Review: Courage of the Blue Boy


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Author and illustrator: Robert Neubecker
Publisher: Tricycle Press (published October 2006)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 1582461821
ISBN-13: 978-1582461823

There’s a lot of talk among parents and parenting “experts”* about the idea of grit. Grit is that elusive combination of resiliency and stick-to-it-iveness that is currently being regarded as being more important to achieving success in life than even your choice of preschool or your child’s consumption of kale. Some people say grit can be taught; some people think it’s a product of a child’s experience with adversity; and some people think it’s just a kind of lottery, like which kid will sleep through the night at six months or which kid will have a weird fear of butterflies.

I don’t know how to teach my daughters to have grit (to be gritty?). I don’t know how to give them the courage to keep trying when things get hard, or to believe in their own voice when others don’t agree, or to bounce back when the world is scary.

I only know that books are great teachers, so they’re a good place to start.

Courage of the Blue Boy is about a (blue) boy named Blue and his (blue) calf Polly, who leave their blue world behind in search of a more colourful experience. They explore all kinds of new places — red worlds, green worlds, orange worlds — and then at last they discover a beautiful city rich in the whole spectrum of colour…

…except for blue.

Blue is afraid. In the big city he can find nothing and no one that is blue like him.

So he has to summon the courage to put forth his blue ideas and his blue talents in the big colourful city, bit by bit, until at last the city feels his influence and bits of blue are everywhere among the other colours. “Blue began to breathe in all of the colors of the city, one by one. / They grew inside of him, pink and red and violet, green and purple and orange, white and black and yellow. / He wasn’t just blue anymore. / He was every color of the world.”

I’m not much for picture books whose sole vehicle is a moral message, but author/illustrator Robert Neubecker uses his bold drawings to move the story along smoothly, and the blend of simple story, rich illustration (I love how he brought the colourful city on the green ocean to life), and profound message means that the book can be enjoyed by a broad age range and be a jumping-off point for discussions about diversity and tolerance, courage, and, yes, grit. It certainly isn’t subtle, but if it’s hitting you on the head with a message hammer, the hammer is at least pleasant and brightly coloured.**

Will this book make your children more accepting of diversity or, er, grittier? I can’t tell you that, any more than I can tell you that if they eat kale they’ll live to be four hundred. But you’ve got to begin the conversation somewhere. And sitting down with a big colourful picture book featuring a boy and his calf, and talking with your kids about the beauty of different ideas and the importance of determination, sounds like a pretty good place to start.

Public service announcement: if you were born in the right era, you might just find that reading this book will firmly lodge the song “Blue” by Eiffel 65 into your head, possibly forever. Consider yourselves warned.

*I use quotes because I just don’t think that anyone can be an expert at parenting — that would be like being an expert at living, or an expert on the universe, or an expert on circumstances.

** Courage of the Blue Boy is certainly a far cry from the moral instruction in early children’s books, one of my favourites of which is the exceptionally macabre tale of moral purity A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children, in which spiritually strong but physically weak children meet their demises in a variety of ways.



Review: Perfectly Percy


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 2-6
Author and illustrator: Paul Schmid
Publisher: HarperCollins (published January, 2013)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0061804363
ISBN-13: 978-0061804366

While we were packing up to go to a cottage with family this past weekend, Little E seemed deeply concerned about the potential presence of porcupines. I reassured here that we were very unlikely to see a porcupine at the cottage (I did not mention that there might be some porcupine remains on the highway we would traverse to get there) and that if we did see one it would be quite likely to run away as fast as its fat little legs could take it. Still, my three-year-old persisted (don’t they always?). Would there be porcupines? Would they come into the cottage? We would be celebrating Tiny J’s first birthday and my niece’s fourth at the cottage, and Little E was adamant that the porcupines would not be welcome at the birthday parties. Eventually, in response to what I do not know, she relented. They could come, but only if they brought their cereal bowls.

I had no idea what my bizarre child was on about.

When we arrived at the cottage, my mother greeted Little E with a hug and the words “There better not be any porcupines around here!” and I finally put my foot down and demanded to know WHAT exactly was going on with these bloody porcupines.

My mom handed me a copy of Perfectly Percy she had read to Little E recently and the mystery was solved. Porcupines could not attend the birthday parties because they might pop the balloons.

Percy is a little porcupine with a predictably ill-fated love of balloons. When he can’t keep his balloons from popping on his pointy quills, he doesn’t want to cry or give up, so he thinks. He thinks and he thinks and he thinks, and then he asks his big sister Pearl for ideas. When her suggestion — little marshmallows on the ends of all of Percy’s quills — doesn’t pan out, Percy goes back to thinking for himself. Over his breakfast cereal, his thoughts finally coalesce into a beautiful idea. A cereal bowl on his head provides protection for the balloons and Percy and his balloons can have all the fun they want together. Have fun, Percy!

