November 13, 2011

I want my hat back

This is perhaps the best picture book I've seen all year. And I don't say that lightly - a LOT of picture books come across my desk. But occasionally there's a gem that reminds me why I love children's literature so much.

The plot is deceptively simple - Bear is looking for his little red pointy hat and talks to many animals in his search - but the text is masterful, pitch-perfect, and laugh out loud funny. This last claim has been laboratory tested, at least on adults: I walked around the office and made my coworkers read the book and watched them all pause for a couple of seconds at the end and then gasp and laugh.

Have I not mentioned the illustrations yet? I would frame this whole book and put it on my wall. The illustrations are simple, nuanced, funny, mostly understated and absolutely stunning. And even the book design is an integral part of the pleasure of this picture book - the text design (font, size and colour) interacts subtly with the storyline in a pleasing way, the pages are beautifully laid out, and the colour scheme is restrained in a way that makes colour use sing with meaning. What's amazing to me, though, is that this is the first picture book where Klassen has moved from being an illustrator (of great talent) to an author-illustrator. This is not an easy transition, and I've seen it go poorly more often than not. So colour me surprised and impressed - there are only a handful of truly great author-illustrators alive today, and I think this book makes Jon Klassen a force to watch out for.

If you have an older preschooler in your life (a mature 3 year old, a 4 - 5, or even 6 year old?) who enjoys animals, great illustrations, and doesn't mind a bit of morbid humour, this is the perfect present. Even though the text is very simple, I suggest it for preschoolers instead of toddlers because the humorous finale does take a bit inferring power to understand. Spoiler - if you are morally against a bit of implied animal-on-animal violence, this is not the book for you.

Oh, and did I mention that Jon Klassen is Canadian? This one's going to win some awards. It's almost not fair that Klassen's recent picture book illustrations for Cat's Night Out won the GG in 2010. If I was on the committee, I'd find it hard not to to give that award to him again.

June 26, 2011

The Red Tree

Tan, Shaun. The Red Tree. Vancouver, BC: Simply Read Books.

Thought about this book again recently when buying a present for a friend of mine who was graduating from her program in counseling psychology.

I don't say this often but I'll say it now: This man is a genius. I couldn't have been happier when I found out earlier this year that he'd won the Astrid Lindgren Prize (see the article in the Guardian), which is one of the only children's lit award accompanied by truckloads of money. Couldn't have gone to a better person.

The Red Tree is a heart-stopping picture book that deals with depression or difficult times in an accessible, deeply moving, and entirely un-condescending way. It also offers an equally real, visceral, almost experiential vision of what hope can be. And since the arc of the book so firmly rooted in its images, the red tree with its rich and sudden appearance of colour at the end is a mysterious and unexpected gift. And although it seems to appear out of nowhere, a closer look will reveal a small red leaf on every page of the story, even at its bleakest moments.

I love the way illustration and text combine seamlessly to create a otherworldly, dreamlike (and at times almost sinister) vision, and the way the book veers away from intellectual understanding and avoids being prescriptive or didactic. The text is sparse and deceptively simple. The illustrations are rich, sombre, complex, detailed, expressive and textured. The emotional content of the book is palpable and unrelenting, in a way I don't think I have ever quite experienced in a picture book. Some people seem to think this makes it unsuitable for children (it's been challenged in my library), but I can't help thinking it actually mirrors the very profound and all-encompassing way children often experience emotion. It certainly isn't a preschool storytime read-aloud, but it has that amazing quality that will make is riveting to a wide range of ages, from young school age children to adults. Quite simply, this is one of the most stunning picture books I've ever seen, from one of our most talented illustrators (and writers).

One small quibble: I couldn't help taking issue with the line "the world is a deaf machine," for obvious reasons. It's the only thing I don't like about this book. It's too bad he chose that particular metaphor, because it does make me hesitate to cheer as loud as I can for what is otherwise nothing short of masterful, but the book is too amazing for me to pass it up for this reason.

