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Children’s Book Review: Aaron and Alexander

Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History written and illustrated by Don Brown

Aaron and Alexander cover

I’m going to do something different. I usually include the promotional text before I get into my review, but I noticed a significant difference between what appears online versus what appears on the dust jacket. I think it’s important to share both. First, here’s the online text used by botrh the publisher and retailers.

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were both fierce patriots during the Revolutionary War, but the politics of the young United States of America put them in constant conflict. Their extraordinary story of bitter fighting and resentment culminates in their famous duel. For young patriots who may not yet know the shocking and tragic story, Aaron and Alexander captures the spirit of these two great men who so valiantly served their country and ultimately allowed their pride and ego to cause their demise.

Sensational, right? Fierce, manly, timeless. I would never buy this book for my children. At least at their current ages. Now here’s the dust jacket.

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were both orphaned at a young age, and they both became successful lawyers. The both fought in the Revolutionary War. But the politics of the young United States of America put these Founding Fathers in constant conflict. Theirs is a story of passion, patriotism, and pride, which culminates in the most famous duel in American history. Despite their similarities, it seemed the world was not big enough for both Aaron and Alexander, yet the outcome of their rivalry forever links their names.

Okay, honestly, dueling isn’t an appropriate subject for our preschooler or our infant. I still wouldn’t buy this book. Not yet anyway. But it does seem more thoughtful, more teachable.

The latter is what you see browsing in the store, and to me it encourages opening the book and taking a look. The former targets the history nerd, or teacher, with something exciting to share.

Anyway, if you’ve got some basic recall of high school civics, you probably know that Aaron Burr shot, or maybe even assassinated, the guy on the twenty dollar bill. If you spent any time online or watched late night television in 2015, chances are you know a little more than that. Have you heard about the Broadway musical Hamilton? There’s a cast recording. I highly recommend it. Our preschooler asked if we could listen to it while we fell asleep the other night.

And that’s why I’m reviewing this book. I checked it out from the library in a pile of books and audiobooks related to the principals. I used to look for the best book or whatever. Now I just read everything.

Luckily I took a look inside before sharing it with our child. And luckier still the art on the cover was a turn off. I can’t tell whether the style wasn’t attractive or whether it was overly evocative. Both are true, of course, in the eyes of a preschooler. Don Brown’s muted watercolors and soft lines are worlds away from the cartoonish primaries of the Little Golden Books we’ve been reading. But just look up there. Those two people are clearly going to to try to kill each other. They are both bad guys.

That itself is a sharp contrast to what’s in the book. Inside, they’re often so similar it hurts. And this is true even if you’re reading one of the eight books cited in the bibliography. Allow me a digression. Nonfiction picture books have bibliographies. Some have footnotes. Our children don’t get it yet, and we skip over them. But some day soon I’ll get to answer questions about them. Anyway, the range of reference material is good.

So good, in fact, that what I expected to be essentially Hamilton propaganda is quite fair and balanced. I have no idea how to turn this story into a children’s book. I can barely discuss it with people who have some background. But Brown has made an admirable attempt.

In a few years, the nuance on display will provoke some interesting conversations, Right now if there’s going to be fighting there needs to be a bad guy. An obvious one like Darth Vader, or better yet Darth Maul. Not this.

Aaron and Alexander dueling

I can’t explain dueling or why “Despicable” caused one or what that was actually code for at the turn of the nineteenth century and then why that, at that time, was something negative. Just, “is that blood?” and the subsequent questions are enough to shelve this one for awhile.

But, if you’re adventurous, or interested, or Clint Eastwood, maybe you’ll give it a shot. Too soon?

Recommended for fans of Hamilton, Daffy Duck, and folks who let their kids watch R-rated movies.

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Children’s Book Review: If Kids Ruled the World

If Kids Ruled the World by Linda Bailey illustrated by David Huyck

If Kids Ruled the World cover

This original, fun picture book delightfully describes, in hilarious detail, a small child’s idea of utopia. Every two-page spread offers something new about this fantasy life, including, “If kids ruled the world, every day would be your birthday! Birthday cake would be good for you. Your doctor would say, ?Don’t forget to eat your birthday cake so you’ll grow up strong and healthy!'” And, “You could go to any kind of school you like ? Circus School. Fairy School. Inventing School. Lots of kids would go to Recess School.” The topics that bestselling, award-winning author Linda Bailey has chosen are pitch-perfect for young children, from bedtime and baths (none!) to pets and tree houses (lots!). And illustrator David Huyck‘s detailed, brightly hued artwork is full of energy, joy and humor that gets right to the heart of a child’s view of the world. While this is a book that would happily be enjoyed from cover to cover, it’s not hard to envision an enthralled child spending long stretches of time daydreaming about one particular scenario. In the classroom, this book would make an excellent springboard for art projects or creative writing assignments that explore children’s own unique image of the perfect world. Particularly gratifying is the emphasis throughout on sharing all the good things brought to life in a world of a child’s own making. This book is a truly exuberant celebration of childhood, play and imagination. It’s sure to become a classic.

