Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse

More than a year ago, I received an email from TOON Books, telling me about their Fall 2012 line.  Among those books was this title from Frank Viva, A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse.  I requested it immediately, because I loved Viva's previous book, Along a Long Road.  And when it came, it went right into my "To Blog" pile, because I was excited about it.  And sadly, there it sat.  Through two Cybils panels, through many,  many other blog posts, it sat in the pile.  And it wasn't because I didn't like it - it just always seemed like I was on deadline for something else or had another book I was really enthusiastic about.  And A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse waited patiently for me.

In the meantime, Frances and Gloria grew and changed.  They both are voracious readers now (just like their mama).  And while I am enthusiastic about this book, it truly belongs to Gloria.  In fact, at least once a week Gloria asks to take it to bed with her.  She also asks regularly when it will get out of my blog pile so she can keep it in her room for good.  So now it's time to talk about A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse so Gloria can finally get it for her very own.

One of the things I love best about Viva's artistic style is how he regularly breaks "out of the box".  The story begins on the endpapers.  As a ship sails through a series of icebergs, there is one sad question "Are we there yet?" With just four words, Viva manages to convey the length of the journey to Antarctica and the tedium of such a lengthy journey by sea.  On the title page comes the answer "Soon, Mouse."  It is in a differently colored speech balloon, to indicate a different speaker.  All you can see is the freighter, sailing placidly along under a midnight sky.

Once they "get there", Mouse and the other speaker (a young boy) peer over the side of the ship.  And all Mouse wants to know is "Can we go home now?"  The anxiety is evident in his face as he asks - whiskers sticking straight out in alarm, worry lines radiating around his wide eyes.  But the answer is "Not yet, Mouse."  The reader can plainly see that the trip does not agree with Mouse, even before he lists all the things that are difficult to do in the waves: "eat...sleep...kiss...draw...and stand!"  Mouse does not want to be there, and he doesn't care who knows it.

As his friend excitedly explores Antarctica, with its enormous sky, its penguins and whales, Mouse's familiar, repeated chorus is "Can we go home NOW?"  There is always the steady, patient reply "Not yet!"  The discoveries continue, until finally the ship sails off into the horizon.  And on the endpapers, one final question from Mouse: "Can we go back there soon?'

This is a fun book, a funny book.  Viva does a terrific job bringing Antarctica to the comprehension level of the youngest readers (it's marked Level One, which is defined as approximately K-Grade 1).  Mouse is the perfect foil  to the other explorer.  Not only does Mouse's repeated question help beginning readers decode the action, but his plaintive request will most likely sound familiar too.  Gloria quite often gets somewhere fun (a movie, a birthday party) and announces "I want to go home.".  Sometimes parents talk up an activity, and it isn't quite what the child has envisioned.  So many children can feel for Mouse and his preference for home.

I mentioned already that Mouse and his friend use a list style to give facts about the Antarctic.  It is a fun way to give a lot of information.  For instance, when Mouse friend notes "It is COLD out there, Mouse."  Mouse suggests that he needs "boots...mittens..a hat...a scarf...and a snowsuit!"  And quickly adds "Can we go home now?"  On many pages, four of the options take up one page.  Each choice in the list is in its own box, with bold, heavy black lines separating the panels.  The last choice is on its own page.  In the list of clothing,  Mouse is shown in each panel adding on more clothing also.  So by the end, in the snowsuit panel, Mouse looks quite silly indeed, peering out of one boot with mittens over his ears.  And those worry lines around his eyes haven't gone away.

Viva keeps the lists feeling fresh.  In a list of different types of penguins, each penguin is seen through a telescope, which gives the effect of an old-fashioned cameo.  A goldenrod line leads from one speech balloon to the next, guiding the reader's eye.  It keeps the sense of fun for new readers, and it is one of the things I appreciate most about TOON Books.  These are very visual stories, and this style suits Viva's graphic sensibility perfectly.

One final thing I loved about this book came at the very end.  In a page about the author, it is noted that this book was based on Viva's own trip to Antarctica on a Russian research vessel.  What an amazing experience!  But the blurb also notes that Viva, much like Mouse, became very seasick.  It forms a great connection between the author and the story, and can lead to some interesting discussion with children.  This could also be paired with simple nonfiction books about Antarctica to enhance their learning about this continent.

