borrow it

We have a lot of affection for Mélanie Watt in our house for several reasons. To start with, she’s the first children’s author-illustrator that my daughter really became a fan of all on her own. Now, on a whole, I think my daughter has not-bad taste when it comes to kids books – with a few notable exceptions – but I also realize that my wife and I do a fair bit of work to make sure that she has relatively higher-class material to choose from. I’ve essentially spent the first five years of her life whispering in her ear, like her own personal Screwtape, directing her towards the books I want her to read and making her feel like she has a choice in the matter.

Melanie Watt

This is Mélanie Watt. But I didn't add the red marker edits. She did it to herself.

“Oh, OK, I guess you’ve got to pick between this Tomie dePaola or this Roald Dahl book… you know, these ones that you picked out. YOU did. All by yourself. No. No, I don’t know what happened to that princess book. No, forget about that, I think someone else took it. No. And it was ripped, so we’re not going to buy it. So, between these two, the two that YOU picked out, which one are we going to get? Great choices, by the way.”

Don’t get me wrong. I give in to her reading preferences A LOT and I try to listen, but I’m not going to stop fighting the good fight when I’ve spent this many years gently manipulating her for the greater good. (I wish that sounded less sinister, but, eh, what are you going to do? Welcome to parenthood.)

But I have to give my daughter credit. She found Mélanie Watt all on her own. On a trip to our local library around two years ago, she emerged from the stacks grasping onto a copy of a picture book called Chester by Mélanie Watt. She plopped it down in front of me and said, “I want this one. It’s funny.” And, with an impassioned plea like that, we just had to take it home.

And my daughter was right. It WAS funny. And she absolutely loved it. Chester has a very funny premise, which Mélanie Watt executes exceedingly well. The gist is that an author and illustrator named, coincidentally enough, Mélanie Watt is trying – operative word: trying – to draw a picture book about a mouse who lives in a house in the country, BUT a big, ego-driven cat named Chester has swiped a red marker and is editing the story to make himself the star. Chester is constantly arguing with Watt via his red marker – they bicker on the jacket flap copy, Chester edits her author bio, the cat even changes her dedication on the copyright page.

(Also, since my day-job is being an editor at a publishing company, the idea of someone wreaking that much havoc with a red pen is just inherently funny to me.)


This is Chester. Blame him for the red pen.

The set-up is deliciously meta, but not in an inaccessible way. Sometimes when a kids book plays around with the idea of actually being a book, it can either get a little too cutesy with the premise OR it can get obsessed with parent-skewing in-jokes that fly right over your kid’s head. Some of the best examples of a meta kids book done right are The Three Pigs by David Wiesner, We Are in a Book by Mo Willems, and Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I think Chester would make that list too.

Chester eventually ignites a war with his creator, which is an extremely fun sequence to read aloud. When he redraws a page, she fights back with her omniscient author powers and changes the scene or dresses him up in a pink tutu. It turns into this large-scale argument with a fictional character refusing to listen to its creator – which is a really hilarious concept – but, since the creator becomes such a big part of the story, she becomes a character as well. [read the rest of the post…]


Before I get into my discussion of Jack Prelutsky’s The Wizard, I want to tell you about a fantastic Halloween reading tradition that’s sprung up over the past few years called All Hallow’s Read, which apparently originated with a blog post by Neil Gaiman in 2010. It’s all about… well, I’ll let Gaiman explain it himself:

That’s it. On the week of Halloween (or on the day itself), give someone you know – adult, kid, or in between – a scary book to read.

Simple yet elegant. I love the concept for many reasons. First of all, if you can actually find a book that really, truly scares you, it’s an amazing sensation. Finding out that reading words on a printed page can actually chill you to the core of your being is a staggering, unrivaled experience, and it often gets dismissed by people who look down their nose at “genre” fiction. Personally, if a book can actually scare me, I find the experience way more affecting than a book that can make me cry. I cry all the time (ask my wife – it’s a sickness), but scaring me while I’m sitting on the couch reading in the middle of the day? That’s a hard act to pull off.

