Review: Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-6
Author and illustrator: Bob Shea
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion (published June 2013)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 1423159527
ISBN-13: 978-1423159520

Things are a lot different around here since that Unicorn moved in.

Nothing’s been going right for Goat since Unicorn moved to town. Goat bikes to school; Unicorn flies. Goat shows off his magic tricks; Unicorn turns stuff into gold. Goat bakes marshmallow squares “that almost came out right”; Unicorn makes it rain cupcakes.

Goat sulks, full of resentment for this flashy newcomer and his magical capabilities, when Unicorn comes over to investigate his goat cheese pizza. Turns out poor Unicorn can only eat glitter and rainbows (“Darn my sensitive stomach!”). Maybe being a unicorn is not all it’s cracked up to be — and maybe Goat and Unicorn can find a way to be friends.

This book is a giggler, that’s for sure. Some of the humour flies a bit over young kids’ heads — I loved Goat’s fantasy of a Goat/Unicorn crime-fighting duo: “Taste my cloven justice! You’ve been unicorned!” but none of the six or eight kids I’ve read this to seem to catch the old-school superhero references — but I have no problem with a book that tosses the occasional humour bone to the beleaguered parental reader (thanks!) and there’s plenty in this story to keep kids of all ages laughing. The sketchy, irreverent illustrations are a spot-on match for the cheeky text and there’s not a child alive who can’t relate to the idea of being upstaged by a flashier friend. A great jumping-off point for a chat about jealousy, friendship, and how everyone is different, or a silly read that will have you and your kiddo tittering. Your pick.


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: Open This Little Book


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Author: Jesse Klausmeier
Illustrator: Suzy Lee
Publisher: Chronicle Books (published December 2012)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0811867838
ISBN-13: 978-0811867832

Welcome back! I hope everyone got to have a wonderful holiday and that the holiday hangover has come to an end for all you parents out there. I don’t mean a headache from all that bourbon you snuck into your eggnog, but rather the brutal whininess that seems to come on the heels of any period of relaxed rules, of which the period between about November twenty-fifth and January tenth seems to be, at least around these parts. Candy, toys, gifts, cake, too much excitement and not enough sleep — it’s a perfect storm for meltdowns. We’ve gone into simplicity boot camp around here as part of our recovery from the madness of Christmastime: we’re doing less, taking things a bit more slowly, and simplifying our activities as we try to get back into routine. (If you haven’t read Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne, it’s a great read about how doing less and simplifying your life can make a huge impact on you and your kids.)

Anyway, as we return to simplicity, I wanted to share a book with everyone that celebrates something quite simple: the magic of the simple, physical existence of a book. Open This Little Book turns traditional book construction upside down…to celebrate the wonder of books themselves. The book begins with a purple book-inside-the-book, which invites the reader to “Open this…Little Red Book,” another book-inside-the-book. The nested books get smaller and smaller as we read a story about a ladybug, who reads a story about a frog, who reads a story about a rabbit, who reads a story about a bear, who reads a story about a giant, whose friends read her a story about…” Well, you’ll have to pick up the book to find out. Little E loves “reading” this book on her own, utterly tickled by the pages that shrink and grow and by the joke about the giant whose hands are too big to read her Little Rainbow Book. She is also captivated by the endpapers, which are a little bit unusual. The whole book, which could easily be a gimmicky throwaway, has been thoughtfully put together and charmingly illustrated to capture the attention of big and little readers and to celebrate all the wonder of reading in one little book — well, several, one inside the other.

Review: The Seven Silly Eaters

download (7) EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Author: Mary Ann Hoberman
Illustrator: Marla Frazee
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Reprint edition (reprinted August 2000)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0152024409
ISBN-13: 978-0152024406

[Update: Little E’s magical fairyland daycare turned out not to be a magical fairyland after all. We have parted ways, and not amicably. They sure did make nice bowls there, though.]

Little E goes to a magical fairyland daycare. Seriously. I sometimes can’t even believe it’s a real place. They do yoga. They paint watercolours by the lake. They make dancing ribbons to twirl with during their daily music session. They play with wooden toys from Denmark. No macaroni noodles glued to construction paper here — E and her friends rolled out clay with lace and over weeks of glazing, created these artful bowls. F’reals — this was made by my three-year-old.


Some days, when Little E is kicking up a fuss about leaving the house, I want to say, “Fine, kiddo. You stay here and care for the grumpy baby” — it’s molar time for Tiny J — “and I will go to daycare for you.” Spend a day playing dress-up, romping outside with the bunnies and the chickens (I’m not even kidding), and napping? Sign me up.

At Magical Fairyland Daycare, they also eat beautiful, homemade meals made with local, organic ingredients, and the kids eat everything that is put in front of them. So when the lovely caregiver who runs Little E’s daycare recommends a kids’ book about picky eaters, I’m all ears. She’s been working with kids for a long times, and she knows what she’s talking about, and I could use some of her magic.

Mrs. Peters, the beleaguered mother in The Seven Silly Eaters, has a new baby boy named Peter (yes, Peter Peters). Peter “did not like his milk served cold. / He did not like his milk served hot. He liked it warm… / And he would not / Drink it if he was not sure / It was the proper temperature.” Mrs. Peter is one patient lady, and she’s okay with this. Then along comes baby Lucy, who will only drink pink lemonade. Little Jack is next, who will eat nothing but applesauce. You see where this is going: seven children has Mrs. Peters, and not a one will eat the same thing as the others. Between all the demands, the poor mother can hardly cope: “Creamy oatmeal, pots of it! / Homemade bread and lots of it! / Peeling apples by the peck, / Mrs. Peters was a wreck.”

The day before Mrs. Peters’ birthday, she goes wearily up to bed, to gird her loins for another day of drudgery, but the children concoct a plan to make her breakfast in bed. Unfortunately, not a one of the kids can cook, and all their favourite foods get mixed up together and thrown in the oven. When Mrs. Peters awakens, the whole family is floored to find that they have made “a pink and plump and perfect cake!” Everyone is overjoyed and the Peters Cake becomes their everyday meal — ” A single simple meal — just one — / A meal that’s good for everyone.” And best of all, “they all take turns in mixing it. / They all take turns in fixing it. It’s thick to beat and quick to bake — ” / It’s fine to eat and fun to make / It’s Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake!”

The sprightly rhymes of Mary Ann Hoberman bounce right along and Marla Frizee’s rich illustrations are worth looking at carefully: watch the seasons change, notice Mrs. Peters’ descent into frazzle-dom as more and more children are added to her life, and enjoy the realistic depiction of family life: a runaway baby during a diaper change, the constant need for more groceries, a little boy sitting on the toilet in his winter coat with the bathroom door open as his brother merrily brings an armload of snowballs into the house. Little E enjoys pointing out what all the characters are up to in the different scenes (her favourite is when baby Mac dumps a spoonful of oatmeal on the cat while the dog is eating out of his bowl) and the mess in the Peters household somehow made me feel a tiny bit better about the current state of my own home.

The best part of the book? The take-home message is that everyone needs to be involved in making food for the family, and that being a pickypants is not helpful. It’s also been a reminder to me to involve Little E more in meal planning — though my attempts to do so have met with limited success: we leafed through the wonderful Weelicious cookbook together and she conceded that she might be willing to try one new recipe as long as it is in nugget form. At Magical Fairyland Daycare, though, I am told that she eats everything that is put in front of her. Maybe if we read this book a few more times, that attitude will (magically) take hold here too. Although I suspect we would meet with more success if we ate cake at every meal too.



Review: Oh, No!

ohno EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 2-6
Author: Candace Fleming
Illustrator: Eric Rohmann
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade (published September 2012)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0375842713
ISBN-13: 978-0375842719

One of the hallmarks of richly rhythmic language in a children’s book is if it gets stuck in your head like a catchy song.

For me, anyway. Maybe you lot don’t hear voices the way I do.

What? Stop looking at me that way.

Oh, No! is set in the Asian jungle, inexplicably a less attractive setting for writers and illustrators than the African jungle. For parents who have tired of reading books about lions and giraffes, the location offers a refreshing change of pace as well as several creatures children may not have encountered before, such as a loris and a sun bear. There is a deep, deep hole in the jungle floor, and one by one, the animals fall in and become trapped: a frog, a mouse, a loris, sun bear, and a monkey. Lurking nearby is a hungry tiger who is pleased to find a generous meal conveniently trapped for him. But before he can get to any of the terrified animals “[… the ground bumble-rumbled and began to shake. / BA-BOOM! / BA-BOOM! / … The ground bumbled-rumbled and quake-shake-quaked.” The heroic elephant arrives just in time to help his friends out of their predicament — and the tiger finds himself at the bottom of the deep, deep hole. “Oh, no!”

