I’ve had the odd experience this past week of reading three picture books that I can recommend where the author is also the illustrator. Ralph Tells a Story is the first one up.
Ralph Tells a Story speaks to the frustrated writer/storyteller in all of us. Ralph, the hero of the story, is always stumped when it comes to writing stories in class. Everyone else, especially his friend Daisy, writes stories with ease, but Ralph just can’t come up with any ideas. Nothing ever seems to happen to him. When Daisy points out that many of her stories are actually about Ralph’s experiences, Ralph is amazed at how great a writer Daisy is. He is also filled with renewed determination to find something to write about. Eventually, a daydream about an inch worm leads to a story. Once Ralph’s creative floodgates are opened, the stories come pouring out.
Everyone—adults and children alike—can relate to Ralph. After all, who hasn’t been stumped for an idea at one time or another? And I think we can also all take heart in his ultimate success. Sometimes you just have to keep plugging away until the creative switch clicks on.
The illustrations in Ralph Tells a Story are fairly simple, but quite expressive of the emotions of Ralph and the other children as they try, with varying degrees of success, to come up with stories to tell.
This book is both an amusing story about a boy named Ralph and an effective, light-hearted note of encouragement to all of us, young and old alike, who find ourselves struggling to come up with ideas for our own stories.
—Steve Mudd, author
At last, Oliver Jeffers has created a picture book that addresses children with too much, instead of not enough.
Previously, “problem” or “issue” books have shown children needing additional character. More courage or related virtue. In This Moose Belongs to Me, Jeffers introduces readers to Wilfred, a boy of excess.
As in excess confidence. Some might say bossiness, even arrogance.
Wilfred has met a moose. By divine right, eminent domain or maybe even calling dibbies, somehow, Wilfred insists he’s owner of the antlered animal.
“The moose came to him a while ago and he knew, just KNEW that it was meant to be his,” Jeffers writes.
Of course, Wilfred employs one of the first rules of kid-dom. Name your find. He dubs the moose “Marcel.” No thought is given to whether this moose has a previously-existing name.
Wilfred’s overconfidence faces a crossroads upon a long walk with Marcel. A blue-haired “old lady” appears. She greets the moose, calling him by a different name!
Ultimately, Wilfred learns that his moose acquaintance views their relationship differently. Nonetheless, the boy comes up with a face-saving compromise that saved the friendship and Wilfred’s pride.
On a surface level, author Jeffers addresses the issues of respecting the wild nature of any creature. Young listeners might recall how they overdid taking charge of a relationship with a sibling or first friend, setting endless ground rules. In case a certain moose forgot, Wilfred even numbers his demands.
Look deeper at what illustrator Jeffers offers. On the dedication page, he adds: ”The art for this book was made from a mishmash of oil painting onto old linotype and painted landscapes, and a bit of technical wizardry thrown in the mix here and there.”
On most pages, Jeffers inserts his characters into vintage artworks. We see that Wilfred and “Marcel” have invited themselves into other scenes where they might not really belong. Jeffers makes it work beautifully, contrasting the behavior of moose and boy in such incongruity.
Then again, it’s clear that Wilfred’s imagination is hitting on all cylinders. Why not imagine a blissful (if one-sided) life with a pet moose taking place in someone else’s vintage paintings?
Don’t miss the last page. An unnamed clergyman stakes claim to the moose, insisting the animal is a third, different personality.
This Moose Belongs to Me would entertain and inspire any age reader suffering from a case of well-meaning self-centeredness.
—Tom Owens, author
Matthew Cordell has created one of the bravest, most unusual picture books, of 2012.
His hello! hello! isn’t made to glorify parents or adult readers. It’s possible that more than one child will answer the book with “You do that!” Only the most confessional grown-ups would say to a young listener, “I’m just like that.”
That’s because our heroine is coping in a distracted family. Mom is marooned by her laptop. Dad’s distraction comes from a “smart” phone. Brother Bob can’t do without his computer tablet.
All three act too busy to return the girl’s greetings.
Therefore, she exits outside alone. Or, alone to her own imagination.
When she greets a horse, readers learn that the horse knows Lydia’s name. Other animals, even flying fish, want to be part of Lydia’s perfectly-imagined outing.
Nevertheless, she doesn’t abandon the outside world entirely. Lydia gets called by her parents, who now seem to have time for her.
She returns, offering to swap their electronic devices for outdoor souvenirs.
A joyous conclusion awaits the foursome, as they all greet the world (of possibility) together.
Try finding any current picture book with a mere two dozen easy-to-pronounce words. This is a title ready to serve as a read-alone or a shared classroom adventure.
A word of warning: don’t miss the first six illustrated pages of the book before the title page. Movies have conditioned some adults to pay attention only after the opening credits. Not so here!
Cordell’s watercolors evoke the exuberance of Quentin Blake.
Cordell even provides a bonus to anyone reading the back jacket flap. In his biographical blurb, he updates everyone that his daughter “has yet to ask for a cell phone.”
