Saturday, February 23, 2008

New picture books, late February 2008

Ok listen: I'm going to live-blog the Oscars again tomorrow night, because, as I found out last year, blogging it actually makes the telecast slightly more bearable. Also, gin helps. So I figured I'd better get in some wholesome picture book reviews before I indulge in my annual orgy of bustline bashing. Here's to you, Mrs. Berenstain:

No English, by Jacqueline Jules, illustrations by Amy Huntington
Blanca speaks no English when she arrives in Diane's 2nd-grade class. But instead of hammering on the old "it's ok to be different" nail, this book makes a number of small, good points - about intention, about sensitivity, and about the importance of bilingual books in a library's collection. Unfortunately, this particular book is not bilingual at all - might have been nice to have presented it in both English and Spanish.

Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
There's a lady with a beehive hairdo and a beauty spot on the cover of this book - a sure-fire signifier of "quirky," perhaps even "offbeat". And let me tell you, it ain't just the illustrations! (although now I'm craving Iggy's mom's Pucci-esque caftans and Twiggy A-lines) The story is fun and the wordplay is quirky in this book about a second-grade engineering prodigy.

"Young Iggy Peck is an architect
and has been since he was two,
when he built a great tower - in only an hour -
with nothing but diapers and glue.
'Good Gracious, Ignacious!' his mother exclaimed.
'That's the coolest thing I've ever seen!'
But her smile faded fast as a light wind blew past
and she realized those diapers weren't clean!

Oh and PS of COURSE - David Roberts is the superstar who illustrated one of my all-time super-faves, Janet Wong's Dumpster Diver. I remember the Missoni jumpsuit in that one - the guy likes fashion, I think, and that ain't bad.

Engelbert Sneem and his dream vacuum machine, written and illustrated by Mr. Daniel Postgate
Oh, awesome! It's a fun, good-looking book that, very sneakily, is also for helping with nightmares! Mr. Sneem is like a reverse Santa Claus who shows up and suctions away the dreams of children, keeps them corked up in brown bottles for his own consumption. Then one night a mom reads her kid a bedtime story - a book about Engelbert Sneem (ooo! meta!) - and the kid has a nightmare about him. Sneem sucks up the kid's dream and then views it at home. He is so upset to find out that he himself is a nightmare that he vows to change his ways.

And now...
if a child has frightening dreams
Of ghosties and ghoulies
and terrible things,
The good Mr. Sneem
is right there in a tick,
And he sucks up the nightmare
and plugs it up quick.

Junk Man's Daughter by Sonia Levitin with illustrations by Guy Porfirio
This is from the Tales of Young Americans series, which I think is not part of the American Girl empire. Just the same, it is a straightforward little historical fiction picture book of a family coming to America, facing poverty, and becoming successful through perserverence, ingenuity and hard work. I am sure there are kids for this book. Not really any that I know though.

When the Shadbush blooms, by Carla Messinger, with Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden

"My grandparents' grandparents walked beside the same stream where I walk with my brother, and we can see what they saw."

Clever. This books takes us through the cycles of the year as defined by the Lenni Lenape people, Native people who originally lived along the eastern seaboard. Each page spread shows the sights and activities of the season - on the left, as experienced by "my grandparents' grandparents" and on the right as experienced by a modern-day Native girl and her family. There's more information about the Lenni Lenape in the back. "American Girl," indeed!

Snail's Birthday Wish by Fiona Rempt and Noelle Smit
Snail wishes he could be as fast as his friends Beaver, Ant, Frog etc. They give him all these odd birthday gifts: nails, a round thing, a chair, wheels. Then they build him a car out of all the parts. Cute. Like Pssst! by Adam Rex, but for littler kids.

Night Shift by Jessie Hartland
Don't load the sardines next to the ocelots! I love the detail that Jessie Hartland jams into her saturated, messy paintings. The late-night DJ plays Monk and Brubeck; the newspaper printing plant is a union shop; and there's a Rothko on the wall at the Modern Art Museum. More than just a cool occupations book (though it totally fills a niche there), this one should be fun for everyone up to 9 or 10.

Ballet Kitty by Bernette Ford and Sam Williams
Ok. Last time we had the ballet kangaroo, and I already knew about the ballet javelina, the ballet mouse, the ballet boy and the other ballet boy. This better be good. Aaaand... ok, I'm just going to say it: It's not. It's a pure celebration of girly-girliness, and I just can't get behind it.

Oh, Brother! by Nikki Grimes, illustrations by Mike Benny
The ambivalence of being in a brand-new blended family, plus a happy ending, all in Nikki Grimes' accessible poetry.

The Pen that Pa built by David Edwards, illustrations by Ashley Wolff
Man, it always seems that these cumulative stories (The Apple Pie that Papa Baked, The Van that Dad Cleaned, Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain) have the best illustrations. Such a shame I find them so daggone tedious. This one at least has an interesting subject - it shows how a colonial family would have processed wool from sheep to blanket: washing it, spinning it, dying it, and weaving it on a loom. Makes me think of Ox-Cart Man, and the illustrations, reminiscent of woodcuts but dense with color, are rich and satisfying. Ashley Wolff also illustrated Philemon Sturges's She'll be comin' 'round the mountain, one of my favorite librarian-as-hero books.

Chowder by Peter Brown
Who is my man Peter Brown? Is he the scholar who wrote so incisively about the early Christian church? Is he the boy who broke my friend Bill's heart back in high school? I don't think so, but I think I can find room in my life for another Peter Brown - this one, the one who can convey expression in a character at a great distance, or from behind. The one who created a bulldog who sits on the toilet to poop and who excavates bones instead of digging them up. The man who gave his bulldog's owner Eugene Levy's hair. I like this Peter Brown.

And he has another book: The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder
This book is about Chowder finding something he's good at - bouncing on a trampoline. There is something so precise and vivid about the artist's use of space, and light - almost hyperreal. The velvety colors, the large-scale, formal compositions - it all really showcases the wit of the story and the visual detail. On a page showing Chowder's trampoline, spotlit on a darkened stage, you can barely discern a few little drops falling from above, as the pre-performance hush is broken momentarily by the brief patter of drool on the trampoline's surface. Is that explicit in the story? No. You get it from the art. That, kids, is illustration.