Hello and welcome to Bookcase Bizzaro, a monthly page where I highlight my KidLit recommendations for you and your kids…yes you, because shouldn’t everyone be reading more KidLit? (I thought so.)
As the proud chosen aunt of an active and engaged one-year old, I’ve just been given the greatest job in the world: to recommend books for this kid from now until forever. I mean…wow. What an honour! Where to start? Because this kid’s so young, I have no idea what kinds of books she’ll like but I do have a few guiding principles: present a wide range of materials, go with where the child’s interests are and build from there, modify choices as new interests emerge and always, ALWAYS indoctrinate…I mean…encourage a love of dragons. (Joking.)
Selections will change as the kids in my life age up. Right now, the focus is on board books and picture books plus one middle grade recommendation because I write middle grade fiction and love to read it. As an added bonus, I’ve got a great co-host lined up to discuss picture books – 4 new titles each month.
I also want to share a Browne family tradition with you: Books to Grow Into. When I was a young writerlet, my parents gifted me Books for Now (books which were aimed at my age group) and Books to Grow Into (books which were aimed at older readers).
Each Book to Grow Into occupied an honoured position on my bookshelf until I was ready for them. As I grew older, I decided when I was ready for these books – a thrill all by itself. These books were usually not new books. My famously thrifty parents fostered a love of used, hand-me-down and library books in me, which meant that I could enjoy lots of books without a correspondingly high price tag.
In honour of my parents, these recommendations will be tagged: The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection. Books that are available from the Toronto Public Library will be marked #TPL, because books don’t have to be new or owned in order to be loved.
November 8, 2021 Edition
Welcome to the inaugural edition of Bookcase Bizarro. In this episode, we tackle interactive, humourous and literary board books (yes, these exist), four picture books and a delightfully spooky middle grade recommendation because we can never get enough of the Great Pumpkin. So without further ado, let’s dive into November’s picks!
How Are You Feeling? by Erin Jang. Illustrated by The Indigo Bunting. (Mudpuppy, New York, 2021)
This colourful, interactive flip-the-flap board book was an instant favourite with my one-year old niece. I liked the range of emotions beyond and between ‘happy’ and ‘sad,’ and the mirror at the end to check out your own expressions. The animal characters are big, bold and brightly coloured and the flaps are sturdy enough for young hands.
Bubbles (A Narwhal and Jelly Board Book), by Ben Clanton. (Tundra, New York, 2021)
Another favourite. Reminiscent of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series, the duo of Narwhal and Jelly navigate the world of underwater bubbles…and friendship. This board book is aimed at very young children but the other books in the series are written in a seriously engaging comic-style format for picture book and beginning readers. I especially love Clanton’s offbeat sense of humour. (#TPL Digital)
Once a month, I meet up with my longtime friend, Kate McQuiggan, to discuss picture books. (It’s a tough job, we know.) Here are this month’s picks:
Henry Holton Takes the Ice, by Sandra Bradley. Illustrated by Sara Palacios. (Dial, New York, 2015)
Henry Holton loves to skate. He was born into a hockey mad family so skating means only one thing…hockey! Henry’s no good at hockey. He loves to dance on the ice. When his family refuses to let him take up figure skating, Henry goes on strike. No more skating! Until his grandmother shows up…with an idea.
This book provides a good portrayal of an energetic sports family. Palacios’ illustrations accentuate the blowing hair and clothes of people who are always on the move. It’s also a book – and a picture book at that – that shows that families are sometimes wrong and can act unfairly. We love that Angus stages a very effective strike against hockey instead of retreating into victim mode. He never gives up the power to make his own decisions, even when he’s on the receiving end of unfair treatment. A lovely relationship develops between Angus (who won’t play hockey) and his grandmother (who can no longer play hockey) when she, out of all the family, takes his wishes seriously. (#TPL)
Knuffle Bunny Free, by Mo Willems. (Harper Collins, New York, 2010)
When Trixie visits her Oma and Opa in Holland, she leaves her stuffed rabbit, Knuffle Bunny, behind on the plane by accident. When her parents call the airport, Knuffle Bunny is long gone. Oma and Opa try to cheer Trixie up with interesting trips and presents, but all she can think about is how much she misses Knuffle Bunny. By the time she boards the plane to go home, she’s almost accepted the lost of her beloved bunny. Then a funny thing happens.
