Tag Archives: quirky

And now for something peculiar.


Have you met Treehorn yet? I just finished The Treehorn Trilogy and was delighted at the unexpected, unorthodox tales of this odd little boy and his completely aloof, dismissive parents. When Treehorn shrinks, all mother can say is “That’s nice, dear.” When money starts to grow on Treehorn’s tree, it’s a “You can’t go outside after dark, dear.” And when Treehorn has a birthday, he gets a sweater, leftover casserole and left alone with his birthday cake.

Modern parents will not like the Treehorn books. They will be disturbed by the morbid disinterest all the adults have for this child throughout his stories. Of course, the notorious Edward Gorey probably clamored to get this illustrating gig. I’m certain no one else could have so perfectly captured Treehorn’s dull face or the parent’s apathy. His pen and ink drawings are perfect here. I find these stories to be sheer delights. They aren’t the treasures to use for capturing the hearts or inspiring virtue in young children, to be sure… but they are certainly a peculiar and even thought-provoking diversion for slightly older readers: my 10 and 12 year olds found Treehorn dreadfully amusing.

And off-the-beaten-path items that capture their imagination at this age, are items to which I like to introduce my children. To be exposed to the various genres of literature, even in the picture book world, is a valuable thing I think, when properly timed on a developmental level.

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Top 10 Little Books

Beatrix Potter knew what she was doing as she created the world of Peter Rabbit. When she turned down initial publisher’s offers (due to their requests to modify her books in length and size), she went ahead and self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit on her own at first, because she had a very specific vision for her work. Namely, she wanted her books to be small enough to fit in a small child’s hands… and her illustrations were designed to fill the page of one small book.

To this day, while there are many compilations and anthologies of the Peter Rabbit series, nothing… NOTHING compares to the magic of the small, hardback set of single, independent, tiny volumes. If your home library of picture books consists of nothing other than this set, you’ll be leagues ahead of 90% of your parenting peers in the sheer quality of what you’re offering.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the awesomeness of tiny books in general. What child doesn’t love miniature things designed just for their size? Especially when the miniatures are real, be it functional tea cups, utensils, brooms, aprons etc. So it is with books. There is something special about volumes published under 7 inches tall. And the only thing I love more than reading tiny books to my children, is seeing my young ones sprawled out in the grass on their own with a little book of their own fitting so nicely in their little hands.

Little books pack into diaper bags well, fit into stockings, Easter baskets and everyday baskets, and make fantastic little bonus gifts to accompany other items.  Here is my pick of the 10 best little books on the market today:

 The Peter Rabbit books. Of course. Just go ahead and throw all 23 titles into one listing here. Each is excellent.

 The Story of Little Black Sambo. Okay, so all the modern parents prefer The Story of Little Babaji (also on the small side) because it is more PC, but I love the original myself. I have both books and my children like both equally but I have a nostalgic spot for the old one because my mother read it to me so many times…

 The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak. Alligators All Around is the standout book in this 4-volume set but they are so well priced as a collection, I’d go ahead and purchase the others with that title.

 Pelle’s New Suit (mini edition). I normally prefer my full-sized Elsa Beskow books, but this one in particular works as a mini because it doesn’t have as much text as most of her other titles.  For that, and the fact that it is the perfect springtime book, it’s on the list.

 A Hole Is to Dig is perhaps my very favorite “nonsensically profound” books (I made that category up; nice eh?). From the silly to the thought provoking, Ruth Krauss found magic in pairing with Sendak on this title.  The hardback is out of print, but worth finding…

 A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog is the first in the series and my favorite Mercer Mayer books by far. They are wordless but tell a lovely story… don’t forget the equally excellent sequels Frog Goes to Dinner,  Frog, Where Are You? and others.

 The Brave Cowboy. My three year old fell in love with the Brave Cowboy when he first met him and it’s still one of his favorite books to call his own and to be found curled up with in a corner somewhere. That’s enough to merit a spot on this list.

