Category Archives: Book Reviews

Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones (by Ruth Heller, 1981)

picturebookpicksRuth Heller wrote a number of books examining certain… well, “categories” is the best word for it. A book about kites, another about jewels, another about lollipops, and so on. Her best books are the ones about nature: Animals Born Alive and Well about mammals; Plants that Never Ever Bloom about fungi (yes, I know fungi aren’t technically plants). The other day I introduced a friend’s 2-year-old to The Reason for a Flower and he ate it up—literally: he loved pretending to eat the fruits and vegetables depicted. All Heller’s books are illustrated with gorgeous and accurate detail, and are fun and informative to read.

But the very best one, to my mind, is Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones—a book about all the different creatures that lay eggs! It’s full of engrossing illustrations of so many different kinds of birds, as well as snakes and frogs and dinosaurs and fish and spiders, and on and on. And the illustrations of the eggs themselves are fascinating—so many different kinds! The crazy ones laid by sharks and rays were always my favorite when I was a kid.

And yes, okay, you already probably know I’m a bit of a geek, and will not be surprised to learn that as a child I loved books like this because they allowed me to work words like “oviparous” into conversation. (It means “egg-laying.”) But kids don’t have to be nerds like me to become completely absorbed in the information here—it naturally appeals to children’s interest in the world, interest in weird and different things, interest in new perspectives on familiar things.

The other thing I like about Heller’s books is the way she writes. There’s a lot of rhythm and rhyme, but it’s always a bit off-kilter, a bit inconsistent. For instance: “This mother seahorse lays her eggs / into the father’s pouch. / He keeps them there until they hatch, and then he’s through. / I think that’s nice of him, don’t you?” You think you know where the rhyme’s going to be, but you don’t. Or how about this example: “This one will hatch into a hungry caterpillar who… will grow and grow and grow and then climb up a stem and change into this—a chrysalis—and change again one summer morn. That’s how a butterfly is born.” Notice how it seems like a sentence, and all of a sudden the meter kicks in, and you’re in a little poem. Rhythm and rhyme are always good in kids’ books, but I find it especially powerful when it’s a little odd and unexpected. That’s the kind of use of language that makes kids prick up their ears, and really pay attention to the words. It’s the kind of attention that teaches language really well, that makes children enjoy words and reading.

Heller’s books aren’t super flashy, and seem to have fallen a bit out of favor. A lot of colleagues and friends of mine who know and love children’s books have never heard of them, and it’s too bad: they’re really treasures. Start with Chickens and go from there.

Quick as a Cricket (by Audrey and Don Wood)

picturebookpicksThere are lots of feelings books out there. There are some good ones that talk about individual feelings (Trace Moroney’s When I’m Feeling… series comes to mind, or Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry…, or Mercer Mayer’s I Was Just So Mad). There are some good books about all different feelings (Todd Parr’s The Feelings Book).

But Quick as a Cricket is the only one I can think of that talks about having contradictory feelings at the same time—which is how kids (and, let’s face it, the rest of us) roll. I also like that the “feelings” in there aren’t just emotions: there’s happy and mean, but also strong and tame and wild and large, which are important feelings we don’t give voice to very often. How identity-affirming for kids to read this and get the Walt Whitman “I contain multitudes” vibe.

I’m as sad as a basset, I’m as happy as a lark,
I’m as nice as a bunny, I’m as mean as a shark.
I’m as cold as a toad, I’m as hot as a fox,
I’m as weak as a kitten, I’m as strong as an ox.

Other things to like about this book: The easy rhythm and rhyme of it. The near-gender-neutrality of the child protagonist. The evocative, expressive, exciting illustrations (I still remember staring at “strong as an ox” and “wild as a chimp” when I was five). And it’s a great participatory book—make the faces and the noises that go with each picture!

Really, it’s just a complete package of a book. I love reading it with all ages of children—everyone (even you) will find parts to identify with.

Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day

picturebookpicksThere are some good books out there about negative emotions for children. I like especially Mercer Mayer’s I Was So Mad and Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry. But there is no book that holds a candle to Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day (illustrated with winning ink cross-hatching by Ray Cruz). If you don’t know the book, I’m going to pause right here while you go buy a copy for your child or your classroom or even, heck, yourself. Really, trust me, just go buy a copy.

Okay, you’re back. Why is this book, which is admittedly a great big bummer, so good? Well, first of all, despite the efforts of every well-meaning parent and teacher in the world, children aren’t happy all the time. Can you believe it? No matter what we do, children will still sometimes feel sad and angry and lonely and afraid and embarrassed. They may even (gasp!) continue to feel those emotions from time to time when they grow up!

What caregivers can do is to help children understand and process their feelings. There are a lot of ways to do that (which I often help families and teachers with)—but a very simple way is to simply let children know that they aren’t alone in their feelings. Children need to see what it looks like when other people feel bad; not because it makes them feel better (it doesn’t, and shouldn’t), but because it gives them a model for how to behave when THEY feel bad. It’s terrifying for children to think, “My emotions are so big and bad they can’t be dealt with!” If negative emotions are taboo or hidden, it makes those emotions more powerful. Talking and hearing about emotions makes them manageable. (It makes me think of Mr. Rogers’ “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?“)

All of that is a long-winded way of saying, books about negative feelings are important. Reading them, kids learn that their emotions aren’t out of control, and see models of how to work with emotions.

But Alexander works, I think, on an even more subtle level than that. It’s not just about a child who’s feeling bad; it’s about a child having a bad day—a perhaps important distinction. Children know what it’s like to have a bad day—when you don’t get a prize in your cereal, and you don’t get the seat you want in the carpool, and your friend doesn’t want to play with you, and it’s just downhill all the way until bedtime. When I read this book to children and ask, “Do you ever have a day like that?” they all say YES, and I say, “Me too!” and they think, “Oh my god, the world understands me.” Which is a crucial part of social and emotional development. The book doesn’t moralize or advise or comfort or anything else. The whole day is a bummer, and at the end Alexander’s mother can only say, “Some days are just like that.” And yes, children need advise or comfort, but sometimes those things don’t help, and the only message that’s meaningful is, “You are not alone.” It couldn’t be more meaningful. The book was published in 1972, and there’s not a thing in it that doesn’t feel bang up to date. It’s got stuff all children, and all people, still need to hear.

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Great Illustrations

picturebookpicksAs I’m sure you’d agree, the pictures are a pretty important part of a picture book. In terms of determining a picture book’s quality, the pictures are right up there with the words.

There are many terrific children’s book illustrators out there—illustrators who draw or paint images full of life and expression and humor. But sometimes I come across a picture book where the illustrations are unusual and eye-catching, and make a particularly big impact on the reader. I wanted to write about the work of some unusual illustrators whose work you should check out.

For instance, Clare Beaton doesn’t draw or paint at all—instead, she sews her illustrations. Each page is made of felt and thread and buttons and beads, and is simply wonderful. One Moose, Twenty Mice is my favorite—it’s a great counting book, with different animals on each page up to 20, and with clever little twists throughout as you search for the cat that’s hiding in each picture.

Valorie Fisher, on the other hand, makes her illustrations by creating miniature tableaux of people and animals. In Ellsworth’s Extraordinary Electric Ears, each page is a ridiculous scene full of moustache machines and ostriches attending parties and people with crazy inventions—each one an absurd alliteration that is guaranteed to make you giggle.

Other illustrators use more traditional techniques, but employ them in unconventional ways. I’ve written before about Peggy Rathman’s The Day the Babies Crawled Away, with its all-silhouette drawings. It draws you in by leaving more to your imagination than most books, encouraging you to cast yourself in the lead role.

Laura Ljungkvist’s Follow the Line also uses traditional techniques, but each page’s drawings are largely made by one long, twisty line that creates every object on each page, looping around the each of pages. The line makes buildings, faces, cars, forests… and you can spend hours tracing the line and figuring out how these illustrations work.

