Friday, August 30, 2013

Cause and Effect

Matthew Van Fleet
Matthew Van Fleet knows toddlers. His books zero in on one characteristic that fascinates them--in the case of Munch!, it's mouths and what animals do with them. Toddlers gnaw on everything, and Van Fleet's strong, durable pages, tabs and moving parts are built for those teething mouths.

But he also thinks through every pull of a tab. Each allows youngest children to see how things work. The pull-tab opens a mouth, and pushing the tab back into place closes it again (except in the case of the beaver, which wiggles the beaver's head and makes a "buzz" to indicate its teeth's whittling capabilities).

Toddlers get to see cause and effect. It's a big lesson for a small child, to see that they can make things happen. Author-artist-paper engineer Van Fleet thought through every part of this board book, and it's a perfect match with audience members that often lead with their teeth. Bravo!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Grimm Structure

Tom McNeal takes the structure of a Grimm fairy tale and crafts a completely original and compelling story in Far Far Away, involving magic, childhood pranks and disappearing children.

Tom McNeal
Fifteen-year-old Jeremy Johnson Johnson, like many heroes of the Brothers Grimm, must battle big forces alone. He is on a mission to save the house he shares with his father from foreclosure, to feed himself and his father, and to get himself through school with little or no support from his father--who's confined himself to his bed ever since his wife, Jeremy's mother, abandoned them. Luckily, the ghost of Jacob Grimm has taken on Jeremy as his project (Jacob believes that helping Jeremy will free him from the Zwischenraum, a kind of purgatory for "those who are agitated and uneasy").

McNeal suggests magic may be at work when Jeremy and his crush, Ginger Boultinghouse, both eat of the baker's signature Prinsesstårta (princess cakes). Jeremy has avoided the bakery ever since his mother succumbed to the "Legend of the First Bite," which says that whatever living thing you look upon during your First Bite of the Prinsesstårta would steal your heart. (Jeremy's mother skipped town with a Canadian stranger she looked upon at First Bite.) Ever after, Ginger seeks Jeremy out, at school and at home. She also convinces Jeremy to pull a prank on the baker with her and her friends, for which Jeremy accepts full blame. Both dungeons and forests come into play when Jeremy and Ginger are kidnapped. And then storytelling itself gets them through, adding a layer of metafiction to McNeal's tale.

The friendship developing between Jeremy and Ginger lightens the often dark overtones of the novel. Not only does Ginger cheer Jeremy's spirits, but he also keeps her going at key times. And, like Grimm, McNeal plants a few twists readers likely won't see coming. All along the way, readers learn about the Brothers Grimm, as the author offers factual reasons for a fictionalized ghost character to feel compelled to save Jeremy. (The author learned many of these facts doing research for the book.) McNeal's use of a small town in contemporary times, surrounded by a menacing and mysterious forest that feels as ancient as fairy tales, and a hint of magic--like the best of the Brothers Grimm--serve to further this timeless structure: a hero who faces his darkest fears and comes out the other side, forever changed but stronger for it. The difference is that here both Jeremy and Jacob undergo this transformation.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Love Letter to the Midwest

The Thing about Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, illus. by Julia Kuo, begins as the story of an intergenerational family and transforms into a love letter to the Midwest.
Cynthia Kadohata

Each year, Summer Miyamoto's family hits the road to harvest wheat in the fields of Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. Usually her parents go with Summer, her brother, Jaz, her Obaachan (grandmother) and Jiichan (grandfather). This time, her parents are in Japan attending to elderly ailing relatives. So Summer's grandparents are in charge. Jiichan operates a combine, which reaps, threshes and winnows the wheat, and Obaachan and Summer prepare the meals for the combine operators. 

Their days are long, but the setting is breathtaking. Here Summer describes the uncut wheat on a gentle slope of the Franklins' Oklahoma farm: "It looked like windblown sand beneath the bright sky." As someone who grew up in Michigan, this reader appreciated the Midwest anew, seeing the landscape through Summer's eyes. Her first-person narrative perfectly captures the rhythms of their days, as determined by daylight, weather and mealtimes.

