Saturday, March 4, 2017

Farm Friends

Spring brings new titles full of farm animals and hi-jinks.

Ah, the sweet smell of – ah... AH-CHOO – flowers. Sorry. Spring is in the air and the Bradford Pear Trees are in full bloom. If you head to the bookstore to escape your allergies, you are sure to see shelves filled with stories about animals. I've picked a few to highlight in posts for the next week. Enjoy.

The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!
By Carmen Agra Deedy
Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
Best For: Ages 4 – 8
          Be careful what you wish for. La Paz is a very happy and very loud village. In fact, there is so much noise the townspeople decide that some peace and quiet would be nice. So they elect a new mayor that promises change. And change is what they get. Soon, a little peace and quiet turns into laws prohibiting all noise. Seven years later a vibrant rooster enters the city and refuses to quit singing his song. The mayor takes the rooster’s house, food, and family but the rooster refuses to quit.
Told in the style of classic folk tales, The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! illustrates the idea that one voice can make a difference. The illustrations are bright and vibrant, adding a wellspring of energy to the tale. Although teachers may not want to emphasize the end notes that glorify individuals who won’t be quiet, this book is good for read-aloud story time.
What’s good: High energy folk tale with vibrant illustrations.
What’s bad: Young children may misunderstand the message about speaking out.

Duck on a Tractor
By David Shannon
Best For: Ages 4 - 8

          A bike just isn’t enough for Duck anymore – not after he sees a massive red tractor. It’s time to go to town on the tractor. All of Duck’s farmyard friends pile on top. The townsfolk are baffled by the sight. Wouldn’t you be if you saw a slew of farm animals riding a tractor down Main Street? Duck on a Tractor is a tour de force of Shannon’s painterly illustration style. He uses exaggerated facial expressions for animals and humans alike, and throws in aggressive amounts of color to accentuate the story’s fun and chaos. The down home language in the text keeps the story moving nicely and begs to be read aloud. Like Duck on a Bike, Shannon delivers with this raucous new Duck tale.
What’s good: Energetic humor with plenty to see in every illustration.
What’s bad: Maybe a little too similar to Duck on a Bike.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Everything Is New Again

The new year brings tales of new beginnings and adventure.

The Littlest Family’s Big Day
By Emily Winfield Martin
Best For: Ages 3 - 7
The world is full of wonder – all you have to do is wander to discover it. When a family of tiny bears moves into their new tree in a big wooded forest they decide to take a “wander” through the new neighborhood. It turns into a magical adventure filled with new friends, fairies, gnomes, and benevolent creatures galore. The text is alliterative and lyrical, using creative word choices to bolster the pastoral illustrations. “Wander” instead of adventure is a prime example that connotes a meandering adventure of wonder. This is a wonderful choice for classroom story time or family reading before bedtime. 
What’s good: Detailed illustrations that peacefully encourage wonder.
What’s bad: Cynics will question why the giant owl doesn’t eat the littlest family.

Who Wants A Tortoise?
By Dave Keane
Illustrated by: K.G. Campbell
Best For: Ages 4 - 8
After begging for a puppy for her birthday, a young girl is disappointed to receive a tortoise instead. Dogs do so much – pant, howl, bark – and tortoises don’t. All they do is “hiss as they pull their heads in.” A tortoise is not at all what she wanted. Slowly and surely the little girl comes to learn about her new pet and the more she learns the more she becomes emotionally attached. She even takes her tortoise to “sharing day” at school. When the little girl loses her tortoise that the reader sees just how much the tortoise means to her. Don’t worry. It all ends well.

Campbell’s watercolor and colored pencil illustrations capture the little girl's many moods with a delicate and deft touch. The illustrations are lively and engaging yet offer a calming influence that makes this a good book for group story time or bedtime reading. 
What’s good: Great message about finding the good in your situation
What’s bad: Not much. It’s a charming story.

Marvin and the Moths
By Matthew Holm and Jonathan Follet
Best For: Ages 8 - 12
Middle school is tough. When you split your pants on the first day of class it doesn’t get any easier. Marvin, the titular, character also has to deal with an impending baby brother. He feels that his life is in turmoil. Then Marvin’s parents move him upstairs to the unfinished attic to make room for his little brother. That's when Marvin wakes up to find three very large and talkative moths in his new attic room. As the story progresses a giant Shakespeare-quoting spider harasses the town and it’s up to Marvin to save the day.
Of course, humor ensues.
What’s good: Loaded with humor and excitement.
What’s bad: Marvin is not very likable.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

All I Want for Christmas

Warm Up Your Holidays with Picture Books
We're in December now and the holiday spirit surrounds us. From 24-hour Christmas radio to Griswold family light shows to menorahs, advent wreaths and Christmas trees decorating town centers – the holidays are here. During this season my family pulls out all of our old Christmas picture books and read at least one a night. I wonder if any new books will make the yearly list? Here are three that we will consider.