Leo Lionni often uses interesting techniques in his illustrations. Most people have read his book Swimmy, and have seen the wonderful ways he uses paint to evoke underwater vistas and strange creatures. But his book Let’s Make Rabbits is kind of a meta-illustration. It’s the story of a pencil and a scissors, who each make a picture of a rabbit in their own way. But then the rabbits come to “life,” and have their own story that comments on the differences between different kinds of drawings. Later, the rabbits eat a “real” carrot, and become “real” themselves, and hop away. It’s a bizarre story that seems to have a cryptic moral in it somewhere—but is really all about interrogating what it means to make art in the first place. Deep stuff for a children’s book.

For the ultimate in mixed media, you’ve got Dave McKean, who often works with the writer Neil Gaiman. I’ve written before about their fascinating, scary, heroic book The Wolves in the Walls. They’ve got a couple more, including The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, a story about exactly what you think. McKean’s illustrations mix drawings, painting, collage, computer generated images, and who knows what else, creating these dreamy, creepy, magical worlds that fit just right with Gaiman’s dark fairy tale stories. They’re not for the faint of heart, but they are truly terrific.

Finally, for illustrations that are somehow groundbreaking and normal at the same time, take a look at Jan Pienkowski’s Dinner Time. He uses spray paint to create these completely wild and messy illustrations of animals, which come to life in this pop up book and eat each other up. I remember reading this when I was a kid and being fascinated by the magical weirdness of the illustrations, which I was sure I could recreate myself if I could just play with some spray cans for awhile.

And that, in a way, is the thing about all of these. The whole point of children’s books (well, A whole point of children’s books) is to broaden children’s minds, give them new ideas, inspire them to create stories and art and new ideas. There are a lot of ways to accomplish that goal, but one way is to expose children to a variety of stories—as wide a variety as possible. Different kinds of stories, about different kinds of people, using different kinds of words, and showing different kinds of pictures. In commercial, mass-market children’s books there’s a lot of SAME out there these days. Make sure you go find some things that are DIFFERENT.

The Wolves in the Walls (by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean)

picturebookpicksLet me say right up front that this is not a book for very young children. It’s not for a lot of 5-and-6-year-olds. Frankly, there are some adults who won’t be into it. It’s super weird and scary. So why is it here? Well, let me tell you what’s good about it, and then talk about the scariness.

First off, you’ve rarely seen anything like Dave McKean’s illustrations. He uses painting and collage sculpture and line drawing and computer graphics all mixed together in this intricate and bizarre way. The illustrations are menacing and beautiful at the same time. Which kind of goes for the story as well. There’s a young girl, Lucy, and she thinks there are wolves living in the walls in her house, and no one believes her, and then the wolves come out and chase the humans out of their house, and then Lucy leads her family in a revolt to take back their house. Totally weird, and yet stirring and positive. I like that it centers on a character who is strong and confident and brave and a girl—there aren’t enough kickass girl characters in children’s literature. I also like that the story, and the pictures, are genuinely scary! Kids have fears, and not a lot of media approaches it head-on for kids. But kids need to see the full range of their experiences and emotions reflected in the stories they take in. That’s how they learn that their experiences and emotions are normal, and they’re not alone.

So how do you read this book with young children and not have them be scared out of their wits? Well, first of all, know your audience, and don’t read it if the kid is gonna be too scared. But more importantly, give it some context! A few years ago, in a classroom of 3-and-4-year-olds, we did a month-long curriculum around scary stories, lead by the children’s interest and enthusiasm. We started off with There’s a Nightmare in my Closet, and when we saw that they were excited about the scary aspects of it we worked our way through the Sendak oeuvre, and ended up with Wolves. Throughout the project we talked with them about what you can do to feel better when you’re scared; what the differences are between books and real life; and how it’s sometimes fun to feel a little scared. We also had a high tolerance for stopping books midway whenever kids asked, and allowing them to absorb books in small chunks. When we approached the material carefully, every single kid in that group of eighteen ended up loving scary stories and begging for more, because it became such a positive, affirming, community-building experience. And you can do that too, whether you’re working with a classroom or you’re one-on-one with your own child. (For more info on approaching this stuff, contact me through my consultancy.)

