I’ve spent a lot of time hunting down books to add to my daughter’s collection and, hands down, one of the best parts of that experience is stumbling upon a book that I’ve never heard of before and slowly and suddenly realizing… “Oh, this is a good one.” You just get hit with this wave on unexpected pleasure, the sort of heady ego-boost that comes from accidentally finding yourself exposed to, what seems like, secret knowledge. “Oh, I’ve found a very, very good book here. And I didn’t hear about it from a friend or from a book review or a librarian… I found it MYSELF. I’m the person who gets to tell everyone I know about this one.” Don’t ask me why. But it gives me a little shot of endorphins, which is really, really sad.
This was my experience with being introduced to Bats at the Library by Brian Lies, a completely sensational picture book, all about a charming colony of bats expressing their love for their local library. Remember that smug little sense of self-importance I spoke of earlier? I was totally awash in that sensation when my daughter and I discovered Bats at the Library in the remains of a very picked-over children’s section in a going out-of-business bookstore back in March. And, trust me, that hipster-esque ego charge of finding a book that “you probably haven’t heard of” becomes even more sad when you later realize that, even though you’ve never heard of it personally, the book in question was a best-seller (12 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list) and a major award winner (won the 2010 Bill Martin, Jr. Picture Book Award, among other prizes). It’s like bragging that you found this great new little boutique called “Target” that you just can’t wait to show to all your friends.
But, regardless of my lame personal hang-ups and constant need for affirmation, Bats at the Library has become a big favorite in our household on its merits alone. The basic premise is simple – a group of bored bats are excited to discover that a window has been left open at the town’s library, so the colony heads over for an impromptu “Bat Night at the library!” The good-natured, excitable bats (think Stellaluna, only cuter) have a grand old time, playing with the overhead projectors, splashing around in the water fountain, exploring pop-up books, and reading, reading, reading. Lies is a masterful artist – his playful, detail-packed paintings remind me of the great David Wiesner – and, in Bats at the Library, his verse is almost just as equally well-executed. His rhyming lines balance the bats’ cheeky excitement with a real reverence for the pleasures of reading. To quote the bats at the end of their adventure:
For now, we’ll dream of things we’ve read
a universe inside each head.
Every evening, one and all
will listen for that late-night call:
Can it be true? Oh, can it be?
Yes! – Bat Night at the library!
The real centerpiece of the picture book is a crackerjack 6-page story-time sequence where, as the bats read on, Lies shows us a visual montage of classic children’s books reimagined with bats as the main characters. There’s a bat Pippi Longstocking, a bat version of Make Way for Ducklings, bat Alice in Wonderland (this time, with a Cheshire bat), bat Winnie-the-Pooh, a bat version of Wind in the Willows, and, my favorite, a bat-adaption of Margaret Wise Brown, of course, called Goodnight Sun. This is my daughter’s absolute favorite part of the book, and she LOVES figuring out what books Lies is referring to in his super-clever illustrations. (I had to help her with a few – she didn’t originally get Lies’ visual references to The Hobbit or Little Nemo.) There’s actually one reference that we haven’t 100% worked out yet – this illustration of a blind bat with a cane. My daughter is convinced that it’s Blind Pew from Treasure Island. (I should do some research to see if she’s right, though, admittedly, I’m just crazy proud that she even knows who Blind Pew is.)
And, aside from the fact that the book is just very well done, our family also digs Bats at the Library because it’s about two things we really like – libraries and bats. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a fan of having a bat in my house. That happened once and, the experience was so traumatic, my wife wrote a play about it. (True story.) But, with no preachiness intended, we’re big believers in the positive role that bats play in our ecosystem (c’mon, they get a bad rap), and we’re frequent visitors to a local bat conservation center where they do educational tours to introduce kids to bats and help debunk a lot of the urban legends around bats. (If you’re in the Detroit area, you should definitely check out the Organization for Bat Conservation at the Cranbrook Institute of Science. Good stuff.) And Lies does a lot to promote positive portrayals of bats in his books and even gives a portion of his proceeds to Bat Conversation International, which all just makes us like the author and his charismatic picture books all the more.
NOTE: Lies has two other bat picture books – the original in the series, Bats at the Beach (borrowed it from the library and loved it), and Bats at the Ballgame (haven’t read it yet; very much want to).
THE DETAILS ON BATS AT THE LIBRARY :
AGE RANGE: Kindergarten to third grade. But the story is so gentle and fun, Pre-K readers would still love it (provided they aren’t bat-phobic).
PAGE COUNT: 32 pages
AUTHOR WEB SITE: Brian Lies’ website has info on his books, his reading tours, bat conservation, and it also includes teacher resources – activities and classroom guides – for those who need it.
BUY IT, BORROW IT, OR FORGET IT?: It was a spontaneous purchase for us, and we’ve really enjoyed it. So, buy it, if you can, but, if your kids are at all squeamish about bats (or if you are), take a lesson from the book itself and borrow it from your library.
IF YOU LIKED BATS AT THE LIBRARY, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
- Tuesday (1991) by David Wiesner – This Caldecott winner is seriously one of the coolest picture books ever made. I will, hopefully, write an epic ballad to it on this blog one day, but ANY reader with half-a-brain should absolutely adore this book, and there are actually some nice parallels between it and Lies’ Bats at the Library – I see a lot of Wiesner in Lies’ paintings. Instead of an ode to bats going nuts at their local library branch, Tuesday is an almost wordless picture book, all about one crazy Tuesday evening when, for no explainable reason, the frogs in a local pond fly up into the air and spend a breathless night playfully zooming all over town. It’s a ridiculous amount of fun, and very much in the same spirit of Lies’ bat books.
- Stellaluna (1993) by Janell Cannon – Almost any time anyone mentions a kids’ book with bats in it, Cannon’s Stellaluna gets brought into the conversation, and with good reason. Like Lies, Cannon is definitely interested in presenting both an accurate and sympathetic portrayal of bats, and Stellaluna is a wonderful little story. Cannon’s earnest prose and compositions are less playful than Lies’ works, but they’re definitely kindred works.