Picture Book Round-Up, Part Three:
Leaving the nest (in more ways than one)

h1 May 12th, 2007 by jules

Grumpy Bird
by Jeremy Tankard
April 2007
(library copy)

God, this book is funny. Just. so. funny. And, apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so; it garnered quite a bit of advanced praise and then managed to get some good reviews (from The Horn Book and School Library Journal to name just a couple). I have David Elzey’s review at The Excelsior File to thank for first making me want to go out and find a copy. Here’s what so funny: Grumpy Bird just wakes up pissed off. I love it. There are some of us for whom the phrase “woke up on the wrong side of the bed” simply has no meaning. There can be “a” wrong side? Both sides are always glaringly wrong and we wake up feeling as if the center of gravity were directly under our bed and need about, oh, at least one hour and several cups of coffee to facilitate actually speaking to anyone without grumbling and cursing and swearing. So, yup, Grumpy Bird wakes up grumpy. I’m going to risk getting sent to copywright prison and show you an illustration from the book so that you can see for yourself how hysterically surly he is in the morning (but I will link to the interview from which I got this pic and hope that Jeremy Tankard, the book’s creator, will not sue me. By the way, go read that short interview with him. It’s under “5 Silly Questions with Jeremy Tankard,” and it’s amusing). Yes, there he is on the left. He wakes up too grumpy to eat, play, or even fly. “Looks like I’m walking today,” he says. Grumpy Bird, my new favorite matutinal misanthrope*, passes Sheep, Rabbit, Raccoon, Beaver, and Fox, and they all ask him what he’s doing. Not surprisingly, he snaps back comments like, “‘Let me give you a hint . . . You do it by placing one foot in front of the other.'” The animals all manage to be fairly chipper in the mornings (an emotional state I cannot fathom for having just woken) and happily join him on his walk. When bird suddenly stops, so do all the animals. When he stands on one leg, so do they. When he jumps, so do they. “‘Hey, this is fun! . . . Let’s fly back to my nest for a snack,'” Grumpy Bird says, managing to be lifted from his Fog of Irritability by the mere presence of his friends and a bit of cheery camraderie. If the story itself sounds appealing to you, let me tell you: It. gets. even. better. Tankard’s mixed-media artwork is top-notch. Tankard uses real photographs in the backdrops of each spread (real trees, real houses, real clouds) and then superimposes upon those images his multi- and brightly-colored, kaleidoscopic designs. It’s absolutely beautiful. The animals themselves are composed of simple shapes with a heavy, black brushstroke outlining them. But I could pore over his trippy background designs forever. That cover doesn’t do justice to what you’ll see inside. Go read it. My favorite picture book thus far this year.

Today at the Bluebird Cafe:
A Branchful of Birds

by Deborah Ruddell and
illustrated by Joan Rankin
Margaret K. McElderry Books
February 2007
(library copy)

This is an anthology of twenty-two poems that are all-things-bird, and it’s one that you won’t want to pass up this year. Ruddell opens the book with “Today at the Bluebird Cafe”: “It’s all you can eat at the Bluebird Cafe / a grasshopper-katydid-cricket-buffet . . .” Each succeeding poem has a particular bird as its topic (“The Loon’s Laugh,” “A Vulture’s Guide to Good Manners,” “There’s a Robin in the Bathroom,” “Bye-Bye, Ibis,” “Penguin’s Lullaby,” “The Woodpecker,”** and more). Ruddell graces the poems with various moods — from silly (“Toucan Tour Guide”) to contemplative (“The Eagle”) — and some beautiful imagery (“She reminds me of one of those wedding cakes / with frosting swoops and coconut flakes. / Pure vanilla, tall and proud, / guaranteed to draw a crowd . . .”, she writes of the cockatoo). She also puts to use some evocative metaphors and scattered similes: The great horned-owl is “motionless and silent / like a stuck-up king in a play . . .” and “Blue as a bruise / on a swollen knee, / ruling the world / from a maple tree,” a verse of the “Blue Jay Blues.” Joan Rankin’s watercolor illustrations are at turns blithe and fantastical (she seems to be channeling a slightly-less-hopped-up Stephen Gammell in the gorgeous fairy-tale spread for “The Swan,” one of the final poems), but she knows how to tone it down as well and complement the more pensive poems with a bit of whimsy that never overpowers. This is Ruddell’s first book, and I look forward to what she creates next . . .