 Alphabet of Boats. Linocuts. Boats. Education. Beauty. Simplicity. All under 5 square inches.  I can’t help that so many of the books I love are out of print— sorry!  Just keep your eyes peeled for this little gem.  (Which reminds me… I’ve seen enough good stuff now to warrant “Volume 3” version of Top Ten Alphabet books… hmm, will attend to that soon hopefully.)

 Let’s Be Enemies. Sendak illustrating again!  He excelled at the tiny books. Janice May Undry created a lovely little tale of making and breaking friendships. It’s very fun to read with a 5 year old…

 The Little Train… or really, any Lois Lenski books. All are small. My favorite ones are his seasonal books which are a bit spendy OOP, but any of his occupational books like this one or Policeman Small or The Little Airplane, etc are vintage winners as well.

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And now, some qualifying remarks:


I would’ve included the gorgeous Flower Fairies Alphabet, but I’m mad that they skipped the letter X. You can cheat a little or work around it… but don’t skip the letter altogether!


Also, these are slightly larger than ‘tiny’, but of immense importance in the picture book collector’s world: The Year in Brambly Hedge Set and Adventures in Brambly Hedge Set. Unfortunately these books are long out of print but they are really wonderful to own and cherish… in the same botanical goodness vein as one would find the Beatrix Potter books.


And lastly, I’ve requested an inter-library loan to get my eyes on The Treehorn Trilogy. It looks fabulous. Edward Gorey is not everyone’s cup of pictorial tea but I like him and am eager to see these books!

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I judged a book by its cover.

deceptively fantastic…

… I gambled. And I lost the gamble.  I stumbled across the book Baby Born and fell in love with the cover art.  I read the reviews. I got a tiny taste of the inside and I was certain it was going to be my next, undiscovered gem to rave about here.  I imagined an Elisa Kleven style inside. I have a winter baby to whom I was eager to present this book as a gift (it’s ideal for a first birthday present.)

But I don’t love it. The burst of color is there. But the pages are fairly few. The verse feels very prosaic. And there is a weird technique done with the faces and hairlines of the people inside that just slightly crossed the line of “quirky cool” to “quirky ugly”… in my opinion.  The book is okay. I’m not going to get rid of it… because my three year old was excited to see a new book in the “baby basket”, but I’ve no plans to ever replace it, and I certainly wouldn’t spend a precious $8 on it. There will be no loving inscription written to my daughter in this; I’ll choose something else (something safer).

So it just goes to show you that even a book with a (as of this date) “perfect” 5 star review can’t necessarily be trusted.  But that cover is gorgeous isn’t it?!

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Raving about Roger

 I’ve been on a Roger Duvoisin kick lately.  This is for a couple reasons.  One, I found a couple of treasures from him this summer at a garage sale… Day and Night (of which I had no prior knowledge) and The Beaver Pond (which was on my wish list for some time).  More about these titles later.  The other reason I’m on a Duvoisin kick is because I discovered he has a bunch of out-of-print Christmas titles that I’m aching to see.  In a future post, I’ll discuss how I finally saw some of the books on my “Top 10 Out-of-Print Christmas Titles I Want to See” from my Christmas motherload post… and have quickly refilled those unseen titles with some Duvoisin ‘new’ ones. (As a teaser, check out these photos.)

Most of you probably are familiar with Roger Duvoisin’s work through his covers on the old New Yorker magazine and his most famous picture books he wrote and/or illustrated: White Snow, Bright Snow, Petunia, and The Happy Lion.  All are great. So are all the other books from his I’ve read so far.

