Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in October, 2007. 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.
>>PLUS: Poisson Rouge (again) & the "Polo" website.<<
> Also, the dancing skeleton & the boogie-woogie birdie video <<
"Don't Touch, It's Hot"
Written by David Algrim
Illustrated by Holli Conger
(Golden Books, 2007)
Kitchen safety is the theme of this simple, beautifully illustrated touch-and-feel board book. A variety of stove-cooked foods are shown -- waffles, spaghetti, pizza, cookies -- and little ones are urged not to touch them right away, but to blow on them first and cool them down. The message is presented several times and strongly reinforced, and hopefully it will help a few kids avoid having to learn things the hard way. The 3D-ish artwork is quite distinctive and attractive, although in the context of a touch-and-feel book, it may be kind of distracting: almost everything on the page looks potentially interactive. Also, I'm not wild about scratch-and-sniff, although I suppose in the context of a food-related book it could make sense. All in all, a good book for babies -- and for parents who aren't wild about the whole "once burned, twice shy" thing. (B+)
"The American Story: 100 True Tales From American History"
Written by Jennifer Armstrong
Illustrated by Roger Roth
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)
This handsomely designed, formidable tome is an excellent reader for preteen and teenage readers who are interested in American history... (Adults can get a lot out of it, as well!) In this set of one hundred pithy, informative vignettes, Jennifer Armstrong charts a course through the nation's past, presenting big events such as the founding of the Virginia colony and the completion of the Continental Railroad, and the "small" events and social history that make up America's unique cultural tapestry. Armstrong may be too "liberal" for some readers, since she is culturally inclusive, but conservative readers shouldn't let that get in the way of their enjoying this rich historical text. She's very thorough, and includes a wealth of anecdotes from the 19th Century that keep alive a feel for those bygone decades, the textures and concerns of the times, and so many of the charismatic and kooky characters that floated through our popular imagination. There is an odd, off-center tilt to her editorial choices, though: the book isn't entirely devoted to social history, so big events are touched on, though sometimes a bit obliquely. The Revolutionary War gets a smaller page count than you might imagine... But what the heck. It's not like we haven't heard a lot about it elsewhere. Same with World War Two. But there is one big, weird gap: early on, around 1776 in the book's timeline, Armstrong goes out of her way to point out the country's multicultural origins, discussing "Founding Fathers - East" alongside "Founding Fathers - West," where she discusses the Spanish expansion into California and the Southwest. Different streams of culture that met decades later; fair enough. However, when these two empires clashed sixty years later, in the Texas Revolution of 1836, and later in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, Armstrong includes not a peep, outside of a passing mention in a profile of Henry David Thoreau. And, yeah, I can see if you're trying to paint a multicultural, feelgood tapestry and all, that that little patch of American history might be a little complicated and fraught with uncomfortabilities. Still, having set up the dual-heritage paradigm, it seems like a real cop-out for her to have avoided any serious exploration of the war. That teeny quibble aside, this is a great book, and would be invaluable to any classroom or library looking to supplement its American history resources. Great artwork, too. Definitely recommended. (B+)
"What's Wrong, Little Pookie?"
Written by Sandra Boynton
Illustrated by Sandra Boynton
(Robin Corey Books, 2007)
Boynton is back! Here's another winner from one of our most beloved children's book authors... It's about those little moods that flash through a toddler's mind, and the trouble that occurs when strong emotions -- unhappiness or dissatisfaction or irritation or boredom or helplessness -- collide with a little person's inability to explain what they are feeling, or why. Little Pookie is in a big funk, and his/her caregiver asks a bunch of questions to find out why. The adult's question appear in bold, dark typeface; Pookie replies in little red letters. Are you tired? No. Are you hungry? No. Did you lose something? No. Finally, the adult realizes that an actual answer probably isn't possible, and starts to ask silly, nonsense questions that help Little Pookie laugh a little and get unstuck. This call-and-response structure makes this a really fun book for parents and kids to read together; the only downside is that it interferes with Boynton's normally elegant rhymes. Still, I doubt many readers will mind, considering what a lovely little book it is (and what a nice tool to help build emotional intelligence)... Highly recommended! (A)
"Five Little Monkeys Go Shopping"
Written by Eileen Christelow
Illustrated by Eileen Christelow
(Clarion Books, 2007)
The latest installment in Eileen Christelow's long-lived "Five Little Monkeys" series.... While getting ready to go back to school, the monkeys buy new clothes and brush up on their math skills. On a trip to a department store, they keep wandering off when their mom tell them not to and every time she tells the sales clerk she'd got "five little monkeys," she discovers that there's actually only four or three or two of her brood left. You can actually see Mom doing the calculations (math problems appear in thought balloons above her head) and the equations are painstakingly written out in the text... It's not dramatically the strongest book in the series, but at least give Christelow credit for trying to break away from her own old pattern... The primer-like quality of the book is undercut a little by the fluctuating quantities involved -- instead of going 5-4-3-2-1, the totals change when other kids from school join the group -- but the relative complexity of the mathematics is admirable, too, in its way. If your kid likes the series for its dopey humor, they may be a little thrown by the newfound instructional tone, but it still fits in with the other books. (B-)
"Mary And The Mouse, The Mouse And Mary"
Written by Beverly Donofrio
Illustrated by Barbara McClintock
(Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2007)
A stunner...! The story, about an adorable little girl who forms a lifelong relationship with an equally adorable mouse that lives in the walls of her house, is cute, but what will really knock your socks off are Barbara McClintock's detailed, delightful illustrations. This is perhaps her most precise, most formidable artwork to date, building on her love of architecture and the beauty of detail in the physical world. The dualistic structure of the story, contrasting the mouse's world to the girl's, lends itself to formality, but McClintock really outdoes herself on this one, mixing joyfulness with a level of draftsmanship that is almost unheard of in modern children's books. Panels such as the two-page spread contrasting the girl and mouse's college dorm rooms, or the sequence showing Mary's daughter "accidentally on purpose" dropping books on the floor so that she can see her mouse friend are absolutely magical. The text has its problems -- mostly its just a teeny, tiny bit overwritten (Donofrio is entering the picturebook field after the success of her autobiographical memoir) but the overall feel of the book sweeps all of it aside. This is a wonderful book, and fully deserves to become a classic. Maybe you'll dig it, too. (A)
"The Adventures Of Polo"
Written by Regis Faller
Illustrated by Regis Faller
(Roaring Brook Press, 2002)
An absolutely brilliant, magical book... This fab fantasy from France is a wordless picturebook that stars Polo, a cheerful, indomitable cartoon dog with a flair for improvisation, bravery and boundless curiosity... The story starts with Polo walking out of his house -- a large oak tree on a tiny ocean island -- and setting out on an adventure with his trusty backpack and umbrella. From there it's a wild, wonderful ride where one thing leads to another: Polo climbs a ladder to the sky, is scooped up birds, imprisoned in an iceberg and climbs to the moon, where little green men welcome him into their mushroom-strewn underground world... Like Crockett Johnson's "Purple Crayon" series, the "Polo" books play on visual free association -- one inventive flight of fancy piles on top of another, although author-illustrator Regis Faller has crafted something much longer than any of the "Crayon" books, a large, bold graphic novel that clearly comes out of the European comicbook tradition, as bold and expansive as any of the "Tin-Tin" novels. Polo is a marvelous reading experience, and it expects as much from its readers as it gives back. Adults can guide children through the narrative, commenting on each panel, or summarizing entire pages, creating the narrative as they go along. Children can also spend hours alone, pouring over the panels and making up stories of their own. Faller has a wonderful intuitive grasp of fantasy and fantastic thought; his storytelling and graphic style are simply delightful... And, gee, are these books fun! Fantastic, exciting, perilous things happen on every page, but Polo never comes to any harm, he just has a great time and makes lots of friends. Highly recommended! One of our favorite books. (A+)
"Polo And The Runaway Book"
Written by Regis Faller
Illustrated by Regis Faller
(Roaring Brook Press, 2007)
Polo's back, and so are the little green men: one of them sneaks into Polo's bedroom and steals his new book, starting a chase that takes them across the oceans, up into the sky, into a weird, white Limbo and into a cloud kingdom with a delicate princess who becomes Polo's friend. Picking up other friends along the way, Polo crosses deserts and rides clouds, frees a genie and climbs a giant dandelion, like Jack climbed the the beanstalk. Finally, after seventy color-filled pages, he catches up to the little green guy, who is reading the runaway book to a group of his friends. Polo sits down to listen, and when the story is over, the green guy gives it back to him. (Since there are no words, you can insert an apology here, if you want. Another brilliant, breathless rollercoaster ride filled with fantastic, just-for-fun adventures. My kid will look at this book for hours by herself, but also loves when we read it together. Can't wait for more of these to come out in America -- so far it's just this one and the equally-fabulous The Adventures Of Polo. (A+)
"It's Not Fair!"
Written by Anita Harper
Illustrated by Mary McQuillan
(Holiday House, 2007)
An interesting book about sibling rivalries and about growing older and being able to do new things... The narrator -- a post-toddler little girl -- complains about all the things her little brother gets to do or get away with that she isn't allowed to do. He can make messes, throw tantrums, ask to be carried, but she can't, because she's too old. She works her way up into a fair snit, but then she realizes there are all sort of things that she's allowed to do that the baby can't: eat certain foods, play on the jungle gym equipment, stay up late sometimes, etc. and then she thinks maybe being a big kid isn't so bad after all. Nice, cute artwork, and a well-constructed narrative. Some parents may shy away from the book because of the apparent negativity, but Harper ties things up pretty well and puts a positive spin on it. A good starting point for discussions about all these issues. (B)
Written by Myra Cohn Livingston
Illustrated by Will Hillenbrand
(Holiday House, 2007)
A very pretty book with very few words. Ms. Livingston's poem in praise of the passing of the months was written in 1959 and clocks in at a mere fifty-five words; Will Hillenbrand's new, modern artwork makes the most of this sparseness, and each month gets a gorgeous, two-page spread (except December, which gets seven pages, so that Santa can slide down the chimney at the end...) The timing is a little off: the text flits by instantaneously, while the artwork really demands you drink it in, so you may find yourself extemporizing to come up with a reason to linger on the images. That's okay, though -- I think this one can stand up to repeat readings. Certainly a nice way to teach about the months and the passing of of the year. (B)
"Wake Up, Engines!"
Written by Denise Dowling Mortenson
Illustrated by Melissa Iwai
In this companion to Good Night, Engines, Ms. Mortenson again explores the world of things with wheels and engines that go vroooom. Cars, trucks, school buses, helicopters and planes all go zipping by, both in the outside world and in the playtime of a pre-preschool boy with a lot of cool toys. There are a couple of places where the text seems a bit too technical (For example, I have no idea what half of this passage means: "Traffic chopper, rooftop nest./Rotors spinning, preflight test./Volume heavy, morning glare./Cleared for takeoff. THUMP! THUMP! Air." But then again, we read a lot of books about ballet shoes and bunny rabbits, so we might not be the target audience... ) Anyway, I imagine for those who are cog-crazy and wild about wheels, this colorful book might be a real wowzer. Worth checking out if big machines are your thing. (B)
"You'll Be Sorry"
Written by Josh Schneider
Illustrated by Josh Schneider
Violence, consequences and behavior modification. A girl named Samantha has a little baby brother who see wants to hit... She's been warned not to, of course, but she can't help herself, and she gives him a big (off-camera) wallop, which makes the baby cry and cry and cry and cry. Well, it turns out the adults were right: Samantha is sorry after she hits her brother, although not for the reasons you might imagine. As the tears keep flowing, everything starts to flood -- first the family's house, then their neighborhood, then their entire town. Stuck in a rowboat and unable to go to the park, or the store, or even to school, Samantha has a lot of time to think about what she's done, and she decides that making all those tears flow might not have been such a great idea after all. She says she's sorry, and later, when she's tempted not to hit, but to pinch her brother at the end of the book, she holds herself back. Yay, character growth! The casual violence that starts the story might be alarming to many parents, but Schneider's over-the-top, tall-tale outcome is pretty funny, and since he makes his point through humor, rather than a lecture, the message comes through in a nice way. Worth checking out if hitting (especially hitting a sibling) is an issue. (C+)
"How The Grinch Stole Christmas: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective"
Written by Dr. Seuss
Illustrated by Dr. Seuss
(Random House, 1957/2007)
