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Apr/May 2006 Book Reviews

Seminannual Look at New Picture Books

by Colleen Mondor


Since April is National Poetry Month, it seems appropriate that I should start my semiannual look at picture books with some excellent recent titles from the world of children's poetry. The first one to cross my desk is Wing Nuts: Screwy Haiku, a collection written in the senryu form, what authors Paul B. Janeczko and J. Patrick Lewis refer to in the jacket cover as the "kissin' cousins of haiku." While senryu follow the same structure rules as haiku, they are designed to be funny or crazy. In Janeczko's and Lewis's hands this results in poems like:

Swift punishment
For drinking from milk carton...
Mouthful of curdles

Or a very gross favorite in my house:

On Ferris wheel
I regret French fries, milk shake--
Those below agree

The whole book is this way, with silly stories in the compact poems and Tricia Tusa's delightful illustrations providing the perfect lighthearted accompaniment. Because of senryu's non-rhyming nature, and also as the poems are often sly and snarky, this is a better choice for older kids and will certainly appeal in a huge way to older grade schoolers who will easily get and enjoy the humor.

Once Around the Sun is a gorgeous collection of poems that follow the year providing clues to what each month, and each season, holds along the way. I was very impressed by how illustrator LeUyen Pham populated the book with a multi-ethnic neighborhood of charming characters, (it is the 21st century people; it's time our books looked like it), and Bobbi Katz's poems provided opportunity for children to catch fireflies, go sledding and visit Grandma's. The poems themselves are language rich, such as "August is, when it's so hot, that even ants sweat" and "November is, when cranberries are rubies, sparkling pirate-booty, among the market bins." Katz's stuff conjures images worth lingering over, and Pham's lush illustrations give the readers the faces of children who embrace every moment of exploring the changing world.

Two books I received recently have stories that are written in verse, delightful (and different offerings) that flow with an ease that begs for telling out loud. Summer is Summer by Phillis and David Gershator shows the season in all of its glory, with two sentence rhymes that take the reader from "Cool in the shade, Pink Lemonade-" to "Crawdad creek, Hide-and-seek" and "Rain or shine, Baseball time." Sophie Blackall's children are barefoot and pigtailed as they make their way from creek to beach to a nighttime carnival ride at an Oceanside pier. The whole book is a nostalgic salute to all that is good about childhood and with its winning multicultural cast is sure to bring warm thoughts to everyone longing for arrival of June.

Deb Lund has a whole other story in mind with her hysterical title, All Aboard the Dinotrain. This sequel to Dinosailors will certainly please fans of the first book, but most certainly should be read by any and all children who enjoy a good dinosaur tale, or a good train story. (Which one way or the other is pretty much every kid in existence.) This time around the explorers are piling up on the train (and I mean that literally) to go through the mountains and see what is on the other side. All is not well on the track however, as they find out when they emerge from the tunnel:

"'Oh no!' the dinobrakemen shout,
'The train won't stop. The trestle's out!'
And as the bridge is growing near,
Their joy turns into dinofear."

Everything works out okay for the passengers, although a few get wet, and they slowly make their way back home, shaken from their desire to "dinoroam." Of course you can't keep these guys still for long however, their final thought as the book ends is "how about a dinoplane?"

Lund does a great job of keeping the action going and the rhyming sentences in perfect cadence, even when the dinosaurs are talking (which isn't as easy as it looks). Howard Fine splashes big color across the pages making every aspect of the story, from a grinning T-Rex to a flying train, appear larger than life. It's bold and funny and a great adventure story for the younger set.

Lee Bennett Hopkins has selected a host of poems by poets as varied as Carl Sandburg, Jane Yolen and Kristine O'Connell George for her collection, Got Geography. The theme here is that geography is not just directions on maps but also a way in which dreamers can voyage beyond the known world and into the last lost places. Each writer addresses the idea of place and mystery in different ways, but all manage to create images of astonishment and wonder with their words. J. Patrick Lewis depicts a painter who:

"...took my pens to Africa
Because a fire was in my brain,
And used their nibs acacia-fine
To paint the Serengeti Plain"

Writers address forests and islands, mountains and ice in this collection. They use different structures and forms to express their ideas about the world but all conjure similar ideas of the limitless nature of exploration. Jane Yolen has crafted a favorite of mine with "Horizon":

"Just as the thin line
In a long division problem
divides the greater number
by the smaller,
horizon
divides earth and sky.

Gozinta, my mother called division,
explaining to me
the mysteries of math.
But earth does not gozinta sky,
held in place by horizon,
else we would all be flung,
unwitting, into the greater stars."

With Yolen's inspiration I might have loved math when I was a young!

Philip Stanton tackled the job of illustrating the work of so many different writers with great skill and fabulous color. His people all seem to be enjoying the chance to travel and gaze and wander throughout the poems and the way he fills the pages with color will draw even the earliest readers to this book.

In non-rhyming stories, I got very lucky with some recent arrivals. With Dear Fish Chris Gall tells the story of what can go wrong after a spontaneous invitation. When Peter Alan has a wonderful day at the beach he leaves behind a note in a bottle letting the fish know that they are welcome to "come and visit us someday." Before too long marine creatures of all shapes and sizes begin to show up in his hometown, including a shark at the rodeo, a catfish in his neighbor's lawn and a blue whale flying overhead. The story is quite well done (and the ending fantastic) but what really puts this book over the top is Gall's incredible color engravings. He fills every one of these pages with gorgeous pictures and gives readers dozens of different sights to inspect and consider. The idea is funny, the book a delight and the illustrations breath-taking. Hands down, this one is a winner.

