Friday, March 27, 2009

Three Bird Books for Spring

It’s the quintessential image of spring: three blue eggs in a robin’s nest. And so I give you three books, each as surprising as a new egg. Two of them are recent arrivals, while the third is out of print. Each captures the poetry of birds in a way I think Emily Dickinson would have appreciated. Birds are fantastic metaphors, after all. Their eggs represent new life and their flight represents hope and freedom. Remember Dickinson’s poem? “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all....”

Birdsong by Audrey Wood and Robert Florczak

Birdsong is out of print, but it’s still a favorite of mine. Readers will travel around the United States for a day, bird watching with children in different states as they go. The text is simple: “Caw-caw-caw—swaying on telephone wires, jaunty crows banter at dawn. Missy and Deni awaken to birdsong.” A look at the key on the back cover tells us that these kids live in West Virginia, that the birds they hear are American crows, and that the flowers in the page border are Big rhododendron. Next it’s on to cardinals in Arizona and rock pigeons in New York. Fourteen birds later, evening falls with an owl calling in Michigan.

Robert Florczak’s illustrations are quietly appealing as well as accurate. In nearly every spread, one or two children play or hike or work while noticing the birds calling nearby.

Birdsong didn’t hit it big like the author’s book, The Napping House, but I loved sharing it with my students. We attempted to guess the states and flowers before peeking at the back of the book, and of course we tried out each birdsong. The songs are transcribed well, so they’re easy to imitate. This is unabashedly a concept book, with the slimmest imaginable narrative arc. But Birdsong shows young readers something new, a way of listening to the world. After you’ve read it, you’ll find yourself noticing birdsongs all around you. It turns out Earth has a soundtrack.

Birds by Kevin Henkes

Birds is the work of an amazingly talented author-illustrator, Kevin Henkes. He is well known for writing a number of picture books about mice as schoolchildren, including Owen and Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. He then turned his hand to middle grade fiction with books like Olive’s Ocean, a 2004 Newbery Honor book. More recently, Henkes has been making picture books for a slightly younger crowd, say two- to five-year-olds instead of four- to seven-year-olds. He’s very good at that, too, winning the 2005 Caldecott for Kitten’s First Full Moon and rave reviews for Old Bear and A Good Day.

Birds is Henkes’s latest picture book, really an illustrated free verse poem. At first its narrator is unseen, but like Audrey Wood’s characters, she begins her day with birdsong. The child then tells us a series of seemingly random things about birds. She remarks on their colors and sizes before giving an anecdote, a what if, an even more fanciful what if, and so on. As the book progresses, metaphor becomes more and more important in a rising way that may remind you of a bird taking flight. Here’s one example partway through: “Sometimes in winter, a bird in a tree looks like one red leaf left over.”

Birds makes a deliberate, delicate transition from the factual to the metaphorical, the way a fine green vein travels through a spring leaf. I think maybe Henkes is saying that bird facts are great, but the free-winged beauty a bird brings to our world is even better. Whatever his message, his book gives me spring fever, a desire to run through the grass barefoot and, like his young narrator, sing into the sunshine.

How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham

I ordered this book because I’d read the author's “Let’s Get a Pup,” Said Kate! and liked it very much, especially the funny, friendly illustrations. Later I found out that How to Heal a Broken Wing had won the Charlotte Zolotow and Cybils awards for best picture book of 2008 and was an ALA Notable Children’s Book.

It is very difficult to write a tender book without being alarmingly sentimental, but Bob Graham knows the value of understatement. A little boy in a big city finds an injured pigeon on the way home with his working mother. He insists on rescuing the bird, and his parents help him care for it while it heals. Nothing special? Just listen to the first page: “High above the city, no one heard the soft thud of feathers against glass.” On the next page, we read simply, “No one saw the bird fall.” Graham's language is gently lovely, but his illustrations make How to Heal a Broken Wing soar. With simple lines and just a few colors, Graham paints a vast cityscape that dwarfs the bird and the child at the center of his tale. Yet he also uses smaller, graphic novel-style sequences to illustrate parts of the story. The author-illustrator has a knack for pacing his close-ups and wide-angle shots. The blue-tinged palette lends a slightly melancholy air to most of the narrative, then surprises by leading us to the top of the sky. And the same type of slightly comical characters Graham drew for “Let’s Get a Pup” read here as sublimely ordinary, led by our small hero, Everychild.

This book isn’t just about helping a hurt pigeon, it’s about keeping your eyes open in a world where too many people have their eyes closed. It is also about hope. As the author puts it, "A loose feather can't be put back...but a broken wing can sometimes heal." For some reason, How to Heal a Broken Wing reminds me of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. I think it’s because both books give me a bone-deep feeling of being glad to be alive and human.

