Tuesday, September 30, 2008


LITTLE PANDA by Renata Liwska (Houghton Mifflin)
Just the other day, grandfather Panda was talking to his grandson. I'm going to tell you a story of a little panda and a tiger that flew,' he said. "But that's silly. Tigers can't fly," interrupted the grandchild. "How do you know if you haven't heard the story yet?" asked Grandfather.
CUTENESS ALERT! CUTENESS ALERT! Wooop! Wooop! Wooop! Oh, brother. I don't particularly even like panda bears, but good gravy, the gentle, expressive, and virtually perfect fine pencil lines reminscent of early Martha Alexander are irresistable. Little Bao Bao plays learning games with his mother: running, wrestling, and climbing trees, though his special talent seems to be falling down from them. When Mama is away getting food and a menacing tiger tyke creeps nearer and nearer, what skill will save his hide? If you have been missing that "old school" flavor of picture book excellence: straightforward telling and charming illustration without the glare of the overproduced, then it's definitely time to order Chinese. A compelling, read-it-again-and-again story with subtle but brilliant artwork, all nestled into an intergenerational bear hug. Pair with Helen Bannerman's LITTLE BABAJI, a culturally sensitive retelling of the dreaded Little Black Sambo, in which a boy matches wits with some fashion-conscious tigers. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
High marks on the cuteness scale!

KNITTY KITTY by David Elliott, illustrated by Christopher Denise (Candlewick) Just in time for the fall chill in the air, here is a cozy bedtime story about a mitten-knitting mama cat, whose children all agree that even her capable stitching can't compare with the warmth of curling up beside her. Who could resist the lopsided stocking cap slipping down that sweet kitten's brow? (3 and up)

A CUP FOR EVERYONE by Yusuke Yonezu (Miniedition/Penguin) Little penguin Pucca's daddy has exhausted the local market for his cup-making business, and leaves to see if he can fare better in the next village. While his father is away, the little penguin does a brisk business by making pottery modeled after his many friendly animal neighbors. Pucca's being left all alone may be slightly alarming for American audiences (though parenting protocol, admittedly, may be different for penguins), but if you can get past that, a far more permeating theme is the joy of being able to step up and help your family, even while you're still small. A double-page spread with shelves full of cheerful pottery makes for a grand finale...which cup would you choose? (4 and up)

On a personal note:
Tearfully, I was not able to attend this year's Kidlitosphere Conference in Portland, the monumental gathering of bloggers on the subject of children's and young adult books, but I had a good reason...I had to stay home and blow out a few candles on a delicious cake. But if you would like to join me in vicariously hanging with the AV club, check out this Mr. Linky roundup of posts by attendees. Kim Kasch even has generously posted lots of video feed...is it live, or is it Memorex? I would have preferred to watch the zombie sock puppet show and eaten a Voodoo Doughnut live and in person, but hey, a cyber-version will have to do. And guess what! At the conference, author Sara Ryan was inspired by Leonard Marcus's MINDERS OF MAKE-BELIEVE. Have you gotten in on the giveaway yet? We still have about a week to go.

Speaking of links, the always magical Shelf Elf has awarded PlanetEsme with an "I heart your blog" honor, which is delightful and is to be reciprocated to seven worthy sites, giving me a much-needed goose to offer props to a few of the most diligent and inspiring book bloggers. The Miss Rumphius Effect? MotherReader? Big A, Little A? Chicken Spaghetti? Cynsations? Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves? The ever-popular Fuse 8, or the Herculean efforts of Jen Robinson or Anastasia's Picture Book of the Day? Ahhhhggh, I'm pretty sure the likes of these Alpha Dogs have been hearted already! Well, that's a great chance to visit with some other friends. I wonder if these guys have been tagged:
Matthew Cordell
Bees Knees Reads
No Time for Flash Cards
Chicken Nugget Lemon Tooty
The Crafty Crow
and howsabout
Bottom Shelf Books
Mimi Smartypants,
since I really do love them, even if they are for grown-ups.
Here are the rules:

1) Add the logo of the award to your blog
2) Add a link to the person who awarded it to you
3) Nominate at least 7 other blogs
4) Add links to those blogs on your blog
5) Leave a message for your nominees on their blogs!

All right. Consider yourself hearted. Also, I guess this isn't a blog per se, but have you visited Readergirlz lately? Off the hook! And Kidsreads is also a terrific source for the latest book buzz. Plenty to look at, for those of you home with head colds (I notice that there seems to be a lot of sniffles happening). Get well soon, and have fun!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esme stuff at www.planetesme.com.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


THIS IS YOUR LIFE CYCLE WITH SPECIAL GUEST DAHLIA THE DRAGONFLY by Heather Lynn Miller, illustrated by Michael Chesworth (Clarion)
While this generation may not be familiar with the Ralph Edwards program, the format that follows the arc from egg to nymph is effective in conveying the drama of a dragonyfly's life. From the tear-jerking (but understandable) demise of her mother after laying eight-hundred eggs to nail-biting escapes from predators to the tender coming of-age story that is molting, and, of course, a word from the sponsor ("Bird-B-Gone"), the efforts of the chronology are not wasted on Dahlia ("I'm so excited, I popped my exoskeleton!") or on readers. The illustrations are as busy and manic as live televsion, and the story is written in such a back-and-forth dialogue that read-aloud is a challenge (pair and compare with Kingfisher's crazy excellent Backyard Books series by Judy Allen, like ARE YOU A DRAGONFLY? for a more demure treatment); but if you manage to convey the format, it's a content-rich book that begs for more scripted episodes based on the lives of other creatures in the animal kingdom, which the children can write and then act out on YouTube for all of our entertainment. Salmon: this is your life! Elephant: this is your life! Apple: this is your life! Paramecium: this is your life! Beats a dry old oral report any day. (8 and up)

Also of interest:
Round and round we go with more life cycle fun!

