You have your backpack, freshly sharpened pencils, shiny new crayons and all the other items on the school supply list. But are you really ready for the first day of school? That’s what Patrick is worried about in Monstergarten by Daniel J. Mahoney. A first-grader told him that he had to be scary for his first day of monstergarten. Teaming up with his friend Kevin, Patrick practices making scary faces, his fearsome roars and showing his claws. But even after all his practice, Patrick is worried that he will not be scary enough. Fortunately, his monster mommy gives him the best advice – just be yourself. Children will be able to relate to Patrick in this brightly illustrated picture book.
Sometimes it is hard to just be yourself, especially someone else is telling you what they think is best. That’s what Penelope, a hippo, faces in You’re Wearing That to School?! by Lynn Plourde. Tiny, a mouse, means well and is trying the help his eccentric best friend Penelope fit in for her first day of school. From what to wear to what to bring to show-and-tell, Tiny wants to make sure that Penelope’s first day will be a success. Will Penelope heed Tiny’s advice? Or will she stay true to herself and prove that being unique is the best way to have a successful first day of school? Parents will also enjoy sharing with their kids the “Tips for a Hippo Happy First Day of School” that can be found at the end of the book.
Nearly every small child has a special stuffed animal, and two recent picture books take a look at these imaginative friendships. In No Fits, Nilson!, written and illustrated by Zachariah OHora, the title character is depicted as a towering blue gorilla who dwarfs his constant companion, a young girl named Amelia. With his black porkpie hat, tennis shoes and collection of six wristwatches, Nilson exudes cool, although he is prone to temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. Throughout the story, Amelia must remind him to stay calm. Acrylic paintings in a muted pastel palette done on printmaking paper lend a retro quality to this gentle, sweet book that speaks to patience, sharing and working past minor setbacks.
Paul Schmid’s Oliver and His Alligator takes a look at a small boy’s apprehensions about the first day of school. Pastel pencils combine with soft digital colors to bring to life tousle-haired Oliver and his alligator, whom he brings to class “in case things got rough.” And when Oliver feels immediately shy and unsure, with a “munch, munch!” his alligator swallows a woman who greets him, and then his classmates in quick succession. Children will enjoy the humor of the situation, possibly wishing they had an alligator of their own to vanquish anxiety. But Oliver soon comes around to thinking that he may be missing out on something by sitting quietly by himself. Oliver and His Alligator makes for a welcome addition to the canon of books that address first day jitters.
Picture books are not just for children; in fact, many of the best examples of the format prove entertaining for all ages, while some feel decidedly more adult. Kitty & Dino, by Sara Richard, begins with a child’s discovery of an unusual egg. This nearly wordless story unfolds as the Siamese cat of the household checks out the egg as it’s in the process of hatching. Much to Kitty’s distress, the new arrival is an attention-seeking baby dinosaur. Rendered in illustrations heavily influenced by the Japanese style of ink painting known as sumi-e, the panels that make up the story radiate an energy that keeps this story flowing. The characters of Kitty and Dino are depicted in a naturalistic way, with their postures and behaviors bringing this captivating story to life. Kitty slowly warms up to her housemate, teaching him about mealtime, grooming and play. As the pages turn, Dino grows older (and much bigger) and the unlikely friends’ bond grows deeper. Charming, funny and superbly illustrated, Kitty & Dino is a book for everyone.
Author/illustrator Dan Krall comes to picture books by way of a rich career in both TV and film animation. His beyond unusual story, The Great Lollipop Caper, has a quirky grownup sensibility. Leaning heavily on pun, the titular caper is both a character and the crime he commits. Yes, the protagonist is a tiny pickled caper berry who wants children to appreciate his “complex flavor.” Would caper-flavored lollipops help to expand his fan base to the very young? Wide-eyed cartoony character illustrations and speech bubbles lend to the offbeat humor that may be best appreciated by a hipster adult reader.
