picture book

Gym Teacher from the Black Lagoon

Hubie’s school has some serious HR problems…

Yesterday, I told my six year old that I hadn’t recommended a book on my blog in a while and I told her that I wanted her to pick the next book I’d write about. She ran over to her bookshelf and, after a few moments of internal debate, she walked back and handed me The Gym Teacher From the Black Lagoon.

Sigh…

It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting (or hoping for), but a promise is a promise.

Let me put this out there right upfront – My kid LOVES Mike Thaler’s Black Lagoon series. LOVES it. She’s loved it since she was three. And I know many other kids who feel the same way. My feelings about the series, however, are more complicated.

It’s not that I think Mike Thaler’s Black Lagoon books are bad books. They’re not. I like them. I particularly like Jared Lee’s illustrations, which are entertaining and goofy and always remind me of a fun hybrid of Sandra Boynton and Laura Cornell.

Gym Teacher from the Black Lagoon

Hubie lives in a constant repetitive loop like “Groundhog Day” or “Memento”…

They’re lightweight, durable, inexpensive, and, with the exception of early Berenstain Bears titles, they’re normally the highest quality books on those spinning wire racks at bookstores that are normally filled with crappy Barbie titles and uninspired Disney tie-ins. Black Lagoon books are perfect for light reading, car trips, or excursions to a restaurant.

BUT, all that said, my big complaint about the Black Lagoon books is that they are incredibly, incredibly REPETITIVE, a trait that can antagonize parents, while, at the same time, delighting kids, apparently. If you’ve read one Black Lagoon book, you’ve almost literally read them all. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

Did you know that the Easter Bunny was a working single mom? True story.

Easter is an odd holiday. While it has admittedly deep religious significance for Christians, for the rest of the world (and for Christians too), Easter mashes together a very weird pastiche of cultural iconography, presumably all about the celebration of “Spring.” Easter is a holiday symbolized by bunnies who deliver eggs (as opposed to chickens who are normally responsible for egg production), cute little chicks that apparently came from eggs that escaped the bunnies’ dye factories, a metric ton of candy, and really, really big hats. I’m not entirely sure how that all comes together to celebrate the Spring Equinox, but, like most major holidays, it’s just weird enough to work. I don’t understand Easter, but I like it and I really enjoy sharing it with my daughter.

And one of the best ways I’ve found to share Easter with my daughter is reading her The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, a book that I regard as THE definitive Easter book for kids. You can find many Easter-themed books at the bookstore, just begging to be tucked into that weird fake grass in your child’s Easter basket, but, trust me, no book has ever done a better job of creating a more enchanting and engrossing mythology around Easter than The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

The Country Bunny might be the world’s first feminist holiday icon…

Originally published in 1939, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes was actually authored by Du Bose Heyward, the author best known for writing the novel Porgy, which was the basis for George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Heyward originally composed the story simply to entertain his nine-year-old daughter Jenifer – the book’s subtitle is “as told to Jenifer” – until Marjorie Flack, a noted illustrator, asked him to collaborate with her into turning The Country Bunny into a children’s book.

(If you want a much more detailed and beautifully written account of the book’s origins, check out the entry on The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes on Anita Silvey’s wonderful Book-a-Day Almanac.)

So, what’s so special about this seventy-four-year-old picture book? For starters, it creates one of the most coherent mythologies around Easter that I’ve ever read. As the book opens, Heyward explains to us:

We hear of the Easter Bunny who comes each Easter Day before sunrise to bring eggs for boys and girls, so we think there is only one. But this is not so. There are really five Easter Bunnies, and they must be the five kindest, and swiftest, and wisest bunnies in the whole wide world, because between sunset on Easter Eve and dawn on Easter Morning they do more work than most rabbits do in a whole year.

