Miss Rumphius

Strange how, as we grow older, nostalgia becomes more and more powerful? (I know, I know, says the 25-year-old). Today, a teacher asked me if we had 3 books: Miss Rumphius, Clementine, and Koa’s Beans. The only one in my library was Miss Rumphius, so I pulled it out and nearly cried. This is one of the oldest books I remember reading, way back in grade 2. Mrs Kennedy read it to us when the lupine flowers started blooming.

The book is the story of Alice Rumphius, as told by her unnamed great-niece. It covers her life: from a young child, sitting on her grandfather’s knee, to a very old woman.
When she is young, she tells her grandfather that she wants to do two things in life: see the world, and live in a house by the sea.
“But there is a third thing you must do,” he tells her. “Find a way to make the world more beautiful.”
Alice goes through her life in brief flashes: first as a librarian (Hey!), then as an adventurer overseas. When she hurts her back getting off a camel, she decides that it’s time for her to buy that house by the sea.
But what about her third promise: to make the world more beautiful?
While sick in bed, the answer comes to her in the form of her flowers, sprouting outside her window. She will sow lupines all over the land, and help make it more beautiful that way! And so she becomes known as the Lupine Lady.
If I were ever going to tell someone that a book was going to determine my life’s path, this might well be it – so far I’ve gone to great lengths to make Alice Rumphius’ life my own. And I didn’t even know it until I re-read this story for a teacher!
The artwork is done in acrylic, very rich and conveying a sense of decorum old-world discovery. I love looking at the pictures of her life: the Victorian clothes, the safari outfit, the way she interacts with island natives. Things that don’t hold the same wonder and charm now, with so much commercialism. Now I’m nostalgic for nostalgia!
I think what I love most about this story is that it does feel a lot like my own. I come from a coastal town with a large ship-building history; a lot of it is still evident. The hills leading up from the sea always made me transpose her American city on my Canadian one. The same way the hills full of lupines were the same ones I would see in my town. It doesn’t help that I’ve recently become an expatriated Canadian – until this moment I’d forgotten about that. But it makes it more real, and closer to home.
This is one of those oft-forgotten classics. If you’ve never read Miss Rumphius, go pick it up and give it a try!
Suggested ages: 6-9

Stuck

By Oliver Jeffers

I adore Oliver Jeffers. The librarian in my post before me ordered a ton of his books, and they were the best thing she could have left me. The most recent Jeffers book I read to my students was, of course, Stuck.

Stuck is about (hold onto your socks!) things getting stuck in a tree. It all starts when Floyd gets his kite stuck in a tree. The trouble really begins when Floyd throws his favorite shoe to knock down the kite, and that gets stuck as well… and it goes on from there, getting larger and more ridiculous as time goes on. It’s so much fun when they pull back to show the full tree, stuffed with everything from kites to whales to cats and shoes. It looks so absurd you can’t help but laugh. It also made one of the teachers laugh out loud at one page – that’s the mark of a good book; it appeals to a huge range of ages.

The artwork is typical of all Jeffers books: simple lines that border on stick-figure-ness, but with lovely colour work. The simplicity means that students don’t get too distracted by unnecessary lines, and they can focus on the tons of things getting tossed up a tree to knock down a kite. Rather than details, Jeffers shows his emphasis on size – things grow bigger and bigger and more impossible. There’s still lots of white space to ensure that there’s space to give the kids a breath, again allowing them to focus on the pictures. The font might pose a small problem to encouraging kids to read – it’s done in a large, semi-cursive, pencil-esque font that might be difficult for children that haven’t learned cursive yet. But they’ll love watching the pictures while you read to them.

I enjoy playing a game with my students, getting them to count the number of times the tree changes colour, or how many items Floyd throws up. There are so many things to do with Jeffers’ books – so many things to look at and explore in his artwork. The story itself as simple – but don’t think of it as simple. There is so much hidden in the images, things to make you laugh and appreciate it more.

Pick this book up – and maybe a few others! Your kids will thank you, and you will enjoy them just as much.

Suggested Ages: 6-9

(Please note that he does not read all the pages in this video; some of the best parts are missing. Go buy that book!!)

