There was a running gag going around earlier this year that either Dan Santat was the Matthew Cordell of 2012 or Matthew Cordell was the Dan Santat. I’ll explain. Both men have a whole SLEW of picture books out in the current year, and we found it funny how prolific both seemed. Prolific they most certainly are, but let’s be honest. Neither of them hold a candle to Ethan Long. As far as I can ascertain he has at least seven titles authored and illustrated by himself out in 2012 from publishers as diverse as Penguin, Blue Apple Books, Holiday House, and Running Press Kids. I did ask someone recently how he did it. They just shrugged in response. “He’s an animator”, they said, by way of explanation. “He’s used to working fast.” I’m not saying that isn’t so, but fast does not normally mean good. Yet good is inevitably what Mr. Long is. I’ve read all seven of those books and though there is a dip in quality from time to time, overall the man is strangely consistently above par. Of course, of all his 2012 fare Up! Tall! And High! is the top of the top. Bar none, this is one of the best toddler/preschooler readalouds of 2012 if not THE best.
In three little chapters we meet a variety of cheerful birds, more than happy to explain to readers the vagarities between terms like “Up” and “Tall” and “High”. In the first story two birds inform the reader that they are tall. When a third stilt-wearing bird is called out for not really being tall (despite its claims), he makes the pertinent point that though he may not be tall his plumage when fluffed is NOT small. In story #2 a morose penguin laments that he cannot go high. That is, until a little bird provides the perfect solution. Finally, in the third story two birds go up . . . and then come down unexpectedly. Long fills his pages with vibrant colors and clear-cut lines, just as his birds speak with simple but clever wordplay.
This is a good example of a seemingly simple book, perfect both for those with short attention spans and those first learning to read. Yet it is capable of making a pretty complex idea easy to understand. You can’t blame the kid who has a hard time distinguishing between the concepts of “up” and “tall” and “high”. All of them require a kind of vertical momentum, yet they aren’t really the same thing. It might have been tempting to Mr. Long to confuse the issue by showing things like the fact that you can be up and high without being tall or you can be tall and up without being high. Instead he keeps everything basic and understandable and funny. The first chapter has six different words, the second chapter has thirteen distinct words, and the third chapter has fifteen. That makes it easy enough to read, while also explaining complex subject matter in a funny way. Do you have any idea how HARD that is to do?
I’ve read to a lot of squirmy squirmers in my day. I compare it to stand-up comedy. Like a stand-up comedian, a children’s librarian needs to be able to take the temperature of the room. Your material is going to have to entertain a group people who would rather be exploring that very interesting bottle over there than listening to you. With that in mind, I’m inordinately picky about what I read to toddlers (preschoolers give you a lot more leeway). And what I like so much about Up! Tall! And High! is that not only do the pictures read across the room as well as any Jan Thomas title, and not only are the words and plot simple to understand, Long has thrown in the occasional flap for emphasis. In “I Am Tall” and “I Can Go High” the flaps lift up. As you might expect. “I Am Up” changes the game entirely. It’s the third and last story, just when you think you know where it’s going, it includes a flap that goes down (and can be accompanied by a fun tree crashing sound if you’re into that sort of thing). It’s unexpected by both the child and adult audience, and a great capper.
Finding picture books with limited word counts can be mighty difficult sometimes. Most bookstores and libraries don’t separate out their picture books into reading levels (easy books are another matter altogether). It will be the happy child first coming to reading that discovers Up! Tall! And High! on their own. It will be the happy parent who recognizes the book for the wonder that it is and relegates it to permanent bedtime story status as a result. Good for crowds. Good for one-on-ones. Good for everyone.
On shelves now.
Source: Borrowed copy from the library.
Like This? Then Try:
- Tall by Jez Alborough
- Higher! Higher! by Leslie Patricelli
- Up, Up, Up!: A Bea and Haha Book by Emily Jenkins
Ethan Long reads the book himself for your viewing pleasure:
And here are the birds that inspired the tale: