Mar 28, 2023

Off We Ride, on WILD BLUE!

 I'll admit that I was always enchanted by horses. (Seriously, who wasn't?) But, perhaps due to realizing that my chances of horseback riding were pretty much limited to nickel-drop mechanicals outside a grocery store, or a ride on a pony in a tethered ring at a fair. I couldn't waste obsessive longing on having a horse when there were so many other dreams I saw as having greater potential for success.

Candlewick Press, 2023
Horseback-riding wannabes abound, and they span many ages. That's why WILD BLUE: Taming a Big Kid Bike feels like it will be a just-right, book-of-my-heart discovery for countless young readers. Even as an  aged-out, unhorsed woman, I found it utterly appealing and heart-racingly compelling. Picture books deal with "next steps" stages of various kinds in childhood development, but the shift from a three-wheeler to a two-wheeler bike is a significant one that has little coverage. Author Dashka Slater and illustrator Laura Hughes have teamed up to make this one a winner.

In this case the child, Kayla, relates her adventure through first person voice. Her imagination is evident from the cover image (look at that again!) and the title page, both of which reveal that Kayla is a buckaroo, a cowgirl, a horseback-rider of unparalleled skill. She sees her red safety helmet as a western hat, and her challenge is to ride that WILD BLUE addition to her life. She has mastered and outgrown her tryke, "Pink Pony".  Language throughout incorporates "on the plains' expressions, as when Kayla reports Daddy putting pony out to pasture and taking her, lasso included, to "wrangle a new one from the herd." Daddy is at her side (with baby sibling nestled against Daddy's chest), helping and encouraging as Kayla worries, wobbles, pumps.

The scene behind this sequence shifts from contemporary to a sheriff's office and a cactus. Just as that pedal-pumping seems to pay off, a page turn reveals WILD BLUE as a bucking bronco who throws Kayla to the ground. Despite determination and encouragement, Kayla concludes that Wild Blue is too spirited and asks for pony to come back. A trip to the park, with Daddy's red stallion and baby in back-seat safety, allows Kayla to take time, check Wild Blue for injuries, sing it a little calming song, and observe countless other "riders" whizzing past on their sturdy steeds. Kayla knows what to do: mounting, pushing off, wobbling and then pumping. She and Wild Blue ride as one. I won't spoil a lovely closing spread and lines, but they resonate with this likable character, family, and situation.

I will never forget my own early attempts to ride a two-wheeler without training wheels. It was a Saturday afternoon outside our urban home, which was situated right next to St. Mary's church. A large playground with a chainlink fence separated our front door from the church entry. A wide expanse of concrete sidewalk lined that route. Solid, safe space to learn to ride a bike. Dad helped me, held the seat, and released once my legs were pumping. A very elderly woman was coming toward me from church. She was undoubtedly grateful to have gone to confession when she saw me pedaling toward her with no sign of stopping, or steering. She edged toward the fence (to avoid edging into a busy street) and I did the same. I have no doubt that Dad was running behind trying to catch me, stop me, but he couldn't reach us in time. My front tire slammed into the fence and jolted me to a stop just as the poor woman shouldered the fence and grabbed it for all she was worth. We stared into each others' eyes for what seemed like forever until I broke into tears. 

I recall being able to ride a two-wheeler after that day, but I have no idea how I managed to get back on and try again, or what that dear woman said to me or to Dad. I just remember seeing that impact coming, feeling sure that i would run right over an old woman and likely kill her! Never underrate the challenges of childhood's developmental stages. If any readers here have a story to share, I'd love to read them!

Mar 26, 2023

Does This Cutie Scare You? OGILVY!

Godwin Books
Henry Holt & Company
Macmillan, 2019

Meet OGILVY, a lovable and self-assured character who won my heart and will win yours, no doubt! OGILVY is written by talented author/rhymer Deborah Underwood and illustrated with the remarkable style and talent of T. L. McBeth.  It's tempting to refer to Ogilvy and those encountered as rabbits, but this story glories in leaving important things unnamed. In this case the author does refer to the community as bunnies, so, okay, let's go with that. In fact, though, it doesn't matter, because these newly encountered folks are very much doing things that bunnies don't do. 

