that grew from the back of the skull,") while introducing a whole host of animals that curious readers will want to research further. The sidebars also include brief discussions on freshwater sharks, symbiotic relationships fish that are slightly similar to sharks.

Altogether, Paleo Sharks is a reference book like few others. It's fresh and delightfully creepy but more importantly compulsively entertaining. The pictures alone will draw readers in, but they will stay to learn as much as they can about the cool group of long ago "monsters" that Bradley delightfully unveils. How about some more titles like this one, Mr. Bradley?

Following up on his delightful book about Pirates, Stephen Savage returns with Inside Access: Sharks. On the opening pages he introduces "your guide," Angel Finn, a marine biologist who studies sharks. Drawn in a realistic comic book style, Angel accompanies photos of sharks throughout the text and provides insights into various aspects of their anatomy. Her presence makes the book read not at all as a dry encyclopedia, which make it a bit more user-friendly for younger readers (and is a nice change of pace from most similar titles).

There are some great close-ups in Sharks of shark skin and teeth as well as some fascinating looks at rarely seen animals like the Greenland and Megamouth sharks. Through them all Angel is present whether paddling, diving or in a submersible (and always explaining what she is doing and seeing). There is also information on scientists who are studying sharks, how and why they are endangered and how they reproduce. All in all this is an excellent way to get marine enthusiasts hooked on sharks and should be one of the first books young readers curious about the subject turn to. (Other titles in the Inside Access series are due out this fall.)

Douglas Florian uses poetry to tackle his nonfiction subject, the universe. He addresses each planet separately and also includes the sun, the moon and more general themes like constellations, comets and black holes. The poetry is a lot of fun; he packs quite a few facts and figures in here (for Venus it is "Scalding-hot surface,/Nine-hundred degrees./Nothing can live there,/No creatures,/No trees") but the real fun is when he riffs on a few topics such as what was recently done to poor Pluto:

Pluto was a planet.
But now it doesn't pass.
Pluto was a planet.
They say it's lacking mass.
Pluto was a planet.
Pluto was admired.
Pluto was a planet
Till one day it got fired.

The poems would be pleasure enough but it is Florian's unique artwork that really puts this title over the top for me. Using "gouache, collage and rubber stamps on primed brown paper bags" he has created some fairly simple but truly gorgeous work here. The small touches of adding figures and words to many of the planet pictures—A statue of Venus on the planet named for her along with the words "Sappho," "Dione," "Sedna," etc., and faces and eyes looking out from the minor planets or asteroids, with names like Mathilde, Kleopatra and Gaspra, all give the book a very old world feel and elevate it beyond the standard fare. Florian has done some truly beautiful and smart work here; I'm not sure if I should consider this book for our collection of astronomy titles or those more dedicated to art, but either way I'm delighted to call it my own.

Piece=Part=Portion is an unusual math book for several reasons. First, it is bilingual so it will offer answers in not only fractions but also in word comparison between English and Spanish (something I think is excellent in picture books). Second, it's not just about one-half and _ but also decimals and percentages. As this is the sort of learning usually spread out over several years of math in school (and I have no idea why this is the case), students rarely get to see the "big fraction picture" when they are young and just starting to grasp the concept. Gifford does a great job here of laying it all out so simply that kindergartners will easily follow what he is trying to do. The photographs by Shmuel Thaler, such as an egg in a carton (as one-twelfth), a piece of pie (as one-eighth) and a traffic light (as one-third) will all be easily recognizable and thus help the learning process. This is a simple and very straightforward book but in this case it is exactly what is needed for the subject. I hope the homeschoolers discover it, because they are going to love how Gifford and Thaler present the concepts of "fractions=decimals=percents."

Author Donna Jo Napoli tells a fractured tale in a different way through her storybook, The Wishing Club. Sweetly illustrated by Anna Currey, this story of four siblings who struggle to make the right wish on a falling star is really rather ingenious. The problem is that every time they wish they only get part of what they want. Petey only gets one-fourth of a dollar, Joey gets half of a cookie, and their twin sisters each only receive one-eighth of a bag of marbles. It is only when they work together as a group, and each wish for a portion of a baby pig, that they receive a whole gift.

