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Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in December, 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: December, 2007

"Blue Moo: 17 Jukebox Hits From Way Back Never"
Written by Sandra Boynton & Michael Ford
Illustrated by Sandra Boynton
(Workman, 2007)

Another kooky, cluttered collection of oddball original songs by Sandra Boynton and her main musical collaborator, Michael Ford. Boynton does the pictures and comes up with the jokes, while Ford crafts the arrangements and keeps all the talent in line. While this set doesn't deliver on the implied promise of a bunch of oldies parodies (oh, well) there are a lot of oldies artists helping out in the studio. Guest performers include crooner Steve Lawrence, songsmith Neil Sedaka, twister mister Bobby Vee, ex-Beach Boy Brian Wilson, Merseybeat stars Gerry & The Pacemakers, blues icon B.B. King, the Sha-Na-Na all-stars, and various rabbitlike friends and relations of Ms. Boynton. High marks go to Davy Jones (of the Monkees) who's jaunty take on "Personal Penguin" has, rightfully, been spun off into a pint-size board book of its own, and The Uninvited Loud Precision Band, a clangorous ensemble who provide a chaotic bookend to the album (and one of the best gags in the book...) as a marching band that invades homes and raids refrigerators while keeping a doubletime beat. This densely-packed CD-book set is clearly geared towards older kids -- it's jammed full of gags and details that will keep bookish boys and girls busy for hours on end. It's also divided into various sections, and each one is more and more layered with inside jokes. The front of the book features large, single-panel illustrations with lyrics on the facing page; then come the same songs with full lyrics and sheet music; then biographical info on the musicians, and finally credits and thank-yous galore, and even a cut-out, make-it-yourself CD cover, and a few more jokes. Just for good measure. (B)

"The Shoemaker And The Elves"
Written by The Brothers Grimm
Adapted by John Cech
Illustrated by Kirill Chelushkin
(Sterling, 2007)

One of the very few fairy tales that isn't completely disturbing on some level... In fact, there's a happy ending and nothing bad happens to anyone! A shoemaker who has fallen on hard times gets a helping hand from mysterious agents -- a group of elves who sneak into his shop every night and turn what little leather he has left into beautiful shoes that customers buy for top dollar. The cobbler's fortunes improve, and he becomes wealthy and happy, and when he finally discovers who his benefactors are, he thanks them by making special miniature outfits to wear, and they then go off to enjoy themselves. This is a fine adaptation by kid's lit veteran John Cech while the artwork is very modern and very odd -- a mixture perhaps of Ralph Steadman and the Brothers Quay -- and compliments the text well, although it also has an unsettling air about it. This story is definitely recommended as an entry point into the world of fairy tales; it's magical and mysterious without being creepy or crawly. This particular version might be best suited for older kids, as the art is a little dark and relatively hard to get a handle on; kids who are already heavily into wizards and whatnot will find it delightful. (B+)

"Maisy Big, Maisy Small: A Book Of Maisy Opposites"
Written by Lucy Cousins
Illustrated by Lucy Cousins
(Candlewick, 2007)

Wow... this one's really trippy! One of the boldest, most visually challenging Maisy books, this volume vibrates with the usual barrage of bright, bold, primary colors, but also has a lot of kooky, creative artwork, and a decidedly surrealistic tone. The multiple madcap Maisy images are blown up to fill the pages, practically spilling out of the book while overloading the reader's senses. Illustrating over two dozen opposite concepts, this book takes great liberties with Maisy's visual appearance -- when Maisy flies, she has her own wings; when she swims, Maisy has a mermaid tail. For thin vs. thick, her body elongates and then compacts; for fluffy vs. spiky, first her edges soften and then she looks like she just stuck a fork in an electrical outlet. Strictly speaking, not all the concepts are opposites (swimming/flying, for example) but the book's blithe, puckish spirit will sweep away such quibbles. This is a very lively, visually stimulating picturebook, taking Lucy Cousin's cartoonist art style and pushing it in new directions. It's pretty cool... a great book for the littlest readers. (B+)

"Maisy's Amazing Big Book Of Words"
Written by Lucy Cousins
Illustrated by Lucy Cousins
(Candlewick, 2007)

Another fun, colorful Maisy book. This volume is an oversized word primer, filled with about 300 words and illustrations (and a bunch of flaps to open, too!) all in Ms. Cousins' bright, blocky style. The words are organized by theme -- on the farm, at the park, etc. -- and while there's nothing really going on in the plot department, it's as eyecatching as all the other Maisy books, and sure to enthrall the littlest readers. (B+)

