All the World

Review: All the World

All the World EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book (also available as a board book)
Ages: 1-6
Author: Liz Garton Scanlon
Illustrators: Marla Frazee
Publisher: Beach Lane Books (published September 2009)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 1416985808
ISBN-13: 978-1416985808

Rock, stone, pebble, sand.

Marla Frazee’s illustrations always catch my eye when I see them. I’ve already talked about The Seven Silly Eaters and Everywhere Babies, two of my favourite Frazee-illustrated books, so perhaps I should move on to other artists, but she chooses the best books to illustrate. And also, she has the best name. Frankly, I wish my name was Marla Frazee. And not only because that would make me a two-time Caldecott medalist.

All the World is another book-that’s-really-a-poem. And, not unlike When I Was Born, it’s about life. But this book takes a broader perspective.

Body, shoulder, arm, hand
A moat to dig, a shell to keep
All the world is wide and deep.

Simple but profound ideas are brought to life in Scanlon’s tidy rhyming couplets and Frazee’s exuberant illustrations: a day at the seashore is rained out (Slip, trip, stumble, fall / Tip the bucket, spill it all / Better luck another day / All the world goes round this way) and we are reminded that some days are good, and some days are not so good.  Three children clamber into the branches of a massive tree, a young sapling in their red wagon ready to plant: All the world is old and new. Characters recur throughout the pages, widening the focus from one family all families, all people, all part of the world.

Everything you hear, smell, see
All the world is everything
Everything is you and me.
Hope and peace and love and trust
All the world is all of us.

A poem for everyone to enjoy. Is it weird that I want to buy children’s books and give them to grown-ups too? This is one I would love to share with my older friends as well as the younger crowd.

 

 

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The Insomniacs

Review: The Insomniacs

The Insomniacs EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 4-8
Author: Karina Wolf
Illustrators: The Brothers Hilts
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (published August 2012)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0399256652
ISBN-13: 978-0399256653

The Insomniacs weren’t always a night family.

After moving twelve time zones away for Mother’s new job, the Insomniac family finds themselves with a problem: they are up all night and can’t stay awake during the day. With some inspiration from their nocturnal animal neighbours, they decide to embrace the night themselves.

With a story that could have come from Neil Gaiman and illustrations reminiscent of Tim Burton’s, The Insomniacs is not your typical picture book. An utterly unique cast of characters, including a little girl with an unusual menagerie of nighttime pets, is complemented by surprising and wondrous illustrations in a palette of deep blues, indigo, and black. There is something oddly comforting in the nighttime world of the Insomniac family, and certainly something magical. Highly recommended.

 

The Story Blanket

Review: The Story Blanket

The Story Blanket EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Authors: Ferida Wolff and Harriet May Savitz
Illustrator: Elena Odriozola
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers (published July 2009)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 1561454664
ISBN-13: 978-1561454662

Deep in the snow-covered mountains was the tiny village where Babba Zarrah lived. The children loved to settle down on Babba Zarra’s big old blanket to listen to her stories.

Babba Zarrah, noticing a hole in little Nikolai’s shoe, decides to knit him some nice warm socks. But the village is snowbound and there is no way to buy new wool. So she unravels a little bit of the story blanket to knit the socks.

Then she notices that the postman is looking chilly.

Once socks have been knit for Nikolai and a scarf for the postman, Babba Zarrah moves on to warm mittens for the schoolmaster  and a shawl for the grocer, leaving her gifts anonymously. No one knows who is knitting the wonderful presents. The story blanket is growing smaller and smaller by the day, and the children must sit closer and closer together to hear Babba Zarrah’s stories. Eventually, the whole village, down to the tailor’s scraggly cat, is warm and snug, and the story blanket is gone! The people of the village come together to find out what is going on and to give a memorable gift to Babba Zarrah to thank her for her generosity.

This charming story knits together (see what I did there?) themes of generosity, the gift of the handmade, and the importance of community, all with the enduring sense of timelessness of a classic folk tale. The illustrations of rosy-cheeked children and warm woolly blankets and the simple but graceful writing are a rare match, and the book’s attention to detail goes right down to the endpapers that feature the pattern of Babba Zarrah’s pink floral dress. The Story Blanket is a great conversation starter for talks about giving to others, about storytelling, and about supporting one another, but at the end of the day, it is an absolutely lovely picture book.

