V O L U M E 2 , N U M B E R 3 • M A R C H 2 0 0 9
In this issue
For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
Mo Willems has now won the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award twice in a row for his easy-reader books about best friends Elephant and Piggie; There Is a Bird on Your Head! won the honor in 2008 and Are You Ready to Play Outside? in 2009. With his books equally popular with kids, parents, and critics, Mo also has three Caldecott Honor Books to his name, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and the two Knuffle Bunny books. Mo knows books and friends and fun, so I decided to ask him about all three.
1. How is constructing an easy reader different from making a picture book?
Both essentially entail engineering a vehicle to get you from point A to point B.
A picture book is a motorcycle: small, loud, fun, and zippy.
An easy reader is a chartered bus: obliged to carry a rather dull passenger roster of sanctioned curriculum, plus the baggage of an approved, limited vocabulary.
The trick is to design your chartered bus to be as cool and sexy as a motorcycle.
2. What do you think Frog and Toad might make of Elephant and Piggie?
Lobel’s great innovation was to give early reader characters a full emotional life, an innovation that I have merrily attempted to appropriate.
I can only hope that if Frog and Toad were ever to run across Elephant and Piggie they would all head down to the local café to commiserate about the ups and downs of friendship.
3. Who do you think Elephant and Piggie will be when they grow up?
Elephant and Piggie are already grown up. It’s just hard to tell because they’re still willing to learn new things.
4. What is your favorite game to play outside?
Petanque (also known as jeu de boules) is a lovely game involving friends taking turns tossing heavy metal balls into dirt. More a pastime than a sport, it can be played by young or old with matches won utilizing either serious accuracy or casual luck.
I’m such a fan, I built a boules court in my yard and can be found on pleasant afternoons engaged in matches with the neighborhood kids.
5. What has being a parent taught you about playing that you didn't know (or had forgotten)?
From personal experience with my daughter, I can tell you that playing requires an intensity well beyond that of mundane activities like work. To play, you must be completely engaged physically, emotionally, and intellectually at all times just to keep up.
Rain or shine, playing outdoors can be great fun, but sometimes you encounter more excitement than you bargained for. Here are four picture books that revel in the possibilities.
With a few words and cheerful cartoonlike pictures, Leslie Patricelli imaginatively extends a common childhood experience. In Higher! Higher!, on a picture-perfect day, a smiling dad pushes his pig-tailed daughter on a swing. “Higher! Higher!” she gleefully commands. And higher she goes, flying up to greet a giraffe, past the tops of buildings, above mountains and airplanes — still tethered to the swing set. Finally, she reaches outer space and high-fives a young alien on its own swinging journey. She returns to Earth and to Dad’s waiting arms with just one thing to say: “Again!” (2–5 years)
Carol Diggory Shields’s Wombat Walkabout is a Down Under version of the familiar five-little-monkeys rhyme. “Early one morning when the sun came out, / Six woolly wombats went walkabout.” But there’s danger lurking in the wild: it’s “the dingo with the hungry eye . . . ” One by one, the wombats disappear until only Jen and Jack are left. Pairing wombat wiles with their innate digging abilities, the two hatch a plan and rescue their four friends. Sophie Blackall’s jaunty watercolor illustrations match the light tone of the text. (2–5 years)
The Doghouse is written and illustrated with mock-horror-movie verve by Jan Thomas. Mouse, Cow, Pig, and Duck are playing happily in the yard when their ball bounces into a rather menacing-looking doghouse. “Who will get it out?” Each ventures into the doghouse . . . but no one comes back out. When a gruff-looking dog appears and says he’s having Duck for dinner, last holdout Mouse assumes the worst, but the joke is on him. Brace yourself for encore presentations. (2–5 years)
Being outside at night can be magical, as a little girl discovers in Last Night, Hyewon Yum’s wordless picture book debut. Sent to her room for not finishing her dinner, the girl reaches for the comfort of her teddy bear. In a dream (or is it?), the toy becomes life-sized and leads the girl outdoors and into the woods where they play with wild animals. In the morning, the girl wakes up in her own bed and sees that her bear is back to his original size. Yum’s linocut illustrations with their foggily stippled blocks of color are just right for this open-ended mystery. (2–5 years)
Each of the following great reads for second and third graders has a friendship at its heart. Just Grace Goes Green finds Grace looking for ways to help both the planet and her best friend Mimi, who loves having her cousin Gwen stay but doesn’t love homesick Gwen’s co-opting of her favorite stuffed animal. Charise Mericle Harper sprinkles the lively first-person text (the fourth book in the Just Grace series) with funny, expressive drawings and humorous subheadings, and she manages to present serious information about conservation without sounding preachy. (6–9 years)