Leaving the Nest
by Mordicai Gerstein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
(Books for Young Readers)

February 2007
(library copy)

As the School Library Journal review put it, this is a “spirited bit of backyard psychodrama.” There’s a lot going on in this particular yard (towards the end, many of the spreads must be turned vertically to take it all in), and Gerstein builds the tension well in this story about finding one’s freedom and taking risks. Without a traditional narrative style (he uses speech bubbles throughout the book), we are first introduced to Mama (blue) Jay, who instructs her baby-in-the-nest to stay while she flies off for a bit. Baby Jay responds, “‘The world is big and scary . . . There are cats and giants. I will never leave this cozy nest'” (that latter part becoming a kind of repeated refrain in the book). Sure enough, there’s a kitten watching from the screen door of the house in this yard, and then we see a young girl (the “giant”), leaving the house to try to ride her bike again for a second time. The kitten at the door, as she pushes against it, longs to get outside and experience all the smells and sounds and sights. Gerstein then throws a squirrel into the action: the girl is shaky on the bike, trying to regain the confidence she possessed the day before; the kitten steals outside; the baby bird slips from his nest; and the squirrels start to fear the kitten. Each takes their own particular journey, trying to overcome their fears, after Gerstein introduces the conflicts and furthers the adventures of each creature. Each one has a tried-and-true narrow escape, but mothers (both human and bird) show up to lend a helping hand. The energy and action/adventure, which is compacted in the same, tight space (the backyard) throughout the story, is balanced by Gerstein’s warm colors and the humor in the details. Might be a bit cumbersome for a group read-aloud, but this one is perfect for a beginning reader to sit and pore over in terms of the text itself and the visual narratives. And, speaking of the text, I agree with Anne at Book Buds when she wrote in her review, “Gerstein uses speech bubbles as in comics, but awkwardly adds ‘says ____’ to the quotes. I think we can figure out who says what, no? Maybe he’s experimenting with a graphic-novel style but wasn’t fully confident about a new genre — hard to believe given his artistic prowess.” Word. Those “she says” in the speech bubbles are superfluous. But I still enjoyed the adventure about the joy and contentment of returning to one’s safe, cozy nest after the thrill of leaving it for the first time.

by Steve Breen
Dial Books for Young Readers
March 2007
(library copy)

Steve Breen, Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Grand Avenue, brings us his mostly wordless picture-book debut in this story of a globetrotting, fearless frog named Stick. The book opens with end pages showing us a map of New Orleans and the waters surrounding it. And then the title page itself made me chuckle — there’s Stick, his tongue stuck to the letter “S,” hanging far, far below it. Stick likes to do things on his own, we find out; in a series of panels after the opening illustration of Stick with his mom, we see the kind of trouble he can get into when he stubbornly refuses help. And then one day, he gets figuratively and literally carried away, zapping that tongue out again to catch a huge dragonly but getting stuck and carted away on an aerial tour of New Orleans. Thus begins his adventure: He flies through the town, even through an unsuspecting eldery lady’s living room one quiet morning — all through “the jazzy city” (even right over Satchmo’s head. Oh yes, any book with a Satchmo cameo gets my vote any day). He falls down, gets back up, gets chased, falls again, and travels by seagull — all through the 1950s-era New Orleans for which Breen obviously has great adoration. Suddenly finding himself alone and missing home, Stick finally asks for help and is transported back to his own version of a nest by a friendly bird (featuring a lovely blue-hued spread of Stick’s swamp at night). It all ends with another visual joke, proving that Stick’s stubborn streak and ardent curiosity were not diminished by his unintentional adventure (Nice touch. I’d hate to see the little whippersnapper’s spirits get squashed by all this). Breen packs in the suspense and plays with some fun aerial perspectives with his light-hearted and lively illustrations (rendered in watercolor, acrylic paint, and colored pencil with some assistance from Photoshop), and his flying frog makes me wonder if the book isn’t an homage — or at least a respectful nod — to David Wiesner’s Tuesday. Preschoolers will get lots of laughs from this title (and adults — when Stick is propelled off a car’s windshield with the swishing of the wipers, it gets me every time) . . .

The Chicken-Chasing Queen
of Lamar County

by Janice N. Harrington and
illustrated by Shelley Jackson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
(Books for Young Readers)

March 2007
(library copy)

Aw man, you really need to meet The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County, a spunky, young farm girl who lives with her Big Mama. Big Mama is always telling her to keep her hands off those chickens and stop running ’em out of their nests, but, when Big Mama isn’t looking, off she goes to try to catch one:

I make myself as still as sunlight. And those chickens hold still, too: one leg raised in the air, just waiting to step off. “Pruck! Pruck!” — which must be chicken for “What’s she up to this time?” And then . . . SQUAWKKKK!”