Moo-hoo-hoo-hahahah! One of the all-time great pop culture villains makes his debut here in this classic (anti-)Christmas tale. The malevolent Grinch perches on a mountainside above serene, pacifist Who-ville and fumes over their goodie-twoshoes love of Christmas and boundless holiday spirit. Well, you all know the story, right? Yeah. Thought so. He's a mean one, Mr. Grinch. This new anniversary edition adds an essay in the back that explores Seuss' view of Christmas, the visual and conceptual evolution of the Grinch character, and the adaptation of the story into the TV special that we all know and love so well. Written by uber-Seuss-ologist Charles D. Cohen, the essay features wonderful illustrations and all sorts of groovy Grinch memorabilia... A fun look behind the scenes of one of the all-time great children's classics. (A)
"Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf"
Written by Judy Sierra
Illustrated by J. Otto Seibold
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)
The Big Bad Wolf is getting a little long in the tooth these days... It's been a long time since his glory days chasing little kids through the forest and blowing down the little pigs' houses... Now the B.B. (as his friends call him) lives in a retirement home, and the most huffing and puffing he does is when he walks outside to check the mailbox. One day, though, he gets an invitation in the mail, to a tea party at the local library, and B.B. gets quite anxious -- having been a villain when he was young, he was never invited to parties before, and now he's worried that he won't know how to behave. A friend of his (a crocodile -- perhaps from Peter Pan?) gives him a pep talk and loans him an etiquette book. Thus, armed with the information that you should say "excuse me" if you burp, and that you shouldn't eat the other guests, B.B. goes off to try and socialize. He does quite well, as it turns out, and the cheerful librarian invites him back sometime to tell his side of all those old stories. It's a simple, charming story -- I'm not wild about Siebold's chaotic artwork, but there are a lot of funny details to comment on, and my kid got a kick out of it as well. Plus, all the action takes place in a library... what more could you want? (B)
"A Porc In New York"
Written by Catherine Stock
Illustrated by Catherine Stock
(Holiday House, 2007)
A disappointing follow-up to Stock's whimsical A Spree In Paris, in which a bunch of French farm animals head for the big city and have a blast in the City Of Lights. As indicated at the end of that book, after the animals get back home, they set there sights in a New York vacation next, and so here they go, headed across the Atlantic to see Le Big Apple. This installment lacks the gosh-heck simplicity of the first book, mainly because of a distracting and ineffective subplot in which the farmer, Monsieur Monmouton frantically chases his runaway animals as they visit Central Park, MOMA, Chinatown and a fancy dinner club. It's okay, but the story is a little forced. (C)
I guess I'm finally done flogging the world's coolest website... or am I?? (www.poissonrouge.com ) Anyway, now we've found another beautiful, artsy French website for kids, www.chezpolo.com, a webpage connected to artist Regis Faller's "Polo" books (which are reviewed above... If you're family is hooked on Polo, you'll definitely want to check this out! (And, if you're like me, you'll really appreciate the lack of crass commercialism...) Some hints to help you make the most of the Polo site's mysteries: sit still for a while and see what happens, or, conversely, cruise around the site and then come back to spots you've already visited... things will change, either way!
This video clip of a dancing bird has nothing to do with anything, but it still ought to bring a smile to your face. While I'm at it, have you seen the dancing skeleton from Barcelona? Appropriate for Halloween, right? God bless YouTube.
PS - Please feel free to send us other recommendations for books, websites, whatever.
The e-mail address is: joesixpack AT slipcue DOT com.
(Sorry, you'll have to type it in yourself -- I'm trying to cut down on my spam... :-)
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