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
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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

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 Balloon Tree

By Phoebe Gilman

Have you ever told your child a bedtime story? I haven’t, but I’ve read reports of people who have. You start out with something fairly mundane – like a car ride. And then all of a sudden you take off to the moon and the car ride story turns into an epic adventure against the furry bat-men of Mars. Or something like that.

That how this book feels to me. It’s like Gilman’s children asked for a story about Princesses AND balloons, and this story is what resulted. I love it.

The Balloon Tree has it all. A princess in a castle, an evil Archduke, peril, secret passageways, a desperate quest, magic, salvation, and balloons. Pair that incredible artwork that features a ton of interesting, minute details, stories within the art and you have an amazing book.

Princess Leora’s father has to leave for a tournament. Scared of her uncle the Archduke, the King tells her that if anything goes wrong she should just release a bunch of her beloved balloons from the top of the tower and he will come rushing home to her. A great plan until the Archduke attempts a coup, destroying all the balloons so Leora can’t alert her father. With some advice from her friendly court wizard, Leora must now find one whole balloon so that she can summon her father.

Epic.

I think this book is a must-have for any little girls library (and little boys too). I’ve said it before (see Something From Nothing), but I love Gilman’s artwork. Not only does she create fantastic (and touching) stories, but she creates incredible artwork. The main pictures are well done, colourful, interesting, and lively, yes, but there’s more. Sometimes she shows the knights traveling, or creating movement by having someone break the barrier. It’s sheer magic.

Just look at the colours, the attention to detail! And these are two of the less Easter Eggy pages.

To me, this book is a lost classic. I think we read it to pieces, and I have no idea where my copy has gone (thus, “lost”). If you notice in the cover picture, this book has been around for 20 years, which tells me a lot of good children’s books came out in the 80’s. But more then that, it’s a testament to how good Gilman’s books are. I think children still know the name Jillian Jiggs, who has wonderful pigs that I made my mother make for me. And if you don’t know Jillian Jiggs, you are a heartless person who either suffered cruelly as a child, or is making your child suffer. Go, go, discover Phoebe Gilman. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Suggested Ages: 3-6+ (or all ages)

 

The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon

By Nancy Willard

If you were to ask me to give one adjective to describe this book, it would be “quirky”.

Why quirky? Well, what other book have you ever read where the main character was a sullen, childish moon who wanted a nightgown? Who then goes down to Earth, tries on lots of nightgowns, buys one, and disappears? Never! Unless you’ve read this book before. After the moon goes missing devastation and darkness abound, naturally.

The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon is a wonderful little walk through the wonderfully bizarre, with the moon acting just like a child. She’s sullen, she’s determined, she’s happy when she gets what she wants, she’s defiant, uncooperative, and longing for a little comfort. We won’t ask questions about how she wears the nightgowns, or how she doesn’t crush the world when she comes to sleep in some little girl’s bed; that would ruin the quirky, free-flowing nature of this story.

The artwork is a bit up and down for me. The watercolours are amazingly done, and I love the imagination the illustrator uses on the storefronts. There are some elements of the art that I adore. The pages where the Moon and Sun have their first conversation is my favorite of the whole book. Landscapes seem to be David McPhail’s specialty, as sometimes his people land flat. There’s no doubt that the illustrations work well with the text, and reflect Willard’s strange world.

This book is almost 30 years old, and still available for purchase online. That speaks volumes to me about how good this book is for children. My copy of the book is wrinkled, water-warped and loved to death. It’s nonsense; enjoyable, wonderful nonsense that we all need more of in our lives. Hit up your bookstore or library and give this book a try for your younglings.

Suggested Ages: 3-6

Big Sarah’s Little Boots

By Paulette Bourgeois & Brenda Clark

When we’re small, small issues take on big importance. So when a favorite toy breaks, or you rip a dress, or outgrow a favorite article of clothing – that becomes a big deal.

Unless you’re a destructive little beast like me and purposefully destroy the lovely clothes your parents gave you. But even then, you’ll probably enjoy this story.

Big Sarah’s Little Boots was one of my childhood favorites. The titular character, Big Sarah, loves her rainboots. They’re bright, shiny yellow, and when she jumps in the puddles they go SQUISH and the water goes KERSPLAT! But then, one day Sarah tries to put them on, and her boots have shrunk! She tries everything – pulling on them, growing them in the garden, playing tug-of-war with them – in an attempt to make them bigger, but nothing works. Time for Big Sarah to get bigger boots!

