Saturday, January 28, 2012

Six Cool Picture Books

I'll admit it: I'm a picture book snob. I go down to my not-so-independent nearby bookstore and look through all the new picture books, turning up my nose at a lot of them because the stories and artwork are too bland or too cutesy. But sometimes I come across treasures. And sometimes I discover treasures elsewhere, most often when they are recommended by other children's book bloggers. So for those of you who told me about these books, thank you!

The Boy Who Cried Ninja, written and illustrated by Alex Latimer

Ever get tired of that Aesop's fable, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"? Silly boy, cranky villagers, right? Well, get a load of South African Alex Latimer's new-fangled take on the tale, with its clean, retro-mod illustrations. When Tim tells his parents the truth about the trouble going on around his house, they don't believe him. A ninja stole the last piece of cake, an astronaut took his dad's hammer, a giant squid—yeah, right. Frustrated, Tim decides to lie, but that doesn't work out too well, either. Finally he comes up with a plan for setting things straight. I will refrain from telling you how virtue is finally rewarded, but you really should get ahold of this subversive, tongue-in-cheek book.

The Camping Trip that Changed America by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein

President Theodore Roosevelt was an outdoorsman, everyone knows that. But did you know he once went camping with John Muir in Yosemite? Why? Because Muir was a famous naturalist, and Roosevelt wanted to know more about America's wilderness. At stake was the potential creation of national parks and forests. The two men traveled by horseback and were caught in a spring snowstorm, but they had a wonderful time, and President Roosevelt worked very hard afterwards to preserve the nation's natural treasures. One word of caution: though notes about the trip were available, they did not include sufficient dialogue, and the author did invent fireside conversations between the two men. I think she's done a marvelous job of writing this important, little-known story; just be sure your students or children understand the ways in which it is, as Rosenstock says in her very helpful author's note, "based in truth." Old hand Mordecai Gerstein illustrates the account with his loose and appealing watercolor style.

Just a Second, written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins

Not since Hazel Hutchins and Kady MacDonald Denton's A Second Is a Hiccup has somebody made such a beautiful book about time. Only, where Hutchins and Denton used analogies from the world of humans, Jenkins not unexpectedly uses the world of animals. So just what can animals do in one second?
A vulture in flight flaps its wings once. A pygmy shrew's heart beats 14 times. A bat makes 200 high-pitched calls. A rattlesnake shakes its tail in warning 60 times. A hummingbird beats its wings 50 times. A bumblebee beats its wings 200 times. A midge, a kind of gnat, beats its wings 1,000 times. A woodpecker hammers a tree with its beak 20 times.

And that's just the first page! Using his signature bright backdrops and collage animals, Jenkins gives us more "one second" examples before going on to talk about what animals—and plants and planets—do in one minute, one hour, one day, one week, one month, and one year. He throws in an extra spread called "Very Quick" for things that happen in even less than a second. I once looked all over the place for information about the speed at which a frog zaps and swallows an insect (and had trouble finding that fact); here Jenkins tells us that the Shasta salamander "can snap up an insect in 1/100 of a second." The author/illustrator also gives us "Very Long," including "an ocean quahog, a clam, [that] lived to be 405 years old...." and he throws in a history of the universe (on one page!), Earth's human population growth from 1750 to a projected 2050, plus an extra chart about plant and animal life spans. Pretty stuff, and pretty fascinating!

The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett, illustrated by Poly Bernatene

Have you heard about this one? Princess and pig, switched at birth. Call it class warfare if you like, but I call it funny. The way the court treats the pig princess, the reluctance of the human girl to switch back—all a hoot. You will no doubt get a kick out of the way the king and queen justify having a pig for a daughter: "'A bad fairy has done this,' [the king] explained. 'The fairy wasn't invited to the princess's christening, so she's turned the baby into a piglet to get her revenge. It's the sort of thing that happens all the time in books.'" (He holds a copy of Sleeping Beauty in his hands as he says this, natch.) Then again, the farmer's wife gives a similar explanation when a baby girl appears in the back of her husband's cart. It is only years later that the farmer and his wife finally figure out what really happened... The book is made all the more terrific by Bernatene's strong acrylic illustrations, which are a touch cartoonish, but still dimensional enough to give proper heft to this clever piggy tale.

