The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: The book is always better than the movie.

This review was first posted on March 27th, 2013. With the recent release of the movie The Book Thief I wanted to remind people to read the remarkable and exceptional book it’s based on and here is why:

Zusak has created a riveting narrative, sprinkled with perfect scenes and poignant moments that readers will linger over and allow to roll through their minds and settle in. I found myself re-reading passages and trying to hold tight to the feelings they stirred in me. And in moments of pure literary perfection I found myself hovering in this world, side by side with these full and flawed and human characters, feeling their terror, heartbreak, relief and joy.

This glimpse of life during the war is about those not often considered: the ordinary citizens of a small German town forced to pledge their loyalty to their country and its quest for world domination. What of those citizens, those who had no allegiance to Hitler or the Nazi party, those who opposed the war, those who had no hatred for Jews? They seemed to only have two choices: fake it and live with the pain of guilt, or speak out and face imprisonment, torture, or death.

This book lives with you, imparting its secrets a page at a time, at the readers pace, and leaves an indelible mark on your soul.

 

The Book ThiefTheBookThiefCover

Young Adult

Ages 12 and up

By Markus Zusak

576 pages

Alfred A. Knopf

2006

Markus Zusak has published five books. I am the Messenger, published in 2002, received rave reviews and won multiple awards. The Book Thief, his most recent and even more highly regarded, has been translated into thirty languages. The book is broken into parts—each containing short chapters peppered with important information in bolded notes—making the nearly six hundred pages move swiftly.

Told from the perspective of Death, the story takes place in a fictional German town on the outskirts of Munich during World War II. Though it’s best not to get involved—Death is there to do a job, not get wrapped up in life—Death takes a special interest in the life of nine-year-old Leisel Meminger. It is through Death’s eyes that we experience the events of Leisel’s life.

Death first met Leisel when he came to take her younger brother Werner. The two were on a train with their mother who was taking them to their new home. No longer able to provide for them, she was surrendering her children to foster care. Their father had long since disappeared; the only clue to his absence was a single word, always whispered, “kommunist.” Because of Werner’s death, the shrinking, fractured family was forced to disembark at the next station and bury his body. It was at his funeral that the book thief, Leisel, acquired her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, which had been dropped in the snow by a careless worker.

When Leisel first arrived at the home of her foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, she refused to exit the car. Her new mama and papa could not seem more different from each other, in appearance or temperament. Rosa, a short, stout, rough and loud woman instantly resorted to yelling and swearing at the child; something Leisel must grow accustomed to. But tall and slender Hans, with his calm, soothing, patient words and kind, silvery eyes, was able to coax the small girl out of the car and into her new home.

Leisel’s days consisted of being teased at school (she could not yet read), adventures with Rudy Steiner (her classmate and neighbor who was constantly begging for a kiss, but who also became her best friend) and Rosa’s constant criticism. Rosa did the laundry and ironing for many of the local residents and Leisel was charged with pick-ups, deliveries and collecting the money.

As the beginning of the war approached, Rosa lost more and more customers as citizens were being urged by the government to spend less, tighten their belts and support the war effort. Among Rosa’s customers were the mayor and his wife; it was from their house that the book thief stole her third book. Her second book was not stolen as much as it was rescued from the fires of a book burning. These books come to mean everything to Leisel, and on a few occasions they come to mean quite a lot to some others as well.

Leisel’s nights were comprised of horrific nightmares, which returned the broken girl to the scene of her brother’s death and the loss of her entire family. But the nights were also filled with Hans’s comforting presence. He was determined to show Leisel love and devotion. He spent his nights by her side for as long as she needed him. If she slept, he slept—upright in a chair in her room. If she woke, he woke and would work to take her mind off the terrors that shook her. The two began to pass the wakeful times with reading lessons. They started with The Gravedigger’s Handbook.

Hans was a painter by trade and supplemented his meager income by playing accordion in the local pubs. As the war approached, Hans had trouble finding work, in part because he refused to join the Nazi party; no one wanted to be found patronizing a business owned by someone who was not a member of the party. Hans began to realize that by not joining the party he was drawing unwanted attention. Though he truly wanted no part of the new order, he decided to apply for membership. Everything about Hans’s life needed to appear perfectly normal, in the most unnatural of times, because he was about to do something extremely dangerous. Hans had agreed to hide a Jew.

