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
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
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.