By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Amid the hustle and bustle of the big city, the big crowds and bigger buildings, Little Elliot leads a quiet life. In spite of the challenges he faces, Elliot finds many wonderful things to enjoy—like cupcakes! And when his problems seem insurmountable, Elliot discovers something even sweeter—a friend.
We just got this book out of the library yesterday and I loved it so much I felt I had to write a review of it. As the description says it’s a sweet little friendship story. A story about how there is always someone who needs more help than you and how friends can help each other. Two heads are better than one, or, in this case, two friends are tall enough to order a cupcake at the bakery counter.
However, I think there is a huge subtext here that will really resonate with kids. Elliot is a little elephant who struggles to fit in in an adult, human-sized world. He has to stack books up to sit at the table. He’s so much shorter than the people who rush around the city and gets a bit lost in the crowds. But he’s happy for the most part. Until one day he struggles to be seen at the bakery counter where he really wants a cupcake. When the woman at the counter doesn’t notice him he leaves feeling frustrated and discouraged. On his way home he notices a small mouse who is even more disadvantaged than Elliot and the two pair up to get the cupcake and share it.
Does this sound like the life of a child to anyone? Too small for an adult-sized world. They are expected to fit in with giant, towering cabinets, mile-high chairs, and mile-high people. I know my own daughter often becomes anxious in large crowds and asks to be picked up. In my arms, or her father’s, she is at the right height to see out and not feel smothered. We do a lot to help her feel capable around the house (mini fridge with snacks and drinks, step stools everywhere, toys on low shelves). But as soon as we step outside she is so small compared to everything. More often than not people will ask me questions about her that they could (and should) direct to her. Elliot is a child in a grown-up world and his frustration is that of a child who is tired of being ignored, pushed aside, and made to feel incapable.
I think the art in the book, which is absolutely beautiful, does an incredible job emphasizing this theme. Elliot looks oddly like he was inserted into some other piece of art. While the city he lives in, New York in the 1940s or 50s I presume, and the people around him look like something out of an Edward Hopper painting, Elliot looks a little cartoonish and his polka-dots are reminiscent of outfits I have seen kids pick out for themselves. His out-of-place quality makes it more obvious that he doesn’t exactly fit in with this world. But like most kids it doesn’t seem to bother him most of the time. He’s resilient and with a new friend the two can work together to find their way.
I don’t know if there will be more books with the charming Little Elliot and his rodent friend, but the little badge on the top right of the cover makes me think there will be. I certainly hope there will be.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: If you were a boy named Henri Matisse who lived in a dreary town in northern France, what would your life be like? Would it be full of color and art? Full of lines and dancing figures? Find out in this beautiful, unusual picture book about one of the world’s most famous and influential artists by acclaimed author and Newbery Medal-winning Patricia MacLachlan and innovative illustrator Hadley Hooper.
What a lovely picture book. Our whole family enjoyed this one. For all of us it was the illustrations. Matisse is such a sweet, dreamy looking boy. The illustrations have this 1950s/60s feel to them which I think is part the color schemes used and part the technique. The pictures are so simple yet their bold lines and colors really make the ideas contained in the words pop off the page. The story is quiet and a bit meandering, but captures the feel of a dreamy childhood. It’s such an enticing book.
I love the idea of introducing young children to famous and important people and I think the picture book makes a wonderful way to do this, especially with artists. I think it is done especially well in The Iridescence of Birds because you see Matisse as a boy in his rather ordinary home and city. I think kids could easily see his inspirations in their own lives after reading this.
Some of Matisse’s works are woven into the illustrations which I think helps connect the reader to his adult, working life and shows children where his creative influences led. But I don’t think the point of the book is to tell kids exactly who he was, simply to give them exposure, pique their interest, and inspire them.
