Peppe the Lamplighter, by Elisa Bartone

Peppe the Lamplighter, by Elisa Bartone

It’s loosely based on a story about the author’s Italian grandfather. (Elisa Bartone’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from a town near Naples, according to the book’s jacket.) She dedicates Peppe the Lamplighter to the memory of her grandparents and her father. And illustrator Ted Lewin just dedicates it “to the American Dream.”

It’s a sad story about Peppe, who lives in a tenement. His mother is dead and his father is sick, and “he had to work to help support his sisters: Giulia, Adelina, Nicolina, Angelina, Assunta, Mariuccia, Filomena, and Albina.” The last sister still lives in Naples with her uncle, a priest who runs the orphanage. Peppe visits the shops in Little Italy, hoping to find a job.

Illustrator Ted Lewin “has loved Little Italy since he first moved to New York,” according to the book’s jacket, and he draws beautiful pictures of the people in Peppe’s neighborhood. There’s a white-haired butcher (with a bristly moustache and a top hat), and “Fat Mary” who makes the cigars. A bar full of businessmen even watch as Peppe asks Don Salvatore, the bartender, for a job washing glasses. And word finally spreads to Domenico, the skinny lamplighter, who says he’s “going back to Italy to get my wife.”

Lewin’s illustrations bring the story to life, including touching pictures of the boy’s family waiting for him at home. But Bartone’s text gives each character a real personality. “Did I come to America for my son to light the streetlamps?” the proud father rails. And after he slams the door behind him, all the sisters contribute different words of support. “It’s a GOOD job, Peppe,” says his sister Assunta.

Peppe walks down the street at twilight, and opens the glass of each streetlamp to light it, and the description makes it seem exhilarating. Bartone describes it as a “joyful” feeling, and the boy imagined each small flame to represent promise for the future. “It was almost like lighting candles in the church for special favors from the saints,” Bartone writes, and the boy makes wishes for each of his sisters.

“This one for Giulia, may she have the chance to marry well… This for my mother, may she look on us with pleasure…”

The angry father heckles him from the window, while even Fat Mary tries to coax him to smile. But one night Peppe doesn’t go to work – and his little sister gets lost in the dark. The father agonizes over his missing bambina, and finally has a change of heart. “‘The streets are dark, Peppe… Tonight the job of lamplighter is an important job. Please, Peppe, light the lamps.

“You will make me proud.”

The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill, by Mirra Ginsburg

The Sun's Asleep Behind the Hill, by Mirra Ginsburg

In 1982 Mirra Ginsburg adapted an Armenian song into a beautiful bedtime picture book. “The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill” reads like a lullaby, describing the arrival of a peaceful evening as it’s greeted by the creatures around the world. Simple words are written in bold letters – it could easily be a child’s very first book. But best of all, all the sentences rhyme!

“The sun shone in the sky all day,
the sun grew tired and went away…”

The breeze notes that the sun sleeps behind a hill, signaling “It’s time that I was still.” The leaves notice the sleeping breeze, and decide they’ll also take a rest. Soon the birds notice the resting leaves and also relax, and a nut-gathering squirrel notices the relaxing birds, and curls up in its hollow branch. Then a mother with her child notes the sleeping squirrel, and then carries home her own sleeping child.

“It’s time for you to rest.”

But the story holds one last surprise – one creature that discovers that all the world’s asleep. An orange moon creeps into the sky, and declares “I am alone!” The sun is asleep, the breeze is still, the bird is quiet, and the leaves sleep over the lake. Even the child is at rest, and the moon survey’s the empty landscape in a grand, silvery drawing.

“I am alone. And I will shine with a silver light
in the wide, silent sky all night.”

Paul O. Zelinsky contributed illustrations that are colorful and detailed. As the sun sets, there’s a cat on a fence, picnickers leaving the grass, and a man rowing a boat across a shadowy lake. Zelinsky uses pastel colors, and his colorful impressionism gives the book a friendly tone – even as the colors turn darker to show sleepers on a quiet night. Drawings of nature suggest a calm dusk, as a pink sunset reflects in the grey-blue of a lake. And sometimes Zelinsky’s careful illustrations seem to capture the magic of life, like the drawing where leaves of several trees are lit by the sun as their branches bend in the wind…

“The leaves grew tired, they do not shake,
they are asleep over the lake.”

The real purpose of a bedtime story is to lull a child to sleep. And this book seems like it could accomplish that with both relaxing pictures and a simple story that repeats the same words – all about how it’s time to rest. The book’s cover calls it a “just-right bedtime book.” And I’d have to agree.

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon ScieszkaIt was the first collaboration Jon Scieszka did with Lane Smith, and it was a huge success. (The writer-illustrator team would later team up on six more books according to Wikipedia). Smith’s imaginative drawings are the perfect complement to Scieszka’s stories, which include parodies and twists on familiar fairy tales. And it was in 1989 that Sciezska delivered “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.”

“I don’t know how this whole Big Bad Wolf thing got started,” the narrator explains, “but it’s all wrong.” It turns out it’s the wolf himself, who seems surprisingly genuinely unthreatening. (He wears harmless spectacles, and his name is Alexander.) “[N]obody has ever heard MY side of the story,” the wolf complains. And then he describes the time he’d innocently visited his next-door neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar.

Now unfortunately his neighbor – a pig – has a lot of silly ideas. (“Can you believe it? I mean who in his right mind would build a house of straw…”) And even more unfortunately, the wolf has a cold, which makes him huff and snuff…and sneeze. “And you know what? That whole darn straw house fell down.” See? It was all an innocent misunderstanding!

Yes, he ate the little pig – but it was already dead. (“Think of it as a big cheeseburger just lying there,” the wolf explains.) And he still needed a cup of sugar, which required a visit to the neighbor one house down. “He was a little smarter, but not much. He had built his house of sticks…”

Smith’s art adds a lot to the book, because the tale is already so familiar. His odd color schemes and flat perspective give the story an appropriate oddness. And some drawings have an abstract feeling, resembling stark and surprising collages. On the first page of the book, the E in “Everybody” is made out of bricks – with straw on the bottom and twigs on top.

Everybody thinks they know the pigs’ story, but in Scieszka’s version, the wolf is the hero. “Now you know food will spoil if you just leave it out in the open,” the wolf explains innocently. And he’d discovered the second pig dead – after an unfortunate sneeze by his house of sticks. There was only one thing to do…but the wolf still needs that cup of sugar. And the third pig rudely refuses to give it to him, provoking a round of sneezing…right when “the cops drove up.” And it’s in the final drawing that Smith reveals why the wolf’s shirt sleeves was covered with stripes.

He’s telling his story…in prison.

Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton

“Katy and the Big Snow” is a classic children’s story from 1943. It had been five years since Virginia Lee Burton wrote “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.” Now she turned her attention to another piece of talking machinery — this time, a big red snow plow.

Katy is “a beautiful red crawler tractor” that belongs to the city of Geoppolis — and this book shows her in several detailed drawings. When the city is snowed in, there’s a two-page spread that’s almost completely white — representing snow — with Katy appearing in the upper-left corner beginning to clear out a path. Gradually more parts of the city start to appear on the pages, as though Katy has released them from enormous white snow drifts. That’s the book’s big surprise — watching the parts of the city appear from the big blanket of snow.

Burton draws the buildings small, so she’ll have room for the entire city, and the simple illustrations are busy and intricate. One page has 26 different vehicles drawn in the margins around the center picture’s frame — and the next page has 32 different drawings of the red snowplow in action! There’s one two-page spread that has no text at all, just a map of the city of Geoppolis. (It labels 30 different buildings, including the schools, farms, city services, and local businesses.) Because Burton drew the buildings small, she has room for the entire city, and she users only a limited number of colors in the pictures. Unfortunately, I think this robs the book of some of its magic…

I remember being frustrated by this book when I read it as a child. It seemed like there were too many pictures — and the text didn’t really tell a story. It just offered random facts about the city’s highway municipal department. (“When winter came they put snow plows on the big trucks and changed Katy’s bulldozer for her snow plow….”) Some of the dialogue actually comes from the Superintendent of the Water Department. Katy plows out the city — then goes home. The end.

Here’s an interesting thought about this book — it was written in the middle of World War II. America was rationing foods, fuels, rubbers, and even shoes. Franklin Roosevelt had expanded the size of the government, and now men were leaving their families to serve in a larger national effort. Great efforts were made to assure Americans that we were all in this thing together.

And when the city was covered by an enormous blanket of snow — Katy the big red snow plow came and plowed everybody out.

New Dr. Seuss Book Released!

Dr Seuss cover - What Pet Should I GetThis is exciting! Amazon just announced on Twitter that a never-before-seen picture book by Dr. Seuss has just been released! “Told in Dr. Seuss’s signature rhyming style, this is a must-have for Seuss fans and book collectors,” according to the book’s description at Amazon, “and a perfect choice for the holidays, birthdays, and happy occasions of all kinds.”

It’s called What Pet Should I Get?, and it’s just as fun and imaginative as all the other familiar Dr. Seuss classics, according to reviewers on Amazon. “The book seems a bit more fulfilling then a few other Dr. Seuss stories,” wrote one reader, “as it takes the reader through a full scale trip through the pet shop.” They pointed out that it’s illustrated in the same instantly-recognizable style as other Dr. Seuss books — and that it even uses the same two children from One Fish, Two Fish. (Although I thought it was amusing that instead of buying the Kindle edition, the reviewer rushed to their local Walmart so they’d have a hardcover edition!)

What’s interesting is the book has a warm message for children — this one about how hard it is to make a decision. “The tale captures a classic childhood moment — choosing a pet — and uses it to illuminate a life lesson,” according to the book’s description at Amazon. “[T]hat it is hard to make up your mind, but sometimes you just have to do it! ” And you can tell the publisher is excited about the release of a new Dr. Seuss book. They’re calling What Pet Should I Get? “the literary equivalent of buried treasure!”

There’s a true tale at the end of the book — about how this lost Dr. Seuss manuscript was finally recovered (including the illustrations). And it also discusses which pets were adopted by Dr. Seuss himself! There’s even a description of his creative process — which should be inspiring to future children’s book authors. But most of all, the book just looks like it’s a lot of fun.

“Wonderful rhymes and delightful creatures,” promises another reviewer on Amazon, “that are sure to entertain the little ones in your family.”

The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton

The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton

She’s the web cartoonist who draws “Hark, a Vagrant”, but last week she released her first picture book for children! The Princess and the Pony is both written and illustrated by Kate Beaton. (“We are all very excited!” the author wrote on her web site.) And the book’s wide, colorful pages give her a great new outlet for her simple yet imaginative drawing style.