Big Sarah’s Little Boots is a nice book helping explain to children that it’s okay to move on to something new; you might like it just as much (if not more) than what you had before. The majority of the story, however, is dedicated to Sarah trying, so very hard, to cling to her beloved old boots – just like any kid would do when presented with change. I know I can say that, at 15 5, I was not very good at adapting to change. If you need proof, just go visit an elementary school on the first day of class and see how many children are crying.

The story is great. The text is simple and easy, with onomatopoeia to make it more fun. There’s no rhyming pattern, but it flows easily, and there’s enough repetition to make it stick.

There is a lot of white space at the beginning of the book, but it fades around the middle point, when Sarah tries to make her boots stretch. It’s this middle part that meshes text and images the best, and are among the best in the book. It helps immensely that the pictures are amazing. I know I say this a lot, but it’s true; great pictures make a children’s story, and children get the best illustrators. I can’t tell you what medium is used, but the colours are bright, the artwork is amazing, and it’s so true to life some of them could almost be pictures. There’s one picture of Sarah pulling her socks off in an attempt to get the boots on, and it’s so incredible I just want to pin it to my wall. The details in these pictures will make them a lot of fun for children to look through; I remember the details of the skipping ropes tied to her boots, and the different styles of rainboots she tries on, from when I was a kid.

If you can find this book, I suggest you pick it up. It was published in 1987 in Toronto, so it’s probably not the most accessible, but I’m sure it’s out there. It’s cute, educational, beautifully written and illustrated. If your child has a favorite toy/piece of clothing/binky/blanky/etc., they’ll be able to relate to this book. Everyone has gone through the same growing pains as Sarah, and it will show them that they’re not alone.

~

And since we’re coming up to mother’s day, I will give incredible props to my mom that 99% of my books from my childhood have survived as long as they did in as good a condition as they did. Every child should have the opportunity to find all their old books in the basement and be able to raid them for a blog!

Love you mom ❤

~

Recommended Ages: 3-6

Legend

By Marie Lu

I’m a member of the online art community deviantArt; I’m sure some of you have stumbled across that website in the past, and it showcases some incredible instances of art. One the artists I followed early on was an artist and aspiring author, mree. She’s a very talented artist, and spent a lot of time developing character designs for her written characters.

Well, congratulations mree (aka Marie Lu)! You need aspire no more!

Around Christmas 2011, Marie’s debut novel, Legend hit shelves. It’s very on-trend right now; a dystopian world reminiscant of The Hunger Games where all children must go through a Trial at the age of 10. The score you receive at the Trial will impact what happens to you later on – labour camps, drudgery job, or elite. Allow me to assure you that this is not The Hunger Games. I really enjoyed the setting, the characters, and how Lu creates a world that sucks you in.

Legend takes place in a future where the United States of America no longer exist. Instead we have the Colonies (as yet unseen), and the Republic. Our story takes place in the Republic, and splits between Day and June. Day is a criminal in the vein of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich, derailing the Republics plans, and helping provide for his family. June is a prodigy with a perfect Trial score, slated to be one of the most elite Republican soldiers. Their paths cross when June is tasked with tracking Day down, an endeavor that has so far proved futile for the army.

The biggest plus of Legend is the setting. It takes place in California, but it could be anywhere. And yet, there are ties to the physical place, and hints of the old USA. While a fairly short story (all things considered), the world feels comfortable, like you could visit it. There’s nothing shoved in there to make it fit, like some stories I’ve read. The plot reads well, and everything flows into each other. A lot of plot threads are left unanswered, but I will wait for the sequel(s), and assume that they will be answered there.

I admit, I wasn’t eager to pick up Legend. I did, however, recommend it to my chiropractor, who bought it as a Christmas present for his wife. After she read it, she started gushing about it, and lent it to me to read. I was completing my final semester of my Masters at the time, and didn’t have the time; I’m ashamed to admit I held onto that book for almost 3 months. When I finally did pick it up, my initial feeling was “meh”; I felt that it was generic. Then I really got into it and changed my mind. That’s what I would call the trick to this novel: don’t get stuck on thinking it’s a Hunger Games knockoff. It’s not, I promise.

Lu gives us a story of two star-crossed lovers, two 15-year-olds trying to find answers to what their leaders are doing and why. There’s romance, action, scheming, tragedy and the promise of more. Many of the plot threads are left hanging, with the promise of resolution in later books. I look forward to sequels, and seeing the future adventures of June and Day. I hope that Lu can continue with what makes her book unique, and avoids the cliches that dominate the market today.

Edit: Marie just released the news of her sequel in the Legend trilogy. The second book will be titled Prodigy, scheduled for release on Jan 23rd, 2013.

