Dog vs. Cat

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Dog vs. Cat is one of those picture books that the adults in the house enjoyed just as much (and maybe more) than the kids. Mr. and Mrs. Button both happen to purchase a new pet on the same day on different sides of town. Having only one room for a pet, the dog and cat have to share a room. What happens next isn’t unexpected but is quite fun. Chris Gall’s clever text and even more clever cartoon like illustrations tell this familiar story in a fresh way.

First, the Odd Couple-like pair tries to get along. Dog shows Cat how to chase a tail (Cat’s response: “You’ve got to be kidding me…”) Cat shows Dog how to curl up with a good book (Dog: “Boring.”) But their differences become too much and the situation escalates to all out war: Cat fills Dog’s water dish with hairballs; Dog pours the water over Cat’s head at naptime. However, when they are finally separated they begin to miss each other and in the end they find themselves united against a common enemy: the Button family’s newest “pet”. (Hint: it’s loud and sleeps in a crib.)

The genius of this book is in the details, most of which are in the illustrations. The dogs at the animal shelter are holding up signs when Mr. Button comes to visit that read: “I like you”, Take Me!”, “I want to Lick You!” and “I”ll be your Best Friend!”. By contrast the cats at the cat store have signs that read: “I’m kind of a big deal…”, “I’m not looking at you.”, “Warning- High Maintenance” and “Whatever”. Perhaps it’s just that we’re former cat people who have adopted a dog this summer but we all found this one hilarious. Recommended for dog people or cat people or anyone who has a sense of humor.

 

Frank! by Connah Brecon

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Frank is a bear who was always late.

It wasn’t that Frank was rude or unreliable. Nor was he a dawdler or a meanderer. 

He just liked to help out.

Frank’s lateness really becomes a problem when he starts school. Each day he is late and each day he tells his teacher a seemingly crazy story as an excuse. He rescues a cat from a tree and the tree runs away with him in it. He gets challenged to a dance-off. He rescues bunnies from ogres. The teacher and the reader have to wonder if Frank’s stories are just stories until the ending when Frank is called on to step up and save the entire school.

Overall, this is a a fun, quirky book. Readers of this blog know that I’m a little tired of the quirky trend in children’s literature. Frank felt different to me though. Connah Brecon has managed to achieve kid quirky with just the right amount of weird flights of imagination that real kids have, as opposed to adult slightly snarky quirky which is the trend I don’t like.

The colors and cartoon-like illustrations are bright and cheerful. On going back for a second read, I discovered lots of clever details I missed the first time. For example, all the stores in Frank’s town sell clocks or watches. Or the dance-off is raising money for people with two left feet.

I did wish that the plot was a little more cohesive and that the ending had a better explanation. A lot of zany things happen to Frank but they didn’t necessarily all fit together until the ending, which felt a little forced to me. And the last page seemed to me to need a bit more explanation. I think those issues are a little bit nit-picky on my part. The kids thought it was  a fun book and I think most kids would agree with them.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I have not been compensated for my review and the opinions are my own. 

Brimsby’s Hats

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Brimsby is a hatmaker who makes wonderful hats that he sends all over the world. He has a best friend who visits every day and together they drink tea and have wonderful conversations. However, one day the friend decides to travel far away pursuing his dream to become a sea captain. At first Brimsby is lonely but he finds a way to use his hats to make some new friends. And in the end all the friends together visit the old friend in his new home by the sea and “drink tea and talk about hats and shovels and ships and how wonderful it was that they had all been lucky enough to meet one another.”

Andrew Prahin’s Brimsby’s Hats is really a sweet book with a solid theme of grace and friendship at it’s core. It was interesting to me that the child of mine who was most drawn to this book is also our most sensitive and empathetic child. It’s a quiet book that I think has a lot of appeal for the right kid. The illustrations feel like they fit the story perfectly: slightly quirky in the characters and color palette but overall with a sweetness.