The crepe myrtles in my town are blooming pinkly and the birds are calling from dawn to dusk. Even in sunny California, the world changes when spring comes. Wherever you are, and however much your own neighborhood has bloomed, I suggest you celebrate with one of these picture books. If you're in the mood for more bird books, I also highly recommend First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long, and an out-of-print folktale called The Language of Birds by Rafe Martin and Susan Gaber.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Review of Thornspell by Helen Lowe

Fairy tale retellings are almost always done from the princess’s point of view, so it’s nice to read one from the prince’s perspective. Offhand, the only other book I can think of with a similar point of view is Alex Flinn’s Beastly, a modern-day retelling of "Beauty and the Beast." Of course, in the case of "Sleeping Beauty," the princess is out of commission for much of the story. Hence Thornspell, Helen Lowe’s retelling of the rose-covered fairy tale about an eerie hundred-year enchantment.

As a boy, Prince Sigismund reads stories of Parsifal and the Grail quest and dreams of becoming a knight-errant. Raised quietly in a castle on the west edge of the kingdom while his father goes south to fight a war, he looks out over a forbidden forest, wondering about the legend of a hidden castle there. Eventually he comes under attack by an enchantress calling herself the Margravine zu Malvolin, who appears at the castle gate and tries to enlist Sigismund to her cause. The boy barely escapes and becomes very ill, but he is helped by shadowy figures who appear to wish him well. Sigismund also begins to dream of walking through the legendary castle in the wood.

In response to the near miss, the king sends Sigismund a bodyguard and trainer named Balisan. The man is mysterious and powerful, and he seems to know a lot about magic. He introduces Sigismund to the fairy who healed him, the Margravine’s adversary.

In time, Sigismund journeys to the capital city and his father’s castle. There he is befriended by a smiling youth named Flor who, if readers are paying the least bit of attention, will immediately strike them as the back-stabbing type. Malvolin’s attempts to stop Sigismund from freeing the princess in the wood continue, but with the help of his allies and a magic sword, the prince ultimately triumphs.

Sigismund is such a likable boy, then hero, that I think you will enjoy spending time with him. The only thing I didn’t love about this book is something I’ve seen popping up a lot lately, and that is an obsessive need to explain every little plot point and bit of magic in detail, dialoguing it to death. Really, as long as a story hangs together, long explanations and swathes of backstory are simply a distraction. There’s a Hercule-Poirot-gathering-everybody-in-the-library feeling to some of the discussions in this book, is all I’m saying. (Of course, J.K. Rowling did it for pages with her ghostly Dumbledore near the end of Book 7.)

I’ll note that Balisan teaches Sigismund meditation practices to bring out his heritage of magical power. Again, I’ve seen this mixture of Eastern religion and European fairy tale magic in other fantasy I’ve read lately. Since our modern world is becoming a real cultural mix, I suppose such blendings are inevitable. I recently read a book where it was handled very badly, but Lowe manages to pull it off, mostly by making Balisan a magical figure from another land.

Quibbles aside, Helen Lowe’s Thornspell is an excellent addition to your library of fairy tale retellings—my favorite subgenre. Girls who like fantasy and fairy tales will want to read this one. And, while it isn’t a guy book the way the Alex Rider books are, boys who read fantasy should also like Thornspell, putting themselves in the place of good-hearted prince Sigismund as he struggles to defeat an old and evil adversary.

A Review of Aurelie: A Faerie Tale by Heather Tomlinson

There’s an old tale about a midwife who is taken to help with a fairy birth and accidentally gets fairy sight in one eye. When the woman gives herself away at a later point, the fairies blind her in that eye. And you all know the story of the twelve dancing princesses. The idea of dancing in the fairy realm with untrustworthy yet romantic figures further evokes warnings such as those in the ballad of Tam Lin or Christina Rossetti’s poem, “The Goblin Market.”

Although these fairy tales influence Heather Tomlinson's Aurelie, it is not specifically a fairy tale retelling. Instead it is the story of Aurelie, Garin, Netta, and Loic, childhood friends in the land of Jocondagne. Aurelie is the princess and her father’s heir, Garin is a fosterling from the ocean-faring realm of Skoe, Netta is Aurelie’s companion, and Loic is a young river dragon. Loic isn’t actually supposed to be friends with human children, let alone give them the ability to see fairies. Unfortunately, Netta reveals her fairy sight to Loic’s father and is blinded as a result.

All of this happens in the first chapter as a kind of prologue. The rest of the book picks up two years later, when the four friends are unhappily separated and feeling various degrees of abandonment and betrayal. Most of the story concerns itself with political intrigue and a threat of war from the too-lucky Captain Inglis of Skoe. On a diplomatic mission to Skoe, Aurelie encounters Garin again, but he is in disguise, and he’s not very happy about Aurelie’s escort, Captain Inglis’s arrogant son.

When Aurelie flees Skoe for her home, she encounters Loic again, and she begins dancing with him in the world of Faerie to forget her troubles. He seems to woo her, but everyone knows his heart lies with Netta—although no one has dared tell him what happened to the girl’s eyes. Then Garin comes after Aurelie, with Captain Inglis’s army at his heels. Having resolved their old hurts, the four teens work together to undo the warleader’s luck and save the kingdom.

Along the way, the author has a little fun with her world building. The realm of Skoe is especially clever, with its fishy cuisine, its ice boat races, and its stair-stepped city built on a cliff. I laughed when Aurelie observed that everyone in Skoe is in really good physical condition from running up and down all those stairs!

