Barkus, Sly, and the Golden Egg, by Angela McAllister

Barkus, Sly, and the Golden Egg, by Angela McAllister

Barkus and Sly are two foxes who rob houses in the night. They’re “bad news,” according to the book’s first page, as they trundle their cart into town looking for unlocked windows. Now they’re after some plump roast chicken, sneaking “silent as shadows” into a henhouse. But they lock three stolen chickens in their shed overnight – leaving the chickens a chance to scheme.

I really enjoyed the deliciously dark tone of the introduction for Barkus, Sly, and the Golden Egg. (“No one is going to serve us with cream sauce,” sputters a hen named Tweed…) The chickens search for a way to escape, but all they find are cobwebby walls. “There’s no way out,” cries a hen named Biddy. “We might as well start plucking our own feathers!”

With despair solidly established, author Angela McAllister moves on to the solution. Among the foxes’ stolen loot, the hens discover a box of gold forks. “TREASURE!” gasps a hen named Bluff – though it will becomes a prop in their ruse. But McAllister also accomplishes something else with the treasure – showing how much fun it must be to be a thieving fox.

Every story needs an intriguing villain, and the foxes are actually this book’s central character. Sly is convinced that the chickens can lay a gold egg, and decides to secretly feed shoe leather to Barkus instead of one of the cooked chickens. When he returns to the barn, he becomes greedy when he sees Biddy sitting on a nest with a golden egg. It’s really just the tip of a golden ladle – but Biddy insists she can hatch this golden egg into a hen which lays more golden eggs.

So Sly feeds shoe leather to Barkus again the next night – again trying to pass it off as the meat of a second chicken. But eventually the other fox has heard the “golden eggs” story for himself from the chickens in the barn. Soon they’re running off on ridiculous errands – like fetching a birdbath or procuring a plum cake. Eventually they convince each fox that his partner has absconded with the hen that lays the golden eggs. And as the foxes head over the hill for a final confrontation, the forgotten hens head off into the night – along with the stolen golden forks! But they’re only using them to leave an incriminating trail for the farmer that leads back to the den of stolen loot.

Maybe I’m just a fox at heart, but I was hoping they were going to keep the gold for themselves!

A Job for Wittilda, by Caralyn Buehner and Mark Buehner

A Job for Wittilda, by Caralyn Buehner and Mark Buehner

“There were cats on the table, cats on the chairs, cats on the sofa, the bookshelves, the stairs!” But unfortunately, poor Wittilda is out of food to feed her enormous collection of 47 cats. You’d think a witch would just magically whip up 47 bowls of cat food – but she tries a different approach. Wittilda heads out into the modern economy, and just tries to land herself a day job!

It’s funny that she has 47 cats, and it’s also funny to watch her adventures in the workforce. But “A Job for Wittilda” also gets some of its humor from the slick illustrations by artist Mark Buehner. There’s big-eyed cats, and they prowl through the witch’s cabinet, or perch in a long line across the back of her chair. And Wittilda herself wears jeweled horn-rimmed glasses – over a cutely-drawn bulbous nose.

But for a witch, she leads a surprisingly ordinary life. Wittilda gets a job at her aunt’s hairdresser’s shop. (Though she’s fired after weaving the woman’s hair into an enormous spider web pattern – and adding a real spider for extra effect.) She gets another chance to earn money for her pets, but this one is even more ordinary. Wittilda tries out for a job as a pizza delivery person.

There’s some rhymes on the first page, which set a lively tone. (Though I still think the cats were the most exciting thing about the book.) But the plot’s tension rises with a pizza delivering-showdown. If Wittilda can beat every one of the other delivery-boy candidates, she’ll finally be able to earn the cats’ dinner money. And fortunately, she’s got a secret weapon. She can deliver them on a broom that flies…

It’s one of the first children’s picture books by Mark Buehner’s wife Caralyn, and it was finished shortly after “Escape of Marvin the Ape.” And it seems like Mark is trying extra hard to make the book entertaining, while also appealing to fans of the earlier book. “Eagle-eyed young readers will also find a bonus of laughter in the antics of the alert little mouse and the cheerful spider in each picture,” notes the book’s jacket, “as well as other animals (including Marvin, who makes a cameo appearance) hidden in the cloud and elsewhere.” This book is called “A Job for Wittilda,” but it all comes down to her big pizza-delivery adventure.

