Category Archives: Cute as all get-out

merry and happy

gryfflesI have been absent from here for so long it feels strange to be back. Life has run away with me, and along the way there has been reading, but also some contemplating about what the future holds for me and blogging. For now, I just wanted to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! We will see what it brings!

Wishing you peace, love, extra thick books, and full plates of cookies this holiday season.


The Elf


go hug a dog: if dogs run free – illustrated by Scott Campbell

if dogsI have discovered that spending your day with many three, four, and five-year-olds results in an intense desire to read Books for Grown Ups. So my pleasure reading has consisted pretty much entirely of adult books since the beginning of September for the first time in years. I don’t know how long this is going to last, but I’m enjoying my time in Grown Up Reading Land. This will explain why – for the moment at least – you’ll be seeing a steady stream of picture book reviews here at Shelf Elf.

if dogs run free is illustrator Scott Campbell’s quirky interpretation of Bob Dylan’s song. Here’s the beginning:

If dogs run free, then why not we
Across the swooping plain?
My ears hear a symphony
Of two mules, trains,
and rain.
The best is always yet to come,
That’s what they explain to me.

It’s hard to really sum up what Dylan’s song is about; certainly a younger audience will probably experience some “huh?” moments with these lyrics, and have some trouble teasing a take home message out of the words. Probably something along the lines of, enjoy life (the best is always yet to come), be yourself (just do your thing), and love each other ([true love] can cure the soul, it can make it whole). Or maybe even, “Dogs are awesome.”

The thing is, Campbell’s illustrations are so full of energy and joy and kooky-ness that it hardly matters if Dylan’s text doesn’t come off as made for picture book interpretation. It’s the pictures that convey the spirit of the song more than anything. A little girl and her brother and their trusty pooch race all over the place together, meeting dogs wherever they go and having a blast no matter where they are and what they’re doing. The important thing when reading this book is not to over-think things, and I know that most kids are pretty good at this. I imagine they will get a kick out of the crazy canine action on every page. It’s the sort of picture book that has so much detail in the illustrations that every time you read you are going to notice something new.

A whimsical ode to childhood and dogs, if dogs run free will leave readers grinning and glad to be alive.

(Warning: sure to inspire feelings of “I want a puppy” in small people. Parents, don’t say I didn’t tell ya).

if dogs run free is published by Atheneum.

Mischief (barely) managed: our new addition

It’s Family Day in Ontario, so it’s just the right moment to share some exciting news. We have a new addition. Here he is:



His name is Gryffin, after (you guessed it): Gryffindor. We’ve had him officially sorted, and luckily, he does not need to be renamed Slythery or Puffball. He is a Lakeland Terrier. We are terrier folk, and there will only ever be one perfect Irish Terrier for us, so we decided to try a smaller, but equally sassy variety this time around.

It turns out he is brave of heart, having survived the first 48 hours under the same roof as his very angry Siamese brother. (Pretty sure that one is Slytherin, mostly because of the way he stares at Gryffin with Draco-like malice. He is plotting something, that’s for sure).

Just for fun, mostly to serve as a forever-in-progress scrapbook of Gryffin’s days, I’ve started a dog blog. It’s called mischief managed. I am sure it will be filled with tales of adventure and friendship and courage and laughter, in all ways worthy of the great books that inspired the boy’s name. I promise Shelf Elf will not turn into a mommy-dog blog, but surely there will always be a place for pictures like this, right?



Mischief managed!

Feeling the Guinea PI(G) love: Pet Shop Private Eye

Okay peeps, if you know a kid who is suffering from a serious case of grouchiness, I can help. I can help because I have discovered a graphic novel series so adorable, so funny, so full of pep and personality that I can more or less guarantee that reading these books will turn any frown upside down. May I present, Guinea PI(G), Pet Shop Private Eye. If you haven’t already discovered this charming collection, you will thank me. (You will also probably be stealing them from your kid’s bookshelf because they are So Much Fun to read). Who says a grown up can’t read a book with a cartoon guinea pig on the cover, right?

When the “G” falls off of the GUINEA PIG sign on Sasspants’ cage, Hamisher, the new hamster in Mr. Venezi’s pet shop, makes the mistake of thinking that Sasspants is a private eye. Sasspants would much rather hang out on her own, reading books, but Hamisher won’t let up until she “helps” Sasspants to solve the mystery of the missing sandwich (book 1), discover the identity of the pet shop ghost (book 2), crack the case of the strange sign vandal (book 3), reveal the truth behind Mr. V’s new assistant (book 4), and track down the missing bookstore cat (book 5). The mysteries are small, the characters are small, the books are small, but the heart and the humour and the entertainment value are big.

