Sunday, March 25, 2012

It's a Book or It's a Little Book

I'm pretty picky about my board books.  I don't like ones that have text way too long to read to a toddler.  I don't like ones that just crop the artwork instead of shrinking it to fit a smaller page (cropping artwork can lose valuable details that add to the overall effect).  I prefer books designed for, and with stories created for toddlers.  Sure, there are picture books which make great board books.  But usually I love ones that recognize their audience and play to it.  I love Sandra Boynton's Pookie board books - they have an infectious bounce to their rhyming text, and Pookie is a funny, irresistible toddler.  I also love the Bunny Reads Back series of board books by Rosemary Wells.  They take familiar rhymes and interpret them for the youngest listeners, with just a few words of text on each double-page spread.  Sweet, musical and fun.

But even though I may inwardly cringe at them, I continue to read board books on a regular basis.  At our public library, Gloria insists on picking her allotment out of the board book bins.  There usually are not many titles, and the ones that are there are ratty, dirty and falling apart.  But on a visit a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see a handful of new board books in the cubes.  One of them was It's a Little Book by Lane Smith.  Now, I do love Lane Smith, but when It's a Book came out in 2010, I was one of the few people who didn't like it very much.  But It's a Little Book was new and unread, so home it went.  And once we read it, I became interested in re-reading It's a Book and comparing the two.

Right from the title page of It's a Book, Smith introduces the three characters in the book with brief sentences - "It's a mouse.", "It's a jackass.", "It's a monkey."  You can also see the central tension of the book from this first scene - while the jackass walks along, laptop under his arm, the monkey is sitting in a comfortable armchair, peering intently at a book.  The board book does not introduce the characters (which makes sense - do you really want to teach your toddler the word "jackass", even if it is in the correct context?!) but the summary on the copyright page calls the jackass character "baby donkey".  To add to the young feel of the board book, the donkey and monkey are indeed babies - wearing diapers.  They are cute and relatable.  While the monkey does carry over his porkpie hat from the original, the donkey does not bring any of his own clothing.

Throughout the text of the picture book, the jackass compares the book to technology in hopes of finding something understandable about the concept of a book.  He keeps questioning the monkey, who is trying to be patient, but is engrossed in his book.  The jackass asks "Can it text? Tweet? Wi-Fi?"  "Does it need a password?"  This is very funny to readers of the book, but it also rings a familiar note for readers who have tried to explain the lure of books to their friends.  After all, there are many non-readers who will be far more familiar with those technological advances.  My favorite question is when the jackass asks "Where's your mouse?", referring to the book.  The money glances upward, and there, on his head, the mouse lifts the monkey's porkpie hat.

In the board book, the questions the baby donkey asks are varied and creative.  These are very appropriate to toddlers who won't know how to use a password (although the donkey does ask if the book is for emailing).  The donkey uses the book as a bill for quacking like a duck, a saddle for riding, a roof for building a house.  In this book the donkey holds the book throughout most of the text.  He's handling it, which is very appropriate for a book for toddlers, who like to physically explore things.  In the picture book, it's the monkey who is mostly trying to read that precious book while being interrupted by the jackass.

I keep referring to the animal in the picture book as a jackass, and that's because that's how he is introduced from the very beginning.  The reason Smith chooses that name is so that it can set up a joke at the end of the story - I won't ruin it here.  I'll simply say that when I first read this book, I felt like it was all a set-up for a cheap joke.  It left me dissatisfied with a book many others loved.  The board book, rightly, doesn't use that joke, which is fine - the joke feels a little mean-spirited.  Instead, the final illustration shows the monkey and donkey sharing the book, enjoying it together.  It's more welcoming - introducing young readers to the world of books and literacy.

I've been very careful in this review to not call It's a Little Book a board book version of It's a Book.  It's not.  On the book cover itself, it's billed as a companion, and I think that's an excellent description.  It's got the same theme and idea, but with the younger characters and change in text, it is much more suited to toddlers.  It's definitely a well-designed, well-conceived addition to the board book market.  I'm still not as enamored of It's a Book, but I love what Lane Smith has done with It's a Little Book.  It's for reading.

