Book Reviews

Recommendations from a Nerdy Teacher

Paul H. Ricks

"Books are a uniquely portable magic." (Stephen King)

Finding the right book for a child to read (or listen to) is one of the first steps in helping that child become a reader. This column reviews eight books that have the potential to create magic for some child.

Klausmeier, Jessie. (2013). Open This Little Book.  Illustrated  by Suzy Lee. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. Ages 3-8.

Open This Little Book combines simple printed text with an ingenious design to create something truly engaging. Each page reveals a book within a book, a story within a story, zooming further and further into different worlds of imagination. Young readers and their parents will appreciate this book for its many layers.

Perhaps paying homage to a certain old lady and her infamous eating habits (think of flies first and then move up the predatory chain), this simple story presents a different perspective with the turn of each page. All the characters are connected, and we have the pleasure of predicting how all of the pieces fit together.

Lee's illustrations and design elevate this story far beyond the simple words on each page. She gives clever hints as to what will be coming next by allowing the covers of each book within a book to predict the characters readers will meet, and each layer brings added enjoyment and insight into the story. Pages shrink to reveal the respective sizes of the books compared to the respective characters reading them, and young readers and their parents will undoubtedly enjoy discussing how the ink and paint illustrations are unique and yet interconnected.

The story is shorter than most, and the text is perfectly sparse. This book is an excellent example of how slight modification to the formulaic children's story can revolutionize the medium.

Willems, Mo. (2013). That is NOT a Good Idea! New York, NY: Balzer + Bray. Ages 3-8.

If less is truly more, then Mo Willems is one of the greatest. Readers have come to recognize his thrift in text and graphics, and in his latest contribution we are once again treated to an appetizer of tight sentences, restrained illustrations, and ironic twists.

A fox and a goose meet in a scene that seems to come straight from the silent movie era of fairy tales. A dinner invitation is made, and the reader is left to agonize as the host is obviously neither cordial nor vegetarian. It seems all too clear that a main character is being tricked into a dinner party for one, but we must also remember that no story ending can ever be predicted with Willems in the driver's seat. Will the fox succeed in luring the goose into the proverbial soup pot? Will the goose fly away to freedom and teach her goslings a lesson in stranger danger? Will aliens show up on the last page and eat both the fox and goose? For those accustomed to the author's style, all of these options seem equally viable.

And Willems still tricks us. We know it's coming, but Willems is a master of his craft.

This is a clever book, a well-crafted book, and it is enjoyable, especially in its illustrations. Those familiar with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin pictures will appreciate how the author creates a world like that of a silent movie. That said, we've come to expect a lot from our friendly Mo, and I'm not sure he delivers perfectly with this one.

The punches still land solidly enough, and younger readers will still laugh at the comic relief provided by the goose's loudmouthed goslings, but something is missing from the "meal." I don't wish to give away any vital plot points, but the ending didn't make me chuckle or really even smile, and I was prepped for the deep belly laughs that Willems has delivered on so many other occasions.

Mo Willems is indeed one of the greats, but being great creates high expectations, and sometimes those aren't easily satisfied.

Wiesner, David. (2013). Mr. Wuffles. Boston, MA: Clarion Books. Ages 4-8.

Mr. Wuffles is a black housecat like any other. He ignores humans, he is predictably apathetic towards the myriad toys meant to entertain him, and he walks with a swagger that tells the world he has better things to do than care about it.

Mr. Wuffles' world is challenged dramatically, however, when some miniature green space aliens crash land in his living room. To Mr. Wuffles, the small aliens and their ship are nothing more than toys to be momentarily batted around the room and then quickly forgotten, but the adventure that is created by this collision of worlds is one of epic proportions and unique pleasures to readers of all ages.

David Wiesner creates books that transcend genre and description; since he has won the Caldecott Medal three times, we've grown accustomed to having our minds blown. Mr. Wuffles does not disappoint. Attention to detail in watercolor and ink illustrations once again takes us into a world that needs very few words, and confident storytelling without the aid of printed text helps the reader to appreciate the masterful artwork on a level that couldn't be reached with words in the way.

