28 February 2007

Curious George

Author/Illustrator: H.A. Rey

The celebrated story of an abducted monkey and his failed quest for freedom. George, our tragic hero, is kidnapped by a strange Man in a Yellow Hat who, on a whim, decides to take the unsuspecting George back to America. But our hero isn't going to go without a fight. Furious, George attempts a series of daring escapes. First, he jumps off of the ship where he is held captive and tries to swim through shark-infested waters back to his home. Unfortunately, he is recaptured by sailors, who most likely collect a healthy reward for returning him to the diabolical man in yellow.

Once in America, George continues to risk life and limb in order to escape. First, when the man in yellow lets his guard down, George secretly calls the fire department for help. This backfires, as it lands him in jail. After cleverly escaping from prison, George attempts an aerial escape by grabbing a bunch of balloons and taking to the air. Unfortunately, his flight to Africa doesn't get very far, as the balloons (and his dreams of returning home) deflate and George once again finds himself in the nefarious clutches of his flamboyantly dressed captor. In the end, George is placed behind bars at the local zoo, where he can only bide his time and plan his next daringly curious escape.

There are those who argue that the Man in the Yellow Hat was a kind man because he and George eventually become friends. Even if a friendship does grow between George and his captor, anyone who has studied criminal psychology (or watched way too many episodes of Law & Order) recognizes this as a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome. Those taken captive often develop positive relationships with their captors... this does not negate the crime. We can only hope that the Man in the Yellow Hat is brought to justice along with other famed criminals such as the One Armed Man and the Captain with the Hook.

Liner Notes: It was an interesting choice to have Jack Johnson do the musical score for Curious George The Movie... interesting but oddly appropriate. Because, if you've read one Curious George book, you've read them all. Likewise, if you've heard one Jack Johnson album, you've heard 'em all.

26 February 2007

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom

Author: Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault
Illustrator: Lois Ehlert

This is one of those books that I had always known about, but I'm ashamed to admit that I read it for the first time just last year. Needless to say, I was surprised and blown away... mostly because I expected it to be about how to potty train a chicken. But I was also blown away because it's one of those books that really rolls off the tongue. A lot of picture books are written with a sing-songy verse that feels forced and cheesy. Here, you open the book, the text grabs you by the hand, pulls you along, and the next thing you know you're in the middle of some crazy alphabet mayhem. It's so much fun that, if you're lucky, you might even forget that you still have a chicken running wild in your apartment, pooping at will.

Chicka chicka boom boom. :(

Side Note: The illustrations look exactly like the template for my fifth grade yearbook... and pretty much every yearbook from the early nineties.

Bonus Note:
There is an audio version of this book read by the great Ray Charles, which will be sampled on the next Kanye West single (which is also called Chicka Chicka Boom Boom).

25 February 2007

The Story of Babar

Author/Illustrator: Jean de Brunhoff

This story starts out with a bang. Literally. Babar's mother is shot dead by a hunter. Luckily, Babar finds solace in the comforting arms of french aristocracy and drowns his sorrows in designer clothing. Having learned big-city ways, Babar returns to the jungle to introduce his fellow elephants to the benefits of civilization... particularly the wearing of funny hats. As a result, he is named king and has to exchange his funny hats for the burdens of the crown. The story ends with one lingering question: Can Babar handle the moral complexities of transforming a jungle-based economy without becoming a puppet of French colonial rule?

Story Idea: A grown-up Babar teams up with a disillusioned Bambi and other bitter children's literature characters to avenge the untimely deaths of their parents. They soon discover that "the hunter" that killed each of their parents is in fact the same person... looks like we have a serial killer on our hands, boys. Two homicide detectives, the uber-cautious Piglet and the borderline insane William Wonka, follow a twisted trail of clues to find the murderer (while trying not to kill eachother). Meanwhile, Babar and Bambi take to the streets to extract their own brand of vigilante justice. The Hunter has become The Hunted.

From the DVD Special Features-Alternate Ending: The elusive hunter turns out to be Vice President Dick Cheney. This was changed before the final version because focus groups thought it was too predictable.

