Picture Book Review – The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt & Oliver Jeffers

indexAt 13,519 ratings, 4 and a bit stars and 1,957 reviews on Goodreads alone, you have to have had your head in a bucket not to have heard about this 2013 Choice Winner, released with a fanfare in 2013.  And here I go, adding my voice to the chorus.

My daughter was given The Day the Crayons Quit on her sixth birthday and it has been one of the most-requested titles in her (extensive) library ever since.  I must have read this at least a couple of hundred times by now.  Even though a slight sigh just made it’s way onto the page (see it?) I know it could’ve been worse.  For all I love Dr Seuss, it might have been Hop on Pop.  Or fairy-fare.  It’s a true test of a children’s picture book that it can prevail without quietly “disappearing” at the hands of a mind-numbed adult.  Okay – I admit I’ve sometimes accidentally turned two pages instead of one.

TDTCQ wheatThis is Daywalt’s first book – and it’s good. One day in class Duncan takes out his crayons and finds a stack of letters with his name on them.  Red complains of overwork and never getting a holiday – he has to colour hearts on Valentines and Santas at Christmas.   Pedant purple urges Duncan to colour more carefully.  Beige bends like the wheat he complains he’s relegated to colouring while big brown “gets all the bears, ponies and puppies”.

Gray TDTCQ white catis tired.  Gray mammals are pretty big mostly – whales and elephants and the like.  He suggests baby penguins or pebbles.  White feels empty because he’s not even really a colour and is only defined by filling in the spaces between things and black complains of only ever defining things and not filling in spaces.  Yellow and orange fight about who is the real colour of the sun.  Blue complains of such occupational overuse (big skies, rivers and oceans) TDTCQ pinkthat he’s too stubby to see over the railing in the crayon box.  Pink suffers from gender bias and longs to colour monsters and dinosaurs instead of princesses.  Peach is too embarrassed to leave the crayon box ever since Duncan tore off his wrapper.

So it’s not so much that the crayons quit (although that’s a catchy title).  There’s no collective conciousness here – more a litany of complaint.  And a few of the crayons complain about the same things (which is why sometimes I accidentally turn two pages instead of one).  Duncan obliges by drawing a double page spread that honours most of these requests (with the exception of red, gray and blue who, as my daughter delights in pointing out, just have to suck it up).  I personally love the black rainbow but then, I’m a grown up…

duncan's drawing

Warm and clever, the story is brought alive by Jeffers’ brilliant monochromatic illustrations.  There’s a naive, scribbly kid-ness to his drawings, showcased by plenty of white space and quality production.  Despite my over-exposure to this book I still love the drawing of poor old beige crayon – bent like the wheat he so deplores colouring and I delight in my little girl’s chortling at poor old peach crayon, stripped naked and stuck in the box.

TDTCQ peach crayon

Buy or borrow for a read-aloud 4-7 or independent reading 6 +.

Cat-ness – “Jenny and the Cat Club” by Esther Averill – New York Review Books Children’s Collection

jenny and the cat club 2In the last few years New York Review Books, with a stroke of brilliance,  have been unearthing and reissuing classics for children (and their big people).

These range from picture books for preschoolers to early chapter books and novels for older children.  Beauties like The Backward Day by Ruth Krauss, Palmer Brown’s Hickory, The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber and The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay.  Check out the NYRB pages – they group these treasures by reading age.

Objects to admire, beautiful to hold – these hard-cover editions have red cloth spines and many include original endpapers, line art, and full-colour illustrations.  The covers in the collection feature a unified series design and materials are carefully selected to reflect the period of original publication.

One of our favourites is Esther Averill’s Jenny and the Cat Club: A Collection of Favourite Stories about Jenny Linksy.

First published in the 1940s and 50s, these simple stories are about an orphaned black cat who lives happily with her human, Captain Tinker, in New York’s Greenwich Village.

photo 4Jenny is sensitive and shy yet has social designs – she longs to be part of the cool Cat Club.   The members of the Cat Club meet regularly to party in Captain Tinker’s garden.  All the cats in the club have distinct personalities: – the elegant Persian Butterfly (who plays the nose flute), the lively twins Romulus and Remus, sweethearts Arabella and Antonio, clever Solomon who can read and generally sits atop a pile of books, naughty Macaroni, club-fighters Sinbad and The Duke. The club is presided over by a well-fed feline by the name of, unsurprisingly, Mr President.  Every cat knows its place in the club and the only way to get membership is to prove a special cat-talent.  It’s a club that demands excellence of it’s members.  Daunting?  Meow.

photo 2“They are too clever.  All of them can do things.  What can I do?  Nothing.” Jenny

As she gains acceptance to the Cat Club and throughout her later adventures with them,  Jenny struggles with emotions common to all children.  Dealing with bullies, feelings of being an outsider, jealousy, insecurity, loneliness and embarrassment.

