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.


Review: Hooray for Hat!


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-6
Author and illustrator: Brian Won
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (published June 2014)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0544159039
ISBN-13: 978-0544159037

If we could all teach our children how powerful kindness can be, do you think we could change the world?

Or maybe what is required to change the world is…funny hats.

Hooray for Hat! opens with an elephant who wakes up in a seriously bad mood. When he hears the doorbell ring, he stomps down the stairs.


Only to discover someone has left him a present.

A tall stack of silly hats.

It is decidedly difficult to stay grumpy when you’re wearing a cowboy hat, a crown, a hat with a cup holder, a hat with a cuckoo coming out of it, and a hat with a striped awning. Cheered, Elephant goes to show Zebra, but Zebra doesn’t want to know about his hats because he too is in a bad mood. “GO AWAY! I’M GRUMPY!” Elephant gives Zebra a party hat, which brightens his day, and they go off to show Turtle. The pattern repeats itself, as grumpy animals all over the (minimally but boldly illustrated) forest lose their cantankerousness in the face of preposterously silly hats. “HOORAY FOR HAT!” each friend shouts as frowns are turned upside down, until they meet Lion, who is too worried about his friend Giraffe’s state of mind to be cheered by his hat. So the friends parade over to Giraffe’s and offer him the box of hats. “HOORAY FOR FRIENDS!”

This debut picture book by author and illustrator Brian Won is utterly simple and utterly lovely. Kids and adults will love shouting “HOORAY FOR HAT!” (I found myself shouting it today while we were bundling up to head outside into the snow, and suddenly Little E was less resistant to pulling her fleece hat on) — try it if you don’t believe me. It’s fun to shout. But be warned that you may be met with the occasional shout of “GO AWAY! I’M GRUMPY!”

Simple though it may be, the book communicates its important message unequivocally: small acts of kindness spread happiness wherever you go, even in the face of great grumpiness.

In the words of Brian Won, HOORAY FOR HAT! In the words of Ted “Theodore” Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esquire, be excellent to each other.


Review: The Pout-Pout Fish


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 3/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book (also available as a board book)
Ages: 2-5
Author: Deborah Diesen
Illustrator: Dan Hanna
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Published March 2008)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0374360960
ISBN-13: 978-0374360962

We can’t always control what happens. In fact, we rarely can. But we can always control how we choose to react.

The Pout-Pout Fish is kind of a dopey book about a silly fish with a frowny face who mopes all over the ocean. “I’m a pout-pout fish / With a pout-pout face, / So I spread the dreary-wearies / All over the place. / BLUB / BLUUUB / BLUUUUUUUB.” His friends in the sea try to convince him to cheer up: first a clam, then a jellyfish, then a squid. But nobody can cheer up the “glum gloomy swimmer” — the pout-pout fish tells everyone that his frowny face and miserable demeanour are out of his control as he flops all over the place. Even the straight-talking octopus can’t get him to turn his frown upside down.

Then along comes a beautiful purple fish whom no one has seen before. This vision of loveliness plants a big kiss on the pout-pout fish’s pout…and then swims away.

“Mr. Fish is most astounded. / Mr. Fish is just aghast. / He is stone-faced like a statue. / Then he blinks, and speaks at last.” He announces to everyone that he has been wrong all along: “I’m a kiss-kiss fish / With a kiss-kiss face / For spreading cheery-cheeries / All over the place! / So I’ll SMOOCH / SMOOCH/ SMOOCH / SMOOCH!”

Okay, so this book is not going to win any great prizes in western literature. But I bring it to your attention for three reasons: (1) Little E loves to say the BLUB BLUUUUB BLUUUUUBS and the smooches, and she gets a huge kick out of my pouty voice, so it’s a terrific book to read aloud, (2) the illustrations are lively and tons of fun, and (3) This book is a great jumping-off point for talking about how we are all in control of our reactions. I won’t get too deep into the subject because Tiny J is about five minutes away from waking up from her nap very hungry, but I really do believe that we can protect our children from depression by teaching them to be optimistic and by talking about feelings and how we react to them.

