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Walk On

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Written and Illustrated by Marla Frazee

Harcourt, Inc., 2006

Is sitting there on your bottom getting boring?

The plot in a nutshell:  Lessons on how to start walking.

If you’re a baby and you’re tired of just sitting around, maybe it’s time to start walking. The first step, of course, is to stand up. It’s best to find something to support yourself until you’re ready to stand without support. Once you’re standing, find your balance and then let go of your support and stand all on your own. And don’t worry about falling down. That happens to everyone.  When you’re ready to go to the next level, make sure you’re ready and your surroundings are prepared, then look straight ahead and start by taking that first step, then the next and before you know it, you’re walking!

Bookshelf favorite Marla Frazee scores again in this wonderful and motivating book, which is delightfully relevant to anyone in the process of trying something new. I love the framework of literal first steps to symbolize the important things you need to do before any major endeavor, such as finding balance, leaning on others for support until you’re ready to go it alone and of course, getting back up from the inevitable falls. With all that in mind, however, I imagine that the book is also very appealing to kids, especially those who have younger siblings learning to walk.

Stand up

Hang in there, Baby!

The illustrations, done in pencil and gouache, are as adorable as I have come to expect from Ms. Frazee, who has an amazing ability to show depth of expression in this baby’s face. We see lots of familiar emotions reflected here, including fear, frustration, determination, confidence and the joy of accomplishment. I don’t think it’s an accident that on the final page, the baby is walking away from the reader, gently reminding parents that every milestone moves your baby toward to the goal of independence, which also moves them away from you. I really enjoyed this book and its message.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that every big accomplishment starts with one single decision to get moving.

If Big Can, I Can

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Written by Beth Shoshan, Illustrated by Petra Brown

Parragon, 2007

If Big can run…then I can run.

The plot in a nutshell: A koala muses about the size difference between himself and his big bear friend.

Koala notes that he can’t run as fast as Big Bear or jump as far. Koala can swing and climb, but not as high or as far as Big Bear can. He can play with Big Bear, but sometimes he gets into predicaments because he’s so much smaller. But then again, he thinks, there are small places that he can go where Big Bear can’t follow and in those places, he can do everything better and faster and higher than anyone. But he has to do them alone, which isn’t as much fun. So he and Big Bear do what they each can do and they do them together.

Author Beth Shoshan takes a fun look at friendships and the way we perceive differences, especially for those who can’t help drawing comparisons between themselves and their friends. You can tell that Koala is feeling bad that he can’t do everything as well as Big Bear and that it sometimes bothers him. And you can also see that he blossoms when he’s on his own and isn’t comparing himself to anyone else. The real beauty of the story is in the ending when he realizes that being with his friend is more valuable to him than feeling like he’s the best at everything, and that realization makes him give up some of that sense of competition so that he can be happier.

Tree

Koala is good at being adorable.

Illustrator Petra Brown does a wonderful job of showing us the way these characters are feeling and in the illustrations, while we are looking at Koala, it’s easy to miss that Big Bear is completely oblivious to the ‘limitations’ of his friend. That’s a great detail, because it’s often the case that the person we’re trying to live up to already sees us as perfectly wonderful exactly as we are and has no idea that we are drawing ourselves up short. I added names Koala and Big Bear in the summary, but the book’s nameless narrator just refers to his friend as ‘Big’ in the book’s text, making this book easy to translate to any set of people where one feels smaller than the other. It’s really a great story.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that it’s more important to enjoy spending time with a friend than it is to do everything the same as them.

Staying Home Alone on a Rainy Day

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Written and Illustrated by Chihiro Iwasaki

McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968

Allison felt so grown up, staying home alone. For the first time, she had the whole house to herself.

The plot in a nutshell: A girl is home alone during a storm.