Max Vanderburg was the son of a man who saved Hans’s life in World War I. Hans had vowed to repay the debt to that man’s family if ever there was an opportunity, and Max was that opportunity. This situation would put them all— Hans, Rosa, Leisel and Max—in grave danger. Hans made Leisel well aware of the dangers of being discovered and scared any thought of sharing the secret out of her. Things were difficult before, now the family had to make their meager food and fuel stretch to accommodate one more person. They built a hiding spot in the basement and did their best to make their lives appear as if nothing had changed.

Leisel saw a kindred spirit in Max and the two formed a bond. Like her, he arrived at the Hubermann’s door with nowhere else to turn; he’d lost his whole family, and he suffered from nightmares. Leisel began to spend many of her nights comforting and soothing Max, just as Hans had done for her.

Leisel’s small town saw a lot of the war. It was along the path to the Dachau concentration camp so they saw many Jews being transported, saw how they were treated and saw what happened to people who tried to help them. (Hans suffers quite a beating at the hands of some guards after trying to share bread with a clearly starved Jew.) The town was subject to several warnings of air raids. It was during these raids that Leisel’s books became so much more important.

During an air raid, residents were instructed to take shelter in their basements. If they did not have a basement, or if their basement was too shallow (like the Hubermann’s was) then people would gather in a neighbor’s basement. This often meant several people, adults and children, taking shelter in a small space for several hours waiting for a bomb to be dropped on them.

At Rosa’s encouragement, Leisel began reading aloud during these times. It mattered not what she read, just that everyone had something to focus on, something to occupy their minds and relieve them of their fear. Because they could not bring Max with them during the air raids, Leisel’s reading helped keep her mind off of him—alone, and unsafe—in their shallow basement. After the raids, upon her return home, she would share the events of the evening with Max, including detailed information on the weather and how the sky looked.

Death leads readers through Liesel’s life from 1939, at age nine, to 1943, at age thirteen. Leisel grows from a small, fragile child into a strong, capable girl. She forges friendships and acquires knowledge of things that no person should ever have to learn. Readers also come to understand how very much Hans and Rosa love her, though each expresses it in different ways.

Death briefly visits Leisel again in 1945. Tragedy struck her world with a vengeance during an air raid that provided the bombs the residents had prayed would never arrive. But something good happens, and then something surprising and wonderful happens. Death’s third and final encounter with Leisel occurs when she is an old woman, with a full life behind her. And that’s all I’ll say about it because this book is truly worth reading and I’d prefer readers to enter this world without certain information.

 

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Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh: A playful lesson in primary colors.

Mouse PaintMouse Paint Cover-001

Board Book

Ages Birth to 3

By Ellen Stoll Walsh

16 pages

Harcourt

1995

 

 

This lighthearted, simple story is also a lesson in primary colors. Three white mice are able to conceal themselves against a sheet of white paper and become invisible to a sleek, gray cat. But when the inquisitive mice discover three paint jars—one red, one yellow and one blue—they nearly blow their cover!

Thinking the jars they’ve discovered are for painting themselves, the three adventurous mice jump right in.

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Their paint drips onto the paper creating bright puddles of color, inspiring the mice to play.

As each mouse—boldly adorned in a primary hue—dances, hops or jumps in the puddles, new and wonderful colors are created.

The illustrations, done in cut-paper collage, are set against a white background and clearly differentiate each vivid color.  The clean and unembellished design is incredibly pleasing; Walsh manages to make a seemingly basic array of primary and secondary colors seem like a celebration.

Each lesson in color mixing is given two full spreads, allowing children time to process how the new colors are made.

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After all the playing in the paint, the mice are feeling sticky and give themselves a bath in the cat’s water bowl.

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Readers are given a helpful reminder on how to create the new colors when the newly cleaned mice decide to continue painting. This time they use the paper instead of themselves and, learning from their past experience, they leave a little bit of white so that they may continue hiding from the cat.

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Walsh’s masterful technique at introducing a basic concept is quite likely to prompt little ones to explore color and art, painting and drawing.

 

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If I Had a Dragon by Tom and Amanda Ellery: Who’s more fun, a baby brother or a dragon?

If I Had a DragonDSC02072

Picture Book

Ages 2-6

By Tom Ellery

Illustrated by Amanda Ellery

40 pages

Simon & Schuster

2006

 

 

The opening page in If I Had a Dragon features a command:

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The urgency and exasperation in the voice of the speaker are palpable but the recipient of the command is unmoved.

