Quirky, Weird and Wonderful:

These are books that I have discovered over the years and want to celebrate.
Some are out of print, some are new, but most of them have fallen through the cracks for some reason
or another and are not on the general must read lists of books for children.
This does not mean I do not love award winners and best sellers,
but I have a soft spot for the unappreciated and misunderstood.
Please understand that my taste is eclectic, slightly warped and a bit dark.
I like books that make me laugh, books that make me cry, and books that make me think.

I welcome suggestions. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

June 29, 1999 by David Wiesner

OK, I've recognized a pattern. I am posting books of award winning authors, but the books I like are not the ones that won the awards. So, am I just ornery or is there a logic behind my preferences? Hmmm... could be ornery.

But, it may be that these talented authors have created many really good books and the ones that have won awards may not necessarily be their best. They might just be the ones that were the right books at the right time or the ones that appeal to the most people. Or maybe I'm just ornery. Having never been on a children's Literature award committe, I can only speculate, but I do know that every year is different. Sort of like wine.

David Wiesner has won three, yes three Caldecotts, and specializes in amazing wordless picture books. Yet, my favorite of his works is not an award winner. Instead I adore June 29,1999. Yes, I love Tuesday and always read it early in the year for Kindergarteners. I talk about "reading" pictures and telling your own story. We even add dialog together!

But still, June 29th has my heart. Instead of flying frogs, it has beautiful flying vegetables. (Arugula in Ashtabula). It also has words and a plot with an arc that is more complex then visiting town and finding your way home or seeing pictures within pictures. It has characters with names and relationships and conflict, even geographical puns! This is a story that children of various ages can relate to in many different ways.

A science experiment gone awry and its intersection with an alien tourist cruise ship, the plot of June 29th is wonderfully inventive! Holly Evens sends vegetables up in the air for a science experiment and, then, is surprised when giant vegetables descend all over the country. It's a mystery; it's an invasion; it's science, and headlines from the tabloids.

As much I admire Wiesner's illustrations, I'm afraid his Caldecott award winning works lack this complexity of plot and character. The Caldecott is an award for illustration and, in my opinion, Wiesner does deserve all of them, but I wish he would write a story again as good as June 29th, 1999.

June 29th, 1999
ISBN-10: 0395727677
ISBN-13: 978-0395727676

Teacher Notes: I love having a map when reading this and finding places like Ashtabula. Read this when the class plants seeds in the spring and then see what sort of stories your kids write!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jeannie Baker - author/illustrator

I love the art of collage and author/illustrator, Jeannie Baker, is one of the best. Her work is gorgeous and full of rich details. Made from natural materials, like sand, bark, twigs and moss, her collages capture and evoke nature beautifully.

Baker is Australian and, obviously, cares about the environment. Some of her books are almost preachy, but the images are so riveting that you don't really notice. Its the details, that catch your imagination and the changing point of view. Imagine trying to see a forest and then a leaf. Baker can do that! Her books are not subtle. Instead they are carefully, lovingly constructed pleas for us to look and care about the world around us.

Where the Forest Meets the Sea
is about a tropical rainforest, Home is about city life, but both have to do with time and change and how humans impact their environments. The Story of Rosy Dock is the only picture book I know of that has to do with invasive plant species! I don't really have one favorite of her books, rather I want to give a shout out for any of them. Baker was creating books for children about the natural world long before it was fashionable. Please check them out.

Teacher Notes: It is a mess, but I've found students love making collages from natural materials like Baker's. I've seen BIG collages in the Scottish Storyline method. that were just gorgeous. Baker's books were the seed.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Eva - Peter Dickinson

Dystopian novels are pretty big right now. Hunger Games, ...., the list goes on. I don't really want to dwell on the reasons why. But I do understand the attraction, the gut wrenching understanding that the terrible future imagined just might be possible. Reading a really good story about a bad future makes me look around at the here and now and see what is still good and worth keeping.

Many of these stories are really dark, but, for some reason, I don't seem to remember them well. Maybe I've become jaded or I'm reading too fast. But one has stuck in my mind for years. I think I first read EVA more than 30 years ago and it still haunts me. I read it again a while ago and it does feel dated, but the concept is so strong I didn't mind.

What if the world were in really bad shape and a girl had her brain implanted in a chimpanzee? What if she was torn between two species? What if she could teach the chimps? What if they could start over? These are really BIG questions with lots of repercussions.

EVA won the Phoenix award in 2008 which means there are lots of others who feel it is a great book that did not get enough attention. It was used for years by schools and it is being dropped now, but I hope it is not forgotten. This is the sort of book that makes us think.

Teacher Notes: This does have some references to sex, so be prepared.

Eva by Peter Dickinson
Laurel Leaf; First Thus edition (October 1, 1990)
ISBN-10: 0440207665
ISBN-13: 978-0440207665

Friday, July 9, 2010

Summertime from Porgy and Bess by George and Ira Gershwin, and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward ; Illustrated by Mike Wimmer

It is over 100 degrees today and I thought of this book.
I love the song
Summertime from Porgy and Bess and this illustrated version does a wonderful job of capturing the lazy heat of summer and the love of family. Brothers and sisters run in fields, sit on porches and are watched by loving parents.

I spent a few years of my childhood in Alabama and just seeing these pictures reminds me of the south. I remember ice tea, hiding in the shade, and relatives asking me to give them some "sugar" (kisses).
Mike Wimmer's paintings are just lovely. I keep buying copies and giving them away - especially at baby showers.

This is a wonderfully evocative rendition of African-American country life. I've heard a few gripes by people of color that there are too many books about slavery, immigration or struggles in general. This book is a celebration of the good things - even when life is hard.

If you like books based on songs, there are a few more that I'd recommend - the strongest based on African-American spirituals and also wonderfully illustrated. Check out: This Little Light of Mine, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, and He's Got the Whole World in His Hands, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. I love reading It's a Wonderful World illustrated by Ashley Bryan. A new version of This Land is Your Land has great illustrations by Kathy Jakobsen, though I wish they were larger. Lots of lists around but these are my favorites right now.

Summertime from Porgy and Bess by George and Ira Gershwin, and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward ;
Illustrated by Mike Wimmer
Aladdin (June 1, 2002)


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Manneken Pis -A Simple Story of a Boy Who Peed on a War. By Vladimir Radunsky

Here is another anti-war book, seems my mind is wandering that way. This one is definitely in the quirky category.

When I first saw
Manneken Pis, I really could not believe the manuscript made it past Marketing. Even though the story is based on a famous statue in Belgium, it is still all about war and... a boy peeing. The cover is a boy peeing. The punchline is a boy peeing. Now, imagine the sales chart. Also imagine reading this to a class of 2nd graders. My favorite response, amid squeals and laughter, was a shocked, very serious "That's in-proprate." It might be a better story to read one-on-one.

But it is worth reading and discussing. This book is an allegory of peacemaking. Radunsky's childlike, bold paintings illustrate the conflict and consequences of war from the point of view of a small boy. Then the boy needs to pee and this simple act brings both sides together in laughter.
End of war.
I wish it were so simple!

  • Manneken Pis - A Simple Story of a Boy Who Peed on a War by VladimirRadunsky
  • Atheneum/Anne Schwartz Books
  • ISBN-10: 0689831935
  • ISBN-13: 978-0689831935

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss

I missed Dr. Suess's birthday.

Since I am not working in an elementary school this year, it passed without the hoopla, hats and celebratory readings. But I was reminded today, as a librarian and I were weeding in an old school library. The Seuss books were well loved, ripped and scribbled in, held together with tape. It really is amazing how hard it is to let them go to book heaven. It is also amazing how many of his books are still popular. Most authors have one or two books which are the ones that become their legacy, I think Seuss has four times that.

But there are some of his books that are not well known. My friend had never seen The Butter Battle Book and then had to listen while I excitedly talked it up.
Book talk -book rant?

The Butter Battle Book is the book I always read to 3rd grade and up for Dr. Seuss's birthday. I would start out by explaining that sometimes books have messages that writers are trying to impart. Dr. Seuss wrote this book to express his political opinions about war. He wrote this during the Cold War when the USA and the Soviet Union were having an arms race, building bigger and more dangerous weapons. (I like to tell students about growing up near Washington D.C. and how we had bomb drills and how scared we were. How we all knew someone who had built a bomb shelter in their backyard or basement. That usually gets their attention.)

Then I read the book. In true Seuss style, his story of war between the Yooks and the Zooks is told with humor and wonderful illustrations. The Rube Goldberg type weapons with names like "Jigger-Rock Snatchem" increase in size and complexity, as the battle over butter side up or down becomes a full fledged war. I have to admit that sometimes I skip some words, if I'm pressed for time, but the basic premise and the pictures are so strong, it doesn't matter. Seuss did not bother being subtle and this book was actually banned at one point during the Cold War, presumably because he presented both sides as equally culpable in the acceleration of conflict.

What I love about this book is that children get it. The Butter Battle Book is one of the best books I know of to inspire discussion about conflict on all levels.
Thanks Theo.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I am hoping that Tim Burton's movie version of Alice in Wonderland will inspire children to read the book and discover how much better it is than the movie. If so, I won't be so angry and disappointed at his turning the story into a simplistic war-mongering tale.

