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
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.
—Tom Owens, author
Perhaps I’m suffering from the curse of primacy: the tendency to cling to, even love, what one knows first.
I first experienced The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore in its form as an Academy Award-winning animated short. It is, in fact, a silent film—with no sub-titles—doubling the paradox that a paean to books avoids not only pages, but words themselves, right down to the sound of them.
And this is why the film so stunningly succeeds.
The incarnation of Morris Lessmore as a book—which seems so very logical—is, in fact, less effective. And why? Irony of ironies, because it has words.
William Joyce, a virtually undisputed master, is still himself. He chooses words, edits, interprets the world as William Joyce—he has no choice. When we read his words, we see William Joyce’s world.
Ah, but when we see the film, we can think our own words—or not. Maybe we can just feel.
I can’t help but wish that this book had no words, so that we might do the same.
For books with words are a paradox, too. The point of a book is to go beyond words. Every author is him-or herself. Every reader must look past the writer to get to the story, look past words to get to their meaning. Words are like trees that fall in the woods; they don’t make a sound if no one’s there to hear them.
An image is more like a flower. It just blooms, and minds its own glorious business.
Many images in the book seem to be taken directly from the film. Some delightful examples are people shown in black and white, till open books light their now-colorful faces. The books in the story are live characters, behaving like birds—or people. The volumes can walk, fly—and empathize.
Some images appear to have been created for the book: their lines are more sharply defined. Those familiar with Joyce’s past work may see a potential and poignant passing of the baton. Artist Joyce has struggled of late with his eyes.
Ah, but the artist still sees.
And still gives so much to the world of story, such as the book’s perfect finish:
“And so our story ends as it began . . . with the opening of a book.”
See the film at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLlOB1X72rc
—Diana Star Helmer, 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.
—Diana Star Helmer, author
During World War II many Jews were sent to concentration camps. Many of them went into hiding so they would not be sent to the horrible camps. Anne Frank and her family are one of the most well-known families to go into hiding. While the Franks were in hiding, their youngest daughter Anne kept a diary of her experiences. She describes what it is like to be living in a strange place away from home, what it is like to hide from the government, what it is like to live with seven other people in a cramped space, and how restricted they were.
I really enjoyed The Diary of a Young Girl because of its truth and its great descriptions. Anne is writing to an imaginary person named “Kitty” and it seems as if she is writing to a good old friend. After reading this young girl’s journal you will have a different perspective on what it was like for Jews during that time. I know I did.