Sunday, April 29, 2007

Car Guy, Too!: Hansel and Diesel

For the legions of young motorheads out there (see my previous post on Walter Wick's Can You See What I See? Trucks and Cars) David Gordon has another picture book that's sure to start their motors runnin'.

Hansel and Diesel is a clever send up of the Hansel and Gretel story which will keep giggle boxes and gear boxes turning. In this story brother and sister pickups Hansel and Diesel and their loving flatbed parental units are cold and low on fuel in their rundown little garage on the edge of a deep, dark junkyard. Hoping to find a fix for the fuel deficit, little Hansel and Diesel trek through falling snow through a somber junkyard scene, where stacks of tossed tires look like snow-draped evergreens, with little Hans prudently leaving a trail of bolts to guide their return.

Suddenly the trucksome two spot an oasis of light ahead, a veritable palace of petroleum, a glittering garage, a towering truck stop. But when they begin hastily filling their little fuel tanks, Hansel and Diesel hear a venomous voice saying,

Guzzle, guzzle, drip and drool,
Who is drinking all my fuel?

Alas, it is the Wicked Winch, mistress of this motor pool, who lures them inside with promises of warm oil and lofty lifts on which to snooze. As the two fall into a deep dreams of petrol and diesel, they are awakened by the scream of metallic shredders which aim to reduce them to scrap metal. Hansel and Diesel tear out of the garage in a turbo-tempest of torque, but as the long arm of the Wicked Winch's cable almost ensnares them, their powerful parents zoom up and give the Winch a taste of her own crushers. The reassembled family recycle the Winch's garage into a fine fueling station where they live happily ever after.

Having worked on the production of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., and that icon of silly spoofery, Sponge Bob Squarepants, David Gordon has the right stuff to turn his artistic talents to "mechanics illustrated," as his previous titles, The Ugly Truckling and The Three Little Rigs surely show. Young NASCAR fans and gearheads in general will love the subject matter, and devotees of the fractured fairy tale will also want to look under the hood, er, covers of this one. Maybe these books won't win a warehouse of awards, but they do prove that an engine rebuild on an old fairy tale chassis is always worth a test drive!


I Spy a Car Guy! Can You See What I See? Trucks and Cars

If your car-loving kid has already graduated from the I Spy Little Learning Box, a set of three I Spy Little Board Books, here's a natural follow-up for the preschool automobile buff. Walter Wicks' Can You See What I See? Trucks and Cars continues the fine photographic work that Wicks contributed to the wildly popular I Spy series authored for older readers by Jean Marzolo.

Trucks and Cars continues Wicks' Can You See What I See? series with a challenge to preschoolers to zoom in on each page and identify a specific truck ("a truck with a duck") from a page of cars and trucks of all colors and sizes. It's a fun way to sharpen observation skills and works with an adult reader or, after a few run-throughs, as a read-alone book.

Other books in this series which appeal to this age group are Can You See What I See? Dinosaurs, which in addition to teaching dinosaur names, doubles as a concept book teaching up and down, opposites, and size, and Can You See What I See? Seymour Makes New Friends, in which Seymour uses such art supplies as pipe cleaners, beads, craft sticks, and blocks, to make two bunnies on a see-saw. If preschoolers are eager to try out their own craft ideas, directions for at-home craft projects are appended.

For somewhat older kids, there's Can You See What I See? Once Upon a Time, in which rhyming text challenges the reader to find objects in tableaux from well-known fairy tales such as Cinderella or Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

All of these books are excellent as a way to foster focus and lengthen attention span in the preschool years, but the best reason to read them is that they are just so much fun--fun when new for the thrill of discovery and fun when they're familiar for the satisfaction of finding things right where they are supposed to be!


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Creepy Crawly Critter Journals: Diary of a Worm and Diary of a Spider

For those young readers who love books that combine the gross and the gloriously goofy, Doreen Cronin is the reigning queen of creepy-crawly lit. Her Diary of a Worm chronicles the journal entries of an engaging, baseball-capped young annelid who details what life is like keeping up with his eight-legged buddy Spider in his own game, but legless, style. Although the young worm studies his school textbooks diligently (Compost 101 and Digging: A History), he runs into a little extracurricular trouble trying to do the Hokey Pokey with his friends:

Last night I went to the school dance.
You put your head in. You put your head out.
You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself about...
That's all we could do.

He even teases his endlessly primping teen-aged sister by saucily telling her
that "her face will always look just like her rear end."