At 184 pages, this book is more of a novella than a novel. Partly an adventure story, Aurelie moves at a brisk pace despite pausing for some teen-type angst along the way. Aurelie is told in the first person, and different chapters are presented by the four main characters, though the princess is most often the narrator. This POV choice gives the book a more contemporary, Young Adult feel. Aurelie is being marketed as YA, in fact.

And speaking of contemporary: In my review of Thornspell I mentioned that fairy tale-influenced fantasy may stop for scientific explanations of plot points; here I’ll add that they sometimes contain pop psychology. For example, “detachment” just isn’t a medieval concept! Still, Loic’s an interesting character in that regard. His motives are more sinister than Aurelie suspects, rather more alien, reptilian, and fey, to be precise.

I did notice a couple of too-handy coincidences in Aurelie. Bruce Coville has said that the later in the book you place a coincidence, the more it strains credulity. Keep an eye on Captain Inglis in that regard.

However, like Thornspell, Aurelie is ultimately good story telling. Aurelie and her friends are an appealing bunch, and watching them solve the mystery of Captain Inglis’s devious plans is just as entertaining as seeing them work out the troubles that led them to lose their once-prized friendship. Don’t forget that the subtitle is “A Faerie Tale”: Tomlinson ends with a pair of satisfying happily-ever-after romances as the foursome comes together again.

Note for Worried Parents: Although Aurelie is very wholesome compared to many YA novels, it does have a few brief, oblique sexual references, the most memorable of which is one character asking another if she plans to take a lover. And there's some kissing. That's about it!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Picture Books with Bite

Despite the popularity of No, David! and Where the Wild Things Are, I suspect most people think of picture books as being sweet. No doubt this impression is influenced by the abundance of bedtime books—often lullabyes—which really are sweet. So it is with some gusto that I give you a handful of books that aren’t sweet. In fact, they are tart and funny, and above all, toothy.

But first, let’s talk about the horror genre. A decade or so ago, it was all wizards: nothing but miles and miles of pointy hats and wands everywhere you looked. That was in the days when Potter was king, or Rowling was queen, take your pick. Today’s royal couple, both of them actual human beings, would be Neil Gaiman and Stephenie Meyer.

Still, The Graveyard Book and Twilight are not for small children, and neither is Coraline, even if you do decide your five-year-old won’t get nightmares from seeing the movie. Which raises the perhaps-less-obvious-than-I-think question: Does horror have a place in picture books?

The answer, at first glance, would seem to be yes—in the form of Halloween books. But if you have ever examined the offerings on the orange holiday altar in a bookstore in October, I can guarantee that few of the books you saw were actually scary. Again, we’re talking picture books. (For middle grade readers, forget about Goosebumps—the scariest stuff would have to be those Alvin Schwartz collections. Extremely creepy!) One of the few Halloween picture books I like is Shake Dem Halloween Bones by W. Nikola-Lisa and Mike Reed, but it's not scary. The Halloween subgenre has yet to offer up a classic picture book, nothing like The Polar Express or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Of course, this is probably because most people don’t think it’s a good idea to terrify four-year-olds.

Even so, the tinge of horror has reached its haunted hands into picture books. Either that, or we’re simply seeing the brashness of a generation of writers who've read Scieska and Smith’s books and watched a lot of Simpsons episodes. The four books I’m reviewing today aren’t noticeably “horror” so much as they have a boldness about them, the subversiveness I wrote about a few weeks ago. And yes, they all involve teeth, or at least food. Think of this as my homage to Sendak’s classic line, “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett

Emily Gravett is quite the maverick. I like her work very much, and I expect more funny, unpredictable books from her in the years to come. Besides, wolves, spells, and fears? Emily is clearly a closet horror writer. (I’m choosing to ignore the dogs and meercats.) Gravett is also a talented illustrator.

As The Odd Egg begins, a little gathering of birds waits for their eggs to hatch. Except a duck, who doesn’t have an egg. It didn’t occur to me till later that the robin, the hen, the parrot, the flamingo, and the owl might all be female, while Duck is referenced as a male. I doubt Gravett is dabbling in gender politics, but it certainly explains why Duck has not laid an egg!

Fortunately, Duck finds an egg—a beautiful white egg with green spots. In Duck’s fervent opinion, it is “the most beautiful egg in the whole wide world.” Soon the other five eggs hatch, and here the author/illustrator makes wonderful use of specially cut partial pages. She also throws in a clever joke about the baby owl.

When Duck’s egg doesn’t hatch right away, he waits patiently, knitting baby booties with great good cheer. The other birds are not what you’d call supportive: like the adults in Krause and Johnson’s The Carrot Seed, who inform the little boy that his seed will not come up, these birds tell Duck that his egg will never hatch. But Duck just keeps knitting, and eventually his patience is rewarded. We also get some teeth and some comeuppance. Be sure to look at the endpapers, which are actually the last page of the story.