It's a Book.  Lane Smith.  Roaring Brook Press, 2010.
It's a Little Book.  Lane Smith.  Roaring Brook Press, 2011.

both books borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Monday, March 19, 2012

Really Truly Bingo

Living in Montana at this time of year, I'm longing for summer.  Frances, who spent the first 3 1/2 years of her life in Arizona, keeps asking when it will be summer so she can wear flip-flops.  Sadly, just yesterday we had another three inches of snow, so summer won't be arriving any time soon.  But in Really Truly Bingo, summer is almost palpable.

Bea wants to play with her mom.  Her mother is busy, so she tells Bea to go play outside.  And when Bea replies that there's nothing to do, her mother tells her to use her imagination (something she may regret later!).  So Bea plods outside and waits for inspiration to strike her.  Soon a talking dog named Bingo peeks out of the flowers.  Bingo tells Bea "Let's do something we're not supposed to do."  Uh-oh.  You can see where Bea's imagination might take her.

They begin by making a fort in the melon patch, including digging a hole to rest in.  Bea goes in to get pillows and blankets for the fort.  Her mother absentmindedly asks her if she's found something to do. but doesn't really listen to Bea's answer that she's playing with a talking dog.  The fort is perfect, but Bingo decides he's hungry.  Bea tries to do the right thing - she tells Bingo they shouldn't eat between meals.  But "she couldn't resist the look in his eyes", so a snack is produced.

Things really begin to go downhill when Bingo decides he's so hot that he absolutely must run in the sprinkler, even though Bea has been told not to do so.  They run through the sprinkler, then slide on the grass and through the mud.  It's a perfect summer afternoon!  They even weave daisy chains, bringing back summer memories for all of us.  Then Bea's mother comes out to survey the damage - ruined melon patch, crushed flowers, dirty pillows.  All she can do is blare Bea's full name "Beatrice P. McGonagal"!

It's at this moment when things shift.  In the face of her mother's frustration, Bea turns to reassure Bingo, and the reader sees the scene from the mother's point of view.  Bea's arm is not around the shaggy dog we have seen pictured up to this point, but empty air.  Now it's obvious to young readers that this dog has come out of her own imagination.  While we all know there are no talking dogs in real life, readers have accepted its presence previously in the book because Bea accepted Bingo's presence.  Suddenly we see that all of the plans for doing things they weren't supposed to do came from Bea, not Bingo.

As a parent, I've certainly been where Bea's mother is at the end of this story.  I've been busy, and told Frances and/or Gloria to play by themselves, or just not checked on them as frequently as I ordinarily do because I've gotten caught up in something.  At these times, I remind myself of the motto "You get what you pay for" - if you are too busy to play with the children, you may end up with a mess like the one Bea's created.  Bea has done what her mother told her - she used her imagination to create an activity to occupy the afternoon.  Bea's mother can only shake her head ruefully and go inside after instructing Bea to clean up.

The illustrations were created using a technique cited in the front of the book as gouache resist (the author has a great tutorial on how this happens here).  The end result of this technique is perfectly suited to this subject matter.  The resist makes the paint almost bead up, giving a hazy impression.  You can feel the oppressive heat, the shimmering light through these bright colors.  Kvasnosky has chosen the colors of perfect mid-summer, before the heat dries everything to a crisp.  The melon patch is full of large, ripe melons and the daisies are still jaunty.

Kvasnosky also uses sharp black lines in this technique.  The result is that all of the elements that make up the illustrations are bold and distinct.  These lines make the haziness of the background and colors stand out, giving the background less definition by comparison.  In a way, this technique wasn't just the perfect choice for the book about a hot summer day.  It's also the right choice for a book about imagination in everyday life.  The crisp lines of reality stand out against the haziness of Bea's imagination.  It is a beautifully composed and illustrated book.

I am longing for summer and my own vegetable garden, and this book helps soothe that longing.  Not only does it recreate a summer afternoon, but Kvasnosky also helps recreate the feeling of childhood - its innocence and creativity.

