Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen (January 17, 2012)
In case you didn't catch on by reading Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World, or any of the Brixton Brothers books, which are spoofs of the Hardy Boys mysteries, Extra Yarn should remind you that Mac Barnett is a very creative guy. Weird, in fact, but in a good way!
This playful story of a girl who finds "a box filled with yarn of every color" manages to be both pragmatic and magical. After Anabelle has knit herself a sweater, she has some extra yarn. "So she knit a sweater for Mars [her dog], too. But there was still extra yarn." When a neighbor mocks her sweater, she tells him he's jealous. And she's right—so she makes him and his dog sweaters, too. But there is still extra yarn.
As the cumulative tale progresses, Anabelle fills a dreary winter village with sweaters. She makes sweaters for people, sweaters for pets, even sweaters for things like houses. Then people start coming from all over the world to see Annabelle and her village—including a dastardly villain, an archduke who wants that box of yarn. Even here, the story doesn't turn out quite how you expect it will.
But there is always extra yarn.
Jon Klassen is getting a lot of buzz for his book, I Want My Hat Back, but I'm all infatuated with his illustrations for Barnett's book. About the only color in these pictures, other than a touch of pink on human cheeks and noses, is found in the lovely, cable-stitched sweaters Anabelle makes. These are tinted in textured rows of green and rose and orange and yellow to marvelous effect. I predict awards for this odd, gently humorous, and uplifting picture book, which is almost, but not quite, a fable.
Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander, illustrated by David Diaz (February 21, 2012)
Elizabeth Alexander wrote this poem in honor of the 2009 Presidential Inauguration and read it at that event. Not everyone was in love with the poem at the time, but then, it hadn't been illustrated by David Diaz. Now that it has, poem and artwork feed off each other beautifully. For example, the first page reads:
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other's eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
The color-drenched spread shows people and their dogs passing one another in a rich mosaic, eyes sometimes meeting, sometimes not. Diaz's breathtaking artwork supports the grand vagueness of Alexander's lines, bringing them into focus in just the right way.
When Alexander speaks of "the dead who brought us here,/who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges," Diaz gives us lines of men building railroad tracks. When she speaks of those who "picked the cotton and the lettuce, built/brick by brick the glittering edifices," we see men and women picking cotton, with a glittering city in the background. I'm especially fond of the page about music, done mostly in blues: "Someone is trying to make music somewhere/with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,/with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice." (Note that Alexander's original line breaks are preserved.)
There are those who complained that Alexander's poem was too prosaic when it was recited at the inauguration, but I feel she was channeling Walt Whitman, trying to portray millions of people and 233 years-plus of history in one fell swoop. Not an easy task, but one made easier here by the addition of Diaz's distinctive and glorious artwork.
Children may not understand all of this poet's language, but I think they will understand the joy of Alexander's intent, not to mention the beauty of her phrasing.
Z Is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (February 28, 2012)
Hahahahaha! (That's basically my review.)
Fine, I'll explain. This book is a spoof of a traditional alphabet book. An uptight zebra is managing the project, cuing all kinds of ABC characters to take their places on various pages. In fact, on the spread with the copyright information, you can see them lining up: Apple, Ball, Cat, Duck, Elephant, Fox, Glove, Hat, Ice cream, Jam, Kangaroo, Moose—
Wait a minute! M doesn't come after K! (The moose is actually holding Lollipop in one hoof and Needle in another.)
Turns out Moose can't wait for his page. Like the small child you'll read this book to, he keeps popping up and wanting to know if it's his turn now. Well, A, B, and C go smoothly enough, but when you get to the D page, you will see "D is for Moose," with an outraged duck barely visible in the background. Zebra cries out (in two voice bubbles): "Moose? No. Moose does not start with D. You are on the wrong page."
Across the spread, we see moose rambling into "E is for Elephant," saying, "Oh, sorry." And the irate elephant exclaims, "Look out!" Meanwhile, the duck hides behind one of Elephant's legs, peeking out.
The artwork here is a surprise because Zelinsky is known for his detailed, old master-looking fairy tale illustrations for books like Caldecott winner Rapunzel. This art is cartoonish, but it certainly suits its topic.
You may think Z Is for Moose's premise is a one-note joke, but as Moose wreaks havoc through the rest of the alphabet, you will find yourself laughing—even before you get to a couple of great plot twists. It should not be lost on you that the alphabet objects are completely predictable, making it even more gratifying to have Moose around to shake things up.
What an amazing, funny, perfect book!
Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes (February 28, 2012)
Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. You have spoiled me with your hilarious Lilly and your absurd Sheila Rae. Now I come across Penny, and I find myself confused by the lack of major humor.
To you readers out there: This book is sweeter and less funny than many of Henkes' previous books. You will just have to let go of Lilly and discover Penny!
