Tag Archives: owl

The Gruffalo

A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood.
A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.
“Where are you going to, little brown mouse?
Come and have lunch in my underground house.”

A simple stroll through the deep dark wood quickly becomes a perilous journey for a little brown mouse in Julia Donaldson’s outstanding read-aloud classic, The Gruffalo. Not to worry, however! The protagonist of this thoroughly delightful picture book may be small, but he is daring and clever in the face of danger…even when his story takes an unexpected twist.

As he proceeds on his way, the audacious mouse is invited to lunch with a fox in his den, to have tea with an owl in his treetop house, and to a feast with a snake in his cozy log-pile home. Faced with these unattractive alternatives, what can a little brown mouse do to tactfully avoid becoming someone else’s meal? Ms. Donaldson’s protagonist declines each invitation, confessing to a prior engagement with a formidable creature called a Gruffalo who is due to arrive at any moment, and whose description becomes increasingly fearsome with every encounter. As each would-be host flees in terror, the mouse chuckles to himself…don’t they know? There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo!

Or is there?

When the mouse is unexpectedly confronted with the living, breathing, real-life version of his imaginary beast (who happens to particularly like the taste of mouse!), our little hero promptly turns the tables one more time, and comes out on top.

With the help of Ms. Donaldson’s rhythmic, rhyming prose and with characters brought so humorously to life by Axel Scheffler’s colorful illustrations, this book instantly became a favorite of reader and listener alike in our home. The cover illustration alone was enough to make our youngest pick this book over a stuffed Paddington bear.

As with several of Ms. Donaldson and Mr. Scheffler’s collaborations, The Gruffalo is available in a Scots “translation” for anyone interested in a challenging but entertaining read-aloud – just be sure to bring your best Scottish brogue.

Also, if you enjoy The Gruffalo as much as we do, we heartily recommend the sequel: The Gruffalo’s Child!


Day 181 – Sam and the Firefly

fireflyToday 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.


Day 98 – The Night Gardener

Looking back over the first several months of our Storybook Year, one of the things that has impressed me the most is just how many really great new picture books we have found since we began. Honestly, when we started the year, we thought we were going to be struggling a bit to fill every day once we exhausted our existing collection. Now our house is practically drowning in library books, fantastic new books arrive every day in the mail, and I have a feeling that we are going to need to overhaul our favorites list soon.

night owlI said all that so I could tell you this story about today’s book: “The Night Gardener” by Eric and Terry Fan. This is another brand new picture book, just released in February this year. Intrigued by the cover illustration, we checked the book out from the library and our youngest wanted to read it over and over again. When it was finally time to return the book, our youngest sobbed and sobbed in the middle of the library lobby and continued carrying on all the way out to the car: “You left my owl book in there!” As you might imagine, we now have our own copy purchased from the bookstore that same afternoon.

“The Night Gardener” is an auspicious debut for the Fan Brothers. It is a book full of stunning and intricate illustrations, and it tells a sweet story about an orphan named William and the people of a dreary little town whose lives are about to be forever changed by an old man with a ladder, some gardening sheers, and a knack for turning trees into works of art.

William is sitting on a log absent-mindedly doodling an owl in the dirt when the old man arrives on a drab and quiet Grimloch Lane. Things are hardly quiet the next morning, however, when William is awoken by a commotion below the window of his room at the orphanage; the tree in the yard outside has been transformed into a wise owl. Suddenly, spectacular topiaries begin appearing all around the neighborhood – a brand new one each morning. At first, people mostly point and gawk at the Night Gardener’s creations, but with each new topiary, you can see that the neighborhood is steadily becoming more colorful and more full of life. When a magnificent fire-breathing dragon appears one morning, it sparks an explosion of activity – children climbing, swinging, running, and flying kites, surrounded by a crowd of young and old alike enjoying the festivities well past sunset.cat

That same evening, William spies an old man with a ladder wandering down the street. Could this be the Night Gardener? William follows him to the gates of Grimloch Park, where the old man turns to William and says, “There are so many trees in this park, I could use your help.” The Night Gardener and his “apprentice” work deep into the night, and when they are finished the old man lays a sleeping William at the base of their final tree. William opens his eyes in the morning to a vibrant and bustling park filled with people…there to admire the most amazing collection of topiares yet! And at William’s feet there is a pair of hedge trimmers – a gift from the Night Gardener.

Over time, the leaves change and fall off the amazing arboreal artwork until there is no longer any sign of the Night Gardener’s handiwork, but the impact of his visit endures. The experience has changed the lives of everyone on Grimloch Lane forever – including William, who has clearly started honing his own night gardening skills.

“The Night Gardener” is a charming and inspiring story. The text is simple but effective, and the illustrations are exquisite. The large format of the hardcover edition makes for some impressive two-page spreads, and it facilitates exploration of the many details you might miss on the first pass – like the little white rabbit which we were so excited to find sitting quietly under the friendly bunny topiary, or the fact that the old man spots William doodling an owl as he walks by…potentially the inspiration for the wise owl topiary which adorns the cover? This is exactly the kind of book that children – and adults – will pick up to peruse time and time again.