Really Truly Bingo.  Laura McGee Kvasnosky.  Candlewick Press, 2008.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark library

Friday, March 16, 2012

Diego Rivera

I know I have said before how important I think Hispanic literature is for children, and I've brought your attention to several books (including The Cazuela the Farm Maiden Stirred).  I find that there isn't always a lot of attention brought to these books, and I want to make sure I do my part.  That's why I was so excited to see Diego Rivera on my Cybils Non-Fiction Picture Book nomination list.  I had also seen it mentioned previously on some of my regular blogs, but hadn't been able to get my hands on it.  So when it finally landed in my mailbox as part of the Cybils, I was thrilled!!  And then it won the Pura Belpre Award for Illustration in the ALA Youth Media Awards announcements.  And now I can't wait to share it with you!

This book is not your traditional biography, and Duncan Tonatiuh shows a deft, sure hand while describing Rivera's life.  He chooses to focus almost exclusively on Rivera's artistic life in this book, so there is no mention of (or place for) his equally famous wife, Frida Kahlo.  It's an interesting counterpoint to Me, Frida, which I reviewed here last year.  However, Tonatiuh find a way to include detail about Rivera's interests and life without overwhelming the reader.  The text is brief and clear.  Young readers will have no problem following the line of thought.  One of the things I admire most about Tonatiuh's writing  is the way he defines artistic styles within his text.  The definitions are concise, natural and contextual.  For instance, "There he learned the classical way to paint, which means his finished paintings looked very realistic, almost like photographs." (p. 2)  The tone keeps this accessible, so readers won't stumble over unfamiliar terms.
But what makes this book feel very fresh and intriguing is indicated in the subtitle: His World and Ours.  After the biographical part of the book, Tonatiuh asks readers to imagine what Rivera would find culturally significant and inspiring in today's society.  This question requires those readers to not only look critically at our society, but to apply what they have learned previously about Diego Rivera as well.  What interested him in his own society?  This takes passively learned knowledge to the next level.  It also makes the book applicable to any grade child or almost any classroom.  It's just as useful in a social studies unit as an art classroom or a history lesson on Mexico.  This book is incredibly flexible.
Then Tonatiuh takes this concept up another notch.  He compares our society to Rivera's paintings in side-by-side comparisons, cleverly positioning contemporary people to seem like those from the past.  After all, as he notes, "Diego's murals teach us about the past.  But they also show a better future for common people." (p. 28)  This is a textually strong book, and it also has great informative back matter.  It includes a well-written glossary, an author's note with expanded biographical information, bibliography, and a list of places you can see Rivera's work, both in and outside of the United States.

I haven't really talked about the illustrations so far in the review, but rest assured that the Belpre Award for Illustration is well deserved here (he also won a Honor in 2011).  Tonatiuh does an amazing job of echoing Rivera's style without abandoning his own artistic leanings.  His faces are perfectly rounded, with sharp lips and sloping noses.  As you can see from the cover image above, Diego Rivera is perfectly recognizable in the foreground, even though it is done in Tonatiuh's own style.  In the author's note, he describes how both he and Rivera were inspired by ancient Pre-Columbian and Mayan art.  It is fascinating to see how well Rivera's style melds with Tonatiuh's own.  A final piece of back matter that I found very useful is the Inspirations piece.  There is a list of page numbers for the illustrations in the book, along with the murals or paintings that Rivera did that inspired Tonatiuh's illustrations.  He includes the size of the murals, yet another way of emphasizing the enormity of Rivera's imagination and work.

His artistic style for this book is unusual and thoughtful.  On the back of the title page, it is noted "The artwork in this book was hand-drawn, then collaged digitally."  This is a fascinating combination, especially in light of the historic influences on both of their work.  For instance, on a set of book shelves, most books are hand-drawn.  But then there are also a few, scattered about, that are clearly "real" books.  These help add depth and texture to the illustrations.  Sometimes the collaged parts are immediately visible in framing elements; sometimes they are more subtle, such as the hair of one of the figures.  The collaged elements also help draw a connection between ancient and modern society.
All in all, this book cannot be missed.  Its unique combination of artistic styles and its ability to bring a historical figure into today's society is phenomenal.  It is also a valuable book for schools and classrooms.  Do yourself a favor and investigate this one.

Diego Rivera: His World and Ours.  Duncan Tonatiuh.  Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2011.

given by publisher for review in conjunction with Cybils.