Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Summertime Picture Book Reading

Review by Colleen Mondor

There is a certain exuberant delight associated with summer that is not present in any other season. We all feel it to some degree, but for kids it is truly a reward; a chance for all those idyllic moments spent in fields of flowers, wide open beaches and grandpa's farm. At least that's how many picture books portray the season and while such stories are certainly fun they aren't the reality for a lot of kids. What if you live in a city for example? Where are stories about playing games in the street or waiting for the ice cream man or walking around the neighborhood? Those were the summers poet Ruth Forman enjoyed at the Philadelphia homes of her aunts and uncles and she is determined to bring those asphalt celebrations to readers everywhere. Her new book, Young Cornrows Callin' out the Moon is full of delight and cheer, as she writes in one two-page spread:

we don have no backyard
no sof grass rainbow kites mushrooms butterflies
we got South Philly summer
when the sun go down

Cbabi Bayoc's illustrations of laughing African American children make the words leap off the page. These kids are clearly happy, whether walking to the corner store or laughing on the front steps. They are too busy having a good time playing to worry about not having a backyard (or "frontyard neither"). Bayoc matches Forman's poem with big expressions and excitement that dances off the page. Together the two of them show a summer that a lot of kids are enjoying right this moment, and now finally have a book that gives their joy some faces to reflect in.

In Jacqueline Briggs Martin's Chicken Joy on Red Bean Road there are some big problems for one certain chicken. It seems that Mrs. Miser Vidrine has decided that since her blue-headed "roo" lost his voice due to the "chicken measles", he isn't so useful in the chicken yard anymore. "A roo who won't wake the barnyard/is headed for stew—quiet rooster stew." The plain brown hen Cleoma is devastated at the thought of losing the roo and decides that if he could hear the music of Joe Beebee, who lives up Redbean Road, then his voice will return. She's a hen on a mission as she goes from house to house, acting out her tale of woe and looking for Joe Beebee. Meanwhile the roo is hiding and Mrs. Vidrine is busy putting together all the vegetable fixings for one amazing stew. Everyone the hen finds gets caught up in the story, and after Joe Beebee agrees to help they all arrive at Mrs. Vidrine's for a "bal de maison". The roo gets his voice back and a good time is had by all (especially one apparently lovesick hen).

Oh—and the happily ever after part is where the chicken and rooster go live with Joe Beebee where they hear good music and never have to fear the ax again.

Chicken Joy is a uniquely told story about Cajun country that will keep young readers laughing as they see just what the hen will do next to save her pal. Illustrator Melissa Sweet uses pale colors in pictures that seem to be torn from old books and placed on the page to show Cleome's complicated journey through St. Cecilia Parish. She has included a nice map of Red Bean Road opposite the title page so readers can follow the hen's progress from neighbor to neighbor. This is quirky little tale with a nice music twist and one of the few I've seen that's set in Bayou Country. Perfect for reading on a front porch swing.

For bug lovers, Kurt Cyrus has written a story in verse that is hard to resist reading out loud. Oddhopper Opera: A Bug's Garden in Verses shows a garden growing wild with all manner of bugs present to enjoy its bounty. Big boisterous illustrations cover the pages from corner to corner and are lovely to look at, but it's the words that really get this book going. Here's a taste:

Through the tangle, softly gliding,
Comes a long, long tummy, sliding—
Just a belly, nothing more,
Except the eyes that come before,
And a mouth so wide and hollow,
No one knows what it might swallow.
Crickets? Weevils? Worms or slugs?
Juicy, slurping spittlebugs?
Bouncing frogs, all slick and fat?
Garden fresh. You can't beat that!
How about some fuzzy mice?
Crunch snails are always nice...
Sliding softly, here and gone,
A belly with a head stuck on.

Pitch perfect poems like that one fill the pages and will draw the reader along to verses about snakes, stinkbugs, ants and snails. This is the best sort of reading as it invites further exploration of the real outdoors while also prompting lots of giggles. The cadence makes it truly compulsive from page to page; Oddhopper Opera is a title I've returned to several times just to enjoy the rhythm of the words and all the sly jokes in the illustrations.

Margriet Ruurs has a different take on nature with her beautiful In My Backyard. The short poems gracing each two-page spread are elegant and thoughtful, as in: "The glistening trail of a slow-moving/snail shows me where it searched/for leaves and berries." These are words to think about, to consider and dwell on a bit as readers consider their own backyard wonders. Complementing Ruur's poems in the best possible way are pictures of Ron Broda's truly exquisite paper sculptures of birds and bugs, sleeping mice and soaring bats. If you've never seen Broda's work before then you are really in for a treat with this book as his sculptures make Backyard unlike any other picture book I've seen. The best part though is how well Ruur and Broda's styles work together; they are a perfect match here and will lull young readers along with their work.

