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Oct/Nov 2008 Reviews & Interviews

Fall Books for the Little Ones

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! In the last issue I reviewed two new graphic novels for young readers from the Toon Book line. I found both Benny and Penny and Otto's Orange Day to be quite charming without dipping into the cloying sort of message-laden plots that books for the early readers can often fall into. As they did in their initial releases, Toon again has great artwork, active plots and thoughtful storylines in their two latest titles, Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever and Stinky. There is plenty of crossover appeal here gender-wise, and the stories are quite original, providing something fresh and fun on each account.

Dean Haspiel & Jay Lynch have two quarrelsome siblings to deal with in Mo and Jo. From the beginning it is clear these two can not agree on anything, and this dynamic continues through much of the book. Things take a decidedly exciting turn when their mailman shows up, delivers some "Mighty Mojo" merchandise and then announces that he is the real Mojo and has decided to retire. He gives the kids the costume which has all his powers and then heads for Miami. The kids, of course, immediately rip the thing in half. Their mother ends up making two new costumes from the pieces (unaware of course that this is THE Mojo costume) and in the succeeding chapters Mo and Jo find that they must work together to thwart evil as they each only have half of the Mighty Mojo's powers.

It's quick, it's funny, and it's action-packed. The kids are completely typical and nearly get eaten by "Saw-Jaw" before they decide that a coordinated attack is a good idea (old habits die hard). There's plenty of ZAP and POW type graphics but also a lot of standard sibling banter. It's particularly nice to see that Mo and Jo have equal powers and act literally the same; neither gender overpowers the other or comes across as subservient. Basically it's a take on the "kids as superheroes" idea where you spend as much time focused on the good guys' relationship as you do the over-the-top villain. For kids who like their plots fast-paced, this one will be most welcome.

Eleanor Davis' Stinky is what the big screen Shrek would have been if it was actually filmed for younger kids. You have the monster "Stinky" and his pet toad "Wartbelly" who live in a delightfully dirty cave in the middle of the swamp. Occasionally Stinky goes to the fringes of his environment to take a peek at town, which is full of kids who take baths and "don't like mucky mud, slimy slugs or smelly monsters like me!" Stinky stays away from kids out of fear, but when one of them comes into the swamp to build a tree house, he finds himself forced to defend his domain and sets about forcing the kid to leave.

What follows are the sort of hijinks you would expect: Stinky puts smelly Wartbelly in the tree house hoping to send the kid running, but he adopts the toad instead and names her Daisy. Stinky hides some of the kid's tools, tries to scare him, and eventually steals his hat and drops it into a "bottomless pit." It turns out the hat was especially dear to the boy (whose name it turns out is Nick), and Stinky feels guilty and braves the pit to return it. Eventually the monster and the boy sit down and have a conversation and learn their common love for the swamp makes them better friends than enemies. There's potential for all kinds of future adventures here, and the mere hope of finding someone like Stinky will be enough to draw a lot of kids into the outdoors.

Davis uses a big, bold palette here; the colors are deep and rich, and the text is often highlighted by big WOWs and YOWs. When showing what Stinky thinks most kids are like, she counters with pastels that jump off the page with their blandness, making Nick and the swamp (and Stinky) that much more appealing. One of the things I really liked about the illustrations was that Nick is a t-shirt, shorts, and barefoot kid—you couldn't ask for a better depiction of summer—and yet he is decidedly modern as well. There's nothing scary here, but a whole lot of fun (and even some gross-out goodness). Stinky was a big hit with my six-year old, and I'm sure he will enjoy a lot of fans.

Moving on to more traditional picture books, Cary Fagan's Thing-Thing is briefly the story of a spoiled rotten boy, Archibald Crimp, but is mostly about the gift bought for Archibald by his desperate father. "Thing-Thing" is an oddly shaped stuffed animal that the boy most certainly does not want. To show his immense dissatisfaction, he throws Thing-Thing out the window, where the toy's interesting odyssey begins.

On subsequent two-page spreads, Thing-Thing observes various occupants of the Excelsior Hotel, from an injured hockey player to a robin perched on a window ledge. Finally, Thing-Thing lands in a baby carriage and is pushed back into the hotel. Archibald and his family appear in the elevator where the disagreeable boy demands the return of his toy. This time his parents have had quite enough, however, and Thing-Thing remains in the carriage, comfortably in the grasp of "five little fingers stroking his ear."

