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Jan/Feb 2005 Book Reviews

Three Picture Books

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor


April Pulley Sayre. Trout, Trout, Trout! A Fish Chant.
Illustrated by Trip Park.
Northword Press. 2004.
Ages 2-7

Trout, Trout, Trout is one of the funniest books I have read in a long time. It is subtitled a "fish chant" and as such is a rhyming book. But what rhymes! It is strictly a book of North American freshwater fish; all of them pictured frolicking in some unnamed lake. They are playing ping-pong, sunbathing, water-skiing and reading. The fish all have human facial expressions, but illustrator Trip Park has remained faithful to the actual model. The markings are correct, the colors, the distinguishing features. A California Roach just happens to be carrying a surfboard and a Catfish has a Pupfish on a leash (near a fire hydrant no less). Humor is critical to the book's success and a key element of both the rhyme and the pictures. That it succeeds on both counts is a testament to the author and illustrator's mutual talents.

So what is the story? Well, there is no story as such, just pages of rhymes working off the fish names. There is "Rainbow Shiner, lookin' sharp, Whitefish, Goldfish, Carp, Carp, Carp! And then, "Chestnut Lamprey, lookin' odd, Pupfish, Catfish, Cod, Cod, Cod!" It is impossible not to be caught up in the rhythm of the words and with each succeeding page the reader finds herself getting louder and funnier as the crazy pictures present themselves. The humor makes it a huge success for children but also a winner with adults, an unexpected bonus when you are reading three or four books a night.

For kids interested in the natural world, Trout would be a particular winner. Author April Sayre devotes the final four pages of the book to straightforward explanations as to how each fish got its name as well as defining certain characteristics. While this is too much information for a three year old, five and six year olds would find it a valuable short reference for all their fishing questions. Clearly Sayre is hoping to spur on the intellects of budding biologists everywhere, a point driven home by the story's final page spread of a little boy sitting gleefully on a dock staring at all the swimming fish below. Anything that will make a child consider the real world and our impact upon it is a winner with me, and Sayre and Park's utterly original way in accomplishing that makes this one of the most fun picture books I've read all year.

 

David Lucas. Halibut Jackson.
Illustrated by David Lucas.
Alfred A. Knopf. 2004.
Ages 4-8

Halibut Jackson has a problem; he's shy, he's very very shy. Halibut is such a shy little boy that he makes special clothes that allow him to melt into the background of every place he visits. In the town square he wears a hat and coat to match the red bricks, at the park he dresses in an outfit of green grass and flowers. There are other outfits for other places, all of them designed to allow Halibut to disappear in to the background, to become invisible. He is happy this way; he is safe. But then Halibut is invited to a great party at the palace and finds himself thrust into the center of the gathering. Suddenly he must cope with people, lots and lots of people, all of whom want to know more about Halibut Jackson.

First, David Lucas has drawn a truly gorgeous story with Halibut. In each sweeping two-page spread the colors are vibrant and the drawing, although edgy, remains somehow reminiscent of storybooks from another time. The characters are portrayed as members of a far away kingdom, the palace more like the Taj Mahal than anything an American audience would expect to find. I also found it very cool that Lucas has drawn his people from so many ethnic backgrounds. Different races abound in Halibut's world, all of them visiting the market or library or park in peaceful co-existence. Perhaps that is what makes this more of a storybook than anything else; it is such a magical happy place where everyone gets along. How totally and utterly cool.

Ultimately Halibut deals with his new popularity in the most unique and genuinely Halibut type way. I loved the final pages of the book and the unusual way that Halibut obtains his sense of belonging. He finds happiness, but still stays completely true to himself; he does not change to fit in with everyone else. Wow, what a concept. Maybe I'm wrong and this book isn't for children after all. Maybe it's the parents who should be reading it every night for themselves. That might be how the world really changes, one picture book at a time. It could happen you know, it really could happen.

 

Juliet Williams. Mouse House.
Illustrated by Phi LeGris and Bob Klass.
Handprint Books. 2002.
Ages 3-6

We are big fans of the Lift-the-Flap genre of picture books in my house, so I was intrigued when Mouse House first came to my attention. Drawing a bit on the "I Spy" craze, Mouse follows the adventures of seven white mice in search of items to decorate their dollhouse-home. It is photographically illustrated with each two-page foldout highlighting different rooms. The mice travel through the kitchen, tool shed, study, dressing room and more looking for treasure. On the final page the authors provide pictures of items to look for adding to the treasure hunt aspect of the book.

Most children love lift-the-flap books and with its tour of a Victorian house Mouse House provides lots of opportunity for readers to indulge. There are dozens of flaps in this book, which is exactly right. A shortage of flaps is the most common complaint in such books and these authors take no chances in disappointing their audience. There are flaps on phones and typewriters, kitchen cupboards and sewing boxes. And the photographs are outstanding, providing lots of busy places for curious minds to run amuck.

Mouse House is a smart and active way for the younger set to explore houses different from their own. They will ask about bobbins and buttons and old-fashioned telephones, but they are supposed to be asking constant questions at this age. The mice are cute and so is the idea, but there is something much more important and creative than cute lurking in these pages. Mouse House is a learning book; young readers are just having so much fun they don't realize that, which is a great compliment for the authors.

 

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