In The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, Heyward transforms the Easter Bunny into a shared role held by five different rabbits of varying shapes and sizes, which, as a parent, I think is fairly genius. Particularly because, around Easter time, kids are barraged with Easter Bunny meet-and-greet opportunities and the colors and sizes of those Easter Bunny costumes vary WILDLY. But, thanks to The Country Bunny, when my daughter asks me why the Easter Bunny at the mall was white and the Easter Bunny at the grocery store was brown, I can just say, “Hey, remember The Country Bunny? There are five all together, so…” (I realize that Heyward probably wasn’t thinking about furry character photo ops when he wrote the book, but, hey, it works for me.) [read the rest of the post…]

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Jim Henson: The Works

Reading about the Muppets is almost as fun as watching the Muppets…

To say that my wife and I are big fans of Jim Henson would be a massive understatement. Henson and the various fruits of his labor were major, defining influences in both of our young lives, so, when we had a daughter, I’ll admit, we were pretty determined that the Muppets and their ilk would play a major role in her life too. Were we pushy about introducing the Muppets to our daughter? YES. But, fortunately, she did gravitate towards them quickly on her own and seemed to legitimately love them as much as we did. (For an example of what happens when you push something onto your child when they’re NOT ready or interested in it, read my previous post about my attempts to read my kid The Phantom Tollbooth.)

My daughter devoured every episode of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street that we’d share with her. She adored a Muppets poster that has hung over her bed since she was born, obsessively trying to memorize the name of every character in the line-up. (Her favorite obscure Muppet was always Angus McGonagle, the Argyle Gargoyle.) And she’s dressed up as both Miss Piggy and Fozzie for Halloween. She was a Jim Henson fan before she could even comprehend who Jim Henson was. And, because she took to the Muppets so eagerly, I, of course, started seeking out books about the Muppets and other Henson projects that she might enjoy. However, strangely, there are not a ton of Muppet books available for kids. There are a lot of Sesame Street books, but if you’re looking for kids’ books about the Muppets, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, or any other non-Sesame Henson project, the choices are fairly few and far between.

(There were a few tie-in books released with the new Muppets movie in 2011, but the ones I’ve read weren’t very good.)

However, there are options out there, if you’re willing to look for them. So, if you think your kid might enjoy the Muppets or if you’re a pop culture-obsessed parent-to-be that wants to push Ms. Piggy on your progeny, here are six books – a mixture of fiction and nonfiction – that might help foster a love of The Muppets in your developing reader.

1. Jim Henson: The Works by Christopher Finch

Jim Henson: The Works

No coffee table should be without this book…

One of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. This gorgeously designed coffee table book is an amazing chronicle of the life and works of Jim Henson. (See my previous article “The Importance of Coffee Table Books for Young Readers“.) Jim Henson: The Works covers every aspect of Henson’s career – from his early days as a puppeteer to his final days as a media icon – and draws together a fantastic collection of photographs and primary source material about Henson’s life. Will your young child be able to read the text on their own? No. Probably not until they’re older. But this is a book that was made to be browsed. My daughter adores flipping through the pages of this book – we’ve brought it on almost every road trip we’ve ever taken. She’d spend hours just combing through the pages, finding new images that she loved or reading small excerpts that caught her eye. And, because the book has such a multi-tiered appeal (the images are accessible to the youngest readers, the text will be captivating to older readers), I can tell that this is a book that will remain on our bookshelves for years to come. (Still in print. Relatively easy to find online.)

Jim Henson: The Works

One of my favorite pictures from the book…

2. Sesame Street: Unpaved by David Borgenicht

Sesame Street: Unpaved

My kid tore through two different copies of this book…

While, yes, there are many other Sesame Street books available for kids – my favorites come from the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club – this is one of the few age-appropriate books available that really present a compelling history of the show itself. Another excellent kid-friendly coffee table book, Sesame Street: Unpaved assembles a beautiful visual history of perhaps the most influential work of children’s television ever made. The book offers a really compelling history of the show (including some interesting behind-the-scenes stories for older readers) and has sections devoted to all of the major Sesame Street characters, both human and Muppet. Like Jim Henson: The Works, this is another book with an appeal that spans generations. Kids will browse it endlessly for the pictures and their favorite characters, and older fans will appreciate it as an entertaining world of cultural history. (Out of print, but you can get used copies for under 8 bucks on Amazon and other venues online.) [read the rest of the post…]