Harriet MuncasterThe Biggest Smallest Christmas Present
By Harriet Muncaster
Best For: Ages 3 – 5 
Move over Thumbelina there’s a new tiny girl in town. Her name is Clementine. She and her family are quite ordinary in all aspects except for Clementine’s diminutive size. She baths in a tea cup and sleeps in a matchbox. She loves everything about being tiny except that her toys are always too big. Even Santa doesn’t seem to realize how small Clementine’s actually is. Clementine tries to leave Santa notes, photos and other hints to help him leave the right gift for Clementine. Does Santa get it right in the end? Maybe this time the biggest gift is also the best gift for the smallest little girl. Muncater's illustrations drag you in and hold your attention as you long to see what such a tiny little girl will do next. The Biggest Smallest Christmas Present is fun for the holidays.
What’s good: Engaging illustrations that add zest to story time.
What’s bad: Short text that depends on the illustrations to tell the tale.

John Duvall and Rebecca GibbonThe Great Spruce
By John Duvall
Illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon 
Best For: Ages 5 – 8     
It seems that every year there is a new story about the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. The Great Spruce tells this tale with a slightly different approach. This is Alec’s story of a grand tree that his grandfather planted many years ago. It also happens to be his favorite climbing tree. One day men from the big city come and get permission to take the tree to the city for Christmas. Alec takes it upon himself to stop the big city men from cutting the tree down. In doing so, he offers a compromise. They can dig it up and borrow the tree for the holidays, so long as they return it. The big city men use shovels, a crane, a barge and a horse drawn sleigh and "the Great Spruce" eventually ends up in the big city’s main plaza. 

The illustrations are brightly colored and offer numerous perspectives to highlight the grandeur of the tree. The end notes also offer a glimpse into the Rockefeller Center tree tradition mentioning a time when live trees were actually used. This is a lovely, thoughtful book that will make a nice addition to your holiday collection.
What’s good: Environmental focus without over-the-top, pushy messaging.
What’s bad: It seems unlikely you could dig up a tree quite as big as the one in the book, but I'm no arborist. 

Julia Donaldson and Axel SchefflerStick Man
By Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler
Best For: Ages 4 - 8
Stick Man is exactly what his name implies. He is a stick that is a man. He lives in his family  tree with his stick family. One day when Stick Man goes for an early morning jog he is chased and eventually caught by a dog. This unfortunate event leads to numerous misadventures that take Stick Man far from home until he ends up in a kindling pile beside a fireplace. Luck for Stick Man Santa comes down the chimney. Stick Man is being pitched as a Christmas book. However, except for the winter setting and the eventual arrival of Santa, this book has very little to do with Christmas. 

On a positive note, the illustrations are fun and engaging with saturated colors. The star of this tale is the lyrical and perfectly metered rhymes that bounce the reader along. This one is perfect for a read aloud story time during the cold winter months.
What’s good: Wonderful rhyming text for reading out loud.
What’s bad: A little surreal for a Christmas tale.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Gifts that Keep on Giving

Christmas books highlight the joy of giving.
It is the week of Thanksgiving and I have a great deal to be thankful for. Being able to read, review and share wonderful books is certainly something to be thankful for. This week I am sticking with holiday themes. I received two books for review from Random House  a little late to include in my printed column  but perfectly timed for Black Friday shopping. Keep your eyes out in the coming weeks for more holiday themed books.

The Lost Gift
By Kallie George
Illustrated by Stephanie Graegen
Best for: Ages 4 - 8
Staying up late to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus is an age old tradition for children allover the world. It's evidently a tradition for woodland creatures as well. When Rabbit, Squirrel, Deer and bird climb to the top of Merry Woods Hill to wait for Santa they get more than they bargained for. When Santa flies by a present falls from his sleigh. As the woodland friends investigate they find a wrapped package meant for "the new baby at the farm." Bird, Rabbit, Deer and Squirrel proceed to take the present to the farm. The overcome a few obstacles along the way and are rewarded with joy when they baby unwraps her present.
George uses an economy of words to develop each character, giving them both childlike wonder and adult personality traits. Traveling through the simple story line gives George the ability to focus on the message of giving and the true warmth joy can be. Kindness can be the greatest present. It's a message we could all use right now. Graegen brings the animals' personalities to the forefront with sweet expressions and engaging, Christmas card-esque vignettes. The illustrations' play with shadows and light using blue hues to offer a pleasing pallet for quiet time reading. 

