21 April 2008

Read it Again, Mummy!--Who is Melvin Bubble?

I love it when authors expand the possibilities of the picture book. And so does my daughter--at least in this case. Her current favorite is Nick Bruel's Who is Melvin Bubble? Before the book even starts, the reader spies a letter written to the author by a little boy named Jimmy, who is requesting that someone write a book about his best friend, Melvin. Through a series of interviews with key figures in Melvin Bubble's life, Bruel makes an attempt to discover just who Melvin Bubble is, thus writing the wished for book. It's a clever premise, the picture book version of a self-referencing mockumentary. There are no throw-away details, so even though the book could seem gimmicky, it is actually a tight narrative that achieves the dual goals of (1)granting Jimmy's wish and (2)effectively introducing the reader to Melvin Bubble. And all the different characters makes for a fun read-aloud. It will be a sad day when Mr. Bubble has to go back to the library.

15 April 2008

Everywhere you look--Emily Gravett

Every now and then there seems to be an author who turns up out of nowhere and manages to be everywhere. British picture book writer and illustrator Emily Gravett is one of those authors. Perhaps I am more aware of her presence because I now order books, so I see what's coming in on a regular basis. But since the much celebrated release of Wolves in 2005, five more titles have followed, with two others slated for release in 2008. That's amazing production, if you ask me!

I have been warming up to Ms. Gravett with each new title. Wolves did not impress me as much as it did others, and Meerkat Mail seemed like Griffin and Sabine Lite for a younger crowd. But I was totally charmed by Orange Pear Apple Bear with its 4 word story, and Monkey and Me is as simultaneously simple and sophisticated as the child's imagination which it celebrates. And now that I know she keeps pet rats.....the love affair continues!

Gravett has a lovely website--despite the shushing librarian--so be sure to check it out for a complete bibliography of titles available here in the States and her native England.

09 April 2008

Bedtime Stories

Peanut by Linus Alsenas
A Kitten Tale by Eric Rohmann
Mr. Putter and Tabby Bake the Cake by Cynthia Rylant and Arthur Howard, illus.

Some very sweet stories this evening. Peanut, in which a little old lady mistakes an elephant for a puppy reminded me of My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World, where it's not clear to the reader whether the protagonist is aware of their mistake, or simply choosing not to notice. And of course, an elephant is involved in both. "Kitten", where three kittens who have never seen snow worry about their first snowfall, while a fourth kitten blissfully anticipates it, made me think of Kevin Henke's Wemberley Worried. "Kitten" has received a lot of positive press, and it is all deserved. The simplicity, yet effectiveness, of the message is breathtaking. And the kittens are adorable.

Mr. Putter and Tabby are favorites here, even more so now that my daughter can read them herself. The mellow pace of the stories, the leisurely line of the illustrations, and the vocabulary which challenges without intimidating, make this a wonderful series for emerging readers. If Henry and Mudge, also by Cynthia Rylant, have been exhausted, check out Mr. Putter and Tabby instead.

06 April 2008

What I am Reading Today--Vasco Leader of the Tribe

The success of Erin Hunter's Warriors series no doubt paved the way for the publication of Vasco: Leader of the Tribe, which is more of a poor man's Watership Down than a compelling animal drama. Vasco, a wharf rat, is one of the few survivors of a calculated campaign by Man to exterminate all rats from human habitats. Vasco finds himself the unexpected, but not really unwilling, leader of a rapidly expanding tribe of rats, also on the run from extermination. As he leads them from their homes, through a perilous sea journey to an unknown land, and eventually to settlement in a foreign jungle, Vasco's skills as a diplomat and rat of change are constantly called into use.

As an advocate for rats, I had great hopes for this book. But it was dire. There is none of the mythic purpose that grounds the Warrior books, where well organized clans of feral cats coexist. There's not even the genuine force of evil that propels the struggle in the Ga'hoole series. The rats of "Vasco" are all at odds with each other seemingly because they are fueled by constant panic and a diet of garbage. Vasco is a visionary in his wish to establish a stable life, rather than simply survive, but his is the lone voice of reason or optimism. And at 300+ pages, shifting from one rat fight to another is exhausting and tiresome.

As with any book that has been translated (in this case from French to English) there is always in my mind the thought that perhaps something has been lost in the process. But it's hard not to believe that the nihilistic tone of the book is thoroughly Continental. There are plenty of vicious battles in the Warriors books, but we also see the cats at play, exhilarated by their sense of purpose, and encouraged by their belief in the spirits. The rats in "Vasco" only exist to breed and eat. When I think of Ratatouille, where an ambitious rat also wanted to do more than just survive, I wish that "Vasco" provided more bright spots and less cruelty.

01 April 2008

Book of the Week--Happy Birthday Monster!

It's been awhile since I've come across a book that I felt was a suitable replacement for Kat Kong (plus I was out of the country.) But a successor has been found! Scott Beck's Happy Birthday Monster! is a charming book that has already enjoyed repeat readings at our house. The story is straightforward: Ben, a cute little demon-like monster, is throwing a surprise birthday party for his friend Doris (a cute little dragon-like monster.) We see Ben welcoming his guests, the guests hiding, and then the ensuing fun of dancing, snacks, and gift-giving. Beck's clever, cheerful illustrations run as a series of visual jokes: a ghost chagrined when her snacks fall right through her; Ben stuck in the ceiling by his horns after being tossed in the air by his friends; Doris lighting her own candles by breathing fire on them. There are plenty of puns, too. Everyone is so happy to be together. If only all birthday parties were this congenial!

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