This is one of my all time favorite books and I found it very sad, as a librarian, that so few children know the original book. Instead, most know the Disney version, which is really very lovely and remarkably true to the original, but still an abridged version. The original is so much more complex. (I should say originals, as Through the Looking Glass is really a separate tale.)

Alice is a prime example of literary nonsense that is full of allusions, puns, and not so subtle themes. Lewis Carroll (Dodson) was a brilliant storyteller and pulled together bits and pieces of the real Alice's world to create a magical story. (As a teen, I loved an annotated version that explained political and philosophical references in the text. Yes, I was a literary nerd.)

But I think Alice has really lasted this long and become so popular because the characters are so wonderfully imagined. Read it again and notice the details, the individual voice of each character. (Disney noticed.) There is a reality to Wonderland's madness, a consistency of lunacy, that pulls the reader in, along with Alice, down the rabbit hole. There the language and detail are as potent as any bottle labeled "drink me".

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was a hit in Victorian England and has never been out of print. There have been numerous versions with different illustrations, but the original ones by Tenniel are those that I fell in love with and I've found it hard to accept others. That's what happens with a first love.

Teacher Notes: This is actually a great read-a-loud for 3/4th grade. Compare and contrast to the movie. I would love to teach this at the middle school level and make connections to Victorian England and Philosophy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen is often referred to as the "Hans Christian Anderson" of America, but, unfortunately, many of her works are out of print. This is a sad reflection on the state of children's book publishing. Maybe the Kindle will rediscover her work.

Yolen is terribly prolific and has a tenacious ability to adapt to the market, (graphic novel!). She seems to have no fear of experimentation and I am always ready to be surprised and impressed at her latest creations. I know it is rather presumptuous, but I'd like to share my favorites of her work.

Yolen clearly understands allegory and poetry, combining them in stories rich with language and meaning. (Owl Moon, which I do love, is still a favorite of teachers as an example of metaphor.) In the 1970's, she published a number of folktale-like story collections, which , in my opinion, are some of her best work. My favorites are The Hundredth Dove and Dream Weaver. The voice and emotion in these stories are so impressive - and the knowledge of character. In Dream Weaver, a blind woman tells fortunes, as she weaves. In these stories within the story, Yolen subtly exposes truths about her characters. She rarely gives straight answers and respects the reader's ability to infer and make connections. I appreciate that.

My other favorites are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Cards of Grief is a Science-Fiction story for adults - but very accessible for YA or younger. I love this story for putting a new twist on the anthropological visit to a new planet theme. What other stories focus on grief rituals? This has philosophy and ethics and art and love. It is also a bit strange. I really enjoy watching a writer take risks. And with such rich details!
Then there is
Commander Toad. Any child who loves Star Wars needs to read this series of books. The puns are so awful and so numerous, the reader will have to move beyond obsession and laugh.I'm waiting for these to be reissued as graphic novel -early readers with updated graphics. I think there is a whole new generation of Star Wars lovers ready for Commander Toad.

This is one multi-talented writer!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

God Went to Beauty School by Cynthia Rylant

I buy a lot of books at Title Wave, the Multnomah County Library discard store, and have found at least four copies of this book, in brand new condition, which is indicative of how little it is read. But, when I see a copy of God Went to Beauty School, I grab it and then give it away. This is probably the closest I will ever come to spreading the Word.

I am so proud of Cynthia Rylant and her editors. Yes, she can write perfect early readers and be successful, but here she wrote wonderful, humorous poetry about God, even though she must have known that it was a killer combination. Poetry is sort of fringy to begin with, but religion... religion is the new sex. Even I was nervous about reading it aloud in public school and I've been called a "Provocateur." With sex you get titters and maybe an angry parent, but God... disagreements about God cause wars.

I would really have a hard time imagining these poems being taken badly, but I was raised a Unitarian and do not understand religious fundamentalism. Basically, these poems illustrate the question, what if God was one of us?
What if he got a desk job, just to see what it would be like? What if God was here, playing poker with Gabriel? (God needs a break now and then.) What if God was here to experience love and pain and reverence? What if God had a dog named Ernie?

I love these poems. They ask the reader to look at the world through the eyes of God and smile and laugh and cry. Some folks might find these poems sacrilegious, but
that is so not what Rylant is up to. I find them a celebration of the sacred in the mundane. God likes popcorn! Enjoy....

