Review: The New Small Person

The New Small Person EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 2-6
Author and illustrator: Lauren Child
Publisher: Puffin (published October 2014)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0141384913
ISBN-13: 978-0141384917

Elmore Green had things pretty much the way he liked them. He could watch his favourite shows on his own TV, no one moved any of his belongings when he had them all lined up on the floor, and he never had to share his jellybeans, not even the orange ones.

Elmore Green’s parents thought he was simply the funniest, cleverest, most adorable person they had ever seen. And Elmore Green liked that because it is nice to be the funniest, cleverest, most adorable person someone has ever seen.

But then one day everything changed.

The New Small Person is a refreshing and funny look at becoming a big brother for the first time from the perspective of Elmore Green…who doesn’t particularly want to be a big brother. Sometimes the small person would come into Elmore’s room and knock things over and sit on things that didn’t want to be sat on. Once it actually licked Elmore’s jelly bean collection, including the orange ones. As anyone knows, jelly beans that have been licked are NOT nearly so nice.

Lauren Child’s light-hearted text and impish mixed-media collages show the world from the perspective of a child, where grown-ups are seen primarily as knees, and little people like Elmore Green are not always at the top of everyone’s priority list. Elmore Green continues to refuse to acknowledge the presence of “the new small person,” even when the small person moves its bed into Elmore Green’s room. Only when the new small person helps Elmore Green through a scary dream and begins to appreciate the importance of lining up possessions in a long straight line does Elmore Green begin to think that the new small person might have something to offer.  Eventually, Elmore calls his brother Albert by name and offers to share his jelly beans with him.

But not the orange ones.

Elmore Green is a likeable and highly relateable character for young kiddos; quite frankly, I like and relate to Elmore Green. A great book for a new big brother or sister. Also, how lovely, in a world where talking animals are more common than main characters who are people of colour, to be seeing more picture books with main characters who are not white!

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Review: Home

Home by Carson Ellis

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-6
Author and illustrator: Carson Ellis
Publisher: Candlewick Press (published February 2015)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0763665290
ISBN-13: 978-0763665296

Mary Ann Hoberman’s A House is a House for Me is a longstanding favourite around these parts, so I was intrigued when I stumbled across Carson Ellis’s similarly themed picture book Home at the library last week. Home is a house in the country. / Or home is an apartment. The book begins simply but immediately takes off to homes that are boats, palaces, underground lairs, or shoes. French people live in French homes. / Atlantians make their homes underwater. The book is a jaunt through a universe rich with possibilities from moon creatures’ homes to castles for Norse gods to fairytale teacup dwellings. Each page teems with imaginative possibilities for readers young and old: Whose home is this? asks a page depicting a precarious cliffside stone cottage.

Who in the world lives here?

And why?

Ellis’s gouache illustratrations stand out among picture books for their muted, simple colour palette — oranges and yellows are all but nonexistent while sepias and blue-greys abound — and for a feeling of what I can only describe as gravity; her characters go about their daily lives, not necessarily smiling in her renderings of their homes and lives. Frankly, after reading several hundred books with more playful illustrations this past winter, I was delighted for this visual break. The illustrations give Home a feeling of solidity, of seriousness, but since the book is jaunting from moon homes to tall ships there is still a strong sense of humour and cheekiness (see if you can find the boy with the bare bum on the page with the little old lady who lives in a shoe).

A House is a House for Me‘s main failing is its oversimplifications to the point of near-racism; critics have argued that Home falls down in the same way, and I would tend to agree with them. The Some homes are wigwams page is a pretty ludicrous stereotype of how native North Americans live, and the bare-chested man with the scimitar in a vaguely Eastern palace is likewise a tired trope. But, as always, I like to use things like that as a teachable moment and remind Little E: “This is one person’s imagination about how people live.”

I prefer to think of Home as a beautiful tour of what unites us: our homes, comforting and familiar, common threads that draw us together across space and time and even imagination.

Featured Series: Up and Down / Over and Under

I don’t know if two books can be said to constitute a series. I doubt it. But I wanted to talk about these books together and I feel like “Featured Pair” sounds weird. So here we have a featured series of two.

