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, 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