Sunday, May 19, 2024

Board Book Review Rundown: Spring 2024

Though my youngest kids are four now and we're phasing out most of our board books, I still can't resist taking a peek at the new ones now and then. Little Simon kindly provided me with copies of all of these titles in exchange for my honest review.

Hey, Little Night Owl by Jeffrey Burton, illustrated by Joy Hwang Ruiz

published 12/12/2023 
An owl parent and its wakeful baby sit up together at night trying to put the baby to sleep. The illustrations are illuminated by a warm light, which is very cozy, but every other detail of the book is very confusing. Why are we trying to get a nocturnal owl to sleep at night? Why are we suddenly removed from nature and placed in a car where the owl parent is driving and baby is rear-facing? I understand the parallels between the book and a real-life human mom trying to get an infant to sleep by any means necessary, but it would have made more sense to illustrate the book with people than with actual owls. 

My Little Lamb by Hannah Eliot, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell

published 1/16/2024 

This small board book with a soft, somewhat squishy cover is perfect for little hands, as are all the sweet illustrations showing a fluffy lamb temporarily leaving its parent and then coming home again. Unfortunately, though the rhymes in the text are okay, the rhythm is inconsistent from page to page, making it very difficult to read aloud smoothly. 

The Mommies on the Bus by Hannah Eliot, illustrated by Airin O'Callaghan

published 3/12/2024 
When I was doing story time, there were never enough picture book versions of The Wheels on the Bus. That song is a crowd pleaser. This version, starring moms of many backgrounds, is a reflection of real life for many urban moms who travel with kids on public transportation. In all seasons and forms of weather, these mamas hold their little ones' hands, tell them repeatedly to stay seated, and offer them snacks and love. I love all the fun details in the illustrations and the way the singable text matches so well with the original song. This would be ideal for baby and toddler story times on so many themes: buses, transportation, families, mothers, seasons, community, etc. If I were still working in libraries, this would go right on my story time cart. 

Tell Me About Oceans by Lisa Varchol Perron, illustrated by Jennifer Falkner

published 4/16/2024 
This is a factual text told in two different narratives. One is a conversation in rhyme between a father and daughter walking on the beach, and the other is a nonfiction text explaining the scientific concepts behind their discussion. The rhyme and rhythm read very smoothly, and the nonfiction segments are simplified for young children in a way that makes them easier to understand without dumbing them down. This would be a great addition to a toddler or preschool story time about the ocean. 

Hush, Little Dozer by Rebecca Colby, illustrated by Katya Longhi

published 4/23/2024
This book is very similar to Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, but with fewer words and more cartoonish illustrations. The rhythm and rhyme flow smoothly throughout the book, but there isn't much new or creative about the text or illustrations. Digger-loving toddlers won't care in the least, but it wouldn't be at the top of my list for story time. 

The Great Outdoors by Yuli Yav, illustrated by Laura Bee

published 5/14/2024 
This celebration of hiking evokes nature with its brown and green color palette and its descriptions of what can be seen and heard in the woods. The rhythm and rhyme are a bit forced, and some of the end rhymes don't actually rhyme at all, which threw off the flow of reading it aloud. Families who love hiking will probably enjoy the opportunities this book provides to discuss what they might see on a family hike, and to spark an interest in nature in young children. 

What Goes in the Ocean? by Dori Elys, illustrated by Katie Cottle

published 5/21/2024
This seek-and-find book provides several spreads depicting the ocean filled with some things that belong there and other things that don't. The child reader is invited to sort out the ocean-dwellers from the imposters. My four-year-old son enjoyed looking at this book and laughing over some of the silly things he found. This is a lap book, not one to share with a large audience, but it could be a fun rest time read for a preschooler, or a read-aloud with a parent or caregiver. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Picture Book Review Rundown: Fall 2023

The Story of a Book by Joy McCullough and Devon Holzwarth

Review copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Published 8/29/2023 

Colorful, whimsical illustrations and concise text in the second person sing the praises of books as comforting companions, educational tools, and portals to magical lands. Story time presenters will like this one for National Library Week and other book-themed celebrations. In our home library, it's less useful because my kids are already sold on reading and we have a variety of books about books already. I did enjoy the nod to used book sales, since that's where most of our books come from, but I wasn't particularly wowed by the book overall. 