 

Review: Ella Kazoo Will NOT Brush Her Hair

Ella Kazoo Will Not Brush Her Hair

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-6
Author: Lee Fox
Illustrator: Jennifer Plecas
Publisher: Bloomsbury Press (Published December 2009)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 080278836X
ISBN-13: 978-0802788368

I think we’ve all hit upon certain things that our kids will NOT do. One kid will NOT wear a red shirt, another will NOT try the broccoli, and another will NOT get into his carseat.

Obviously, some “will NOT”s are more manageable than others. I’m all for picking your battles, but someday that kid is going to have to get into that carseat. We’ve all been there, and where do you choose to draw the line?

Well, Ella Kazoo will NOT brush her hair.

She hides in the cupboard and under the stairs
She roars at her mom like a big growly bear.
She whines and she moans and she howls in despair,
but Ella Kazoo will not brush her hair
.

Her mother tries various tricks, but to no avail. Ella Kazoo’s hair grows longer, and wilder, as gleefully illustrated by Jennifer Plecas’s playful drawings, until at last the hair begins to take on a life of its own.

Ella Kazoo will not brush her tresses.
One morning they slip into some of her dresses.
They creep round a chair and slink over the table.

They climb down the stairs and they swing on the cable.

“My goodness!” cries Ella.
“This hair must be chopped . . .
or scissored or shortened or layered or lopped.
But most of all, Mother, this hair must be stopped!”

A crack team of hairdressers is brought in, but Ella is unimpressed with their proposals. At least an accord is reached and they trim! snip! and chop! until Ella Kazoo has just one lovely, manageable curl tied up in a bow.

All due to a haircut, quite simple and snappy,
both mother and daughter are blissfully happy.

And of course, now, Ella brushes her hair.

This book is a favourite for kids (certainly for mine) because the power is in the hands of little Ella Kazoo. Any book that puts power in kids’ hands is going to be a hit. Every kid is regularly subjected to doing things or having things done to her that she doesn’t like: having her hair washed, brushing her teeth, having her nose wiped. And yes, brushing her hair. A kid making a stand against a parent is a winning plot device, and in this case, both find happiness in the solution so even the parents who never want to read about disobedient children have little to complain about (though they always seem to find something, don’t they?).

Some readers of this book have complained that Ella Kazoo has to cut off all her hair to be happy, but I like the ending. Her hair wasn’t working for her anymore, so she changed it — not because someone else wanted her to. Everyone gets to change themselves up when what they’re doing isn’t working. I do take great issue with one line in the book, though: “She puts on a dress with some earrings and pearls, / and lipstick and perfume like most other girls.” Blech! I change that line whenever we come to it. I don’t like any text in children’s books that puts people in boxes, gender or otherwise, and this book definitely puts Ella and all little girls in a box.

Quibbles aside, however, the rhymes and illustration are a delight and this book has made it easier to get Little E to let me wash and brush her hair by adding an element of silliness. “If we don’t brush your hair, it will get so big it will sneak into the freezer and steal all the Popsicles! It will take up the whole house and there will be no room for the dog! We must brush your hair!“Any book that gets the kids giggling while we’re trying to get something done is a winner in my book. And in theirs.

Curious Garden spread

Review: The Curious Garden

The Curious Garden

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Author and illustrator: Peter Brown
Publisher: Word Alive (published April 2009)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0316015474
ISBN-13: 978-0316015479

I think I speak for everyone when I say that spring is our all-time favourite time of year in this house. Admittedly, Tall Dude’s favourite time of year is fall, and Little E and Tiny J kind of love every time of year. But I’m going to make an executive decision here and cast our family’s vote for spring. Sprouts are sprouting, flowers are blooming, and the snow tires are off the car (I really hope that wasn’t premature). Little E and I are planting a butterfly garden, which is happily a hard activity to mess up since native plants grow really easily (Little E mostly likes to sprinkle the seeds and then run off to jump on the trampoline, shouting “Okay, butterflies, we’re ready for you!”), and I’ve got all my veggies and herbs growing nicely. And we are reading lots of books about flowers. And vegetables. And birds. And butterflies. And curious gardens.

