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Apr/May 2008 Reviews & Interviews

A Survey of Picture Books

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! It is rare that I come across a picture book that strikes me as a new fairy tale, a title that is so freshly told and gorgeously illustrated that I am convinced it adds to the canon of familiar tales we all visit in childhood. The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum is most certainly that kind of book and should be well on its way to classic status.

The story begins with the introduction of a girl who lives in a castle and then the surprise that the castle is inside a large globe in a museum. Children come and visit the museum and see the castle but when the museum closes the girl is alone and sometimes, the text explains, she becomes lonely. But the castle is lovely and includes toys that play with the girl and she dreams of other lonely children that she would like to see. In the end she asks the reader to see her in the pages of this book and "keep her company in her magical world."

It is a simple story told in only a few sentences on each page, but very creative and unusual in how it draws the reader into the girl's fantastic world. What really put Kate Bernheimer's dreamy sequence over the top, though, are the stunning illustrations by Nicoletta Ceccoli. I can not overstate what a perfect match this book is between author and illustrator. Berheimer has written a fantasy that Ceccoli renders in big pastels covering corner to corner of each page with some very cool/retro toys and stuffed animals accompanying the girl's adventures. This book is the ultimate modern fairy tale, a 21st century answer to the 19th century classics. Perfection from start to finish, The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum has my highest picture book recommendation.

In Marie-Danielle Croteau's lovely story of artist Paul Gauguin's childhood, Mr. Gauguin's Heart she introduces a young imaginative boy who copes with the loss of a parent in a unique way. It's not a sad book, but rather one that shows the value of a creative spirit and why it should be nurtured in the very young. Illustrator Isabelle Arsenault's drop-dead gorgeous full-color illustrations, which are remarkably lifelike (especially in the faces), complement the story well. Little Paul in particular is so expressive that readers will feel immediate empathy for him and be drawn deeper into the story and the kind lesson of perseverance that Croteau wants to share.

Mr. Gauguin's Heart can easily be enjoyed with no knowledge of Paul Gauguin's artistic success as an adult. It will provide interesting insight for older readers who are aware of his paintings, but younger readers will enjoy it simply as a story of a boy, his imaginary dog, and the secret he shared about his father in his art. It's a way of subtly introducing him to readers who might not care so much yet about his painting but will find the boy, not so unlike themselves, to be extremely appealing. Credit translator Susan Ourioli for seamlessly moving the text from French to English; there isn't a single moment where the author's words leave the reader and this is a story that carries everyone along with an air of quiet joy.

In Lucia Gonzalez's heartwarming bilingual tale, The Storyteller's Candle, a slice of Puerto Rican history set during the Great Depression in Manhattan is shared with readers. After many immigrants left the island for job opportunities in NYC, they gathered in a northern section of the city known as El Barrio. It was here that Puerto Ricans struggled to carve out new lives so far from home, while still clinging to the culture and traditions they so dearly loved.

What jolts the Barrio residents out of their comfort zone is a visit from the new librarian to the local school. She is Pura Belpre, whom Gonzalez explains was the first Puerto Rican librarian hired in the New York Public Library system. Discovering that Spanish is spoken at their local library excites the children and convinces the adults that they will be welcome there. Soon, several of them visit to see if it really is true and many new friendships are born.

Belpre was one of those legendary librarians, the kind who nurture love of books in children and excite a spirit of community among their parents. In a short note at the end of the book Gonzalez relates more information on Belpre's life, including the fact that the Pura Belpre Award was established in 1996 to honor Latino writers and illustrators whose books for children "celebrate the Latin cultural experience."

The Storyteller's Candle not only tells an immigrant story but also celebrates the importance of public libraries (something Americans seem to constantly need reminding). Illustrator Lulu Delacre contributes warm inviting pictures that incorporate copies of the New York Times from January 6, 1930. On many of the pages, the news text is visible in the background, something Delacre did purposely as it applies to those points of the story. The subtle collages work wonderfully and add an interesting element to this gentle story that has a timeless quality about it and should cross cultural and national boundaries with ease.

Author Dayle Ann Dodds has written a fun-filled rhyming story about an innkeeper, Miss Bloom, and the group of guests who come to stay in her home. The hook here is that with six rooms, each visitor adds to the inn in a series of mathematical progressions; from one-sixth, to two-sixths, to three-sixths and so on. The story follows along on one side of the book, while the math is reinforced in a brief couplet on the other. At the end, the math is reinforced by a late night snack which requires a cake to be split in six equal parts.