           

Anyway, I’ll tell you a bit about Day and Night.  It is one of those books that would never be printed by today’s publishers.  Not because the art was quirky and wonderful… alternating pages of full color and black and white as was sometimes common. Not even because it’s charmingly dated with Mr. and Mrs. Pennyfeathers depicted in their separate beds at night-time.  Not because the boy’s name is “Bob.” Nope, this book is absolutely off its rocker in its implication that dogs are not IN the family… rather PART OF the family, which is an entirely dated concept.  There’s a distinction.  And it was not lost on me as I read this book.  Oddly, it’s just in the conclusion to the story’s problem of the friendly owl (Night) and the dog (Day) striking up a friendship that couldn’t make their hours
meet.  ***SPOILER ALERT***  Bob builds a dog-house for Day to sleep in.  Do people still do that?  Have dog-houses?  It seems our culture is so bent on making sure dogs are simply furrier members of a family; they live indoors, have insurance, and a cushy place to sleep.  Listen, I’ve got nothing against indoor pets.  But I am one of the increasingly few people that has nothing against OUTDOOR pets either!  So it goes…

          

In The Beaver Pond, we find the perfect example of a LIVING BOOK.  Authors like Jim Arnosky for example, are diamonds in the rough in the category of “educational picture books.” I have to admit that picture book biographies are doing quite well, with exciting new additions to that genre published each year.  But it seems to me that high quality science or nature books are a bit harder to come by new.  (Great, out of print ones exist.)  Anyway, The Beaver Pond is one of those perfect stories that teaches (without preaching) so much about biology and ecology while still maintaing the necessary elements of a storyline to hold a child’s attention. I am so glad I was able to get it!

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Top Ten Best Authors for Media Saturated Kids

Maybe you want to give a child a book for a gift but you are worried that the book will get tossed into a pile of irrelevancy in favor of Junior’s tablet or the new video game his much cooler aunt bought him.  Maybe your own child has been fed too many cartoons on the tube.  It’s okay; I won’t tell. (I’m not proud of how much “e-living” happens in my own home, after all.) But now, our media saturated children are rather uninterested in the written word— especially when it competes with flashy animations. After all, you can give a kid books, but you can’t make them like ’em… much less even read them.  But I have come to give you hope! And to have it in abundance!

Before we can expect a media glutton to love the beauty of simple things like Make Way for Ducklings or Stone Soup, we have to ease them into the transition of still life and still ink on still paper.  In response to this need for a segue, publishers have been printing a bloated genre of books that supposedly children will love but typically parents hate. These generally include sharp, digital illustrations, flatulence, underpants, aliens and/or mucous emissions. I suppose the idea is that the shock value of these things will get kids reading. Toilet humor—especially to boys— is highly appealing.  So the battered down, desperate parent feels it’s their only hope to get Junior interested in books.  It’s not the only hope… but I’m not going to lie and say that you can just give a child a classic book and expect them to swoon over it.  This is very much like very picky eaters who’ve been given too much junk food and refuse all their vegetables. Once the intellectual appetites have been soiled (in this case by too much electronic stimulation) it is very difficult to reorder it to enjoying the wholesome books. Difficult… but not impossible. The first thing to do is eliminate or drastically limit media of course.  Otherwise, no matter how good your intentions, books will always lose to the drug inducing power of TV (video games are even more destructive to cultivating readers). Then, find some good books to introduce.

Thankfully, there are a number of excellent authors out there who are especially well suited to “reordering appetites.”  Think of them as a good probiotic or something… replenishing the gut with good bacteria (all right enough of the food analogies). Like all my Top Ten lists, this isn’t an exclusive compilation; there are certainly other books and authors that would make for great transitions. The things to look for are humor, weird or unexpected plots, interesting typeset, detailed pictures, and/or novel or irresistible concepts.  Believe it or not, these things can be found without resorting to pooping, iPad wielding aliens in underwear.

After the child has been fed a good diet of these transitional books, they can slowly move onto realizing that there are some true delights to be found in picture books and they’ll want to explore more—even ones with less catchy covers.

So here is my list of the authors to look out for once you decide to move away from media and into the glory of the printed word.

Chris Van Dusen. Van Dusen has the most excellent illustrations to captivate an unsuspecting media glutton. His style LOOKS animated and he’s got a superb natural rhyming that fits all his books so well. If I Built a House would make for a perfect “starting over” book to try and hook kids into the adventures in reading.  And  Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit also has really big appeal. Be sure to also read all the Mr. Magee stories too!