” Before long Alice Featherlegs caught sight of the three new arrivals.  She ran over to them, and her soft fur made a rustling sound as she drew near. How elegant and full of grace she seemed!  Jenny could not take her eyes away from her.   But Alice did not even glance at Jenny.  Alice looked only at Florio and Pickles.  She acted just as if she never spoke to little cats.  Alice’s behaviour made Jenny feel extremely small and plain.”

photo 1The stories are a helpful and reassuring exploration of feelings that a 5-8 year old might feel if they were new to school or moved to a new neighbourhood.  Or within any given school day.  And our gallant protagonist Jenny overcomes these feelings with support (yay Cap’n Tinker), persistence and a very quiet courage.

“Jenny’s neck felt cold and bare without her red wool scarf tied snugly around it. And all those pairs of cat eyes staring at her through the moonlight frightened her. But she knew she had to speak.  She must make the Cat Club understand how important was the scarf she had lost.”

Some might find the slight formality and occasional didactic tendencies a bit cringey.  But Averill writes with almost a nonchalance that anchors the whimsy of the cat-club world.  And any kid who has a cat or loves cats will be entranced by the simple, sketched drawings that perfectly capture, well, the cat-ness of these characters.

photo 3Despite their weakness for accessorising (Jenny is lost without her scarf, Pickles wears a fireman’s helmet and Florio borrows an Indian feathered head-dress from a doorman) these cats are not just humans with fur.  Jenny pokes her paw in a crack in the sidewalk “as if she hoped to find a penny.”  Her new brother Edward makes his “office” in a corner of the closet behind Captain Tinker’s rubber boots.  When Jenny is afraid she spends the day sleeping in a soapbox in the cellar.  In another incident she hides under the sofa after scratching Captain Tinker.  This affectionate attention to cat quirks are everywhere – the characters stretch their necks to peek, curl up, flee in terror, lick their fur and groom their whiskers.

Seventy years young, these charming, graceful stories are perennially modern, as all great books should be.  Jenny and The Cat Club should appeal to both boys and girls as a read-aloud 4-8 years and for independent readers 7+.

The entire collection of Jenny Linksy books available from the NY collection includes: –

1. Jenny and the Cat Club

2. Captains of the City Streets

3. The Hotel Cat

4. Jenny’s Moonlight Adventure

5. Jenny’s Birthday Book

6. Jenny Goes to Sea

7. The School for Cats

and the all-important prequel….

8. The Fire Cat.

LISTEN UP – AUDIO BOOKS

wirelessMy love of listening to stories began with my mother’s whispered, made-up- in-a-nano-second bedtime rituals.  Time-poor, with four small people to attend – she was the master of the small but perfectly formed three act story.  And when I say short, I mean short.  A few minutes, maybe five.  But she was clever and if the telling fell short of the mark, it didn’t matter because I could feel her mind working, hear her night-voice, inhale her  – I had her to myself for just a tiny pocket of time in wonderland.  Marvellous.

Later, it was the children’s stories on the Sunday Morning Radio Show.  Faraway lands. Fairy-tales, folk tales.  Death, darkness and danger.  And magic of course.  Walter de la Mare’s dark and delightful Molly Whuppie “Woe betide you Molly Whuppie, if ye e’er return again!”  The Little Red Engine, Jack and the Beanstalk – oh and a favourite The Noisy Eater by Jim Copp (read by Jerry Lewis).  “Pass the salt!  No matter.  I get it myself.”