The Curious Garden is set in a dreary land with no trees or greenery of any kind — not a plant to be seen. People stay inside most of the time…except for Liam, who loves to explore in any kind of weather. One day, he finds a dark stairwell leading up to the old, defunct railway tracks, where he discovers…plants. Perhaps the last plants in existence! The wildlowers and plants are struggling, so Liam becomes a gardener. He cares for the plants and watches them spread and spread and spread, all over the railway, and, the following spring, down into the city.

Suddenly there are plants everywhere! And, what’s more, there are gardeners everywhere, as people take on the stewardship of the new plants and greenery.

Many years later, the entire city had blossomed. But of all the new gardens, Liam’s favorite was where it all began.

The story and the illustrations are what make this book and, its message about of nature reclaiming urban spaces, shine. You may recognize author/illustrator Peter Brown‘s name from Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and My Teacher is a Monster (No, I Am Not), both of which we very much enjoy. Little E and I love the images of bare feet on grassy steps, lively animal topiaries, and lush green plants spreading across a grey urban landscape. Little E’s favourite is the picture of Liam in disguise, sneaking plants into new places. This led to a conversation about seed bombing, an activity we’ve now got on the agenda for this coming weekend.

Where this book falls down a bit is the writing. There’s nothing exactly wrong with the writing, but the words don’t particularly sing. However, the illustrations are so winning and the story so lovely that The Curious Garden is still a winning pick for lovers of spring, for urban gardeners, for children who like to get dirty, and really for anyone who has ever smiled to see a flower popping up between the cracks in the sidewalk.

Review: Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night

Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 4-7
Author and illustrator: Jon Davis
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (published August 2014)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0544164660
ISBN-13: 978-0544164666

In the deepest, darkest hour of the night,
Small Blue woke up.

Small Blue awakes in her bed, thinking of creepy things and sneaky things and gnarly snarly teeth and boggling goggling eyes. She cries out for Big Brown and tells him she saw goblins. Well, she didn’t see them exactly, but she knows they’re there.

“But if it was dark,” asks Big Bear, “How do you know it wasn’t a delightful doggies’ Saturday-night unicycle convention?”

Good question.

Big Brown helps Small Blue work through her fears. Are there flappy bats with shifty eyes lurking in the dark? Or is it a smiley spacemen’s zero-gravity birthday party? When they turn on the light, it turns out that there are no bats and no spacemen either. Are there warty witches or clackety skeletons, or is it a retired-pirates’ annual sock-knitting jamboree? Neither, as it turns out.

Together, Small Blue and Big Brown enjoy mugs of warm milk and wonder if the stars are running a relay race around the moon. And now, when Small Blue wakes up in the deepest, darkest hour of the night, she waves…

…just in case there are delightful doggies, smiley spacemen, or retired pirates to wave back.

The lovingly illustrated picture-book equivalent of a mug of warm milk, Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night is a great place to turn if you’ve got a little one who’s having trouble sleeping or is working through some anxiety. The imagination game Big Brown and Small Blue play together would be a great jumping-off point for talking through any child’s worries.

Actually, I think it could work for grown-ups’ fears too. Let me know if you try it.

Kids Need Fairy Tales

Kids need fairytales

Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for my two-week absence. Little E’s magical fairyland daycare that I wrote about here turned out to be not a magical fairyland after all, and we found ourselves, extremely suddenly, without childcare. So I have been hard at work finishing up deadlines and winding up work while trying to keep my very confused three-year-old happy during an unexpected and challenging transition.

All of which brings me to the power of stories and, in particular, of fairy tales, which are great tools for kids during rough times.

Kids don’t seem to read fairy tales anymore. Parents sometimes feel like they’re drowning in a sea of kids’ books and in the overwhelm, it doesn’t always occur to us to pick up a copy of Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Plus, we always think, aren’t they terrifying? Doesn’t the hunstman kill the wolf and doesn’t the troll drown and do I really want to be reading these to my kids?