There is so much in this book! Willems wisely keeps the writing simple and spare. Dutch words along with English and illustrations drawn over photographs convey a sense of being in a different place. We loved that it was the grandfather – Opa – who notices the extent of Trixie’s distress. His hilariously wrong-headed solution had us in stitches. Willems mixes humour and strong emotion to great effect as he portrays Trixie’s loss. Thanks to her supportive family, Trixie’s able to come to terms with the loss in a way that’s both surprising and convincing. Get your tissues out for the ending, and the coda. (#TPL)
Windows, by Julia Denos. Illustrated by E.B. Goodale. (Candlewick, Somerville, MA., 2017)
Windows tells the story of one’s child’s evening walk through their neighbourhood. They look through the lighted windows of each house, noticing what’s going on inside as they pass. It’s a quiet meditation through a “neighbourhood of paper lanterns” (how windows look when they’re all lit up) and the glimpsed-at lives of the people inside.
This book is utterly enchanting in every way. The sparse, poetic text on each page serves to highlight the detail and depth of the illustrations. We could feel ourselves slow down to enjoy every window throughout the quiet walk until the unnamed child led us home. (#TPL)
Angus All Aglow, by Heather Smith. Illustrated by Alice Carter. (Orca, Victoria, BC., 2018)
Angus not only likes to look at bright and shiny objects, he likes the sounds they make: crackle, buzz, whiz-bang-pop! One day, Grandma June gives Angus a necklace of bright, shiny beads, which he wears to school. When the other kids tease him, Angus’ friend Melody helps him regain his special sparkle.
We thought this was a sweet story. Angus’ character was deepened by his ability to physically hear all the different sounds that bright things make. Illustrator Alice Carter does a great job of conveying Angus’ inner sparkle and it’s disappearance when he’s teased by the other kids. As outsider kids ourselves once upon a time, we found that the transition from teasing to resolution wasn’t as convincing as it could have been. Bullies don’t just stop because they’re told to and the situation doesn’t change for someone who’s bullied just because a friend sticks up for them. If Angus (with Melody’s support) had stood up to the bullies, his sparkle most likely wouldn’t have come back full force (it would still be fragile) but he would have learned how to deal with the teasing by affirming who he was – an essential survival skill for all outsiders. (#TPL)
The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection
All the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon. Illustrated by Marla Frazee. (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2015)
A Caldecott Medal Honour book, All the World is an ode to children, their friends and families and the world we all share. Written in verse, it follows a group of family and friends through a comforting roster of activities (a trip to the seaside, buying food at a farmer’s market, growing a garden, making music together) to draw a parallel between the smallest of things and the wide world beyond. A comforting bedtime read for the very young as well as older picture book readers and an extremely moving read for adults. (#TPL)
Middle Grade Pick
The Egyptian Mirror, by Michael Bedard. (Pajama Press, Toronto, 2020)
I’ve been a major, MAJOR Michael Bedard fan since forever. His latest does not disappoint.
After being made to deliver dinner to his elderly, injured neighbour, Mr. Hawkins, 13-year old Simon enters a world of terror. First, he glimpses a terrifying shadow figure in an Egyptian mirror hanging on the wall of Mr. Hawkins’ house. Then Mr. Hawkins dies suddenly and two sinister strangers who claim to be relatives move into the house. What kind of relatives would throw out family pictures and the manuscript Mr. Hawkins was working on when he died? With the help of his friend, Abby, Simon rescues the manuscript and the mirror, which he believes the strangers across the street are hunting for. Why do they want the mirror so badly? When Simon falls seriously ill and an uncanny dog starts to watch his house, he and Abby become convinced that the mirror holds more power than they ever imagined and that the strangers in Mr. Hawkins’ house are far more dangerous than they ever guessed.
Friendships between teenagers and older people feature prominently in many of Bedard’s books. The friendship between Simon and Mr. Hawkins is subtly and quietly developed. Some initial wariness on both their parts quickly gives way to a mutual respect and affection that propels Simon to protect his friend’s legacy after he’s gone. I’ve always found Bedard to be a deeply spiritual writer, and Simon’s reaction to losing his friend culminates in poignant dreams where he finds himself back in Mr. Hawkins’ house, seeking his friend and the mirror. This is a deceptively quiet book, it’s action so deeply embedded in the framework of Simon’s life that the wrongness of the strangers develops slowly, with a satisfying creepiness. Normal life tilts, and almost rights itself before it falls apart. (#TPL)
Next month I’ll remember to take pictures of all the book covers!
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