Sunday, July 21, 2013

Some picture books of note:

A Big Guy Took My Ball! (Hyperion; 2013): Either I don't do these posts often enough, or Mo Willems is just too prolific, because it seems like every time I do one of these, there's at least one of Willems' books included. Wait, what am I saying—Willems? Too prolific? Impossible! I could probably read Willems books all day every day, especially entries in his Elephant & Piggie series of starter reading books, which feature some of the all-around best cartooning you'll find pretty much anywhere you look for high-quality cartooning. I mean, just look at the cover, and the way the illustration tells so much of the story that the title does and doesn't; Gerald and Piggie's postures and expressions tell you their exact reactions to the incident and how they intend to cope with the conflict, and the whole thing looks like it was drawn with a well-sharpened black Crayola crayon!

The fine-print summary on the first page sort spoils the entire story, which I will strive not to do, as the species and specific identity of that "big guy" are quite a surprise, and the main narrative pleasure of this entry in Willems' long-running series. Suffice it to say that the big guy isn't just big in comparison to the rather diminutive Piggie, he's also big in comparison to Gerald who is, remember, an elephant ("That is a BIG guy," Gerald tells Piggie, "You did not say how big he was. He is very BIG").

So what kind of animal is that much bigger than an elephant? Well, the options are limited, and it's neat to see Willems draw this new animal in his series, and to see it sharing page space with Gerald and Piggie, who Willems must render very, very small. I also like the way the big guy's dialogue is all in large font, all-caps.

There's likely a lesson in here about getting along with others who are different from you, not judging books by their covers (metaphorically; you can literally judge this very good book by its very good cover) and sharing and playing together. If you're still young enough to need those lessons. For the rest of us, its instructive in the same way most Willems books are—as an example of world-class cartooning, a demonstration of how one can tell a great story for an audience of any age and for a lesson on the effectiveness of timing in comedy.

The Boy Who Cried Bigfoot (Simon & Schuster; 2013): This book written and illustrated by artist Scott Magoon (Whose name you may recall from reviews of his excellent Spoon and its sorta sequel Chopsticks, both with writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal, which I've reviewed here before; or maybe from the many other books he's written and/or illustrated that I have not reviewed here before).

Its inspiration comes, of course, from the story of the boy who cries wolf, only this boy, Ben, cries the name of a much a more exotic mammal than that of wolf.

Magoon sets most of the story at the edge of a little wood, where Ben and his little dog set up shop. Ben repeatedly cries "Bigfoot!" (sometimes in big, hairy lettering) and his family and neighbors and passersby come to the edge of the wood to see the imaginary Bigfoot, and Ben continues to do things to drum up interest and belief in his tales of Bigfoot, including hoaxing footprints.

As with the boy who cried wolf, Bigfoot eventually does show up, but at a point at which no one believes Ben. Rather than eating all his sheep or killing the boy like the wolf did—the wolf did kill and eat the boy too, right? It's been a while since I've read or had that story read to me—he just steals Ben's bike and dog (Naturally "Bigfoot is stealing My Bike! And my dog!" didn't bring anyone running).

It imparts pretty much the same story as its inspiration, with the same lesson, only with less violence, less aspersions cast toward any poor wolves and with the added benefit of Bigfoot, whose inclusion in pretty much any story of any kind generally improves it. I really like Magoon's artwork, and it's nice to see it applied to some human characters, the natural world and, of course, to the title character, who fits a nice, cartoony, child-friendly version of the most popular descriptions of the legendary beast.

I'd be really interested to hear what a real Bigfooter or enthusiast or believer thought of the book, and if they found the parallels between them and Ben that Magoon suggests as innocent, amusing coincidences, or as jibes (I'm assuming it's the former, as Magoon seems to have a place in his heart for such cryptid creatures; he's previously illustrated a book about the Loch Ness Monster too).

Cat Secrets (HarperCollins; 2011): Like Jon Stone's classic Grover-starring The Monster at the End of This Book or the aformentioned Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Jef Czekaj (of Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters fame, comics people) has his protagonist directly address the reader in a story that is almost purely participatory and which is about the conversation between character and reader more than anything else.

Here, a trio of cats are about to open up and read or discuss the contents of a big, red, locked book entitled Cat Secrets, but before they do, they have to make sure no one other than cats are reading the book the reader is holding in their hands. To do this, they present a small battery of tests to prove that they are actually cats, the surprise final test being "taking a cat nap."

Apparently, then, this book is really one meant to be read to a small child right before they (probably reluctantly) go to take a nap. That's kind of brilliant, actually, and I do wonder if it would work. Probably the first time, but I wonder how many kids will request the book they know leads directly to a nap the second time.

