Posts tagged picture book review

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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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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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 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.

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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!

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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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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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Island: A Story of the Galapagos by Jason Chin: A non-fiction delight.

Island

Island: A Story of the Galapagos

Non-Fiction Picture Book

Ages 4-10

By Jason Chin

36 pages

Roaring Brook Press

2012

 

 

Jason Chin (another Books of Wonder alum) is an unsurpassed master of presenting non-fiction to picture book fans. His first book in the genre, Redwoods (2009), followed a young boy who discovers a book about the Redwood forest and soon finds himself walking amongst the woody giants. Coral Reefs, published in 2011, is about a young girl in the New York City Public Library who soon finds the library, and the city, transformed into a marine adventure.

Chin carefully researches his subject matter and adeptly translates the information for his intended audience. Coupling his straightforward, informative text with his exquisite and detailed art, he creates compelling and beautiful books—no small feat when dealing with non-fiction, just take a look at some of the other options in your local library.

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Island: A Story of the Galapagos reads like a biography of the islands, beginning six million years ago, and is told in five short parts. It began with a volcano that had been growing in the ocean for millions of years. Finally erupting, it created the landmass that would eventually become home to a unique variety of plants and animals; first it would lay barren for many, many years.

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The island’s first bit of life arrived on the waves—a mangrove tree seed, from a nearby island, took root and began to grow. From that modest beginning, an ecosystem gradually began to flourish. Sea birds and marine iguanas followed the arrival of vegetation. More and more life forms followed, and over the course of millions of years the animals adapted to their new, and ever-changing environment. Finches on the island evolved to have larger beaks so that they could open larger seeds; seagulls began to hunt at night and evolved to have larger eyes.

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All the while the island had been slowly sinking, and after nearly six million years it eventually disappeared under the ocean.

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But the other islands of the Galapagos (there’s fifteen now) inherited the descendents of the plants and animals from the sunken land mass. The plants and animals—many of them endemic species, meaning: unique to this specific location—have once again adapted to their new environment. And like the other island, these will eventually sink into the sea as well.

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The book’s epilogue shows Charles Darwin’s ship, the HMS Beagle, arriving on the shores of the Galapagos. The last four pages of the book give further information on Charles Darwin, natural selection, endemic species and the amazing islands of the book’s title. Chin’s full color pages highlight the beauty of the island and the sea surrounding it; he utilizes small pieces of panel art throughout which succinctly illustrate the processes of change on the island.

Island: A Story of the Galapagos will be a delight to any child interested in biology, geology or the history of the natural world.

 

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Uncle Bigfoot by George O’Connor: A Mysterious Branch on the Family Tree.

Uncle BigfootUBcover

Picture Book

Ages 3-8

By George O’Connor

32 pages

Roaring Brook Press

2008

Out of Print

 

 

Uncle Bigfoot was George O’Connor’s fourth picture book. He has since gone on to create several graphic novels, including the New York Times best selling Olympians Series about the Greek gods and goddesses of Olympus. I reviewed the first book in the series, Zeus: King of the Gods, here. The sixth book in the series, Aphrodite: Goddess of Love, is due out later this year.

O’Connor’s fifth picture book, If I Had a Raptor, will be published in 2014 followed shortly thereafter by If I Had a Triceratops. O’Connor’s picture books have an irrepressible humor and immense appeal to both kids and adults, which is very important to parents who find themselves coaxed by little ones to read a book again and again.

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In Uncle Bigfoot, our spirited narrator, a nameless young boy, is intrigued when he learns his Uncle Bernie is coming to visit. He doesn’t recall ever hearing about this uncle before so he asks his father if there are any photos of this mysterious person. The only picture they find is of Bernie, back to the camera, running away.

‘“Uncle Bernie’s a little shy around cameras,” said Dad.’

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The young boy imagines a multitude of scenarios as to why his uncle would not want to be photographed and when his uncle finally arrives, the answer is obvious.

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Stupefied, the boy runs to consult his book on Bigfoot. He’s quickly able to confirm all the telltale signs, but each time he tries to convince his parents of his findings they have perfectly reasonable responses, which negate the boy’s pronouncement.

Uncle Bernie is hairy, really hairy, just like Bigfoot.  When the determined boy points this out to his father, his response is no comfort, “Just wait until you get older, you’ll be hairier too.”

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Uncle Bernie has big feet, just like Bigfoot but Mom tells the persistent boy that lots of people have big feet.

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However, the guidebook also says that Bigfoots are mean and scary and Uncle Bernie is neither of those things. He just seems different from the people our inquisitive narrator knows. Maybe Uncle Bernie is just a little more different than most.

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Relieved of his suspicions, the boy and his family enjoy a wonderful visit with Uncle Bigfoot. The newly won-over boy confesses that he misses his uncle (he left last Tuesday) but he’s excited about a pending visit from his Aunt Nessie!

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O’Connor’s sardonic humor is coupled with cartoon-y illustrations, further highlighting the absurdity of the boy’s suspicions. Visual nods to various mythical creatures and unsolved mysteries—UFO’s, Mothman, aliens, Atlantis, to name a few—will amuse older readers and O’Connor’s knack for depicting expressions adds yet another level of amusement and charm to the art. Uncle Bigfoot is a lighthearted, joyous picture book and an enjoyable read for parents and children alike.

 

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