summer reading

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…]


PSSST! by Adam Rex

Sloths: Not great candidates for read-aloud video narrators…

Read-aloud videos on YouTube are a mixed bag. There are some where I marvel at how inventive and emotive the reader is, and there are others where I literally spend the duration of the video clip screaming, “OHMYGOD, YOU’RE MISSING ALL THE GOOD PARTS! SOMEBODY STOP THEM!” While looking over my summer reading picks for this week, I did happen upon this read-aloud video for Adam Rex‘s PSSST!, which was created for the first-grade class of a teacher named “Miss Allender.” It’s a pretty charming clip, so I thought I’d share it to give you one reader’s interpretation of the inspired lunacy of PSSST!

And, as an added bonus, I also found this very cool, very endearing video of a puppet show adaptation of PSSST! that was performed at the Salt Lake City Library in March 2009. Enjoy.


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…]


We’ve spent a lot of time in the library this summer (insane heat will do that) and, as a result, my list of books that I’m aching to recommend keeps getting bigger and bigger. I literally have a notebook where I write down frantic notes like “Must share this with new dads!” or “Best zoo book ever? Have to tell people!” (I can’t decide if that behavior is enthusiastically earnest or borderline psychotic. I should probably ask my wife.) But the fact that I sometimes decide to write 3,000 words on a certain comic book series I particularly like – thank you again for your patience, dear readers – means that I have a pretty huge backlog of books that I’m anxious to recommend. So, as I prepare to spend a week away at a lovely little cottage by a lake, I wanted to call out three fairly amazing picture books that have been on my radar lately that I think are perfect for any bored early reader looking for something interesting to read this summer.

Quick word of warning – None of these books are recently published titles and at least one of them seems to be out-of-print, so this list isn’t about “hot new reads that just came out for Summer 2012!” These are just three books that happened to fall into our realm of interest recently, largely thanks to our local library and some friendly recommendations.

The Dunderheads

Your favorite heist movie conventions wonderfully packaged for kids.

So, for the next three days, I’ll be sharing one pick per day, starting today with…. The Dunderheads (2009) by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by David Roberts.

The Dunderheads is the picture book equivalent of a really smart, really entertaining, big-budget summer movie. And it’s a wonderful example of an author finding a great way to have some character-driven fun with genre conventions. In the past, I’ve discussed how, before my daughter was born, I was a little obsessed with how I would introduce her to classic fairy tales and folk tales. I was adamant that we had to have copies of all the canonical legends of the past, so I could teach her about all of the big storytelling archetypes, myths, tropes, and idioms that she’d be encountering as a new reader. In my mind, I thought, “How can she know when a picture book is riffing on Cinderella if she hasn’t read Cinderella yet?” While that turned out to be way less of a problem than my fevered “new dad brain” thought it would be, I’ve remained really aware of how my daughter has been introduced to new genres and story types through her reading.

We picked up The Dunderheads at the recommendation of a librarian and, little did I know, that it would serve as my daughter’s introduction to one of my favorite genres of all time – THE HEIST GENRE. That’s right, The Dunderheads is a heist movie for kids in picture book form, and it revels in playing with all of the glorious “heist movie” details, tropes, and quirks that any even casual film fan knows by heart. The Dunderheads was written by Paul Fleischman, a Newbery-winning author and poet, and gloriously illustrated by David Roberts (whom you may remember from Iggy Peck, Architect), and it’s apparent that both creators are having a blast with their “heist caper for kids” adventure. In the jacket copy, the creators of The Dunderheads reference Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven movies and it’s a totally apt comparison. This is a story about a kid putting together a team to right a wrong by stealing something back from a bad guy, and its creative influences seemingly come much more from classic movies (the Ocean’s movies, The Italian Job, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Great Muppet Caper) than classic literature. [read the rest of the post…]