Allison’s mother runs to the store and tells her to not let anyone in while she’s gone. As soon as she leaves, a thunderstorm starts up and everything is dark and loud. Allison looks out the window, but only sees a balloon blowing by in the wind. She tries to play with her cat, but he runs away and hides under the piano. She then tries to play piano but the storm is too loud. The telephone rings and she is afraid to answer it. She watches the mother and baby fish swimming in the fishbowl and misses her mother. She draws pictures on the fogged window and then notices the sun coming out. Through the window, she sees her mother coming home, running to the door.

Hiding

Curtains are always good to hide behind.

I was familiar with author/illustrator Chihiro Iwasaki from one of my favorite childhood books, The Crane Maiden, which she illustrated. I picked this one up at a used book store, having recognized her style in the cover. This story stands as a stark contrast to lots of contemporary books in which there are lots of characters, intricate plots and detailed artwork. In this story, nothing actually happens. Time passes and a girl waits. But, of course, it’s not a ‘nothing’ to her as she experiences her first time alone and that’s what the book is really about. It’s a reminder that your experiences all have value.

An interesting facet of the artwork is that some of the illustrations show us drawings of Allison or the things she sees, such as the piano or the balloon. Others, though, are more conceptual, including several pages with wisps of color and nothing recognizable on the page. Allison seems somehow smaller and more vulnerable because she is drawn as somewhat delicate and fragile. It makes you share her sense of relief when her mother returns. I’d be curious to see what modern kids think of books like this, which seem ethereal and dreamlike amid the concrete and busy storylines of most modern picture books.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that doing something new can be a little scary, but with a little creativity and courage, you can get through it.

Miss Maple’s Seeds

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Written and Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler

Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013

On a bright August morning, Miss Maple flies home.

The plot in a nutshell: A tiny woman teaches seeds how to grow.

Miss Maple has spent the summer collecting orphan seeds that got lost during the spring planting. A flock of birds bring them to her home in the maple tree, where she cares for the seeds and teaches them what they need to know. She shows them the river banks, grasslands and gardens where they will grow and gives them advice. She reads to them at night and teaches them to welcome the rain, which will help them grow. When the time comes, she sends the seeds off to find their new homes and they say goodbye as they part. As she looks out across the land, she muses that the seeds are very small, but the biggest trees were also once tiny seeds. Then she prepares to start the process over again with a new batch of seeds.

This delightfully whimsical story from author/illustrator Eliza Wheeler is sure to be a favorite of anyone who loves plants or flowers. There’s an aura of mystery surrounding Miss Maple because we are never told exactly who or what she is. She may be a fairy, but she certainly doesn’t have the traditional appearance of one and she doesn’t appear to have any magic abilities. She’s small enough to fit inside a leaf and ride on the back of a bird but she dresses and looks very much like a regular woman. It leaves the reader with the impression that anyone can take responsibility for orphan seeds and help them to grow. I imagine some kids will be inspired to try following her lead.

Water lanterns

The little seeds get a free boat ride!

The artwork is done with dip pens, India ink and watercolor, in all the gorgeous colors of nature. One page features drawings of many different types of seeds, with each seed identified. I have to admit that I recognized some of them but couldn’t have told you before that they were seeds, so I really appreciated the inclusion of this page in the book. Of course, it’s easy to draw parallels between caring for these seeds and raising children, which is likely to make you a little wistful when Miss Maple says goodbye to her seeds and muses on their futures.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that everyone benefits from a little education and encouragement.

Night Animals

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Written and Illustrated by Gianna Marino

Viking, 2015

Hey Possum, what are you doing in there?

The plot in a nutshell:  Animals hide from other night animals.

Possum tells Skunk that he is hiding from night animals and Skunk joins him. When their tree starts to feel too small, they strike out in search of a better place to hide and meet a wolf, running away from something following him. The something turns out to be a bear, who warns them that something huge is on its way. The four panicked animals start to run, but a bat from above tells them to stop and asks why they’re afraid. When they tell him that they fear night animals, the bat points out that they are all night animals. Suddenly, a flashlight from a nearby tent illuminates all the animals and the campers and animals scatter in different directions.