One can't help but welcome this near perfect piece that is in many ways inimitable although an archetypical Wiesner picture book.

Cummins, Julie. (2013). Flying Solo: How Ruth Elder Soared into America's Heart. Illustrated by Marlene R. Laugeson. New York, NY: Roaring Brook. Ages 6-12.

Ruth Elder was fascinated by the possibilities of flight. Though she was a beauty queen with enough spunk to land her roles on the silver screen, her true passion was being in the air; this biographical picture book tells her story.

In the late 1920s Ruth set out to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. But 350 miles from her destination in France an oil line exploded and she was forced to abandon her plane as it was engulfed in flames. News of her courageous but ultimately unsuccessful attempt brought her celebrity status, which she manipulated to promote the idea that women could be pilots second to none. She and 19 other female pilots planned and successfully executed a cross-country air race that countered the notion that "the only thing worse than dames in planes is dames racing planes!"

This story of hero(in)ism in the face of culturally accepted misogyny brings to mind a time of struggle for women who boldly pioneered the steps toward equality. Marlene Laugesen's drab oil pastel illustrations do little to enhance the story, but the story is strong enough and important enough that it stands on its own merits.

While names like Amelia Earhart and Louise Thaden live on as folkloric personalities who continue to define history, it is important to become familiar with other influential personalities who helped to bring advancement and change; to that end, Flying Solo is a worthwhile read.

Nelson, Kadir. (2013). Nelson Mandela. New York, NY: Katherine Tegen Books. Ages 5-8.

Attempting to sum up a person, a culture, or an idea is no easy task, and one can only imagine how daunting it must have been to create a children's book about one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century. Yet Kadir Nelson has successfully trimmed Mandela's story down to its most basic elements, and in so doing he creates a story that is intentionally simple in its approachability and appeal.

Kadir Nelson does well to concentrate on Mandela's origins. We follow young Mandela from his humble roots in the grassy hills of Qunu to the sorrowful moments of childhood when he is sent away after his father joins his "ancestors in the sky." Mandela moves to Johannesburg where he attends school and becomes a lawyer, defending those not equally represented under the rule of law. Mandela speaks out against injustice, rallies against apartheid, is forced into hiding, and eventually is captured and imprisoned for nearly 28 years. When he is finally released he is gray haired, but his infectious smile still brings the masses together and still stands as a cry for equality.

This book is magnificent. Nelson paints with the deep spectrum palettes of color that define Africa and the world, and his paintings create a sense of scope and magnitude not often found in children's books. The beauty of this book, however, is not confined to the paintings. While the story is inherently poetic as he who was once oppressed eventually becomes the benevolent authority, the author fittingly uses simple lyrical prose to remind the reader that not all facts from history are mere dates and names. Orchestrating revolution was Mandela's opus, and it seems appropriate that it be told with a mixture of expressively free flowing sentences and concise detail.

Summarizing the life and ideas of a man like Mandela remains impossible, but Kadir Nelson comes close. The fact that he accomplishes this through a children's book is remarkable.

Peet, Mal & Graham, Elspeth. (2013). The Mysterious Traveler. Illustrated by P.J Lynch. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. Ages 7-12.

Issa, a guide with unequalled skill for navigating the high deserts of this imaginary tale, finds more than he expects one day as he comes upon an ill tempered camel half covered in sand from a recent storm. In a basket next to the camel, wedged against jagged canyon walls, he finds a baby girl with eyes like large black pearls. Never one to question fate, Issa takes the baby home and raises her as his own granddaughter.

Issa teaches his adopted granddaughter, Mariama, to read the dessert like he does—identifying the desert skies by their colors and moods, remembering trails and passages by the rocks shaped like animals and the thickets of thorn trees that resemble women lifting their shawls. In time Issa becomes blind, but he and Mariama are able to continue working as desert guides because she has learned to see the desert as he did; thus she can be his eyes.