Cheetah Can't Lose (HarperCollins; 2013): This book by EDILW favorite Bob Shea stars an arrogant cheetah and his two little kitten friends, who have organized a very special series of competitions for the day of "The Big Race."

"Which big race?" Cheetah asks the little orange and blue kittens, whose dialogue appears in blue and orange type, or when they both say the same thing at the same time, in words that alternate blue and orange capital letters, "The one I always win because I am big and fast and you always lose because you are little and cats? That big race?"

The cats have "lots of races so everyone can win," but Cheetah sees it as an opportunity for him to win them all...and he does! But some of them are pie-eating and ice-cream eating races, and some have prizes like "special winner shoes"/cardboard boxes, so by the time comes for the actual big race, the good old-fashioned who-can-run-the-fastest race, Cheetah's not really in any shape or dressed properly to beat anyone, whether he's the fastest land animal on earth or not.

Luckily, absolutely no lessons are learned—well, other than maybe an implied lesson about brains being as important as size and speed, or to not be too arrogant or too much of braggart—and Cheetah remains Cheetah throughout, suffering no real comeuppance that he's even aware of. There's a twist following the twist, making it a doubly charming story.

Chu's Day (HarperCollins; 2013): Neil Gaiman is another writer who apparently writes a lot faster than I can read, and while a decade or two ago I read every word he wrote for public consumption, now I'll quite often come across a book of his that I had no idea even existed until I found it in my hands.

Such is the case with Chu's Day, which Gaiman wrote and artist Adam Rex (responsible for the incredibly illustrated Frankenstein Takes the Cake and Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, among a bunch of other stuff) illustrated. Chu is the name of a little panda in a world of gorgeously-rendered anthropomorphic animal.

While the title is a kinda clever play on Tuesday, I'm afraid the joke of Chu's name is of much older, less amusing and potentially even offensive vintage. See, Chu is quite a prodigious sneezer, to the extent that he wears a little old-fashioned aviator's helmet and goggles, which he securely places over his little eyes when he begins to "aah- aaah-" before a sneeze.

That's right: He's named Chu, as in "Ah Chu"...although the "Ah" is never assigned to him explicitly in the book.

The story is, as the title says, of his day, which includes going to a series of three places with his parents, being exposed to a potential sneeze-trigger, and managing to stifle two of the three sneezes, the third of which meets the promise of the first line of the story: "When Chu sneezed, bad things happened."

It is, of course, beautifully illustrated, and, as a guy who works in a library, I really appreciated the two-page spread of what the library looks like...
...right down to the little details like the animal ears and snout on the figure in the "library" pictogram and the fact that while the card catalog cabinet is still there, it is now manned—moused?—by mice with computers.

I particularly liked the ladder on wheels though. My dream library job entails one where I get to climb up and down such a ladder.

The lame old Asian stereotype gag of Chu's name aside, the story is a decent one, but is rather disappointing, knowing it's source. Gaiman is a great writer, one of the best, in more than one medium, and this is, from him, a rather pedestrian effort.

Cookie The Walker (Carolrhoda Books; 2012): Another new book from another favorite maker of children's books, this one's from writer/artist Chris Monroe (Sneaky Sheep, the Monkey With a Toolbelt series), and is one of her better books (Of interest to comics readers perhaps is the fact that this, like her previous works, are told in large part in comics, with panels and dialogue balloons and everything).
Our star is Cookie, a dog who walks, but not on all four legs. As she explains to her friend Kevin on page two, it is not uncomfortable at all, "And it's very handy!" On her hind legs, Cookie can reach the candy dish, look out the window, get herself ice cubes from the ice maker on the fridge door, and more.

What's more, people really seem to like looking at her walking on two legs ("It is pretty cute I guess...")

Soon, her walking on two legs draws the attention of a famous dog trainer, and Cookie gets a job, which brings with it fame and treats. One gig leads to another—a dog show, the circus, reality TV—and the more famous she gets, the more treats she gets, but all that fame and all those treats come at a great price, as she misses aspects of her life before she became Cookie The Walker, something Kevin reminds her of whenever he comes to visit.

Will Cookie throw it all away to walk on all four-legs again? That's the drama of the story, which is wonderfully illustrated with thin, slightly wiggly lines and delicate water-colors. Monroe excels at montages, and filling them either with a great deal or detail, or simply funny little riffs. Here's a page in which we see Cookie as "a big TV star," appearing in various generic reality TV roles:
I particularly like the ghost-hunting one.

Cookie The Walker is another great book from a great maker of great books. If you're only going to read one book discussed in this post, well, that's a silly and arbitrary rule to follow, but this might be the one you should choose to read.

Well this one, more maybe this next one...

