Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

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Warning: this book may induce wild dancing and self-acceptance!

Andreae, Giles. Giraffes Can’t Dance. Illus. Guy Parker-Rees. New York: Orchard Books, 1999. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: Gerald the giraffe wants to be like all the other animals and join the jungle dance, but his long legs make him too clumsy.

Critique: The illustrations are bright, colorful, and energetic. Parker-Rees makes the difficult seem easy by depicting a giraffe in graceful pirouettes, assertive disco spears, and acrobatic back flips!

Caution to parents or librarians reading this book aloud: the rhythm of Andreae’s rhyming text is likely to spur dancing.

Thematically, the text seems spot on, imparting to readers that you can’t dance to the beat of other creature’s drums. The best tune is the one already inside you. In other words, the real you is already inside and all you have to do is let it out.

I doubt Thich Nhat Hahn could argue with that!

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Happy With Me by Leo Timmers

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A comic strip artist employs a clever visual tactic to establish the perfect bedtime reading pace.

Timmers, Leo. Happy with Me. Los Angeles, CA: Smallfellow Press, 2002. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A wistful boy spends his bedtime fantasizing about being other animals. Elephants, penguins, octopi—each creature leads readers off on whimsical and silly adventures as the boy weighs the pros and cons of each transformation. Being big vs squashing everything. Swimming lots vs icy waters. Multitasking vs tangled arms.

Critique: Although the text is not written to rhyme, Timmers employs plenty of alliteration and consonance. As a result, the texture is soft, delicate, tender—perfect for bedtime reading.

The Belgian comic strip artist also employs a unique visual strategy, placing a small picture snippet beneath the text. This circle captures some small tidbit of the illustration on the neighboring page. It functions much like a periscope or porthole—a little window providing a limited view. Readers are invited to linger on each spread, spending extra moments locating exactly what the “periscope” sees. What a perfect pace for sleepy time storytelling!

Best of all, Timmers concludes his story with a very clever, very evocative image of the boy setting off to face a new day and a trail of feathers spilling from his pajamas. Readers rest easy knowing, at their core, they really are whatever they long to be.

Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

This book invites the imagination to scoop more out of the world building.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse. Spoon. Illus. Scott Magoon. New York: Hyperion, 2009. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A young spoon wishes he could do some of the cool tasks other utensils tackle. Cut bread like knives. Lasso spaghetti like forks. Tweeze sushi like chopsticks. Meanwhile, all the other utensils admire little Spoon and all the amazing meals he dives into!

Critique: Magoon’s illustrations are straightforward in their approach to anthropomorphizing kitchen utensils. Step one: draw a utensil. Step two: draw lines for arms, hands, legs, feet, and faces. Luckily, the world building is much more creative. Particularly giggle-worthy is the full spread depicting Spoon’s entire family—sooo many spoons cleverly assembled, representing diversity in age, gender, and culture!

Rosenthal’s text is likewise straightforward as it ladles out Spoon’s experiences. What struck me most was how Spoon never gets the scoop on how the entire utensil community admires him as much as he does them. In some ways, that is an important life lesson. Be happy with what you are regardless of whether or not other beings approve or disapprove (…unless you are a budding Jeffrey Dahmer or a Bernie Madoff…).

When Spoon’s existential distress keeps him up at night, his loving parents invite him to bed to…er…spoon. Which, when you consider from a world building point of view is kinda weird. Imagine having your son Wilber come to bed to, well, wilber with you.

Ultimately, the story seems to have sprung exclusively from that one spread: a distressed spoon spoons other spoons! awwww! Usually, stories are constructed so the end justifies the means, but this one attempts to the work the equation in the opposite direction. The resulting narrative feels a tad measured, maybe even strained, but not well rounded.

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty

Is our identity—defining it and embracing it—an avenue to an enriching existence or is it merely an evolutionary survival strategy?