“I don’t want to play with my brother. He’s too little.”

This common objection among children with younger siblings will be familiar to many parents and readers. Morton wishes his lump of a baby brother would change into something fun like a bulldozer or—even better—a dragon!

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Comic scenes play out between the hulking, bright green dragon and the small boy, whose shock of red hair is a wonderful complement to the emerald reptile. The massive creature is stretched over the spreads against a sparse, smoky background.

The boy imagines going for walks with his new giant friend.

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But a dragon would rather fly.

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Perhaps a game of hide and seek would be fun…

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But there are not many places such a humongous being could hide.

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Maybe the boy could teach his massive playmate to whistle?

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The succinct text is intermixed with wordless spreads and the simply drawn, cartoonish art is lively and expressive. The combination of the two makes for a hilarious picture book. As Morton imagines all the wonderful things he could do with a dragon, he quickly realizes how a dragon’s size and abilities could actually get in the way of all the fun.

Content in the knowledge that a dragon might not be the best playmate, the boy sends the imaginary beast home and happily joins his little brother for some fun in the sandbox.

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The Monsters’ Monster and Frankenstein: Two wickedly fun picture books for Halloween.

Monster's Monster

The Monsters’ Monster

Picture Book

Ages 2-7

By Patrick McDonnell

32 pages

Little, Brown

2012

 

Patrick McDonnell’s picture book, Me…Jane, was a 2012 Caldecott Honor book. Taking anecdotes from Jane Goodall’s autobiography, he tells the story of Goodall’s childhood, her beloved toy chimpanzee and her early fascination with the natural world. It is a splendid and captivating book and one I highly recommend.  The Monsters’ Monster is charmingly sweet and another must have from this creator. His art is luscious, and his storytelling is pitch perfect.

Three (rather small) monsters—Grouch, Grump and Gloom ‘n’ Doom—lived together in a dark castle high atop a monster-y mountain. Every day the three brutish beasts would argue over which of them was the loudest complainer, or the most miserable.

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They decided the best way to settle their argument was to build the biggest, baddest monster ever. The three fiends gathered tape and staples, gunk and goo, bolts and wires and assembled a monster Monster and brought him to life with a great bolt of lightening. (The diminutive size of the comic and adorable monsters is spotlighted by the humongous size of their Frankenstein-y creation.)

The three giddy monsters could barely contain their excitement as the growling giant stumbled toward them.

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“And then in a deep, booming voice, he said his first words . . . ‘Dank you!’”

The monster’s Monster, built to be a big, bad menace, was anything but. He was so happy to be alive he threw open a window and giggled. Next he greeted every bat, rat, spider and snake in the castle. When he crashed straight through the castle wall and went down to the village below, Monster’s architects followed in amazement.

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Anticipating the monster’s first terrible act, the trio watched as Monster lumbered into the bakery, and awaited the screams and howls that would certainly follow. But after some silence, all they heard was, “Dank you!”

Then Monster clomped out carrying a paper bag and headed toward the beach; Grouch, Grump and Gloom ‘n’ Doom followed after him. When Monster arrived at the beach he sat down in the cool sand. Shortly after, the three perplexed and tired monsters collapsed around him. Then Monster gently patted them on their heads and gave them each a warm, powdered jelly doughnut from his bag.

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At first the three brutes were stunned into silence but then they repeated what they’d learned from Monster. “Thank you!” they said, and the four friends sat and quietly watched the sunrise and none of them thought about how monstrous they could be.

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Frankenstein: A Monstrous ParodyFrankenstein

Based on Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

Picture Book

Ages 3-8

By Ludworst Bemonster

(By Rick Walton & Nathan Hale)

48 pages

Feiwel and Friends

2012

 

For readers not familiar with the picture book Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans—which was published in 1939 and received a Caldecott Honor—it features a fearless young girl that lives under the tutelage of Miss Clavel, a concerned and doting nun, with eleven other girls. “The smallest one was Madeline.”

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One night Miss Clavel senses a disturbance in the house and soon discovers Madeline in distress. The wee girl is rushed to the hospital and promptly has her appendix removed.

Some days later, Miss Clavel and the girls go to visit Madeline in the hospital. The girls covet the toys and candy that fill Madeline’s room but when they see her scar from the surgery they are beside themselves with envy.