God Went to Beauty School
by Cynthia Rylant
HarperTempest (Jun 2003)

Monday, April 12, 2010

How Angel Peterson Got His Name by Gary Paulsen

Yes, the author is Gary Paulsen, but just look at the cover. This is not Hatchet. How Angel Peterson Got His Name is funny, quirky and, claims to be, non-fiction. These stories of Paulsen's early days as a young boy and some of the dangerous -near death adventures he had with his friends are really timeless. Just ask my long-boarding, rock-climbing son. Rather than serious wilderness survival, this is the adolescent fool side of Paulsen. (I would hope some of the stories are exaggerated or Paulsen and his friend are very lucky to be alive.)

Paulsen knows his audience. He keeps the writing simple and stretches the tension. He includes just the right amount of humor and naughtiness - such as peeing on an electric fence. These stories have speed and camaraderie, wasps and killer dogs, and stupid, stupid boys. I think the first time I read them, I laughed so hard I almost cried.

In my experience, children tend to avoid short stories, they are just not that rewarding after going to all the trouble of getting into the book. But I keep pushing these, reading them aloud, and watching for the spark of recognition. Paulsen has a few other non-fiction books which are also good, but this is my favorite.

This is the book I read to try to hook 4th grade boys. And not just to hook them, but also to inspire them as writers. So many children confuse writing with fiction and forget that they tell stories all the time. This book reminds them that everyday is a story. Maybe I shouldn't have read it to my son.

How Angel Peterson Got His Name by Gary Paulsen
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (January 14, 2003)
ISBN-10: 0385729499
ISBN-13: 978-0385729499

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams

OK, Here is another book for demonstrating point of view, though that is really not why I love it. I love it because it is about storytelling and imagination. It is, in fact, written in two points of view which could be confusing except the style of illustration changes to clue the reader. The voice also changes. It may sound confusing, but take a look and see. It works!

The story starts with one narrator who lends some markers to her friend and then the friend, Bedimmi, starts drawing and telling the stories as she draws, though sometimes the narrator interrupts. The stories are all about cherries.... Cherries and Cherry Pits.

Cherries and Cherry Pits was written by Vera B. Williams who is one of my all time favorite author/illustrators. William's illustrations are always fun and colorful and slightly different. She is brilliant at creating pictures that look as if they were done by children, but are sophisticated at the same time. She was ahead of her time in portraying children of color and also families that are struggling financially, yet it always feels so natural that the reader barely notices. She has won two Caldecott honor awards for A Chair for My Mother and "More, More, More," Said the Baby, and, though, great books, I find them much less complex and interesting than Cherries and Cherry Pits. It's a toss up, for me between this one and Stringbean's Trip to the Shining Sea (first post!).

Teacher Notes: Besides the obvious Point of View modeling, this book is a great example of using pictures to stimulate narrative. After reading this book, I've given students pictures (from National Geographic) and asked them to tell me the story of what is happening. I often used pictures as writing prompts, but usually got more interesting stories after reading this book.
  • Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams
  • Greenwillow Books (April 29, 1991)
  • ISBN-10: 0688104789
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688104788

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Day in the Life of Murphy by Alice Provensen

Here is another great read- a-loud, but only for folks who are either dog lovers, theater majors or just general exhibitionists. All three together would work best.

A Day in the Life of Murphy is hysterically simple. It is just about a day in the life of a dog named Murphy - or as he thinks: "Murphy - Stop -That". But, unlike most children's books, this book is in first person, or first dog. Be prepared to snuffle and pant as you read. I was even tempted to get down on all fours and some children did later. The voice of Murphy is so .... dog-like and exuberant and ..."Wait! What was that? Bark! Bark! Bark!"

Every year teachers would come running into my library with requests for books that demonstrate certain writing traits. Metaphors! Setting! Point of view! This is one I would give them for First Person. I only wish I had a hidden camera to watch them reading it. Woof.

Alice Provensen is one of the grand dames of Children's books - both as a writer and illustrator. (I wonder if anyone has done a study of the lifespan of children's book writers - I'm guessing we are up there with beekeepers.) One of my daughter's favorite books was Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, written and illustrated by Alice and her husband Martin Provensen in 1974. Alice Provensen did a great job again, 30 years later! (I would not be surprised if Murphy was a not so direct descendant of the dogs in that earlier book.) Her illustrations for Murphy are clean and sweet and evocative. But it is the voice that makes this story. Murphy's voice - more nose than brain.
Teacher Note: First person.
  • A Day in the Life of Murphy by Alice Provensen
  • Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing (May 1, 2003)
  • ISBN-10: 0689848846
  • ISBN-13: 978-0689848841

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by Mark Beuhner

You know how you remember little bits of a story, but not enough to find it again? That is what happened to me with Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm. All I remembered was balloons growing out of the ground and how much just the idea made me smile. I tried looking up books about balloons, but could not find the book that niggled at my memory. (You would think I would have remembered it was a FARM!)

