Category Archives: Picture Books

Adorable Doggy Duo: Boot & Shoe by Marla Frazee

When I was about ten, my dad decided to get two kittens to live at his house, to keep him company, and so that my sister and I would have furry friends to play with when we came over to his place on the weekends. They were ginger cats, litter mates, and he named them Pork and Beans. Pork was mine, and Beans was my sister’s. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that while Beans was a beauty, with long shiny fur and a fluffy ruff around his neck, he was dumb, “thick as a post,” my dad concluded. Pork was tough, the kind of cat that was born to roam around outside and get into scraps with the other cats in the neighbourhood. He wasn’t much to look at, a pretty ordinary short-haired cat, but while his brother had looks, he had brains. I think this was why my dad didn’t worry too much about them when he opened the back door and let the cats out. He probably figured Pork would take care of Beans, but I used to wonder how Beans managed out there in the wide world. Anyway, those two feline brothers made such a crazy pair, and I liked to imagine all the trouble and adventures they had together.

In the end, one day Beans did not come home, and after a few weeks, we figured that his lack of street smarts (or any smarts at all) had led to his untimely end. I think it was two years later when my dad discovered by chance that Beans was completely fine, living in a house a few streets away, and my dad decided to let him stay there with his new people. My dad used to say that I should write a book about Pork and Beans, and the other day, when I picked up Marla Frazee’s wonderful new book, Boot & Shoe, it got me thinking about the wacky feline brothers I used to know and love.

If you are in any way an animal person, Boot & Shoe will charm your socks off. These two tiny hounds are brothers, and they like sharing a lot of things: their house, their bowl, their peeing tree, their bed. There is just one thing that they like to do differently. Boot hangs out on the back porch, and Shoe spends his days on the front porch. Everything is “exactly perfect” until the day that a squirrel decides to start trouble. He gets both dogs going, and they chase him all over the yard. At the end of all this, the dogs have switched porches. Boot is shocked to see that Shoe is not where he should be, and Shoe is just as shocked to see that Boot is not where he should be. Both dogs wait for the other to return, but of course, that doesn’t happen. They wait all day, past dinner, in the rain, until finally they both decide at the same moment to go check the other porch. I won’t tell you how this sweetly humorous situation wraps up, because it’s just right, and utterly perfect for two comical canine characters.

Marla Frazee‘s illustrations are divine, which is no surprise given that she is a two-time Caldecott Honor medalist. I love the fact that the dogs’ faces are too hairy to see their eyes, and their little mouths are often shown as two wee lines and yet you get so much personality coming off the page. Frazee gets doggy physicality. Some of the illustrations are so understated, but you can see that every detail has been considered. There is one double-page spread, where the squirrel is running all over the yard with the dogs behind him, and Frazee has drawn about a hundred mini squirrels and dogs so that you see the chase route. It is hilarious and wonderful. You can literally follow the story of the chase around the picture. Don’t miss the way that the squirrel stops to give the pooches a wave before he saunters off. Brilliant.

A genius tale of doggy antics and friendship, Boot & Shoe is right up there in my list of new favourites.

Boot & Shoe is published by Beach Lane Books.

Don’t Steal Stuff Kids. This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, a cautionary tale

This week in the library, one of the Grade 3 teachers came to see me for some picture books that could tie in with a responsibility theme. I did my usual speedwalk-around-the-library-grabbing-stuff routine, and one of the books I picked up was Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. Once I had a good stack, we sat down and went through them together. When we got to Jon Klassen’s book, I just read it to her, because it is short, and because it is awesome. She laughed (proving she is awesome). When I’d finished, she said, “I like it, but I’m not sure it’s the best for responsibility.” I said, “Sure it is. The Rabbit steals the Bear’s hat and he tries to get away with it. He doesn’t take responsibility and so…” “He gets eaten?” she said. “Exactly,” I said, “So kids, don’t steal stuff, cuz when you do, you get eaten, ‘kay?”