David Weisner.  Weisner is the wordless book master and as we all should know by now, wordless books are not just for kids. Tuesday is his classic tale of bizarre flying frogs but Sector 7 and all his other titles certainly shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle either.  These books are great ones for bored children to just “discover” lying about on an end table somewhere.


Lynley Dodd.  Dodd isn’t so well known in the states for some reason but her Hairy Maclary is quite well known in her New Zealand homeland and elsewhere.  ALL of her books are great.  She has an extraordinary talent for rhyming and for made-up words that just roll off you tongue with delight.  These books are best read aloud and with enthusiasm to capture the full cadence.

Oliver Jeffers. A favorite among boys especially.  Don’t be fooled by Jeffers youthful, simple illustrations—he has an uncanny perception of what is funny and how children think.  I’ve discussed before about my favorite title of his This Moose Belongs to Me, but my children adore Stuck and also The Day the Crayons Quit which he illustrated.

Richard Scarry.  Everyone knows Richard Scarry by now right?!  His characters should be well known in any childhood.  But there is a golden window of opportunity for introducing Scarry to the recovering couch potatoes—and it’s probably only up to age 7 by my estimates because he is aimed toward the younger set. What makes books like What Do People Do All Day so interesting is their very busy-ness. Scarry is fantastic at creating little stories within the story with funny side pictures or car crashes etc.

Chris Van Allsburg. Where Scarry appeals to younger kids, Van Allsburg specializes in the slightly older demographic. And you have to be careful at first because his tales of mystery won’t automatically attract the flies.  You have to start with something peculiar and ever so slightly morbid like The Z Was Zapped— where the demise of alphabet letters is chronicled in a fascinating way. Then go to Two Bad Ants before moving into his more sophisticated works.

Jerry Pallotta. Pallotta gets included in this list for his very high score on the “strewing” factor. He manages to come up with excellent, informative compilations that a kid can’t help wanting to crack open. Even when a child has passed the ideal age for alphabet books, he can’t help but wonder what’s in something like The Icky Bug Alphabet Book, The Yucky Reptile Alphabet Book, The Skull Alphabet Book or his intriguing Who Would Win Series like Polar Bear Vs. Grizzly Bear.  Boys love Pallotta.

Mo Willems. I’ll be honest… I didn’t get the hype about Mo at first. I thought his debut title Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! was silly and overly simplistic when I first saw it.  But the masses have overwhelmingly defied this blogger’s opinion and Mo has since written a bunch of other books that I really like much better.  When it comes to feeding media-hungry kids though, it doesn’t really matter if MY tastes are satisfied (so long as they aren’t offended), kids know what they like and Willems knows what to do. He is a great segue author. The typeset is excellent, short and appealing. And his characters, while simply drawn are engaging to the max. Begin with We Are in a Book! which, if read in an engaging manner, is rather hilarious even to the adult. Other titles are just funny enough to draw in even the most reluctant souls: Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct.

William Steig. Steig is one of those quirky authors that you’ll find on a lot of unrelated lists: best authors for boys, funniest authors, classic authors not to miss, and on. If you asked me my favorite, I’d say it was Doctor De Soto, but if you’re looking to ease kids into books, a more obvious choice is something like Pete’s a Pizza or the puzzling C D C ?

Sesyle Joslin. You want shock value mixed with vintage? Pick Joslin. Buried in the fantastically brilliant book on teaching manners from the late fifties, Joslin comes up with things to offend today’s PC parents. In What Do You Say, Dear?, parents get horrified that the character says “Would you like me to shoot a hole in your head?” I don’t really see the big deal.  The kids politely declines: “No, thank you.” This book and its companion What Do You Do, Dear? are a riot of unpredictability. Highly recommended.

