New & Notable Picture Books: 2013

IMG_4033Take Me Out to the Yakyu, by Aaron Meshon, is a book that gets so many little things right that you can’t help but love it.  The concept — a little boy enjoys baseball in America and Japan — is great, and plays out clearly across the pages, alternating between the countries by page and by colour (American pictures have strong blue elements, while Japanese have red).  The illustrations have a kind of hip, stylized nostalgic elements to them without losing their sense of a childhood.  It’s short and sweet, and best of all, you get to learn a few Japanese terms.  By the end of the third read, my middle daughter and I were crying, fists in the air, “HOM-U-RAAAAANNNNN!!!!” (for “home run,” go figure) and “GANBATTE!”  (for “do your best”).  Great fun.  There IMG_4038is a list of Japanese words at the end of the story and she asks me to go through it every time.  Perhaps best of all, she is just starting to read, and there are so many points in this story where beginning readers can join in because of the memorable, simple phrases and words.  A delight from start to finish. (Although it’s irksome that the grandfathers get to go out to the ball game while the grandmothers get to wait at home, preparing the post-game snack and bath.)  Ages 3-5.

IMG_4220I didn’t expect to like All Through My Town, by Jean Reidy; the illustrations by Leo Timmers are bright and energetic, but at first glance, it looks a bit simple.   In fact, it offers a lot.   Each town scene is filled with details to mull over, and the rhyming text guides us through the picture.  The lines “Spraying, sweeping, backing, beeping.  Starting, stopping, trolley hopping,” for example, provide a list of things to look for.  Who’s spraying?  IMG_4219Who’s sweeping?  What’s backing up?  Who’s hopping on the trolley?  Etc.  At the end of the story, we find out — well, I shouldn’t say.  But it prompts us to go back to the beginning and hunt through the pages again.  However.  There is a fly in the ointment (for me, at least).  Out of  ELEVEN modes of transportation depicted in this books, only ONE is driven by a female.  Out of the EIGHTEEN other paid jobs depicted, only TWO are done by females:  the florist (doh!), the librarian (come on!) and the nurse (ARGH!).  What do the the other females do?  Oh, you know:  push the baby carriage.  Shop.  See Junior onto the schoolbus.  Wait to be rescued by the firefighters.  [Insert] sound of frying pan hitting head of  illustrator [here].  Hang on — I take it back.  Don’t get this book.  Ages 2-5.

IMG_4233My almost-five year old really likes Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld; it’s a perfect compliment to her early readers because it introduces punctuation in a way that’s fun and personable, and includes lots of enticing beginner words she can pick out like “stop!” and “wow!”  Exclamation Mark is lost in a world of periods and he just doesn’t know where he fits in until he meets Question IMG_4234Mark.  Lots of fun with different sizes and colours of type, and crafty ways of moving the story from one page to the next.  On a another level, of course, the story is about finding and embracing one’s place in the world, with the help and encouragement of others.  Ages 4-6.


IMG_4217They may be marketed as “the creators of The Gruffalo,” but I think Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler’s latest is far better than their signature story.  The Highway Rat is their homage to Alfred Noyes’ famous 1906 poem “The Highwayman,” and it’s fabulous to read aloud.  You might be particularly keen to give it a go if you remember, as I do, when Anne Shirley performs the poem in the Anne of Green Gables mini-series.  I do my best to channel Anne and deliver the most impassioned reading possible without frightening the kids.   The Highway Rat thunders up and down the road on his steed, terrorizing the forest animals so he can steal their food.  A duck delivers his comeuppance by tricking him into an echoing cave, which kids will love mimicking.   As always, Donaldson writes perfect rhyme and meter, and her word choice is clever and varied.   One caveat:  kids will have to understand how an echo works to get the plot, so it might be best for ages 4-7.

041In Cousin Irv From Mars, Bruce Eric Kaplan takes two familiar (dare I say, overdone?) plots — annoying family visitors, and baffling alien visitors – and manages to make something fresh that strikes the perfect sardonic pitch so that it works for parents and kids.  Teddy is understandably annoyed by Cousin Irv’s behaviour (eating all their food…then eating the kitchen too).  There’s a hint that Teddy’s not having the easiest childhood, and once he gets past Irv’s more objectionable habits (wearing Teddy’s clothes…playing bad music…really loud breathing), he and Irv find ways to get along, and even become friends.  Kaplan provides a number of succinct truisms that kids will find eminently wise, like “If only you could have party food without a party.”

There’s a long tradition of odd couples in kids’ books, many of which have found their way onto our shelves (Frog and Toad, Toot and Puddle, Hoppy and Joe…).  We can now, happily, add another to our list:  The Pig on the Hill, by John Kelly.  Pig has everything sorted out:  a beautiful, quiet spot in the country, loads of books and a healthy 044list of hobbies.  When happy-go-lucky Duck builds a house right next door, Pig (though really a most understanding, polite pig) is pushed to his limit.  A fine treatise on how to accept, and even enjoy, each other’s differences.  Excellent for teaching kids the words topiary, unicycle, vibration, and concepts like migration, scuba diving, surfing…there is even a picture that includes pyramids and camel.  Could a duck and a pig be any more well-rounded?!  I think not.

106I admit, I am not a cat person, but Lost Cat by Roger Mader had me strangely bewitched.  Perhaps it was the gorgeous, richly detailed pictures of the world from a cat’s point of view (a lot of shoes, logically enough).  Perhaps it was the look in the cat’s eyes — excited and scared — when she realizes she’s begun an adventure.  Perhaps it’s the way she looks beguilingly up at us from the page, as if we were standing over her, poised on the front porch, at the threshold of giving her a new home?  Of course it’s all of these things and more.  Even children under the age of two will enjoy this one.

253Mordecai Gerstein has had so many great ideas for kids’ books, but this must be one of his best:  The First Drawing fictionalizes the creation of the cave paintings found in southern France in 1994, which are estimated to be more than thirty thousand years old.  A child’s footprint was also found in the cave, which inspired Gerstein to write about a cave boy who astounds his family by creating animals with coal dust and rock.  Drawing is instinctive for children – can they imagine a world before it existed?  Can they imagine how it came to be?

260I can faintly remember the allure of a tree house – somehow, in my 7-year-old mind, a few boards of wood (no matter how narrow or short) were only a few nails away from becoming a room of my own.  In the Tree House, by Andrew Larsen, has a slightly more realistic grasp of the process:  two brothers and their dad brainstorm, draw up plans, and build a treehouse over the course of a day and an evening.   That first summer in the tree house, the brothers create their own word of cards, comics and flashlights, but then the older brother gets just enough older to spend more time with his friends.  It takes a blackout to reconnect them with the fun they used to have together.  259A wonderful metaphor for (or microcosm of?) of what happens when electricity is taken away and people connect to each other instead, as well as a familiar story about the push-and-pull between siblings (familiar but blessedly free of histrionics).  I’ve admired Dusan Petricic’s illustrations for a few years now, and I’m so happy to find his work in a book with a story to match the skill of his singular hatched drawings.

252I don’t normally fancy picutre books about kings and knights and so on, but in The King of Little Things, Bill Lepp has created an irresistible lesson about the value of little things.  King Normous is intent on owning the world by virtue of his devastating army, but can he defeat the King of Little Things?  What good is a dungeon when the key won’t fit in its lock and the nails jump out of its door?  What good is an army when termites have eaten all the arrow shafts?  As a bonus, readers can search the book to find a collection of “little things” listed on the back pages.