Then, one day while walking my dog with illustrator and fellow writer, Carolyn Conahan, I mentioned my search for the balloon book. "Oh, Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm!" said Carolyn. "We have that." And sure enough, that was it, a Balloon Farm! I can't believe I did not remember the cow on the cover.

Rereading it, I felt that same feeling: what a wonderful idea! The plot is a bit thin, but the pictures more than make up for it with fields full of bright, candy colored, balloons. This book is just a bit different. Farmers in overalls dancing under the moon. Monster balloons growing out of the ground. I particulary like that the first person main character is a black girl, even though there is no mention of race or gender in the text. Read this and smile and wish it were true. A Balloon Farm!

  • Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by Mark Beuhner
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; 1st edition (April 29, 1994)
  • ISBN-10: 0688078877
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688078874

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Double Trouble in Walla Walla by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Salvatore Murdocca

There are some books that work best as read-a-louds. Double Trouble in Walla Walla is one of them. It almost doesn't work when read silently. Instead the rhythm and exuberant excess of the "wibble-wobble word warp" that happens in Walla Walla needs to be heard. Just remember to breathe (and practice!).

Andrew Clements went on to write a whole slew of school stories with Frindle at the top of the list, but, for younger students, I love this one. There is barely a plot, but so what! As readers, we get to follow Lulu and her teacher into the word warp. Full of tongue twisters and double slang, this book is just fun. The illustrations are bright and cheerful, but it's really the word warp that pulls you in.

"Fie-fie, my my, rag-bag, tie-dye! Beep-beep, ho-ho, paw-paw, dodo!" This is how we rap in the Northwest!
  • Double Trouble in Walla Walla by Andrew Clements,
  • Illustrated by Salvatore Mudocca
  • Millbrook Press (September 1, 1997)
  • ISBN-10: 0761302751
  • ISBN-13: 978-0761302759

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fox by Margaret Wild, Illustrated by Ron Brooks

Fox by Margaret Wild is one of those picture books that is not for young children. This story is dark and scary and one of the most emotionally intense stories I have ever read.

Dog and Magpie are both damaged; Dog is blind in one eye and Magpie has a burnt wing. But they forge a friendship which transcends grief and create a "new creature" that tugs on your heartstrings. Then fox comes and tests their bond. It doesn't go well.

Wild shows us despair and grief, jealousy and hatred, loyalty and betrayal. All in 32 pages. I've read this to rowdy 4th graders and had total quiet. One kid just kept saying "Wow."

The illustrations by Ron Brooks are gorgeous and powerful with scratched black lines, bird-like, as if Magpie could draw. Painted with a palate of reds, browns and black, the illustrations match the burning metaphors of Wild's poetic text. "He flickers through the trees like a tongue of fire."

Wild is one of the best known children's book writers in Australia. If
Fox is any indication, we should know her work better. I've heard this story referred to as "epic" and like a Greek tragedy. There is even an opera written in Australia that is based on Fox . This is one allegorical story that will haunt you in a good way.

Teacher Notes: There are some very detailed lesson plans for FOX on the internet. Check out:http://www.gardenstheatre.qut.edu.au/downloads/Fox_Teachers_notes.pdf
  • Fox by Margaret Wild, Illustrated by Ron Brooks
  • Kane/Miller Book Publishers (September 2006)
  • ISBN-10: 1933605154
  • ISBN-13: 978-1933605159

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith, Illustrated by Marla Frazee

Mrs. Biddlebox is struggling... struggling to stay positive and struggling to get noticed. First published by HarperCollins with a wild and abstract- primarily black and white- cover showing Mrs. Biddlebox wrestling with a bad day, the book quickly went out of print, even though it won some awards. Reissued by Harcourt a few years later with a new, blue, more traditional cover and a subtitle, Mrs. Biddlebox is still not well known. Which is too bad.

The story is relatively simple - a woman wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and makes a great effort to become positive. The rhyme is great with some wonderfully quirky images that reflect a different take on being positive. "She rolled the sky like carpeting." Mrs. Biddlebox is determined to wack that bad day and the energy is great. Linda Smith wrote the text while battling cancer and died before it was published. Though it is not a depressing book, it does have an emotional intensity that is unusual in picture books.