Summer roots readers in the moment: we see the operators navigate the rolling hills with the unwieldy combines, anticipating every uneven patch, and the precision with which the drivers must align to the grain trailer to empty their load. There is an art to the process unique to its mission, and every step must be executed with absolute precision. Summer's awe inspires our own: "I don't know. I mean, maybe computers and cell phones and rocket ships are more magical, but to me, nothing beats the combine.... In a short time, the combine takes something humans can't use and then turns it into something that can feed us." Julia Kuo's drawings (meant to represent Summer's notebook pages) show each stage of the process with a handful of clear line drawings.

When Summer must, in a moment of crisis (Jiichan falls suddenly ill on the job), drive the combine herself, readers learn just how mammoth these machines are. Throughout, a story unfolds of the toll the work takes on Jiichan, as well as a lighter subplot about Summer's crush on her employers' son. These, too, highlight the cycles of life, as Obaachan and Jiichan share wisdom gained through experience with their granddaughter, whose life is just beginning. And always the land stretches before them, and the descent of night or rain threatens their mission to yield the most wheat that they can from these fields of windblown sand beneath the bright sky. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Pushing Back the Night

Mini Grey
The beauty of the stars. That's what the seven toys notice first. Their owner has left them outside overnight for the very first time in Toys in Space by Mini Grey. The awestruck playthings fall silent at the vision of the starry night above them. Then their fears set in. Only the WonderDoll's stories help to dispel their anxieties.

This is the ideal book to read just before a child's first overnight al fresco. Usually at about age eight, a child will want to try "camping"--putting a pup tent outside or stretching out a blanket and a sleeping bag and spending a night outdoors, usually with a friend or sibling. On the first and even the second try, he or she might come running back into the house and give up. At the very least, the child will come in to use the bathroom and grab a snack.

Toys in Space addresses those anxieties about being alone in the vastness of nature at night, through the voices of the stuffed Blue Rabbit, dinosaur and others. But the book also taps into that first taste of independence and the desire to embrace it. WonderDoll's stories help her listeners forget their fears, at least for long moments at a time. Her impulse to bolster their courage through tales of derring-do stretch back to ancient storytelling legends of how the world was made, and what causes day and night.

Mini Grey never gets too serious, of course; she taps into the humor of the dynamics between the toys. But she also authentically captures that natural impulse to tell stories as a way of getting through life's challenging moments.

Children will likely see the toys' conversation as an extension of their own rich imaginations and the ways in which they endow their toys with their own feelings and excitement. But adults will also recognize that Grey hooks into something much deeper here: a storytelling tradition that stretches back as far as humankind could communicate.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Form and Function

Not every book is meant to be a board book.

Some board books are really for adults, meant to be given like greeting cards (think of the Urban Baby series). Some are misfired adaptations of picture books, with too much text, or ideas too sophisticated to work well for babies and toddlers. Colors and Opposites by Xavier Deneux were conceived of as board books; their form and function serve their baby and toddler audience beautifully.

What can a baby, a one-year-old, a two- and three-year-old absorb? How do you make these ideas manageable for a child who is unlocking the secrets of the universe? You have to begin with their world, the things they see and touch.

Colors gives babies and toddlers much to explore with their fingertips--raised parts of the pages that fit into indentations on the opposite page. Children start to see how a book works; turning the page completes the puzzle. Rounded edges to the pages keep them safe. Later, toddlers will understand Deneux's double entendre with orange as a fruit and orange as the color of a sunset.

A friend of mine has twin girls who just turned two. They now get the humor in Emily Gravett's Orange Pear Apple Bear. They have had enough experience with oranges, pears and apples (and seen bears in books and pictures) to see that Emily Gravett is playing with the bear's shape and color, and with its relationship to oranges, apples and pears (as one that consumes fruit).

That is the beauty of the board books that earn most favored status in toddlers' lives. There's more for them to observe, touch, and discover with each rereading. As they gain more experience and exposure to a wider world, they see more meaning in the book's pages. On that same "orange" page in Colors, for instance, toddlers will begin to perceive the bird's size as an indication that an orange is small enough to sit upon, while the sunset is very large indeed, so large that the bird can only approach and never reach it. The joy, for those of us reading with toddlers, is watching these epiphanies occur, and seeing their eyes light up with understanding.