She took the book.

Jon Klassen’s new book, a follow-up of sorts to I Want My Hat Back, is This is Not My Hat, which has pretty much the same moral as the first book: Stealing is bad. You will get eaten if you do it. Be warned. I cannot wait to read it to the small people. They will approve. I am sure of it. I’ll bet I can even get another teacher to take it, maybe someone looking for an honesty book, or a book for a Never Trust a Crab theme?

Here’s the perfect trailer:

Every complimentary thing everybody said about I Want My Hat Back is also true for This is Not My Hat: understated, genius design, super pacing, darkly funny, a hoot.

I’m thinking we will keep buying books about hat-stealing animals for as long as Mr. Klassen wishes to create them.

This is Not My Hat is published by Candlewick.

Ugly Vegetables Have Feelings Too: Little Sweet Potato by Amy Beth Bloom

Admit it. You’ve looked at a sweet potato and thought, “Man, now that is one ugly vegetable.” Don’t try and deny it, because we’ve all done it. But, while sweet potatoes are not known for their beauty, they certainly are delicious little tubers. We probably shouldn’t be talking about that fact here, since Amy Beth Bloom’s picture book, Little Sweet Potato, features a sweet potato hero so cute that he may make you feel a little bit guilty the next time you tuck into a pile o’ sweet potato fries.

This is a classic “looking for where you belong” story, set in the veggie patch. When a rumbly tractor shakes Little Sweet Potato right out of his comfy garden home, there’s nothing left for him to do but to venture out into the world, looking for somewhere to put down roots. (Sorry, couldn’t resist). After being insulted by some conceited carrots and egotistical eggplants, he concludes that the world has some pretty “mean vegetation” in it. But just when he’s about to give up, Little Sweet Potato discovers a place where all veggies are welcome, no matter how lumpy and bumpy they might be.

While the narrative is fairly predictable and in places, a touch wordy, the quirkiness of Noah Z. Jones’ bright cartoon illustrations brings Little Sweet Potato to life and makes the whole package charming. This is a keeper for classrooms and school libraries, sure to remind kids that beauty is empty without kindness.

Little Sweet Potato is published by Katherine Tegen Books.

Day 30, book 30: You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey

When I tell you that You Are Stardust is a stunning book, you may think, “Yeah, yeah. Stunning, schmunning. People call books stunning all the time.” To which I reply, “No. I mean it. This book is stunning. Honest.” I don’t think I’ve been as blown away by the creativity and beauty of a book in quite a while. Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim should be getting some serious recognition for their work in this collaboration. This book will make kids think. It will make kids marvel. It will make them slow down and stare at the pages and then, hopefully, turn that wonder to the world around them.

I love it.

“You are stardust. Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.”

This is where Elin Kelsey begins her exploration of all of the ways that we are a part of the earth and its cycles and communities. She writes with lovely directness, make each big idea clear as can be, putting them out there for kids to ponder and talk about. Indeed, the text is full of facts awesome enough to please any science geek. Did you know you sneeze with the force of a tornado, or that you’ll replace your skin 100 times by the time you turn ten? So, so cool. The best part of the words that fill this book is that they are all the more mind-blowing because they are simply describing what is. Our world, our earth, is mind-blowing, and I can’t think of another book for children that communicates this truth more effectively.

Soyeon Kim’s illustrations are tremendously creative and in a word, magical. If you take off the dust jacket and look on the reverse side, you’ll see pictures of the seven dioramas she created to be photographed for the book. I can’t think of the last time I saw something so unique and so perfectly suited to the atmosphere and feeling of the subject matter. Here’s a little look behind the scenes at Kim’s artistic process. Prepare to be amazed:

You Are Stardust is awesome, in the ideas that it offers to young readers, and the incredibly unique artwork. Jaw-dropping. Give it to everyone. Then hug a tree and whisper a few deep thoughts into the cosmos.

