Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in Fall, 2006. These are mostly new(ish) books, but also include some older books we just found out about and liked more than others.Recommendations and submissions are welcome: please feel free to contact us about other books, new and old.
Many more books are reviewed in the site's permanent archives... These are organized alphabetically, either by Author Name or by Book Title.
"The Happy Lion"
Written by Louise Fatio
Illustrated by Roger Duvoisin
(McGraw Hill, 1954)
Joining Babar, Curious George and Crictor in the annals of wild-animals-that-are-happier-in-civilization books, The Happy Lion is a thoroughly satisfying, funny story about a friendly lion living in the zoo in a small French town. The lion is beloved by all the townspeople until one day when he discovers his cage has been left open and decides to go on a little jaunt, then finds out how thin the veneer of polite society can be: all his human friends (except one) completely freak out, and the gendarmes are about to forcibly bring the beast to heel when young Francois, the lion's best friend, innocently approaches the lion and walks him back to his cage. This is a thoroughly charming story, with a fine sense of humor, economical writing and a strong dramatic arc (made all the better by the anticlimactic ending) and appealing artwork from Duvoisin. I'd say it's a winner! (B+)
"The Happy Lion Roars"
Written by Louise Fatio
Illustrated by Roger Duvoisin
(McGraw Hill, 1957)
Our feline hero returns, though this time he's a little sad... Spring is in the air, and the Happy Lion realizes that while all the other animals in the zoo have mates, he does not. This sad situation is remedied during a visit to the circus, where the lion meets and falls in love with a beautiful lioness who can leap through flaming hoops... and steal the heart of the king of the jungle! When she runs away from the circus, the whole town comes looking for her... But when zey feegure out zat zee lion ees love, ze French townspeople work things out so that she can join the zoo, instead. Then the Happy Lion is happy again (if you know what I mean...) and so are the folks in town. In a certain respect, this is a more blunt representation of romantic love than most picturebooks you'll see -- not that it's graphic in any way, but parents may want to factor that in with the littlest readers -- but also of the lion's devotion to his partner. While not as smooth a narrative as the first book, this is a nice addition to the Happy Lion series. Recommended! (B-)
"Jackie And The Shadow Snatcher"
Written by Larry Di Fiori
Illustrated by Larry Di Fiori
(Random House/Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)
A warm homage to old 1930s-style children's adventure stories (as well as the Depression-era pulp magazines), this "graphic novel" picturebook is a mash-up of old-fashioned entertainment icons: the bad guy looks just like The Shadow, while the hero is a urchin-like, cap-wearing tyke who strongly resembles Buster Brown (complete with a pet bulldog, no less!) There's also an element of Snidely Whiplash/Simon LeGree at work in the oddball plot, in which the mysterious bad guys have gone around town stealing people's shadows for some unknown reason. Plucky young Jackie stumbles across their hideout and frees all the shadows, and the cops arrive just in time for Jackie to head back home and finish his homework. This was reasonably entertaining, although once you start to ask why it was written, the theme becomes vaguely disturbing -- the psychology of shadow-stealing and the images of their release are a bit fraught with Freudian and Jungian overtones... Not that I understand them all, mind you, but I did start to wonder how appropriate this book might be for smaller children. Maybe I'm just nit-picking, but on some level it seemed like another one of those books that was written more for adults than for children. (B-)
"Walk On! A Guide For Of All Ages"
Written by Marla Frazee
Illustrated by Marla Frazee
A tongue-in-cheek how-to guide for babies who want to become toddlers... Told, with great earnestness, from the baby's point of view, this actually is a functional primer on how to learn to walk, taking the process step by step and encouraging little ones to be brave and move forward. This book probably has a pretty short shelf-life, though: if your kid has already been walking for a while, this stuff is old news... But if you read and talk a lot to your pre-toddler, and believe that they are basically "getting" everything you say to them, this could be a prefect book for a kid on the cusp of taking off... This doesn't quite have the lightness of touch and universality of Frazee's Everywhere Babies, but it's still awfully cute, and a pretty good peptalk. Worth checking out. (B)
"Oscar's Half Birthday"
Written by Bob Graham
Illustrated by Bob Graham
A sweet book about a little baby getting his "half birthday" at six months, because his loving family just can't wait to celebrate him. They go to a local park, set amid a super-urban, post-industrial landscape and have a little picnic, which is joined by numerous friendly strangers from the neighborhood, who all sing "Happy Birthday" for the little drooler... This is a great book for city folks, and particularly for scruffy, non-rich city folks who are tired of reading all those endless books about comfy upper-middle class families ensconced in rustic, idyllic farmhouses off in New England somewhere. In contrast, this features parents with baggy pants, simple t-shirts and unlaced sneakers, walking to a breezeway over a freeway next to their graffiti-laden apartment building. Their humble flat is cluttered but clean, and they accept -- perhaps even relish -- the imperfections around them. Oh, yeah, they're also an interracial couple, although the text calls no attention to it... In brief, this is a nice portrait of the contemporary urban, lower-middle class hipsters building lives in big cities such as London or San Francisco... If you're living there, you'll recognize this young family, and celebrate their cheerfulness and lighthearted embrace of life. The warmth and loving support they show their children defines this book, again, shown without much fanfare, but ringing wonderfully true. Recommended! (A-)
