Friday, August 28, 2009


September is right around the corner. The school supply circulars are in the newspaper. The leaves are whispering that fall is coming...I can practically hear them. I have a big queue of nonfiction and chapter books and back-to-school books, all ready for review. But summer isn't over until the sunburned lady sings, people, and I ain't singin' just yet. What's say we have one more afternoon on the picture book playground?

HIGHER! HIGHER! by Leslie Patricelli (Candlewick) Who hasn't swung so high on a swing that they believed they might hit a bird? That their toes might graze an airplane? That they might fly through a cloud? As a good pusher-man daddy boosts his pigtailed princess ever into the stratosphere, this little book fearlessly plays it all out to the nth degree, with such exuberant good cheer that you can practically hear the children screaming and the squeak of the metal playground chain as it makes its pendulum swing back and forth. This funny author deserves an affectionate fan base similar to that of Mo Willems (DON'T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS), but for the younger set. Oh, baby baby, this gets a one -word book review: Wheeeeee. (2 and up)

Also of interest:
Another early childhood book that takes a concept to its limits.
JUST HOW LONG CAN A LONG STRING BE?! by Keith Baker (Scholastic) Like curious preschoolers themselves, A bird and ant puzzle over the possibilities of a piece of string. "Will it finish a necklace?/A banjo?/A mop?/Will it partner a puppet?/A yo-yo?/A top?" As we follow the friends through their sunny investigation, appealing horizontally oriented double-page spreads help to stretch the string as well as the story (a technique Baker also made the most of in HIDE AND SNAKE). The effect of Baker's palette could not be more smile-inducing, like opening a box of 64 crayons when you were expecting only 12. Visually orderly but always vivacious, illustrations like the bird flitting across a trellis of snap peas, yanking a light switch in his beak or skipping rope with friends infuse this book with a kind of well-behaved dynamism. Well-balanced and wonderful from one end to the other, it's everything we hope a preschool book can be. Teachers and librarians, you can preface the story by holding up a piece of string and asking the children to answer the question. At the end of the story, have the children use pastel crayons to create scenes where a string might be used, and give each child a real piece of string to glue into the picture. What an attractive bulletin board full of artwork that would be! Well. I guess it is almost September. (3 and up)

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

Sunday, August 23, 2009


ONCE UPON A TWICE by Denise Doyen, illustrated by Barry Moser (Random House)

Once upon a twice,
In the middle of the nice,
The moon was on the rice
And the Mice were scoutaprowl...

Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky," featured in the companion to Alice in Wonderland, THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, is considered a masterwork of nonsense verse. Longtime the manxome foe was sought: the student who could match the teacher, and Doyen may have raised the vorpal sword. Using the same structure as "Jabberwocky" (a description of setting, a warning by someone older and wiser, a flouting of good advice, a conflagration, a celebration, and a return to the setting), Doyen takes us into the world of predator and prey. Amidst the tilted heads of hungry barn owls and the glow of amphibious eyes, "the world afield is dangerouse./Foraging is--for a mouse--/A nightly knightly duel and joust..." but all the same, a little mouse named Jam ventures an adventure:

Out in the open, in the clear,
Where any wisenmouse would fear,
Jam licks his paw, he grooms an ear,
And never hears approaching hisssss.

Half submerged, a slender queen
Esses 'cross the pond unseen,
Espies the furlickt mouse's sheen.
Sly serprentine--bound not to miss...

With no shortage of the kind of suspense that keeps eyes wide, acrobatic acts of portmanteau abound, verse winding and then pivoting on its own lyrical scheme with the hypnotic charm of a witch casting a midnight spell. Against the dark palette, the moon illuminates every page like a flashlight on a secret, nocturnal world; the illustrator's stylistic mix of realism and fancy is fitting. Though the connections to Carroll's work are plain, it's hard not to also be reminded of good ol' Beatrix Potter's TALE OF PETER RABBIT in a small creature's brazen oblivion to warnings, and the comeuppance of a good scare. ONCE UPON A TWICE ends with the suggestion to "be forewarned," but like the Disney Alice, you can be sure that "I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it" is a more likely mantra for children and other small creatures. They know their own capacity for mischief and adventure...even the likelihood of it, surely...and at the completion of these pages, they can hold it like their own secret in the dark.

This is beautiful writing with well-matched pictures, deserving of of repeated, breathless readings. For the young audience, it will give them a renewed ownership of the validity of their nonsense talk and accidental mixed-up words. I wonder if this will be one of those years where a picture book is considered for the Newbery award? If so, do you think the shiny round sticker will be confused with the moon on the cover? Such problems. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
More beautiful language in a picture book.
ZERO IS THE LEAVES ON THE TREE by Betsy Franco, illustrated by Shino Arihara (Tricycle Press)

Zero is:
"...the balls in the bin at recess time."
"...the sound of snowflakes landing on our mitten."
"...the kites in the sky once the wind stops blowing."
The number "best defined by what it's not" gets effective and poetic attention across all the seasons, and across matte, gouche double-paged spreads stylistically reminiscent of Mary Serfozo and Keiko Narahashi's WHO SAID RED? (out of print, really?! For shame!). Children play hard and wonder hard in these recognizable scenes that convey the idea that numbers are everywhere, even when that number represents the absence of number. Pitch-perfect for primary grades and lovely lovely lovely, this book knows how to make a whole lot of something out of nothing. (4 and up)

On a personal note:
Speaking of wordsmiths, it is with sadness that I report the passing of the legendary children's poet Karla Kuskin. In her honor, a recommendation from the archives:

