This week’s Cybils batch includes some fantastic books. I’ve decided to focus on some that are (more or less) based on the concepts of Friends and Telling Stories. These are common themes for picture books, and these books I list below are some fantastic examples.
The Monster Who Lost His Mean by Tiffany Strelitz Haber and illustrated by Kirstie Edmunds starts with an acrostic poem defining monsters: M for Mean, O for Observant, etc. However, one day, a monster loses his “M” for mean, and he struggles to find his place in monster community. Now downgraded to an “Onster,” he is banished. Pretty soon, Onster finds a place in a new community, with kids, and no matter what he tries, he can’t seem to bring the mean back into his life. In the end, what other people think doesn’t matter. As a monster story, it is delightful; as a “find yourself” story, where a child may recognize that giving in to the group is not always the best solution, it is perfect. Finally, although it’s written in rhyme, it’s so well done that it is never awkward and barely noticeable: it simply flows as a wonderful read-aloud. Raisin and I liked rereading this many times.
Too Tall Houses by Gianna Marino (Viking, 2012) is a story of two friends, a rabbit and an owl, who share a hilltop lookout for their homes. But when rabbit’s vegetables start blocking owl’s view of the forest, the two friends become bitter as they try to out-smart the other. As their homes grow taller than the atmosphere, neither one is happy anymore! The gouche and pencil illustrations are vibrant and gorgeous, and the story is a funny one about friends learning to compromise. Raisin liked the fact that we could see the continents when the houses got way too tall!
Penguin and Pinecone: A Friendship Story by Salina Yoon (Walker and Company, 2012) is a sweet story that borders on symbolic. In the story, Penguin befriends a pinecone (an anthropomorphic pinecone that returns feelings of affection). Although the two friends live far apart, Penguin knits scarves for his pinecone friend and Pinecone remembers the penguin who helped him get planted. The ending of the story is cliche, and yet it works. Raisin and I finished the story and sighed “oooh!” The pictures are simply adorable: seriously, how could a knitting penguin be anything but cute? I love how Penguin’s friendly example let his other penguin friends likewise find some connections by the end.
Olive and the Big Secret by Tor Freeman (Templar Books, 2012) tells of one girl’s challenge to keep a secret her best friend told her! I’m sure many kids can relate to knowing a tantalizing secret just dares to be told. The mixed media illustrations of a group of animals friends give it a universal feel. The animal-kids and the story alike are adorable. Raisin loved telling the kids to “stop telling the secret” as we read.
Two friends see events in strikingly different ways in Good News Bad News by Jeff Mack (Chronicle Books, 2012). Using those two phrases, Mack tells the story of a rabbit who wants to picnic with his friend mouse. However, every time Rabbit sees something that he calls “good news,” Mouse has to find something wrong. This book was a nice reminder to see things with more rose-colored glasses. I loved Rabbit’s sweet pleasantness, and while I unfortunately relate to Mouse’s glass “half-empty” in some respects (how sorry I am that I am a pessimist), I loved Mouse’s eventual rescue for the happy day. A lesson for me to remember! Raisin loved this book had so few words, and that the recurring pattern was a predictable one.
Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always by Tao Nyeu (Dial Books, 2012) is almost a Frog and Toad friendship for the aquatic world. Squid and Octopus are almost indistinguishable (something I also thought about Frog and Toad when I was a kid) and they are best friends. In four brief chapters, they have a silly fight, Squid has an exciting dream, Octopus finds something new in the ocean, and they share the contents of a fortune cookie. My favorite story was that of the flower pot/hat that Octopus enjoys. He cannot seem to use it for the right purpose, until Squid can come justify his original thought of what it is.
I should add that while the concepts of two friends is reminiscent of Frog and Toad, in many ways the book is quite different: the illustrations are silk screened with pencil markings, very different from Lobel’s style, and the chapters are much shorter. This is a picture book, and not a beginning reader. Nevertheless, Squid and Octopus seem to have a life of their own, and I hope Ms Nyeu revisits these adorable friends in future volumes some time.
A Home for Bird by Philip C. Stead (Roaring Brook Press, 2012) is one of those picture books that requires the illustrations to get the full story. Vernon the frog is a very determined friend, who wants to help Bird find a home, even though Bird is shy and does not respond to any of his questions. Of course, for the reader, we can see that Bird is wooden, with button eyes. Once again, I love Mr Stead’s characteristic mixed media: I believe I see watercolor, colored pencils, markers, crayons. And yet, in each picture, Vernon has an expression of emotion on his face and in his eyes, and Bird has distinctive button eyes. It’s a wonderful mix to create a gorgeous result.
