Picture Books

32 pages of beautifully illustrated glory. The descriptions may say that picture books are for ages 4-8, but, trust me, your kids will be reading and browsing picture books before they’re four years old. Picture books often focus on the art more than the text… hence their name.

Star Wars Head-to-Head

Oh, the things your child will bring home from school…

I just had a 20-minute conversation with my daughter about who would win in a fight between Darth Vader and Yoda and it was, honest to god, part of her homework. (Let’s give it up for public schools, nerds.) The debate was inspired by a book called Star Wars Head-to-Head: The 30 Wildest Matchups You’ve Never Seen! by Pablo Hidalgo, and I’m not sure if I want to throw the book in the garbage or give it a teen movie-style slow clap to acknowledge it as a subversive masterpiece.

My daughter is in first grade and her class has a daily homework reading program called “Book in a Bag.” Every day, she comes home with a new book (in a bag!) that she’s supposed to read with us that night. After she reads it on her own, we have to decide if the book was “Easy”, “Just Right,” or “Hard” for her to read and fill out an attached form. It’s a good concept, though the books my daughter brings home sometimes can leave a lot of be desired. Occasionally, she’ll bring home a familiar gem (The Princess and the Pizza!), but often, she’s bringing home phonics-focused easy readers that are way too easy for her or she’s bringing home media tie-in books (My Little Pony, Star Wars, etc.) that just seem designed to lure kids away from legitimate works of literature. (Or at least that’s how it feels sometimes, said the grumpy dad with his own kid lit blog.)

But I totally understand why my daughter’s teacher includes those titles in the book-in-a-bag program. Yes, they might not be well written, but the kids love them. They gravitate towards those books and, since those titles appeal to their basest lizard-brain impulses, they feel a sense of ownership when they pick them out and get excited about reading them. I get it. Most of them suck, but I get it. They’re dessert reading. And every kid is entitled to dessert occasionally, right? Just not all the time. Dessert all the time just leads to sloth, rot, and general queasiness. So, if my kid comes home with a Star Wars book from school, it’s no big deal, provided that she realizes that we’re reading Shel Silverstein or Maurice Sendak at bedtime to balance out her diet.

Star Wars Head-to-Head

I refuse to acknowledge the validity of this duel…

That being said, we actually had a very fun time going through Star Wars Head-to-Head: The 30 Wildest Matchups You’ve Never Seen last night. Granted, it’s not the easiest book for a kid to read on their own – each page is set up as stats page for various characters and vehicles, so there’s a lot of small type metadata for kids to sort through. (Did you know that Darth Vader’s height/weight is 2.02 meters/136 kilograms? I do now.) However, the concept of the book is extremely easy to grasp. On each two-page spread, two characters or vehicles are featured and the book essentially asks the question, “Between these two contestants, who would win in a fight?

Yoda vs. Vader? Obi-Wan vs. Boba Fett? Luke vs. Anakin? Jawa vs. Ewok? Star Destroyer vs. Trade Federation Battleship?

And, as much as I hate to admit this, that simple concept inspired a night of very entertaining, very detailed theoretical debate between my daughter and I, a result that I wasn’t expecting at all.

Star Wars Head-to-Head

OK, Billy Dee Williams should be legitimately upset about this.

Maybe I’m just used to the normal kid’s book media tie-in methodology where the book just clumsily retells a story that was previously told better in another medium. But, at its core, Star Wars Head-to-Head has an infinitely more engaging mission. It’s a book designed to be a discussion starter. Yes, it’s filled with clumsy instruction manual-esque prose and photoshopped artwork, but every two-page spread is actually asking its reader a question – “Which one would you pick?” And that one simple question turns those readers into active participants with the book. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 6 comments }

How good is Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green ? I brought this up when I wrote about Mo Willems a while back, but there are a few children’s book creators who are so consistently good that their continuing excellence almost starts to seem commonplace. You find yourself expecting it – “What? Another Kate DiCamillo triumph? About time. I expect nothing less…” (Cut to entitled parent rolling their eyes and tagging their latest Tweets with #firstworldproblems.)