I think every parent and teacher should read Martin Seligman’s The Optimistic Child, which teaches parents how to teach their children to take charge of how they see the world: not to see everything through rose-coloured glasses, but to realize that bad news and unfortunate events are just events, that sadness is not forever, and that we are not our moods or our feelings. This is the principle behind the silly pout-pout fish: he realizes that he doesn’t have to be miserable or bring everyone around him down. He can choose to spread cheery-cheeries rather than dreary-wearies.

I see the book as a metaphor: the pout-pout fish, who suffers from major depressive disorder, receives cognitive behavioural therapy in the form of a kiss from the purple fish, and learns to take charge of his moods and change his maladaptive behaviours and cognitive processes, ending his depression and inspiring him to help others. How lovely.

Gotta go get that baby. How’s your day going? I hope you have more cheery-cheeries than dreary-wearies.

Review: My Many Colored Days


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book (also available as a board book)
Ages: 2-7
Author: Dr. Seuss
Illustrator: Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (published August 1996)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0679875972
ISBN-13: 978-0679875970

Every parent is familiar with the core books of the Seuss canon: The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. I hope your shelves also contain the lesser-known Seuss gems such as I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew and The Butter Battle Book. But even dedicated Seussians might have passed this one by, or fail to recognize its author, since it lacks the familiar and fabulous Seuss illustrations and it was published after the good doctor’s death.

The book is a first-person child’s account of feelings and how they change from day to day. “On Bright Red Days / how good it feels / to be a horse / and kick my heels! / On other days I’m other things. / On Bright Blue Days / I flap my wings.” Brown days are “slow and low. low down” and pink days are happy days, for jumping more than thinking. Some days are mixed-up, of course, “and wham! / I don’t know who / or what I am!” Expressive painted spreads by husband and wife illustration team Johnson and Fancher maintain some of the sense of whimsy that can’t seem to be separated from Dr. Seuss’s work, but in a new way, with monodimensional gingerbread-man-style painted cutouts changing colour and morphing into busy bees and howling wolves and lonely dinosaurs.

The book’s writing lacks the rollicking, boisterous rhymes and silly but captivating nonsense of the more famous Seuss stories. But the simple pairing of moods with colours and descriptions of feelings work very well and the book performs a crucial role on a child’s shelf: illustrating and naming feelings and teaching children about emotions. All kids struggle with their feelings; their brains are still working out how to process and express emotions. Frankly, this is something that many an adult struggles with too, so consider picking up a copy of My Many Colored Days for your emotionally stunted adult friends next time you’re wondering the bookstore aisles.

Review: I Feel Happy

I Feel Happy

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Board book
Age: 0-2
Series: Little Learners Slide and See
Publisher: Parragon Books (March 2012)
Pages: 8 (plus slide-out tabs)
ISBN-10: 1445457369
ISBN-13: 978-1445457369

I have an automatic dislike for any book that doesn’t list an author. That’s usually a very bad sign. It usually means that the publisher’s emphasis was on production values rather than the words or the images, and it often makes for a book that is more glitter than anything else. Books that don’t credit authors or illustrators almost always rely on a gimmick for sales. They may be shiny, but they’re not good. This book may be the exception to my rule: it has very simple text and images, but in this case they work well with each other and with the gimmick: in this case, pull-out “slide and see” tabs. The book explains a wide variety of emotions in easy-to-understand terms with straightforward examples: “I feel happy…when I’m with my family. I feel sad…when I say goodbye to Grandma.” The young reader can pull out a tab that continues: “I feel loved…by Mommy and Daddy.” For a toddler who is just starting to put names to some of the (frequently overwhelming) emotions he or she is feeling, this book is a great read. Toddlers can learn what it means to feel shy, to feel grumpy, to feel bored, and more, while feeling safe and snug in a loved one’s lap.