Secondly, I love that there’s this aspect of All Hallow’s Read that’s all about figuring out your audience. It’s not just finding a book that YOU might find scary. You’re trying to find a book that will scare your mother, your daughter, your pal, your co-worker – some real thought has to go into that selection. The book has to have the APPROPRIATE scare level for the person you have in mind. Your nephew might be a little tame and timid, but can’t get enough of campfire ghost stories. Your best friend might despise gore, but might love the existential dread of a Lovecraft novel. Psychological suspense might bore your sister to tears, but she ADORES blood and guts. It’s like choosing the perfect holiday gift for your friends and family, only with marginally more viscera and tentacled gods.

I decided to get in on the All Hallow’s Read fun this year and find a scary book to share with my daughter, which… was a challenge. She’s almost five and is a bit of a scaredy-cat. And it’s hard to predict what will or won’t resonate as scary with her. She can’t get enough of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal – both of which have some decidedly weird and dark moments – but curls up in anxiety whenever she sees a picture of a gun or whenever there’s an especially creepy background shadow in a picture book spread. (I’m 95% certain that she never even realized that she was supposed to be afraid of the dark until I read her The Berenstain Bears in the Dark, so, thanks a lot, Stan and Jan.)

The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky

The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky

So I had to stay away from murder, death, weapons, unfriendly monsters, situations that couldn’t be explained away as fairy tales, overt threats towards children, and particularly spooky illustrations. In other words, I didn’t have a ton to work with. But I eventually found the perfect All Hallow’s Read book for my daughter in the 2007 picture book adaptation of Jack Prelutsky’s poem The Wizard, illustrated by Brandon Dorman – a book that I think is a PERFECT Halloween read for nervous young readers looking for a slight dose of spookiness before bed.

If you don’t already know, Jack Prelutsky was named the first Children’s Poet Laureate in 2006 and, for decades, he’s been a major force in children’s poetry. When asked to name great poets for young readers, I normally rattle off the names “Silverstein, Seuss, and Prelutsky” on instinct before my brain has time to start thinking of other options. If you have third graders or older – or younger kids with particularly strong constitutions – who would revel in tales of monsters and mutilation, you can’t go wrong with Prelutsky’s perfect-for-Halloween poetry collections, Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep or The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight: More Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. Both are way fun and are accompanied by a series of Edward Gorey-esque illustrations created by the great Arnold Lobel. [read the rest of the post…]


Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, a 1970 picture book following a child’s romp through a surreal nocturnal bakery, is a weird book, but it’s up to your own personal interpretation whether it’s “delightfully weird” or “uncomfortably weird.”

In the Night Kitchen

In the Night Kitchen

I first became aware of it thanks to its reputation as “the book with the naked kid” – the young hero, three-year-old Mickey, loses his clothes early in the story, and he spends a fair amount of the rest of the tale naked, with his penis frequently visible. That choice alone has caused the book to be challenged or banned on several occasions and, while, sure, it is unusual to see a naked child in a picture book, it’s a fairly lame cause for controversy. Mickey isn’t sexualized AT ALL and, let’s be honest, most kids, thanks to diaper changes or older or younger siblings, have seen a baby or toddler naked before.

I’d wager ten bucks that any parent who ever tried to have In the Night Kitchen removed from their local library laughed like crazy whenever their two-year-old did a pre-bath naked run through their house, particularly if it was in front of company, so it’s ridiculous to try to turn Mickey’s nakedness into anything perverse or predatory. When we first read the book, my daughter snorted and giggled at seeing Mickey naked for the first time, but, every subsequent time we’ve read it, his nudity has almost never come up. When she does notice it now, she just smiles and says, “He lost his clothes. What a goofball.”

But, all nakedness aside, I do find In the Night Kitchen to be a fairly difficult book to read. Don’t get me wrong – my daughter LOVES it. She thinks it’s funny and strange, she loves pouring over the little details in the backgrounds of the Night Kitchen, and she has fond memories of visiting Philadelphia’s Please Touch Kids’ Museum where she played on huge reproductions of scenes from Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are. (It’s an awesome museum.) If you ask her to tell you what the story of In the Night Kitchen is, she can’t really verbalize it, but she knows, without a doubt, that she likes it.