Over and Under the Snow  Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt

All around us and under our feet, a hidden world of animals and insects buzzes and thrums with activity and is transformed with the changing of each season. Over and Under the Snow brought the wintertime version of this world vividly to life through the writing of Kate Messner and illustrations by Christopher Silas Neal. A father and daughter cross-country-ski together through the deep forest and as they glide over the snow, the book reveals all the creatures who are making their lives under the snow.

Under the snow, a chipmunk wakes for a meal. Bedroom, kitchen, hallway—his house under my feet.

Under the snow, a queen bumblebee drowses away December, all alone. She’ll rule a new colony in spring.

Under the snow, fat bullfrogs snooze. They dream of sun-warmed days, back when they had tails.

Over the snow, the skiing pair spot the deep hoof prints of a deer, the frozen reeds of a marsh, a fox. We loved this book from the first read, the cozy pictures of the hibernating and snacking creatures, the child’s gliding progress through the woods to a campfire meal and a warm bed. The book has become a bedtime favourite, since it ends with snuggling under warm covers and the beauty of the night sky.

Four years later, Messner and Neal have teamed up again for Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, featuring a girl (I like to presume it’s the same girl) and her Nana, growing a food garden. The book begins in early spring and brings us through all the stages of a vegetable patch, from planting seeds to harvesting the fruits of their labours and the taste of a sun-warmed tomato.

Down in the dirt, pill bugs chew through last year’s leaves. I give a gentle poke. They roll up tight and hide in plated suits of armor, roly-poly round.

Down in the dirt, water soaks deep. Roots drink it in, and a long-legged spider stilt-walks over the streams.

Down in the dirt, frantic ants gather what we leave behind. They’re storing food for cooler days ahead.

The carrots poke out from the earth, the dirt and deep roots drink the water the girl and her Nana provide, the sunflowers are tied into a house for reading. The book takes us into autumn, and a night that smells of snow. The girl goes in for her Grandpa’s soup, and the garden goes to sleep for another winter.

The two books follow the same format, telling parallel stories about what’s going on above in the world of humans and aboveground plants and animals while following along with all the critters living below. The intricately detailed illustrations bring both worlds to life, and the writing is lively and expressive as well as genuinely enlightening (maybe you already know that ladybugs eat aphids, but I didn’t!). An author’s note and an “About the Animals” section at the back of each book gives further information about all the animals you meet in the pages.*

These books make great reads either on their own or together, especially for an aspiring naturalist. Over and Under the Snow brings to life the magic of a trip through the forest on cross-country skis, and Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt captures the wonder of a vegetable garden coming to life through the seasons…and makes me ache for the first sprouts of green to poke out of the cold earth at last (spring is late to the party here).

 

*Fun fact: pill bugs (we always called them potato bugs) are actually crustaceans.

Review: Sleep Like a Tiger

Sleep Like a Tiger EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-8
Author: Mary Logue
Illustrator: Pamela Zagarenski
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (October 2012)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0547641028
ISBN-13: 978-0547641027

Once there was a little girl who didn’t want to go to sleep even though the sun had gone away.

Sound familiar?

“Does everything in the world go to sleep?” she asked.

Her parents say yes, everything in the world goes to sleep. Even their dog, “curled up in a ball on the couch, where he’s not supposed to be.” Caldecott Honor winner Pamela Zagarenski’s exquisitely surreal dreamscapes bring to life the dozing animals, from the majestic whales who “swim slowly around and around in a large circle in the ocean and sleep” to tiny snails: “They curl up like a cinnamon roll inside their shell.”

Sleep Like a Tiger

The little girl, who is of course still not at all sleepy, lies in her bed “warm and cozy, a cocoon of sheets, a nest of blankets. Unlike the dog on the couch, she was right where she was supposed to be.”

She wriggled down under the covers until she found the warmes spot, like the cat in front of the fire.
She folded her arms like the wings of a bat.

She circled around like the whale . . .
and the curled-up snail. 
Then she snuggled deep as a bear, the deep-sleeping bear,
and like the strong tiger, fell fast . . . asleep.