Unfortunately, just as she’s about to win the contest, she spots a stray cat that’s trapped in a tree…

The Ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam, by Angela Shelf Medearis

The Ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam, by Angela Shelf Medearis

Storytelling World Magazine named her one of the three best storytellers in the world. At least, that’s what the book jacket says (adding that she’s written “several” books). But storytelling is mostly an oral tradition. Could Angela Shelf Medearis create the same magic in a written book?

“The Ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam” offers a glimpse of the storyteller in action. She starts with a familiar premise – a realtor offers $5,000 to anyone who can spend the night in a haunted house. She introduces the ghost as a famous local legend, while leaving the details to the readers imagination. (“Old Sam roams around that house every night, scaring anyone who comes into sight.”) And then she creates a sympathetic hero – a local chef who sells batter-dipped fish from a fancy bike-pedaled cart. His name is Dan, it’s a sunny day, and he lugs his groceries into the house.

And inevitably, the ghost shows up.

But it’s here that the book benefits from its funny illustrations. They create just enough suspense while still making the ghost story comical. Medearis specifically requested the artwork of Jacqueline Rogers, who drew the wild pandemonium in “Five Live Bongos” for George Ella Lyon.. For this book, she keeps things colorful, and shifts to strange angles for her ghost-meets-man story. First she draws a glowing ghost head hovering far in the distance. (“I’m the ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam…” it whispers.) But when it finally materializes, she draws the ghost with wild long hair (along with pale ghost arms, since he’s only wearing a tank top)!

It guzzles the pork fatback that the chef had fried in a pan, then moans “I’m the ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam, and I want some more.” The chef cooks a delicious hash out of meat, potatoes, and tomatoes, but the ghost cries for more, so Dan cooks him toast and eggs.

“More!” cries the ghost…

One of Rogers’ illustrations is filled with a snaking trail of the cooked foods. There’s a pair of whole chickens (dancing), and a row of French fries.But the foods themselves seem haunted, since each one has a ghostly face. There’s peppers, pies, and potatoes – all smiling fiendishly on their way into Sifty’s mouth! And it’s followed by the book’s most amazing drawing. It shows Sifty’s swollen belly – but it’s transparent, since he’s a ghost, so all the food is still visible inside it!

I like how this book flirts with a scary story without ever getting too scary. No, Dan doesn’t get eaten himself. In fact, he’s such a good cook, that he’s earned the ghost’s favor. They live happily ever after, since Dan opens a restaurant and hires Sifty as his dishwasher.

“After old Sam has washed every last dish, Dan rewards him with crispy delicious, batter-dipped fish.”

Just Another Morning, by Linda Ashman

Just Another Morning, by Linda Ashman

“The day begins as many do:
I find myself inside a zoo.”

There’s really two stories in “Just Another Morning,” but they’re both a lot of fun. A little boy wakes up in his bed – surrounded by his favorite stuffed animals – but he imagines that he’s waking up inside a zoo. And then he has to tiptoe past the sleeping giants (his parents), down “a mountain long and steep” (his staircase). His imaginary story is very exciting, filled with lots of dangerous adventures, but the illustrations make sure that everything stays cute. Illustrator Claudio Muñoz uses soft colors and big, round shapes, so the imaginary story looks more like a cartoon drawn with a crayon!

“Behind a door, I find a feast
and share it with a hairy beast.”

The “beast” is the family dog, and the feast comes from the tasty snacks in the refrigerator. There’s a green monster in the closet – the family vacuum cleaner – and then the boy builds a castle out of chairs. Unfortunately, soon the “giants” are awake, appearing angry as they burst through the door into the kitchen. The boy rushes into the garden, where he plays with “a spitting snake”:  the garden hose.