I was especially taken with how Hooper introduces the adult Matisse when the book turns to his painting. Boy Matisse is always in the picture with adult Matisse keeping that connection to what is essentially a story about an artistic child. Even the cover has adult Matisse seen through a set of doors similar to those you see young Matisse through. Their paring is a visual reminder of where the grown-up artist came from. I love that the first introduction of Matisse as a man is this one to the left with the two of them on the ladder, boy Matisse looking sweetly at his older self. Even his pose on the ladder is such a kid pose- leaned back a bit and up on tiptoes.
There is a lovely note at the end that talks about Matisse’s mother who was quite influential on him as an artist, inspiring and encouraging him.
Although very different in illustration style, you could pair this with Yuyi Morales’ Viva Frida which also explores artistic inspiration.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Nov 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I came across a Kickstarter campaign through one of my non-library blogs. I’ll just quote you their about page, because they do a better job explaining their mission than I will:
“In one Lagos bookshop in 2008, there were no children’s books with African children on them.
I couldn’t believe it. At the time I was working for Tamarind Books, a bastion of multicultural children’s book publishing in the UK. Unfortunately their books weren’t reaching a global audience. Neither were many other great, high-quality multicultural and multilingual children’s books published by the best trade publishers. So I decided to join the dots.
Kio exists to serve schools, governments, charities and families with educational resources that reflect cultures and languages globally. At Kio, we believe education should reflect and celebrate the global village we live in.
Many organisations working in Africa, Asia, South America and beyond don’t know that there are resources which reflect the children they serve. As a consequence, those children grow up seeing images of success, opportunity and education that exclude them. By shopping with Kio, you are enabling us to change this.”
Here is the blog post I found them through: What If We Publish Children’s Books African Kids Could Relate To. This just hit home the point for me that we all need diverse books and that, sadly, the story of the whitewashing of US publishing is a story you can find all around the world.
Their Kickstarter campaign can be found here: The Wedding Week. It looks to publish a book called The Wedding Week which, led by gecko, takes you through a week of weddings all over the world. They chose weddings because they are a great entree into food, clothes, and culture. The collage/cut paper illustrations look beautiful. I gave 30 pounds, which is about $50. Please give if you can. They have about a week left and need about 2,000 pounds more. The money goes to paying the author and illustrator and to printing and distributing the book to African kids.
Update: 11/3/2014, 10:15 They just passed their initial funding goal!! Any additional money they raise now will go toward making the book into an interactive ebook with audio (read in the languages it is published in), extra content, and animation.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: A boy alone in his room.
Sketchbook in hand.
What would it be like to on safari?
A boy named Leonardo begins to imagine and then draw a world afar; first a rhinoceros, and then he meets some monkeys, and he always has a friendly elephant at his side. Soon he finds himself in the jungle and carried away by the sheer power of his imagination, seeing the world through his own eyes and making friends along the way.
I had a really emotional reaction to this book. It is such an incredible story and told entirely without words. It reminds me of some of the best visual storytelling you see in movies (the opening credits of Watchmen and the tear-jerker montage in Up to name two) which is not easy to do well.
While in his room a young boy, possibly Colon, sits on his bed reading a book. The mood strikes him and he picks up his sketch pad. As you leave the world of his bedroom for the African continent the art style changes and the new style, a more lush, layered and colorful style, comes into view through a series of panels that grow in size indicating how they slowly fill the room and the boy’s mind. The effect is done in reverse when the boy returns from his adventure. In the fantasy you see small details included from the room. The backpack of bread slowly empties as the boy shares it with the creatures he meets. He wears the same clothes. It becomes apparent that the elephant is his guide through the savannah. It’s these subtle details that really make the story effective and more complex and therefore interesting.
The story, while about a boy drawing, is really about how art can transport you. And not just drawing but books as well. It’s the book the boy was reading that inspired him to pick up paper and visually represent what he had been reading. I think this book is great for quietly perusing, but is also a great inspriration for kids who love to draw, paint, and create. It would also be a good discussion starter for classes learning about art and inspiration. I know a lot of parents think picture books are for young children, but this book would be wonderful for any age as the story is so timeless and universal.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I love picture book biographies. Sure they can be light on facts and dates and the Whole Story, but they’re a great way to entice kids to actually want to read more. They also are really important for encouraging kids to try new activities and new hobbies and keep on with those they love.