boy listening to the radio

You get the idea.  Scratchy old recordings, the metal-vinyl scent of the transistor warmed by straining batteries and morning sun.  Carpet burn.  I feel old just talking about it.  It was always a grand couple of hours of losing ourselves in story while the olds tried to achieve some kind of sleep-in. All those seeds push up at me now, a parent.  There’s definitely a time and a place for audio books.  I reach for them when my kids are tired and can’t extend themselves to much more than flopping about on the sofa.  And of course, they are unparalleled for the ole car-journey.  Holiday time too – when the kids are far away from the luxuries and diversions of everyday life.  When a jangle of ages come together on a hot afternoon to pass the time until the sun mellows and they can move again. For years I’ve had hassles trying to get my hands on anything more than audio recordings of the classics.  It’s always been, you know, Enid, Beatrix or Roald.  Or other random recordings held by my tireless local library – scratched CD’s with disintegrating covers, inter-loaned from exotic sounding places like Beachlands and Manurewa. But now – BEHOLD the e-library!  Yep this luddite has been slow on the uptake but I’m a convert.  New Zealand libraries now have vast high quality audio books for you to enjoy at a click or tap.  Brilliant.  There’s no cost and no late fees (the titles auto-return), you can download them 24/7 from any mobile device anywhere you can glean a connection and they are usually available (or with a very short wait time).  As for eReaders – you can zoom in, change text size and style, line spacing and margins. For children – most NZ public libraries recommend and are partnered with; OverDrive (the largest collection for kids and teens), BorrowBox (classics and popular fiction), EBSCOhost (kids’ joke books and R.L Stine teen fiction) and Tumblebooks, Tumblebookcloud, Tumblebookcloud Junior and BookFlix (animated, talking picture books; read-along titles and interactive non-fiction titles). kids-listen-to-radio-6 The list of titles is exciting and gets better all the time.  Download an App, feel your way around and thousands of titles in audio (and e-reader) format are yours for the picking. Instant, intimate, portable listening pleasure.  If you’re device-averse, head in to your local library where they generally support borrowers with tech-savvy Library Assistants who can help you with the most basic questions.  The Auckland Library webpage has a great page on Getting Started. We found ourselves unexpectedly down the line last week with children in a tiny motel room so I whacked a couple of titles on my phone and presto!  Fiction not crap TV.  The raggedy hour before dinner suddenly wholesome. The long drive home definitely more palatable.  Revelation.

Review of a Review

sidewalk flowersI’ve definitely been guilty of device distraction before now and will be again.  The 10-strong group of silent teenagers walking down Takapuna Beach last weekend all staring at their devices were guilty of it too but that’s a generational phenomenon I can only begin to comprehend.  Together alone.  It’s disturbing to witness any time but it’s particularly jarring in the context of parenting and caring for our very young.

This excellent Brain Pickings review by Maria Popova of the newly released picture book Sidewalk Flowers by award-winning poet JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith (illustrator) is titled “An illustrated ode to presence and the everyday art of noticing in a culture of productivity and distraction”.

Must finish now and go and get down to floor-level with my children..

sidewalkflowers6

Review – The Day No One Was Angry by Toon Tellegen and Marc Boutavant (Illustrator)

TDNOWA_Cover

Couldn’t resist sharing this unique little book published by Gecko Press 2014 written by Dutch author Toon Tellegen and illustrated by Marc Boutavant (France).

Twelve short philosophical tales with one thing in common – anger.  These are fables but there’s no moralising here.  There’s almost a flatness to the telling – a dozen vignettes that simply tell it like it is – be it sad, ridiculous or hilarious.  And don’t expect resolution or explanation either.  In fact, these tales gently and humorously explore anger – how it feels, what it is (and isn’t), how it comes and goes, its simplicity, its complexity, its futility.

The delightful cast of creatures variously encounter and experience anger in one form or another.  Every evening at sunset the hyrax climbs his hill and shouts at the sun “Don’t set!”  and wonders why the sun doesn’t listen.  He cries with anger and wastes hours obsessing about it but nothing changes, leading the hyrax to the big question – “does anyone ever listen?”  There’s an elephant who chastises himself about his desire to climb a tree.  His negative self-censure goes on as he climbs, then he gets so excited about transcending it that when he actually reaches the top he loses his balance and crashes to earth.

The day no one was angry_pf2_with HR p46-47

Beetle and earthworm fight about who is angrier with catastrophic results.  The hours pass and their anger abates they decide to celebrate the successful angry episode by going (most agreeably) to earthworm’s house for a bite to eat.  In another story, shrew visits squirrel and tests their friendship to the extremes by trying to rouse him to anger.  Even shrew’s threat of leaving doesn’t make squirrel angry but instead, as shrew indeed “vanishes into the forest”, ends up leaving both in emptiness and isolation.  Hedgehog tries writing “I am angry” down on a piece of bark to try and make himself feel angry with lukewarm results but indeed ends up cross when the wind snatches the bark from his paws.