The words are reassuring, rhythmic, and gentle. The illustrations, made through a combination of digital artwork and mixed media paintings on wood, are luminous, beautiful enough to be hung in a gallery. There are details to enjoy on every page, from the crowns the family wears to the bunting in the girl’s bedroom that reappears throughout the dreamy animal scenes to the daytime and nighttime scenes of enchanting dream trains on the endpapers. Reading Sleep Like a Tiger may resolve even stressed-out parents’ insomnia troubles. Hands down, our favourite new bedtime book.

Review: And Then It’s Spring

And Then It's Spring EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-6
Author: Julie Fogliano
Illustrator: Erin E. Stead
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (published February 2012)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 1596436247
ISBN-13: 978-1596436244

You guys, sometimes after a long winter, I just cannot remember what spring feels like.

I remember that plants grow, but I can’t quite recall the smell of earth and buds they bring with them or exactly how the tulips look right before they open up (or, in my case, right before the squirrels and rabbits eat them).

We stumbled on this book at the library and I feel like it has reminded me, not only of that smell or the bright green of the first few brave stems pushing their way up toward the sun, but also of that lengthy period of anticipation, when the snow has melted but everything is still brown.

First you have brown, all around you have brown
then there are seeds
and a wish for rain,
and then it rains
and it is still brown,
but a hopeful, very possible sort of brown,
an
is that a little green? no, it’s just brown sort of brown

A little boy plants his seeds and cares for them — accompanied by his friends (a dog, a rabbit, and a turtle) — and, when they do not grow, wonders “if maybe it was the birds / or maybe it was the bears and all that stomping, because bears can’t read signs that say things like please do not stomp here — there are seeds and they are trying” until one day, of course, he walks out of the house “and now you have green, all around you have green.”

Julie Fogliano’s sparse, expressive, and poetic text accompanies lovely, captivating illustrations by Caldecott medalist Erin E. Stead, who creates her images with a combination of woodblock printing and coloured pencils.

I fell in love with this bespectacled boy and his friends, pressing their ears to the ground to listen for “greenish hum that you can only hear if you put your ear to the ground and close your eyes” and Little E fell in love with the little dirt piles, each carefully labelled with the seeds inside, the seeds that are trying.

A story of hope, and waiting, and perseverance, and green.

Oh, green, you can’t come soon enough around these parts.

 

Review: The Black Book of Colours

blackbookofcolours EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Author: Menena Cottin
Illustrator: Rosana Faría
Publisher: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press (published June 2008)
Pages: 24
ISBN-10: 0888998732
ISBN-13: 978-0888998736

If we could all understand each other just a little better, see the world from other people’s perspectives, we could change the world.

So why don’t we teach our children about other people’s points of view?

This ingenious, innovative book brings to life the world of a blind child named Thomas through his descriptions of colour to his sighted friend, the book’s narrator. Braille letters accompany the text so that the book can be read in two different ways. Each page is black, and the pictures, also in black, are embossed to give the reader the opportunity to experience “feeling” images and to perceive the world through a sense other than sight. The writing is vivid, opening a window into a world where “yellow tastes like mustard, but is as soft as a baby chick’s feathers” and “red is sour like unripe strawberries and as sweet as watermelon.”

Can you feel the difference between a brown fall leaf and fresh-cut green grass? Could you tell them apart if you couldn’t see them?

Having recently listened to a fascinating podcast about how some blind people can learn to “see” (really see, not just locate things) through echolocation, I’ve had blindness and perception on the mind lately. In The Black Book of Colors, Venezuelan author/illustrator team Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría bring to life a world most people avoid thinking about — a world without sight — and invite readers to think about perception differently.

I want my kids to grow up able to imagine and think about the world from other people’s perspectives and not to think of people as being less worthy because they lack a sense like sight or hearing, or the capacity to walk, or some other thing that marks them out as being “different.” Everyone is “different,” and books like this help plant the seeds of understanding that we so badly need in the world right now.

