Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Three Picture Books I Should Have Reviewed Three Years Ago

Back in mid-2009, I got two picture books [1] for review, and said to myself, "Self, I said, this is a perfect dual review project -- and reading these books will take no time at all, too!"

Soon afterward, a third similar book arrived, to equal rejoicing.

And they all sat, in one of my many books-I-want-to-read-very-soon-now piles, for months upon months. They were saved from the flood, and sat somewhere else for a while. They moved back down into the basement, and onto a shelf for the first time in their eventful lives. And, finally, just this past Sunday, I actually read them, about three years too late to matter to anyone.

So here's what I think of 'em:

Farley Follows His Nose is a sweet brand extension of Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse newspaper strip, featuring her once-popular dog character Farley -- he was featured in the strip from 1984 through 1995,when he died heroically -- rampaging through a suburban neighborhood, in pursuit of ever-more-interesting smells. The book has art by Johnston, with a story credited to Johnston and Beth Cruikshank.

It's a simple tale of an unanthropomorphized dog -- he runs away after a bath, befriends a boy quickly because the boy feeds him, and runs farther afield before finding that boy again and, in the end, getting home. The art is detailed and energetic, but the book is really just a poor cousin to Harry the Dirty Dog, which did the same thing much better more than fifty years ago.

Blueberry Girl is similarly simple in conceit: it's a poem with wishes for a young girl's life, originally written by Neil Gaiman as a present to a pregnant friend of his, and then illustrated by Charles Vess to turn it into a book. (The friend was Tori Amos, which gives it an additional jolt of celebrity -- that shouldn't matter, but kids' books by famous people have practically taken over the field over the past decade, so it may be germane.)

The poem is addressed to various goddesses, who are urged to bestow their blessings on this "blueberry girl." They're very welcome blessings, if they come, and are both thoughtful and quirky -- but I do wonder why this particular baby is a blueberry girl, and if the fruit taxonomy continues across other infants? (My younger son -- now age eleven -- is almost certainly an Apple Boy, but his older brother is more complicated, and might have to be a Pomegranate or a Black Raspberry.)

The Vess art is detailed and intricate, and illustrates possible moments in the life of a possible Blueberry girl rather than trying to detail the requested gifts -- which is all to the good. The book would make a nice gift for a woman expecting her own Blueberry Girl (or possibly even a Boysenberry or Cherry, of either sex), or for a young Blueberry Girl herself.

Then there's the silliest, least uplifting, and most fun book of the trio: Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by the great Adam Rex. (I think I saw this because I'd then recently reviewed Rex's young adult novel The True Meaning of Smekday; there's some Hyperion publicist who won't make that mistake again!)

Parents are always making idle threats to their children; I wrote, here, a couple months ago about how The Wife and I had wanted to make our sons "Amish" as a punishment -- and that actually came up in conversation at dinner last night, oddly enough -- and I'm sure we've made threats of other unlikely and impossible punishments in passing. Billy Twitters's parents' idle threat is to buy their son a blue whale if he doesn't start doing what they ask -- like cleaning his room, or eating his vegetable, or all of the other things that energetic young boys don't want to do.

Billy, of course, doesn't do those things -- and, since this is a picture book, his parents really do buy him a blue whale, the largest mammal on earth, and he has to drag it to school and feed it and do all of the other duties of a responsible pet-owner. But Barnett doesn't feel compelled to teach the life-lesson that Billy Twitters could so easily have fallen into being -- he's much more interested in exploring the possibilities of a boy with a giant whale in tow -- so Billy Twitters feels much more contemporary, quirky, and fun than either of those two books above, which were both in styles that could have been created in any of the last eight decades. It's still primarily a book for grade-schoolers, sure, but it's a zippy book for those kids, with lots of little jokes around the edges (don't miss the printed case, for example -- under the dust-jacket; it's filled with what would be bonus material on a DVD).

So all of these are admirable books for the right audience, and all are pretty and would be fun to read to children -- but Billy Twitters is the one that made me smile the most.

[1] A "picture book," for those of you who haven't had small children recently and/or don't work in publishing, is a usually large-format, usually full-color book, of around 32 or 48 pages, meant to be read to children by their parents or whoever is currently tasked with keeping them quiet. It's the bottom rung of the kids' books ladder, in the sense that picture books are generally read-to books, and so are appropriate for the youngest children. (This is a vast oversimplification, of course; picture books come in various age bands, and many of them need a higher reading level than early readers and some chapter books.)

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