Jul/Aug 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

Picture Book Reading for Vacation Days

Review by Colleen Mondor

Mordecai Gerstein's A Book is one of the more innovative picture books I've read in quite a while. From the beginning the reader is taken off guard by the revelation that a "family of characters" lived in a book and when the book was closed, "it was night in the book" (this text accompanies a double-fold of blackness). From there this quite quirky family is introduced (dad is a circus clown, mom a firefighter and big brother is set on practicing to be an astronaut) and we learn that girl does not have a story of her own. So she sets off to find one and that is when things get reallllly interesting.

Gerstein immediately breaks the fourth wall as a large flying goose (hello!) points out the reader who is peering down at the characters. From there it is a tour of storybook land (bears, wolf and beanstalk!), a visit with a "great detective", a large white rabbit appears and some pirates and a heavy dose of Americana and then the girl is whirling through space. None of these stories feel like her own; however they do inspire her to make her own story, and she resolves to become an author which is pretty much the happiest ending ever for any avid reader to discover.

A Book pretty much jumps out of your hands while reading it. Gerstein's detailed and active illustrations draw the eye all over the page but the little girl remains the focal point as she diligently sets off on her mission. It's a lot of fun to discover who you recognize and adults will also get a kick out of the familiar literary tropes that show up (especially true on the mystery pages). I was just bowled over by what Gerstein did here, both by the idea and the way he told it. This is not the first book about a child deciding to be a writer but I've never seen anything like this. It's a very creative book about a little girl who takes a very creative approach to life (and a family who embrace that creativity). Talk about a winner; this one will knock your socks off!

Continuing on the space age fun of Man on the Moon, Simon Bartram is back with Bob, everyone's favorite lunar tour guide in Bob's Best Ever Friend. Using big, splashy, full-page illustrations to show a retro version of the modern world, Bartram provides readers with a most endearing character in Bob who works on the moon but is lonely as he awaits space tourists. After a long day on the job, and back on Earth where he enjoys a supper of fish sticks and peas ("a Tuesday treat"), Bob worries about not having a companion along for the slow times on the job. He decides to check out the local pet shop the next day and readers are in for a real treat here—this photo includes everything from red-striped zebras to all manner of cuddly alien creatures. Bob can't find just the right pet though and has to return to work, where a surprise stowaway onboard his rocket is waiting. Much exuberant play commences and Bob and his new buddy are a perfect fit.

There are a dozen reasons why Bob's Best Ever Friend is a guaranteed hit starting with the fact that the bright colors and action-filled illustrations pop off the pages. The story is a page-turner with plenty of surprises (like the "Moon-Stop Pit-Soup Café" which served a "tip-top tasty" doughnut). There's fun with language, setting and time period here and Bartram is clearly having a blast with every aspect of his story. It's going to be a winner with space fans for sure, but also will work for animal lovers and kids in search of a sweet story about friends. Plus, please—how can you resist the image of Bob enjoying his fish stick dinner? He's awesome—one of my new favorite characters.

Toon Books continues to find success with their graphic novel series for young readers. Brother and sister Benny and Penny return in The Big No-No! which finds the two little mice with a new neighbor. The draw of who might be on the other side of the fence is irresistible for Benny especially who convinces himself that a toy has been stolen from their yard and must be retrieved. Of course he is wrong (impetuous behavior is one of Benny's hallmarks) and the new neighbor, a little hedgehog named Melina, has her feelings gravely hurt. Penny pushes her brother into his apology, and all's well that ends well with more fun promised in the future.

Luke on the Loose by Harry Bliss is equally delightful. In this story a young boy strays away from his father at the park to chase pigeons. Soon enough Luke is on a madcap chase across the city, including the Brooklyn Bridge, as the pigeons remain always just out of reach. He eventually falls asleep on a rooftop, where is he is rescued and returned to his parents.

There are several things about these books that make them successful: lots of action, a high sense of humor and characters who will easily endear themselves to the kindergarten set. Benny is silly, Penny is the ever-present tagalong, Melina is prickly, both literally and figuratively, and Luke is absolutely hysterical. A big added plus is Luke's ethnicity—anyone who reads comics knows that African American characters are rare, so to see one here, in a graphic novel for children, is a treat. He is a bit of a New York Dennis the Menace—so much frenetic energy that he can not help himself. He simply and positively must have those pigeons! (And of course he never will, but you love him anyway.) Both books are easy reads, the illustrations are highly appealing and the characters are delightful. For reluctant readers in particular, the Toon Books imprint is a place to start. It accomplishes everything it sets out to do and then some.

In Elisa Kleven's very charming A Carousel Tale, Ernest, a "young blue crocodile" loves the carousel at the park. He rides his favorite animal, the honey-colored dog, and especially enjoys the fact that its tail wags. At the end of the season, when the carousel is shutting down for winter, he sadly discovers that the tail has fallen off. Entrusted with keeping it safe until the return of warm weather when the dog can be repaired, Ernest finds himself overwhelmed with joy. The wooden tail seems lonely though and he decides to decorate it, make it more than just a tail. By the time Ernest is done the tail is a beautiful bird and not at all what it started out to be—or what it is supposed to be again. When Ernest returns to the carousel he is ashamed of what he has done to the dog's tail but can not hide how much he loves its transformed self. A compromise is found that makes everyone happy, and the final spread, of Ernest joyfully riding again, is both heartwarming and sweet—in the best sense of the word.

