Posts tagged Children’s books

If You Want to See a Whale: A quiet story in a perfect package.

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If You Want to See a Whale

Picture Book

Ages 2-7

By Julie Fogliano

Illustrated by Erin E. Stead

32 pages

Roaring Brook

2013

Book Trailer

 

 

If You Want to See a Whale is a flawlessly designed book. The diminutive trim size, approximately 9×7, begs to be held; the enticingly serene cover prompts readers to curl up and escape into its pages. Peeling away the deliciously smooth coated matte cover reveals a rich blue cloth with a humpback whale in relief. Complementing the deep blue background, the book’s title is stamped on the spine in a lavish copper foil which perfectly matches the endpapers. The interior paper has substantial weight and its milky white canvas spotlights the art.

 

Absent of punctuation and in a font reminiscent of a typewriter the exclusively lower-case text is judiciously set apart from the art, accentuating the story’s quiet, contemplative feel. This is not a story to be rushed through. This is a story about waiting, about being quiet, about being still. Readers, like the book’s main character, are rewarded for these virtues.

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Fogliano’s compact, lyrical prose is reminiscent of Ruth Krauss and Karla Kuskin but her style is decidedly her own. Her stories are thoughtful, poetic and sublimely profound. Like Fogliano and Stead’s other collaboration, And Then it’s Spring, If You Want to See a Whale offers tranquility—a welcome and necessary port in a sea of noise.

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Stead’s art— composed of whisper thin lines, fervently detailed and ever so delicate—invites the reader to study each spread. Color, at once saturated and transparent, is used sparingly. Stead’s incredibly involved process of creating the art can be viewed here.

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A young ginger haired boy and his loyal basset hound are determined to see a whale, but seeing a whale is no simple task. It requires an ocean, and a window for watching, and a chair for sitting, and patience, for it may take a very long time. A whale watcher cannot get too comfortable, for fear of falling asleep. A whale watcher cannot allow himself to be distracted by passing ships, or puffy clouds. A whale watcher must simply watch, and wait. And as with all important things in life, focus and determination pay off in the end.

 

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The Big Adventure of a Little Line by Serge Bloch

The Big Adventure of a Little LineIMG_1184

Picture Book

Ages 5 and up

By Serge Bloch

88 pages

Thames & Hudson

2016

 

 

 

 

 

Occasionally I’ll pick up a book from an author or illustrator I’m not familiar with and, after some research, will be stunned to discover that the person has published multiple books and is a sensation in another area of the world. French-born author and artist Serge Bloch is an example of one of these discoveries.

His animated SamSam series, based on his SamSam comic, is hugely popular in Europe. His series Max et Lili, (published in France since 1992) has sold millions of copies. He compiled and illustrated a book of Steve Martin’s tweets and he regularly draws editorial illustrations for publications including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, as well as Time and New York Magazine.

So, Serge Bloch’s extraordinary illustrations have finally etched their way into my consciousness, although I must have seen his work among the pages of some magazine or newspaper and filed it away in my brain because, as soon as I picked up The Big Adventure of a Little Line, the art was familiar. And probably not just because Bloch was clearly influenced by Tomi Ungerer, R.O. Blechman, Shel Silverstein, Quentin Blake and Charles Addams. Like these other masters of the line, Bloch is able to convey a considerable amount with minimal details. It is a true gift and I find this style immensely appealing.

I’ve had the great pleasure of knowing many artists as a result of my career in children’s books. The relationship between an artist and his art is complex and rife with struggles, but the artist’s art is essential to the artist’s well being. Creative compulsion can be exhilarating, comforting, and freeing. It can also be confusing, frightening, and debilitating. The combination of Bloch’s minimalist visual style and to-the-point story of living with and nurturing a creative drive lays bare the complicated relationship between an artist and his art starting at the most fundamental level.

Art as a profession is often the subject of parental fears. It can be incredibly difficult to develop and maintain an artistic career. But whether an artistic person decides to pursue a career in the arts is frequently irrelevant to the level of personal importance the art has in that person’s life. That creative impulse should be nurtured, loved, respected and supported. Should the person end up  in a job or career that is more financially practical, artistic expression  may prove to be an important outlet in maintaining a balanced life as well as the key to mental wellness. I highly recommend The Big Adventure of a Little Line for any person realizing an artistic inclination.

The book opens with a wistful looking boy out for a walk when he spots a small reddish-orange line lying by the side of the road. Intrigued, the boy takes the line home and rests it on a shelf alongside other cherished objects. The line sits mostly forgotten until the boy takes it down and lays it on an open page in his notebook. Thus begins the life of an artist.

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Like many lifelong relationships, this one  starts simply, though not necessarily easily, and develops over time into something integral. The boy and the line need to learn about each other, and find a way to co-exist. We follow the newly formed pair through airy, uncluttered spreads of discovery and understanding, interspersed with chaotic images of frustration and struggle.

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The line helps the boy grow into a man and becomes his complement. Traveling the world, delighting children, opening exhibits, stirring emotions and fraternizing with other artists, the creative relationship proves magical.

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The artist grows old, and eventually he and the line agree that it is time to use a bit of their magic to inspire others. As the book comes to a close, the contented elder artist snips off a small bit of his line and deposits it on a stretch of road. It is quickly spotted by a grinning girl who immediately tucks it into her pocket, an apt metaphor.