Napoli does an excellent job here of showing how _ + _ + _+ _= 1. The kids go into the kitchen and use measuring cups to make sure they are adding up to a full one cup. That's when they know it is safe to wish for the pig (who wants _ of a pig showing up at your doorstep?) and find success. As it is a story, and Currey's colorful pictures make each of the children stand out as individuals, The Wishing Club works both as a fun read aloud and a way to learn. Couple it with Gifford's book and I'm sure listeners will be heading to the kitchen to figure out their own parts and pieces.

In a more conventional story, Elizabeth Quan has written the beautiful saga of a family that has decided in the 1920s to return to mainland China and their grandmother, who the children have never met. Leaving from their home in Toronto, the Lee King family travels by train across the country to the west coast where they board a ship and travel deep below decks "in the section set aside for Orientals."The ship takes them to Japan where they spend a day and then depart on another ship for Hong Kong. In the "fragrant port" they meet some friends and then take three rickshaws to the ferry terminal where they catch a ride up the Pearl River into inland China. Then it is back on another train until the family arrives at Dun Ngan Lai Station, and a walk to their grandmother's house. It has taken them "one full cycle of the moon" but finally they arrive to the lady their father missed so much, who loves them all tremendously.

Once Upon a Full Moon is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Quan is a renowned watercolorist and the way in which she brings the Lee King family and their long journey alive is truly wonderful. Some pictures, such as the train traveling before the snow-filled Canadian landscape or the "gaily dressed ladies" in Japan almost pop off the page with their dramatic and thoughtful use of color. But as lovely as the pictures are, it was the story that really drew me in. It is so rare that we read about immigrants choosing to return from the west; about what they miss back home and their desire to see family and familiar sights again. Lee King wants to see his mother and show her his family and although he has found success in Toronto, it clearly is not what he needs to make him happy. The story is narrated by his oldest daughter and at one point she observes:

This was where his ancestors, for a thousand years, had had their beginnings and their endings. He looked around him, remembering his boyhood. I had never seen that expression on his face before. Do grown men cry? Papa looked close to tears, but soon he smiled. "Let's go to Grandmother's house," he said.

I am just delighted with this unique story and the beautiful way it is presented. Once Upon a Full Moon will be a treasure for the children who read it, and for all those who have ever had to leave their homes behind.

In When the Shadbush Blooms author Carla Messenger (with Susan Katz) and illustrator David Kanietakeron Fadden have put together a very engaging story that follows two families, separated by four generations, of the Lenni Lenape. Renamed by European settlers as the "Delaware Indians," the Lenape traditionally lived through a cycle of seasons related to the Moon. Their activities in each season are revealed by "Traditional Sister" and "Contemporary Sister" who lead different lives in many ways, but feel a same love for their families and the land they live on. By juxtaposing one family against the other on each page spread, Fadden very effectively shows how differently the families dressed and lived. However, Messenger and Katz's story reveals their similarities: both walk along the same stream, plant gardens in the same dirt and pick berries in the same field. They play similar games, jump in piles of leaves and go sledding. Even though their clothing and homes are clearly very different, there is no mistaking how much they have in common. The authors and illustrator have done a very good job here of showing how the Lenni Lenape have maintained their traditions even as they live in the modern world.

There is an interesting afterword to the story that explains where the Lenape are geographically from and their struggle in the last century to reclaim their traditions and "follow the cycle of the seasons."The authors also have a glossary for the Lenni Lenape seasons as written by the "Traditional Sister."

It's obvious how useful When the Shadbush Blooms would be in an educational setting for instruction on Native Americans. But I found this also to be a very sweet story about families who have deeply cared about each other through the generations.

Dinah Johnson and photographer Kelly Johnson (no relation) have put together a gentle celebration of African American hair in Hair Dance!. It is clear from the very beginning, with Kelly Johnson's introduction, that is a deeply personal project:

My pride in my grandparents' legacy was the inspiration for this book. Hair is our crowning glory, and every day we should appreciate its grace, color, and texture. I wanted to portray African American hair in the most radiant light, as my grandparents did.