It's really hard not to like A Carousel Tale, and I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't. Ernest is adorable and along with the rest of the animal cast is rendered in a pastel landscape that blends a storybook paradise with a variety of color-filled patterns in rugs, umbrellas, tents and the wonderful bird wings that Ernest creates. The changing seasons are gorgeously rendered and the whole package is just perfect for bedtime reading. It's welcoming to all readers, celebrates joy and happiness and is about a blue crocodile. Don't underestimate the sweetness factor of a blue crocodile. My son loves this book; he thought Ernest was very cool for loving birds and so did I.

I've read several books on emotions but Yesterday I Had the Blues takes an approach that I think is really effective. Narrated by a young boy and set in a busy city, it follows him as he compares his feelings to colors. From the opening spread on the blues, ("deep down in my shoes blues" not "the Monday mornin' cold cereal instead of pancakes blues") to the greens which "...make you want to be Somebody" and the "hair hangin' loose, write a poem that don't rhyme indigos", author Jeron Ashford Frame provides examples that will make sense to young readers (especially that very inspired cold cereal comparison). R. Gregory Christie's paintings with their broad strokes and rich colors show the young boy in his neighborhood with his family and friends observing and enjoying their many colored moods and moments. In the end readers have found themselves wrapped up in the love of this little boy's life and happily discovered that their moods, no matter how dark or frenetic they might be, are just like everyone else's. Originally published in 2003, the book was the Ezra Jack Keats award winner; if you missed the first time around (like I did) then most certainly seek out the paperback edition now.

Marveltown is a crazy combination of futuristic robots and 1950s Pleasantville that manages to include all the things that Ray Bradbury and Walt Disney hoped for us in the 21st century. The story, about the children of Marveltown who spend their spare time in a madcap inventors' paradise, is about the day Robot Central Command pops a circuit and all the big metal monsters suddenly get mean. It's a kid echo of I, Robot for sure but with the added mix of a William Joycean sensibility. This is a funny story that doesn't have to worry about the heavy questions as its readers are far too young to delve into issues of robot slavery. What you have here are rockets and superhighways and a "radio-controlled Ripple Rug" and kids that outsmart everybody, even their parents' super creations. It's pure fantasy but of the kind science fiction fans have been celebrating for a hundred years. Good stuff, and geeky kids for sure will love it.

For awhile now I've made a small hobby out of trying to find children's books that do not demonize wolves. I'm not talking about the many fine nonfiction titles about the animal, but picture books that include wolves as characters. Generally, they are pretty much always out to eat everybody in their path, and enjoying the prospect of all those tasty meals. That is why I was so very surprised to discover Nadine Brun-Cosme's very sweet Big Wolf & little wolf. In this story, which is about an unexpected friendship, the two solitary wolves meet and gently reach out to each other. Big Wolf in particular is set in his ways and not too sure if he needs a friend. Little Wolf, who is a lovely shade of blue, is the far more easygoing member of the duo. Big Wolf does not reach out though, and when he goes for a walk one day and returns Little Wolf is gone. That is when he realizes how much he did want a friend and patiently sets to waiting for his return.

It's a picture book about friendship, so I'm sure you know what happens in the end.

Big Wolf & little wolf is a very gentle story and Olivier Tallec's impressionist illustrations complement it in every way. The wolves are almost childish in appearance but their very mature concern for friends, and their uncertainty about how to be them, will echo with anyone who has ever wanted to make the first move but been unsure how to do it. The message is clear but the story so straightforward that it's hard to resist. This is another wonderful bedtime book that will provide some easy food for thought and might help a child or two work out a few social questions of their own. The fact that wolves are the good guys here is just some fabulous icing on the cake.

Bradley McGogg: The Very Fine Frog is one of those sweet old fashioned stories that features funny animals in odd situations echoing all the good things of Wind in the Willows and Peter Rabbit and every other similar past tale. Author Tim Beiser has written a rhyming text that explains the trials and tribulations of hungry Bradley who goes visiting his friends in search of a decent meal. Illustrator Rachel Berman uses rich color in her realistic paintings of animals at work and play who are dressed in fine clothing (the rabbit wears sneakers, even) and draw the reader into their creative environments. (Bradley sits on a stack of cookbooks. Herr Bear and Herr Hare are shown enjoying a meal of honey and carrots over a complete tea set and later there is a candelabra illuminating a meal of "maggots, mosquitoes, grasshoppers and snails" for our favorite frogs.) The message here is that everyone eats something different and what is good for one will likely be unappetizing for another. Poor Bradley would like to be a mooch but just can't bring himself to eat what everyone else is serving. The story has a happy ending that the rolling text will have lulled readers into expecting. Bradley is a kick in the pants; here's hoping this is not his only adventure.


A Book
By Mordecai Gerstein
Roaring Brook 2009
ISBN 1-59643-251-9
48 pages

Bob's Best Ever Friend
By Simon Bartran
Templar Books 2009
ISBN 07636-4425-3
number of pages?

Luke on the Loose
By Harry Bliss
Toon Books 2009
ISBN 1-935179-00-9
32 pages

Benny and Penny in the Big No-No!
By Geoffrey Haeys
Toon Books 2009
ISBN 0-9799238-9-0
number of pages?

A Carousel Tale
By Elisa Kleven
Tricycle Press 2009
ISBN 1-58246-230-4

Yesterday I had the Blues
By Jeren Ashford Frame
Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Tricycle Press 2008
ISBN 1-58246-260-7
32 pages

By Bruce McCall
Farrar Straus Giroux 2008
ISBN 0-374-39925-5
32 pages

Big Wolf & little wolf
By Nadine Brun-Cosme
Illustrated by Olivier Tallec
Enchanted Lion Books 2009
ISBN 1-59270-084-5
40 pages

Bradley McGogg: The Very Fine Frog
By Tim Beiser
Illustrated by Rachel Berman
Tundra Books 2009
ISBN 0-8876-864-4
24 pages


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