 
 
We need desperately, I feel, a noncommercial alternative to what commercialism is trying to do to us. I’m not for censorship, but I’m certainly for self-censorship when it comes to producing or purveying products to America’s children. I think that for people who make anything for children, their first thought should be: Would I want my child to see, hear or touch this? And if the answer is no, just don’t make it.
-Mr. Rogers
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Top 10 Wordless Picture Books

This article was originally written for and printed in the Spring 2012 issue of Soul Gardening Journal. I have since substituted in two titles (listed at the end) that came to my attention and taken out the original listings for The Silver Pony about which I had this to say: “This is a sort of strange, magical book that might not be guaranteed to win everyone’s hearts… but its peculiarity won mine.  I love the old fashioned, black and white sketches here.”  

And also I removed Rainstorm, originally saying this: “Barbara Lehman is more well known for her Caldecott honored The Red Book but this one tickles me just a bit more.  A young, well-to-do boy feels the restlessness and boredom of a rainy day before finding a magic key that offers him a magic portal into his imagination.  There’s something clean about Lehman’s illustrations that make her a refreshing read.”

Finally, I gave a shout out to one of my very favorite Christmas books ever: A Small Miracle and would also add The Snowman.

Willfully Wandering Wordless: A Top Ten List

Some of my very favorite picture books are completely devoid of words.  I used to sort of smile and write (no pun intended) these kinds of books off as novelties without any real sort of lasting merit.  But as my bookshelf space shrunk and my exposure to children’s literature grew, I was proven wrong… very, very wrong.
Wordless picture books can be an excellent vehicle for pre-readers who want to “read” books like big brother/sister.  They can serve beautifully for creative narration prompts too.  Instead of playing the memory game and asking your child “Okay, what was the story about”… to which they promptly regurgitate a couple of quoted sections word-for-word to show that they’ve been listening, kid’s are forced to tell a story in entirely their own words.  In the wordless world, it’s all about attention to the details, to sequencing, to the art of what’s happening.  Many are written in comic book fashion which gets little ones used to the concept of left to right to down directional reading.  Teachers have often used wordless books for question prompts to creative thinking: “What do you think he’s looking for?”  “Why might she be feeling sad?” etc.  Since none of the answers are ‘given away’ with text, even shy children might open up with some interesting interpretations.
With regards to wordless books in this family, my children take a few different approaches that are refreshingly different from the reactions I get with traditional picture books. My five year old son likes to take a wordless book off to a corner by himself and study it through.  Then he asks me to “read a story with him” which entails us sitting on the couch together while he tells me everything that’s going to happen on the next page.  He gets a giddy delight out of finally being the one in the know with a book, while I am simply the willing audience to his interpretation.  My seven year old boy does a great deal of personification in his life.  If he sees an image he likes with just enough figures for our family, he promptly names us all.  I am honored to have been labeled an ant, a banana, a Chinese spinster, and a flying frog among other things.  With wordless books, he’s in hog heaven describing who’s who and bringing in all the people from his real world into the story with unnamed characters.  My nine year old boy is a bit more like me with the wordless books.  He just curls up somewhere with a blanket and reads it quietly to himself, slowly turning the pages and letting his eyes feast on the artwork. The canvas is totally blank when it comes to these kinds of stories and imaginations can run wild.  Here is a Top Ten list of my very favorite wordless books, though it really is cruel to limit myself in this wonderful genre:

 The Arrival by Shaun Tan. This book is stunning and the artwork will weave you right into its spell.  I spent the better part of an hour reading this book by myself; it is living proof that picture books aren’t just for kids. I’d happily keep this surrealistic story of an immigrant on my coffee table.  While it was fun to go through with my children, the message really can be quite profound for adults too.

 Peter Spier’s Rain. A perfect springtime book full of lovely, poetic imagery.  Peter Spier is one of those wonderful authors that the world seems content to forget.  So many of his gems (some others are wordless also) are out of print and I curdle my nose in disgust sometimes to think of some the fodder that’s replacing his books at stores everywhere.

 Anno’s Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno.  Get all of Anno’s books; you won’t regret it!  This book doubles as a superb and innovative counting book with folky artwork that I adore. Anno’s Journey is another title in this category that is a lot of fun to follow with children.