This is a seemingly simple book, and the soft-edged watercolors make it look like it might be sweeter than it is. But The Odd Egg is a hoot—an owl’s hoot, most likely. More important, it has an ironic edge that readers who aren’t fans of the saccharine in children’s books will surely appreciate.

I’d Really Like to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio and Dorothée de Monfreid

The bite in this story is more overt, which makes it all the more amusing to me that Donnio’s work is ultimately sweeter than The Odd Egg. But only a little, kind of the way a lemon square tastes. In the absurd alternate reality that children's books so readily create, we meet a family of crocodiles whose diet largely consists of bananas. Then little crocodile Achilles wakes up one morning and announces, “Today, I’d really like to eat a child.”

His parents try to convince him to eat something else—bananas, perhaps? They cajole, they prepare special foods, but to no avail. Achilles is determined. Eventually he goes down to the river and finds a real live child. His dream has come true! Or has it? The human girl he meets casually turns the tables on the little croc, which results in Achilles hurrying home to rethink his strategies, if not his diet.

What’s really funny about this book is that it depicts the traditional battle between parents and small children over what, if anything, those children will eat. Russell Hoban’s Bread and Jam for Frances is the only book I’ve seen previously that handled this topic successfully. Times have changed, however: children of yesteryear may have been stuck eating whatever was plopped on their plates, but lately, I’ve been in grocery stores eavesdropping on parents who walk from aisle to aisle, asking the four-foot-and-under crowd to tell them what to buy. Along these lines, I love the way Donnio, a French writer, depicts the calm arrogance of a cute little kid who knows how much his parents want him to be happy. For example, look at the first few pages of the story:

Every morning, Mama Crocodile would bring tasty bananas to little Achilles for his breakfast, and each time she said in wonder, “What a big boy you are getting to be, my son! And how handsome! And what beautiful teeth you have!”

“True,” Achilles would say to himself.
There are other jokes in I’d Really Like to Eat a Child, but I’ll leave them to you to discover. Suffice it to say that this book might inspire your own family to adopt the title as a catchphrase for arguing about what kids—and adults—will or will not ingest.

Beware of the Frog by William Bee

This one is flat-out satirical. I hope you get the idea as soon as you read the first sentence: “This is the story of a sweet little old lady named Mrs. Collywobbles.” Naturally, the dear old soul “lives in a little house on the edge of a big, dark, scary wood.” The only thing standing between her and terrible danger is “her little pet frog,” who sits on the front porch looking innocuous.

Then again, the sign on the front gate does say, BEWARE OF THE FROG. On something resembling crime scene tape, no less. So when a parade of monsters comes up to the house, planning to rob Mrs. Collywobbles or even cook her for supper, they get the surprise of their lives. As each one opens the gate: “But oh, dear, the frog doesn’t look very pleased about that....” (Like me, you may be reminded of the rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

Your child might notice that Mrs. Collywobbles hides in a different room of the house each time one of the monsters comes along. Eventually, her house is completely without monster threats, so she decides to reward her deadly watchfrog.

That’s when the gleeful author-illustrator throws, not one, but two plot twists at us. All in a mere 32 pages! I do not recommend you read this to your child if your favorite picture book is Guess How Much I Love You. But if you have a bright, anarchic kid, he or she will thoroughly enjoy Beware of the Frog. (And be sure to check out the back cover design, which also resides outside the box.)

Inside the Slidy Diner by Laurel Snyder and Jaime Zollars

I remember seeing Jaime Zollars's gorgeously creepy art on display at SCBWI’s summer conference, and I’ve “met” Laurel Snyder in Kidlitosphere, where a group of people blogs about children’s books. This book is the closest to horror that I'll present to you in today's post. Inside the Slidy Diner shows us a place defined by ooze and hints of strange magic, but with beauty lurking beneath. I’m sure on some level it’s an allegory, although it doesn’t have to be, not unless you’re in the mood.

Instead, let’s say this book is a tall tale. You may even get the sense that Edie, standing outside the diner and trying to convince her friend to come inside, is making the whole thing up. But wait: that’s no fun. Let's try again. We'll call the Slidy Diner the restaurant where Lewis Carroll's Alice goes for dinner, or better yet, Neil Gaiman's Coraline.

My own guess is that the author was in a cheap diner one night and imagined taking the idea of a “greasy spoon” to its logical extreme. In fact, she uses the phrase early in the book: “Inside the Slidy Diner, the greasy spoon of stuck, there’s a gray man at the counter who mumbles and smells like mice.”

The food here is way past icky. Just for example, the coffee gives you hives and the pie is pumpkin asparagus topped with unidentifiable crunchy bits. There are a lot of dead flies in this book, some of them sticking to the back of witchy proprietor Ethelmae’s sweater. And don't ask about the ladyfingers.

But there’s more to the Slidy Diner than just the ick factor. In the depths of the diner, we find “dark blue secrets” and other wonders. Once we see the bird-shaped secrets, we realize they have been perched on previous pages, unnoticed.

Laurel Snyder is a poet, and the text of this book is beautifully worded. Illustrator Jaime Zollars, with her penchant for fantasy horror, is the perfect artist for envisioning the diner.