There's Always Room for One More by Robyn McGrath and Ishaa Lobo

Review copy provided by Paula Wiseman Books
Published 8/29/2023 

This is the story of a table to which a little girl named Clare is very attached. When the table is replaced with a larger one to accomodate Grandpa moving in, Clare has a lot of big feelings about it, but her family helps her realize that they can create new memories to go along with the new piece of furniture. The illustrations in this one are definitely kid-friendly in their depiction of Clare, her family, and her neighbors. I liked the cozy feel of the family home and the sense of community evoked by the scenes with neighbors, but the plot fell totally flat for me. I just didn't buy that anyone cared this much about a table.

Flashback to the . . . Chill 2000s! by Gloria Cruz and Sarah Rebar

Review copy provided by Simon Spotlight
Published 8/29/2023

An easy reader companion to previous titles about the 80s and 90s, this book covers Y2K, Uggs, iPods, Netflix's mail service, Heelys shoes, Blackberries, and more. I was in my 20s in the 2000s, so I didn't have the same nostalgia for some of the childhood items as I did in the books from my own eras, but this was still entertaining to read. I'm not convinced kids will get a perfect sense of life in the 2000s, but kids with parents about ten years younger than I am will get a kick out of sharing this with their children.

Ten-Word Tiny Tales to Inspire and Unsettle by Joseph Coelho

Review copy provided by Candlewick
Published 9/12/2023 

Joseph Coelho has written a collection of ten-word stories which have been illustrated by a host of diverse artists. This is a clever concept for a book, and I enjoyed seeing each illustrator's interpretation of the author's micro-stories. I also love the back matter with suggestions for writing and expanding upon ten-word stories. 

I'm Going to Build a Snowman by Jashar Awan

Review copy provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Published 9/19/2023 

A little boy depicted in paper-cut illustrations wakes up one morning to snow and suits up to head outside and build a snowman. He dreams of the best snowman ever and though what he creates is not exactly perfect, the boy finds joy in it anyway. I have to admit to not understanding why we need this book when The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is still popular and in print. This book is so similar in subject matter that it invites comparison, and there is honestly no contest. I also felt weird about the mom taking the cell phone photo at the end. It took me out of the mood of the story. 

Tacos by Frank Asch

Review copy provided by Aladdin
Published 9/19/2023 

Frank Asch passed away in 2022, and this a new posthumous title. I requested this review copy based on feelings of nostalgia about this author's Happy Birthday, Moon, which I read as a kid, but this one did not live up to my expectations. The story felt disjointed and simplistic and the illustrations felt oddly sterile and outdated, but not in the charming way that makes me want to read most vintage books. The book also had a lot less to do with tacos than the title suggestions, althought librarians who have been looking for something to pair with Dragons Love Tacos might be able to make good use of this title in story time.

Don't Worry, Wuddles by Lita Judge 

Review copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Published 9/26/2023 

In the tradition of stories like Jan Brett's The Mitten and Dr. Seuss's Thidwick the Big-hearted Moose, this barnyard tale follows Duckling as he slowly gives away bits of Wuddles the sheep's wool to warm his friends during the upcoming cold weather. The animal faces in the illustrations are all very impish and adorable, and though the ending doesn't quite solve the problem of Duckling taking wool without permission, it was unexpected and did make me laugh. The first-person narration from Duckling, who lacks any self awareness at all, would be great fun to read aloud, especially to kids in elementary grades who understand irony. 