TROUT ARE MADE OF TREES by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Kate Endle (Charlesbridge) You think you know what you're made of? You think you can handle the truth? Well, the truth is, trees are made of trout, and trout are made of trees, and this simple little book of few words and huge ideas does a deliciously unsentimental job of laying out life cycles and our interconnectedness. Reminicent of sitting with a pot-head having an epiphany, and almost as enlightening and provocative a children's book as Mordicai Gerstein's MOUNTAINS OF TIBET, even the youngest readers will see the world in a new and thoughtful way. (4 and up)

HOUDINI THE MAGIC CATERPILLAR by Janet Pedersen (Clarion) "You will do amazing and magical things, Houdini," whispered Houdini's mother when he was just a tiny egg, nestled on a bright green leaf. Watch carefully as a little class pet who loves the spotlight performs a magic trick that has all eyes on him. Inspired by some classroom posters, Houdini does an impressive disappearing act that ends with quite the "ta-da!" Funny, sweet, and sincere, Houdini's fetching eyebrows are worth the price of the book alone, and scenes are painted with colorful, wet strokes on large pages, easy for sharing with a group. Almost every kindergarten class studies metamorphosis, and this really perfect combination of story and science offers up a very hungry caterpillar with a fresh personality. Grab a butterfly garden and watch the show live! (4 and up)

On a personal note:
I first met Leonard Marcus in New York City, where he gave
me and some friends a grand tour of Grand Central Station.

Thanks to all who attended the Matzo Balls with Leonard Marcus event at the PlanetEsme Bookroom, we really did have matzo balls and we really did have the celebrated scholar Leonard Marcus, and best of all, we had some very lively conversation! I felt very proud of the community of booklovers that gathered and had such intelligent commentary and questions, many strong and outspoken women persisting in trying to find out the best way to serve children through literature through the exchange. Wow, my cup runnethed over, being in the room. I also was very excited to see some new faces, including author Emily Ecton, who was just so lovely and sweet as a cookie, you'd never know just by looking at her that she'd give R.L. Stine some goosebumps of his own with her own grisly brand of older-kiddie-horror (try THE CURSE OF CUDDLES MCGEE , about an angry hamster who has come back from the grave).

I couldn't get enough of that Marcus stuff, so I went to see him speak again a week later at National Louis University's Center for Teaching through Children's Books, where he was our tour guide through a timeline of children's book history a la MINDERS OF MAKE-BELIEVE: IDEALISTS, ENTREPRENEURS AND THE SHAPING OF AMERICAN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE. Though I don't imagine it was his intent, at one point in the lecture I was struck with how much influence New York has had on children's publishing as its American geographical hub, and I wondered 1) what sort of regionalism has been infused into children's publishing as a result, consciously and unconsciously, and 2) with all due respect, from a business standpoint, why the heck is New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world, still the capitol of children's publishing? The only other big success story mentioned was indeed Midwestern: Golden Books originally out of Wisconsin, and one of the most enduring and successful children's publishing enterprises of all time; the more recent Pleasant Company, also located in Wisconsin, is another Midwestern success story. Fast on the heels of these thoughts came the big article in New York Magazine: "Have We Reached the End of Book Publishing As We Know It?" Well, at the risk of alienating my wonderful New York readers, I am going to have to nominate Chicago as the new geographical hub of children's publishing and give you a few reasons why. We have much more elbow room, and the rent is cheaper. We have one of the most active and supportive SCBWI chapters in the nation. We are home to the national headquarters of The American Library Association, hundreds of amazing independent award-winning booksellers in the area, including veterans like The Bookstall, Women and Children First, and Anderson's Bookshop (who hosts behemoth booktalks with teachers from all over the state) and more independents opening all the time. We are geographically central and home to O'Hare International Airport, one of the biggest in the world, making it easy and relatively inexpensive to travel to and fro any where else, plus we have a solid public transportation system throughout the 'hoods. We have a commitment to our environment, with a mayoral plan to keep us on the list of greenest cities. While New York may rightly boast about the inimitable Broadway, Chicago also has great theater traditions (Steppenwolf and Second City are nothing to sneeze at), we have outstanding restaurants (Rick Bayless lives here, we have deep-dish pizza and the world's finest hot dogs!), art and cultural museums (don't miss Coleen Moore's Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry) and two outstanding zoos (sorry, Central Park and Holden Caufield, you haven't lived until you've ridden the endangered-species-go round at the Lincoln Park). Chicago has a reputation for being cold, but I'm guessing that's just something we say to keep out those who aren't hearty and hale. Though we certainly take some icy gales, it's really not much colder than New York; it just seems that way because we get a chill from running alongside that amazing lake that looks like an ocean, and almost thirty miles of beach. And as far as literacy initiatives go, we have Dave Eggers' Boring Store, NLU's aforementioned initiative, one of the world's leading research libraries (currently exhibiting 700 Years of Children's Books), the ever-expanding Rohner Letterpress , and the entire City of Readers program (which inspired whole subways full of everyone reading To Kill a Mockingbird; what a sight!) and of course, the fabulous PlanetEsme Bookroom. Inventive, always new, and always growing, this was the place to be at the turn of the last century, and I think it's the place to be at the start of this one. Here in Chi-town, we are a city with big shoulders...and that means we can carry a lot of books.

