April 30, 2012

Brave Charlotte

Brave Charlotte
By Anu Stohner
Illustrated by Henrike Wilson
No Author / Illustrator Website
2-4 Preschool Primary Bloomsbury 32 pp.
978-1582346908 Hardcover $16.95

Winner of NY Times Best Illustrated Book Award, Brave Charlotte is the story of a very un-sheep-like sheep named Charlotte. Charlotte is ready for adventure. She climbs trees, leaps over riverbanks and performs feats of daring-do, all while the other sheep in her flock look on with a mixture of disapproval and disbelief. Still, Charlotte continues to do her own thing, and when the old shepherd falls and breaks his leg, her bravery saves the day as she is the only one able or willing to travel the long distance to the farmer's house to get help.

Brave Charlotte is a well-constructed story with a timeless moral - sometimes the outsider, the one who doesn't follow the flock, is important to the whole precisely because she does not quite fit in. This lesson is underscored by the fact that each thing Charlotte does that garners disapproval, (climbing rocks and trees, jumping rivers and crossing roads) is part of her climactic journey to the farmer's house. Far from moralizing however, Stohner's text is natural and charming, with sweet touches like a trucker picking up Charlotte for the last leg of her journey and the farmer recognizing her as she peers in the farmhouse window. Wilson's illustrations are irresistibly appealing with Charlotte pictured as both intrepid and sweetly vulnerable as she sets out on her own. She is a truly appealing heroine, one that fully engages the reader just by being herself. A lovely story beautifully illustrated, Brave Charlotte won't fail to win the day, whether at storytime or at home.

Picture This...

Picture This...
By Alison Jay; illus. by author
1-4 Preschool Dutton 40 pp.
0525463801 Hardcover $15.99
Non Fiction (that draws on Fiction)

On the face of it, Picture This... is a simple word book with each page featuring a sight word and its illustration, but a second glance shows a surprising amount of depth, with each picture making a visual reference to the seasons, nursery rhymes, fables and / or the pages that either precede or follow it.

Picture This... begins with a "clock", but the clock Jay illustrates is no simple timepiece. Pictured on its face are panels depicting each of the four seasons while a mouse peers over the top in a clear reference to "Hickory Dickory Dock." The next page features the word "dog" with an illustration of a dog jumping after the ball in a spring meadow. The careful reader will notice that this illustration mirrors the spring panel on the clock, and that the mouse is now watching the dog from the stem of a daffodil in the meadow.  And so on it goes, with the well that is pictured in the background of "dog" taking center stage on the next page for "hill" and a couple, presumably Jack and Jill, going up the hill with a bucket while a dog runs up ahead of them. The thoroughness with which Jay weaves this collective tapestry from the details in each image is truly impressive. Just as impressive is the manner in which she takes the reader through the seasons shown on the clock without making the progression feel forced or even particularly central to the book's purpose, (to present a word and an associated image).

Picture This... is a festival of detail, but what makes it work for its intended audience is its subtlety. Toddlers can look at the word "cat" and associate it with the very clear picture of the cat without having to worry about the little red airplane that will show up in the next illustration, but for preschoolers, the details make the book an interactive puzzle. With its inventive storytelling hidden within the guise of a traditional concept book, Picture This... rewards multiple readings over several developmental stages, making it a lovely, long-term addition to any collection.

Babybug Magazine

Babybug Magazine
Publishers of Cricket
0-3 Preschool Cricket 22 pp.
1 year subscription $33.95

From the publishers of Cricket magazine and Ladybug magazine comes Babybug magazine, a publication especially for for babies and toddlers (ages 6 months -3 years). The recipient of multiple awards, including the 2012 Parents' Choice Silver Honor, Babybug features stories, nursery rhymes, poems and illustrations from some of the world's best children's writers and artists, including its own serial entitled "Kim and Carrots" about a little girl and and stuffed rabbit, Carrots. All of the content is designed to be read aloud by parents and grandparents, while the extra-heavy pages, non-toxic ink, rounded corners, and staple-free binding make Babybug safe for little ones to explore on their own. Babybug does not contain the games and activities featured in many magazines for slightly older toddlers and preschoolers - its content is entirely literary, specifically designed to provide toddlers and their caregivers with a variety of illustrated stories and poems to share. It is literally a baby's first literary magazine and a great introduction to short stories, as well as a source for light, age appropriate material.

April 27, 2012

Press Here

Press Here
By Herve Tullet; illus. by author
2-4 Preschool Primary Chronicle 56 pp.
978-0811879545 Hardcover $15.99
Non Fiction

Recipient of more starred reviews than one can count, Herve Tullet's groundbreaking picture book, Press Here, could very well be the most interactive book of 2011 based solely on the tacit agreement between its author and the reader - follow these instructions and things will happen! And they do. Without pull tabs, flaps or batteries, Press Here illustrates the power of cause and effect as one yellow dot becomes two when the narrator instructs the reader to "press here and turn the page". More instructions follow, paired with more dots and a lot of positive reinforcement (the narrator wisely "responds" to the reader's successful pressing, rubbing and shaking with many a well-placed "perfect!" and "excellent"). Dots expand and contract, get blown to the top of the page and shaken down, and all the while the unspoken agreement between author and reader holds firm - do this and the book will respond. Therein lies the magic that belies picture book technologies like iPhone apps and electronic adaptations. Therein lies the magic that brings children back to their favorite books again and again: Do This. Read Me. I Will Respond. It's a wonderful thing to see it done so inventively and with such exuberant force. Press Here is so innovative in its simplicity, so true to what picture books can do, that it's an almost overwhelming read from this adult's perspective. From a child's perspective however, it's a game pure and simple, and that perspective is certainly the most important of all.

My First ABC

My First ABC
The NY Metropolitan Museum of Art
0-3 Preschool LB Kids 32 pp.
 978-0316068178 Board $8.99
Non Fiction

The Metropolitan Museum of Art had great success with Museum ABC, an alphabet book featuring each letter of the alphabet paired with a quartet of famous works containing a word associated with that letter. It's a beautiful book, but one more suitable to older preschoolers and kindergartners already familiar with the alphabet and able to grasp the sometimes abstract concepts pictured in the artwork (light, zigzag etc.). My First ABC is a simplified version of Museum ABC, with artwork specifically chosen to illustrate the letters to children just learning their ABC's. Each letter is shown in both capital and lowercase forms next to the representative word, so that connections between the images and letters are easy to make. Instead of the panel of four paintings for each letter featured in Museum ABC, My First ABC features only one image per letter making it visually easier to see and distinguish each object. But though the format is simplified, My First ABC is not dumbed down - famous works by Cezanne (A for apples) and Matisse (D for dancers) share space with ancient Egyptian paintings (H for hair), exposing even the littlest ones to the artwork and culture on display in the museum. My First ABC is a beautiful book and an excellent adaptation of Museum ABC well suited to the cognitive capabilities of very little ones. Highly recommended, it teaches the ABC's to modern toddlers with style and classical grace.

From Head to Toe

From Head to Toe
By Eric Carle; illus. by author
2-4 Preschool Primary Harper Collins 32 pp.
978-0590222020 Hardcover $17.99
Non Fiction

Animals do a lot of things with their bodies, from the simple to the complex. Penguins turn their heads. "Can you do it?" the penguin asks. "I can do it!" the boy on the opposite page replies. And so it goes, with animals performing physical acts and children mimicking their movements. The movements become progressively more challenging with a giraffe turning its head giving way to a cat arching its back and a donkey kicking its legs, but always the response to the question, "can you do it?" comes the answer, "I can do it!" It's an enthusiastic invitation to the reader to jump in and kick, wriggle and stomp with the animals, as well.

From Head to Toe is pure interactive fun, but there is a lot of education occurring within its patterned framework. The reader is introduced not only to a variety of animals, but to specific physical actions and body parts. The interactive text asks that children listen and follow directions, and practice both fine and gross motor skills while imitating the animals. A nice additional touch is the repeated declaration of "I can do it!" as part of the call and response, and as usual, Carle's collage illustrations are exuberant, appealing and hard to resist. A great choice for story times and group settings, From Head to Toe also works at home, being adaptable to siblings in a wide variety of ages.