And you have to just see that “SQUAWKKKK!”, because it’s just one fine example of Shelley Jackson’s mixed-media collage illustrations, which spill to the book’s very edges and exude joy and provide a lot for the observant reader, particularly little art lovers, to see: I especially love the little girl sitting on a fence at the book’s close, while she’s watching Miss Hen. And the fence is covered with parts of a musical score. And then there’s the spread in which the girl is trying to think chicken thoughts (“Big Mama says you can do anything you put your mind to — if you want it bad enough”), so there are photos of chicken feed swirling around her painted self, and she’s got one eye closed while eyeing Miss Hen with the other. And after a bit of green space, you see Miss Hen on the right doing the same, winking at the girl. It’s hysterical. It’s details like this which give the book it’s wonderfully spastic energy. Harrington’s text possesses an animated cadence (“One by one, Mr. Rooster and the chicken ladies come stepping by. Peckity-scratch-peck. Peckity-scratch-peck. Beaks down and bottoms up. Chickens clucking, squabble-squawking”), and the little girl’s transformation in the end from chicken-chaser to Fender of the Fowl is believable and funny and heart-warming. Aw. This title, which garnered a starred Booklist review, is a perfect read-aloud.

Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend
by Mélanie Watt
Kids Can Press
March 2007
(library copy)

Take last year’s refreshingly funny, Cybils-snatching Scaredy Squirrel title with all its schedules and lists and diagrams and such — and repeat. That’s what Mélanie Watt has done with this, the return of our panic-stricken protagonist, and boy howdy am I glad she did. She should have done nothing else. She brings us those map legends and Scaredy’s ennumerated instructions to himself and Action Plans — all with the skeleton of a traditional narrative, but she somehow brings it all to life and manages to tell a rip-roarin’, laugh-outloud story with an unforgettable (though petrified) hero. We could talk about Scaredy Squirrel’s higher calling, how last year he reminded us all to chill out a bit when it comes to the antibacterial soap and the hyper-protective parenting and yadda yadda yadda. I mean, that’s all good. Power to Scaredy Squirrel for knocking us upside the head and reminding us to ditch the fear a bit and calm down a lot. But instead let’s just talk the WONDERFUL HUMOR — I mean, look at that cover. The name tag (“Hello. My name is Scaredy“) . . . I mean, holy crap, that’s just funny. I’m so glad he’s back, as are tons and tons of children (have you ever watched a child hold a Scaredy Squirrel book in his or her hands and just pore over all the images and icons and lists and flow charts and other delightfully left-brained stuff?). Hurrah for his return — for the tongue-in-cheek cartoon illustrations and all the humor and Scaredy’s continued quest to leap into the unknown (this time he does so within the realm of friendships, and there’s dental care involved — oh, as well as Godzilla. Don’t miss it! He doesn’t get out of that tree often, you know).

Every Friday
by Dan Yaccarino
Henry Holt and Co. (Books for Young Readers)
March 2007
(library copy)

So, here’s a title about leaving the nest but with your daddy in stride right next to you. Yaccarino opens this book with an author’s note about how he and his son have breakfast together every Friday at their corner diner and how he hopes you, the reader, will start such a tradition — to which David Elzey at The Excelsior File says, yeesh. I paraphrase with that yeesh, but here’s what he actually wrote:

As an idea the author encourages, taking a child out for a special ritual like a weekly breakfast can be a great thing. I only wish it were more possible than the mere suggestion that parents try to do the same. I think of all the families I know, how difficult it is just to get everyone out the door and on their way in the morning, and I don’t think I know a single family who could add such a ritual. The sheer logistics of it, the amount of extra time it would take in the morning, isn’t practical. And forget it if you have more than one child and have to deal with the parity issue. Even saying it like that makes me feel like I’m a bad parent for not figuring out a way to add an extra hour or so to the morning routine. What parent wants to feel like that after reading a book?