Bam. Done. Picture Book #30! I did it! It’s been fun gang. Thanks for reading this month.

You Are Stardust is published by OwlKid Books.

Day 28, book 28 (a little late): The Tooth Mouse by Susan Hood

Yesterday was the kind of day that left me so tired that all I could manage by 10:00 pm was slouching over my computer keyboard watching animal videos (exhibit a, exhibit b). Sometimes when this happens I am stuck for a long time in the land of adorable, so I am happy to report that I am back with Picture Book 28, a little late, but so it goes.

The Tooth Mouse by Susan Hood is rather lovely. It makes me long for Paris and for the picture books of my youth, the ones that had lots of words so that they lasted long enough to disappear into them for a while. On a side note, I think it’s sad that it seems longer picture books are becoming rarer all the time. First off, I refuse to buy into the argument that parents don’t have the time or inclination in their jam-packed days to read them to their children. But even if you do believe that, what about kids reading them all by themselves? (*gasp*). I did. Some of my best reading memories from childhood are of the afternoons I hung out leaning against the bookcase in our basement, rereading all of my favourite long picture books. Books like this one:

I think that The Tooth Mouse could be this kind of book for many young readers. It’s a sweet fable about the quest of one small mouse to become the successor to the old Tooth Mouse. Sophie, an orphan mouse, lives high up in an ancient cathedral in France. She is full of spirit and she has dancing feet. One day, when the Tooth Mouse announces she is too old to continue her work exchanging coins for children’s baby teeth, Sophie could not be more excited. She is sure she could be the next Tooth Mouse. But it is not so simple as wanting it. The Tooth Mouse has created three tasks that will reveal the best mouse for the job, one who is brave, honest, and wise. It turns out Sophie is all of these things. She trusts her heart and finds her way.

Hood’s story and style is charming, old-fashioned but with enough flair to captivate a modern audience. The French asides scattered throughout add to the atmosphere and will surely add drama to story time. Who doesn’t love quest tales? There’s something supremely satisfying about seeing the cream rise to the top as the best mouse finds a way where others couldn’t. It’s a classic formula, and it’s done beautifully here.

Speaking of beautiful, the softness coupled with the fine lines and detail in Janice Nadeau’s illustrations will inspire readers to slow right down and notice every whimsical moment. The illustrations make me feel like this story should be brought to life in another form as a ballet for children.

A blend of old and new, familiar and quirky, The Tooth Mouse should live happily on children’s bookshelves (and in their laps) for a long, long time.

The Tooth Mouse is published by Kids Can Press.

Day 26, book 26: Lemonade in Winter by Emily Jenkins

I never had a lemonade stand as a kid. (I know, I know, yesterday I was all complain-y about missing out on crafting during my childhood years. I promise I’m not going to moan about lemonade stands now). Kids who live at the end of long dirt roads in the country do not have lemonade stands. They also do not go hang out in their neighbour’s tree house after school, or get pizza delivery, or have more than one kid show up for trick-or-treating on Halloween. Country kids, like me, have other things – wonderful things like fireflies and their own ponds and bonfires and howling coyotes. But no lemonade stands. As it happens, this has not affected my ability to make prize-winning homemade lemonade. Because I never had the chance to run a lemonade stand as a child, I am completely helpless at resisting the sweet cries of, “Would you like some lemonade?” from the kids on my city street who run stands all through the summer. I am a guaranteed customer, even though their lemonade comes from a can and mine is “from scratch.”

Lemonade in Winter, by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by G. Brian Karas, follows Pauline and John-John, a bold sister and brother team, when they decide to have a lemonade stand in the middle of winter on a day when “a mean wind blows” and “icicles hang from the windowsills.”  Their parents cannot dissuade them, indeed, nothing does. They hunt down all the loose change around their house, gather the ingredients from the corner store, make their drinks, and go out into the cold. Everyone thinks they’re crazy, but as it turns out, this doesn’t stop people in the neighborhood from stopping by. Throughout the story, Pauline tries to teach her little brother a thing or two about how money – and business – works. They bring in entertainment and decorations and decide to have a sale to inspire customers. In the end, they don’t make their money back, but they’ve learned a thing or two about making plans and making their own fun, seeing them through, and working together.