From GoodReads: Joe and Bob Switzer were very different brothers. Bob was a studious planner who wanted to grow up to be a doctor. Joe dreamed of making his fortune in show business and loved magic tricks and problem-solving.
When an accident left Bob recovering in a darkened basement, the brothers began experimenting with ultraviolet light and fluorescent paints. Together they invented a whole new kind of color, one that glows with an extra-special intensity—Day-Glo.
I love any kind of book that encourages kids to play around and experiment. The Switzer brothers were not scientists or inventors, they simply played around with materials when Joe needed something for his magic act. Science and invention and making can have this aura around them of being difficult and needing tons of education to do it successfully, which isn’t really the case. I think it would be easy for a kid to find inspiration in what they did and how they did it. It took years of tinkering around and a few serendipitous moments that led to the Day-Glo colors. The story itself is interesting, but is a little spare on details beyond how they created their colors simply because of the age it is written for. The author’s note at the end, that tells how Barton pieced their story together, is really interesting and I think speaks to the importance of primary sources (written and verbal).
I also liked that the illustrations begin in monochromatic whites, blacks and grays and slowly their vibrant Day-Glo colors begin to creep in. It gives an interesting visual cue to accompany the progress of the brothers work.
From GoodReads: As a child in the late 1800s, Horace Pippin loved to draw: He loved the feel of the charcoal as it slid across the floor. He loved looking at something in the room and making it come alive again in front of him. He drew pictures for his sisters, his classmates, his co-workers. Even during W.W.I, Horace filled his notebooks with drawings from the trenches . . . until he was shot. Upon his return home, Horace couldn’t lift his right arm, and couldn’t make any art. Slowly, with lots of practice, he regained use of his arm, until once again, he was able to paint–and paint, and paint! Soon, people—including the famous painter N. C. Wyeth—started noticing Horace’s art, and before long, his paintings were displayed in galleries and museums across the country.
With the loss of arts classes in schools I think a good way to easily slip in some history and art/music appreciation is with picture book biographies of artists and musicians. While a traditional chapter book biography would certainly work for introducing Horace Pippin to students, I think the picture book has a distinct advantage because it uses art to show the life of the artist.
Melissa Sweet’s illustrations have a child-like quality to it that is reminiscent of Vera B. Williams. I love this style because it inspires kids, showing them that their art is good enough and has value. That isn’t to imply that these are just some picture she dashed off in class with poor technique, but it feels as if a kid could draw it. I think it is especially relevant and well-suited to this picture book about Horace Pippen because it will encourage children to keep going with their art just as Pippin did.
There is a lot here in the story of his life, but the text doesn’t get bogged down with dates and facts. It’s very readable in a way that a lot of biographies are not. I also think the inclusion of just the right amount of detail will encourage kids to look into a few of the historical events that touched Pippin’s life.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
These books have been on heavy rotation in our house. Stanley is a hamster (or maybe a guinea pig?) and also seems to be a jack-of-all-trades. Not only does he own a garage and build houses, he also is a farmer and chef.
This is a really wonderful series for young children. The stories are fairly basic, but charming as Stanley goes about his day. From book to book there is a rhythm or format and each book ends with Stanley heading home, eating dinner, taking a bath and finally turning in for the night. There is also continuity with some of the characters who appear in more than one book.
