7-Imp’s 7 Picture Book Tips for Impossibly Busy Parents #3 (with a bonus title for devoted readers)

h1 February 21st, 2008 by jules

Jules here. Well, it’s been almost one month since my last post for Impossibly Busy Parents, and — for any parents paying attention — I apologize. But here we are with installment number three. If you’re new to this, here’s the idea behind these posts, as I explained it in my last one: I’m going to attempt — as often as my schedule allows — posts in which I round-up seven picture book titles with reviews for the impossibly busy parents of the world. There can’t be any advance-proof reviewing goin’ on in these posts, none of that this-book-is-filthy-cool-but-won’t-come-out-for-three-more-months bit in these posts. I need to line up those titles that are new, yet should be available at your local library — or at least being processed and about to be added to the collection.

Okay, usual spiel done. So, thanks for your patience, and let’s get right to it . . .

The Surprise
by Sylvia van Ommen
Front Street
April 2007
(originally published in 2003
in the Netherlands)

This is a puts-the-very-quirk-in-quirky title from Dutch illustrator and animator Sylvia van Ommen, released in 2003 in the Netherlands and released by Front Street Books last year. This wordless picture book opens with a sheep standing on a scale and then measuring her own wool, followed by a trip to the store to purchase some red dye. Using the red dye to dye her own wool, she then shaves it off, takes it to a poodle with a spinning wheel, and then takes the material home to knit a sweater for her pal the giraffe, whose long neck is in need of some covering-up. This is the titular surprise, which unfolds delightfully for the reader via van Ommen’s heavy gouache illustrations, ones you want to reach out and touch. I admit that I wince slightly at each read when the sheep is shaving red wool off her body; the splotches of red dye all over her take my mind to blood, but perhaps van Ommen even intended this. The aforementioned spinning poodle also has a cigarette dangling from her (or his?) mouth, which I hope to the high heavens will not keep it out of school libraries, but — as the Booklist review points out — this is “an element that suggests the book’s European origins . . . and may strike U.S. readers oddly.” In other words, don’t let that cigarette keep you from showing this engaging book to children — but perhaps there will be some giggling about it during story time. At its core, it’s a truly sweet story about the act of giving and of friendship — shoot, even of self-sacrifice with that sheep giving up her very coat for her friend. And with van Ommen’s bright, wordless, uncluttered illustrations, it’s a good choice for discussing story sequencing in the elementary classroom.

Small Sister
by Jessica Meserve
Clarion Books
May 2007

This is the debut title for Meserve, who studied illustration at Edinburgh College of Art, worked in publishing as a children’s book designer, and is now freelance illustrating. Employing an “everyman” technique with her characters (the older sister is named Big and the younger named Small), Meserve hits home with a universal tale of living in the shadow of someone bigger — but learning to find one’s own strengths, despite it all. “Small had a problem. She was stuck in Big’s shadow,” the book opens. “Small tried to jump higher, but Big was bouncier. Small tried to escape, but Big was faster.” Big also gets bigger presents and likes to scare Small. In her dramatic and richly-colored, digitally-rendered illustrations (with such detail you feel as if you’re right in the center of all the action and with downright lush outdoor scenes, and by the way, is anyone else finding it increasingly difficult to determine anymore what is digitally-rendered and what isn’t?), Meserve depicts Big in shadow only; in one spread, she’s merely shadows thrown on the wall, holding menacing scissors in her left hand and Small’s teddy bear in the right. This would be the day she made Small angry, leading Small to retaliate: She sets free Big’s beloved parrot. “But when Big found out . . . Small felt even smaller.” She runs away, finally no longer living in Big’s shadow, yet only feels lonely. But Meserve sets up the narrative so that Small gets to prove her courage — to her big sister, no less, even lending her a helping hand in her time of trepidation. Pair it with Kathy Mallat’s breathless Brave Bear (1999), another story of big emotions and overcoming fears.

A Drive in the Country
Written by Michael J. Rosen
Illustrated by Mark Burckhardt
August 2007

A Sunday drive in the country is the subject matter of this handsome picture book, appealing for many reasons, not the least of which is because busy families today don’t often take country drives with no destination in mind whatsoever (yes, that’s Grumpy Old Man, number 3,000 in a series). A family of five — but that’s six if you count the bassett hound, Shirley — “load up the car for adventure . . . We have no destination . . . no reason to be home for supper, no place we need to reach by dark on the map that’s as big as a baby blanket spread across our laps.” Thus begins their journey, and the tight-knit family shares with the reader what they see — from skunks to a lake with a wade-barefoot kind of shallow end to the buckeyes and hickory nuts and Osage oranges alongside the road. Then there’s just the scenery: ” . . . just field after field . . .” Falling asleep on the ride home, despite all the noise of the city and the family singing (oh my, the Griswolds come to my mind a second time this week), the youngest (who narrates this travelling adventure) sleeps in the car while the family heads inside at the book’s close, waking to discover “that wherever in the world we’ve been today, the only place we wanted to go was Together, just our family, and a Sunday drive in the country took us there.” Elizabeth Ward raved about this title last September in The Washington Post, even though she was under the mistaken assumption that this is the same Michael Rosen who penned We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with Helen Oxenbury’s illustrations (Michael J. Rosen tells me he is not that author and very much not the the author of An Introduction to Cardiac Electrophysiology, Sexual Magic: The S/M Photos, and any number of other books by people with the first name “Michael” and the last name “Rosen”). Burckhardt’s angular, cracked-eggshell-esque illustrations, rendered in acrylic on board, add an air of fitting nostalgia to the book as a whole. An affectionate tribute to the joy of a spontaneous family road trip.

