Sunday, December 23, 2007

Last-minute new picture books, kid-tested

Skippyjon Jones and the big bones by Judy Schachner
Last year, Big Man's kindergarten teacher said of the Skippyjon Jones books, "I feel like I'm sort of being manipulated to like these books, and I really just don't." She couldn't put her finger on what she didn't care for, and I'm with her. After all, I LOVE the chalky, colorful, detailed illustrations that are both quirky and technically accomplished; I like the title character, who is both independent and imaginative, and his tattletale little sisters and no-nonsense mom, with their fun names; and I adore Schachner's use of Spanglish ("Hola, dudes!") throughout. Hell, there's even a song or two.

I think what always bugs me about these books is the plot, weirdly enough. Accompanied by his crowd of Chihuahua friends, Skippyjon Jones assumes his alter ego, Skippito Friskito the great sword fighter, and goes on an imaginary adventure in his closet. And I swear, it's the adventure story that always falls apart. Even my kids get confused looks on their faces during the part where Skippito battles the giant bee / dances with the dinosaurs / whatever. I keep reading these books though, because Skippyjon and his family are great characters and I love saying their names. You guys want to start calling me Mama Junebug Jones, you go right ahead.

A closer look, by Mary McCarthy
A neato book about observation and scale for the youngest pairs of eyes. VERRY reminiscent of Steve Jenkins, with strong colors and paper collage art.

Water Boy by David McPhail
A nice, weird book about a boy's relationship with water - the water in his body, the water in his bath, the water in the environment. Like a caring teacher, David McPhail's characteristically quiet, rich watercolors get right down in front of the boy to observe his reactions to the ordinary and extraordinary manifestations of water in his world. Four really liked it.

Calendar by Myra Cohn Livingston, illustrated by Will Hillenbrand
The sparse text here was a little abstract for my four year old, but the energetic, slightly minimalist illustrations somewhat made up for that.

Meet the meerkat by Darrin Lunde, illustrated by Patricia Wynne
Patricia Wynne is a contract illustrator for the American Museum of Natural History, and while her somewhat clumsy mice and hominids in books such as Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle's Bones, Brains and DNA make you feel like maybe she's overworked, the keenly observed drawings of meerkats in this book by mammalogist Darrin Lunde show you what she can do given a single subject. This is an appealing little book about a popular little beast, a rare item in the Easy nonfiction area.

Bean Thirteen by Matthew McElligott
The faux-woodcut illustrations in this buggy book about division are just fantastic. Chunky, hip, and expressive, with a sophisticated, punchy palette. The story? Mr. Four and I said "Meh."

Phooey! by Marc Rosenthal
Where Once Upon a Banana does cause-and-effect with road signs, Phooey! does it with onomatopoeia. A bored kid kicks a can ("Phooey!"), which hits a cat ("BONK"), who falls out of the tree ("flump"), etc. All the while the kid, complaining that nothing every happens around here, walks right past all the exciting action. Rosenthal, who calls Celesteville "my utopia" in his dedication, displays a love of clean line and clear color totally worthy of Babar. We went through it twice to catch all the action.

The Police Cloud by Christoph Niemann
Christoph Niemann does a lot of work for The New Yorker. Maybe that's why Mr. Four and I just kind of didn't get this book. Four didn't understand that the cloud by his very nature cannot be an effective police officer. Because he's a puff of vapor, right? And I didn't understand why you would write a book in which the premise and the plot are so completely at odds. Plus I'm getting kind of tired of illustration that looks like Colorforms. I don't care if it's trendy or retro - it looks lazy to me.

Tap dancing on the roof by Linda Sue Park, pictures by Istvan Banyai
Linda Sue Park here does for the Korean poetic style sijo what Andrew Clements recently did for haiku - her clear, funny examples of this short poetic form in effect show kids how it's done. After reading poems like:

What's in your pockets right now? I hope they're not empty:
Empty pockets, unread books, lunches left on the bus - all a waste
In mine: One horse chestnut. One gum wrapper. One dime. One hamster.'s almost impossible to not want to try it yourself. And Istvan Banyai? Do I really have to say it? The Goran Visnjic of illustrators. You just want to sit and stare.