 Tuesday by David Wiesner. Wiesner is the master of the wordless genre.  While we love his Flotsam, Sector 7 and Free Fall too, this book about flying frogs (yep, that’s me!) on an adventure in the middle of the night wins my boys over every time.  These pictures are feast-worthy indeed.

 The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney. Now Pinkney was fortunate here in that the story was already provided for him– remember that fable from Aesop about the mouse who helps out the lion?  Pinkney just happens to be an incredible artist who took this story for a beautiful spin in 2009 with the release of this book.

 A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog by Mercer Mayer. My very first introduction to wordless books was this one.  I love the size; I love the limited color scheme. I love all the sequels to this book. I have to admit that I came into it biased because Mercer Mayer illustrated my all-time, very favorite series of childhood chapter books–The Great Brain by John Fitzgerald– and I was delighted to see this kind of art again. One way to sneak out of the limiting Top Ten is to throw out other titles to reference by the same author. In this case, I’d point you to a very recent fun title by Mayer called Octopus Soup.
 The Boy, The Bear, The Baron, The Bard by Gregory Rogers. How refreshing!  Are you studying Shakespeare?  Add this to your unit to round out all the romantic, poetic imagery of the man.  Here a contemporary boy gets lost on a stage hosting the Bard himself who becomes enraged at the interruption and chases the boy through old London.  The great thing about graphic novels is that you get lots of bonus perspectives to complete the comic book boxes… so an extreme close up of Shakespeare’s face or a panoramic bird’s eye view of the city fill out the pages quite nicely.

 Mirror by Jeannie Baker.  Baker is a collage artist and she uses an assortment of materials, fabric and natural foliage to construct this very novel book.  It is testament again that wordless stories aren’t just for preschoolers; in fact I think you’d really need to be about eight years old at least to really appreciate what’s going on here.  When you open this book you have two stories side by side on each side the outside covers, so you are flipping pages from the inside binding to show the daily lives of an Australian child and a Morrocan child.  It’s a beautiful social studies lesson on the uniqueness of two very different cultures but the same threads of family, meals, and home life bind us all together.  Jeannie Baker is also well known for her other wordless story called Home which will be one of the subjects for some other season in this Book Basket column as I explore a couple of books that reflect on urban relationships.

Magpie Magic: A Tale of Colorful Mischief by April Wilson is a gorgeous and fun tale of words coming to life. I wrote about it a couple years ago: “The book a feast of imagery from the first person perspective as we see artist’s hands draw the magpie outside her window.  As any good story book would have it, the bird then comes to life and what happens next is a witty sort of duel between the bird and artist which ends in a very satisfactory way.” 

 Journey by Aaron Becker is one of the very best books of 2013.  There is something about the wordless genre that lends itself perfectly to fanciful travels or surreal experiences.  This book is that. A girl goes on an incredible journey in a very similar way to Harold did in Harold and the Purple Crayon. Exquisite details in this thoughtful book.

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Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre: November Perfect

In the Catholic faith, we are asked, during the month of November, to reflect on The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. In the picture book world, I like the idea of using the first part of this month to read darker, haunting or semi-macabre stories (think fairy tales). In having a healthy respect for the supernatural while living as best one can in the state of grace, I really think we have no reason to fear darker themes. And when you treat things in their proper place and have a good understanding of all things ghoulish… kids I think, will too. I mean, my children and I are fascinated by the Martyrs of Otranto for example and on my “money-is-not-a-factor bucket list”, I hope to see their shrine someday, complete with the skulls on display. There is no “creepiness” in death really and ideally, it’s a glorious passage… but I digress.

I was checking to make sure that Anna Harwell Celenza hadn’t produced a book on Mozart (whom we are studying this term) and was reminded with happiness that she had just put out Vivaldi’s Four Seasons this summer… but my eye caught another new title I hadn’t seen before—produced just this August! And that was Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre. We love Celenza’s books in this house (and accompanying CDs) and have purchased four of them now… to supplement our studies of composers.

