Picture Books

Picture Books 2016 #6: Dogs, Dogs, Dogs

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I’m Not. by Pam Smallcomb

In I’m Not., we have a couple of caricatured “child” dinosaurs. In the first half of the story, the unnamed main character bemoans the fact that her friend Evelyn is wonderful at so many things, while the main character herself isn’t good at any of them.

The second half, however, switches it up. Evelyn takes the stage to talk about what she isn’t good at, and all of the things she mentions happen to be things the main character does well.

It’s a nice little story about envy and individuality that adults will likely find it as cute as their kids find it funny.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation by Mark Teague

An imaginative little boy makes up (or does he?) a cowboy story to share with his class when it’s his turn to tell everyone what he did during summer vacation.

I have to say, any “what’d you do this summer” assignment is automatically better if you can pretend you actually did something fun. It’d certainly be better than my old “I stayed at home and did nothing because my family was poor.” There was never much worth sharing about that one, believe me.

Dog Loves Books by Louise Yates

This is the first book in a picture series known as Dog Loves, and it’s a brief story about an anthropomorphic dog who loves books so much that he opens up a book store.

Unfortunately, none of his potential patrons seem to share his interest in books, and his store is empty a lot of the time… But that’s okay, because he’ll just pass his time reading!

This is a good choice for a young bibliophile and/or library lover.

Dog Loves Counting by Louise Yates

We’re back with the same book-loving dog from the previous book, and this time, he’s having some insomnia troubles. Counting sheep isn’t helping him get to sleep, so he tries counting other animals while using his books as inspiration.

This is definitely another book for book lovers, even though the focus is on teaching a child to count.

A Dog Is A Dog by Stephen Shaskan

This one’s a pattern book teaching kids various animals by telling them that “a dog is a dog unless it’s an X”  (and an X is an X unless it’s a Y,  and a Y is a Y unless it’s a Z, and so on).

The illustrations are quite silly and cute, and the book is actually more baby-appropriately amusing than informational; it’s also quite short (only getting through four animals, including the dog, before it’s over), so it’s definitely baby/toddler fare. It’s pretty adorable, though.

Picture Books

Picture Books 2016 #5: This One’s For Boo

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The Best Place to Read by Debbie Bertram and Susan Bloom 

In The Best Place to Read, an unnamed little boy is excited to read a new book, but he can’t find a good place to read it. Eventually, he decides reading in his mother’s lap is the way to go. It’s a bit Goldie Locks-esque, without the being chased by bears at the end.

It’s a good read for a young child in whom you’re trying to foster a love of reading, but definitely not a good for one who you’re trying to encourage to read independently.

Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama by Selina Alko

This cute little picture book the story of the holiday season a child experiences in a mixed-religion Christian/Jewish household, in which the father is a Christian and the mother is a Jew. It’s another good seasonal diversity story to go along with the other Hanukkah and Kwanzaa picture books I’ve read and reviewed in the past.

I am still, however, looking for one that introduces the idea of Christmas as a secular, cultural holiday instead of a religious one; there are plenty of secular Christmas stories, but all of the ones that I’ve come across simply neglect to mention that the holiday is actually religious for some people; I’d love to find one that handles that issue with some respect and maturity.

I will say, however, that the backlash to this book that’s present on the Goodreads page is truly sickening. Wait until the separatists over there find out that it’s not just the Jews besmirching their beloved “CHRISTmas”. We sinful atheist heathens are merrily violating their traditions, too!

All You Need for a Beach by Alice Schertle

So I’m going to be honest here: this art is fucking hideous. That’s totally a personal thing, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who think it’s quite nice, so I’m not trying to claim some objective criticism here. But, yeah, I hate the way this book is illustrated. It’s horrible.

The story itself, though, is a short little tale goes through all the things you need for a beach, from trillions of grains of sand to an ocean blue–but most importantly, you. There’s not much to it, but it might be a fun beach read for a toddler.

Beach Day by Karen Roosa

And here we have another rhyming book and another beach book. Personally, I think it’s far superior to All You Need for a Beach, and its illustrations are much easier on the eyes. The story essentially just runs through all the various features of a beach and activities that go on at one, but there’s nothing objectionable to its simplicity, and it would be another reasonable book to give your young child during a trip to the beach.