I can't wait to read other collaborations between Frank Viva and TOON Books.  This seems to be a natural, dynamic fit.  In the meantime, I started writing this post one afternoon, and then set my notebook down.  As soon as Gloria saw the book with my notebook, she started asking for it again.  I need to hit publish so she can have it back!

A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse.  Frank Viva.  TOON Books, 2012.

sent by the publisher for review

Friday, March 14, 2014

Max Makes a Cake

Max is just like many other preschoolers I know.  He can do some things on his own successfully, like getting dressed, and singing the Four Questions for Passover in both Hebrew and English.  He can soothe and entertain his younger sister, Trudy, and even feed her a little.  One thing he cannot do on his own, however, is make a cake for his mom all by himself.  But his father is busy getting Trudy ready for a nap and can't help him yet.  Max just wants to get started. 

Michelle Edwards and Charles Santoso have teamed up in these pages to depict a perfectly real little boy.  The text rings with the tone of an exasperated child. "'Hurry,' said Max. 'We have a cake to make.'"  When his father starts back down the stairs after Trudy is asleep, Max calls "'Cake time'" and wakes Trudy again.  As a parent, I've been there many times before, where you get one child to sleep and the other child's exuberance wakes them.  Of course, Max has to wait again and he is rapidly losing patience.

Santoso's illustrations are also replete with Max's energy.  Max dashes from the kitchen to the foot of the stairs.  He taps his foot impatiently, shakes the special box of Passover cake mix.  He just.can't.wait.

Max has a brainstorm.  While they have gotten cake mix, they haven't gotten frosting, and he begins to experiment.  Max stirs together jam and cream cheese to make frosting, and he discovers that it tastes quite good.  It gives him the confidence to try a cake all on his own.

This is a warm, sweet look at family life.  As Daddy cares for Max and Trudy on this particular day, Mama is shown downstairs working in her studio.  There are great details in this story - Max stands on a stool as he mixes frosting, in front of a kitchen island lined with books and family odds and ends.  Their home isn't particularly neat and tidy - this is the house of a family that values their time with each other more than a perfect home.  Even though Max wakes up Trudy, his father doesn't scold him.  He simply goes back upstairs to to take care of her.  Max's father is also very capable of handling the daily routine on his own - a happy thing to see.

The subtext of this story is hurrying.  At the beginning, Max tells his sister that she will have to learn the Four Questions (as the youngest child, it will be her responsibility to recite the Four Questions, but right now she is far too young).  Trudy will also learn the Passover story.  Max explains it to Trudy this way: "'A long time ago, the Jews were slaves in Egypt.  When Pharaoh freed them, they had to hurry,hurry, hurry away with their bread on their backs.  The sun baked it flat like crackers.  That's what matzoh is."  It is Max who is in a big hurry during the story.  In fact, he wishes his dad would hurry up many times during the story (which is opposite what usually happens, where the adult wishes the child would hurry up!).  The Passover story is so nicely integrated into Max's emotions.  He feels that same sense of urgency.  And matzoh, one of the symbols of Passover, finds its way into Max's Hurry, Hurry, Hurry cake.

This is a picture book, but I love that it still has some age-appropriate back matter to help provide context.  There is an easy recipe for the Hurry, Hurry, Hurry cake, a more complete explanation of the Four Questions, and a slightly longer retelling of the Passover story.  All of these help make some of Max's story more understandable to children not previously familiar with Jewish culture.  And the recipe would be fun to make and customize after reading.

I was lucky enough to be asked to participate in the blog tour for this book.  I was also lucky enough to be sent an extra copy of the book for one of you!  The giveaway is below, and it will be open until March 21st.  Enter and win - I can't wait to share it with you!  If you'd like more information on the author, or want to follow along on the blog tour, click here.

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Max Makes a Cake. Michelle Edwards; illustrated by Charles Santoso.  Random House, 2014.

sent by publisher and Provato Events as part of the blog tour