Good picture books show us how we are. The best titles, like Cordell’s hello! hello!, show us how we can be.
—Tom Owens, author
Have you ever heard of a barking spider or a yeti crab? Which is tougher: a honey badger or a tardigrade? Is a blobfish uglier than a hagfish? These are just a few of the 50 unusual creatures that Hearst includes in Unusual Creatures. Mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, insects, arachnids, even microbes are included. The book does not pretend to provide encyclopedic coverage of any of its creatures, but it does give the reader enough of an introduction to each to invite further inquiry.
I think Unusual Creatures will lure reluctant readers into its pages, as well as provide more committed readers with a lightly amusing informative treat. The author starts out by explaining the system of biological classification from kingdom through family and down to species, and gives the formal Latinate classification for each of his creatures, but this is not at all off-putting, since he presents the information simply, clearly, and quickly. Besides, it only takes up two pages which you (or your reluctant friend) could easily skip. He then dives into the axolotl for his first creature, and the fun begins. For some of the entries, he provides a brief poem to supplement the facts, for others he provides amusing true-false or multiple-choice quizzes, and sly bits of humor are scattered throughout the book.
Each creature illustration is nearly full-page with a ruler alongside to get a sense of the animal’s actual size (from hundredths of an inch to feet). The creature’s territory/distribution is also shown, and usually some other odd fact or two is illustrated.
The author gets perhaps a little preachy in two pages at the end, where he addresses the environmental issues inherent in discussion of rare and unusual animals. Again, this is a section that could be skipped or emphasized depending on the interests of the reader.
My initial reaction to this book was ambivalence, but the more I think about Unusual Creatures, the more I like it. It is a smorgasbord, where reluctant readers can pick and choose the weirdest or cutest or most disgusting creatures to read about, and more advanced or eager readers can enjoy the whole book and perhaps use it as a jumping-off point for further zoological investigations.
If you have or if you are an upper-elementary student or older, give Unusual Creatures a try. You will undoubtedly make a few new friends in the animal kingdom.
—Steve Mudd, author
If there was a book award for sly fun, the 2012 winner would have to be Noah Webster & His Words.
Don’t think that the typical readership of ages 4-8 are the targets for this deceptively-smooth picture book. Start at the end to see that the back cover proclaims:
BI-OG-RA-PHY [noun: a written history of a person’s life]
This isn’t some new surgeon general’s mandate for truth in labeling. Much older readers are getting a clue to pick up this charming dictionary parody.
And why not? This is the tale of one defining pioneer of the English language. While Noah’s father was harvesting crops, he decided to start harvesting words.
Nearly every page is filled with a dictionary entry, defining a word used in describing Noah’s life and career. Amazingly, the definition comes immediately, as an announcer interrupting the TV program. This droll, innovative approach doubles the appeal of this book. Older readers amused by the channel-flipping style of going from narrative to dictionary won’t realize all the definitions they’re digesting.
Author Ferris provides a great backstory for America’s first dictionary. “I will write the second Declaration of Independence,” Noah wrote to a friend. “An American spelling book!”
Ferris spotlights Noah’s motivation, explaining that 1781 America was free from England. Why should Americans spell the way they did in England? Besides, Americans were content to spell a word any way they wanted. Imagine “mosquito” spelled 10 different ways in the same text. Ferris does.
“Noah thought Americans should spell every word the same way, every time, everywhere. This would U-NITE [verb: make one] the new United States.”
Teachers and parents will cheer, knowing that a book encourages students to link proper spelling with patriotism.
The author allows Noah’s scholarly journey to keep its humor intact. She points out that after proofreading the 2,000 pages he worked on for almost 20 years, he needed to find just the right publisher. “Last, he needed to take a nap.”
The end material is an ideal finale to Noah Webster & His Words. A two-page timeline contrasts American historical happenings with Noah’s writing and research progress.
Kirsch’s illustrations evoke the spirit of the Saturday morning cartoons of Schoolhouse Rock. It’s obvious that Ferris found a kindred spirit in the illustrator. He notes on the copyright page that his art was made with “ink, watercolor, and graphite. And love.”
Combining American history with spelling and grammar lessons seems daunting. Not for Ferris and Hirsch. With a strong, defining humor, the pair make Noah Webster & His Words truly informative fun.
—Tom Owens, author
Author Leda Schubert captures the art of mime in few words by shining the spotlight on the life and career of Marcel Marceau.
In her 2006 book Ballet of the Elephants, Schubert recreated magical performances and the feelings of being a witness to such spectacle. The same holds true for her newest picture book biography.
Remarkably, the author intertwines Marceau’s French childhood with his early passion for mime. When Nazis invade, readers discover how Marceau’s mime talent saved lives. With only the briefest of pauses, Schubert explains how the sadness over Marceau losing his father in a World War II concentration camp led to him choosing the silence of mime.