23 February 2007

Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship

Authors: Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu
Illustrator/Photographer: Peter Greste

This really is an amazing story. For those of you who haven't heard it yet, it's the story of a baby hippo that was orphaned after the 2004 tsunami. After being rescued, he develops a surprising odd-couple friendship with a curmudgeonly old tortoise. You can't make this stuff up. The book itself, however, is disappointing. To get to the heart of this story, you have to wade through a patronizing narrative and pedestrian photography. (There are a few really cute shots, but alot of the pictures look like they were taken by a tourist with a point-and-click digital camera. Some of the blown-up pictures are low resolution and it shows.)

Maybe that's the point... like this book, real friends aren't always eloquent or particularly good looking. (See Exhibit A). However, if can look beyond all their shortcomings, only then will you discover the true meaning of friendship.

Or maybe you need to find new friends. Maybe it just means you'd do just as well reading this article as buying the book.

22 February 2007

Gus and Button

Authors: Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers
Illustrator: Saxton Freymann

For those of you who thought the drug references in Alice and Wonderland were just a little too subtle, give this story of a curious mushroom and his mind-altering adventures a shot. Freymann and Elffers first staked their claim to fame with How Are You Peeling and Play With Your Food, where they introduced the world to an assortment of expressive characters made out of fruits and vegetables. In Gus and Button, they step it up a notch by creating an entire world out of produce. The visuals here are so sumptuously effective you might not know whether to make a run to the nearest salad bar or check yourself into rehab.

20 February 2007

Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?

Author: Bill Martin Jr.
Illustrator: Eric Carle

This is the third installment of the series, following the Brown Bear, Brown Bear and Polar Bear, Polar Bear books. This one distinguishes itself from the other two in that it features all animals on the endangered species list.

Note: One of the things that made the first two books so successful and fun to read with kids was making the animal noises. However, you may need to do some background research here because this book is a little more challenging. Be prepared to dust off your water buffalo impersonation. And what the heck does a green sea turtle sound like?

If You Give A Mouse A Cookie

Author: Laura Joffe Numeroff
Illustrator: Felicia Bond

If you give a mouse a cookie, he'll ask for a glass of milk, and then he'll ask for something else, and then more, and more, until you are left with nothing except a box of matches and a half cup of uncooked rice. This book teaches us the important lesson that you should never give a mouse a human sized cookie because the sugar content is much too high for his tiny mouse system. The sugar rush will go straight to his head and turn the cute little rodent into an insatiable beast.

Interesting Side Note: When this book first came out, then First Lady Hillary Clinton, would use it during reading engagements at a number of elementary classrooms around the country. The book was also the inspiration for the chapter, "If You Give A Man An Intern" from her autobiography: Living History.

19 February 2007

Runaway Bunny

Author: Margaret Wise Brown
Illustrator: Clement Hurd

The classic heartwarming tale of a rambunctious young bunny looking to run away and see the world, only to have his mother reassure him that no matter where he goes, she will be there to get him because he will always be her "little bunny". In the end, the bunny concedes and decides not to go anywhere.

It'd be interesting to see if the mother is singing the same tune in 30 years when her "little bunny" is 32 years old and still living in the basement because he can't navigate the outside world without his mommy.

16 February 2007

Not a Box

Author/Illustrator: Antoinette Portis

Very simple, very cute. Cleverly designed to look and feel like a cardboard box, Portis and her rabbit defiantly remind us of the joys of using a simple object like a cardboard box as a springboard for the imagination. (Kind of like a precursor to the XBox but more engaging and less carpal tunnel.)

Used correctly, this book could also save you a significant amount of money come holiday season. Give this book to your kids sometime right after Halloween. Then when the holidays roll around, they won't be as disappointed when they find out that all their gifts are corrugated. It's a risky move, as your children may remember that as the day they started resenting you as a parent. But would you rather spend $69.99 on an obnoxious stuffed animal that will wear away your soul one day at a time? The choice is yours.