The title page introduces us to Princess Pinecone, a smiling girl lying under a pea-green sky where the clouds form into white horses. The petals of her dandelion blow in the wind, and on the far side of a two-page spread are the fluttering flags of her castle. She comes from a kingdom of warriors, according to the book’s first page, although she is the smallest warrior. On the first page the princess is wearing a viking-style helmet with horns…though it’s too big for her head!

But she’s excited about her upcoming birthday, hoping this one turns out better than the others. Instead of warrior-style presents — like shields, amulets, and “things that make them feel like champions” — all this princess ever gets are lots of cozy sweaters. “Warriors do not need cozy sweaters,” Beaton writes. And we have our opening dilemma…

But this year Princess Pinecone had announced early that she wanted a horse. And there’s a delightful drawing of her parents in the castle — her father holding the girl in his arms, while her mother holds a hand over the princess’s eyes as they deliver their surprise… But the horse is small and round, with eyes pointing in difference directions. Yet now the princess was stuck with her birthday present, which “ate things it shouldn’t have, and farted too much.”

This book’s drawing some rave reviews. (The School Library Journal called it “A highly recommended, charmingly illustrated tale of teamwork and tenderness.”) The book ends as the princess leads her pony into a comical and very unthreatening battle. There’s a warm message in the final pages about the unexpected, working together, and how life can surprise us with how valuable we really are.

But the real fun of this book is watching the story-telling veer around in its own wacky world.

Weaving the Rainbow, by George Ella Lyon

Weaving the Rainbow, by George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon is my favorite children’s author, and in “Weaving the Rainbow” she almost hides a riddle. She describes sheep in a pasture, and follows them through the seasons. They lead ordinary sheep lives, “But they were getting closer to the rainbow,” Lyon writes. The next page describes fall, and it features colorful leaves. But it’s only on the final page that the real rainbow is revealed.

It’s another children’s book with lavish watercolor illustrations. Even on the book’s inside cover, there’s four shades of green in a spectacular field, plus a white picket fence and blue skies in the distance. “The weaver” looks proudly on the sheep in her pasture. And fall brings red leaves – and shaggy fur for the sheep.

But it’s easy to see how the illustrator was inspired by Lyons’ text. “It is spring now. It is shearing time,” she writes simply – but those words suggest rich illustrations. And when the sheep were born, their coats were white, Lyon writes. They’re turned out into “April fields”, and they even win ribbons at the state fair. The sheep’s lives pass by quickly, because the book is not about the sheep – it’s about their wool!

Lyon describes the sheared wool coming off in one piece, “white and springy,” and it’s brushed and then twisted into yarn. The weaver dyes the yarn, and hangs loose coils of color on the branches of a blossoming tree. When describing her dyes, Lyon uses colorful words that are also the names of plants – like indigo and goldenrod – simply listing them on the page, like lines of a poem. And then she adds a poetic line of her own. “She is cooking up a rainbow.”

Ultimately, there’s beautiful illustrations of the colored yarn, stretched for the weaving shuttles, “back and forth, back and forth.” And in the text, the words about nature seem to also be words about colors. “From the wool of her white sheep she weaves Kentucky pastures, grass green, evergreen, willow yellow, redbud, purple shadow, shy sky blue.”

She’s “doing with wool what a painter does with paint,” Lyon adds wisely. In a wonderful irony, the artist weaves little lambs into her tapestry – using the white wool that she’d sheared from real lambs.

Only then can the reader understand the strange drawing on the book’s copyright page. It’s another view of the field from the book’s inside cover – now including sheep. But as the drawing moves to the page’s right side, the drawing suddenly starts to fade into a faint grid. At the end of the, its meaning is clear: it represents the crisscrossed crocheting in the weaver’s final tapestry.

All Those Secrets of the World by Jane Yolen

All Those Secrets of the World by Jane Yolen book cover
“My cousin Michael was five and I was four when my father went off to war.” It’s the first line of a poignant children’s book capturing the childhood memories of Jane Yolen. Yolen wrote the award-winning children’s book “Owl Moon,” about a child’s late-night stroll through the snow. But she tackles a much more ambitious memory in “All Those Secrets of the World.”

Yolen remembers the family’s trip to the docks to watch her father’s ship sail away. Her father kisses her and hugs the family, and “hundreds of grown-ups crowded around, waving handkerchiefs and crying.” The little girl waves a flag, and hears the tuba in a band playing the song “Over There.” And then her father’s ship is gone, as dirty waves slap the pylons. “[E]veryone had a good time, except Mama, who cried all the way home…”

It’s a very moving story about a family affected by war, told from a child’s simpler viewpoint. And it’s the illustrations that make it seem even more real, with bright watercolors suggesting a sunny childhood day, while the child report’s on the day’s events matter of factly. She goes to the beach with her brother, where they see black specks on the horizon. “Are those birds?” asks the girl. But they’re not. They’re ships, “taking soldiers across the sea to war,” her brother tells her. And the illustration shows their innocence in the moment, with the two children wading at the edge of a vast ocean under white clouds, with the ships just visible on the horizon.

They couldn’t be ships, the girl insists. “Those specks are no bigger than my thumb.” And the brother demonstrates that things look smaller when they’re futher away. “‘Come back, come back,’ I cried, suddenly afraid he’d disappear forever like the ships gone from the horizon, dropped over the edge of the world…” And both children get in trouble, because they weren’t supposed to wade in the ocean.

At the end of the book, the father comes back from the war. “There were no big ships or waving flags, just a stranger in brown with his arm in a sling, unfolding himself from a cab.” The youngest son doesn’t remember the father, and yells, “Go away, you bad man. Don’t you touch my mama.” So the father lifts the little girl, who tells him that “When you are far away, everything is smaller. But now you are here…I am big.”

“‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I knew that.'”

And he kisses and hugs her again, until it all seems familiar again, and war seems like a distant secret that belongs to the outside world.

Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing, by April Jones Prince

 Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing, by April Jones Prince

In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, and the magic moment is captured in a story by April Jones Prince. “For 14 years they’d watched it rise,” she writes, “the cities’ schoolteachers, bankers, cabinetmakers, pointing and gawking, ooohing and aaahing…” The woven steel cables are “graceful and strong, like stairways straight to the stars.” Prince describes the achievement with a kind of poetry in 21 Elephants and Still Standing, and she spins a good story out of the people’s reactions!

“New York and Brooklyn, dwarfed by its arches, knew the future had entered their sights.” Fireworks are launched for hours, and “flags waved, bands played, kids hoorayed before bigwigs in top hats galore.” But Prince knows that the real excitement comes from the people moved by the event. She imagines them thinking about the things they’ll do, and marveling at its architecture in the streets below.

“But so long and so lofty, its cable so new – some had to ask, Is it safe?”

It’s Prince’s first book for Houghton Mifflin, but she’s helped along with some suitably grand illustrations that were contributed by Francois Roca. He draws platforms crossing over paddle-wheel steamships, and a boy sailing under the bridge as fireworks explode in the sky. But when questions are raised about safety, the bridge is shown in the shadow of a cloud. Sunlight shines on the river and it lights up the clouds – but the Brooklyn Bridge is a dark silhouette. “Who wants to bargain THIS bridge won’t dance in the wind?”

“Both the bridge and [P.T.] Barnum embodied the audacious, can-do spirit of the latter 1800s,” Prince writes on the book’s jacket, “and their coming together seemed a perfect, outrageous window on the times.” Her book describes the famous circus owner as “larger than life,” a “world-famous showman” whose ideas “weren’t contained by a tent.” And Prince shares the wonderful story of a May evening in 1884, when Jumbo the elephant marched down Broadway, past City Hall, “past mothers, fathers, and children.”

It’s a true story, and it’s one worth remembering. (To verify the story, author Prince “traveled to museums and libraries, scrolled through old newspapers, viewed documentaries, scoured books old and new, and called upon experts.”) All of P.T. Barnum’s elephants filed onto the Brooklyn Bridge – twenty-one elephants in all. And when they came out the other side, it’s P.T. Barnum that assure the crowd that the bridge must be sound.

As white fireworks lit up the sky.

Charlie Anderson, by Barbara Abercrombie

Charlie Anderson, by Barbara Abercrombie

The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. Moon glow lights the back of a cat, and turns the backyard a soft green. Though it’s a grey foggy night with a dark blue sky, there’s a warm yellow light coming from the open back door. It’s the house where “Elizabeth and Sarah lived,” and on a cold night, a stray cat walks out of the woods and up their steps.

Charlie Anderson is one of those children’s stories with enough warmth to touch readers of all ages. The cat “curled up next to their fireplace to get warm,” then tasted their dinner and tested their beds. With a perfect watercolor illustration for each action, the book makes the cat seems real. Every morning he disappears into the woods – but at night while he sleeps on her bed, Elizabeth can hear the cat purring in the dark.

Author Barbara Abercrombie found the perfect details to suggest the cat’s life with the two little girls. (“When it snowed, Elizabeth and Sarah’s mother heated Charlie’s milk before he left for the woods.”) And on the next page, Abercrombie shares the most crucial detail of all. “He grew fatter and fatter, and every day he purred louder and louder.”

One drawing shows the girls making a soft bed for the cat in their suitcase. They don’t want to leave him behind when they visit “their father and stepmother.” Abercrombie manages to suggest so much with these single-page moments. One stormy night, Charlie didn’t come to visit, and the girls sat on their steps in raincoats calling the cat’s name.

It’s a classic picture-with-stories, since the children’s faces say just as much as the story’s text. Elizabeth looks sad and distracted, while the rest of drawing shows her bedroom window filled with the dark night outside. “All night long Elizabeth listened to the rain beating on the roof and the wind rattling the windows.” And the next day, when their neighbor offers them cookies to cheer her up, the little girls turn them down.

The book has a twist at the end – and it’s a very funny surprise. The children ask a neighbor if he’s seen their gray cat, while the man says he has a gray cat of his own. Charlie comes strolling down the stairs, and purrs at his owner – and at the two girls. The man assumed that his cat was hunting at night, when he was really just sleeping in the girls’ warm house. On the last page, the author tucks her message – that the cat has “two families who love him,” just like the girls do with their now-divorced parents.

And meanwhile, the cat “sat at their feet, very happy and very fat.”

Ava’s Adventure by Laura Pedersen

Ava's Adventure

I really loved how every page of Ava’s Adventure feels like a comic strip. The whole story takes place in in its dialogue, which is written into “speech bubbles” that are drawn right into the book’s realistic drawings. This makes the story feel more natural, almost like it’s occurring spontaneously in real time. Any narration just slips in, in a little box at the page’s top-left corner, like the details for a panel in a comic book. “Friday afternoon… Lucas calls Ava,” begins one page — and our story begins…

“Please Mom, please Dad, please can I go snowboarding with Lucas?”

