Saturday, May 12, 2012

Merry Month of May: More Picture Books

Picks from other blog reviewers, a cool poetry blog friend, the ever-crazy Mac Barnett, and even an interviewer—welcome to another batch of intriguing picture book picks!

Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons, created and illustrated by James Dean, story by Eric Litwin

I don't always review sequels, but this one stands alone just fine—more than fine, in fact! (Here's a post with my review of Book 1, Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes.) I wasn't as impressed by Book 2, Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes, but I love Book 3. This time, Pete the Cat has four groovy buttons in four different colors. So of course he has to sing a button song:
"My buttons, my buttons,
my four groovy buttons.
My buttons, my buttons,
my four groovy buttons.

One of the buttons popped off and rolled away.

How many buttons are left?
Three. 4˗1=3

Did Pete cry?
Goodness, no!
Buttons come and buttons go.

As you can guess, Pete continues to shed buttons and to maintain his usual hang-loose style. There's a great twist near the end of this cumulative tale. The book combines a little subtraction, a little humor, some rhythm, and a surfing cat who always keeps his cool. Dean's brightly colored artwork keeps the static design of the cat himself from dampening the book's verve. As before, you can download a performance of the book by Mr. Eric for free. Note also that Book 4 will be out in September: Pete the Cat Saves Christmas.

Pair this book with This Plus That by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

A Leaf Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Violeta Dabija

Laura Salas is the host of a weekly poetry event called 15 Words or Less. She is also the writer of some excellent poetry collections, most recently Book Speak! Poems about Books. A Leaf Can Be is a single book-length poem illustrated by Violeta Dabija (who lives in Moldova, of all the interesting places!).

The book starts out like this:
A leaf is a leaf.
It bursts out each spring
when sunny days linger
and orioles sing.

A leaf can be...
Soft cradle
Water ladle
Sun taker
Food maker

There's more, and it's just as creative and hopeful, but I'll restrain myself from typing out the whole thing. Though some of the phrases convey traditional ideas about leaves, others will thoroughly surprise you. The language itself is often unexpected. The illustrations are different and lovely, as well, with two smiling foxes and a cast of birds and other animals adding interest to the green-soaked spreads. When the seasons and the weather turns, the pages take on new colors and still more surprising lines from Salas.

I recommend pairing this book with Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.

Monsters Eat Whiny Children by Bruce Eric Kaplan

Eve and Henry are going through a whiny stage. They whine constantly. "Their kindly father warned them that monsters eat whiny children. They didn't believe him. So they whined and whined until finally one day a monster came and stole them away." Fortunately for these two, the monster and his wife can't decide exactly what kind of whiny child dish to prepare. Salad? Hamburger? A monster neighbor chimes in, and so does an aunt. Things get messy, plus Kaplan's deadpan humor shines. For example:
"We could make some rice, put a little curry on them, and have an Indian dish," someone suggested halfheartedly. Perhaps a whiny-child vindaloo."

They all tried to figure out if they were in the mood for Indian food.

Sometimes it's so hard to figure out if you're in the mood for Indian food.

Meanwhile, Henry and Eve are playing with monster toys and planning their escape. Which does not involve cucumber sandwiches, exactly.

Kaplan's illustrations are contour line drawings in pen and ink. I feel madly compelled to warn you that his characters have blank ovals for eyes. I find this a little creepy, but hey: It's a style! Apparently Kaplan draws for the New Yorker and has written for Seinfeld and Six Feet Under. Which explains a lot. Be sure to check out the endpapers—they contain a map filled with small, odd incidents from Eve and Henry's lives (e.g., "Library where Henry and Eve like to be too loud"). If you have a slightly off-the-wall sense of humor, I think you'll like this one.

I recommend pairing Monsters Eat Whiny Children with Beware of Boys by Tony Blundell and I'd Really Like to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio.

A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham

I liked How to Heal a Broken Wing very much (see my review), and "Let's Get a Pup!" Said Kate is just perfect. Now we find out that a bus called Heaven has been accidentally dropped off on Stella's street, and everything changes as a result.
Stella changed, too. She took her thumb from her mouth, where it usually lived, and said, "Mommy, that bus is as sad as a whale on the beach." Then she pushed open the door and climbed on board.

Stella leads a pack of neighbors who basically turn the abandoned bus into a community center. When two taggers from the Street Ratz write on the bus, Stella's mother enlists them to repaint the bus with a mural instead.
People came with donations.
Popi brought her goldfish, Eric.
Luke gave a set of Supercomix.
Stella carried in her table soccer with the missing goalie.
Mrs. Stavros brought a bus cake.

Soon everyone is hanging out on the bus. (It was empty of seats, and they filled it with old furniture.) Neighbors play chess, talk, and read. This is a very inclusive book, with people of all colors and religions—even a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. Some might argue that the book is too touchy-feely about bringing everyone together, but Graham's down-to-earth artwork—especially his knobby-nosed humans—helps keep the book from getting lost in a sea of didacticism. After all, when the bus is threatened, Stella's heroism has as much to do with table soccer as with dreaming about world peace. A Bus Called Heaven is another gently funny and beautifully illustrated book from Bob Graham. In today's world, you could do worse than discover a picture book about the joys of community.

