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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…]

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The Three Investigators

In the old days, kidlit mysteries were solved by plucky tweens charging 25 cents plus expenses…

I love shopping for kids’ books at used bookstores for two reasons – #1). you never know what you’re going to find and #2). it’s a fantastic reminder that the world of children’s literature has always, ALWAYS been gloriously and deliriously WEIRD.

Because sometimes, when it comes to children’s books, we romanticize the past. We look at the current world of children’s publishing – with kids’ books written by celebrities, kids’ books based on toy lines, and kids’ books all about what it would be like if your pets could text you jokes (not making that up) – and there’s a tendency to think, “Sigh, it wasn’t like this in the good old days. Back then, kids read LITERATURE.” Well, I’m here to tell you that kids have been reading weird stuff for AGES, since long before dogs even knew what text-messaging was, and part of the fun of used bookstore shopping is seeing what kinds of literary oddities earlier generations inflicted on their youth.

In my most recent trip to the children’s section at our local used bookstore, I found several books from the 1960s that had odd celebrity tie-ins. There was a dog-eared copy of A Red Skelton in Your Closet: Ghost Stories Gay and Grim Selected by the Master of Comedy, because, if I’m looking for something truly scary to read in 1965, I’m going to hit up a master of comedy… apparently. (Aside from selecting the stories, Skelton also wrote an introduction titled “Of Course I Believe in Ghosts.”) Then there was the pristine copy of Shirley Temple’s Storytime Favorites, with the picture on the cover that made Temple look more like Betty Crocker than the child star she’d been in the 1930s. But, hands-down, the best, the most wonderfully weird ’60s celebrity kids’ book I encountered – and that I just HAD to buy – was all about Alfred Hitchcock, possibly the most acclaimed movie director of all time, teaming up with three kid detectives to solve mysteries.

The Three Investigators: The Secret of Terror Castle

Hitchcock even does cameos on the covers of children’s mysteries…

That’s right. Alfred Hitchcock, director of Psycho and Vertigo, hanging out with three Encyclopedia Brown knock-offs. And did I mention that the kid detectives drive around in a chauffeured, gold-plated Rolls Royce? How could I NOT buy the book immediately? There’s actually a whole series of books in the “Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators” imprint. I picked up the first and seventh volumes of the series, The Secret of Terror Castle and The Mystery of the Fiery Eye, and they’re the best things I’ve bought in a long time.

Here’s a quick excerpt from Hitchcock’s “Introduction” to The Secret of Terror Castle:The Three Investigators: The Secret of Terror Castle

I seem to be constantly introducing something. For years I’ve been introducing my television programs. I’ve introduced motion pictures. And I’ve introduced books of mystery, ghost and suspense stories for my fans to shiver with. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Princess Bride

You love the movie, right? The book is even better. Well, most of it is…

I’m currently having a minor internal dilemma, dear readers, that I wanted to run past you. The dilemma revolves around my desire to share William Goldman‘s tremendous fairy tale, The Princess Bride, with my six-year-old daughter, and how exactly I should do that. Like a lot of people from my generation, I discovered The Princess Bride thanks to Rob Reiner’s 1987 film adaptation, an epic adaptation that has endured as one of the most rewatchable, quotable, and downright iconic movies of the past thirty years. While I’m still debating when my daughter will be old enough to see the movie, my primary concern is how and when I’m going to read Goldman’s original book to her.

And the operative word in that sentence is “how.” Because, at the moment, I don’t think I want to read her the entire book. I think I only want to read her the “good parts” of The Princess Bride, a statement that anyone who’s read the original book will find funny, ironic, or, at the very least, very, very “meta.”

Now, as a professed “book person”, the idea of selectively reading passages of a book to my daughter feels like a big cheat and a huge violation of the unspoken bond between author and reader – I hate playing backseat editor – but The Princess Bride is a special case. Let me give you some back story…

Even though I adored The Princess Bride movie the first time I saw it in 1987, it never really landed with me that I should seek out the original book that it was based on until I was in college. After a few weeks of hunting, I came across a tattered paperback copy of Goldman‘s The Princess Bride in a used bookstore and quickly devoured it. (It was originally published in 1973 with the eyebrow-raising tagline “A Hot Fairy Tale.”)

What Happens When the Most Beautiful Girl in the World Marries the Handsomest Prince in the World - And He Turns Out to Be a Son-of-a-Bitch?

This might be my favorite back cover copy of all time.

And the book didn’t disappoint. It’s wonderful. When reading the book, you really get an appreciation for how faithful and spot-on Rob Reiner’s adaptation was. Princess Bride the book is INCREDIBLY similar to Princess Bride the movie, right down to the priest mispronouncing “Mawidge” to the now-legendary “Hello, My Name is Inigo Montoya” showdown (which reaches its climax on page 276 of my paperback). While there are little variations in the details here and there, I can only recall two MAJOR differences that stood out when I first read the book. [read the rest of the post…]

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Chloe and the Lion

A triumphant recounting of a storybook disaster.

