Once I started thinking of categorizing some of the Cybils books as “Finding a Place,” I found that many pictures books seem to emphasize that. Although picture books don’t provide a cathartic bildungsroman arc of developing self-awareness that middle-grade or young adult books do, in many ways picture books do share the stories of the miniature epiphanies that come to children as they go through life. Below are some of the books that do so, roughly categorized for sanity’s sake.
In Pirate Boy by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Julie Fortenberry (Holiday House, 2011), young Danny asks his mother a series of “what if?” questions, particularly about Danny joining a ship full of pirates. For each question, his mother has a way to bring him home safe again. Reminiscent of Margaret Wise Brown’s classic The Runaway Bunny, Pirate Boy likewise reassures the young child that Mommy will always love him. The bonuses of Pirate Boy include the bright digitally painted illustrations and Mommy’s clever and humorous solutions for rescuing Danny from the pirates. Pirate Boy is a fun book for a mother and child to enjoy together.
In Lola’s Fandango by Anna Witte and illustrated by Micha Archer (Barefoot Books, 2011), the young Lola wants to be like her talented, beautiful older sister. When she discovers that her mother once was a talented flamenco dancer, she determines to learn to dance too. With her father’s help, she masters the skills needed and surprises her mother with a colorful dance. The illustrations are bright collages that perfect add to the family’s Spanish heritage which is so integral to the story. The book also comes with accompanying readalong CD. It was fun to hear the Fandango rhythm on the CD so I could better place Lola’s Fandango in its cultural context. (Nominated by Rebecca) Note: I was provided a review copy of this book for consideration for the Cybils awards.
In Little Pig Joins the Band by David Hyde Costello (Charlesbridge, 2011), Little Pig does not feel like he fits in with his family, and he does not like being called “Little Pig.” When his family pulls out some instruments and starts getting a band ready, Little Pig wonders where he can fit in. After watching chaos for a while, he finds his place in a special way, even insisting that he doesn’t mind being Little Pig. The watercolor and ink illustrations give life to Little Pig’s family and somehow they manage to capture the little one’s frustrations wonderfully. Little Pig Joins the Band is a good story for the child looking to fit in with her or her own (possibly noisy and chaotic) family. (Nominated by Lili Cohen)
Olive and Snowflake by Tammie Lyon (Marvell Cavendish, 2011) shows a girl and her dog who have some issues: Olive is clumsy and messy, and her dog likewise causes messes and gets them both in trouble! When Olive’s parent’s give an ultimatum (obedience school or the dog must go!), Olive wonders if she can improve her behavior too. Never fear, there is a satisfying conclusion. The illustrations are done in acrylic and pencil and are very friendly. Raisin liked this little dog and his owner. While I had a little bit of hesitation at Olive’s apparent confusion that her parents would send her away (Would a girl really worry about that and misunderstand what “obedience school” is?), overall the story is a fun one that shows how two best friends – one furry – learn to improve their behavior. (Nominated by Tammie Lyon)
I had to explain to Raisin (he’s only 4) but most children know that chameleons are fascinating in how they adapt their appearance to match their environment. In Blue Chameleon by Emily Gravett (Simon and Schuster, 2011), this is taken a step farther as Blue Chameleon, who is lonely, tries to adapt himself to match the new friends he meets: yellow banana, pink cockatoo, stripy sock, spotty ball, and even a white page (my favorite, as it’s the most clever). The illustrations are done in colored pencil, and each page simply labels what Blue Chameleon is trying to be. In the end, of course, Blue Chameleon finds a friend just right for him. Blue Chameleon is a simple but fun book for kids to enjoy. (Nominated by Nancy Talan)
Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo and illustrated by Qin Leng (Second Story Press, 2011) tells the story of young Maiko, who has recently moved to a city from his home in Africa. He missed his 2,000 year old tree but finds comfort in a small spruce tree in front of his home. Maiko must deal with being away from the tree and landscapes that he loves at the same time that he faces teasing in school. Maiko is able to make friends and move on, despite his homesickness. Although each page contains a bit too much text for the young child, older children will appreciate Maiko’s story of coming to find his place in a new country far different from his own. The ultimate lesson of “grow where you are planted” may be cliché, but it works in this story since Maiko learns that it’s okay if we have to replanted sometimes. Dear Baobab is a hopeful story. (Nominated by Clem Martini) Note: I was provided a review copy of this book for consideration for the Cybils awards.