365: How to Count a Year by Miranda Paul and Julien Chung 

Review copy provided by Beach Lane Books
Published 9/26/2023 

This counting book emphasizes the number of days in a year by counting things like 365 nights, 52 weekly baths, 12 monthly trips to the mailbox for magazines, one yearly birthday celebration, and so on. While I think kids like this kind of trivia, I didn't quite feel like it was enough to sustain a whole book. There are also multiple instances of comments about underwear and using the bathroom that grated on my nerves. In a library setting, I might consider throwing this into a calendar-themed story time just for a change of pace. It could also be interesting to use in a classroom where counting the days is part of the daily routine. 

A Stone Is a Story by Leslie Barnard Booth and Marc Martin

Review copy provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books
Published 10/3/2023 

Textured watercolor illustrations and very minimal text portray the journey of a stone over many years of our Earth's natural history. In our homeschool, we cover natural history and prehistory during kindergarten and again in first grade, so having a simpler book to go along with that topic can sometimes be nice. My almost-6-year-old read the book and complained it was too short, but she has younger siblings who will be 4 next year and might like it then so I might hang onto it. I like the way the illustrations hint at things like the dinosaurs and cave people, which can invite deeper discussion, and the back matter about the types of rock was very informative.  

Splash Goes the Whale by Matthew Van Fleet

Review copy provided by Paula Wiseman Books
Published 10/3/2023 

This novelty book by Matthew Van Fleet includes a pull tab to make the title character's tail swish back and forth, which is the main reason it appealed to me. My son is really into ocean animals and I knew this feature would be exciting to him. The story itself is an alphabet book listing a series of animals starting with each letter of the alphabet who serve to the whale foods starting with their respective letters, all of which are labeled with capital letters. The final spread shows a pop-up with a dessert for every letter, with the letters in lowercase. Though the concept of this book is not particularly original, it will be fun for a preschooler learning his letters to flip through and enjoy. I plan to save my review copy to give my son for Christmas. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Books for Beginning Readers: Spring 2023

Lots of brand-new books for beginning readers have come out recently. Here are some quick reviews of some easy readers and early chapter books. 

First up are two really fun nostalgic books that parents of a certain age (ahem, my age), will definitely appreciate. Flashback to the...Awesome '80s! and Flashback to the... Fly '90s! are both written by Patty Michaels and illustrated by Sarah Rebar. Using the slang of their respective time periods, each of these Level 2 Ready-to-Read books describes the pop culture of these decades, including food, fashion, music, communication devices and fads. Having lived through most of the 80s and all of the 90s, I was particularly amused by what the author chose to represent each decade. But I also appreciate having titles like this to spark conversations with my kids, some of whom are utterly fascinated by having parents "from another century." I don't like to think about the fact that elementary kids might be doing history reports on my childhood years, but these would be good for that as well.  

The next two books are science-oriented. Dirt and Bugsy: Bug Catchers written by Megan Litwin and illustrated by Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn is about two little boys who love to catch insects. When it rains during their bug collecting, they brainstorm ways to keep the bugs dry. This is a Level 2 book in the Penguin Young Readers  easy reader series, but it's quite a bit easier to read than the titles mentioned above. It has a lot of repetition and short sentences to help support new readers, but the engaging plot and colorful illustrations keep the repetitions from becoming boring. The Night Sky written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by John Wallace is a nonfiction Level 1 Ready-to-Read book. It explains what we can see in the sky at night, how the stars and other bodies looked to groups throughout history, and finishes with other phenomena that occur in the sky, such as the Northern Lights. It's well-written and colorfully illustrated and has captured the attention of my 3-year-old son. 

The last easy reader on my list is Elena Rides by Juana Medina. I have found this author's books lacking in the past, and this one isn't really different. Elena the elephant wants to ride a bike. At first she finds it difficult, but she perserveres and figures it out. This is the plot of most books about learning to ride a two-wheeler and there is nothing in this book that adds more to that basic framework. It's fine for kids to practice reading with, but possibly not the most engaging title. 