 

What We’re Reading

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Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. This is often the case for me with blogging about books. I feel like I need to think about a theme or look for new books to blog about in order to make it worth the reader’s time. Sometimes that works well with what we are reading for school or sometimes I happen to have pulled off a bunch of cool new books off the new shelf at the library. But sometimes, the books we are actually reading neither fit together or are new and feel “blogworthy”. Such has been the case lately. So I decided to try a new thing: books we liked this week/what we’re reading.

The first book to share has been Ruth’s clear favorite for the past couple of weeks. Ballet Kitty by Bernette Ford and Sam Williams is about a kitty who loves ballet and pink and who is having a playdate with another purple loving princess kitty. I think that’s really all I have to say to explain why Ruth, age 4 LOVED this book. Loved, loved, loved it.

I think my favorite picture book this week was The Secret Olivia Told Me by N. Joy. I don’t typically like books that teach a lesson and this one has a lesson (the dangers of gossip and breaking a friend’s trust) but overall this one is so charming that the lesson isn’t too heavy-handed. Rhyming text tells what happens as a girl accidentally tells a friend’s secret. The real charm though lies in the illustrations by Nancy Devard. Done entirely in black and white silhouettes they are striking in their simplicity. A red balloon in the background gets bigger and bigger clearly representing the growing secret itself and providing a clever visual representation of the theme.

A Funny Little Bird by Jennifer Yerkes actually was off the new shelf at our library. Often we like the same books as a family. But sometimes we don’t. This was a case where several kids really liked a book that I just didn’t. The funny little bird of the title is white so that on a white page anything he stands in front of disappears. At first this makes him sad because he is ignored by everyone. But after venturing into the world he discovers that his ability can also help him hide new friends and himself from danger. I think it’s supposed to be about learning to like yourself and your quirks or unique abilities but something about the story just fell flat. The graphics are cool but not cool enough for me to make up for the story. I think I couldn’t get past figuring out if the bird was white or invisible or both or what the deal was. Like I said, earlier, my kids are more accepting and thought this one was really funny. Ruth asked me to read it several times to her and I saw her ask David to read it also. David read it to himself at least a couple of times. So, I’m including it here in the list of the books that caught our attention this week because from their perspective it was a clear hit.

Armchair Cybils: Fiction Picture Books

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I was able to read all the books shortlisted in the Cybils fiction picture book category except one. (The exception is Journey by Aaron Becker which has something like 27 holds on it at my library so it might be awhile on that one.) First up is Count the Monkeys by Mac Barnett. Apparently we had read this one earlier in the year but I had forgotten it. All three kids clearly remembered it and were very excited to see it in the book basket again so I’d say it meets the kid appeal criteria. It’s a counting book with a twist. We’re supposed to be counting monkeys but a different animal or creature has intruded on every page. Kids love the interactive text and sheer silliness. Ruth at 4 years old was the perfect age for this one as she excitedly followed the directions one each page (move your hand in a zig-zag, yell “Scram”) to get rid of the intruders. The boys (ages 7 and 10) liked it also which makes this the unusual counting book with wider age appeal.

We read If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano sometime last year also. At the time I didn’t like it very much, which was disappointing given that I am a fan of Fogliano and illustrator Erin Stead. This one improved for me on second reading. There isn’t much plot per se: the text relates all the things that you should and shouldn’t do if you want to see a whale while the illustrations show a young boy and his dog engaging in those actions. The first time through passages like this perplexed me:

if you want to see a whale
you’ll just have to ignore the roses
and all their pink
and all their sweet
and all their wild and waving
because roses don’t want you watching whales

It seemed like the point was that if you wanted to “see a whale” (achieve a goal) you had to ignore all the other distractions around you. This time through it read more nuanced to me, like the the author was saying that you might have to ignore those things, but maybe you shouldn’t and maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about seeing a whale. The illustrations don’t always match the text, which makes the intention more unclear. I think that’s a good thing here and could lead to interesting discussion. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but I think in fact this is just a much more complex book than typically seen in a picture book format.