Children will love chiming in with the repeated refrain — “Oh, no!” — as the animals tumble into the hole, and small details such as the loris’s allergy to cats (including tigers) and the fate of the careless monkey will delight readers of all ages. Eric Rohmann’s striking illustrations make an absolutely perfect accompaniment to the text: Rohmann plays with perspective so that much of the book looks up from the bottom of the deep, deep hole, plunging the young reader right in there with the trapped animals (is that the tip of the tiger’s tail we see?). Refreshingly, the writing is musical without rhyming, and the animal sounds are vividly captured ( though the monkey’s cry of “Wheee-haaa!” was offensive to Little E, who insists that monkeys can only say “ooh ooh ah ah.”). And if you’re like me, you might find yourselves washing dishes while mumbling “Loris inched down from his banyan tree. Soo-slooow! Soo-slooow!….” But I’m starting to think that might just be me. Well, it’s better than the six-month period I spent with “99 Luftballons” ricocheting around my head, or listening to Tall Dude whistling his perennial earworm, the theme song to Super Mario Brothers 2.*

Incidentally, if you or your wee one find yourselves unhappy with the ending, in which the animals head off together and leave the tiger trapped in the deep, deep hole, look carefully at the last illustration: the tiger escapes to live another day.

*It’s been stuck in his head since we started dating. Twelve years ago.

Review: Hog in the Fog

hog EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Age: 3-8
Author: Julia Copus
Illustrator: Eunyoung Seo
Publisher: Faber Children’s Books (March 2012)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0571307213
ISBN-13: 978-0571307210

This is a long review. Sorry. Feel free to skip to the end to watch a YouTube video of a fat British psychic reading this story to you.

When an award-winning poet writes a children’s book, I’m interested.

Julia Copus’s poetry collections have won the Eric Gregory Award for young poets and been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot prize. I didn’t know that when Little E happened to pick up her first children’s book, Hog in the Fog, at the library the other day, but I like to Google kids’ book authors and it’s right there on her Wikipedia page. “A poet!” I thought. “Perhaps she can rhyme!”

As I’ve complained about before (and likely will again), most rhyming kids’ books have weak metre, where syllables are shoehorned into lines to squeeze the words in, piles of near-rhymes (“sing” and “thin” do not rhyme), and little of the lively, dancing poetry that marks a beautiful rhyming children’s book. These are the books that teach children what rhyme is; these are their first examples of the musicality of rhythmic language. Children deserve better. So when the mouse on the cover caught Little E’s eye and she asked me to read her this poet-penned book, I was in, despite my fear of tusked pigs*.

I was not disappointed. Hog in the Fog features two unlikely friends, Candystripe Lil (a charming wee mouse in a red coat and candy-striped bonnet) and Harry (the eponymous hog, whose diminutive tusks are relatively unthreatening). Lil prepares a tea-time feast for her friend Harry — older children especially will be tickled by the gross-out spread that includes “southern-fried lizard / and earwig fudge, /  a very large bowl of barnacle sludge” — and when he doesn’t show, sets out to find him in the fog. She is joined by three new friends, each of whom has glimpsed a clue and joins the hunt for Harry. Eunyoung Seo’s enchanting illustrations accompany the musical rhymes, with each character strikingly captured (Little E loves the sheep with his blue bandana and my favourite is the deer, whose antlers are decorated with vines, leaves, flowers, and butterflies). Little E also loves the onomatopoeic sounds of the animals walking together in the growing fog: pittery pattery / tippety tappety / munch crunch / tac tac tac / qwaa-aark as Lil, the sheep, the deer, and the crow look for Harry. Together, they find a surprise: the THING they found in the fog, stuck in a bog, and worked together to pull free, is none other than the lost hog himself, tiny tusks and all. “Is there still time for tea?” Harry wonders, and they all head over to Lil’s house to enjoy the feast together.

Hog in the Fog, published this year, is clearly intended as the first in a series (at least “A Harry and Lil story” implies that there will be more), which is good because little E, who has already learned to look at the back of a book to see if there are covers of other similar books we could get, was disappointed to see no further Harry and Lil adventures currently available. So she (okay, we) wrote a letter to Ms. Julia Copus asking if there would be more, and Little E asked if the sheep, deer, and crow could please be featured in future books. So, really, you’ll have Little E to thank for future Harry and Lil stories.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, please enjoy this video to British psychic Russell Grant reading Hog in the Fog by Julia Copus and Eunyoung Seo.

*Having been tusked in the thigh by a warthog in Zimbabwe, I am wary of tusked pigs, even friendly talking British ones on their way to enjoy tea with a mouse.