To be honest, I don’t know anything about the Danse Macabre or much about Camille Saint-Saëns either, but I was intrigued by the cover and read up a bit about the history of that piece in particular.  I learned a lot about the Dance particularly

here. ApparentlySaint-Saëns actually went a-loitering in the catacombs to get inspired for this piece! Anyway, during November, before settling down with the comforting, festive Thanksgiving stories, this would be an excellent book to read and composition to study. I unfortunately, have maxed out both my book budget for the month as well as my request for materials to be purchased at the library right now… so I don’t have a first-hand review of the book to offer yet.  But I’m certain, like all of Celenza’s books, it’s excellent…

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And What About Halloween?

I’ll be honest, I’m not particularly thrilled with most Halloween books out there. They generally fall to two extremes: the much too-scary ghoulish books or the cutesy little stories that are explicitly twaddle.  Maybe it’s because there’s nothing really in the spiritual realm to bank this holiday on… with the exception of All Saint’s Day on November 1st—for which there are of course many good saint books.  But Halloween as it’s popularly known today? Pretty barren for the literature world. There are of course, a couple gems, generally related to pumpkins in general: Pumpkin Moonshine by Tasha Tudor is probably my only “must have” for this specific holiday. But Too Many Pumpkins is another fun one worth picking up.  And if you are able to find a good copy of Mousekin’s Golden House for under $20 you’d be lucky, but chances are slim. There are probably others, but I’ve stopped searching for great Halloween specific books. I turn to other sources to get into the spirit of things.

Ed Emberley is single-handedly responsible for encouraging my children to become little artists.  Whenever I used to try and get them to draw a scene from a story or just be creative, they would whine that “they didn’t know how.”  So I first bought Ed Emberley’s: Make a World to see if they would be motivated to try. Would they ever!  Suddenly, the whole world was opened up to them! They just needed to realize how easy it was to break down basic figures into manageable parts to draw, and Emberley was the first to show them how. Lately the boys have been drawing from two of his very Halloween oriented titles: Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Weirdos and Ed Emberley’s Big Orange Drawing Book (unfortunately out of print right now) . Both books are excellent for inspiring fun, not-too-scary-but-just-scary-enough drawings. We currently have expanded our How-To-Draw ______ books but still have a good half dozen of Emberley’s titles.

Another alternative to traditional Halloween stories are to explore picture books that really embody mystery and suspense… not necessarily fear. Chris Van Allsburg comes to mind with books like The Stranger or the fun and macabre (a great combo) alphabet book The Z Was Zapped.

Finally, this a great time to avoid the commercial Halloween fare altogether and bust out the old, creepy fairy tales like Hansel and GretelRumpelstiltskin, or the modern but delicious Heckedy Peg. Search through many picture books to find one that gives a fair rendition of classic fairy tales or just save yourself the pain and invest in a good, quality anthology of originals.  Enter Andrew Lang’s Colored Fairy Book Collection if you want to do the piecemeal approach like I do.  Otherwise there are complete anthologies like Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories.

Please note that not all fairy tales were written for children and some can be quite gruesome and morbid.  Use your best discretion in previewing these tales… but know that this is what they looked like before Disney came to popularize and trivialize them.


“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”-Albert Einstein 
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Loving Lessac

Lately, I’ve been enjoying the work of a wonderful author and illustrator—Frané Lessac.  Her style is deceptively childlike: at first you see her paintings and think Psssh! My 8 year old colors like that! I guess anyone can illustrate children’s books. Then you look a little closer or turn a few pages and realize that her folk art is absolutely filled with thoughtfulness and detail… color and feeling.  This is more than what most children can do— Lessac has a bright ability to make stories come alive with innovative attention to detail.  And every new book I see illustrated by her, I inevitably love.