When I received my pink and red copy of Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding, I knew I was in for a treat. Lenore Look has written a story all about Jenny, whose favorite uncle is getting married. Everyone is caught up in the excitement of the wedding but Jenny can not help but think about all she is going to lose, most specifically, being the most important person in Uncle Peter's life. She follows along as the family prepares for the main event, giving vivid descriptions of everything she sees and hears. This point of view allows Look to share an inside look at the ceremonies involved in a Chinese wedding, giving us a cultural fairy tale about true love, pageantry, and a little bit of preschooler guilt. (Jenny is not a happy camper!) Illustrator Yumi Heo keeps everything in bright pastels with happy family members gracing the pages in all shapes and sizes. Ultimately Jenny learns that she is gaining someone new into her family, not losing, and in the final double fold as she releases a thousand butterflies, Heo shows Jenny's joy at being part of such a wonderful family celebration.

I hardly know where to begin with Norman Messenger's mind blowing visual adventure, Imagine. This is a book all about clues and tricks and surprises--about what you think you are seeing, and what the pages truly reveal. There is no story here, instead Messenger has crafted one delightful page after another of animals that morph into creatures we can not believe, people who transform themselves at the spin of a wheel and towns that are both upside down and right side up. Because his pictures seem so familiar, because they are drawn with a style that seems almost from another age, he lulls you into expecting a reliable story, a traditional story; an expected story. That is not going to happen in this book! Messenger has made something so wonderful and pleasing to both the eye and the mind that anyone, of any age, who loves to consider puzzles and conundrums will eat this book up with a spoon. It's a beauty, and I know without a doubt that there is nothing else out there like it.

Finally, Satoshi Kitamura has written a charming story about an elephant who is suffering from "artist's block." Pablo wants to enter a painting in the Hoof Lane Art Club exhibition but he can not seem to come up with any ideas. After his friends all offer suggestions he finally decides to spend an afternoon outside and try to paint a landscape. It is still a struggle however until he falls asleep and has a very interesting dream which points him in a truly unique direction. At the end Pablo's painting is the hit of the show, and he has clearly found his creative vision again.

Pablo the Artist is one of those sweet stories that might be sending a message or two (in this case about creativity and the arts) but might also just be telling a truly good story. Kitamura's illustrations are simple and colorful and particularly when he shows all the animal members of the Hoof Lane Art Club, quite a joy to look at. I'm sure that Pablo would appeal a great deal to any child struggling to find their way in the world but I also think it doesn't need to be targeted toward any specific reading group. This one was a good story, and on that level (which is certainly the most important level of all), it is easy to sing its many praises.

Along with the books I request from publishers, there always seem to be some unexpected titles that make their way to me. As two of those over the past few months were picture books that my four-year old particularly enjoyed, it seemed like I should make sure that Eclectica readers had the inside track on them. Alexandra Day has been writing the adventures of Carl the rottweiler for quite some time now, and her latest title Carl's Sleepy Afternoon, is an excellent entry for the series. Carl makes his way around the town meeting one friend after another when he is supposed to be home sleeping on the porch. His young owner, Madeleine, is on the joke and spots him along the way. Like always, it is a heartwarming story with some fun and Day's paintings of Carl seem like they belong on the walls of a museum--a big museum. I'm so glad she did this series and portrayed Carl is such a positive way. It has done wonders for acceptance of the breed and shows how close dogs and owners can be.

The other surprise is a reprint of a classic, Veronica by Roger Duvoisin. The lady in question is a hippopotamus who is bored with being lost in the crowd at the local watering hole. So she makes her way into the nearby town where, as any reader can expect, much enjoyable chaos ensues. Veronica reminds me a bit of the Curious George books or even Madeleine's adventures, as in both cases no one ever plans for things to go so wrong, but they seem to anyway. The adults are always running around like chickens with their heads cut off and the animals (or children) are left to wonder just why these people always seem to overreact to everything. Fortunately for Veronica there is one lady who has it all together and she saves the hippo from a long jail sentence--really! It's a funny story that stars a hippo--I mean how can anyone resist that?!

Check back here in the Fall for more picture books off the beaten track. Hopefully I will come up with some titles that will bring you some delight and give some deserving authors and illustrators a few more new fans.

 

Paul B. Janeczko and J. Patrick Lewis.
Illustrated by Tricia Tusa.
Wing Nuts: Screwy Haiku.
Little Brown. 2006.
ISBN 0-316-60731-2

Bobbi Katz.
Illustrated by LeUyen Pham.
Once Around the Sun.
Harcourt. 2006.
ISBN 0-15-216397-2

Phillis and David Gershator.
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall.
Summer is Summer.
Henry Holt. 2006.
ISBN 0-8050-7444-9

Deb Lund.
Illustrated by Howard Fine.
All Aboard the Dinotrain.
Harcourt. 2006.
ISBN 0-15-205237-2

Lee Bennett Hopkins.
Illustrated by Philip Stanton.
Got Geography.
Greenwillow. 2006.
ISBN 0-06-055601-4

Chris Gall.
Dear Fish.
Little, Brown. 2006.
ISBN 0-316-05847-5

Lenore Look.
Illustrated by Yumi Heo.
Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding.
Atheneum. 2006.
ISBN 0-689-84458-1

Norman Messenger.
Imagine.
Candlewick. 2005.
ISBN 0-7636-2757-7

Satoshi Kitamura.
Pablo the Artist.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2005.
ISBN 0-374-35687-4

Alexandra Day.
Carl's Sleepy Afternoon.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2005.
ISBN 0-374-31088-2

Roger Duvoisin.
Veronica.
Knopf. 2006.
ISBN 0-375-83566-0

 

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