We recently brought the whole family to a conference. Sort of. Our preschooler got to go to museums with Grandma. In the exhibition hall, a number of publishers sponsored author signings and book giveaways. There’s a chance that wearing an infant increased their tendency toward giving rather than selling. I’m unrepentant.

I don’t know if I’ve stated explicitly that I’m not a fan of paper books. I was; when they were the only game in town. These days they’re heavy and they kind of smell funny. Sometimes you can’t even fit them in your pocket. And you can’t read them in the dark.

However, One must make exceptions for kids’ books. Don’t get me wrong, I have lot of those on my Kindle, too. But there’s a strong case to be made for obsolescing forms engaging the young visually, tactilely, and viscerally. Plus, if you wanna limit screen time, you gotta go all in.

Once I cottoned to the fact that were children’s books on hand I sought them out. We make good use of our local library, of course. But tis was a great way to inject some novelty into our little readers’ lives.

One of my favorites is If Kids Ruled the World. The cover alone does way more for my preschooler than most entire books. Scroll back and take another look. I’ll wait. All of those kids are distinct, active, and different. Our child did not that there were tow backpacks with jets, but neither one was Boba Fett. I will treasure the memory.

A friend of ours stated unilaterally that a children’s book was not a children’s book unless it was in anapestic tetrameter. For the most part, we agree. It always helps.

Here the art and the conceit carried. If Kids Ruled the World is a book for all tastes. Scary, silly, kind, exciting. And it manages something of a narrative and a message.

If Kids Ruled the World tub

There are pirates and dinosaurs and monsters and dragons in addition to cake and costumes and princes and princesses. If your child doesn’t like particular pictures, you might consider steering clear. It’s rarely worth risking nightmares when you don’t have to. On the other hand, we did have a productive discussion about what our preschooler would have do differently. Dinosaurs, for example, will not be allowed in the park.

What I’m saying is that it’s all to the good. The illustration is top tier. Simple. Bright. Exact. The words are familiar and well placed. And it engages beyond its covers.

Highly recommended for fans of “Handlebars,” Jake and the Never Land Pirates, and unbridled leisure.


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Children’s Book Review: You Look Yummy!

You Look Yummy! by Tatsuya Miyanishi

You Look Yummy!

…………………….You Look Yummy! at Museyon

This sweet tale about the love between father and son is the first in a tremendously popular Tyrannosaurus series in 12 titles to date, with combined sales in excess of 3 million copies in Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and France. A long, long time ago, a baby Ankylosaurus is born on a volcano erupting ground. As the little Ankylosaurus begins wandering around, a big Tyrannosaurus comes along. He is about to pounce when the baby cries out, “Daddy!” and grabs onto his leg. The baby thinks the Tyrannosaurus is his father, so as not to disappoint the little one, he takes on the task of raising a baby Ankylosaur. The two develop ever stronger bonds of love, but soon comes the day when they must part. Highlighting the importance of family, this sweet picture book celebrates the love between father and son.

I held off reviewing this one until I could read it with our preschooler. More and more I’m convinced that the opinion of the target audience is way more important than mine. There are a lot of beautiful children’s books with clever rhymes and interesting thoughtful stories that attract grandparents and critics. We have some of them. Some are great. Others sit on the shelf like symbols, waiting to be recognized by some other parent who read the same best-of list.

What I’m saying is that if it doesn’t resonate with our children, then it scarcely matters how great I think it is. Take Goodnight Moon. It’s mostly nonsense. And everyone loves it from when they were kids. Even me.

So I read You Look Yummy! with ours. I explained that it was a book I wanted to read together and that this was a favor. The digital galley had an issue that crops up with visual material sometimes. Two page spreads don’t parse well when they’re split. I got a few confused questions and even a real “what’s happening.” But, the story was generally clear.

An anklyosaurus hatches amidst a volcanic eruption, separated from his parents. A tyrannosaur comes along intending to eat him and the baby mistakes him for his daddy. The unmitigated love of the little lizard overcomes the larger one and they look out for one another.

Yummy this is ramming

Our preschooler was engaged by some familiar beats: the worried dad, the kid who wants to help, the desire to imitate and emulate, and the sort of strangeness a parent’s real skill set can have for the young. Empathetic kids will swell and shrink with the story.