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That night after Miss Clavel turned out the light, she, once again, knew something was not right. As she entered the room all the little girls cried, “Boohoo, we want to have our appendix out, too!”

In this delightful parody, the completely adorable main character lives in a creepy old castle with eleven other equally cute monsters. “The ugliest one was Frankenstein.” In the spirit of all things Halloween, the artist uses a variety of orange hues (the illustrations in Madeline were awash in yellow).

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“One bleak and dark and dismal night, Miss Devel turned on her light and whispered, ‘Something is not right.’”

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She soon discovers that Frankenstein has lost his head! He’s quickly taken to the laboratory. Upon awakening, the formerly decapitated monster finds he’s been given a brand new head, bolted on with two shiny, metal screws. Without delay Frankenstein eats most of the hospital staff, the ceiling fan and a pizza man.

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Days later, Miss Devel and her motley pack of monsters visit Frankenstein at the lab. Though they’re jealous of all of his yucky treats, it’s the neck bolts that prompt them to beg to stay. “But Miss Devel replied, ‘No way!’”

Later that night, back at the castle, Miss Devel knows something is amiss once more. Rushing to the monsters’ room she hopes for no more disasters. She opens the gate to discover that all of the monsters have lost their heads!

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“Good night, monsters! Now you cannot whine and yell! I’m going back to sleep.”

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Most parody picture books don’t deliver on their promise to entertain. They either fall flat or are entertaining for one reading only—but Frankenstein is a wonderful exception to that rule. Fans of Madeline, monsters or Halloween will giggle with glee at this hysterical and thorough parody.

 

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The Ant and the Elephant by Bill Peet: There’s strength in numbers.

Ant&Elephant

The Ant and the Elephant

Picture Book

Ages 4-10

By Bill Peet

48 pages

Houghton Mifflin

1972

 

 

Bill Peet (1915 – 2002) wrote and illustrated 36 books (most of which remain in print) and I truly love them all. His books are sublime. Full of humor, compassion, and warmth, his stories often focus on friendship, kindness and respect for the environment. Yet Peet was never condescending or didactic, he held his audience in high esteem. That his lengthy, complex books still hold the attention of today’s easily distracted children is a testament to his connection to young minds.

Peet’s lavish, enchanting art was created with colored pencils, pastels and India ink. His illustrations are colorful, detailed, expressive and whimsical. His wholly satisfying books are fantastical journeys into strange yet familiar lands featuring lovable, sympathetic characters (usually animals).

Prior to publishing his first book, Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure (1959), Peet worked for Disney Studios (he was there from 1937 to 1964). He worked on several of Disney’s most famous films, including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Jungle Book (though his work on that film went uncredited due to a dispute with Walt Disney).

Peet also created the first Disney film to come from a single storywriter, 101 Dalmatians—based on the book by Dodie Smith. He wrote the script, created the storyboards and designed the characters. It was Bill Peet who created the iconic Disney villain that so many people (myself included) love to hate, Cruella de Vil.

Cruella Deville

Isn’t she just perfectly evil?

Because of Peet’s work with Disney there’s a familiarity to his art; once readers begin to recognize his style, it becomes easy to spot his creations in the films he worked on.

 

The Ant and The Elephant is a twist on Aesop’s The Lion and the Mouse, in which a meek, small character is remarkably able to help a large, strong character.

While climbing a long blade of grass for a better view of the river, a small ant finds himself in a predicament after being blown by the wind. The minute creature lands on a stick in the middle of the river. He would surely drown if he tried to get to the shore himself, so he asks a nearby turtle for assistance; the grumpy turtle cannot be bothered to help.

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Soon enough the turtle finds himself in a bit of a bind, having tipped onto his back while trying to climb onto a rock.

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He asks a nearby hornbill for a hand and receives a response quite similar to the one he gave the ant.

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And so it goes down the line through several unhelpful—and perhaps shortsighted—African animals, until readers are introduced to the noble elephant. He hears so much with his large ears, “the faint rustle of a leaf, the least snap of a twig, or even the tiny voice of an ant calling.”

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The accommodating elephant, having heard all the events of the day, makes his way to the river to assist the miniscule creature. He offers the trapped ant his trunk; the grateful ant crawls on and is deposited safely on the shore of the river.

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The elephant continues on, helping each of the helpless—and shockingly ungrateful—creatures along the way.