Math stories are an excellent way to teach simple concepts to young readers and Full House joins another similar title I reviewed last year, The Wishing Club by Donna Jo Napoli. In this case Dodds's rhymes are pleasant and easy to read while illustrator Abby Carter has drawn a colorful cast of characters who will please readers with their many quirky details. (Dogs play a part here as well, which is always a winner with youngsters.) Lessons are told in a manner so subtle that the story is never lost. Full House can be enjoyed on two levels then, both for its math and for its fun.

With Night Shift author and illustrator Jesse Hartland takes a look at the world of those people who work unconventional schedules. What's really cool here is the wide range of jobs she introduces, from security guards and street sweepers, who might be expected, to window dressers, bridge painters and zookeepers, who are surprise inclusions. Hartland writes about what the different jobs entail, such as why road workers need to do their jobs at night, what kinds of things truck drivers carry and the secret lives of donut bakers. Combined with her big, broad, colorful illustrations, which focus on all the faces of the people she profiles, Night Shift is both informative and a gentle book for pleasure reading. As the child of someone who worked second shift most of my life, I was very pleased to discover this title; it speaks to a segment of the population that is almost universally ignored in picture books and I'm sure there are many children who will be delighted to read about people like their parents who work at night.

Chris Gall's last book, Dear Fish was one of the wildest fantasy picture books I have read in ages. My six-year old son adores that book and we have enjoyed it many, many times. I was quite eager to see what he had to offer in his new science fiction adventure, There's Nothing to do on Mars. As expected, this author/illustrator did not disappoint me.

Mars begins with young Davey and his parents blasting off from Earth in their rocket-powered trailer (an Airstream-inspired design that could have appeared in a 1950s issue of Popular Mechanics). Mars is very dusty and suffers from an acute lack of water, something that, coupled with a lot of smelly Martians, makes the planet a less than desirable destination. Sent outside by his mother on the eternal kid quest for something to do, Davey and his robot dog, Polaris, travel across the planet on their flying scooter and make a startling discovery.

Gall's artwork is striking--it is retro in design, which fits this story perfectly, but also fairly leaps off the page with its rich colors and close-ups. His Red Planet is a big, isolated desert full of oversized rocks and vividly painted Martians. His sense of humor, so evident in Dear Fish, is present again in the exchanges between Davey and his parents and also in the "old toy" Davey discovers in the sand (absolute perfection as far as I'm concerned). In many ways Mars is classic science fiction, only retold in a new illustrated format. A really fun read.

In Eva Montarri's wild story, My First..., young Alice desperately wants a doll for her birthday and instead receives something odd, something that "didn't have any curls, freckles, or chubby little hands." She pretends to have received a doll, however, so her friends will not make fun of her, and slowly finds herself warming up to the present, who tells her wonderful stories. Her friends Judy and April, (who are drawn with some truly spectacular hair), become suspicious, however, because Alice refuses to show off her doll. Eventually they push the situation and discover the true nature of Alice's "doll," which results in a tearful confrontation and then, when they fall for his stories, a truly happy ending.

I won't give away the nature of Alice's gift, but it is entirely appropriate and should be well received by readers. The real draw here is the hilarious episodes that result when she tries to keep her gift a secret and pretends that he is a doll. And the illustrations--talk about some creative artwork! Everything is slightly askew and off kilter, but in a way that makes the characters more compelling and gives them an amusing appearance. The baby carriages loom large, the park looks like something on another planet and the "whole ocean of stories" is a spectacular two-page spread. We're talking gorgeous stuff here and a very modern feel for a sweet story. There is nothing old fashioned and sweet about My First.... It has a nice edge to it and should be a fab surprise for the cheeky little people among us.

Daniel San Souci's latest entry in his Clubhouse series, The Mighty Pigeon Club is another solid buddy tale about a group of friends who in this case have all sorts of adventures with a flock of homing pigeons. San Souci is quite adept at conveying a solid amount of science information in the course of telling his tale; in this case readers will learn about the ability pigeons have to find their way home from "hundreds of miles away." The kids think keeping pigeons in their clubhouse will be a lot of fun, but quickly discover that the idea of pigeons is one thing and the reality (which involves a lot of cleaning up) quite another. How they deal with the birds while looking for a better home for them makes up the bulk of the book and provides many opportunities for laughs that young readers will enjoy.

The Clubhouse books are a first-rate choice for early readers; the illustrations are realistic and engaging and the kids are a lot of fun to read about. These are very typical children having atypical but realistic kid adventures; it's hard not to find a lot to like in how San Souci makes a relatively small story into a page turner for five- to seven-year-olds. The Mighty Pigeon Club is the kind of book that is easy to overlook for something with more flash, but you need to give it the respect it deserves. This is the kind of buddy book that will morph into dozens of different series as kids get older; future fans of The Babysitter Club and similar books have to start somewhere, and I guarantee they won't be disappointed with this reassuring tale.