"The Prince Won't Go To Bed"
Written by Dayle Ann Dodds
Illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007)

Ms. Dodds is consistently one of my favorite children's book authors -- her ideas are engaging and she knows how to make interesting, humorous rhymes that scan well and are a delight to read. This new book is one of her best since the country-themed classic Sing, Sophie, and is sure to enchant many a small reader. It's a medieval-themed tall tale about a royal Prince who cannot fall asleep, no matter what the various castlefolk try. His parents are out for the night, and the first thing the babysitting nanny tries is a fun game of patty-cake, but when the Prince doesn't fall asleep, one of the courtiers suggests a bath... Then a squire suggests a softer pillow... The cook whips up a little snack... The royal guard brings some fluffy mattresses... Nothing works, though, until the prince's older sister comes in and gives him a goodnight kiss, and -- finally having his bedtime ritual completed, the Prince finally gets snoozy. The story has a nice structural formality to it, and the constant refrain after each attempt (Wah! Wah! Wah! I will not go to bed/The teeny-tiny, itty-bitty, little Prince said...) has everything you could want in a children's book chant -- it's catchy and fun to read, it's cute, it's easy for kids to remember, and it has a whiff of naughtiness, too. This book reunites Dodds with illustrator Kyrsten Brooker, whose collage style creates an earth-toned, cozy castle packed with odd and interesting items. This one was a big hit at bedtime -- "read that again" material for many nights to come! (A)

"Squiggles -- A Really Giant Drawing And Painting Book"
Written by Taro Gomi
Illustrated by Taro Gomi
(Chronicle Books, 2007)

Awesome! The third in a series (following Doodles and Scribbles) by the puckish Japanese illustrator Taro Gomi, this is a hip, modern coloring book that breaks the fourth wall, or at least encourages you to splatter a little paint on it and maybe the other three as well. Breaking away from the static, old-fashioned, draw-inside-the-lines, oh-look-it's-a-puppy tradition, Gomi crafts a coloring book that talks to the reader in confidential whispers, plays with them, winks at them and invites them in on the jokes. Continually inventive and improvisational, Squiggles nudges would-be colorists to do some of the heavy lifting as well, and create the pictures as they go along -- the approach is expansive and subtle, and infused with a big dose of humor. A section on the ocean spans nearly twenty pages, with simple, thick-lined illustrations of waves and the occasional island, with a lot of empty water down below, accompanied (on only a few pages) by gentle creative suggestions such as, "start with lots of fish" and "what's in the net?"; a series of pictures about food shows only empty plates and bowls: it's up to the reader to decide what's on the menu. Likewise, Gomi provides a series of heads without facial features -- you fill 'em in -- and a business district where all the signs are blank: it's up to the book's new owner to decide what the stores will sell. By providing the simplest of frames, Gomi opens up wide horizons; this edition also features hefty, durable paper that's thick enough to paint on as well as doodle. This series just gets better and better: let's hope the books keep on coming! (A)

"My Dog, My Cat, My Mama, And Me!"
Written by Nigel Gray
Illustrated by Bob Graham
(Candlewick, 1998/2007)

A modest but charming lift-the-flap book about childbirth and pregnancy. A young girl notices a lot of family members getting big tummies -- first the dog, then the cat -- and when she looks inside their hidey-holes after they get slender again, she discovers that they have had puppies or kittens (as the case may be). By the time her mother starts to swell up, the girl knows what's going on, and is delighted to find that mama had a baby, too -- four of them, in fact! There aren't many flaps -- one for the cat, one for the dog, and one for the babies' stroller -- but the message of the book comes through clearly, and the cheerfulness will be welcome to families where additional little ones are on the way. Plus, love that Bob Graham art! (Originally published in the UK as Full House) (B)

"Daffodil Crocodile"
Written by Emily Jenkins
Illustrated by Tomek Bogacki
(Farrar Strauss/Frances Foster Books, 2007)

