Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Think About How Everyone...

I have always loved the kind of books that Harriet Ziefert creates.  I love them for a number of reasons - the silliness that is so simply incorporated in the text, the way the books aren't overly complicated, but are readable time after time.  Her comprehension of literacy and how preschoolers are attracted to reading about subjects is really superb.  Her books teach, but in a very natural way.  And her text always pairs so well with Emily Bolam's illustrations - Bolam has a simple, colorful style that coordinates so perfectly with Ziefert's text.  So last year, on a SLJ webinar, I heard about a new series from Blue Apple Books (Ziefert's own publishing company) from Ziefert and Bolam, and was thrilled to receive it from the publisher a few weeks later.

There were four titles sent to me from the First Nonfiction series: Does a Bear Wear Boots?, Does a Camel Cook Spaghetti?, Does a Panda Go to School? and Does a Woodpecker Use a Hammer?  Each one of  these titles encourage preschoolers to think about topics they might otherwise take for granted.  For instance, you might be able to predict that in Does a Bear Wear Boots?, preschoolers will be thinking about what everyone wears (a popular topic in daycares everywhere).  But there are also topics that encourage more complex thinking, such as understanding how everyone learns and how animals use tools.  Let's take a closer look at each of the titles, because they are each unique.


Does a Woodpecker Use a Hammer? focuses on tools.  Each section of the book starts out with a question about an animal" "Can an octopus hammer?"  The animal in question is attempting to use a hammer, which can look really silly, depending on the animal.  The octopus has eight hammers tightly grasped in its tentacles, but it's difficult to find something to hammer on underwater!  When the reader turns the page, they'll find one or two facts about how that animal really uses tools and why.  For the octopus, tools are used more for protection.  The illustration on that page also shows the octopus using the tool correctly.  The text transitions very smoothly from chimps, who use tools in some of the same ways humans do, to humans constructing and manipulating tools.  Astonishingly, Ziefert then takes on what could be the gargantuan task of summarizing the human history of a book for preschoolers!  And even though it feels like an incredibly difficult topic, she writes about it in a simple and informative way.  Ziefert travels from cavemen to plows, Egyptians and Romans, to modern-day tool use.  In the last double-paged spread, all of the tools are labeled so readers can begin to match the vocabulary with the picture.  The book ends with questions for the reader: "Does your mom use tools? Does your dad?  Do you?"
On the front cover of Does a Bear Wear Boots? ,  a polar bear is shown wearing very fashionable red polka dotted boots.  He might be able to carry off this look, except for the grouchy look on his face!  The pattern is much the same as the first book, where a question is asked: "Does a musk ox wear an overcoat?"  The musk ox looks very entertaining in a purple overcoat, but the next page explains that its thick fur acts as insulation, keeping it warm.  This text moves from silly questions "Do ducks wear diapers?" to facts - that babies wear diapers until they are potty-trained.  In this title, Ziefert and Bolam  go through many of the types of clothing we wear everyday (although it is fairly Americanized - there aren't any recognizably diverse pieces of clothing).  These are all clearly labeled.  There are also clothes for certain occupations, special occasions, or costumes.  As I mentioned before, this title in particular would be perfect in a preschool classroom as it is a standard classroom topic.  This book brings humor to the topic (reminiscent of Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing), while also challenging readers to draw comparisons and contrasts between ourselves and the animal kingdom.
If you are wondering Does a Camel Cook Spaghetti?, of course the answer is no.  But young readers may not have previously considered how animals get their food.  They can learn that a camel may go a month without food if necessary, or that a raccoon with food may "wash" it without water if none is available.  The human part of this book ties together themes from the other two, as it integrates tools and clothing for cooking.  It also briefly discusses gardening and how people eat in different cultures.  And last but not least, it explains that animals must eat what is in their territory.  They can't eat a taco since it isn't in their territory.  As in the other titles, the books finishes with questions pointed at the readers to draw them in.
The final book is Does a Panda Go to School?  And while we know the answer is no, it is interesting to observe how animals do learn in their own environments.  In this one, young children are guided through a typical school day with animals in the classroom.  An ostrich could not go to school, because it could not follow directions or put its backpack away.  The one animal who might have a good time in the classroom?  A chimp - they learn through very similar methods.  But even the chimp has its limitations!!  This book has a slightly different rhythm than the other three.  It has the added benefit of introducing school structure and routine to preschoolers in a non-threatening way.  They will enjoy the idea of animals cavorting in the classroom and then can learn more about how chimps learn.
I've said a little about the illustrations, but I love Bolam's ability to keep their illustrations clean, realistic and sharp.  Everything is outlined in black lines, which makes it easier to grasp what is going on.  And she has a real talent for showing what's going on in a realistic way.  But that realism also has plenty of humor in it.  An armadillo sits in the story circle, trying her hardest not to squirm.  A chimpanzee holds hands with a little boy as he crosses the street with a backpack on.  A duck looks bemusedly at its bottom, festooned in diapers.  Bolam helps emphasize the absurdity in us expecting animals to do things just like we do.
Each of the titles begins a letter from Ziefert to parents.  It addresses how parents can involve children in reading the books together.  It encourages parents to bring the books to life by drawing parallels to the child's own life.  She also discusses the illustrations and how readers can expand on those outside the story.  Finally, Ziefert explains the pages of questions and answers at the end of each book.
I think the Think About section at the end of each title in the series makes these books useful to a much larger population than just preschoolers.  There are questions to help readers compare and contrast different groups of animals and humans: "What are some things animals eat that you like to eat?"  "If animals don't go to school, what do they all day?"  There are also Research, Observe, and Write, Tell or Draw sections.  In families with children of various ages, this book might be a read-aloud to a younger child and then an older child could work through the Think About section.  It's a series that is equally at home in the picture book or nonfiction sections at the library too.  Blue Apple continues to add new books in this series, and I can't wait to read more of them.
Does a Bear Wear Boots? Harriet Ziefert; illustrations by Emily Bolam.  Blue Apple Books, 2005, 2014.
Does a Camel Cook Spaghetti? Harriet Ziefert; illustrations by Emily Bolam.  Blue Apple Books, 2007, 2014.
Does a Panda Go to School?  Harriet Ziefert; illustrations by Emily Bolam.  Blue Apple Books, 2003, 2014.
Does a Woodpecker Use a Hammer? Harriet Ziefert; illustrations by Emily Bolam.  Blue Apple Books, 2014.
sent by the publisher upon request