I also suggest taking a glance at the comments and the draft illustrations from the authors themselves on the Amazon.com page. I thought it was interesting to read that the brothers Fan originally imagined Grimloch Lane’s architecture as Victorian but eventually opted for something less period-specific. Apparently, they also had initially prepared an illustration for the cover which showed the night gardener at work. However, they switched that picture out for one of William admiring the wise owl after being persuaded that the story was really about William. These insights provide another reminder of how much thought and hard work goes into the creation of an individual picture book – especially a really great one.


Day 90 – A Sick Day for Angus McGee

“A Sick Day for Angus McGee” by the husband-and-wife team of Phillip C. Stead (author) and Erin E. Stead (illustrator) is a true treasure. The story is sweet, funny and comforting, and the charming pencil and woodblock illustrations, which won the Caldecott Medal for 2011, make me grin every time I look at them.

AmosAmos McGee is a sweet old man living in a tiny wood-panel house nestled in between taller downtown apartment buildings. Every morning he wakes early, packs a lunch, and rides the bus to work at the zoo, where he spends the day with his animal friends. He plays chess with the elephant (who thinks carefully about each move), races the tortoise (who always wins), sits quietly with the penguin (who is very shy), lends a handkerchief to the rhino (who always has a runny nose), and at sunset he reads to the owl (who is afraid of the dark). One day, however, Amos wakes up with a bad cold and can’t go to work. His animal friends miss him and make the trip to his house by bus to spend the day catering to Amos’ needs as he always caters to theirs.

I just adore this book. The idea of spending your days in such a simple but fulfilling way is so compelling – it’s a little escape just to read the story. I also love the way in which Amos is so considerate of each friend’s unique needs, and how his thoughtfulness and selflessness are repaid in kind. Then there are the illustrations, which augment the humor and heart of the story with their little details. Amos himself has such a friendly face, and his clothes and accommodations lend to the comforting old-fashioned feel of the book. The expressions and posture of the animals give insight to their personalities: the look of satisfaction on the face of the tortoise as he wins his race with Amos for the nth time, the crossed feet and sideways glance of the shy penguin, or the elephant’s contemplative pose as he carefully arranges chess pieces in a row while waiting on his friend. In fact, my favorite part of the book was actually wordless, as we saw the animals walking to the bus, waiting on the bus, and riding the bus to Amos’ apartment…I could almost hear the “intermission” muzak playing in my head as I flipped from one page to the next, waiting along with the animals for their story to “start up” again when they reach Amos.

I think we will need to track down some more of Ms. Stead’s books. We thoroughly enjoyed her work on “and then it’s spring” as well. Our oldest actually liked the illustrations in that book even better than those in Amos McGee, but I think that’s splitting hairs. Oh, and one more thing: we couldn’t help but appreciate the fact that Amos’ friends come in a group of five (a key foundational math concept for little ones), and that the grouping is underscored by the number “5” on the side of the bus as the friends all ride to see Amos. We have confessed to our dorkiness previously – as you will see here.


Day 76 – Sun and Moon

“Sun and Moon” by Lindsey Yankey presents a variation on the old adage that the grass always appears to be greener on the other side of the fence. Adorned with boldly colored and richly detailed illustrations, it is a lovely story about learning to appreciate the beauty that is already all around you.sun moon

The moon has spent his lifetime in the dark and he feels as though his world is too often lonely and boring. He imagines all the dazzling things that the sun must see on his journeys across the sky, and he wishes that for just one day he could trade places with his daytime counterpart. The sun agrees, but with two conditions: the trade will be irrevocable, and before he makes his decision, the moon “…must spend an entire night in the sky looking very closely at the earth – closer than (he) ever has before.”

The moon is thrilled and agrees to the sun’s conditions, expecting that he will see nothing from his place in the night sky that will change his mind. Instead, he observes (or rediscovers) in his midnight world all manner of enchanting scenes that would never present themselves in the daylight. He watches the “vibrant life of a nighttime carnival”,  foxes heading out to hunt, children dreaming, a family of raccoons on the prowl, and booming fireworks that remind him of wildflowers he has only ever seen in his dreams. Perhaps most moving, however, is his sudden appreciation of the stars: “he hadn’t paid much attention to (them) before, but now they were all around him, so near he could even hear them smile.” By the end of the tale, the moon has learned his lesson. He wishes “for nothing more than to spend the rest of his nights enjoying the exciting and wonderful things that (come) to life in his moonlight.”

Based on what we have learned so far this year about the process of getting a book published, I am especially impressed at writers who are their own illustrators. The two jobs are difficult enough on their own, but Ms. Yankey has managed to do both, to great effect. I really enjoyed reading this book. It is an endearing parable, with imagery and artwork that effectively convey an appreciation for the tranquil beauty of the moon’s nighttime world.