But let's talk about the M.O.'s in NYC publishing that are causing a financial 9-1-1. Smaller lists with more equitable distribution of publicity would probably make more sense than buying the work of authors and then not giving the kind of attention that is necessary for the book to find its audience, as the New York magazine article suggests. Kind of like buying a car and never driving it, but how could they ever get it out of such an overcrowded lot, even if they wanted to? The market is glutted, far exceeding the demand and most publishers know it, though nobody wants to bell that cat by tightening their lists and investing in what (and who) they already have. Would Margaret Wise Brown or Leo Lionni have been published or kept in print given the current model? It's hard to imagine; and I see for myself how many outstanding books fall by the wayside and are out of print in a couple of years. This is a disservice to the children on top of a waste of resources. I know from my "small is beautiful" approach that one of the signs of a business failure is when the resource of the human element is undervalued. When publishers lose money, they also start firing and displacing editors and publicists who require higher salaries by virtue of experience and track records, and bring on undertrained newbies or have staffs continually in flux. So, yes, publishing will fail this way, you bet. But in the interest of life cycles and metamorphosis, I know there in a butterfly-in-progress, and I am excited to see publishing's next incarnation, which will undoubtedly and necessarily be the result of a lot of change.

So. With Chicago making its energetic Olympic bid, I have to get into the spirit and remind the powers that be that, like Horton's Whos, "we are here, we are here, we are here,"in the midst of these changes and challenges. Dear New York, I love a good Judy Holliday movie as much as the next person, and have no qualms with your sensational skyscraping town. But Chicago is a less expensive place to live and to do business, but with many of the same cultural and culinary perks. Please, the next time you consider relocating your office, or for any publishing/agenting/book-promoting/bookloving mavericks out there, please look past the stereotypical corncobbery of the Midwest and into our potential. Imagine a publishing house with less overhead and more money to spend on the talents it takes to create and promote good books, and a standard of living that allows employees to live better (or at least in bigger apartments) at a rate employers can afford. So much depends on the survival of the industry in one form or another, not only in terms of individual jobs, which are certainly important, but also in terms of the education of children and the forward trajectory of critical thinking and democracy, all of which we can ill afford to take for granted. So publishing people, I put this forth: I double-dog-dare dare you to revitalize yourselves. No, I double-Chicago-style-Vienna-beef-hot-dog dare you.

That's my opinion! Decide for yourself what the next best chapter is in the history of children's literature by reading Leonard Marcus's new book, and with that in mind, I offer a giveaway of a free autographed copy to one winner, chosen from comment-posters below in the next week. Good luck!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esme stuff at www.planetesme.com.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Happy first day of fall, my favorite season by far! As soon as the apples and gourds show up at the farmer's market, it's time to start haunting your house or library...there just aren't enough days to read all the good spooky and seasonal stories on the shelf! So let's get started with a...
GHOSTS IN THE HOUSE! by Kazuno Kohara (Roaring Brook)
When a little girl moves into her new house, she finds it's haunted, but luckily, this is not just any little girl, but a witch who chases the ghosts down with the vim of a game of tag, and puts them to home decorating uses that Martha Stewart (or Martha Boowart?) would be proud of. Not since Linda Williams' THE LITTLE OLD LADY WHO WAS NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING have we seen a pumpkin-pusher with such fortitude. Bold lino-cut lines and the limited palette of orange, black and white packs a punch, but the story is far more sweet treat than trick, making it a perfect atmospheric preschool pick. Jacques Duquennoy's inventive ghost stories for young children and Stephanie Calmenson's TEENY TINY TEACHER are both scandalously out-of-print, but if you can raise them from the great beyond, throw them into the storytime cauldron with some eye of newt or a few fig newtons, and mix well. (3 and up)

Also of interest:
I'm not ready to leaf you alone yet! Rake up some reading points with these fall favorites:
FALL IS NOT EASY by Marty Kelley (Zino Press) In this book, a tree tries to change color, and ends up looking like a rainbow, a hamburger, a smiley face and more! One of my storytime fall staples, I personally wouldn't go into autumn without it. It's so whimsical, you may want to balance your storytime with by some nifty seasonal nonfiction like Ken Robbins' AUTUMN LEAVES or PUMPKINS...if the children aren't too busy drawing their own trees in the midst of changes, that is. (4 and up)

