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Your Storybook Suggestions
Category Archives: Early Readers
Today we read a cautionary tale about the dangers of taking a joke just a little too far. First published in 1958, “Sam and the Firefly” by P.D. Eastman is ultimately an engaging story about friendship and redemption – with a side of drama!
Sam is an owl who wakes at night to find everyone else asleep. He cannot find anyone to play with but a firefly named Gus. At first they have fun with the discovery that Gus can use his tail light to write words in the sky; Gus proves a prolific sky-writer. He writes “Gus and Sam”…”Fish” and “Wish”…”House” and “a Mouse”…”Yes”…”No”…even “Kangaroo” and “Thermometer!”
Gus is excited with his new-found skill, but it soon becomes clear that things are getting out of hand. When Gus jets off to an intersection and begins scrawling competing instructions in the sky, he causes a big car crash. Then he gets airplanes all crossed up by doing the same thing high in the sky – all the time pursued by an increasingly dismayed Sam.
After causing a stampede at the movie theater by scrawling “Come in! Free show” in bright lights above the marquee, Gus finally pushes his luck too far. He changes “Hot Dogs” to “Cold Dogs” on a hot dog vendor’s stand – and the vendor manages to catch him and put him in a jar! Sam desperately wants to free his friend, but does not know how. As the man drives Gus back out into the country, the man’s car gets stuck on some train tracks…and a train is coming! In the nick of time, Sam fetches the jar, frees Gus, and has him write “Stop, Stop, Stop, Stop” in front of the train. The train stops, and the car is saved! Gus has learned an important lesson, and he and Sam continue to be friends…playing every night, but no more bad tricks.
“Sam and the Firefly” has some outstanding illustrations – simple but with a charming, vintage feel. There is just enough danger to keep little listeners engaged, and some repetition and rhyming that might be nice for beginning readers. Overall, an excellent choice for read aloud…it has been read many times in our house.
American abstract artist Charles Green Shaw was born on May 1, 1892 – so in his honor, for the 122nd book of our storybook year we selected Mr. Shaw’s classic 1947 picture book “It Looked Like Spilt Milk”. With a simple and compelling blue and white color scheme and spare repetitive text, this is a timeless picture book that is great for family read aloud or for beginning readers to have a go on their own.
In a sense, “It Looked Like Spilt Milk” is a mystery book…albeit fairly elementary. If the ever-changing white silhouette on each page wasn’t spilt milk…what was it? [Spoiler Alert]: Eventually, the reader finds out that what at first looked like spilt milk was actually a cloud in the sky! The repetition and the number of alternatives (fourteen) before you get to the answer may lose some older listeners. However, the mystery – and the implied questions on every page – facilitated interaction that helped to keep our youngest engaged (“Sometimes it looked like a Squirrel.” Was it a squirrel? “…it wasn’t a squirrel”…so…what WAS it?).
I imagine that this book can also offer an opening for discussion of the other things that you may have seen in the clouds; who hasn’t enjoyed some time lying in the grass and looking for definition among the drifting shapes overhead? Which brings me to the other reason we chose this book: clouds!…a subject which fits nicely with our water cycle theme…even if the “April” showers are technically over now that we are in May.
Regardless, “It Looked Like Spilt Milk” is a classic picture book for a reason – I can’t imagine that it ever gets old or ever feels dated. Happy Birthday, Mr. Shaw…and thanks for the book!
In honor of Arbor Day on April 29, we read “A Tree is Nice” by Janice May Udry and illustrated by Marc Simont. A lovely cover illustration, and an atypically tall and narrow layout drew us to this book immediately. Inside, the simple but delightful prose from Ms. Udry shares multiple ways in which a tree can be special. The Caldecott Medal-winning illustrations from Mr. Simont picture in enchantingly abstract detail all the wonderfully fun activities described in the text. It’s a combination that makes for a great read-aloud, and it’s an attractive book for inspiring beginning readers.
As Ms. Udry reminds us, trees are wonderful for so many reasons: leaves whispering in the breeze or providing soft piles for play in the fall; limbs for climbing and playing pirate ship or for hanging a swing; trunks against which to sit in the shade and rest…even (in some cases) apples for snacking! Perhaps best of all for Arbor Day, if you plant a tree and you tell people about it, they will wish they had one and will plant a tree too!
Mr. Simont’s drawings, alternating vibrant color (especially in fall) with black and white, look sort of like rough sketches – which adds to the charm. In fact, as a veteran doodler, the drawings looked to me like exactly the sort of simple but compelling work that might inspire a budding artist to pull out their own sketch book and go to work. We loved all the life and activity taking place around the trees, and I was particularly fond of the tree growing from the rocks by the sea; it made me wish I were inside the book myself.
All in all, this is a beautiful little book about subjects we love – trees and playing outside. I believe now I will step out and have a go on the swing hanging from the live oak in our own front yard!