Welcome to the first installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, a quick look at the FIVE books my five-year-old daughter checked out from the library during our last visit. I’m going to list these in the actual order that we picked them out, so we’ll start with a title my daughter grabbed off the “New Releases” shelf in the kids’ section – Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex.

I’m a big fan of artist Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (an absolutely gorgeous picture book and dead funny too), so his name was what caught my eye with this title. I pointed it out to my daughter and, after quickly scanning some pages, she declared, “We’re getting this one.” Chloe and the Lion is ostensibly all about a girl named Chloe who encounters a lion in the woods, but it’s really a flat-out comedy, all about storytelling, how books work, and the relationship between storytellers and their creations.

In the opening pages, we see claymation versions of Mac Barnett and Adam Rex introduce themselves – Rex is a multimedia master – and we even get to see the maquette version of Rex illustrate the lead character Chloe. Things quickly fall apart as Barnett and Rex get into a creative squabble, Barnett tries to replace Rex, his replacement doesn’t work out, then the writer tries to draw Chloe himself (he’s a terrible artist) until… as he finally admits, “This book is a disaster.”

My daughter loved the chaos of the storytelling and the variety of art styles throughout the book – when Rex quits the story, he’s replaced by a very different kind of artist and, when that artist leaves, he’s replaced by the writer doing a very bad job of being an artist. So the story is all about the wonderful art of second guessing yourself to death. Once Rex tells Barnett that perhaps Chloe’s story would be more exciting with a dragon (rather than a lion), everything falls apart. Barnett’s attempts to shut down any criticism of his original idea leads to several different artistic versions of the lion (the best one is Barnett’s childish sketch that is painfully ashamed of how it looks), a storyline that doesn’t know where to go (Chloe meets a hilarious cross-section of characters that all seem like they belong in other stories), and a begrudging revelation that, OK, maybe the author DOES need to listen to others from time to time.

There’s something about the whole meta-narrative thing – where characters in a book know that they are, in fact, characters in a book – that just cracks my daughter up. She kept comparing Chloe and the Lion to Melanie Watt’s Chester series – in which a picture-book cat gets into a fight with his illustrator – which is one of her favorite books of all time. The Chester comparison ALONE might’ve sealed the deal on Chloe and the Lion for her and this was the ONE book this week that she actually asked me to read to her IN the library, which, like the Chester comment, is another high compliment. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Monster at the End of This Book

One of the most essential kids' books of all time... seriously

I’ve mentioned several times (probably too many times) on this blog that the very first book I bought for my daughter was The Phantom Tollbooth. But, dear readers, do you know what the SECOND book I ever bought for her was? It was The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone and Mike Smollin.

So, with the entirety of children’s literature in front of me, why did I choose to purchase a Sesame Street book, a book based on a TV show,  as the second foundational text of my unborn daughter’s home library?

It’s a simple answer – The Monster at the End of This Book is an AMAZING book. It’s a groundbreaking book. In my humble opinion, it is one of THE greatest read-aloud books ever written, it is one of the best “books about books” in the history of literature, and, personally, I have a hard time of thinking of more than a few other titles that do such an effective job of showing kids how breathtakingly FUN reading a book can actually be. And, yes, it’s a book about Grover, a small blue puppet from TV. It’s freakin’ great.

The Monster at the End of This Book was the first “meta” book I ever remember encountering as a child. I know hipsters throw around the word “meta” almost as frequently as they line up for overpriced brunches, but, for the rest of you, a good working definition of “meta” is: “a term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.” In other words, The Monster at the End of This Book is a book that is wonderfully aware that it is, in fact, a book. And that’s a really, really fun and potentially mind-blowing concept to introduce to a young reader.

The Monster at the End of This Book

This book might have my favorite typography of all time

The lead character, Grover – lovable, furry old Grover – is one of Sesame Street‘s friendly monsters and, as the star of this “meta” picture book, he can talk to the readers, he knows that we’ll be turning pages… unlike most characters in children’s literature, he is fully aware that he is a character in a book and he understands the mechanics of reading books. He knows that, in the act of reading a book, we as readers turn pages until we get to the end of the book. And that’s a problem for Grover because, in his post-modern “meta” world, he was able to read the title of his own book and he now knows that “there’s a monster at the end of this book.” And poor old Grover is afraid of that monster and, to prevent us from ever encountering the rumored beast, he wants us to stop reading RIGHT NOW.

That sounds like such a simple idea, but it’s as complexly absurd as anything Lewis Carroll ever proposed in any of his Alice books. Who ever heard of a character asking you to stop reading their book? And he’s not just asking you – he’s BEGGING you. Grover realizes that, every time you finish reading a page and turn to the next one, you are bringing him that much closer to this so-called monster. So there is this tangible countdown, this almost inherent drama at the core of The Monster at the End of This Book, in which, more than in reading almost any other kids’ book, you are in-your-face AWARE that you’re moving towards SOMETHING. And, by asking us to stop reading, Grover has ensured that any curious kid worth their salt absolutely MUST reach the end of this book. [read the rest of the post…]

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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.)

Chester

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…]

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