After the Fall

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Written and Illustrated by Dan Santat

Roaring Brook Press, 2017

My name is Humpty Dumpty.

The plot in a nutshell: Humpty Dumpty talks about the aftermath of his fall.

Humpty Dumpty explains that the big fall that made him famous was just an accident that changed his life. Yes, he was eventually put back together again, but the experience left him with a fear of heights that had a major impact on him. Now, whenever he walks past the wall, he thinks about how much he misses being up there, watching the birds and looking at the city below. But now that he knows how easy accidents can be, he just can’t bring himself to try it. He watches the birds from the ground, but it isn’t the same. He tries making paper airplanes and sending them flying into the air, which gives him a sense of happiness. Then, unfortunately, his airplane lands on the top of the wall and, although he almost gives up and leaves it, he resolves to climb that wall and get it back. Nervous and scared, he climbs higher and higher until he reaches the top. And as he celebrates this victory, his eggshell cracks and a beautiful golden bird emerges and flies away.

I am a sucker for new stories that build on older stories, especially when they give them a fun and interesting twist in perspective. The earliest version of Humpty Dumpty goes back to 1797 and is one of those Mother Goose rhymes that pretty much everyone knows. But author/illustrator Dan Santat takes his story to a whole new place here, bringing in the issues of dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic experience and being afraid of failure. By giving him a love of birds, we have a reason for him to be up on the wall and to want to get back up there again. Then having him literally break out of his shell at the end is so perfectly wonderful that I got a little misty-eyed. By conquering his fear, he becomes who he has been meant to be all along.

Grocery

Only the boring cereal is on the bottom shelf.

The illustrations bring all the emotions to this story, showing us a character who is physically and mentally broken. We go on this journey with him, seeing all the ways in which the fall has left him scarred and unable to do all the things he wants to do, which is so easy to relate to real life. Mr. Santat tells the story that this book is dedicated to his wife, who struggled with anxiety and post-partum depression, making her approach life in much the same way as Humpty Dumpty does here, tailoring her life to avoid fear. She sought help that let her become her best self again and he says this book is a love letter to her and the courage she showed in conquering her fears. Seen through that filter, it’s an even more meaningful and beautiful story.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that, as the book’s final page reminds us, ‘life begins when you get back up.’

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Hello Lighthouse

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Written and Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Little, Brown and Company, 2018

On the highest rock of a tiny island at the edge of the world stands a lighthouse.

The plot in a nutshell: A lighthouse keeper does his job.

The lighthouse uses its light to guide ships and it shines out like it’s saying ‘hello.’ A new lighthouse keeper comes to replace the old keeper and he takes care of the lamp, winds the clockwork that keeps it turning, makes notes in his logbook and makes sure everything goes well. He is lonely and he writes letters to a woman, then waits for her to answer. Sea storms come and go and then the tender comes, bringing supplies and his wife. He continues to tend the lighthouse and is happy to have her there with him. He tries to make sure the lighthouse helps during storms and fog, but one day a ship wrecks nearby and he rescues three sailors. During the winter, when the sea is frozen, the lighthouse keeper gets sick and his wife takes care of him and tends the lighthouse while he’s recovering. They have a baby and he adds that to his logbook. When the tender comes next, along with the supplies, it brings him a letter from the Coast Guard and he knows his time there is almost over. But instead of bringing a replacement keeper, they install a brand-new light than is run by a machine. He closes the logbook and leaves the lighthouse with his family. The light shines out as the lighthouse is saying ‘goodbye.’

LighthouseThe best books are those that make you want to jump into them and live in their pages (happily ever after, of course) and bookshelf favorite Sophie Blackall does that beautifully here. I would never have thought I would feel wistful for the life of a lighthouse keeper, but Ms. Blackall’s love for her subject matter spills from every page and you can’t help but be caught up in it. Honestly, I had never given much thought at all to lighthouses and the people who maintained them, but now I will look at all of that differently, which is another mark of an excellent book. A note in the back of the book gives some more information about the history of lighthouse keeping and it was fascinating to read.

Ms. Blackall’s artwork, in Chinese ink and watercolor, is everything I have come to expect from her. It’s delicate, detailed and full of gorgeous imagery. During the time we spend with this lighthouse and its keepers, the seasons and the weather change, bringing new colors and even new animals to the landscape. The book itself is taller and thinner than the average picture book, which is brilliant for a book about lighthouses. The keeper’s life seems simple and satisfying and the ending, in which his job is replaced by a machine, definitely made me feel a little sad. It’s a wonderful book that I recommend to anyone, especially if they have an affinity or interest in lighthouses. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see her up for consideration for another Caldecott Medal for this one.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that there are so many people out there doing jobs that we never think about and it’s good to learn more about them.

Alma and How She Got Her Name

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Written and Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

Candlewick Press, 2018

Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela had a long name – too long, if you asked her.

The plot in a nutshell: A girl learns the origin of her name.