Children and parents alike will enjoy the stylized illustrations. With the clean white backgrounds and thick black outlines Stanley is both childish and modern. The colors are bright and inviting and everything is clean and aesthetic. The pictures provide great support for the text and paired with short blocks of text, simple language, and high interest subjects (construction, farm, and cars) these would make great early readers. The repeated pattern of the ending is also a good support for beginning readers. The physical cover is padded which gives it an interesting sensory experience. Pay special attention to the end papers. They feature a large variety of tools that go with Stanley’s profession of the day and are a great opportunity to build vocabulary. They would make neat wall art too as they are laid out so carefully in a puzzle-like matrix.
I just realized that the reason we haven’t been able to get Stanley the Farmer from the library is that it doesn’t release until next spring. Oops. And I checked the back of one of the other books and found there is supposed to be a Stanley’s Diner, but it doesn’t appear that it will be released until next September.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: It’s time to fly home for dinner! In this witty picture book from award-winning and bestselling author Mac Barnett, a mother bird gives the bird next to her a message for little Peter. But passing messages on a telephone line isn’t as simple as it sounds. Each subsequent bird understands Mama’s message according to its own very particular hobbies. Will Peter ever get home for dinner?
A hilarious take on the classic game of telephone, Telephone is one of those stories that is sure to appeal to parents as well as kids. As the message is passed down the line and it gets further and further from the original, kids will pick up on the sheer absurdity of the changes. Each picture, featuring the wacky looking bird and some sort of visual of their message, gets crazier and crazier. Kids will eat up the silliness of the story.
By the time the message makes it to the owl, clearly put out by having to stop reading, the message for Peter has reached epic proportions. The owl, as many a parent and teacher has, sighs, takes it in and susses out the real message. Older kids more cued in to their parents may catch what makes adults laugh.
The muted hues of the illustrations only seem to make the antics of the birds funnier by downplaying how ridiculous it all is. The close up and backed-out shots of all the birds on the wire let the reader in on the secret of what might be going on right over their heads as they slip home for dinner too.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: All around the world — in the sea, in the soil, in the air, and in your body — there are living things so tiny that millions could fit on an ant’s antenna. They’re busy doing all sorts of things, from giving you a cold and making yogurt to eroding mountains and helping to make the air we breathe. If you could see them with your eye, you’d find that they all look different, and that they’re really good at changing things into something else and at making many more microbes like themselves! From Nicola Davies comes a first exploration for young readers of the world’s tiniest living organisms.
Tiny Creatures has so much going for it. Gross factor, interest factor, and charming illustrations. Charming isn’t exactly what I would have expected, actually but while the text is wonderful, it’s the combination of the illustrations and the text that make this book.
The illustrations have this vintage quality to them that actually makes them feel very modern. It might be the colors and technique that feel vintage, but the sparse background and detailed foregrounds are distinctly modern. Each picture really gets to the heart of what the text is saying and gives kids a visual cue to help with understanding what is being said. Sutton very cleverly illustrates the microbes, showing them in little circles as if you were looking at them through a microscope. My only wish would be that one of the children shown in the book was a different color.
In terms of subject matter, I think microbes certainly hold a lot of interest for kids. They love learning about the world around them and this part is a bit mysterious because it’s difficult to see without special equipment. Despite (most likely) not having seen microbes up close, they are familiar with them. All kids have been sick a few times and many have seen a compost heap or eaten yogurt. All these processes occur because of microbes. And don’t be surprised if your kids want to start washing their hands more regularly, the visual of a microbe dividing is pretty powerful.
Tiny Creatures is a wonderful book for curious kids. The text is fairly simple to understand so the book may appeal to young audiences as well as older ones. A lovely glimpse into an otherwise hidden world and another addition to the burgeoning collection of appealing new nonfiction.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
When do you introduce children to a difficult topic like the Japanese Internment? That’s a tough question and part of it will depend on the child, but when I was working in the second grade we definitely broached the topic. I think it’s surprising how ready children are to learn about really difficult topics and I would recommend against assuming that they can’t handle them. Children’s fiction often does a wonderful job of presenting complex and fraught history to kids in a way that helps them understand and process it. The following are three excellent books that teach children about the Japanese Internment without overburdening or overwhelming them.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki: This was one we read every year in second grade and the kids loved it. It does a really wonderful job showing how important it was to have something to do in the camps. The child’s perspective also gives the story an immediacy for children hearing the story. Even though this one is older, it is well worth reading. Sports fan will enjoy this story even though it’s really more a historical fiction.
Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss: Another baseball story. This one follows the story of Zeni, an incredible professional baseball player who, because of his Japanese heritage, was put into a camp. The book is based on the true story of how he saw that the people in the camp needed something to do and worked very hard to build a baseball stadium complete with bleachers for the fans and uniforms for the players. He involves nearly everyone in the camp in some way with the project and gives them a new purpose. I especially like the lack of animosity in the story. I think with stories of injustice it’s easy to slip into pointing fingers and assigning blame, but I don’t think that kind of writing helps children understand what happened or appreciate the heroism of the people who rose above their situation. The art is also really incredible in this book. It has the feel of old sports ads and baseball cards (especially the cover). Back matter has a more complete story of Zeni with pictures of him standing with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The story is a little long so it may be better suited to second or third grade and up, but it is certainly appropriate. As with Baseball Saved Us, this story may encourage sports fans to read more history.
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai: I loved this book. Not only does Mari use art to help her understand the situation she finds herself in, but she also uses gardening to help her and others heal. Mari struggles to understand why she and her family are now living in such an abysmal place as Topaz and she retreats within herself. Eventually her art class and art teacher give her the ability to beautify the family’s barren cabin with her drawings of their old home. When the sunflower seeds she planted with her mother finally begin to grow, so does Mari’s hope that there will be beauty in her life again.There is also a story of friendship here. Mari knows none of the children in the camp with her, but through her art class she meets another little girl who eventually becomes her friend. Through their friendship she finds someone she can lean on and talk to. The story is based on the author’s grandmother’s experience in the Topaz camp.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Emily wants to be an artist. She likes painting and loves the way artists like Pablo Picasso mixed things up.Emily’s life is a little mixed up right now. Her dad doesn’t live at home anymore, and it feels like everything around her is changing.
“When Picasso was sad for a while,” says Emily, “he only painted in blue. And now I am in my blue period.”
It might last quite some time.
Emily’s Blue Period is a picture book about divorce, but I think it handles it in a very interesting way, a way that makes is accessible to all kids.
Despite the fact that this is a “divorce book”, it doesn’t take the tack of many divorce books I’ve seen. In fact the word is never even mentioned. It never tells kids it will all be okay. It doesn’t have Emily trying to get her parents back together and it doesn’t have her blaming herself for their divorce.
What it does do is show Emily and her brother struggling to make sense of their new reality. I think you can look at the book through the lens of Emily or through the lens of Picasso. Which is to say you can look at it as a divorce book or an art book (or both, obviously). Through Emily you see how divorce can be confusing for a child. But you also see her use the transformative power of art to make sense of what is happening to her family. Emily is clearly sad, but the book is hopeful as she works her way through understanding that home is not necessarily your house, but a feeling you create through love and although many things have changed, her parents love for her and her brother has not.
Taking the art angle, the reader learns about Picasso and about his art. But the great thing about this book is how his art is related to Emily’s life. It gives real examples, of the variety that are relatable and don’t shy away from the difficult times in children’s lives, of how Picasso used art. I think many or even most kids know someone with divorced parents, so understanding that it’s a hard and confusing and sad time for their friends still make the topic familiar. I think children who are not faced with divorce will still like Emily and her interest in art and may even find inspiration to use art to work through problems they are faced with.
A lovely book for slightly older kids who are either interested in art or have parents divorcing. The format uses chapters to break the story up even though the chapters are short. I’m not sure how well issue books work for reading aloud to a group, but if any book like that is going to work it would be this one. I think really it makes art, abstract art at that, come alive and feel relevant and understandable.