Picture Book Round-Up:
Best Friends (Imaginary or Not)

h1 August 9th, 2007 by jules

Fred Stays With Me!
by Nancy Coffelt
and illustrated by Tricia Tusa
Little, Brown Young Readers
June 2007
(library copy)

“Sometimes I live with my mom. Sometimes I live with my dad. My dog, Fred, stays with me.” A young girl — who, in the opening spread, is being pulled in one direction by her mother and then the other by her father on two different days, though we only get brief parental glimpses of an arm here or a leg there — pulls her beloved dog along behind her on his leash. In fact, he’s her constant companion (“We walk together. We talk together. When I’m happy, Fred is, too. And when I’m sad, Fred is there”), even though she divides her time between parents. She shows us a bit of this life: that she has the same friends at the same school, but in one house she has a bunk bed, and in the other, she has a regular bed (“Fred sleeps on the floor”); at her mom’s, Fred barks at the poodle who lives next door, and at her dad’s, he steals her dad’s socks (“But Fred always has time to play”); and so on. And then, when her parents try to lay down the law and each say that something must be done about Fred’s behavior, going so far as to say that Fred can’t stay with either one of them, the girl — in an illustration that is both very funny and quite moving — says, “Excuse me
. . . Fred doesn’t stay with either of you. Fred stays with ME!” And the primary reason it succeeds in being simultaneously funny and touching is because she has a bright spotlight falling on her when she makes this determined announcement (in her own effort to claim some control of the situation), and — of course — she’s holding Fred tightly in a huge embrace, as if her life depended on it, her parents’ shadows looming in the forefront. For children feeling the tug-of-war that is a parents’ separation, the book is empowering, comforting in all our persistent protagonist’s efforts to find stability through Fred (fortunately, this message is handled subtly). But even those children with two parents in one home can relate to the intense bond a child can develop with a pet dog. Tusa’s illustrations — primarily rendered with an earth-shaded palette (lots of browns, pale yellows, and touches of red) — convey humor in just the right moments. The occasional spreads that bleed to the book’s very edges, such as the spread in which the girl and Fred are spending some alone time together in the woods, captivate. The majority of the illustrations are boxed and set in fairly generous white space, the text always on a clean, white background; even the font is fetching. Both the illustrations and text, which merge together gracefully, possess an understated and droll charm. Don’t miss this title this year.

A Bear and His Boy
by Sean Bryan
and illustrated by Tom Murphy
Arcade Publishing
April 2007
(library copy)

Bryan and Murphy have brought us previous creatures-on-your-head stories, 2005’s A Boy and His Bunny and ’06’s A Girl and Her Gator. This new title is a bit of a cautionary tale about the over-scheduled life, and I will take it any ‘ol day over Peter Reynold’s adult-fable-disguised-as-a-children’s-book So Few of Me from last year. In simple rhyming text and with very child-like, very spare line drawings, Bryan and Murphy tell the story of a bear named Mack, “who woke up one morning/ with a boy on his back” (that would be Zach). Well, the bear has no time to spare; he has a totally packed schedule. So, off he goes — with Zach on his back — running around like a maniac, as Zach describes it, taking care of all his errands. Finally, the boy snaps, yelling “HOLD ON!” and asking Mack if they can stop to smell the lilacs. And so they do. It’s a sweet, quiet, unassuming story about making time for what’s important. What bugged me about So Few of Me is this: What child overschedules him or herself? But A Bear and His Boy makes a connection with children (as well as parents) with its ridiculously absurd premise, the adventures the bear and his boy take, and the simple joy of being with your friend, something children know very well.

A Perfect Day
by Remy Charlip
April 2007
(library copy)