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown was on my own personal shortlist back in December so I was excited to see it on the official shortlist also. Mr. Tiger lives in a proper urban environment but is getting tired of it. One day he finds himself going a little wild. He gets wilder and wilder until he ends up living on his own in the wilderness. He finds it lonely there and makes his way back to the city to his friends. The theme of celebrating differences and being yourself is obvious but not too heavy-handed. And I enjoy the clean, strong, illustrations. The difference between city and wilderness can be seen as much in the colors and patterns of the drawings as it is told in the text.

Open This Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier is another deceptively simple book. A series of characters (ladybug, frog, rabbit, bear and giant) read books. As each character reads a book they are reading about one of the other characters. The format of the book is unusual and very appealing to little ones: each book that the character is reading is a successively smaller book that can be opened by the reader. The pattern repeats as the books get successively larger. There is a lot of preschool learning that can happen here: sizes, patterns, colors. But mostly it’s just a fun and unique celebration of the love of reading and books.

Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller is probably the most traditional of the nominees in that it just tells a story. The story it tells feels fresh and new and refreshingly familiar at the same time. Based on the author’s daughter, the book tells of a little girl named Sophie who falls in love with a squash one day at the farmer’s market. She names the squash Bernice and takes it everywhere with her. Her Mom tries to warn her about the fate of vegetables but Sophie ignores her, even when Bernice becomes troublesomely spotty. One day, on the advice of a farmer, Sophie puts Bernice to sleep in the nice soft dirt (to help her get better). Sophie misses Bernice but is thrilled in the spring to meet Bernice’s children who appear on a big beautiful squash plant.

I can’t think of any other book that celebrates a girl’s love for a vegetable but I could completely see this actually happening. In fact, Ruth asked me after we finished if  “we could do that”. Meaning that she wants a pet squash to plant and grow into baby squash. The illustrations by Anne Wilsdorf add to the charm and humor of this sweet story.

 The Bear’s Song by Benjamin Chaud follows a Papa Bear as he chases his Baby Bear through the forest and then through the city. It is time to hibernate but Baby Bear has run away, chasing after a bee. The mad chase ends in an opera house where Papa Bear decides to sing the Bear’s Lullaby for the patrons, a beautiful song that all bears love. What is a lullaby for bears is apparently just a bit frightening for humans, and the  opera house is left empty except for a finally reunited Baby and Papa.

The illustrations are what make this large format book really special. Each page is incredibly detailed and deserves to be looked at again and again. On first reading, we enjoyed trying to find Baby Bear and bee on each page. On the next reading we noticed more of the other, often humorous things happening in the background. And on the next reading we started to notice details like more bees and honey and bears or intricately hidden animal sketches in the opera house walls.

If I had to pick a winner among these books, it would be hard. I think I’d pick Sophie’s Squash, mostly because I’m kind of old-fashioned and would like to reward a book that is mostly about story and has more of a classic feel but that is still excellent. And it had a lot of kid appeal in our house. I think the two enjoyed the most by everyone here were Count the Monkeys and The Bear’s Song. But really, I could see any of these winning, it’s a great group of books.

The only other shortlisted books that I’ve read that I hadn’t already read was A Big Guy Took My Ball! (Elephant and Piggie) by Mo Willems in the Easy Reader category. Not much to say about that one except that it’s just as good as all other Elephant and Piggie books. Which is to say it’s great. I did get a bunch of the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction shortlisted books out of the library for John to read (and possibly me to read) but he’s been working his way through the Eragon series (again) and I don’t think he’s read any of them yet. I haven’t been reading anything quite as all-consuming as Eragon but I haven’t quite gotten to them yet either.

And don’t forget to stop by Hope is the Word for more Armchair Cybils.

 

 

Sweet and Not-So Sweet

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I think the current favorite book at our house is Little Mouse by Alison Murray. At least if you count current favorite as book read most often. Ruth has fallen in love with this sweet story of a little girl, about her age (4). The girl’s Mommy likes to call her “little mouse” which the girl points out is kind of silly. Because the girl is also not little, but tall. And strong. And brave. Each page shows the girl with a different animal representing the way she feels inside. So she is a giraffe or a lion or a whale or a bear. The illustrations have a clean graphic feel and manage to convey a lot of emotion with fairly simple pictures. Each page includes a tiny mouse to find. There is a lot for a four year old to like in this book. I think Ruth does see herself as big and brave and strong. But I think what she likes best is also my favorite page: the last one. The little girl is ready for bed and all snuggled up with Mommy and admits that at the end of the day it isn’t so bad being “quiet and cozy, cuddly and dozy, Mommy’s little mouse”.