The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Peek-Through Picture Book
Illustrated By Britta Teckentrup
Best for: Ages 3 - 7
It has been around a long time, so there is little publishers can do to make The Twelve days of Christmas new and vibrant. That doesn't mean illustrators won't try. In this new edition Britta Teckentrup puts her spin on the classic Carol. Teckentrup has written and illustrated over 70 books including a peek-through picture book released last February titled, Tree. A simple hole in the cover of the book reveals a central figure in the story. In the case of this Christmas book, the hole reveals a partridge in a pear tree. Each new page playfully reveals images from the next line of the carol  three French hens, five gold rings, ten lords a-leaping and so on. By the end, Teckentrup uses a her retro block-print style with bright, engaging colors and touches of gold foil to reveal all twelve days of Christmas, and deftly turns this classic Carol into an engaging counting book for the holidays.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Christmas Is Coming

Fun holiday titles fill the shelves this Fall.
Is it too early to talk about holiday books? Nah. This week I'm highlighting a few books I reviewed for my print column last November. In the next couple of weeks I'll highlight some books coming out this year as well.

The Christmas Tugboat: How the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Came to New York
By George Matteson and Adele Ursone
Illustrated by James E. Ransome
Best For: Ages 4 - 8
What is your favorite holiday memory? For one family it’s a special trip to deliver a special package. This story begins in the wee hours of a November morning before the Sun comes up. It follows a young girl as she and her mother join her father on an adventure – a work adventure. He’s a tugboat captain and this morning he is tasked with retrieving the Rockefeller Christmas tree from up the Hudson River and delivering it to Manhattan. 

This book has a nostalgic feel that is enhanced by Ransome’s rich, acrylic paintings. A mixture of panoramic vistas and intimate close up imagery combine with the lilting prose to portray the life of a tugboat captain as much as the journey of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree. 

The Christmas Tugboat is an enjoyable book to introduce a discussion of holiday traditions and unique occupations. 

What’s Good: Warm and inviting illustrations.
What’s bad: More about tugboats, than the Rockefeller Christmas tree. 

Clementine for Christmas
By Daphne Benedis-Grab
Best For, Girls: Ages 8 – 12
This is kind of like a Hallmark movie for kids. Only instead of a couple falling in love, three kids become friends. This story is really about three different individuals, how everything is falling apart around them, and their attempt to save the holidays. At the center of events are Josie and her dog Clementine 

Josie usually keeps to herself, but when it’s time to put on the Christmas Festival she really lights up – singing carols and wearing costumes. This year, however, she has to partner with two kids with whom she has nothing in common. Oscar is always in trouble and Gabby is nothing short of perfect. It doesn’t take long to figure out that things are not always as they appear and strong friendships are formed. When chaos breaks out, Josie, Oscar and Gabby are the ones who come together to set everything right for the holidays.

What’s good: Nice character development and good pacing for middle-grade readers.
What’s bad: A little syrupy, but most middle-grade readers won’t mind.

Revenge of the Angels
By Jennifer Ziegler
Best For, Girls: Ages 8 - 12
Fans of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever will enjoy this screwball comedy. Like its predecessor, Revenge of the Flower Girls, this story rotates narration between the triplets – Dawn, Delaney and Darby. The girls want the roles of the wise men in the upcoming Christmas pageant, but alas, they’re cast as angels. The triplets are not allowed to be the wise men because they’re girls. That revelation sets the triplets to scheming, plotting and planning. They are determined to set everything right. The antics are fun, daring and keep the pages turning. 

What’s good: Children will relate to the triplets and laugh through almost every chapter.
What’s bad: Some of the antics are over the top, but that just makes the more fun.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Take Another Look

New picture books help young readers look at the world around them in different ways.

The Lost House
By B. B. Cronin
Seek and find books are not difficult to find – ironic isn’t it? However I recently read what I can only describe as a diamond among the cubic zirconia. The Lost House is much more than a seek and find book. It’s an illustrative tour de force.

Grandad has promised to take his two grandchildren (all anthropomorphic bulldogs) to the park. Before they can leave Grandad needs to find a few things – socks, glasses, pocket watch, umbrella, and even his teeth. Do you think they’ll find everything? You should probably help. Be aware, each room and everything in it appears in one bold color. The rooms are packed full of whimsy, eccentricity and household items. The Lost House is beautifully crafted and so visually engaging even older children will want to help find the lost items.