Before addressing that, and the impressive skills providing the text and visual narrative,  the first and foremost gift of this book is the story. Ogilvy enters on the title page, head still not fully released from the neck of an actual striped sweater. It's Ogilvy's happy, hoppy first day in a new town. At the park our character finds plenty of bunnies busily drawing, knitting, climbing, and playing ball.

ALL of the bunnies wear knit clothing, some about knee-length (they call them dresses), while others wear hip-length knits they call sweaters. They demand to know exactly what it is that Ogilvy's wearing, a dress or a sweater. After all, it's mid-thigh,  risking the dire consequences of ambiguity.

Why? Because the dress-wearing bunnies always play ball and knit socks, but bunnies in sweaters make art and climb rocks. Why? Indeed. Ogilvy asks just that, and gets a not-so-surprising answer:

"That's just how it is."

Ogilvy, being a very clever bunny, decides what to enjoy each day and names the clothing chosen for the day to suit the "rules" and play as they wish. Those daily choices always look the same.  Lest a reader imagine that Ogilvy had no choice, a display of  knitwear hangs on Ogilvy's wall, each an identical knit garment. 

Of course, that clever bunny helps everyone realize how silly their "just because" rules were, right? Not that easily. This is where those bunnies take on an obviously MORE human-style behavior than wearing sweaters and dresses. They become ANGRY. They insist, DEMAND, that Ogilvy name clothing one thing or the other and stick with it. 

Ogilvy, not one for confrontation or fuss, made the hardest choice of all. Ogilvy speaks up with a question that was not "WHY?" Ogilvy asks if the bunnies wearing dresses wouldn't want to make art and climb walls? Wouldn't the sweater wearing bunnies enjoy playing ball and knitting? What difference does it actually make if you wear a sweater or a dress? Then Ogilvy NAMES that favorite garment- it is an OGILVY!

Because this is a well-written and story-structured picture book, we know that bunnies realize the foolishness of their rules, but a tense page turn near the end shows a new bunny  wearing some interesting headgear! Will that be a step too far, or will they welcome this new difference/change?

Here is a picture book that can be read as a simple story for the very youngest, or launch for discussion about peer pressure and how rules emerge and remain among elementary readers, and even launch complex debates and supporting arguments among adolescent groups as an analogy for current political and cultural wars. 

The text is delightful rhymed couplets that are as seamless and natural as bunny (kid) conversation can be, while the illustrations will charm the yarn off readers of every age. Settings with white or pastel backgrounds and the characters themselves are cartoon-like drawings with oversized expressive eyes and heavy-lined black edges. The bunnies are made delightfully human by sporting knitwear that is actually knitted. Fans of Jon Klassen's EXTRA YARN will especially adore the technique used, which is not explained within this book. I studied the images endlessly, trying to determine if what are clearly actual knitted garments were overlaid/photographed on the bunnies, or if these little items were made, then photographed and Photoshopped onto the drawings. A check on McBeth's website shared this from a HORN BOOK review:

The Horn Book Magazine - “Illustrations “made with graphite pencils, Adobe Photoshop, and sweaters,” whose bold lines and loose shadows give a classic feel to this fable with a modern message.”

 I couldn't have said that better, and HBM managed it in far fewer words than I would! Oh, how those subtle shadows provide dimension and grounding for this story! I also noted that OGILVY is a multiple award winner with many starred reviews. That was no surprise to me. What does surprise me, in fact appalls me, is that such a wonderfully crafted, entertaining, eye-catching picture book that celebrates acceptance, self-respect, speaking up, and so much more could well be among titles of books for children for which bans are sought. Why wouldn't it? Read my story summary above. There is even a single rear-view of Ogilvy choosing an item to wear from the wardrobe which reveals not a bunny tail but a bit of a bunny butt-crack. In fact, whether labeled as a dress or a sweater, not a single bunny throughout is wearing PANTS! 