Yes. Yes you do.

Neil Gaiman put the power of these stories thus: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Children, particularly small children, live in a scary, uncertain world, where things can change quickly and they rarely have much control. People tell them how their day is going to go, what they’re going to eat, and how they are to behave, and they don’t always know what is going to happen to them next or what it will mean. They need stories where the brave hero comes through the dark, terrifying forest unscathed and where the troll will wash away down the river, never to be seen again. Parents like to protect children from dark ideas, but kids’ heads are already full of dark ideas. Giving a child a safe way to see those dark ideas expressed and to talk about them together is a positive way to help her realize that it’s okay to have those fears and to help her work through them with you.

It is true, however, that you should have a look at the book before you sit down to read it with your child. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales are famously terrifying, particularly if you get your hands on a translation of the original, which features stories such as “How the Children Played at Slaughtering,” in which a boy cuts his brother’s throat and is then stabbed in anger by his mother, who has left the other brother alone in the bath, where he drowns. She hangs herself, naturally, and the father dies of grief. Then there are problems with sexism and chauvinism and the idea that girls must be rescued by handsome princes and that their value can be quantified by their looks and how sensitive they are to a pea under their mattress. So I do recommend a look through the fairy tales you plan to read to your children in advance and also that you use them* as a jumping-off point to talk about some of these ideas.

That said, how do you find good versions of fairy tales to read? The best way is to have your local librarian in the children’s section point you in the direction of the fairy tale section and pick some you know your kiddo(s) will enjoy (I don’t recommend the Disney versions, which come replete with their own negative messages). Sometimes it’s fun to take out a few different versions of the same story (most libraries have a few of the classics, often including spoofs and sequels that can be fun to read) and let them decide which one they like. I do have just a few favourites to recommend but mostly I think you should have a browse through your local selection and read the ones that catch your eye!

(1) Brave Chicken Little  (2) Little Red Riding Hood

(3) Clever Jack Takes the Cake (4) A Bean, A Stalk, and a Boy Named Jack

(5) Three Little Pigs

(1) This pen-and-ink-illustrated version of Chicken Little is great fun to read (just try to race through the cast of characters: “Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Turkey Lurkey, Piggy Wiggy, Rabbit Babbit, Natty Ratty, Froggy Woggy, and Roly and Poly Moley” — and that’s before they meet the large Foxy Loxy family!) and features an interesting twist, in which the wee poultry hero turns the tables on the sly fox family and no cute animals are eaten. You could also read the version in which the heroes are cooked in the villain’s stew if you think your kids are up for it!

(2) This telling of Little Red Riding Hood stands out because of Trina Schart Hyman’s rich and evocative illustrations. It’s not a sanitized version of the story by any stretch, though, so be prepared.

(3) Clever Jack Takes the Cake may not be a traditional fairy tale, but it is a fairy tale nonetheless, and great fun to read. The book will probably get its own post in time, but pick it up to find out how poor Jack is going to make a cake and get it to the castle in time for the bored princess’s birthday party, against the odds and using all his wits and resources.

(4) This lighthearted tale falls into the spinoff category, riffing on the familiar story of plucky little Jack stealing from the Giants high above. But kids will delight in the story of King Blah Blah Blah, Jack and his cheerleading friend the talking bean, and a “smallish giant kid” named Don.

(5) All of the books in this read-along “Noisy Picture Book” audiobook series are great: Three Little PigsThree Billy Goats Gruff, and Little Red Hen. Each one comes with a CD, and the audio recordings are far better voice-acted than most children’s audiobooks, including sound effects and songs that even Tiny J can almost sing at eighteen months. We got Little E her own CD player (they’ve become so cheap now that they basically come free with cereal) and she loves to put these on and “read” along. The stories are funny, well illustrated, and pretty un-scary.

So hit up the library and fill yourselves up on tales of dragons, castles, sneaky wolves, and brave children! What are your kids’ favourite fairy tales?

*Perhaps not “How the Children Played at Slaughtering” specifically.

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!

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.

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.