April 25, 2012

Dear Zoo

Dear Zoo: A Lift the Flap Book
By Rod Campbell; illus. by author
1-4 Preschool Little Simon 18 pp.
978-1416947370 Board $6.99

Dear Zoo is 25 years old. In honor of its silver anniversary, Rod Campbell refreshed and updated the original illustrations. Happily, they remain as classically appealing as the originals, (nothing substantial was changed). The patterned text is simple and almost universally appealing to toddlers and preschoolers. An unseen narrator, (presumably a child), tells the reader that he wrote to the zoo to send him a pet. So the very obliging zoo-keepers send him a series of animals, each hiding behind a flap. There are clues on each flap as to which animal is in the box, (the elephant's box is labeled "very heavy", the lion is partially visible between the slats, etc.), while below the illustration is the reason that each particular animal won't do, (the giraffe is too tall, the monkey too naughty, and so on). Finally, the zoo sends the perfect pet - a puppy - which the narrator happily keeps.

Dear Zoo is a classic example of an interactive book for toddlers and preschoolers. Great for storytime at libraries or at home, it provides pre-verbal listeners with the opportunity to manipulate the flaps and reveal the surprise of each animal, while slightly older toddlers and preschoolers can guess at the occupant of each box, read the simple text and practice their animal sounds. A classic for a reason, the reissued board book is sturdy enough to withstand the repeated readings and constant handling it will no doubt (deservedly) receive.

Mama Cat Has Three Kittens

Mama Cat Has Three Kittens
By Denise Fleming; illus. by author
1-4 Preschool Primary Henry Holt 32 pp.
978-0805057454 Hardcover $17.95

Mama Cat has three kittens, two of whom - Fluffy and Skinny - follow in her footsteps as she washes her paws and walks the stone wall and engages in a number of other classically feline endeavors. Boris, the third kitten, naps... until Mama Cat, Fluffy and Skinny curl up to nap too. Then Boris comes alive, washing his paws and pouncing, (if only to his next napping stop, this time with his Mama and siblings).

Mama Cat Has Three Kittens is a visually beautiful book. Fleming, an obvious cat lover, captures feline body language and behavior with surprising ease. Her use of deeply saturated colors on handmade paper gives the illustrations a textured look that works especially well on the cats, with their bold colorations and nuanced expressions. As an added bit of charm, Fleming adds trios of other creatures to each spread (bees, ants and beetles, etc.), as well as one intrepid Mama Mouse, (the purpose of whose foraging is revealed at the end). Unfortunately, the text falls flat beside the vibrant pictures. While there is nothing particularly wrong with the narrative, it's pattern feels unfulfilled when, after napping through his family's long series of activities, Boris wakes only to pounce once and nap again. Rather than vindicating the little one who lags behind or marches to his own drum, Boris, though made a central figure throughout by Fleming's repetition of "Boris naps" fails to ever take on a dynamic quality of his own. A small thing, but one that contributes to the slightness of the story. That said, very young readers will appreciate the bold font and simple vocabulary, while pre-readers will respond to the illustrations and love playing "find-the-mouse". A solid book overall, Mama Cat Has Three Kittens fails only in that it could have been more than solid - it could have been great.

Tails Are Not For Pulling

Tails Are Not For Pulling
By Elizabeth Verdick
Illustrated by Marieka Heinlein
1-4 Preschool Free Spirit 24 pp.
1575421801 Board $7.95
Non Fiction

Part of Free Spirit's Best Behavior series, Tails Are Not For Pulling is as straightforward as the title suggests. Verdick's approach to introducing little ones to the proper way of treating pets is simple. As the foundation of her approach, she asks the reader, "if pets could talk, what do you think they'd say?", introducing the concept that meows, barks and squeaks are the primary way that pets communicate. She then goes on to ask the reader, "but what does that mean?" before positing pet-friendly answers, like "fur is for petting" and "tails are not for pulling". She also mentions that pets, unlike stuffed animals, have feelings and can often get scared or angry. She advises the young reader to watch and listen to pets when they hiss or growl, because this is how animals warn you to stop. Finally, the text ends by reminding the reader that "pets are for loving, not teasing" a message underscored by an illustration of a boy and a girl snuggling with their obviously happy dog and cats. As an added bonus, the final two-page spread contains "Tips for Parents and Caregivers" on how to use the book (interactively) and how to help children be good friends to animals.

Verdick's message is clear, transcending the sometimes clunky prose and rocky rhyme scheme. Heinlein's illustrations are simple and appealing, with broad-faced kids interacting with expressive, sympathetic looking pets. Though a bit moralizing in tone, it remains an effective introduction to the proper treatment of animals and a good way to broach the topic of how animals communicate with toddlers and preschoolers.

Two Homes

Two Homes
By Claire Masurel
No Author Site
Illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton
2-4 Preschool Primary Candlewick 40 pp.
978-0763619848 Paperback $6.99

The word that most came to mind as I was reading Claire Masurel's Two Homes was "comforting". Regardless of the circumstances, whether friendly or hostile, divorce is a life altering experience for a child, one that cannot be soothed away with trite, authorial reassurances. Given this, Masurel makes a nice choice in having Alex, the protagonist of Two Homes, address the reader directly as one who's arrived on the other side of divorce and survived with both relationships intact. The narrative's dual structure helps reinforce the strength of his relationships to each parent. Each home balances the other - "I have two rooms. My room at Daddy's. My room at Mommy's." Both are shown as being equally important to Alex, while the illustrations picture Alex being equally happy in both.

The list of things Alex has two of - favorite chairs, toothbrushes, front doors etc. - are comforting in their everyday-ness, making it clear that, though Alex has two homes, both are very stable. Kady MacDonald Denton's illustrations add to that sense of well-being. Both parents are portrayed as warm and engaged, while Alex is never pictured as being upset, confused or missing the parent that isn't there. In fact, he seems like a very well-adjusted kid with artwork of both parents up in both homes. The story is tremendously reassuring. It feels like a kid addressing another kid, until the end when both parents in, one voice, tell Alex that they love him wherever he is. A simple, satisfying message in an honest, lovely book - the best on divorce that I've come across for this age group.

April 24, 2012

The Good-Bye Book

The Good-Bye Book
By Judith Viorst
No Author Site
Illustrated by Kay Chorao
3-4 Preschool Primary Atheneum 32 pp.
978-0780788572 Hardcover $16.25

The Good-Bye Book is not so much a story, as a child's reaction to being left with a sitter while his parents go out to dinner. The boy, illustrated by Kay Chorao with just the right blend of vulnerability and stubbornness, does not want his parents to go to a French restaurant. He begs, wheedles, yells and even offers to go to the restaurant with them rather than be left at home with a dreaded sitter, whom he imagines as an old lady with too much make-up who makes him eat vegetables and watch boring TV. When that doesn't work, he decides that he's sick, ("I mean, maybe I'm dying") and asks for "one more book. Okay, half a book. A poem?" Meanwhile, his parents continue to get dressed, (though the sting of this is softened by their concerned looks and patient expressions). Finally, the boy refuses to say good-bye just as the sitter, (a young man with a stack of picture books) arrives. The boy begins to smile and ends up waving good-bye to his parents, perched on his sitter's shoulders.

The Good-Bye Book is interesting in that it's written entirely in the 2nd person, with the boy addressing the soliloquy to his parents. It makes the situation feel very immediate, mimicking the immediacy of his distress. Viorst allows her young protagonist to run the entire emotional gamut without ever going over the top so that, while funny in places, (the boy imagines being attacked by the celery the sitter might force on him), his distress always rings emotionally true. Just as important is the fact that his turn-around in the face of the real sitter feels organic and unforced. The end result is a book that acknowledges the difficulties of saying good-bye, while allowing the protagonist (and the reader) to naturally conclude that it will be all right. A reassuring message made all the more reassuring by the voice of the boy and the strength of his initial worries at being left at home.

April 23, 2012

Where Are Maisy's Friends?