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Lane Smith is one of those creators that my family completely takes for granted. We are huge fans of his work as an author and illustrator across a whole slew of titles like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, Seen Art?, Madam President, Cowboy and Octopus, Princess Hyacinth, It’s a Book… the list goes on and on. My daughter swears up and down that Smith’s The Big Elephant in the Room and The Happy Hocky Family – two books that he both wrote and illustrated – are two of the funniest books she’s ever read. And we very purposely don’t own either title, because, when we take them out from the library, she sees it as an enormous treat.

All that being said, with the regard that we have for Smith’s body of work, it’s really spectacular to know that he can still surprise us as a creator. Specifically, I’m talking about his latest picture book, Grandpa Green, a book that I think, stands as a big shift in tone for the author, but it’s a shift that pays off beautifully.

First, don’t get me wrong. It’s NO surprise that Smith, as an illustrator, has delivered another gorgeous picture book. He’s proven himself as one of the most playful and innovative artistic talents in kids lit for years, so the fact that you want to frame every page of Grandpa Green and hang them around your house isn’t an earth-shattering revelation. I will say that Grandpa Green probably most closely resembles Smith’s Princess Hyacinth, but it adds this wonderful muted palette of greens and grays to an organic storytelling world that Smith creates out of an intricate and beautiful topiary garden. The ways that Smith is able to express emotion, memory, and the passage of time through the composition of this living, breathing garden is really something to behold.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Smith’s topiary wonderland is amazing

For me, the big surprise of Grandpa Green is the emotional punch that Smith delivers as an author. Smith has always been funny and painfully clever – see It’s a Book as a prime example – but Grandpa Green has a much, much deeper emotional core than any of his previous books. The premise is heartfelt and elegant – a young boy recounts the life of his great-grandfather as he wanders through a topiary garden that collects some of his great-grandfather’s treasured memories. We see a shrub sculpted to remind us of “Grandpa Green” as a baby, another sculpted as a tribute to his first kiss, another representing his service in World War II, and another series of meticulously-designed garden creations curated into a loving tribute to his wife. We follow Grandpa Green’s great-grandson as he lovingly walks through the garden, touring through his grandpa’s memories and collecting his misplaced gardening tools. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 1 comment }

Every year, my wife and I have the same problem around Christmastime – “How many books are too many books?”  We’re lucky enough to have a kid that actually, honestly appreciates books as a gift (provided that there are other gifts as well), so she’s come to both expect and love the books she receives on Christmas morning. (Don’t believe me? Check this video out.)

Our only issue is making sure that we’re not overloading her with SO many books that she gets overwhelmed and the really good ones get lost in the crowd. So, this year, we tried to restrain ourselves, but… we still got her some very, very cool books. These are the ones we landed on and, if you somehow run into my daughter between now and the 25th (which would be super-weird), just play along and don’t spoil the surprise, OK? Here’s what we got her:

The Search for WondLa and A Hero for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi
wondla

These were my daughter’s most requested books for the year. She’s a HUGE fan of Tony DiTerlizzi, a fantastic author and illustrator who (along with Holly Black) is responsible for The Spiderwick Chronicles, which are among my daughter’s favorite books of all time. AND we checked out The Search for WondLa from the library a few months ago and she LOVED IT. It’s a really cool, very engaging science fiction story about a resourceful girl named Eva Nine, who is raised in an underground sanctuary by a robot and eventually ventures out into the strange outside world. Eva is a great character and it’s a fun, classic quest with beautiful illustrations and, I realized later, it is one of the first sci-fi stories that my kid ever read all the way through. (They make a lot of fantasy for younger readers, but not a lot of science fiction.) She loved the first WondLa book and wanted to know where the story went, so now she’ll have her own copy of the first book along with the second chapter, A Hero for WondLa. I think she’ll adore them.

