Oct/Nov 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Picture Book Round-up

Review by Colleen Mondor

I have always been a fan of picture books, something that hasn't changed as I've gotten older. I think most people do not understand how difficult it is to match a good story and illustrations all within a small, set amount of words and pages. Give someone 600 pages and they will eventually get to the point, give them 32 and we could all end up nowhere fast.

Dr. Seuss is considered a genius for a reason, you know.

So the latest stack of picture books for review has accumulated on my desk, and as I have begun to expect, they cover every topic under the sun. Each brings something very different to the table for readers, but taken as a group they offer a great introductory library. You don't have to be twenty before you develop discerning taste as a reader; it can start when you are five and your parents offer you something more than the latest purple dinosaur book. (Don't even get me started.) So take a look at my new semi-annual collection of very cool picture books that I think everyone should be reading.

Salsa singer Celia Cruz passed away in 2003 amid great accolades for her contribution to the international music scene. Many Americans had never heard of her, however, and Panama born author Veronica Chambers wanted to change that. In her note at the book's end she mentions how she also wanted to write about "a princess who looked like me" and a woman "who became a queen because of her talent, her hard work, her creativity and her spirit." In her biography, Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa, Chambers details how Cruz grew up in Havana and sang like a bird even as a small girl. Her voice attracted the attention of family and friends in her neighborhood as she learned to mimic the cries of the street vendors and create her own vocal style. Eventually she attended Cuba's National Music Conservatory and became the lead singer for a popular band, La Sonora Matancera. She left Cuba in 1960 and became a U.S. citizen as her fame continued to grow. But she also lost Cuba forever when the two countries broke off relations. This "was a heartache she carried her whole life through."

Cruz soon fell in love with and married the lead trumpeter for the Hollywood Palladium orchestra where she had a permanent performing contract. She brought salsa music all over the world and became known as the Queen of Salsa. Her trademark was the shout of "Azucar," the Spanish word for sugar, which for many described the sweet sound of her voice.

Chambers has done a great job of making Cruz's story contemporary and interesting to young readers. Julia Maren's bold illustrations are the perfect accompaniment, as deep, rich color fills each and every page. What I particularly liked about this book is that Cruz was introduced as a young girl just like any other, but one possessing extraordinary talent. Her dedication to that gift, and her family's appreciation and love, made all the difference in the world. I also enjoyed being able to read about Cuba and its people, especially after growing up in Florida and learning absolutely nothing about the island in school. Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa is an excellent example of how to publish a biography for young children and one that should be sought out by both new and old fans of the great singer.

Another new nonfiction book is the latest title from author Fred Ehrlich. Ehrlich has a series of books with illustrator Amanda Haley providing answers to a myriad of young scientific questions. In his new book, You Can't See a Dodo at the Zoo, he discusses extinct and endangered species using funny poems and a ton of easy to understand information. The four theories of what happened to the dinosaurs are included as well as the saga of the Wooly Mammoth and other extinct mammals, threats facing the endangered Piping Plover and the rediscovered Coelacanth. Haley's accompanying illustrations of inquisitive children touring museums and studying animals appear both smart and friendly. I really enjoyed the poems, such as "Blue whale, blue whale, How was it done? You gave birth to a baby, Weighing close to a ton!" Another good one is "Saber-tooths hunted near and far, But didn't have the sense to stay out of the tar!" (Did you know that the bones of 2,000 Saber-toothed Tigers were found in a tar pit near LA?)

With so many American students losing their interest in science classes, it's good to start early readers on the way to loving the language and images of this subject. Without getting too complicated, Ehrlich still manages never to speak down to his audience and educate as well as entertain. His style reminds me a bit of the Robin Williams' character in "Mrs. Doubtfire"—showing kids a good time while also turning them on to the natural world around us.

Please Bury Me in the Library is a poetry collection by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Kyle M. Stone. This is one of those books that will appeal to any book lover regardless of age. Lewis's poems range from those that struck me as laugh-out-loud funny ("A great book is a homing device, for navigating paradise. A good book somehow makes you care, about the comfort of a chair. A bad book owes to many trees, a forest of apologies.") to the touching and thoughtful ("A good book is a kind, of person with a mind, of her own, who lives alone, standing on a shelf, by herself. She has a spine, a heart, a soul, and a goal—to capture, to amuse, to light a fire [you're the fuse], or else, joyfully, just to be. From beginning, to end, need a friend?").