Gassius Maximus

Translator: Roberto Dobbin

Woah! Who said Latin is a dead language?! Someone please buy this book so we can see how you translate "pffffffft!" into Latin.

15 February 2007

Jazz ABZ: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits

Author: Wynton Marsalis, Phil Schaap (contributor)
Illustrator: Paul Rogers

Starting with louis Armstrong and count Basie all the way down to lester Young and diZZie gillespie, Jazz ABZ is a spirited exploration of the lives and art of historic jazz greats. The luscious illustrations jump off the page to capture the energy and majesty of the music. Each artist is described using a poetic style chosen to match their musical style. (Haiku for the Thelonius Monk and Lyric poetry for Billy Holiday... plus there's a glossary in the back detailing each of the poetic forms and why they were chosen. This book is jam packed with useful information.) If you know someone who loves jazz, or if you love jazz and want to pass that love on to someone else, or if you're about to go on a hot date and want to impress that special someone with your esoteric knowledge of the life and times of Charles Mingus... this book has your name written all over it.

Reader Challenge: The only thing that this book is missing is the actual music. My challenge is for a jazz enthusiast to create a playlist that includes one song from each artist that is truly indicative of his/her style. It would be great to be able to experience the visual art, the poetry, and the music all at once. Please?

Extra: Here is a piece that was on NPR with Marsalis and friends reading from the book.

14 February 2007

Walter the Farting Dog

Authors: William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murray
Illustrator: Audrey Coleman

Riding the wave of books that revel in and attempt to demystify bodily functions (see Everyone Poops and Gee Whiz! It's All About Pee), Walter does break new ground as the first picture book to include the phrase "rectal flatulence". The success of this book capitalizes on the unfortunate fact that, like it or not, no one can resist a halfway decent fart joke. Featuring strange early-MTV Video inspired illustrations, Walter is gross but touching. (not gross butt touching, which doesn't appear until the sequel: Thomas the Inappropriately Itchy Cat.)

House Mouse, Senate Mouse

Authors/Illustrators: Peter W. Barnes and Cheryl Shaw Barnes

A watered down trip through the halls of an alternate universe Mouse Congress, this journey begins in an elementary classroom in Mousseouri (be prepared to be force-fed mouse puns). As a project, the class writes a letter to their Congressmouse (I warned you) saying that they think that the Congress should name a National Cheese. Obviously, this letter quickly finds itself in the very hands of the Squeaker of the House. (I'll understand if you stop reading now, no hard feelings.) After alerting his partner on the Senate side, they bring this issue to Congress and after some spirited debate, decide to name American Cheese as the country's official cheese. (Oh Say Can You Cheese! By the dawn's early... slice?)

Unfortunately, if this were a true story, the letter would arrive in the Congressmouse's office and read by a fresh-out-of-college Legislative Correspondent. If there were enough similar letters from constituents (fine, constitumice), only then would the issue would be brought to the attention of the house member. Even if it did manage to gain enough political traction, the entire congress would spend weeks quibbling over the wording of the proposal before eventually settling on a non-binding resolution in support of legislation to name the national cheese. At which the president would scoff and do what he wanted anyway... send more Mouseketeers into combat. (sigh.)

The Dot & the Line: a Romance in Lower Mathematics

Author: Norton Juster

In honour of Valentine's Day, here is a timeless love story from the man who brought you The Phantom Tollbooth. This is the story of a straight line who is in love with a dot. The dot, however, is infactuated with a freeflowing and "too cool for school" squiggle. The dejected line goes off and conquers his insecurities by improving himself through the magic of geometry. He then puts on an impressive display that puts the squiggle to shame and wins the heart of the dot.

Rumor has it that Juster wrote this book just before going to his 10 year high school reunion. True or not, Juster's book embodies the dream of every nerd in history: to return to the scene of his shame (high school) as a successful and worldly man that suddenly turns the tables on all those jocks and stoners by winning the girl that had so painfully dismissed him in the past. If this were an eighties movie, the cast would be:

Dot: Molly Ringwald
Line: Anthony Michael Hall
Squiggle: Some unkempt combination of Christian Slater and Judd Nelson

Directed by: Robert Zemekis (only because John Hughes would be too obvious)

13 February 2007

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make A Difference!