Anyway, even though this book isn’t for everyone, it’s totally badass. Children’s literature doesn’t have to be bland—it can and should (sometimes) push boundaries. Like any other art form.

Some Lesser-Known Works of Dr. Seuss

picturebookpicksNo collection of picture-books would be complete without Dr. Seuss. Of the 100 best-selling children’s books of all-time, Seuss wrote 16 of them, for crying out loud! The books are whimsical, they use language creatively, they have playful illustrations, and many of them have morals you probably want to instill in your kids. When you think back to books you read when you were young, you probably remember some Seuss in there, and for good reason.

But I couldn’t bring myself to write about a lot of them. The Lorax and Horton Hears a Who are lovely, but you probably already know them pretty well. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish is adorable, but there’s not much to say about it. If you graduated from anything in the last ten years you probably have a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go already. And while Green Eggs and Ham is a consistent hit with the kids, if I have to read it more than once in a sitting I feel giving Sam I Am a punch on the nose myself. There are some lesser-known Seuss books, though, that deserve a little more attention, and a place on any child’s bookshelf.

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was Dr. Seuss’ first published book, way back in 1937, and it’s completely charming. A little boy thinks about what to tell his dad about his day, and keeps embellishing his story until it includes an amazing parade with elephants and airplanes and confetti. The illustrations are amazing, and it’s hard to read it without raising your voice in excitement. But the excitement is tempered at the end, when the boy sits down in front of his down-to-earth dad and is too embarrassed to say his great ideas. There’s resonance for kids, who often feel adults don’t understand them, and a lesson for adults about unintentionally squelching children’s enthusiasm. The book holds up on repeated readings not just because the fun parts are fun, but because you can so clearly see the progression of the boy’s ideas and emotions. (Disclaimer: There are a few old-fashioned racial stereotypes in here; most notably the illustration of the “Chinese boy who eats with sticks” in the parade. They’re not enough to make me want to remove the book from my classroom or bookshelf, but you should be aware of them, be prepared to discuss them with older children.)

Seuss’ second published work, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938), is the only one I know of his that’s not written in verse. It’s just a good old-fashioned fantasy about a boy who, every time he tries to take off his hat for the king, finds another hat underneath. It’s enjoyably silly, with just a hint of the fear kids can feel when things in life aren’t going according to their plans. The fine illustrations are all black and white, except for the red hats.

And The Sneetches and Other Stories (1961). Okay, yes, you probably already know The Sneetches, with stars upon thars. But I like it more than Seuss’ other moral-driven books, like The Lorax, which can feel awfully preachy. Good lessons for kids about discrimination, and even better ones about consumerism, but I don’t feel so hit over the head by them. And I think the language use in this one is some of Seuss’ most carefully constructed and cleverest. And you also get three bonus stories in this book, including the truly marvelous “Too Many Daves” (the full text of which can be found at The Poetry Foundation).

If I Ran the Circus (1956) goes in the hooray-for-imagination category of Seuss books, along with If I Ran the Zoo and McElligot’s Pool, as well as the too-too Oh, the Things You Can Think. But to me Circus is the best of them, because it reflects the kinds of things kids actually think about. Or, to be fair, the kinds of things I thought about when I was a kid. And still do, really. Look, an empty lot! I could do such great things with that empty lot! I’d put a circus in there! And my friend could sell the balloons, and do the canonball act! And there’d be acrobats and funny creatures! If I Ran the Circus is charming and energetic and creative, but all in a way that feels familiar and relatable too.

And finally, Oh Say Can You Say? (1979), Seuss’ book of tongue-twisters, is perhaps my favorite of his, not because kids love it, but because I love to read it. When you read lots of books to children, some of them over and over again, you’ve got to find the ones that give you pleasure as well. Sure, some of them you love the story, and some the illustrations, and some have bits that are aimed over kids’ heads at the adults reading. But this one is fun for me because it’s an honest-to-goodness challenge to read. The tongue-twisters are actually hard! You’ll probably mess them up the first few times! It makes me laugh to try to read them, and every time I get through “East Beast, West Beast” without stumbling I feel a little surge of accomplishment. And this is not to say that kids don’t enjoy the silly words and pictures—they do, of course. But this is one I pull out when I feel like it.