Cronin's sequel, Diary of a Spider, continues her spoof of the confessional journal through the entries of Worm's buddy, Spider. Spider recounts the trials and tribulations of living the arachnid life--sleeping over at Worm's house and having to eat compost for dinner and having Fly sleep over, only to have to un-stick her from the family's cobwebbed walls. When Spider and his sister visit the park, nothing happens when they try the seesaw and the tire swing, so they make their own fun by spinning webs over the public drinking fountain and watching the hapless humans scream when they try to take a drink.

When Spider molts and takes his ex-exoskeleton to school for show-and-tell, the teacher calls on it to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. At Spider School the Safety Day lesson is devoted to escaping vacuum cleaners, but Grandpa Spider's personal safety mantra is "Never fall asleep in a shoe!"

Harry Bliss's cartoon-style illustrations are a perfect foil to Cronin's matter-of-fact narrations. A new sequel by Cronin and Bliss, Diary of a Fly, is forthcoming in the fall of 2007 and is sure to, er, fly to new heights of creepy-crawly humor and draw tons of giggles and wiggles from the picture book set. If Cronin & Bliss can convert arachnophobes and scoleciphobes into fans, maybe they can accomplish the same for the much maligned and be-swatted housefly!

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Dropout Princess: Princess Pigsty by Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke's Princess Pigsty tells the story of a plucky anti-Cinderella. Isabella and her royal sisters Drusilla and Rosalinda are a trio of pampered princesses who even have lackeys who followed them around with "cushions so that their royal behinds always had something soft to sit on."

Isabella, however, is a rebel who declares "I'm tired of being a princess. It's boring!" and tosses her tiara into the royal pond. Her kingly dad puts her on KP duty in the palace, hoping that scrubbing pots and peeling potatoes will make playing the part of a princess look pretty pleasant, but Isabella actually likes dish duty. "Off to the pigsty with you," bellows the king, but the AWOL princess appreciates pigs even more than the palace kitchen.

Remorseful and pining for his favorite daughter, her doting dad relents and allows Issie to turn in her crown for a pair of sturdy pants. He even agrees to let her get dirty and find adventure wherever she will. It's a happy ending in which "Isabella never let anybody curl her hair again!"

Kersin Meyer's bold and rollicking illustrations portray the king's and Isabella's comic expressions perfectly and add much to the fun of this runaway princess story. Other spunky girl books by Funke and Meyer include Princess Knight and Pirate Girl.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Avian Advice: Word Bird Books for Early Bird Readers

When beginning readers have problems decoding the mysteries of English phonics (as did Marvin in Marvin One Too Many, in my post last week) homeschooling or simply concerned parents can find assistance for their children from the emergent readers' books by Jane Moncure, particularly her Word Bird series.

Word Bird's Short Vowel Adventures take the beginner through some of the most troublesome of decoding problems, the short vowels. In these five books Moncure's Word Bird interacts with an animal friend whose name uses the short vowel in question--Cat, Hen, Pig, Dog, and Duck. For example, in Word Bird Makes Words with Hen, Word Bird's Papa brings her a short "e" word puzzle set and she quickly puts together initial consonants (t + en) to form words and puts them to hands-on use to reinforce the combination, counting to ten and writing ten with a p-en. Just as she combines h + en, her friend Hen comes over to play and they make e + gg and go on to make an Easter egg tree--and a m + e + ss! When they spell ch + est, they pull out a chest full of sh + ells. Finally, when it begins to snow outside, they spell sl + ed and decide go down the hill t + en times and come in with cheeks r + ed from the cold. Additional short e combinations on the last page reinforce the sound associations with the short "e."

The Short Vowel Adventures also includes Word Bird Makes Words with Cat, Word Bird Makes Words with Pig,Word Bird Makes Words with Dog, and Word Bird Makes Words with Duck.

For more short lessons, take a look at Word Bird's Holiday Words, with word books for Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, or Word Bird's Seasons, with a book on each season's special words. For help with consonants as well as vowels, Moncure's much-used My Sound Box series covers alphabet sounds with soft illustrations of children combining letters into everyday words.