Marc Boutavant (Around the World With Mouk) has created a beautiful woodland world with his incredible illustrations.  The palette is muted primaries and lots of black.  The detail in the characters’ expressions is perfectly captured, the woodland world is vibrant and alive.

This is the perfect read-aloud for early-middle graders and their grown-ups.  My seven-year old loves this book and carries it about. Her father isn’t so sure.  Either way, it’s been a good conversation starter about feelings and emotions but, more than that, this delightful book is a meditation on human emotion.  That anger is okay – it’s essential.  It’s how we know we’re alive.   And if that all sounds a little heavy – trust me, there’s nothing heavy about the simplicity of these creatures’ stories, the delightful and intricate illustrations and hand-feel of this book.  It’s a beauty.

Emerging Readers – From Picture Books to Junior Fiction

It’s an interesting time when children begin to expand their reading beyond the realms of the picture book.

My big kid spent years straddling these two reading worlds – stretching her new-found reading muscles in chapter books and returning the glorious delights and comforts of best-loved picture books.

While I encourage my kids into the delights of longer form reading, I think there’s great value in keeping up with picture books. Beginning readers are delighted by the illustrations, the colour, the simplicity, rhyme and rhythm. They feel confident reading and, if it’s an old favourite, know the words without really even reading them. This is truly delightful and ultimately, all about the love of story. My ten year old still enjoys curling up and listening while I read to her younger sibling. She’ll still select picture books from the library and I often find her engrossed in old favourites and more complex picture books I’ve left on her shelves.

Peer pressure is a factor that drives children to seek out “word books” as my seven- year-old describes them. I overheard her and a friend talking just a week or so ago.

T “Are you reading chapter books? Proper ones?

H “Yeah. I like Billie B Brown.”

 T “No that’s not a real chapter book. There’s no pictures in real chapter books, only those little black ones that aren’t coloured in. Just lots of little words. Billie B has big words in it and pictures. It’s not a real chapter book.”

 For my seven year old (an “emerging” reader), I try to encourage a reading range that spans picture books, school readers and early-middle fiction. Not to mention non-fiction titles with luscious layouts and glorious photos. Literacy experts and educators will always tell you that at this pivotal age, it’s about getting kids hooked on reading. So accessible, chiselled narratives with great illustrations at limited lengths are a pretty good bet. You want them to fall in love with reading, so woo them with the tried and trusted junior fiction greats but don’t overlook or underestimate books targeted specifically for this transitional level.

Being a book-obsessed control-freak, I plant what I consider great books at eye height on my 7-year-old’s shelves (“what about this one?”) and mostly she obliges by loving them. But when we hit the library it’s a free-for-all – she picks out obscure or underwhelming picture books based on the attractiveness of the cover illustration or character drawing. Shiny and glittery covers attract her (Rainbow Magic – aaaargh) and sometimes she’ll select something above her reading ability because she’s seen older kids read it. I just roll with it. My mantra? Sure. Try it.

Lately, we’ve discovered some great “inbetweeners” in the Aussie Bites, Nibbles and Chomps series – I’ve avoided these in the past cause they look trashy. But I’m just a grown-up book snob and have to get over myself. These colourful, lightweight, illustrated early chapter books are actually very good. They’re easy to read without being “dumbed down” and make beginning readers just want to keep reading. Identifiable by their bright and busy covers with the “nibble” out of the top, these books are the perfect length for this age group and written by some acclaimed writers like as Urusla Dubosarsky and Tim Winton. She loves them. The deal with our night-time reading ritual is this – she reads to me for a bit then I take a turn, reading aloud from the same title or from something else we have on the go. Tired by this hour, she usually can’t wait for me to take over. But the Aussie Nibbles have hit the mark and she relentlessly reads on. Joy.

urusla's the deep end

We’ve also enjoyed (bow, scrape) Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series (beautiful, bright and funny) and the Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows. Other great books for emerging readers the multitude of titles in the I CAN READ series “widely recognised as the premier line of beginning readers.” (Harper Collins). This series has a rating of 1-4 and ranges from “Sharing My First Reading” then “Beginning Reading”, “Reading with Help”, “Reading Alone” through to “Advanced Reading”. These are classics by award winning authors and illustrators. We love “Little Bear” by Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak and “Frog and Toad” by Arnold Lobel.  The marvellous Fancy Nancy and Amelia Bedelia titles are other favourites.  Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine series was a hit as was (I hate to say it because it’s not a “real chapter book”) Billie B Brown. If this is all sounding a little girl orientated – check out the screeds of recommendations on my Junior Fiction – Enticing Boys and Amusing Girls Page.)