Does Snyder’s concept of marrying horror with hidden joy work? It’s an unusual and thought-provoking mix. The book reminds me of magical realism as well as horror, only the food in Like Water for Chocolate sounded a lot more edible. Of course, life itself is like the Slidy Diner, a rough mixture of troubles and blue-winged happiness. (Oops! Allegory attack!) I’m sure some parents will be uneasy with a book like this one, but people do know their own children—for others, it will be delightfully gruesome and possibly instigate some intriguing conversations.

Which is really the point of children's books with bite. Stories that do not surprise are not worthy of being called stories. Furthermore, in this new world of ours, horror makes a good analogy for terrorism, rampaging economies, and other powers beyond our control. In such a world, having a few sharp-toothed specimans hiding at the edge of the picture book forest seems entirely appropriate.

Update: Please, oh please, take a look at two posts about "Slightly Demented Picture Books" over at Seven Imp! There's one from 2008 and another from 2010, where you'll find still more picture books with bite and some wonderful discussion on the topic.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Review of Shooting the Moon by Frances O'Roark Dowell

Jamie’s father is the Colonel, and her world is the Army. Growing up, she plays war games with her older brother and wishes she could be a soldier. When her brother, T.J., decides to go fight in Vietnam, she is thrilled—he will be a hero! Jamie is utterly baffled when her father tries to discourage T.J. from enlisting. After all, this is the man who wears his fatigues and combat boots to play football in the yard with his daughter:

“Pathfinders,” he’d yell, zigzagging across the yard toward the imaginary end zone.

“Combat ready, sir!” I’d yell back, completing the old 8th Infantry Division call-and-response we’d learned as kids, which was part of our life, just like answering the phone “Colonel Dexter’s quarters” or making sure we had our military IDs with us whenever we went to the PX or the commissary so we could prove who we were, proud citizens of the United States Army. Hooah, as we liked to say. Hooah, yes sir.

Pretty soon T.J. is writing letters home from Vietnam, but with each letter, he encloses a canister of film for Jamie, instructing her to develop the film herself. Jamie has already been hanging around the army base’s rec center, where she has a summer job sweeping up and spends most of her time playing diabolical games of gin rummy with Private Hollister. Another soldier, Sergeant Bird, agrees to teach Jamie how to develop T.J.’s film.

So begins a book where an older brother’s wordless messages to his sister are more powerful than anything he might have written. Jamie shares the photos with some of the soldiers at the rec center and with a handicapped friend, Cindy, who likes to keep T.J.’s shots of the moon. She also shows them to her parents. Then, as T.J.’s photo subjects change, Jamie finds herself holding back certain photos, not showing them to her parents at all.

Shooting the Moon’s message may seem heavy handed if you haven’t actually read the book, but the story telling is stronger than that. Jamie doesn’t change her mind in a direct way so much as she blossoms out of innocence into ambiguity about the meaning of war, of heroes, and of fathers. Her friend Cindy is an intriguing character, a purified, magnified version of Jamie’s naivete but also occasionally the voice of the "wise fool."

As the book draws to a close, Jamie makes a choice that casts light on her evolution. Of course, the author’s spotlight would have to be the moon. The moon has been a symbol in a lot of literature over the years, so it’s really kind of stunning that Frances O’Roark Dowell manages to give it a new and subtle significance in this book. Shooting the Moon won a Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Award for 2008, and I can see why. Whether you’re anti-war, pro-war, or nothing of the kind, I suggest you take the time to see the world through Jamie’s eyes, and through T.J.’s camera lens.

A Review of Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor

Like Frances O’Roark Dowell’s Jamie in Shooting the Moon, Leslie Connor’s Addie is an innocent. It may seem unnecessary to emphasize that a child character is an innocent, but there are two reasons for my emphasis: first, a lot of young book characters these days seems remarkably adult, even jaded, like those sitcom kids on TV; and second, sometimes an author uses the fresh light of a child’s outlook to add meaning to a book. In Shooting the Moon, Jamie’s illusions about war heighten the impact of what is really happening in Vietnam. In Waiting for Normal, Addie’s good cheer is a contrast to the realities of her life.

Dwight, Addie’s ex-stepfather, drops her and Mommers off at their new home, a yellow trailer parked all by its lonesome in the city, beneath an elevated train track. After an incident of neglect, Dwight has been able to get custody of Addie’s two little half sisters, but he is unable to get custody of Addie. It’s pretty clear that this worries Dwight.

Addie settles in, making friends with Soula, who runs the gas station and minimart across the street with the help of a man named Elliot. She eventually joins the school band and gets a hamster. Life seems normal—until she goes to visit Dwight and her sisters and sees the contrast between her life and theirs, or until the next time Mommers screws up. It should be pretty obvious to adult readers, at least, that Mommers is bipolar. While not unkind, Mommers is often negligent, and she expects her daughter to follow her moods around like contrail after a jet.