The story and the pictures in Perfectly Percy are both sweet and simple — and the words few enough that a younger child can follow along — but both also have enough depth to maintain interest over several readings and to hold the attention of a preschooler or kindergartener. Percy is a porcupine with personality, no two ways about it, and kids will relate to the challenges he faces while he tries to come up with a solution to his problem, including a mother who’s too busy to help him and distracting thoughts of ice cream. The subtle messages about perseverance and thinking for oneself are also bonuses in my (metaphorical) book.

Be warned, however: your child is very likely to try to put her cereal bowl on her head after reading this story, so it might be an idea to have a clean one around to avoid a problem I’m going to call Milk Hair. I’m just saying.

Review: Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Age: 3-6
Author and illustrator: Chris Rachka
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade (published April 2013)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0375870075
ISBN-13: 978-0375870071

Little E, my three-year-old, is many things. She is perceptive, intelligent, creative, kind, and intuitive.

She is not, however, the most co-ordinated child.

She comes by this honestly. Her father and I are not exactly graceful ballerinas. Tall Guy played football under duress in high school because he was big, until he broke his collarbone. I never found a sport I could play well until I hit upon roller derby — a sport, I am grateful to add, at which you can excel with relatively little grace. I’m not the best roller derby player, but I do have some skill, mostly in the field of brute force.

Anyway, I digress. The situation is that Little E can’t ride her balance bike. All her little friends can zip around on their little bikes and E just walks around, her bike between her knees and her pink helmet perched on her head, her mood alternating between fierce concentration and consuming despair. “It’s not gonna stop wobbling!” she wails, letting her bike fall to the ground. When I suggest we take a break, though, she refuses. What can I say? My family might not be gazelles, but we’re nothing if not determined. But she’s very frustrated with the process. So I defaulted to my usual strategy: I reserved all of the library’s picture books about bicycles, hoping to find one that would help Little E understand that someday the bike will stop wobbling, as long as she doesn’t give up.

Having run through five or six books about bicycles (PS never read Froggy Rides a Bike), I was delighted to come across Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle. The pace is gentle and the watercolour illustrations bold and expressive. The tone is pitch-perfect; without talking down to his young readers, Raschka perfectly captures the frustrations involved in the (sometimes gruelling) process of learning how to ride a bicycle. The young protagonist struggles to pedal on grass, falls when she attempts a small hill, and needs plenty of hugs and encouragement. “Find the courage,” we read, “to try it again, and again, again, and again, and again, until” — we see a series of illustrations of the young bicyclist taking tumble after tumble — “by luck, grace, and determination, you are riding / a bicycle!”

After we read the story a few times over the course of several days, we attempted the bike again. When Little E felt frustrated, we said together “try again, and again, and again, and again!” She’s not there yet, but for the first time, the bike ride attempt involved zero tears. We’ll try again tomorrow. And again. And again. And again.

Review: Emily’s House

Emily's House EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Age: 1-3
Author: Niko Scharer
Illustrator: Joanne Fitzgerald
Publisher: Groundwood Books (March 2010)
Pages: 24
ISBN-10: 0888998317
ISBN-13: 978-0888998316

There is an old Jewish story about a farmer whose noisy wife and children and grandparents are driving him crazy. The farmer goes to see his rabbi, who advises him to bring some chickens into his house. Then the rabbi tells him to bring his sheep inside. Then the cows. All the clucking, baaing, and mooing is driving the farmer up the wall, and he asks the rabbi what he should do now. The rabbi tells him to send all of the animals out of his house, and as soon as he does, peace reigns in his home, and the noise of his family doesn’t seem so bad after all. The message is about perspective: we can control how we react to the challenges the world presents.

Emily’s House is a retelling of the classic folk tale, beginning with a little girl (named Emily, of course), whose peace in her little brick house is disturbed by a creaking door and a squeaking mouse. The mouse sends her out to get first a cat, then a dog, then a sheep, and so on, until her house is filled with a cacaphony of bleating, cooing, barking animals. At last the mouse sends the animals away in a parade across the hills, “[a]nd the door went creak / And the mouse went squeak / And Emily listened, and Emily smiled! / And she sighed the sigh of a happy child. / ‘Cause all she heard in her little brick house / Was a small sort of creak and the squeak of a mouse.” With winsome illustrations and melodic rhymes, as well as that magical children’s book hallmark, repetition, Emily’s House will win the hearts of young readers (not only mine, who happens to be named Emily).