This is a gentle story with a simple text and Charlip’s ability to make the ordinary somehow seem magical. It delivers just what the title tells you: a depiction of a perfect day. A perfect one, not the perfect one, mind you. The sun rises, a young boy and his father begin the day (“At breakfast we could talk about . . . How we might go for a walkabout”). After their walk-‘n’-talk, they watch the clouds; have lunch with some friends (what would be called a “playdate” by your contemporary suburban mother, a phrase which for me is like nails going down a chalkboard for some reason, but I digress), including some singing and dancing; cuddle up and take a nap together; paint some pictures of their day; eat; “read from picture books and think” (Oh yes, the most supreme line from any picture book thus far this year); and go to bed. “Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow we can laugh and play.” And cue the sun setting . . . Has it become trendy to bemoan the overscheduled child (see above title and yesterday’s co-review)? Well, no matter; the reason it’s increasingly a complaint for some modern parents is because it does happen quite a lot anymore. This book is a sweet celebration of a free-form day involving no calendars or cell phones or personal digital assistants, with parent and child participating in the simple pleasures of companionship between the hours of sun-up and sun-down. It’s extremely loving; count all the hugs and try to keep up. But it’s entrancing subject matter for your toddler or preschooler. Charlip’s bright watercolors “resemble something a youngster might draw, and the palette of soft pastel colors supports the story’s comforting atmosphere and the love between these two” (School Library Journal). A cuddly, comfy, warm story for intimate lap-time reading with your wee-est or the nearest wee-est you can find. This one would be good paired with the recently-released What Happens on Wednesdays by Emily Jenkins and Lauren Castillo (review to come).

Bob and Otto
by Robert O. Bruel
and illustrated by Nick Bruel
Roaring Brook Press
April 2007
(library copy)

This is a clever book that, as the School Library Journal review put it, is perfect for introducing elementary-level spring science units, but it’s also about friendship. The book’s last line about the importance of friendship may be a bit superfluous, since the rest of the book does an excellent job of showing us that through the narrative and the illustrations done in an occasional split-screen format, simultaneously showing us Otto’s actions and Bob’s adventures. Otto is an earthworm; Bob, a caterpillar. And they are best buds. They love to be together and do a lot of the same things, but then nature calls: Bob looks up at a huge tree one day and decides he simply has to climb it, leaving Otto confused (“Life is good just where we are. Why would you want to go up there?”). Thus the split-screen format begins — Bob’s transformation into a butterfly at the top of each spread (he pretty much naps a lot and then flies about a bit) and Otto’s hard work (lots and lots of digging) at the bottom of the spreads. Seeing Bob’s new form as a butterfly, Otto is sad, knowing he could have perhaps done the same instead of being “just . . . a worm.” But, Bob tells him, Otto’s digging loosened the soil for aeration so that the roots of the tree could consume the water and grow tall and produce green leaves — all things which ultimately allowed him to grow the very wings that Otto so covets. “You’re not just a worm. You’re my best friend,” he tells Otto. It’s a tribute to not only friendship but the acknowledgement of differences in friends and how such differences can be a source of loyalty and support. Not to mention, as Kirkus Reviews put it, “{j}ust the right mix of worm’s-eye view and big picture allows children to see that even small actions have an impact.” This story was written by Nick’s father, Robert, and discovered by Nick at the time of his father’s death. It’s a science lesson that will draw children with its heart and Nick Bruel’s bright, energetic (yes, he manages to make an earthworm’s digging seem dynamic) illustrations.

Imagine Harry
by Kate Klise
and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise
June 2007
(library copy)

Little Rabbit does not want for friends, but his best friend of all is Harry. His other friends call him “Imagine Harry,” because he’s invisible, but Little Rabbit cares not and simply calls him Harry. They play together all year — during winter, spring, summer, and fall, they climb trees, swim, sled, and roll down “the gentle hills of soft grass that surrounded Little Rabbit’s house.” Children will get a kick out of Klise’s many depictions of Little Rabbit’s play with Harry — Little Rabbit pulling a sled with what looks like no one on it; the two of them swimming together and seeing a big splash in the pool for Harry’s jump off the diving board; Little Rabbit telling his mother to be careful, that she’s about to sit on Harry; etc. Naturally, Little Rabbit gets the added perks of an imaginary best friend — extra cookies (for Harry, of course); staying up past his bedtime (“‘Someone has to keep Harry company,’ he told his mother”); and avoiding a hair washing (Harry doesn’t want soap in his eyes, you know). Mother Rabbit starts to get a little peeved with this and tells Little Rabbit that his friend is wearing out his welcome. Pretty soon, Little Rabbit’s at school, and thoughtful Harry slips into the shadows to let Little Rabbit have his play and school time. Then, one day during music class,

Harry whispered softly in Little Rabbit’s ear, “I’m tired. I think I’ll go take a nap.”