Penny Weber draws Ava hopping up and down — with her pig tails flapping behind her — so you can really feel the story without a lot of extra words. Ava argues with her parents, and there’s a wonderful two-page spread that shows all her emotions with just drawings and sound effects. Ava’s running upstairs to her room — “Stomp! Stomp! Stomp!” — and kicking her toy car. (“Crash!”) Then the car falls to pieces, and Ava hangs her head into her hands….

There’s colorful backgrounds for some of the drawings, while others appear over a nice abstract expanse of white. This book has a clean simplicity that may be especially appealing to children and beginning readers. There’s three drawings that show Ava lying in funny positions in her room — and then, smiling, she seems to have gotten an idea. There’s four more wordless pages that follow Ava through her weekend, all the way through Sunday.

But finally, from the bottom of the staircase, Ava’s mother announces “You have a visitor.” Ava’s friend Lucas has come home early from his snowboarding weekend. And he discovers that Ava’s built an elaborate model of a ski resort out of things from around her house. The book ends with this proud testimonial to the joys of imagination.

And its quiet, realistic drawings just make the story that much more effective.

Mr. Munchlee’s Magic Tophat by Corrie R. Rice

Mr Munchlees Magical Top Hat

“Mr. Munchlee comes to a town that has forgotten how to smile,” explains the back cover of Mr. Munchlee’s Magic Top Hat. “With a little help from his friends, a world of imagination begins to save the day!” But the experience of the book is something far more elaborate, since its text is written entirely in rhyme — and within a few pages the book is virtually exploding with colorful and imaginative illustrations!

Even when the book first shows Mr. Munchlee — a tall man with a mysterious moustache and a top hat — there’s a wall of bright yellow in the background. He strolls into town whistling, with fireflies under his hat, each one twinkling at the thought of sharing their good will. Soon he’s given a magic map to a girl named Luzianne, and then abruptly vanishes from the book. But the map shows her a way to dream — to laugh and be happy whenever she wants — and it awakens her own happy spirit.

“Imagining one thought made a jungle come alive…” the book explains, as the color suddenly begin splashing across the pages. There were animals doing “troopa-loopa” tricks who invited Luzianne to eat bubbles and share bananas splits. The book’s cover illustration captures this moment with an iconic picture of the girl dancing on the rim of Mr. Munchlee’s hat. All around her are butterflies, musical notes, and even a bird with a flower in its mouth.

Some of the more fanciful drawings reminded me of Dr. Seuss. The little girl swings impossibly high on a yellow streamer that’s held by a smiling jack-in-the-box. As a background there’s the silhouette of pink and purple hills. And on top of those hills are more jack-in-the-boxes, and birds with impossibly large tails…

The smiling girl marches behind blue monkeys banging cymbals in a parade through a yellow field. But she learns a valuable lesson — “I can be whatever I choose!” And that sharing a smile makes smiles spread even further, and can make happiness grow. Luzianne’s love was “like a butterfly garden,” and there’s actually a lot of lessons. Maybe one too many? The book seemed to have a little extra text…

But maybe I just couldn’t find the right rhythm for reading the rhymes…especially since I was feeling impatient about getting to those pretty pictures! Tulia Lulu drew the book’s illustrations — and it’s obvious that a lot of care went into this project. My copy even came with a black-and-white coloring book, presumably created for an appearance at the Miami Beach Regional Library. It asks a very thoughtful question — “What makes other people smile?” — and then also asks its young readers, what makes you happy?

And then it invited those young readers to fill Mr. Munchlee’s hats with their own happy thoughts…

Pig Pig Gets a Job by David McPhail


I was fascinated by this book – Pig Pig Gets a Job. I mean, it’s always tough to find a good job – especially in this economy – but in this case, the job-seeker is a small, talking pig!  He wears red overalls, and he’s very enthusiastic, but he also seems young and inexperienced. I’m getting paid to write this review – but who’s ever going to pay poor little Pig Pig?

The animals in David McPhail’s books always remind me of Beatrix Potter’s characters. They lead simple human lives, in cozy houses, facing problems with a mix of confidence and confusion. So I genuinely enjoyed the idea of a children’s book studying a problem we live with every day – the stress of earning a living. Maybe “Pig Pig Gets a Job” would be a good gift for father’s day, I thought…

“I want some money. I want to buy something,” Pig Pig tells his mother.  When she asks him what, he replies. “I don’t know yet. But something.” Behind the ambitious pig character is a grown-up author who’s probably smiling slyly at our whole society. And when his mother suggests that he can earn money by getting a job, the pig puts his paw to his chin and starts to consider it…

The pig never gets a job – he is too young and inexperienced – but each page shows the pig imagining himself in new possible careers. The pig sees himself as a chef – since he’s so good at making mud pies – and as a builder (using the hammer he’s just received for his birthday). One illustration shows the pig working as an auto repairman – by wielding a sledgehammer –  and another shows him driving a bulldozer at the dump. In one picture the pig’s dressed as the ringleader at the circus. But turn the page and he’s back in his living room talking excitedly to his mother. “I have a great idea! You could give me a job!”

This book reminds me of the episode of “Seinfeld” where George tries to find his way to a new job by being hopelessly unrealistic, saying “I like sports… I could be a sports announcer….” But as I understand it, there’s a whole series of books about this daydreaming pig. David McPhail also wrote Edward and the Pirates, which my friend Richard swears is one of his favorite children’s books. But Pig Pig adds a charming simplicity to McPhail’s stories – which is at least a starting point for funny adventures.

The Cave of Santa Clops by Gig Wailgum

The Cave of Santa Clops

“The Cave of Santa Clops” arrives with a shiny cover with a rich, dark red background and pastel green letters. Its title looks almost like a poster from a 1950s horror movie — or maybe a parody of one from Mad magazine. It all helps to set a playful tone for Gig Wailgum’s newest send-up of Santa Claus. And it turns out there’s many more surprises inside…

I like how the book’s text mimicked the familiar rhythms of the Clement C. Moore poem — but always with a twist.


The stockings were hung. The trees were cloaked.
The gifts were wrapped, and the kids were stoked!

The author dedicates his book to Clement C. Moore (and to Dr. Seuss, and to South Pole explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton, as well as his own children and parents…) And it turns out that much of the book’s action does take place near the South Pole, as an explorer named Mr. Bones reminisces about his encounter with the one-eyed Santa creature.

As a young boy, during a South Pole expedition, Odysseus Bones had wandered away from his parents’ exploration party. There’s a lot of dialogue setting up the premise, which ends up with Odysseus trapped in a creepy cave. There’s some giant talking penguins, and bats shaped like holly leaves. It’s meant to be a little creepy, like the “scary Christmas” surprises in the author’s first book, “A Vist from Santa Clops.”

But that book was set at the cozy home of the narrator, whereas this one leads us to Santa Clops in his very own lair! It turns out that Santa Clops flies in a sleigh pulled by penguins — who can fly because Santa (Clops) feeds them each a magical fish. Odysseus Bones stows away on the sleigh, but soon he’s tumbling through the sky in a shower of coal dust. Santa (Clops) wheels his sleigh in (for an attack?) But in the end, he just wishes his pesky stowaway…a scary Christmas!

My friend Elliott — an H.P. Lovecraft fan — says the book was fantastic! And it’s always nice when a book’s author is also its illustrator. There’s some special care in the layout, with multiple drawings often inset inside of a single page. And even when the children ask questions, the text is drawn inside dialogue balloons over their head.

It may not be the perfect book for every single child — but there’s definitely some naughty little boys and girls who will think this book is terrific!

The Gobblings by Matthue Roth

The Gobblings by Matthue Roth

The Gobblings is a fascinating new children’s book written by Matthue Roth, and its story is filled with surprises. “Herbie didn’t like his new house very much at all,” the book begins, but its second page reveals that their house “was far off in space…” So yes, the nights really are very long and very cold, and all Herbie can see out his window is a gorgeous expanse of stars. Roth’s book is overflowing with exciting surprises, and it’s fun to see them all illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason.

Their last collaboration was a children’s book adapting three stories by Franz Kafka, so it’s intriguing to see what they’ve come up with next. Illustrator Rohan draws Herbie playing with a toy rocket ship (even though he’s actually living on one)! There’s a cleverness to both the story and the illustrations, which are wild, imaginative, and even a little bit surreal. For example, in the fourth drawing there’s tentacles (which are only gradually explained)…

Herbie sees shadows in the tunnels of the walls of the space station — inside of which were creatures “who also went unnoticed by the adults…” The story reminded me of Where the Wild Things Are, with a lonely boy making a matter-of-fact discovery of monsters. Rohan has been compared to Maurice Sendak, and I think it’s a fair comparison. His drawings are realistic while being stylized, and they manage to be both expessive and moody.

In one drawing, Herbie pulls a red wagon with gears past the legs of the distant grown-ups, while under the floor crawl the purple tentacle creatures, huddled in a soft yellow glow. They’ve got pretty red stripes on their beaks — are they friends or foes? — and while Herbie builds himself some friends using robot parts, “the Gobblings” keep watching him!

There’s a wondrous two-page drawing where the spaceship flies through a blue starry sky — and yellow giant gobblings float outside in space, their tentacles seeming to fluctuate. “[T]heir favorite things to eat…was a space station,” writes Roth (saying it was “as tasty and joyous as a birthday dinner.”) It’s a surprisingly harrowing story for a children’s picture book, though it’s full of intense intrigue. Soon the ship has gone entirely dark — and Herbie is cut off from his parents…

But fortunately the gobblings like to eat robots — like the little robots Herbie has been building…

Not Until Christmas, Walter by Eileen Christelow

Not Until Christmas, Walter by Eileen Christelow

Eileen Christelow created the popular “Five Little Monkeys” series of books. But at a Christmas party in 1997, she got an idea for a new story called Not Until Christmas, Walter!. “Someone told me how her eight-year-old daughter wrapped presents for all the family, including the dog, and put them under the tree,” Christelow remembers on the book’s jacket. “The next morning, they found chewed wrapping paper and dog biscuit crumbs. Their dog couldn’t wait for Christmas!”

“And I couldn’t wait to get home to see if I could turn her story into a picture book…”

The author used her own dog Ophielia as a model, and dedicated the book to the dog “with fond memories of walks through the woods.” And she uses bright watercolors with lots of white space to capture the festive snow-covered buildings around the city at Christmas time, filling in simple pen and ink sketches of a little girl and her family. Walter the dog wags his tail while he watches Louise making a painting for her father using yellow glitter stars. “Don’t worry, Walter,” the little girl tells her dog. “I’m going to give you a present too!”

All of Chistelow’s illustrations give the dog a real personality. As the girl shops for an extra-large dog biscuit, Walter presses himself hopefully against the glass door. As she lays the presents out on the family’s coffee table, the dog lowers his nose to sniff them all, and wags his tail enthusiastically. He’s still wagging his tail when the girl goes to sleep on December 23rd. And he’s still wagging his tail the next morning – when the girl discovers all of the wrapping paper has been mysteriously torn to shreds.