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Dr. Seuss' ABC

A, B, and then C? SO predictable…

While I’d like to think that any good book is timeless, there are certain kinds of books that you end up buying for your children that do seem to come with a very implicit “best if used by” date stamped on their side. For example, I know many children who, once they reached a certain age, refused to read board books anymore. To them, board books = baby books. And, regardless of the book itself (we have board book versions of older-skewing books like Olivia and Madeline), some six-year-olds just won’t be seen dead reading a board book. Another example of a kind of kid’s book that comes with a very distinct shelf-life is the Alphabet Book.

Alphabet books are possibly one of the most common kinds of picture books you can find for younger pre-readers. Their mission is simple and true – reinforcing kids’ knowledge of the alphabet from A to Z. This can be accomplished through pictures, rhyming couplets, you name it. Start at A, end at Z – they come with their own structure built in. No wonder there are so many alphabet books on the market. However, what happens to the book once a kid learns their alphabet backwards and forwards?

Unlike storybooks, alphabet books can be fairly utilitarian. They normally don’t feature stories, characters, or emotions for children to encounter and revisit. Most alphabet books just want to make sure that kids know that J comes before K and, once that’s accomplished, it’s O.K. (letters 15 and 11, respectively) to put them aside. However, there are classes of alphabet books and some are much more expertly executed than others. Some alphabet books transcend mere letter instruction and can stand on their own two feet much longer than their more cheaply produced brethren.

So, if you’re looking for a good alphabet book and you’ll like it to have a longer shelf-life than the crappy paperback A-to-Z book that came with your Happy Meal, here are six really great examples of alphabet books that do a whole lot more than just teach kids about letters.

1. The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

The Ghastlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Simply a classic.

Let’s get this out of the way right at the top – the greatest alphabet book of ALL TIME is Edward Gorey‘s The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

Granted, it’s more of a commentary on alphabet books than anything, but it is one of the most brilliant, oddball, most often-copied books I’ve ever read. (Fair warning – there are a LOT of lame “parodies” of The Gashlycrumb Tinies out there.) But it is dark. And it is macabre. It is really, really macabre. And if your kid is into that, they might LOVE it. Personally, I know my daughter is far too easily creeped out to really enjoy a line like “X is for Xerses devoured by mice” without it giving her nightmares for a week. In regards to your own kid, you can read the whole book online here and decide for yourself. But, even though I can’t imagine ever giving The Gashlycrumb Tinies to a still-learning-to-read three-year-old, there is such genius and humor in Gorey’s work that it’d be a shame to keep this alphabet book away from kids entirely. As such, there’s a copy of The Gashlycrumb Tinies sitting on our “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” shelf that’ll be waiting for my daughter whenever I think she’s ready for it.

The Ghastlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Hands down, the greatest literary death of all time.

2. On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrated by Anita Lobel

On Market Street

Using capitalism to teach kids the alphabet…genius.

I’ve known about Arnold Lobel since I was a kid thanks to his classic Frog and Toad books, but I’ll admit that On Market Street, a truly wonderful alphabet book, was my first introduction to the work of his wife, Anita Lobel, a hugely talented children’s book creator in her own right. On Market Street is one of those rare picture books that you’ll find your kids revisiting again and again, if only to re-appreciate and re-explore the depth and complexity of the artwork. The premise is relatively simple – a young child heads down Market Street “to see what I might buy”. The Lobels then lead us past an A-to-Z series of wildly imaginative merchants who all have bodies constructed out of whatever it is they’re selling. Thus, the apple vendor is made entirely out of apples, the book seller is made entirely out of books, etc. [read the rest of the post…]

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When I Grow Up book trailer

We open on a tracking shot of a publishing executive giving Weird Al a million dollars to make the best book trailer ever….