To that I say, touché. But the book still works. Yaccarino does nostalgia well (this one having a very 1950s look and details to it), and . . . well, in their review Booklist addressed what I’m trying to say: “{Children will} likely pick up on the nostalgic tone, which amplifies the warm sense that the breakfast tradition is a welcome break from modern, overbooked lives: ‘Everyone is rushing, but we’re taking our time.’ It’s the closeness between father and son . . . that will speak most to kids . . .” I may not have the time (or the temperament — see above Grumpy Bird review) to take one of my daughters out every morning for a special ritual, but — as hokey as it sounds — the book does remind me of how I sometimes get impatient with the three (or four or five or ten) “come here!”s that it takes to have my preschool-aged daugher come to me to, say, get dressed, though I’m all the time telling her to “just wait one moment” while I finish something. Perhaps he should have left the guilt-inducing Author’s Note out, sure. But I think he’s simply slowing down time for a moment, giving us a glimpse into the bond between parent and child — and without being too moonstruck and mushy about it, which is impressive. Add to that his signature stylized, dapper, smooth-as-silk illustrations with all the sharp outlines and bold colors. He may be wistful for the past, but his work never gets old.

* * * * * * *

* {I’ve wanted to use the word “matutinal” in a sentence ever since it came up in a rousing game of Balderdash. Someone I was with (my father, I believe) guessed that it was “a urinal for mature people.” Needless to say, once we figured out it’s true meaning, we never forgot the word. God, Balderdash is fun} . . .

** That one’s for Kelly Fineman. The word “woodpecker” brings out her middle-school, milk-snortin’-while-laughing self, she recently admitted.

11 comments to “Picture Book Round-Up, Part Three:
Leaving the nest (in more ways than one)”

  1. Hurray for Balderdash! Have you played Beyond Balderdash?

    Loved the review of Grumpy Bird. It made me laugh just from the description, so I know the actual book will be a big hit in pre-dawn households everywhere. But my question is: where was his COFFEE?

  2. NO, I’VE NEVER PLAYED THAT!! I’m screaming this, ’cause I’m shocked that I’ve never heard of it. Do you know that, really and truly, you can just get some paper and a dictionary to play that game? Oh isn’t it the best game ever? So fun if you’re a big word-lover.

    Perhaps Jeremy Tankard will give Grumpy Bird a cup of coffee in his next book (it’s going to be called Me Hungry — did you read that short interview with him?). He calls it “a sequel,” so I trust it’s all about Grumpy Bird, who is my new hero.

    I think my husband is still — after seven years of marriage — truly baffled at the depths to which my grumpiness can go in the morning hours after I’ve just woken. I mean, I try to just not speak to people for a while so that I will not snap, but even that reticence baffles him. I’ve recently discovered how scary it can be when I do not get those cups of coffee. I must really be addicted.

    Anyway, yeah, all these books are great. I’m still working through a huge picture book stack. So many good new ones . . .

  3. Hi Jules,

    I had forgotten about playing “balderdash’ but I’m glad you jogged my memory.


  4. In my world, we’ve always called that game, very originally, “dictionary,” as in, “Hey, let’s play dictionary!”

    Jeremy Tankard should not sue you because your review made me buy a copy of his book IMMEDIATELY. The illustration in question was what sealed the deal. I feel like that every single morning of my life.

    Coincidentally, I read Today at the Bluebird Cafe just this morning. I really enjoyed it. I like the subject, the poems themselves are fun, and the illustrations are really engaging. I like a lot of poetry books that I can’t see selling kids on, but this is one that I can totally see walking out the door on a regular basis.

  5. Thanks for the shout-out, Jules. I was away all last week (writing retreat and conference), and came across it while catching up. You and Eisha have been busy!!

  6. […] exciting books and I’m so glad he is contributing to the world of children’s lit. I raved about last year’s Grumpy Bird ’til I was blue in the, uh, fingers, and every time I see […]

  7. […] in April. Regular readers know of my deep and abiding love for Jeremy’s debut picture book, Grumpy Bird (2007). I also have a special place in the 7-Imp portion of my heart for Jeremy, since he was the […]

  8. […] you fans of Scaredy Squirrel—children’s literature’s most endearing panic-stricken protagonist—know, […]

  9. […] a children’s book, though I’m only familiar with her illustrations for 2007’s The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Janice N. Harrington. But, really. That was enough right there. What a most excellent book. […]

  10. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbour were preparing to do a little analysis about that. We acquired a good e-book on that matter from our local library and most books where not as influensive as your information. I am very glad to see such data which I was searching for a long time.This made very glad! Anyway, in my language, there arent much good supply like this.

  11. […] amazement I LOVED writing. Almost as much as I liked drawing. So with three books under my belt (Grumpy Bird, Me Hungry!, and Boo Hoo Bird) and a great deal of confidence and enthusiasm, I launched myself […]

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