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An inherently beautiful effect of art is to bring about thoughts, feeling and emotions that one might not otherwise have had. Art does not simply exist as an expression of the artist, it also moves, inspires and stimulates. I like to imagine that many little pieces of the artist’s line were discovered, collected and carried by others throughout the career of the man and his craft, whether he meant to inspire or not.

 

 

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Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown: An instant classic.

Mr. Tiger Goes WildMr.TigerCover

Picture Book

Ages 2-8

By Peter Brown

44 pages

Little, Brown

2013

 

This is Peter Brown’s ninth picture book and I’ve grown to love him more and more with each one. With scenes that unfold in playfully designed locations, and supremely likeable, quirky characters, readers can’t help but be lured into the world of Mr. Tiger. Brown was awarded a 2013 Caldecott Honor for Creepy Carrots and, truth be told, I was a little disappointed that Mr. Tiger Goes Wild was not among this year’s Caldecott recipients.

 

Brown’s art is evocative of Ezra Jack Keats, Margaret Bloy Graham and Miroslav Sasek, yet despite displaying shades of all these masters, Brown’s pleasing and idiosyncratic artistic style stands out as uniquely his own. Certain spreads reminded me of the animated Disney film, The Jungle Book and I later read in an interview that Brown watched a lot of old animated Disney films, including The Jungle Book, while working on Mr. Tiger.

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The opening spreads of Mr. Tiger Goes Wild introduce Mr. Tiger’s world, replete with upright quadrupeds adorned in stiff Victorian attire. The perfectly ordered art is created with a muted palette of grays and browns.

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As the story progresses, the art grows more feral and verdant; the final spreads strike a satisfying balance between conformity and frenzy.

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The consistent palette of greens, grays and browns is broken only by Mr. Tiger’s delightful flare of orange.

 

Brown’s skillfully efficient story telling allows for sparse text; there are several spreads with no words at all. His cheeky narrative breathes humor and energy into the already astounding artwork.

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As the story opens, Mr. Tiger is a dapper, city-dwelling cat with an undeviating expression of displeasure. He lives among respectable animals in a proper society. Everyone around him seems perfectly content but Mr. Tiger is bored.

 

At this early stage of the story almost all of the characters are going about their lives with closed eyes. Mr. Tiger (who is on the verge of acting wild) and the children (who are being scolded for acting wild) are the only ones with open eyes. As soon as Mr. Tiger carries out his first wild idea, everyone’s eyes are open.

 

“And then one day Mr. Tiger had a very wild idea.”

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Mr. Tiger immediately felt better and grew a little bit wilder each day; before long, he’d pushed it too far.

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His friends, outraged, suggested that Mr. Tiger take his behaviors elsewhere, and into the wilderness he ran.

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“…where he went completely wild!”

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As time passed, Mr. Tiger grew lonely; he missed his home and his friends. He decided to return to the city.

Upon returning, Mr. Tiger found that a wonderful thing had happened. His friends and neighbors were no longer perfectly genteel—though still sporting Victorian attire, some had taken to all fours.

“Now Mr. Tiger felt free to be himself. And so did everyone else.”

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Mr. Tiger Goes Wild is all about balance—wild behavior can be beneficial, in appropriate contexts, civilized behavior is necessary if you want to exist in a society—and this book strikes a perfect balance on every level.

 

Certainly there are plenty of books that enjoy long lives as classics without any medals adorning their covers. Conversely, some medal-winning books fade into oblivion not long after their initial time in the spotlight. Though I believe this book deserved the recognition of the Caldecott committee, I also believe it will live a long life in print just like some other non-medal winning, perennially adored classics. Mr. Tiger Goes Wild will be in good company with Corduroy, Harry the Dirty Dog and Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.

 

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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?

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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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Will Goes to the Post Office by Olof and Lena Landström: A charmingly simple picture book.

Will Goes to the Post Office

Will Goes to the Post Office

Picture Book

Ages 2-5

By Olof and Lena Landstrom

28 pages

R&S Books

1994

Out of Print

 

 

In addition to several other picture books, this husband and wife team created four books featuring Will: Will Gets a Haircut, Will Goes to the Beach, Will Goes to the Post Office and Will’s New Cap. Though the plot is neatly summed up by their titles, each of these simple picture books is marvelously satisfying. The straightforward action is conveyed via short, simple sentences and the colorful, uncluttered art is cheerful and sweet.

“Will is going to the post office to pick up a package. It is from Uncle Ben.”

On his way out of his building, Will sees his friends Karen and Peter playing on the stoop. He shows them the card from the post office; Karen and Peter join Will on the adventure.

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Soon they arrive at the post office. Luckily, the line is short and Will’s turn comes fast. He hands his card to the postal worker and looks around, wondering which package is his. Peter hopes it’s something big.

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The woman returns with a very large box for Will. The package isn’t heavy but it’s hard for Will to see where he’s going with such a large box. Karen and Peter are very helpful navigators.

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Mama is surprised to see Will arrive with such a large parcel.

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She gets the scissors to help get it open. Though at first it seems like there’s nothing but paper in the box, Will quickly discovers a globe inside—a globe with a light!

Mama plugs in the globe. She, Will and all the friends gather in the closet—where it’s dark—to see Will’s wonderful new present in all its luminous glory.

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This delightful picture book’s pleasing story and utterly adorable art are sure to be a favorite with toddlers and adults alike.

 

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