Posts Tagged ‘picture books’

groundhog.jpgAs a Pittsburgher, Groundhog Day is something of a Big Deal — admittedly, not a tremendously big deal — something on a scale between President’s Day and a Steelers Super Bowl win. We’re the closest major city to Punxutawney, the home of Groundhog Phil, who is the designated rodent for predicting the weather via shadow. (Yes, I know you probably knew that. But there are many who don’t. My father once spent a Feb. 2nd on an airplane next to a British gent. Said gent listened to my father’s explanation of the day and seriously thought he was getting his leg pulled. If you really need to know All the Facts, go to groundhog.org, where you can find interesting tidbits such as the fact that Phil was, until the reign of King Philip, once known simply as “Br’er Groundhog.” Huh.)

I meant to pull together a full Baker’s Dozen booklist of the best Groundhog Day books, but to tell the truth, there really aren’t that many worth getting excited about. My library system buys every single Groundhog Day-related book it can get its paws on, and Lo, many are lame. There’s one that actually called — I kid you not — “Andrew McGroundhog and His Shady Shadow.”  (Can a shadow be anything besides shady?  The word makes it sound as if the shadow was up to dodgy dealings in some dark alley.)  But here’s what is worth taking a gander at:


Note: A common theme I’ve noticed with these books is that the plot usually goes like this: Joe Groundhog is about to predict the weather.  An Obstacle prevents him from doing this.  Joe racks brain, overcomes Obstacle via Clever Solution, does/doesn’t see shadow and Life is Good.  I understand that there’s only so much a person can do with this nutty wannabe holiday, but really.  The repetition made me a little jaded at the end of writing this booklist, and I’m only annotating five books.

Substitute Groundhog by Pat Miller —   In this case, the groundhog is sick and must interview other animals to take his place for the Big Day.  But I’m not complaining in this case — the text is funny and interesting enough to get a roomful of preschoolers to engage in some creative thinking about what animal they would choose for the job.

Gregory’s Shadow by Don Freeman — This title was published posthumously by Freeman’s estate, and as a result, the illustrations look a little sketchy and unfinished, but I don’t mind.  He who gave the world Corduroy can do little wrong, in my opinion.  In this sweet story, Gregory’s best friend and confidante is his shadow, but when Greg accidentally leaves his shadow on a friend’s doorstep, it disappears.  How will Gregory do his weather forecast without it?  There’s a sweet solution, but the what’s appealing to me is the whole notion that a shadow can be lost — as I child, I encountered this idea in Peter Pan and Jack Kent’s The Biggest Shadow in the Zoo.  Chances are, your kids will think it interesting, too.

Go to Sleep, Groundhog! by Judy Cox, illus. Paul Meisel — Hibernation takes a holiday — three of them, in fact — when Groundhog decides to wake up earlier than Feb. 2nd and experiences Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas for the first time.  Fearing that he will be too tired to predict the weather (see what I mean by this pattern?) various holiday characters — Santa, a witch, etc. — take turns tucking groundhog back in.  Meisel’s acrylics are colorful, bold, and full of fun details — who wouldn’t want to be sung lullabyes by a Thanksgiving turkey?

The Secret of the First One Up by Lois Hiskey, illus. Renee Graef — the story gets cuteseyfied in this book, and by that, I mean that the illustrations feature a groundhog sporting a waistcoat and bow tie.  Which I think is pretty wonderful.  All groundhogs should, by law, be required to wear bow ties.  But, anyway, in this story, a young groundhog discovers why her Uncle Wilbur is always the first to rise on Groundhog’s Day (I, uh, won’t give away the obvious reason why).  But it’s neat to see the Groundhog Ur-Story done over as a passing-of-the-torch kind of family tradition.  Besides, most little kids I know wake up at the crack o’ dawn anyway, and this book does a good job at capturing that bit of magic at being the first one up and about in the house.

Punxutawney Phyllis by Susanna Leonard Hill, illus. Jeffrey Ebbeler — Phyllis wants to predict the weather — BUT — her family won’t let her because she’s a girl.  When she decides to take up the job anyway, she proves to be superior to her Uncle Phil (the current official forecaster) and proves that Girls Can Too.  Okay, okay — I do seem a little jaded with this book.  But you read the note at the beginning, right?  The redeeming part of this book are Ebbeler’s illustrations.  Oh, how I loves them cute groundhog clothes.  They really are adorable lil’ cuddly animals.