This afternoon we were thrilled to be able to sit in on another live author event at Read Aloud Revival – this time with author Candace Fleming. In her honor this afternoon we read “Oh, No!”, an infectious, rhythmic read-aloud experience that has been a favorite with our youngest ever since we checked it out of the library several weeks ago. I was hooked on this one from the very first “Ribbit-oops” of the tree frog falling into a deep, deep hole. The jaunty cadence, the repetition, the rhyming, and Eric Rohmann’s rich and humorous illustrations make this an instant read-aloud classic – in my humble opinion.
Following the tree frog into the deep, deep hole we meet a squeaky mouse (pippa-eek), a lethargic loris (sooo-slooow), a clever sunbear, and a merry monkey. Oh No! All the while they are being watched by a ravenous and patient tiger who has been waiting his turn to “help” the trapped animals out of their predicament. Oh No! However, there is one more animal coming that the tiger did not count on…turnabout is fair play, as they say…Oh No!
Just flipping through the book as I write this review, I wish we could all sit down and read it aloud again. It’s thoroughly addictive – both the words and the pictures. I’m honestly not sure which I like better. The repetition and the rhyming are also great for beginning readers. I highly recommend this Fleming-Rohmann collaboration. It’s an honest-to-goodness five-star read-aloud treat!
While we didn’t hear a lot from Ms. Fleming regarding “Oh, No!” on the recent online event, we did learn that the illustrator – Mr. Rohman – is Ms. Fleming’s husband. You wouldn’t know it from their brief bios on the inside of the dust jacket, although (curiously) they both live in Oak Park, Illinois…so I guess you could “do the math”. It seems like a pretty good deal as an author to have your own Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator right there in the same house…even if Mr. Rohman has only illustrated a few of Ms. Fleming’s books. Ms. Fleming provided what I thought were some fascinating insights on how she thinks about the author-illustrator dynamic. Ms. Fleming has been writing long enough that she does actually get some say in who will be chosen to do the artwork for her books, unlike most authors. However, she has also learned to get out of the illustrator’s way once he or she has been selected: she believes it is the illustrator’s job to decide how to tell the story in pictures, and she doesn’t even like to provide feedback to her husband when he is working on one of her books. It sounds like she is typically very happy with the results, too. I particularly enjoyed hearing her description of what it’s like to see the final version of her books for the first time; regardless how she might have imagined the characters when she was writing, she opens up the book to see the pictures and thinks (and I’m paraphrasing): Of course! THAT is what they look like! I thought that was a neat way to think about a process that might seem impersonal to some.
Just released in February of this year, “When Spring Comes” is a delightful collaboration between author Kevin Henkes and his wife, illustrator Laura Dronzek. With vibrant illustrations and playfully repetitive text, the book reminds us of the old adage that good things come to those who wait: there may only be bare trees, brown grass, and snow as winter winds down…but if you wait, eventually you will see all manner of fascinating and beautiful signs of spring!
The pages of the book are illustrated in a simple but compelling style reminiscent of Mr. Henkes’ own work, although Ms. Dronzek makes more liberal use of vibrant colors to fill out her drawings. Rich hues of deep blue, earthy brown, and emerald green dominate, and the pictures should easily grab the attention of young listeners. The text has repetition and alliteration that is fun to read aloud and is great for beginning readers: “Before spring comes…the trees look like black sticks against the sky, but if you wait…the grass is brown, but if you wait…the garden is just dirt and empty, but if you wait…” (emphasis mine). And, when spring is fully here, you will know it because there will be “buds, bees, boots, and bubbles…worms, wings, wind, and wheels.” Mr. Henkes also makes reference to how you will feel it, smell it, and hear it when Spring comes, which makes for a fun discussion of the senses and how they can perceive the changing seasons.
The text of the book is a fairly accurate representation of how I think a child might look at the changing seasons – waiting to be able to splash in the mud, waiting to play with kittens, waiting to romp in the flowers, waiting to blow bubbles, waiting to do all the things you are ready to do once you have grown tired of winter. I think waiting is a continual, and often frustrating, state of being for a child…which reminds me of a story (bear with me, it fits): when our oldest was maybe five or six, we took her to see a Tom Petty show. When Tom got to the refrain of his song “The Waiting” (“…the waiting is the hardest part…“), our daughter yelled out “I HATE WAITING, TOO!”. See what I mean?
Where was I? Oh, yes – that concept of continually (impatiently?) waiting for the next thing to happen is captured here in an entertaining and humorous way – much like it is in two other wonderful books we have read recently: “and then it’s spring” by Julie Fogliano and “Waiting” by Mr. Henkes himself. My favorite part of this book was actually right at the end where we are reminded that after spring has finally arrived, we aren’t finished waiting…for summer!