Hi, there!

Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in September, 2007. These are mostly new(ish) books, but also include some older books we just found out about and liked more than others. Recommendations and submissions are welcome: please feel free to contact us about other books, new and old.

Many more books are reviewed in the site's permanent archives... These are organized alphabetically, either by Author Name or by Book Title.

New Book Reviews: September, 2007

Written by Hans Christian Andersen
Adapted by Sindy McKay
Illustrated by Quentin Greban
(Treasure Bay, 2007)

A gorgeous, joyful adaptation of this Hans Christian Andersen classic. Belgian illustrator Quentin Greban (one of my faves!) crafts a beautiful, evocative vision of this magical, though slightly creepy, story -- the perfect look for a classic fairy tale... The text, by educational writer Sindy McKay, is designed to encourage children to read along with adults -- it includes prompts for both adult and child readers, but it's not necessary at all -- an older reader can still easily read the book for smaller children and it will still be very enjoyable. We've read a few different Thumbelinas, and this is by far and away out favorite. Highly recommended! (A)

"May I Pet Your Dog?"
Written by Stephanie Calmenson
Illustrated by Jan Ormerod
(Clarion, 2007)

A straightforward primer to show small children the safest way to meet and approach strange dogs. Although this doesn't provide much in the way of dramatic storytelling, it does offer very practical information, in a way that may appeal to kids. Ask the owners first; show the dog your hand and let them sniff it before you try petting them; pet dogs from the side, not over their heads; pay attention to warning signs like crouching or growling, and don't make eye contact with an angry or anxious dog. As a narrative, this is pretty clunky, but even if you only get one or two readings out of it, the information they impart will be very valuable. (B)

Written by Nina Crews
Illustrated by Nina Crews
(Henry Holt & Co., 2006)

Normally, I'm not a big fan of photographic art used in kids' books... (I'm sure it's some "developmental phase" where kids love it, but we haven't hit it yet...) Still, this book by Nina Crews, who has been doing this kind of art for years and years, is a far-above average photo-picturebook, with a good story, imaginative images and an appealing child actor. The story goes like this: a boy named Jack drops his toy buddy, Guy, into a crevice under the stairs. He imagines all the scary and/or fun things that might happen to Guy in the hidden-away dark and then decides to get him out. Since the adults in the house are too busy to help, Jack takes matters into his own hands, and organizes a "rescue," using his toy crane to fish Guy out. It works (and in the process, he also finds a bunch of other lost items) and after he saves Guy, Jack vows never to lose him again. A great portrait of a child's imaginative play, and of problem-solving... This book will ring true on many levels -- plus, it's a compelling story. Recommended! (B+)

"Pretty Salma"
Written by Niki Daly
Illustrated by Niki Daly
(Henry Holt & Co., 2007)

Little Red Riding Hood, as adapted for urban African climes... Here, the innocent child is played by a Ghanaian girl named Salma, who is asked by her granny to run an errand in the marketplace, and told not to talk with strangers. Instead of a wolf, we get Mr. Dog, a particularly sleazy-looking, anthropomorphized character, dressed in a ratty tank top shirt and cut-off shorts, who oozily offers to help Salma carry her basket, then steals both the food and her clothes. Then, dressed in drag, he heads for Granny's house, to do the old lady in. Salma runs to her grandfather, who helps chase Mr. Dog back to "the wild side of town." The visual glimpse into a modern African setting, particularly a vibrant city, is interesting, although the underlaying message of the Riding Hood legend is still pretty creepy, even moreso when taken out of the distant, pastoral, fairytale woods and placed into a more gritty, tangible urban setting. The sense of menace is more literal and more real -- this book would be good to use as a springboard for a "don't talk to strangers" lecture, or for an exploration of African culture, but it may be a little too intense for younger readers. (B-)

"The Cat In The Hat Beginner Book Dictionary -- In Spanish"
Written by P.D. Eastman
Illustrated by P.D. Eastman
(Random House/Beginner Books, 1966)