In Ella May and the Wishing Stone by Cary Fagan and illustrated by Geneveive Cote (Tundra, 2011), Ella May believes herself to be extra important today, since she found a specially marked rock during her day at the beach. To her surprise, her friends are not happy for her, but jealous. When no one wants to play with her, she must decide what is more important to her and find a way to help her friends get their wishes. I loved the soft illustrations and the clever lesson the book teaches about sharing and friendship. Raisin loves this story and repeatedly wants to reread it, something I don’t mind since he could use the reminders to share with friends! (Nominated by Monica Kulling)
Bear also has to learn what it means to have and be a friend in the “Story of True Friendship” Bug and Bear by Ann Bonwill and illustrated by Layn Marlow (Marshall Cavendish Children, 2011). Bear is too tired to play with his annoying friend Bug, but when he is finally left alone, he misses his friend. The illustrations (gouache, pencil, watercolor, and crayon) are friendly and natural looking, perfect for the forest environment Bug and Bear live in. The message is a sweet one we all should remember. (Nominated by Lenore Appelhans)
Pirate vs. Pirate by Mary Quattlebaum and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger (Hyperion, 2011) is the story of two unfriendly pirates: the biggest, burliest pirate and the maddest, mightiest pirate of their oceans. When they meet, they determine to figure out who is the best of the world, with surprising results. The ridiculous exaggerations and insults the pirates fling at each other are quite amusing, and the illustrations match the tone of the story perfectly. I love the twist at the end. (Nominated by Terry Borzumato-Greenberg)
Square Cat by Elizabeth Schoonmaker (Aladdin, 2011) is about Eula, a square cat, who finds life frustrating since she can’t do what cats are supposed to do. Her friends try to help her fit in, and ultimately Eula and her friends realize that it’s fun to be different. There is lots of white space to make the geometric illustrations visually appealing, and the brightly colored cats are amusing to read about. (Nominated by Monica Kulling)
Poor Sam the giraffe is a painfully shy young student, but in Too Shy for Show-and-Tell by Beth Bracken and illustrated by Jennifer Bell (Picture Window Books, August 2011), he finds the courage to speak up and share some of his favorite things. Although the thought of talking to his class makes his stomach hurt in the beginning, as he watches the other kids successfully share their special items, Sam finds the courage in himself to share about his special thing: his new dog. Although it’s a simple story, young children will certainly relate to the issue, and the adorable illustrated animals in Sam’s class look friendly and welcoming. This is a recommended picture book for a shy kid, and also those kids or adults who’d love a reminder that other people aren’t as scary as we imagine them to be. (Nominated by Jennifer Glidden) Note: I was provided a review copy of this book for consideration for the Cybils awards.
Back to School Tortoise by Lucy George and illustration by Merel Eyckerman (Albert Whitman, 2011) is a perfect back to school story for the student or teacher you may know. Like many, Tortoise is a bit nervous about the first day of school. The story follows his worries and then takes him to the door of his class room, where there is a surprise waiting for the reader. This may be a great book for easing the back-to-school jitters with a little laugh. The illustrations are fun and Raisin liked the depictions of various animals. (See a family review: I loved reading this!) (Nominated by Elijah Z)
In the Community
I had mixed feelings when I first read Meena by Sine van Mol and illustrated by Carianne Wijffels (Eerdman’s, 2011, originally published 210 in Belgium) because it so frankly depicts neighborhood bullying; my son, being four, seems far from that issue and I made sure to keep it away from him. Obviously, this is a book for older children to read. The more I think about the book after the fact, the more pleased I am with the subject and development. In Meena, young neighborhood children torment a fat and ugly old woman: they send her hate notes, call her a witch, and even threaten her. When they notice a young girl staying with Meena, they begin to wonder about who this “witch” is. Meena’s sweet nature and her granddaughter win over the neighborhood, thanks to delicious cherry pie, and the children begin to understand that they have a lot to learn about their neighbor. I liked how the children came to a gradual realization, and although the bullying was quite harsh at the beginning, the point is well made by the end. (Nominated by Jann Meyers).