While I was still reveling in my excellent recent purchases at a holiday book sale, I decided to go online and see if any of the titles I bought had book trailers available. Although, I should note right off the bat that, even though they’re growing in popularity, book trailers can be pretty hit or miss. Sometimes, they do a great job of stoking your interest in a title by using exciting, cinematic imagery or offering interesting insights from the authors. And, other times, they look like half-assed junior high AV projects that a student threw together in an hour in lieu of turning in an English paper.

Fortunately, three of the books I purchased this week – Along a Long Road by Frank Viva, The Trouble with Chickens by Doreen Cronin and Kevin Cornell, and When I Grow Up by Al Yankovic and Wes Hargis – all had very decent, very well-produced book trailers available, which I thought I’d pass along.

For starters, the trailer for Along a Long Road does a cool job of showing off Viva’s rich, stylish artwork and making it clear that the illustrations really were created as a single 35-foot-long piece of art (which still blows my mind).

Next, we’ve got the trailer for Doreen Cronin‘s The Trouble with Chickens. I will admit – when Cronin came on screen in a trenchcoat and fedora, I was worried that I was going to spend two minutes being really embarrassed for one of my favorite children’s authors. Fortunately, the cheese factor was gloriously low in this trailer. Instead, we get some solid interview time with Cronin where she really goes into detail about the crime noir inspirations behind the book. (She likens J.J. Tully the dog to Humphrey Bogart, which just made me love her all the more.)

And, finally, we get the trailer for When I Grow Up. This trailer is mostly just excerpts of Al Yankovic reading from the book, accompanied by slightly animated versions of Wes Hargis’ artwork, but I think that was a great choice for this preview. Weird Al has such a distinct and downright wacky reading voice that he’s a great ambassador for the book. If I was a kid and I heard Al’s narration on this trailer, I’d want to read the book ASAP.

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One of the perks of my day job is that, every year, they do an EPIC holiday book sale. For two days, a group at my office sells a tremendous selection of children’s and young adult titles at discount prices and donates all of their profits to Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), the nation’s largest nonprofit children’s literacy organization. So, I get amazing kid’s books delivered to my work, sold at bargain prices, and all the profits go to one of my favorite charities. That’s what I call a WIN-WIN-WIN scenario.

Holiday Book Sale Titles

Look upon and tremble at my hoard of books!

They just finished this year’s book sale and I walked away with a selection of really impressive titles. Some were old, some were new. Some were library favorites, some I’d never heard of. But I’m very pleased with all of them. So, in the spirit of the holidays (and so I can brag about my shopping prowess), I thought I’d give you a quick breakdown of the five books I purchased this week – which range from picture books to chapter books – all of which I’d definitely recommend for any home library. Enjoy.

1. Along a Long Road by Frank Viva

This picture book first got on my radar thanks to Carter Higgins‘ great review of it on Design Mom (Carter is also responsible for the fantastic Design of the Picture Book blog), so, when I saw it at the book sale, I scooped it up without even opening it. (Mine!) I then walked around the book sale for ten minutes, trying to read it and browse at the same time, but it wasn’t really working. Along a Long Road is just such a brilliant and beautifully executed picture book that it absolutely demanded my full attention. Frank Viva is a major talent and I honestly can’t believe that this is his first book for children.

Along a Long Road

Such a pretty book…

Along a Long Road

Even the cover flaps are gorgeous!