Review: I am a Bunny

iamabunny EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Board book (also available as a picture book)
Ages: 0-4
Author: Ole Risom
Illustrator: Richard Scarry
Publisher: Golden Books (originally published in 1963, rereleased January 2004)
Pages: 26
ISBN-10: 0375827781
ISBN-13: 978-0375827785

Kids’ books are amazing these days. There is an astonishing variety available, covering every topic and idea anyone can imagine, and they all seem to do something different — there’s The Book with no Pictures, which has (you guessed it) no pictures; there are books like Press Here! that invite the reader to push and press and tilt them; and stay tuned next week for a review of a book that’s entirely black and helps sighted children get an idea of what the world might look like to a blind person. I love it. As an avowed lover of children’s books, I revel in this wealth and abundance. I love to find books that do things differently and even test our idea of what a children’s book is.

But sometimes, I just want to read my kids a sweet little story about a bunny in overalls.

I am a Bunny is utterly lacking in gimmicks and pretension. A 1963 collaboration between influential children’s book publisher Ole Risom and beloved illustrator Richard Scarry, the book is a gentle exploration of the life of a little rabbit through the four seasons.

I am a bunny.
My name is Nicholas.
I live in a hollow tree.

Scarry’s illustration capture every leaf, every daffodil, and every butterfly in loving detail. Babies and young toddlers love examining all the different creatures and plants, and older children can look up the different birds and insects in field guides. And every child (and most adults) I have witnessed reading this book is captivated by the double-page spread of Nicholas blowing the dandelion seeds into the air.

This book captures the wonder of the natural world at the level of a bunny, or of a child. It’s  not a book you should race through, although it doesn’t have a lot of words and I will admit to pushing it as a bedtime story on rushed nights. This is the kind of book you should savour, delighting in every season as Nicholas enjoys spring, summer, fall, and finally winter.

And, when winter comes,
I watch the snow falling from the sky.
Then I curl up in my hollow tree and dream about spring.

Today’s kids always seem to expect more from toys and books: they want them to beep and boop and sing and dance and pop because so many of their toys and books do. But for more than fifty years now, babies and children have loved snuggling up with a favourite grown-up to enjoy the simple, natural magic of I am a Bunny. This book is the perfect baby shower gift (I got mine from our good friend and occasional nanny — thanks Sarah!) and a classic that belongs on every child’s shelf.

Review: Life is like the Wind

9781760060558

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Author: Shona Innes
Illustrator: Írisz Agócs
Publisher: Barron’s Educational Series (published August 2014)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0764167472
ISBN-13: 978-0764167478

Little E has been all about death in the past few weeks. We’ve been hearing a lot about how “pirates cut you til you’re dead” and how “dead means you’re not around anymore.” That last one is a direct quote from me, because when she asked me what it meant when someone was dead, I was caught completely flat-footed. Those are the words that came out of my mouth, but afterward I wish I had come up with something a little better. Someday I know this question (and the answer we give her) will mean more to her, but fortunately at the moment it’s a relatively trivial matter in her mind. But I was reminded that on the day the question “What does it mean when someone dies?” actually matters to her and her sister, we’d better have something to say.

This book is a great introduction for children to the idea of death and what it means when someone dies. Author Shona Innes, a clinical and forensic psychiatrist with experience working with children experiencing trauma and death, compares life to the wind: “We can’t see the wind, but we know when the wind is there. / The wind makes leaves flutter, / and fur fly, and kites soar high in the sky. / When the wind goes, things are very still. / They don’t flutter or blow or fly or soar anymore.”

“Where does the wind go when we can’t see it moving things?”

“Where does life go when it leaves the body?”

The book leaves plenty of room for discussion and thought, offering simple explanations about different people’s ideas about what happens after death. “Some believe the life enters another body, to give life to a new creature. / Others believe the life goes to a happy place called heaven, / where the life can enjoy its favorite things.”

“And some believe that a little bit of the life stays behind. / Even when the body is gone, / people remember and feel the life, still loving the life deep inside their hearts.”

[Tear.]

Actually, I was okay reading this book until I got to the page “But, like the wind, the life must leave.” Last week was the anniversary of the day my amazing aunt Beth was taken from us by uterine cancer and I will readily admit that this book gave me the ugly cries. I think it was the picture of the rabbit letting go of the red balloon and watching it float up to the sky.