JOHNNY APPLESEED by Jane Yolen (HarperCollins) One of the most prolific children's authors tries her hand at separating the legend from the truth. Free verse and folksy, painterly art set this biography apart. Remember, Johnny Appleseed's birthday is September 26th! (8 and up)

THE PERFECT PUMPKIN PIE by Denys Cazet (Atheneum) Another tried-and-true fall favorite! Slightly rowdy illustrations make this a pick for your older and more fortified group, who will howl and shiver as Mr. Wilkerson rises from the beyond in order to bully a piece of perfect pie from Jack and his fearless grandmother. A balanced combination of put-the-flashlight-under-your-chin-and-speak-slowly prose and join-in-the-refrain verse ("Pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkin pie!/ I must have one before I die./ It must be round and brown as toast/ Or I'll haunt this house as a hungry ghost") will make for perennial pumpkin fun. Just as a perfect pie must have all the right ingredients, so does this book have the right dashes of fright and delight, and as the ending suggests, old Mr. Wilkerson may put in a few more appearances before all is said and done (apple pie, anyone?). Believe me, if you stood in line for a half an hour at the bakery, you could not come up with a more delicious fall storytime treat. (7 and up)

On a personal note:
This week we lost a true legend of children's literature. Coleen Salley was a distinguished professor of children's literature at the University of New Orleans, a celebrated storyteller, the author of several books for children including the famous EPOSSUMONDAS series of picture books illustrated by Janet Stevens, a children's books salon hostess, a Mardi Gras queen and and a bit of a character out of a children's book herself. But for all of these titles she wore with grace and spirit, the moniker I think of immediately is friend; she was a friend to all booklovers, and to all who created books. The first time I met Coleen was when I was attending a conference in New Orleans. I was a brand new author out of the gate, and she had invited me to her cozy home in the French Quarter, which was awash with books (of course), an impressive collection of kitchen witches and Bremen Town Musician collectibles, authors and illustrators with otherworldly talents whom I had admired for years shmoozing from room to room like ordinary people; I remember sitting in her garden with Trina Schart Hyman as if it was a dream. And, like music floating in the air was her lovely southern drawl, ordering folks to try her homemade grits (delicious). Wherever she was, that was the place to be; she knew how to turn her cozy spot in the French Quarter into a literary Mount Olympus, she knew how to turn a Holiday Inn hotel room into sparkling party setting worthy of an Auntie Mame. She knew that books were a connecting force, and she was the living conduit. What impressed and inspired me was the feeling of sincere welcome that she emanated, without any pretension, and the feeling that who you are and whatever you have to give the world was enough, as long as you gave it all you've got. To know Coleen was to be under her wing and to be her special "dawlin," but this was not a sparrow's wing, this was the wing of a mother phoenix! Wherever she sat, that was the table that was laughing the hardest; wherever a bugle call sounded for literacy, she was leading the charge and wherever there was a new author or illustrator, she was there with words of encouragement, leaning on her cane to start the standing ovation. It is you who deserve the ovation, dear Coleen Salley! In Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life, the angel suggests that "no man is poor who has friends," and surely, Coleen died one of the richest women in the world. To say she will be missed is a laughable understatement and to try to measure her influence would be impossible, but her spirit lives on and on in the example she set for a brave life well lived in the service of children and art. I was blessed beyond measure to know her, and I wish I could give her one more hug and say thank you one more time...though that's a lie, a tall tale, a yarn. Because even a thousand more times would never be enough, dawlin'.

Kimberly Willis Holt has written an outstanding tribute that captures some of her inimitable and contagious joie de vivre. Please check it out as well as tributes linked from Chicken Spaghetti, and then please consider honoring her memory by making a donation to her foundation with the special mission of connecting children with the real people behind the books. Yes, her spirit lives on!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


THE WAY WE WORK by David Macaulay (Houghton Mifflin)
After showing us THE WAY THINGS WORK, a lifetime achievement by any standard, Macaulay outdoes himself by turning his attention to the most complex machine of them all: the human body! Scaffolding from the smallest cells, readers move from system to system within the body and ultimately, to the creation of another life. The book took years to create, during which time Macaulay attended dissections, surgeries, studied anatomy at length and had the pleasure to handling a spleen. His hands-on and all-eyes approach paid off in a book that makes the intricate workings human body at once familiar and beautiful; he depicts the respiratory system as a roller coaster , describes DNA as "old family recipes" or a virus as a "population explosion," and draws microvilli like mountains rising out of the mist. His conversational writing style, matched with clear, well-labeled illustrations make this book not only remarkably informative, but remarkably accessible. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to understand this book, but it may very well inspire a few young people to become one someday. (9 and up)

Also of interest:
Macaulay isn't the only uber-talent with a fresh book on the fall list; here at PlanetEsme we are scoping out an influx of both new and retooled titles by popular authors and illustrators that you may be happy to know about, and even a newbie or two destined to be face-out on the bookstore shelves:

