Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 5 of 5
Goblin is enjoying a nice quiet morning in the dungeon, hanging out and having fun with his friend Skeleton, when a group of adventurers randomly burst in, cause a ruckus, and take everything–including Skeleton. Goblin is determined to get his friend back, even though his neighbor warns him that nobody likes a goblin and he’ll only find trouble out in the wide world. And while he does find trouble aplenty on his quest, he also finds his friend . . . and a whole bunch of new friends as well.
I am convinced that Ben Hatke’s books are basically perfection, like, all of them. They’re cute and quirky and innocent and heartwarming in a way that just grips you and pulls you in. In Nobody Likes a Goblin, we’re presented with a flip-side of a common enough story. As both a D&D player and a reader of fantasy novels, I’m quite familiar with the whole adventurers raiding a dungeon thing . . . just not typically from the perspective of the dungeon’s typical residents. Generally, we’re led to think of goblins, skeletons, and such as villains (to, in fact, not like them); yet in this story, these characters are innocent protagonists while the adventurers are the troublemakers. Expectations are challenged, and (while not explicitly stated as such) a certain racism is revealed and also challenged in this story. And Goblin and his friends are presented in such a heartwarming, charming way that you can’t help but root for them. The art in this story is lovely as well, giving additional charm, atmosphere, and character to the work as a whole. Nobody Likes a Goblin truly is an adorable, beautiful picture book that I would highly recommend.
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Illustrator: Chris Van Dusen
My rating: 3 of 5
Mr. and Mrs. Watson live a very ordinary, quiet life. Some might even say boring. But all that begins to change when a tiny piglet shows up on their doorstep and wiggles her way into their hearts.
A Piglet Named Mercy is, to my understanding, a picture-book prequel to DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series (which I believe are written for a slightly older demographic, although I haven’t read them yet). As such, a certain amount of the story’s appeal is directly linked to its relation to the other books–which, again, I haven’t read. So do please take that bias into consideration while reading this review. The story itself is cute, although extremely simple. I honestly expect more from DiCamillo’s writing, though, even just for a picture book. She typically makes so much magic, regardless of the story or the reading level. Still, though, a cute story about a lonely couple, a couple nosy neighbors, and an adorably spunky piglet. I would expect this to be popular with preschoolers, perhaps even into kindergarten or first grade. And yes, it’s a nice set-up that leaves the reader expecting great things of the actual series; we’ll see how well those expectations are fulfilled. The other aspect of this book that I haven’t really addressed yet–but which plays a significant role, since this is a picture book–is the art. I don’t love it. Yes, it has a fitting country-kitchen sort of feel that works with the story . . . but the edges are too sharp, the colors too brash, the facial expressions too odd. It just doesn’t work for me. Yet for all the negatives mentioned above, I do still rate this a 3/5 (which is a positive rating for me); the story is sweet and funny enough that I would recommend it for younger readers.
Author/Illustrator: Jon Klassen
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Bear has lost his hat, and he really wants it back. He goes around asking everyone he meets if they have seen his hat. For that matter, have you seen his hat?
I Want My Hat Back is one of those great picture books that I truly enjoyed reading . . . even while I have some reservations about giving it to kids to read. I’ll discuss that in a bit. But first, the things I adored about this book. For starters, Klassen’s art style is just fabulous–simple and straightforward but with a softness that makes me want to just pet the animals. And the dialogue is perfect for the 3-5 age range; the words are simple, and you’ve got a repetitive theme with subtle variations so it doesn’t get too boring. Then you’ve got the one huge exception to the repetition–only, it’s disguised to look just like all the other interactions. It’s a fun something for kids to try to catch and a humorous inside-joke upon re-reading. Which leads us to the ending and the love/hate reaction I have to it. At the risk of totally giving spoilers for a kids’ picture book: the bear eats the rabbit who stole his hat then acts all shifty and lies when someone asks about the rabbit later. Which, when reading the story, it basically darkly hilarious, since it’s a perfect mirror of how the rabbit acted when bear asked about his hat. Trouble is, as a responsible adult who’s trying to teach kids honesty and values, I’m then conflicted . . . . I guess, read the book yourself and decide if it’s appropriate for your kids personally. But yeah, for myself, I found I Want My Hat Back to be mostly charming and darkly funny.
