Archive for January, 2011

Finally recovered from the holidays (except for those pesky top-of-the-cupboard decorations), I’m getting back on track with my children’s book features. I’m also catching up on a little reading, including an entire month’s worth of the Sunday New York Times. I was surprised to discover this review of “Olivia Goes to Venice” in the January 16 edition of the New York Times Book Review.

I have to admit, I had been feeling a tad guilty about my criticisms of Ian Falconer’s most recent title. Especially considering that everything else that had been written about the book after its publication was immediate and unquestioning praise. So, who was I to knock Falconer’s exuberant use of color and photography?

Well, I’ve finally found someone who agrees with me. Journalism Jessica Bruder writes:

“Olivia’s new worldliness, however, comes at a price. The old Olivia was a D.I.Y. darling. She relied on creativity and pluck to create the fabulous scenes of her dreams. She tamed lions in ‘Olivia Saves the Circus’ and pulled together a cacophonous, one-pig orchestra in ‘Olivia Forms a Band.’ But in ‘Olivia Goes to Venice,’ she consumes, rather than creates, the world around her. So it’s hard to hear her growing litany of demands, as well as the ‘edge of hysteria in her voice’ when she begs, ‘Oh, please — Oh, Please, Mother — can’t we live in a palazzo on the Grand Canal?'”


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For someone who loves children’s books as much as I do, it’s rather pathetic how little time my daughters and I have spent inside a library. In fact, we’ve been just twice in Eloise’s three years. Our most recent visit lasted less than 10 minutes – about 30 seconds after settling into the children’s section, my girls were racing in opposite directions through the stacks, screeching back and forth in high-pitch tones like dolphins using echolocation. With a girl under each arm, I left embarrassed.

In all honesty, though, the apples don’t fall far from the tree. I have more than a handful of memories of being asked to leave the library after particularly disruptive behavior on the part of my younger sisters and myself (yelling, running and hair-pulling were not uncommon).

When I came across Michelle Knudsen’s “Library Lion,” I was fondly reminded of those trouble-making days. I felt an immediate kinship with the author’s curious lion, who wanders into the library one day and has trouble following the rules.

When the lion walks through the library’s front doors, the circulation desk attendant, Mr. McBee, is startled by the big cat’s presence. While the lion finds a comfortable place to enjoy the children’s story hour, Mr. McBee goes running to the office of head librarian Miss Merriweather. She, however, is not fazed by her assistant’s report but does chastise Mr. McBee for running in the library.

“But there’s a lion!” said Mr. McBee. “In the library!”

“Is he breaking any rules?” asked Miss Merriweather. She was very particular about rule breaking.

“Well, no,” said Mr. McBee. “Not really,”

“Then leave him be.”

And so, the lion is allowed to sit through story hour. But when the books are closed and the children all get up to leave, he roars in protest. Miss Merriweather, of course, is not happy. The lion is informed that he will only be allowed back at the library if he can learn to keep quiet.

The lion returns the next day a model patron. In fact, he becomes a beloved fixture at the library, helping Miss Merriweather with dusting and stamp licking and helping children reach books on the top shelves. He wins over everyone – everyone except Mr. McBee, that is:

“Lions, he thought, could not understand rules. They did not belong in a library.”

Mr. McBee is eager for an excuse to banish the lion once and for all. He’s certain he has found just cause when the lion comes tearing down the hall and lets out his loudest roar right in Mr. McBee’s face. After dishing out a harsh reprimand, Mr. McBee takes off toward Miss Merriweather’s office intent on tattling only to find that Miss Merriweather had fallen and broken her arm, hence the lion’s urgency.

Before anyone can thank the lion, he leaves, certain his rule breaking has made him unwelcome. Days go by, and Miss Merriweather and the rest of the patrons miss him sorely. His conscience heavy, Mr. McBee tracks down the sulking lion and offers an olive branch.

“I thought you might like to know,” said Mr. McBee, “That there’s a new rule at the library. No roaring allowed, unless you have a very good reason – say, if you’re trying to help a friend who’s been hurt, for example.”

To everyone’s delight, the lion returns to the library the next day.

Libraries, with their insistence on quiet and decorum, are often intimidating places for children. Knudsen’s lion embodies young readers’ struggle to adhere to the rules in the midst of their excitement at exploring this novel place. The lion’s redemption gives a child hope that they, too, have a place at the library, even if they do slip up once or twice.

Prior to writing and editing children’s books, Knudsen worked in libraries in New York City and Ithaca, New York. One imagines that her experiences in the field (including rule enforcement) have likely influenced her work. In an interview on a fellow author’s blog, Knudsen says, “We did occasionally get animal visitors at the Cornell library – birds, squirrels, the occasional dog that got tired of waiting for its owner to come back out – but never any lions, I’m fairly certain.”

Like many of us, both Knudsen and illustrator Kevin Hawkes have treasured memories of childhood days spent at the library. Hawkes, who grew up in a roving military family, says the one constant of his youth was the feeling of home he found in libraries he visited in each new city.

“Every library in the world smells the same – they all smell like old books,” he said in a YouTube video about the book. “I could go to the library and see all of my friends there – different books that I had read at various places in my life. And it was a very comforting experience.”

Using acrylic paints and pencil, Hawkes has crafted timeless illustrations that honor our ubiquitous reverence for libraries. The soft color palette makes me think of the muted spines of old books. His rendering of Knudsen’s lion is both huggably sweet and nobly stoic, immediately bringing to mind the marble lions guarding the New York Public Library.