If you think I'm exaggerating, check out a sampling of contested children's book on a PARTIAL list, HERE. This is compiled by the ALA (American Library Association) and includes:
  • Carle, Eric. Draw Me a Star
  • Geisel, Theodor Seuss. Hop on Pop: The Simplest Seuss for Youngest Use
  • Geisel, Theodor Seuss. If I Ran the Zoo
  • Hanford, Martin. Where’s Waldo?
  • Silverstein, Shel. A Light in the Attic
I was thinking about the absurdity (and assault on Democracy and common sense) that this movement to restrict access to books represents. I heard about a counter-movement to purchase and add books from such lists to LITTLE FREE LIBRARY sites around the country, but especially in areas where this is being legislated and achieved. As noble as that effort might be, it is even more important to follow OGILVY's lead and SPEAK UP, SHOW UP at school board and municipal and library meetings. To challenge the loudest of voices with the deepest of reason. To read aloud books like these in public spaces and remind other members of the community that their voices are necessary, vital, life-changing. To pose this same question: WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?

Returning to the tag question in the title... Does this little cutie scare you? If you click on OGILVY you can open the book and turn the pages to see for yourself. If you agree that this picture book offers limitless benefits from entertainment to eye-appeal to thought-provoking discussions, it's time to redefine what scares us as adults, and speak up for the freedom to read and choose for ourselves and our own families, but not for cultural constraints on those beyond our own families.

What do you think?

Mar 20, 2023

Serving Up Memories in BOARD BOOKS: Puddles and Beards!

When I read comments or challenges in social media calling for favorite books from childhood, I am reminded of the very limited fare of my own young life. The literary richness I experienced consisted of  endlessly repeated but always entertaining bedtime rereads by Mom or Dad. They were skilled at dramatically voicing one or more of the anthologized folk tales or fairy tales from a few partially illustrated collections that constituted our family library. That limited menu of choices included a few glossy versions of Disney movies (Cinderella, Snow White) and reading the "funny pages" in the daily and Sunday newspaper. Our school classrooms provided a nonexistent "library", and the nearest branch of our public library was multiple bus rides away. 

As a result, I seized on any chance to visit the library, and thought the very limited offerings in the children's section was a treasure trove in comparison to daily life. It is also the place in which I first concluded that books were written by old (dead) men. Among those, though, there were some gems. Edward Lear's BOOK OF NONSENSE limericks as well as THE JUMBLIES were all-time favorites, and I checked those out on alternate visits, year after year. Granted, the small branch library had few offerings, but even in the abundance of a book store I would have included Lear's NONSENSE in any wish list.

Creative Editions, March,2023

That's why I jumped at the chance to see how LEAR was being introduced to youngest of readers in a new BOARD BOOK offering from CREATIVE EDITIONS. This board book, NONSENSE, BOOK 1, offers a single limerick by Edward Lear, richly and delightfully illustrated by Swiss artist Etienne Delessert. 

Featuring what is perhaps Lear's best known limerick, THERE WAS AN OLD MAN WITH A BEARD, the few lines unfold with a visual narrative that turns nonsense into a heartfelt experience. The opening reveals an amiable, long-bearded man, clutching a feather, and closely observed by a lineup of vaguely familiar book characters on a background counter. Each page turn reveals the amazing qualities of that beard length, the owls, hen, larks, and wren who recognize a cozy home when they see it, and other fauna in the countryside who little eyes are sure to spot and celebrate during this simple outing. When the man returns home, with birds "at home" in his beard, the countertop "friends" join in the fun. All in all, there will be countless requests to "read it again. Those little two-to-three-year-old encore audiences will have memorized this clever poem years before I first discovered it!

As you might have imagined, the visual art plays a significant role in making this such a winner. The physical book itself is also a delight, with a small trim size to fit young hands, with a sturdy, hardbound spine and glossy pages that invite stroking and exploration while holding up well to such intimate and tactile "reading". I imagine that Lear would have been pleased with the production quality for this intended audience. The "BOOK 1" subtitle encourages me to hope that the publishers plan a series of these LEAR books. What a fine start to building any child's personal library!

Text aimed at adult readers on the  final page turn reveals information about Lear that was new to me. He was a gifted sketch artist/nature artist until he began losing his sight at an early age. The nonsense poems allowed him to simplify his drawings but he published them under a pen name, considering them less than literary or fine art. Actually his line art in those original books from my childhood was brilliant, IS still brilliant. It was nearly two decades after original publication when he finally used his own name on them and published more, including NONSENSE SONGS and other poems, including the OWL AND THE PUSSY-CAT.