Daffodil is back, and as prickly and charming as ever. Although the triplets resolved their going-to-parties dressing up cutesy-cute issues in the previous book, being identical still presents problems elsewhere, especially at school, where teachers and even her closest playmates still mistake Daffodil for her flower-named siblings. When their mother makes a life-size, paper-mache crocodile mask in one of her art classes, Daffodil literally seizes the opportunity to become someone new and more distinctive. Eager to differentiate herself from the mellower, more girly Violet and Rose, Daffodil wears the new mask night and day, even taking it to school and growling RAA RAA RAA at everyone she sees. Even though her teachers, sisters and fellows students all tell her she's acting weird, Daffodil sticks to her guns and revels in the new identity until finally the mask falls apart. But even though she has to be plain old Daffodil again, she insists that she's still not a flower, and not a nice, gentle, little girl. A playful celebration of rowdiness and a child's right to define their personality... As with the first Daffodil book, this might not be for everyone, but if you're on their wavelength, Jenkins and Bogacki have made another fun book with a complex emotional core. (A-)

"Mini Mia And Her Darling Uncle"
Written by Pija Lindenbaum
Illustrated by Pija Lindenbaum
(R&S/Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007)

A precocious, cantankerous little girl named Emma has a hard time adjusting when Tommy, her funnest, funniest, favorite gay uncle hooks up with a new boyfriend. Immediately jealous, Emma becomes increasingly rude and gives Fergus grief every time she sees him, until one day Tommy gets the flu and the two rivals are left alone together. At first there's no common ground, but when Emma finds out that Fergus really knows how to play soccer, she finally warms up and accepts him into the family. The translation from Swedish to English seems a little rigid, but the sharp comedic beats come through, and the prickly, self-absorbed Emma emerges as one of the most endearing, realistic characters in kid's lit today. Lots to cheer about here: it's nice is that the drama isn't really about the uncle being gay, but rather how Emma has to come to terms with her jealousy -- the same story could easily be told about a divorced or widowed parent remarrying or dating again, and really, that's the point. Also, the early scenes where Tommy and Emma are hanging out are great -- everyone should have a relative who likes to have play-dead days at home, or who likes to hop on two feet everywhere they go. Great artwork enhances the wickedly funny text... This one's a winner! (A)

"Sylvie And True"
Written by David McPhail
Illustrated by David McPhail
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007)

A charming, nonsensical set of short stories about Sylvie and True, a bunny rabbit and a water snake, animal roommates who share a small apartment in a big city. Sylvie is the working girl: while she goes off, True stays home to soak in the bath and lurk in trees and scare their downstairs neighbor. In one story, True tries to surprise Sylvie and do the cooking, an experiment that ends badly when she also sits down to watch some TV and forgets what's on the stove. (Thankfully, Sylvie returns home before the apartment burns down... Then they go out for pizza.) These are cute stories, well-illustrated though without much purpose, other than innocent enchantment and giving parents a chance to read something funny and fun to their kids. I always enjoy McPhail's artwork, and his kooky sense of storytelling is a delight as well. It's kind of dumb, but this one was quite popular in our house. (B)

"Footwork: The Story Of Fred And Adele Astaire"
Written by Roxane Orgill
Illustrated by Stephane Jorisch
(Candlewick, 2007)

Hollywood icon Fred Astaire was, arguably, the most famous dancer in the world, projected into tens of millions of minds over the decades, in film, in song, on video, over the radio and onstage. It's ironic, then, that when he started his career, as the junior dance partner to his older sister Adele, everyone assumed she was the one that destiny had big plans for... This elegantly crafted picturebook tells the tale of the Astaire siblings, who were headliners on the professional vaudeville circuit, and later on Broadway for over two decades, from 1906 to 1932. There's a lot of train travel involved, and a lot of Fred hanging around backstage, studying every nuance and trick of the trade among the diverse performers with whom they shared the stage. As the book explains, the Astaires started their act in a time before radio, TV or talking pictures, and conquering vaudeville placed them at the pinnacle of American popular culture. It was only when Adele announced her retirement -- so that she could marry -- that Fred turned his sights towards a film career, and hopped yet another train, this time to Hollywood, where he became the global star we know and love today. This is a great book for older children who love dance, or who appreciate history and the charm of bygone days... It's also a good introduction to or compliment to all those great old Fred Astaire films -- like Astaire himself, this one's a real class act. (B+)

"Richard Scarry's Busiest Pop-Up Ever!"
Written by Richard Scarry
Illustrated by Richard Scarry
Designed by Mike Haines & Mick Wells
(Random House/Golden Books, 2007)

Who among us has not wanted, at some time or another, to reach right in and be part of a Richard Scarry book? Well, here's your chance, in this lively pop-up book adaptation of a classic Busytown story involving Bananas Gorilla and his hijacking a truckload of bananas. You'll zip around the cluttered streets as the whizzing banana car is pursued by Sergeant Murphy, the motorcycle cop who always gets his man... er, primate. A fun, imaginative, three-dimensional adaptation of a classic Scarry tale. Adults might want to preview the book and make sure all the tabs and flaps are loosened up -- the action on this edition is a little stiff. (B+)