And her dog’s nose is gleaming with lots of yellow glitter…

At 40 pages, it’s a little bit longer than the typical children’s story, but the story keeps its happy energy going. The dog ends up in the doghouse, but then the little girl gets lost while looking for a Christmas tree, and it’s ultimately the family’s dog that tracks her down. And I thought Christelow came up with a surprising and funny twist for the ending of the story. The dog is about to steal the new dog biscuit that Louise has wrapped up for him. But just then, Santa Claus comes down the chimney, and startles the snarling dog. Santa also gives Walter a dog biscuit, which makes him look guilty when the little girl discovers him.

Then she realizes that her present is still wrapped, and she has to wonder if there really is a Santa Claus after all…

The Great PJ Elf Chase by Karen LoBello and Judy Voigt

The Great PJ Elf Chase

“There’s a Christmas Eve tradition in the Taylor household. While the boys take baths, Santa’s elves drop new pajamas outside their bathroom door!” That explains the book’s title — The Great PJ Elf Chase. And once you catch on to the premise, it’s suddenly a lot more intriguing.

There’s something fun about a children’s picture book that rhymes, and the book’s cover fills in the backstory. “The PJ elves are sly and quick, but this year they’re in for a surprise — Ben and Jack are on a mission to catch one of them! ” Away we go — the book starts with the two brothers making plans on the morning of December 24th — and their conversation is written entirely in rhyme.

“Wake up, Jack.
Tonight’s Christmas Eve!
I wonder which PJs
the elves will leave?”

The crisp rhythm keeps things interesting — and the book instantly delivers more intrigue by switching from the two mischievous brothers to the elves who are watching them! With a crystal ball they track which kids have finished their baths, then when the delivery’s a go, send a specific team of elves to the children’s address at the appropriate time. I like how the book shows both sides of the story — and at one point, you even see the elves snickering under the boys’ bed!

Will the little boys outsmart the elves? They’ve hidden cheese in a box labeled “Trap #1”, and enlisted their dog McGee to keep watch over their door. But there’s a rambunctious energy on both sides, since these elves also like to mess up each family’s house. It was a family tradition for the book’s authors, two sisters who remember that growing up they always had a lot of fun each Christmas — regardless of how many presents were under their tree. And they’ve worked their memories into a story that’s surprisingly exciting — with a funny twist at the end.

Young Ben won’t give up, and he hunts after those elves — running outside in his towel! It’s a snowy day, but soon Ben discovers that he’s got an even bigger problem. ” ‘Oh my gosh! This can’t be!’ Ben must hide near a tree. His bath towel is gone — did the neighbor girls see?” Children will probably enjoy laughing at the end of this book — and the little boy who was just a little too anxious to catch the PJ Elves.

I like how this book also includes a game, challenging readers to count how many elves are hidden throughout the book’s illustrations. (“Be careful — elves like to hide!”) The illustrations by Lorena Soriano are all appropriately colorful, with magical golds and greens for the elves, and nice pastel blue backgrounds sporting lots of Christmas decorations. And it’s also nice that Ben’s younger brother ran after him with a towel, saying playfully that “You ALMOST caught them.”

And then the boys begin planning together how they’ll catch those elves next year…

The Bear Who Wanted to Fly by Carol Shaver

The Bear Who Wanted to Fly by Carol Shaver

There’s something magical about a picture book that’s 14 inches tall. (There’s that friendly bear peeping back at you from the inside front cover.) And there’s also an appropriate quote from Jacqueline Kennedy. “There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all…”

And as the magic begins, you can tell that author Carol Shaver spent time telling stories to children. The Bear Who Wanted to Fly is always packed with warm enthusiasm — along with lots of extra adjectives. Right from the first page, I also liked the bright illustrations by Rachel Smith. Their clean, simple style suggests a sunny day with some friendly animals.

“The bear was sitting high up in the pine tree,” the book begins — with a lovely picture of the bear gazing out at a blue mountain sky. He’s perched on branch overlooking a dark blue river, and the simple drawing of his tree even includes a bird’s nest! For weeks, Cubby the bear had watched as the birds “swoop and dive and frolic in the air.” And then suddenly the bear reaches a conclusion. It must be the feathers….

I hoped that kids wouldn’t get the wrong idea, because that’s never going to work. But the book makes that clear, and I really loved all this book’s colorful details, and the way it still found its way to a warm and happy ending. It’s fun that the bear is watched by “the inquisitive squirrel twins,” Chatter and Crunch. They see him scurrying around to collect feathers — beautiful feathers — and storing them in a “saving place” in the forest’s Grand Pine Tree.

And then that bear starts collecting pine cones — sticky pinecones. (The author hints that it’s “nature’s glue”…) Then suddenly the bear disappears. The squirrels and all the animals in the woods start to talk about him, and search, and worry. There’s a wonderful drawing of the bear, covered with colorful feathers, smiling a silly bear smile as he walks toward the end of his branch…

There’s real children’s-story drama — and amazingly, a very happy ending, as all his forest friends rush a pile of autumn leaves under the branch where the bear will inevitably fall. “Friends help friends…” the squirrels say at the end of the book.

And they even arrange a special ride for him on the back of some eagles, so he gets to fly after all.

Dropped-Off Dog by Catherine Lagorio

Dropped-Off Dog (A Mostly True Tail)

The book’s cover even looks like a dog, with a background illustration showing fur in sunlight. This sets a doggy theme for the book’s realistic watercolor sketches, and it’s based on a real dog who came to live in a rural town in California. Author Catherine Lagorio was inspired to write Dropped-Off Dog by the real problem of animals who are abandoned out in the countryside. You have been warned: there some parts of this book which are actually very sad…

A little tiger-striped dog lives in a cozy house with Abuelita — an old woman drawn walking with a cane. Then one day Abuelita is whisked away in a wheelchair, after a day when “many strangers came and went” — and the dog hides under the bed. “No one noticed him. No one remembered he was there. That night, after everyone left, the little tiger-striped dog was all-alone…”

Brace yourself, because here comes the sad part. “Though he had his bed to sleep in, he had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and no one to take care of him.” The dog eats crumbs he finds around the house, until he’s driven into the countryside and abandoned. “He ran after the car for a few minutes as fast as his little legs could carry him…but it was no use.” The dog remains abandoned for several days, and eventually “quit hoping someone would come back to get him.

“He was now very hungry and the little puddles of water he had been drinking from at the side of the road had dried up…”

The last page of the book shares a note from the author — that this happens all too frequently. She acknowledges that some people mistakenly think that an animal can survive in the woods — it can’t — and she wrote this book to raise awareness. Lagorio once worked as an elementary school teacher, and she even has a Master’s in Language Development. I wish her nothing but success in her ongoing campaign to keep dogs from being left behind alone in the woods…

I was actually really excited when this story’s dog finally discovered a bowl of dog food at a home near the woods. There was a bigger dog growling nearby — it was his food, after all. But that dog’s kindly owner later discovered the little tiger-striped dog hiding in the woods. Instinctively the little dog runs away, but the farmer lures it back with a handful of tasty hot dogs. “You are a cute little guy,” the farmer says, and though the dialogue is a bit wooden, the farmer explains to his wife that “he needs us.” The book ends with a picture of the two dogs happily curled up together on pillows — and I misted up at the book’s final sentence.

“…the Little Tiger-Striped Dog became Steve, and he really, truly lived happily ever after.”

The North Pole Penguin by Christopher Payne

The North Pole Penguin by Christopher Payne

I love Christmas! And so does the author of this new book, The North Pole Penguin. “I began thinking about writing a story when my niece was born because I thought it would be a great gift for her,” Christopher Payne told me in a letter. And now it’s become a shiny new book that’s ready just in time for Christmas….

The bright, festive cover introduces you to smiley Parker the penguin, and for an extra Christmas-y feeling, its title is in red and green letters. (That penguin is even wearing green mittens, and making red X’s on a calendar!) The illustrations (by Lorena Soriano) have a colorful, cartoon-y feel which set a holiday tone for the book from its very first page. “December in the South Pole world was filled with Christmas cheer. And Parker Preston led the way in winter every year…”

Yes, this story even rhymes. (It’s like the book wants to be read out loud…) And every picture lets you follow its smiley penguin as he travels the world with a snowman. The snowman’s a gift for Santa Claus — so Preston probably should’ve avoided South America altogether. Ah, but he couldn’t, the author points out — because penguins live in the south pole!

“I grew tired of seeing penguins in Christmas decorations and movies,” Payne told me. “As many of us learned in school (and apparently forgot), penguins are native to the South Pole area, not the North Pole…!” But there was another more important idea that was inspiring him. “We always hear the phrase, ‘It’s better to give than to receive’ around the holidays, and then forget the meaning behind the words… I wanted to create a character who could actually step back and think for a second and realize that if it truly is better to give than to receive, and if Santa Claus is the ultimate giver, who gives gifts to him?”

I really liked the message of the book. (I still get a warm feeling when I remember that Christmas is about the giving…) Even a prologue on the book’s first page reminds us that “Santa Claus is real, and if you believe in him and are brave enough to look for him, you might just get to meet him!” And I believe that’s actually true, if you read between the lines. Everyone knows that Santa is the spirit of giving itself — and in this story, it’s a little penguin who understands that best of all.

The book traces the penguin’s long journey to deliver his gift to Santa, across the world — and even through New York City. I liked how the penguin shared a pizza with river rats “under urban stars”, and that all the animals he meets on his trip seem friendly and helpful. Maybe it’s a reminder that Christmas is celebrated internationally, or that generous people are everywhere. There’s even a campfire in Canada, and all the animals he meets contribute more gifts for Santa.

The story might be a bit long for younger children, since Santa doesn’t appear until page 24. (And it might’ve been fun to have some dialogue between the penguin and his friends — if only so kids could hear their parents trying to imitate a penguin!) But there’s a nice Christmas feeling to the whole project, with Christmas lights surrounding the text on many of the pages. Even pages with just text have a different-colored background, like a Christmas-y green, a wintry blue, or a fireplace yellow… And most importantly, Payne wrote a story that “captures everything right about the true spirit of the holiday.”

“I just hope others feel the same way!”

Timmy’s New Friend by Andreas Dierssen

Timmy's New Friend by Andreas Dierssen

Timmy’s New Friend was first published in Switzerland, with the name “Toddels tollster Freund.” Even the English version at my public library was printed in Belgium, according to the title page, though it doesn’t say who translated the text. So “Toddels” became “Timmy”, though he’s still a little rabbit wearing a sweater and playing happily with a red ball. He’s playing with another rabbit friend — “Rocket” in this version — when they hear twigs cracking in the forest behind them.

It’s a cute little bear cub named Bruno standing in the sunlight and wearing a football jersey. He wants to play with the two rabbits, and he can throw their red ball even higher. Unfortunately, it gets stuck in a tree, and the three animals have trouble getting it out. They try standing on each other’s shoulders, with Timmy reaching up with a long stick, but Timmy slips and falls to the ground.