For her part, Addie is a tough little cookie--not in the street tough sense of the term, but in the sense that she makes the best of things. Little by little, however, she finds herself dragged down by the difficulties of her situation. Addie’s attempts to read and resolve the problems life imposes on her are particularly poignant because her logic is impeccable; it’s just that she’s lacking adult insight. The one that really gets to me is when she gives up playing the flute. It simply doesn’t occur to her that there might be a better solution.

Fortunately, Addie’s grandfather and Dwight are waiting to pick up the pieces. In the meantime, however, Addie goes through things which, while not wildly damaging in and of themselves, are definitely sieves for the soul. Addie shows us how much small hurts can add up for a child, even if she is fundamentally optimistic. Connor gives us a fresh take on the dilemma of being the child of a troubled parent. That is, Addie is a reliable person, but Mommers’s choices render her unreliable. “...I had run away when they were all counting on me. That was the thing that bothered me most: the counting-on part.” Unspoken here is the obvious pain of not being able to count on Mommers. As I read this book, I saw in a way I never had before the power of a parent simply providing a stable foundation, a predictable setting in which a child can work out the plot of her own life.

Ironically, Addie is dyslexic, but she is so sensible and upbeat about her disability that I almost forgot about it until I noticed that Waiting for Normal won a Schneider Family Book Award for 2009. The award is given for great books about children living with disability, whether in themselves or in a friend or family member. In fact, my first impulse was to think the award was given because Addie has to live with her mother’s mental disability--but I suppose it's both. The book was also an ALA Children’s Notable Book and made the ALA’s list of Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults in 2009.

A subplot about Soula, who has cancer, and Elliot, who is gay, simply rounds out the richness of the story telling. Like Dwight, these two offer Addie some much-needed surrogate parenting. When Addie's troubles come to a head, it is Soula who is there for her, not Mommers.

Waiting for Normal is partly a coming-of-age story. At one point Addie, who has seemed so child-like through much of the book, tells Dwight, "I just can't...pretend stuff anymore.... I'm too old to pretend stuff."

Ultimately, things get better for Addie, but this kid works pretty darn hard for her happy ending. It’s not that she’s never discouraged, and she isn't a larger-than-life heroine in the least. Yet somehow, Addie’s earnest tenacity is an inspiration to readers as she keeps on going, just doing the very best she can, waiting and hoping for normal.

Note for Worried Parents (WPs): There’s some talk about Addie getting her period, but it’s handled sensibly and adds to the plot.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Best Picture Books of All Time

I've been tinkering with this list for a couple of months now, but then Elizabeth Bird of A Fuse #8 Production announced her poll for the top 100 picture books of all time, which was apparently the catalyst I needed. That is, since she asked each of us to submit only ten titles, I was finally forced to make some choices! Even so, I'm able to cheat a bit here on my very own site, adding a Special Mention, New Classics, and Additional Classics to the mix. Of course, these first ten are the ones that will get my vote for Elizabeth's poll. I've selected clearly seminal works for the most part, along with a few that I feel should be seen as seminal. (I realize I'll have to break a couple of ties--still mulling over that.)

What is the perfect picture book? Its language is spare and strong, complementing and complemented by its art. Its characters are appealing without being cloyingly adorable, and their compact adventures resonate. The book surprises--it is like nothing else. It can be read over and over by children and parents without a diminishing of joy. The right picture book makes you laugh, or sometimes just sigh and smile. It makes you want to touch the pages or, if you're a toddler, chew on them. It doesn't need movies or toys to be a power in its own right, even a force for good--better than Superman. A perfect picture book is as whole, complete, and round as a year with its set of seasons, a day bordered by sunrise and sunset, or the Earth itself.


1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Caldecott Medal, 1964)

Where the Wild Things Are is unquestionably the best picture book of all time: it is as perfect as a poem in both pacing and wording, and its illustrations are equally, elegantly concise even when they go wild. The book touches on the fierceness of the love and flashes of hate small children feel toward their powerful parents, moving on to acknowledge the child’s need to venture beyond the safety of those parents’ arms every so often and then come back again. (Be sure to read Sendak’s Nutshell Library while you’re at it, especially Chicken Soup with Rice!)

2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

There’s a reason The Very Hungry Caterpillar is read in kindergarten and first grade classrooms around the world. Not only does the text build wonderfully well, but the collage-based art is like nothing ever done before or since, with simplicity and richness coexisting in beautiful balance. (When I was teaching kindergarten, my students made their own book, The Very Hungry Kindergartners. Needless to say, it was a great success!)

3. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

I’m not as starry-eyed over this book as most people, but I’ll agree that it’s an utterly soothing and skillfully written bedtime story. It’s also right up there with Where the Wild Things Are as a classic in the field. My favorite piece of writing from this author is The Important Book, which is thought-provoking, if less well crafted. I also love a poem by Margaret Wise Brown in which she describes a bumblebee as “humming along like baby thunder.”

4. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr., John Archambault, and Lois Ehlert

The catchiest alphabet book in the world, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom turns the capital letters into parents and the lowercase letters into children. It’s so chantable you practically have to sing it. And illustrator Lois Ehlert does an amazing job of giving the chunky graphic letters personalities.