When three travelers from a distant land promise Issa and Mariama wealth in exchange for safe passage through the Bitter Mountains, they have no choice but to accept the offer. The offer is hastily taken back, however, when the three travellers realize that Issa is blind.  They prefer to take their chances without a guide rather than employ one who cannot see.

P.J. Lynch's watercolor paintings can bring this beautiful tale to life in the minds of its readers. The washes of browns, reds, and grays bring majesty and splendor to the desert landscapes, and one can't help but agree with the main characters that beauties like a desert sunrise cannot be described merely with words. The authors' and illustrator's visions mesh perfectly as the beautiful language and metaphors of this fable harmonize with the illustrations.

As all tales do, this story comes full circle. The three men eventually recognize their need for the expertise of Issa and Mariama. Also this fable includes unexpected twists as we learn that the three travellers bring more than just wealth, and it is our pleasure to participate in the unfolding of this story told by such talented artists.

Brown, Don. (2013). The Great American Dust Bowl. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Ages 10 and up.

It's not easy to make the Dust Bowl cool, but Don Brown does. Perhaps cool is the wrong word. He makes it interesting, he makes it relevant, and his very informative non-fiction piece is an excellent example of the powerful possibilities of the graphic novel format.

Brown makes the case that the Dust Bowl was not merely a problem that affected sharecroppers of the "Dirty Thirties." He tells of the formation of the Rocky Mountains, the rising of the Great Plains above sea level, the balanced relationship Native Americans had with the land and its fruits, and the short sightedness of the ranchers and farmers intent on cashing in on the millions of acres that were brutalized during WWI when wheat production was at an all-time high.

Brown shows us the facts.  Young readers will remember the details of this catastrophic time in American history, and much praise must be given to the dynamic illustrations that make this time period real. The layout takes the reader on an undulating journey of discovery, and the careful dialogue is perfect because the illustrations are allowed to carry the story.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, little needs to be said to describe this dark spot on our past, but Brown tells us just enough to keep our interest piqued. Then he leaves us to ponder.

Some of the last lines read, "When the rain came, it meant life itself. It meant a future" (np). One can only wonder what great misfortunes of nature are in our future. The Dust Bowl seemed to come out of nowhere, but in reality it developed over millions of years. People got in the way of things, and they lost. Brown has created a wonderful read in The Great American Dust Bowl because he helps us realize that our recent history and our near future are interconnected, and sometimes that's a scary thought.

Wissinger, Tamara Will. (2013). Gone Fishing: A Novel in Verse. Illustrated by Matthew Cordell. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Ages 5-9.

Like Sharon Creech's Love that Dog, Marilyn Singer's Mirror, Mirror,and other genre-bending children's books, Gone Fishing functions on both the micro and macro levels. Humorous vignettes are told in poems that stand as individual works and also combine to relate a story about a young family: their relationships and their love of fishing.

Two siblings—Sam, the older brother, and Lucy, the pesky younger sister—come from a fishing family. They are competitive, imaginative, and ultimately loving, as they want nothing more than to spend time with their father and gain his approval via his interest—fishing.

Teachers will love this book because it introduces so many poetic forms. It should also appeal to young readers who are beginning to test the waters of poetry but could benefit from an outline or an exemplar text.

This story charms with its universality in portraying sibling rivalry and quaint pleasures of childhood; and many non-fisherpeople will still see themselves in the struggles and successes of Sam and Lucy. The illustrations by Matthew Cordell, reminiscent of Silverstein and Prelutsky, help to ensure that while young readers are exposed to many types of poetry, they are not confused by form and lost to the greater story being created.

Roses are red
Violets are blue
This book is wonderful because not all of the
poems rhyme
And all of them are about Fishing.

Paul Ricks is a sixth grade teacher at Emerson Elementary School in Salt Lake City, who is doing graduate work at Brigham Young University. When not on the clock as a full-time nerdy teacher, he fills his moments with equally nerdy hobbies such as numismatics, persistent whistling of film scores, and lesson planning while trail running.