A nice entry-level reference book... I've never been that into the English-only version, but this bilingual edition is much more engaging. The pictures are cheerful and illustrative (you gotta love Eastman's artwork!) and there are gazillions of entries, with lots of fun stuff to look at... A few small quibbles: the Cat In The Hat branding is a little duplicitous, since the Cat doesn't appear anywhere inside the book, other than on the front cover. Also, the Spanish content is given secondary status to the English entries -- the book's graphic layout remains the same, so it is still organized by the English-language words (All, Ant, Apple, Attic, etc.) instead of the Spanish, which is fine if you are approaching it as an English speaker, but it doesn't work well for a language immersion approach (you can't learn a bunch of Spanish-language "A" words all at the same time, for example.) More significantly, the singular forms of each word are not always given -- Spanish words are introduced within the context of sample sentences, so nouns are often pluralized, and verbs are often conjugated (although only in one form), so you need to have considerable previous background with the language to really explain the translations. All in all, though, this is a very good resource, which introduces over 1300 words en espanol and also provides a pronunciation guide at the end, just in case. A fine tool, especially when used in conjunction with other language resources. (B+)

"Living Color"
Written by Steve Jenkins
Illustrated by Steve Jenkins
(Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

A cool book, but really meant for older kids... This natural history book groups animals by color -- blue dart frogs along with hyacinth macaws and blue-tailed skinks -- and explains how each animal uses their distinctive coloring as an adaptive or defensive trait. There's a lot of tooth-and-claw action here: most of this stuff has to do either with killing prey, avoiding being eaten, or finding a mate. There's also a lot of text -- each of the dozens of animals being profiled gets a little explanatory paragraph next to their picture. The artwork is beautiful and there's tons of great zoological information. Just the thing for a budding naturalist to pore over for years to come. (By the way, if you like this book you might also want to check out Jenkins' earlier work, Biggest, Strongest, Fastest... ) (B+)

"A Hippo's Tale"
Written by Lena Landstrom
Illustrated by Lena Landstrom
(Raben & Sjogren, 2007)

A goofy new story from one of Sweden's most charming childrens' lit writers. Mrs. Hippopotamus likes her privacy and one day she gets a little grumpy when she realizes the monkeys and other animals in the jungle can see her when she's taking a dip in the river, so she decides to build herself a bathhouse. However, the younger hippos soon take it over and turn it into a diving board... Everything turns out fine, though: once everyone goes swimming at Mrs. H's private beach, the shore in front of the village is left vacant, and provides her with all the privacy she needs. Did I mention before that Lena Landstrom has an odd sense of humor? Nice, but nicer still if you've already read the other books in this series. (B)

"Nini Here And There"
Written by Anita Lobel
Illustrated by Anita Lobel
(Greenwillow, 2007)

Nini, the grey tabby cat, knows something's up when the humans in the house start to pack up all their stuff... Worried that they plan to leave without her, Nini makes a nuisance of herself by sitting on top of things she knows they'll want. Then... she sees they've also got kitty carrying case out! By then, it's too late, and Nini gets scooped up, then zipped into her big black carrying bag. She protests, but eventually gives up and drift off to sleep, and thus begins the most wonderful part of this book: Nini's dream. Going from one fantastic scenario to another, Nini dozes her way to a new home. Here, the chunky, collage-ish artwork really takes off -- observant readers may notice little details like how each page hints at the page to come: the palm tree Nini sits under turns into palm tree wallpaper, a tiny boat in the corner of one page becomes a full-blown kitty ship inthe next. And so on. Finally, when Nini wakes up, the humans let her out and she sees her new home, a beautiful country house with a wide, green orchard and lots of grass to romp around in. Talk about happy endings! This is a wonderful book, particularly for the kitty-kat inclined. (A-)

"My Mommy Is Magic"
Written by Carl Norac
Illustrated by Ingrid Godon
(Clarion, 2007)

A gem. Although the companion book, My Daddy Is A Giant is kind of a dud, this mommy book really rang true... at least it made my wife cry when she read it with our kid! Simple text and large, expansive illustrations combine to magical effect, describing a mommy who chases away monsters, shares secrets, and who can even part the clouds and make the weather nice by wearing her pretty summer dress. Nakedly sentimental, yet artfully done, this celebrates the bond between parent and child in an imaginative, evocative style. One of the best I-love-my-mommy books you'll find. (A)

"The Cat In The Hat"
Written by Dr. Seuss
Illustrated by Dr. Seuss
(Random House, 1957)

