Jan 4, 2016

2016 Release from Running Press KIDS: Compare and Contrast

Note: This title was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. 

I'm taking a momentary break from writing about the amazing 2015 fiction picture book titles I read and carefully considered while serving as a round-one panelist for the Cybils Awards. If you missed that news, check out my last post, or link here.

The new year has barely begun and more engaging and appealing books are rolling hot off the presses. Publisher RUNNING PRESS has two titles that make great subjects to compare and contrast how different books can be while reflecting similar strengths and qualities. 
The first is BELLA'S BEST OF ALL, written and illustrated by  Jamie Harper. Bella mouse is an excellent character to begin the compare and contrast process, since she's prone to comparing and contrasting herself. She's a very selective fashionista. She consistently realizes that her things are good, but MOMMY'S are better when it comes to dress up and self-adornment.
Created with mixed media on open backgrounds in white and pastels, the intriguing patterned elements are often take center stage. Harper assures that Bella remains the focus of the spotlight by using heavy black outlines and expressive features for this undeniably central character. 
Mommy only reappears when Bella's panic over losing her omnipresent felt cat overwhelms her.  The images in which Bella fears her kitty-toy is lost in the guts of the vacuum reminded me of Melanie Watt's BUG IN A VACUUM, 2015, with a much speedier and simpler resolution. 
Young audiences will identify with her "looking for better" behaviors, will love searching for shifting details (Bella's switch from plastic earrings to crystal ones, as one example), and the page-by-page appearances of the felt cat and Mommy's real cat. 
Readers of every age will understand completely that sometimes it take a near-tragedy to appreciate what we have and realize some things mean more to us than the glitz and glamour of others.

Bella is a delight, and this book will entrance many little girls. But it also called to my mind, at least a few young boys I've known who would also adore this book. This is a charming addition to the many "gender-typical" books (a la FANCY NANCY), developing a strong individual character despite some familiar behaviors. On the other hand I could see an equally appealing Bella being intrigued with tools or techy or creative objects and still finding her way back to her true self. Perhaps this is only the first of many Bella stories and we'll learn more about her wide-ranging interests in the future. 
Albert Whitman and Company, 2014

If you, too, happen to know a young someone who would love a book with a wider view of gender-based tastes, consider sharing JACOB'S NEW DRESS by Sarah Hoffman and Chris Chase. On Goodreads, I said this:
This is a very user-friendly book dealing with what could be an awkward "hard-to-breathe" subject. Instead the accessible illustrations, the realistic family and school interactions, the matter-of-fact approach to a child's non-threatening play and dress choices all allow for open and comfortable discussions among children and adults. The book doesn't advocate for anything more than tolerance, and it does that quite well. No magic answers, even when Jacob feels the "magic" of his dress to stand up to a bully, he is actually just channeling the strength of the adult acceptance he's experienced.
The way in which the emotions of Jacob and his parents is described and visualized are equally appropriate. The back matter clarifies the "gender non-conforming" category, especially for young children. I particularly enjoyed the "pink boy" descriptor as a parallel to the "Tom boy" label used for boy-choice-preferring girls.
There is much to celebrate in Jacob's personality, including his eventual self-advocacy, his imagination and creativity, and his actual skills- from language, to sewing, to design.

I offer this comparison not to criticize Harper's latest release but to encourage some valuable new year goals in reading...

  • let's actively notice the aspects of books we share that could entrench or reinforce culturally imposed norms, 
  • let's use each book to "remind" ourselves of other related titles, especially titles that expand and explore variations on those patterns,
  • then let's model comparing and contrasting elements of books, from art media and style to characters to themes.
What a great way to maximize the POWER OF PICTURE BOOKS!
Add your own suggestions for titles to compare or any other comment to be entered in a giveaway for Bella's best of ALL! 

GIVEAWAY:  Everyone who comments, with suggested titles, opinions, or other related contributions will be entered in a giveaway for a copy of BELLA'S BEST OF ALL, offered by the publisher. Deadline: midnight CT, Saturday, January 9.

Update: No comments were added by the giveaway deadline, so this book will be donated to a local library.

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