Light

The concept of supposedly frightening things being afraid of other supposedly frightening things is not strictly a new idea, but it’s given a fresh coat of fun in this clever book from author/illustrator Gianna Marino. It’s easy for kids to imagine that any animals who roam around at night are up to no good, so here we see Possum experiencing that same fear, even though he’s actually a nocturnal animal himself. The gouache and ink illustrations on mostly black background manage to keep the tone light and comic. When wolf joins the crowd, we see Skunk let loose a little spray and Possum plays dead for most of the subsequent pages. And the punch line that all these frightened animals are terrifying to the nearby campers is just a reminder that even those who are scary to others can be scared themselves. The inside cover even features some bonus facts about the featured animals. This could be a good book for dealing with fear of the dark or the unknown.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that you should take a moment to think about something that scares you, to consider whether you really need to be scared at all.

Hippos Go Berserk!

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Written and Illustrated by Sandra Boynton

Aladdin Paperbacks, 1977

One hippo, all alone, calls two hippos on the phone.

The plot in a nutshell:  Lots of hippos enjoy a party.

The two hippos come over to keep the first one company.  Then three more hippos arrive, bringing four with them. The next five hippos come a little overdressed and then another six show up with a funny blue monster. While seven more hippos come in through the front door, eight more sneak in the back door. Nine hippos come to help out with the party and then the party is in full swing and lasts all night. In the morning, all the various groups leave to go home and the original hippo misses his 44 guests.

We had this book, from bookshelf favorite Sandra Boynton, when our kids were young and it was a big hit. Perhaps that may have been because whenever we reached the part of the book where all the hippos have arrived at the party and they all ‘go berserk,’ we would do likewise. (I sometimes forgot that the purpose of reading bedtime books was to settle the kids down.) But mostly we loved it because it was just a super fun book with a great rhyme scheme that was delightfully satisfying to read aloud.

Hippo Party

These hippos are getting ready to tear it up.

As the hippos leave, Ms. Boynton twists the rhyme a little by actually rhyming the penultimate words on each page, forcing the reader to vary their meter a little. Some reviewers found that frustrating (or tried to point it out as a mistake) but I loved it. To me, it always felt like a subtle little nudge to play around with structure and not always do what was expected. This is so much more than just a counting book.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is the more, the merrier.

Gary

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Written and Illustrated by Leila Rudge

Candlewick Press, 2016

Most of the time, Gary was just like the other racing pigeons.

The plot in a nutshell: A non-flying homing pigeon learns to travel.

Gary lives with a group of racing pigeons, but he never does any racing himself because he can’t fly. He keeps a scrapbook of mementoes from places that the other birds have been and loves listening to them talk about their travels. One night, he and his scrapbook fall off his perch into the travel basket and are inadvertently taken along on the race day trip. All the other pigeons fly away home, but Gary is stuck in the city. As Gary looks though his scrapbook, he realizes that the maps and notes in his scrapbook can help him find his way back. He takes a bus back to his home and now has adventure stories of his own.

Author/illustrator Leila Rudge gives us a scrappy little character with Gary. We don’t learn what limitation he has that keeps him from flying and there’s something I really like about that. It’s a good reminder that people can have limitations that aren’t readily apparent, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Gary has a great attitude, doing what he can to be a part of the racing team by collecting memorabilia and keeping a scrapbook, without ever feeling sorry for himself. When he finds himself lost and alone in the city, he admirably uses his resources to solve the situation for himself.

Bus

I wonder if he had to pay full bus fare.

The mixed media illustrations carry the scrapbook motif into the actual story, presenting several pages with detailed collages that resemble scrapbook pages. When Gary makes his way home, the illustrations show us his journey as a two-page scrapbook spread and while I like the presentation, I wish it had gone into more detail. I feel like this was a real missed opportunity where we could have seen him experiencing travel and collecting mementoes of his own and it felt like part of the story was missing. But overall, the story’s message is wonderful and Gary’s character is lovably upbeat.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that there are almost always resources around you to help you with any goal, if you keep your wits enough to use them.