"How Big Is The World?"
Written by Britta Teckentrup
Illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
(Sterling/Boxer Books, 2007)

A beautiful book that evokes natural majesty and a sense of wonder, and encourages readers to look beyond their current horizons. One day a young mole burrows out from its hole and, blinking in the sunlight, wonders aloud how big the world is... The mole's father, a model of the whole if-you-love-something-let-it-go-free ethos, tells Little Mole to go out and explore the world himself, and see if he can find the answer. So he does, meeting new animals and asking each in its turn how big the world is. Each one has a different answer, depending on its own perspective, but the more Little Mole travels, the more worldly his acquaintances become. From a spider who sees only his own web and a mouse that only knows its own field, Little Mole moves on to meet a horse who has been to other fields and a seagull that knows of the ocean. His final guide is a giant, gentle whale that takes him to the North Pole and then to the tropics, and across the globe, eventually coming back home where Father Mole is waiting. So, how big is the world? When this question is posed to the whale, she responds that there is no end to the world, but that, "the more you look, the more you will see." The brilliance of this book is both geographic and philosophical, and the tone of the presentation is absolutely perfect. Lovely visuals, too: this has the look and the feel of the best books by Eric Carle and Leo Lionni, and pays warm homage to their work. I have a kid who is often resistant to this sort of message-heavy, nature-loving didacticism, but she was thoroughly entranced by this one. Me, too. Definitely recommended! (A)

"Oscar And The Moth: A Book About Light And Dark"
Written by Geoff Waring
Illustrated by Geoff Waring
(Candlewick, 2007)

A beginning science book that explores the concepts and physics behind light and darkness. Oscar is a curious little kitten who likes to ask lots of questions, and who listens to the answers. Here, his guide is a friendly moth who explains about sunrise and sunset, shadows, bioluminescence, how smaller or weaker light sources (stars, airplane lights) become more visible at night, and how various animals respond to light. The exaggerated, cartoony artwork is appealing, as is the kitty-kat character, although the narrative flow isn't all that compelling. However, the companion volume, Oscar And The Frog (reviewed below), is much more involving. As introductory physical science books, this series seems pretty good, at least for readers on the younger end of the spectrum (4-5 year-olds, perhaps?) There isn't a ton of hard scientific information (or, indeed, actual explanations of many of the phenomena that are mentioned) but that's probably just as well. These books give the general outlines of the topics with out taxing the attention span of the audience; used as stepping stones to more detailed books, these could be quite useful. (B)

"Oscar And The Frog: A Book About Growing"
Written by Geoff Waring
Illustrated by Geoff Waring
(Candlewick, 2006)

An excellent introductory science book that talks about how different plant and animal species grow -- how they are born, what they eat, how they grow -- and, to a limited extent, how they propagate. Sexual reproduction isn't addressed (breathe a sigh of relief, if necessary) but the book does explore the differences between egg-laying animals, live-birth mammals and seed-bearing plants. (Fungi and other spore-producing life forms are left out. Darn.) A few interesting metamorphoses are explored, mainly that of the frog in the title, as are differences in life spans. All this info is taken in by the wide-eyed, ever-curious kitten, Oscar, who asks good questions and gets good answers. This one went over well at our house -- I had been trying to explain some of these same concepts a few weeks ago, and found that this book presented the information quite well, and was consistently engaging. Heck, we even got requests for repeat readings, and that's always a good sign! (B+)

"Puff, The Magic Dragon"
Written by Peter Yarrow & Lenny Lipton
Illustrated by Eric Puybaret
(Sterling, 2007)