The friendly, calming illustrations do a great job of bringing the words to life without distracting from the admittedly challenging topic. The book is part of a series called Big Hug Books that came out of Innes’s work with families facing challenges; I’m intrigued to read Friendship is like a Seesaw and The Internet is like a Puddle as well.

I haven’t read Life is like the Wind to Little E yet but, when we’re both ready, we can read it together so that maybe she’ll be better prepared for the losses that will come in her life. Or at least, I hope, I’ll be better prepared to talk about them with her.

Review: The Something

something

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-6
Author and illustrator: Rebecca Cobb
Publisher: PAN Macmillan Childrens Books (published October 2014)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0230764827
ISBN-13: 978-0230764828

You could summarize this book like so: “A girl saw a hole in the ground. The end.” But then again, you could also summarize Goodnight Moon like this: “Goodnight to all the things.”

I was already a fan of Rebecca Cobb’s illustration in Julia Donaldson’s The Paper Dolls when I stumbled across this book at our local bookstore. I occasionally buy books to add to our “gift stash” to bring to birthday parties and whatnot, but this one somehow made it out of the box and onto our shelves because I knew Little E would love it. Cobb’s illustrations are sweetly childlike without being saccharine, and the story is also a child’s-eye-view tale.

So. A girl finds a hole in the ground and wonders what is down there. She’s sure it’s…something. Her mum speculates that the hole might be a doorway into a little mouse’s house; her sister says the something is most likely a scary troll; her best friend is sure it’s a dragon. The split-level illustrations explore the possibilities of the world below the ground, taking us through all the different prospects of what could be down there. Is it a snake? A squirrel? A fox listening to a record player? A mole knitting? We never do find out, but the little narrator is watching…and waiting…just in case.

In the modern age of smart phones and smart toys and smart everything, I think books about the power of the imagination are more important than ever. And this one is simple, lovely, and just the thing to lead readers to go looking for holes in the ground and trees in their neighbourhoods and wonder what somethings might be inside.

Review: Breathe

breathe EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 2-6
Author and illustrator: Scott Magoon
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (published April 2014)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 1442412585
ISBN-13: 978-1442412583

Mindfulness is the big buzzword all over the place these days. Everyone’s working on being more mindful, parenting more mindfully, eating and exercising more mindfully, and, I don’t know, visiting the toilet more mindfully. It’s a little unfair of me to poke fun, though, since I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation for five months now and it has kind of completely changed my sleep, eating habits, parenting, thought processes — okay, well, my life. I’m not gonna lie.

If you want to start practicing mindfulness meditation, I can’t recommend this book enough, but if you just want the occasional reminder to slow down and breathe with your children, or if you or your kids like whales (and who doesn’t like whales?), you might want to crack a copy of Scott Magoon’s Breathe.

A young whale starts his day riding on the back of his mama, and with her encouragement starts explore his captivating underwater surroundings a little more independently, a bit at a time, before returning to his mother’s side once more.

“Breathe,” she teaches him; “Dive down deep. / Explore. / Make new friends. / Swim. / Listen to the sea. / Sing. Breathe.”

Magoon’s illustrations are absolutely lovely, beautifully capturing the expanse of the little whale’s world, as well as its ever-changing light and its enormous variety of inhabitants.

You can read this book as a lesson in mindfulness, reminding us to slow down and enjoy all the fleeting moments in our lives, or you can read it as a charming illustration of parenthood, of parents learning to let go as babies and children grow more and more independent, or you can read it as a story about a whale having a lovely day. However you choose to read it, be prepared to spend some time looking up details on all of the Arctic undersea creatures the whale encounters (bioluminescent phytoplankton are currently a hot topic of conversation around here) and be prepared, too, to close the book quietly and sit there for a moment listening to the quiet. Breathe a wonderful choice for a calming bedtime story.

There are very few words in this book, and they’re best read very…slowly.

And don’t…forget…to…

Breathe.

(Take a moment to read about Scott Magoon’s process in creating the artwork for this book over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Apparently this story was once going to be about a narwhal. I kind of wish that had happened.)