Along a Long Road is a gorgeous celebration of just getting on your bike and riding. Viva’s stylish layouts follow a lone cyclist riding his bike “along a long road”, “going up around a small town and down into a tunnel” – the reading rhythm actually rises and falls with the rider’s momentum. And that undeniable sense of momentum is helped by the fact that Viva ingeniously designed the book “as a single, continuous thirty-five-foot-long piece of art.” That’s right – the cyclist’s journey was originally composed as one long, long single canvas and somewhere, I promise you, a fan of this book is right now working on a way to transform the cyclist’s journey into the coolest wallpaper runner EVER for their baby’s nursery. Along a Long Road is sophisticated, energetic, and engaging and, while reading it, all I could think about was Lane Smith’s The Happy Hocky Family and Queen’s epic “Bicycle Race” anthem – which, c’mon, is pretty awesome. The New York Times named this as one of the “10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2011” and they weren’t wrong. Very highly recommended.

EXTRAS: Along a Long Road has one of the best designed book websites I’ve seen in a long while. If you want to dig deeper into this beautiful book, this is the place to start. [read the rest of the post…]

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Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same

Just in case you were wondering, Grace Lin’s “Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same” is one of the best kids’ books about twins I’ve ever read

A few months ago, I found out that two of my best friends in the world were having a baby. And not just “a baby”, they were having twins – twin girls – after years of unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant. Needless to say, I was overjoyed, just completely over the moon for them. But then… all my OCD impulses kicked in and I immediately thought, “Oh man, I have to make sure those girls have a decent selection of reading material.” So, for the second time, I embarked on an attempt to “build a library” for a new baby (or babies, as it were).

I used the same methodology I used for my own daughter – I would buy one book a week during the pregnancy and I would try to stay away from books that they’d probably get as baby shower gifts. (Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny, anything that’s available at Target, etc.)

However, a few weeks into the pregnancy, my friends turned to me and said, “Hey, remember that whole one-book-a-week thing you did for Charley? We’re doing it too.” I laughed hysterically, said “Good to know!”, and pulled out the eight-or-so books that I’d already bought them. Fortunately, we hadn’t doubled up on any of the books – but they’re twins, so I feel doubling up is OK – and it just reaffirmed my long-held opinion that my friends are AWESOME.

But it didn’t stop me from buying the books. All it did was add another variable to my selection process. So now I buy one book a week, try to stay away from books that they’d probably get as baby shower gifts, and try to stay away from books they’d buy themselves. (And I’m being a little more diligent about saving the gift receipts as well.)

They’re in around their 20th week of the pregnancy, so I haven’t finished my “40-week library for friends” yet, but I thought I’d share what I’d bought them so far to give you some ideas about buying books for expectant parents. (I’ll share the second half of my library list after the twins are born.)

If asked to “build a library” for the children of my very best friends, these are some of the books that would immediately rise to the top of my list. Yes, it’s subjective and selective and built around my own weird variables – there aren’t any Mo Willems books on the list yet because I wanted to see how many Pigeon books they’d get at their baby shower – but I think ANY of these books are great places to start.

If you’re building a library for a friend or even just looking for some great baby shower gifts, these books are definitely worth checking out. (Some of these books have been covered on the blog before, so I’ll provide links to the longer write-ups.)

1. My Friends by Taro Gomi

My FriendsLast September, I called My Friends “an ideal bedtime book. Truth be told, I literally read My Friends to my daughter at bedtime every single night I put her to bed from when she was five months old until she was about 15-months-old.” One of the best board books in history, in my humble opinion.

2. Press Here by Herve Tullet

Press HereLast November, I called Press Here “a fairly amazing book because it doesn’t wow its audience with a story or with particularly flashy illustrations, but rather it draws readers in with interactivity, with humor, and with that drive that comes with all printed books – the drive to see what happens next, to see what’s happening on the next page.”

3. Animalia by Graeme Base

AnimaliaWe actually don’t own a copy of Animalia ourselves – I don’t know if my daughter has ever read it – but it is simply one of the most expansive and beautiful alphabet books that I’ve ever encountered. Graeme Base has created this gorgeous tapestry of images, a collection of widescreen fantastical images of animal life, each accompanied by short alliterative phrases like “An Armoured Armadillo Avoiding an Angry Alligator.” I love the idea of taking the 70mm Cinemascope beauty of Base’s illustrations and plopping it in front of a young child. It will blow their minds. And they’ll think the alphabet is a million times more interesting than it actually is.