Where Are Maisy's Friends?
By Lucy Cousins; illus. by author
0-3 Preschool Candlewick 12 pp.
978-0763646691 Board $5.99
Non Fiction

Where Are Maisy's Friends? invites toddlers and preschoolers to play a game of hide-and-seek with Lucy Cousins's famous mouse. The book features Cousins's standard illustrative style with bold primary color acrylics outlined in black on clean white backgrounds. Meanwhile, the text follows a pleasantly predictable question-answer pattern. The book begins with an explicitly stated invitation to play, so that young readers know exactly what to expect when they turn the page, and the repetition of the phrase "Who's that hiding [under the bed, in the closet, etc.] provides beginning readers with a narrative foundation on which to build their understanding of the text. Even pre-readers will benefit from hearing the repeated words and sounds followed by the surprise of discovery. All of the characters are hiding in easily recognizable household objects, (under tables and beds, in closets), and the flaps are sturdy enough to withstand rough handling. The exclamation points that accompany the discovery of each of the hiding characters ("it's Charley!"; "It's Eddie!" etc.) gives the book a sort of real life Surprise!!! quality that kids will no doubt love. A good, interactive title for pre-readers and beginning readers, Where Are Maisy's Friends? offers developmentally appropriate fun for these young seekers.

Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime

Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime
By Myra Wolfe
Illustrated by Maria Monescillo
No Author / Illustrator Sites
3-4 Preschool Primary Harcourt 32 pp.
978-0152061500 Hardcover $16.99

Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime is a fabulous read, with a feisty protagonist and a straightforward but cleverly executed message.  Charlotte Jane is born into a family of pirates. Even as a baby her parents could see that she has lots of "oomph," a fact born out by the illustration of her parents (dad has an eyepatch and mom a saucy bandana) smiling over the howling Charlotte. Charlotte Jane grows and so does her oomph. Soon both are sturdy and bold, and bent on getting "all of the juice" out the day. But sleep is not juicy, so she battles bedtime until one night, she doesn't go to sleep at all. The cost of her victory is high - as a result, Charlotte Jane loses her "oomph". Though her parents look everywhere, including the neighbor's recycling bin, her oomph remains missing. But then, while glaring at her bed, Charlotte Jane realizes that sleep might be "for landlubbers" but dreams, particularly piratical dreams, can be "rip-roarers," so Charlotte Jane dreams and wakes up with her formidable oomph in tact.

There are a lot of elements that make Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime so good. The dialogue sprinkled with pirate-isms is just plain fun (Charlotte Jane refers to her parents as "me buckos" and her father calls her his "little doubloon"), the illustrations are clever, (Charlotte Jane and her parents live in a boat-shaped house in an otherwise regular neighborhood, hinting at the possibility that Charlotte Jane's imagination may be at work on the pirate theme) and the story is well-paced and tight. Especially nice was the fact that Charlotte Jane finds the solution to her problem by herself - she learns that sleep feeds her oomph and that "hearty" dreams are a good excuse to sleep - without authorial moralizing. Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime is one of the most original bedtimes stories I've recently read. Great for storytime and bedtime and any time in between, this is one story with formidable oomph.

April 22, 2012

But Not the Hippopotamus

But Not the Hippopotamus
By Sandra Boynton; illus. by author
0-4 Preschool Primary Little Simon 12 pp.
978-0671449049 Board $5.99

It's easy to feel out of step with the world, especially when you're a shy hippopotamus. Once again, Sandra Boynton addresses a serious topic - in this case, feeling left out - in terms of such fun and silliness that toddlers will have their emotional horizons gently broadened without even realizing it's happened.

The eponymous hippopotamus looks on alone as different pairs of animals engage in variety of activities. "A hog and a frog to a dance in the bog" and "a moose and a goose together have juice" and on and on. But just when it seems that she is destined to loneliness simply because it's hard to rhyme "hippopotamus", the other animals come back and say, "hey! Come join the lot of us!" And after a moment's hesitation, the hippopotamus does... but "not the armadillo."

The rhyme scheme and illustrations make But Not the Hippopotamus a solid choice, even for pre-verbal babies. Though rhythmically less predictable than some of her other stories, But Not the Hippopotamus scans poetically and is, if anything, more interesting because its rhymes don't fall into the sing-songy pattern of many baby books. Meanwhile, the titular key phrase guides the reader through and provides an element of narrative structure. The way that Boynton ends up rhyming "hippopotamus" with "the lot of us", (thus ensuring her hippo's inclusion), is nothing but terribly clever.

As with many of her books, Boynton uses humor a vehicle for genuine emotion. Her hippopotamus looks lonely and unsure, garnering the sympathies of young readers and engendering a sense of relief when she's finally included - but only if a child is emotionally mature enough to do so. But Not the Hippopotamus works on multiple levels. For younger toddlers, the tale is just funny, which is fine too, and even very little ones will enjoy hearing the rhythms and seeing the pictures. But Not the Hippopotamus is silly and funny and surprisingly deep. A lovely surprise of a book, it has as much to offer a baby as it does a toddler, and will grow with a baby as the baby grows up.

Global Babies

Global Babies
By The Global Fund for Children
0-2 Preschool Charlesbridge 18 pp.
 978-1580891745 Board $6.95
Non Fiction

Global Babies is simple in its message - that babies, regardless of culture, are united by the fundamental fact that they are loved - and straightforward in its presentation. Taking into account that babies love to look at faces, particularly the faces of other babies, Global Babies features 17 color portraits of babies from around the world, (in many cases wearing the traditional garb of their countries). Each portrait is also labeled with the baby's country of origin, places that range in diversity from Greenland and India to Rwanda and the United States. The accompanying text is likewise straightforward, ("wherever they live, wherever they go[...] babies everywhere are beautiful, special and loved"), just patterned enough to be rhythmic without feeling false or forced. Unlike many board books that are really picture books for older children mushed into board book form, Global Babies is specifically designed with infants and toddlers in mind. It is a beautiful and colorful introduction to the idea that there are many different kinds of faces and people, but that, while the faces may be different, love is still the fundamental connection between them all.

Duck and Goose: How Are You Feeling?

Duck and Goose: How Are You Feeling?
By Tad Hills; illus. by author
0-4 Preschool Schwartz & Wade 22 pp.
978-0375846298 Board $6.99
Non Fiction

Duck and Goose: How Are You Feeling? is the third installment of Tad Hills's popular Duck and Goose series. This time, the duo is back in board book form to address the subject of feelings. Unlike the previous two Duck and Goose books (Duck and Goose and Duck, Duck, Goose), How Are You Feeling? does not feature a plot. Rather, each page contains a one-word feeling ("selfish", "angry", "happy") and an illustration modeling that emotion. It's a well-used conceit and one that mostly works here. I say mostly because, though effective with concrete emotions like "scared" (Duck and Goose huddled together in the dark during a thunderstorm), it is less effective with abstract emotions like "hopeful" (Duck and Goose staring at a tiny green plant with their bills open, presumably watching it grow). Toddlers will undoubtedly recognize feelings like "happy", "frustrated" and "sad", all of which Duck and Goose model well, but emotions like "hopeful" and "selfish" may be slightly beyond their conceptual reach. That said, there's no harm in introducing the concepts and using the pictures to talk about them.

Though Duck and Goose, being water fowl, have a limited repertoire of facial expressions, Hills  illustrates them in such a way that they manage to communicate a wide variety of feelings. He also uses the trick of making the environment mirror the featured emotion, ("sad" features a cloudy day, "happy" has sunshine and butterflies), providing the reader with even more context - especially helpful for toddlers just learning to recognize and name emotions. It also serves as a nice beginning reader for preschoolers, as sight words, ("sad" and "happy") appear with challenging words, ("loving") and all are paired with illustrations designed to interpret the words. Overall, Duck and Goose: How Are You Feeling? is a friendly introduction to the complicated territory of feelings and one that will likely appeal.

April 20, 2012

The House in the Night

The House in the Night
By Susan Marie Swanson
No Author Site
Illustrated by Beth Krommes
2-4 Preschool Primary Houghton Mifflin 40 pp.
978-0618862443 Hardcover $17.00

Here is the key to the house. In the house burns a light. In that light rests a bed. On that bed waits a book. In that book flies a bird.

The heart of The House in the Night is its cumulative narrative structure, one that has been made familiar by nursery rhymes and stories ("The House that Jack Built" and "The Keys to the Kingdom") for generations. It is dangerous territory that Swanson treads with this structure. Done badly, it can render a story sing-songy and trite. But done well - and Swanson does it very well - it leads the reader compulsively on, into the house, to the light and into the book where the bird flies. From there the narrative expands as the girl imagines herself flying on the bird's back into the starry sky past the smiling moon and into the cosmos. Then, with expert control, Krommes contracts the narrative focus, bringing the reader back to earth,  back to the house in the night.