“Okay, Harry,” Little Rabbit whispered back. “See you later.”

And before he knows it, Little Rabbit realizes he hasn’t seen Harry in weeks, telling his mother that Harry moved away and has his own house now.

M. Sarah Klise brings Little Rabbit’s world to life with much warmth and lots of details, endearing us to his loving home and mother and his menagerie of friends — and with lots of bright sky-blue and grassy greens and the other rich colors of her acrylic paintings. And together — with her sister Kate’s sincere and sensitive narrative, which never condescends to the notion of an imaginary friend — they create what I found to be such a poignant ending; I have to say it chokes me up every time in all its unassuming honesty (maybe it’s that lately I’ve been thinking about the fleeting nature of childhood and wondering where the time has gone and how my wee little first born suddenly became a sassy, opionated three-year old). They show us that Little Rabbit had made many new friends during his first year of school, and he doesn’t think much of Harry — “except once in a while in the spring, when the smell of new grass reminded Little Rabbit of the hills he and Harry used to roll down together.” There he is with his friends at that same hill. And then you turn to the final page and see that, though his friends have run past him, Little Rabbit has stopped to look thoughtfully down that hill, as if he’s trying to remember something. And Klise adds, “Harry loved doing that.”

And that’s it. That’s the end. It’s very touching and affecting but without being too gawky or heavy-handed. It’s a really wonderful, graceful moment and perfect way to end this gentle book that speaks to both children and parents alike.

by Barbara Lehman
Houghton Mifflin
April 2007
(library copy)

Lehman’s back (Museum Trip; The Red Book) with her vivid watercolor, gouache, and ink illustrations that tell another wordlessly-formatted, sometimes sequentially-panelled story of mystery, magic, discovery, and “the déjà vu feeling that comes when reality mingles with the longing of dreams” (Booklist). But the reward waiting for our protagonist at the close of this one is friendship. A young boy, alone on a rainy day in a stately manor by the sea and dressed formally (complete with a neck tie), finds a key under a chair and eventually finds the trunk the key opens. The trunk opens to a ladder, which the boy descends, finding a tunnel, a passageway, and an ascending, spiral staircase. Atop that is a lighthouse, and he enters it to find three children and a dog. The children then play together all day (the boy eventually removing that stifling tie and even his shoes) until the sun sets. The next day he invites them to come play with him on yet another rainstorm day. This one doesn’t disappoint; Lehman’s sturdy, brightly-colored illustrations — with their bold outlines and seemingly-simple, pleasing aesthethic — invite children into a visual world where they can supply their own narrative. What child can’t relate to the ennui of a dreary, rainy day and looking for adventure — or, at the very least, just one something to do? This title doesn’t burst forth with as much magic and fancy as her previous titles, but it still shines nonetheless.

Bossy Bear
by David Horvath
May 2007
(library copy)

There is something about Bossy Bear that is somewhat compelling: perhaps it’s the spare graphic art and text (which begs to be read aloud) and simple compositions; the dry humor; the bold colors. Maybe it’s his big eyes and obnoxious stance. There’s also a lot of (again, dry) humor in his commands to everyone (yelling at the pedestrian sign on the corner, “What do you mean, ‘Don’t Walk’?”). I’ve kid-tested it, and — with the right dramatic delivery — it brings about big laughs. And that’s pretty much the story line — that he barks at everyone, has to have his way. Finally, he meets an accommodating, even-tempered turtle who makes him see his unpleasant ways (in a very understated ending) and who is Bossy Bear’s first friend. Horvath — along with his wife — is the creator of Uglydolls; little did I know that when I picked up this title, but I suppose Uglydoll fans will be pleased. The School Library Journal review said it best: “Fans of the narrative style in Mo Willems’s ‘Pigeon’ books . . . and parents seeking behavior-related tales will welcome this tidy story.”

So, has anyone else noticed I’m making a bit of progress with my picture book stacks? Still many more left (and the stack keeps growing, too), but I’m determined to get to them all. Until next time . . .

16 comments to “Picture Book Round-Up:
Best Friends (Imaginary or Not)”

  1. I really love that cover of Rainstorm. Just from seeing that picture, I think I’d like the book. Thanks, Jules, for these reviews.

