Picture Book Round-Up: Gettin’ By With a Little Help From My Friends (And a Few Journals)

h1 November 29th, 2007 by jules

I have been keeping a list of picture books I read and enjoyed — or at least found noteworthy for one reason or another — this year, but I got a bit busy with the Blogging for a Cure effort (which was well worth my time, and I miss those snowflakes already). So, do you know what I’m going to do right here, which risks making me look exceptionally lazy? I’m going to round-up reviews of some of those titles by folks who also enjoyed them and who can generally be relied upon for thoughtful reviewing. It’s the only way I’ll get caught up with my list, and I don’t want some of these books to pass by without at least mentioning them here at 7-Imp. I love reading reviews and following all-things-reviews, so this is actually rather fun for me. So, here we go.

Wait! Don’t miss MotherReader’s very informative November Carnival of Children’s Literature, posted yesterday. Okay, now here we go:

Starring Miss Darlene
by Amy Schwartz
Roaring Brook Press
August 2007
(library copy)

I consider this the biggest casualty of me getting so busy that I had to push aside some picture book reviews, ’cause I love love LOVE me some Amy Schwartz books. And this is no exception. Darlene, a hippo who wants to be a star, attends acting school and gets to play The Flood in Noah’s Ark, Professor Looney in a science fiction tale, and Sleeping Beauty. Darlene, ever-so unassuming and rather bumbly, manages to goof up each role, yet — as Tasha at Kids Lit pointed out in her review in September — “children are led up to the emotions but not told what to think, which is very refreshing in a picture book. In fact, the children will fret much more than Miss Darlene ever does about her mistakes.” Yes, each mistake Darlene makes is misunderstood as and written up as genius by the local theatre critic. Jessica Bruder also covered this title in The New York Times in November here (though you must register to read it — hey, registration is free):

Schwartz’s text is charming and hilariously understated. Her watercolor-and-ink illustrations are rendered in quiet pastel tones, but their humorous details — Darlene’s cavernous, buck-toothed yawn; animals dressing up like other animals to play parts in “Noah’s Ark”; a beret-wearing fox for a drama teacher — pack a hippo-size wallop. In the end, you have to cheer Darlene’s unlikely success.

What I love about Amy Schwartz is the seeming simplicity of both her writing and illustrations, but there’s a lot going on. I think she’s one of the best contemporary picture book creators. Bonus: Go here to see some illustrations from the book (and her wonderful ’06 title, A Beautiful Girl, which I reviewed here last year).

Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle
by Pija Lindenbaum
Translated by Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard
R & S Books (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
September 2007
(review copy)

Oh my, one of my very favorite picture books from this year. It’s from the Queen of Quirky, internationally-acclaimed Swedish author/illustrator of many picture books I love, Pija Lindenbaum (here’s a 7-Imp review of one of my favorites of hers). Mia adores her Uncle Tommy, but then Fergus appears in his life, and Mia thinks he should just go back from whence he came (“He looks boring. And his pants are ugly.” Not to mention he’s monopolizing the time and attention of her beloved uncle). And how refreshing that Lindenbaum does not make a huge issue out of Mia’s uncle’s homosexuality in this title; instead, she focuses on the young protagonist’s jealousy of her uncle’s partner. Betsy Bird reviewed this title here and here (Parts One and Two) in September: “Picture books where the fact that someone is gay is incidental to the action are few and far between. For its subtlety, grace, and ribald sense of humor I’m propping up Lindenbaum’s latest as perhaps my favorite foreign language picture book of the year.”

And the Train Goes . . .
by William Bee
Candlewick
March 2007
(library copy)

Handy-dandy official book summary from the Library of Congress online catalog: “As assorted passengers comment on their train ride, and the train itself goes ‘Clickerty click, clickerty clack,’ the station parrot is carefully listening to every sound.” School Library Journal wrote: “Filled with sound effects galore, this rollicking read-aloud is perfect for transportation storytimes. The text moves along with a steady rhythm, describing the passengers who occupy the various cars of a colorful train (‘Here is the school class off on a trip, and the children yell, “Please, sir, please, ma’am…are we there yet?”‘) followed by a refrain (‘and the train goes, Clickerty-click, clickerty-clack…’).” Or you can read Sam Riddleburger’s mini-review. Very detailed, very retro-yet-contemporary illustrations. Bee captures well the appeal of trains. For your train-lovers and a perfect story-time group read-aloud.

The Dumpster Diver
by Janet S. Wong
Illustrated by David Roberts
Candlewick
February 2007
(library copy)

Once a month, Steve the electrician dons special gear and, with the help of the children who live in his building, dives into a dumpster, seeking useful objects that they can transform into imaginative new ones. “Think Oscar the Grouch meets Thomas Edison, and you’ve got Steve the Electrician, the unofficial king of creative recycling,” open Anne Boles Levy in her review of this at Book Buds: “Wong follows the story where it logically must go, without shying from controversy or pain, which forces the kids to weigh risks and rewards. Imagine that–kids making their own choices, acknowledging mistakes, and growing from it. Yet the character arcs are so organic to the plot, we’re never hit with an overt ‘message,’ a refreshing change from so many ham-fisted, moralizing books for kids . . . Roberts’ watercolor and ink illustrations have a messy, collage-like feel, and the type is printed on bits of scrap paper, cloth, torn doilies, even a band-aid for that grubby touch.” I love this one, a playful, smart title, one that I am happy to talk up in the hopes that it’ll be read and enjoyed all year — not just Earth Day when most people like to talk about reusing and recycling.