DELTORA QUEST by Emily Rodda (Scholastic) An epic fantasy quest adventure played out against a richly rendered fantasy landscape is waiting to be discovered within the bindings of this international sensation. The missing gems from the powerful Belt of Deltora are all that stand between the Shadow Lord and his plan to enslave the population. While the city spirals into despair, hopefulness and action are wielded like swords by Leif, Barda and Jasmine, who bravely traverse some of the most fearsome corners in the kingdom and show a myriad of monsters who's boss, determined to restore the belt before their dreadful enemy gets the chance. For the first time, all eight of the books in the series are collected in one handsome and affordable volume, so there will be no need for the reader to stop and catch his or her breath. Even better, this is a fantasy series that is appropriate for the early intermediate reader, so a younger audience can enjoy the status of finishing a book as thick as Harry Potter without sacrificing comprehension or author intention. Ten million readers around the world have found their way to this series and Japanese anime has embraced it, with good reason; themes like the need to know history, the necessity of leaders to stay connected with the common people and the power of optimism will resonate after the last pages are turned. Give it to your favorite dragonslayer with some ceremony. (8 and up)

And then we have another exciting quest, against a more realistic backdrop:
THE 39 CLUES: THE MAZE OF BONES (BOOK ONE) by Rick Riordan (Scholastic, ages 9 and up). Imagine the choice: to find out your family was among the most powerful in human history, or get a million dollars? After the reading of their grandmother's will, Dan and Amy forgo the cash and start on the first of thirty-nine clues that will reveal the source of their power. Readers follow the story, use the "clue cards" included and join the on-line search, which offers readers over a hundred grand in prizes. Nothing shivers my timbers quite so much as a volume that says "book one" on the cover, let alone a book that requires a Happy Meal toy collector's mentality, but hey, it has Wonka-Golden-Ticket-like potential that I'm sure I'd be all over like a cheap suit if I were ten, and moreover, it's Rick Riordan, whom I trust intrinsically to create something kid-tastic after composing the compulsively readable novel THE LIGHTNING THIEF. This book is no exception; he has the gift of making you want to know what happens next. This type of book delivers quality with a gimmick, and brings to mind talents like Ann Martin, who spent years creating the fun but pulpy BABYSITTER'S CLUB, and then went on to create what might be considered "serious" (and certainly wonderful) literature for children like THE DOLL PEOPLE and A CORNER OF THE UNIVERSE. Both styles of books contribute to creating readers in their own ways, and the fact that these authors can create both kinds should be commended. I'm just wondering...it seems "back in the day," an author wrote more commercially in order to earn enough trust from the publisher to invest in the more artful attempts, and nowadays, it seems to be the other way around? Who knows, just a thought. Moving on...

INTO THE VOLCANO by Don Wood (Scholastic) Illustrator of beloved preschool picks like THE NAPPING HOUSE and KING BIDGOOD'S IN THE BATHTUB tries a very different tack with this imaginative survival story aimed at preteen reluctant readers. Every lava-hot comic-book style frame delves us deeper into the volcano's boiling innards, where we find two brothers lost and pursued by evildoers. And you thought you had a bad vacation! (8 and up)

Speaking of sulfur, we have HECK: WHERE THE BAD KIDS GO by Dale E. Basye (Random House) about two siblings who perish in a marshmallow bear-related accident. Kleptomaniac sister Marlo may belong in the underworld's reform school known as "Heck," but bystanding brother Milton (get it?) sets out to prove they don't belong there. It's a tough task convincing the instructors, though, with the likes of Lizzie Borden teaching home ec and Nixon teaching ethics. The allusions are often adult, but are balanced with a Bullwinkle-like sensibility that suggests the story may be enjoyed on many levels...or at the very least, is balanced out by a heavy preponderance of poopy-doody jokes. Oh, dear, I can hear the scritchy-scratch of pencils on "request for reconsideration" forms in libraries across the country as we speak! Enjoy this subversive little devil while you can. (9 and up)

BAD KITTY GETS A BATH by Nick Bruel (Roaring Brook) The author/illustrator of BAD KITTY and POOR PUPPY proves he never runs out of funny in this redux that feels like a picture book but reads like a chapter book, a hairball-in-cheek how-to for cleaning the cat that will leave readers howling. Fans of Dav Pilkey, rejoice! This new series is as fun and even easier to read than good ol' CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS. (7 and up)

When not waving Captain Underpants's Fruit-of-the-Loom flag, all reluctant readers bow down before the mighty John Sciezska who writes books like THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS and THE STINKY CHEESE MAN which make readers snort and giggle like victims of a ruthless armpit-tickling. He now delves into the primordial brew from whence his quirky humor first took legs via an autobiography for kids, KNUCKLEHEAD: TALL TALES AND ALMOST TRUE STORIES OF GROWING UP SCIESZKA. In short, succinct, and (of course) hilarious chapters, Scieszka offers words of wisdom ("There is something about boys and fire that is like fish and water, birds and air, cats and hairballs. They just go together.") and speaks eloquently of his secret love affair with MAD Magazine, the despair in receiving socks for your birthday or being in the backseat with five carsick brothers, the joy of receiving your first boy scout knife, the peril of swearing in front of nuns, and most of all, the importance of family through all the ups and downs. Full of photos and funky paper ephemera, good luck even getting into the book because you will have to spend some significant time on the back cover, which reads like one of those comic book ads for x-ray specs and sea monkeys. This Gen-X'er and memoir-writer personally salutes the author for bridging the generation gap in such a readable way.