An older one, but a good one. One of my favourites. The kind of book that genuinely moved me in that powerful somewhat pre-verbal way; the kind of book that might make a difference in someone's day or life. See what Shaun Tan has to say about the book. And while you're there, check out the rest of his website. You won't be disappointed.

June 24, 2011

Patrick Ness wins the Carnegie

Fresh from The Guardian's section on childeren's books: Patrick Ness accepts Carnegie medal with fierce defence of libraries. He wins for Monsters of Men (Walker Books, 2010), the third in his dystopian Chaos Walking series, all of which have been nominated for the Carnegie. No small feat.

I love everything about the title of this article. Oh, except the part about the libraries in the UK getting their funding slashed. Yeah. I hate that part. I'm all for the amazing work that volunteers do in the world. But that's not a replacement for paying an entire country full of public librarians. Don't even get me started.

I wish there didn't have to be a rash of amazing authors defending libraries. I wish I didn't have to find out what a sucker I am for a charming defense of my profession - really, it's like my version of watching cute talking dog videos - but I sure do appreciate.

Press Here!

In France, Herve Tullet is know as the King of Preschool. Press Here (Chronicle Books, 2011) is his latest picture book - and what a hoot! At first the series of coloured circles and written instructions (press the yellow dot, shake the book, clap twice, etc.), might not seem like much, but add kids to the mix and watch the magic happen. I could keep describing, but wouldn't you rather watch kids play? CLICK HERE for the video trailer!

And see Herve Tullet in action here - great stuff: "There will be three people. I will be in the middle in my book. And there will be a child. And there will be someone who knows how to read the book. And I hope everybody could play with the book. The child could play, and the adult could play too."

June 23, 2011

Book reviews for the Early Childhood Educator

My latest book review column is out in the Early Childhood Educator journal. Unfortunately current content for the journal isn't available online, but you now see older articles including one of my earlier book review columns called: Let Children Take the Lead with Wordless Books.

This month's theme is Aboriginal childcare, and my column features some of my favorite Aboriginal pictures books including:

Zoe and the Fawn, written by Catherine Jameson (Shuswap/Okanagan/Syilx), illustrated by Julie Flett (Métis)

The Little Hummingbird by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (Haida)

Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer: L'alfabet Di Michif = Owls See Clearly at Night : a Michif Alphabet
. by Julie Flett (Métis)

Learn the Colours with Northwest Coast Native Art (and other titles in the board book series), created by Native Northwest Educational Resources

Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell (Interior Salish/Métis), Illustrated by Kim LaFave

I also talk about the BC Aboriginal Child Care Society and some of their excellent lending resources. If you're in British Columbia, check them out. They have lots of valuable resources developed for Aboriginal child care centers, including ECE curriculum boxes which can be borrowed for use in circle time or other activities. Their "Moe the Mouse" speech and language development program is a fabulous resource developed by two speech-language pathologists for the BC Aboriginal Child Care Society. Rather than singling out children who have difficulty making certain speech sounds, and focusing on repetitive “corrective” or “teaching” exercises, this program uses an appealing mouse character to present fun speech and language activities to an entire circle time group, with a focus on aboriginal content. Children who need extra help get a fun supportive low-pressure atmosphere to practice their sounds, and everyone has lots of fun. We recently had the training at our library, and my colleagues who use this in their outreach programming report that the kids love Moe!

Check out the journal article for more information on these books and resources.

January 16, 2011

Technology, ethics, and some damn good reads

A friend asked me recently to suggest a book for a high school class - something off the beaten curriculum, something with teeth-sink-into-able issues, something with the appeal of The Hunger Games that hadn't been read out yet and, most importantly, something NOT ANCIENT (but maybe available in paperback).

Immediately, my mind jumped to Little Brother. I really do not understand why this book is not as big as The Hunger Games. Cory Doctorow has a cult-like following in the adult world, and the book did indeed make it to the NYT bestseller list, but somehow it doesn't fly off the shelf at the library at the rate we expected.

