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Alexander, Who’s Not (Do you hear me? I mean it!) Going to Move

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Written by Judith Viorst, Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (in the style of Ray Cruz)

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1995

They can’t make me pack my baseball mitt or my I LOVE DINOSAURS sweatshirt or my cowboy boots.

The plot in a nutshell:  A boy resists moving away.

Alexander’s whole family is packing up to move to a new home, but he insists that he is not moving. The family is having to relocate due to his father’s new job and he learns that there are neighbors near their new house that are the same ages as his brothers, but no one that’s his age. He thinks about how he could never replace his best friend or his soccer team. His parents tell him he’ll make new friends and get used to his new town, but he still insists that he’s not going anywhere. He thinks about who he could live with and still stay in his own hometown. He goes to visit all the special places that mean something to him and says goodbye to all his friends and neighbors, although he is convinced he will find a way to stay. He considers hiding when the time comes for them to leave. His parents tell him some good things about moving and gradually he warms up to the idea, but he while he’s finally packing up to move, he thinks to himself that once they move there, they will need to stay, because he is definitely never moving again.

This is the third book in Judith Viorst’s Alexander series, although these characters do show up in other books by the author. She is taking the age old advice to write about what you know, as these characters are based on (and named after) her own three sons. Although this is the third in the series, it was published almost 20 years after the second and there would be another 19 years before she would write the fourth book. I loved the original book because of its genuine voice and the way it managed to be both funny and heartwarming. This book is no different, echoing the sentiments of thousands of kids who have been uprooted from homes and neighborhoods they loved. You feel for poor Alexander, even while you know that, just as his parents predict, everything is going to be fine in their new home.

Store

Even your not-so-great memories of a place can be precious when you’re faced with the prospect of leaving it forever.

The original illustrator of the first two books, Ray Cruz, passed away in 1988 and a note in the front of the book acknowledges his work on the first two books and his contributions to the development of art for this one, although he was unable to complete it. Instead, the artwork was done by Robin Preiss Glasser, mimicking Mr. Cruz’s artistic style. I have practically no skill at drawing and my level of admiration for an artist skyrockets when I see them draw in someone else’s style, which just seems like it would be so difficult to do. The illustrations here are in black and write line drawings and while they do perfectly capture the same characters from the original books, Ms. Preiss Glasser’s wonderful style and use of detail in the line work comes through, especially in the drawing of Alexander’s imagined life with a neighboring family of all girls. We loved speaking with her during the Inspiration Day event and hearing her speak about her inspirations for the Fancy Nancy series.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that change is difficult and postponing the inevitable can sometimes just make it harder.

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Sam, the Most Scaredy-Cat Kid in the World

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Written and Illustrated by Mo Willems

Hyperion Books for Children, 2017

Sam was the most scaredy-cat kid in the whole world.

The plot in a nutshell: An easily frightened boy makes a new friend.

Sam is afraid of lots of things, but his friend Leonardo (who is a monster) is not one of them. One day, he meets a girl named Kerry and her monster friend, Frankenthaler. He is terrified, but surprisingly, it’s the girl and not the monster that scares him (and she’s just as scared of Sam). The monsters think about it and then leave the two kids to sort it out on their own. Sam and Kerry discover they have lots in common, such as fear of spiders and love of ice cream. They also learn the opinions they have that are different, such as Sam’s love for tuna fish sandwiches and Kerry’s enjoyment of loud music. Leonardo and Frankenthaler return to see how it’s going and instead of two scared kids, they find two good friends and the four of them play together.

More than a decade later, author/illustrator Mo Willems brings back the characters of Leonardo and Sam from Leonardo the Terrible Monster and this time, we’re focusing more on Sam. We get to see that he has a lot of common childhood fears, yet he is friends with a monster, which is a good reminder that fear is a very individual thing. I love that Leonardo and Frankenthaler (what a great name!) leave the two scared kids alone to sort out their issues. Sometimes, monsters (and well-meaning adults) only get in the way and it’s good for kids to learn problem solving skills of their own.

Things in common

I’d go see that movie, though.