Review: A Visitor for Bear

A-Visitor-for-Bear-by-Bonny-BeckerEditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Age: 2-5
Author: Bonny Becker
Illustrator: Kady MacDonald Denton
Publisher: Candlewick (August 2012)
Pages: 56
ISBN-10: 0763646113
ISBN-13: 978-0763646110

We’re all about bears over here. Little E (2.5) is forever telling me there’s a scary bear in her room, or a friendly bear sitting at the table, or a friendly scary bear standing in our backyard. We spend a lot of time pretending to hide from scary bears, and friendly bears — I’m not sure Little E is precisely sure about the difference. Fortunately, we live downtown, so she is unlikely to have to judge the intentions of an approaching ursine. This is especially good since I’ve told her that she can get rid of a scary bear by clapping her hands and yelling “Go away, scary bear!”  This is not part of the Ministry of Environment’s recommended Bear Safety Plan.

Anyway, she usually picks out books about bears from the library these days. I’m cool with it; bears are neat. Some of the bear books are better than others. I’ve already told you how much we’ve enjoyed Karma Wilson’s bear series, and now we’ve found a new bear book that turns out to be the first in a series as well. A Visitor for Bear features a misanthropic bear who protects his solitude with a No Visitors Allowed Sign and a plucky mouse, whom I always imagine speaking in a high-pitched upper-crust English accent (my read-alouds of this book are a bit flawed as I don’t do a very good English accent), who is determined to visit for at the very least a cup of tea. The bear only wants to make his breakfast, but when he finds he can’t keep his visitor out — he finds him in the bread drawer, the fridge, and the teakettle — he discovers that perhaps company is not so very bad after all. The combination of Becker’s characters’ personalities and absolutely winning prose with Denton’s spot-on watercolour illustrations works together to bring Bear and Mouse to life believably, humorously, and unforgettably. Little E has been asking for A Visitor for Bear several times a day. We can’t wait to read more in this series.

Review: A House is a House for Me


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Age: 3-6
Author: Mary Ann Hoberman
Illustrator: Betty Fraser
Publisher: Puffin (September 2007)
Pages: 48
ISBN-10: 0142407739
ISBN-13: 978-0142407738

I live in a house, but where does an ant live? A whale? A hickory nut? This merry exploration of all kinds of houses answers these questions in spirited rhyme (“A web is a house for a spider. / A bird builds its nest in a tree. / There is nothing so snug as a bug in a rug / And a house is a house for me!”) and broadens the question farther to wonder at how “A mirror’s a house for reflections” and “A throat is a house for a hum.”

A House is a House for Me was originally published in 1978, and its age does sometimes show. Few picture books published today, for example, would contain this rhyme: “An igloo’s a house for an Eskimo. / A tepee’s a house for a Cree. / A pueblo’s a house for a Hopi. / And a wigwam may hold a Mohee.” It’s just one page, though, so you can go ahead and act the same way you do when your elderly grandma talks about “that nice coloured fellow” or your ageing father-in-law says “honolable Japanee so solly” when he steps on your toe: smile awkwardly and change the subject. Or, even better, you could use the page as the start of a discussion about stereotypes and diversity and get some books featuring First Nations and Inuit protagonists out of the library to explore together.

A House is a House for Me is a curious child’s-eye-view examination of where everyone, and everything lives, and will certainly lead you and your little one to look a little more closely at the world around you and wonder what the houses are for everything you pass. “Cartons are houses for crackers. / Castles are houses for kings. / The more that I think about houses, / The more things are houses for things.” You may find, after reading this book, that you are looking at the world just a little differently too!

Review: Bubble Trouble

Bubble Trouble EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Age: 3-8
Author: Margaret Mahy
Illustrator: Polly Dunbar
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (published May 2013)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0547994834
ISBN-13: 978-0547994833

Parents often underestimate their children’s ability to absorb new vocabulary. We might know that a word is considered difficult, but our children have no such preconceptions. While it’s important to choose books at an appropriate reading level for your child, it’s equally important — and piles of fun — to throw in some books with words beyond their current abilities. If the language is engaging enough and the illustrations sufficiently beguiling, your little reader will enjoy the book, learning some great new words rather than becoming frustrated. A great book to try this out is Bubble Trouble by Margaret Mahy. This wild linguistic romp concerns a baby who flies off, stuck in a bubble blown by his sister. Mother is terrified and the townspeople are stumped: how to get Baby down safely? As well as being a tongue-twister to read (“At the sudden cry of trouble, Mother took off at the double, / for the squealing left her reeling, made her terrified and tense, / saw the bubble for a minute, with the baby bobbing in it, / as it bibbled by the letterbox and bobbed across the fence”), Bubble Trouble is a great introduction to words rarely seen in picture books: this week, my two-year-old and I have been discussing the meaning of words like “quibble,” “cavil,” “grovel,” and “divest.” I think a preschooler might get more from the book than my toddler does, but she still loves reading it. Spoiler alert: the baby is safely caught in a patchwork quilt.