LAZY LITTLE LOAFERS by Susan Orlean, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Abrams) A rivalrous big sister tries to explain the drawbacks of the new baby from a purely anthropological perspective. I didn't personally cotton to the narrator's contemptuous tone which seems more aimed at entertaining the adult than the person in the adult's lap, but that's what comes of being a bestselling author for grown-ups. That said, Karas's illustrations of babies were so utterly scrumptious that I could practically feel the thump baby kicking in a stroller, the warmth of baby's hand, tread alongside his slow, waddling gait, and breathe in the powdery smell of baby belly. It made me want to get pregnant again (for a few minutes). Oh, the power of art. (5 and up)

A better-matched sibling pair may be found in ADELE & SIMON IN AMERICA by Barbara McClintock (Farrar Straus Giroux). Fans of Adele and Simon's French foray will be glad to have them return to port, with little Simon misplacing things from sea to shining sea. While ambitious, I don't know if sporting around an entire continent is ultimately as effective as their prior picture book tour of Paris, but ultimately, who cares? Who could possibly get enough of McClintock's Edwardian-flavored, etching-inspired genius? Booklovers will go wherever she leads. (6 and up)

A trippier kind of getaway is booked in WHAT A TRIP by Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski (Scholastic), the same zany team to bring us the Caldecott classic HEY AL, and this latest title is no less surreal. When Mel, an ordinary boy, klutzes his way into another dimension where everything is pointy, his attempts to convince others of the way he has seen the world makes his sanity suspect. This book about accepting differences without labeling definitely has a point. (6 and up)

Another author/illustrator that many folks will be happy to see has a new offering is David Shannon, of NO, DAVID! fame, tapping into some more testosterone with TOO MANY TOYS (Scholastic). Spencer has a lot of toys. A LOT. "There was an entire zoo of stuffed animals and a gigantic army of little action figures. He had a fleet of planes, trains, and toy boats, and a convoy of miniature trucks and cars. He also had lots and lots of musical instruments, art supplies, and alien spaceman weapons." Shannon perfectly captures the hysteria of consumerism on both ends, whether depicting the motley crew of relatives burying Spencer in birthday gifts, his barefoot dad howling over stepping on a Lego, or his mother desperately trying to negotiate some downsizing (met with huge doleful puppy-dog eyeballs from Spencer, a la Margaret Keane). What toy will Spencer be left with in the end? Shannon obviously had a lot of fun with this, and so will readers, as page after page explodes with jubilant, colorful, messy piles to pore over. Anyone who has ever had to clean a child's room will relate. Follow a group storytime with a big toy swap, or better yet, use the book as an impetus gather up all those extra toys and give them to charity. (5 and up)

GINGERBREAD FRIENDS by Jan Brett (Putnam) In this stands-fine-on-its-own sequel to THE GINGERBREAD BABY, our cinnamon-sprinkled buddy sets out to find some companionship, only to be disappointed by the cool response he receives by his inanimate brethren at the bakery. As is always the case with the inimitable Brett, set your eyeballs on stun, as the Gingerbread Baby is carried across snowy double-paged spreads on a chariot pulled by an exquisite black hen, details in the borders cumulate to offer a recipe for gingerbread, and the last page folds open to reveal an over-sized panorama of frosting, sprinkles, and hooray, plenty of smiling friends! The scene in the mouse hole in which very realistically rendered rodents are nibbling on the Gingerbread Baby's marshmallow pom-pom might be intense for the very young, but older picture book readers will thrill to the drama of it all, and will understand the yearning to find someone to play with. So much to look at and savor again and again, it really is as delicious as choosing treats from a display case. Read with THE GINGERBREAD GIRL by Lisa Campbell Ernst (Dutton) for more fresh flavor added to an old folkloric favorite. (6 and up)

MADELINE AND THE CATS OF ROME by John Bemelmans Marciano (Viking) In this exciting new addition to the Madeline family of books, the youngest girl in Miss Clavel's famous lineup is is hoodwinked by the Protector of the Colonia Felina, a conniver posing as a street urchin. While our heroine contends with a female Bad Hat, readers are taken on the most pleasant Italian tour since Roman Holiday. A nice cameo by hound Genevieve and the tender placement into good homes of several stray cats will make this a repeat read for animal lovers. Though I am a Bemelmans purist and was initially skeptical of his grandson's efforts, I found myself flipping around to double-check whether the book wasn't a reissue or done under a nom de plume, so authentic did it seem in both the meter of the writing and the flow of the brush. Obviously, wit and a flair for Fauvism is in the gene pool. (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at www.planetesme.com.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


THOSE DARN SQUIRRELS! by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri (Clarion)
Old Man Fookwire was so old that when he sneezed, dust came out. He was also a grump. He hated pie. He hated puppies. The only thing he liked was birds.