Protesting crayons? What do they have to complain about? Duncan finds out in The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. Duncan reaches for his crayons one day and gets a pack of protest letters instead (except from Green… Green’s pretty happy – just wants Orange and Yellow to stop fighting). Like most protestors, the colors are upset by their treatment – overuse, neglect (Where is Peach’s wrapper?), abuse and misuse. Each color details the unfairness of its life in a personal letter to Duncan. Blue doesn’t want to be the favorite, Grey is always used for the big animals, Red never gets a break and Orange and Yellow aren’t speaking!
Young readers will giggle at the silliness and enjoy learning colors. Older readers will recognize some common toddler traits in the behavior of the crayons. Readers of all ages will laugh out loud with this wonderful book about colors, creativity and compromise. Delightful, childlike illustrations by Oliver Jeffers enhance the story. How will Duncan get the crayons back to work? (And what color SHOULD the Sun be?) Find out in The Day the Crayons Quit.
Two new picture books illustrate the joy of play with the simplest of toys. In Peanut & Fifi Have a Ball by Randall de Seve, Peanut has a new ball and older sister Fifi wants it. Fifi tries to entice Peanut to share with a variety of imaginative games, but Peanut remains uninterested. It is not until Fifi comes up with an irresistible adventure involving a seal and outer space, that Peanut is willing to share. The spare graphic illustrations complement the simplicity of the story while capturing the boldness of Fifi’s imagination. This delightful tale offers a gentle lesson about sharing, sibling interaction, and the power of imagination. Seeing an older sibling not always getting her way is also a welcome twist!
In Ball by Mary Sullivan, readers meet a most expressive and exuberant canine. The day in the life of a dog wanting to play ball is told mainly using panel illustrations with just the title word repeated throughout the story. Upon first waking, the playful pup and his girl start to play ball. But she soon leaves for school, and despite his best efforts, the dog is unable to find any other playmates – not even the cat. His sadness, wistfulness, desperation, and excitement are perfectly depicted in the expressive illustrations. The dog finally dozes off and even then his brain is focused on one thing only. The outlandish dream sequence unfolds in full-page drawings which match the supersized doggy dreams. When the girl’s seemingly interminable school day is over, readers will be almost as thrilled as the dog as they reunite and he can finally play fetch.
In One Gorilla: A Counting Book, illustrator Anthony Browne takes the reader through a bevy of primates. A one-time Children’s Laureate of the United Kingdom, Browne draws on his lifelong fascination with gorillas and apes of all sizes. Using his signature strokes and employing the technique of varying dry and wet brushes, each page becomes a lifelike, head-on portrait of the featured creatures. Generous white space keeps the focus on the intense, breathtaking images of monkeys, chimps, and orangutans, among others. Browne reminds us of our own relationship to this group of animals with an arresting self-portrait, followed by a double-paged spread of diverse humans: “All primates. All one family.”
Two-time Caldecott medalist Chris Raschka takes a familiar childhood rite of passage and infuses it with his trademark watercolors in Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle. Raschka has said that when formulating ideas for his books, he is very influenced by events that took place in his own childhood. In this case, a young girl and her father first go to choose a bike. Then, she haltingly goes through the stages of becoming a proficient rider, helped along with words of encouragement. Readers are urged on by the fluid illustrations that mimic the forward energy of a bike in motion. A final parenthetical grace note after she has finally mastered the skill will bring a smile to every adult reader's face.
In Goldilocks and Just One Bear, a bear lost in the big city stumbles into the apartment of an absent human family. Confused, hungry, and tired, he samples three types of “porridge” (including a bowl of cat food – “too crunchy”), sits on three “chairs” (one of which is a cactus), and sleeps in three beds (he finds the bubble bath “too frothy”). When the family returns, the mama human and the bear are in for a big surprise – and so is every reader with the great good fortune to read this charming book. Leigh Hodgkinson’s sketchy, retro-modern illustrations pack every page with humorous detail and covetable interior design.