If these stories of wildlife have prompted a few nature-related questions then reach for Ask Dr. K. Fisher about Animals. Set up as an advice column for troubled animals everywhere, this book is all about providing honest scientific answers to some difficult animal questions. A Nile crocodile is worried about reptiles who abandon their young but is quickly assured by Dr. Fisher that turtles, lizards and snakes do just fine on their own. A tadpole is freaking out over his changing body, which prompts a quick overview of life cycles, while a giraffe is embarrassed about being too tall. "You are truly a lucky animal!" replies then doctor and then explains how animals are designed to make feeding easier.

Page after page has basic questions from all sorts of animals with "Dear Abby" style replies that make sense, and will provide answers to curious young Animal Planet devotees. Illustrator Kate Sheppard's comic-book-style pictures keep the title on just the right side of serious—there is nothing intimidating here and the facial expressions alone on these insects and animals will certainly please young readers. Kudos to author Claire Llewellyn in particular, though for getting solid facts about wildlife out to readers in a way that is informative and kids can relate too. This is a nonfiction book in an excellent package and fans should also seek other its accompanying volume, Ask Dr. K. Fisher About Dinosaurs.

Switching to a story with human characters, Linda Oatman High's Cool Bopper's Choppers is all about a night out at the Snazzy Catz Jazz Club where "Cool Bopper, like Charlie Parker, bopped hard below silver stars and blue moons of night." Early on things get interesting when the Bopper "popped his choppers" and his teeth go flying through the air and land in a beehive wig. The lady under the wig dances into the restroom where the choppers disappear into "the hopper" and down into the city's copper pipes they go.

How, oh how, will Cool Bopper ever be able to perform again?

After the loss of his choppers, illustrator John O'Brien changes Bopper's skin tone from the warm coffee color at the beginning to a deep and dramatic blue. Everything about him is sad and blue; the color even tinges everything and everyplace around him. He leaves the club, looking for a way to get his bop back and then luckily finds his choppers washed up on a local beach. (All drains lead to the sea, right?!) After placing them back where they belong, Bopper shakes the blues and returns to his original color and soon enough is "beboppin' forever, together, wowin; the crowds in the Snazzy Catz Jazz Club."

This is a fun story with a comical twist and High's words do a great job mimicking the scat tones of 1940s jazz. O'Brien fairly overwhelms the pages with colors, both uplifting and glum, and the interplay between the musical words and the art they inspire is very well done. I always hope when I read a book like this that kids will wonder about the music presented; that they will ask just who Charlie Parker was or what all the bopping noise is about. But even if they don't ask, at least Cool Bopper's Choppers will expose them to some new sounds while giving them a nice happily ever tale as a bonus.

Finally, Hugo & Miles in I've Painted Everything is a story about a little blue elephant (that would be Hugo) who lives in the animal city of Cornville where he is "a very creative artist." Hugo's problem is that he has painted everything his town has to offer, and finds himself completely out of ideas. He goes to his friend Miles with the problem, and he suggests they go on a trip. A couple of pages later the friends are in Paris (the all-animal version) and Hugo is soaking up all sorts of artistic inspiration.

There's lots of word play while visiting museums with famous painters; if he painted all one color then he would be "Hue-Go," or if he painted an impression of how he felt, he would be "Van Hugo." The big revelation for the elephant doesn't come though until he and Miles climb up to the top of the Eiffel Tower and Hugo is given a whole new perspective on the city. This is where he learns to look at the same things differently, which opens all sorts of possibilities back in Cornville.

I'm almost afraid to call Hugo & Miles "sweet" because I'm worried that such an adjective might scare off parents looking for books for boys. But there is an inherent sweetness to this story; in the gentle drawings of the animals and their world and in the idea that you can change your point of view, which will change the way you see things around you. My son enjoyed it a lot, especially the silly play with Hugo's name ("I can change the size of my canvas to be Hugo-mongous"). But overall it is the use of art to send a subtle message about how we see the world that really puts this title over the top. Without any flash at all, author/illustrator Scott Magoon makes it clear that it is how we look at what is around us that makes all the difference, and we can change our perspective at any time.

How free thinking and cool is that?!

Now go read good books for summer and check back here (or at my site, chasingray.com) for more reviews this fall.


Young Cornrows Callin Out the Moon by Ruth Forman,
Illustrations by Cbabi Bayoc
Children's Book Press 2007
ISBN 0-89239-318-5

Chicken Joy on Redbean Road by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
Pictures by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin 2007
ISBN 0-618-50759-0

Oddhopper Opera by Kurt Cyrus
Harcourt 2007
ISBN 0-15-205855-5

In My Backyard
By Margaret Ruurs
Paper Sculptures by Ron Broda
Tundra Books 2007
ISBN 0-88776-775-3

Ask Dr. K. Fisher About Animals by Claire Llewellyn
Illustrations by Kate Sheppard
Kingfisher 2007
ISBN 0-7354-6043-6

Cool Bopper's Choppers by Linda Oatman High
Illustrated by John O'Brien
Boyds Mill Press 2007

Hugo & Miles in I've Painted Everything
By Scott Magoon
Houghton Mifflin 2007


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