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Here is the World

Perhaps like other families, we have a library visit routine.  We return our books by the front door as we walk in, then we head towards the back of the library where the children's section is located.  Frances likes to look for book on the library catalog, and then we all browse the picture book and children's fiction shelves.  After that the kids sometimes play on the computers or at the train table before we check out.  But our visits often lack trips to one section in particular, and it makes me a little sad.  We rarely visit the nonfiction section.  At our library, the adult and children's nonfiction is interfiled.  There are pluses and minuses to this arrangement - as a librarian, I often recommended that adults researching a subject start with children's books.  Sometimes that was enough information on a subject without seeming too overwhelming.  Other times a children's nonfiction book provided sources for research for the adult reader, just as I often point out to young readers.  So having the adult and children's nonfiction interfiled is useful to provide a broad range of reading material on a topic.  On the other hand, that means that the collection isn't as browsable for young children or parents.  Our nonfiction collection is in a different part of the building. and it's difficult to go over and spend time looking at a particular section.  Either I've left Frances and Gloria in the children's section by themselves and run over to find something specific, or I bring them with me into the nonfiction section.  They might find one or two books they want (on the last trip, Gloria found books on making jewelry and papercrafting), but then the sheer number of books on the shelves becomes overwhelming and they lost interest.

Luckily for me and my voracious interest in children's nonfiction, there is a small display of new children's nonfiction in a corner of the children's section.  It usually has about ten titles on it, and I always check out what's available when we are there.  A few weeks ago I was lucky to find Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays on that shelf.