♦◊♦

The Animal Book by Steve Jenkinsanimal

I’m excited about this one. We discovered The Animal Book at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor and my wife and I knew we were going to buy it immediately. Steve Jenkins makes some of the coolest nonfiction books I’ve ever seen. He’s a remarkable scientist and artist and his book Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember is one of the most read titles in our home library. This encyclopedic look at the “fastest, fiercest, toughest, cleverest, shyest, and most surprising animals on Earth” is BEAUTIFUL and I know my daughter will spent hours combing over every page.

♦◊♦

Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Nancy Carpenterqueen

I will be 100% honest with you – I have not read this book. But I can tell you why I bought it. First, my daughter LOVES weird true stories from history. She loves knowing about how President Taft got stuck in the bath, she loves hearing about Annie Taylor, the woman who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and, as such, I think she’ll love this true story about Queen Victoria’s real-life bathing machine, which allowed her to swim in sea water in private. The second reason I think she’ll love the book (and the main reason why this title caught my eye) is the fact that it was Nancy Carpenter who illustrated it – Carpenter illustrated two of my daughter’s most beloved picture books, 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore and 11 Experiments That Failed. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 2 comments }

rexhallow_0004Before I get started, let me say that I know that saying anything is the “best EVER” is one of the internet’s most heinous and frequent sins. Everything online has to be the greatest or the worst. People can’t disagree on the web — they either destroy their opponents or come off as an epic fail. Everything is heightened and over-the-top, which means that nothing is really heightened or over-the-top, so, when someone online tells you, “This is the best ever,” there’s no real reason why you should think that they’re talking about anything special. EXCEPT THIS TIME… because Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and its sequel, Frankenstein Takes the Cake, are seriously the best Halloween books for kids EVER.

If you haven’t been overwhelmed by incredulity yet, let me explain. Yes, I realize that people like sharing spooky books with kids around Halloween time and I love that. For younger kids, you can give them something clever (but safe) like The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky or Substitute Creacher by Chris Gall. (Both great.) For older kids, you can go classic like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving or modern classic like Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. (Super creepy.) But, for me, Halloween is really all about that sweet spot where unbridled fun and playful spookiness collide and I don’t know of any other kids’ titles that tap into that crazy tone overlap better than Rex’s Frankenstein books.franksandcover

For those unfamiliar, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Frankenstein Takes the Cake are two insanely creative illustrated poetry collections that utilize a breathtaking variety of art styles and rhyme schemes to tell short stories about some of the most famous monsters of all time – Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolfman, the Mummy, witches, yetis, zombies, Godzilla, and, of course, the titular Frankenstein.frankcakecover

If that sounds cool, yes, these are incredibly cool books, but you also need to know that the poems are FUNNY. The Frankenstein books are among the funniest kids’ books we own. Get a load of the titles of some of the poems: [read the rest of the post…]

{ 0 comments }

This looks like a cool one...

This looks like a cool one…

It started simply – I asked myself, “I wonder what new kids’ books are coming out in October.” Two hours later, I was still browsing through publisher catalogs, muttering to myself, “That looks so cool, that looks so cool, that looks so cool…” There just SO many epic kids’ book releasing this month (the number of titles coming out on October 7th alone is ridiculous) and I couldn’t be happier about it.

In an effort to share the amazing, I decided to put together this quick guide to 21 books that are coming out this month that I’m personally EXCITED about and that I think you should be excited about too. Sometimes, it’s because I like the creators’ early work, sometimes, I just like the concept, sometimes, I am literally judging the book by its cover. This is a TOTALLY subjective list. But, at the very least, this should give some of you a heads-up about some very cool books that are on the horizon and, if I missed any fantastic-sounding upcoming titles, PLEASE let me know in the comments section below. Enjoy!

♦◊♦

bean_stalkA Bean, a Stalk and a Boy Named Jack by William Joyce, illustrated by Kenny Callicutt

Format: Picture book
Release Date: October 7th

Why You Should Be Excited: It’s the newest picture book from William Joyce, the creator of A Day With Wilbur Robinson, Dinosaur Bob, and the beautiful, beautiful The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which Joyce adapted from his Oscar-winning short animated film. So… yeah, there’s some pedigree here.