Swanson's prose and use of structure place the book in the company of traditional tales, even as she lays the foundation for Krommes's inventive scratchboard illustrations, (for which she won the Caldecott Medal in 2009). The freshness and balance of Krommes's pictures, all black and white save for judicious dollops of gold, place The House in the Night in an aesthetic category all its own while Swanson's seemless narration provides the guiding light. Together, they create a book of enduring resonance that will likely becomes a classic. The House in the Night is a rare thing - a picture book that is both traditional and unexpected. A beautiful bedtime story, it soothes with language that ebbs and flows and illustrations that are, quite honestly, too perfect to be sufficiently described. It is a book that reassures little ones that, while the universe is mysterious and large, there is a place in it for them, in their room, and their bed and their house in the night.

Rosie and the Nightmares

Rosie and the Nightmares
By Philip Waechter; illus. by author
No Author Site
3-4 Preschool Primary Chronicle 32 pp.
978-1593541156 Hardcover $15.99

Rosie is a bunny beset by horrible dreams. She puts on her red coat and goes to visit a dream specialist who declares that she has a "clear case of fear of monsters." He prescribes a book (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Monsters), which the very proactive Rosie goes  out and reads. She learns many monster-handling skills, (how to be a "calming influence," how to do an incapacitating throw, and how to run in emergencies), all lovably pictured with Rosie and a fanged paper bag. Finally, Rosie tests herself at the amusement park's Tunnel of Fear. She drives her little red car into the fanged entrance an proceeds to meet the monsters head on, pouncing and attacking and kissing the most gruesome on the nose. Triumphant, Rosie leaves the amusement park and, after treating herself to ice cream and jasmine tea, falls asleep to happy dreams.

Though a book worth reading, there are a few problems with Rosie and the Nightmares. Waechter's prose is tends to be a bit overwritten, and it's not entirely clear that Rosie had to attack the monsters in the Tunnel, (it may have been more effective to simply show her facing her fears and having a great time on the ride rather than acting the aggressor unprovoked). That said, Waechter's illustrations are worth the price of admission. His monsters are more silly than fearsome - theoretically scary but not enough to actually disturb young readers - and Rosie is a take-charge charmer in her little red coat. With a slightly New Yorker quality to them, and well-chosen details paired with plenty of white space, Waechter's pen and ink watercolors are an emotionally vivid treat. As a not-so-subtle metaphor, Rosie and the Nightmares succeeds, modeling a proactive approach to facing ones fears and showing little ones that, even though something scares you, you can help yourself learn how to handle it.

Kids Garden!

Kids Garden!: The Anytime, Anyplace Guide to Sowing and Growing Fun
By Avery Hart and Paul Mantell; illus by authors
3-4 Preschool Primary Williamson 160 pp.
091358990X Paperback $12.95
Non Fiction

With the onset of the summer gardening season, preschoolers (and their parents) are ready to shake off winter and get outside. Family gardening is a wonderful way to burn energy, but it's also a learning opportunity and a chance to bond, as evidenced by Kids Garden!, a comprehensive guide for kids and parents interested in how things grow.

One caveat: this book is one that needs to be used with a parent's supervision and help. While the activities described are well suited for preschoolers (some are even all right for children as young as 18 months), many have more than one step, (keeping pet worms in a compost bin, making a seedling greenhouse, etc.). Kids will need help decoding and following instructions and, in some cases, planning projects and handling supplies.

Kids Garden! is not a specialized book - it contains a wide variety of topics from how seeds grow to creating a salad with home grown vegetables. There's even a recipe for what to do with all of your extra zucchini, (drop cookies that actually sound quite good). The table of contents is clearly laid out and topics follow an intuitive order, beginning with tools of the trade and ending with chapters on growing specific plants and herbs. One thing it does lack is an index. Searching for specific activities and topics would be easier without having to leaf through the pages, though it is a fun book to browse. In fact, the book's only real weaknesses are the illustrations and layout. Through the cover is colorful and packed with fun images, the pictures inside, though ample and charming, are black and white. Combined with the cluttered layout, the pictures and the text jumble together, making it difficult to read, thus absolutely necessitating an adult's help with decoding. That said, it is a single weakness in an otherwise good book. Comprehensive in nature with enough activities to fill the long summer days, Kids Garden! is a good choice for parents and preschoolers looking to get outside.

April 19, 2012

Charming Opal

Charming Opal
By Holly Hobbie; illus. by author
No Author Site
3-4 Preschool Primary Little Brown 32 pp.
0316366331 Hardcover $15.95

Charming Opal is the sixth installment of Holly Hobbie's Toot and Puddle series, and a lovely addition it is. Opal, Puddle's little cousin, comes to visit Toot and Puddle in Woodcock Pocket bearing her first loose tooth. Toot offers to help it come out (an offer made while fingering a piece of string he's tied to the kitchen doorknob), but Opal, with admirable self-possession, replies that she would rather it come out "all by itself". The trio goes about having a lovely day together, all under the influence of Opal's calm, good-natured anticipation. In fact, "good-natured" is the perfect way to qualify the heart of Opal's charm. She is simply good natured - as good natured as Toot and Puddle are. When her tooth pops and is lost during a dive into the pond, she doesn't throw a tantrum as many kids would. She accepts the disappointment though her ears droop and a few tears fall, until Toot (wearing snorkel gear) comes to the rescue and retrieves it from the bottom of the pond. Then the wait for the tooth fairy begins, and yet more good natured-ness ensues when Puddle, concerned that the Tooth Fairy won't come, dresses up in a cape and shower cap and decides to do the job. Hobbie trods delicate ground here - does the Tooth Fairy exist and will she come for Opal? It turns out despite Puddle's worries, the Tooth Fairy comes through and leaves Opal a shiny new quarter for her tooth.

Everything about Charming Opal is soothing and quietly ebullient. Opal is the 4 year old everyone wishes they had without being false or saccharine, and Toot and Puddle treat her with gentle respect. It's a wonderful book that covers milestone issues (first teeth, Tooth Fairy existence and even vacations away from home and parents) with a light hand and a reassuring touch. Hobbie's illustrations support the well paced text. Though they are softly pastel with lots of white space, the pictures make Woodcock Pocket feel safe and cozy, while Opal, Toot and Puddle are rendered with so much sensitivity, all three are pigs you would want to know. A great book for older preschoolers, Charming Opal is sure to charm.

April 18, 2012

A Gardener's Alphabet

A Gardener's Alphabet
By Mary Azarian; illus. by author
3-4 Preschool Primary Sandpiper 32 pp.
 978-0618033805 Hardcover $16.00

There are countless alphabet books on the market, some perfectly suited to toddlers just learning their ABC's, and other's suited to preschoolers ready to step up their alphabet knowledge to the next level. A Gardener's Alphabet is a beautiful example of the latter, for though it is very much an alphabet book for older preschoolers, it also serves as an introduction to gardening and as a source of discussion, all while exposing preschoolers to subject specific words (topiary, manure) they might otherwise not encounter. Each letter receives a full page, never standing alone as in more remedial alphabet books but always appearing at the start of a word. The words are varied, with nouns (arbor, bulb) appearing in equal number with verbs (nibble, dig). The featured words also vary in difficulty with "xeriscape" appearing on the page opposite "yard". The words are never given formal definitions. They are simply illustrated with Azarian's incredible woodblock prints, and though it may be hard to believe, the illustrations are more than enough to communicate the meaning of even the most unknown concepts (Japanese garden). The prints, boldly defined in black and colored in with bright watercolors, are a visual feast. Each picture clearly shows the meaning of the featured word while still allowing room for parent-child discussion, ("Greenhouse" is a woman inside a glass house, watering her tropical plants as it snows outside). The result is a picture book that can be enjoyed for its illustrations alone, or for it's vocabulary-building, curiosity-inducing excellence. A wonderful book for preschoolers ready for the next alphabetic step and a treat for their parents too.