The funny illustrations by Felix Scheinbergerare what make this book so entertaining. For example, Timmy’s got a frazzled expression as he hits the ground, with his ears laying flat, sticking out in both directions. But he’s got a hopeful, friendly smile when he first meets the bear cub. Besides the funny caricatures, the illustrator also uses lots of interesting perspectives to create a sense of depth for the peaceful forest where the animals are playing.

The bear has another idea for dislodging the ball from the tree — catapulting the two animals into the sky by jumping on one end of a seesaw. The bear smiles confidently, and closes his eyes with pride as he leaps. But it only results in a very funny drawing of the animals hurtling through the dark blue sky, with one rabbit grimacing in fear and the other tilting their head back and screaming. In the ensuing chaos, the bear even squashes the rabbit’s red ball accidentally. The bear meant well with everything he’d done, but each time it ended in catastrophe.

The story was written by Andreas Dierssen, and he’s ultimately teaching a lesson about forgiveness. But it arrives subtly, and he seems to spend a lot more time showing just how angry the young rabbit is — and why. It’s only in the book’s last pages that the burly bear redeems himself by rescuing the rabbit from a bullying fox.

And it turns out on the last page that he’d brought a brand-new ball to make up for the mishap, and the book ends with the three animals friends playing happily together again.

The Ride: The Legend of Betsy Dowdy

The Ride: The Legend of Betsy Dowdy

Here’s a good book about American History for girls. “Can one girl save the Revolution?” asks the cover of The Ride. The book tells the inspiring true story of a young girl named Betsy Dowdy who performed her own version of Paul Revere’s famous ride. “In Elizabeth City, North Carolina, the Daughters of the American Revolution named their chapter after Betsy Dowdy,” explains an author’s note at the end of the book. It’s a colorful children’s picture book, but it was based on her legendary real exploits more than 200 years ago.

“Sometimes legends start in the quietest of places,” the book begins. This one started in North Carolina, where the King’s soldiers are shown pointing their rifles threateningly at a colonist who wants freedom. “When 16-year-old Betsy Dowdy heard Papa talk about war approaching, she felt as helpless as a ghost crab skittering along the sand,” writes author Kitty Griffin. But the nearest rebel militia is 50 miles away, and Betsy suddenly overhears a message that a man in a boat delivers to her father. “Lord Dunore and the redcoats are marching to Great Bridge. They’re after your ponies and our supplies!”

Betsy packs her supplies – a wool cloak, a knife – and scratches a note for her father with white chalk on a piece of slate. She whistles for her horse, telling her “We’re riding for freedom,” and then fords across the cold water of the river. The night air is cold as she rides through the forest, and after many miles she explains her mission to a ferry boat owner, and begs for a ride across the river.

“You’re a pepper pot, Betsy Dowdy,” he says, and it is a very exciting story. The book’s illustrations are very colorful, sometimes filled with bright and engaging yellows and sometimes with dark, moody purples and blues. Illustrator Marjorie Priceman had already won two Caldecott Honor awards, and her simple style is fun and effective. As Betsy leaves the ferryman, she’s shown galloping again through the purple night-forest of North Carolina.

“Liberty is our dream,” says the ferryman, and Betsy repeats the word to comfort herself. She sees a snarling fox, and she’s even knocked off her horse by a tree branch. But her horse neighs for attention, and she takes it as a sign to continue. And eventually an orange light rises as she reaches the militia rebels’ camp.

This would be a great book for children, because it makes the American revolution accessible to even the youngest readers. (At the general’s camp, there’s even the flag with a snake labeled Don’t Tread On Me.) It’s got everything you could want in a children’s picture book – it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s brightly-illustrated.

It teaches a lesson about perseverance, and about history – but it’s also just a really great read.

The Gift of the Tree by Alvin R. Tresselt

Gift of the Tree - A Dead Tree by Alvin R. Tresselt

Breathtaking watercolors by Henri Sorensen help to tell the haunting story of a dead tree. “It stood tall in the forest,” writes Alvin Tresselt. “For a hundred years or more…” The tree grew and spread its shade, and birds and other animals nested in its branches. “Squirrels made their homes in ragged bundles of sticks and leaves held high in the branches.”

The tree is impossibly old – and it’s accompanied by animals – but nature holds more surprises. “Life gnawed at its heart,” Tresselt explains, describing in turn the ants, termites, woodpeckers, and even rot-causing spores that weakened the tree. Its branches “turned grey with death” – while baby woodpeckers hatch inside. “In winter storms, one by one, the great branches broke and crashed…” Soon only the trunk is left – but it’s a “proud” trunk, reaching to the sky with “its broken arms.”

It’s a story told through beautiful illustrations by Charles Robinson which give the magic old tree an almost fanciful feeling. The purple tree trunk spreads to leaf-shaped clusters of faded blue, yellow, and green. An owl spreads the points of its wings over snowy trees and a field of greys, whites, and blues. One painting even shows a cross section of the tree’s inside, where termites “ate out passageways in wondrous patterns.”

It’s surprising how compelling this story becomes. After a fierce wind, the tree falls, leaving only “a jagged stump to mark where it had stood for so long.” It’s followed by “the cruel days of winter,” where something special happens. In its hollow stump, a rabbit finds shelter. A family of mice settle into its fallen trunk. Even the ants and grubs can hide from winter in its bark and wood. Soon the sunshine of spring returns, and young acorns began to sprout.

Now it’s chipmunks that nest in the old woodpecker holes, and raccoons in its hollow trunk. But the book also mentions the carpenter ants and the termites that will play a crucial role. Soon there’s mosses, ferns, mushrooms and lichen, and eventually centipedes, snails, slugs, and earthworms. “The years passed, and the oak-hard wood grew soft and punky.” A family of skunks appears to feed on the insects in the bark, and birds also scavenge its bark, while “the melting winter snows and soft spring rains hastened the rotting of the wood.”

On the final page, there’s a new tree growing from the soil, “And in this way…the great oak returned to the earth.” It’s not clear if that’s meant literally – decomposing into the earth itself – or reappearing among the living. But the illustration seems to supply an answer.

There’s golden yellow sunshine filling the background as the young tree sprouts its new acorns and broad green leaves.

The Big Green Book by Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak

The Big Green Book by Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak

One year before Maurice Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are, he contributed the illustrations to a remarkable book. Robert Graves was 67 years old, and had already written the popular novel I, Claudius (as well as a memoir of his experiences in World War I). But as both a poet and a scholar, Graves decided to write a children’s book about the magic of reading. The Big Green Book describes a little boy named Jack, who discovers the very magical book in his uncle’s attic.

This story is surprisingly edgy – even before Sendak contributes his dark, angular drawings. “Jack’s father and mother were dead, and the uncle and aunt were not very nice to him,” Graves writes – setting up Jack’s desire to find a sanctuary. The boy scowls at the couple’s enormous sheepdog, and objects to long walks in the field. But Sendak finally draws the boy finding a moment to himself – alone in a room at the top of flight of stairs…

It was better than a story book. “The big green book was full of magic spells. It told him how to make himself as old or young as he liked…and how to make birds or animals do just as he liked, and how to disappear.” There were “spells” for winning card games, and lessons on speed-reading. And Sendak draws a row of six pictures capturing the boy’s delighted reactions – standing in open-mouthed surprise, jumping with delight, reading intently, and confidently following the instructions…

67-year-old Graves writes how Jack turned himself into an old man with a long beard. (His aunt and uncle don’t recognize him – and when they start to approach him, Jack makes himself disappear – and then reappear.) I wondered if Graves was using the character to deliver his own wry observation about life itself. “Yes: a little boy was here only a minute ago… Now he’s disappeared.”

The boy plays cards against his aunt and uncle – and he wins every time. Soon they owe Jack “about a hundred thousand dollars.” Sendak’s drawing captures the despair on the couple’s face perfectly. By the end they’re on their knees begging for a chance to win it back. And instead they lose their house to the boy – along with their enormous sheepdog.

Before the book is over, the boy plays more pranks on his guardians that are sometimes even nastier. His uncle’s fingernails grow through his hand. (“‘Ow!’ said the uncle.”) Their sheepdog is chased away by a belligerent rabbit. But best of all, Jack surveys the house he now owns, from top to bottom – and then turns himself back into a little boy.

And then he revisits his aunt and uncle to tease them about their losses.

Grandaddy’s Highway by Harriet Diller

Grandaddy's Highway by Harriett Diller

“As he tucked me in to bed, I glanced past him, out the window, to the strip of black across the yard. And I could see it — stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean…”

That’s the last line of Grandaddy’s Highway, but it could just as easily be the first. As a little girl’s grandfather tucks her in bed at night, they watch the headlights of a passing truck cast light across her bedroom wall. But then the narrating little girl says, “We are headed as far west as you can go on 30 West.” When you turn the page, she and her grandfather are together in the truck’s cab — and he’s even honking its horn.

“On your right — the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Squirrel Hill Tunnel directly ahead,” her grandfather narrates. But they’re just passing through, and the text only describes things you can see from the highway. Throughout the book, the author also sprinkles a couple of hints that this trip might be imaginary. “I can already see the squirrels,” the little girl says, “millions of them, watching me from the top of Squirrel Hill.”

The girl’s vivid imagination also serves another function, since it helps readers remember the (real) cities along the route of the famous highway. U.S. Route 30 includes much of the famous Lincoln Highway, the first single road that crossed all of America, according to Wikipedia. But even if you’re not trying to memorize its route, the book is educational in another way. Their trip travels from the east coast to the west coast of America — and it takes in many of the geographical landmarks you’d see along the way.

Author Harriett Diller mixes the details of the trip with the story of the girl’s responses. They’re sometimes very thoughtful, though the “naturalistic” story style may be challenging for young readers. Each page gets a wonderful watercolor illustration by Henri Sorensen (who also worked with Caldecott medal-winner Alvin Tresselt). Sorensen lives in Denmark, but according to the book’s jacket, “to get the feel of heading west in a tractor-trailer, he and a truck driver actually drove part-way west on U.S. Route 30.”

The publisher of the book thanks “the many people at Yellow Freight System, Inc, Overland Park, Kansas, who helped make ‘Grandaddy’s Highway possible.” (And Sorensen himself dedicates the book “to Donald Stover and Jan Cheripko, who made my trip on 30 West most enjoyable.”) But the book’s jacket also reveals that there’s another real-life adventure that may have played a role in Harriett Diller’s story. It reveals the plot is “loosely based on memories of her own summer nights watching the play of passing trucks’ headlights on the walls of her grandparents’ home near a Georgia highway.”