My issue with In the Night Kitchen is a rhythm thing. For whatever reason, when reading Night Kitchen at bed-time, I find myself tripping over the words constantly. I just can’t figure out its groove. The words are presented more like verse than a normal narrative – and maybe that’s coloring my reading of it – but all of my attempts to find its poetic cadence have failed miserably. And I realize that it’s my problem, not Sendak’s. It’s not fair for me to fault him for my inability to hone in on the perfect inflection for his story. I like that everything about In the Night Kitchen is atypical. I like that it’s not a sentimental, sing-song nursery rhyme. I’m a guy who loves Vonnegut and Terry Gilliam movies – I like weird. However, on a personal level, I find reading In the Night Kitchen out loud a strangely jarring experience. It’s a kind of weird that I’ve never fully figured out and, at some level, it makes me uncomfortable.

Which, in and of itself, is weird. Fill a picture book with a thousand naked children and I won’t bat an eye, but get a little surreal and atonal with the free verse, and I get all frustrated and cranky. Again, this speaks to my failings, not the book’s, but while I love Sendak, I will admit that In the Night Kitchen is not a book for everyone. For me, In the Night Kitchen is a PERFECT library book – it has the potential to be a big hit or a big miss, depending on your household, so being able to pilot it at your local library first before bringing it home is a very good thing.

If there are any other parents out there who have my rhythm or weirdness issues with In the Night Kitchen, I found two videos that might help. The first is a Weston Woods animated version of In the Night Kitchen, which, honestly, really helped me in terms of hearing how someone else reads the story. And the second is an extremely funny video from the Dad Labs – called “Owen’s Reading Nook” – where the reader, Owen… has some very honest reactions to the inherent WTF weirdness of In the Night Kitchen.   Enjoy.

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Otis and Rae is a book that I always enjoy recommending to other parents for two reasons – 1). It’s a fun read, and 2). it’s a relatively unknown title. I don’t know anyone else in my immediate circle who has it or has even heard of it, our whole county library system only has 4 copies of it, and even the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” suggestions on its Amazon page only has four other suggestions total (as opposed to the 17 pages of suggestions for other titles). So, yes, it gives me that heady hipster-esque rush that comes with saying “well, you probably haven’t heard of it”, which is a really repugnant, self-satisfied emotion to indulge in. But don’t take my horrific moral failings out on Otis and Rae. It’s a very cool picture book with some really interesting things going for it.

Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk

Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk

Published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin, Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk by Laura and Leo Espinosa is all about two best friends who set out on their “very first camping trip ever”, tramping out into the forest for a fun night of telling ghost stories and eating PB&B sandwiches. (Otis is a big fan of peanut butter and banana sandwiches.) Around the campfire, the ever-cheerful Rae tells stories of the mysterious Grumbling Splunk – a huge creature that grumbles like a freight train – who, apparently, haunts the nearby woods. The tales of the Splunk freak Otis out and, after he accidentally runs into the Splunk at night, Rae happily runs off in pursuit of the creature and Otis, in turn, runs off after Rae. The two friends eventually find the Splunk and realize that his size and tendency to grumble might have given them the wrong impression.

I discovered Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk at a new and used book sale at my office, and I immediately dug its design and format. The world of Otis and Rae evokes a design aesthetic that fans of Sanrio (i.e. Hello Kitty) or the cuter creatures of Hayao Miyazaki (think My Neighbor Totoro) should really enjoy, but the characters aren’t totally Japanese inspired. They just tap into that ultra-cute, big-head design school that Japanese pop culture does so well. Illustrator Leo Espinosa has found a way to really evoke that “cute balanced with hand-drawn personality” style that you can really see on display in Sanrio, Uglydolls, Nick Jr’s Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, or the stuffed animals at your local IKEA. If that aesthetic appeals to your child, they will really respond to this book.

Otis and Rae and The Grumbling Splunk

Onwards towards the Splunk....

The other thing that I really like about Otis and Rae is that it is a terrific hybrid of a picture book and a comic book. About 60% of the book is structured like a traditional picture book – illustrations with text above or underneath – and the rest uses the panel design, sound effects, and word balloon structure of a comic book. The format is really dynamic and engaging, and the simple, easy-to-read text makes this an excellent transitional title to help young readers get used to the comic format.

My daughter is getting more and more interested in comic books and, to be honest, with many comics, the format is too cluttered and the word balloon text is just too small for a learning reader to follow without getting easily confused. (As a parent, even though I LOVE comics, I’ll admit that trying to read those kinds of comics to your kid can be a real pain in the butt.) However, I think Otis and Rae introduces kids to the rules and structure of a comic book in a very gradual, clever way, showing off a design style that elegantly bridges the gap between picture books and comic books. [read the rest of the post…]