Good luck explaining to children about how a silent movie works. Instead of trying to tell kids about the cinematic art form, let Mo Willems show them.
Subtle illustrations allow older readers to spot dialog set off in white lettering in a box with black background. Classic silent movie details, to be sure.
The story begins with one hungry fox meeting one tasty-looking goose.
Make that one hungry and shifty wolf charming a tasty-looking, smitten goose.
Suddenly, hatched baby geese appear. They object. (Hence the title line.)
Young readers may not soak up the details of the cover, hinting that the goslings could be in the front row of a movie theater. Willems, a former Sesame Street animator, is recreating the idea of audience and characters interacting, a scene performers from Bugs Bunny to Popeye excelled at.
In the book’s case, the youngest geese may not be addressing the reader, like the over-enthusiastic theater goers of today speaking to the movie screen as the action progresses.
Never to fear (as a silent movie might announce)!
Mother Goose wasn’t as naïve as the wolf hoped. In fact, the youthful fowl may have been warning the wolf about her possible reaction.
Gleeful giggles are sure to erupt from readers who figure out just what the goose family is eating in their final-page celebration.
Likewise, the ending should provide some added flavor for adult readers.
Those same adults will spot that Willems dedicates the book “To Norton Juster — You Get the Idea.”
The Dot and The Line and The Phantom Tollbooth each could be likely inspirations.
Fairy tale retellers will be able to take their own inspiration from Willems’ creation. Neither the wolf, the mama goose nor her offspring bother with names. Readers seem to know them, or OF them. In fact, Willems’ goose is in a class of her own. Forget Henny Penny and the fairy-tale sufferers who need to learn their lessons. In That Is NOT a Good Idea, Ms. Goose is the one doing the teaching.
While this wolf got himself in a literal stew, it’s possible that the goose and her babies could have more adventures. If anyone’s capable of keeping these silent-screen stars shining, it’s Willems.
—Tom Owens, author
Just like those “tastes great! Less filling!” beer commercial arguments, it’s easy to imagine passionate young readers trying to describe what’s most special and unique about Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.
However, instead of trying to describe what the book is, an easier task might be in isolating what the book isn’t.
For starters, know that Timmy Failure is planning on becoming a rich and famous private detective, despite his uncooperative elementary school cohorts.
Couple that with a clueless mother and a love-hate relationship with a 1,500-pound polar bear partner, and readers will agree that this gumshoe has challenges.
In fact, his shoes are where he pens mantras or memos of goals he’s set. “Keep Mom in dark” is noted on his left sole.
Thankfully, this isn’t a high-fiber, good-for-you title. Wicked fun is found throughout. Readers will discover that Timmy’s mom doesn’t have a well-paying job. She’s dating Crispin, a questionable beau into bowling. When Timmy is disrespectful, he can’t be sent to his room.
He doesn’t have a room, just a fold-out couch.
Adults who don’t judge books by their covers still might judge a creator by his past. Pastis is known more as a cartoonist of Pearls Before Swine. No more. He writes in a top-notch kid-centric style that has droll touches of adult humor adorning every chapter.
For instance, Timmy describes Flo, the local librarian:
“And Flo is not short for Florence. It’s short for ‘Misshelve my books and the blood may FLOw.’”
The corresponding artwork indicates that Flo is a bearded biker gang alum. Another sketch notes that the fear of Flo reading “another book on how to kill things” was actually a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Likewise, one noted foe in the story is Old Man Crocus. A neighbor? Nope. He’s Timmy’s over-the-hill, burnt-out teacher.
Our young hero tries to imitate classic detectives. When accepting the case of a student’s dead hamster, Timmy begins with: “Did he have any enemies? Did he have a lot of money? Was he depressed?”
Ultimately, Timmy serves all his classmates, solving their mysteries. Fame and fortune hasn’t come yet. Readers who note the “No. 1” on their covers will be assured of another rollicking T.F. adventure.
For anyone who feels The Wimpy Kid may be getting too wimpy, this is the book alternative for you. Timmy Failure is anything but.
—Tom Owens, author
You can tell some books by their covers.
A lenticular (three-dimensional) cover of an at-bat Willie Mays gives a three-frame, stop-action animated look at the famed swing.
How could any young reader be convinced to open a cover so fun in itself?
Author Winter gives us lots of reasons. As with his impressive book You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax, he writes from the perspective of an unseen fan. This unknown narrator oozes with praise for the New York Giants outfielder, but always backs up any glowing comments.
Unlike past sports biographies that rehash a myriad of milestones from the athlete’s career, this title isn’t serving up an historical hit parade. Aside from “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series, readers see more examples of the personality and passion of Mays on and off the field.
Early in the book, Winter shows his devotion to research. He mentions that Mays played on an Alabama steel mill team as a teen. His father was a capable teammate, but overshadowed by his gifted son.
Another attraction in Winter’s text is his skill at using 1950s radio broadcasts to depict Mays. Before TV was widespread, fans had to imagine players. Brilliant broadcasters helped. The author is brilliant, too, recreating radio commentary of his own when no game transcripts were available.