In the story, the girl and her grandfather pass through Chicago, and then approach the Mississippi River. (“Mist and river coolness rise from the brown water.”) There’s a beautiful drawing of the wide river at sunrise. And since Grandaddy needs a nap, he lets the little girl drive the truck.

Even if it is an imaginary trip, it looks like a wonderful bonding experience. They share a cup of coffee in a Nebraska diner that’s “lit up like a lightning bug in the hot night.” Grandpa lights a cigar as they ride past a Wyoming lake, and they point their truck towards the Rocky Mountains. And as the altitude gets higher, the little girl confesses that all the beautiful sights have been giving her goosebumps. There’s “The glow of town from the other side of a hill. The rattle of a train rushing off to who-knows-where.

“Wondering if the Wyoming sky is the same sky that hangs above Pennsylvania…”

The Very Fairy Princess: Graduation Girl! by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton

The Very Fairy Princess Graduation Girl

It’s sparkling! (This book actually twinkled when I opened it by my sunny window.) All the books in the “Very Fairy Princess” series arrive with real glitter on their covers, so they’ll always catch the light whenever your daughter opens it… And The Very Fairy Princess: Graduation Girl! is also a large-sized picture book — a tall, 10-inch square — so it’ll seem even more magnificent in the hands of a little girl…

But at the center of all this lavishness are the warm and homey drawings by Christine Davenier. (By now, your daughter should recognize her “Very Fairy Princess” character — a happy little girl named Gerry.) She’s smiling, and talking to the reader from the very first page. “Hello hello…! I’m a very fairy princess…”

Unfortunately, it’s the last day of school, and as Gerry imagines next year, it’s hard for her to find her sparkle. “Miss Pym says my ‘exuberance’ will set the tone wherever I go,” she writes. But it’s a genuine worry, and it gives the book a legitimate problem to solve — even while telling it all from the perspective of the little girl. Her family tries to cheer her up, but she still worries. Change is hard, she’ll miss her friends, and next year, her teacher is going to be…a man!

“This is going to be the most UN-sparkly year in school history….”

This book would make a wonderful gift for a girl’s graduation from kindergarten. It’s written with real affection for its character, echoing emotions that parents may want to share with to their own daughters. The narration is fond and playful, and while it stays in the voice of its own confident little narrator, it actually provides a loving reason for all the things that a mother might cherish about her own little girl. Why is she so creative and enthusiastic? Because she’s a fairy princess!

When the book finally arrives at graduation day, there’s a moment of bittersweet tension. “Keep that sparkle bright,” says Ms. Pym. But there’s a happy ending, and lots of fun enthusiasm throughout the book, which felt like a big slice of birthday cake. And it manages to sneak in every mother’s secret wish for her own daughter — to share your sparkle with the world.

Julie Andrews actually wrote this book with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. (Maybe that’s how so much real affection seems to find it’s way into the story…) Daughter Emma also wrote Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, so I like to believe that she’s learned something about truly honoring a child’s point of view. As the Very Fairy Princess tells her story, she’ll gradually learn that change can mean fun and delightful surprises.

And that moment is even more special when you remember that this optimistic story about hope for a child’s happiness was written together by a mother and her daughter…

Coming Soon: Mo Willems’ “Pigeon Needs a Bath”

Cover of "The Pigeon Needs a Bath" by Mo Willems

That pesky pigeon is back. Here’s all the details on Mo Willems newest children’s book (about that pesky pigeon who wanted to drive the bus.) His next pigeon book will be released in just a few months — on April 1st of 2014 — but you can pre-order it now on Amazon.

Yes, it’s being released on April Fool’s Day, and sure enough, it looks like the pigeon is up to some more tricks… The book is titled The Pigeon Needs a Bath, but on its front cover, the pigeon delivers a message of its own!

“No I don’t!”

Uh-oh, I see where this is going… Mo Willems first warned us (back in 2003), “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” (though the bird spent the entire book trying to convince readers otherwise…) But the pigeon’s adventures continued later the next year, in The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! ), and two years later readers were warned, Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! They’re all delightful and funny stories where the pigeon just keeps on cajoling his readers, begging to be allowed to do something that a pigeon probably shouldn’t be allowed to do! Although in at least one story it’s the pigeon who’s being bothered, by a pesky little duckling!

Those birds are always after something. (In 2012 published The Duckling Gets a Cookie!, and in 2008, Willems wrote The Pigeon Wants a Puppy!). In fact, when you buy a boxed set of the first three books, they come in their own cardboard bus! “It’s a Busload of Pigeon Books!” reads the title on the box — and the books come in adorable 6-inch edition (rather than the 9-inch versions you’d find at your local library).

Mo Williams Pigeon book box set bus

I’m a big fan of the pigeon books, so it’s exciting that there’s a new one coming soon. And it looks like I’m not the only one. Here’s the promotional image that was just sent out through Publisher’s Weekly‘s mailing list. It looks like everyone’s getting ready for some more fun with the pigeon this April!

The Pigeon Needs a Bath promotion

This Saturday is Bookstore Day!

Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day Poster

Someone had an idea for a lovely new tradition for December. It’s “Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day”, and it happens this Saturday in bookstores all across America. “On December 7th, 2013, take a child in your life to a bookstore,” explains its official web site. “Watch his face light up as you give him free access, not just to a new book, but to tomorrow.”

That’s a quote from author Jenny Milchman, the event’s founder and an author of suspense novels who’s enjoyed doing promotions in bookstores . She’s one of four people on the team for the event, but there’s more than 600 different bookstores participating, according to an article in Publisher’s Weekly. “Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day has grown exponentially since 80 bookstores first promoted it in 2010,” they point out. Milchman is even considering adding a second day (not so close to the Christmas shopping season) — and creating a nonprofit organization to spend the whole year encouraging parents to take their children to bookstores.

It’s hard to quibble with the group’s mission, since so much of it is based on the joy of reading — and the special experience that’s provided by bookstores. “The unique pleasure that comes with being in a treasure trove of books, communion and collaboration with a bookseller who has made this their life’s work, and the feeling of investment that comes when a book is discovered and taken home to keep…”

“A book of one’s own, and a bookstore of one’s own. That’s what we’re about at Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day.”

Fat Santa by Margery Cuyler

Fat Santa book cover

“More than anything in the world, Molly wanted to meet Santa Claus.”

This children’s picture book offers a funny twist on the cliched Christmas story about a little girl who stays up to see Santa arrive. Unfortunately, this year Santa ate two much plum pudding, and gets his fat stomach stuck in the chimney. So when the little girl wakes up, she finds Santa growling with exasperation from insider her chimney. “Santa? Is that really you?” the girl asks sweetly.

“Of course it’s me!” Santa growls back. “Who else would be stuck in a chimney on Christmas Eve?”

She ties a rope around Santa’s ankles, but she just ends up yanking his boots off, along with his socks. (Santa’s bare feet dangle from the chimney, as he yells that “My toes are cold! And I’m still stuck.”) The little girl’s next idea is a little sadistic – tickling Santa’s toes – but her next idea finally dislodges the overweight man with the beard. She throws pepper into the fireplace, and it makes Santa sneeze.

The illustrations by Marsha Winborn really give this book a Christmas-y feel — even if it is called Fat Santa. The little girl wears red-and-white pajamas, and her house is filled with festive symbols of the seasons. There’s a decorated tree, and a long green wreath along the staircase where she watches for Santa. And of course there’s stockings on the chimney – plus the jingly bells on Santa’s black boots.

This book was written in 1987, and it’s fun to watch for clues about how Christmas has changed. Molly waits for Santa while plugging in her earphones and listening to Christmas carols – on her tape deck. But the story might be even more timely today, with our concerns about childhood obesity. When Santa falls out of the chimney, Molly even gasps because he’s “round as a snowball” – and from the illustration, he looks enormous!

In fact, Santa’s afraid to climb up the chimney again, even though he’s got one more house to visit that night. He shanghais Molly into making the run for him, and dresses her up in his red coat and hat. “I know you can do it…! Get your boots on…! Scoot…!” I feel bad for the little girl, because it all happens “Before Molly could make up her mind…” It almost felt a little codependent, with Molly enabling Santa’s addiction to overeating. And I worried for a second we were teaching children to laugh at people who are overweight.

But maybe we’re just teaching them to laugh at grown-ups, which is good every once in a while. And the little girl does get to enjoy riding in Santa’s sleigh, which is obviously a lot of fun!

A Pirate Book! Edward and the Pirates by David McPhail

The cover of the children's picture book Edward and the Pirates by David McPhail

September 19th is “Talk Like a Pirate Day” (a tradition started by humor columnist Dave Barry). So to honor this momentous occasion, I’d like to share a review of one of my favorite children’s picture books about pirates.

“Edward and the Pirates” is such a great title for a children’s picture book. (This book was a “Publisher’s Weekly” bestseller!) And David McPhail more than lives up to it. McPhail had already written more than 40 children’s books, including three about a troubled little boy named Edward. The boy first appeared in “Santa’s Book of Names,” but in this first sequel he’s meeting a more exciting character – pirates! (And his next adventure would be “Edward in the Jungle”…)

McPhail writes and illustrates the books – but fortunately, he’s good at both! There’s a great illustration on the title page of a moonlit ocean and a shadowy chest of doubloons (with a skull and crossbones on its side). But all the illustrations are gorgeous. There’s a ship on an aqua sea, and a drawing of rolling waves swamping the boat as Edward struggles at it’s wheel. They add a lot to the book, and some of the drawings even look like oil paintings – even if it’s just Edward at his breakfast table!

“Once Edward learned to read, there was no stopping him,” McPhail writes. It’s a nice segue from the first book (in which Edward couldn’t read until after a magical meeting with Santa). Now he’s reading cereal boxes at the breakfast table, and “seed catalogs that arrived on the coldest day of winter.” But especially…books! And it seems appropriate that as Edward discovers the joy of reading, he’s drawn with some suitable wonderful illustrations. The library has now become Edward’s favorite place, and McPhail adds that Edward “especially liked stories of adventures…”

Edward imagines himself rescuing Robin Hood, or traveling by dog sled to the North Pole. Once he even imagines he sees real dinosaurs outside his window. And as he’s reading a book about pirates, pirates gradually start to appear. McPhail makes a seamless transition, showing the ocean itself rolling up to Edward’s bed (where he’s deeply engrossed in the book). Pirates want to borrow it – since it tells where their treasure was buried. But Edward refuses, since he’s already checked out the book on his library card.

In his bedroom, the pirates threaten him, until his mom arrives on a white horse and later his father with a bow and arrow. “I don’t think they meant any harm,” says Edward politely. “They only came for this book.” There’s a beautiful drawing of the lagoon under a silvery sky, with the window of Edward’s room in the foreground. Unfortunately, the pirates aren’t able to find their treasure with the book after all.

Because unlike Edward, they’re not able to read!

A sequel to Calvin and Hobbes?