But the illustrations make this story! I'm not always a fan of Marla Frazee. I often find her work overly done and self-conscious, but I love these illustrations. They are loose and humourous and detailed and abstract all at the same time. I don't know if she was inspired by Smith's metaphors or just wanted to loosen up, but I'd love to see her do more in this style. For those who feel that the concepts and illustrations are too abstract for children, please give it a try. I've read this to many classes of all ages and immediately gotten multiple stories of how to "beat the blues".
Don't underestimate children!

  • Mrs. Biddlebox , Her bad day and what she did about it.
  • Harcourt Children's Books (October 1, 2007)
  • ISBN-10: 0152063498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0152063498

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Stick Horse by Ken Raney

Stick Horse by Ken Raney is a wordless ride through space and time. I'm not sure why it didn't catch on, perhaps it is because it was published by a small press. But it is worth checking out. Especially for young boys.

There is a bit of a disconnect between the carefully rendered color pencil illustrations and the time travel theme, but I like it. At first glance it seems like a simple sweet story with a tow-headed boy and then, wow, he is zipping past the Statue of Liberty. What fun!

The pictures are very easy to follow; it is almost a wordless easy reader. There is not much of a plot, but the concepts of time travel, replete with dinosaurs and a possible boy from the future make this a fun read. I can't imagine many five year-olds that wouldn't love this.

Unfortunately, it is very hard to find. Sometimes you have to wonder about an industry that dumps its babies and moves on so quickly. Don't get me started!

Stick Horse by Ken Raney
Medlicott Press
ISBN10: 0962526142

ISBN13: 9780962526145

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A New Coat for Anna by Harriet Ziefert

Ok, A New Coat for Anna may not be that weird, but I do love it and just discovered that there is a new Chinese version, which I find a bit strange.
I recently spent some time in China and found myself looking for children's books in Shanghai and HongKong. I found lots of Disney and some Scholastic titles and a few original books, but not much else. (Miss Frizzle had been changed into a man! That was surprising.)

Even as a Librarian at a school with a good population of Chinese immigrants, I had a hard time finding books in Chinese. But here is
A New Coat for Anna and I also found Owl at Home -in Mandarin! I think someone saw a market. How many people in the world read Chinese? Wow. Brilliant!

I can imagine that
A New Coat for Anna is a story that would appeal to the Chinese. It is a lesson in community, frugality and resourcefulness - all virtues honored in China. The story shows how a girl's coat is made from gathering the wool, to dying, weaving and tailoring and how her mother trades to pay for it. A basic economics lesson, it takes place in Europe after WWII. It is sweet and educational and Anita Lobel's illustrations are lovely.

Just not a book I would think of to translate into Chinese. I need to keep my mind open...
(I swear the cover illustration that I saw had darker hair!)

Owl at Home by Arthur Lobel

I just discovered that I seem to have "lost" my last copy of Owl at Home and will have to get another. I do tend to lend them out as this is one of my all time favorite books. There is a new edition, which is great as old ones are not that easy to find. Frog and Toad are wonderful, but there is something about Owl that just captured my heart. I know that this book is on a number of teacher lists, but I still don't feel it is fully appreciated.

There is only one book about Owl rather than the collection of Frog and Toad and I think I know why. Because
Owl at Home is special. Lobel has done something here that is VERY different and difficult. He wrote an entire book with just one character.

Maybe it is because I'm a bit of a loner, but I totally appreciate these stories. There are no friends, no real relationships, just Owl and his imagination. Owl talks to the wind, Owl sees his feet as bumps, Owl makes tea, Owl, runs up and down the stairs, Owl watches the moon. I'm afraid that, if there had been more Owl stories, they may have seemed repetitious, but, in one book, they are brilliant.

My favorite story is Tear-water Tea where Owl thinks sad thoughts so he can cry into a teapot and then, drinking his tea, remarks that "it tastes a bit salty, but Tear-water Tea is always very good." Such self-therapy! The pathos, the drama, the concept. As a writer, I am in awe. And it is an Easy Reader. So hard, so good.

Teacher notes: I have used Tear-water Tea as a writing prompt with 2nd and 3rd graders. What funny/sad things would they think of to cry about for Tear-water Tea? The only response I remember years later is: "TV where the only show is Barney!"
  • Owl at Home by Arthur Lobel
  • Publisher: HarperCollins 1975
  • ISBN-10: 0064440346
  • ISBN-13: 978-0064440349

Monday, February 15, 2010

Voices of the Heart by Ed Young

Belated Valentine's post.
The suggested age range for Voices of the Heart is 4-8, but this is really one of those books that works more for adults than children. I was not surprised to learn that it is considered a great wedding gift.