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peter-rabbit-cover.jpgPeter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.

Here’s why I love this book: it uses the word “implored.” Also “dreadfully,” “fortnight,” and “chamomile.” There are a lot of abominable dumbed-down versions of this story on the market, and I detest them all. Not just because it marrs with perfection, but because I’ve learned that the prose of Beatrix Potter has a similar-yet-gentler effect as that of Shakespeare: when you read it out loud, you sound like an embroidered-tongued GENIUS. Even the bunnies’ names ring out with a simple rhythm that I love: “Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.”

This book is the Big One — the Potter story that just about every kid in the English-speaking world is somewhat familiar with; if not with the story, then with the cartoon, the film, the puppet show (my library puts on one of these every spring), or the various P.R. merchandise that was invariably given to their parents at a baby shower. (The levels of Peter merchandise is astounding — almost reaching Pooh-levels of stuff.)

It’s also one of the few Potter books that I have a strong memory of being read to by my mother. I still remember dutifully repeating the Moral of the Story afterwards to her, and feeling awfully lucky that I wasn’t as naughty as poor Peter. There’s something to be said for that little feeling of smugness that comes with a book wherein the protagonist is far, far dumber than you are.

Let’s start with the pie, shall we? I love how specific Mother Rabbit is with her warning: not to stay away from Mr. McGregor’s garden because of “danger” or “Because I Told You To,” but because “your father had an accident there; he was put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” And yet — “accident.” As if — whoops! — Mrs. McGregor mixed up her bunnies and cherries and put Father Rabbit in a pie by mistake. Silly misunderstanding, that.

Peter, one of the great dim bulbs of children’s literature, runs off to the garden the secondpeter-rabbit.jpg Ma makes for the bakery (oh, how I love the way his jacket turns up at the edges when he ignores his mum!). He then proceeds to stuff his bunny belly until he is sick, setting an odd custom in the Potter books — characters who eat lots of vegetables almost always end up getting sick. Alert the pediatric nutritionists, if you will.

Then — the exciting part of the book! Mr. McGregor pops up from behind a cucumber frame and proceeds to chase our hero until he’s in naught but his nuddy-pants, but then — just gives up. No, he doesn’t fall down a cliff like a Disney villain, or get outwitted by Peter, he’s just “tired of running after Peter” and goes back to his work.

It’s here that I really notice what makes the Potter books different from other stories with anthropomorphized animals — although they walk, talk, and wear clothes, humans and animals tend to have the same kinds of relationships as they would in the real world — that of hunter/prey, or bandit/gardener, in this case. Mr. McGregor responds to Peter in the way that any middle-aged gardener would — he chases him for a while, then gives up — and Peter is very bunnyish in that he spends most of the book randomly running around scared without any sense of direction.

It’s that lack of direction that makes the middle of this story sag a bit; Peter runs in random circles around the garden before finding his way out (again, not through wit or cleverness, but by randomly passing the gate through which he came in). Every kid I’ve read this story to tends to get bored during this part. But perhaps Edwardian children knew more about the various pitfalls lurking in an English kitchen garden. Beware the white cat! Look out for that gooseberry net! The SIEVE! Stay away from the SIEVE!!!

Finally, Peter escapes, his clothes are scarecrow-ed, and once at home he is punished with — oh no . . . I can’t even type it! Camomile tea.

Nooooo! Er, well . . . I suppose I’d yell “noooo!” if I’d ever drunk camomile tea.

Again, this is something that I think the children of 1902 would appreciate more than the kids of today. Except maybe the children of hippie herbal tea enthusiasts.

However, every kid, Edwardian or not, can appreciate the good bunnies’ reward: “Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail had bread and milk and blackberries for supper.” That’s good eatin’, folks.

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I grew up in the kind of household where I was given a cross-stitch sampler to do when I was nine years old. Where antique washboards and darning tools were artfully displayed on the wall. Where rotary fabric cutters were considered a newfangled contraption for lazy seamstresses. A house where the old-fashioned and antiquated were held in high regard.

But best of all, it was a household in which I received a new Beatrix Potter book every birthday, Christmas, and Easter until I had them all. They were the old-fashioned, greenback editions, and I loved to see them lined up in perfect numerical order on my bookshelf (a portent of my future career as a librarian, if ever there was one).