Pity poor Velma Gratch, a girl who is stuck following in the wake of her two practically perfect older sisters. Velma is a first grader whose life has become a tragedy; she feels unnoticed and unappreciated and seeks only to disappear. Her favorite subject is science and as her class studies butterflies she learns that neither one of her sisters knows anything about them, or ever studied them. Velma is learning something that Fiona and Frieda know nothing about and she passionately embraces this new and fascinating subject.

On a field trip to the local conservatory, as the class learns about migration, Velma is lucky enough to have a butterfly land on her finger. As everyone waits for it to fly off she finds that it does not want to leave. For days and days and days the insect remains with her and Velma ceases to be the "younger sister of" and instead becomes her own person: the girl with the butterfly. In the end she sets the Monarch off on its own to join the butterfly migration to Mexico. Most importantly, though, Velma makes a name for herself as a budding scientist in a school that never gave her more than a moment's notice.

Velma Gratch and the Way Cool Butterfly is one of those stories about kids who don't fit in that will appeal to any child struggling to navigate the sometimes scary waters of elementary school. Author Alan Madison has filled it with plenty of scientific observations and terms, which gives it more weight that most books of this type and broadens its appeal significantly. Kevin Hawkes gives Velma the kind of owlish glasses and wild red hair (barely tamed in pigtails) that allow readers to embrace all of her geeky self. She's not a spunky know-it-all; she's very sad and lost and Hawkes draws her as a truly sympathetic character that will find many fans. Velma Gratch is hard to resist and I hope she finds her way to readers who will love her message.

As someone who has read a lot about polar exploration I was delighted to see Carole Boston Weatherford give one vastly underappreciated historic figure his due with I, Matthew Henson. Written in first person, almost as if Henson is speaking (or preaching) to the reader, the book follows his decision at the age of thirteen to travel to Baltimore and later go to work onboard a ship as a cabin boy. (Weatherford explains later in an author's note that Henson's parents had both died.) She briefly touches on many voyages but stresses the racism he suffered at sea which prompted his decision to seek employment on land. This is where he met Robert Peary and his life changed forever.

The book stumbles a bit when Henson and Peary meet; Weatherford does not introduce the "naval officer" as Peary or even explain that Peary is to become a famous man. There seems to be an assumption that readers will know who he is the moment he arrives unnamed in the text, something I doubt among the book's young audience. Nevertheless, she does move forward with their adventures in Central America and then the Arctic, where Henson's dedication and determination are well illustrated by both the text and Eric Velasquez's gorgeous illustrations. (Velasquez should be famous--his work is simply stunning and really brings historic figures to life.) As Henson is forced to work various low paying jobs between expeditions, Weatherford again shows the ways in which racism affects him, which helps build the book's tension until Peary selects him to join him on the final run to the North Pole.

The way the book reads, Henson and the four (unnamed) Eskimos are the first to reach the Pole: "Shortly, Peary arrived and we broke through thin ice." Peary confirms where they are and the six men celebrate by planting the flag and posing for pictures. The author's note that follows touches on the controversy with Frederick Cook and the falling out between Peary and Henson, which resulted in a long delay before Henson's contribution to the achievement was finally recognized. I have to admit it is confusing to see Henson credited as the first "non-Inuit" to the Pole, when this is rarely written of elsewhere (apparently he beat Peary). If Weatherford was going to write it this way, it seems she should have addressed why he is not credited with being the first American there and rather as accompanying Peary. I realize that racism is the obvious answer but she needed to expand on that and explain why it still has not been clarified. I was also disappointed that in a book that includes so much about racism, she fails to name the four Inuit members of the party, all of whom apparently also beat Peary.

All in all, I, Matthew Henson is a solid introduction to Henson's life but I hope that more books about him follow for young readers.

Allan Drummond's Tin Lizzie is really several books in one. First there is the store of Lizzie and her grandpa and the fun they have working on his cars in the garage (along with each of her three little brothers who appear in rapid succession). It's also the story of Henry Ford and the invention of the automobile, which the grandfather patiently explains to the kids as they help him rebuild his antique "Tin Lizzie." When the family finally takes to the road in the old car however, the book takes a turn as grandpa continues to extol a love for wheels but the kids notice that cars are everywhere, and so is pollution. If everyone wants a car, they ask, how will they all fit on the road? The kids spend the last few pages pondering this issue and coming up with familiar solutions like bike riding and car pooling as a way to combine a love for wheels with a need to decrease automobile usage.