Bird’s story comes full circle, when Vernon finds a home that seems just right for Bird — and is, in fact, where Bird came from as we see in the first page of the book! Raisin liked reading this one to himself as well as with me. Was he pouring of the pictures as I had done?
I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (Simon and Schuster, 2012) is simply fantastic in anyway. To call this a book about “friends” is a bit of a bizarre twist, but I’m Bored kind of defies all description. In this book, a bored little girl begins a conversation with a potato, in which she finds she must convince the potato that no, kids are not boring. Ohi’s illustrations are digitally rendered and they bring the girl’s world to life. some pages are only the girl with lots of white space. Others have contrast between the foreground (the little girl) and the imaginary world of her play in the background. A book about a girl talking to a potato is not something many would have thought of enjoying. But it is perfect, a subject kids certainly will relate to brought together with abundant humor. Watch this trailer for the book if you don’t believe me:
Bear Has a Story to Tell by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead (Roaring Brook Press, 2012) is another distinctive picture book by the team that brought us A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Caldecott Medal winner in 2011. Ms Stead’s illustrations are likewise distinctive, but in a very different way from her husband’s. Erin’s style appears more detailed, while Philip’s appears less controlled. In Bear Has a Story to Tell, careful brush strokes give the seasons a distinct shape and feel as Bear seeks out his friends to tell them his story. I love some of the spreads in this book: while a few are mostly white space with a touch of color, others are vibrant and bright, both in the beginning of winter and in the spring as the friends gather for an evening story time.
In the book, Mouse, Duck, Frog, and Mole are too busy getting ready for winter to listen to Bear’s story, so Bear helps them with their needs and sees them off until spring. And after his hibernation, he gets to welcome all his friends back in the forest as the new season begins. Will there ever be a time to listen to his story? I liked the simple twist at the end, and Raisin liked this story too.
Which leads us to No Bears by Meg McKinlay and illustrated by Leila Rudge (Candlewick Press, 2011), a book about a girl named Ella who wants to tell a wonderful fairy story for kids that has no bears in it. I liked how the story showed her story inside of the story, on spiral pages, because we get to see just what really is happening behind the scenes. The illustrations were integral to the story. We found it very silly when we determined that one of those silly bears still happened to sneak in to her story.
Rocket Writes a Story by Tad Hill (Schwartz and Wade, 2012) is the sequel to the best-seller How Rocket Learned to Read (2010), a delightful story about a yellow bird helping a curious dog develop the ability to read. Rocket Writes a Story brings us the same adorable and talented dog, who now really wants help in creating a story, but he doesn’t know how to write it. His teacher helps him find interesting words around him. As Rocket records those words, he finds a new friend, which gives him the inspiration he needs to write a story.
When the first book came out, my son was in the process of learning to read; now that he is older and practicing handwriting, I’ve begun implementing some creative writing into our school time. What perfect timing for us! Raisin and I read this story together and talked about words, and then I let him write a story, with my help in capturing it on paper.1
Finally, we come to Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett and pictures by Adam Rex (Disney Hyperion, 2012), a book I’m not quite sure how to begin explaining. Let me start with a description of the artwork, as mentioned in the front matter:
The art in this book was made with basswood, balsa wood, oil and acrylic paints, pencil, Sculpey clay, modified doll clothing, toilet paper, photography, and photoshop.
Chloe and the Lion is about artistic creation. It is the scene behind the scenes. It reminds the reader that Chloe is only real because the illustrator drew her and the author described her. In Chloe and the Lion, the author, Mac Barnett, and the illustration Adam Rex, and the fake illustrator Hank, are all integral parts of the story, even more so than Chloe, who is supposedly the focal point. When the illustrator Adam refuses to draw a lion (he thinks a dragon is cooler), the author fires him and attempts to draw the story himself, much to Chloe’s disgust. (“Actually, this is some terrible artwork, Mac,” she says.) But Chloe convinces Mac to keep trying, even if he’s not happy with the result.
I hope it’s clear that Chloe and the Lion is not your typical story. It’s fascinating on deeper levels (encouraging kids to keep trying, what is behind the making of a story, and so forth) but even more importantly, it’s simply hilarious to read. The illustrations are simply a wonderful blend of media, and I love the variety of lions and Chloes as the various artists try to continue the story. Let’s not forget Chloe in the end. The poor girl got short-shrifted in this book. Maybe she has another story coming up to make up for it? What say you, Mac and Adam?
Have you read any of these? What did your kids think of I’m Bored? What do you think Chloe and the Lion is about? How would you describe it?
Note: I read these books from library copies for consideration for the Cybils award. I was not compensated in any way for my opinions.
- His story was a somewhat plagiarized retelling of Tad Hill’s story, I’m sorry to say, but he did add some of his own elements in to it to make it his own creation! Besides, he is excited to write more now. ↩