Thursday, August 25, 2011

Eye of the Beholder

Is it the apple that catches the bear’s eye in Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett? I’m not telling. At least… not yet. What I really admire about the way that Emily Gravett presents the four elements of the book—the orange, the pear, the apple and the bear—is that she paints them almost like still life portraits. At least, with the fruit. The bear is true-to-life, too, except that he (or she) has so much personality.

But then Emily Gravett plays with all of the elements by bending the rules. She paints the bear orange, wearing a human expression, as if contemplating a decision. Later, she gives him an apple shape and a pear shape. But when the bear licks its lips, that’s our first clue that it may have other ideas in mind. That bear may have designs on those fruits.

Youngest children may or may not pick up on all of that right away, but they will immediately notice the way Emily Gravett plays with colors and shapes. The way she approaches perception here, with such simplicity yet such wit, reminded me of another of my very favorite books, It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw. He uses the shapes clouds make; Gravett uses fruits. But the way both of them make unusual images out of everyday objects encourage children to use their imaginations. “It looked like a rabbit. But it wasn’t a rabbit,” writes Shaw of a rabbit-shaped cloud. Gravett uses even fewer words. “Pear bear.” It looks like a pear, but it’s a bear.

Books like these change a morning walk or an afternoon stroll through the supermarket. Children begin to compare things that are new to them to other things that are familiar. And that not only encourages the imagination, but if we encourage them to make these connections, they begin to feel at home wherever they are.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Time of Transition

When you look back on your childhood, doesn’t it seem as if summer was always a time of momentous changes? Your first time away from home? Winning a tennis tournament? A first romance?

Drew Robin Sole is 13 years old during the pivotal summer when she begins to think of herself and her world differently. The Summer I Learned to Fly by Dana Reinhardt unfolds like a poem, from Drew’s no-nonsense point of view. Except that she begins to indulge in a bit of nonsense—like riding a bike without a helmet and sneaking out of the house when she’s grounded. She also finds herself arguing with her mother, and she can’t figure out quite how it happens. She loves her mother. Yet Drew also needs to test out her own ideas about how things work.

And then there's Emmett Crane, who eats the cheese she leaves on the dumpster behind her mother's Cheese Shop, and shows her things and people in her community she never knew existed. This is not a romance, though maybe there are feelings stirring there. Mostly it’s the story of a boy and girl building a tenuous trust that blossoms into friendship—with a few missteps along the way.

Almost everyone in the book is in transition in some way—Drew’s mother; Nick, a handsome employee in her mother’s cheese shop; Emmett and the friends to whom he introduces Drew. And each touches Drew in ways large and small that ripple through her. By summer’s end, she emerges as a bigger person with richer life experiences for having tested her wings.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Rewards of Perseverance

The hero of Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier has an indefatigable spirit. Practically from his birth, he has encountered obstacles at every turn. Still, he perseveres.

He does not know who his parents are. He has a dim recollection of birds pecking out his eyes; his blindness forced him to develop and pay attention to his other senses beyond the norm of sighted people. He survives on the streets through his keen awareness of what’s happening around him and by stealing food and other valuables for the exploitative Mr. Seamus. Yet Peter has not become hard-hearted. In fact he comes to the aid of another in distress, Sir Tode, a human-kitten-horse hybrid under a hag’s spell, and brings out the best in him. Sir Tode rises to bravery that he had hitherto run from in his human knight form.

This terrific book for boys and girls (a significant girl character comes along a bit later in the book) brims with action, magic, far-off lands, kings and queens. But it also deals with real-life challenges, such as blindness, hunger and poverty. The author treats those obstacles realistically but also shows readers that there’s a way out if, like Peter, you have an unflagging will to rise above your circumstances and seize the chance for a better life when it arrives.

Peter shares much in common with Harry Potter in that respect. Sometimes, when you persevere and the moment of opportunity presents itself, it can feel like magic.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Learning the Hard Way

The title hero of Substitute Creacher by Chris Gall learned his lesson the hard way. But we don’t know that at first. Have you ever heard of someone learning the easy way? When it comes to life lessons, most of us learn as a result of going through a tough experience, and wanting to avoid going through that again.

We may try to spare others headed down that same slippery slope with a word of warning, but the listener only truly hears it if he or she wants to hear it. Or if he’s going through something similar himself and seeks advice from someone who’s been in their shoes. That’s the terrific twist at the end of Substitute Creacher. After all the examples Mr. Creacher gives of students gone wrong, it turns out that he is one of them. That gives him insight into the children’s characters and credibility with his young audience (both students and readers).

The teacher may have learned the hard way, but he has a gentle delivery with the children in his classroom. He dispenses his anecdotes with humor and rhyme (framed in green slime). By the time the students realize that their sub is more like them than they’d realized, he has won them over. That’s also when it dawns on them that he’s merely trying to spare them the experience he had to go through to learn his lesson.