The sibling dynamic is right on. Pauline is a little bit bossy, but well-meaning, with her “let me show you how to do this John-John” attitude. John-John goes along for the ride with all the enthusiasm you could expect from a little brother, and comes up with good ideas of his own. Lessons about how money works, and the basics of a shopping transaction get woven into the story with subtlety. The last page of the book explains the coins and offers tips on how to remember what is what (American currency). It’s lovely to see Jenkins capture how for kids, a big idea or goal, is often something small. She shows kids how to break down a goal into stages and make it happen. Of course it’s nice to see home made fun from ordinary family life being celebrated. Karas’s muted artwork, smudgy with snowflakes, soft and pale and frosty-looking, makes this winter day and cozy community, come vividly to life. Read about his artistic process for the book here.

A great read for aspiring entrepreneurs and big dreamers, or for when the kids cry bored.

Lemonade in Winter is published by Schwartz and Wade.

 

Day 25, book 25: Crafty Chloe by Kelly DiPucchio

When you were a kid, were you a crafter? I was not. I would’ve been the type of kid who wanted to dump out everything from inside the crazy craft box so I could give it a good vacuum, and then put it all back, arranged according to colour or size or function. Unfortunately, I was a kid too concerned about making things perfect to be a free-spirited crafter. (Let’s pause here to sigh for the Elf’s lost youth). Now Beth, one of my two best friends in Grade 3, always seemed to be making stuff. When Beth showed off something homemade, it was cool. I was intrigued. Her Halloween costumes were legendary. Beth’s handmade stuff made making things seem almost like magic to me, out of reach, something reserved only for a special few. Beth had “it.” I did not. This hole in my childhood experience probably explains my reaction whenever I wander into an art supply store. I stand there, in front of the little bricks of rainbow Fimo and tiny tubes of paint and shiny tins of watercolour pencil crayons in every shade a girl could dream, of and I think, But not for me…

Things might have turned out differently, oh so differently, if only Crafty Chloe had been around when I was seven. Crafty Chloe by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Heather Ross, celebrates individuality, ingenuity, googly eyes, and glitter. Chloe loves making stuff, and it’s one thing she’s really good at. She makes flowers out of coffee filters and one of a kind clothes for her dog and she believes that “anything becomes less boring with googly eyes on it.” So when she goes shopping for her friend Emma’s party and another girl nabs the present she was planning on getting, Chloe plays it cool. “I’m going to make her something special that you can’t even buy in a store,” she says. Turns out it’s easier said than done, but after a little hard work and some serious crafting skill, Chloe makes something amazing.

Things I love about Crafty Chloe:

  • Chloe reminds me of Clementine, including her kooky family and her orange curls
  • Her dog Bert has quite the repertoire of doggy facial expressions
  • Chloe’s rival is named London (can you say princess?) and her little dog is clearly evil
  • The phone number on the rent-a-pony truck parked at the curb for Emma’s birthday party is, “1-800-FAT-PONY”
  • Ross’s illustrations are cheery and fabulous, bright and dynamic
  • Chloe rises to the occasion at the end of the story when grace is required, and this seems entirely true to her nature, not neat-and-tidy and forced

I’ll just say it. I don’t think I’d change a thing here. This story, and Chloe, will skip straight into your heart and make you want to pull out that box of macaroni and design yourself a statement necklace. Who says it’s too late to embrace my inner crafter? (And if I’m really stuck, I can always head to craftychloe.com for some cool craft ideas, step by step, just the way I like it).