I wrote a pretty good book about community, so I'm going to say it: pair this book with The Secret-Keeper by Kate Coombs.

Mustache by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell

This one's practically a fable. It's a little strange, but also fun. You see, King Duncan is in love with himself. He thinks his face is so gorgeous, it's a gift to his people to see it. (Narcissus pales by comparison when it comes to Duncan. Really.) The king puts statues and pictures of himself everywhere while his kingdom goes to pot. When the people ask him for help, he gives them an even bigger picture of himself. For some reason, they aren't very grateful.

The worm turns, an suddenly all of the king's pictures and statues turn up with mustaches drawn on them. Duncan is furious! Readers soon learn who is doing the drawing, and eventually so does the king. He jails the culprits—which isn't nearly as satisfying as he thought it would be, for reasons I will let you discover for yourself. The last page is a tad ambiguous, but it seems that King Duncan has learned his lesson at last.

Cornell's cartoon-like drawings are well suited to this tongue-in-cheek tale. The cover design is especially clever. Perhaps Mustache isn't as good as Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World). But it is an entertaining read for the K-2 crowd and might prompt a discussion about arrogance and priorities.

Hmm. Maybe pair this book with I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean by Kevin Sherry. Or better, still, try Joseph Bruchac's book, How Chipmunk Got His Stripes.

No Bears by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Leila Rudge

I think I read about this one on Betsy Bird's blog. (Thanks, Betsy!) It's said that the best children's book illustrators can tell a slightly different story in the pictures even as they support the writer's words. In this case, there's a deliberate disconnect between the words and the pictures—so young readers will get a big kick out of finding out what's really going on by keeping an eagle eye on the artwork. The text represents the point of view of Ella, who addresses readers this way:
Hi, I'm Ella, and this is my book.

You can tell it's a book because there are words everywhere. Words like ONCE UPON A TIME and HAPPILY EVER AFTER and THE END.

I'm in charge of this book, so I know everything about it—including the most important thing, which is that there are NO BEARS in it.

I'm tired of bears. Every time you read a book, it's just BEARS, BEARS, BEARS—horrible furry bears slurping honey in awful little caves.

You don't need BEARS for a book.

Whereupon Ella tells us what you do need in a book, pretty things like fairies and princesses and castles. Ella begins telling a story in which she is the princess, but the story turns scary, with a monster coming to get her.

Now, this whole time, there's a bear hiding out on the pages of the book, looking puzzled by Ella's anti-bear stance. In fact, this kindly, clever bear, who is wearing a yellow dress (or long shirt) with a pattern of green leaves and bees on it, takes steps to slow and finally stop the monster from its quest to kidnap Ella. Though Ella jumps to conclusions and someone else gets the credit, there are those who are wise enough to acknowledge the bear's efforts. Ella wraps up her story, but the true story here is—the bear's.

Rudge's gentle illustrations make both Ella's 'tude and the scary monster more palatable. And the bear is, like a certain bowl of porridge, just right.

No Bears is a book about storytelling. It's a cousin to books like Lane Smith's It's a Book, David Ezra Stein's Interrupting Chicken, and Barnett's Chloe and the Lion. Best of all, it implies that stories have a life of their own. Look for this one. It's a goodie!

Try pairing this book with The Obstinate Pen by Frank W. Dormer. Or (haha) The Bravest Ever Bear by Allan Ahlberg.

Trains Go by Steve Light

Trains Go is a simple book, and one that instantly evokes comparisons to Donald Crews' Caldecott Honor book, Freight Train. Like Freight Train, it shows brightly colored train cars against a stark white background. However, Trains Go veers off the track in that each spread shows a different train, whereas Freight Train builds a single train and gets it moving. Trains Go also uses the text to give voice to the sounds of the trains. Listen to the first three:
The freight train goes,

The streamliner goes,

The mountain train goes,

I'm not sure it's intentional, but there's a little play on words there. "Goes" can be used in place of "says," especially if you're from L.A. like I am. And of course, "goes" refers to a train's movement. I suspect the mountain train spread contains another joke, an allusion to the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff.

Light's trains and tracks and smoke have a bolder, grittier feel than Crews' perfect procession of train cars. The contoured shapes and lines add to the sense of motion, and the brashness of Light's style seems to fit the energy of the trains. I should note, too, that the sound words quoted above are presented in different sizes, which gives them a more energetic feel, as well. Light has also scuffed the letters of the interior font, another touch that puts grit in the book. Finally, this board book is shaped like a box car, short and wide.

Trains Go is a simple book, but a great choice for a lap reader who enjoys sound effects and likes truck and train books.