Beautiful collages illustrate 26 Chinese characters that have to do with emotions and moral character traits -such as contentment, loyalty and mercy. Each visual character is broken down to its basic elements and then poetically explained in English. All the collages contain a heart and, in Young's expressive style, evoke the emotion described. Sound a bit esoteric? It is, but it is also thought provoking and moving.

The concept of pictographic language building a definition of emotional qualities is hard for those of us with phonetic alphabets to grasp. I would really be surprised if a 4 year old would understand this at all, but I've presented one or two of the collages to older elementary students and they were intrigued. This is an interesting and heartfelt way to introduce Chinese characters and discuss emotional character traits at the same time. Next year, give a copy of Voices of the Heart to your loved one for Valentine's Day.

Voices of the Heart

By Ed Young
Scholastic Press, 1997
ISBN-10: 0590501992

Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Librarian is a Camel by Margriet Ruurs

My Librarian is a Camel! Isn't this a wonderful title? I would be interested in this book even if I wasn't a Librarian. Actually the full title is My Librarian is a Camel: How Books are Brought to Children Around the World and it pretty much describes the subject of this book which is not fiction.

Yes, I've left the land of fiction for camel librarians. Sounds like fiction, you say, but nay, there are pictures in this informational text of not only camel librarians, but boats and buses and wheelbarrows and horses. The book is a travelogue of children's libraries from far corners of the world where Libraries are not defined by walls, but by the function of lending books.

I love sharing this book with children who are book lovers and regular library users. Just seeing pictures of other children around the world enjoying books is important, but seeing the various ways those books are delivered is an education. It is an education in geography and culture, economics and social studies. Hopefully, children who see this book will feel more connected to other children around the world and will not take the libraries we have for granted.

Also check out:
My School in the Rain Forest: How Children Attend School Around the World
  • My Librarian is a Camel
  • Boyds Mills Press (August 15, 2005)
  • ISBN-10: 1590780930
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590780930

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Pig War by Betty Baker, Pictures by Robert Lopshire

Maybe its because I live in the Pacific NW or maybe it is just because I'm a history buff, but I love this book. I have a good collection of vintage children's books, but only really feel that a few of them are worth reissuing. The Pig War would be one (though I have to admit, I might update the illustrations.) Based on the true story of an 1860's boundary dispute between Britain and the USA in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State, this is one of those true stories that is stranger than fiction.

The Pig War
is a wonderful story about diplomacy and the challenges of peacekeeping, which, unfortunately is always timely. Seems in 1860 the ownership of San Juan Island was contested and the island settled by both British and Americans. When a British pig got into an American garden and was killed, an international incident replete with infantry and warships was triggered. The standoff lasted twelve years, but the only casualty was the pig.

Not only is this a wonderful "real" story, but
The Pig War is an Easy Reader, an I CAN READ HISTORY BOOK, which means the story is stripped to its bare essentials and seems even more ludicrous. When an act of war is "The farmer shot my pig." the reader is forced to think, is that all? I usually don't like books that are too didactic, but having this mini-war presented in the format of an easy reader works for me! I am pretty sure this is out of print, but just had to include it.

Teacher Notes: This REALLY happpened! Manifest Destiny, Boundary disputes, Diplomacy, Civil War Times. It makes a great play!

The Pig War by Betty Baker, Pictures by Robert Lopshire
ISBN0060203331 / 9780060203337 / 0-06-020333-1


Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean

Yes, Neil Gaiman won the Newbery for The Graveyard Book, so none of his books should have a problem getting attention. But I still feel The Wolves in the Walls needs a shout out. It got great notices, but I'm not sure that it is really appreciated. I'd love to see the sales info, but it is my anecdotal experience that many adults don't really like it. It does not fit the mold of a children's book. The graphics are dark and creepy and so is the story about wolves hiding in the walls. I've watched adults open it, flip through it and frown. So what is there to love? Its creepiness!

There really are very few picture books that are scary. Adults tend to want to protect young children and keep childhood pretty and fun. I do not want to know the deep psychological reasons for why children like to be scared, but, in my experience as a librarian, lots of my students asked for scary all the time and nothing was scary enough. Those children liked The Wolves in the Walls. One child said it reminded him of nightmares. He was smiling!

The Wolves in the Walls is unsettling with dark disjointed images and a mix of illustration techinques that exaggerate and even confuse. McKean did a great job of making it look creepy. The plot is simple enough, but also dark with a sense of forboding and hints of chaos. This book reminds us that childhood is not sweet, but is often full of darkness. I think Gaiman understands that children are often fascinated by what they fear and may need to have a way of seeing into the dark. Or he is just one strange dude. Either way, I like it.

