New & Notable Picture Books: 2014

029 Oh, it’s tough being a perfectionist – especially for kids, who don’t yet know the limitations of glue and tape, and must be reminded of said limitations over and over again.  In The Most Magnificent Thing, Ashley Spires tells the story of a “regular girl” (BLESS YOU, ASHLEY!) who loves to build stuff (BLESS YOU AGAIN!).  With humour, empathy and a clear love of language (particularly verbs), Spires shows how the girl gets enormously frustrated and then, with a little help from her canine assistant, works her way from explosive fury to joyful accomplishment.  I’d estimate that it’s a couple of pages too long, but overall it’s mostly magnificent – a definite keeper.

 

028Gloria Whelan has provided an excellent introduction to one of history’s most fascinating people:  Queen Victoria.  In beautifully structured verse, Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine tells the story of Victoria’s desire to swim in the ocean during a particularly hot summer.  But how can a queen go swimming without revealing an ankle or two and risking a public scandal?  I’m a bit uncomfortable with the notion that her husband Albert “saves her” by ingeniously whipping up a bathing machine.  Nor am I on board with the frequent pictures of Victoria lying around, wiped out by the heat, while her husband and children whip around, industriously planning and building.  However, one can turn these lemons into lemonade by seizing the teachable moment:  the book makes clear that Victoria was encumbered by Victorian fashion, as most Victorian women were:  a corset and ten petticoats.  What must it have been like to be so weighed down and pinched 027in?  The pictures of Victoria flinging off her clothes with glee and floating — light and peaceful – in the water illustrate just how burdensome the fashions were.  An added bonus:  have your children count all Victoria’s children across the pages to try and decide how many she had!

 

 

 

Normally, I don’t go in for wordless picture books because I love a well-written story – the words are simply too important for me to go without them, no matter how 053expressive the illustrations.  I have found, however, my first exception to this rule:  The Girl and the Bicycle, by Mark Pett.  The girl (pip pip!  a girl protagonist!) spies a green (NOT PINK?!  ZOUNDS!) bicycle (egads!  not a doll!) and simply must have it.  We see her employ various methods of raising the money, but the most lasting and most impactful method is surely the work she does for, and alongside, her neighbour, an older woman who becomes her friend.  There are two lovely 055plot turns at the end that warm the heart like a delicious twice baked potato.  As a parent, I want my kids to think about the value of hard work, cooperation, generosity, friendship, kindness…and these are all expressed gently and simply in this book.  For children, the story connects with their desires for a job and independence, and finding a devoted friend outside the immediate family.  Perfection.

 

 

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Expressive, artful illustrations; endearing characters; familiar elements of childhood; a fabulously ironic sense of humour; meaningful ideas about friendship….Sparky has all of these and more.  Jenny Offill has written a thoroughly enjoyable and thoughtful picture book about a girl and her sloth (you know…that old chestnut…).  Like so many children, the girl wants a pet but her mother nixes the idea.  Repeatedly.  Eventually, Mom gives in, but only if the pet requires no bathing, walking or feeding.  Cut to:  the arrival of Sparky (ha!) by express (ha ha!) mail.  Of course, Sparky isn’t exactly the idea pet, and he disappoints again and again.  So much of childhood is about learning to cope with the ways that our reality fails to live up to our dreams; I remember being particularly disappointed with how my Hallowe’en costumes turned out…the concepts and designs always far, far (FAR) better than the final result.  Sparky wrestles gently with this quandary, and finds a resolution that’s emotionally satisfying without being too pat.

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This Book Just Ate My Dog, by Richard Byrne, is an excellent choice for kids ages 3-6, particularly since it includes so many early words (book, just, help, burp…) for kids to pick out and read out loud.  Bella’s dog disappears into the book’s binding and it’s up to the reader to get the dog out, along with all those who went in to rescue it.  Clever, fun to read and perfect for those times when you’re exhausted and need a short, sweet selection for bedtime.

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It’s not just my kids who learned from The Stone Giant; I had no idea about the origins of Michelangelo’s famous status of David, but I was quickly educated by  Jane Sutcliffe and John Shelley’s picture book.  Particularly good for introducing or reinforcing the notion of the metaphor and the story of David and Goliath, as well as introducing Michelangelo.  I’d recommend it for ages 4 and up.

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The Jacket, by Kristen Hall, has gotten lots of attention, and well it should.  Focusing on the relationship between a girl and her favorite book and the risk posed by an overenthusiastic, muddy dog, the story uses the girl’s problem-solving skills to give the book back a lovely dust jacket.  Problem:  the actual dust jacket of the book is important to keep on the book, which is nearly impossible in my house.  Dust jackets just don’t make it out of here alive.

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Hannah Hashimoto, Sixth Violin is a lovely, gentle story about a girl learning to play the violin.  She’s quietly determined to learn the instrument her Japanese grandfather plays, despite the mockery of her older brothers and the tender misgivings of her parents when she tells them she wants to play at the school’s talent show.  Chieri Uegaki’s story hints at the ties between generations and countries, and how the children of immigrants make their mark, but these themes are, I must admit, not as well wrought as the surprise ending, which really is perfectly perfect.

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