After setting out bird-feeders, he is chagrined to find them barraged by squirrels, and not just any squirrels, but squirrels who are good at math, can build box kites, can launch themselves to avoid lasers and swing on spring-loaded trapeze (helmets on) when necessary. Realizing that they have gone over Fookwire's line, the squirrels try to make amends. If Fookwire can't beat 'em, will he join 'em? Ahh, who could resist? We know we are in for a hilarity even from the dedication page ("To my father, for his love of backyard bird-watching and Breakstone dairy products, and to my mother, who sleeps like a horse"), and, as is the mark of truly great humor, we sense that it is coming from a very real place. Sparse, stylized drawings are modern and full of personality. See if you can keep a straight face as the squirrels wear disguises, or Fookwire shakes his "old man fist" over a bowl of cottage cheese (Breakstone's, of course). Silly Chicks, are you on this? Besides bearing some resemblance to the work of (dare I say it?) the late great James Marshall, the story makes for a nice fall man vs.nature-themed counterpart to Candace Fleming's springy MUNCHA! MUNCHA! MUNCHA!. Mix with Melanie Watts' SCARDEY SQUIRREL for more smiles, plus a dash of comparative non-fiction with Lois Ehlert's NUTS TO YOU! or Brian Wildsmith's wonderful SQUIRRELS for a storytime that will leave listeners bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and most importantly, laughing out loud. A children's book debut worth going nuts about. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
More fun with rodents!
OBI, GERBIL ON THE LOOSE by Michael Delaney (Dutton) Left with an irresponsible neighbor, a little gerbil named for a favorite Star Wars character aims to survive. May the force be with him! This book has many strong points: well developed characters (grouchy dog, nefarious tarantula, snake with an inferiority complex), a believable and steady gerbil's-eye point of view, and enough contemporary allusions to really engage a modern audience. Spunky and sparkling, it will be a hit with fans of Betty Birney's THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HUMPHREY series (favorite line: "I'll never squeak to her again!"), and like Birney's books, it makes for a stellar chapter-book read-aloud for primary grades. (7 and up)

A BRAND NEW DAY WITH MOUSE AND MOLE by Wong Herbert Yee (Houghton Mifflin) After moths eat holes in his clothes, Mole finds it hard to find threads that will help him to be be cool and groovy. Sample exchange with friend mouse who is looking through shopping bag: "I thought you didn't like buttons?" "It's a brand new day!" declared Mole. "I am trying something--different!" "Mouse pulled out the green pants. "Don't you have some like this?" "My old pants are brown," huffed Mole. "Green pants are--new!" Well, of course we can expect that a mole might look like he gets dressed in the dark, but he manages to set a few trends among his woodland fashion police all the same. A funny, realistic and highly readable friendship story with the kind of problem-solving that is always in vogue. (5 and up)

OH, THEODORE! GUINEA PIG POEMS by Susan Katz, illustrated by Stacey Schuett (Clarion) "Theodore stretches/his hind legs./Hello, morning./Theodore gnaws/the edge of his cage./Hello home. /Theodore sees me/coming close./Goodbye, scary giant." In the spirit of Kristine O'Connell George's LITTLE DOG POEMS, observational free verse and endearing artwork captures the comings and goings of a furry family friend. When Theodore goes missing, it adds some drama and arc to the collection. If you have a guinea pig as a class pet, you know you need this! (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esme stuff at www.planetesme.com.

Friday, September 05, 2008


Widowers and neighbors McFig and McFly hit it off big time; they have so much in common. Their children enjoy playing together, and their houses look exactly the same. But when McFly makes use of some spare lumber to make a small addition to his abode, so begins a rivalry that climbs sky high. From bungee-jumping platforms to flying buttresses to Egyptian pyramids to garbage-can weather vanes, "helter-skelter the ramshackle towers rose. What wasn't tick-tacked together with glue, nails or bubble gum was tied together with shoelaces or spaghetti." When the unwieldy contest finally leads to an untimely demise, it is left to the children to make peace, a yard sale to end all yard sales, and a home that they can share. Embracing the spirit of the truly absurd with an artistic bravery and abandon that the artist has cultivated through his career, the illustrations are fittingly wonky, inky and oddly disconcerting, as if done by a young boy who has spent his day laboring on creating the Word's Greatest Picture with his set of markers. This effort will not be lost on children, who will shriek with delight at the increasing preposterousness and height of the architecture, culminating in a vertical pop-open display. A great cautionary tale about the pragmatic benefits of love and cooperation, and though the buildings are dismantled, the lesson stands: love thy neighbor, or else. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
Other towers of power!
THE APPLE-PIP PRINCESS by Jane Ray (Candlewick) Perhaps a version of MCFIG AND MCFLY with a more feminine touch, we have three princesses vying for the inheritance of a kingdom by showing their father they can make him proud. One sister builds a tower made of all the wood in the kingdom, and another with all the metal, ignoring the repercussions of their ruthless demands on their subjects. The youngest sister simply plants her mother's seeds, and in doing so, replenishes the spirits and resources of her land. A timely allegory about the power to be gained by putting into the earth once in a while instead of taking out all of the time, it is nicely paired with Paul Fleischman's WESLANDIA, about a boy who builds his utopian society using a mysterious crop, or as a pairing with magical folkloric stories of sibling rivalry such as Robert D. San Souci's THE TALKING EGGS. Jane Ray's illustration style is distinctly lovely; beautiful multicultural princesses and landscapes glow against blues and greens and glowing bronzes. Sure to plant a few good ideas for the future. (6 and up)