What follows are a cascade of pictures of girls of all shapes and sizes wearing their hair in a variety of styles and clearly living in the most joyful manner possible. The text is equally exuberant and heartfelt: "People stare at my hair sometimes—it looks like a work of art and inside I sing."The girls grin with hair that is "sassy short and bouncy long" or "showing off my Afro puffs" and hanging upside to show "braids swing with me like water, moving free." This is clearly a celebration of culture and beauty that should resonate with African American girls. It is "a hair song; For my Afro halo heavenly hair."

What a wonderful tribute to living life proudly!

Chronicle Books really excels in fun graphics and bold colors and their celebration of all things scary, Spot 7 Spooky is seriously big fun. The initial challenge here is to find seven things that are different between each two-page spread. After that if you are up for extra challenges, there is a riddle below each pair that needs solving and also a series of hidden objects that must be found spread out through the whole book. The games would be fun anyway, but the awesome pictures make this an irresistible adventure. There's everything from space shots, to knights in a forest, underwater pirates and ghosts in a carnival. Lots (and lots and lots) to look at and definitely a source of many hours of fun for the kindergarten and over crew. There are quite a few of these types of books out there but this one is a cut above; spring for the good stuff and your kids will thank you for it.

Finally, Marthe Jocelyn and Tom Slaughter have created a very simple but dazzling title for the very young in the graphic design wonder, Eats. With deeply rich pages awash in all kinds of bright vibrant colors, the text tells us the obvious such as "Giraffes/Leaves" and "Bees/Nectar."Toddlers will enjoy seeing the big bold animals and the fun of discovering what they enjoy for a meal, all the while being transfixed by the modern art that fills each page. This is a funky choice for new parents that must be seen to be appreciated; skip the sappy stuff and go with as a shower gift; trust me they will love you for it!

 

The Shy Creatures by David Mack
Feiwell & Friends 2007
ISBN 0-312-36794-5

The Cemetery Keepers of Gettysburg by Linda Oatman High
Illustrated by Laura Francesca Filippucci
Walker Books 2007
ISBN 0-8027-8094-6

Birmingham, 1963 by Carole Boston Weatherford
Wordsong 2007
ISBN 1-59078-440-5

Whale Port by Mark Foster
Illustrated by Gerald Foster
Houghton Mifflin 2007
ISBN 0-618-54722-3

A Nickel, a Trolley, a Treasure House by Sharon Reiss Baker
Illustrated by Beth Peck
Viking 2007
ISBN 0-670-05982-9

Gizmo by Barry Verela
Illustrations by Ed Briant
Roaring Brook Press 2007
ISBN 1-59643-115-6

Mastodon Mystery by Taylor Morrison
Houghton Mifflin 2001
ISBN 0-618-77130-1

Paleo Sharks: Survival of the Strangest by Timothy J. Bradley
Chronicle Books 2007
ISBN 0-8118-4878-7

Inside Access Sharks by Stephen Savage
Kingfisher 2007
ISBN 0-7534-6064-1

Comets, Stars, the Moon and Mars by Douglas Florian
Harcourt 2007
ISBN 0-15-205372-7

Piece=Part=Portion by Scott Gifford
Illustrated by Shmuel Thaler
Tricycle Press 2007
ISBN 1-58246-226-7

The Wishing Club by Donna Jo Napoli
Illustrated by Anna Currey
Henry Holt 2007
0-8050-7665-4

Once Upon a Full Moon by Elizabeth Quan
Tundra Books 2007
ISBN 0-8876-813-2

When the Shadbush Blooms
By Carla Messenger with Susan Katz
Illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden
Tricycle Press 2007
ISBN 1-58246-192-9

Hair Dance! by Dinah Johnson
Photographs by Kelly Johnson
Henry Holt
ISBN 0-8050-6523-7

Spot 7 Spooky by Kidslabel
Chronicle Books 2007
ISBN 0-8118-5723-9

Eats by Marthe Jocelyn
Illustrated by Tom Slaughter
Tundra Books 2007
ISBN 0-88776-820-0

 

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