♦◊♦

creaturefeaturesCreature Features: Twenty-Five Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Picture book

Why You Should Be Excited: Jenkins makes some of the most consistently beautiful and informative picture books I’ve ever read – my daughter adores his Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember – so I can’t imagine this one will be anything less than fascinating.

♦◊♦

eyezoltarThe Eye of Zoltar: The Chronicles of Kazam by Jasper Fforde

Format: Young adult novel
Release Date: October 7th

Why You Should Be Excited: I haven’t read the previous Chronicles of Kazam books, so I’m not speaking from experience, but I love, love, LOVE Fforde’s Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series, which makes it hard for me to deny the potential on this one.

♦◊♦

graveyardbookThe Graveyard Book Graphic Novel: Volume 2 by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell

Release Date: October 7th                     
Format: Graphic novel

Why You Should Be Excited: Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is one of my favorite young adult novels of the past ten years and the first volume of Russell’s graphic novel adaptation was impressive. (I really love Russell’s prior comic adaptation of Gaiman’s Murder Mysteries story.) Plus this volume features the conclusion of The Graveyard Book, which I’ve written about before and absolutely adore.

♦◊♦

greatescapeThe Great Escape: Magic Shop Series by Kate Egan and Mike Lane, illustrated by Eric Wight

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Chapter book

Why You Should Be Excited: I haven’t read the early volumes of the Magic Shop series, but the description sounds very cool – I love magic stuff – and the real reason I’m excited is the artwork by Eric Wight, who’s absolutely amazing and who created the totally fantastic Frankie Pickle series of early readers.

♦◊♦

ivangorillaIvan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Picture book

Why You Should Be Excited: C’mon, this is Applegate adapting the remarkable story behind her 2013 Newbery Medal-winning YA novel into a gorgeous-looking picture book. A new take on The One and Only Ivan that I can share with even younger readers? No-brainer. I’m in.

♦◊♦

kidsherriffKid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads by Bob Shea, illustrated by Lane Smith

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Picture book

Why You Should Be Excited: Because… Lane Smith. He’s a picture book god and is responsible for SO many of my daughter’s favorite books. And his previous collaboration with Bob Shea, the picture book Big Plans, is super, super funny. I’m looking forward to this one. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 3 comments }

B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures

Take that, Caldecott committee!

One of the many reasons why I love picture books is because they’re one of the few forms of literature that actually anticipate that you won’t be reading them alone. Sure, there are picture books that are made for kids to read on their own, but there are also those wonderful picture books that are designed specifically for parents to read aloud to their children. They’re almost more like a play-script than a traditional book. It’s this lovely little monologue, a screenplay with storyboards included, a script for your onstage debut, performing your lines for a bedtime audience of one. (Or two or however many kids you have.) And, if you’re looking for a great script for your next storytime performance, I would definitely recommend B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures. Even if the book did made me scream “Blork!” and admit to my daughter that I’m really a “robot monkey.”

Let me explain…

You probably know Novak from NBC’s The Office, so I know what you’re thinking – celebrity author. It’s a total vanity project, right? NOPE. This is a great, great book, which isn’t that surprising because Novak released a collection of short stories earlier this year, One More Thing, which, I have to say, was excellent. So, we’ve established that the guy’s a good writer, but what’s remarkable about The Book with No Pictures is how well Novak understands the nuances of a great read-aloud book.

B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures

I’m a what-now?

Any really, really amazing kids’ read-aloud book, first and foremost, has to turn the kids into engaged listeners. They can’t be passive. They have to be part of the performance. How do you do that? You give them POWER, or, at the very least, the illusion of power. Look at Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. The book opens with the bus driver handing over his authority to the listening children, telling them “whatever you do, don’t let the pigeon drive the bus.” The parent then takes over the role of the curious pigeon and, while they get to ham it up as the pigeon, the kids participate by screaming “NO!”

