Wednesday, May 12, 2010

City Dog, Country Frog

Booklist starred (March 15, 2010 (Vol. 106, No. 14))
Preschool-Grade 2. The book begins in spring. City Dog comes to the country, thrilled to run without a leash. Something stops him—Country Frog. Frog’s waiting for a friend: “But you’ll do.” After that the duo plays together, and Frog teaches Dog about splashing and croaking. In the summer, City Dog returns and runs to see Frog. Now it’s his turn to teach Frog games, replete with sniffing, fetching, and barking. In the fall, Country Frog is tired. “Maybe we can play remembering games.” And that’s what they do, remembering jumping and splashing, sniffing and barking. In the winter, snow is everywhere, but Frog is gone. When spring returns, a chipmunk comes across City Dog. “What are you doing?” she asks. City Dog replies sadly, “Waiting for a friend.” Then he smiles a “froggy” smile and adds, “But you’ll do.” It’s hard to imagine a picture book that more consistently (and touchingly) hits all the right notes. Willems, never one to overwrite, is gracefully spare here, making every word count. That leaves room for Muth’s watercolors, richly seasonal, which fill each page. The pictures are imbued with hope and happiness, leaving and longing. This wonderful collaboration makes a significant impact with subtlety and wit. Adults and children will each take away something of their own.

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Grades 4-8. Feisty Meggy, sent from her mother’s village to live in London with the father she has never known, struggles with his evident disappointment when they meet. Not only lame, she is not the son he had expected. Initially, Meggy finds the city a horrible place, but slowly she begins to change her mind after making a few friends and helping her father a little with his alchemy work. When she learns that he has sold arsenic to men who intend to poison their master, she frantically seeks a way to save both the man from his murderers and her father from the law. An author’s note discusses the Elizabethan era, including its language, the publication of broadsides, the practice of alchemy, and lingering medieval attitudes toward disabled people. Because so many historical novels set in this period feature girls of royal or noble lineage, it’s bracing to meet Meg, who empties her own chamber pot into the ditch outside her door and trades strings of creative Elizabethan insults with Roger, her best friend. Writing with admirable economy and a lively ability to re-create the past believably, Cushman creates a memorable portrayal of a troubled, rather mulish girl who begins to use her strong will in positive ways.

The Eraserheads

Booklist (January 1, 2010 (Vol. 106, No. 9))
Preschool-Grade 2. The creators of Max’s Words (2006) and Max’s Dragon (2008) collaborate again in this picture-book fantasy that begins in a very mundane, everyday setting: at a desk where a boy struggles with his homework. Three expressive, animal-shaped erasers help by rubbing out mistakes: a crocodile, who is “good with numbers”; an owl, who likes letters and words; and a pig with a big appetite, who will erase “just about anything.” The wild adventures begin when the boy ditches his lessons and begins to draw, and the erasers find themselves whisked perilously through each imagined world. They’re nearly drowned by a tidal wave from a beach scene and chased by wild animals until the crocodile, with some strategic erasing, sends a message to the boy, who sketches a boat and floats the gang safely in a calm sea. Banks folds reassuring messages about mistakes into this inventively illustrated title that, like David Wiesner’s Three Pigs (2001) and Mordicai Gerstein’s A Book (2009), plays with conventional story borders and may inspire kids to sail off on their own imagined escapades.

Big Kicks

Booklist starred (September 1, 2008 (Vol. 105, No. 1))
Preschool-Grade 3. Biggie Bear is something of a loner whose life is centered around his love of jazz and his stamp collecting. But the quiet is interrupted when a local soccer team knocks at his door. Fluff the Duck, Smelly Smell Skunk, et al., are looking for a new team member: a big one. They need someone with a big kick, someone big and brave, someone with a big brain. We need someone who doesn’t stink, says Smelly. Biggie demurs. He has never played before. However, with assurances that he is big and the ball is little, Biggie gives it a go. It doesn’t go very well. An amusing two-page spread shows Biggie all over the field as he tries to kick and stop the ball. It’s only after he sees a stamp on the ground, stops to pick it up, and the ball bounces off his head to the goal, that success is assured. A very strong story combines with delightful digital artwork that is vibrant without being garish and simple without being simplistic. In fact, there is so much to see in each spread (to say nothing of the varied and clever stamp-filled endpapers) that kids will continue looking this over after the first couple of reads. This also has a great message about being yourself yet still finding ways to fit in.