The book ends with the tyrannosaur sending the kid to the full grown anklyosauruses, presumably his parents, after sharing everything he knows. This is done through trickery and it’s kind of sad. This is the part where  the digital pagination probably interrupted the narrative the most. after some rapid back and forth the action was obvious. And disappointing.

Our preschooler asked for two more books as a mental palate cleanser. I think the message conflicted with the one in Dinosaur Train. In that show, Buddy, a tyrannosaur adopted by a family of pteranodons chooses to stay with him when given the opportunity to live with other apex predators.

I reckon the print copy would soften the blow, but the book isn’t a bedtime story. It’s a discussion prompt. Why did he do that? Where is he going? Our preschooler loves drilling down into these questions even when they’re challenging and we’re not mendacious enough to be sly. If yours is the same, this is the book for you.

Recommended for fans of Where the Wild Things Are, The Giving Tree, and The Monster at the End of this Book.


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Children’s Book Review: The Best Mama in the World

The Best Mama in the World by Susanne Lutje, illustrated by Eleni Zabini

The Best Mama in the WorldWe all have the best mama!
It doesn’t matter who you ask, each of us will agree.
That the one with the best mama of all is obviously, me!
From hugs and kisses to playing and comforting—mamas are all the best! A little fox, a kitten, a duckling, a little girl and more share their favorite things about their mamas.

I picked this one up from the library because we were gifted one called The V ery Best Daddy of All. Now, I like attention from our toddler plenty. And Mom gets plenty of love.  But as I was flipping through titles this one jumped out. Share the glory and the burden of our cult of personality, I say.

The Best Mama in the World is a simple board book witBest Mama internalh a classic message. A series of anthropomorphized animals apply bandages, prepare tea, and build sandcastles as mother and child, reinforcing the bonds between mothers and children with familiar activities. The book ends with a mother tucking her daughter in at night, making it a great choice for a bedtime story.

The art is sharp and detailed. The pages are colored in bright but soft pastels. And the subject matter, no matter how ridiculous, is taken entirely seriously. All of this contributes a sense of warmth and caring.

A good read for Mother’s Day and every day.


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Children’s Book Review: GRUMP GROAN GROWL

GRUMP GROAN GROWL by bell hooks, illustrated by Chris Raschka

GRUMP GROAN GROWL

GRUMP

GROAN

GROWL

Bad mood on
the prowl

In his fresh look at a fun and positive way to face our bad, grumpy, and wild moods, bells hooks brings a vision of calm with soothing rhythmic text while Chris Raschka’s vibrant art adds compassion and humor, reminding readers that sometimes you just have to go inside and let it

Slide

Like a lot of the children’s books I end up reviewing here, I picked this one up at the library. I can’t remember if I was browsing the online catalog for children’s picture books or bell hooks, but when I saw the two intersect, I knew I had to check it out. There’s nothing quite like the exhilaration of getting your child into the things you love.

Once I had the book in my hands, I was a little worried. I mean, I could enjoy it by myself. If I wanted to do that, though, I could pick up something more adult oriented. She’s certainly written enough.

The imagery in the book can be scary. Our toddler seemed to have some of the same reservations as I did, but I read it out loud and it had an almost hypnotic draw. GRUMP GROAN GROWL is a book few words. But they’re powerful. And powerfully presented. The first six pages are just those three along with their accompanying paintings.

The images themselves are simple, brilliant, and entirely appropriate. They depict fear, frustration, and anger with ragged edges and bleeding colors. Chris Rashcka brings the words to life with bold lines and arresting color.

Our toddler was repeating the book back to me before the halfway point, exulting in phrases like, “All I am is wild.” And then the book performed its incredible magic. It’s as much about those negative emotions and letting them out as it is recognizing and controlling them. After whipping my child into a minor frenzy, it took a calming turn.

The pictures softened almost imperceptibly and the text became almost a how to for getting through those moments when our emotions overwhelm us. GRUMP GROAN GROWL had wound us up and brought us back down. Something great literature has the power to do.

Highest possible recommendation. Get your hands on this one if you can.


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Children’s Book Review: The Best Doghouse Ever

The Best Doghouse Ever (2)

By Mary Tillworth

Cover Illustrated by Sue DiCicco and Steve Talkowski

Interior illustrated by MJ Illustrations

Based on the screenplay

“Build Me a Building!” by Adam Peltzman

Based on the TV Series Bubble Guppies,

created by Robert Scull and Johnny Belt

The Bubble Guppies build a home for Bubble Puppy

STEP INTO READING

STEP 1: Ready to Ready to Read Preschool-Kindergarten

Does Your Child Know the alphabet? Is you child eager to begin reading? Step 1 is the perfect first step!