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 5 of 5
Julia’s house has just come to town–on the back of a giant turtle!–and settled by the sea. It’s lovely, only the house is too quiet. So what does Julia do? She puts out a sign, an open invitation for the lost, the unwanted, and the unusual to come live with her. And do they ever. Now there’s too much noise and chaos! Good thing Julia knows just what to do.
I have found Ben Hatke’s graphic novels to be utterly charming ever since I first discovered Zita the Spacegirl, and Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is just that as well–utterly charming. Julia herself drew me in right from the start. I mean, she has a house built on a turtle. She enjoys tea and toast in a delightful room filled with all sorts of interesting objects. And when it’s too quiet, her first instinct is to reach out to the lonely and the unwanted. What’s not to love? Plus, she has a sense of order that appeals to me. The way she models good problem-solving skills makes this a great read for kids as well. The general reading level of the story is quite picture-book appropriate, although I have to confess, I had to pull out the dictionary and look up one of the creatures–so it’s not all super-easy, little kid vocabulary either. The art is delightful, similar in style to that of Hatke’s graphic novels. The color palette is lovely–vibrant but still soft and mild–and the use of space and the amount of visual variety is also pleasant, going from full-page pictures to vast amounts of white space with a single picture and a couple of lines of text. There are even a few places where comic-style panels are used. All told, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is a treat to read that I would recommend for kids and adults alike.
Yeah, so new offering from Humble Bundle that feels like Chat Noir must have named it himself, right? That definitely made me laugh. But for as silly and punny as this cat-themed bundle may look at first glance, it actually has some pretty cute stuff in it. Yes, there’s your requisite internet cats, cat-care, cooking and crafting with cats, etc. sort of stuff that’s kind of meh. At least to me; if you enjoy that, please knock yourself out. But mixed in with that stuff, this bundle offers a really cute selection of cat-themed manga and comics that are definitely worth getting the whole set. You’ve got 2-3 volumes each of Chi’s Sweet Home, Fuku Fuku, and Nekogahara. There’s also some Grumpy Cat and Simon’s Cat stuff, as well as some other interesting-looking comics that I’m not as familiar with. In addition, there are also some picture books and a couple novels. So yeah, definitely a theme-specific bundle, but there’s some good stuff there. You can find out more here.
Incidentally, Humble Bundle is also offering a selection of D&D comics that could be fun. Plus, they’re having a Square Enix sale, including stuff like Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy.
Author/Illustrator: Divya Srinivasan
My rating: 5 of 5
Octopus enjoys watching life in the ocean unfold around her, other sea creatures having fun. But sometimes it all just gets to be too much, and she needs to be alone. One day, she swims away until she finds somewhere quiet and alone where she can play by herself in the quiet . . . but after a while, she’s ready to return to her friends back home.
As in her Little Owl books, in Octopus Alone, Srinivasan does a delightful job of blending story with education about nature. We are shown a charming variety of sea creatures doing what sea creatures do, all drawn in the author’s usual gorgeous and distinguished style. And this would be a good children’s book just for that. But we get something more, as well–we get a main character with an established, distinct personality. One that tends to go against a lot of social expectations, no less. In point of fact, we get a picture book with an introverted main character, one that wrestles with that fine balance between needing relationships and needing to be alone sometimes. As an introvert myself, reading this in a children’s book is just brilliant. Whether it’s helping introverted kids understand themselves or helping extroverted kids understand that some people need more space and quiet than they do, this book is something that is just helpful and timely. Highly recommended, for the art, for the animals, for the story, and for the social aid that this book clearly is.
Author: Audrey Penn
Illustrators: Ruth E. Harper & Nancy M. Leak
My rating: 4 of 5
A young raccoon faces his first day of school with trepidation. That is, until his mother shows him a secret trick to help him be brave and remember that she loves him.
I found myself reading this adorable picture book with my niece, and I must say that it’s charming. The pictures are a delightful watercolor with a nice color blend, and the use of anthropomorphism is nicely balanced, if a bit weird to read as an adult. Don’t think about the details too much. I also liked that the writing is accessible to young readers but is also a bit more complex than the typical “see spot run” sort of thing that we see so much of. Most of all, I liked how the story presents children with a real, workable idea to help them handle difficult situations with courage rather than hiding the fact that tough things are a part of life. All in all, definitely recommended, especially for kids ages 4-6 or thereabouts.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Divya Srinivasan
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Once upon a time, in a small, faraway kingdom, there was a young princess who was blind and who would not talk. Her parents offered (dubious) rewards to anyone who could get her to talk, but although many tried, none succeeded. . . . Until one day, a fierce, man-eating tiger came to the palace and offered to help the princess find her voice.