So hey, think about going out and getting these ones to sit next to The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. They’re worth it.

The Elephant and Piggie Books (by Mo Willems)

picturebookpicksAll right, so, Mo Willems. Mo Willems is big business in the picture book world. He seems to churn out a new best-seller every six months or so. Some of his books deserve their popularity; others (in my opinion) do not. Knuffle Bunny is cute and clever, and has interesting illustrations; Knuffle Bunny Too is okay; Knuffle Bunny Free I found forgettable. Similarly, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is tons of fun, and manages to be more interactive than most children’s books—but then there are Pigeon books about a hot dog and a puppy and some other dang thing, and none of them are as good as the original. Leonardo, the Terrible Monster is charming, and at least for the moment doesn’t seem to be a franchise.

But my favorite are the Elephant & Piggie books. They’re about two best friends, an elephant named Gerald and a pig named Piggie, and in each book… well, something happens. Now, I feel the E&P series, of which there are at least 15 (!), share some of the inconsistency of Willems’ other series. A lot of them are just silly—and while devoted readers will know that I love silly books, I feel books like Happy Pig Day and We Are In a Book are just fluff: their plots could be summarized as, “Something silly happens. The end.” The really good E&P books, though, are something else. They take a silly lens and use it to look at real-life experiences children are familiar with, and manage to be both goofy and meaningful simultaneously.

Take, for example, Should I Share My Ice Cream? (2011) Gerald gets an ice cream cone, and remembers that Piggie loves ice cream, and tries to decide whether to share. He talks himself into and out of sharing several times in a very amusing way. But by the time he has decided to share, his ice cream has melted! Oh no! He’s despairing when, guess what? Piggie shows up with ice cream, and kindly offers to share with Gerald. It’s silly to watch Gerald’s debate, but it hits home for kids too. Children know just what it’s like to be caught between wanting something all to yourself and wanting to make your friends happy. The book stays well away from being preachy, but manages to show that sharing doesn’t just make your friend happy; it makes you happy too.

My Friend is Sad (2007) is another one in the same vein. Piggie sees that Gerald is sad, and determines to cheer him up. She dresses up as stuff Gerald likes—a cowboy, a clown, a robot—but each time Gerald sees these awesome things, he just gets sadder. Finally Piggie gives up, only to discover that Gerald was sad because he missed his friend. Each time something cool came by, he got even sadder because “my best friend was not there to see it with me.” Again, it’s goofy, but it rests on the familiar experiences of (a) missing your friend, and (b) being frustrated when you can’t cheer up your friend. Very touching.

Finally, the book that is perhaps my favorite: There is a Bird on Your Head (2007). A bird lands on Gerald’s head. Then another. Then they build a nest and lay eggs. Then the eggs hatch. Throughout, Piggie is delighted and Gerald is beside himself with distress; it’s pretty hilarious. Finally, Piggie suggests that Gerald simply ask the birds to leave, and what do you know, it works! At first glance, this one falls into the strictly-silly category of E&P books, but I actually think there’s something deeper here. Specifically, the experience that is very familiar to children of, “Something upsetting is happening to me and no one seems to understand how serious it is!” Have you seen a child so terribly upset about something that they can’t even remember to simply ask for it to stop? That’s this book. But reading the book, kids get to see it from the other side, and recognize that Gerald is being ridiculous. It’s subtle, but it drives the point home. In preschool classrooms I’ve often echoed the book’s language: “Gerald, why not ask the birds to go someplace else?” It’s amazing how, after reading this book, that suggestion hits home sometimes.

So those are my favorite E&P’s. They’re great read-alouds, but also good for kids learning to read to start reading to themselves. I hope Mr. Willems writes more—and remembers what’s good about the good ones.