Piano Piano
Written by Davide Cali
Illustrated by Éric Heliot
Translated by Randi Rivers
June 2007 (First U.S. Edition)
(First published in France in 2005)

There’s an old proverb that advises, “you must not expect old heads upon young shoulders.” In this French picture book import, which takes that message one step further with the whole living-your-dreams-through-your-poor-children motif, Marcolino is expected to practice his piano scales. He does so, daily at 3:00 sharp, but at 3:13 he watches cartoons instead, only to be ordered back to the piano by his very tall and very angular mother. So, he keeps practing but also takes out his frustrations by banging his fists on the keyboard. When he asks his mother why she is not a grand pianist, since she’s always telling him how she practiced for hours daily as a kid, she tells him that she didn’t have time to practice after he was born. OUCH. HARSH! Needless to say, Marcolino doesn’t want to be a grand pianist; he’d rather be a grand pirate or grand flying acrobat (amongst many other under-appreciated occupations, depicted on one very funny double page spread). Marcolino’s in for a surprise, though, when he spends some time with his maternal Grandpa who tells him some interesting tidbits of information about the musical tendencies of Marcolino’s own mother as a child, which I’ll leave for you to discover. Heliot’s illustrations go for maximum comic effect, what with Marcolino’s angular, projectile ‘do and his expressive sidekick cat . . . The awards for Most Impressive Punniness in previous blog-reviews of this title go to Camille at BookMoot for “I was immediately drawn to the cover of Piano Piano. Heliot’s strong opening image of a kid running down a keyboard just, well, struck a chord” and Three Silly Chicks for calling this picture book “a perfect composition.”

Dreaming with Rousseau
On an Island with Gauguin
by Julie Merberg
Suzanne Bober
Chronicle Books
August 2007

So, Chronicle Books has this Mini Masters series — board books which pair an original rhyming text with works of fine art. There’s Painting with Picasso; Sharing with Renoir; Sunday with Seurat; the two board books I reviewed here last summer, Andy Warhol’s Colors and Counting with Wayne Thiebaud; and many others. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a flash-card kind of mom. I’m not one to force an art lesson on my children through a board book or otherwise. But if you like your well-done, non-pushy art books for children, as I do, these are well-designed and well-rhymed (the text not too meddlesome or too busy) — and they might set out to be for the wee-est of toddlers, but preschoolers will be just as drawn to them. Nicely done, and I give seven cheers to this Mini Masters series, some even available in boxed sets if you’re hankerin’ for more than one at a time.

Bottom line: It’s never too early to introduce these masterpieces of art, whether you provide a little art history lesson with it or not. Show them beauty. Lots of it.

Here’s the Sleeping Gypsy, circa 1897, for you . . . just ’cause it’s awesome (and also ’cause it appears in one of Homer’s dream sequences. Can’t pass up a “Simpsons” reference when it rears its head).

by Mélanie Watt
Kids Can Press
September 2007

Ah, the complicated art of self-expression. Watt tackles it in this goofy send-up of authorship, cementing the fact that she does funny and does it well. As you can see from the cover, this corpulent cat has a rather forboding, very large red marker there and doesn’t hesitate to use it, crossing out Mélanie’s name for his own. Poor Mélanie’s trying to tell the story of an obedient mouse, but unruly Chester shows up to wreak havoc. And so the story tumbles along, a clever back-and-forth — not to mention battle of wills — between author and protagonist, complete with a story-within-the-story (or, uh, a story interrupted by a story) with the author triumphing in the end (well, until the very final page in which Chester defaces the author’s head shot with that obnoxious marker). It’s a difficult read-aloud, as in not the best group story-time choice due to the stuttering, fragmented narrative, but for a one-on-one lap-sit with your favorite wee one, it’s a fun wink-wink metafiction hoot-of-a-read.

Velma Gratch & the Way Cool Butterfly
by Alan Madison
Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Schwartz & Wade Books
October 2007

Chester just wants to be loved and to stand out, you know, just as Velma Gratch does. Velma is the littlest of three Gratches, about to enter the first grade. The chorus teacher and gym teacher and Mr. Plexipuss, the first-grade teacher, and even the principal have fond memories of Fiona and Frieda, her older sisters, yet Velma can’t seem to make herself stand out. Eventually, she becomes fascinated with butterflies — all 20,000 different kinds of them — and when her class visits The Butterfly Conservatory, one of them — the orange and black monarch, her favorite butterfly of all — attaches itself to Velma’s finger and heads home with her. And it’s this butterfly singling her out that, well . . . singles her out. Along the way, Velma — and the reader — learn all about migration, conservatories, and the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. It’s this type of dramatic metamorphosis Velma is hoping for all along, and “both adults and emerging conservationists should appreciate this leisurely story about finding one’s bliss” (Publishers Weekly). Hawkes brings Velma to vivid life with her huge glasses and wild, butterfly-esque red hair. Don’t expect to launch into the story right away or read the final words and slam the book shut; the endpapers are great fun and worth poring over.