Cinnamon is a lovely picture book combining the talents of two of my favorite creative individuals–Neil Gaiman and Divya Srinivasan. I would have to say that it manages to highlight the things I love about both of their work. The tale itself is, in a sense, classic fairy tale material. The combination of the mundane and the fantastic, the inevitable flow of events, the underlying darkness at times, and the sometimes fable-like quality all contribute to this feeling of fairy tale that the story evokes. Yet at the same time, it manages to avoid the downfall of many fairy tales when they are told as such–being boring. This story certainly is not boring, and I contribute a lot of that to the author’s great talent and sense of humor. Quirky and realistic details like the stunted mango trees and the contrast between the Rani’s cranky old aunt and the picture of her in her youth give the whole story a much more vibrant and interesting flavor than it would otherwise have. Srinivasan’s art is also huge in transforming this story, giving it a vibrance and luminescence that is just stunning. If you’re familiar with her Little Owl books, the style is very similar and equally charming and lovely. Settings that are generally alluded to in the text are brought to life, again helping to make this story anything but boring. My favorite illustrations are the ones showing Cinnamon and the tiger together as the young princess experiences life afresh through the tiger’s influence. There’s just so much emotion and depth in those pictures that it’s quite moving. I think Cinnamon is a great picture book for younger readers (I’d say ages 5 or so and up, depending on the reader), but is also an enjoyable tale for older readers to share as well.
Author: Jack Prelutsky
Illustrator: Jimmy Pickering
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Past the outer reaches of our solar system lie wonders the likes of which you could never imagine. But beware! Not all of those wonders are friendly, and some are downright deadly . . . planets that make you laugh yourself to death, giant demon birds, a beholder who waits in silence with one solitary, staring eye. Scary stuff.
The Swamps of Sleethe does something most unusual–it combines the dark cautionary tones of older fairy tales with the chilling horror of a good ghost story with an absurd Seussical element. All in a variety of verse forms. And manages to do it well! I actually quite enjoyed this strange collection of children’s poetry. It’s obviously tailored to appeal to a middle-grade audience, but I enjoyed it as an adult as well. Fair warning that basically all of these poems are describing strange ways to die on equally strange and impossible planets. It’s all pretty macabre, but as with Last Laughs, it’s in a darkly humorous sort of way that’s actually kind of appealing. (Or maybe I’m just a terrible person and they’re not really funny at all.) The last poem was kind of a sucker punch to the reader, but a timely one that made the whole volume all the more powerful and striking. Ooh, and the illustrations that accompany the poems are just fabulous–interesting color combinations and weird but fascinating designs that I really liked. I wouldn’t say that The Swamps of Sleethe is for everyone, but if you enjoy a bit more macabre sense of humor, this could be fun. Or if you’re a parent/teacher who’s having trouble getting a middle-grader to read poetry, this could be a good option to try; they might actually find it enjoyable!
Author/Illustrator: Hervé Tullet
My rating: 4 of 5
We are presented with a page, completely blank save for a solitary gray spot. Invited to tap said spot, we do and are presented with an explosion of spots of all colors. And now that we have colors to work with, we’re challenged to try combining them to see what happens when we mix it up.
Mix It Up! is certainly not the sort of picture book to which I am accustomed. It isn’t actually a story at all. I’m honestly at a loss as to how to even categorize it. It’s an interactive experience for kids presented in book format; that’s the best explanation I can come up with. A bit more complex that your usual “name the colors” book, Mix It Up! visually and experientially teaches kids color theory, what happens when you mix different colors, how to create shades and tints, that sort of thing. It’s all very vibrant and interactive–rather than didactically telling the reader what’s happening, it invites us to see and discern for ourselves. This book is great for kids that need a bit more interactivity as it asks them to tap, shake, squish, and tilt the pages as they go along; fortunately, the pages are actually sturdy enough to withstand this kind of abuse. As far as recommended age goes, I think Mix It Up! is best suited for a slightly older demographic than most picture books, although it could be pretty flexible. My two-and-a-half year-old niece enjoys the first half, but the latter parts where more inductive reasoning is required are a bit beyond her appreciation yet. I’d say around five would be the ideal age for this book, but it would depend on the kid. For any age, it’s a great introduction to color theory.