Stone's illustrations reminded me a bit of Maren's in Celia Cruz. They are a different style but use the same broad strokes of color to conjure up immediate emotions in the reader. My favorite picture was of the little girl flying into the night on the paper airplane in the poem "Ab-so-lu-tas-ti-cal." It matches the spirit of the poem perfectly and left me with a great image as the book ended.

Janice Harrington used the picture book format to tell the story of her family's journey from Alabama to Nebraska during the summer of 1964. This is a gentle tale of a young family traveling to a place that they believe will give them a better chance for success in the future. Going North captures not only the atmosphere of a long car trip but also the difficulties suffered by African Americans who drove in unfamiliar areas during the period of segregation. As they run lower and lower on gas, young Jessie begins to panic, chanting, "Where will we go, Daddy? Where will we go?" Her mother chastises her, "Hush now, quiet now, Daddy's got to drive." And the whole time, "Gas gauge, getting low, getting low. Can't stop just anywhere. Only the Negro stations, only the Negro stations."

Jerome Lagarrigue uses dark moody colors for Going North, painting a landscape of blurred cotton fields and red dirt roads, all seen from the window of Jessie's car window. This is a story that hints at danger, at the pressing worry that haunts a family as they try simply to drive from one place to another. Lagarrigue's pictures convey this steady fear just as Harrington's words show the sadness of leaving family and friends for the unknown hope of a better tomorrow. Going North is a beauty of a history lesson and a very warm and somehow sweet story of a family trip as well.

In Faucet Fish, Fay Robinson tells the story of a young girl who loves fish and desperately longs for an aquarium of her own. As drawn by Wayne Anderson, Elizabeth spends every spare moment with her face pressed against the glass at the local aquarium or staring at her fish bowl with its single fish as she begs her parents for more pets. It all seems very typical (and hopeless) until one day a fish pops out of her bathroom faucet. She tells her parents, but neither one pays attention, and so Elizabeth finds herself filling every bowl in the house as the fish appear one after another. Soon enough she is faced with the arrival of a beluga whale, and finally her mother and father notice. This prompts a visit from the aquarium plumber, and Elizabeth finds herself with a house that is now an aquarium and parents who now "listen very carefully" whenever Elizabeth speaks.

Faucet Fish has a perfect under-the-sea mood as illustrated with Anderson's beautiful pastel pictures, and Elizabeth is a charmer with a major problem when it comes to being taken seriously. What I really liked about this book is the cool message it conveys about children knowing what they like. Elizabeth loves the aquarium and wants a life spent with fish. But because she is young, her parents naturally assume she is only angling for a new pet. I may be reading more into this charming tale then Robinson intended, but I thought it was a great example of a child who knows what she wants and only needs someone with power to recognize that truth. At least in this case, Elizabeth is finally heard loud and clear and wins the biggest prize of all.

With Captain Arsenio, author and illustrator Pablo Bernasconi uses a collage technique for the inspired pictures in his story of a late 18th century inventor struggling to design a successful flying machine. "My days of sailing and scuba-diving are over," wrote Arsenio on May 1st, 1782, "I retire with grace to begin a new stage in my life that will undoubtedly go down in history. I'm going to achieve what has been humanity's desire for centuries: I will build a flying machine."

It pretty much goes without saying that the Captain is not very good at building an airplane. He crashes many, many times as he is alternately launched aloft by a dozen birds tied to strings, a hamster powered apparatus, and an actual rocket. He remains undaunted until the very end however, when he suddenly disappears, leaving only his detailed notebook behind, over 7,500 miles from his home in Patagonia, Argentina.

However did it get there?

Captain Arsenio is an eccentric kind of book for readers who like mechanical things and creative artwork. More than anything, this is a book and a character that are not boring and should lead even the most reluctant reader down the path of adventure (and misadventure) again and again.

Look for another picture book roundup in the Spring!


Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa.
Veronica Chambers, illustrated by Julie Maren.
Dial Books for Young Readers. 2005.

Faucet Fish.
Fay Robinson, illustrated by Wayne Anderson.
Dutton Children's Books. 2005.

Going North.
Janice Harrington, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2004.

Please Bury Me in the Library.
J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Kyle M. Stone
Harcourt. 2005.

You Can't See a Dodo at the Zoo.
Fred Ehrlich, illustrated by Amanda Haley.
Blue Apple Books. 2005.

Captain Arsenio: Inventions and (Mis)Adventures in Flight.
Pablo Bernasconi, illustrated by Pablo Bernasconi.
Houghton Mifflin. 2005.


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