And in the name of the joy of non-conformity and unforgettable protagonists of great rebellion, a bonus note / reminder here that the first American paperback edition of Kane/Miller’s Greek picture book import, Unique Monique, will be released this March. If you missed the release in 2003 of this story of the “irrepressible and irresistible Monique” (School Library Journal), this year’s your chance to catch it again (though, of course, your friendly local library should have it, too).

Until list #4, happy reading ever after . . .

11 comments to “7-Imp’s 7 Picture Book Tips for Impossibly Busy Parents #3 (with a bonus title for devoted readers)”

  1. Jules,

    Thanks for these fine picture book reviews.
    THE SURPRISE sounds like an interesting wordless book. I enjoy many of the picture book imports. Have you ever seen BENNY by Sieb Posthuma. It’s another book originally published in the Netherlands. BENNY AND THE BINKY (Sweden) by Babro Lindgren and Olof Landstrom is one funny book!

  2. Piano Piano: “I coulda been a contender, if only I hadn’t been saddled with you.” I simply must find that book now, even though there’s something VERY WRONG with that bit of message. Nice round up!

  3. Elaine, I LOVE those Swedish authors. Benny and the Binky is a favorite, and Pija Lindenbaum is one of my favorite picture book creators, too.

    Elaine and Kelly, I’m HOPELESSLY behind on blog-reading, since I’ve had a huge, new work project. I hope to get caught up soon, but, man, I miss your blogs.

  4. Love this feature…lots of goodies here, obviously.

    My library had two of the nine on this list, but I’m sure it will get more over the next few months. I’ll just keep checking back. We had read Chester a while back, and agreed…it’s difficult to read well out loud. My girls tend to like these “meta” stories like An Undone Fairytale, but this Chester didn’t resonate. It was just too disjointed and never really got going…like an entire book of interruptions.

    I’ve discovered an easy way to find more of your recommended books in my library — I just go through your oldest archives first and punch those from ’06-’07 into the ol’ catalog with much more success.

  5. Thanks for the reviews. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on a copy of Small Sister, as I’ve seen it recommended a few times. Oh, I love the Kane/Miller imports!

  6. Hi, Jeremy! Glad you found a way to search for titles that your library is more likely to have.

    What you said about Chester had me nodding. I think it succeeds in The Funny and the meta-ness of it makes me laugh every time, but, yes, it is like an entire book of interruptions. It’s almost even hard to read just one-on-one, but my girls are rather drawn to it (oddly enough, they are drawn to it, even though I don’t think they truly “get” all the clever metafiction nods. That probably has a lot to do with this notion, though — and I have Read Roger to thank for that link. Of course, when my husband read that, he said it’s time to show the girls “Star Wars.” He’s DYING to show them that movie, though I think they’re still too young).

    And, Jeremy, I love it when you check back to tell me what you think of titles. Even if readers don’t like them and think I’m loony for recommending them, I love feedback and a good, passionate picture book discussion.

    Nancy, I love Kane/Miller, too. I’m so happy they exist. I love to explore titles from other countries and always wish I had about 3 more hours in each day to do so.

  7. Maybe it’s just me, because I actually felt the same about A Story With Pictures…just too self-referential and disjointed to really get into, and the girls showed zero interest. Whereas An Undone Fairytale had them laughing out loud and demanding multiple readings…I think because there are two legitimate stories (the original and the meta) intertwining, rather than an aborted attempt at a single story that never gets realized.

    That’s a cool article; thanks for sharing. I agree with the approach, and I’m looking forward to trying more when my kids are a bit older. I’ve done pretty well in busting boundaries with books for my girls, getting them engaged in unconventional and advanced material…but I’ve utterly failed with movies.

    I think that it may be an age thing (4 and 6) — they’re just not ready for more intense stuff. We’re also not big TV/movie watchers, so it’s just not woven into our daily routine. They’re *hyper*sensitive to any bad guys or the mildest of tensions, never mind actual violence. We’ve had good success with the mellower Miyazaki stuff (and the girls love the film comic versions).

    We’ve showed clips of Star Wars to the girls, carefully selected..and they didn’t care that they weren’t getting the full story. They just loved the images and the robots…especially the robots. The dvds make it so easy to skip around to anything they find interesting.

  8. Thanks, Jules. These roundups are very helpful for Impossibly Busy Librarians, too. 🙂 The only one of these I’ve seen is Chester (which made me laugh), so I put all the rest on hold. I ought to have a nice pile of to-reads by the end of the week.

  9. Let me know if you like ’em, Adrienne. Woo!

  10. Great roundup, Jules! I love that Simpsons episode…

  11. Oooh… putting Velma Gratch on the reading list right now! We love books with interesting end papers, in particular, The Little Engine that Could, and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. It sounds like a wonderful story!

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