Ruth has enjoyed another recent library find almost as much. If Little Mouse appeals to her sweet side, this one appeals to a different darker side. That Is Not a Good Idea is typically Mo Willems. Funny and slightly twisted but with an underlying kid appeal. A fox and chicken meet in a town and the fox invites the chicken to go for a walk. The chicken accepts. Each page with  words has a black background and white words giving it a silent movie aesthetic. After each fox-chicken interaction the chicken is getting closer and closer to its doom there is a page showing a chorus of chicks shouting “That is NOT a good idea!” Similar to the classic There Is a Monster at the End of this Book, this one is great fun to read aloud and interact with. I heard Ruth reading it to herself several times. And like “Monster” there is a twist at the end of this book that kids will find hilarious.

Non-Fiction Monday: The Boy Who Loved Math

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It’s likely that you’ve seen this book reviewed elsewhere. There has been a lot of buzz about it in the kid-lit world. And for good reason. The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable LIfe of Paul Erdos is a wonderful biography of a fascinating man. In case you’re ignorant like me, Paul Erdos was a Hungarian mathematician known for his work in number theory and for his eccentric personality.

Deborah Heligman strikes a perfect balance  in this book between the story of Erdos’ life and an explanation of the mathematical problems that so intrigued and consumed him.The main focus of the text is on the life of Erdos: from a childhood where he was kicked out of school for not following the rules; to his ability at the age of four to quickly tell a person how old they were in seconds once he knew their birthdate and time; to his love of prime numbers and to his mostly itinerant life as an adult as he traveled the world collaborating with other mathematicians.

When it fits with the story Heligman goes into more detail on the math itself (for example a terrific explanation of prime numbers). However, numbers and math are primarily incorporated into the book through the illustrations by LeUyen Pham. The endpages include an extensive explanation of the math she worked into the drawings. One example is that of equations and diagrams from problems Erdos puzzled over drawn into the architecture of buildings in Budapest on one page. And that’s just one example of many.

Mathematicians have coined a term “Erdos number” that describes how close someone was to Erdos. If a person met him or worked with him directly, their number is 1. If they worked with someone who worked with Erdos, their number is a 2. One of my favorite illustrations is a detailed double page graphic that shows this web of influence that Erdos had in the world of mathematics.

Erdos was also known for being eccentric. Heligman doesn’t ignore this. She describes how he never learned to butter his own toast, even as an adult. Or that his friends around the world essentially took care of him: doing his laundry, paying his bills, cooking his food. I think many adults who read this book will not be able to help but wonder if Erdos was autistic or had Asperger’s (and in fact a quick Google search found that many Asperger sites claim him as a famous person with the syndrome). Kids probably won’t pick up on this, unless they themselves have a diagnosis of Asperger’s or HFA. In that case, they will likely find Erdos’ success despite his quirks inspiring.

Heligman refers in the author’s note to a biography by Paul Hoffman on Erdos: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. I was intrigued enough by this story that I looked up Hoffman’s biography and did some quick reading on the Internet about Erdos. As with most picture book biographies, his life is more complicated than it appears here. I think Heligman’s biggest achievement with this book is that she has taken a figure that might seem weird or geeky or unapproachable and humanized him in a way that should make kids who don’t like math think it’s a little more cool than they thought before. And at the same time kids that are a little bit weird or geeky or who just love math will read this book and be inspired.

This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist.  I received a review copy from the publisher specifically for the Cybils. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.