She's a little mouse, yes, but Penny is a musician, not a purse carrier. Here's how we begin: "Penny came home for school with a song. 'Listen, Mama,' said Penny. 'It's my very own song.'" Whereupon Penny tries to share her song with her mother. But Mama stops her, saying, "You will wake up the babies." Penny tries her father. He, too, warns her about waking up the babies, little twin siblings.
Frustrated, Penny sings to herself in the mirror and to her glass animals, but it isn't enough. Next she sings at the dinner table, but her parents make her wait again. Finally it is time for Penny's song, and her whole family listens. She even teaches them the song.
Penny and Her Song is set up as an early chapter book. It only has two chapters, but will still make young readers feel like older readers. The reading level is about first grade.
If Penny resembles Lilly in any way, it is for her child-appropriate lack of patience. Just as Lilly wanted to show off her purse right now, Penny wants to sing her song right now. But Penny—and you—will just have to wait.
Penny and Her Song may not be what you expect, but it's a tender little story just the same. I especially love its emphasis on the joy of singing, both alone and as a family. I grew up in a family that sang together, and I can tell you: that's a real gift to a child.
I'm Fast! by Kate and Jim McMullan (January 3, 2012)
It started with I'm Mighty! and hit its stride with I Stink! Dirty, Bad, and Big are the other three books, leading us to #6, I'm Fast! These are all titles with strong appeal to little boys, of course. I am also reminded a bit of Jim Barton and Tom Lichtenheld's Shark vs. Train with this newest outing, mostly because it's all about a contest.
The competitors are a big blue train and a small red sports car. Our story begins as the car issues a challenge and the train responds:
What's that, Red?
You wanna have a RACE?
First one to Chicago wins?
Lemme load my FREIGHT.
I really like the next spread, which shows the different kinds of train cars and what they carry in question and answer format, e.g., "Gas? Tank car!"
Be ready to make some excellent sound effects when you read this one to a small child. For example, the page where this pair sets off reads: "THROTTLE UP! Ready? Set? ROLL! Chooka chooka chooka chooka VVRRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMM." (Yep, I counted the letters!) And some of the words are printed in red or orange or purple, making the whole thing easier to follow and even more fun.
The journey through tunnels and over snowy mountains is terrific, and the two characters run into different challenges along the way. Who will win?
Vvrrrrrrooooooommm! Chooka chooka chooka! Read and find out in this fast book for a high-powered little lap reader.
Freedom Song by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Sean Qualls (January 3, 2012)
When I saw the full title of this book—Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown—I was surprised. After all, didn't Ellen Levine corner that market with her book, Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad? Illustrated by the brilliant Kadir Nelson, no less? The book even won a Caldecott Honor award!
Then I read Freedom Song and realized that Walker really does have a fresh take on the story, as does Sean Qualls. Trust me, there's room for both of these books on your shelf.
First of all, Freedom Song is written in a poetic style. Here's the first page:
When Henry Brown came into this world, his family sang. Mama blew kisses on his soft, brown belly. Papa named him Henry, held him high to the sky. Sisters and brothers tickled his toes.
Henry grows up singing, despite being a slave. He sings a workday song, a gather-up song, and, at night when no one is listening, a freedom song. "Its freedom-land, family, stay-all-together words soothed Henry's greatest fear: the fear that Master would sell him."
For a time Henry is happy, especially once he's grown and falls in love with Nancy. They soon marry and have children together. Henry is busy singing cradle songs and telling stories to his little ones. "Family songs hushed Henry's freedom song. And Henry's heart was full."
Then the unthinkable happens. Henry's wife and children are sold away from him.
For weeks, silence filled Henry's house. Poor Henry. "No songs left in his heart," said a neighbor, shaking her head. But she was wrong. Henry did still have a song. His freedom song. And its think, plan, take-yourself-to-freedom-land words were getting stronger every day.
Now Henry comes up with the amazing plan of shipping himself to freedom in a box, and the story carries on to its conclusion. Does Henry ever manage to find his wife and children? In an afterword, we learn that he probably does not. But the story is inspiring for all that. It ends with a song of praise and thanks from Henry, who is now free.
Sally Walker's use of the song motif might seem overdone, but it is not; instead it carries the story along with power. The songs feel especially important in light of the history of hope embodied by slave songs and spirituals. I also like the way the author conveys how awful it would be to have your family suddenly taken from you for no reason. Family love permeates this book.
The portion of the story dedicated to Henry's escape is presented in sufficient, visceral detail that young readers will be able to imagine how frightening his journey was and how Henry's courage carried him through. It was horribly uncomfortable for a full-grown man to be in a small box for so long, risking suffocation and discovery at any moment.
Sean Qualls's artwork, like the writing, is stylized, apparently done in collage or mixed media. Blues, browns, and grays give weight to the soberness of Henry's life circumstances and to the threat of getting caught as he works to attain his freedom.
This is a powerful, beautiful book, a second and equally valuable testament to the hope and courage of Henry Brown and others like him.
Note: My thanks to HarperCollins for sending me ARCs. (I have selected the most outstanding ones to share with you!)