Kicking off my list of beginning chapter books are two titles in the Isla of Adventure series: Welcome to The Island and The Secret Cabana both written by Dela Costa and illustrated by Ana Sebastian.  Isla lives on the island of Sol, and she is able to speak to and understand the speech of animals. Her best friend is a gecko named Fitz, but when a new family moves into the neighborhood in book one, she thinks it would be nice to have a human friend, too. Isla is afraid the new girl will be too perfect and tidy to have adventures with her. The ensuing plot is a "city mouse/country mouse" type story where the girls work to find common ground. The second book sees both girls trying to track down the source of some mysterious music, which they think might be a mermaid. Strange as it sounds, I found the font in these books to be very off-putting. Coupling the odd look of the pages with writing that is much more "tell" than "show" and dialogue that feels unnaturally stilted, I couldn't really settle in and enjoy them. 

Shermy & Shake, The Not-so-Nice Neighbor written by Kirby Larson and illustrated by Shinji Fujioka is another book about an unlikely pair of friends. Shermy is a reader and a collector of interesting objects. His quiet well-ordered life is turned on its head when active, imaginative, and freewheeling Shake comes to stay with his grandmother and Shermy's neighbor, Mrs. Brown, for the summer. At first it seems these two boys are totally mismatched, but as the adults force them to spend time together, a friendship begins to grow. The plot of this book has been done many times before, but Kirby Larson's writing elevates this title beyond many of the others. I appreciated reading a children's book that was truly for and about children, with no hints of politics or other agendas, and I loved the character development. This one is probably on a third or fourth grade level, compared with the other chapter books here, which are a bit easier than that. 

The Giants' Farm written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Tomie dePaola was originally published in 1977 and has been redesigned for the new generation as part of Aladdin's "Quix Fast-Fun-Reads" series. The story follows five giants - Grizzle, Dazzle, Grab, Grub, and Little Dab - as they undertake the task of building and operating a farm.  The font in this one is distracting like the font in the Isla of Adventure books, only this time the distraction is down to bolded words and words of different sizes. I felt like my eyes didn't know where to look. Still, as I would expect from Jane Yolen, the writing is excellent - fun and kid-friendly, but with dashes of interesting vocabulary and lots of humor. DePaola's illustrations are in that same style everyone recognizes, but they work with Yolen's writing to maintain a sense of warmth throughout the book. There is also a section at the back of the book that includes recipes mentioned in the story and a glossary for new words. I could do without these, personally, but they seem to be a standard feature of this particular series. 

Finally, my last beginning chapter book is Bear and Bird: The Picnic and Other Stories by Jarvis. This is another book about friendship between characters who are opposites, but more on the order of the Elephant and Piggie books or the Poppleton series. In each of the stories in this collection, there is some miscommunication, or other problem that provokes a partcular interaction between the characters, whether that is a silly rescue mission when Bird gets stuck in a flower or an outburst at art class when Bear proves to be the more skilled painter. The tone of the stories is very sweet, and overall the book has a classic feel. The artwork by Jarvis is very gentle and welcoming as well, making this a good pick for kids who transition into chapter books while still very young.  

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Picture Book Review Rundown: May/June 2023

Our Dragon by Mem Fox and Linda Davick

Review copy provided by Beach Lane Books
Published 5/2/23

A mother and father are raising a toddler dragon who tries to follow the rules against setting things on fire, but tends to forget, especially when he's hungry. My favorite thing about the book is the impish little faces the dragon makes. He is so much like an actual toddler, just in dragon form, both in behavior and body language. I didn't think the rhyming text was that strong, and the punchline landed weakly.

Once Upon a Fairy Tale House by Mary Lyn Ray and Giselle Potter

Review copy provided by Beach Lane Books
Published 5/23/23

This is the true story of four imaginative sisters who always dreamed of fairy tales and grew up to put their various talents to use building fairy tale homes. I chose to read this book based on the author and illustrator, both of whose work I have enjoyed in the past, but I did question the reasoning behind writing a book about such obscure subjects. I didn't love Potter's art in this one, as I think a more realistic style suits nonfiction better, but Ray's writing was solid.