Bonus: Cynthia Leitich Smith’s March interview with Janet S. Wong about this title.

The Purple Balloon
by Chris Raschka
Schwartz & Wade
May 2007
(review copy)

I was sent an unsolicited review copy of this title, and I read it many months ago. I am far from one of those I-will-not-watch-a-movie-with-a-sad-ending people. In fact, I admit to not even understanding that proclamation: If you’ve ever been through a devastating emotional loss of any sort, then by God, those sad movies and books and such can serve as a wonderful kind of catharsis. Not to mention life is just sad and unfair and hard sometimes (and children know that, too). But I still couldn’t bring myself to review this book, and I surprised myself. I suppose it’s ’cause I have two young children and just didn’t want to go there: “No one likes to talk about dying. It’s hard work . . . There is only one thing harder to talk about than someone old dying — someone young dying.” In case you, by some wild chance, haven’t heard about it, it’s a very solemn book whose sales will help critically ill children, as the cover states (I still remember Roger Sutton’s response from way back in March), and includes an introductory note by the Founding Director and CEO of Children’s Hospice International, Ann Armstrong-Dailey. Well, another reason I’m not going to review it is ’cause Adrienne handled it beautifully just last month. (Here is John Green’s May New York Times review as well, if you’re so inclined to read it. Again, registration is required).

Lightship
by Brian Floca
Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books
March 2007
(library copy)

Floating lighthouses. Yes, they can make great subject matter for a picture book. Booklist and School Library Journal gave this one starred reviews. Go read David Elzey’s review, too: “Proof that you not only learn something new everyday, but that you can learn it from picture books. Actually, you can probably learn more from picture books than other books . . .” To which I say, damn skippy.

Every Season
by Shelley Rotner and Anne Love Woodhull
Photographs by Ms. Rotner
Roaring Brook Press
March 2007
(library copy)

Beautiful. Here’s part of what Publishers Weekly wrote, ’cause I’m runnin’ out of steam here:

“Rotner’s and Woodhull’s . . . handsome photographic essay enfolds readers in the diversity of the four seasons. A simple layout (borderless, rectangular photos of assorted sizes against a white backdrop) shows off colorful pictorial highlights of spring, summer, autumn and winter . . . Short, direct sentences such as, ‘Showers soak. Seeds sprout. Flowers bloom,’ maintain the book’s poetic tone, as each section segues effortlessly into the next utilizing a repeated pattern. ‘We taste strawberries, lemonade, watermelon, ice-cream…. Summer is a time to splash and swim. But then autumn comes and… I love autumn too.’”

Booklist wrote, “{w}hat distinguishes this is the quality and selection of the photos and the lovely spare words, which repeat sounds and lines with an easy, circular rhythm that echoes the cycle of seasons and encourages child participation.” I put this fabulous title in my manic favorite-books-of-the-year-thus-far post when I answered MotherReader’s challenge back in September.

The Secret Life of Walter Kitty
by Barbara Jean Hicks
Illustrated by Dan Santat
Knopf Books for Young Readers
April 2007
(library copy)

Are you aware of the adventurous secret life your cat lives? Fang, a.k.a. Snookums, is misunderstood. His owners don’t quite understand how much of a swashbucklin’ hero he is. Jarrett J. Krocoszka can tell you more about this book’s charms in this post in his “Get This Book” series: “Now, I have to admit, I’m not much of a cat person. But Walter Kitty has won me over. He’s helped me look at the world from a cat’s perspective – and if cats can be pirates, explorers, astronauts and superheroes, they’re cool with me.” If you’re thinking Thurber, though, note that the Publishers Weekly review points out: The book “fails to deliver on its allusion to James Thurber’s short story, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’”

Hey, this was fun. And I have more. Maybe I’ll do a Part Two. And then I’ll get back to my own regular reviews. And I must have been so busy gearin’ up for Blogging for a Cure that I missed two — yes, two — posts on James Marshall over at Chicken Spaghetti (here and here. No, wait, I see I caught that second post and left a comment). Anyway, love him. LOVE everything he did. Can’t live without George & Martha, in particular (oh, and then Adrienne went and wrote a fabulous tribute to them, too). Bless Susan Thomsen and Adrienne Furness for loving them and their creator so much, too.

Until next time . . .

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6 comments to “Picture Book Round-Up: Gettin’ By With a Little Help From My Friends (And a Few Journals)”

  1. Thanks for these reviews, Jules! I can’t wait to check out the Miss Darlene book.


  2. Aw, thanks for the link. :) I hadn’t seen John Green’s review for The Purple Balloon (I try to avoid writing reviews of things if I’ve read other reviews of it), but, of course, it was brilliant. I’d also missed Roger Sutton’s thoughts about the sticker, but I give that a big ol’ AMEN.

    How did I miss the publication of Mini Mia? I am putting it on hold right away.


  3. Josephine, Darlene is great, and I hope Schwartz does more books with her. Who knows if she’s planning to, but I, for one, would read more Darlene stories.

    Adrienne, Mini Mia is really great. One of my favoriites from this year, and I concur with Betsy that it’s the best foreign title I’ve seen all year (I can’t say that without feeling like a stereotypical Southerner who is saying “those farners” or something, but you know what I mean — my favorite title by an international illustrator is what I’m trying to say).


  4. Thanks for the handy reminders — quite a few of these are books I’ve overlooked, as well. (My kids LOVE Lightship, however.)


  5. [...] to Lindenbaum, who seems to be carving out her own little Demented Picture Books Niche, I think I learned about her Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle from you, Jules. I love that angry little Mia and her jealousy over her favorite uncle’s new [...]


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