One of my favorite ways to learn about books is by reading about the titles other bloggers read and recommend. We don't always agree, but quite often they have read books I have never heard about. I've also never met a list of books that I didn't immediately want to check titles off!! So I was in seventh heaven when Janssen published her summer reading list "100 picture books to read this summer". I "met" Janssen when we served on a Cybils panel a few years ago (Side note: I am so excited to be a judge for Round One of the Easy Readers/Early Chapter Books judging this year!!), and I know that she has amazing taste in books. So I printed out her list of recommendations and got to work. Because these weren't the only books we read this summer, it took us all summer to get through the list. But we loved it - reading old favorites and new titles. And one of the new-to-us books that I loved enough to write about was The Woods.
It begins with a little boy going through his bedtime routine. He's in bed, under his covers, finished with his story, when he realizes his bunny rabbit is missing. The boy knows there is only one place his stuffed rabbit could be. He gathers some supplies, including a sword, and heads off into the woods. He announces that he isn't afraid at all. Until...he runs into a BIG, SCARY BROWN BEAR! Luckily, the little boy is brave enough to determine that the bear is afraid of the dark. And the little boy can also solve the bear's problem by providing a night-light. Because he has been kind to the bear, the bear wants to join in and help the little boy find his rabbit.
So with the bear tagging along behind, the boy proceeds through the woods. They continue their search through the murky, dark woods, finding two scary giants and a three-headed, fire-breathing dragon. Each time the little boy confronts something new, he doesn't get scared, but makes the effort to find out what they need (that frightening dragon is actually bawling because he has a stomachache!). When he helps them out, they all agree to help him to find his rabbit in return. But when the group approaches a dark cave, it tests all of their combined bravery. The solution is to hold hands and work together as they venture in.
What is inside that dark, spooky cave? Well, it's one last surprise to close out the little boy's adventure. But suffice to say everything turns out okay in the end. When that little boy finally climbs back into bed, he has a whole host of new friends to snuggle with.
There are several pieces of this title that I think work together to make this a successful picture book. Some of these are textual, and some are contained within the illustrations. It doesn't have complex text with lots of words on each page, but those words are full of imagination and adventure. Readers are drawn into the story immediately through the little boy's bedtime routine. I have yet to meet a child who doesn't sleep with at least one stuffed animal. They can all relate to the process of getting into bed, tucked in and slightly sleepy, and missing that one special animal who has disappeared. When the story changes from a bedtime story into an adventure, children are ready to commit to searching along with the little boy. Part of this is due to the earnest first person tone in those introductory sentences.
And another textual success is the repetitive structure of the story. The sentences are fairly short to keep the plot moving along. And after each time the boy meets someone (or something) new, and the group sets off together, the text claims "And we weren't afraid at all. Until..." It's a great device for building momentum - readers can't wait to see what is around the corner. They will listen intently for the next cue and be prepared when the page turns. That piece of repetitive text also ties off the previous incident.
One of the things I love about this story is that it takes teamwork to accomplish the little boy's mission. When they reach the cave, they aren't individuals - they are a team. It takes all of their effort to face off against that last creature. The little boy has been clever in solving every character's problems with compassion and generosity. But even the bravest little boy might cower before that creature, and it is the support of his new-found friends that helps him get through the confrontation.
I thought the illustrations helped make the story so captivating. They remind me of illustrations readers would experience in a graphic novel. There is rich color, with an incredible range of browns in the woods and the little boy's bedroom. And there are fun details in the pictures too - that scary brown bear who the boy meets first has a gold HONEY necklace. It looks incredibly out of place on a bear in the woods, but makes that bear seem more hip than scary. When the little boy gives him the night-light, he strings the lightbulb around his neck instead. The looks on the faces of every character as they discover each other are priceless. They are often reacting in shock and fear, but they also look hilarious. These details add to the fun of reading this book aloud.
Speaking of reading aloud, this story is dramatic and a perfect addition to storytimes or just a family reading time. It is especially perfect with the multiple surprises on almost every page. And of course, the combination of bedtime and adventure will help keep it in regular rotation everywhere. Thank you, Janssen, for the recommendation!
The Woods. Paul Hoppe. Chronicle Books, 2011.
borrowed through interlibrary loan.