The Secret World of Arrietty

I am a huge Hayao Miyazaki fan. I watched his older movies (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Totoro, Castle in the Sky) long before the explosion of awesomeness that was Spirited Away ever hit North American shores. And while I love the newer movies, I admit they don’t hold the same magic touch that they used to. Howl’s Moving Castle is fun, but Ponyo just confused me. His latest offering, a remake of The Borrowers by Mary Norton, had me very excited. I loved the 1997 movie, so add that with my favorite movie maker, and I was right there in line!

I’ll admit up front: I was disappointed again. Not because it was a bad movie; it just confused me.

Having only read synopsis’s of The Borrowers online, The Secret World of Arrietty seems to follow the pattern pretty well. A young boy, Sean, is sent to his Aunt Jessica’s house to rest before a critical heart operation. Meanwhile, small Arrietty is preparing for her first borrowing. You can probably see where this is going, and Ariretty ends up being seen silouetted through a tissue. Having seen a little person, Sean is now intent on finding her and making friends.

Another person bent on finding the little people is Aunt Jessica’s housekeeper Hara. Hara is, to be kind, a few slippers short of a shoe closet. She is insane. Without much/any proof that Sean has seen a little person, she starts to follow and spy on him, trying to catch him talking to a little person. When she discovers a hole in the floor that leads to the Borrower’s house, she traps Homily (the mother) to prove to everyone she’s not crazy. But magically, all the proof she’s collected disappears and she’s left looking certifiable to the pest control operatives and Aunt Jessica.

I have two big criticisms about this movie: one is the relationships the characters have; the second is the pacing.

The character interactions sometimes border on the cartoonishly weird, only they’re not funny (sometimes). Sean is a very deliberate, slow-moving, calm sort of person, but it comes off creepishly stalker-esque when he meets Arrietty for the first time. Pod is strong and stoic and communicates primarily through grunts. Homily is a basket-case of worry, but that seems true to the book, and she’s actually my favorite character. Hara deserves her own special post, I can’t even describe how little sense she makes. And Spiller, who makes two appearances in the movie, is reduced to a caveman, albeit, a caveman who can fly with his magic flying-squirrel cape or…something.

I saw the movie when it was populated primarily with small children. I will give them credit, for a bunch of 6-year-olds and under, they were quiet and engrossed in the movie (except for one little boy in my row who decided that beating up the chair in front of him was more important, but hey! he never talked). This astounded me, because the movie takes a lot of time to show us the boring, mundane tasks of the two houses. That’s not a bad thing, and the movie is set up well. The problem comes when you realize they’ve spent an hour and a half to set up the movie before trying to cram action and resolution into 30 minutes. Homily’s capture and rescue by Sean and Arrietty is really the only tension in the movie, and daddy Pod is missing from the entire act! Deciding the home isn’t safe anymore, the Borrower’s move out, and into another house. This, after the movie spends a good deal of time talking about how there’s a dollhouse built specifically for the borrowers. They never use it. Why?!

Despite how much vitriol I’m spouting, I did not dislike this movie. It has the traditional Miyazaki touch, with beautiful artwork and animation. There’s nothing scary about it (unless you count Hara’s over-the-top villain antics) which makes it good for the kids. They might get bored, though, especially on repeat showings when they realize nothing’s happening.

Go check out this movie. Or even any of the other Miyazaki movies from the beginning if you’ve never seen one before. There’s something in them for everyone, old and young.

Tatterhood

By Lauren A. Mills

I love folktales. Love. I’m tempted to say it’s the biggest section on my site. This is for a good reason: they’re archetypal, they can bridge cultures, and they’re reflective of our own culture, or even ourselves. I think we’re drawn to find fairytales that reflect ourselves, and this might explain why I love Tatterhood. The explanation being that I love ugly ducking stories (I still hope that I’ll turn into one), and I adore strong, feisty heroines who stand up for themselves and their loved ones.

Tatterhood has become a born-again favorite. I initially stumbled on it decades ago, and rediscovered it when I was looking up children’s books for my Children’s Services and Resources class (better known as the reason for this blog’s existence). I love it. I love the artwork, which are beautifully done by the author, I love the relationship between the main characters, I love the lesson, and I love the ending.

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, so let’s take a step back. Tatterhood is based on a Norwegian tale. The King and Queen long to have children, but the Queen has been unable to conceive. Taking the advice of an old woman, the Queen gives birth to two girls: the eldest, Tatterhood, and Isabella. Tatterhood carries a wooden spoon, rides a goat, dresses in rags and is generally repugnant. Isabella, by contrast, is beautiful, gentle, graceful and obedient. It is therefore double the tragedy when Isabella’s head is switched with that of a goat as retribution for the Queen’s mistake.

