I get a lot of fashion advice from the children I work with. "Black is for women who don't know what else to wear," I was informed by a third grader while primping at a mirror in the girls' bathroom. "Haven't I seen you in that dress before?" A second grade fashion savant squinted at me speculatively in the hall. It is for these children that this picture book biography was designed. The story of Coco Chanel's beginning is bleak: a poor Parisian, she was orphaned, separated from siblings and sent to a convent where she got her first taste of no-frills fashion in a serious way. An idiosynchractic child, she designed lovely clothes for her friends' dolls and stuck her nose in the air at mealtime, comporting herself like the arrogant young ladies who paid for their tuition while she sat at the second rate table. "She always believed she deserved more. She loved to read cheap romance novels and rarely told the truth. She constantly rearranged and romanticized the facts of her life story." Like Chanel's lines, the writer's lines are sparse and taut and direct, and the pictures adds droll elegance with a thin line that befits Chanel's famous trim figure. Her determination and hard work, both as a seamstress and a social climber, scored her a boutique where she designed the practical, protocol-smashing styles that became the gear of the modern sportswoman. To paraphrase recording artist Pink, "nobody ever got famous by trying to be somebody else," and indeed Chanel's differences were the keys to her rags-to-riches success. Her distinctive style and attitude went beyond anything that money could buy, and indeed, when children close this book, they are sure to have renewed faith that it is cool to be different, and they will ultimately be celebrated for being themselves. An idea that will never go out of style! (7 and up) Also of interest: The Devil may wear Prada, but he reads picture books. Probably ones like these!: HALIBUT JACKSON by David Lucas (Andersen Press) Move over, Vera Wang! Halibut Jackson is piecing together fabulous suits that camoflauge the shy designer in all settings: see if you can spot his apple-covered fedora in the produce section, his flowery frock in the city park, and oh, dahhling, his shelf-of-books suit that he wears to the library is simply to die for! When the queen invites Halibut to a palace party, he pulls out all the stops in order to disguise himself admist the grand surroundings, but a change in backdrop to the garden threatens to reveal this wallflower for the rose he is! Theis gentle, charming book, like its main character, deserves to be noticed. Whimsical, swirling illustrations bring to mind the marvels of Beni Montresor (of Caldecott-winning MAY I BRING A FRIEND? fame). How about an after-storytime fashion show of invented vests made from paper grocery bags? The catwalk will never be the same. (5 and up) THE KETTLES GET NEW CLOTHES by Dayle Ann Dodds, illustrated by Jill McElmurry (Candlewick) The canine Kettles are out for their annual clothes-shopping jaunt. What will it be this year? Paisley? Plaids? Stripes? Checks? Dots? Each exit from the dressing room reveals some confounding haute-couture that will leave read-aloud audiences laughing. Terrier salesman Monsieur Pip does not give up despite the Kettles' propensity for the plain, and there is hope yet as the baby Kettle delights in the more outlandish fashions. The colorful matte illustrations and broad double-page spreads with dividers that match the clothes are very fetching. (5 and up) DO YOU HAVE A HAT? by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Geraldo Valerio (Simon & Schuster) Do you have a hat? Well, you�d better get one, because it seems that anyone who was anyone has had a hat! "Francisco deGoya had a hat,/with candles on the brim," "Igor Stravinsky had a hat,/a tattered, battered green beret," "Isabelle of Bavaria had a hat, a cone shaped hat so very high, it poked a gargoyle in the eye…" and on and on we go, being introduced in a lively way to a wonderful parade of personalities from history and their chapeaus, inviting the reader to join in this long and illustrious line of fashionistas! The meter of the couplets are lively and fresh and fun to read, and bright illustrations with no shortage of smiling faces compliments the text. The combination of information and primary-level bouncery makes this book a sophisticated standout that neither talks down to children or leaves them in the dust, but will fit their heads just right. (4 and up) Anyone who has ever argued with a little girl over what attire to wear to school in the morning absolutely needs to get their opera-gloved hands on a copy of the sadly out-of-print LOTTIE'S PRINCESS DRESS by Doris Dorrie, illustrated by Julia Kaergel (Dial) in which a savvy fashionista negotiates the right to her couture with a rushing mother. (4 and up) Last but far from least, there's the deserves-its-best-selling-status FANCY NANCY by Jane O'Connor, ilustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins). Nancy loves the color fuschia, lace-trimmed socks, tiaras, French accents and frilly toothpicks. In short, this little sister is f-a-n-c-y FANCY, and she's generously willing to share her expertise in private lessons. After a creative makeover that does Queer Eye proud, her blasé family's looking better by the minute! But when an embarassing mishap occurs involving spilled parfaits in a restaurant, Fancy Nancy may need some plain old love. Strong character voice puts Nancy at the tea-party table with characters like Eloise and Olivia. Sporting a cover appropriately bedeckled in pink glitter and curly-swirly illustrations brimming with accessories (of course), this book is as delightful as a cupcake with extra sprinkles and a must-must-must for your favorite fancy girl. (4 and up)
On a personal note: Though I may be wearing black or a dress you've seen before, I hope if you are in the Kansas City, Missouri area this weekend you will come see me in the company of several amazing authors at the DNA Children's Literature Festival, sponsored by the legendary and irreverent independent bookseller, Reading Reptile! Visit their website for times and tickets...and a pretty rocking animation clip of Tomie dePaola in a wrestling deathmatch with Maurice Sendak! Now, children's booklover, you have seen almost everything.