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)

 

Harry and the Terrible Whatzit

By Dick Gackenbach

Who’s never been afraid of anything? If you just raised your hand, I declare you a liar. Or the bravest person on Earth.

Because everyone (yes, everyone) is afraid of something, there are a lot of books out there dealing with children’s fears. Because little minds are so active, they can find terror in everything. That’s not a bad thing, but it can make the basement pretty frightening.

Enter Harry and the Terrible Whatzit. Pair this with Monsters, Inc. and your little one will never be afraid again! Or they’ll shift their fear onto something else – but they won’t be afraid of monsters under the bed!

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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

And Tango Makes Three

By Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

I was speaking with a co-worker the other day, and the topic of banned and challenged books came up. She was shocked to learn that not only are books routinely challenged, nor that occasionally a book is actually banned, but that most of these books are children’s books. Parents have this belief that reading a book will automatically put ideas in that child’s head and turn them into a gay/satanic/drug-using/etc. monster. Mostly these challenges are to school library, where they are not protected by a iron-clad collection policy, and it is there that most challenges win.

One of the most challenged books of the last decade is a small children’s book called And Tango Makes Three. Written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, it’s based on real-life events at New York’s Central Park Zoo, between two male penguins named Roy and Silo. In the book and in real life, they formed a pair, built a nest, even nursed an egg-shaped rock. One year, they were given a real egg from another pair, and the two penguins successfully hatched and raised a female chick named Tango.

The story is simple,  the artwork equally simple and effective. There is nothing offensive about this book; it could equally be a book about any form of adoption. If anything, it’s heartwarming, two penguins unable to reproduce getting a chick to raise. If it wasn’t for all the controversy and the fact the two penguins were male, this book would probably be lost in a sea of other children’s literature.

I like books with a message, and this book would certainly be among the books I read to my child. I don’t think there’s a single thing wrong with portrayals of the gay community in literature for children – if anything it’s necessary. Parents may want to believe that their children will grow up like them, and in most cases they will. But some won’t, and encouraging them, and letting them know there’s nothing wrong with being different, is important to instill at an early age. To me, there’s nothing worse then alienating your child or forcing them to hide because you never told them it was okay to be different.

Targeted for ages 3-5, I recommend reading this book, with or without your child. Read it, then make a decision if you think it should be banned. The worst thing about banned books is the lemming effect it seems to have – one person complains about the subject matter, and everyone joins in without even having laid eyes on the book. Don’t let this be you – be informed, and give challenged books a chance.

Smoky Night

By Eve Bunting

The story of Smoky Night is set during the Los Angeles Riot, and is from the point of view of an African-American child named Daniel. He lives with his mother and cat in an apartment building located in the heart of the riots. The main plot revolves around Daniel’s family and their apartment neighbour, an Asian woman (Mrs. Kim). This dislike is reflected in the way their two cats fight.

Smoky Night tells a story of racism without overtly touching the race button. The setting of the Los Angeles Riots provides an interesting backdrop that is easily overlooked if you are young and unaware of what the name “Rodney King” involves.

The artwork is incredible. The heavy oils on one page, and the scattered mosaic of random household objects or rubble on the other. It will be one of the things you remember most about this book.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

Bunting, E. (1999). Smoky Night. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt More

Dear As Salt

By Rafe Martin

When my sister found out I was doing this blog, she demanded that I do this book. She wasn’t even aware of the title I had chosen at that point (I wish I had seen her expression when she first saw it. Alas, she lives in Alberta, so I am out of luck). So today, I shall tackle the inspiration for my blog and review Dear As Salt.

One day, a melancholy King decides to find out how much his daughters’ love him. He calls each of his three daughters before him, and pretends to be very angry, accusing each of not loving him enough. The first two daughters answer that they love him “as much as bread” and “as much as wine”, and the King is please. But when his youngest (Zizola) comes before him, she answers that he is “as dear as salt” to her. Viewing this as an insult, the king flies into a rage and orders her killed. Rolling her eyes, Zizola’s mother hides her daughter in a giant chicken-shaped candlestick and orders one of her servants to take it to the market and sell it to a decent man. A prince comes along, makes some nice (if unrealistic) remarks about how he would use the candle to give people comfort, and ends up with a giant, black, chicken-shaped candlestick with a hidden princess inside.

