An Elephant and a Mouse Walk into a Bakery…

Books Reviewed:
Little Elliot Big City – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2014
Little Elliot Big Family – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2015
Little Elliot Big Fun – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2016
Little Elliot Fall Friends – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2017

Mike Curato is a relatively new but rising star author and illustrator and Little Elliot is a sweet and vulnerable elephant of small stature who successfully negotiates many difficulties with the help of his friend, Mouse.  They live in a time and place unnamed in the books, but which is clearly 1940s New York City and environs.  Elliot, white with pastel colored polka dots, is acutely conscious of being different. He also suffers anxiety over a number of problems, such as not being able to reach the counter in his favorite Italian-American Speranza bakery, or confronting the terrors of a big amusement park (Coney Island).  The books are saved from being formulaic or saccharine through Curato’s understated text and his brilliantly executed pictures, which manage to evoke both a specific and nostalgic era and the timeless universe of young children. While Elliot follows in the grand tradition of de Brunhoff’s anthropomorphized Babar, he is a younger and more innocent character in a less complex universe.

bigcitycover

The cover of the first book introduces Elliot standing in front of a row of urban apartment buildings with the Chrysler Building in the background.  The letters “Big City” are the size of tall buildings and they are dotted with windows like the structures behind them.  We enter Elliot’s world to learn how difficult it is for him to huddle on a crowded train track, hail a cab, or reach the ice cream in his freezer. He seems to live a lonely but independent life in his pre-war apartment, until he meets an even smaller but perhaps more resourceful Mouse, who is fishing for half-eaten pizza in a Central Park garbage can.  Elliot helps him; this is the beginning of beautiful friendship.

By the second book, Elliot and Mouse apparently live together, but Mouse needs to visit his extended family and Elliot is temporarily devastated.

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It Takes a Village…and a Woman

Books reviewed:

It Takes a Village – Hillary Rodman Clinton and Marla Frazee, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017

Hillary Rodman Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead – Michelle Markel and LeUyen Pham, Balzer + Bray of HarperCollins, 2016

 

A year ago last November, it appeared that it would take a woman, a brilliant, committed one, to continue to elevate our country, following  President Obama’s progress in eight years in office. Now it seems that way more than ever.  Instead of progress, we now have destructive and reactionary moves backward, towards the worst elements of America’s past. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, contempt for the poor and attacks on labor, science, and education.  On one level, I find it sad even to look at these two wonderful books, but on another, it gives me hope for the future, as they showcase the accomplishments and dreams of four talented women: authors and illustrators, and almost-President Clinton herself.

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It Takes a Village is an expression of Hillary Clinton’s philosophy, based on her previous manifesto of the same name, but distilled for children. The pictures are by Caldecott Honor winner Marla Frazee in her inimitable style, perfect for capturing a multicultural present rooted in the finest values of America’s past.

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What Makes a Family?

Book reviewed:  One Family – George Shannon and Blanca Gómez, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2015

In One Family, George Shannon and Blanca Gómez together answer the question of how to depict a twenty-first century family in a natural and inclusive way.  The success of their book lies in its complete accessibility to children, with both words and pictures constructing a world where members of families and the objects they encounter “match.”  You can count them, and count on them, to be there, in predictable settings.  In the past, the families shown here might have been on the margins, but now they are part of children’s daily world. The author and illustrator accomplish this normalized view of diversity in a completely unobtrusive way by creating people who are both archetypal and real at the same time.

one familycover

The book is structured around family members, at first single and then in groups of up to ten.  There are parents, siblings, grandparents, and pets in indoor and outdoor settings.  Shannon’s text acknowledges the way children notice their environment, beginning with the words “One is one/One lamp.  One clock.  One book to share,” describing a grandmotherly figure sitting in a living room, reading.  She has lovely grey curls, oversized in relation to the rest of her.  Maybe this is the first quality that a child might identify with his or her grandmother.

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“There Were Two Little Bears…”

Book reviewed:  Snow Sisters! – Kerri Kokias and Teagan White, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018

Actually, this is not about two little bears, but two sisters. They don’t actually live in the woods, either, but the theme of the book reminded me of an A.A. Milne poem, “Twice Times,” which makes me think about parenting and siblings:

“There were Two Little Bears who lived in a Wood,
And one of them was Bad and the other was Good.”

The two bears in the poem initially embody opposite qualities, such as the ability to learn multiplication tables vs. the inability to keep one’s clothes and personal articles neat and tidy.  At the end, they switch roles, with the fastidious fan of arithmetic forgetting all the numbers he had learned while his messy brother learns to use a handkerchief.

In Snow Sisters, by Kerri Kokias and Teagan White, the two sisters, unnamed like the bears, have very different attitudes towards winter weather and towards the outdoors in general. Kokias’ brief phrases serve as captions:

snowsisters

“Coat. Scarf. Hat.
Mittens. Boots.
Cocoa. Blankets. Books.

Throwing. Building.
Baking. Making.”

White’s pictures advance the story, and the words are repeated in a slightly different order, as each sister comes to appropriate the other’s responses.  The images have the look of mid-century children’s illustration and a touch of animation, with a color palette based on reds, purples, and mauve.

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So They May Not Really Be Books…

Books reviewed:  Tiny Farm – Suzy Ultman, Chronicle Books, 2017
Tiny Town – Suzy Ultman, Chronicle Books, 2017
Masha and Her Sisters – Suzy Ultman, Chronicle Books, 2017

Suzy Ultman is a designer whose creations include books, but also pillows, enamel pins, and stationary items.  She sells her work through bookstores, but also through Etsy, Crate and Barrel, and other retailers.  Recently Chronicle Books, known both for literary excellence and design ingenuity, has published three of her latest items.  Are they books? Yes.  Might critics legitimately question their status as principally books, as opposed to pretty objects or toys? Also, yes. I would like to defend them, if they need a defense, as picture books, to be read, looked at, and admired.