boy reading

Of course, some kids take to reading more readily than others. But what if you’ve got a reluctant reader? My ten year old was definitely in this category. I’d be lying if I said this hadn’t aggravated me at times. (After all, I’ve read to that kid every day since birth! She has to love books! How could she not? All her friends are reading. Why won’t she? Is something wrong?) I managed (just) to curb my tendency to over-think and over-parent my first-born and just kept reading to her – long after all her friends were reading independently. We’d curl up together before her bedtime and I’d read a few chapters of something brilliant. It was delicious time. Now she’s a fully-fledged independent reader we still have this ritual – she reads in bed while I deal to the sibling factor, then I come in and I read to her from a book we’ve chosen together. Sometimes we take turns in reading it aloud. Either way, it’s still special time together and I’m aware that one day soon it’ll probably come to an end. Carpe Diem.

There are tons of great options, best lists and websites galore out there. The Guardian (UK) offer best children’s books lists at all ages. Here, most usefully is their best children’s books 5-7 years.  For boys? This guide from PBSparents lists beginning reader books appealing (mostly) to boys.  Great Schools list a best first book series here.  Scholastic list popular series for 6-7 year olds and have a useful page on reading development and advice about first chapter books. Goodreads have a list worth reading (among others) – “What Book Got You Hooked?

My advice is, if you have a reluctant reader, don’t panic. It’ll happen. Find books you think they’ll love, let them choose. Consider their interests and find fiction and non-fiction in the subject area. Leave books lying about. Consult un-missable book lists – check out my listmania page – JUNIOR FICTION – ENTICING BOYS AND AMUSING GIRLS for for suggested titles for this age-group. Don’t overlook comic series, graphic novels and audio books. Keep homework and compulsory reading sessions short and time them well (fed, fresh, free from distraction). And continue to enjoy the closeness that comes from sharing a book together. It will end all too soon.

Beginning

This blog is borne of my passion for children’s books.  I collect vicariously, buying myself children’s books in the guise of buying them for my children – I unashamedly declare that re-discovering children’s books is one of the best things about becoming a parent.  My children’s book-shelves are groaning with glorious finds both old and new – some are from my own childhood, there are classics and contemporaries, mistakes and delightful discoveries.

Our books come from all over;  the library, small independent booksellers like the fabulous Children’s Bookshop in Wellington, big commercial retailers, second-hand stores and on-line. I’m the one under the book-stall trestle table at the school fair, scrabbling in the dusty boxes.  I’ve made crazy Ebay purchases of titles withdrawn from a U.S. Mid-Western library for a buck and paid ten times that in air-freight.  I give judiciously and receive with joy.  I’m constantly asked to recommend titles and there’s nothing I enjoy more than having a good think about the age, reading ability and interests of the child and coming up with a potential hit.

I’m delighted that the challenge of finding books for my own little readers constantly changes – not only as they grow in maturity and reading ability, but also as their interests and personalities develop. To read with my children is a time for closeness and sharing, to see them curl up and read alone for the first (and second and third..) time is a gratifying rush.  And their choices aren’t always what I consider “good” books.  In the end – it’s about finding delight and solace in books.  I want my children to enjoy reading.  Anything.  Yes we all know that reading and writing go hand in hand and the many and varied positive impacts that reading has on children from an educational perspective.  But more than that, books are reliable companions throughout life’s ups and downs.  We all remember the great books of our childhoods.  Sometimes we carry a part of them with us for life.  Whether a comic, an e-book, a picture book, an audio book, a series – a book is a place to learn, a place to hide, a part of the ancient human tradition of storytelling; a drum, a shell, a bonfire on a hill-top.

I’ve been wondering how best to approach this blog.  I thought of categories by age groups, gender, reading challenges and setbacks, new books, old books.  But I think I like the feel of something more random – just where my head’s at, what’s piqued my interest or provoked thought.  So bear with this blog newbie and be rewarded with insightful reviews, musings, recommendations and conversation about all things kid-lit.  I can’t promise it won’t be a little New Zealand-centric.  I’m so proud of our writers and publishers who champion stories for children – particularly the fabulous Gecko Press who consistently treat us to “curiously good books from around the world.”

Gah – this is starting to sound like advertorial.  So enough blather and onto the books.

Best, Louise