These books make the perfect introduction to the graphic novel genre for young readers as the stories are just the right length and are easy to follow. Kids love scenarios featuring bumbling adults. Mr. Venezi, with his mislabeled animal cages (chinchillas are camels, mice are walruses), and his generally clueless nature, will definitely get kids smiling. The personality of each of the animals is distinctly kooky, as Colleen A.F. Venable nails the dialogue, packing it full of laugh out loud moments and plenty of sass. You get the feeling as you read that Venable really enjoys writing these characters. It’s hard to choose which one of the little critters is my favourite. Hamisher is pretty awesome, with his flair for the dramatic, Sasspants is ingenious, and the fish are hilariously stupid. The panel layout is nice and simple, and Stephanie Yue’s artwork is wonderfully bright and clean, with huge visual appeal. Plus, she doesn’t let Venable get the credit for all of the jokes. There are plenty of super funny moments added into the visuals. The animals’ facial expressions alone are smile-worthy.

Finally, each book finishes with two pages of related non-fiction info, such as how snakes swallow things that are four times the size of their heads, how mice squeeze through dime-sized holes, and everything you every really needed to know about ferrets, exactly the kind of stuff that kids cannot resist.

Guinea PI(G) Pet Shop Private Eye is just right, in every way. We need more graphic novels as clever and smartly put-together as this delightful series. A total crowd-pleaser.

Guinea PI(G) Pet Shop Private Eye is published by Graphic Universe.

Day 10, book 10: Chloe, instead by Micah Player

You know that saying, “You can’t choose your family”? Well, Micah Player’s rainbow bright picture book, Chloe, instead, might just have been inspired by this truism. It’s a kid’s eye view of the ups and downs of life with a sibling, a sibling who is nothing like you and more often than not, drives you bananas.

“I was hoping for a little sister who was just like me. But I got Chloe, instead.” So says the piano-playing narrator of this cute-as-a-button portrait of sisterhood, in its earliest stage. Big sister enjoys music, reading, and colouring. Chloe is simply crazy. She is chaos on two feet. Will these girls ever find common ground and figure out how to have fun, in spite of their differences? Of course they will, with the help of a little patience, some music, and groovy silly dancing, because isn’t that how it works in most families?

Adorable trailer alert:

I’m sure kids will be drawn to the bold style of Player’s artwork. The uncluttered layout of most of the pages really foregrounds the character’ facial expressions and interaction with each other. Chloe and her sister seem just as sassy and captivating as the candy coloured hues that pop on every page. Surprisingly, while the palette here is super bright, the whole package comes across as quite understated in its design, exactly what you’d expected from an illustrator who is also a seasoned graphic designer.

Chloe, instead is for hip sisters everywhere. Just tie a ribbon around it. When you’ve got a cover that snazzy, there’s no wrapping paper required.

Chloe, instead is published by Chronicle Books.

Zorro Gets an Outfit

I think pugs are pretty awesome because they are clearly big dogs trapped in little dogs’ bodies. Everything about a pug says “sassy.” The dog who is Zorro, could have been any kind of dog, but I think it is just right that he is a pug. I really liked the first book featuring these characters, Say Hello to Zorro. It definitely had a high “Awwww!” factor for me, but I think that in Zorro Gets an Outfit, Carter Goodrich does an even better job of capturing the doggy point of view.

Now, show me a dog owner who hasn’t at least considered dressing his/her dog up in an adorable and humiliating costume. C’mon folks, hands up. I’ve done it. Not embarrassed to admit it. On various Halloweens gone by, we had “Swimmer Malcolm,” “Elvis Malcolm,” and a favourite, “Malibu Malcolm.” So I know exactly what this kind of dog shame looks like.

Zorro gets a costume, or as his owner calls it, an “outfit.” He is not happy. He gets teased by all the other dogs on the way to the park. Mister Bud tries to cheer him up, but nothing works until a new dog shows up. A fast, cool, tricksy dog who also happens to be wearing an outfit. This changes everything.

This picture book is an example of how so much story can exist with minimal text, provided that the illustrations are evocative. It’s wonderful how the different personalities of the dogs comes through just by their posture, facial expressions, eyes, and ear positions. Goodrich knows dogs. (You can see a lot of the best pictures from the story on his website). The spread of the three dogs racing head on towards you is perfect. It’s pure doggy joy conveyed through illustration. This is a completely feel-good book that makes you want to read more little adventures featuring this quirky crew. It also kinda makes you want a pug super-dog of your own, and sadly for hounds everywhere, it only encourages most dog owners’ proclivities for dressing up Fido. Five bones out of five.

Zorro Gets an Outfit is published by Simon and Schuster.

The Hueys in The New Jumper

Not sure why, but I feel like The Hueys in The New Jumper should be greeted with a round of applause. This is partly because it only takes reading this book once to feel like you’ve known the Hueys for a long time and this is just another one of their adorably silly adventures. Also, this is an Oliver Jeffers book, so come on people, of course we should be applauding.

First, watch the cute-as-a-button trailer:

There are about as many reasons to like this book as there are Hueys:

1) Trademark Oliver Jeffers kookiness. These Hueys are strange little critters, and we love ’em.

2) It’s such a simple idea, but there are some big ideas hiding inside of it that would be fun to talk about with the little people you read it to.

3) It’s silly.

4) It is BFF with another awesome book about a sweater that changes everything. (Am I right or am I right?)

5) It has names in it like Rupert and Gillespie.

6) You can make your very own Huey online. I did. She was very stylish.