A cheery adaptation of Peter, Paul & Mary's 1960s folk-pop classic, "Puff The Magic Dragon," a hit single that became a staple of campfire singalongs and nursery school circle times all around the world. Personally, I'm not wild about the artwork -- it's large and bold, but tends to spill over into the edges of the pages, rather than provide a strong, immediate focal point for the eyes to latch onto -- but the book is still a delight, and will capture the imagination of little readers who are new to the story of Jackie Paper, as well as the many (grand)parents who will pick this up, in part as a trip down memory lane. Peter Yarrow and his family also provide a four-song CD-EP that has a revamped new recording of "Puff," an additional instrumental (karaoke?) version and two other kiddie-folk tunes, "Froggy Went A-Courtin'" and "Blue Tail Fly." In a pair of brief, chatty endnotes, Yarrow and co-author Lenny Lipton cheerfully bat aside the persistent rumors that are attached to this song, asserting for the bazillionth time that it was not written about the town of Hanalei, Hawaii (which I believe) and that it is not a coded reference to drug use (which I'm a little more skeptical about... I mean, c'mon, it was the Sixties, man!) Regardless of which urban myths you choose to believe, this is a lovely, enchanting story, and so deeply ingrained in American popular culture, it pretty much has the status of fairy tale or myth. Nice to have it at our fingertips, at last! (B)

Other Stuff

  • San Francisco's Sippy Cups, a rock'n'roll carnival for little kids and their rock'n'rollin' caretakers, just put out an "Electric Storyland" concert DVD, documenting one of the band's gigs at the venerable Great American Music Hall. I haven't seen the film yet, but I imagine many of their fans (do they call them Cuppyheads?) will be psyched.

    "Casper The Friendly Ghost (Harvey Comics Classics, v.1)"
    (Dark Horse, 2007)

    Just about the time my kid expressed an interest in reading comic books, and I thought, oh crap, I don't have anything age appropriate! and started looking around for some old Harvey comics to give her, then discovered how expensive back issues of those silly baby books had become. Then along came this collection of classic adventures of Casper The Friendly Ghost, perhaps the wimpiest comic character in the world. I thought it would be perfect, and ordered it right away. Turns out, even in the wimpazoid world of Casper there are still a few elements that are a bit disturbing -- lots of robbers with guns and light slapstick violence -- but overall I'd say the stories are pretty kid-friendly. Weighing in at nearly 500 pages, however, the book itself is kind of unwieldy, at least for a little person to handle, but it's a good bargain for what you get. A big downside is that most of the pages are in black-and-white -- that's what makes the book affordable, but it greatly undercuts the magic of the medium, so it's something of a devil's bargain. Speaking of devils, the publisher has plans for future volumes of other Harvey books -- a collection of Hot Stuff, the little devil is in the work and they've already printed a volume of Richie Rich, The Poor Little Rich Boy, a series that had better plots than the Casper books, but might be repulsive to people who aren't money worshippers. Personally, I'm holding out for a collection of Wendy, The Good Little Witch and maybe even one of Little Dot, one of my all-time favorite monomaniacs. (That one would have to be in color, though!!) But pleeeeeeeeeze don't let them collect those awful stories starring Little Lotta, the clumsy, freakishly strong fat girl -- we really don't need her to make a comeback! (B+)

    "Little Lulu, v.1: My Dinner With Lulu"
    Written by John Stanley
    Illustrated by Irving Tripp
    (Dark Horse, 2005)

    While we're at it, I should also mention Dark Horse's excellent series reprinting the classic Little Lulu comics of the 1940s and '50s. The strip is one of the creative watersheds in the comicbook medium, with a bratty little girl who makes Dennis The Menace seem like a choir boy. The stories are funny -- and sometimes really weird -- but it's the artwork that's so fabulous. Clean, stylized, amazingly economical and expressive, Irving Tripp's illustrations elevate the Little Lulu stories into the upper reaches of the funnybook hall of fame... Unfortunately, the publishers had to reprint these stories in black-and-white (to make them affordable) but the stories are still pretty cool. I think they're up to Volume 18 of this series (!) and still going strong. And every volume is a delight! (A)

    "Little Lulu Color Special"
    Written by John Stanley
    Illustrated by Irving Tripp
    (Dark Horse, 2006)

    But wait - there's more! Looks like they did put out at least one volume of all-color Lulu stories. And I am so totally there! Heck, I might even buy a couple of extra copies, just to encourage them to make more books just like it. Full, four-color mayhem! Yahoo!! (A+)

    "Angelina Ballerina: The Nutcracker"
    Based on the books by Katherine Holabird
    Illustrated by someone trying to draw like Helen Craig
    (Grosset & Dunlap, 2007)

    Last, but not least, we picked up a nice new stickerbook for the holidays. Whoo-hoo!! Stickers... The Nutcracker... and Angelina Ballerina! Who could ask for more?? The stickers will only last about twenty-three seconds, but the book actually has a coherent text, and can be read and enjoyed even after the stickers are all gone. We got a kick out of it. (B+)

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      The e-mail address is: joesixpack AT slipcue DOT com.

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