Precious Little by Julie Hunt and Sue Moss, illustrated by Gaye Chapman

I'll be frank: I think this book is mostly for grown-ups. But an artistic, thoughtful child will like looking at the pictures. (Probably for 8 and up.) The story takes us to the circus, where the real stars are the highly decorative illustrations and even the way the words are often turned sideways like contortionists. The plot is slim—a rather uncoordinated young circus-hand named Precious Little wants to fly with the acrobats, the Light Fantastics, but can't seem to get the hang of it. Eventually two kindly clowns help her to fulfill her dream, though readers may feel at that point that Precious is simply dreaming, or that the story has turned into some kind of allegory or fantasy. Don't worry too much about it. Just check out the slightly new agey and very lovely artwork. (Bonus: gold glitter on the cover!)

What Animals Really Like, written and illustrated by Fiona Robinson

Back in November, I reviewed "Picture Books to Look Forward To," and one of my favorites was Bingham and Zelinsky's Z Is for Moose, due out in February. What Animals Really Like has a similar premise, and I like it just as much. Where Z Is for Moose has a zebra directing animals (and other items) in an alphabet book, What Animals Really Like gives us an even more high-strung beaver directing a new song. Each group of animals stands on a stage in concert dress and sings about what their species likes to do. We start off with the following lines:
We are lions, and we like to prowl.
We are wolves, and we like to howl.
We are pigeons, and we like to coo.
We are cows, and we like to...

Page turn, and the cows chorus, "dig," whipping out a bunch of shovels and hardhats.

"Dig?" the baffled beaver director asks, and pretty soon he has a full-scale rebellion on his hands, or rather paws. The warthogs like to blow enormous bubbles and the shrimp like to ski—when the beaver doubts them, they show off photos from their trip to Switzerland. ("Say, you had great weather," remarks a kangaroo, who likes playing Ping-Pong.)

Robinson paces her running joke about being true to yourself with panache, adding small twists and turns along the way. Watch in particular how the animals go from standing stiffly, looking bored, to cavorting enthusiastically as they share their passions. This is a thoroughly excellent concert program, highlighted by straight man and director Mr. Herbert Timberteeth's various states of dismay. Robinson's distinctive style gives What Animals Really Like a fresh look, in pleasing contrast to the many more traditional-looking picture books out there.


storyqueen said...

The Boy Who Cried Ninja looks awesome! And I am going to pick up Just a Second for my classroom. Looks absolutely perfect for starting off an Inquiry about animals.

You always find the best books, Kate!


Perogyo said...

Those look awesome!

If you like The Boy Who Cried Ninja (which I am going to have to get for my kids asap), you might like Ninja Cowboy Bear.

KateCoombs said...

Thanks, Shelley! I think Just a Second gives a sense of larger context to children, and of course, The Boy Who Cried Ninja is undoubtedly awesome. (You could have an interesting conversation with students about truth and lies, but I was trying to resist going there--it's such a fun story without getting all teachy-preachy!)

Linda B said...

Thanks for more! I can't buy them all, although I often want to, but the book Just A Second seems just amazing. Just it'll go on the 'long' list!

KateCoombs said...

Thanks, Medea, I'll take a look!

Linda--The long list; right! I keep a Word doc now with books I'd like to buy and the months they come out. I also keep a bunch in my Amazon cart, mostly in the "Saved for Later" section. I am amused by the e-mail Amazon sends me when I leave books sitting in the cart itself: it says something like, "Did you know you can BUY the books in your cart?" Um, yeah. I know all too well! :)

Miss Print said...

I haven't read the others yet (though now I certainly must) but oh how I loved The Princess and the Pig. It's such a beautifully illustrated story that is so smart and so awesome.

KateCoombs said...

The Princess and the Pig is just very, very fun--and you're right, the illustrations are beautiful. I especially like the bold colors.

Jill @ A Mom With A Lesson Plan said...

Awesome list! I can't wait to read some of these. =) I am totally a children's book snob too!

KateCoombs said...

Jill--So you know what I mean! It's so nice to find the good ones.