"Alphabet Explosion! Search And Count From Alien To Zebra"
Written by John Nickle
Illustrated by John Nickle
(Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2006)
An alphabet book without words... hey, there's an idea! In this bold, brightly-colored picturebook, each page features pictures of items for each letter: ants, alligators and aardvarks on one page, beetles, books and bongo drums on another... Readers are told how many things are on each page (25 "G"s, 15 "O"s, etc.) and the answers are listed in the back of the book. I like the concept -- it's a good instructional tool -- but I can't say I'm crazy about the artwork. Mr. Nickle, who created the now-a-major-motion-picture Ant Bully, is a practitioner of a slick/hip postmillennial, TV-informed art style that I find garish and cluttered... In his rush to be wacky and inventive, Nickle varies his graphic style wildly, so that there's not much of a consistent look, and many items are indistinct and difficult to recognize (for example, my daughter saw a shadowy, detailless "airplane" and called it an "X".) Overall, this book is probably just fine for most readers, and although I disliked it on an aesthetic level, it works educationally. Six of one, half-dozen of the other. (B)
"Mama, I'll Give You The World"
Written by Roni Schotter
Illustrated by S. Saelig Gallagher
(Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2006)
A studiously multicultural story about a young latina whose mother works in a busy beauty salon. Mama saves all her tip money so that Luisa will have a big enough college fund, and have all the opportunities she never had... Once in a while, Luisa asks her mother about the old black-and-white photograph taken of Mama back in her youth, when she danced at the Roseland ballroom, and her all-work-and-no-joy Mama wistfully recalls her carefree youth. Sensing her mother's sadness, Luisa plans a surprise party, inviting all the shop's customers and staff in a big after-hours dancefest. The story is a bit on-the-nose, but the half-cartoonish/half-realistic artwork (which reminds me of Dan Andreasen's...) is attractive and easily understood. This book was for a different age group than ours, so it hasn't been field-tested with my daughter, but I imagine that for the right readers, it would be quite nice. (C)
"When You Are Happy"
Written by Eileen Spinelli
Illustrated by Geraldo Valerio
(Simon & Schuster, 2006)
An optimistic, colorful book that acknowledges all kinds of emotions, negative and positive alike, and seeks to put a cheerful spin on things even as it validates the dark side of things. The narrator-parent offers unconditional love and comfort in the face of sadness, anger and fear, and wraps things up by saying how wonderful it is when lil' Pookums is happy and smiley, and how that's the best thing of all. A couple of passages veer on the icky-sweet, but mostly it's nice to have a book that talks about emotions and helps define the strong, often overwhelming feelings that toddlers and preschoolers are engulfed by. A good tool to help little kids talk about their emotions. (B)
Written by Amber Stewart
Illustrated by Laura Rankin
A good book encouraging kids to enjoy bath time... Hopscotch is a boy rabbit who doesn't like his ears to get shampooed and tries all kinds of tactics to prevent his mom from getting them wet and soapy. One day, though, his older cousin comes over for a visit and washes his own ears, prompting Hopscotch to rethink his position. He embraces the idea of becoming a "big boy" and starts washing himself... The story and art are pretty basic, but it seems to have gone over well with our kid. The only thing I didn't like (and had to skip) was the part where the mother tries to cajole the child, including bringing a slice of chocolate cake to the bathtub to try and bribe the child (that's even the word they use...) There's also an overemphasis on chocolate cake in general -- when the family has dinner, that's all that's on the table, so while this book may help with bathing issues, it's a little iffy on the nutritional side. (B)
"The 39 Apartments Of Ludwig Van Beethoven"
Written by Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Barry Blitt
(Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2006)
This offbeat, pseudo-historical lark takes its inspiration from an odd historical fact, that famed composer Ludwig Van Beethoven actually moved in and out of thirty-nine different apartments while living in Vienna... Author Jonah Winter tries to fill in the blanks, imagining neighbors and landlords made irate by the noise Beethoven made while composing his numerous masterpieces, as well as the difficulties inherent in repeatedly moving with five pianos in tow. The humor of the book is best suited for older kids, as well as for those with a very dry, droll sense of the absurd. Illustrator Barry Blitt, best known for his work for The New Yorker, helps build the sense of ascerbic humor... This didn't entirely grab me, and it was hard to imagine the book's real audience, outside of classical music buffs and prodigies... But it does have a nice, oddball charm. Worth checking out. (B)
Written by Elvira Woodruff
Illustrated by Adam Rex
(Random House/Knopf, 2006)
The great Irish potato famine of the 1840's is seen through the eyes of a small girl, whose family emigrates to America after losing their land. Young Darcy is a "noticer," a fancier of small things, trinkets and leaves and bits of fluff that grownups and bigger kids would ignore. This skill comes in handy when the family has to flee to the new world -- adrift and homesick in the hustle, bustle and grime of 19th Century New York City, the O'Hara's are comforted when Darcy produces some of the tiny treasures she's saved from Ireland -- feathers, flowers, a mossy pebble, a tiny chunk of their old hearthstone, and even a solitary bead from their grandmother's long-lost rosary. This book is for much older children than my test audience, so I wasn't able to read it aloud and get a live response, but I imagine parents who are interested in telling their children about family origins and such might find this book useful (even is a few of the elements are laid on a bit thick...) A good immigrant history lesson, with only a mild religious tinge... (B)
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