Alma tells her father that her name is too long and he gets a family photo album and sits down with her to tell her the story of her name. The first picture is of her grandmother, Sofia, who loved books and flowers and taught him how to read. Alma points out that she loves the same things and realizes that she is Sofia, too. Then he shows her Esperanza, her great-grandmother, who wanted to travel but never did. Alma tells her father that she hopes to see the world with him someday and sees that she’s Esperanza. Next, he comes to his father, José, who was an artist. Alma also loves drawing and recognizes being part of José, too. He shows her Pura, her great aunt, who had a strong belief in spirits. Alma says hello to the spirit of Pura. Finally, he reaches the picture of Candela, her other grandmother, who was an activist who fought for what she believed was right. Alma is happy to learn about her name and asks where ‘Alma’ came from. He tells her that she is the first Alma in their family, so she gets to determine her own legacy.

Author/illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal makes an impressive debut with this wonderful book that is about honoring your family legacy and recognizing their different impacts on who you are. There are many reasons to love this book, so you can take your pick when determining your personal favorite. I love that it’s a father and daughter story that shows a real closeness between the two characters. I love that it’s filled with images that show the family’s heritage (which appears to be from Peru, like the author). I love that Alma embraces the elements of her relatives that she sees in herself. My interpretation of her interaction with Pura is that she doesn’t see much in common with her, but she honors her memory all the same. It’s a beautiful message that you can love your family even when they may be different from you.

Esperanza

If those are all the places she wants to go, she’s gonna rack up those frequent flyer miles!

The illustrations were done in graphite, colored pencils and print transfers and it was no surprise to learn that some of the pictures of Alma’s relatives were based on pictures of Ms. Martinez-Neal’s own relatives. Alma is expressive and joyful in all that she learns about her namesakes and you can see that it also makes her feel closer to her father. In a note in the back of the book, the author explains the origin of her own name (which she also felt was too long when she was young) and encourages the reader to learn the story of their own name and think about the story that they would like to tell. I look forward to seeing more from this author in the future, because this one was a real winner!

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that your family and ancestors helped make you who you are, but it’s up to you to determine who you will be.

Walk on the Wild Side

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Written and Illustrated by Nicholas Oldland

Kids Can Press, 2015

There once was a bear, a moose and a beaver who loved adventures.

The plot in a nutshell: Three friends climb a mountain.

The bear, moose and beaver are friends who sometimes let their competitive natures get the best of them. One day, they plan to climb a mountain and their path to get there takes them into a valley, across a field, through a stream and over a canyon. While they rest and have a snack, they try to come up with ways make their climb more interesting. The beaver suggests turning their climb into a race, so they take off, running up the mountain. The moose takes the lead, but then a boulder in his path forces him to leap off the mountain. When the beaver doesn’t see the moose ahead, he tries to push himself faster, worried that he’s way behind. The bear hears the moose yelling for help and sees him hanging from a tree, so he tries to rescue him, but just ends up getting stuck in the tree as well. The beaver follows their calls for help and saves his friends. They come to the conclusion that having a race made it too interesting so they climb slower, exploring caves and fossils along the way. When they reach the top, they agree that working together rather than having a competition is the best way to play.

Walking

This doesn’t look like they’re having much fun.

Author/illustrator Nicholas Oldland comes from an artistic family. His mother was a painter and his father used her designs to create clothing and accessories that they sold in their Little Blue House shop in Canada and at their webstore, Hatley. They have both retired since and their sons are running the business now, with Nicholas creating all the new artwork. He’s taken some of that artwork and used it to create the Life in the Wild book series, featuring these same characters. The illustrations were done in PhotoShop, and they have a slick look with awesome mountain inspired colors. Keen eyes will spot a little red bird that seems to stick close to the group of friends throughout the story. I like the book’s lesson and the artwork is cute, but it came off a little emotionless. The characters have very little expression and it makes them seem less involved in what’s going on. Cute, but not a strong recommendation.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that competition can be fun, but if it is causing problems, cooperation may be a better alternative.

Telephone

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Written by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jen Corace

Chronicle Books, 2014

Tell Peter: Fly home for dinner.

The plot in a nutshell: A message goes through lots of changes as it gets passed along.

Peter’s mother asks a cardinal (carrying a baseball bat) to deliver her message to her son. But when the cardinal relays the message to his neighbor goose, he changes it to ‘Hit pop flies and homers.’ The goose, who is wearing an aviator’s cap, sends along the message, ‘Prop planes are for fliers.’ And so it goes, with each bird changing the message to something that seems more meaningful to them. Finally, a panicked looking yellow bird turns to the owl at end of the line and tells him a completely messed up message, about a giant lobster that breathes fire and rides a crocodile. The owl turns to Peter and tells him his mom is calling him home for dinner.

