|Apr/May 2005 Book Reviews|
Sleeping Bear Press. 2004.
In the sparest of prose and with the simplest of line drawings, author and illustrator Lani Yamamoto has created a bit of a small jewel with Albert. The story is fairly standard: it is a rainy day (again) and a little boy is bored. As the illustrations show, Albert is an imaginative child. On his couch with this stuffed toys, he "saved all the animals from the flood"; in front of the fish tank he has been "swimming with the sharks"; and under his bed he "discovered the pirates' long lost treasure." Clearly, there is nothing in the house left to do. But because he has an imagination, and with the atlas, space book and planet mobile visible in his room, clearly there is a deep curiosity at work here as well, and Albert is not willing to give up. It is not time yet to whine and give in to the lure of the television. Instead, he begins to wonder about his place in the world and takes a trip from his bedroom through his neighborhood and incrementally outward until he envisions the Earth as a member of a limitless universe of stars and planets. Now at last there is something else Albert can do, another place he can travel. There is another adventure to be enjoyed. As the book closes he is happily building a space ship out of a cardboard box and planning a trip to the stars.
So what's cool about it? Well, it's different, for one, which is always great in a picture book. But what is really appealing about Albert is the smart way in which Yamamoto manages to explain the complexity of depth and physical location to small children. They understand house and neighborhood and maybe even town, but once you try to draw the bigger picture for a five year-old, it gets very difficult. How to explain that while looking at a globe you can show them a spot (Florida, Iowa, London) and that spot "is where we live!" Yeah, right. But with Albert as a guide, the conversation of country and world becomes a bit easier to understand, and more engaging to undertake. It even makes sense. Yamamoto has managed to climb inside the head of an inquisitive child and show him the way to clarity. The answer was always there, right? Consider this book a pair of ruby slippers when it comes to finding your child's place in the world and the universe.
It's sweet, it's simple, and it's smart as hell. And hey, it wouldn't hurt to give them another idea for what to do on a rainy day, now would it?
Not So True Stories.
Chronicle Books. 2004.
Kristine O'Connell George.
Illustrated by Lauren Stringer
Fold Me a Poem.
Harcourt Children's Books. 2005.
It's pretty hard to find a decent book of poetry for children, particularly small children. There are plenty of nursery rhymes available, but something new, something innovative, something differen... that doesn't come along too often. I'm fairly pleased with myself, then, for finding not one, but two unique picture books of poetry. Aside from the presence of poetry itself though, they could not be more dissimilar, which is an added bonus. Too often we forget the many ways of presenting a poem, the sheer possibilities presented by manipulating language in this specific way. These two books relish in those possibilities and invite children to alternately laugh and dream as they read through the pages and fall into the unique worlds created by these talented authors.
In Not So True Stories, author and illustrator Carin Berger puts her sense of humor out on full display for the reader. With rhymes like "one hundred ants in lime green pants are feeling so très, très; Beetle bugs with scarlet gloves shimmy, bop and sway..." you cannot help but smile. Coupled with her outstanding collage illustrations, each page offers something distinctive to enjoy. Berger doesn't shy away from the big words either, liberally sprinkling her short poems with allusions to jazz, travel and cowboys, all the while using language that lifts her readers up rather than reducing them to diaper level. While the youngest toddlers will laugh with the rhymes, older children will enjoy reading about "one thousand shiny zeppelins," or foxy fox who is out tonight, "...he's running ‘round all over the town and dancing to the jazzy sounds..." Not So True Stories is the type of picture book that will grow with its readers, allowing them to appreciate it on several levels as they age and become more curious about Berger's choice of words.
The illustrations really put this one over the top though, because they are so unusual. Collage art is not an easy technique to master well. It can get away from you pretty fast (just ask any would-be crafter), and mastering it to this fine detail, for an audience who must understand the point of the picture, is truly an accomplishment. Berger's sense of humor carries over to her artwork as well, providing lots of funny creatures to laugh with as the words roll off the reader's tongue. Lovely Lucy may be a sour lemonhead (literally) but she is wearing a crown! And poor Goldy Fish with her parasol, well, let's just say that Goldy should have rethought that whole "best friends with the crocodile" idea. No matter, she certainly looks good sitting on that rowboat before things take a very Edward Gorey turn, and kids love their dark humor. Remember, those fairy tales were no walk in the park before Walt Disney put his hands on them. In comparison, Goldy and her pal are downright cute and cuddly!
In contrast to Berger's work, Kristine O'Connell George approaches her poems from a dreamier, more introspective direction in Fold Me a Poem. The book was prompted by George's observation of a young boy making origami animals. She has translated that ancient craft into words here, dedicating each brief poem to another animal creation. The boy is a critical part of the poetry as he seems to speak to his animals, addressing their design and characteristics. In "Shadows," one black bird is invited to "Step out of those dark shadows, crow. We want to see you." The cheetah and lion call, "Thank you for our swift running legs! When we return we will let you know who won the race."
Clearly, Lauren Stringer's illustrations are critical to the poetry's success; they are the creations that the boy labors over and celebrates with each new poem. Stringer states in an Afterword that she studied origami at length, so her pictures would correctly depict the folds and creases that George's words describe. She gives the reader the boy, his room and the many pieces of paper that he methodically transforms into his animal friends. George happily provides Stringer with a lot of action to depict, sending a wind storm across the room at one point: "Hurry animals! Get inside the barn. My brother just turned on the fan," or cautioning an excited kangaroo with "Warning! Please watch where you hop kangaroo. That is a puddle of glue."
The simplicity of the verse contrasts beautifully with the intricate paper crafts that Stringer has drawn. There is a great deal to see and hear and consider in Fold Me a Poem, and again an opportunity to enjoy the book over the course of many years. For the youngest children it serves as an enjoyable romp through plains and jungles, as they learn to recognize the animal described in the poems and shown in the pictures. But later, young readers will be intrigued by the crafting possibilities of origami, something Stringer has anticipated with a helpful list of beginning books on the subject. The artistic and literary combination truly makes this title a winner and something to be carefully studied and considered for many years.
Both Not So True Stories and Fold Me a Poem are outstanding examples of the type of creativity that poetry allows. Either of these books would succeed with a young child, and while one might seem more appropriate for a particular reader than another, I found that perusing them in sequence made a rather unexpected impact. They are really not alike at all, but each so well done in their own way that they show just how limitless good poetry for children can be. And while I understand the staying power of Mary and her lost lamb, Bo-Peep and all the rest, I know that we are long overdue for a children's poetry renaissance. I am tired of the same old thing, and pretty darn happy that Berger, George and Stringer were tired of it too.