Author: Lynne Truss
Illustrator: Bonnie Timmons

This is the "kids" version of Truss's bestselling grammar book by the same name... but with pictures. Which makes this the greatest grammar book of all time. In your face, Strunk & White! Seriously, why didn't someone combine pictures and grammar like this sooner?! We grammaphobes are a lazy and fearful people. Words are the source of our anxiety. Why try to solve our problem by using books that only have more words? That makes about as much sense as trying to put out a fire by throwing cigarette lighters at it.

The book is laid out so that when you open it up, you see adjoining pages with sentences that are identical except for the punctuation. The pictures illustrate (literally) how much the comma placement affects the meaning of a sentence. (For example, see the explosive difference between "Eat here, and get gas." vs. "Eat here and get gas.") In the end there is a glossary explaining the grammatical method behind the madness. As someone who was frequently kept after school for my horrific use of the comma, this book is slowly starting to clarify things for me. Maybe someday the phrase "dangling participle" will be more than just the punchline to a dirty joke.

With the kids: With the help of your kids, create your own sentence pairs. Make them as silly as possible. Then give them to your kids to draw the accompanying pictures. If the pictures turn out nicely, proudly display them up on the fridge. If the pictures suck, tell your kid that you are going to put the pictures in your special drawer for "safe keeping".

Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book

Author/Illustrator: Shel Silverstein

Imagine if Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace sat in a poorly-lit basement everynight with a tall glass of absinthe, pouring his frustrations over Dennis's shenanigans onto the page. Imagine that Mr. Wilson's inner demons took control, pushed him over the edge of sanity, and he became obsessed with devising elaborate schemes to extract revenge and ultimately destroy his prepubescent archnemesis. That's the kind of book this is. It's the kind of book that Mr. Wilson would never show to anyone else (not even his foxy wife, Martha). In fact, he would probably rip it up the next morning and beg his God for forgiveness.

Shel Silverstein, on the other hand, is the kind of person that is just crazy enough to not only show it, but to get it published. Luckily, people consider it to be "subversive" and "irreverent", instead of "dangerous" or "a sign that we must lock this man up for the rest of his natural life". Thus he was allowed to remain in society to write great children's books and the occassional hit song for Johnny Cash.

Note: My copy of the book (unlike the one pictured above) does not have the gold seal that says "A Primer for Adults Only". Mine must have been published before all those impressionable children were tragically eaten by hippos.

12 February 2007

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!

Author: A. Wolf (as told to Jon Scieszka)
Illustrator: Lane Smith

An exercise in revisionist history, The True Story presents the tale of the Three Little Pigs from the point of view of the "Big Bad" Wolf. It does an effective job of casting some suspicion on the traditional version of the story that we have all blindly accepted as gospel. Who is running the pig propoganda machine that has allowed them to have a monopoly on this particular fairy tale? And who in their right mind would build a house out of straw? (Unless there was a serious government subsidy thanks to the powerful Straw Lobby in Washington D.C.) Was this just another case of pork barrel politics gone out of control? Maybe if the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act had been passed sooner, this whole situation could have been avoided and we wouldn't have to deal with unecessary pig casualties. Then maybe the fate of A. Wolf wouldn't be left in the hands of activist judges and the court of public opinion.

Interesting Sidenote: Scieszka, seeing that there was a need to promote literacy among boys, started an organization called Guys Read, a web-based literacy program designed to "help boys find stuff they like to read." Worth checking out.

Kitten's First Full Moon

Author/Illustrator: Kevin Henkes

In Greek mythology, Tantulus is the character whose punishment is to spend eternity neck deep in a lake whose water he could not drink, surrounded by fruit trees that always remain just beyond his reach. In Kitten's First Full Moon, the kitten is similarly taunted by an elusive "bowl of milk in the sky". The kitten spends the night trying to quench her thirst, but can't quite reach the object of her desire. Is this cute little cat destined for an eternity of unfulfillment and despair like her mythological counterpart? Can the Gods possibly be this cruel?