Some comic artists/fans on the web are imagining a sequel to Calvin and Hobbes called Calvin and Bacon

Everyone I know loved Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip about a boy and his stuffed tiger. Some comic artists have now imagined a kind of sequel, where it’s 36 years later, and Calvin is all grown up and married to Susie. And he has a little girl who’s playing with the same stuffed tiger!

Each artist is a fan of the original comic strip, and it’s inspired them to create some wonderful artwork. There’s a real fondness for the original characters, and it looks like they’re trying to stay true to the spirit of Bill Watterson’s original strip. The original Calvin and Hobbes ran for 10 years, from 1985 until 1995 (according to Wikipedia), and there’s apparently a lot of people who still really miss it.

The first artist drew just four full-color “Sunday” comic strips back in 2011, according to an unofficial history of the project. Keeping with the tradition of playfully naming zany characters after famous philosophers, he’d imagined that Calvin would name his daughter Francis Bacon, and the strip was called “Calvin and Bacon”. But then other online comic artists — who were also fans of the strip — decided to continue the idea. There’s now three different cartoonists who have each created a few more strips, imagining the further adventures of Calvin, and the little girl who inherits his beloved stuffed tiger.

I thought they were inspired partly by this heart-tugging painting of a grown-up Calvin, who first re-discovers his tiger Hobbes in a box in the attic. But it looks like that painting was done in 2013. I guess it means lots of people have found memories of Calvin and Hobbes, and maybe also a secret wish that the characters would somehow magically come back!

The 500 Hats of Dr. Seuss

Hat drawing by Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss had a private collection of hats!

There is the iconic red and white striped hat from Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat”… There is the red felt cap with a white feather famously featured in Seuss’ “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins”…

And his hats are now touring the country, starting at the public library in New York City and travelling as far as Sausalito, California. Seuss had more than 150 hats, according to the curator of the Dr. Seuss art collection, and he told the San Francisco Chronicle that visitors will recognize them from their memories of the hats in his books. Fitting, the hats were hidden in a secret room behind a book shelf in his house in La Jolla.

And Dr. Seuss also had a second secret…

Unbeknownst to his reading public, Dr. Seuss also created a series of secret paintings, which he labored on privately to deliver ” elaborate works from the imagination”. The paintings are described as “compelling” by the curator of a new traveling exhibit, who described them as “midnight paintings” (created on the artist’s own time). Both the paintings and the hats give a better idea of the life of Dr. Seuss. And it also makes it seem like his life must’ve been a lot of fun.

For example, in 1937 his sister Marnie told one newspaper that ” I have seen him put on an impromptu show for guests, using the hats as costumes! He has kept a whole party in stitches just by making up a play with kitchen knives and spoons for actors…” And of course, he even worked his hobbies into some of his hobbies.

The second book he ever published was “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.”

Little Mouse’s Birthday Cake, by Thacher Hurd

Little Mouse's Birthday Cake by Thacher Hurd

“Today was Little Mouse’s birthday…”

But unfortunately, all his mouse friends have other plans for the day. So the story switches to a day in the life of a mouse – climbing Mouse Mountain, drinking hot chocolate at the top, and then skiing down the snowy hillside. It looks like fun, though there’s still festive thoughts in the head of the solitary mouse. When he reaches the top of the hill, he even imagines that he’s sitting on a giant birthday cake!

Thacher Hurd drew cheerful illustrations for Little Mouse’s Birthday Cake, and the book feature bright pastel colors filling simple sketches of the little mouse with the big, pointy nose. He comes from a family of illustrators, and his father (Clement Hurd) was the illustrator of Goodnight, Moon. Thacher’s mother, Edith Thacher Hurd, also wrote more than 75 children’s books, according to the Harper Collins web site. It’s hard not to wonder if their son Thacher absorbed their love of children’s literature, and was influenced by their work when he drew this book’s illustrations.

The story seems a little predictable, but its real appeal is Hurd’s funny drawings of the little mouse. The mouse takes a tumble on the ski slope, falling head first into a deep drift of snow. Soon the drawings turn more expressive, as the little mouse wanders off into the woods as the sun is setting. He gets lost, and climbs to the top of a tree, “But when he looked out from the tree, all he saw were more trees.”

It looks lonely, but it makes the story more effective, since it’s ultimately a book about friendship. Alone in the tree, the mouse dreams about a giant pink birthday cake that’s rolling after him down a hill. And when he wakes up, he sees bright yellow lights flickering through the trees in the distance. “Far away, Little Mouse heard someone calling his name.” It’s his friends, who’d come looking for him, and followed his ski tracks until they found him. And when they lead him back to his home, the mouse discovers it’s been decorated for a birthday surprise party.

Hurd wrote one other book about the character – “Little Mouse’s Big Valentine” – but it never really caught on with the book-buying public. Maybe the story was too generic, but I thought the illustrations were appropriately cheery. When the mice all arrive for the birthday party, the room is filled with a yellow light from the fire. And the book ends with the mouse’s face lit by the yellow glow of his birthday candles.

“‘Yum!’ said Little Mouse…”

Maurice Sendak Gets a Birthday Tribute “Doodle” at Google.com

June 10th is the birthday of Maurice Sendak — and to celebrate it, Google created an amazing “Doodle” on their home page. Just go to Google.com today, and you’ll see an animated version of one of Sendak’s most famous characters. It’s Max, the little boy from “Where the Wild Things” are — dressed in his wolf suit, and doing a wild dance.

Maurice Sendak birthday doodle on Google (2)

There’s a “dialogue balloon” over his head, though it only contains a flashing blue arrow. But if you click it, Google delivers a gorgeous animation. It shows the boy magically walking over the top of a rotating circle. As it turns, the scene changes from his room to the jungle Where the Wild Things Are — and he’s followed by all the friendly monsters from Sendak’s most famous book!

Maurice Sendak birthday doodle on Google - Where the Wild Things Are

But as the circle continues to turn, the boy travels on into scenes from other Sendak books. Next are scenes and characters from In the Night Kitchen, followed by characters and scenes from his final book, Bumble-Ardy.

Maurice Sendak birthday doodle on Google - finale (2)

Maurice Sendak died last year just a few days before his 84th birthday — but it’s nice to see that there’s still fond memories about his children’s picture books, and they’ve found their way into the next century.

And I’m glad Google decided not to let today go by without wishing a happy birthday to Maurice Sendak!

Disney’s version of “The Wind in the Willows”

Mr Toad and Horse

My girlfriend and I enjoyed a fun treat tonight — watching the Disney version of The Wind in the Willows. When I was a kid, I’d loved “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland, and now that I’m older I’ve also had a chance to appreciate the original book by Kenneth Grahame. Yet somehow through all that, I’ve never had a chance to see the entire cartoon by Walt Disney — at least, not since I was a kid. So tonight, I was finally going to get to watch it.

There’s a fascinating history behind the movie. Walt Disney started animating the film in 1941, and it would’ve been only the fifth feature-length film ever released by the Disney studios, according to Wikipedia. But of course, World War II reached the U.S. at the end of the year, and some of Disney’s animators were drafted. Even his finished cartoons were impossible to distribute overseas in the biggest markets. So the project was put on hold…

It didn’t start again until 1945 — and by then, it was trimmed down until it was just half of a two-story movie. (The other half being The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.) This leaves the movie feeling kind of lopsided — although it also feels more like a storybook instead of a Walt Disney cartoon, with Basil Rathbone providing the narration.


“If you were asked to choose the most fabulous character in English literature, who would it be? Robin Hood? King Arthur? Becky Sharp? Sherlock Holmes? Oliver Twist, perhaps? Well, any one of them would be an excellent choice. Still, for the most fabulous character of all, I would nominate… a toad….”

I think I was most disappointed by the fact that there is no wild ride in the movie. At least, not with a motor car. But at least there is one delightfully reckless scene where Toad crashes through the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage — singing a duet with his horse! This is the moment that catches the giddy joy of the character that I’ll always remember, as he sings — with his horse — that “we’re merrily on our way, to nowhere at all!”


Honey… Honey… Lion! A Story from Africa by Jan Brett

Cover Illustration from Honey Honey Lion by Jan Brett

I didn’t know this. In Africa, there’s a bird that will track a bee to its home, and then lead over a badger to crack open the hive, so that both of them can share the honey. “That is the way it has always been,” writes Jan Brett in a wonderful children’s picture book. But as always, the star of this story is her detailed illustrations of all the animals.

There’s a black badger gorging on eight different stolen honeycombs. (“Maybe this day Badger was hungrier than usual,” writes Brett.) You can tell that the Badger’s partner, the bird, is starting to feel peeved. Brett’s drawing shows the bird perched on the remnants of a tree trunk, with its head cocked to one side, and a scowl in its tiny brown bird eyes…

As with all her books, there’s a wealth of illustrations — including extra illustrations on either side of the page. There’s the giant tall trees on a grassy African Savannah. And she peeks in on all the story’s other animal characters, including the elephants and the hippopotamuses. But my favorite illustration shows the happy badger as he sleeps off his tremendous meal. He lies on his back — pointing his soft belly fur to the sky — while his pink-soled feet roll lazily to the side.

It’s wonderful to see the scenery of Africa as the bird plays a trick on the badger. It flies past his home in the baobab tree, and over the hippopotamuses in the water hole. It flies over the warthogs by the termite mound, and past the jackals near a long hollow log. There’s a stand of papyrus, and a field of golden bristle grass — but the puffing badger, following behind, only wants to get to the honey.

You have to lift a flap to see what’s hiding under the acacia tree. But there’s a big, yellow paw sticking out — and in a second set of illustrations at the sides of the page, two giraffes point their strange heads to watch with interest. “Honey… Honey… Lion!” reads the crucial line of dialogue.

“Lion, lion, lion!” screams the badger — as the lion emerges on the next page with a gloriously shaggy mane…

Then all the animals of the savanah start to run — the giraffes and the jacakals , and the elephants. And by the book’s last page, all the animals are now telling a different story — of how important it is to share your honey with the little bird who leads you there. “Be sure and reward her,” they say, over the “bush telegraph” that connects all the animals of Africa.

“Or next time, she will lead you to a lion!”

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Robert Ingpen

I just finished reading a fun book that’s beautifully written and full of surprises. It’s a classic “chapter book” for young readers, following the lives and adventures of a society of animals. I once called it the perfect book for springtime, because the author obviously appreciates the beauty of the great outdoors. It opens with a mole who decides he’s tired of cleaning his underground hole — so he throws down his brush and runs out into the sunshine, where the fields lead him to his very first glimpse of a sparkling river.