4. Jamberry by Bruce Degen

JamberryEasily one of our most read board books of all time. I don’t what makes Jamberry so appealing to young children, but my daughter loved it. The story follows a boy and his bear best friend berry-picking and wandering through a variety of berry-inspired landscapes. We start with “One berry, two berry, pick me a blueberry” and, as the boy and the bear head out “looking for berries / berries for jam”, the verses quickly pick up steam. The whole book is a crescendo, throwing the friends into one bigger situation after another, escalating to the point where their travels involve marching bands and elephants figure-skating on jam. And every page of Jamberry is just teeming with berries in every way, shape, or form. It’s a lovely, energizing book to read out loud and, in my experience, kids love Bruce Degen’s visuals of his odd little berry universe.

5. The Little Red Hen and The Three Little Pigs by Paul Galdone

Little Red HenLast November, I wrote an article about “The Difficult Task of Introducing Your Kid to Folk Tales and Fairy Tales” and one of my recommendations was to steer kids towards “anything in Paul Galdone’s Folk Tale Classics series.” Galdone is a tremendous author and illustrator and his “Folk Tale Classics” represent some of the best retellings of “classic” stories that I’ve ever seen. If you want your kid to grow up with a firm knowledge of everyone from The Gingerbread Man to Red Riding Hood, Galdone is your man. For this library project, I went with two of my daughter’s favorite editions of Galdone’s folk tales – The Little Red Hen and The Three Little Pigs.

6. Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile

Bink and GollieBack in September, I waxed rhapsodic over the second Bink & Gollie book, Two for One, but the original is just as good, if not better. With Bink & Gollie, the authors – Kate DiCamillo, Alison McGhee, and Tony Fucile – have created a George & Martha for a new age. It’s a beautiful, hysterically funny look at friendship. As I mentioned in my review of Two for One, “I’ve been meaning to write about the original Bink & Gollie for months now (and I still probably will one day), but it’s one of those books that is SO good that it’s actually intimidating to write a review of it. How can I possibly convey the depth of the warmth and humor in Bink & Gollie in a simple blog post?” That’s all still true. This is a home library essential.

7. Frederick by Leo Lionni

FrederickI have never, ever encountered a book that does a better job of explaining the importance and value of art and artists than Leo Lionni’s Frederick. It takes all of these abstract concepts like art and emotion and, through the travails of these brilliant little collage mice, makes them easily understandable for young readers. This is a STAGGERING book with an amazing message, and it’s fun to read too. My daughter loves it. [read the rest of the post…]

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William H. Taft

All the hip kids are into Taft these days, right?

One of the best things about having kids is that they just so deliriously, gloriously weird. And I mean “weird” in the absolute best sense of the word. I love how impossibly random my daughter can be. She’s just this beautiful little sponge who soaks up so many inputs and pieces of information from the world around her, and I never can predict how she’s going to process that information and spit it back out again. This is all a prelude to explain why I was so surprised that one family vacation and one trip to our local library could ever inspire my five-year-old daughter to turn to me one day and say, with complete earnestness, “Dad, my absolute favorite U.S. President is President William H. Taft.”

That’s right. William H. Taft. The twenty-seventh President of the United States. Also known as “Not one of our best-known presidents AT ALL.” He’s the guy who came after Teddy Roosevelt, a.k.a. “TOTALLY one of our best-known presidents, plus he was in those Night at the Museum movies, so it REALLY wouldn’t be weird if your five-year-old knew HIM.” But, nope, my kid likes Taft. She’s funny that way.