Toddler Two-Step

Toddler Two-Step
By Kathi Appelt
Illustrated by Ward Schumaker
1-2 Preschool Harper 24 pp.
978-0694012442 Hardcover $9.95

Toddler Two-Step is a counting book designed for 1-2 year olds in every possible way. Appelt's jaunty poem guides young counters from 1-10 and then back down from 10-1 as Schumaker's round, balloon-shaped toddlers (and one very unsure cat) dance and move to the poem's predictable rhythm. The text is simple and straightforward ("Three, four, clippity-clop. Cross the floor, hippity-hop"), providing instructions for a literal toddler two-step, while the illustrations fill in the movements that the text leaves out. The rhythm and action ramp up energetically all the way to 10, which arrives with a conga line and a huge JUMP. But from there, Appelt gradually slows things back down for 10-1, organically bringing the reader back to a (relatively) calm, cool stop. Schumaker mirrors the rise and fall in energy as his toddlers spin, circle, bounce and sway until they return to the same positions they were in when the book began, a clever way to bring the reader full-circle along with the numbers at the center of the action. The reader is left with a kinetic sense of 1-10 and 10-1, both numerically and as a pair of related number series that mirror the rise and fall of dance's energy. It's a clever conceit and one that is very well executed. Great for toddler storytimes as either a story or as an interstitial activity, Toddler Two-Step packs an unexpected punch for a counting book, (and parents will no doubt appreciate the exhaustion that will no doubt follow a really good reading).

Extra Yarn

Extra Yarn
By Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
3-4 Preschool Primary Balzer & Bray 40 pp.
978-0061953385 Hardcover $16.99

Imagine living in an industrial town where "everywhere you looked was either the white of snow or the black of soot from the chimneys." Imagine that, in the midst of this drab existence, a girl finds a box with "yarn of every color." This is what happens to Annabelle, who knits herself a sweater with that yarn. Then she knits her dog a sweater with what's left. But there's still yarn left over after that, so Annabelle knits and knits, systematically outfitting the entire town with sweaters (including pick-up trucks and bears) until everything is covered in the yarn's soft, wooly brightness.

Barnett's story, though entirely original, has a vague fairy tale quality to it, with the mysterious box full of plenty and the girl's generosity being constantly rewarded with a never ending supply of extra yarn. There's even an evil, clothes-loving archduke who wants the box for himself. Annabelle's story follows a predictable progression that is made fresh and compulsively readable by Barnett's subtly integrated flights of fancy and use magical realism. For example, though he archduke does finally get his hands on the box through unscrupulous means, it makes its way back to Annabelle, floating over the ocean on an unlikely chunk of ice, whereupon she knits a sweater for a tree. The story is slyly humorous and touching by turns, (though never sentimental). This is entirely due to Barnett's light handed prose and excellent pacing.

Jon Klassen, who is currently enjoying critical and popular success with his picture book, I Want My Hat Back, supports the narrative with illustrations that perfectly suit the story's fragile balance of realism and whimsey. His expert use of color is as subtle and effective as Barnett's pacing. While many would use black and primary colors for emphasis, Klassen uses dark browns and grays for Annabelle's town pre-yarn, and lovely, rough watercolors in varying springtime shades for the sweaters she knits. It's visually unexpected picture book art and it works. But then, the same can be said for the books a whole. Extra Yarn just works.

April 17, 2012

Morris's Disappearing Bag

Morris's Disappearing Bag
By Rosemary Wells; illus. by author
0-4 Preschool Primary Puffin 40 pp.
978-0142300046 Paperback $6.99

In the interest of fairness, I should state up front that my review for Morris's Disappearing Bag is by no means impartial - this was not only my favorite Christmas books growing up, it was one of my favorites period, (for this reason, I included the original cover of the edition I read-to-death as a girl, as well as Puffin's recent re-issue).

Put simply, Morris's Disappearing Bag is the story of what happens when nobody wants to play with the teddy bear Morris receives on Christmas morning. Morris loves his bear. But his older siblings, all of whom receive older kid presents, (hockey gear, a chemistry set and a beauty kit), take no interest. They don't want to play with Morris's gift, and they say that Morris is too young to try theirs'. This leaves Morris feeling understandably left-out , a fact Well's communicates in her fantastically sensitive illustrations (Morris is seen on a series of pages, to the side or in the background, ears sagging and shoulders slumped. I still remember the waves of childish empathy I felt for Morris because of those ears). But all is not lost. Morris finds an unopened present beneath the Christmas tree. In it lies the eponymous bag. Morris climbs in and, to his delight, promptly disappears! Suddenly, Morris's siblings can't wait to try his present out, and so they do while Morris skates, mixes chemicals and "beautifies". Balance is restored and all is well as Morris's father carries him to bed, happy, exhausted and clutching his new bear.

The magic of Morris's Disappearing Bag is in Wells's masterful pacing and understated prose. Every word counts, every word communicates an emotional reality that, while trivial to an adult or older child, is critical to a little one, especially one inadvertently left out. One of Wells's earlier works, the illustrations in Morris's Disappearing Bag lack the bright, pop-off-the-page quality of her more recent books, but this is not shortcoming. The illustrations are warm and nuanced, lightly inked and filled in with soft watercolors, perfect for a story that is both fun and emotionally resonant. In my opinion, Morris's Disappearing Bag is the strongest book in Wells's admittedly impressive oeuvre. Speaking personally, I look forward to reading it many more times to come.

Hop on Pop

Hop on Pop
By Dr. Seuss; illus. by author
0-4 Preschool Primary Random House 72 pp.
978-0394800295 Hardcover $8.99

Hop on Pop has been a perennial favorite since it bounced onto the scene in 1963. Dr. Seuss designed it to be a reading primer, combining word recognition and simple phonics in such a way that would be suitable for the very youngest of children just learning to read. True though it is, it all sounds very dry when it's put that way. But Hop on Pop, in typical Seuss fashion, is anything but dry. AS with most of Dr. Seuss's impressive body of work, he takes simple, monosyllabic rhymes and gives them a goose with a good dose of silliness. Who else but Dr. Seuss would think to say, "Three Tree. Three fish in a tree. Fish in a tree? How can that be?" and combine it with an illustration of three fat, self-satisfied fish lounging in the billowy foliage of an orange tree while two yellow puppy-rabbit-Seuss-people look on scratching their heads? But while the silliness, on one hand, is just plain good fun, it serves a second purpose. Just as in Fox in Socks, Green Eggs and Ham and other Seuss classics for slightly older readers, the whimsey and nonsense in Hop on Pop makes reading fun. So while toddlers and preschoolers (and even pre-verbal babies whose loved-ones read the book to them) are being exposed to concepts that help develop and support literacy, they are learning an even more important lesson - that reading is not boring. It is not scary, (at least, it doesn't have to be). In fact, reading, as Dr. Seuss sells it, can be the wildest form of fun, which makes Hop on Pop the perfect "Seuss for Toddler's Use".

April 16, 2012

Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb

Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb
By Al Perkins; illus. by Eric Gurney
No Author / Illustrator Site
0-4 Preschool Random House 28 pp.
978-0394810768 Hardcover $8.99

Though sparse on story, (one monkey and a drum becomes a profusion of drumming, humming, strumming monkeys), Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb is full of fun and nonsense, even as it teaches toddlers and preschoolers lessons in anatomy, rhythm, language and numbers. Perkins employs a syncopated beat throughout the text, (Dum ditty Dum ditty Dum dum dum), driving the silliness forward until "millions of fingers!" and "millions of thumbs!" and "millions of monkeys" are "drumming on drums!" Gurney's monkeys are a wiley bunch, hairy and bent on having a noisy good time, a quality that has made them an instant hit with generations of preschoolers. Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb is unquestionably well-suited for library and school storytimes being a natural candidate for felt boards and art projects. The book's hallmark is the exuberance with which it introduces educational concepts (everything from numbers to colors make an appearance without cluttering the conceit). Even better, it's a fantastic way to get wiley little monkeys moving, involved and having fun with a book.

What Sadie Sang

What Sadie Sang
By Eve Rice; illus. by author
No Author Site
1-4 Preschool Greenwillow 32 pp.
978-0688021795 Hardcover $9.50

What Sadie Sang is neither visually stunning nor conceptually flashy, which is why it endures so quietly as a lovely, if mostly forgotten, little book. The story is a simple one. Sadie and her mom go for their daily walk with Sadie's teddy bear and her stroller. ("Sadie could walk all by herself. But today, she did not want to walk"). As they go, the stroller wheels go "click, click, click" and Sadie sings "Gheee!" with the exuberance particular to the vocal, yet pre-verbal toddler. Neighbors and storekeepers voice concern that Sadie is crying or in distress because of the noises she's making, but Sadie's mom knows better - her mom knows that she's singing.  Sadie sings her song down the street, past tulips and dogs to the harbor and back again as she and her mom take their walk. She even sings all the way up to bed for naptime. Sadie's song finally ends when she falls asleep.