Or look at perhaps the best read-aloud book EVER, Jon Stone’s The Monster at the End of This Book. It’s a genius bit of reverse psychology. Grover appears and essentially tells the listening kids, “If you turn the page, terrible, TERRIBLE things will happen!” (Which might be the best incentive for reading I’ve ever heard.) [read the rest of the post…]

{ 4 comments }

It’s a sad fact, but, if you’re the parent of a young girl, at some point, there’s a better than average chance that you’ll have to deal with the creeping horror that is the princess book genre. The princess craze is an amazing thing to behold. It’s like an airborne pathogen or some kind of morphic field cultural memory download. It just worms your way into your child’s subconscious with no obvious point of entry. Even if your daughter is the most tomboyish tomboy on the block, eventually, there’s like a 90% chance that you’re going to have to buy her a princess dress and a cringe-inducing selection of princess-themed reading material at some point. (No parent should have to read their child a book this pink at bedtime.)

Cinderella

How can something this boring be considered a “fantasy”?

And, trust me, resistance is futile. I’ve spent countless hours already trying to shape my daughter into a gender-proud feminist (and she’s FIVE) and yet there I was – taking her to a Disney Princess breakfast at EPCOT (by myself!) and making sure that we saw every damn princess in that park. Why? Because she simply loves princesses and fighting against their appeal is just going to make me the common enemy of both my daughter and the princess industrial complex. And I won’t survive if they unite to take me down.

So, how do I fight back? I mostly do it through books. I am still a MAJOR gatekeeper when it comes to my daughter’s reading material, so, at the moment, I do have the ability to keep her away from cheap throwaway titles like Barbie: The Princess Shoe Party Fashion Show and Cinderella: A Sparkly Royal Thanksgiving… which are EVERYWHERE and are just as soul-crushing as they sound. While I hide those titles behind the periodicals at the local library, I spend a good deal of time searching for really engaging princess stories that I then subtly push her way.

And that’s a challenge. It’s not easy finding princess books where the princesses aren’t passive, aren’t beholden to a prince, and have lives and agendas of their own. And, on the flip side, I also don’t want to give my daughter really hacky, didactic propaganda pieces where the author is just out to scream, “AND THE PRINCESS COULD DO ANYTHING THE PRINCE COULD DO! AND PROBABLY BETTER!” (If I could find the video of 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon as her high-school football place kicker, missing an easy kick and cheering “Equality!”, I’d put it here.) Even if I agree with the message, if it’s not a well-told story, forget about it.

As a service to you parents out there who may have children suffering from princess mania or who just simply can’t face down another royal Disney bedtime, here are six really impressive princess books that your kids will enjoy and that won’t make you curl your fists in post-feminist rage.

1. The Princess and the Pizza by Mary Jane and Herm Auch

The Princess and the Pizza

The Princess and the Pizza

This is an extremely fun title – particularly if your child is already familiar with the normal Disney princess canon. Princess Paulina is struggling with peasant life now that her father, the king, has given up his throne to become a wood-carver. So, when she hears that Prince Drupert is seeking a wife, she hurries over to “get back to princessing” and finds herself in a competition against other potential princesses to be his bride. The humor in Princess and the Pizza is really irreverent and clever – it reminds me a lot of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre – particularly as Princess Paulina realizes how ridiculous the competition is. She’s competing against nicely exaggerated versions of classic princesses like Snow White and Rapunzel and, after a cooking competition where Paulina accidentally invents pizza, the book ends with a great twist – Paulina sees the value in what she’s created, tells Drupert to shove it, and opens a successful pizza joint. This is a very silly take on the whole notion of princessing, but Paulina is such an expansive, resourceful character that your princess-jonesing kids will love her. (Age range: 3 and up. It’s more of a storybook than a picture book, so there’s a fair bit of text on its 32 pages.)

2. Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Lane Smith

Readers of this blog won’t be surprised at all to hear me praising a book by Florence Parry Heide and Lane Smith, but, all of my preferences and biases aside, Princess Hyacinth is one of the best books either of them has ever done. (I will one day write a much, much longer appraisal of Princess Hyacinthfor the blog, but I couldn’t leave it off this list.) The concept is elegantly absurd – there was a princess with a problem. She floats. She can’t stop herself from floating into the air at any time. And, around that premise, Heide and Smith craft a story that just feels fresh and unique – you’ve never read a princess book like this before. Hyacinth is annoyed that she can’t play outside with the other kids (particularly with Boy, the young man she has a crush on), but she also longs to take full advantage of her unique condition and soar among the clouds. After a close call where she almost floats away into the stratosphere, Hyacinth becomes much more comfortable with who she is and decides to stop fighting against her problem and learn to enjoy it.

Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated

Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated

Smith delivers some of the best work of his career here, but, for me, it’s Heide’s prose that really makes Princess Hyacinth a classic. Her text reads like it was mined directly out of the mind of a kid, like the smartest seven-year-old in the world is telling you the greatest story she’s ever heard and, in my experience, kids eat that up. They can’t get enough of it. In my mind, the closing words of the book say it all: “The problem about the floating was never solved, and that’s too bad. But Princess Hyacinth was never bored again. GOOD.” Yes, it is. (Age range: 3 and up. There’s more text than some picture books, but it’s fairly large and fun to read.) [read the rest of the post…]

{ 138 comments }

Art & Max by David Wiesner

If I rub my chin and look thoughtfully at the painting, maybe people will think I know what I’m talking about…

I don’t know much about art. I couldn’t tell an impressionist from an expressionist if my life depended on it. That being said, I love art and art museums, and I think viewing and talking about art is an incredibly valuable experience for a young child.

I grew up near a wonderful art museum – The Detroit Institute of Arts – and I spent a lot of time there as a kid, mostly because they had fantastic children’s programs and admission was free. And, while I never did pick up on the myriad differences between impressionism and expressionism, I did spend hours upon hours browsing the collections and forming opinions about the paintings and statues. Some I adored, some I hated. Some stirred emotions, some left me cold. Even if I never picked up on the historical context of the collections or the art-world lingo, I definitely “experienced” the art, for lack of a better term, and I deeply enjoyed that experience.

The great thing about spending time with art is that it helps teach you how to process abstract concepts. If you look at a painting and really ask yourself, “Why does this painting make me feel this way?” or “Why do I interpret the color red as anger?”, it can give you some amazing insights into how your brain works. And, when you talk about something as abstract as art, it helps you develop this vocabulary that, believe me, really comes in handy later in life when you’re struggling to talk about abstract concepts like pain, loss, joy, and love. So, yes, art is pretty and it’s nice to look at, but experiencing art isn’t just about aesthetics alone. That’s why I think exposing kids to art at a young age is a terrifically enriching activity and I just couldn’t encourage it more.

But, I realize that talking about art isn’t easy, particularly when (like me) you don’t know much about it, and many families don’t have world-class, free-admission art institutes right down the street. So, if you need help introducing your kid to the joys of art, here are six books that I think do an amazing job of helping kids grasp the illusive, abstract wonders of really appreciating both art and the creative process.

1. Art & Max by David Wiesner

I once wrote that “David Wiesner is one of reigning Grand Poobahs the modern picture book and ANYTHING he publishes is totally worth your time.” I still stand by that statement and Wiesner‘s most recent picture book, Art & Max, is no exception. Across Wiesner’s gorgeous desert landscapes, we meet Arthur (or “Art”), a stately lizard who’s painting a very traditional portrait of a small red companion. Suddenly, the hyperactive lizard Max knocks into Art and declares “I can paint too, Arthur!” But Max doesn’t know what to paint. When Arthur suggests “you could paint me”, Max interprets this literally and starts splashing colors onto his exasperated friend. After Arthur screams in fury, the paint explodes off of him, leaving behind a vague color outline. This leads into a series of transformations where Arthur’s body evolves through several distinctly different art styles – pastels, watercolors, penciled outlines, Jackson Pollack-esque splatters, pointillism – his body is like a living history of art.