It’s fun to imagine how this book got written. Linda Ashman composed the poem, but presumably she also knew what the illustrator would be drawing. This might be a good book for younger readers, because the pictures and the illustrations always have a real connection. Of course, it might confuse the youngest readers, if they take the text too literally!

“I join a traveling circus troupe,
teach a clown to hula-hoop,
train a monkey, tame a cat,
tumble like an acrobat.”

This is one of the trickiest drawings in the book because now the little boy is lost in his imagination. But the monkey looks like the stuffed monkey he’d imagined at the zoo, and the “clown” is just the family dog again, wearing a party hat. There appears to be a real cat in the drawing, but it’s just staring dubiously at a dangling hoop. And then suddenly the “giant” reappears and scoops up the boy. “I can’t break free,” he says; though, in the illustration, it’s the boy’s father who’s smiling gently. The boy ends up taking a nap in his room, and in a funny twist, the book ends exactly where it begins.

“The hours pass. When I come to,
I find myself inside a zoo…”

Catching The Moon, by Myla Goldberg

Catching the Moon by Myla Goldberg - illustrated by Chris Sheban

She’s the author of “Bee Season,” but she also wrote a children’s book. Myla Goldberg had described a little girl who robs houses in her first novel in 2000, which had become a best-seller. The little girl came from a dysfunctional family – but are there the same hints of madness in Catching the Moon? Or is it a story about magic?

It starts with an old fisherwoman who stays up all night on the pier. She’s tired each morning, and the other fishermen assume it’s her age. Even the Man in the Moon is worried, as he looks down on her efforts. The woman grumbles when she catches a lobster, saying she’s fishing for something else. But the illustrator foreshadows one of the book’s strange surprises. The bait that she’s using is a live mouse!

The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, with the round moon filling the sky. It’s shrouded by clouds, and on its dark side is a realistic face. Chris Sheban draws the moon’s face with many expressions, like the face of a person. In one drawing, the moon arrives in a boat – smiling confidently as it rows – and it’s glow makes a silver pattern on the deep blue water by the pier.

The moon wears green sunglasses, and arrives at the woman’s door. “Sea cucumber sandwich?” he says, offering her the plate. The woman is cranky, and “was not one for entertaining guests.” But she shares tea with the moon, as the tide rolls in and soaks her floor. The moon asks about the holes in her house. The woman retorts, defensively, “Who on earth wears nighttime sunglasses?”

What would you say if the moon came for a visit? It’s a wonderful premise, and Myla Goldberg lets it roll magically along. A wave crashes through the door, knocking over the tea cups. It’s caused by the moon, since its gravity draws the tides of the ocean. And when the moon resignedly returns to his row boat – he leaves behind a trail of glowing footprints.

The next month the woman’s fishing line catches a new kettle and two teacups. (The illustrator shows the poor mouse struggling mightily to haul it in.) And the next month, there’s another knock on the door. “What is it?” asks the old woman.

“Moon pie?” came the reply.

They share tea again – and the sticky marshmallow dessert – and the moon asks how her fishing is going. It’s then that he asks why she’s fishing with a mouse, and the old woman shrieked and guffawed. She’d been fishing for the moon, and assumed it was made out of cheese. And then the story comes together. She’s planning to catch the moon, so she can make it stop sending the high tides that destroy her driftwood shack!

But now that they’re friends, there’s another way to solve her problem…

Shenandoah Noah, by Jim Aylesworth

Shenandoah Noah, by Jim Aylesworth

Shenandoah Noah doesn’t like farming, like the rest of his kinfolk in the valley. Because farming means driving a plow in the hot sun behind a mule. “[A]nd work is something that Shenandoah Noah doesn’t care for.” He just wants to sit in the shade with his hounds up in the mountains.