5. No, David! by David Shannon (Caldecott Honor, 1999)

This picture book reaches out and grabs you with its titular refrain and trouble-bound protagonist, who is sure to remind you of a lot of small children you’ve met, some of them quite possibly your own. The art is beyond brash, and kids love this book—especially the part where David runs down the street naked.

6. Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson and The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson (a tie!)

Harold is such a pleasant child that he reminds me of Mr. Rogers, whose television program was found to be more effective in reaching small children than things like Sesame Street because it was slower paced. Children will simply enjoy following Harold as he rambles around, using his purple crayon to make friends, create and escape danger, and finally return home to bed. Johnson’s other classic, The Carrot Seed, is a fairly bold work for its time: it encourages small children to believe in their own plans even when the taller, more knowledgeable people around them disagree.

7. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Caldecott Honor, 1993) by Jon Scieska and Lane Smith (another tie!)

Like Where the Wild Things Are, these two books represent a turning point in the history of picture books and arguably of children’s books in general, as they seem to have ushered in a golden era of fairy tales retold with a twist. They also introduced more sophisticated, contemporary humor to children’s books, along with a new, off-the-wall approach to illustration. All that aside, however, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man are just really funny.

8. The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood

Still among the best picture book teams of all time, Audrey and Don Wood have created more than one classic. They are widely known for this cumulative tale, The Napping House, in which a slumbering pile of pets and people are galvanized into motion by the smallest of visitors. I am also fond of King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, about a monarch with a twinkle in his eye who refuses to leave his bath, to the despair of everyone around him.

9. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

This book perfectly captures the drama of being a child—wonderful highs and excruciating lows in artfully realistic counterpoint. Could there be anything better than a purple plastic purse that plays music when you open it, or anything worse than having the teacher confiscate it? Henkes’s mice, with Lilly at their helm, are Russell Hoban’s Frances for a new generation, playing out the vagaries of childhood with humor and a surprising depth of feeling. (Besides, how great is it to have little mouse characters star in picture books without being so precious as to make one gag?) I should note that the rest of Henkes’ picture books are very, very good, as well; I especially like Julius, the Baby of the World, the funniest book I've ever seen about a child resenting the new baby.

10. There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly by Simms Taback (Caldecott Honor, 1998)

Some of my favorite read-alouds can be sung or at least chanted, and this is the best one I’ve ever shared with children. The story-song is goofy and the art is both hilarious and striking, especially the holes allowing readers to look back and view the contents of the old lady’s stomach along the way. See also Taback’s 2000 Caldecott Medal winner, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.


The Talking Eggs: A Folktale from the American South by Robert San Souci and Jerry Pinkney (Caldecott Honor, 1990)

Here’s a newsflash: I read my first graders the most marvelous picture books I could find every single day for a year, and guess which one was their favorite? Yes, it was The Talking Eggs, this underappreciated rendition of a Southern version of an older European folktale. I thought their loyalty was an isolated experience, but then I was chatting with the mother of a bright four-year-old boy the other day and she said, “You know what’s weird? Out of all the books I’ve read to him, his favorite is one called The Talking Eggs.” The thing is practically a secret weapon! This also reconfirms my belief in children’s appreciation of excellent storytelling, not just sparkles and sentiment.

NEW CLASSICS (in alphabetical order)

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (Caldecott Honor, 2001) by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin

Farm animals haven’t been this funny since—well, ever! Click, Clack, Moo and its sequels offer us amusing evocations of the labor movement, not to mention parent-child negotiations. Meet Cronin and Lewin, one of the most impressive new teams in the picture book world.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Caldecott Honor, 2004) by Mo Willems

Having honed his craft working for Sesame Street and other children’s television shows, Mo Willems turned his attention to the picture book and quickly began to dominate the field. Terms like “meteoric rise” spring to mind. Willems is the master of humorous everyday interactions and of the small child’s free-ranging facial expressions, which he creates using only a few simple lines. His Pigeon is the absolute incarnation of a four-year-old. Willems has a lot of good titles out there, but I predict that ultimately, his very funny easy readers about Elephant and Piggie will end up being his most enduring work.

Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed by Eileen Christelow

There’s a reason this chant has endured in the oral tradition, and Christelow’s illustrations are inspired—especially her little joke on the very last page.

Flotsam by David Wiesner (Caldecott Medal, 2008)

Wiesner’s books are really kind of weird, which is precisely why I like them. This wordless picture book shows a boy finding an old-fashioned camera washed up by the tide. He develops the photos and enters a strange world, as well as a silent history of other children who have found the camera before him. (It is clear, happily, that grown-ups are never the ones to find the camera!)

Froggy Gets Dressed by Jonathan London

London has written a number of books about Froggy, but this first one is supreme in my affections. Excited about playing in the snow, Froggy doesn't care about the fact that frogs are supposed to sleep through the winter. Unfortunately, he keeps forgetting key articles of clothing. The call-and-response with his mother and the sound effects of dressing and undressing make this a perfect read-aloud for three- to six-year-olds.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Caldecott Honor, 1989) and other folk- and fairy tales illustrated by James Marshall

For many years, Paul Galdone dominated folktale illustration, but James Marshall is my preferred illustrator when it comes to well-known stories like Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs. His chunky, Everyman characters and friendly cartoonish style are as appropriate to this genre as they are for his cheerful stories about George and Martha.

Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman

Whenever I’m invited to a baby shower, this is one of the two board books I buy. (The other is Jamberry—see below.) Rathman’s virtually wordless bedtime story about animals in a zoo and their zookeeper is clever and so clearly told that even the youngest readers can follow the action.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff

Numeroff’s take on the circular story stands alone in its freshness. A friendly mouse in overalls asks for a cookie, which leads to another request, and another, and another, before eventually circling back to the cookie. The author has written successful sequels along the same lines, but this one, like Baby Bear's porridge, is just right.

Jamberry by Bruce Degen

Jamberry is the second board book I habitually buy for baby showers. Degan has so much fun with rhymes and berries and imaginative play that young readers will simply relish the sound of all those words bouncing around.

Little Red Riding Hood, retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Caldecott Honor, 1984)

Trina Schart Hyman is probably best known for her grand, romanticized fairy tale illustrations (e.g., Sleeping Beauty), but I like this more down-to-earth retelling of a favorite folktale.

Miss Nelson Is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall

Kids and teachers alike get a kick out of the story of the too-sweet teacher who gets a witchy substitute—or does she? The amazing James Marshall’s illustrations make the book.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

This is a fairly quiet book for today’s children, but it still inspires with its story of a woman who follows her life of adventure with an effort to create beauty by planting flowers everywhere she goes.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (Caldecott Medal, 1986)

Second only to Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas as a classic holiday book, Van Allsburg’s story of a boy who takes a midnight ride on a train speeding to the North Pole is notable for its dark, thoughtful tone as the author-illustrator bypasses jolly, traveling straight on to evocative.

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson and Hudson Talbot (Newbery Honor, 2006)

A beautiful poem of a book, both in terms of language and art, Show Way won a Newbery Honor award, which is unusual for a picture book. It tells the story of an African American family across the generations, tied together through their troubles by love as represented by quilts. There’s been a certain amount of fuss about Show Way—mostly by people who don’t believe quilts were ever used as maps for the Underground Railroad—but if you read it, I think you’ll find yourself touched by this epic story about family love and loyalty.

ADDITIONAL CLASSICS (in alphabetical order)

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban

The battle between parents and kids over what those kids will eat rages on eternally, which I suspect means this book will continue to be relevant in the year 2100. Little girl badger Frances doesn’t like to eat anything except bread and jam, so eventually her mother starts letting her eat bread and jam for every single meal, leading Frances to reconsider her stance. The plot may seem didactic, but the illustrations and the matter-of-fact family interactions keep it feeling true to life rather than preachy.

Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys, and Their Monkey Business by Esphyr Slobodkina

An oldie but a goody—what happened to all of the caps stacked neatly on top of the peddler’s head? One look up into a tree he just napped beneath will provide the answer. The peddler’s call of “Caps for sale” frames the story, and the eventual solution to his problem will appeal to young children who know all about tantrums as well as copycats, or copymonkeys, as the case may be.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

How can I make a list of classics without including Dr. Seuss? Forget the Jim Carey movie, although I do recommend the Chuck Jones cartoon. This book is not only a masterpiece of rhyme, but it is the most deviously funny take on the holidays ever penned. (I'm pretty sure Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein are best friends in heaven.)

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

In this beloved tale of twelve little girls in two straight lines, the juxtaposition of unexpected action sequences with seemingly placid children adds to the appeal.

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag

The story of an old man who brings home countless kitties for his surprised wife is inspired whimsy, an enduring classic most notable for its refrain and its stark yet somehow warm art. Notice the familiar theme of indecision underlying the plot: how many children, or even adults, wouldn't have trouble picking just the right kitten from among so many?

There's a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer

My little sister used to think there was a tiger in her closet that only came out when everyone else in the family was asleep. Mercer Mayer captures--and tames--the nighttime fears of countless children. This book has aged gracefully into a new millenium.

Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel

A classic read-aloud—my young students loved hearing me say the title character’s great long name over and over while acting increasingly breathless, also hearing about the old man with the ladder who must keep fishing the little boys out of a well. And the illustrations are exquisite. (I’m sure there must be those who think this plot is not PC, but I find it reads like a funny folktale and can be explained appropriately to children.)

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (Caldecott Medal, 1963)

A well-known story about a small boy in the snow, this was one of the first books to feature an African American child as a protagonist. It endures, not only for its historical significance, but because Keats’s art is lovely in its simplicity, as is his take on what it’s like to go out in the snow when you are not very big.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (Caldecott Medal, 1970)

Steig tells the story of a young donkey who finds a magic pebble, only to get himself stuck in the shape of a rock. Kids continue to be intrigued by Sylvester’s dilemma, and also by how desperately his parents miss him and search for him—it's the familiar childhood fantasy of “If I were gone, they’d be really sorry!"


Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett
Corduroy by Don Freeman
Curious George by H.A and Margaret Rey
Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other stories by Beatrix Potter