Art & Max by David Wiesner

The best buddy movie about art EVER

Max’s playful antagonism exposes Arthur to a whole new perspective on what art can be and, as the book ends, both lizards are attacking their new canvases with renewed vigor. But don’t let my references to Jackson Pollack and pointillism scare you off. First and foremost, Art & Max is a very, very fun picture book. My daughter always cackles as Max paints all over his best friend with wild abandon, and Art & Max is filled with some of the funniest physical humor I’ve seen in a picture book in ages. Who knew art could be this fun?

Art & Max by David Wiesner

Insert your own “painted lizard” joke here…

2. Seen Art?, by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith

This is an odd little picture book that my daughter adores. (Seen Art? might be one of our most frequently checked out books from the library.) To commemorate the opening of the new location of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in late 2004, Scieszka and Smith created this long, thin tribute to the museum, in which a young boy, looking for his friend Arthur, gets directed into the new MoMA building after asking around, “Seen Art?” (Characters named “Art” or “Arthur” are a common recurring motif in kids’ picture books about art.) The boy eventually wanders through the museum – the book features a large series of wonderful reproductions of many of the museum’s most notable pieces – learning while he goes how other people define what exactly “art” is. The offbeat characters throughout the museum present to the young boy a fantastic series of questions regarding art – questions like “Is it trying to capture dreams? Or is it making images everyone can recognize?” And those questions have sparked some really fun conversations with my daughter.

Seen Art?

My kid loves this picture book/museum guide book hybrid…

Seen Art? is a great overall primer for teaching kids how to appreciate and talk about art. And it’s the reason why my six year old can recognize an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein print on sight, which is pretty cool. Plus, when I was finally able to take her to MoMA this past summer, my daughter was over-the-moon excited and recognized her favorite pieces from the book on almost every floor of the museum, which was also pretty cool. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 3 comments }

Lost in the shuffle...

It’s so easy for new kids’ books to get lost in the shuffle…

For a parent, keeping up with the current state of children’s publishing can be hard. Children’s and young adult titles are more popular than ever, so there are just an immense amount of new kids’ books hitting the shelves every week. And, for parents, finding those new titles – the new and really, really great titles that your kids will totally love – isn’t always easy or intuitive. Oftentimes, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for parents to encounter new kids’ books. Maybe you’ll see one online (if it’s prominently featured by one of the big retailers), maybe you’ll see one at the library (if your library ordered it), or maybe you’ll discover it at your local bookstore (if you still have a local bookstore). There are so many variables working against parents in the hunt for new books for their kids.

While I can’t solve the problem – because I miss just as many amazing kids’ books as the next parent – maybe I can help a little. Here are five of the coolest, most interesting, recently released children’s titles that I’ve encountered over the past few weeks. Even if these titles aren’t ideal for your kid, these books are all outstanding enough that they should definitely be on your kidlit radar.

1. Aesop’s Fables by Aesop and Ayano Imai

Two years ago, I wrote a post about “The Difficult Task of Introducing Your Kid to Folk Tales and Fairy Tales,” which was all about the responsibility I felt, as a parent, to give my child a well-rounded introduction to the myths and legends of the world. Related to that, let me just say, one of my biggest regrets is that I never bought my daughter a collection of Aesop’s Fables. It was a huge oversight on my part that possibly occurred because I never really read them myself as a kid. But, if you want a truly superior introduction to Aesop’s Fables for your home library, you can’t do better than this off-the-charts GORGEOUS picture book by Ayano Imai. The edition of Aesop’s Fables is ingeniously designed (you flip the pages landscape-style, like a calendar), Imai’s illustrations are packed with absorbing details, and it’s just one of those picture books where you want to frame every page and hang them in your kid’s room. I think the book may have been originally published in 2012, but I just saw a new 2013 edition of Imai’s Fables last week and I was blown away. (You can learn more about the book here and browse through it here.)