The Dark (Little, Brown and Company; 2013): Writer Lemony Snicket teams with artist Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back) for a dream-team collaboration. The subject matter? One close to the heart of all children everywhere, as close to their little hearts as that which chills them. One of Snicket's better (and probably most serious) children's books, he writes about the relationship between a little boy named Laszlo and the dark, which lives in Laszlo's basement (although it is often nearby, in corners and closets and, of course, at night, it leaves the basement to spread itself all over the house).

Snicket quite elegantly writes every single, simple line, and he does so in such a way that most of them can have two meanings, so that what he writes is, in one way, quite literally true, but also sounds semi-mythological (like everything does in childhood).

Klassen's art pulls off a very neat trick, depicting Laszlo and the dark's house as "a big place with a creaky roof...and several sets of stairs" as a place unmoored from a particular temporal or geographical setting (this could be your house, and probably is), and of depicting the same locations within the house during the day and during the night, in the dark, in the light, and the dimness in between, transforming them as the dark transforms things, usually for the worse when you're a child. The words are arranged just so on many of the pages, the lettering itself shifting from black to white (depending on whether the page is light or dark, for a sort of perfection of impact (the line "it did," for example).

It's rare to read a book as an adult that speaks so directly and eloquently to the little kid you used to be. It's rarer still for me to read a book, wish I would have read it when I was a little kid and spend very much time at all wondering how that book and that act of reading it might have changed me for the better.

Hen Hears Gossip (Greenwillow Books; 2008): This picture book written by Megan McDonald is essentially a game of telephone framed as gossip being spread across the barnyard. Hen, who loves gossip, hears Cow and Pig talking, and tries to overhear their news. When she (mis)hears it, she runs to her fellow barnyard birds (apparently, the birds all gossip and hear worse than the mammals; I guess the latter may be because they lack exterior ears?), and the news is changed to something increasingly ridiculous, until it comes back as something insulting to Hen herself. The birds then trace the gossip back to its source, investigating each spurious claim (like the cat grew a horn, for example), until they find the truth.

It's a cute "gossip is bad" sort of story, one that offers a lesson that's probably as important to folks that work at libraries as it will prove amusing to little kids who visit libraries for picture books, elevated further by artist Joung Un Kim's delightful artwork, which seems to be assembled of mostly-painted over, re-used papers and cut-up shapes of wallpaper, so type-written words or the music from sheet music will appear along the edges or show through the art. Here are some examples, clipped from the pages and thus, unfortunately, alienated from their context.
I like it a lot. I also like the way she draws some the bipedal characters, like Duck's posture in this image:

The Kindhearted Crocodile (Holiday House; 2008): Writer Lucia Panzieri and artist AntonGionata Ferrari collaborate on a large, sharp-toothed, ferocious-looking crocodile who had a very kind heart (as is noted in the title) and whose dream in life was to become a family pet, like a goldfish or a puppy. Unfortunately for the crocodile, families tended to prefer goldfish and puppies to keeping one of the world's largest and most dangerous predators around the house, so he had to hatch a plan so weird it kinda blew my mind, and I'm still trying to figure out exactly how it worked.

The crocodile snuck into a family's house at night through the pages of an innocent-looking picture book called The Kindhearted Crocodile (Hey! That's this book!) and proved how helpful he would be by picking up, washing the dishes and suchlike. Curious to see who the mysterious, night-time housemaid was, exactly, the family hid, and were surprised when rather than the expected elf or goblin, a crocodile crawled out of a book to do the housework again.

The kids were immediately cool with the croc, as they knew him from his book, The Kindhearted Crocodile, but what was the story of that book, if it deviated so much from the story of the story book, which features the book itself in a pivotal role so very early on? And is the premise that there's only one such book, rather than a bunch? Because, otherwise, would the crocodile be able to crawl out of any copy of The Kindhearted Crocodile? If so, why didn't he crawl out of my copy? While I don't have any toys lying around that need picked up, I pretty much always have dirty dishes that need doing and laundry in need of folding, and I sure wouldn't object to a large reptile bringing me toast and jam and a cup of coffee every morning. What's the deal, crocodile? (And did he aks Panzieri and Ferrari to put him in this book, as a means of sneaking into the family or familes' homes...?

So many questions!

No question it's a great looking book though. Ferrari has a slightly sketchy style and composes figures with sharp, bold, energetic lines. The coloring isn't exactly haphazard, but it's not exact, either, and the crocodile's skin color changes like that of a chameleon, usually some form of speckled green, but sometimes he adopts very un-crocodilian colors, particularly when doing something domestic.

There are a few night scenes which are colored almost all black (the only color being the characters), while the lines the make up the house and furniture are drawn in white (and the color of type is white as well). It's a great-looking book.