Honestly, reading this was almost a little nostalgic, considering I haven’t had an enjoyable family trip to the beach since I was very young.

The Day Tiger Rose Said Goodbye by Jane Yolen

I knew this would make me cry, and I totally did. The Day Tiger Rose Said Goodbye is a very pretty picture book about an old cat saying goodbye before she goes off to die in private, as cats are often inclined to do, and as I recently lost my own kitty, there was never any chance of me getting out of this one without tears.


Picture Books 2016 #4: A Blast from the Past

This review contains spoilers for various picture books.

Full disclosure: I actually read these in the final days of 2015. But they’re being reviewed in 2016, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable to put them under the umbrella of 2016 regardless.

Imogene’s Last Stand by Candace Fleming

Imogene Tripp is a little girl who loves history. So when she turns her attention to her town’s neglected Historical Society, an old building that the major plans to have gotten down, this determined junior historian is determined to fight. There are historical quotes and references throughout the book (all of which are explained with brief biographies at the end, which is awesome), and there are several moments of genuine amusement. But more importantly, Imogene is an appealing female character with ambition and determination, and I would love to read more about her.

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall

Across four centuries, four different families make the same recipe, using different techniques and technology but sharing the same great and the same familial love. I am, however, deeply uncomfortable with the inclusion of a slave family. On principle, I approve of the inclusion, but in execution, I really don’t; the fact that the family are slaves is so glossed over that a child might not even pick up on it, and there’s no sense of the oppression and even potential inherent in the slave family’s experience with the desert. Instead, a child would be forgiven for failing to realize that anything is off at all, since the book definitely doesn’t bother pointing anything “uncomfortable” out. It’s all rose-colored glasses here, folks, and it kind of destroyed any chance I had of genuinely enjoying what might have otherwise been a fun, diverse story.

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker

I don’t have much to say about this one other than to gush about how cute it is. It’s a child-appropriate dramatization of the true story behind Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, and it’s utterly adorable. Read it.

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall

I can’t not read this as a gender story (and I’m 100% sure I’m not supposed to not read it as a gender story), and in the context of it being a social justice book… I can’t pretend I agree with its message. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the most “progressive” gender book for young kids that I’ve ever seen (as of November 2015, when I read this book; see above for a brief explanation of this discrepancy) is still clinging to the idea of labels even as its entire point revolves around questioning their legitimacy. And there’s a point to be made there, of course (if your label makes you feel better, who am I to stop you from claiming it), but it’s far from the only point to be made and, in my opinion, far from the best. In my ideal world, the Red crayon who didn’t fit the expectations of a red creation would’ve shed the concept of labels entirely (along with its literal crayon label), not announced a new one for itself. And as a metaphor for transgenderness, crayons are far from the best way to go; crayons really do have color, while gender is an imaginary and often oppressive social construct. It’s not equal at all. The story, then, would work much better as a metaphor for something more concrete.

So, yeah, I’m disappointed by this one. Wish I would’ve enjoyed it, but the author and I clearly have very different ideas about gender and the legitimacy of such social labels. Oh well.

Note: For a vaguely similar opinion of this that comes down on the positive side of the stars instead of my own less-than-impressed side, I recommend checking out Carmen‘s review over on Goodreads.

If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson
The illustrations here are utterly gorgeous! The story itself is devoted to what happens when you plant seeds–both literal seeds in a garden and figurative seeds of thought and emotion–but I’ll be honest; I’m interested in reading the author’s other books on the sheer beauty of his illustrations alone!


Picture Books 2016 #3: It’s All About Animals

Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian
What we have here is a social justice book, and while there are a lot of subtly interesting details here, I don’t think this one is going to make my favorites list.

The story introduces us to two non-gender-specific worms, which I think is by far the book’s biggest strength (but I’ll get back to that in a minute). As the title tells you, our two worm characters are in love, and they decide to get married. Their buggy little friends proceed to parade a barrage of wedding paraphernalia past them–things they must think outside the box to use, considering they’re, you know, worms instead of people–until finally they get to the sticky issue the book actually intends to tackle: which of these worms is the bride and which of is the groom.