As for reading them, I found them enjoyable but cryptic. I was definitely entranced by the books’ charms — anthropormorphic animals in cute little outfits! — but puzzled by others. A world where pigs trotted off to sell themselves at the market? Where mice sewed buttonholes with “cherry twist” (which I was certain was some sort of Twizzler)? And what the heck was a “patty pan” or a “pinny”?

As I’ve grown up and had children of my own, I’ve passed on a few of the books to my kids, but only the “safe” ones — the ones that made sense to me in childhood — like The Tale of Miss Moppet or, of course, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The strange ones like The Roly-Poly Pudding or Little Pig Robinson? Sadly, they’re gathering dust.

Which brings me to the new project: a fresh re-reading of all 23 Beatrix Potter books, with the keen hope that the contrast between the child and adult perspective will prove, if not interesting or enlightening, at least bloggable.

Tomorrow: The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Or: Do As Your Mother Says or Someone Will Steal Your Clothes

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everyoneknowswhatadragon.jpgby Jay Williams, illustrated by Mercer Mayer. Four Winds Press, 1976.

There are no unsung heroes like the authors of picture books. Yeah, yeah, I know that there have been efforts in recent years to honor the work of people who can do the much-harder-than-it-looks 32-page story , but let’s face it: in our world, it’s the people who make the pretty pictures that usually get the glory. So whenever I run across an accomplished picture book author who never quite made it big-time, I always like to make an effort to show off their books a bit.

Jay Williams is one of those authors. He authored a dozen or so picture books in the ’60s and ’70s, and not one of them won any major awards, so nearly all of them are out of print. But if you have the time to scour library and used bookstore shelves for Williams’ books, you’re going to be rewarded with little gems that you find yourself turning to again and again.

Take, for example, the forgotten book Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like. It’s a “literary folktale” — a story that has all the earthy trappings of a folktale without actually coming from, ah, Folk. Set in Wu, an imaginary village in the mountains of Asia, it concerns Han the peasant boy, whose job it is to greet visitors to the city. When Wu is under threat of invasion by wild horsemen, its citizens pray for help from the Great Cloud Dragon. Answering these pleas comes a small, bearded, fat old man who claims that the dragon is himself.  “You don’t look like one,” replies Han.  “How do you know?” replies the old man.  “Have you ever seen one?”  When the Mandarin and his advisers reject this logic, it is only the kindness and humility of Han that allows the old man to save Wu from invasion.

It may seem like a familiar story, but what makes it special is Williams’ luscious words and characters.  Han isn’t just your regular poor-but-cheerful peasant, but “everyone who went in or out of the city had a merry word from him, for that was all he had to give.”  A dragon is described as “rich and splendid . . . as comfortable as a pocketful of money.”  Best of all, the dialogue between the city Mandarin and his staff begs to be read aloud — it’s a bout of bickering that is beyond chuckle-worthy.  You’ll be guessing the end of the story before it’s halfway done, but like all good journeys, it’s the getting there that’s the most fun.  I’ve read few picture books that end as gracefully and satisfyingly as this one.

Although I really want to highlight William’s work in this review, it really wouldn’t be fair to finish without lavishing praise on Mercer Mayer’s gorgeous watercolor-and-ink illustrations.  Mayer is probably best known for his “Little Critter” series of picture books and for his work for John Fitzgerald’s Great Brain series.  His work here is brimming with rich detail — Mayer is a master at drawing knobby faces and pudgy cheeks, coaxing out the comic natures of the characters without making them look too silly.  The backgrounds spill over with jewels, tiles, flowered carpets and knickknacks, and it’s wonderful to just sit and gaze at the pictures for long periods of time, looking for details you missed before.

Williams was writing “fractured” fairy tales long before it was fashionable to do so; his other books include Petronella and The Practical Princess, both of which turn up occasionally in folktale anthologies.  If you’ve gone so far as to find these books, I’d also recommend The Silver Whistle and Stupid Marco.  All of them are delightful trips into whimsy — a fairy tale world that is comfortingly familiar, but unpredictable enough to keep you on your toes.