So, how did my daughter become enamoured with a president whom some might understandably label as “obscure”? Well, earlier this year, we visited some friends who live right outside of Washington D.C., and we spent one day walking around the National Mall, seeing the White House, visiting the various memorials, and generally having a great time. I wasn’t prepared for how much my daughter enjoyed the experience. She was endlessly curious about everything we walked past, and I spent the day trying to explain everything from the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to the cause of the Korean War.

(One of my favorite moments was, while standing outside the FBI Building, finding myself very seriously explaining The X-Files to my five-year-old. I, apparently, want my kid to “believe.”)

But, for whatever reason, the thing that really interested my daughter were the U.S. Presidents and, when told she could pick out one souvenir, she selected a laminated placemat with all the presidents on it from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial gift shop. She combed over that placemat for our whole drive home to Michigan, peppering us with constant questions like “What’s a Whig?” or “Which were the good presidents and which were the bad presidents?”

William H. Taft

William H. Taft: The Man Knows His Food…

We were walking to our local library a few days after we got home from D.C. and my daughter informed me that she wanted to get some books on the presidents. I said that was a great idea, and she then asked me if I knew any stories about the presidents. I paused for a moment and said, “Well, did you hear about the president who was so fat he got stuck in the White House bathtub?” That was, of course, William H. Taft.

My daughter’s eyes went HUGE with excitement. “You are joking,” she said. “Really?” She then started laughing hysterically. Once she stopped, I recounted a half-remembered anecdote about Taft, being the fattest president on record, once getting stuck in the tub – a bathtub that he later replaced with a tub supposedly big enough to bathe four men. My daughter went CRAZY for this story. She loved it. She couldn’t get enough of it. She kept asking me for more details, which I didn’t have. I’d heard the story once before and wasn’t entirely sure it was true.

Once we got to the library, my daughter ran over to the youth librarian and the two of them disappeared into the stacks together. Minutes later, she came running back to me, beaming and holding a picture book. “I found it! I found it!” she yelled.  And she opened her book to a lovely illustration of the late great William H. Taft being hoisted out of a bathtub.

William H. Taft

The picture in question…

I don’t think my daughter thought I was lying about my Taft story, but the fact that she was able to find a book so quickly with such visual proof of my anecdote – she just thought it was the best thing in the world. That something that crazy could actually happen to an American President. It somehow turned Taft into this legendary figure in her mind, far more interesting than John Adams or Richard Nixon. [read the rest of the post…]

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Today, I’m finishing a short series of recommendations in which I’m highlighting three fairly amazing picture books that my family has been enjoying recently. These are backlist titles – no recent best-sellers or anything – that I think are perfect for any bored kid looking for an interesting picture book to read this summer.

Mister O

Getting over that ravine is going to be harder than he thinks…

I mentioned in my introduction on Monday that one of the picture books on my summer reading list was currently out of print and, I’ll warn you, some might think this is an odd choice for fun summer reading for a child. In fact, we didn’t even buy this book for our daughter. A friend of ours gave this book to my wife years ago, but my daughter recently found it on the shelf, opened it up, and took a shine to it. Mister O (2004) is the work of cartoonist Lewis Trondheim, a prolific and award-winning artist from France, and it’s a very singular picture book. I’ve never actually seen anything else like it.

Mister O

Cute little guy, isn’t he?

The title character of the minimalist Mister O is a just a small circle with eyes, a mouth, arms, and legs. He is simplicity defined and so is his task at hand – he needs to get across a ravine. What follows is a series of deftly handled comic situations that feel like a glorious highlight reel from the life and times of Wile E. Coyote.