More than a generation of early readers have been helped along their way by Jane Moncure's books. Although not all are currently available as new copies, most can be found through Amazon's third party suppliers and in your local public library's children's room.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Wild Outlaw Girls: Tales of Rowan Hood

For girls who love adventure stories with a strong female character, Nancy Springer's Rowan Hood series has that and more. The first book, Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest begins with thirteen-year-old Rosemary, who finds her mother Celandine, a half-aelfin healer, murdered and her house burned by a local lord who feared her magical powers. Ro fears falling under the control of this evil master and flees to the nearby Sherwood Forest. Believing her mother's story that she is the daughter of Robin Hood, she takes the name Rowan and begins a search for her father.

Along her way Rowan disguises herself as a boy and is joined by a huge half-wolf dog she names Tykell (the Arrow) who can catch arrows in flight and is given a powerful bow and flint-tipped arrows by the aelfin folk who watch over her journey. Rowan comes to feel the healing powers given by her mother as she is joined by Lionel, a huge, clumsy, and timid minstrel with an amazing voice, and Ettarde, a princess whom the two help escape from an arranged marriage. When Robin Hood is captured in Nottingham, the three manage to free him from the dungeon before he is executed by the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. When they return to the forest, Rowan reveals to Robin that she is his daughter, and she is welcomed into the company of his band. Rowan comes to love Robin as her father, but chooses to live with her own band of friends in her own Rowan Wood.

In the second book of the series, Lionclaw Lionel confronts his own heartless father Roderick Lionclaw when he is captured by Robin Hood. Timid Lionel finds that he has all the courage he needs when Rowan is caught in a "man trap" set by the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Other books in the series include Outlaw Princess of Sherwood, Wild Boy: A Tale of Rowan Hood, and Rowan Hood Returns. In this "Final Chapter" Rowan learns the identities of her mother's murderers and with her band sets out on a journey of retribution. Rowan finds that her dark mission of revenge almost destroys her magical connection with her aelfin kindred, turning her into a cripple, but in her forgiveness for one of her mother's slayers, she herself is healed and her powers and calling are restored.

This series is so tautly and skillfully written that the pages seem to turn themselves, and the reader wants to begin the next sequel as soon as one volume in closed. Along with fast-paced suspense and adventure, there is humor and realistic interaction between the varied characters which make up Rowan Hood's band of teenagers. All are involved in a search for the meaning of their relationship with their fathers, some kind and some cruel, and this theme gives depth and meaning to this exciting medieval series.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Earth Day Alphabet Book: Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet

Earth Day's observation of the value of the creatures who share our planet is a good occasion to give a second look at David McLiman's 2007 Caldecott Honor book Gone Wild.

This arresting book is an artistic tour de force. "This alphabet is a return to picture writing," the author/illustrator says in his introduction, and, as promised, each letter of the alphabet artfully incorporates the head or body of an endangered animal, from Chinese Alligator to Grevy's Zebra. The letters are strikingly displayed in bold, black line upon stark white pages, and the physical characteristics of the animal are dynamically captured within the curves and lines of the upper case form of the letters. The silhouette of each animal is rendered in red at the margin of the page, along with a box which details the common and scientific name, class, habitat, range, threats to the animal's survival, and status (critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable to extinction).

Although this book is clearly not intended as a child's first alphabet book, the appeal of its sheer graphic beauty will serve to spark interest in the viability of these various animals, large and small. An appendix includes additional information about each endangered animal, a bibliography of further sources, and organizations and web sites devoted to their preservation.

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Too Much of a Good Thing!: Too Many Pears!

Jackie French's Too Many Pears! portrays a bovine binge eater named Pamela who has an obsession with pears--fresh pears, stewed pears, pears on picnics, and especially pear pie, which she purloins from the windowsill as it cools.

When Grandpa builds a protective fence around the pear tree, Pamela burrows underground to get at them; when he ties her up, she uproots the tree she's tied to and drags it along to pursue pear munching. The family despairs of ever having a pear to share again.

Then young Amy hits on a plan of providing Pamela with a plentitude of pears, so many pears that even Pamela reaches her satiation point! Amy's bet pays off. Pamela reaches that point after crunching 600 pears, loses her happy smile, and all interest in pears--in perpetuity. Fortunately (or unfortunately for the family), there ARE all those lovely apples hanging on another tree!

Bruce Whatley's illustrations are perfect, with Pamela as a huge Holstein with a spot in the shape of a pear on her right flank and one spot in the shape of an apple on her left side. His illustrations of the character's eyes are particularly expressive and hilarious, and his watercolor double-page spreads, firmly grounded on the bottom of each page, are particularly effective against their white background. Pamela's single-minded pursuit of pears is perfectly rendered in her solid body and smiling face as she stolidly follows her bliss!

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