Bookshelf favorite Mac Barnett packs a lot of comedy into this fun and very short story. It’s a neat touch that each bird brings his own agenda into his re-crafting of the original message, showing that your own opinions and preferences follow you pretty much everywhere. I love the punch line of the owl giving Peter the correct message, even though it was miles away from what he was told. I expected a line like the one in the 1984 movie Johnny Dangerously, that uses a similar joke and has Johnny say, “I know this grapevine” to explain how he was able to extrapolate the right message. It gives you the idea that these birds pass along the wrong message on a regular basis, adding to the funny quotient.

Wire

I think I would be alarmed if I saw this lineup of birds over my house.

Jen Corace uses watercolor, ink, gouache and pencil to create the beautiful and colorful illustrations for this book, which ramp up the fun along the way. Each of the individual birds is a unique species and they are all wearing or carrying gear that shows the reader where his biases are leaning. There are also lots of fun little things to notice in the illustrations, such as the crocodiles who seem to be up to no good and the houses below the telephone line (where all the birds are standing) going about their daily business with no inkling of what’s going on above them. The book starts and ends with a picture of the whole street that shows the full telephone wire with all the birds and in the end, we can see Peter flying home. I enjoyed this one a bunch.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book it’s best to get your information from trusted sources, because some things lose a little (or a lot!) in the translation.

Big Words for Little Geniuses

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Written by Susan and James Patterson, illustrated by Hsinping Pan

Little, Brown and Company, 2017

Arachibutyrophobia
(Ah-RACK-ee-byoo-tee-ro-FO-bee-ya)
Arachibutyrophobia is the alarming fear of peanut butter sticking to the top of your mouth.

The plot in a nutshell: An introduction to new and exciting words.

A group of children and animals go through the alphabet in this book, sharing large and unusual words, most of which your little one (and maybe even you!) will likely not know. Most of the words are multi-syllabic and some of them are really fun words to say (such as whirligig and rapscallion). For each word, the book presents a pronunciation guide, a definition and an illustration to go with it. At the end of the book, there’s a double page spreads with another full alphabet list of all new big words.

Its a challenge to balance education and entertainment and I am a big fan of anything that manages to be successful at getting it just right. I’ve seen quite a few authors try to pull off both and somehow manage to not quite hit the mark on either. Although James Patterson is a very successful novelist already, with a record number of #1 best sellers (yes, he’s that James Patterson), this is the first book on which he collaborated with his wife, Susan. I love the words they’ve chosen, some of which are words you can incorporate into your everyday life and some of which may rarely be used again. In the process of learning them, though, kids will learn more about the subtlety of pronunciation and the fun of using cool words to express themselves.

Magnanimous

Rocket owners are generally a magnanimous crowd.

Artist Hsinping Pan used Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create the book’s pulchritudinous (the book’s P word) artwork, which is colorful and fun, with lots of kids, animals and fanciful landscapes to remind you that this is, at its core, a picture book. It never once loses its sense of fun, which is why it succeeds so well at achieving the perfect education/entertainment balance. When I shared it with my favorite four year old, she repeated all the words after I said them (without being prompted) and asked to read it again, which is the ultimate seal of approval. A follow-up book, called Cuddly Critters for Little Geniuses, is due out later this year and will introduce kids to exotic and not so well known animals, such as pangolins and spoonbills.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that you’re never too little (or too big, actually) to learn and enjoy big words.

And I Love You

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Written by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Steven Kellogg

Scholastic Press, 2010

Big forests love little trees.

The plot in a nutshell: A mother and son look at big and little things together.

As they walk along on their adventure, the little cat is amazed by all the big things he sees in the world around him and his mother draws his attention back to the small things that help make up or work in conjunction with the big things, always correlating it with love. Big fields, for example, love little flowers. Big seas love little shells. After every few of these, she pauses to add that she loves the little cat, too. There are even some not so likeable things, such as big dark streets that love little streetlamps or big sorrows that love little tears. The story ends as the mother cat tucks her little one into bed, ending with another declaration of love.

This book is a reissue of Big and Little, which was originally published in 1987 with illustrations by Mary Szilagyi. Bookshelf favorite Ruth Krauss brings her mix of whimsy and warmth to the poetic text of this book, but I can’t say that it ranks up there with my other favorites of hers. It is perhaps a little too simplistic, with only a few words per double page spread, which makes it a better recommendation for very young kids. I do like the comparisons between the big things and little things and having that be a reminder that they need each other to be at their best.

Big stories

Big stories love little words. And I love big stories.

This updated version features illustrations from Steven Kellogg. The mother cat is holding a book that reflects their surroundings and sometimes these books become part of the environment around them, such as one picture where the book becomes a boat on the water. The illustrations are colorful and fun, but I am not a fan of the creepy monkey emerging from the book with all the little monkeys coming out of his mouth. I mean, you don’t even need to see the picture to get what a weird concept that is, right? But overall, the central theme of the book is the connection between parents and kids and how their lives are intertwined with love. And that’s a message I never get tired of hearing.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is it’s always reassuring to remind your little ones how much they’re loved.