Nothing

By  Mick Inkpen

There aren’t many books I’ll cry at, but they exist. Love You Forever is one (even with the mildly creepy tones). Bridge to Tarabithia. The Diary of a Young Girl. Parts of Harry Potter andThe Hunger Games series. Note most of these are not picture books.
Sitting on my cart one day I found this little book called Nothing. On the cover it had this cat and a raggedly little doll. Intrigued, I sat down to read it. And all I can say is I’m glad I didn’t have a class coming in, or I might have actually been in tears (which I would have blamed on the dust).
The story starts in the attic, with a little thing pinned beneath tons of stuff. Rugs, boxes – normal things you might find in the attic. It’s been there so long he doesn’t remember his name, or what he is. Then one day, the family who lives below moves out. They find him lying there, but decide to leave him, since he’s “Nothing”. Little thing adopts Nothing as his name and leaves the attic, still trying to figure out what and who he once was. He sees a few animals, each time remembering “I used to have a tail”, or “I used to have whiskers”. But he still can’t remember who he is. A cat, who belongs to the family who just moved out, finds Nothing and carries him away, back to the original family, giving him to the old Grandpa. Grandpa remembers Nothing, and there’s a big reveal of who and what he was.
This just ripped at my heartstrings. Poor little nothing, trapped in the attic all that time, only to be left behind. He reminds me of stuffed animals my sister and I still have: raggedy little things that we’ve loved and slept with and held onto so long they’ve gone that dirty white, with matted fur and lost noses or rubbed-off colour. I can easily imagine my favorite old toy being lost and buried, so that makes it a touching story for me. Most children too, I think, would relate to little Nothing, especially if you read this to them while they’re holding their favorite toy.
The illustrations are simple and effective. The colouring is incredible, and the sense of loss evoked is superb. We have quite a few of Inkpen’s works, and they all share that cartoony style that speaks straight to kids.
Go pick up this work and see if it tugs at your heart – or if you’re a soulless monster. It’s a good barometer either way.
Suggested ages: 6-9

Mmm, Cookies!

By Robert Munsch

Who doesn’t love cookies?
Christopher certainly loves cookies – but not nearly as much as pranking people! He discovers a conveniently left pile of play clay (I think it was made by the mice – pay careful attention to the picture), and decides to make something with it. That something, as it turns out,is a giant red cookie covered in sugar, icing and raisins (ick). Then he gives it to his mother. This goes over as you might thing – with her gagging and planning revenge on her son. Meanwhile, he’s back in the basement, planning prank number two, this time on his father. He gets his comeuppance in the end, when his teacher pranks him back. And then everyone makes real cookies.
Cookies! Yum.
Munsch books are very popular in my library; I currently have one left on my shelf. But I’ve started to notice a pattern – parents never do anything in these books. It’s always the student, and then maybe another authority figure (eg. a teacher) who helps solve the problem. Otherwise, the children are the stars and the mischievous protagonists. No wonder I liked these so much as a kid.
I also love telling the kids that he’s Canadian. Because, of course, I am very proud of my home country and the few celebrities we produce.
Mmm, Cookies! is a really fun Munsch book. It’s no Love You Forever, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s about a kid pranking his parents, but with a payback in the end, so you don’t need to worry about your kids thinking they can get away without consequences.
Michael Martchenko is present on illustrations, like he is for the majority of Munsch books. His illustrations add a love of movement and colour to the book, even when the scene is still. It’s this movement that I really like. For example, in one picture, Christopher is presenting his father with a “cookie” bigger than he is tall. His father is putting his coffee mug down while the dog is trying to rip his sock off. Most artists would have a picture with much less life, and the life of these pictures are always my favorite.
There is also movement in the words. The sound effects are large and have a life of their own. Often they’re in a different font, and will grow in size, or go up and down on the page. Great visual cues for kids following along, or reading on their own for the first time. Even better – make up little hand motions and get them to do it with you. It works amazing well with my group of grade twos.
Go pick up this book if you have a little boy or girl who loves a good, silly story about cookies and play clay! (Added bonus: the book includes the play clay recipe)
Suggested ages: 6-9