The verdict, of course (it being a social justice book), is that they each can be both; one worm takes the dress and the top hat, while the other takes the veil and the tux, and that’s that–except for one more interesting little exchange.

“Wait!” says the Cricket. “This isn’t how it’s always been done.”
“Then we’ll just change how it’s done,” says the worm.

So yeah, that’s our message here. It’s a story about changing the way marriage works so that marriage can work for everyone (except for the polyamorous among us, as I’ll constantly remind everyone until that particular prejudice starts to go away). And that’s certainly something that’s been done before, and not just in the immediate lead-up to or fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent verdict to permit same-sex marriage.

But as I suggested before, there’s something this book has going for it that the others don’t. This book has non-gender-specific worms.
You wouldn’t think that was a big deal, but it is. Removing gender from the equation does two extremely important things:

  1. It allows the book to apply to all kinds of (monogamous) marriage equally. Male/male couples can share the gender roles, female/female couples can share the gender roles, and our “traditional” male/female couples can share the gender roles.
  2. It removes gender from the equation in a way that few books dare. We know nothing about the gender of these worms. Are they both men? Are they both women? Insofar as a worm can be, is one or both of them transgender? Agender? Or do they have some other kind of gender expression entirely? For the purposes of this book, it doesn’t remotely matter.

Now, I’ll readily admit that I see what I personally consider to be a flaw in the story–something that makes it not quite as progressive as it would like to be. And that’s the use of the bride’s veil and dress as a counterpoint to the groom’s top hat and tuxedo. While this is a story about gender not mattering anymore when it comes to marriage, this is also a story in which traditional gender roles are visibly given to the characters.

Sure, it’s nice that they agree to share the clothes, but those clothes can’t be divorced from traditional marriage, not in a story that specifically points out that, “This isn’t how it’s always been done.” By acknowledging the difference between the new way and the old way, you are forced to acknowledge what the old way entails–and, extrapolating from that, what those clothes must mean.

If it’s a compromise for one worm to take the hat and dress and the other to take the tux and the veil, all they’re really doing is splitting up the division of the gender roles. And that’s not what I want from a social justice book. What I want from a social justice book is the rejection of those roles entirely; this book is so close to that with its genderless worms, but the reminder of “the man in the relationship” and “the woman in the relationship” reinforces that those things exist, and the story doesn’t so much as reject them as redistribute them. And in doing so, it endorses them.

What I wanted to see was for the worms to say no. I wanted to see them say that “those things aren’t for us”. I wanted them to include those predescribed roles under the umbrella of “changing how it’s done”. Throw those gendered notions in the trash where they belong.

So, yeah, I didn’t quite get what I wanted from this book. What it offers is good, definitely, but it’s not quite what I wanted. But more to the point, perhaps, is that I also wonder if children will understand what the metaphor here is. By the time a child is old enough to read this, they’re also old enough to have caught on to the notion of gender. So I fear children will only be able to interpret this as just another “gay marriage acceptance” book and completely miss the gender nuance involved.

But I don’t know for sure. I’m not a kid. (Feel free to let me know in the comments if yours caught on, though!)

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
This book is a lot lighter in subject matter than the previous, but I enjoyed it just as well. The theme of this one is perspective. As the interior blurb states,

In this glorious celebration of observation, curiosity, and imagination, Brendan Wenzel shows us the many lives of one cat, and how perspective shapes what we see.

Now, I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it a “glorious celebration” of anything, but it’s quite an interesting little book nonetheless. The illustrations are very cute, and the point is obvious right from the onset; the minute you and/or your child see what the cat looks like to the dog (especially as compared to what the cat looked like to the child, as portrayed on the previous page), you’ll both know what’s going on. I love the illustrations here, especially in how varied they are from page to page (or perspective to perspective, as it were), and the note that the story ends on is actually fascinating if your kid picks up on it, transforming the story from a tale about perspective to one about self-perception, as well, and how that can be so vastly different from the way we really are–and the way everyone else sees us, too.

Ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso
As the author’s note on the final page explains,

Ida, Always is a fictional story inspired by the real pair of polar bears, Ida and Gus, who lived together in New York City’s Central Park Zoo.