 

Three Picture Book Biographies

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I feel somewhat embarrassed that I had never heard of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker before now. I’m glad that gap in my knowledge has been filled by this new book by Cheryl Harness. Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of The Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero tells the tale of this pioneer, the first female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for her work as a surgeon during the Civil War. She was also a feminist, advocate for women’s rights, prisoner of war and dress reformer. One small issue I had was that the story begins after the Civil War and then jumps back to tell how Mary Walker became a physician. The timeline however is a a little unclear as the only real clue to this “flashback” is in the illustrations. I think most kids will figure it out and it’s certainly worth overlooking to read about this remarkable woman.

For those kids interested in finding out more about women physicians, the National Library of Medicine has a very nice interactive site where you can search by speciality, name, ethnicity, or location.

If I know very little about hip-hop, I know even less about Mambo or Latin jazz, other than that one song and dance from West Side Story. I know a little bit more now thanks to Tito Puente: Mambo King by Monica Brown. It’s difficult to write a book about music that gives the reader an idea of what the music is like. Brown employs the frequent use of onomatopoeia in an attempt to help the reader to hear the sounds of the drums. I really liked that this is a bilingual book with all the text on each page completely in English and Spanish. And I loved the bold, bright, whimsical illustrations by Rafael Lopez. The book is all about how Puente’s music made people happy and the colors and graphics give off a happy cheerful vibe that seems to fit with the subject perfectly.

For those ignorant of Latin jazz, like me, you can see Tito Puente’s last live performance here. Warning, it will make your feet want to dance.

I had heard of the subject of this third biography. However, I hadn’t heard of his dog, Rufus. War Dogs by Kathryn Selbert tells the story of Winston Churchill’s time as prime minister during World War II from the perspective of his beloved poodle Rufus. Seeing a well-known leader from this kind of perspective often makes him seem more human. Selbert includes quotes from Churchill on each page. Exceptionally complete end-pages provide a WWII timeline, more information on Churchill and on his dogs and a very extensive bibliography.

These books are nominees for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained copies of the books from my library. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.

Volcano Rising

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One of my kids has always been fascinated with volcanoes. I’m pretty sure that he just thinks that the potential for explosion is  cool. And that’s pretty much the picture I have of volcanoes, big powerful disastrous eruptions of lava and ash. What I loved about Volcano Rising by Elizabeth Rusch is that it focuses on the creative nature of volcanoes and not the destructive side that we stereotypically think of.

Rusch shows how volcanoes make new mountains, both on land and below the sea. She uses examples around the world to show how volcanoes are currently involved in changing the landscape around them. I appreciated that each page had two levels of text, one in bolder print that is fairly simple yet still gives a solid understanding of volcanoes and creative eruptions. The second smaller text block gives more in-depth information for those kids who want to learn more. This is a great way to write a book that can appeal to multiple ages. You could easily skip the smaller text while reading this book out loud to young elementary students, yet an older student could read all the text as research for a project on volcanoes (or just for fun).

The beautiful mixed-media illustrations by Susan Swan complement the text. The photo of the cover shown above doesn’t really do justice to the intensity of the colors and textures in the book itself. Suffice to say that as good as the writing is, this one would almost be worth picking up just to look at.

This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained a copy of the book from my library. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.

That’s a Possiblity!

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A math picture book about statistics that is engaging and fun to read? Impossible, right? As you’d know if you had read That’s a Possiblity! Bruce Goldstone shows that it is in fact only highly improbable (and not impossible) but that he’s somehow defied the odds and delivered a book that meets that description.

Goldstone covers the basics of probability in a way that even the youngest of kids can understand. My 4 year old answered many of the interactive style questions in the text as we read this one out loud. Although the text is accessible to the even the very young he doesn’t shy away from using real math words (probable, improbable, certain, possible, likes, odds) and my 5th grader learned new concepts along with is siblings.

Goldstone gives multiple examples (dice rolling, coin tossing, playing cards) that illustrate the concepts in a simple, yet thorough way. In addition to the typical examples he uses some not-so-typical ones to expand the concept: a gumball machine, a race between a rabbit, frog and robot and a teddy-bear’s wardrobe. The illustrations are vivid photographs that pop off the page.

More Math Picture Books:
Math puzzle poems by J. Patrick Lewis
More math poems by Betsy Franco
Three more math read-alouds

This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained a copy of the book from my library.