Creative Editions, March, 2023

A more contemporary and familiar style board book is next in the line-up. PUDDLE SONG is written by Laura Purdie Salas  and illustrated by Monique Felix. One glance at that cover calls to mind the splish-splash nature of spring, especially in the midwest. These days, weather extremes offer rainy-day experiences across the country. Heavy rains may even be frightening to small ones. A book like this is exactly the joyful, glistening, imagination-sparking story that might restore impulsive puddle-jumping memories to childhood lives.

Salas is a brilliant wordsmith, rhymer, and image-evoker, whose lines in this short text assume the voice of the puddle. With a call out to those children,  to ALL children, to the child in all of us, puddle calls for boots, stompers, jumpers. Puddle celebrates the potential for dancing, floating, and sloshing in every creature, with a final spread that settles its 'silver skin" into ripples in a breeze. 

With no images at all, this short verse sings like the loveliest of lyrics, as the title suggests. When portrayed in subdued rainbow colors, from charming perspective shifts, and  with reflective light effectively transforming water into magic on every page, the text soars. Young readers will be begging for rain, and boots, and puddles, but will savor the vicarious experience in these pages when those are not on hand.

Several recent reviews and interviews here have emphasized that picture books have important ideas to share with audiences of many ages, including adults. When it comes to board books, adult pleasure is often a by-product of the delight of the child rather than from the materials in the book itself, due to the simplicity that board books generally invite in topic and theme. In the case of these two books, I'm convinced that even adult readers who share them will delight in the joy and grace of the art and text. Take a look and see what you think. 

Copies of both board books were provided by CREATIVE EDITIONS with no promise of a review.

Mar 17, 2023

WOMEN in Congress: Contemporary and Historic Change-Makers!

Calkins Creek, 2023
Imprint of Astra Books for Young Readers

I'm eager to share two important picture books about United States Congresswomen. The first is, in fact, about the very first woman who was elected and served in Congress. A TAKE-CHARGE GIRL Blazes a Trail to Congress is written by Gretchen Woelfle and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon. Jeannette Rankin's story begins in "the old West". As a teen in Missula, Montana, she helped care for younger siblings, cooked, cleaned, sewed, and stepped up in every emergency that arose. She was no slouch when it came to brains, earning a college degree, teaching school, studying science, and working as a dressmaker and hat designer. Nothing felt "right" to her, until, at age twenty-seven, she visited a San Francisco neighborhood of destitute poverty. She decided she could do the most good by training as a social worker.

After working there and in New York City with women and children in need of everything from food to clothing to health care to shelter to education, she saw an even greater need than one woman or organization could meet. Rankin resolved that the best way to help was to change the laws. But women did not even have the right to vote. In 1910 she traveled and spoke and campaigned across the country for federal laws to allow women to vote. When her home state of Montana led the nation in guaranteeing women's rights to vote in 1914, Jeannette went a step further and ran for office. Her take-charge approach included a grass-roots effort to reach every voter in Montana, and that finally included women. She was a tireless advocate for protections and rights for children and women, declaring, accurately, that she might be the first woman serving in Congress but she would not be the last! 

More than a century has passed since Congresswoman Rankin was sworn in, and female representatives are still far fewer than the 51% of women within our national population. Even so, the current Congress has a record number of female representatives, 29%. That's exactly 128 women members of the total 440. Back matter in this important biographic profile of a female political change-maker highlights some of her many historic accomplishments, including a timeline of her life.


For a contemporary look at one of those 128 current women elected to serve, read about a Congresswoman whose success is equally remarkable and historic. MAMA IN CONGRESS: Rashida Tlaib's Journey to Washington, is co-authored by Rashida Tlaib, Adam Tlaib, and Miranda Paul, with illustrations by Olivia Asser. The narrator's voice is that of Rashid's son, Adam, who recounts the ways in which his family supports his mother's campaigns and her service, as well the struggles and outright resistance their family has met to help her succeed. Across the intervening century, active resistance is less about her being a woman than it is about her identity. But she was not, would not be stopped.

The causes supported by both Tlaib and Rankin center on JUSTICE, on ensuring a level playing field  for all, and on providing the security of basic life needs for everyone, regardless of background or origins.There is much to learn from both women in these two outstanding picture books, and each title is likely to spark curiosity while  inspiring young girls and women to consider engaging with political roles. There are also valuable nuggets of learning about government functioning and processes in each. Don't miss out on either title.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.