Suzy Ultman Tiny Farm Book 2Suzy Ultman Tiny Town Book 2

Both Tiny Town and Tiny Farm are small, chunky board books with sturdy, thick “pages.”  The visitor to Tiny Town enters a tiny bakery, tiny toy, pet, and book stores, and ends in a tiny home.

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Good Mouse, Bad Mouse

Books referenced:
Mice Skating – Annie Silvestro and Teagan White, Sterling Children’s Books, 2017
The Tale of Two Bad Mice – Beatrix Potter, Warne, 2002 (100th  anniversary edition)

There was a snowstorm here today, and while Peter, of Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, seems the best representation of a child’s elated experience of the snow (recently featured in stamps from the U.S. Post Office), I decided instead to write about mice.  Mice Skating is an optimistic poetic journey with Lucy, a brave and persistent girl mouse who is undaunted by rough weather or practically anything else.  Her wool hat gives her the courage to face winter while her friends huddle inside like, well, scared little mice.

micecover     “It made her brave.
      It made her bold.
     It made her bloom!”

Not content with enjoying the snow alone, she tries to convince Marcello, even though he replies that he won’t leave their dwelling: “Not unless that snow/is made of mozzarella.”  Lucy is not dissuaded by this lack of enthusiasm: “She fashioned skates out of pine needles/and scurried to the pond.Mice Skating writer Annie Silvestro’s Bunny’s Book Club offers a complementary indoor view of bravery, with a brave bunny who loves to read seeking entrance to a library at night.

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How to…Be a Child

Book reviewed:  how to – Julie Morstad, Simply Read Books, 2013

In case you have forgotten how to be a child, Julie Morstad can reacquaint you with the “idiomatic logic,” of this stage of life, immortalized by Annie Ross in the lyrics to the vocalese number, “Twisted,” covered by Joni Mitchell on her “Court and Spark” album

how to cover

The children in Morstad’s loosely connected series of instructions know “how to watch/where you’re going” by observing your shadow, “how to wash your face” by standing in the rain, and “how to make new friends” by drawing pictures of them with sidewalk chalk.  While adults may forget that a child taking a bath is a mermaid and an alternating stack of children and cushions is a sandwich, younger people know that their parents’ inability to distinguish literal from figurative in just the right way can be frustrating.

 

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Hello, Goodbye, Bonjours

Everybody Bonjours! – Leslie Kimmelman and Sarah McMenemy, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008

Everybody Says Shalom – Leslie Kimmelman and Talitha Shipman, Random House Children’s Books, 2015

There are an impressive number of truly high-quality children’s illustrated books about world geography and culture, presenting in colorful, informative, and sometimes humorous formats the world in all its variety to young readers. Even among these rich offerings, two books by Leslie Kimmelman stand out.  Paired with equally inventive illustrations by two different artists, Sarah McMenemy and Talitha Shipman, they introduce readers to the glories of France and Israel respectively, and to the reassuring return home that grounds these works as stories more than travelogues. (McMenemy has produced a series of miniature panoramas of cities for Penguin Random House, so she is experienced in this genre, to use a French word.)  Shipman has illustrated several other books, including the recent Judah Maccabee Goes to the Doctor, which emphasizes the importance of vaccination to frightened kids. (An article about the role of this book in combating anti-vaxers recently appeared in Tablet Magazine.)

bonjour  Shalom

In Everybody Bonjours!, Kimmelman takes a linguistic risk by converting the French word for “hello” into a cross-lingual verb. Following blue and black illustrated endpapers featuring all the Paris landmarks, the narrator asserts that in Paris, “everybody bonjours.”

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Curious George: Laborer of Love

Book referenced:  The Complete Adventures of Curious George: 70th Anniversary Edition – H.A. and Margret Rey, introduction by Leonard Marcus, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 2001 (there is also a 75th anniversary edition with other add-ons, but it is hard to beat the Marcus introduction!)

Curious George occupies a distinct role in children’s literature. Although there are other animals who act like risk-taking toddlers, George has special qualities that make him competitive in the arena of experiments, bad consequences, and the reassurance by adults that his actions are not irreversible.

tadeda cover

In Curious George Takes a Job from 1947, the little monkey is seemingly inundated with choices in, as my son-in-law has pointed out, the post- World War II economy in which jobs were there for the taking. (To help your kids learn math using fun and effective methods, you might try my son-in-law’s blog, “Teaching with Problems.”)

After busting out of his cage in the joint (zoo) and sleeping under an elephant’s ear (image), George finds gainful employment, first as a window washer in a mid-century high rise.  (He has already worked as a dishwasher, but this was only to pay off his debts after overturning a pot of spaghetti.)

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 Review Essay–
Children Have Wondered: What Do People Do All Day?

Books cited:
     Daddies – Janet Frank and Tibor Gergely, Golden Books of Random House Children’s Books, 2011 (reprint of 1953 edition)
     What Do People Do All Day? – Richard Scarry, Golden Books of Random House Children’s Books, 2015 (reprint of 1968 edition)

gergelycoverjpgscarry cover

If you have wondered how to explain to your child exactly what adult people, male and otherwise, do, since in the universe of children,  grown-ups may “go to work” to do unspecified “things” before returning home, here are two options, both from Golden Books ( (For a wonderful overview of Golden Books, including author and illustrator biographies, see Leonard Marcus’s Golden Legacy: The Story of Golden Books).

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