Sidebars shaped like tickets provide historical context for the narrative, allowing young readers to get a deeper appreciation of more baseball history.
Illustrator Widener shows just as much creative courage as his collaborator. The art for the book, all acrylic on chipboard, show a dream-like recollection of the dynamic center fielder.
Don’t miss the front and back matter in Willie Mays. The publisher offers an age-appropriate insight in explaining how the lenticular cover was created. The final two pages offer statistics, while author Winter provides a needed disclaimer:
“This is a very subjective and sometimes sentimental process, not an exact science. And the arguments that inevitably arise are as much a part of the baseball tradition as peanuts and Cracker Jack.”
Speaking of baseball traditions, it’s safe to say that Winter and Widener have started a new one, also, with their all-star picture book biographies.
—Tom Owens, author
Author-illustrator Dan Yaccarino has some stiff competition in children’s literature: himself.
His distinctive art has overshadowed his writing in past titles. He’s a fine storyteller, too. He’s at his balancing-act best in Doug Unplugged.
In the ultimate twist on home schooling, robot parents head to work and leave their little boy alone for his day of downloading.
A double-page spread is a trivia lover’s delight. We see the various stats and historical footnotes that Doug is inputting.
All that’s missing from Doug’s education is experience. When he sees a pigeon outside his window, that temptation causes him to unplug from his computer and go get some first-person lessons.
Yaccarino lights up the senses of his readers, detailing how Doug smells, hears, sees and feels the city.
When Doug discovers a playmate in the park, Yaccarino has the ultimate explanation: “Then Doug came across something that wasn’t in any of his downloads.”
The pair teach each other in a mutual adventure showcasing the joys of learning by doing.
When Doug returns home, he’s ready to greet his robot mom and dad just like his human companion demonstrated.
Young listeners will embrace the author’s message that learning is fun. Meanwhile, adults may see some subtext in Doug Unplugged. As our young hero enjoyed socializing, the narrator remarked, “Doug found out that there were all sorts of different ways to play.”
Children will know Yaccarino’s visual talents from his creation of the TV series Oswald or Willa’s Wild Life. In Doug Unplugged, Yaccarino uses brush and ink on vellum for the perfect color-bursting blend of present and space-age future.
Yaccarino has produced more than 30 picture books in his signature style. Doug Unplugged is a delight to see and hear, ranking among his greatest hits.
—Tom Owens, author
Matt Tavares achieves unique success with his latest picture book biography of a baseball icon.
The author-illustrator continues his winning record, begun with Henry Aaron’s Dream and There Goes Ted Williams.
It’s easy to say Tavares faced a bigger challenge in his latest subject.
Even though Ruth has been dead more than 60 years, he remains one of the most chronicled figures in baseball history. It’s likely that more than one teacher or librarian would shy away from this Tavares title, thinking that a previous Ruth biography in the column is all that’s needed.
However, Tavares carves out a unique distinction on baseball bookshelves.
Most previously-existing Ruth titles dwell on his days in uniform. How did he set the home run record? How many World Series did his teams win?
Tavares moves the story beyond stats. He unearths the buried treasure in Ruth’s biography: his days as a troubled youth and the teacher at a school for wayward boys who turned him around.
All ages will cheer for Ruth’s grateful personality. He finds a way to reward Brother Matthias and the students years later when they need the now-famous New York Yankee’s help. The author uses subtle storytelling in pointing out that Ruth saw Brother Matthias both as a father figure and a coach.
As an illustrator, Tavares keeps his all-star status. His watercolor, gouache and pencil depictions are unsurpassed. Unlike someone who has simply adapted period photographs, Tavares blends historical visual research with dramatic delight. Admiring bystanders, a whinnying wagon-pulling horse and welcoming ice cream sundaes are dramatic touches the youngest reader will savor.
Meanwhile, the baseball scholar in Tavares guarantees that each action sequence shows Ruth’s swing and other baseball details in authentic contexts. Every movement looks and feels real, not the herky-jerky facsimiles created by photographed models.
Ultimately, what gives Tavares an elite home in the sports nonfiction genre is that he appreciates the life stories of great players. Becoming Babe Ruth is destined to become a must-read for all ages of baseball fan —no matter what team they cheer for.
—Tom Owens, author
Tim Federle’s book debut is fiction. Or is it?
Fans from American Idol, The Voice or Glee will love the depth of 13-year-old Nate Foster’s wild ride to New York City to audition for E.T. The Musical.
Nate is a theater-loving runaway. A runway for only for 24 hours. At least, that’s his plan. Apart from the theater, he’s living in a world of complex characters. Nate himself divulges in his first-person, present-tense recap:
“I am a freshman at the College of Sexuality and I have undecided my major…”
In fact, much of the homophobic taunting Nate endures comes from his older brother.
Nate’s family is struggling with other dramas. Anthony’s squeaky-clean image gets tarnished by story’s end. Nate’s mother has a drinking problem. His dad faces a marital challenge.
For unlikely support, Nate discovers that a disowned aunt who lives in New York City becomes his secret weapon. Most of all, classmate Libby maintains her masterminding best-friend status, despite a potential kiss in the book’s beginning.
The reader will feel like they’re getting inside scoops from Nate in the next seat at the cafeteria table. Chances are, the reader gets at least one sassy aside (or more!) from Nate every 2 to 3 pages.
Amazingly, Federle stuffs his novel with insider details that any age of musical theater fan would savor. As an actor in five Broadway shows himself, Federle takes the reader deep into the making of a major musical. An authentic “been there, done that” vibe runs through this entertaining tale.
One subversive fascination in the book is watching Nate and Libby find a new way to swear. Their exclamations are coded, using the names of failed Broadway shows. Not just names, either. Nate dishes the dirt, remarking why these flops flopped.
What makes this middle-grade novel a show stopper is Federle’s willingness to let Nate have a life outside of school. In a sense, being a student is only Nate’s job. Federle lets him live his passion, which isn’t found in a classroom.
Many good things are happening for Nate by book’s end, although readers don’t get a full idea of all the glory awaiting him.
Sounds like a curtain call, even an encore, are in order for Nate and author Federle. When there is an E.T. musical and Nate’s a star, readers will want front-row seats.
—Tom Owens, author
“Even in the worst of times, a dog still has to pee.”
A true, funny, succinct, versatile, usable quote doesn’t come very often. It not only comes, but is the turning point for Boot and Shoe, the newest picture book by illustrator/ author Marla Frazee.
I list her as illustrator first for, much as I love the above quote, I love Frazee’s art best of all.
Growing up, Frazee was influenced by many classic illustrators, notably Louis Darling. There’s a loose-limbed quality that makes the figures of Darling and Frazee live in quite similar ways. It’s more than the use of cartoon symbols, such as zip lines for movement or smoke clouds for frustration. It’s an amazing ability to infuse a simple line with an energy that makes a faceless, shaggy, sitting dog look alert or dejected. For the figures in Boot and Shoe are dogs. I must admit that I found their appearance a bit cat-like (which might make sense, given the book’s dedication to a cat-lover.) But once we see them in action, all is clear. Boot and Shoe are siblings, now living in the same home, except one is a “front porch dog” and the other a “back porch dog.” They spend their days at their respective posts, and reunite each evening.
The basic conflict is simple, fun and realistic: one day, “for no apparent reason,” a squirrel shows up and begins pestering the pooches. What takes some of the gleam off is Frazee’s too-modern verbiage. I worry that young listeners—especially potential listeners a few decades from now–might not appreciate the fact that the squirrel “got all up in Boot’s business.” Worse still is imagining youngsters quoting the line.
But Frazee quickly gets back to straightforward story-telling and a classic premise: in all the squirrely confusion, Boot and Shoe switch locales. Each decides to hold fast and wait for the other. Holding onto hope during a long, rainy night isn’t easy. Frazee subtly shows the furry bodies dissolving into despair. But fear not—a happy ending awaits, heralded by the delightful words quoted at the start of this review.
—Diana Star Helmer, author
Lucky Ducklings is a picture book based on the true story of a rescue that took place in a small New York town in the year 2000. Five park-dwelling ducklings, out for a stroll with their Mama, dropped out of sight down a city storm drain. Those facts are never mentioned in the text. But that’s just one of the reasons this enchanting book seems timeless.
Nancy Carpenter’s charcoal and digital artwork harkens to Robert McCloskey’s classic Make Way for Ducklings while maintaining a quite beautiful sense of self. Her expressive figures feature impressionistic movement and just the right amount of detail. Like McCloskey, her quasi-cartoons are more realistic than photorealism would be.
With unique and unerring angles, Carpenter’s work capably (and charmingly) tells the story. Eva Moore’s appealing text is a true partner and equal, also able to stand alone. But why have just your favorite pie when you can have it a la mode?
Moore’s verbal pleasures include not one, but two inviting refrains. The first is the recitation of the five ducklings’ names, all rhyming but the last. The second is an interjection: “That could have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t, because . . . “And the page temptingly turns. Delightful!
Both Moore and Carpenter show the outlooks of humans and ducks, yet unite the story’s perspective on one level: above ground. Once the ducklings disappear, the tale focuses on Mama’s dealings with the humans who try to help. Carpenter links these worlds with her lovely portrayal of worried human faces peering down the storm drain. Obviously, this is the ducklings’ viewpoint, but our focus is on the upper, outer space.
A subtle but satisfying touch is that Moore doesn’t fear accusations of anthropomorphism, even though this is a tale based on fact. When humans go near the ducklings, we see her charging the people. The text reads, “ ‘Whack! Whack!’ she cried. ‘Get away from my babies!’ ”
Lucky Ducklings is a story that will stay fresh through many, many encores.