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
Reading. Being read to. Author Amy Hest shows all the delights a book can offer in The Reader.
A child and best-friend dog decide to enjoy a winter day on a sled. Their destination is “the top of the world.”
Not until page 4 does Hest unleash a “his” clue in her spare, sweet story. The bundled-up main character, the “reader,” could be boy or girl.
Suddenly, the story picks up steam, much like the sled’s downhill descent. A double-page spread proclaims “it’s time.” A suitcase is opened.
Grown-up readers might expect Hest, a three-time winner of the Christopher Award, to produce a magic lamp or other surprise. Instead, she unveils something just as powerful—a book. As the reader reads, children may be taken aback.
Prepare for the sensation of looking deep into the multi-mirrored department store dressing room. That‘s the lure of the featured book, titled “Two Good Friends.” We never see those pages, only the reactions that the pages bring. This is a tribute to the read-aloud experience. A dog, child plus their book. You could call it “Three Good Friends.”
Illustrator Lauren Castillo shines with her ink-and-watercolor depictions of the story. Anyone who liked the illustrations from What Happens on Wednesdays needs to check out Castillo’s versatility. Swoon over her double-page spread showing white letters fluttering down amidst snowflakes while the boy reads to the dog. Somewhere, Ezra Jack Keats (The Snowy Day) is smiling down over this visual storytelling.
Fretting parents may protest a bit over the storyline. What if every child experiencing The Reader drags his or her complete library out into a blizzard? Books might get ruined.
This is not a how-to primer for kids. It’s a fantasy. That hilltop might not be the top of the world to most adults. However, it’s high enough to please the two stars of this tale.
Here is a wonderful imagining of the feeling one gets from reading the right book at the right time. This is a tale about the joy of sharing books. Any young reader will want to be The Reader.
—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
Author Tom Angleberger has an extemporaneous style and a loopy sense of humor that are right at home in a middle-school crowd. His characters are annoying, endearing, over-confident, despairing—in other words, they’re pretty real kids, for all their broadness.
The middle-school world, in the first two installments, is also refreshingly real. One episode asks why kids should be expected to hawk school merchandise. (Yoda’s solution is logical and hilarious.) Conformity (among kids) and conformity (required by school rules) is a frequent, funny and thought-provoking theme.
The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee is the third in Angelberger’s Origami Yoda series. The strongest social commentary here seems to be against the local private school: here, all the rich kids walk lock-step in their prescribed system, mouthing insincere appreciation for individuality. Public school is obviously superior—despite the afore-mentioned blips.
All three books feature Star Wars characters, recreated in origami and used as sort-of puppets by the middle-school kids. Instructions for the folds, so readers can make their own, appear at the back of each volume. Cool, not too hard, room to individualize and fabulously low-tech!
Also surprising, in the first two books, is that familiarity with Star Wars lore is purely optional: readers need only accept that Yoda is a wise character with lop-sided syntax, and that Darth Paper (oops!—Darth Vader) is a bad guy.
The current book stands on its own, too, but—every character in it knows Star Wars so well. That takes away some spark of reality.
But the biggest leap of faith comes in the set-up. The first two books had a catalyst character: Dwight, who rarely appears in this story. Proving Dwight right or wrong gave the first two books purpose. It’s unclear why the other kids write this new “case file” (a faux notebook, complete with rumples, cross-outs, and crazy, doodled pictures—an engaging facsimile of the real thing).
The very end may help explain. Angleberger is, of course, a Star Wars fan. And anyone familiar with the earliest movies knows that, as in any good serial, some episodes end with cliff-hangers.
If fans wish for more from the current book, the last page promises there will be.