Nicolas Debon's illustrations have almost a retro sensibility, giving the book a sort of 1950s version of the future appearance. Thing-Thing is a cross of a lot of animals but mostly just looks loveable and strange, which fits perfectly with the unpredictable nature of the storyline. Cary Fagan has clearly taken a chance with that story, spinning a traditional tale of a stuffed toy looking for a home and standing it on its ear. As an adult reading this story, I wondered if it was too different; if Thing-Thing's meanderings past the windows of the hotel might be taking the book into places that would be too far for a child reader. But my son thought this book was great and considered Thing-Thing hysterical. The toy's wry observations about what he sees on his trip down and the weird mix of people in the hotel all struck him as odd in the right sort of way. You don't know what will become of Thing-Thing until the end because the story follows no pattern from the very beginning. A hockey player, motivational sales seminar, and spider all grouped in the same picture book? That doesn't happen often, but in this quirky title it all comes together just fine.

Laurel Snyder combines a bit of grossness and some sly humor for her off-the-wall treat, Inside the Slidy Diner. The perfectly charming and cute protagonist Edie explains that she spends her days in the diner because she once "stole a lemon drop from the box behind the counter, and got caught." Ethelmae, who runs the diner, "sees everything." Edie sort of works at the diner to repay her transgression, but mostly she observes all the strangeness, from the sometimes odd patrons ("a gray man at the counter who mumbles and smells like mice") to the disgusting dishes (if it's crunchy avoid it all costs). She happily points out the grease and leads her companion on a trip to the bathroom, which becomes reminiscent of the search for the Grail and results in a most exquisite surprise.

Slidy Diner is genre-defying but dwells on the side of story-telling, where carnivals and puppet shows and calliope music reside. It's not a scary book at all—it's too over-the-top for fear—but Snyder does dance right up to genuine fright; she almost dares the reader to think she will go over. But if you are brave enough to turn the pages past the icky food and slimy seats and through the flooded out basement, then what you find is stars and crowns and giddy fun. So why is Edie really there, and what is the Slidy Diner truly about? I have no idea, but this odd little story with Jaime Zollars' big lush illustrations is something that has to be read to be truly appreciated. I don't know how Snyder came up with it (I can't imagine how she came up with this), but it's an intrigue and curiosity and close to a punk picture book fairy tale (if you like your fairy stories a bit dark and sneaky, of course).

In a follow-up to The Wishing Club, Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen return to the delightful foursome of Joey, Petey, Sally, and Samantha and provide another engaging story about siblings and fun that also manages to include a reasonable math lesson. This go-round, the piglet that arrived at the end of Wishing is now celebrating his first birthday, and so Corkscrew Counts is about his party and also the multiplication issue that ensue as the four children and their friends seek to keep themselves occupied with games. Corkscrew is joined by a parrot, "Pirate," and they spend all of their time breaking up the games in a bid to gain the kids' attention. There is chasing after cards, racquets, jump ropes, and more as the children break up repeatedly into teams (with twelve kids total there are endless variations on splits to make that workable total) and the animals manage to thwart them at every turn. In the end the group realizes that really there are fourteen of them (twelve children plus two pets), a rousing game of frisbee (where it takes seven to make a team, so seven times two equals fourteen) is the ultimate solution, and everyone is happy.

You can't beat these two books for gently teaching math concepts in a way that adds to the text but does not complicate the story. Younger children will likely ignore the equations, but older kids will get it and appreciate the higher level of understanding it gives them for what the authors are doing. Illustrator Anna Currey is onboard again with her sweet drawings, which include children of multiple ethnicities and all manner of dress. From long shorts, sweatpants, and dresses to peasant skirts, this is an eclectic bunch who fairly jump off the page with their exuberance and joie de vivre. There is learning taking place here, but it doesn't slow down the story, and all in all the authors and illustrators can consider another success in their interesting sub genre of picture book fiction.