Not all Goldilocks stories are guaranteed to have a happy ending. In Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, Mo Willems sets up a more ominous premise. As the book begins, Mama Dinosaur rubs her hands together in nefarious fashion: "I SURE HOPE NO INNOCENT LITTLE SUCCULENT CHILD HAPPENS BY OUR UNLOCKED HOME WHILE WE ARE… uhhh… SOMEPLACE ELSE!" she hollers, preparatory to tiptoeing out of the house to hide in the nearby bushes with toothy Papa Dinosaur and a dinosaur visiting from Norway. The reader’s brain automatically supplies the classic version of the Goldilocks tale, so that the two stories, old and new, play simultaneously like melody and harmony.
Books about shy children often fail to hit the mark. They treat shyness as something to be overcome, or as a reaction to stress. Eileen Spinelli’s When No One is Watching takes an opposite, celebratory position – a funky little girl tells us how she acts when she is alone “I sing like a bird and I swing to the sky,” and when she’s not: “I hide like the cat alongside the big chair” in rhyming text that swings along with her. Her family and friends don’t appear to be pressuring her to interact, and while she is subdued in the middle of a crowd, she is certainly a happy child. Her “best friend Loretta’s shy, too” and she describes the ways that they have fun together.
If this were merely an affirming, positive book about a shy child, it would be a nice find. However, illustrator David A. Johnson’s pen and ink and watercolor art makes each two-page spread a dance of mood and expressive gesture. His elegant lines describe movement with economy and grace, and show off every exuberant contortion of our shy little girl’s active inner life.
Two new picture books celebrate our interaction with waterfowl. In the engaging, wordless Flora and the Flamingo, written and illustrated by Molly Idle, a young girl tries to emulate a balletic flamingo. Each beautifully illustrated spread shows the ease with which the bird poses, leaps, and dances. Meanwhile, Flora does her best to mimic the flamingo’s every move, some efforts more successful than others. The retro style of the illustration works well, and the generous use of white space on each page, some of which have extra flaps and fold-outs, make for an enjoyable read. A final splashdown between the two new friends embodies joy.
Lucky Ducklings, written by Eva Moore and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, is based on a true event that occurred on Long Island. A mother duck has inadvertently lost her ducklings down a storm drain, and townsfolk must come to their rescue. Thankfully, onlookers to the scene recognize the ducklings’ peril (and the mother duck’s panic), and take action. Notably similar in some ways to Robert McCloskey’s classic Make Way for Ducklings, this title even gives a knowing nod to the earlier title in a scene near the book’s close. Carpenter’s warm illustrations capture the pastoral nature of the setting against the fluster and alarm of the situation.
While most picture books tell a story, few cover the expanse of time of Building Our House, written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean. Based on Bean’s own childhood experiences, the book details, step-by-step, the process his family embarked upon to build their home in the countryside. There are no shortcuts here – this is not a book about moving where boxes are suddenly unpacked and the finished home unveiled in a final two-page spread. Instead, the toil and trouble of moving and living in a temporary shelter is detailed. Similarly, the arduous progression of leveling the earth, creating a foundation, constructing a framework, and finishing the outside of the structure are all included. It is all worth it, of course, and the helping hands described bring a smile to the reader.
This is a joyful, fast-paced book, celebrating immediate and external family and the community at large. The subtle passing and order of the seasons is an added learning benefit for readers. The excitement of the large machinery, warm feelings of being able to pitch in (even as a small boy) and the sense of accomplishment at the finished product, is all palpable. An author’s note at the end describes his memories of the eighteen-month process. It also outlines how he received recollection assistance from his family and their photos of the worksite as it went from empty site to the family’s new home. Construction-, tool-, and machinery-loving kids will enjoy Building Our House, and demand many rereads as they find additional objects and activities in each illustration.