His troubles start when he catches a case of the fleas…

Glen Rounds delivers some wonderful two-color sketches – clear black lines with an old-time yellow tint. So Shenandoah Noah appears as a shaded yellow mass with pointy edges for his boots and fingers. He’s got an irritated look on his face as he scratches – and he’s also surrounded by two scratching hound dogs. Shenandoah Noah doesn’t like washing himself – because that means chopping wood to boil water.  And chopping wood is work – “and working is something Noah doesn’t care for.”

The illustrations are cute, and they work nicely with the story. Soon Shenandoah Noah has chopped a large pile of firewood logs – and Noah’s axe is poised over head, like he’s splitting one more. Then he’s hauling buckets of water to a pot on his fire – and the illustration shows spikey flames and long twirling swirls of smoke. Standing behind the pot, Noah dunks all his clothes with a stick. He’s wearing nothing but a scowl – and it does look like a lot of work. The next page finally shows his long flannel underwear dripping on a tree.

The character of Noah comes to life, both because of the text about his dislike of work – and the sketches which actually show it. Soon this man who hates work is doing work – and even his kinfolk in the valley can see the smoke from his fire. This seems suspicious, since chopping firewood is work, and “[E]verybody knew that work is something Noah doesn’t care for.” So Noah’s nephew heads up to investigate – with a shotgun.  

And unfortunately, chilly Noah is warming himself under a bearskin rug.  And he’s too embarrassed to let his kinfolk see him without any clothes on. The startled nephew mistakes the rug for a real bear, and Noah shouts out “Don’t shoot! It’s me!” But the frightened nephew runs away, and tells everyone in the valley that Noah has turned into a talking bear.

Which is fine with Noah – since he likes being left alone. Under his tree, the overworked mountain man draws a conclusion from all of this trouble.

“It just proved he shouldn’t do much else but sit in the shade…”

Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher, by Larry Di Fiori

Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher, by Larry Di Fiori

It’s a children’s picture book that actually looks like a comic book. There’s a grid of beautifully sketched black-and-white panels on each page of Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher, and the story is told entirely through dialogue balloons. Larry Di Fiori has worked as an illustrator on some picture books using the Muppets. But in this book, he seems to reach back all the way to the 1920s, telling a long fantasy-adventure story that could’ve been serialized during the golden age of the Sunday newspaper’s comics section.

The book is titled “Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher,” and there’s even a bubble on the book’s cover that describes it as “A thrilling adventure and mystery.” There’s criminals wearing the traditional black and white stripes and an eye mask – and an old-fashioned bowler hat. The book opens innocently, with a boy named Jackie in a cap walking past the smokestacks on the edge of town. But if you study the picture carefully, you’ll see something strange happen to his shadow. First it’s in front of Jackie, and then it’s to the side of him – and then it’s just a pair of shadowy legs kicking as they’re dragged into a tree!

The magic of the story makes it instantly intriguing, and the simple characters are still funny to watch. It’s as though it’s taken the best elements of a comic book, and then transported them into a children’s picture book. For example, because the book’s illustrations are black and white sketches, the book is ultimately filled with lots more pictures than usual. And with all the accompanying extra dialogue, this book could keep young readers occupied for a longer period of time!

But what I liked most about this book was the way it takes its time with the story, as though it really was written during a more leisurely era. There’s a whole page devoted just to the eight panels where Jackie’s pet Bulldog arrives, and then sniffs the ground at his feet with concern. And then there’s another page for just the complete text of Jackie’s reaction. (“What are you trying to tell me? Golly! No shadow! Well… I’ll be doggoned. I don’t cast a shadow! I bet I lost it on the way home from school…”)

Ultimately the story finds his way to the spooky mansion of the shadow snatcher – the hide-out for a criminal mastermind and his gang of thieves. The illustrations suddenly get more grand and fanciful, and the final showdown is very satisfying.

And my favorite illustrations shows the glorious liberation…of all the stolen shadows.

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 different 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.

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

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!