Our Three Bears by Ron Hirschi with Thomas Mangelsen's photographs is one of those straight-forward nature titles that packs a lot of useful information into a very appealing package. The bears in question are black, grizzly, and polar, and Hirschi divides the text into thirds, highlighting each over several pages. Readers learn where the bears live, what they eat, and how they live (hibernating vs not hibernating, etc.). Each section also includes "Bear Facts," which in a couple of sentences provide brief bits of information such as a black bear cub's weight at birth or the fact that polar bears are classified as marine mammals. All of the text is written across Mangelsen's stunningly clear photographs that capture the bears in their specific environments and across the seasons. The photos with the cubs are especially cute, of course, but it is likely the more majestic shots of full grown bears will impress readers the most.

All in all, Our Three Bears is one of those titles that fulfills a critical niche on nature writing for young readers yet can easily be dismissed as "another animal book." Don't disregard this one though. Mangelsen is an outstanding photographer (published in Audubon and National Geographic among others), and Hirschi has accomplished the difficult job of teaching readers without talking down to them. Polar bears in particular are facing numerous challenges in our warming environment; learning more about them and their "cousins" should be considered valuable time spent for 21st century readers.

With Looking for Miza the authors who collectively brought the stories of Owen and Mzee and Knut the polar bear to the world now turn their attentions (along with Dr. Paula Kahumbu of Kenya) to the story of a lost mountain gorilla. Miza is part of a troop of gorillas who live in Virunga National Park in the Congo. Along with her family she is studied and monitored by the rangers in the park. It is because of this close relationship that Miza's disappearance, along with her mother, is discovered early on. The work of the rangers to find her and her sudden reappearance at the hands of her father Kibirizi, the silverback who leads the family, is carefully recorded by the authors as a way to show what life is like for humans and gorillas in the park. Accompanied by the glorious photographs of Peter Greste, who lives in Kenya, Looking for Miza is more of a thrilling wildlife title than most. Readers truly do not know what happened to the little gorilla and her mother, or if Kibirizi and the rangers will be able to find her in time. Even after her return there are still worries, however, as Miza must adapt to a new life with new caretakers and the rangers must carefully decide the best thing to do for her.

I am a big fan of nature titles that engage young readers and make them wonder about other places in the world. Looking for Miza accomplishes a lot by introducing a thoroughly loveable star in Miza (you can not resist her from the moment you see the cover) and then immediately immersing readers in the worries that the rangers have for her survival. Kibirizi is a stunning leader—the photos of him are most impressive but his search and recover of his baby is even more so—and as readers learn that he went looking for Miz,a they will likely make a leap of understanding about gorilla intelligence. Kibirizi noticed Miza and her mother were gone, and he then disappeared into the jungle until he returned with Miza. This is not the action of a stupid animal, nor is the response by other members of the troop. Seeing all of them in action will do a great deal to raise gorilla awareness, and the passages about the rangers will also increase reader concern for the humans who struggle so hard against poachers to keep Miza and her troop safe. This is another excellent title from a set of authors who clearly know how to engage early elementary readers on far reaching wildlife topics.

In the delightful bilingual poetry collection Animal Poems of the Iguazu, poet Francisco Alarcon combines with the vibrant illustrations of Maya Gonzalez to create an excellent look into animal life in the rainforest of Iguazu National Park. Established in 1934 and crossing three countries—Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay—Iguazu is home to animals as varied as the caiman, great dusky swift, and river turtle. Alarcon touches on the habits and habitats of numerous animals and insects and also writes about the Iguazu Waterfalls, some of the myths and beliefs of the Guarani people (why the sky is blue, where the clouds are born) and activities in the park such as whitewater rafting. The poems appear side by side in English and Spanish, which makes translation a snap and will also likely lead to more curiosity about each language and how the two relate. But what really works here is Alarcon's poems, which are short, direct, and very accessible for young readers. Animal Poems of the Iguazu is a nice introduction to the Iguazu Park but more importantly a very exuberant and brilliantly colored look at animals and outdoor fun.

Just as Alarcon focuses on the Iguazu, poet and quilter Sue Van Wassenhove directs all of her attention on the animals of the Florida Everglades. The Ever Shady Glades is first and foremost a collection of the most drop dead stunningly quilted (!) illustrations I have ever seen. Every single page is a visual delight; I've never seen a book illustrated this way, with intricate animal-shaped quilts and big colorfully designed backgrounds. You look at them and see more than a photograph, more than a painting. Mostly you just look at them in absolute wonder and joy.