  2. Susan, I’m pretty sure that Rainstorm has been reviewed at a handful of other blogs if you want other opinions, too. I’m kinda slow in getting to it.

    I would go look and type you up a list of which blogs have reviewed it, but, you see, I haven’t had coffee yet and am not quite fully human at this point.

    Anyway, I hope you like it.

  3. I LOVED “Imagine Harry.” It’s so quiet, but it stays with you for a long time.

    Do you know 70% of children have had an imaginary friend at one point or another? I wasn’t one of them. Sob.

  4. Yikes. My home is so bursting with books I may have to move out and yet every time I pop over here I’m forced to add a whole slew of books to my must-get-my-hands-on list. Thanks (i guess!) for this latest batch of great suggestions. (I can only imagine how Fred.. is going to kill me as I choked up just reading your review).


  5. Well, Andrea, your site does the same for me. It’s dangerous for my TBR pile to visit Just One More Book . . .

    Kelly, I LOVE Imagine Harry. I could swear I first read about it over at Book Buds, but I can’t seem to find the review now (I was trying to see if it was you or Anne who reviewed it over there). But I’m in haste anyway and will look later. Anyway, I have one of you to thank for reading it.

  6. Jules, I love this theme. What a great-looking collection of books! That cover for Imagine Harry is so lovely. Congrats on making a heap of progress on that TBR pile.

  7. Thanks for the support, E-dawg. I love talkin’ picture books, even though my stack is dauntingly (is that a word?) tall. And remember my pledge to review as many as I possibly can this year? Well, I counted yesterday — ’cause I’m a Big Super Nerd — and I’ve reviewed something like eighty-ish, I think it was, ’07 titles thus far this year. I guess that’s okay for it being mid-year. I had thought I could do more by this point, but all those great middle-grade and YA novels get in the way.

    I want to have reviewed the Caldecott winner when the award’s announced next year — just ’cause (and the Cybil winner, too, of course).

    Anyway, I love the illustrations – and cover, too – of Imagine Harry, but, man, do I really love Tricia Tusa’s art work in Fred Stays With Me!, which is why I put it up top. There is a Matt Phelan feel to her work (while still managing to be All Tusa All The Time). Me likey.

  8. More books to buy! It’s just the right time for me, too, catching up on the collection development I largely ignored in July.

    I have read Bob and Otto. I keep thinking I simply can’t take another butterfly transformation story, but this one worked for me. I liked the angle with the comparision to the worm and all.

    And of course now I’m thinking of Tadpole’s Promise by Jeanne Willis, you know the one that ended with the frog eating the newly transformed butterfly, kind of like Ugly Fish. I hate to say how much those books made me laugh, but we all know there’s something wrong with me….

  9. HA! Adrienne, I gotta read Tadpole’s Promise now. I LOVE Ugly Fish. Have you seen I’d Really Like to Eat a Child? Go here.

    If there’s something wrong with you, then the same goes for me and Eisha, ’cause you always make us laugh and I think we like the same things. Hey, if we’re all demented, so be it.

  10. Oh goody, the library has Tadpole’s Promise, Adrienne. Excellent. I’ll have to report back.

  11. Oh, yes, I even have a little picture of I’d Really Like to Eat a Child that I cut out of a catalog taped to the computer monitor in the Children’s Room. Try to keep those kids in line, you know.

    Maybe in Chicago, we could start a table for people who like picture books that are slightly demented.

  12. I just read Imagine Harry — so sweet and true. Thanks for pointing me to it.

  13. We’re PUH-SYCHIC, Adrienne. I *just* emailed you to tell you that I just read Tadpole’s Promise, and I laughed so hard. And so did my daughter. And I emailed you a post idea, too. Mwahahahahahaha.

    The very last page of Imagine Harry makes me cry. I’m a big fat baby.

  14. […] for last year’s Fred Stays With Me! (written by Nancy Coffelt) blew me away (reviewed here in […]

  15. […] our shared love of what we’ve decided to call Slightly Demented Picture Books. It started with Jules’ review of Bob and Otto, written by Robert O. Bruel and illustrated by Nick Bruel. She and I have been talking about […]

  16. This blog is very educational.

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