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.
Author: Don Freeman
My rating: 4.5 of 5
In a big department store, a small stuffed bear named Corduroy sits on the shelf waiting for someone to take him home. One day, a customer points out that he’s missing a button, prompting a midnight expedition through the store in search of said button. Corduroy finds lots of interesting things that night. But the next morning, he finds something even better–a home and a new friend.
Over 50 years old, this picture book is just as charming and engaging as it was when it was originally published. Corduroy is just a very cute story, with a nice sprinkling of adventure and humor and a satisfying “happy ending.” I appreciate the way the author expresses Corduroy’s opinions of his experiences–“I guess I’ve always wanted to” or “I think I’ve always wanted to” for all the adventures in the store, but “I know I’ve always wanted” when it comes to a friend and a home. It’s a nice way of using repetition with variation that I like to see in kids’ books. Fair warning that this book is a bit text heavy when compared to other picture books; at age two-and-a-half, my niece is just now able to sit still for and enjoy reading the text in its entirety, but before that, I had to do some summarizing. (It’s recommended for ages 3-8, technically). As for the art itself, it’s got a charming old-school feel to it, one that both captures the flavor of when it was written back in the 1940’s but that is still enjoyable and approachable today. Corduroy is definitely a classic, and a picture book that I would recommend for just about any younger child.
Author/Illustrator: Marcus Pfister
Translator: J. Alison James
My rating: 4.5 of 5
The Rainbow Fish is very beautiful, and he knows it too. But he’s not about to share any of his beautiful scales. And he wonders why he has no friends?! When the Rainbow Fish takes some wise advise and learns to be generous with his beauty, he finds that the other fish’s attitude toward him changes as well.
The Rainbow Fish is an established classic children’s picture book, although I have to admit that I didn’t read it until I was an adult. I’ve had numerous people tell me it was a favorite when they were growing up, however, and my little niece adores this book. Understandably so. The text is simple enough for young children to understand, yet it has a nice flow. And the message of the story is something everyone needs to be reminded of–although I think a discussion of not being friends with someone just to get stuff from them may be necessary in some cases. What seems to stand out in most people’s memory–and in most children’s reactions–however, is the lovely art. It really is attractive, and I love the cool-tone palette. And of course, the holographic foil is eye-catching. I would recommend The Rainbow Fish to anyone looking for an all-around good book for children ages 18 months to around 4-years-old.
Author: Chris Haughton
My rating: 5 of 5
Four friends wander through the forest until they spot a brightly colored bird. One of them tries to make friends with the bird, but the others shush him. They have a plan. They’re going to catch this bird by force. Well . . . let’s just say that not all plans are created equal. But then, some people never learn. So, on to the next plan it is. Shh!
Shh! We Have a Plan is a fantastic little picture book by the creator of the beloved Little Owl Lost. The art features Haughton’s unique, bold, chunky style, utilizing a combination of monochromatic blues against some truly brilliant colors for the birds to draw the reader’s attention quite effectively. The tone that’s created is quite striking. Moreover, the messages of the story are valuable–such as the worth of offering true friendship and looking to the needs and desires of others instead of trying to force your own desires on them. The writing is maybe just a bit older in intended audience than Little Owl Lost; my niece appreciated Little Owl from about 1 year on, but didn’t really get into Shh! We Have a Plan until she was closer to 2 years old. At that point, however, she totally loved the repetitive but changing cycles of bird-catching . . . or not catching, rather . . . and joins in on every “Shh!” and “Go!” in the story. So I would say that for ages 2 and up, this is a highly recommended picture book.
Author/Illustrator: Divya Srinivasan
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Little Owl loves flying around the forest during the night and sleeping during the day, but today’s a bit different. Somehow, Little Owl just can’t sleep even though the sun’s come up. Everything seems so different and exciting! There are all sorts of animals and things to see that Little Owl didn’t even know existed. Suddenly, the forest is like a new wonderful world to explore.
I loved Srinivasan’s first Little Owl picture book, Little Owl’s Night, and Little Owl’s Day is the perfect follow up. You get to see the daytime version of Little Owl’s forest, full of all sorts of diurnal creatures and other sights that can only be enjoyed in the sunshine, like rainbows and sun-loving flowers. There are fun tie-ins to the first book as well–like Little Owl’s finally getting to show Bear the moon. The art is superb–a really interesting style. I love that this book keeps the same general style and color themes while at the same time pulling in a much brighter palette to emphasize the difference between the day and night. The writing style is great for a preschool audience (my 1-1/2-year-old niece loves these books), while having a nice flow that’s enjoyable to read aloud–no annoying “see Spot run” sort of stuff. Definitely a recommended read for those with younger children.