She spent part of her life living on the Carribean island of Montserrat and this has influenced her work heavily.  The story My Little Island  was the first encounter I had with her and I was struck with how fitting her style is with summery, beachy, island themes, similar I guess to the way that Jan Brett really shines brightest in her Scandinavian themed books.  The flavors of island life practically jump from the pages in My Little Island.  And they do this as well with Drummer Boy of John John which is a fun story about the upcoming festival of Carnival featuring lots of foot stomping, hand clapping onomatopoeia.

The next time I stumbled across Frané was when I picked up On the Same Day in March at the thrift store.  What a gem! I really love LIVING social studies books and this one immediately went into my homeschooling basket for my 2nd grade and under crew. It examines different parts of the world at the exact same time of year.  It is so fun to see the differences in weather and lifestyle!

Next I found Monday on the Mississippi at the library and marveled at how beautifully the text and pictures complemented each other.  This book takes the reader from the headwaters all the way to the Gulf of Mexico… I immediately pegged it as a great companion to Minn of the Mississippi and any other studies of this river or rivers in general.

I really loved Lessac’s illustrations in Queen Esther Saves Her People by Rita Gelman also.  I think it can be a challenge to translate many Bible stories into children’s books while retaining the story element. But this one absolutely brings the fantastic story alive and wonderful to kids while remaining faithful to the story of Esther.

Lastly, I want to highlight the best World War I picture book I’ve seen so far: The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World War I.  How do you bring the horrors of war into a picture book without horrifying young children?  I think the answer to this is in the art of storytelling and the way the pictures fill in the blanks.  For example, while Patricia Polacco’s highly acclaimed Pink and Say is a moving story taking place during the Civil War, I removed it from our collection.  I just had an aversion the graphic depiction of blood even if it was couched in beautiful sentiment.  But the Donkey of Gallipoli is balanced beautifully.  There are war scenes to be sure and the story doesn’t avoid the topic of death.  Yet, the folk style of Lessac really helps to soften the harshness of what is being read and the lovely story really is one that all children will enjoy.  The ending leaves us thoughtful and hopeful… not scared or disturbed.  Highly recommended!

Frané Lessac is a wonderful artist whose style is a refreshing and quirky change on my bookshelf of classic artists.  There are many other books she’s collaborated on not listed here which I am eager to get my hands on… and I understand she has many more in the works so keep your eyes open for her vivid bursts of delightful art.

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The difference between good and great

Last night, the children picked a couple story books before bedtime. Two of the books chosen last night struck me for two different reasons. I wouldn’t classify either of these books as “must have” literature… they were picked up probably at a garage sale or some such for a quarter a piece in my efforts to rely less on the library and more on our own shelves for read-alouds (these overdue fines are killing me!)

The difference in good and great text in a picture book is sometimes very subtle.  It’s an attention to quirky details or a particular knack for speaking in a child’s language.  We read Babar Visits Another Planet and in the story Babar loses a shoe on the sticky surface of the planet.  Read this next part:

The concept of an elephant being conscious of dignity in footware is wonderfully fresh and thoughtful for a reader to stumble upon.  This is partially why Laurent de Brunhoff has been successful in furthering the Babar series that his father—the famous Jean de Brunhoff— created in 1931.  I tend to love the originals by Jean best… this visit to another planet thing doesn’t amuse me as much as my boys but I really did appreciate this little line. 
The next book we read was the wonderful The Giant Jam Sandwich.  Fun rhyming, a superbly inventive concept… what’s not to love?!  But just try to imagine what this book would look like with illustrations like digital, bright, generic cartoon characters.  *shudder*  The magic would be gone.  John Vernon Lord hits a home run here because of his wonderfully detailed images:

Just look at this last one!  There is a photographer down the road, a morose looking man along the parapet, three children chasing each other on the horizon, and a bunch of women laying out the blanket in the field.  But the text is only about the horses pulling the bread to the site. This is how illustrations should be: not just showing a visual of what the words say… but filling in the idiosyncrasies of a tale and doing half the tale-telling themselves. This book illustrates (Ha! Punny.) that concept so well it is no wonder that Vernon Lord is a lecturer on the art of illustration!  Delicious!
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