Publishing Ramifications: Since Henkes won the Caldecott with this book, and the publishing industry is a notorious league of copy-cats (no pun intended), we expected to see a flurry of books following this winning formula:

Greek Myth + Cute Animals = Award Winning Classic!

Unfortunately, the first of these: Curious George and the Augean Stables, while met with critical acclaim, failed to attain commercial success. This momentarily tempered the industry's love affair with anthropomorphic animals and disturbing mythology.

The Red Book

Author/Illustrator: Barbara Lehman

Interesting (if overrated) book. I don't want to spoil it for you, so I'll just say that, despite being a book with no words, The Red Book manages to give you the disconcerting feeling of being watched. Good book for unleashing the power of one's imagination to either instill a sense of wonder about the world... or to plant the seeds of paranoia.

(Note: Has no relation to Mao's Little Red Book... or does it?)

The Cat in the Hat

Author/Illustrator: Dr. Seuss

Nothing needs to be said about this genre-shattering classic except that the greatest tragedy in the history of children's literature would be for the next generation to think of the Cat in the Hat as "that book based on the movie starring Austin Powers". Already, if you google "The Cat in the Hat," the first thing that comes up is the 2003 IMDB entry for the film (which is a psychedelic deal with the devil) . If I could erase that movie from the collective consciousness of our society, I would do it before you could say "Bippo-No-Bungus". Not to be overly dramatic, but that movie is an affront to good taste and all that is decent and pure in the world. Please, read The Cat in the Hat early and often and avoid the movie AT ALL COSTS.

Reader Challenge: How fast can you read The Cat in the Hat out loud? I timed myself at a respectable 4 minutes and 42 seconds. Beat that! Reading it as fast as you possibly can (without passing out) really takes your appreciation of the cadence and flow of the text to another level.

11 February 2007

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type

Author: Doreen Cronin
Illustrator: Betsy Lewin

Barnyard animals harness the power of union organizing. Think Charlotte's Web meets Norma Rae. Only here, the role of Norma Rae is played by a duck. Wildly successful (and deservedly so), this book spawned a slew of sequels, including Giggle, Giggle, Quack; Duck for President; and Dooby Dooby Moo (which, by the way, is not the inspiration for those creepy Bud Ice commercials with the "Dooby Dooby Doo" penguins).

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

Author: Judi Barrett
Illustrator: Ron Barrett

A grandfather tells his grandchildren a bedtime story about a land called Chewandswallow where the weather rains soup and sunsets are made of jello. Life is grand until the wrath of mother nature is unleashed and the citizens of Chewandswallow are forced to flee their homeland. What began as the crazy musings of an old man quickly evolves into a harrowing tale of man vs. nature and of immigration and cultural assimilation. (For a more detailed account, see A Moveable Feast: The Mass Migration of Chewandswallow)

Reader Beware: This book has some truly disturbing illustrations. Mixed in with the sometimes awe-inspiring artwork (I particularly liked the hamburger storm clouds) the details of the illustration reveal an artist with a mischievously warped mind. For example, there is the picture of a terrified bird returning to the nest only to find that it has been smothered by a fried egg. Think about the implications of that for a second. In another particularly disturbing illustration, a sanitation truck has, what can only be described as baby heads mounted on the front bumper. Once you start noticing these things, the illustrations (which are rich with quirky little details) becomes a Where's Waldo of the surreal and macabre.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Author/Illustrator: Eric Carle

A caterpillar emerges from his little egg and goes on a weeklong eating spree that ends in an epic junk food binge, which results in a devastating stomachache. Intestinal fortitude is restored after he eats his way through a nice green leaf.

This is a classic allegory warning against the dangers of wanton greed and unbridled consumption. Was it also warning about the dangers of a consumer-driven society and the benefits of a greener, more ecologically friendly form of consumerism? Or maybe it was an alert against the inherent evils of imperialist expansion? (Carle grew up in Nazi Germany.) Or maybe it is just a desperate appeal for you to eat your vegetables.