Here is the World is a luminous picture book, giving short rhymes to describe the Jewish holidays during the year.  Newman starts with the celebrations that happen at any time of year, like Shabbat and naming ceremonies for new baby girls.  Then she begins at the start of the Jewish year, which happens with Rosh Hashanah in the fall.  Each season is introduced with a rhyming couplet and a two page spread.  Then holidays within that season are shown chronologically.  It helps readers who may not be Jewish connect the holidays visually with the season.  Many of the holidays are also tied to the season they are celebrated in.  For instance, on the page explaining Sukkot (which is a fall holiday), the text reads "Here is the sukkah, its roof made of twigs./ Here are some grapes, pomegranates, and figs."  A young reader may not pay attention to the fact that all of the fruits listed are harvested in the fall, but they will see pumpkins and sunflowers scattered around the sukkah too, reinforcing the fall theme.

The same thing happens in the spring, with the holiday of Tu B'Shevat.  The poem reads "Here is some dirt and some seeds to be sown./ Here are some trees that are already grown."  The reader can see trees scattered throughout the illustration, all fully in bloom, as well as see children planting. This connects the holiday immediately to spring, even if a reader doesn't understand the Hebrew name of the holiday.  This is a very effective and simple way to bring the holidays to life for readers, as well as root them in the everyday.

I was impressed with the fluidity of the text.  Newman does a masterful job of creating easy to read rhymes that are catchy yet simple.  I've mentioned before that there are only two lines of text to convey a feeling of the holiday.  It's no easy feat particularly as there is so much symbolism to convey.  There are also Hebrew words used throughout the text, bu it's done so that you can't really accidentally mispronounce them.  Even though words are there without a contextual pronunciation guide, the Hebrew words often rhyme with other words, giving an insecure reader a leg up on how that word is said.

And this book wouldn't be as successful without the amazing illustrations.  The illustrations help readers with clues to the celebration. At Purim, the text reads "Here's a parade - come and march with the crowd! Here is a grogger to shake nice and loud."  You might not know what Purim is, but you can see that the participants are in costume, and three of the four people featured are shaking the groggers.  If you aren't sure what a grogger is, you could recognize it from the illustration.  The picture exudes fun and noise.  There is confetti, strewn about and noisemakers galore.  You feel like you are there, celebrating.  At Passover, the text describes a Haggadah laid at each setting.  Again, the word may be unfamiliar, but you can identify the little boy placing the Haggadah.  Even if you know nothing of the Haggadah's purpose or meaning, you can see its size and shape there.

Another thing that I adore about the illustrations are their connection to family.  The same family is shown throughout the book, always celebrating together.  The family is young, with children.  Each family member wears the same pattern throughout the book, helping to keep them identifiable (an especially genius idea, since the celebrations often involve other people).  They are always smiling, hugging, helping each other - it is clear that they are enjoying their time together.  One of my favorite illustrations takes place at the end of the book.  The family is lighting a paper lantern together.  Their faces are lit with joy, awe, contentment and wonder.  Gal makes you feel like you are eavesdropping on a wonderful moment - one of those times that will become a cherished memory.

And finally, I can't move on without celebrating the exemplary back matter in this title.  There are paragraphs detailing additional information about the Jewish customs and holidays highlighted in the text.  Some of the Hebrew words are defined, some of the symbols explained.  Again, these are done in an easy to read manner, so readers can stop ad refer to them during a reading session without too much interruption.  But my favorite is the final piece of back matter - a section of holiday crafts and recipes! The crafts are all easy for children to perform with little assistance and the recipes also indicate when an adult should help.  It's a terrific supplement to the book's text.  And it all comes together in a glorious book that will interest any reader.

Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays.  By Lesléa Newman; illustrated by Susan Gal.  Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014.

borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

Monday, May 4, 2015

Brimsby's Hats

Most times, when I fall in love with a book, I first fall in love with the text.  It's not that I don't love illustrations, but it is always the text that draws me in.  Then, I can see how the illustrations complement or add to the text, and love the illustrations too.  But with Brimsby's Hats, I had the total opposite experience.  I also have mostly thought enough about the text and illustrations by the time I start writing that I have my own theories about the pieces I've wondered about.  I fell in love first with the illustrations and then later realized all of the spaces where I could be curious about the text.  And I didn't need to have all the answers this time.  I'll just give you all my questions.