Here’s the set-up for Mister O – every rectangular page of this 30-page book is broken into sixty small panels. On each page, across those sixty panels, we watch while Mister O wordlessly tries to cross a deep ravine that’s blocking his path. Every page starts the same, with Mister O walking and then encountering the canyon in front of him. But, going from there, every page then delivers a totally original comedic experience as Mister O tries everything and anything to get over that hole. [read the rest of the post…]

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PSSST! by Adam Rex

Such a funny trip to the zoo…

Yesterday, I kicked off this short series in which I’m going to be calling out three fairly amazing picture books that have been on our family’s radar lately, books that I think are perfect for any bored early reader looking for something interesting to read this summer. These aren’t recent books or hot new best-sellers. They’re just what we’re reading and enjoying at the moment and I think they make for great summer reads. And, in my introduction to the series yesterday, I made an off-hand reference to a note I’d scribbled while looking for books to recommend. The note was “Best zoo book ever?” I was referring to today’s recommendation, Adam Rex‘s PSSST! (2007), a wonderfully original comedic gem of a picture book.

Adam Rex got on my daughter’s radar in a big way after we checked out Chloe and the Lion from the library a few weeks ago, so, when she saw PSSST! on a librarian’s pick shelf, his name stopped her in her tracks. “Is this the Chloe and the Lion guy?” she asked. When I confirmed that it was, without a word, she picked up PSSST! and dropped it into our tote bag full of all the other books we were planning to check out that day. (“We HAVE to get that one, OK?” she sternly informed me. I just smiled and nodded.)

The best part was, once we got home, we discovered that the book took place at a zoo – from the cover, we only knew it was about a girl talking to animals – and, coincidentally, my daughter was right in the middle of attending a week-long summer day camp at our local zoo. So, that weird piece of chance, mixed with the fact that my daughter found the book to be hysterically, uproariously funny, meant that we read PSSST! at bedtime every night for a week. It was a colossal hit.

PSSST! by Adam Rex

My daughter is now convinced that giant hamster balls are the future of the zoo industry…

The story opens with a young girl visiting the zoo by herself. And, before I get much further, I have to mention that this is one of the most visually arresting, hands-down coolest zoos I’ve ever seen in a picture book. Adam Rex‘s imagination is only matched by his tremendous artistic talent, and his vision of a zoo in PSSST! is so original and whimsical and grand that my daughter spent days poring over the details on every page. Details like the ticket booth shaped like the letters “ZOO” or the Egyptian-themed camel habitat called “Camel-lot.” This is a zoo where deer and rhino roam the grounds in giant hamster balls and a narwhal swims in a giant glass snowglobe. This is a very, very cool zoo.

(Quick nerd aside – I’m a big fan of Steve Purcell’s Sam & Max, a cult comic that has been turned into a series of very popular cult adventure video games, and Rex‘s oddball design work and tendency to drop deliciously-skewed details into his backgrounds reminded me a lot of the world of Sam & Max. But that’s just me.)

So, as the young girl makes her way through this amazing zoo, suddenly, she hears someone say “PSSST!” She turns around to see a gorilla looking at her. This is the conversation that follows:

GORILLA: Over here.
GIRL: Oh. Hi.
GORILLA: What’s up?
GIRL: Not much.
GORILLA: Great. Listen. Could you get me a new tire?
GIRL: Why do you need a tire?
GORILLA: My swing broke. See?
GIRL: Oh. Well… I guess so.
GORILLA: Great. Get two, just in case.

PSSST! by Adam Rex

I guess “stranger danger” doesn’t apply for gorillas…

And the girl walks away. And this situation repeats itself over and over again. She finds herself hit with requests from a javelina, some bats, a group of penguins, sloths, turkeys, a baboon, and a tortoise – all of whom ask for completely random items, ranging from bike helmets to flashlights. The girl is hesitant to help, but they give her money (the peacock collects coins from the fountain) and there IS a store that seemingly sells everything right across the street. As if the girl’s awkward interactions with the animals weren’t funny enough, the whole scenario is leading up to a tremendous punchline at the end of the book that I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, the animals have an ulterior motive and it’s very, very funny. My daughter cackled – CACKLED – at the end of PSSST!, and there’s a particular exchange at the end (that takes place one week later) that she INSISTED on reading herself, simply because she wanted the pleasure of performing such a great gag herself. [read the rest of the post…]

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