Spoiler alert: both of the bears that served as inspiration for the story have died within the past five or so years. And further spoiler alert: that’s what the book is about. Ida died in 2011, leaving Gus to live two years further without her companionship.

Obviously, the book anthropomorphizes the relationship between the two bears and turns it into a very touching story of living one’s final days to the fullest and mourning the loss of one’s friend. It’s very sweet and a total tearjerker, and while I don’t entirely get on board with the message (which implicitly endorses the idea of an afterlife and explicitly endorses the idea of the dead “still being there”), it’s a sweet story for people who do.

It’s not my kind of coping with death book, and I personally wouldn’t give it to a child purely because of the “living on” message, but most people have no such qualms, and for those individuals, I say: definitely consider this one if you’re looking for a book on dealing with loss. This one goes above and beyond most others I’ve read, as it specifically involves the process of not just mourning but dying. If you’ve got a kid dealing with a loved one who’s received a terminal diagnosis, this is probably just what you need.

Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke
See, I kind of love this book. I really want to love this book. But there’s this one little detail I just can’t get behind.

But let’s start from the beginning, shall we? We’ve got all the things I love here. We’ve got a fantasy world. We’ve got adventurers. We’ve got great illustrations. We’ve even got an adorable and misunderstood goblin protagonist. It’s funny, it’s cute, and it takes the fantasy tropes (especially RPG tropes) we all know and love, and it turns them on their heads.

But… there’s this thing. There’s this thing I noticed on the last couple of pages that I somehow managed to overlook when it showed up earlier as a minor detail.

Because on the last two pages, there’s this girl. There’s this buxom blonde maiden stereotype hanging out with a room full of goblins, monsters, and skeletons (and, yes of course she’s the only traditionally attractive one of the bunch), and when I spotted her, all I could think was , “where’d this chick come from”? So I went back. Obviously, I’d missed her somehow. Obviously, she wasn’t just your traditional hero’s reward arm candy in this book about the adventurers being the bad guys.

Except, no, it’s actually quite a bit worse than that. Because, yeah, she did show up on a previous page.

She was tied up in the adventurers’ loot. And I just don’t know what in the fuck I’m supposed to get out of that.

See, here’s the thing. My immediate assumption is that this is supposed to be an attempt at taking down the “love interest as hero’s reward” notion. Except, you know, no? That’s not what this story is doing at all; instead of taking down that exceptionally misogynistic trope, this story actually uses it.

The roles are reversed, sure, but it’s still there. Instead of Mario rescuing Princess Peach from whoever kidnapped her this week, or Link rescuing Zelda, we have a creature that would normally be cast as the “villain” rescuing the fair maiden from the nominal heroes. On the one hand, it’s partially a clever condemnation of trope; it seems to at least try to point out the heroine’s role as one of the “spoils” by literally tying her up in the adventurers pile of victory spoils, but it goes horribly wrong after that. The only indication we have of her willingness to be with the goblins in the end is that she’s no longer bound and is smiling instead of scowling.

But if it’s supposed to be calling out the objectifying trope of “to the hero goes the heroine/spoils,” it’s failing miserably. It can’t condemn the very same thing that it’s doing. It doesn’t matter if the woman was bound and clearly miserable in the company of the adventurers and later subservient and smiling in the presence of the goblins; that’s the way it always plays out, and swapping the traditional identities of the heroes and villains doesn’t do anything to change that.

Seriously, I would have adored this story if I didn’t notice it. It’s so good in every other way. It’s an adorable exploration of the cliches of one of my two favorite genres, and I thought right up until the end that it was going to be something of a new favorite for me.

But there’s this objectified stereotype played 100% straight right at the end, and I cannot get on board.

A Hungry Lion, or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins
This picture book is delightfully defiant of its readers’ expectations. You’ve got two elements here: a hungry lion and an assortment of animals already stated to be dwindling. So what’s happening in the story? Is the hungry lion really eating the other animals? I’m honestly not going to spoil it for you; the surprise is what matters here.

A Hungry Lion is the best of this bunch by far, and even as an adult, I think the book’s a lot of fun. I definitely recommend it!