The author is at her best in describing and recreating a performance of Marceau’s classic character known as “Bip.” She writes:
“His fingers moved as if made of rubber, as if they had no bones.”
Without extensive description of Marceau’s personality, she shows his soul with a pair of contrasting quotes:
“The mime must make reality into dreams and dreams into reality.”
“Never get a mime talking. He won’t stop.”
She concludes her text by noting that crowds knew they had seen wonder when they saw a Marceau performance. Likewise, Schubert’s are a wonder, too. Her descriptions are age-appropriate and in character in describing the superstar mime.
A single-page conclusion shares a biography helpful to the oldest readers. Beginning tips from a Vermont mime who trained with Marcel round out the book.
Reading this book aloud will be a double delight, thanks to the evocative oil paintings of Gerard Dubois. The illustrator provides lots of closeups of Marceau in action. Every child in the crowd of listeners will get a good look at “Bip.”
Together, Dubois and author Schubert are careful not to upstage Marceau. They allow the actor without words to have the last “word” in every scene.
And why not? Marceau once said, “Neither laughter nor tears are French, English, Russian, or Japanese.”
Many picture book biographies depict their subjects. Schubert, meanwhile, understands hers.
—Tom Owens, author
Who—or what—you choose to love is the subject of another gem from author James Howe.
Otter and Odder describes a male otter who falls in love with a female fish.
“Impossible,” he said. “I am in love with my food source.”
Therein lies a mystery in Howe’s fable for our times. Is he creating a story of tolerance, or showing readers the possibilities of vegetarianism?
Either way, the book is a joy.
Shattering assumptions becomes the challenge of Howe’s main character.
Otter must face the whispers of his species. He must consider for himself what is “right” and “natural.” Again, tradition includes a traditional diet.
The “way of the otter” gets contrasted to “the way of the heart” when Otter seeks advice from wise neighbor beaver. The youngest reader will appreciate the difference between loving someone, as opposed to loving to EAT someone.
Both creatures learn to ignore peer pressure as they decide how to find true happiness.
Few authors in children’s literature today would earn the right to conclude their book with “And they lived happily ever after.” Howe’s conclusion is the perfect choice for the perfect narrative.
Two-time Caldecott medal winner Chris Raschka chose watercolor and pencil for the deceptively-simple illustrations in the book. Adult romantics yearning for a tale of star-crossed lovers might be wishing for more grandiose artwork. Nevertheless, Raschka excels with fun, fluid lines in this aquatic surprise.
Don’t be surprised if Otter and Odder becomes a crossover hit. Adults seeking a Valentine’s Day gift may flock to this title. This book would speak to any age.
Love is love. If anyone can make the case in such sweet, sincere terms, it’s author Howe.
—Tom Owens, author
Susanna Reich writes like a cat. She describes the life of famous cook Julia Child in nimble feline terms. Her book Minette’s Feast doesn’t pussyfoot around. This Paris cat remained a member of the family for Child and her husband.
The author relied on Child’s own words to tell the tale of one beloved cat. The books Appetite for Life and My Life in France allow Reich to give young readers a true look at life unknown to many animals: roaming the family kitchen and tasting the fare. Beforehand, readers can relive daily Parisian life savored by Child and her husband. They dine at sidewalk cafes inhabited by dogs, cats and even pet birds.
The authentic touches will delight adult readers especially. Turning a Brussels sprout tied to a string into a toy for Minette? Vintage Child. Or, classic Reich.
Readers will be able to define French phrases presented in context, in cases like learning how to say, “A house without a cat is like life without sunshine!” Illustrator Amy Bates shows equal talent in depicting animals and humans, a feat showcased in her 2008 picture book The Dog Who Belonged to No One. In Minette’s Feast, Bates rises to the occasion of representing an image seen often through thousands of PBS programs. Happily, many double-page spreads allow readers to see the cat being overshadowed by the oh-so-tall cook. Child’s size wasn’t always apparent in her TV appearances.
Minette the cat gets an epic double-page solo near book’s end. When Child cooks something that appears to be turkey or goose (but isn’t identified, perhaps to soothe vegetarian readers) Minette is given a bone. She rejoices and finds many ways to enjoy the morsel. Each happy gyration is described and depicted. Bates’ pencil-and-watercolor creations are the ideal ingredients for this tale.
Meanwhile, author Reich respected Child’s droll sense of humor. Not until the book’s glossary and pronunciation guide does a reader learn that Minette’s term of “poussiequette” is not true French. The author lets us decide that the Childs made their own phonetic French term to honor their cat.
Likewise, Reich reveals that Minette’s middle name of “Mimosa” came from an odd spontaneous dining choice.
The last page, in an author’s note, is the ultimate topping on the literary dish Reich creates. She tells that she met Child once. In fact, Reich made the official gift presented to Child during her 80th birthday party.
Minette’s Feast is a joyful remembrance of a beloved feline friend who inspired a culinary queen.