The poems in Ever Shady Glades are also quite fine, from "Standoff" with its confrontation between birds and gator, to the many ways of viewing a heron, to the snowy egrets dressed as if for a fine night "with black spats tight over yellow patent shoes." Wassenhove sees birds everywhere (there is even one poem entitled "Bird Watching"). Her words play with animals as they are and as they could appear in a flight of fancy, like a frigate as a pirate, a heron as a professor, or cormorant as "hot dude." Budding ornithologists will love the new way of seeing their winged friends and discover comparisons they might have overlooked. This one is a winner all around and recommended for readers, watchers, and budding fabric artists alike.

Laura Vila uses big bold illustrations to accompany brief text that tells the story of New York City's transformation over time in Building Manhattan. This is a good title to show how a geographic location changes, starting with a small island where "tall grasses and small animals lived on its shores," to the arrival of the "first people," who built homes of bark and gathered vegetables and hung animal skins (a bit startling after seeing the same happy animals only one page earlier), to the arrival of the industrious fort-building Dutch and the colonizing British. Vila stays focused on the construction of the city, writing about settlers who "built skinny row houses on skinny roads with funny names." Her illustrations show the inhabitants moving from the fort to crowded streets to neighborhoods where laundry hangs overhead and businesses sell all manner of goods. Bridges and skyscrapers appear along with dizzying angles and perspectives, and she shows rooftop gardens and colorful patios. The story ends with a picture showing all of the many structural changes from beginning to the present and an assertion that "the building of Manhattan is never done." Vila has also included a helpful timeline at the end with significant moments in the city's construction history and a brief list of books for further research. It's simple and very unique, and while New York City inhabitants will be obvious fans, Building Manhattan is also a good choice for any reader seeking to understand where cities come from and how they change. Block builders will really love it!

Jonah Winter takes a decidedly different turn with his homage to the steel working towns of the past in Steel Town. Illustrator Terry Widener gives this book a very dark look; it's almost "machine age" in design, and while certainly not sinister it clearly celebrates the tools and metal beasts of another time. Winter, whose work in Frida and Diego I adore, has really run with the language of the industry, crafting such lines as "red and writhing, molten pig-iron snakes it way through a hole in the floor..." and "These are the men who make the steel. Strong backs, bones, muscles, and sweat are what makes the steel." The combination of subject, words, and pictures creates a mood that is unlike any I've come across in a picture book. Winter and Widener (who clearly work hand in hand here) have created a historical text that transcends their target age group and format. This is a picture book that works for young readers transfixed by big machines and what they can do, but it will also appeal to older readers stunned by the notion of so much hard work put on display. This is a book that heavily and heartily salutes the working man and the age in which he was revered. It belongs in rust belt libraries for sure but should be shared far beyond that geographic region if only to remind readers of a time when America appreciated a man for a solid day's work, rather than celebrating him solely for the size of his car and width of his television set.

If you want a true slice of Americana, then you couldn't ask for anything better than Steel Town.

 

Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever
By Dean Haspiel & Jay Lynch
The Little Lit Library 2008
ISBN 0-9799238-5-2

Stinky
By Eleanor Davis
The Little Lit Library 2008
ISBN 0-9799238-4-5

Thing-Thing
By Cary Fagan
Illustrated by Nicolas Debon
Tundra 2008
ISBN 0-88776-839-2

Inside the Slidy Diner
By Laurel Snyder
Illustrated by Jaime Zollars
Tricycle Press 2008
ISBN 1-58246-187-2

Corkscrew Counts: A Story About Multiplication
By Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen
Illustrated by Anna Currey
Henry Holt 2008
ISBN 0-8050-7664-6

Our Three Bears
By Ron Hirschi
Photographs by Thomas Mandgelsen
Boyds Mill Press 2008
ISBN 1-59078-015-2

Looking for Miza
By Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff & Dr. Paula Kahumub
Photographs by Peter Creste
Scholastic Press 2008
ISBN 0-545-884540-3

Animal Poems of the Iguazu/Animalario del Iguazu
By Francisco Alarcon
Illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez
Children's Book Press
ISBN 0-89239-225-4

The Seldom-Ever-Shady-Glades
By Sue Van Wassenhove
Wordsong 2008
ISBN 1-59078-352-8

Building Manhattan
By Laura Vila
Viking 2008
ISBN 0-670-06284-3

Steel Town
By Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Terry Widener
Atheneum 2008
ISBN 1-4169-4081-2

 

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