The Little Matador (Hyperion; 2008): Writer/artist Julian Hector tells a simple tale of a little boy from a proud family of matadors (boo!), who had a secret passion for drawing that he hid from his parents, who expected him to grow up and carry on in the family business (so much so that they dressed him up like he was in the ring, like, every day; his dad similarly dressed like a matador dresses for work in every image, while his mom just dresses like a fancy Spanish lady—are ladies not allowed to fight bulls? Not that anyone should fight bulls, really). What he likes to draw best is, of course, animals.

I hesitate to say anything more about the plot, but it is, in one way, an echo to Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand, only from the perspective of a bullfighter who doesn't want to fight bulls, rather than that of a bull who doesn't want to fight bullfighters.

Hector's artwork doesn't look much like that in the story of Ferdinand, of course, being much simpler and more abstract, and with very warm colors.

Otter and Odder: A Love Story (Candlewick Press; 2012) How's this for a Romeo and Juliet story? One day Otter, an otter, is looking for food and seems to find it when he finds a fish, but when he looks into the fish's eyes, he begins to fall in love, and asks the fish her name; she says "Gurgle," which he takes to be "Myrtle," and while she was simply looking not to be food, when she looked into Otter's eyes, she fell in love, too.

"Impossible," Otter tells himself, "I am in love with my food source."

Naturally, complications arise, although they mostly consist of otter society gossip and Myrtle's pleading with her otter not to eat her friends and family. Despondent, he swims off until he meets a wise beaver, who offers him an apple, which Otter refuses, asking Beaver if he's ever eaten a fish: "No," said Beaver, "but I suppose I might if I ever fell in love with an apple."

I suppose you can guess where writer James Howe's story goes from there, the writing is simple, but also clever and rather elegant, with almost every word chosen for usage being a word that really counts. After a few complications, it does finally reach a "happily ever after," presumably because neither Otter nor Myrtle want children.

The most striking aspect of the book is artist Chris Raschka's artwork, which is of a very studied, child-like look, in which the fish are triangle-on-oval simple, and the otter's head and body are a figure eight, his tail another, smaller figure eight. The entire thing looks done in crayon, as as if by a child (although the consistency of the imagery and design from page-to-page would make that fairly impossible. Even more simple shapes are used for backgrounds and animals without speaking parts.

That Is Not a Good Idea! (Balzer and Bray; 2013): Hey, it's Mo Willems again!

This non-Gerald & Piggie, pigeon-free* book from Willems is told in a form inspired by a silent movie, a particularly odd choice for a children's book, but then, getting that particular reference isn't necessarily necessary when it comes to enjoying the plot of the book, which revolves around a big, shocking (no seriously; I was genuinely shocked) ending.

A page of art, starring a well-dressed fox and a goose, will be followed by dialogue in an old-timey font, the white text atop a black, silent movie-style title card. The artwork featuring the goose and fox is in full-color, deviating somewhat from the illusion of a silent movie.

As the male fox courts the female goose, inviting her back for a walk in the woods, and then back to his place, and then for soup, a group of goslings, which Willems draws like yellow tennis balls with beaks, dot eyes and triangle wings, yell back at the movie, variations of the title.

For example, when the fox asks the goose, "Would you care to continue our walk into the deep, dark woods?" and the goose replies, "Sounds fun!", Willems will shows us a two-page spread of the goslings, one of them shouting "That is REALLY not a good idea!" at the "screen," as if they're watching the movie the fox and goose are starring in. Kinda like people watching a horror movie and yelling to the protagonist not to go into the basement alone.

The ending is something of a surprise, although there are actually a couple of surprises all braided together into it, none of which I should even think about spoiling here.

Suffice it to say that this is a new Mo Willems picture book, and it's hard to imagine anyone needing much more information than that to know if this is a book for them or not.

This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick Press; 2012): I Want My Hat Back's Jon Klassen further establishes himself as the number one creator of picture books about small animals stealing hats from larger animals. The differences between this book about hat theft in the animal kingdom are many.

First, it's told from the perspective of the thief, rather than the victim. Second, it takes place under water, the cast including only the thief (a fish), the victim (a much bigger fish) and a witness (a crab). And third, the hat is a little, blue derby rather than a little red, conical hat.

Like, I Want, it is very funny, and Klassen does an incredible job of showing big or slight shifts in emotion with slight variations of the drawings of the characters, as when the large fish, for example, wakes up, realizes his hat is missing and we see his immediate reaction.
I'm glad Klassen won the Caldecott for this, because he's a great artist and a funny writer and desrves all the medals he can get, but boy does it's placement really transform that cover, as not it looks like the hat-thieving fish is fleeing not the scene of the crime, somewhere in the deep, black, mysterious ocean, but is instead fleeing the Caldecott medal. Did he steal the Caldecott's hat...?!

*Save for the now customary, half-hidden cameo, of course

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