The mole is welcomed to the river by a friendly water rat, and a few chapters later he meets the wise old badger who lives in the nearby woods. But of course, they talk about that grand yet frivolous Mr. Toad who lives in the exquisite manor that’s just around a bend in the river. The toad flits from one passion to the next — when the book opens, it’s boats, and then later, it’s horse-drawn wagons. But the toad is absolutely spellbound by the newly-invented automobile, and starts purchasing (and then crashing) several of them…

I love the story about the book’s author, Kenneth Grahame, who had retired from his job as a secretary at the Bank of England. He’d just gotten married, and as he settled into a comfortable life on the river, he didn’t publish any fiction for the next 10 years, according to Wikipedia. But when his wife gave birth to a son, Grahame would entertain him with bedtime stories, and it was the little boy’s energy which ultimately inspired the character of Mr. Toad. Grahame described the impetuous frog as dreamy, audacious, frivolous, and triumphant — and he ultimately collected all the animals’ adventures into a novel-sized book.

It’s a book that’s beloved by adults as much as children, since it’s really two different books rolled into one. That opinion comes from the original Christopher Robin himself, in a book called The Enchanted Places. (Winnie the Pooh was written by A. A. Milne, who based the character of Christopher Robin on his own son, Christopher Robin Milne.) When he grew to the age of 54, Christopher Milne wrote The Enchanted Places, remembering that The Wind in the Willows was much loved by his family when he was growing up, and was often re-read. Ultimately his father A. A. Milne even created a stage play based on The Wind in the Willows!

Another fan of the book was the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. At the close of his presidency in 1909, he took the time to write Kenneth Grahame a thoughtful note of appreciation. “Indeed, I feel about going to Africa very much as the seafaring rat did when he almost made the water rat wish to forsake everything and start wandering,” the president fondly tells the author. And just six weeks later, Theodore Roosevelt left the presidency behind – and embarked on a safari of Africa.

I guess I’m saying that this book is powerfully written, and its left a strong impression on people who’ve read it!

Georgie’s Halloween by Robert Bright

The cover of the children's picture book Georgie's Halloween

It was 1958, and President Eisenhower was presiding over the post-war boom. And illustrator Robert Bright decided to write a gentle children’s book about a charming little ghost named Georgie. Bright had already written stories where George meets a magician and some attic-pilfering robbers. But eventually, he’d end up writing a book about Georgie’s Halloween.

It’s a fun book for Halloween, because Bright uses two colors – orange and black – for each of his illustrations. The first picture shows seven children dressed in costumes – there’s a witch, a pirate, and a clown. A dark black patch signals night behind them, making the costumes seem even more cheerful. And the book opens with a warm moment of appreciation. “Wherever there are children there is Halloween, with pumpkins and funny faces, with tricks and with treats.”

First Bright recaps the basics of his character. (Georgie lives in the attic of Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker, and he’s friends with Herman the cat and an owl named Miss Oliver.) Georgie was shy and stayed hidden – like a ghost should – which gives the story a kind of hushed magic. And of course when Halloween comes around, he doesn’t have to wear a costume, since “he was so especially perfect for Halloween just as he was.”

His mouse friends in the attic urge him to enter the yearly costume contest – though that doesn’t seem proper to Georgie. Even his owl friend, and Herman the cat, urge him to enter, and there’s a smiling moon, and a grinning pumpkin in his window. But instead, Georgie spies on the town’s party on the green, peeking out from behind a tall tree. Yet in each illustration he creeps closer to the costumed parade…

Bright really outdoes himself with this book’s illustrations. The moonlit house and the nighttime party scene both lend themselves to exciting effects with light and shadows. The white spaces seems to be the gleam of moonlight, and the dark lines turn into stark shadowy highlights. And in a two-page drawing, the light spaces are complemented by the orange of the children’s costumes.

Georgie hides behind a corn stalk, but the cat and the owl urge him on. And when he finally arrives, the children shout “It’s Georgie! It’s GEORGIE!” The happy ghost runs home to tell his mouse friends about his triumph. When he gets home, the mice will present him with their own award for best costume of all.

“And all the way he could still hear the children cheering.”

Captain Underpants Comes to Boise

Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo Boxers

This is pretty exciting. Scholastic Inc. held a big contest this month, and over 3,000 librarians entered for a chance to win it. The prize? An in-person visit from Dav Pilkey, the author of the popular Captain Underpants series. The winner? A small public library in Boise, Idaho. And then pandemonium broke out…

“Word of the author’s visit isn’t just a schoolyard rumor,” reported the Boise Weekly.

“It spread like wildfire,” a Boise librarian told the newspaper. They’d actually stopped some of the event’s publicity, because the news was already spreading like a virus.

“I had never seen such buzz about an event in Boise…” remembers a friend in Boise. “Later, I read that people waited in line for three hours, and some were turned away!” A librarian later told him that over 1,500 people converged on the library! Fortunately, my friend arrived early, bringing his two children for a special treat, and they ended up being among the first 20 people in line.

Captain Underpants comes to Boise

So what was the famous author like in person? “He was awesome and chatted with the kids, drawing little sketches in each of the kid’s books.” Ironically, Dav Pilkey began his doodling as a fidgety kid in elementary school, according to the article in Boise Weekly. As a grown-up, he turned that experience into a series about two elementary students who ultimately convert their doodles into a photocopied comic strip, showing how they helped fight supervillains with the help of Captain Underpants. And now all across America, students are drawing their own comic strips, which ultimately find their way to Dav Pilkey (who gives them an appreciative nod).

“I didn’t want the book to be a story about a superhero,” he tells the newsweekly. “I really wanted it to be about a kid or two kids who just didn’t fit in with school.” fact, some parents still complain about the book’s rowdy tone, and according to the American Library Association, it was last year’s #1 target for book-banning campaigns — receiving even more complaints than 50 Shades of Grey. But Pilkey shares the other side of the story with the Boise newspaper, saying that some parents actually get emotional as they tell him their children love reading now — thanks in part to his funny books.

And seated at a public library in Boise, he tried to return some of the love. Rather than just giving a talk, he requested a chance to sit down and meet individually with the children, autographing their books — and often adding another doodles. “That really makes book-signing worthwhile for me, that personal connection,” he said.

Captain Underpants - Dav Pilkey autograph

“I’m very honored to have this job. It feels like, in some silly way, my books are making a difference.”

“Willie and the All-Stars” by Floyd Cooper

Willie and the All-Stars by Floyd Cooper

In honor of Jackie Robinson Day — the anniversary of his debut in major League baseball — I’d like to share this review of an appropriate children’s picture book — Willie and the All-Stars (written and illustrated by Floyd Cooper).


“It was 1942 and nothing came easy, not even a boy’s dreams.”

Even young Willie’s baseball is made out of string and tape, and he lives alone with his grandma in “a tiny one-room apartment on the North Side of Chicago.” But on his grandmother’s radio, he listens to the baseball games at Wrigley Field, and dreams about someday hitting a home run of his own. Even when he’s running to the store, he imagines he’s stealing bases!

Unfortunately, in 1942 it takes more than talent for a boy to grow up to be a Major League baseball player. “It’s also about the color of his skin,” explains an old man in Willie’s neighborhood. Later Willie talks to his friend – a white Irish boy who has the same dreams. “Ol’ Ezra tells me I ain’t never gonna play in the Majors,” Willie says.

“You don’t know that for sure,” his friend replies.

Author-illustrator Floyd Cooper created some wonderful illustrations for this book. There’s realistic watercolors, many of which feature a greyish-yellow background, like the special haze of an old photograph. He catches Willie’s expressions perfectly, like when he’s dreaming wistfully at his window, or holding the radio almost reverently. Even Ol’ Ezra comes across as very thoughtful – and eventually he’s the one who gives the two young boys tickets to a very special game at Wrigley Field…

An author’s note at the back of the book explains the history behind this story. Baseball became segregated in 1888, and for decades all-black teams traveled America’s back roads to play exhibition games. During World War II, the Major League owners staged special all-star games against players from what were then called the “Negro Leagues.” As the story arrives at its big moment, Cooper writes that their players “seemed a bit hungrier for the victory.”

Willie watches a game – but what inspires him even more is how when it’s over, two players from the opposing teams dared to walk to the pitcher’s mound, shaking hands in a show of acknowledgement. Then the story ends abruptly, though the book’s next page still adds in some extra significance. “Who knows how many dreams were kindled by their determination?” the author writes at the end of the author’s note. Though the real happy ending to this story obviously lies in the history of professional sports.

Major League baseball was integrated in 1947….

Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak

The cover of Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

It had been nearly 20 years since “Where the Wild Things Are,” but at the age of 53 Maurice Sendak completed the third book in the trilogy. I didn’t read this book for years, because it looked disturbing – and it is. On the title page, there’s a little girl teaching her baby sister to walk, and they pass a white picket fence, and an enormous bush of daisies. But sitting at the end of the fence is a hooded mystical figure. It could be the grandson of Death, and Sendak’s answer isn’t much more comforting. They’re goblins – and they’ve come to kidnap the little girl’s baby sister. There’s even a second title page – spanning two pages – in which three more of the hooded goblins arrive.

Sendak has come up with another grand and mysterious fairy tale. “When Papa was away at sea,” he begins, in a fancy font on a grand two-page spread. Sendak draws a yellow sky over a ship in the harbor, with a mountain on one side and on the other a beautifully-detailed drawing of a tree. The little girl, named Ida, stands in the middle, holding her baby sister next to her mother on the rocks – and two more of the hooded goblins on the left. ” On the next page, there’s a different view showing a whole forest of his detailed trees, plus a gorgeous leaf-colored trellis, a husky dog – and two hooded goblins, now carrying a ladder.

They’ll use the ladder to kidnap Ida’s baby sister when she isn’t looking.

Sendak hides surprises in every picture. While Ida plays her horn, the leaves of a daisy vine poke into her room through another window. But in the next illustration, they’re already starting to bloom, and soon there’s enormous daisies intruding into her bedroom. Meanwhile the other window, where the goblins escape, inexplicably becomes a view to a ship on the ocean. And in the next illustration, it’s a stormy sea where lightning strikes over the sinking ship.

Sendak’s story uses enigmatic sentence fragments, while the illustrations seem to run away with the story. In response to the baby-napping, Ida puts on a yellow rain coat, takes her horn, “and made a serious mistake.” It’s not explained, but the next illustration shows her floating backwards over the daisies and the green-leafed trellis – while the background shows three goblins carrying her baby sister over a bridge. Sendak writes simply that: “She climbed backwards out her window into outside over there.”

And the story gets more and more magical. Ida floats on her yellow rain coats, “whirling by the robber caves,” and it’s one of the most beautiful drawings in the book. There’s a white moon turning the clouds silver, that frame the girl’s yellow raincoat – just her face peeking out of the center. Below her is a horizon filled with detailed trees – and presumably under the ground, a cave with stalactites and a burning flame where two goblins wait by a moonlit ocean. Eventually Ida confronts the goblins, who’d hoped to turn her sister into a goblin bride.

Just like “Where the Wild Things Are,” Ida triumphs in a magical world – and then returns home to her loving family.