By David Ezra Stein
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (a division of Penguin)
On shelves now
Today I had to tackle a preschool storytime. I am not a particularly brave librarian, though. If I find a picture book that works, I have to really work at not using it over and over again in front of a crowd of two to four-year-olds every time I do a storytime. Kids are unafraid to inform you when you are boring the socks off of them. after all. So today I was brave and I used not one, not two, but THREE brand new picture books. It was scary, but it worked. And Pouch! by David Ezra Stein, was one of the three. Admittedly, I brought it out because I knew I wanted to review it, but it wasn’t field tested (as it were) yet. Now I am happy to report that when read with the right amount of verve and near panic, this is a delightful storytime option that kids and adults alike will both love. Clearly the kangaroo word for "retreat" is "POUCH!"
Joey’s a sweet little baby kangaroo who one day gets a wild notion. "Mama," he says, "I want to hop!" Mama’s willing, but little Joey is a bit of a panicky sort. On his first outing he runs across a bee. His reaction? "POUCH!" and in he hops. On his second hop about the woods he meets a rabbit. You can guess his reaction. Trip #3 and it’s a bird that freaks him out. But on Trip #4 he meets another baby kangaroo. And after both of them give a cry of "POUCH!" they realize how silly they’ve been. So much so that when their mamas offer a pouch to them at the end, they confidently slap their arms around one another and say with pseudo-nonchalance, "No, thanks."
Stein has style. They say that when you write fiction you should have a distinctive voice. Well, Stein’s distinctive voice is in his brush. You can see it in his previous titles like Monster Hug or Leaves and you can see it here. In this book he employs watercolors, china marker, and water-soluble crayons. This sort of makes it the kind of art where it looks childlike, but with obvious skill creating the linework. The colors gel together nicely too. From the warm brown/oranges of joey’s fur and interior pouchworld to the green/blue sky and that shock of white that outlines the characters at key moments, everything here feels right. And pay attention to when Stein opts to do two-page spreads full of color (as when the two joeys meet for the first time) and when he uses a lot of white space (when they both scream "POUCH!" at the same time). The artist also hides characters in his seemingly simple illustrations. In one shot Joey takes five hopes to the pasture fence. Behind him, the bird and rabbit are hidden, but still in view. Pretty slick.
I also love that the dialogue often, though not always, looks like it’s been cut out of the background. The thick white letters have this magnificent hand drawn character to them (you can see it in the title on the cover). It just feels right. Like a kind of kangaroo-speak, maybe. Finally, check out those endpapers. You might miss them the first time around, but look close. Light orange silhouettes play against a yellow background. Those silhouettes turn out to be the animals that frightened little Joey before he met another of his kind.
Joey is consistently afraid of other animals, but it’s not as if they’re practically threatening. Even the most benign rabbit or jovial bird is cause for panic. Joey’s continual advance and retreat will be familiar to anyone who has watched a baby puppy or kitten approach another animal. Stein just gets that trepidation down pat. I love watching the little Joey’s body language. You can tell that he’s ready to back away at a moment’s notice at all times. When he meets the bird his left foot is already raised, ready. Curiosity will win out in the end, but for a while anything that speaks is considered potentially dangerous. Until, of course, it becomes surprisingly familiar.
Ultimately this is a story about coming out of your pouch. For little kids, it’s pretty comforting. Mama is almost always nearby, open pouch waiting. The animals deemed scary couldn’t be less so unless you slapped ridiculous eyelashes on them (not a suggestion). Stein is just one of those picture book author/illustrators that understands his readers. What he does is hard to do. Pouch! is just the latest example of this. It’s a prepossessing little gem. Not big and showy. Just the kind of thing that works beautifully in front of big groups or as a cozy one-on-one bedtime book.
- Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
- On My Bookshelf
- The Full Mommy
- Kids Lit
- Books I Read
- Kids Book Blog
- Check out this behind-the-scenes look at creating Pouch!
- The Book Case, a blog of BookPage.com, called Pouch! one of the best picture books of 2009.
- You can find a profile of Mr. Stein over at Finding Dulcinea.
- And here’s a cute puppet/picture book pairing for Pouch!
- Alas, it’s not embeddable, but you can find a rather clever trailer for this picture book here. Stein presents it as a kind of silent film. A rather good idea.