I think Drummond had a good idea here, and it is certainly timely, but the focus is lost a bit as the story tries to decide just what it wants to be. The grandfather is apparently oblivious to the traffic problem (and the pollution) and the kids come across as far wiser then the average eight or nine year old. I think the author might have tried to accomplish too much here by combining a sweet story about a grandfather and his grandchildren working on a project together with an analysis of one of the greater environmental problems in the 21st century. The combination does not work well which is a shame since the family relationship is quite endearing and Drummond's busy watercolors work quite well with the travel storyline. An illustrated problems and solutions sections follows a brief biography of Ford in the final pages where readers are invited to come up with their ideas on how to reduce car usage.

In his thorough examination of the life of sabertooth tigers, author Patrick O'Brien does a first rate job of dispelling a lot of confusion about the animal (for example that there were actually several different kinds of sabertooths rather than just one) and explaining how they are related to modern day cats like tigers, cheetahs and house cats. As it turns out, no one knows what color their fur was. But we do know from fossils and the behavior of their descendants how they probably hunted and their common prey. In one particularly interesting passage O'Brien shows how a group Smilodons (the most commonly known sabertooth) became trapped while hunting a mammoth in the La Brea Tar Pits in what is now Los Angeles. Altogether, scientists have brought up the bones of more than 2,000 Smilodons from the pits, along with many other mammals, reptiles, and other animals and insects.

Dinosaur books are very common for the younger set, but dedicated volumes on prehistoric animals are fairly unusual. O'Brien hits all the right bells and whistles here; he has excellent full-color pictures of everything his text describes, he provides a two-page spread on skulls and skeletons so readers can see comparisons between housecats and sabertooths, and he constructs an excellent timeline to show the relationship between modern cats and their ancestors. It is a very easy book to read and understand, but it imparts an enormous amount of information. O'Brien is an old hand at this kind of book (earlier subjects include mammoths and prehistoric sharks) and he clearly knows what he is doing. Sabertooth is first-rate science and an easy title to recommend to those interested in animals or suffering from dinosaur burnout.

Finally, Deborah Chancellor's entry into the Science Kids series from Kingfisher, Maps and Mapping, is the sort of basic nonfiction title that is so effortless to read and learn from that it is all too often overlooked. With big, bold photographs and incredibly easy to read text, this primer on the many different maps commonly used today is an excellent resource and also a fun read for nonfiction fans. Chancellor introduces everything from street maps to relief maps, as well as explaining cartographic terms like longitude and latitude, the use of symbols and how a compass functions. She builds in difficulty as the book progresses, making it a title that would be useful for early elementary students in the beginning and older children in the later pages. As a bonus, Chancellor has included several experiments at the end, such as making your own compass and treasure map. Maps and Mapping is an extremely useful book, something I don't write lightly. These are skills children need to learn and instead of trusting them to pick them up in school (where it could very possibly never happen), you could give them this handy guide where they will have plenty of time to explore the subject at their own pace--and with a very interesting teacher.

 

The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum
By Kate Bernheimer
Illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli
Schwatrz & Wade 2008
ISBN 0-375-83606-0

Mr. Gauguin's Heart
By Marie-Danielle Croteau
Translated by Susan Ourioli
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Tundra Books 2007
ISBN 0-88776-824-8

The Storyteller's Candle
By Lucia Gonzalez
Illustrations by Lulu Delacre
Children's Book Press 2008
ISBN 0-89239-222-3

Full House: An Invitation to Fractions
By Dayle Ann Dodds
Illustrated by Abby Carter
Candlewick 2007
ISBN 0-7636-2468-2

Night Shift
By Jesse Harland
Bloomsbury 2007
ISBN 1-59990-025-4

There's Nothing to do on Mars
By Chris Gall
Little, Brown 2008
ISBN 0-316-16684-7

My First...
By Eva Montanari
Houghton Mifflin 2007
ISBN 0-618-64644-2

The Mighty Pigeon Club
By Daniel San Souci
Tricycle Press 2007
ISBN 1-58246-213-5

Velma Gratch and the Way Cool Butterfly
By Alan Madison
Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Schwartz & Wade 2007
ISBN 0-375-83597-1

I, Matthew Henson
By Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrated by Eric Velasquez
Walker Books 2008
ISBN 0-8027-9688-5

Tin Lizzie
By Allan Drummond
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2008
ISBN 0-374-32000-4

Sabertooth
By Patrick O'Brien
Henry Holt 2008
ISBN 0-8050-7105-9

Maps and Mapping
By Deborah Chancellor
Kingfisher 2007
ISBN 0753461641

 

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