Something Beautiful

By Sharon Dennis Wyeth
Do you have something beautiful?
Our young, nameless protagonist is a black girl growing up in a not-so-beautiful neighbourhood. Trash fills her courtyard, and someone has painted “die” across her door. Homeless people sleep on the streets, wrapped in plastic and cardboard. But her mother once told her that everyone has something beautiful in their life – where is hers?
Something Beautiful is a journey through this young girl’s neighbourhood, interacting with different people to find their something beautiful; that thing that makes their heart glad. For some people it’s a stone, for others the laugh of a child, or a special meal.
The strength of this story is how thought-provoking it is. What is your something beautiful? You don’t need to have grown up in a similar neighbour to our protagonist to understand her struggle. We all wish for something that is special, and that makes her that much more identifiable. All the pleasures she finds are simple ones, and maybe it will help us remember that we don’t need big things to make us happy. Hold onto the small things.
The illustrations, courtesy of Christ K Soentpiet, are beautiful. My favorite illustration is the haunting depiction of the homeless lady, who uses plastic as a blanket. You won’t soon forget that image. Each character is unique and exquisitely depicted, even if you’re only seeing them from behind. The dour images of filth and decay in her courtyard are counterbalanced by the smiles on the faces of everyone she meets. Little girl is something beautiful.
This is a simple, brilliant story for children. Something Beautiful needs nothing else beyond what it has to make itself stand out. It is haunting and uplifting all at once, and will stay with you and your child long after you finish reading it.
Suggested ages: 6-9

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

Recently I made a long move roughly halfway across the world. To combat the intense boredom that comes with ~12 hours of flight, I amused myself by sleeping, listening to music, and watching a few movies.

One of those movies was, of course, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Sadly, my initial (and so far only) impression was disappointment.

Everyone, or at least almost everyone, loves Dr. Seuss. The Lorax has never been one of the most popular stories, but it was still always a fun read. It has been accused of being dark (for a Seuss book), and is very heavy with environmentalism, which is iffy for kids, I think. In general, they tend to be too heavy-handed, as I’ve mentioned before. The Lorax movie is no different.

As I just finished mentioning, I disliked how heavy-handed this movie was, and I’ll get a little more in-depth with that in a moment. The other thing I disliked was how altered the story was from the original.

Now, verily, I do understand how difficult it can be to adapt a 45-page book into a feature-length movie. So they add a jr. high student who’s in love with a senior, a town where everything is plastic, and an egotistical, power-hungry midget. The mish-mash of new story and The Lorax do not mesh well together – they are two different movies, and should have remained as such.

I could have lived with focusing on the background of the Onceler. The parts with his family can be quite amusing, and I wish they had been fleshed out more. His descent from bright-eyed entrepreneur to money-grubbing bad guy is done within one song montage. A montage where he dresses like a crazy villain while singing about how he is a good guy. Even 2-year-olds can’t miss the symbolism.

While we hear the story/descent of the Onceler, we’re dealing with Ted. He’s 12, and head-over-heels for Audrey. She wants to see a real tree, so crazy Grandma tells Ted where to go to find the Onceler. Sneaking outside Thneedville, Ted sees a dark, gloomy wasteland of trees. Far outside, he finds the Onceler and hears the story of how he came to be here.

So. Inside Thneedville, town of plastic, we have Ted; Ted’s grandmother and mother; and O’Hare the billionaire air-made man who has a few issues with control and Big Brother-symptoms. Outside, we have the Onceler. We switch back between the two places, with Ted having to go through increasingly insane measures to sneak past the O’Hare cameras to get outside. We know why O’Hare doesn’t want any trees, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to want to keep everyone inside. If anything, you’d think he’d like to show them the outside so they want to stay inside more.

Between the two smashed stories, I feel like we miss a lot of the original story to develop the comic relief (the animals, who are adorable and awesome), and give the Lorax and the Onceler more camera time. The crux of the original story, where each animal leaves one by one as the environment gets worse, is traded for a song montage. I suppose it’s one heavy-handed image for another, but at least we could claim it was being true to the original story.

Another problem is that The Lorax makes capitalism look bad. The Onceler creates a new product, which helps create and drive a thriving economy. While I understand the “save the environment” message, this is so strong as to say that there’s no room for creativity in life.