Soon it is the elephant that finds himself in a disabled position; he’s fallen into a ravine.

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He calls for help and waits and waits. As the sun sets, the elephant hears the sound of tiny footsteps. Soon, ninety-five thousand ants arrive to help him!

TheAnt&TheElephant

They successfully lift the giant beast and carry him up the wall and onto flat ground. And in return all of the ants climb aboard their new, grateful friend for their first ever elephant ride!

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A Home for Bird by Philip C. Stead: A touching story of friendship, kindness and determination.

A Home for BirdDSC02042

Picture Book

Ages 3-7

By Philip C. Stead

32 pages

Roaring Brook Press

2012

Watch the trailer!

 

 

Philip C. Stead is the author of several books, some of which he illustrated himself and some that are illustrated by his wife, Erin E. Stead. Their book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, won the 2011 Caldecott Medal, which is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

Philip C. Stead, the writer, possesses the rare ability to convey a world of thoughts with a minimal amount of text. His stories are perfectly paced and wholly satisfying. Philip C. Stead, the illustrator, creates images that invoke warm, pleasing feelings.

His art in A Home for Bird was created with crayons and gouache (an opaque watercolor paint) producing a whimsical, child-like feel. Each illustration contains its own radiant world of genial animals surrounded by curious items such as yo-yo’s, old cans, bottle caps and teacups.

The opening illustration of A Home for Bird features an old pick-up truck; “Careful Moving Company” is stenciled on its door. A small cuckoo bird has sprung from its clock and tumbled off the back of the overstuffed truck bed into the wide, unknown world. In the next spread, Vernon, a curious frog who loves to collect interesting items, discovers the newly homeless bird.

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Concerned, Vernon addresses the stoic bird but receives no response.

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The kind-hearted frog introduces Bird to Skunk and Porcupine but still, Bird says nothing. Vernon’s friends wonder if their silent new friend is lost, or missing his home. Ever helpful, Vernon prepares for a journey to help his new friend find his home.

The unlikely pair visits multiple dwellings: a discarded birdcage, a mailbox surrounded by flamingos, a nest full of eggs. Bird continues to be silent; Vernon is hopeful that Bird will speak up when they find the right home.

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After much travel and no luck, Vernon is sad for his new friend and the intrepid travelers are growing tired. Vernon decides to ask for help.

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The helpful stranger directs Vernon and Bird to a farmhouse. Inside the cozy house, Vernon introduces himself and his mute friend to some new friends. Spotting a lovely little house hanging on the wall, Vernon makes the climb up with Bird in his arms and deposits him safely behind a small door; Vernon goes to sleep behind another door—sporting a clock-face—directly beneath Bird. Vernon falls asleep to the rhythmic sounds of a clock.

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Vernon awoke in the bright house with its lovely sounds and wondered if Bird liked this home as much as he did. “And Bird said…”

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“And Vernon was happy.”

 

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A Book of Sleep by Il Sung Na: A beautiful slumber inducer.

A Book of SleepDSC02005

Board Book

Ages Birth-3

By Il Sung Na

24 pages

Knopf

2011

 

 

 

In Il Sung Na’s first picture book, A Book of Sleep, he utilizes a mix of hand painting and computer enhancement to create soothingly beautiful illustrations. Intricate designs and complex textures are etched into his bold, simple artwork; lovely little details implore the reader to fully inspect each spread. His rich, saturated palette captures the blue hues of night and, in the last two spreads, the golden brightness of day. The simple, direct text describes the different ways in which several animals sleep—an ideal topic for bedtime.

 

The book opens: “When the sky grows dark and he moon glows bright, everyone goes to sleep…except for the watchful owl.”

Over the next several pages, readers learn that some animals sleep in peace and quiet; other animals make lots of noises.

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Some animals sleep standing up, while others sleep on the move.

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There are animals that sleep with one eye open and some that sleep with both eyes open!

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Some animals sleep alone; other animals sleep huddled in groups.

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The sharp-eyed owl appears throughout the book—sometimes sitting plainly on a tree branch, sometimes hidden among the slumbering animals—and children will delight in locating the hidden observer. 

“But when the sky turns blue and the sun glows bright…everyone wakes up! Except for the tired owl.”

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Na’s gorgeous art engenders peaceful feelings; the serene nighttime scenes will surely set the stage for little ones to demonstrate favorite sleeping positions of their own.

 

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