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Cat In The Hat, Dr. Seuss's groundbreaking, landmark love letter to the anarchy and chaos of childs' play and imagination. We all know the story: one cold, wet day two kids sit at home trying to behave themselves while their mother is out running errands. Enter the Cat, along with his helpers, Thing One and Thing Two, who proceed to turn the house upside down, trying to get the boy and girl to loosen up and have a little fun. All the while, a nervous goldfish acts as a parental scold, squeaking about all the things the kids should not do when their mother is out. The text is giddy and propulsive, catapulting readers along a roller-coaster of action and anxiety... It's also clearly a subversive story, one of the first childrens' books to champion sheer, unbridled fun-seeking rebellion and misbehavior, bringing the kids' point of view to the fore while refusing to add a moral, instructional message. More to the point, it's fun. Fun to read, fun to hear, fun to look at and revisit. All these decades later, and it's still one of the greatest books ever written. (A-)

"McElligot's Pool"
Written by Dr. Seuss
Illustrated by Dr. Seuss
(Random House, 1947)

A delightful celebration of possibilities, imagination and optimism... One of the best of the lesser-known Seuss books! When a young boy is mocked by a farmer for planting his fishing pole in a dinky little puddle in the middle of a field, the boy replies with a long, spirited defense of his passtime... The words "may" and "might" repeat dozens of times, as he imagines an underground waterway linking McElligot's Pool to the oceans, and the myriad weird-o-rama fish that might bite at his bait, if he only waits long enough. Good things might happen, and what's the harm in waiting to see if they do? Lots of cool, kooky, imaginary Seuss-ian beasts, too, set inside a fun, uplifting poem. (A-)

"How Do You Know?"
Written by Deborah W. Trotter
Illustrated by Julie Downing
(Houghton Mifflin/Clarion, 2006)

Waking up on a foggy morning, a little girl asks her mother where the world has gone... Mom takes her out for a walk and shows her that everything is still where it was, even if they can't see it all through the mists. The child asks the mother, But how do you know it's there? A curious book, I suppose, about both faith and tangible reality, about a child's trust in their parent's knowledge of the world, and about a child testing that knowledge. It's also about a mother and child on an adventure, exploring nature together in the misty magic of a foggy day... The text is well-matched by the dreamy pastels of San Francisco-based illustrator Julie Downing -- nobody knows fog quite as well as Bay Area natives! (B)

Other Stuff

"Thomas' Engine Shed: The Classic Library"
Written by Rev. W. Awdry
Illustrated by Rev. W. Awdry
(Random House, 2007)

I'm a little scared of the whole Thomas phenomenon... Slippery slope, lots of stuff to buy, etc. so I am unlikely to read too many of the books to my kid. However, if you're already on the bandwagon, this gigantic, train station-shaped box set, which has hardbound copies of all 26 of the original Thomas The Tank Engine books... Wow! Talk about you fancy Thomas fetish items! (-)

"The Golden Compass" (1996)
"The Subtle Knife" (1997)
"The Amber Spyglass" (2000)
by Philip Pullman

I read the Golden Compass trilogy a few years back -- can't remember why -- and thought I'd dash off a word or two about it, what with the movie coming out soon and all. The books follow familiar kids/young adult fantasy tropes: the hero is an orphan (the feisty, indomitable Lyra Belaqua) whose real parents (not actually dead) are both powerful figures in the world outside. Lyra lives in an alternate-reality version of our world, a strange mix of the medieval and modern worlds, where the Church-led Inquisition has lasted for centuries, but science has continued apace, although led for the most part by the dictates of the somewhat sinister, repressive Church. The first two books were riveting, mostly because the fiery young girl is such as appealing character and the fantasy elements are quite imaginative, however, the third volume is disappointing. To put it simply, the Golden Compass books are a thinly-disguised anti-Catholic screed, and though the first two books are quite entertaining, the third is a real drag. If you get pulled in by the story, you'll have to finish the series, just to see how it ends. Although I don't have any principled or prudish objections to Pullman's world view, I do think the narrative and the writing suffered greatly in the third book, where he pretty much just comes out and says what he feels about religion and the Church, much to the detriment of the writing. It's just not that much fun to read once the story becomes a grinding political pamphlet; indeed, finishing the series was a bit of a chore. (Apparently the movie tones things down a lot -- won't parents be surprised when they get the books after having seen the film!) (B)

Contact Info

PS - Please feel free to send us other recommendations for books, websites, whatever. The e-mail address is: joesixpack AT slipcue DOT com. (Sorry, you'll have to type it in yourself -- I'm trying to cut down on my spam... :-)

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