In conclusion: The Lorax was a disappointment. As an environmental film there’s nothing different about it. It doesn’t show anything new, doesn’t really make us care about the characters. It’s no Wall-E. The soundtrack features some amazing vocal talent singing silly songs, which can be fun, but this movie has no staying power. It won’t become a classic. Rather, The Lorax will simply become another environmental film failure that shows up in the bargain bin at your local Wal-Mart.

Revenge of the small Small

By Jean Little

Bullying is a hot topic right now, and when I found this book buried in my sister’s closet (I love snooping in there), I thought the timing was very fortuitous. After all, it’s the chance to discuss something relevant! Something fresh! Something published in 1992!

Okay, so maybe it’s a little old. But some topics never go out of style!

Revenge of the small Small focuses Patsy small, youngest of four children. She is, like all youngest sisters, perfect in every way. When her three older siblings get the chicken pox, she makes out like Florence Nightingale, catering to their every whim and need. But, when the tables are turned, they laugh at her requests and leave her all alone.

Dad to the rescue! He brings Patsy home a truly ginormous (that’s a word, right?) box of craft supplies. Seriously, this box is something those whackadoodles from Craft Wars would kill for. While the other three hover around, anxious to share, Patsy shuts them down and keeps all the supplies to herself. As any kid would do.

And so Patsy starts on her project (honestly, I think she has the longest bout of chicken pox in the history of books). She starts building a town, full of streets, houses, schools, and… a cemetery? Yes, really. A cemetery. With her three siblings buried inside, all with “awful” epithets.

No, really. “A bad brother”. “A mean sister”. “A lowly boy”. I wish I had a scanner to show you the Home Alone face the second brother is making at his tombstone. All three are shocked, SHOCKED  that their perfect, angelic, meek little sister could write such atrocities about them. So, as you do, they immediately change overnight into the most perfect, wonderful, supporting, loving, caring, attentive siblings on the planet.

I know this book is meant for kids. I do. And bullying is hard to write about. But this was the best the author could come up with? Two brothers and a sister who act, well, like older brothers and sisters. Heck, they were nicer to Patsy with all their teasing than I ever was to my sister, and she turned out okay!

(Hey, wait… this book was in her closet, wasn’t it? Hey! What’s this little effigy?)

Revenge of the small Small is pretty weak in story. The siblings, while made out to be the utmost villains in Patsy’s mind, are actually pretty lifelike. They’re mean, but trying to be helpful in their own ways. Even Patsy’s reaction of brushing them aside for her revenge is accurate to what any child would do. But the teasing she goes through is pretty weak (she reacts to being called an infant the same way she would if someone told her ol’ Yeller was shot at the end of the book). She receives obvious favoritism from her father, and never once do their parents step in to stop the teasing.

Despite the failings, this was one of my favorite books (for different reasons than my sister, who was obviously using it as inspiration). The artwork is amazing – my hat off to you, Janet Wilson. The characters are well drawn, the items are well drawn, and the town Patsy makes looks like something a child would actually draw. It makes me so sad that such amazing artwork is attached to such a weak story. It wouldn’t even be so bad if there was a better means of changing the other’s minds, but really. If this was real life (and most of the book is faaaairly realistic), the siblings would just destroy the headstones, or retaliate with more snarky comments. They’re kids!

If you have a younger daughter being the victim of sibling bullying, you could pick up this book to entertain her with. But I’m pretty sure there are better ones out there. Find those ones, or pick this up for the art.

Suggested ages: 3-6

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

By Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter is somewhat of a legend among children’s authors. She writes these incredible little stories featuring different animals. Living in the country, Beatrix was inspired by her own animals and surroundings, and it shows in both her writing and artwork.

Her first, and most well-known work, is The Tale of Peter Rabbit. This is one of those beloved tales that will live on eternally; who doesn’t know about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail? (And Peter, naturally). It’s such a wonderfully whimsical story, full of relatable and realistic characters.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit is the, naturally, the tale of Peter Rabbit. Sent out to play while his mother goes shopping, Peter leaves his three good sisters to gather blackberries on the lane while he goes to munch on vegetables from Farmer McGregor’s garden. Eschewing the rules, he gets lost inside the garden, then spotted by the villainous farmer. Fleeing, Peter must hide from the farmer and get out without getting caught.