The Ballad of Booster Bogg by Ellen Jackson and illustrated by Christine Mannone Carolan (Shenanigan Books, 2011) is a humorous rhyming story about a dog who doesn’t want an owner. He loves to be free to explore the world. Because he’s an adorable and friendly dog, different people in town try to adopt him and spoil him, but he does not want to be tied down. When a mean townsperson determines to restrain Booster Bogg, the town together finds a clever solution, and Booster Bogg is able to roam free still. The story and the illustrations are both friendly, and reader finishes the story with a smile, happy that the friendly dog kept his freedom. (Nominated by Evelyn B. Christensen) Note: I was provided a review copy of this book for consideration for the Cybils awards.
Subway Story by Julia Sarcone-Roach (Knopf, 2011) tells the story of Jessie, one particular subway car built in the 1960s for the subways of New York City. She loves her life of carrying people around the city, but as the years go by, she becomes one of many outdated city cars. After years of neglect, she was recycled into the ocean (off the coast of Delaware), where fish used her structure as a man-made coral reef. I was not familiar with the ecological needs for such a structure in the ground, but the afterward helped understand it. Raisin, being a train fanatic, really enjoyed the story of a train who lived beyond her use as a train, and it opened up a conversation about recycling. The illustrations, which are acrylic paintings, showed the changing look of the subway cars and the people through the years; personally, the gorgeous art was my favorite aspect of the book. (Nominated by Adam Kesner)
The titular cumulus cloud in Cloudette by Tom Lichtenheld (Henry Holt, 2011) is small and seems insignificant amidst the other, larger clouds. When a wind blows her to a desert area, she finds the strength within her to make a difference in her way. The illustrations of the friendly cloud are simple but endearing, and the ultimate resolution is satisfying. Cloudette is an attractive book about a little one finding her own place. (Nominated by Jordyn)
Little Owl’s Night by Divya Srinivasan (Viking, 2011) has a basic storyline, that of Little Owl enjoying the evening, watching his forest friends and wondering why anyone would want to sleep through the beautiful night. He wants to see the sunrise so he can see if that’s any good too, but as his mother describes it to him, Little Owl falls fast asleep. Little Owl’s Night has bright graphic design illustrations which Raisin and I enjoyed. I particularly enjoyed Owl’s big eyes that soaked in all the activity and beauty around him. It’s a nice twist on the bedtime story, since for Owl, bedtime is sunrise. (Nominated by Chris Barton)
The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister by Linda Ravin Lodding and illustrated by Suzanne Beaky (Flashlight Press, 2011) is an anti-Tiger Mom story. (I happened to read it the first time the same week I reviewed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, so the timing seemed quite ironic for me.) Poor young Ernestine is overscheduled with (ridiculous)after-school tasks, from yodeling to tuba-lessons to water ballet. Although it appears she enjoys her talents, she seeks for something more, and in the end she and her parents find peace. The illustrations are clever and exaggerated, much as Ernestine’s schedule and the names of her teachers (Mr. Oompah is her tuba instructor), and the book as a whole is simply fun. It’s also a good reminder that kids need a little time to play every now and then. (Nominated by Linda Ravin Lodding)
In the World
Even after reading Jonathon and the Big Blue Boat by Philip C. Stead (Roaring Brook Press, 2011) multiple times, I’m still undecided what I think of the story. The fabulous illustrations, a mix of acrylics and collage (particularly stamps, maps, and patterns from around the world), make this a fantastic book to pour over and examine the pictures. For that reason, I must address it. In the story, young Jonathan’s parents have determined he is too old for his stuffed animal, his best friend Frederick, and they have traded the bear for a toaster. Distraught, Jonathan slips off onto the Big Blue Boat, searching for his teddy bear. With repetitive phrases (“And that’s how Jonathan, a mountain goat, a circus elephant, and a …. came to sail on the sea on a Big Blue Boat.”) that build as Jonathan’s adventure continues, the story is a pleasant read-aloud.
The ending, however, left me wondering and unsatisfied, for Jonathan’s adventure certainly is not over; there is no full circle return to his parents or an understanding of what will happen next. And, as a parent to a young child, I am not sure I want my son worrying that I’m going to trade away his precious imaginary friend or comfort object. I suspect, though, that Mr Stead’s point in this book goes beyond the story as we see it. He is, probably, suggesting that growing up is not a cut-and-dried “move on,” but is a never-ending adventure. Jonathan’s story is the story of leaving childhood behind, all the while a growing child grasps hold of the imagination and adventure of childhood and hopes life will work out well in the end. (Nominated by Susan Thomsen)
Unless otherwise noted, books were read via library copies; I was not compensated in any way for review.