It’s about individuality, community, trendsetting, and cute jumpers. Good for just about every unique person you know.

The Hueys in The New Jumper is published by Harper Collins.

Bake Sale

Bake Sale by Saran Varon is a quirky little confection from the talented lady who brought us the beautifully understated graphic novel, Robot Dreams. It is a treat to look at, and it has recipes from the story collected at the end, for any aspiring bakers out there.

Bake Sale is every bit as visually beautiful as Varon’s previous graphic novel, but I confess, it’s not as satisfying when it comes to the narrative. I really wanted to love this book (I mean come on, look at that cover! A-dorable). While I can say I love the soft simplicity of the illustrations, the storyline left me a little baffled. It’s never a good sign when it’s not easy to describe exactly what the book is about. Part of the problem for me here is I do not think that the concept is something that kids can connect to. They will see the cover and think, “I want to read this,” but then I’m afraid the story will leave some readers disappointed.

Cupcake enjoys his life working in his small bakery, hanging out with his band mates, and spending time with his best friend Eggplant. He starts to slip into a baking slump, so Eggplant shares that he is planning a trip to Turkey and he promises that if Cupcake comes along he can introduce his friend to Turkish Delight (Cupcake’s baking idol). This prompts Cupcake to do everything he can to raise money for the trip, but Cupcake never gets to go because he ends up giving up his earnings to fund Eggplant’s trip when he loses his job.  It feels like an odd and somewhat confusing combination of topics for a ten-year-old reader, right? The ending is very open, and I think that’s another thing that kids will find disappointing. I like an open ending. I find they are often the most realistic and rich endings in fiction, but this ending felt like an abrupt cut off, rather than a satisfying stopping point. The thematic threads related to following one’s passions, being selfless in friendship, and never giving up, are just not explored or developed enough to make this book completely successful.

Cute? Certainly. I bought it for the library because of its sheer cuteness. (Wait until you see the endpapers – maybe the most delicious I have ever seen!) I’m just worried that the reading experience for most kids will be a let down, the way some pretty cupcakes look much better than they taste, which can be really upsetting. I speak from experience. So I’ll let you know the kid-appeal verdict soon.

Bake Sale by Sarah Varon is published by First Second.

Wishing for a Merry Doggy Christmas

Christmas is nearly here.  I have made (and consumed) a lot of peppermint bark, but there’s a little bark missing, and it belongs to him:

My pooch is sick. He has been at the vet for 5 miserably long days. The boy has pancreatitis. This is not fun. He’s skinny and stinky and he’s a cone head and I miss him terribly. The house is quiet without his gentle doggy snores. His red bed is waiting in front of the tree. His Siamese brother is testy (Where is he? Where is my frenemy?) We are hoping he will be home for Christmas. The other day, a friend of ours sent us this. Sniffle:

If you could spare a “get well soon Malcolm dog” wish today, that would be wonderful. Let’s bring this hairy fella home for a bath and a snooze next to his Christmas stocking.

It should be no surprise then that this Christmas picture book is my favourite this year:

Zoe and Beans: Zoe’s Christmas List is nothing short of adorable. This is because of the sweet, snowy, and soft illustrations and the heart-warming animal / human friendships portrayed in the story. The best part has to be the fold out pages where little bear goes on a very long swim and faithful and obedient Beans dives in to rescue him.  Put it under the tree. Read it to your little one, human or canine. I plan to.

Here’s Chloe Inkpen talking about the characters, and you should visit the website for the books too:

Happy Christmas everyone. Hug your hound today.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters

I read the first Alvin Ho book last year, as it was one of the finalists for the 2008 Middle Grade Cybils Award. It was a hoot in every way and it guaranteed that I would be picking up Lenore Look’s next Alvin adventure. The second in the series, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters is (dare I say it), even funnier than and every bit as clever and charming as its predecessor. I started reading it yesterday morning while sipping tea in my sunshiney living room and I kept on reading straight through until I finished it. It is a complete delight and it makes me hope for many more tales about the uproarious Alvin Ho.

Alvin is still pretty freaked out by the world in general at the beginning of this second book. This is why things do not look good when his dad proposes that they go on a father/son camping trip. His dad thinks it will give Alvin confidence, and make him less afraid of the woods and the great outdoors. Alvin thinks not so much. The novel follows Alvin as he tries to avoid the trip, prepare for the trip and survive the trip.

One of the many impressive things about this slim book is Lenore Look’s gift for characterization. She can reveal a great deal about her characters in a single phrase. For instance, Alvin describes Anibelly, his little baby sister, as “a stoplight in the middle of my life” because she’s always right there in the middle of things whenever he needs to just keep moving. The secondary characters – Alvin’s dad and his Uncle Dennis and Anibelly – all come through as complex and fully believable people in the story. The voice is outstanding, and while Alvin is certainly precocious, he’s convincing for his age. LeUyen Pham’s black and white illustrations add a great deal to the madcap feel of the narrative and bring the characters to life perfectly.

This is charming, clever and heartwarming hilarity perfect for precocious readers everywhere. (Adults included).

More Alvin fans:

Maw Books



Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters is published by Schwartz & Wade Books.