The story is one of quiet, intimate routine, comforting in its everyday-ness. One gets the sense that Sadie and her mom have done this every day since Sadie was a baby, (walk then nap), a familiar routine for many children. Rice's prose is direct and specific, focusing on particular details in the neighborhood as Sadie might observe them (the "red, red fire hydrant" and the "scratching shaggy dog"). She also employs onomatopoeia judiciously with Sadie's "Ghee, ghee, ghee!" and various neighborhood noises. The illustrations are likewise understated and pleasing with their friendly, round-faced people and select color palette, (the pictures are all black and white ink with shades of orangey-red, gray, pink and brown filling the world in). The result is a safe, warm environment, alive with mundane action and friendly people, one that Sadie and her mom occupy like natives they are. What Sadie Sang may not be glamorous by today's standards, but it's oddly comforting - the picture book version of the teddy bear Sadie carries or the baby song she sings.

Russell the Sheep

Russell the Sheep
By Rob Scotton; illus. by author
3-4 Preschool Primary Harper Collins 32 pp.
978-0060598501 Hardcover $15.99

As bedtime books go, Russell the Sheep, is a charmer. Russell, a sheep who wears his blue-striped nightcap with whimsey and style (a quality that suffuses all of Scotton's illustrations for the book), cannot fall asleep. While the rest of the flock settles down with their teddy bears and quilts, Russell is wide-awake and no matter how hard he tries, he cannot fall asleep until a very intuitive solution (one that young readers will likely see coming) presents itself just at the break of dawn.

Russell the Sheep treads ground that is both funny and sensitive as Russell tries everything from taking off his fleece in case he's too hot (he's not), to trying to sleep in the hollow of a tree full of fluffy-looking bats but (though the bats seem friendly, it's "too creepy" all the same). As each solution fails, Russell looks progressively more exhausted, yet no nearer to sleep - a state both children and adults can relate to when insomnia strikes. Finally, he decides to count things, which is where savvier preschoolers will begin to see the light at the end of Russell's tunnel. He counts his feet, he counts stars, but it isn't until he counts the sheep of Frogsbottom Field (1-10 in a sly bit of concept integration) that Russell falls asleep.

Scotton's storytelling is solid and his prose is simple and straightforward enough for older toddlers and preschoolers just starting to read aloud. It's also a lovely narrative for bedtime. That said, the story's real charm and humor lie in Scotton's illustrations. With comedic little touches like a granny sheep knitting the fleece right off her companion, rich night-time color, a playful font and soft, textured style, Russell the Sheep is a pleasure to look at, reason enough to come back to it night after night after night.

A Visitor for Bear

A Visitor for Bear
By Bonny Becker
Illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton
2-4 Preschool Primary Candlewick 56 pp.
978-0763628079 Hardcover $15.99

A Visitor for Bear, the first book in Bonny Becker's New York Times Bestselling Bear and Mouse series, recounts the beginning of that now famous, if unlikely, friendship. It is the story of Bear, a reclusive sort who doesn't like visitors (he even has a sign) and the mouse who wears him down.

At the beginning of the book, it is plainly stated that "No one ever came to Bear's house. It had always been that way, and Bear was quite sure that he didn't like visitors." He lives a quiet, if stuffy, existence, one fully embodied by his sniffy annoyance at the "tap, tap, tapping" on his front door. There stands a mouse, "small and gray and bright-eyed," looking oddly determined. Bear sends him away. What follows is a series of comedic interruptions, with Bear trying to make his solitary breakfast while Mouse pops up in drawers and behind bread. Finally, Bear (in tears after having stoppered the chimney and plugged the tub) lets Mouse stay.

Bear's revelation, that having a friend might be nice, comes about with gentle inevitability and good humor, but there is a depth to this story that belies its easy moral. To see the apron-wearing Bear exhausted into providing tea and a crackling fire for the cheeky mouse is one thing, but Becker takes it further by exposing Bear's vulnerabilities. Mouse listens to Bear. He takes an interest and laughs at his jokes - all new experiences for Bear - so that when Mouse says he has to go, Bear's despair is painful and understandable. Happily, Mouse ends up staying and the pair enjoy a second cup of tea by Bear's fire, a comforting ending to a moment of genuine catharsis and change on Bear's part.

Even without Kady MacDonald Denton's fantastic watercolor illustrations (done with characteristic warmth and expressiveness), A Visitor for Bear is a charming story with real emotional depth. The use of repeated phrases (such as "there was the mouse, small and gray and bright-eyed") and an expert sense of pacing make it a pleasure to read. Toddlers and preschoolers will no doubt laugh as Bear's hysteria reaches fever pitch. But those who are a bit more sensitive will also enjoy the story's quieter aspects as Bear makes a friend and alleviates the loneliness he didn't know he had.

We All Went on Safari

We All Went on Safair: A Counting Journey Through Tanzania
By Laurie Krebs
Illustrated by Julia Cairns
3-4 Preschool Primary Barefoot Books 32 pp.
978-1841484785 Hardcover $16.99
Non Fiction

As far as concept books go, We All Went on Safari: A Counting Journey Through Tanzania, is one of the best I've come across. There is no part of the text or the illustrations that fails to educate the reader in the most entertaining, layered way. Even more, We All Went on Safari does something that not many books - concept or otherwise - manage to do. It gives the reader a tantalizing taste of a completely foreign culture, just enough to plant curiosity and engender a desire to learn more.

The book's primary goal is to introduce the concept of counting from one to ten, which it does under the guise of an adventure through the grasslands of Tanzania. The protagonists are a group of Maasai children and their caretakers. As Arusha, Mosi, Tumpe and their friends walk through the savannah, they discover and count many different kinds of African animals, including lions, giraffes and warthogs, in both English and Swahili. Krebs's smooth rhyming text helps lead the reader on, making it easy for children unfamiliar with the numbers to intuit what comes next ("We all went on safari, When the day had just begun. We spied a lonely leopard. Arusha counted one"). A large, red numeral "1" is placed in the right hand corner of the page with the Swahili word, "moja" next to it in black, making it easy to connect the word "one" with the number "1" and it's corresponding name in Swahili. The rest of the book progresses in the same way, ending with the adventurers, portrayed in traditional Massai costumes, building a campfire and saying goodnight.

The strength of We All Went on Safari lies in two places. The first is that, in addition to the counting aspect and the easy rhythm of the story, Krebs included a map of Tanzania, a collection of facts about the country, notes about each of the animals encountered on the adventure, information about the Maasai, including translations of each name and a pronunciation key for the numbers 1-10 in Swahili. All of this additional material is organized intuitively at the back so, while not cluttering the main text or confusing younger listeners, it offers curious preschoolers more information on what they've just read. The book's other strength is in Cairns's beautiful illustrations, which have a rich, iconic, almost primitive aspect while portraying the animals, Tanzanian grasslands and Maasai people with dignity and certain natural elegance.

We All Went on Safari is a can't miss. Toddlers and pre-readers will enjoy hearing the rhyming text and seeing the gorgeously depicted animals - and as an introduction to counting, it's hard to beat 2 ("mbili") ostriches sprinting through green grass. Preschoolers and kindergardners will likewise love reading the text for themselves while the animals tantalizingly present themselves for counting. Best of all,  We All Went on Safari inspires curiosity and gives parents and children a chance to learn about a new culture together.

April 9, 2012

The Toddler Cookbook

The Toddler Cookbook
By Annabel Karmel
2-4 Preschool Primary DK 48 pp.
978-0756635053 Hardcover $12.99
Non Fiction

Toddlers can be notoriously picky eaters. It's not unheard of for parents to be confronted with a child who suddenly refuses to eat "orange cheese" or anything "brown." How best to handle the ever-changing landscape of the toddler tastebud? Annabel Karmel, author of The Toddler Cookbook, has, perhaps, the most hands-on, educational, empowering suggestion - give children some ownership over the food they eat. Let them help prepare it.