Aesop's Fables by Ayano Imai

A simple, elegant retelling of Aesop’s best fables…

2. Ballad by Blexbolex

Ballad by Blexbolex

There’s enough genius in here to keep your kids occupied for DAYS…

Blexbolex is a ridiculously talented French illustrator and, last June, I wrote about my love for his beyond brilliant word-book People. That title was an epic, phone-book-sized masterpiece that taught children about a huge variety of different people, including contortionists, centaurs, fakirs, tattooed men, rabbis, cat burglars, and more. (Seriously.) Each page featured wonderfully simple and iconic representations of different kinds of human beings, illustrated in a fashion that almost made them look like they were screen-printed or stamped onto each page. If it’s possible, Blexbolex‘s new picture book, Ballad, is an even more ambitious work, a truly staggering piece of visual storytelling.

Ballad follows a young boy as he walks home from school and, during his journey, the boy spins a series of increasingly complex stories based around the different environments he encounters – school, street, path, forest, and, eventually, home. The boy’s stories feature classic icons from the history of fables, ranging from witches to queens, and Ballad just perfectly captures how ingrained storytelling is in our day-to-day lives and imaginations. (Maria Popova wrote a much better and more perceptive review of Ballad – with way more images – that you can read here.) If you want your child to have really smart and beautiful picture books on their bedroom bookshelves, works like Ballad are a great place to start. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 1 comment }

Scholastic’s Kids Are Authors Contest

Does your kid want to publish their very own picture book? Scholastic can help…

While 826 National does publish some of the most beautifully designed kid-authored books I’ve ever seen, they’re certainly not the only organization that publishes books written by school-aged kids. If you’re interested in more examples of superior student publications, you should definitely check out the current and past winners of Scholastic’s Kids Are Authors Contest.

Scholastic, publisher of both Harry Potter and school book order catalogs (not sure which is more famous), sponsors an annual contest for K-8 students in the United States in which teams of students can collaborate on writing and illustrating their very own book. Students can submit their books to Scholastic, which publishes two winning entries each year – one fiction and one nonfiction  – and sells the finished books via their national network of school book fairs.

The contest itself is extremely cool – the deadline for this year’s submissions is March 15, 2014 – and all of the winning entries I’ve read have been equal parts fun and impressive. There’s just something very enlivening about seeing kids put together their own books and having such control over the words and art. There are always these quirky, inspired moments in each book that I don’t think would ever occur to an adult author, but they just feel perfectly natural coming from kids.

Scholastic’s Kids Are Authors Contest

The 2012 Kids Are Authors Nonfiction winner – White Tails and Other White Tales

Past winners of the Kids Are Authors contest include titles like The Seeds of the Milkweed (written and illustrated by second grade students from East End Elementary School, Little Rock, Arkansas); White Tails and Other White Tales (written and illustrated by second grade students from Longfellow Elementary School, West Allis, Wisconsin); Two Dollars, One Wallet (written and illustrated by third grade students from William McKinley Elementary School, Burbank, California); and A Kid for Jack (written and illustrated by fourth grade students from Piney Grove Elementary School, Kernersville, North Carolina), among others.

It’s terrific that Scholastic publishes these books, however, the winning titles are exclusively sold through Scholastic school book fairs, so it’s not tremendously easy to get copies of past winners online (or to get the current winners if you don’t live near a book fair location). They’re not sold on Amazon or anywhere else, though I’ve occasionally seen a few copies of past titles on eBay.

So, if you can make it to a book fair this year, I’d really recommend checking out the winners of the Kids Are Authors contest. There’s something awesome about kids writing for an audience of their peers. The books connect with their readers in really interesting ways and such creativity and drive should always be rewarded.

Scholastic’s Kids Are Authors Contest

Some of the past winners of the Kids Are Authors Contest…

AND, if you think your K-8 kid should be a published author, check out the contest guidelines HERE. They could maybe run the idea past their teacher, put together a creative team, and who knows? They just might have their hard work featured in book fairs across the U.S. and find themselves on the path to becoming the next Mo Willems or Kate DiCamillo.

{ 6 comments }