Knudsen’s endearing story, paired with Hawkes’ charming images, result in a library etiquette manual served with a spoonful of sugar. When I read the book aloud, I editorialize a bit, taking extra pains to emphasize the moral of the story: “Oh, that poor lion. He has to sit outside in the cold, cold rain because he yelled and ran in the library. He’s sooo sad.” Maybe with a few dozen more readings our family will be prepared for a return trip to the library.

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I LOVE Tom Lichtenheld!

My daughter Eloise and I rarely share a favorite picture book – I still cringe thinking of her “Cat and the Hat” obsessed stage.  But when it comes to Tom Lichtenheld, we’re always on the same page. Around our house these days, “Bridget’s Beret” is consistently at the top of the stack, and it’s usually followed by Lichtenheld’s “What Are You So Grumpy About?”

At the age of 2-almost-3, Eloise isn’t able to fully articulate exactly what it is about these books that hold her captivated, but I suspect the reasons are keeping with what originally led Lichtenheld to a career in illustration. His book jacket reads:

“Tom Lichtenheld is drawn to drawing. And puns. And alliteration. Ever since he discovered that creating children’s books lets him get away with all three at once, he’s been in hog heaven.”

Lichtenheld’s illustrations are the realized potential of every box of crayons you ever opened as a child – saturated in rich color, detailed in content and full of energy. His puns and other forms of humor are right up my alley – the wittiest children’s author around as far as I’m concerned. As for alliteration, Eloise just can’t resist the fun of repeating the double B’s in this book’s title.

“Bridget’s Beret” chronicles the journey of Bridget, a talented young artist whose cherished black beret is blown away – mid brushstroke – by the wind one day. She searches high and low for the beloved chapeau but to no avail. And without it, she fears she’s lost her ability to draw.

After several days of moping, Bridget reluctantly agrees to make a sign for her sister’s lemonade stand but grumpily warns: “No drawing.” Once she has paint and brush in hand, however, Bridget finds there’s no containing her artistic inspiration.

As someone who frequently loses prized possessions (and has only once recovered one), I’m relieved to say this book has a happy ending. Bridget regains her self-confidence and conquers artist’s block all without the aid of her beret, but her dear dog recovers the treasured hat and all is as it should be. (To find out what really happened to Bridget’s beret, visit Lichtenheld’s website and take a look at “The Stray Beret,” a two-page spread of illustrations omitted from the book.)

Lichtenheld refers to “Bridget’s Beret” as his answer to the Fancy Nancy series. In an incredibly interesting article for his publisher’s blog, Lichtenheld describes an authors and educators luncheon he attended at which he first learned of Jane O’Connor’s wildly popular debut in children’s literature:

“I’m not a raving feminist and I don’t begrudge any book that gets kids to read, regardless of subject matter, but I was surprised by the audience’s positive reaction to this new book. These were educators, mostly women, praising a story about a little girl who completely defined herself in terms of traditional feminine trappings. Pink ones, no less. Rather than rant or turn my breakfast into sour grapes, I decided to take some inspiration from the experience.”

The result was “Bridget’s Beret,” Lichtenheld’s first book aimed at a female audience. Previous books, including “Everything I Know About Pirates,” slanted more toward to interests of his peg-leg and eyepatch-obsessed nephew, Adam.

With “Bridget’s Beret,” however, Lichtenheld was certain to make his protagonist a “girl of substance beyond her appearance.” What I admire about Bridget are her looks of determination, air of confidence and the fact that she takes herself and her art seriously.

Lichtenheld reveals that he based the character on his niece, Madeline, with whom he often paints and draws. He says his books are, in general, written with a specific child in mind, either as the subject or the audience:

“For inspiration, I have a bunch of photos of kids on my wall. Whenever I’m stuck for an idea, I look at one of those photographs and think to myself, ‘What would make THAT kid laugh?’”

Miraculously, what Lichtenheld ends up with is as entertaining for the adult reader as it is for his target audience of 4-to-8-year-olds. Here’s my favorite bit of wit from “Bridget’s Beret:”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this French turn of phrase, “Je ne sais quoi” literally translates as “I don’t know what.”

Prior to “Bridget’s Beret,” Lichtenheld wrote books he refers to as “encyclopedias of silliness,” or books lacking a traditional narrative with a plot, hero and moral. “What Are You So Grumpy About?,” the other Lichtenheld title in our home library, certainly qualifies in this category. Every square inch of this book is sheer goofiness, from the endpapers to tiny details in the illustrations to the author’s biography on the dust jacket.

See the concrete smirking? Admit it, you blame the sidewalk, too.

The inspiration for “What Are You So Grumpy About?” came from a plane ride the author spent sitting next to a particularly ill-tempered man. I can just imagine Lichtenheld biting his tongue to keep from asking this passenger what put him in such a foul mood. What came about instead was this series of possible explanations:

I’m amazed by the authenticity with which Lichtenheld is able to think and write from a child’s perspective (is there’s anything worse than touching food?) while at the same time humoring our adult frustrations (yes, cleaning dog snot on the patio door IS maddening!)

Many of these hilarious spreads were sketched before Lichtenheld even deplaned. On his website, he offers an amazing behind-the scenes look at how he turned these quick sketches into finished illustrations. Using his pencil drawings, Lichtenheld creates black line art, which he prints on watercolor paper. “It’s kind of like a home-made coloring book,” he says.” He then layers watercolor paints and colored pencil to achieve the finished product.

As an illustrator, Lichtenheld also had several successful collaborations with author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, including the New York Times Bestseller “Duck! Rabbit!” You’ve also seen his works on the shelves in the form of “Shark vs. Train,” created with author Chris Barton. In addition to “Bridget’s Beret” and “What Are You So Grumpy About?,” Lichtenheld has a handful of other solo projects, including his most recent: “Cloudette.”

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