Petty, Dev. I Don’t Want to Be a Frog. Illus Mike Boldt. New York: Doubleday for Young Readers, 2015. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A young frog wants to be anything other than wet, slimy, and full of bugs. He wants to be a warm and cuddly kind of creature until a wise wolf shows him the perks of warts and all.

Critique: Boldt’s illustrations are wacky…or, more accurately, out-of-wacky. He uses bold strokes, bright colors stretched into dramatic disproportion. The text on the page is similarly stretched. It wasn’t clear if this style was used perfunctory (to cover more of the page) or thematically (to enhance the text with subliminal visual meanings/implications/symbols).

The narrative follows a dialogue between the young frog and his dad, whose standard answer is: You can’t be this or that; you’re a frog. Around the midpoint, poppa frog switches up the response and asks what his son does not like about being a frog. They then encounter a wolf who points out that he would never eat a wet, slimy, fly-filled frog. Bunnies on the other hand…

In general, the story felt shy of essential substance and worldbuilding. For example: wouldn’t a young frog be a tadpole/polliwog? Based on the resolution, the theme for young readers to adopt seemed to be: to become yourself or accept yourself is only an evolutionary survival strategy. Your intrinsic identity keeps you alive. I suspect it does do that, but it also does so much more.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Over three decades ago, she predicted America’s current tailspin. Now, she’s reconfigured Shakespeare’s The Tempest, setting it inside a prison where magic and revenge frolic. Margaret Atwood is a mischievous goddess.

Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. New York: Random House Audio, 2016. CD.

Genre: fiction

Summary: Felix Phillips dazzles audiences every year at the Makeshawig Theater Festival, staging experimental and cutting-edge renditions of Shakespeare’s masterworks. But when a trusted colleague ousts him to claim the spotlight, Felix finds himself marooned in a country shack. He teaches chess to his daughter’s ghost and he plots myriad revenge schemes. When a nearby prison needs a new teacher for their inmate literacy program, Felix applies and soon discovers exactly how to exact retribution.

Critique: Margaret Atwood first dazzled me with A Handmaid’s Tale. Published in 1985, that story anticipated the culture clash currently corroding the United States’ notions of democracy from the inside out. The book recently aired as a critically acclaimed series on Hulu. Viewers are warned not to binge watch it.

Hag-Seed is to Handmaid what Emma is Sense and Sensibility. It is lighter and brighter, but still promises Atwood’s signature wickedness and clever twists. The prologue opens in the future, inside the Fletcher Correctional Facility. Told in teleplay format, the text explains what is seen onscreen and heard off screen. The opening scene of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest unfolds, but with some modernized speeches added along with innovative costuming. Then, the power goes out. Voices from the audience express concern.

Outside the screening room, they hear shouting: Jail break!

Then gunfire. Then a voice inside the screening room commands the audience to keep still and quiet.

Electric tension whips the reader to attention in three short pages. Concluding with a cliffhanger, Atwood then backs up and shares how Felix Phillips made his way from lauded artistic director at a major theater festival to literacy instructor at a jail enacting an elaborate revenge plot on his old enemies.

As a villainous good-guy, Felix is truly sympathetic. Not only do we cheer on his plans to get revenge, but also, we adore his definitive skills as a teacher. Scenes in the classroom are among the novel’s most charming assets. For example, Felix allows inmates to swear all they want so long as they use Shakespearean curse-words. He truly inspires his students and transforms them into passionate actors.

Atwood unwinds the play within the novel,all the while echoing the two plot lines. The effect is dazzling, a bit like looking down on a stack of spiral galaxies. Corresponding swirls twist toward the same center. The more Felix’s students explore and understand the play, the more readers can anticipate what is going to happen next. And yet, the events are never predictable. Enough unexpected conflicts and curveballs enter the mix to keep us guessing and stressing. Will Felix’s plot succeed, or will the inmates rebel and exploit the performance to stage an actual jail break? Is the ghost of Felix’s daughter really there and really helping him or is it just a manifestation of his soured and maddened mind? And the ultimate question which the novel prods: is there really such a thing as happy endings?