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.

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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.

How To

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Written and Illustrated by Julie Morstad

Simply Read Books, 2013

How to go fast

There are lots of ways to go fast, such as running or riding a scooter, and some ways to go slow, such as lying in the grass to look at butterflies. You can see the wind by flying kites and feel the breeze by going downhill on a bike. By crossing your feet together in the bathtub, you can be a mermaid and by banging on pots and pans, you can make music. There are many ways to make both sandwiches and friends. There are innovative ways to do things, such as looking at your shadow to see where you’re going or braiding your hair with someone else’s to stay close to them. And by doing all of these (and lots of other) things, you are showing yourself how to be happy.

Wash your face

And the ingredients in this face wash are all natural!

I was really intrigued by the title of this book, since it is so vague and open-ended. Even with no real expectations, I was surprised and delighted with this one. Author/illustrator Julie Morstad offers no real plot here. It’s just a collection of illustrations of children, demonstrating ways to do lots of different things, which doesn’t sound as compelling as it actually is. What makes it interesting is that some of the things are pretty straight forward, while others take an unusual approach to the activity. The way, for instance, that the kids here ‘wash their socks’ is to splash their socked feet in a rain puddle. And the way to ‘make a sandwich’ involves sofa cushions and other children stacked together. The artwork has a soft and beautiful vintage look and the children have wistful and focused expressions, as though they were considering the importance of their images. The ending page shows more free movement and conveys a quiet joy. It’s both silly and thought provoking and that takes some doing. And based on its title alone, a great way to close out our ‘How To’ month.

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that there are multiple ways to do just about anything and to be happiest, find the one that works for you.

How to Read a Story

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Written by Kate Messner, Illustrated by Mark Siegel

Chronicle Books, 2015

Step 1 – Find a story.

The main character takes us through all the steps to read a story, starting with finding the right book. Then you find a reading buddy and the perfect spot to settle in and read. You should take a good look at the book’s cover and maybe guess what might happen in the story. Once you open the book, you can start reading aloud, but make sure you don’t go too slow or too fast. Do appropriate voices for the different characters and don’t forget to show the pictures to your buddy. If you find a word you don’t know, try sounding it out or look at the pictures for context clues. Get excited when you read the exciting parts and say, “The end” when you come to the end. When you get to the end, you’re done! Unless, of course, you want to go back and read it again.

Turn the page

This kid is getting INTO this story!

Author Kate Messner knows that there’s a difference in knowing how to read and knowing how to read a story and I love the way she breaks it down here. It’s a love letter to the process of sharing a good book with someone you love and it made me super nostalgic for the days of reading chapter books with my kids. The main character is a boy who chooses his dog as his reading buddy. Mark Siegel’s colorful illustrations, in ink and watercolor, show us a small crowd of people gathering around the boy as he reads the book, clearly drawn in by his storytelling. I love this aspect of the book, especially because one two-page spread shows us these people from his point of view (where we get to be the reader) and then from their point of view (where we get to be the listener). It’s a bright and cheerful celebration of reading and I will always be in favor of that.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that it takes some effort to read a story and it’s almost always worth the time.