In Birthday Blues, Deja’s excitement about her upcoming eighth birthday turns to dismay when she discovers that snooty classmate Antonia is throwing a “just because” backyard party (complete with trampoline and roller rink) on the very same day. Can best friend Nikki’s optimism — and a well-timed downpour — rescue the situation? The contemporary urban setting and authentically portrayed African American characters set Karen English’s Nikki and Deja series apart. (6–9 years)
In Annie Barrows’s Ivy + Bean Bound to Be Bad, the friends aspire to be so good that birds will flock to them and wolves lick their feet (à la Francis of Assisi), but before anything even close to that can happen, much mayhem occurs. This fifth entry in the Ivy and Bean series is laugh-out-loud funny, lots of the humor coming from the utter honesty of bad-girl Bean’s behavior and thoughts. (6–10 years)
Boys will enjoy getting pulled into the orbit of Claudia Mills’s How Oliver Olson Changed the World. Third grader Oliver is cursed with parents who worry about every germ and micromanage every homework assignment. Then he and outspoken classmate Crystal join forces to make a “protest diorama” of the solar system. With her help, he begins to stand up not only for demoted planet Pluto but also for himself. (7–10 years)
—Martha V. Parravano
Lois Lowry’s inimitable Gooney Bird Greene joins her fellow second
graders on a journey into poetry in Gooney Bird Is So Absurd,
the fourth volume in an appealing chapter book series (6–9 years).
As luck would have it, this spring brings a host of new poetry books
that should provide Gooney Bird and her real-life compatriots with lots
of inspiration. Let’s let a few speak for themselves:
The early months of 2009 are chock-full of new young adult books by deservedly popular authors.
Virginia Euwer Wolff completes her acclaimed Make Lemonade trilogy (which began with Make Lemonade in 1993 and continued with True Believer in 2001) with the much-anticipated This Full House. LaVaughn persists in pursuing her ambitious goal of someday attending college while helping teenage mother Jolly turn her life around. Wolff’s lyrical free verse breathes life into an unforgettable heroine who earns the triumphant ending to her story. (14 years and up)
Wintergirls is the latest novel from Laurie Halse Anderson, who just won the American Library Association’s Edwards Award for “significant and lasting contribution to writing for teens.” Lia’s years-long struggle with anorexia comes to a dangerous head when her estranged friend Cassie dies — alone, in a hotel room, after leaving Lia thirty-three messages, all of which she ignored until it was too late. The first-person, present-tense narration is vivid; crossed-out words and phrases illustrate the disconnect between perception and reality as Lia slowly, painfully learns that her healing must come from her own desire to live. (14 years and up)
Cynthia Leitich Smith serves up a second helping of shivers with Eternal, companion to her 2007 vampire novel Tantalize. Eternal introduces adolescent Miranda, a newly risen vampire chosen by Dracula himself to be his princess and heir, and her fallen guardian angel Zachary, who applies for a job as her personal assistant in hope of earning back his wings. Suspenseful, entertaining, and enthusiastically gruesome, Smith’s latest will be lapped up by vampire fans. (14 years and up)
Finally, Ann Brashares, author of the wildly popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, introduces a new series with 3 Willows. Ama, Polly, and Jo sealed their friendship in third grade by planting three tiny willow trees together, but by their last year of middle school, the girls have drifted apart. As in the original series, the novel traces a single summer in which each girl experiences her own set of challenges — challenges that begin to bring the girls back together. It’s a satisfying formula for middle-school readers, presented with depth and skill. (12 years and up)
—Claire E. Gross
Ironic, epigrammatic, and très très French, Daniel Pennac’s 1992 Better Than Life (first translated to English in 1994) has been reissued by Candlewick as The Rights of the Reader, with spot illustrations by Quentin Blake. It’s not a book for children but a book for parents, teachers, and others concerned in one way or another with youth and reading. Relax, says Pennac, in some of the most seductive prose possible, encouraging the idea of freeing rather than forcing children to read. Your child wants the same bedtime story over and over? “Yes,” Pennac says with a Gallic shrug, “the chances are they’ll ask for the same story, to prove that last night wasn’t a dream.” Worried that a lack of scheduled activities will lead your kid to boredom? “But being bored is great.” And he encourages us all to take pride in how much we read: “Count your pages, students, count them. Novelists do. You should see them when they reach page 100! Page 100 is the novelist’s Cape Horn.” Pennac writes about reading in a way that makes you want to go forth and do so post haste, and his ten “Rights of the Reader” (3: “The Right Not to Finish a Book”) should be posted on classroom and bathroom (7: “The Right to Read Anywhere”) walls everywhere.
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