The book itself is extra tall and thin, with large print that takes up the majority of the space on many pages. The illustrations are presented without backgrounds, so that you can focus on the characters and what they are doing and saying. As with most of his books, Mr. Willems has included some funny moments in here, too, such as the familiar pigeon popping out of a jack-in-the-box toy and the two monsters returning with cups of takeout coffee (which just seems funny for monsters to do). This is a worthy sequel to an already great book.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that every stranger has the potential to be your next best friend.

Yay, You!

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Written and Illustrated by Sandra Boynton

Simon & Schuster, 2013

Yay, you!

You did it! You’re done!

You made it! You’re through!

The plot in a nutshell:  A celebration of a milestone and a look to the future.

The book starts with a picture of a bear on top of a mountain, celebrating a recent achievement. Then the question of ‘what next?’ is posed and his smile slips a little. It’s suggested that the best plan is to examine all the choices and come up with a plan that works for you. It goes on to examine the different paths you can take and the ways you can get there. You’re urged to be introspective and think about your honest preferences in where you live, what you do and who you surround yourself with. There’s a reminder that it’s a good idea to stop and appreciate the small things once in a while and an encouraging ending that whatever you do will be wonderful, because it’s you doing it.

Bookshelf favorite Sandra Boynton gives us a lot of wisdom wrapped up in easy to read rhymes and her traditional whimsical animal drawings. It would be almost impossible to review this book and not draw a comparison to the Dr. Seuss classic, Oh, the Places You’ll Go. They’re both great gifts for recent graduates or for anyone who may find themselves at one of life’s crossroads. In fact, the book even comes with a ‘Congratulations!’ gift tag on the opening page, with a space to write who the gift is to and from.  Although it may be geared toward adults, the rhymes and illustrations are still perfect for kids and it’s never too early to instill the message to make life choices based on your true judgement.

Busy

This office setup does not look like a good ergonomic situation.

It would be easy for a book like this to feel trite, but Ms. Boynton never lets that happen. She applies her offbeat sense of humor and comical style to both the pictures and the text, and suggests that every possible path can be a good one, as long as it works for you. There’s no judgement, for instance, in the comparison between the person who is climbing a mountain and the one who is simply reading about mountains (while enjoying delicious chocolate).  Having been a fan of hers for well over half my life, it was a particular thrill to meet her at Inspiration Day.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that when making plans for the rest of your life, it’s important to look at what you really want and go with your heart.

The Bear Who Wasn’t There

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Written and Illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Roaring Brook Press, 2016

This is the story of the Bear who wasn’t there.

The plot in a nutshell: A bear fails to show up for his own book.

Duck takes center stage right away, pointing out that bears cannot be trusted and offering to tell a duck story instead. Other animals pop in, helping the reader look for the bear (over the protests of the duck). A note leads us to a door where we might find the bear, but instead, it’s the door to a bathroom. While the duck continues to try to distract us, we continue to look for the bear and the author joins the search along the way, sure she drew a bear in here somewhere. Just when we think we’ve found him, it turns to be the duck in a bear costume so the bear really isn’t there. (Or is he?)

Bird Pyramid

I admire that turtle’s ability to balance a totally lopsided pyramid.

Author/illustrator LeUyen Pham seems to be having a wonderful time in this book, knocking down that fourth wall and making the reader an integral part of the story. As I’ve said before, it’s not easy to do that well but she makes it seem effortless. Nothing about it ever feels forced and the humor builds perfectly. Despite being an antagonist character, Duck is thoroughly likeable and you come away from the book kind of interested in hearing his story and I’ll be keeping my eyes out for a potential future book starring Duck.

The illustrations match the book’s humor, with minimal backgrounds and comically drawn animals. On the book’s jacket, Ms. Pham states that she has created over 70 books and none of them featured bears, which I’m assuming may have been an inspiration for this silly story. I love the version of herself that she’s included in the book. At the Inspiration Day event this past weekend, she was drawing portraits of fans in their books. This was the book that I had signed and she drew me smiling at Duck as he’s yelling, “Buy duck books!” If Ms. Pham has anything to do with them, you can count me in on that, Duck.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that sometimes looking for something can be a very entertaining part of your relationship with it.

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.

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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.