What’s good: Incredibly detailed illustrations that appeal to both young and old.
What’s bad: The palette of room colors can be a little jarring at times.

The Alphabet from the Sky
By Benedikt Groß & Joey Lee
Ever look out of the window of a plane to see the landscape below? Ever play the alphabet game? Now you can do both in this single book. Using satellite imagery the geographer and designer duo of Benedikt Groß & Joey Lee found “accidental letters” in the landscapes across the United States. From holding ponds to highways, from suburbs to fields, children will find the locations and formations very interesting and wonder what letter their neighborhood might hide. Each image spread includes an inset with the town’s location pinpointed on a map and map coordinates. The Alphabet from the Sky began as an MIT project and Kickstarter campaign. Now it’s a picture book that is perfect for the classroom.

What’s good: It encourages children to look at things from new angles.
What’s bad: Probably more intriguing to adults.

Monday, October 17, 2016

5 Mistakes to Avoid when Self-Publishing

[Originally published 3/3/09 as 3 Deadly Mistakes of Self-Publishing Picture Books. Revisited and revised 10/13/16.]

There are five basic mistakes writers who self-publish children’s books make more often than not. These five mistakes can kill a good idea and lead a writer to publish something that should never have been allowed in print. The truly amazing thing is the author never sees the literary atrocity they have committed. Like a new parent, their child is the most beautiful baby in the world. 

When I originally wrote this article in 2009 I cut to the point, only referenced 3 Mistakes, and focused on picture books. At that time I neglected to inform you that, as a writer and editor, I have been on both sides of this issue. Avoiding these mistakes will make any children’s book better. This article is not intended to be an insult to aspiring writers, editors or publishing houses. It is intended to be a wake-up call. As writers and editors we need to open our eyes to simplicity.  

The last seven years have seen a proliferation of tools, online publishers and distribution channels designed to feed into our vanity and make it easy for anyone to publish a book. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – we should all be storytellers. But let’s avoid the worst and most common mistakes by knowing the problems before we pick up a pen or open a laptop.
  1. Illustrations — Great illustrations can make bad books readable and turn good books into family favorites. Although it has gotten better in the last seven years, self-published books still tend to have timid and amateurish illustrations. This automatically gives the impression that your book isn’t on the same level as the major publishers’ books. Poor illustration quality will effectively doom your story no matter how good the writing is.
  2. Overindulgence — I call this one verbal gluttony because we writers say too much. We are usually too close to our own work to see the flaws and make necessary edits. Some online publishers will provide editors, but generally speaking, the writer is king when it comes to self-publishing. What a writer wants on the page stays on the page. Verbal gluttony tends to lead to See and Say books that never involve or engage readers. It’s a big killer for picture books. Great picture books include the reader in a conversation. Ideally the writer offers enough
    information to entice readers, the illustrator adds new information to bring ideas into focus, and the reader completes the conversation with their own thoughts and interpretations. Overindulgence only leads to a bloated, slothful story that is a chore to read. 
  3. Illustrations — Did I say illustrations earlier? Well there’s more. Stop playing See and Say! Visuals should add to and accentuate the text, not repeat it. And if you can create the setting in an illustration, don’t do it in the text. The See and Say approach slows the pacing of your story and bores the reader. Engaging illustrations that enhance your writing and an economical use of words will encourage children to keep reading and make connections with the story.
  4. Design and Layout — Font selection and art direction make a big difference in a book’s readability. The flow of a story through its pages is highly important for reader engagement. Does the layout encourage a natural page turn? Does a reader know where the next line of text is located? If the illustrations, the font and the layout are competing, the answers will be resounding nos. Readers will get confused and the story’s flow and pacing will be interrupted. As a book reviewer I see this problem – in all levels of publishing. So test the layout many times, if possible.
  5. Illiteracy  Read. Read often. And read some more. Everyone has a story to tell, but far too many would-be children’s book authors never actually read children’s books. There are many different styles and genres – reading current books will help you understand what current readers expect from those styles and genres. I can’t tell you how many books I have read that appear to have been written by someone who has never read a children’s book. You may know your story better than anyone else, but understanding how children will read it is the key to telling it in a way they will accept.

Read. Write. Edit. Illustrate. Most self-publishing authors can do one or two of these well. It’s unlikely you can do all of them as well as you need to in order to put together a great book. If you are reading this you are probably writing a book. You’re a writer, so focus on reading and writing in your chosen genre. Hire a good editor and a good illustrator to handle the rest.