I have never seen less threatening monsters than in Monsters Love Colors. That’s a plus, because this book is really a celebration of color and sound, with the monsters just cute actors in the play. Every page is filled with blinding primary colors, swirling shapes and lines, and exuberant words that demand to be read aloud—“mish, mash, squish, squash, splash!” Color is splattered across every page, the words are in wildly different sizes and degrees of boldness, and even the monsters are in varied sizes, shapes and colors. The monsters also have extremely expressive faces, showing excitement, curiosity, joy and wonder at all the marvelous colors they can create.
As an adult, I found the book entertaining. It made my day a little brighter, figuratively and literally. Younger children, especially when read to aloud or encouraged to read it aloud themselves, will get the same burst of energy, I would imagine, magnified by their own natural exuberance. This is a book to read after nap time, not before. You learn a little about how colors combine to make other colors, but beyond that this is just a book to ENJOY, visually and verbally.
—Steve Mudd, author
If you’ve ever been startled by your own shadow, this book is for you.
Rabbit comes out of his burrow one bright sunny morning to find himself confronted by a giant black rabbit standing against a large rock. The frightened Rabbit tells the black rabbit to go away, but it does not. Rabbit tries to run away from the black rabbit, but he cannot. He tries to hide from the black rabbit, but it is always waiting for him when he comes out of hiding. Finally, he runs into the deep, dark woods, where the black rabbit seems to disappear. Unfortunately, a large wolf is there instead, and Rabbit has to flee for his life. When he emerges back into the bright sunshine, the giant black rabbit is back. Fortunately, this time the wolf is frightened away by the black rabbit. After that, Rabbit is more than happy to spend his sunny days with his new friend, the black rabbit.
A simple story about fears and coming to terms with them, The Black Rabbit is told in an amusing manner that nevertheless captures the fear Rabbit feels, first of the black rabbit and later of the wolf. The illustrations are charming, simple, and quite expressive of the tension of the story, effectively making Rabbit look so small and the black rabbit look so huge and threatening (until the very end). A bonus for this story is that it gives most children an opportunity to be more aware or wiser than the protagonist (they’ll know it’s Rabbit’s shadow), while still getting them to identify with Rabbit. The twist at the end where the villain saves the day is just icing on the cake.
—Steve Mudd, author
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
Those of you who attended the CLN Books for Breakfast event on Feb. 2 heard teacher librarian Paula Huddy recommend this book as one of her five favorites. Since I was already working on my own review of Too Tall Houses, and since some of you were unable to attend that outstanding event, I decided to go ahead and post my review anyway.
Too Tall Houses is the story of two friends─Rabbit and Owl─who live next to each other on top of a hill near a forest. Rabbit grows produce next to his house and Owl enjoys a fine view of the forest from his house. Conflict arises when Rabbit’s garden grows tall enough to block Owl’s view. Owl’s solution is to build a taller house, but that blocks the sun from Rabbit’s garden, so he has to build a taller house on top of which he grows his garden…. Eventually their house-height race reaches such heights that Rabbit can no longer carry water up for his garden and Owl can no longer see the forest (yes, they are THAT tall). A bellowing wind comes along and blows both houses over, Owl saves Rabbit, and the two friends come to their senses and build one small house they can both live in.
This is a simple, amusing story with heart and a universal lesson in the value of cooperation and friendship. The escalation of the conflict is amusing and so over-the-top that the book conveys its message without becoming preachy.
For me to wax enthusiastic about a picture book, it almost always has to have outstanding art to complement the story. Too Tall Houses rates an A+ in the illustration department. I don’t think I have ever seen more expressive faces in a picture book than I see on the faces of Rabbit and Owl, and the various scenes are warm and rich. This would be an appealing place to live, and I can imagine young readers wanting to join Rabbit and Owl at the end, as they sit together on top of their house, looking out at the forest.
—Steve Mudd, 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
Do you miss the old TV game show Name That Tune? The show’s highlight was the contestant face-off: “I can name that tune in only __ notes.”
Well, Jeff Mack wrote Good News, Bad News in only four words. Beginning readers rejoice.
Rejoice for a book that shows the joy of friendship, contrasted by the constant forces of optimism versus pessimism.
Mack offers two main characters in his adventure. Rabbit is one hopeful hare who never fails to assess a situation as “Good News!” Amazingly, his friend is mouse, who can see the same event as “Bad News!”
There’s no discussion between the characters. Both members of this odd couple are absolutists.
Even the youngest reader could sum up the two personalities in the book. Rabbit keeps seeing all things good and getting better. Meanwhile, mouse, complete with his ever-present furrowed eyebrows, frown and tattered ear, insists that the world is going from bad to worse.
The pair try to enjoy a picnic. So many temporary setbacks fail to ruffle rabbit’s fur. Mouse isn’t so lucky. A double-page spread shows him losing his cool over rabbit’s Pollyanna-ism.
The resulting drama allows both characters to switch perspectives. When their world brightens, rabbit and mouse embrace. They agree that friendship is the best news of all.
Bold lines, bright colors and many close-ups keep the art focused for a young audience. The landscape doesn’t matter. Mack delivers always-expressive eyes. Add in rabbit’s constant grin battling the steadfast scowl of mouse, and the book has its visual core.
Mack’s versatility can be measured by his contrasting picture book victories, the 2008 bedtime charmer Hush Little Polar Bear, versus this year’s Frog and Fly: Six Slurpy Stories. Will a wordless picture book be on his horizon, too?
Rabbit and mouse are a fascinating duo, showing us that optimism can be found anywhere, at any time. Readers of all ages would welcome them back for further adventures. That “good news” would be a message that only Mack could deliver.