Crafty Chloe is published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Day 24, Book 24: Apple by Nikki McClure

It’s the time of year when the teachers here at school start combing the library shelves for books about apples. Apple orchards, apple trees, apple pies, apple ABCs, apple everything. Soon, the little people will venture to the apple farm for hay rides and cider and some picking. Nikki McClure’s stunning little book, Apple, is now my new favourite apple-themed book, and it’s proof that it’s hard to get better than simple, done beautifully.

Working in black, white, and Macintosh red, McClure traces the journey of one perfect apple, from the beginning of fall, into a child’s lunch, to the compost heap, all the way through to the next spring. The story emerges mostly through the amazing paper cuts, which capture the community, energy, and warmth of fall in their bold, captivating simplicity. Each picture faces a single word in block letters to inspire the reader’s interpretation: FALL, FIND, SNEAK, HIDE, SECRET… This little book is meant to be read slowly, to be savoured. It ends with a lovely explanation of the life of an apple tree and the process of composting.

It’s interesting to note that there is a circularity to how this book came to be that echos the rhythms of nature portrayed here. On the last page, McClure shares that this book was her first book, self-published and handmade in 1996. She sold her copies in local bookstores. The opening image of the fallen apple under the tree was her very first paper cut. It’s amazing what grows from small beginnings.

Apple is published by Abrams Appleseed.

Day 23, book 23: The Monster Returns by Peter McCarty

The Monster Returns is a sweet little ode to creativity and friendship, with monsters. This time around, Peter McCarty brings back Jeremy’s blue monster buddy from Jeremy Draws a Monster. At the beginning of the story, the Monster calls Jeremy from a phone booth to let his pal know that he’s back, and he’s bored.

Bored could be a problem. Generally, you never want a monster to be bored. This is common knowledge. If you remember the action in McCarty’s first Jeremy story, you’ll recall how demanding the monster was. So this time, Jeremy is going to be prepared. He thinks fast, inviting a crowd of neighborhood kids to come up to his apartment and help him out. He gives each one a fancy pen and they all draw their own monsters to surprise Jeremy’s monster. “Friends for me?” says Jeremy’s monster, when he sees the others, and all is well.

Peter McCarty’s art is subtle and whimsical, with fine lines and plenty of white background space for the huge, colourful monsters to stand out against. Plus, Jeremy’s monsters pink hat is smashing. I love the kooky end pages, and I’m sure kids will too.

The Monster Returns is published by Henry Holt.

Day 22, book 22: Vampirina Ballerina by Anne Marie Pace

In the world of picture books, characters with unlikely dreams are almost as common as little girls who long to be ballerinas. Anne Marie Pace’s new picture book, Vampirina Ballerina, illustrated by the fantastic LeUyen Pham, is a charming addition that comes across as fresh and clever.

Vampirina Ballerina is a funny “how to” styled tale for wannabe ballerinas (particularly of the vampire variety). The directness of Pace’s tone goes a long way to create humour. By page two, there should be a smile on your face:

“Your first step is finding the right ballet school. I’d suggest… a night class.”

Pace intersperses real ballet tips: “Once class begins, keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed”, with those essential to vampire ballerinas only: “The sight of your fangs might make the other dancers forget fifth position.” The take-home messages are sweet and true: have fun, practice, practice, practice, be yourself, and be brave.

LeUyen Pham’s illustrations always look so stylish and classic, with oodles of panache and humour, like something you might see in an Oscar-winning animated French film. You can sneak a look a few of the illustrations at Pham’s blog, here. The soft, inky blues and greys Pham uses in her pictures of Vampirina’s home life work in beautiful contrast to the bright, light pinkness of the ballet school. Wonderful facial expressions appear on characters throughout as Vampirina stumbles and flubs her way towards her dream. And wait’ll you see Vampirina’s costume for her final recital. Think Black Swan, the mini-version.

Vampirina Ballerina will get a standing ovation anytime, but it’s sure to be a star this Halloween.

Vampirina Ballerina is published by Disney Hyperion.