The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman
illustrated by Dave McKean
HarperCollins Juvenile Books
ISBN: 038097827X

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Shortcut and BAAA -Macaulay

David Macaulay is one of our Renaissance Men and seems to know more than anyone about everything. But... I have to confess that those wonderfully detailed crosscut illustrations of his leave me with a "wow-yawn". I found myself avoiding his work, so I wouldn't feel embarrassed at my lack of interest. Then I discovered two picture books which I love.

Shortcut is a fun, convoluted mystery that is simple enough for very early readers. Each character has their own "chapter", yet each is interconnected in ways that can only be figured out by paying attention to the visual clues in the colorful illustrations. It requires a close read and that is the beauty of it. How many easy children's books have tightly constructed plots? I love watching kids flip back to find the clues that foreshadow something that happens later. This book is engaging!

When I found
BAAA, which is so wonderfully dark and weird, I couldn't quite believe this was the same David Macaulay. This is humor and political satire with a sprinkling of dystopian canabalism. Wow!

A deserted earth is repopulated by sheep who gradually become more and more like humans with human problems such as overpopulation and political turmoil. Food shortages are finally resolved with "Baaa" - which affects the population problem a bit too well. At the end, after all the sheep are gone, the fish start to rise. This is not for little children! But I have read it to fifth graders and they thought it was "cool". Beasts!

Shortcut by David Macaulay
Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine Books
1999 (first published 1995)
ISBN0618006079, 9780618006076

BAAA by David Macaulay
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985
ISBN0395395887, 9780395395882

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Meanwhile... by Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer must be shaking his head at all the hype today over "graphic novels". He was using his formidable graphic talent to create comic style books years ago. Unfortunately, he might have been ahead of his time and some of his early books are not as appreciated as his latest such as
Bark, George.

Meanwhile... is a book that I feel really delivers on the promise of graphic novels. The pictures are wonderful and use the graphic techniques of panels, close ups and word balloons to full advantage. Unlike many graphic novels the words are simple enough that they can actually be read by children. This really is a book that can be "read" by all ages.

It is also hysterical! Only Feiffer would write a book that pokes fun at the melodrama of comics and is so funny. What if the word "meanwhile", which comics use to change scenes, was really a verb? What if we could "meanwhile" somewhere else when we need to? It is a wonderful premise and Feiffer plays with it in true comic-book style. His character zips from one disaster to another with always one last chance to escape by writing "meanwhile". Its a simple story without a lot of depth, but really fun.

Teacher Notes: Just read this once at any grade and let the class yell out "Meanwhile" and they will never forget the word works as a transition. (You may have a problem, though, with the three dots after the word...)
  • Meanwhile... by Jules Feiffer
  • HarperCollins (March 7, 1998)
  • ISBN-10: 0062059262
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062059260

Stringbean's Trip to the Shining Sea by Vera Williams

I really believe that, if this book had been twice the size, it could have been a contender for a Caldecott. The pictures are that great! Unfortunately, it is barely 6x9.5 inches, which makes it difficult to really appreciate the illustrations. It still won a number of awards at the time such as The NYTimes Best Illustrated Book, but I haven't seen it mentioned in a while. Too bad. I would love to see it reissued in a larger format. Hint, hint.

Stringbean's Trip to the Shining Sea
is designed as a travelogue scrapbook and the narrative can be pieced together from messages on the back of postcards and occassional (painted) photographs. The story is sweet with two brothers and a dog driving across the country. Along the way they visit some strange places, find a clown's shoe and, finally, reach the Pacific Ocean.

The wonder, though, is in the details. Each postcard depicts a place the boys visit as they travel and the illustrations are really funny, all the way down to the stamps. My favorite postcard celebrates the Bristlecone Pine and has other animals (and fungi) arranged like a halo around the tree with lifespans labeled to compare to the Pine's age. Inky Cap mushrooms live 3-5 days while Bristlecones have been know to live for 4,900 years!

The tone is amusing and educational at the same time and had me running to check the dates ; were they real or just made up? The stamps are terribly cute sendups to stamp art. One depicts five babies as "Future Presidents of America." Just made me laugh!

This book is a great homage to small town America. Even as it makes fun of tourist spots, it also celebrates and educates the reader as the boys make their way across America. Vera Williams wrote some wonderful books that have been well received such as
A Chair for My Mother and More, More, More Said the Baby. I wish this one got more attention.

Teacher Note
: I've had students follow Stringbean's trip on maps and used the book to model a journal style of writing. We have even designed stamps!

Stringbean's Trip to the Shining Sea
by Vera B. Williams and Jennifer Williams
ISBN13: 9780688167011
ISBN10: 0688167012