All right. Here’s the deal. In a given year I read a lot of children’s books. Whole swaths of the suckers, really. And when it all comes down to it, I don’t have time to review them all. I’d love to, but a person has to pick and choose and pluck out the best. That’s just the way it goes.
So I set up rules. The rules are simple:
1. I will review only children’s books from the current year.
2. I will review books for kids between the ages of 0-12.
3. I will not review older materials. I simply do not have time.
Which is pretty limiting when you get down to it. When there’s so much good stuff out there, how can I just ignore the tasty treats from the past? So for the first time I’m going to pay tribute, brief tribute, to some books that I never actually reviewed last year. Here then are some goodies that I think were fine as fishhair, but never really got the attention they deserved.
I’d seen Yellowbelly last year, but hadn’t paid adequate attention to it, I think. Recently a copy was sent to me and I got a chance to give it a better looksee. Featuring two characters that made a brief appearance in The Devil You Know (missed that one too, I guess) the story focuses on a sweet tawny monster and his best friend/stuffed animal as they attend school for the first time. Hale has created a rather adorable and touching story, and has chosen to set it in a surreal landscape. Kids and monsters and dinosaurs and aliens and robots all go to school together. Yellowbelly is a wonderful protagonist (how can you resist that face?), all fur and bright white teeth. You become very attached to his wide-eyed glee, and generally good-natured spirit. Illustrators that successfully take potentially scary creatures and render them childlike tap into kids’ desire to see the intimidating rendered small and understandable. Hale has used Golden Acrylics (ooo!) on illustration board to create these highly detailed pictures that are adorable without becoming cutesy, if you know what I mean. Best of all is Hale’s ability to create a surreal world where everything makes sense to the child reader. The bookflap suggests that other Yellowbelly and Plum books are in the pipeline, so I’ll keep my eyes extra peeled to catch them the next time around. In the meantime, we’ll all be looking forward to his work on Shannon Hale’s upcoming graphic novel Rapunzel’s Revenge.
Tashi by Anna Fienberg, Barbara Fienberg, and Kim Gamble
Here’s an early chapter book series that can only be described as gemlike. Originally Australian, the series’ stories follow the adventures of a small creature (the eponymous Tashi) and his wry, amusing adventures. Lately I’ve been trying to compile early chapter books that make for good bedtime reading. You have your classics like My Father’s Dragon. Your standards like Paddington. And now, very much in the same vein, are the Tashi books. There are seven in the series altogether, but if you want to read them here in America then your best bet is probably to seek out The Big Big Big Book of Tashi which has seven of the thirteen books in it (though I’ve found that the individual volumes are available in paperback are probably more fun for kids to read one-on-one). The illustrations are by Kim Gamble and complement the action perfectly. Tashi is almost a kind of proto-Tintin, flitting about from adventure to adventure with a cool head and natty red coat. If you need to bulk up your early chapter book sections with something contemporary, fun, charming, and bound to please everybody (I’m not kidding about that last point), get thee some Tashi.
I’m still shocked that the world has not given Brock Cole his due quite yet. Flexible? You don’t know the half of it. From his YA novels (The Goats is probably his best known) to his picture books, Mr. Cole is one of those fellers you just wait and hope to see mentioned in big flashing lights somewhere, someday. Until that day arrives, however, you should take advantage of his output while you can. His most recent picture book, which came out last year, was the fable Good Enough to Eat. It appeared on the New York Public Library’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing, at least. The story itself is a great cautionary tale about the dangers of gluttony. When an ogre comes to town and starts eating everyone and everything in his path, it’s up to a girl so downtrodden she doesn’t even have a name to outsmart him and save everyone. Cole’s penchant for bringing unfamiliar or wholly new fairy tales and folktales to picture book life is commendable. This book’s a hoot and a holler to read.
Please, Louise! by Frieda Wishinsky and Marie-Louise Gay
Well, I don’t think I’m completely in the wrong for having missed this beaut. For one thing, it’s Canadian. Groundwood Books to be precise. And while I love seeing picture books from other countries, that doesn’t mean I always have access to them. A pity too since the pairing of Frieda Wishinsky and Marie-Louise Gay is more than mildly perfect. Wishinsky is probably best known in this country for her charming book Oonga Boonga. Gay, on the other hand, has slowly been solidifying her presence in the marketplace so that you’ve probably seen her work and not recognized it. My favorite books of hers have been the illustrations for James Howe’s marvelous Houndsley and Catina stories. They’re the Frog & Toad of the 21st Century, my friends. And Gay’s light hand is often a perfect fit for Howe’s understated tales. In Please, Louise, Wishinsky zeroes in on the problem of siblings who want to follow you everywhere you go. I’ve seen a lot of picture books cover this topic and often they end with the older siblings admitting that the little one isn’t so bad, and so they play together. In this case, the littler sibling finds a new friend for herself and her older brother is pleased as punch! I like it. It smacks of the truth, but does it in an entirely pleasing manner. Two thumbs way way up.