Dear As Salt is a great book for young girls in the 5-9 age range. It has humour, though the humour is visual, and never once touched on in the text; it’s very subtle, and more for the parents or sharp-eyed child. There are repetitive stanzas within the text to help children memorize the story and keep them engaged. The moral at the end, when the King finally realizes the meaning behind his daughter’s statement that she loved him “as dear as salt”, that she loved him most of all his daughters and he had her executed is quite effective. If it was done in movie form, it would be quite the climactic final scene.

The artwork is gorgeous; the colours are lush and vibrant and a real treat for the eye. It gives the feel of a Renaissance-type painting, with Italian-inspired backgrounds. There is very little white space, and the images beautifully reflect the text. There is a little disconnect between the serious tone of the text and the subtle jokes of the images (see again: giant black chicken-shaped candlestick). This book is a lot of fun for both parents and children to share together.

East of the Sun & West of the Moon (Part 4)

By Edith Pattou

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The book is written from five alternating points of view: Rose, Father (Rose’s father), Neddy (Rose’s brother), the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. Each chapter gives a different point of view, and each takes the tale a little farther forward. At first I found this gimmick off-putting, but as the book progressed I found it helped the pace, keeping me engaged and racing for the end.

East gives us plausible characters, realistic scenarios and reactions, as well as a real and solid world setting. Even differing religions and folktales are given a place in East, which makes the religious studies student in me pleased. It is what I wished Ice had been. Some may find the shifting points of view and size off-putting, since East comes in at roughly 400 pages. The chapters are short, however, and can be picked off slowly. A good book for those that love fleshed-out folktales.

Suggested Ages: 9-12+

Pattou, E. (2005). East. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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East of the Sun & West of the Moon (Part 3)

By Sarah Beth Durst

Welcome to part 3! Parts 1 and 2 are here and here, respectively.

The main protagonist is Cassie, who has been basically raised in the research station, where her father tags and researches polar bears. On her birthday, Cassie is paid a visit by a polar bear, and told that she was promised to him as a bride. Spirited away, she tries to make a new life as the bride of a bear.

This book contains a lot of new elements, as one must to flesh a children’s book to a full-sized novel. Bear is not a cursed prince but a magical being in his own right. The trolls have been changed; they are now a race of gelatinous, ever-changing, ethereal beings who want to live but do not know how.

The book started off strong, but ended with a whimper, leaving me disappointed. Read for the good ideas, but be warned it will likely leave you scratching your head.

Suggested Ages: 9-12

Durst, S. B. (2009). Ice. Margaret K. McElderry Books

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Grover’s Amazing Dream: A Storybook Introducing New Words

By Liza Alexander

The full title of the book is Grover’s Amazing Dream: A Storybook Introducing New Words. The very first page (after the title page) is a Note to Parents that gives a mini-speech about the importance vocabulary, and how this book will have words that your child will likely not understand. That is the point, in face, to help them learn new words as Grover describes his amazing dream.

The artwork is mediocre. While the colours are very well-done, the strength of it lies in the background. Grover, on every page, always has the same expression – the same one on the cover. While the children can connect to Grover in his attitude – innocent, full of childlike wonder and imagination – the artwork doesn’t convey his attitude very well.

While everything about the book is simple, it does provide a lot of new words and onomatopoeia that will help stretch vocabulary.

Suggested Ages: 4-7

Alexander, L. (1988). Grover’s Amazing Dream: A Storybook Introducing New Words. Western Publishing Company.

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See How You Grow

By Dr. Patricia Pearse

(See How You Grow: A lift-the-flap book is more of a medical book then a story, meant for children who ask where babies come from. The first half of the book is dedicated to Sarah’s little brother Ben – his conception, growth, and birth.

This book was written by a doctor, and the medical diagrams are excellent, though perhaps beyond the true comprehension of children. The growth of baby Ben and the lift-the-flap aspect of the book will keep children’s attention, and it has some interesting analogies when describing why and how the body changes when it grows (motorcycle messengers delivering messages). Overall, it’s a good (if somewhat dated) guide to the beginning of life.  Some parts, like the page on nutrition, will fall absolutely flat with kids, since they don’t control what they eat, and they likely won’t like half of what is on the page.

Suggested Ages: 3-5+

Pearse, P. (1988). See How You Grow. Barron’s Educational Series.

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