The story begins with two friends - a hat maker and his friend, who would sit with the hat maker while he worked.  The hat maker's friend would make them the most perfect tea and they would tell stories while the hat maker created.  But then the hat maker's friend announces that he is leaving to follow his own dream to become a sea captain.  After they say goodbye, the hat maker's quiet life becomes very lonely.  Finally he realizes he must find a new friend.  He discovers a tree full of birds that look promising, but the birds are too busy shoveling snow out of their nests and keeping their fires lit to engage with the hat maker.  Brimsby comes up with a solution that involves his talents, and it ultimately gains him a larger community of friends.
One of the things I find most powerful is the tension between the quiet, simple text and the highly detailed illustrations.  For example, there is a brief line of text about the hat maker and his friend.  While the hat maker works the text reads "Together they would have the most wonderful conversations."  Most of us could imagine the dialogue between friends, what is said and perhaps unsaid.  But Prahin shows the hat maker and his badger best friend at the table, talking.  Above their heads are multiple balloons, showing the many things they talk about, the things they imagine together.  The two friends are royalty, pirates, slay a dragon, defeat a pirate octopus and fly away on a golden bird.  Each "story" is no bigger than a quarter, yet it contains an exciting narrative for the two friends.  It is interesting because although the pair's described activities are quiet and deliberate (sitting at a table, creating hats and sipping tea), their imagined activities are full of daring and valor.  But in both sets of activities, they are a pair.  In this book, the text takes a back seat to the vivid illustrations.
It isn't that the text isn't great, it's just that the illustrations give life to the words in this book.  When the hat maker sends hats to his customers, the illustrations show the customers trying on the hats he created.  My favorite is a buffalo, with his oversized torso tucked into a western-style shirt and perched on the tiniest chair.  He is holding up a hand mirror in which it is apparent that he cannot see the new bowler perched on his head.  He is trying hard, however, to admire it.  It is funny and charming all at once.
Another thing I love about this book is Prahin's choice of colors.  In the beginning of the book, there are bright, lively colors splashed on the pages.  The hats the hat maker creates are depicted in traditional hat colors - grays, browns and blacks, but with colorful trim.  And there is color all over his house and studio.  But when his best friend leaves to become a sea captain, things become sadder, lonelier, and more gray.  The gray palette continues until the hat maker takes a chance and tries to make friends.  The colors then become celebratory and bright again.
I said at the beginning of my blog that I had some things I was wondering about in the text.  One of those things is the title.  In case you missed it, the title is Brimsby's Hats.  But only once in the text is the hat maker referred to as Brimsby.  Mostly he is called the hat maker.  Only the third sentence of the story includes his name: "Brimsby would make the most wonderful hats and his friend would make the most wonderful tea."  I'm not sure why he is primarily described by his occupation, except, of course, it isn't just his occupation.  It's a talent and a gift.  He uses his gift to help the birds survive the winter snow, and his gift earns him more friends.
One of the other things that struck me about this book was the friendship between the hat maker and his friend (who is also unnamed).Their friendship is a cozy routine of tea and talk.  The text tells us that their friendship went on in the same manner "for many years" until the friend tells the hat maker that he is leaving to become a sea captain.  I was amazed at how brave this leavetaking was for both of them.  They have been bound together as a pair, partners in their adventures day in and day out.  Yet it takes bravery for the sea captain to take the risk and try a new adventure.  And it also takes bravery for the hat maker to gracefully say goodbye.  They are true friends, and their friendship can expand to include others as time goes on.  The last sentence is one of perfect completion: "And the large group of friends would drink tea and talk about hats and shovels and ships and how wonderful it was that they had all been lucky enough to meet one another."
Brimsby's Hats. Andrew Prahin.  Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library