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!!)

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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

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 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

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

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