THE THREE ROBBERS by Tomi Ungerer (Phaidon) A touching, classic story about three scary robbers who collect a lot of gold but don't know what to do with it, so they build a home for lost and unwanted children. The children grow up and form a town, in which they build three towers, in honor of their foster fathers. Sniff, sniff! And anyway, it's always hard to come by a really good earnest robber in a story for young children in these dreary PC times...though there's a fine dramatic baddie to be found in Ungerer's CRICTOR, too. Somebody knew what kids like! (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esme stuff at www.planetesme.com.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


LESTER FIZZ, BUBBLE-GUM ARTIST by Ruth Spiro, illustrated by Thor Wickstrom (Dutton)

"The way I see it, Lester, anyone can be an artist...What do you see? What don't you see? What do you want to see?"

A little boy tries diligently to find his voice in a family of fine artists, and discovers that chicle is his medium of choice. But will his gooey pink masterpieces garner enough respect to win him the school art contest? The unconditional and enthusiastic support from Lester's family is a thing of beauty, though his bubble shaped like Mona Lisa eating a hot dog, pickles and a side of cheese fries comes in a close second! Though this story is painted in many shades of silly, on the straight side it has many visual allusions to famous art that is handily referenced in the back. When the story is over, can the children find a Mary Cassatt? A Pablo Picasso? A Munch, a Vermeer, a Van Gogh? A great picture book pick for art appreciation, and for appreciating the artist in all of us. (6 and up)

Also of interest:
Another likable boy with an unlikely talent!
OGGIE COODER by Sarah Weeks (Scholastic) Oggie has skills when it comes to "charving," or chewing cheese into any shape he wants, and is particularly adept at chomping them into our fine fifty states. Recognized as a contender for the wacky Hidden Talents television show, will his skill be enough to beat out the likes of the boy who can stick quarters up his nose or the girl who paints with pudding (hey, Lester Fizz, I think I can hook you up!)? Hardest of all for Oggie is keeping up with Hollywood appearances, even with some serious pushing from Donnica Perfecto, his talentless junior manager and celebrity social-climber. Though personally I found the "charving" premise rather repulsive by chapter three and I couldn't stop thinking the boy was named "Oogie" instead of "Oggie," Weeks' voice is modern and her characters quirky and distinct. Several boys (who surely represent more of the intended audience, and had stronger constitutions than I) cottoned to Oggie and look forward to more situations featuring their down-to-earth, cheese-charving friend. (8 and up)

On a personal note: Matzo Balls with Marcus!
Another PlanetEsme Bookroom event, to which you are invited! On Sunday, September 14th at 3:30 p.m., I am honored to host a cozy, soup-slurping afternoon with the legendary Leonard Marcus, one of the most respected writers, speakers, historians and critics in the world of children’s literature! Monsieur Marcus is the author of A GOLDEN LEGACY: HOW GOLDEN BOOKS WON CHILDREN'S HEARTS, CHANGED PUBLISHING FOREVER AND BECAME AN AMERICAN ICON ALONG THE WAY; A CALDECOTT CELEBRATION: SEVEN ARTISTS AND THEIR PATHS TO THE CALDECOTT MEDAL; DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM (one of my favorites!); PASS IT DOWN: FIVE PICTURE BOOK FAMILIES MAKE THEIR MARK and THE WAND IN THE WORD: CONVERSATIONS WITH WRITERS OF FANTASY, among others. (Finally, an author whose book titles are longer than mine!)

His latest and possibly his most accomplished title is MINDERS OF MAKE-BELIEVE: IDEALISTS, ENTREPRENEURS AND THE SHAPING OF AMERICAN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE, which is the most comprehensive and readable history of children’s books available (“best summer nonfiction reading,” says NPR, and “a tour de force,” says his starred review in Booklist). Come and meet this remarkable scholar and awfully nice guy, and ask anything you’ve always wanted to know about children’s literature, past and present!

The Bookroom is a private venue on Chicago's north side, and space to this event is limited, so RSVP via e-mail reply (esmeATripcoDOTcom), with where I might know you from and your contact info, and you’ll receive a confirmation reply with the exact address this week. The event is for grown-ups and admission is free, but we do ask that attendees purchase at least one title, available at the event, in support of our special guest! Mr. Marcus will be available to sign books purchased at the Bookroom. It's sure to be an enlightening and delightful afternoon. Hope to see you there!

Thanks also to all who attended the Wish List Wednesday book talk this past month. We touched on over fifty great new titles, what a marvelous marathon! Hope to do it again later in the fall. Whoever left the lovely plate of cookies, I still have the lovely plate. Not the lovely cookies, though; they are all gone!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esme stuff at www.planetesme.com.


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