This is as much a story as it is a review. So the basics, before I take you down a rabbit hole, are these. This book is great. For toddlers. In fact, for most of this year, this was our toddler’s favorite book.

As you can see, there’s a lot of industry wrapped up in these twenty four pages. So much, in fact, that it prompts a vague feeling of unease. It’s part of a Random House marketing program. It’s a licensed adaptation of a Nickelodeon cartoon. It doesn’t just feature characters, it retells part of a particular episode.

I talk a lot about Frozen, which is a family favorite. So one might be forgiven for assuming that Bubble Guppies is another. That would explain everything. Except it’s not. We learned about the existence of the surreal submarine show watching Play-Doh surprise eggs videos during a bout of illness. I figured we should check out the show. Our toddler hated it.

Like, never speak of it again hated it. Wanna watch sumpin’ else hated it. This one’s weird hated it.

I also picked up a couple books from the library. And that’s where The Best Doghouse Ever! comes in. We tend to put the books down on the table and let interest guide our reading. Given the response to the show, I figured the Bubble Guppies books would be ignored.

Not so. We read it over and over and… well, only a toddler could handle the repetition. We learned the names, the setting, the relationships. We checked out all the books available at the library.

The text is large and the sentences are simple. But for all that it’s reasonably dense. Cramming charity, communication, and cooperation into less than a dozen words looks easy.

Guppies 01

Ignore the inanity of building a wooden doghouse on the ocean floor. The setting’s weird. But only as weird as, say, anthropomorphized animals or something.

The narrative moves along at a decent clip. The illustrations are colorful and precise. The environments are organized and uncluttered. Every page offers the opportunity for additional engagement identifying characters and objects.

Guppies 02

The Bubble Guppies are delightfully multiracial and relentlessly upbeat. It’s nice to have a reading reprieve after scary predators and sad, struggling trains. This was true for our toddler as much as it was for me. These books have been go-to bedtime reading for weeks.

But this particular book will always be special because it’s the first book our toddler read to me.

Guppies 03

 

I’m more or less sold on the Step Into Reading concept, at least at this first stage. These are designed for ages 4-6 and intended to help kids learn to read. But this one was fun, interesting, and memorable.

I had to excuse myself for a moment and when I returned, our toddler had the Kindle ready. My first bedtime story was executed perfectly page by page. It wasn’t reading, but it was how reading starts.

The Best Doghouse Ever! is available is paperback, library-bound hardback, and it’s part of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription service.


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Frozen Friday: Recovery

Frozen Fever Kindle

A couple days before Frozen Fever and Cinderella hit theaters, Amazon recommended this. It doesn’t look like much. But let’s face some hard truths here; it doesn’t have to. It’s a sixteen page condensed version of the already short, um, short. I downloaded the sample and opened it up.

I wasn’t really impressed. Unlike some of our other Frozen books, this is just animation stills with plain text printed over the images. Or, more often, just under them.

Happy Birthday Anna

It’s relatively small print and frankly a lot of text for something I’d be reading to my toddler at bedtime. I was a little worried that it would be both boring and exhausting. I decided to pass in favor of the embarrassment of Bubble Guppies riches available with Kindle Unlimited.

So of course I forgot to delete the sample. Our toddler may not be reading yet, but the Frozen font is a logo unto itself. “What’s that?! Is that a book?! Can you read it to me?!”

What the heck. It’s three dollars. The worst that can happen is we only read it a couple times. If only. I read it three times that night.

Despite being kind of stilted, it’s not bad. It is a lot of text, but it’s memorable with touchstones in the pictures and in toddler life. The brightly colored letters in the banner above, for example, start conversations about the alphabet, painting, and birthdays.

In addition, when we did go to see it on the big screen, our toddler was essentially prepared. Our enjoyment wasn’t diminished one bit. I think the jokes landed more solidly and brought more pleasure. This certainly did.

Dry Banana Hippy Hat

 

And lately, we’ve been spelling out “DRY BANANA HIPPY HAT” and pointing to the individual words as we say them. Like Frozen, Frozen Fever was designed for repeat viewings. But it also seems to have been crafted with adaptation in mind. A block letter banner with no repeating colors in either anagram isn’t necessary for an animated short, but it’s perfect for a children’s book.

There’s a chance reading this over and over again will lull you to sleep if not drive you mad. But it’s great for its target audience. And a teachable text. Who knew?