Amy Wu and the Ribbon Dance by Kat Zhang and Charlene Chua

Review copy provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Published 5/30/23

In this fourth Amy Wu book, Amy has discovered Chinese ribbon dancing, and she wants to try it out, but she doesn't know what to use for a ribbon. With some inspiration from her mom, she soon realizes that it's not having the right props but enjoying the dancing that matters. My girls have grown up reading Amy Wu, and they loved this latest installment. It's pretty typical of a later book in a series like this, but there's nothing objectionable about it either.

Truffle by David McPhail

Review copy provided by Peter E. Randall
Published 6/5/23

Truffle is a dog who doesn't like cats. He doesn't like seeing them on his farm, or in town, and he would prefer to vacation in a cat-free place. When he does take a trip, however, a moment of danger leads him to meet a feline friend, who changes the way he sees all cats from then on. This is a brand-new book, but it is written and illustrated in the style of McPhail's older titles. There are a lot of books out there about the rivalry between cats and dogs, but with the anthromorphic animals and cozy atmosphere, this one is a bit distinctive.

We Are Going to be Pals! by Mark Teague

Review copy provided by Beach Lane Books
Published 6/6/23

A friendly egret chatters away to a silent rhino about what great friends they will be in this story told entirely in one-sided dialogue. This book is funny because I think most people can see themselves as either the silent, introverted rhino or the gregarious, extroverted egret. The egret's monologue makes may statements about the nature of friendship that make good talking points for kids learning about social norms, and it's fun to read aloud because of his excitement and persistence. There is also an opportunity to remind more outspoken and chatty kids how it might feel to be the overwhelmed rhino in this scenario.

Moving the Millers' Minnie Moore Mine Mansion: A True Story by Dave Eggers and Júlia Sardà

Review copy provided by Candlewick Press
Published 6/6/23

This quirky book is the true story of Annie Miller whose miner husband built her a mansion, and then died, after which she lost her money and had to turn to pig-farming. The town where the mansion stood didn't allow pigs, so she had to have her house moved to the next town by rolling it on logs. The writing style is very tongue-in-cheek and the old-timey looking illustrations perfectly match that droll tone. Not very much really happens in the story, so readers who like this author's style are the most likely audience for this one.

Playful Pigs from A to Z by Anita Lobel

Review copy provided by Paula Wiseman Books
Publishes 6/13/23

This book (a reprint of a 2015 title) is very similar to the author's classic book, On Market Street, but far less distinctive. On each page, a pig with a named staring with the appointed letter of the alphabet performs some action which also starts with that letter. Both the names nor the actions seem totally random, and the pictures are largely very generic. We are big fans of both Lobels in our family, but this is not this author's best work, nor it is an especially good alphabet book in general.

Penny and Pip by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann

Review copy provided by Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Publishes 6/13/23

On a school field trip to the natural history museum, Penny encounters a small reptile baby who starts following her through the exhibits. All he can say is "pip," so that's the name she gives him. The two have fun together, but when Penny sees how sad Pip is at the sight of the dinosaur skeletons, she hatches a plan to be able to take him home without raising suspicions. This book follows a long tradition of children's books about museums, and is not that different from Danny and the Dinosaur, except that this dinosaur is smaller and easier to sneak home. It would be fun to read in anticipation of a museum trip, or with any child who dreams of a dinosaur of his/her own.

You Go First by Ariel Bernstein and Marc Rosenthal

Review copy provided by Paula Wiseman Books
Publishes 6/13/23

Cat and Duck are two good friends. Duck is enthusiastic about new things, while Cat is more cautious. Duck is eager to try the new slide at the playground, but Cat talks her out of it with his worries about safety. Feeling bad, Cat decides to face his own fears so that his friend can enjoy herself. This book has a main text that narrates the stories as well as lines of dialogue worked into the illustrations that showcase the characters' differing personalities. I enjoyed their exchanges, as they reminded me a little bit of my twins talking to each other. I also liked that the characters work things out for themselves without the intervention of an adult. The story also has a sense of humor about the subject matter which gives it just the right light touch. I appreciate the message that it is sometimes a good thing to take risks.
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