The Toddler Cookbook functions on two levels. On the one hand, it's a collection of easy recipes that pair visual appeal with nutrition (lettuce boats and pasta with cherry tomato sauce) in such a way that busy parents with no time to puree a pound of spinach and hope for the best can feel confident that the food they've given their child is healthy and might just get eaten. On the other hand, The Toddler Cookbook is literally a cooking primer for toddlers and preschoolers with easy-to-follow instructions, kid friendly ingredients and copious photographs featuring other children preparing the recipes step-by-step. While most of the recipes do involve some parent-only steps like roasting tomatoes in the oven or cutting onions with a knife, the majority of steps, like drizzling olive oil, stirring batter and crushing garlic in a press can easily be done by children with a parent's supervision. The end result is a healthy meal that the child had an active hand in creating. This ownership goes a long way towards making the food appealing, particularly if the child chose the recipe herself.

The hands-on act of cooking also serves as a great introduction to the concept of amounts, proportions, weights and measures, as well as an opportunity to practice following directions and fine motor control. Most of all, parent-child cooking is a bonding experience that, if done routinely, can follow that toddler and her parents all the way into adulthood, when smiley pizza faces and cupcakes become an important shared memory. The Toddler Cookbook, with it's easy instructions and nutritious kid-friendly palette may not completely solve the problem of the picky eater, but it could go a long way to helping, and provide a slew of other benefits in the meantime.

A Kitten Tale

A Kitten Tale
By Eric Rohmann; illus. by author
2-4 Preschool Primary Knopf 32 pp.
 978-0517709153 Hardcover $15.99

Eric Rohmann, winner of the Caldecott for My Friend Rabbit, is a master at communicating broad concepts, feelings and values in the simplest, most accessible terms. His sixth book, A Kitten Tale, is an excellent example. Before the story even starts, Rohmann establishes the dynamic among the kittens in question with an eloquent illustration on the page preceding the title page spread. Three kittens tumble and play in the springtime grass (done in the same black outline with soft colors style as My Friend Rabbit). A fourth kitten peeks out from behind a tree. Unlike his companions, this kitten looks curious with a cocked head and alert demeanor. "I'm the kitten to watch", his posture implies, and he doesn't disappoint. He is the kitten who jumps into the mailbox to dig out postcards of snow while his companions look on, concerned. He is the kitten who jumps after the frog while his companions pat a puddle. He is the kitten who, despite the fact that he's never seen it, cannot wait for snow.

The narrative follows the progression of the seasons, from a lush, grassy spring, through a warm-toned summer and red leafy fall, all the way to the snowy winter that three of the four kittens so worry about. While his companions dread the wet, cold winter, the fourth kitten, the intrepid kitten, repeatedly says that he "can't wait". And when the snow finally does arrive, he is the first out the door to romp in it. When the other kittens see how much fun he's having, they go out to, despite their reservations, and all four have a wonderful time.

Rohmann's illustrations are charming and, while naive in style, they perfectly capture the cocked ears, puffy chests and busy, over-large paws of kitten body language. The text is straight-forward enough for beginning readers to grasp, (particularly with the help of the illustrations), without being so simple as to be tiresome for the parents of pre-readers (given that this is a story that will likely enjoy high demand). A Kitten's Tale also functions as a lovely introduction to the seasons with plenty of opportunities to watch the kittens romp through nature in the spring, summer, fall and oh-so-dreaded snowy winter. The real charm of the book, however, lies in the sweetness of the relationship between the kittens. The fourth kitten leads by example, doing his own thing without bullying, while his companions look on and follow at their own, non-judgmental pace.

Ideal for winter story times, A Kitten's Tale is also great for reading at home, particularly for preschoolers who tend to hold back a little before jumping into new experiences. The kittens provide just the sort of gentle encouragement that the slightly cautious or worry prone might need.

April 6, 2012

Not a Box

Not a Box
By Antoinette Portis; illus. by author
2-4 Preschool Primary Harper Collins 32 pp.
978-0061123221 Hardcover $14.99

Not a Box, with it's brown paper cover and simple line art, is one of the most inventive picture books to be published in recent years, which, in today's market, is saying quite a lot. There's a simple reason for this. Not a Box celebrates the inventiveness of a child's mind in concrete, relatable terms as the bunny-protagonist repeatedly fields the very adult question: "Why are you sitting, (standing), (squirting), (wearing) a box?"

The bunny's answer is, invariably, "It's not a box!", a claim that is backed up with each page turn when the box is revealed to be a mountain, a race car, a burning building and a number of other exciting not-a-box things. Portis highlights the imaginative component by placing the bunny and the box (both of which are drawn in what looks like black marker or crayon) on a plain white background for the "reality" pages, and then overlaying the black and white with bright red and yellow on the "imagination" pages that reveal the box's true identity in the bunny's mind.

The only aspect one must consider before reading Not a Box to toddlers is that before the age of 3, most children perceive things very literally. They may not see a box, but rather a simple square, or they may be unable to make the leap from "box" to "hot air balloon." That said, Not a Box still offers toddlers a great deal of potential fun as the illustrations are bright and simple and perfect for naming games and parent-child interactivity. However, for preschoolers and children over 3, Not a Box is nothing but fantastic as most will jump right into the bunny's game precisely because it so mirrors the imaginative play that children that age partake of in their own lives. The text is wonderful for beginning readers as it's packed with simple sights words and pictorial context, and the story itself is empowering as the bunny (presumably a child stand-in) repeatedly defends its vision of the box to the insistent adult "questioner".

Not a Box, for which Portis won the Caldecott Honor in 2006, is a special book, one that is well-suited for big story times and intimate readings at home and one that is well deserving of the attention and honors it has received.

April 5, 2012

The Lion and the Mouse

The Lion and the Mouse
By Jerry Pinkney; illus. by author
1-4 Preschool Primary Little Brown 40 pp.
978-0316013567 Hardcover $16.99
Fiction / Fable

The Lion and the Mouse, Jerry Pinkney's wordless retelling of Aesop's fable, is an intensely graceful book. It's multi-layered appeal is due entirely to the illustrations, for which Pinkney won the Caldecott in 2009. The watercolors on each page render the story so eloquently that even the idea an accompanying text is superfluous. What few words there are - the owl's "Who, whooo" and "screech", for example - are natural, onomotopoeic sounds that help contextualize the world of the story without imposing one particular, authorial moral over all other possibilities.

Pinkney's mouse and lion live on an African plain, a fact established by the densely populated fore-papers, crowded with zebras, elephants, monkeys and lions among many other beasts. The title page shows the mouse curled up worriedly in the lion's paw print, an elegant way to set the two protagonists in their respective slots on the food chain. From there we follow the mouse through a textured, watercolor dawn in which an owl swoops and threatens, making it clear that a mouse's life in the savannah is a stressful one at best. But the mouse, having evaded the owl, is not out of the woods yet, for  the safe spot he finds himself is on the lion's back. The lion is shockingly expressive, and though the illustrations are photo-realistic, his face manages to convey both good-humor and compassion without ever seeming cartoon-ish. The mouse, meanwhile, makes the case for his freedom with mouse-like silence and humble appeal. The two then return to their respective lives until the lion is captured in a poacher's net (the indignity of the trap, as illustrated by Pinkney, is genuinely upsetting). The intrepid mouse comes to the rescue (looking quite pleased with himself) and gnaws through the ropes, setting the king of beasts free.

What I loved about Pinkney's version of this popular fable is that his illustrations captured the nobility and kindness of both creatures. Neither had to learn compassion. Both simply behaved with honor, though the book's wordlessness does allow for any number of interpretations. As far as benefits to young readers go, there are several, but the idea that kindness begets kindness overlays the whole thing and there are a lot of nice opportunities to talk about that with a toddler. (You can even ask questions like, "if you were the lion, what would you do?"). The wordlessness also gives toddlers the opportunity to "read" the pictures and create the narrative for themselves, meaning that it can be different every time or comfortingly consistent. For all these reasons, The Lion and the Mouse is a lovely book, one that fully deserves the high honors it received.

April 4, 2012

We're Going on a Bear Hunt

We're Going on a Bear Hunt
By Michael Rosen
Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
No Illustrator Site
0-4 Preschool Little Simon 36 pp.
978-0689815812 Board Book $7.99

We're Going on a Bear Hunt has enjoyed substantial popularity since its hardcover release in 1989, which explains its board book release. But while the board book features the original hardcover's text and illustrations in their entirety, the presentation that worked with expansive appeal in hardcover feels cramped and cluttered in board book form.