Rather then abandon her sister, Tatterhood demands a ship and sails off to discover a cure for her sister’s malady. They have a grand adventure and Tatterhood is successful in restoring her sister’s head. Ultimately, they land on a foreign land, and she demands to meet the King. He finally comes, sees Isabella and asks her to marry him on the spot. As part of the agreement, his brother has to marry Tatterhood.

I won’t give away the very ending, because it is to me one of the best parts of the story. Go find this book, then come back and read my review; don’t worry, I’ll wait.

The artwork of this story is phenomenal, and I think Mills deserves a lot of credit for her work. The fey design of the characters, the amber saturation, and the attention to detail are incredible. The details are what make it work. The hobgoblin villains, the wildness of Tatterhood, the gentleness of Isabella – it all comes through in the artwork with a life of it’s own.

As it is a retelling, there are of course differences from the original as Mills puts her own spin on the story. The basic elements are all still there, however, for which I am grateful. At the heart it’s still a story of light and dark, but here dark is not bad. It’s different, and ultimately even more lovely. Tatterhood is a lovable character, maligned by her mother despite being the oldest but still loved by her twin. She’s misunderstood, and doesn’t really care what you think. This attitude is amazingly refreshing; Tatterhood is a great role model for those who are different.

This story is sadly obscure, and I’m eternally grateful that my library system owns a copy. If you’re looking for a story with oddities, hobgoblins, strong heroines, donkeys, spoons, and high adventure on the seas, this book has it all, tied up with a pair of fairy tale endings. I highly recommend you check it out.

Suggested Ages: 6-9

Dragonsong

By Anne McCaffrey

One of the great things about fantasy books is that it can make the transition into reading adult fare much easier on the young reader. In a lot of cases, authors who transition from YA fare to adult (or vice versa) aren’t changing much of their style – the only difference is the length. (I have a 600+ page YA novel on my floor that says young adults can read books over 300 pages, publishers!) Patricia Wrede falls into this category, and so does Anne McCaffery, who served as my indoctrination into the genre of fantasy.

Most times, children fall into books (possibly a series) in their early years and move into the adult books because they enjoy the author and have run out of “age appropriate” material to read. In my case, I went backwards; one of the librarians showed me Ms. McCaffery in the adult section and that was it. I tried to read every one, adult or not. Until very recently, I don’t believe I even realized Dragonsong was a YA book.

Dragonsong is McCaffery’s second series set on the Pern. The protagonist is a young woman named Menolly, who is a gifted musician and singer who is not valued by her fishermen parents. When her mentor dies and she cuts her hand, it looks like any dream she ever had of becoming a harper (musician) is lost. All this changes the day she runs away and discovers a clutch of fire-lizards, miniature dragons, who imprint on her and become her second family.

The primary antagonist of the Pern books is a vicious thing called Thread, a silvery, worm-like matter that falls from the sky and devours anything organic until there’s nothing left. Being caught outside during Threadfall is a death sentence, and this is exactly what happens to Menolly one day while foraging. Trying to out-run the Thread she is saved by a Dragonrider, who takes her to a Weyr (where the dragons and dragonriders live). From there, she is discovered as by the Masterharper himself, and it seems that her dream to become a Harper might become a reality.

This is, of course the first in the Harper Hall of Pern series; the first two books follow Menolly’s growth, and the last follows one of her friends in his maturity. Gender themes and coming-of-age abound in these books, but they strike the right balance. Menolly’s parents are believable, though you aren’t meant to like them, and for me that’s one of the most important parts. You don’t sit there and roll your eyes and feel like Menolly is a spoiled brat; you feel that she has been wronged and is right to get away. At the same time, you realize that her parents do love her, but they cannot understand her. To their too-practical eyes, her music is useless in a Hold where one needs all hands to deal with the catch.

McCaffery does well at keeping her characters real, and I love her depiction of Pern. I love a good world, and Pern is one of the best. Including the other series and standalones that center on the Dragonriders of Pern, McCaffery has created one of the best worlds I’ve ever seen, complete changes in the times, circumstances and technology.

Mind you, these books are quite old; most were published in the 1970’s. I read them in the 1990’s, 20 years later, and I still thought they were fantastic. Sometimes the old is the best, and McCaffery is certainly one of the major players in this genre, despite the age of her books. If this appeals to you, but you’re not sure you want to read something possibly so dated, I suggest The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, or Eragon by Christopher Paolini, as some options for teens.

Recommended ages: 9-12+

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