It's one of the best teen books I've read in ages, a story that only gets more relevant as our governments use the terrrorism scare to erode civil liberties. This cautionary dystopia is made even more chilling by the fact that it seems to be set about three weeks in the future. Didactic? Yes, without question. But so relevant, precisely-aimed and well-crafted that it remains a work a literature. And a profoundly readable one at that.

After a terrorist attack on the Bay Area transit system, 17 year old Marcus Yallow and his friends are picked up and questioned by the Department of Homeland Security based on suspicious activity like being in the area, demanding help for an injured friend, and refusing to give up the password on an encrypted phone. When Marcus defends his right to his own privacy, he is detained and tortured in what is later referred to as "Guantanamo by the sea." When the friends are finally released, the Department of Homeland Security has turned San Francisco into a police state.

From high-tech gait-recognition cameras to the hacking of the xBox, technology plays both sides in this struggle for freedom and privacy in a world of surveillance. Plenty to talk about here. The e-book is available for free download on the author's website. A great modern-day companion to 1984.

Another great technology-meets-ethics book is The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson (Henry Holt, 2008). In a more distant future, Jenna (also 17) awakes after a terrible accident with absolutely no memory of her previous life. She tries to reconstruct her previous existence, but things don't seem to add up. Her parents, if they really are her parents, are hiding things from her. She struggles to escape her parents' over-protective confines and discover who, or what, she is. A story about the limits of technology, and the limits of humanity. A fabulous read with ample sparks for conversation and debate.

September 11, 2010


When I got a concussion last year, I was advised not to try to read for a while. The problem was, I was 50 pages from the end of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games. Seriously, folks, just try not finishing that one. So I'd read for 10 minutes (my max) and then lie in the dark for half an hour waiting for my brain to recover and then read again for ten minutes. And if I read for more than 10 minutes I'd suddenly start shaking uncontrollably. Then I'd lie in the dark for another 30 minutes and start all over again. But I just couldn't stop. That's got to say a lot for a book.

In the middle of my recovery, I listened to Catching Fire (the second installment) on audiobook. And much as I like audiobooks (and couldn't have lived through the last year without them), it just wasn't the same as tearing through the book at light speed and getting lost in another world. It wasn't a bad production, but I can't say it was memorable either. I've heard better in the last year. There are books I'd suggest listening to over reading - this wasn't one of them.

So it is my pleasure to report that the first book I have officially devoured in only a couple of sittings is Mockingjay. And what a pleasure it was. I'd almost forgotten what it felt like to sit down with a half-finished novel the day stretching ahead of me and know I was going to read the damn thing till I was done. There's really no point adding one more review to the pot, except to note my delicious relief as a children's librarian that the current 'it' book is actually both-well written and interesting. The hot teen books are always eminently readable, but I often shut off a portion of my brain to enjoy them. I'll admit I was a little traumatized by parts of the grimness and violence - I'm not good at reading about the particulars of war. But it's a fabulous smart series, and deserving of all the attention it's getting. What a perfect book to satisfy the current market hunger for teen/adult cross-over novels. If for some reason you haven't read it, and can handle a good dose of dystopia with your Saturday morning tea, this is the next series you want to get your hands on.

It's a beautiful circle for me to round out the concussion on both ends with such a different experience of this same trilogy. Reading: I've missed you!

November 8, 2009

Just when you need some rocket-powered unicorns to make it through the day...

An Awesome Book by Dallas Clayton

And it really is! This self-published gem came to my attention last year at the BCLA conference, courtesy of a fellow children's librarian. The story is all about dreaming big, and it's perfectly lovely, but the illustrations are what blow the roof off my popsicle stand.

The spread of pink rocket-powered unicorns (variously wearing basketball jerseys, scuba gear, or riding mini-skateboards) is worth the price of admission alone:

You can see the entire book online here, but this is a book worth holding in your hands. I think it could have ended about half way through (the rhyming verse gets a little long-winded and didactic near the end), but it still steals my heart every time I lay eyes on it. Check this one out for sure. And if you just want to look at rocket-powered unicorns all day, you can even buy the poster here. And while you're shopping, check out the cause that your purchases support. Very cool all around.