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fallfestival3.jpgOnce a year, a conglomerate of children’s literacy-type people (librarians, teachers, museum workers, etc.) from the Pittsburgh area put together a lovely one-day conference featuring a bevy of children’s authors and illustrators. This year’s get-together featured Sharon Flake, Brian Pinkney, and Katherine Ayers. Not bad, eh? I took notes throughout the day’s lectures and workshops. Here are the highlights:

sflake.jpgSharon Flake

  • What a classy lady! I don’t know if I’ve seen another author who manages to radiate warmth and humility the way Ms. Flake does. Even though she’s been a big author in the kidlit world for quite a few years now, she kept saying over and over again in her lectures how amazed she is that she is successful at what she does. It’s a “dream come true,” she said, but not from the success so much as the many opportunities she has to talk, laugh and hug children wherever she goes. Lucky lady.
  • As a child, Flake didn’t particularly enjoy reading or writing — she was a “reluctant reader,” a category she hadn’t ever heard of until she became popular. How fitting it is that her books are frequently used to entice reluctant readers to the joys of the written word, eh?skinimin.jpg
  • Last little bit: although I came to truly love Flake by the end of the day, the writing exercise she gave in her writing workshop is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever heard of. She broke the class into groups, then had each group imagine and list what they would do for children if they had $90,000 to spend. Then each group had to write a rap song about their list, and sing it for the whole class. Yeah, it was fun, but . . . whoo.

katherineayers.jpgKatherine Ayers

  • Ah, our Pittsburgh native! (Yeah, yeah — Sharon Flake is a Pittsburgher, too, but she isn’t from here, she’s from Philly, a fact that we forgave her for some time ago.) Ayers is most beloved ’round these parts for her historical novel Macaroni Boy, which is set in the Strip District of Pittsburgh. (Ahem. The Strip is not the town red-light district. It’s a group of warehouses and international import shops that run in a strip along the Allegheny River.)
  • What’s interesting is that the idea for Macaroni Boy was suggested to Ayers by her editor after watching a Rick Sebak documentary about the Strip District. (Sebak has produced many documentaries about Pittsburgh, hot dog stands, farmer’s markets, and the like for PBS). Ayers later met up with Sebak at a party while in the middle of writing the novel, and he immediately let her know about the Strip District’s Great Banana Explosion of 1936.macaroniboy.jpg
  • You heard me. Banana Explosion. Yes, it really happened. It was caused by gas in the ripening room of a fruit warehouse. It blew out all of the windows of an entire city block? And who could pass that kind of a story up? Lo, and behold — it’s in Macaroni Boy! (Haven’t read the book? Go put it on your to-be-read list, ASAP. It’s fun.)

bpinkney.jpgBrian Pinkney

  • What’s it like growing up with Jerry Pinkney for a dad? Full of self-confidence, apparently. Brian says that he never had any doubts that he wouldn’t be a successful artist, since he saw his dad painting every day, and it looked easy. Huh.
  • Pinkney had the guts to show us his first self-portrait, made when he was thirteen. Here it is (although the picture I took of it is darn grainy):


  • Ain’t it just groovy? I don’t know what I like better, the rhinestones on the jeans, or the “slow motion” lines around the left hand.
  • Speaking of kung fu, Pinkney’s a pretty accomplished tae kwon do enthusiast. Ever read Jo Jo’s Flying Side Kick? Well, Pinkney does a pretty mean flying side kick, himself. He showed us a picture of it, and I wasn’t able to capture it, but dude. It was hot. Pinkney hasn’t made the pantheon of Hot Men of Children’s Literature, but he certainly, certainly should.jojosflying.jpg
  • Oh yeah, and there was something in his talk about illustration, the scratchboard process, and working with his wife, Andrea Davis Pinkney. But I can’t seem to remember what it was after the blinding coolness of the flying sidekick.

That’s all for tonight, folks!  Thanks for staying tuned!

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Forgotten BooksWhoo. In the course of schlepping all of my junk from The Evil Blogger to The Somewhat Less Evil WordPress, I’ve decided to make a handy-dandy archive of what has always been this blog’s most popular feature: The Forgotten Bookshelf. Here you’ll find picture books, fiction, poetry, folklore, and even the (very) occasional non-fiction from the Days of Yore. These are classics reclassified — gems from years past that are raring to be unearthed and enjoyed by a new generation of readers. Read on and happy hunting!

Picture Books





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