The story itself remains a modern classic for a reason. With the rhythmic refrain, "we're going on a bear hunt. We're going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day. We're not scared," repeated throughout, and plenty of onomatopoeia, the book really is a fun romp through swishy grass, splashy rivers and squelchy mud. But when the gloomy bear cave's resident turns out to be home, the adventurers reverse their tracks in a hurry, squelching through mud, splashing through rivers and swishing though grass all the way home, comically belying their oft repeated assurances that they're "not scared"!

Rosen's use of the there-and-back-again pattern works well in hardcover, bouncing along through unlikely blizzards and scary forests with silliness and ease. But in board book form, the adventure feels overlong despite the wordplay, rhymes and rhythm. Oxenbury's illustrations also suffer for the condensed format - much of their subtle humor is lost or too cluttered to see. We're Going on a Bear Hunt is a favorite for a reason, but perhaps, instead of subjecting board book age babies to a 36 page story, it might be better to save it for slightly older preschool-age age children, or at least for toddlers who can handle traditional hardcover or paperback formats without causing undue destruction.

Sheila Rae the Brave

Sheila Rae the Brave
By Kevin Henkes; illus. by author
3-4 Preschool Primary Greenwillow 32 pp.
978-0688071554 Hardcover $16.99

Sheila Rae is brave. She is fearless. She is truly bold and impressive, especially to her little sister, Louise. Then Sheila Rae decides to go home a new way, stepping on every crack and walking backwards with her eyes closed, until she finds herself very, very lost. Scared and humbled, Sheila Rae sits down and cries on a rock. Then Louise swings down from a tree, declaring that she can get them home. And she can. Mimicking her big sister, whom she had surreptitiously followed the whole way (the illustrations feature her peeking out from behind bushes, fire-hydrants and rocks making for a great opportunity to play Where's Louise), Louise growls at stray dogs and bares her teeth at stray cats and steps on every crack as Sheila Rae looks on. When they both arrive home, Sheila Rae tells Louise that she is very brave. Louise says they both are, and she's right.

Sheila Rae the Brave works on a lot of levels . For all her bravado, Sheila Rae is a sympathetic heroine, recognizable in her need to test and find her limits, but Louise is the real stand-out. The quintessential little sister, Louise looks up to Sheila Rae, a little timid and quite overshadowed by her dynamic older sibling. But Louise has enough inherent bravery of her own to follow her sister, even though the idea of a new route is scary. Along the way, she develops the confidence that allows her to lead them home. Both sisters learn something about themselves that afternoon, and the special thing is that it brings them closer together in the end, with Sheila Rae and Louise bravely walking backwards into the house.

The language in Sheila Rae the Brave is simpler than in some of Henkes's other mouse books (notably Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse). The lay-out, likewise, is a bit less busy, making it manageable for beginning readers. The illustrations are classic Henkes, with preternaturally expressive mice and lovely spring colors that bely the scariness of getting lost. This is a story that will appeal to both younger and older siblings, to the very brave and the slightly less so, as it illustrates the resilience and adaptability that is unique to the very young at a time when it's possible to realize that caution can be good or that you're much braver than you thought, over the course of a single walk home.

April 2, 2012

I Kissed the Baby!

I Kissed the Baby!
By Mary Murphy; illus. by author
No Author Site
0-2 Preschool Candlewick 24 pp.
978-0763621223 Hardcover $12.99

"I saw the baby! Did you see the baby?"

With that we enter I Kissed the Baby!, Mary Murphy's enthusiastic rendering of the excitement surrounding a new arrival. The black and white graphic illustrations are big and easy for young eyes to see. The text bounces enthusiastically around each animal as they ask each other if they've seen the baby, or sung to the baby or kissed the baby. Murphy uses color sparingly, with colors like magenta and orange appearing only at one edge of each page until the new arrival appears - a little yellow duckling smiling up at his mama. When asked by the mouse if she's kissed the baby, the mama duck replies that she has kissed the baby, her own "amazing baby" and that she's "going to do it again!", which she does, sending the duckling into a flurry of happy quacking.

Murphy's sing-song text builds rhythmically to the end, mimicking the black and white illustrations that explode suddenly with pinks and yellows when the mama duck kisses her baby, thus revealing the identity of the new arrival. It's a charming story, one that lends itself to lap reads with a new human baby as it provides plenty of rhythm, visual stimulation and opportunities for kisses along the way. I Kissed the Baby! is also a nice way to engender enthusiasm in a reluctant older sibling or include an already enthusiastic new big brother or sister in the celebratory mood. A good read for an important time, I Kissed the Baby! is a rollicking way to celebrate any new baby, duckling or otherwise.

Hello, Peter!

Hello, Peter!
By Beatrix Potter; illus by author
0-2 Puffin 12 pp.
978-0723267171 Board Book $5.99

Though authorial credit is rightfully given to Beatrix Potter, the original creator of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and the Flopsy Bunnies among many others, Hello Peter! is not, strictly speaking, one of her original stories. Rather, the editors at Puffin have taken a handful of Potter's original illustrations for The Tale of Peter Rabbit and paired them with a highly simplified, rhyming text ("Peter hops and hops. Peter hides in a flowerpot. Peter loves to jump and play. Peter's had a busy day..."). The result is a surprisingly charming board book that introduces babies and very young toddlers to Peter Rabbit and his propensity for mischief.

Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit is universally recognized as a classic in children's literature. However, it contains elements that render it better for slightly older children. The prose, though hardly archaic, is denser than that commonly used in picture books for pre-readers. In addition, some occurrences (Peter's father getting baked in a pie; Farmer MacGregor chasing Peter with a rake) could frighten little ones. Hello, Peter! by-passes these elements by focusing on Peter's romp through the vegetable patch, ending with him "safe at home, warm and snug" in his mother's arms without having experienced the chase that required chamomile tea to mend. Because of this, Hello, Peter! is not a fraction of the story that Potter's original is. That said, it's an admirable introduction to the original. Babies and toddlers familiar with Peter Rabbit from this very short board book will likely enjoy The Tale of Peter Rabbit even more when they are older, having already become attached to the story's famous protagonist.

With its puffy, board book cover, over-sized illustrations and simple, rhyming text, Hello, Peter! is, in every way, designed for babies and toddlers. While purists will likely find the results heretical, parents and care-givers will find much good to be had from this baby-friendly appropriation. Beatrix Potter wanted her books to be little, so as to fit in little hands. Given this, and given her sympathy for the very young, it may be safe to assume that the venerable author herself would not object to her creation being adapted for the very youngest of them all.

In My Nest

In My Nest
By Sara Gillingham
Illustrated by Lorena Siminovich
0-3 Chronicle Books 12 pp.
978-0811865555 Board Book $8.99
Fiction / Concept Book

With In My Nest, Sara Gillingham takes a classic conceit - the finger puppet book - and renders it surprisingly fresh. The simple story begins on the cover, with the finger puppet blue bird nestled inside it's multilayered, die-cut nest. Upon opening the cover, we see that there are layers of sticks and "curly twigs" in the nest, which the little bird tells us in the first-person text. The next page turn brings us closer to the bird, now sitting in a layer of "soft, warm feathers," while on the next page shows the little bird sitting amid a layer of green leaves and mud "to help stick things together". With all the layers thus examined, the focus widens. On the next page we see the whole nest tucked into the branches of a tree with the little bird inside ("and there is me! I am cozy in my nest...") Finally, we turn the page and see the little bird snuggled into his nest with his family.

Siminovich's illustrations give the book a naive, collage effect, one that emphasizes the organic feeling of the die-cut openings that the little bird passes through with each page turn. Leaves, caterpillars, twigs and feathers occupy each page in softly gradated shades of brown and green so that the little blue puppet integrates with each picture even as it naturally stands out. The puppet itself has a quilted, folk art quality that adds to the book's coziness, while the entire thing - puppet included - is constructed with little ones in mind. The heavy cardboard pages are obviously meant to stand up to a great deal of chewing, gumming and thumping, while no amount of pulling can dislodge the little bird from its nest.

In My Nest is a lovely little book that will fascinate babies and toddlers and even appeal to very young preschoolers who can read the words and manipulate the puppet themselves. Themes of home, family and nature overlay the simple story, while straightforward facts about what literally goes into making a nest give the little bird its charming, informational context. A great edition to Gillingham's series, which includes In My Pond and In My Tree, In My Nest balances aesthetics, story-telling and information-giving with visual elegance and a spare text, making it a pleasure both for kids, and the parents that will read it to them.