Peter is a very naughty rabbit; he disobeys his mother, is terribly frightened, nearly captured and killed, and loses all his neat little clothes. Little boys take note! Don’t disobey your mothers, or enraged farmers might chase you down too. (Though, I admit, if my son snuck away to eat vegetables from a farm, I would be a very happy mother indeed.) I love how believable little Peter Rabbit is; he’s defiant and uncaring at first, then scared, almost gives up until encouraged, then runs the gamut of terror and tears. More children need to cry in stories when things get scary – I don’t think it happens enough. But it’s a true representation of what you would do.

I love this story. When you think of Beatrix Potter, this is the story you think of. First published in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was the first of her many, many stories. And there are a lot of them; I was given The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter by my grandparents in 1989, and I still don’t think I’ve read all the stories therein contained (23 of them). Some of them are classics, other’s I could never get engaged in. Some are quite dark, but that was Beatrix’s style, and it works very well.

She was an observant lady, watching the movements of animals, developing a very unique and beautiful style of art. I admit, I love the art more than the story, and she uses it in a unique way. Rather then full-page illustrations, her stories are decorated with small pictures, sometimes three to a page, each next to a paragraph to illustrate that particular happening. Sometimes I wonder if she wrote or drew her stories first; they fit together perfectly.

If you don’t own this story, go pick it up. I often say that a book that’s still in print 20 years after first being published is a good book; this tale is still around 110 years later! If that doesn’t say something about Ms. Potter, nothing will.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

The Magic School Bus: Inside a Hurricane

By Joanna Cole

“Seatbelts, kids!”

I have always loved The Magic School Bus. And, odd as this will sound, I don’t recall catching the t.v. show very often. No, what I got hooked on were the books and the video games. I wish those games still worked, but they’re from 1995-98-ish era, so most PCs won’t run anything that old. But man were they ever fun for my sister and I to play!

But my first Magic School Bus love was always the books. I would go to the library, scoop up as many as I could, and read them for hours. I think kids have the best educational books, and the Magic School Bus ranks up there with the best of them. Inside a Hurricane is just what it sounds like: Ms. Frizzle takes her class into the science and terror of extreme weather.

Now, The Magic School Bus will never be known for stellar writing. The story is told in a journal-entry type of way, detailing what the class is doing. Meanwhile, the dialogue is told through speech bubbles, and extra science is offered through student reports that are set to the side. Not to mention the details in the art! That’s a lot going on in just a few pages.

While there is a lot going on, it’s not overwhelming. Everything is written simply, with diagrams to help transmit the information. The science is balanced by the humour of the character interactions, which helps the books from being dry and gives them their traditional feel.

We need more books like this; little science books designed for kids that offers some laughs. I don’t mean Eyewitness books (though I love those too), but books that are designed to make them want to keep reading. The Magic School Bus did that for me, kicking off an obsession with the solar system that lasted for a year or two. Thank you, Ms. Frizzle and the Magic School Bus!

Suggested Ages: 6-9

The Paper Bag Princess

By Robert Munsch

Girls, don’t ever let a boy use you! That always feels like the message behind this great Munsch tale.

We start out in a beautiful castle with a beautiful princess who’s head-over-heels in love with her aloof (but handsome) fiancee. Then a dragon comes along, burning everything up and kidnapping Prince Ronald. Well, Elizabeth isn’t about to stand for this, and sets out to defeat the dragon. Not with swords and armour, of course – the only thing not burned up by the dragon was a paper bag. But Elizabeth has her wits and determination, and she wants her husband-to-be back!

I’ve always enjoyed this story. It’s like the children’s version of an adult show: the titular character is about to get married to her emotionally distant boyfriend, a massive crises ensues and she comes into her own. After defeating the world-ending evil, she realizes what a dirtbag her intended is and breaks free to become her own women! (Cue: dramatic guitar riffs)

This is a great story for kids, even if they don’t realize all the great messages going on in it. Just the image of a princess with a burnt crown and a paper bag is going to be enough to hook their attention. There’s also the repetitive factor that Munsch delivers very well, hooking kids in.

The illustrations are funny and detailed, done by frequent Munsch collaborator Michael Martchenko. (Can you imagine being in a conference with these two and only addressing them by their last names?) The Paper Bag Princess is a solid book, one of his earliest ones (number 3), and while he’s done better, this still reigns as one of the best.

Suggested Ages: 3-6

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