MOON, HAVE YOU MET MY MOTHER? by Karla Kuskin, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier (HarperCollins) At last! Yum-yum, a beautiful, big, bulky book full of the wordplay from poetry's favorite playmate! After having fifty books of poetry published, here are three-hundred-some pages of her tripping, skipping rhymes, interspersed with silliness ("Being a strawberry isn't all pleasing./ This morning they put me in ice cream./ I'm freezing.") as well as introspection ("What separates each one of us/from all the beasts and bugs and birds?/ Well they have feathers, fur and wings/ but we have words,/ and words,/ and words"). The poems are all untitled which takes getting used to, but once you do the volume seems to meander pleasantly, all in all feeling like a leisurely visit with an observant, humorous friend. Some of her poems about books and reading warrant purchase by any and all librarians and booklovers, but all of the poems are so deceptively simple and conversational that children who read it will think, "oh, poetry is someone talking to me!" The new Karla Kuskin collection: Don't leave National Poetry Month without it. (5 and up)

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

Monday, August 17, 2009


To read or not to read (fairy tales), that is the question! Today, we have two terrific but tricky books that invite us to consider our audience.

YUMMY: EIGHT FAVORITE FAIRY TALES by Lucy Cousins (Candlewick)
Always yummy is the artwork of Lucy Cousins, famous for her Maisy series and recognizable for her bold, black-outlined gouche illustrations that remind us immediately of work done on an easel in a primary classroom. Here, she offers us a collection of eight classic tales for the nursery (Red Riding Hood, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Enormous Turnip, Henny Penny, Goldilocks, Little Red Hen, Three Pigs and Musicians of Bremen)...well, maybe a nursery with an occasional odd shadow thrown on the wall. As Cousins did in her wonderful NOAH'S ARK, she creates a straightforward, age-appropriate piece that doesn't resort to the revisionist, even if it will ruffle a reader here and there. I was most concerned with an illustration in which the woodcutter gives a wicked wolf's head a clean and onomatopoetic "chop," until I remembered a similarly unsettling illustration in Paul Galdone's THE GINGERBREAD BOY in which the cookie hero is gobbled down in one gulp, which has dependably elicited screams of delight in every storytime. Likewise, when I shared this aloud, the response was less of horror than collective arm-crossing satisfaction that justice was served and swiftly, and moreover, that there is NO BIG BAD WOLF LEFT to harass, say, us. Well! (Insert hand-wiping motion here.) What proved a far worse problem in this reading was reading aloud the story of "Henny Penny" and repeatedly pronouncing "Cocky Locky," and, somehow worse, "Goosey Poosey" amidst a snickering young audience. I don't know what they do in Lucy Cousin's England, but here, it seems even the little kids watch cable.

Fairy tales are a complicated genre. Their imaginative nature make them in high demand for the youngest reader, but their dark, insinuating psychological depth (suggested in the work of Bruno Bettleheim) and lack of political correctness make them thorny terrain, at least for protective grown-ups. On average, I personally do think fairy tales are best introduced around kindergarten and older, but Cousins has put forth a book that will meet the insistent toddler/preschool demand without any literary compromise, for better or worse. Admirable, readable, and generous, who will add this book to their collection? I will, says the Little Red Hen. Maybe you will, too! (3 and up)

Please also check out the remembrance of reading Little Red Riding Hood by the late genius illustrator Trina Schart Hyman. I think her pictures speak a thousand words in defending the drama of fairy tales for young children.

Also of interest:
I'm am a fairy tale purist, but I can't resist telling you about this pretty, precious revisiting of a classic tale that had me torn. Three chairs, three beds, three bowls of porridge...there were also three things that bothered me about this retelling. One: the stylistic perpetual changing of font sizes throughout, characteristic book design of Child's successful and charming Charlie and Lola series, but not necessary everywhere. Secondly, in this version, Goldilocks has a motive in her breaking and entering: someone needs to help her clean her little red shoes that her mother has asked her to keep tidy, but which she has dirtied most accidentally and with no bad intention. How well-adjusted! What a planner! Pah! I much prefer the adorable, bouncy-curled bad seed of a Goldilocks, who breaks and enters with nary a motive but her own shocking sense of entitlement, one who is naughty so that the reader doesn't have to be. Finally, what I love about the traditional telling (like the one by Feodor Rojankovsky) is how unfettered it is; I know exactly what happens next and exactly where it will end, and at bedtime, that is a very good thing. It takes a while for Goldilocks to arrive at the house (and the action), and there were moments in this reading where I felt like shrieking "sweet Mother of Heaven, where are we GOING with this?!" induced by sentences like "I am sure you will not be surprised to hear that..." and that Small Bear "was a sensitive type" and "I know it's strange to find bears living in a little wooden cottage, but this is a fairy tale..." Yes, yes, I know, but chop-chop, do you know it's 9:45 and before me there is a little girl with eyes still as wide open as windows with broken shades?

But the good of this book might well outweigh any complaint. First of all, there are marvelous photographic illustrations, created by posing dolls and miniatures inside sets made for the occasion, reminiscent of Dare Wright's THE LONELY DOLL and also the darling "puppet storybook" style in vogue in the late 1960's and 70's (and still available on Ebay). The detail and whimsy is sure to inspire interest, imagination and play. The text tightens up considerably in the second half to a proper storyteller's clip (have faith!), and the author brings her red shoe device into the story's conclusion with the aplomb befitting her talent, satisfyingly leaving the distraught Small Bear with a new pair of footwear to compensate for all his trouble and loss. Most importantly, the proof is in the pudding (or porridge, as the case may be), and this book did ultimately accomplish the task of a bedtime story. Short it's not, but oh, how sweet it is. (5 and up)

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


Related Posts with Thumbnails