Aside from the obvious, I would pair Trains Go with Zimmerman, Clemesha, and Yaccarino's Trashy Town. (It's about trash trucks, but trust me on this one!)

House Held Up by Trees by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen has three new picture books out that I know of—Extra Yarn (see my preview here), I Want My Hat Back, and now House Held Up by Trees. I will just warn you that this book is best suited for adult readers unless you have a very thoughtful and introspective child. The text is by Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Ted Kooser, so it goes without saying that the language is lovely. The book begins:
When it was new, the house stood alone on a bare square of earth. There was a newly planted lawn around it, but not a single tree to give shade in summer or to rattle its bare twigs in the winter cold. There had been trees there once, but all of them had been cut down to make room for the house. Even their stumps had been pulled up and burned.

We learn that the two children play in the wild trees that surround the lot, crawling through the tightly woven bushes beneath them. Meanwhile, the father of the family mows the lawn, religiously pulling up the tree sprouts that grow when the seeds from the trees around the lot blow onto the grass and take root.

Years pass. The children grow up and move away. Still the father cares for the yard, keeping the trees out. Until—one day he doesn't. He moves to the city to be closer to his adult children. Untended and unsold, the house and yard sit, seemingly still. But now the tree sprouts do grow up. They grow and grow until they surround the house and even, as the title suggests, slowly lift it into the sky with their branches. Read this wonderful line:
The winds pushed at the house, but the young trees kept it from falling apart, and as they grew bigger and stronger, they held it together as if it was a bird's nest in the fingers of their branches.

Klassen's sometimes austere and even sere style is appropriate for this rather distant story and voice. It's a unusual book, but it speaks in its own right. If you're a collector of poetry and unique picture books, watch for Kooser and Klassen's ultra-quiet tale. I suppose there might be a moral to this story, but for me it's simply about nature and the power and wonder of trees.

Although I do like the idea of the trees as the heroes of the story!

Why not pair this with the famous poem by Sara Teasdale, "There Will Come Soft Rains"?

An Awesome Book by Dallas Clayton

There are two reasons I'm inclined not to like this book: first, it's one of those didactic pop psychology offerings about having imagination and dreaming big, and second, the art style is a little too psychedelic for my tastes. And yet—there's something randomly, strangely likable about Dallas Clayton's picture book. I'll give you the first few pages (the book's written in all caps):

Naturally, Clayton provides pictures of all these dreams and more. Then he talks about places where dreams are dead. He challenges young readers to dream big and even bigger dreams, which they should then make real. All the while he's tossing out art that's kind of bizarre, fitting for the way people dream at night, in fact.

I don't know if this is an awesome book, but it's a cool book, the kind that might make you smile and review your own dreams. I guess I would call it A Funky Book, myself. See what you think!

I suggest pairing this one with Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer.

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost, illustrated with photos by Rick Lieder

I am happy to say that I was recently interviewed by Erika Rohrbach for Kirkus, and Erika was very fun to talk to. Among other things, I told her she had to read The Arrival by Shaun Tan. She told me in turn that I had to read Step Gently Out by Helen Frost. So of course, I did.

Helen Frost is a poet best known for her novels in verse, e.g., Diamond Willow, Hidden, and Crossing Stones, but Step Gently Out is a picture book poem about the world of insects, spiders, and beetles. The book is illustrated by stunning close-up photographs of each creature. Because the focus is on each small actor, backdrops blur away, though they are vaguely recognizable as green leaves, foggy mornings, and twilights. The whole effect is one of a subdued world with glorious scraps of life beating brightly at its heart. We begin:
Step gently out, [a praying mantis on a daisy]
be still, and watch a single blade of grass. [a louche-looking caterpillar on a blade of grass]
An ant climbs up to look around. [just what it says!]
A honeybee flies past. [a perfectly clear bee mid-flight]

There is rhyme in this book occasionally. The words are certainly strong, but I have to say, the photos tend to trump the text. Though ultimately, the two work together, telling us of a world we don't always notice or think about, reminding us of its power and singular beauty. (A note at the end explains each creature in more scientific detail.)

Thanks, Erika!

I would pair Step Gently Out with The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins or Bug Off! Creepy, Crawly Poems by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple.

Note: HarperCollins sent me An Awesome Book and Chronicle sent me Trains Go.


Kim Aippersbach said...

Oh, you make me want to go picture book shopping, and I usually only allow myself to do that at Christmas! I definitely want Monsters Eat Whiny Children.

KateCoombs said...

Kim--I know! Picture book shopping always feels a little decadent. But yes, you should try to get your hands on Monsters Eat Whiny Children. (And if you like that, track down The Sad Story of Veronica Who Played the Violin.)

Amy said...

We love the Pete the Cat books, but haven't tried out the newest yet. Now we will! Thanks for the other great title recommendations, too!

KateCoombs said...

Amy--Oh, good! And Book 4 will be out in September: Pete the Cat Saves Christmas.